--Chapter Twenty-seven: In a Lifetime (or, The Mage’s Soliloquy)

Years passed, as they always have had a tendency to do. Many things happened during this time, but few of these could be said to stray from the normal course of events so much as to be noteworthy. New lives came into the world, and old ones left. Friendships and bonds formed and broke. The once-coveted peace in the East came to an end when the King of Incria started abusing power to such an extent that the people took notice. The dragons earned and for the most part kept their peace with humanity, but so long as the occasional unfortunate accidental village burnings kept happening whenever some dragon had to sneeze, the job would not be done yet. Some in the South philosophized as to whether or not these interspecies problems would ever truly end.

For the people of The Windmill Road, happy and sad days came and went, as they did for every other place on the globe. Not all of these days need to be chronicled; time has its own way of rendering as insignificant the triumphs and tribulations of individuals, even though to those individuals, the everyday life certainly meant more than this triviality.

The township grew until it surpassed Ableridge in size and population, but it never quite increased to the point where it would be a real city. New tavern waiters and waitresses were hired, new houses went up, and new businesses formed, none of which, fortunately, stood to compete with the original tavern in the restaurant business.

The tavern added some outdoor seating, but otherwise it remained the same as it always had been...

One day, a weary man came by the town. He was old, though not quite elderly yet. He came from the East by foot—people rarely walked the Windmill Road by foot, but it did happen once in a while. His belongings he carried in a sack thrown carelessly over his right shoulder, and his eyes carried with them dark sacks of their own. He came to a door with a simple wooden sign that read, “Welcome to the Windmill Tavern. We are all of us travelers here.” He sighed, opened the door, and stepped inside.

Nobody greeted him at first, since it was noontime, and crowds were not to be expected until later in the day. Someone in the kitchen heard him enter, though; she called out, “Just a minute!”

He sat down at the bar and silently waited. The waitress came out to greet him in a matter of seconds. She was Cyres, a sixteen-year-old with red hair and a plain but rather tidy blue outfit that suited her demeanor well.

“Welcome. Anything you’d like in particular?”

“Ale, a full pint,” said he.

She poured it for him.

“Thank you kindly.” He drank a little and asked, “Are you the daughter of the one they call Isa?”

“Hm?” She had not expected the question. “Oh... Yes. I’m Cyres.”

“Mm. It’s been so many years, and I still remember that woman.”

“Are you a friend of hers?”

“Hardly. When I left, I thought I would never come back. She probably thought so, too.”

Cyres found this a bit awkward, but he explained himself before she had time to get too confused.

“I used to be a mage,” he said. “That’s all you really need to know. I’ve retired, though, since there’s no real point now in continuing the trade.”

Cyres had heard of mages, and she used to wonder what those days must have been like, back when dragon technology and fairy electricity could pass as “magic” to uneducated people.

“At least this place hasn’t changed much,” he said. “I’m sick of all the places in the East giving up their torchlight and fireplaces for the latest electrical devices. There was a day when I could produce that kind of light and earn an average man’s yearly salary in a single hour for doing it.”

Cyres sat down a few stools down from him and said, “But wasn’t what you did dishonest, keeping your source of power secret all those years?”

“Of course it was, but that’s not the point... Here. Have you ever read a fiction book?”

“Yes, I’ve read several.”

“Those are lies, too.”

“But they’re fiction, so they’re supposed to be.”

“This is true,” said he. “But consider for a moment: have you ever read a book that was so good, you started imagining yourself in it? Have you ever just imagined what that would be like, living in your world of fantasy?”

“I suppose,” said she.

“Sometimes living a lie is that much better than living the truth. Oh, in truth I was a swindler and a fraud... But it didn’t seem to matter so long as I had ‘magic.’ You may have imagined living in fantasy, but I actually lived it. Your mother was the first person to call my bluff. In a way, I guess I should be grateful; we all have to come to terms with reality someday. So I decided I would retire here and spend the rest of my days in a village not yet completely gone to the modern era.”

Cyres thought about this. “I understand what you mean by living with magic, but why would the truth be any different here or in the East?”

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever been there?”

“East? No, I haven’t.”

The man nodded and then rested his elbows on the bar. He drank some of his ale and said, “Then you don’t know how many blessings you have. I mentioned the torches and fireplace already. Then you have the dirt road, the old fashioned people with old fashioned clothes and manners... You don’t see any of that in the East. Humans there thought they needed so many devices the dragons had, and now they find those very devices governing their lives. Twenty years ago, none of them had electricity. Now watch them try to live without it! Twenty years ago, they were content with one town clock, something your village doesn’t even have. But now they need clocks attached to their own arms to make sure they get to places on time. I may have lied about my magic, but at least I knew how to control my power and use it instead of letting it use me. And even though it may not have been magic in the true sense of the word, I believe there is a real power in it. It’s more than just a matter of giving people the power to do more in their daily lives; it’s also a matter of forcing them to do more so they can keep up with the pace of the rest of the world.

