“Pay particular attention to the coffee service,” I said, pausing to hold my breath as my dress zipped itself. That had been a very tricky spell to get right. “We have the seating plan for the dinner, but who knows where they’ll sit in the drawing room. Keep an eye out for the coat-fetching spell as well. I reinforced it yesterday but I can’t be sure how it will stand up to this many guests.”
My assistant Valeria nodded, almost managing to mask her exasperation.
“The instructions are on my desk,” I said, picking up my silver-headed, special-occasion cane. “I numbered the steps.”
“I have it well in hand,” Valeria said, all but shooing me downstairs to the dining room.
I was the mind of the castle.
I had built, and now maintained, the hundreds of spells that made life in this ungainly, drafty, quixotically-constructed building bearable and even pleasant. Each spell wove together in the back of my mind like notes in a piece of music.
The family regarded my gift for enchantment as a redress of the cosmic balance: a facility for magic to make up for poor dear Constance’s lame and twisted leg. They all agreed, without quite saying so, that the exchange was more than fair.
It had started with breakfast one day when I was seven. I was too tired and sore to climb down the two flights of stairs to the breakfast room, so I willed a plate of sticky buns to fly upstairs to me. No one had told me that I couldn’t. As it happened, all I accomplished was to send the plate crashing into a wall, startling the kitchen staff. But after a few more frustration-driven attempts, I succeeded in bringing up an entire tray, complete with a cup of chocolate.
After that, I became an upstairs hermit, like great Uncle Eustace, except that instead of having people run up and down the stairs for me, I could do everything myself.
In those early days, even a simple spell took every ounce of my concentration. Anyone on the stairs had to look out for books and cups of tea that might come plummeting down if my attention wandered. We lost the better part of a china cabinet that way and exasperated shouts of “Constance! Come down this instant!” were commonplace.
My aunts hired a tutor. He wasn’t much good, but he taught me how to write spell marks and use them to aim and anchor spells. This new skill meant that I could keep several spells going at once and still hold a conversation.
By that point, I was eleven and getting old enough to see what a mess we were all in. The war that I had been born into was over, but most of the men had not come back. Our inconvenient castle, sprawled over the side of two hills, took at least thirty people to run, and even if we could have found the staff, we didn’t have the money to pay them.
I started building spells to sweep and dust and do all the little things around the castle that were going undone. Soon, I had three or four dozen for fetching, carrying, and cleaning. One or another of my aunts came upstairs almost every day to ask for more.
I had thought that the most satisfying thing about magic was not needing to ask for help, but I soon realized that being asked to help others was even better.
After dinner on the most important night of my life, I kept half an eye on the coffee tray, which was circulating on its own, its animating spell pouring out coffee without spilling a drop. It and the dinner service spells were the more ostentatious parts of tonight’s demonstration. It was all going perfectly so far, but the temptation to reach into the flow of the castle’s spells and take control was so strong I had to clench my fists to stop myself.
My aunts, cousins, and neighbors took the coffee tray in their stride, being well used to that sort of thing, but I saw our distinguished guest studying it with interest.
The guest was Professor Aloysius Green, a well-known society enchanter, who held a chair in Magic at the University when not on the lecture circuit. No one else knew he had come to see me. My aunts believed anyone would jump at a chance to tour our castle.
News of his coming had driven me to overhaul all of the castle spells: testing each mark and each component stroke and driving Valeria half-mad in the process. An hour before the guests arrived, I was lying on my stomach in the hall, re-enforcing the front door spell with another anchoring mark carved in the baseboard.
Lost in these thoughts, I hadn’t seen Professor Green approaching. He was a tall man with a mane of white hair and a plum-colored evening suit from an excellent tailor.
“I understand that this is all your work, Miss Bowman,” he said.
I nodded. My anticipation and the—small, I told myself—deception I was practicing made my stomach tighten. My rigid satin dress held me as straight as the back brace I’d worn when I was small.
I gripped my cane and met his eyes.
“What do you think of it?” I asked.
“I think it’s quite ingenious,” he said. “And more practical than the enchantments I usually see.”
In my experience, “practical” was an insult, but there was nothing dismissive in his tone.
“Will you tell me how it’s done?” He gestured toward a window alcove a little away from the others.
I followed him, my coffee floating ahead of me.
