“The plateau is not too far from there,” the Stetson-wearing sponsor continued with a calm flick of his hand, “about a day on foot. You will be provided a horse, and travelling expenses will be covered.”
I nodded attentively, taking a sip from my glass. This was going to be a pretty arduous job, with a copious payout. In other words, exactly my thing. I took a moment to review what was asked of me. All I had to do was... My concentration was knocked out of me by a sneer coming from my left, an oddly loud one, from how clear I’d been able to discern it through the background chatter of the saloon. There another patron, a fellow mage like me if his robes weren’t a red herring (and from how flaunting they seemed to be, they likely weren’t), shot me a dismissive glance as he passed by, stroking his juvenile goatee. I let my gaze move away from the client and onto him. “Excuse me?”
Obviously, his sneer had been a hook, and I’d bitten right into it. That much I was able to tell from his smug smile. I kept my head cool, having the advantage over him that I knew how to hide my emotions and how to bluff. He metaphorically pulled on the line as he approached me, not knowing the sinker would still be mine. “I was just thinking, you know,” he hit his hands on the table for emphasis and drummed his fingers rhythmically, “why give that job to a female?” A few of the diners most nearby sent him a glance.
Ah, one of those. Poor thing, messing with exactly the wrong woman. I instantly knew how to handle him. After all, he would make it easy for me, with cockiness and overestimation of his own talents. Probably a mere apprentice, too. “What do you mean?” I asked, playing at his game, to give me some time to silently pull out my wand under the table and cast an Appraisal… Hmm? This was different from usual. Why was she batting for the wrong team? Or did she just not know?
“Well, clearly a woman would not know what I mean by this.” She lifted her left hand away from the table, her gaze observing her restless fingers. “This is exactly why this should be left for a man to handle.”
I took a glance at my silent patron, who seemed to be growing stressed. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I whispered to him before standing up and towering over the heckler.
She instantly jumped backwards and reflexively took on a fighting stance. I saw just a glimpse of worry in her eyes being quickly squashed out by her misguided confidence. “What, did mere facts scare you into acting?”
I silently nodded, pretending to care about what she had to say. “Tell me, what would these facts be?”
She excitedly started bouncing on her heels, as if she’d been itching to deliver these lines for a few days. “Why, the superiority of men, of course! Quite self-evident, really. I mean, we face a harsher world than you females who get everything handed to them, and we still come out on top, don’t we?”
I wanted to reply it was maybe a bit too early to include herself in the we. But I didn’t want to scare her away, I needed to play along. I resisted the urge to cross my arms and instead offered a pleasant smile. “Oh? In what way is the world easier on us?”
“It’s simple, really, let me educate you. We men have to traverse the world forging our own path, while you get to have all the help. If we’re unfortunate enough to be ugly, well that’s our lot in life forever. But you women, you get makeup and enticing clothes! It’s cheating! And you most of all, feeling special and going two steps further, dressing in pants and having those stupid ears?” She wiggled a finger towards the top of my head.
I let my cat ears wiggle back. “I just like ‘em. I’m not having them for social status. And my clothes are my business.”
“Yeah, well, that’s just one more way of cheating. Anyway, that’s why we’re better, because we can do stuff without relying on others to do it for us. And without free handouts for being pretty.” Her self-satisfied smile came back, her poise as triumphant and energetic as before.
“I see, I see.” I nodded, giving off the appearance I was entertaining her thoughts more than I really was. But it was time to push back and offer the alternative. “What do you say of the idea that the ‘handouts’ aren’t linked to beauty, but to kindness and approachability? Are you certain you’re putting your best foot forward? And, less important question I know, but why don’t you just decide to wear make-up too if it’d make it so much easier for you?”
The sneer she’d started the conversation with came back. Her feet’s agitation went from happy bouncing to rhythmic thumping. “That is pure nonsense. I’ve already tried appearing kind, and it didn’t work. So might as well be honest with myself and accept that the world is about being good looking. But you can continue believing in your lie if that’d help your conscience, woman.”
“And the makeup question?” I added, raising my eyebrow for emphasis.
Another sneer. “I’m not even gonna entertain it. The solution to cheating isn’t to cheat too, it’s to put cheaters back in their place.”
I let the kindly facade drop. If she didn’t take me as a threat, she would refuse, out of pity she’d tell herself, what I was about to offer. “Well, you know what? You’re full of it. Bet you can’t even back up that ‘superiority’ of yours with actual actions.” I raised my voice, grabbing the attention of all the people in the room. “Duel, now, outside.”
