The Wizard That Wasn't: Book One of Mechanized Wizardry.
Horace Lundin doesn't believe in magic until the Petronaut technician sees its power firsthand.
What if magic didn't have to be chaotic, messy, and unreliable, like the wizards who practice it? What if it could be as simple as throwing a switch? Inspired, Lundin and his colleagues build a music-box magician in the laboratory.
When Princess Naomi is laid low by dark magic, will it be human or clockwork wizardry that saves the day?
"Convincing & multidimensional characters... the dialogue is witty and fast-paced."
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The soldier had half a spear sticking out of his arm. It was extremely distracting.
"--my report to the Viscount," he was saying, his face ashen and his long blond mustache heavy with sweat. Horace Lundin nodded his head in a vigorous show of attentiveness, as his eyes stayed fixed on the piece of wood sticking out of the man's arm. The soldier pointed with his unimpaired hand to the smoking buildings in the distance as he spoke. Lundin didn't look, but even from this distance he could hear the clatter of horses' hooves, the clash of swords, and a single strangled scream from time to time.
"We swept through the western homes with your masters; no sign of arcane symbols," the blond man said. "Which makes the lake house the likeliest site for the target. I'm afraid getting there won't be pretty."
"Not pretty... much like the spear in your arm," Lundin offered. Aloud? I hope that wasn't aloud. The soldier was looking up at the time, gritting his teeth against the pain, with no sign of having heard anything. Thank the Spheres.
The man's good arm gestured to the wide lake below, and the heavily forested island just east of its center. "Between the water, the archers, the tree cover, can't get there fast," he said. The soldier glanced up at Lundin. "Any tricks your masters can pull, now's the time. Can Petronauts walk on water yet?"
"Depends how far," Lundin said, making a note.
The man shook his head, wonderingly. "Glad you people are fighting on our side, that's all I can say. I'd hate to see mechanical knights like you on the other side of the battlefield."
"'Like me?' Oh, I'm just a technician," Lundin demurred. "Nobody's scared of me."
The muscular, bleeding soldier raised an eyebrow at Lundin, but had the good grace not to point out how self-evident that was. The Petronaut technician was fresh-faced, and trim enough, but ''scary'' was nowhere near the top of the list of adjectives the soldier would use to describe him. Equine, maybe, the soldier thought. The tech's long face, bulging eyes, and gangly limbs reminded him of a horse who'd seen better days.
"At any rate," he told Lundin, clearing his throat, "Unless you Petronauts decide to do it yourselves, the Army's ready to storm that island. We're lashing rafts together now. Tell the Viscount ninety minutes and we'll be across the lake. Now, if you'll excuse me, sir," he said, standing to a remarkable height and throwing a calm salute with his unskewered arm, "I need to have this removed."
"Of course," Lundin said when nothing else came to mind, flinging up a salute of his own.
As he hurried through the disciplined chaos of the Delian base camp, Horace Lundin involuntarily scratched his shoulder and tried hard not to imagine twelve centimeters of iron and wood embedded in there. A soldier who could deliver a lucid report with that kind of injury, before seeing the master of physic? Why would these miserable peasants even think of resisting an army of soldiers like that?
He looked over his shoulder, catching another glimpse of the green lake, its forested island, and the now-smoking homes along the waterside. If those houses were less on fire, Lundin thought, Verrure township would be a wonderful place to live. What about this bucolic scene had been so intolerable to the peasants? Was paying taxes to the City of Delia so awful, given that Delian roads and markets were responsible for all that income they paid their five percent on? And why, by the eight Spheres, would they think attacking their tax collectors would be the way to accomplish anything? They had to have known that the Army would come riding out in force. Third peasant village this year to make a fuss for us...
He shook the distracting thoughts out of his head and pressed on, thin legs carrying him at high speed. There was a battle going on, and an urgent message to deliver.
The greatest of the red-and-black war pavilions was in view now, black-clad couriers coming and going like termites on a mound. The banner of Viscount LaMontina flew from its apex, a rearing bull in silhouette. All through the base camp, the muddy ground between tents was chewed to pieces by boots and hooves, with only a few defiant tufts of grass remaining. Lundin sidestepped a burly woman with an armful of quivers as an armorer stuck his bald head out of a tent to bellow a final order after her. A master of physic, in characteristic light blue, was moving towards the battlefield with grim purpose. Her orderly followed at a snail's pace, carrying a great basin with both hands and focusing all his attention on not spilling it. A weathered sergeant-major in black and gold was overseeing a squad of grunting conscripts as they loaded a sledge with logs, ropes, and cakes of sticky daub; the materials for the rafts needed to storm the lake house.
This whole encampment had been erected only last night, and, given the way the campaign was progressing, it would be packed away victoriously within ten hours. But, for now, the bustle of soldiers, servants, and supporters was a miniature boomtown with a single industry: war. Lundin's eye fell on (and quickly darted away from) a wooden cage catty-corner from the main pavilion, stuffed with a dozen grimy, bleeding farmers in various states of misery. Business was good, he thought soberly.
Lundin felt uneasy in the camp. His squad--the tiny Reconnaissance squad, with two Petronaut knights and two technicians playing squire to them--had not been assigned to an active battlefield like this in the three years he'd been serving the Delian crown. There hadn't been any wars to fight, nor any other perplexing little rebellions to put down. Petronauts were outside any official chain of command, and generally had more dealings with the city guard than the Army. But the Petronaut Board of Governors recognized that volunteering their members as support staff to the Delian Army on occasion was one of the best ways to ensure continued good relations with--and continued independence from--military command. It was a fair trade, Lundin supposed; though working in the camp structure was confusing. He'd been informed that LaMontina's forces were considering him the equivalent of a 'staff sergeant' for the duration of the campaign, rather than think of him as a pure civilian. Lundin was fifty percent sure that meant he outranked the corporal who'd just reported to him. But who can keep all these silly titles straight? He shook his head, grousing. First priority, after he delivered the report, would be to get the squad's Communicator up and running so he could talk directly to Sir Kelley, the senior Petronaut on the front lines. None of this he-said/she-said chain of verbal reports and middlemen. One of Lundin's duties was to make sure communication stayed open between the 'nauts and the command pavilion where the techs were stationed. Talking to couriers and corporals was nice, and all, but it was time to start using the right tool for the job.
He thought about the caged peasants again and repressed a shudder. If I feel this intimidated by all the military muscle on display here, and I'm a part of it,he thought, I can't even imagine what these peasants felt like during the fighting. Especially once Sir Kelley and Sir Mathias showed up...