The Northpoint Mages' Guild Hall common room reeked of incense, pipe smoke and overcooked meat. It was rather dark, even now, at mid-afternoon. Septimus sat glowering at a rather sparse chess-board, across from his old colleague from the Whiteland Academy, Maelthirn, who was very near to besting him two out of three since they'd finished lunch a couple of hours ago. Off to one side, Septimus' former student, Zephira, sat watching the game—chess didn't really interest her, but the two oldsters tended to ramble on at length during their games, talking about all kinds of things, and once in a while, they'd let something important slip out. On the other side, Maethirn's half-witted homonculous divided his limited attention between the chess board and Zephera's plate of left-overs, which she held at a safe distance.

"Honestly, how can a diviner be so bad at chess, Septimus?"

"Ever notice how many diviners are dirt poor, Maelthirn? We're not omniscient."

Zephira wasn't sure what in blazes that had to do with playing chess. "What's your point, old man?"

"The point is, if divination was so useful, I'd be using it for something other than winning at chess."

"Okay, you're not omniscient, but you're prescient—so can't you see the next move?"

"And the next, then the third? There are too many possibilities! It takes skill, not magic...remember that. Now, I could easily cast a spell to find out who will win, but then the what's the point of playing? Or I could read Maelthirn's future, and mine, to see what day I'll be able to beat him, and not play against him until that day comes, but what would be the point, again? There are times when divination magic is simply no help at all."

Maelthirn smirked. "What were you doing for a living, again? It's your move, by the way."

Septimus looked at Zephira, who simply shrugged. The homonculous was busy tasting Septimus' captured pieces to see if any of them were edible—for the fifth time. Fortunately, they remained indigestible, even for ravenous magical constructs. "Sooth-saying contracts, mostly. And I've still got tenure at the Academy. Sadly, all the money I made at the King's Court in Whiteland has been spent."

"Ahh, yes, the King's Court...I heard you had to leave in a hurry. Or something like that."

Zephira perked up at this point—she hadn't been able to drag this story out of Septimus just yet!

"No, not so much. The King simply decided he no longer needed my services." Maethirn's incredulous stare bored into him. " the insistence of one of his senior religious advisors. Of course, it was sooth-saying that got me in trouble, then, too. Not much you can do when you realize the Archbishop is lying to the King. Fortunately, I had enough sense to keep quiet about it until the audience was over, then the next thing I know, the Bishop of Whiteland was assuring the King 'that new astrologer must have been mistaken' and the next day I was persona non grata."

"Oh, no you don't, Septimus! That's not the whole story. Let's have it—what did the Archbishop say?"

"What?! Oh, that." Septimus did his best to sound nonchalant. "It was nothing; said he enjoyed his trip to the castle, looked forward to spending the evening there, the usual nonsense. All lies, of course...."

"Alright, then, if you're going to be like that...bishop takes rook. Check! Did anything ever come of it all? Still talk to anyone in the Court?"

"No, and yes. The Archbishop can say what he likes, of course. And Brother Kenneth bears me no ill will, as far as I know. He keeps me informed as to what's going on. I don't think the Bishop really approved of astrology, from a religious point of view, but Kenneth had a 'holistic' attitude about it. Officially, he didn't approve of magic, but he had an interest in astronomy, and astrology from an academic standpoint. He saw the stars as part of God's creation, and astrology was simply a means of divining His will. I'm not sure if he ever discussed that idea with the Bishop...somehow I doubt it, or he'd be out, too. It's a shame he joined the clergy—I think he might have actually had some untapped magical talent, but I could never be certain. "

"And what do you think, about his ideas?"

"Maelthirn, you studied with me at the Academy—you know we don't concern ourselves with such questions! Let the priests waste their time debating the religious ramifications. No matter how much magic we learn, there's always more to study, even if we spend our whole lives doing it." Septimus turned aside to look at Zephira. "You'd do well to remember this, as well." She rolled her eyes—how could she forget? It was the first thing he'd told her, six years ago. She'd lost count of how many times he'd repeated it.

"Oh yes, always the purist. So, after your 'fall from grace' in Whiteland, what happened at the Academy?"

Septimus shook his head sadly. "I'm still tenured, but on leave at half pay. No teaching assignment in the forseeable future. They're all rather disappointed with me—it seems I've made the whole Academy look bad." He perked up a bit and explained further. "Oh, well, one or two of them are still talking to me. Remember old Westmorley, the librarian?"

"Is he still there? He's older than most of the books! How is he?"

Zephira really liked the sound of this. She'd been disappointed to find out Septimus had been kicked off his old campus, but if he still had a friend in the library, maybe things weren't all bad. She'd love to do some research in Whiteland, after all the wonderful things she'd heard about the library there....

"Still mean as a hungry old dragon when it comes to protecting said books, of course. I travel more than most of the staff, so I can still bribe him with new material I've collected when I go back there, and he appreciates that. But that's pretty much the only reason I still have access. You know, in his day, I think he travelled even more than me. He visited your country at least once, I think, Zephira, so if you go to visit him, be careful. He's very well-connected, so it's possible he and your father might know a few of the same people from way back. And be sure to bring him something new for the collection; or better yet, something really old that he hasn't seen before."

"He sounds even harder to please than you, Septimus." At times, Zephira wondered if there was anything about being a mage that wasn't going to be horrendously difficult.

"He is indeed."

"Starving!" Maethirn's homunculous piped up, and poked him in the arm. Septimus leaned back from the table a bit, and Zephira smiled at the older mage's predicament.

Maelthirn looked at his diminutive assistant and explained. "Of course you're hungry. I'm fasting for tomorrow's ritual, and it's effecting us both. We're linked."

"You can starve yourself if you like, monkeyboy—that's no reason not to feed me."

"I'm busy."

"Feed me."




The homunulous went into a bit of a sulk, then looked up at Septimus. "Knight to queen six."

Maelthirn looked dismayed. "You shouldn't tell him my next move! Anyway, how did you know?"

The homunculous sounded churlish. "We're linked, remember? Now feed me."

Septimus put a hand over his mouth to hide a momentary smirk. "I knew there was a reason I didn't have one of those things. Zephira, would you mind?"

There were a few local food items in Northpoint which Zephira wouldn't touch, yet the Guild Hall chef insisted on serving anyway. She plucked a leftover spiced sausage from her plate and tossed it to the homunculous, and he noisily gobbled it down. Maelthirn gave her a depressed look. "Do you have any idea what that's going to do to him?"

"Yeah, it's gonna make me a lot less grouchy! Keep 'em coming, sweetie!" Zephira pushed aside the urge to flash-fry Maelthirn's assistant and tossed him another sausage. Whatever 'ritual' he planned tomorrow, he'd just have to deal with a flatulent homunculous. Septimus made a move to counter the one predicted by Maelthirn's assistant, then looked at the little magical construct once again. He finished the sausage, then loud enough for everyone to hear, said "Queen to king's bishop seven." Maethirn smacked himself in the forehead and muttered a curse.

Septimus shrugged. "Skill may be better than divination, but I guess nothing beats treachery, old friend."

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