I saw him notice when one of the thick gold and scarlet rugs edged politely out of the way of my stick.
“How did you create the spell with the rug?” he asked. “It seemed to sense when you were coming.”
I knew that I didn’t have the right vocabulary since no one ever asked about the spells except Valeria, but I tried to explain.
“That was one of the easier ones,” I said. “I’d tripped over these rugs many times, so they had that memory in them. I merely told them not to trip people, particularly me. Once I’d given them that instruction, I used the marks for watching, moving, and avoiding to hold the instruction in place.”
I knew I was not explaining it properly, that assigning memory and volition to inanimate objects was a relic of the superstitious time before the age of rational magic, but that was how it felt. The objects in the castle were inclined to do one thing, but I persuaded them to do something else.
Professor Green stepped over to one of the rugs and prodded a corner of it with one of his blindingly-polished evening shoes. Unable to shift because of the other people standing on it, the rug bunched up to avoid his foot. “Very impressive,” he said. “How many spells are there in the castle?”
“Three hundred and six.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Not all line-of-sight, then.”
“No, that’s why I use anchoring for the more complicated spells. The tea pouring spell is engraved into the bottom of the tea tray, and the spells for the dinner service are in the wainscoting and the underside of the dining table.” I smiled reminiscently. Aunt Caroline had been furious when she caught me taking a penknife to the heirloom mahogany table, but she could hardly argue with the results.
“The dinner service can be a bit difficult. I have to orchestrate the serving of specific dishes while at the table,” I continued. “I’ve tried writing marks on the bottoms of the platters in greaseproof pencil but they tend to smudge.”
“How do you do it, then?” he asked.
“Well, all of the spells are there in my head, and it’s easy enough to distinguish the one for each of the serving platters when I’m sitting there in the dining room with them, so I just tweak each one a little as it comes out of the kitchen: salad on the salad plate, gravy on top of the mashed potatoes, and so on.”
“You use impulsive instruction?” he exclaimed before I could mention that Valeria was orchestrating it tonight.
“I don’t know what that means,” I admitted.
“You cast the spell without using marks, just shaping it by will as you cast it?”
“Yes. When I first started, I didn’t know any marks, so I had to do everything that way. I couldn’t maintain more than a dozen spells, though.”
“Have you tried forming marks mentally?”
“I don’t know how to do that.” I called a notebook and pen from my study and made notes as Professor Green explained. Eventually, he took the pen from me and drew some diagrams.
We must have talked for an hour. I was so completely absorbed that it was fortunate I hadn’t gone with my first impulse and tried to maintain the spells on my own.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Professor Green said, as I saw him out, thrusting his arms into the topcoat that hung ready for him in midair. “It is an achievement, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.” He lowered his voice: “You should have our answer by next week.”
In bed later, I took out the notebook to study Professor Green’s diagrams again. Only then did I notice that it wasn’t mine. It was filled with familiar spell notation but the handwriting was Valeria’s. Looking more closely, I realized that all the spells were new to me. Valeria must have been creating some on her own. Why hadn’t she told me? Of course, spell creation wasn’t part of her duties, but she was free to experiment in her own time. I had to admit some of them were fairly elegant, but envisioning a spell was one thing and implementing it was quite another.
I’d never wanted an assistant, but after influenza laid me low last year and the castle descended into chaos, my aunts had insisted. Soon, even I conceded that Valeria’s ability to write the spell notation twice as quickly and three times as neatly as I did made things easier. I would not have been able to patch the spells on the roof without her. I hadn’t realized she’d learned this much magic, though. I sent the notebook back down to her desk. She probably hadn’t noticed it was missing.
I received my acceptance letter three days later.
I knew that there were fewer than a dozen students admitted per year, and I had never expected to become one of them. Confident of rejection, I had not thought much about what leaving the castle would mean.
Now, with the reality of the situation set out in thick black ink on Professor Green’s creamy stationery, the few plans I had dared to make seemed feeble and inadequate. The University’s term started up again in less than two months.
What was I going to do?
My cousin David knew all about leaving; he was always on his way to somewhere new. When I told him my plan, he was pleased I had taken up his favorite hobby.
“I can accompany you to the University on my way to Masthaven,” he said before I even had a chance to ask. “I was wondering when you’d decide to escape,” he said, reverting to our earlier conversation.