I don’t usually use magic duels to teach idiots. They’re too codified, they have too many rules. I usually prefer the odd hex, something simple, but so resilient they feel helpless against it. That’s usually enough to make men like her change their tone from thinking women less competent than them. But she had a stark difference from those, and that required a different plan. Something that required time to prepare, and that I could only set up without putting myself in trouble with the local sheriff under the specific conditions of law-breaking that duels allow.
Now, magic duels were something that were rarely refused. There was an etiquette to it - if someone was so wronged by you they challenged you, refusing was considered a great offense. And my using peer pressure to my advantage was certainly a low move, too. It was for her own good, I told myself, looking into her eyes that were darting all over the place between all the gazes on us both. She let silence reign for just a moment too long before replying with disdain and confidence. “Like I could lose to a female. You’re on.”
The gravel outside crunched under my boots as we walked to the center of the road. I could see passersby and curious eyes slowly taking spectator seats behind the windows of the wooden buildings around.
“State your conditions and I’ll state mine,” I told her as we stopped walking. I lifted my wand out of its holster, watching the mage fumble hers out of her pocket.
“No cheating! No bringing magic prepared from before the duel,” she stated with an edge to her voice, while she was busy warming up her hand gestures.
I nonchalantly waved a Dispel over myself, my ears shifting back into their human shape and position. “In that case, I’ll request no fleeing after the duel. Whoever loses, stays for their punishment.”
“Like I can count on a female to keep her word,” she sneered, looking me dead in the eyes before her gaze shifted away. Her body definitely showed my intimidation had an effect, even if her mind refused to acknowledge it.
I didn’t reply. We put our backs to one another, then walked ten steps before facing one another again. I anchored my feet firmly to the ground, my wand in hand...
Her stance was all wrong. While I couldn’t quite discern it from this distance, I was still able to sense how much she was shaking from it alone. I breathed a sigh; she was definitely an apprentice, with a lot of life experience missing.
The fight would be over in an instant.
My opponent opened with casting a Fireball in a straight line towards my hand, intent on disarming me. To give credit where credit was due, the spell was swiftly and correctly executed. She must’ve been proud of herself for learning it so well, and I’m sure against other apprentices, it must’ve been enough to win duels on the spot.
It, nonetheless, remained the most beginner move one can pull off. I flicked my wand, a little ‘pop’ escaping its tip.
A torrent of purple flooded the street, a melodic sound accompanying it, bending the facades of buildings on its way and fizzling the Fireball on contact. Apprehension barely had the time to reach her face before she found herself caught in the wave. Her feet left the ground for just a second, making her barrel backwards for a short distance before falling flat on her back, kicking dust into the air.
Preferring to stay on the safe side and worried she might flee despite the agreement, I cast a Glass Cage around her and made my way towards her.
The spell surrounding the apprentice hummed a low monotone. She pulled herself back up on her knees, facing away from me. She was definitely shaking now, her teeth chattering in fear. “What was that…?”
“It’s called defeat. It’s what happens when you think your opponent is incapable of being good,” I replied, pointing my wands at my ears and casting the transmogrification again, a pentatonic scale ringing out. I satisfiedly wiggled them, pleased with how comfortable they were.
“I-I mean the spell!” she shouted, standing up and pounding against the barrier, barely restrained tears pooling under her eyes. She glanced around at our audience, which was slowly coming out of their hiding spots and surrounding us. “And let me out!”
I shook my head. “No can do. It’s time for your punishment, remember?”
“If you refuse to tell me how you did that, that means you tricked me somehow! You must’ve cheated again!!” She went back to her fixation with a stomp of her foot, causing me to roll my eyes. She looked for her wand, spotting it outside of her cage, being picked up by a scrappy looking kid. I wondered how long it would take for the situation to fully hit her.
“Look,” I started, “I could give you an entire lecture about the metamusical properties of magic and how resonance can amplify its effects if you let it do so. Or, instead, you can play nice for a minute, learn a valuable life lesson, and along with your punishment I’ll throw in something you’re looking for. So what will it be?”
“That’s stupid! Metamusical theory is wrong! It’s lies!”
