In the middle of a magical land stood, in a liberal sense of the word, a kingdom . . . or the ruins of one anyway. It had a wall—on two sides at least—and a castle . . . for lack of a better word. At the most it had potential. Not that anyone noticed. There, in the dusty remains of the castle’s throne room, Wizard White Beard and his apprentice, Margo, waited in anxious anticipation for the arrival of some very important guests. Well, Wizard White Beard was at least. Margo, it seemed, was quite content to just sit there on the edge of the dais while her mentor paced the length of the room, each impatient step echoing off the walls. All the while he stroked his beard and mumbled to himself, periodically pausing in his tracks to glance at the doorway before resuming his pacing.
Margo followed him with her eyes, the most movement he’d seen out of her all morning. After a while, she said, “Pacing isn’t going to bring them here any faster. You might as well just have a seat . . . unless you’re worried.”
He stopped and faced his apprentice, staring at her under the brim of his conical hat. She shriveled under his critical gaze. He said, “A wizard, Miss Margo, has nothing to fear. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what needs to be done. It’s everyone else who’s fighting against destiny. If anyone should be worried, it’s them.”
“By them do you mean the leaders of the six kingdoms?” Margo was, of course, referring to the seven or so guests summoned by Wizard White Beard on this particular day for an intervention of sorts. After 1,001 years of war and hostilities among the kingdoms, Wizard White Beard decided he’d had enough. Of course, he hadn’t been entirely up front about the reason for this meeting or who was going to be in attendance either. He figured those details were best glossed over if he wanted anyone to show up at all. He only hoped they wouldn’t be too upset when they realized they’d been bamboozled.
“Six kingdoms?” He stared at his apprentice as though she were a grade-schooler and not a fifth-year apprentice. “Don’t you mean seven kingdoms?”
“No,” she said. “There are only six kingdoms. One of elves, one of dwarves, and four kingdoms of men: north, south, east, and west.” She counted off her fingers. “That only adds up to six. I believe you added one for the ogres by mistake.”
“I made no mistake,” he said indignantly. “There can’t just be six kingdoms, not when there could be seven. Everyone knows that. Shows what you know.”
“Anyway . . . don’t you think the leaders of the six kingdoms—?”
“Fine, seven kingdoms. Whatever. Don’t you think they’re going to be upset when they realize you’ve lured them here under false pretenses?” Margo asked. Her violet eyes bore into him like a termite.
He managed not to shudder; in fact, he offered her an encouraging smile.
“Trust me, Margo. I’m a Master Wizard.”
Margo returned his gesture, but the smile did not reach her eyes, and it slid away quickly. He did not blame Margo for her unease. This was the first time she’d accompanied him outside of the city walls—the university, even. A field trip he’d called it, though it was anything but. A little nervousness was to be expected, heck, justified. But more likely, it was just her typical melancholy and had nothing to do with nerves.
“I just don’t see how you expect them to go along with this.”
“I don’t,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“To do what exactly?”
“To fulfill our roles as wizards.”
“Which is what specifically?”
He thought for a moment and said, “Well, according to The Complete Dullard’s Guide to Wizardry, which you have yet to read, the role of a wizard is to ensure that all predetermined or inevitable courses of events are fulfilled as prophesized.”
It was clear by her vacant expression a simpler explanation was in order. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Consider these events: the crowning of a king, the dethroning of a dark lord, and the invention of the fish taco; what do they all have in common?”
“. . . Nothing.”
“Wrong! All of these events occurred, by will of destiny, with the help of a wizard. You see, wizards orchestrate all great happenings in this universe so things turn out exactly as they should. That is the role of a wizard. Does that make sense to you?”
“I think so,” said Margo, but her tone was uncertain. “I just don’t see how it’s possible to shape a deterministic universe governed by fate. I mean, if a course of events was meant to play out, wouldn’t they do so with or without the aid of a wizard?”
“Yes—er—no—er—oh, just look it up in The Complete Dullard’s Guide to Wizardry next time you’re in the library!”
“All right, all right. Don’t get your hat all bent out of shape.”
And now she was having a go at the hat. He doubted, as much as she mocked the hat, she even wanted one of her own.
“So why are we here, anyway?”
Finally, a change of topic. “Ah, the age-old question that every person—”
“No, Wizard White Beard,” Margo cut him off. “I mean why are we here in this decrepit, old throne room?”
“Oh, right.” He cleared his throat. Even he had to admit the dusty old room didn’t inspire awe. But, according to record, it had once served as a meeting place for the great kings and queens of the seven kingdoms. Now only dust gathered here, apart from rats and spiders. A few birds built nests in the decorative beams above. Cracks climbed the walls like vines, and plaster crumbled to the floor. The rest of the castle was no better for wear and neither were the surrounding buildings for that matter. In fact, the whole city had fallen to ruin.