“It’s not an escape,” I tried to explain. “I don’t want to leave. I never have, but there are things that I want to learn that I can’t learn here.”
The two of us had grown up together, but we never had much to say to each other until five years ago, when he’d needed a tutor for the university entrance examination.
Somewhere between geometry and the ancient poets, we talked. He was quick and funny, with twice as much energy as he could hold, and I was almost sorry when he passed the entrance examination. Fortunately, he was a witty and frequent correspondent, and his stained and battered letters were always full of stories.
Now, he was home for a few weeks’ leave before taking up a diplomatic post in a country so new that it wasn’t on any of the library’s maps, and I was taking him on our usual tour of the spells I had built since his last visit.
In his bathroom, I showed him how if he rang a bell, the bath would quickly fill with water, eliminating the need for a hazardous parade of buckets from downstairs. Scalding collisions on the back staircase had been a frequent problem.
“Where does it come from?” David asked.
“From the rain barrel on the roof. It takes a few minutes to heat,” I said, as he stuck his finger in the water experimentally.
“Before I leave,” I said, “I need to figure out a way to maintain the spells in my absence.”
To be honest, I felt sick at the idea of leaving, and it wasn’t only fear of the unknown. It might have seemed that a higgledy-piggledy place like the castle, where floors sloped sharply and corridors were interrupted by unexpected steps, would not have endeared itself to someone who walked with a stick. When I had first arrived after my parents died, I had found it inhospitable and baffling. Now, though, I knew every stone of the place and could walk the entire length blindfolded without stumbling, aided by the spells I had built. It was the rest of the world that was full of unexpected hazards.
“Aunt Caroline will just hire someone,” David said. “Maybe no one around here could do it, but she could get someone in from the capital.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but he carried on, misreading the objection on my face.
“They’re making a packet off the public tours, probably even enough to persuade someone to take a job in the back of beyond.”
I tried to explain the many reasons this would not work, surprised by the heat in my face and the tightness in my chest.
“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me, oblivious of my reaction.
That afternoon, Valeria and I experimented to see how far from the castle I could go and still control its spells.
Valeria was very keen on experimentation. She always wanted to know why something worked, while I was just happy if it did.
This particular experiment established that I could go 2.73 miles before my sense of the spells dropped away. The University was 50 miles away at least.
I also knew that I couldn’t simply leave the spells to run while I was gone for the University term. The longest I had ever been away was four days, visiting cousin Sophie in King’s Lynley. Back then, the castle spells had been much less complex, but even so, they had started to dissipate by the time I returned. The University term lasted 16 weeks, and even with everything I had learned about anchoring, I could not make my spells endure that long.
I might just be able to make them last a week, though, and I could come and repair them on Saturdays. David had said that students were expected to stay at the University and study on the weekends, but I was sure I could work something out.
I explained my plan to Valeria. She heard me out with a doubtful expression but agreed to help.
We were in my study, which had been made by knocking together two storerooms after I’d insisted on living on the ground floor. The beamed ceiling was low, but the large windows filled the room with light. The longest wall was dominated by large floorplan of the castle, drawn by Aunt Briony. I’d rescued it from the attic, and Valeria and I had drawn in each spell as it was built, adding and erasing so many times that the paper was fragile and translucent in places. All other wall space was papered with overlapping spell diagrams in Valeria’s clear handwriting. Looking at them reminded me that I still hadn’t mentioned seeing Valeria’s notebook. It was none of my business, of course.
“What if … ” Valeria hesitated.
I turned to her. “Go on.”
“We just repaired and reinforced everything before Professor Green’s visit,” Valeria said, running a finger over the castle plan. “Why don’t we leave everything alone for a week and see what fails? Then we’ll know what we need to work on.”
I didn’t like the idea of anything failing, but I agreed.
Unsurprisingly, the hot water was the first to go, three days after our test began. Aunt Alexandra stormed down in her dressing-gown and towel turban to complain. Given that her bath water had apparently gone from steaming to icy in less than a minute, her annoyance was understandable.
The dinner service that night was catastrophic. Serving trays collided with each other and sloshed their contents onto the floor.
The next day, the household’s polished shoes were found abandoned in a heap on the third floor landing, and my lunch tray disappeared on its way to my study, never to be found.
On the fifth day, I called off the experiment for the sake of sanity.