“Well, it sure did exist a lot just now for something that doesn’t exist, didn’t it?” I looked her dead in the eyes, before sighing. “Look kid. There’s a lot of people out there that are so sure they’re in the right that when something doesn’t fit their view of the world, they’d rather call it fiction than reconsider that what they were taught might’ve been made with incomplete information. They’ll say these new facts are based in feelings, while continuing to state their own feelings as if they were facts. They use rationality not as a tool to inform them, but as an excuse to force people to consider their point of view as if it had a valid backing in reality. It’s weaponised skepticism, meant only for the things that don’t validate their pre-existing viewpoint.” I paced back and forth in front of her as I continued my monologue. “You’re still young. You don’t have to turn out like one of them. I want you to trust your eyes, to trust your senses, and to trust other people’s experiences. I want you to assume nobody is by default lying to you, instead of only extending that belief to people that look like you.” I took a breath, self-consciously thinking I’d been going on for longer than I thought as I took a look at the whispering crowd surrounding us. I hoped that wasn’t too much, the last thing I wanted was for her to bury herself deeper in her convictions. Before she could get a reply in, I cut her off with a wave of the hand and continued. “Now for something a bit more personal to you. I’m afraid I can’t let you go unpunished for what you said earlier. It was hurtful, and had I been at a worse time in my life, it could’ve shaken me severely. So let this be a reminder that words have consequences.”
I held out my wand, preparing myself for casting a very complex spell under the chorus of “Let me out”s of the apprentice. I weaved it through the air, methodically and precisely, each swish carving a new note out of the wind. Before long, a ballad emerged from the flute-like sound.
The magic weaved through the barrier effortlessly, seeping into my target. She found herself sputtering and catching her breath when it first touched her. “What’s this music?” she asked, her eyes darting around her as if she was trying to see sound.
“It’s nothing, remember? It’s just a theory,” I sarcastically replied, my wand continuing its precise dance. At first I saw her shake, more like sputter in place really, before seeing her already short height compared to mine start to melt, her robe quickly turning baggy.
“Aaaah!” She let out a scream. “What the hell are you doing!? What’s happening!?” She looked down at her hands, barely managing to catch a glance at her thinning fingers before they were obscured by her sleeves.
“Okay, yes, you deserve less cryptic explanations, but you need to work through this yourself.” I put a pin on my spell, stopping my movement in mid-air and letting the magic rest for a moment. “You are mistaking the jealousy and longing inside your heart with perceiving a privilege that women don’t have.” I saw a very confused expression on her face - this was good. Anything was an improvement over anger. Placing my hand back in the gesture it was in, I resumed the melody of the spell.
“Heh.” She lifted her sleeves to see the rest of her arms thinning and becoming slender, a panic on her face she was trying to snuff out. “Jealousy? You’re turning me into a fop because you think I’m jealous of bigwig men? Fat chance. I’ve made my peace with knowing I’ll always be a second grade man.”
“Oh for the love of-” I lost my concentration for a moment, missing a note and having to hastily correct flattening her finger. “That is not who you are jealous of.”
“Then who, pray tell? You wouldn’t be implying I am jealous of femal-” Her manure-eating grin immediately disappeared when her facial hair got caught in the wind and whisked away. This prompted her to once more look at her arms, then, through her loosening fabric, she groped at her torso, a blush creeping up on her cheeks the further the realization hit her. The most rowdy audience members let out a snicker. “I-I-I-I-I- That’s- I- How- No-” she stammered. “No, no, no, no, no, turn me back, NO, STOP, TURN ME BACK!”
“I have no plans to do so. This, that’s the ‘what you’re looking for’ part of what I’m doing to you,” I replied, with a kinder tone than I’d been aiming for.
“No, NO, I refuse, NO, that’s not possible, that makes no sense, YOU are CRAZY, I’m done listening, and you will let me out RIGHT NOW.” She angrily pointed a finger to my face, managing only to touch the barrier instead.
With an eloquently prepared chorus, I made her hair grow in spurts, reaching down to her shoulders before puffing out into curls at its ends. “Nope, no can do, sister.”
She scurried backwards, holding her arms tight against her chest. “S-Sis…”
“Sister, yes. As in the sisterhood all us women share. I’ve seen it in your mind, you know, you’re one of us. Always have been. If you’re wondering why life has felt so difficult for you so far, well, you now know. It’s not that men have it harder, it’s that you had a body that doesn’t match what your mind is,” I added while keeping eye contact, with a knock on my noggin with my free hand to illustrate. In my peripheral vision I spotted a few of the dames of the crowd giving an approving nod.