“And now they have this war again. The one before cost thousands of lives over the course of hundreds of years. This one will cost as many by next spring, because the weapons are so much better at killing. Even some of the dragons are afraid of what a human with certain intuition and the power to make an even more powerful weapon could do. Now, I was a dark mage; I know there’s a time for war. I’ve killed before, and frankly, I got a kick out of it sometimes. But even I have my limits. I would always give my opponent a chance to fight back. The newest weapons won’t even allow for that.

“I wouldn’t worry about the war spreading west this time; it’ll be over before it gets that far. And given enough time, there will be more wars after this—some for good reason, some not. This war itself was for a very good reason, if you’re the type who doesn’t like tyranny, but the effects of it scare me, to tell the truth. How do those soldiers know what they’re fighting for anymore? Is it that they are forced to fight, that they want to fight, or that they see no alternative and, as a result, do only as commanded, as told? Do they control the magic weapons, or are they themselves become the magic spell cast by other mages? Generals can be worse liars than I was, you know. Their power lies in controlling people instead of controlling technology.

“I learned a long time ago that there is no such thing as fate—the day your mother’s suitor (who may or may not be your father; I don’t know) proved a prophecy wrong. But just because people can control their own destiny does not mean that they always do. And that’s a shame, it really is. I lived my life the way I did because I chose that path. It may have been a dirty one, but I’d choose it all over again if I could. Lots of people have that power; in fact, all of them do. There are so many things any one person can do with his or her life... Some never learn how, though, so it’s not their fault. Others openly refuse, and that ends up becoming their path: a life of following orders and never choosing for themselves.

“People, in a way, need to know what power they wield. It is different from the brute strength and technology of the dragons. It is farther reaching than the influence of woodland elves and gnomes. When dragon or gnome or elf policy changes, this does not usually affect humans much. But when humans migrate or go to war or open trade routes, it affects everyone. Some humans know they have this power not only over themselves, but over the future of others. That’s why they’re able to wield it over people who don’t know how to use their own strengths and free will.

“For the humans who have control, there is an eternal paradox at work: on the one hand, they wish to have complete freedom in their own lives, but on the other hand, they wish to control and command everyone else so that nobody can contradict the commander’s will.

“For the humans who do not have control, there is also a paradox at work: on the one hand, they have their own wishes and hopes and dreams, but on the other hand, they do not believe it is up to them to reach those goals, and so they give up or never even try in the first place.

“There are two extremes here, you see, and I’ve thought a lot about this: the first is where every single person in a society thinks selfishly and wants control. In that scenario, some win, some lose, and there is endless competition. The second extreme is where everyone agrees to be controlled by some fate and thus never exercise control over each other—but in turn, they give up their own aspirations.

“Each system has its obvious flaws, but the core of it is this: people can control their lives for good or for evil, or they can be controlled for good or for evil. I chose to live my life for a certain type of evil... but you know what? My end will not nearly be as pitiful as those who are controlled by someone else’s idea of what is good.

“I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how humans can reach a lasting peace given the circumstances. And I don’t know how any one person would have enough power to solve this once and for all... I only knew how to make my life all the more gratifying, and so I did. What more can anyone do?”

Cyres let the silence sink in for a minute. She had never in her life heard anyone go on that long on any subject. Mom had told her that the longest stories came from people who traveled too long without talking. Clearly this man had been wandering for a long, long time.

He drank the rest of his ale, but he spoke no more. Eventually, Cyres looked up and to the side. In a dark corner next to the fireplace, Isa worked calmly at knitting a scarf—a hobby she had picked up only recently.

The old man followed Cyres’s gaze to look at the woman as she worked.

“You’re half right, you know,” said Isa. “There are those who control power, and there are those who end up controlled. But I don’t think your conclusion is correct. Humans don’t just have the power to control. They also have the power to teach. They can hurt, and they can help. I’ve lived off of the help of others, and I hope I’ve been able to help those I’ve met—in this tavern, in our town, over all the years, in the course of a lifetime. The question is not if you spent your life the way you wanted. The question is, did you help? And if not, then how long will it be before you start being part of the solution and not merely an observer of the problem?”

There was a pause, then, before the old man said, “How does a tavern waitress in such a small town learn philosophy like that? Have you seen the rest of the world and its problems? Have you gone anywhere but here in the last decade?”

“No,” said she. “But I don’t have to. The rest of the world comes here. I’ve seen the people from every place there is... I’ve heard their stories, too. Some of them are very interesting, if you listen.”

Isa winked at her daughter, who smiled back. The old man nodded and stood with his sack. He said, half in admiration and half in sarcasm, “To think I’ve traveled the world, and this one woman knows more about the meaning of life than I do. Heh.”

He was about to leave when Isa said, “It’s not really all that bad, you know. Read the sign on the front of the door. In our own way, we are all of us travelers here.”