Valeria was fascinated by the order in which things had failed. The bathwater spell was both new and unusually finicky, but the one to polish and return the shoes was long-standing and very well-anchored. I would have expected it to last for weeks.
The primary lessons I drew from the debacle was that there would be no way for me to manage all the spells successfully while at University, and that daily life in the castle couldn’t go on without them.
I stood in the middle of the east wing, staring at the etched marks for a dusting spell without really seeing them. This mostly abandoned corridor was one of my favorite spots for pacing, with lots of uninterrupted space and a nice view out of the windows when I stopped to rest.
Despite David’s insistence that I could just leave and let everyone figure it out, I knew that I couldn’t. It wasn’t out of family duty, or not only that. I knew that I had achieved something remarkable, and it had made me feel sick to watch it fall apart, even for a few days.
I also knew, though, that if I didn’t leave now, I probably never would. The step, drag, click, of my footsteps echoed in the silence as I paced.
I could delay my admission, and after a few years’ work Valeria and I could probably build more stable spells, but the castle would never be completely self-sustaining.
I ran my fingers over the housekeeping spells on the walls, but the answer wasn’t written there.
I went to find Valeria.
Since she was on the third floor, that took the better part of half an hour. I found her sitting in an empty bathtub in a disused corner of the old servants’ wing. Coming closer, I saw that she was scraping something into the enamel with the nib of an empty fountain pen. I recognized some of the marks—stasis and reinforcement—but not others.
Valeria heard the click of my stick on the tiles and turned awkwardly in the small space of the tub.
“Oh,” she said. “I hoped you wouldn’t see this until it was finished.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s supposed to keep the bath water hot,” she explained, climbing out of the tub. She pointed to one of the marks I hadn’t recognized. “This is a modifier for temperature. The spell to move and heat the water is always going to be temperamental. It needs to work over the distance of at least one floor, and the water doesn’t seem to hold magic well.”
“If the spell works,” she said. “I could put it on each of the bathtubs and even if the other spell failed, at least the water would stay hot. I think Miss Alexandra would appreciate that.” she grinned, but I could tell she was nervous. “I haven’t tested it yet,” she added.
“We can try it now, if it’s ready,” I suggested.
Since this bathroom wasn’t used, it didn’t have a bell to call down the hot water, but Valeria made a gesture as if she were playing an invisible harp, and the water appeared. A moment later it was steaming.
“We’ll have to wait and see if it stays hot.” Valeria said.
We stood awkwardly for a few minutes watching the steam. My leg was aching after three flights of stairs, so I shaped some of the steam into a chair and sat on it. One of the great benefits of being able to do magic was always having a chair when I needed one.
Valeria had been watching me carefully, and after a moment, she had a chair of her own. I had never seen her do magic like this before and was surprised at how deft she was. I noticed that she drew each mark in the air as she worked. That was recommended practice, but it had never come naturally to me.
“I know that you don’t think I’m ready to take over for you,” Valeria said, with unaccustomed formality. “But I would like the opportunity to show you that I can.”
I stared at her through the steam, as if seeing her for the first time. Her flaming red hair was beginning to frizz, and she looked defiant, anxious, and hopeful.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think she was ready to replace me. I’d never even given it a thought.
I didn’t want anyone to replace me. I wanted to be able to go to the University, learn things, and come back home to do exactly what I did now but better. The castle was my creation, and I’d never been happy with anyone else touching it. Valeria’s nervousness showed that she knew that.
The idea that I was replaceable filled me with panic, and that had prevented me from seeing the blindingly obvious. If I was going to leave, I needed someone to take over my role. Not just during the week or the term, but permanently.
“All right,” I said, slowly. “Why don’t you run everything for two weeks, and we’ll see how it goes.” Hearing how grudging my tone was, I tried to inject some enthusiasm. “It can be an experiment.”
Valeria glanced at me. Her patent relief made me wonder what reaction she’d been expecting.
“The water still seems hot,” I said, “I think putting the spell into the bathtubs is a good idea. How many are there in the castle?”
Valeria sighed. “Seventeen.”
The first few days of the experiment were difficult. Small things went wrong. Nothing compared with the four days when we let the spells run on their own, but I could feel the little discordances in the back of my mind and I itched to set them right. I had promised Valeria I wouldn’t interfere, however, so I distracted myself. I read, wrote letters, massacred nocturnes on the piano, and scratched Valeria’s new spell into every one of the bathtubs. Eventually, I was restless enough to overcome my rooted dislike of outdoor exercise and I took a walk with David.