She opened her mouth as if to speak, but her breath seemingly got caught in her throat, and she ended up falling to her knees with a sputter. “It’s not true… It’s not true…! I’m not- I can’t-”
“Ah, see, there’s a lot to unpack in that last word. Now it’s no longer that you aren’t, it’s that you think you don’t have the right to be.” Cue the whispers of the crowd doubling. “Let me tell you yet another thing: take rules as guidelines, not absolutes. Life’s about being kind to one another and to ourselves, and if there’s a rule, whether it’s societal conventions, your beliefs, the law, whatever, if there’s a rule that goes against that somewhere, ask yourself if you’d be better off listening to what your heart tells you.” Looking at the people around us, I wasn’t quite sure if I was swaying them or not; they mostly kept talking between themselves. That was fine by me - I was focusing on the apprentice first and foremost. The preachiness was likely heavy for the onlookers, but necessary for this lovely mess of a girl sobbing in front of me.
“You’re… You’re twisting my words! You’re… manipulating me into doubting myself! I’m a man!! A MAN!!!” She pounded against the ground with her now tiny fists, getting herself tangled in her mage robes. She stopped and reached for the sides of her head when she felt her ears grow to become pie-tin shaped. “WHAT IS THIS TOO!?”
“At the cost of repeating myself, this is not all just a gift. You rudely interrupted my employer and forced yourself into a discussion that didn’t involve you in order to give yourself an occasion to belittle others.” And you mocked my ears too, I added in my thoughts. I was now in the most intricate part of the spell I had in mind, and keeping track of what sigils I had to do was getting harder. “So I’m making you little, because poetic punishment or something. Sorry, have to focus.”
The apprentice looked down at her increasingly paw-like hands and the tufts of grey hair that were growing around her wrists. As my spell shifted her face to something more akin to the lady she was inside by softening her jaw, lightly plumping her lips and opening up her bright blue eyes compared to their previous half-lidded appearance, it also took the time to add an extra oomph to her front teeth, and whiskers snaking out of her cheeks, joining the round, enlarged ears to complete the picture of a cute mouse girl. “You are a DERANGED-” she squeaked out before stopping herself, self-conscious over a now quite high pitched voice. I saw her mutter something to herself and blush over it. I assumed she was testing her voice, and hating that her reaction was what I predicted rather than what she expected.
“Shut up, I know you like it,” I bluntly said, closing my eyes for a moment to make sure I was piecing together the next part correctly. While she was still down on her knees, lost in her confused sea of emotions, I accelerated her shrinking until she was hidden away in the pile of fabric that used to be her clothes. Which… was good for the crowd. The next part was gonna be a bit painful, and they definitely didn’t need to get to see it.
The process of making a tail out of nothing is quite arduous. You have to take the spine, lengthen it while making sure the skin follows to avoid it getting pierced by bones, and then you have to give the new patch of skin a specific texture… That’s why I didn’t give myself one. The pile of clothes on top of her helped muffle her pained squeaks.
I let the gentle unwinding of the melody put on the finishing touches before finally letting the cage spell go, putting my wand back in its holster and approaching the discarded robes.
I ruffled through the fabric, digging my opponent out by the tail and lifting her up to my eyes. Her hair had turned the same grey as the tastefully placed spots of fur covering her ankles, wrists and her pelvis. Her bright blue eyes were shining with a newfound brightness, despite the complete scowl she was giving me.
“I hate you,” she stated, crossing her arms to cover her breasts.
“At least the reason for that is valid now,” I replied, bringing up my other hand to let her sit in it. She stubbornly refused at first before complying. She surprised me by intently wrapping her tail around my finger to further ensure safety; it was definitely uncommon that she had an innate understanding of how to move it to her will. I turned to the crowd. “Alright everyone, show’s over.” I looked around to spot my client, then approached the kid and got the mouse girl’s wand back, which I kept in hand until I could store it somewhere. The crowd started to disperse with delighted giggles and a new story to tell about a duel of mages with a peculiar ending.
Left on the scene were me, my client, and my pocket-sized lurker. “I’m incredibly sorry for what just happened,” my client said, holding his hat against his chest. “I really thought the clientele of this establishment would be…”
“Oh no no, no need to be sorry, sir. The interruption was all mine, I could’ve just ignored it.” I gave them a gentle slap on the back, pointing my arm towards the saloon. “How about we go resume our discussion?”
“Ah, yes, yes, certainly. Though I must say I understand your nickname and its reputation, now, miss ‘Oddball’ Tora.” The stout man walked ahead of me, giving me a moment to inspect the apprentice who was shifting around in her seat.
“Why are you so silent all of a sudden…?” I gently whispered.
I heard hesitation in her voice. “A… a proper woman must know her place, and as such I shouldn’t talk unless spoken to… N-now that you’ve made me one, that is. Because I’m definitely still a man inside.”
I sighed and buried my head in my palm. This was going to be a loooong journey ahead of her.