“I always thought of it as my masterpiece,” I said, looking up at the castle from the bottom of the hill. “But since Valeria came, we’ve been doing it together, whether I saw it or not.”
I didn’t say what I was truly thinking because I heard how petty it sounded even in my head. How dare Valeria be good at magic—at least as good as I was –- and also able to run up three flights of stairs without stopping, stand on a ladder to paint spell marks on the ceiling, crouch for four hours carving marks into a bathtub, and get up the next day fresh as ever? I had always mocked my aunts’ assumption that my skill with magic was some sort of compensation for the abilities I didn’t have, but I had believed it myself.
None of this justified taking it out on Valeria, though. As I had paid more attention over the past few weeks, I realized how circumspect she always was with suggestions and criticism. I had to admit that my territorial behavior had forced her to tiptoe.
“Have you told them you’re leaving?” David asked.
“When we’ve finished our experiment, I will.”
“You’re keeping it a secret because you want to back out,” he said. “Don’t do it. They’ll manage without you, whatever they say.”
By the second week of the experiment, everything was running as smoothly as it had ever done. I crushed a tiny, shameful disappointment and congratulated Valeria.
“I’m going to talk to my aunts,” I said, squaring my shoulders and straightening my spine. I got along well enough with each individually, but the four of them together were quite intimidating. I knew that my aunts never wanted children and never would have had any if the war hadn’t done for our parents, but they were always kind to me, and when I turned out to be useful, they did their best to conceal their surprise.
“I’m going to the University,” I said when Aunt Alexandra and Aunt Briony came in. “In three weeks.”
“You never told us you had applied,” Aunt Caroline said, setting down her book.
“I didn’t think I would be accepted,” I said. “But I was. I am going to study magic.”
Aunt Prudence began to speak, but I interrupted.
“I know you don’t approve of women going to university,” I said. “But I am of age, and I don’t need your permission.” I smiled, trying to blunt the edge of my words.
They were all listening now.
“Has Valeria agreed to take over?” Aunt Caroline asked.
I gaped. I had been expecting to argue and insist and issue ultimatums. I was outraged that they were so ready to accept a replacement. I stood there uncomfortably aware that they could read my feelings in my face. “Yes. In fact she has been running things for a few weeks now and everything has gone very smoothly.”
“Glad to hear it,” Aunt Briony said heartily. “We should go into town and buy your uniform and all the kit.”
I explained that it was university, not boarding school, and there were no uniforms. I left, feeling deflated.
On the morning of my departure, I finished packing my trunks myself, deciding against the spells that could have done it in moments. The mindless, repetitive action helped me think and stilled the restless impulse to take up the spells I could still feel plucking at my mind.
The lids of the trunks slammed shut with a wooden finality, and I sent them floating out into the hall ahead of me. I stepped through the doorway and then turned to look back. I stopped, feeling suddenly bereft.
Valeria was in the study, tacking up the castle plan at her higher eye level. She stopped when she saw me.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I haven’t changed my mind.” I paused, choosing my words. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better teacher. I know this place is in the right hands.”
Valeria nodded, accepting the apology.
I was holding thick sheaf of papers—forty-seven pages of instructions painstakingly composed over the last week in my best, clearest handwriting. About to hand them to Valeria, I stopped. “You don’t need my instructions,” I said. “You know how to do this.” I stepped past her and threw the papers into the fire.
“One more thing,” I added. “I picked up your notebook by accident and saw what you’ve been working on. I think your ideas are extremely good. You should try them out here.”
We shook hands, and I wished I had been put my trust in her so much sooner.
My trunks had gone on without me and were nudging impatiently at the front door, like dogs ready to be let out for a run. I waved my hand and the door swung open. I stepped through it and did not let myself look back.
A.J. Brennan is a D.C.-based SF writer and NaNoWrimo obsessive. Her work has appeared in The Arcanist and Wizards in Space. She can be found on walks, in coffee shops, and on Twitter @ajbwrites.
2 thoughts on “The Mind of the Castle, by A.J. Brennan”
This was beautiful. It is so hard to leave something in someone else’s hands, and you caught all of it, only with magic.