He’d always meant to go.
At Follywood, they wouldn’t let him visit the Magic Kingdom. Willis Circle, his Chief Thinkamancer, had ordered him not to ask or even to think about it. “I’d know,” warned the little gray man. Digdoug didn’t know if that was true, but he developed a habit of pinching himself whenever he thought about the place, just to be sure.
When Follywood traded him for Prince Pluss, the exchange was conducted at sea, even though he could more easily (and safely) have stayed home and crossed through their capitals’ respective portals.
And since becoming a Homekey unit, Digdoug had spent eighty or ninety turns out in the field, with only occasional visits to the capital, often while passing through on his way to somewhere else. And frequently, like last night, he was pressed into social events or other activities that took him past the point of exhaustion and/or intoxication.
Still, truth be told he remained intimidated by the idea of the place.
Now here he stood, alone, in front of a glowing purple rectangle in the basement of the palace, surrounded by sacks of malt flour, garden tools, and broken cart wheels. He’d been ordered to go, and that was that. He felt a bit sorry that he wouldn’t actually be the first caster to pass through Homekey’s portal—the Predictamancer had used it before him—but he was going, nevertheless. They would miss him at The Space tonight.
It looked like there had once been a stone step in front of the portal, but someone tore it out to make room for more crates. He didn’t even have enough juice left from his tower improvements today to replace it, so Digdoug pushed a brass-bound wooden trunk in front of the portal and stepped up on it.
After three deep breaths, he put his hand through, then his face. Almost involuntarily, he stumbled completely through.
The ground was the first thing he noticed; this was not a terrain type he’d ever seen before. There was a thick layer of soil that got progressively sandier until it touched the water table, which was of wet sand on top of the hardest bedrock he’d ever felt. The trees here all sent deep taproots down to that water, but they spread broader roots all around them for nutrients. They played both wide and tall.
Then there was the creamy white sky, the unnatural spectrum of the leaf colors, and the disconcerting sense that the hex boundaries were much farther off than they ought to have been. The boundaries were...out at sea. There was an ocean nearby, but the groundwater below was fresh. And there were...
There were casters everywhere.
Dozens...no, more than two hundred portals stood around him in the grass, in seemingly random colors and positions. Each portal was rooted on a column of something as hard as diamond, which stretched down to that similarly tough bedrock. Casters strolled through this big, empty park, some of them appearing or disappearing through the shimmering rectangles. The air smelled sweetly of grass and leaves, with a whiff of sea salt.
He noticed a feeling of gravity from Homekey’s own purple portal, almost a physical pull. His body knew that this portal he stood beside was the way home. His mind still knew very little, though.
He’d been sure there would be some kind of initiation ritual here, if not a welcome committee then at least a sign to direct people where to find casters of various types. But casters just walked past him, in pursuit of their own business.
And he couldn’t stop somebody and ask around. His mission was secret.
After a few minutes spent watching the parade of strange and often outlandish raiment on display, he considered returning to Homekey’s library to re-read what the Titans had written about this place.
Instead, he decided to trust his sense of where his home portal was, and set out on a straight-line course without the slightest clue where he was going. Maybe he could try and find that Predictamancer they’d hired. That would be some kind of start.
There were three ways to hire a barbarian caster, that Digdoug knew of. If your side had a Thinkamancer—or retained a barbarian one—then you could contact the Thinkamancers of the Magic Kingdom. They would locate a caster for you who was willing to meet your terms, and a Signamancer who would arrange the contract. For this, they would either charge you a fee or take a commission on the work.
Homekey didn’t know any barbarian Thinkamancers. King Posbrake said there was a side called Charlescomm that offered this same service, but His Majesty had instead used a sending hat to get a barbarian Hat Magician to post the job for a Predictamancer. That was an even cheaper method. Unfortunately it was also slower, less certain, and less secure.
Sending your own caster here to negotiate was the cheapest and most secure way to do it, but Digdoug had been out in the field until yesterday. Ergo, his Royal mission tonight. Only he didn’t know the place at all. Roads and trails led away from the park into the multicolored forest, but there were no signs to point the way.
He stood there for a while with his hands on his hips. He was just going to have to ask someone, he supposed. He’d just have to phrase it very carefully.
Looking around, he kind of half-waved to a woman who seemed to be heading the way he’d been going (wherever that was). “Hey, uh, excuse me.”
The woman stopped and turned. She looked him up and down, seeming amused. Then she approached him with a big, friendly smile. “Yeah, hon? Whatcha need?”
She had on a charcoal-gray coat and boots, with gartered stockings and a bustier that showed off her cleavage. Perched in her curly black hair, she wore a big top hat that matched the dark gray of her raiment. It was because of the hat that he’d stopped her. It had a black band with a little card sticking up out of it. Digdoug thought she might be a Hat Magician on her way to post a job. “Do you know where the, um, offers of contract are posted?”
She raised thin black eyebrows over her coffee-brown eyes. “The gigs board?” she said. “Sure, it’s back that way.” She pointed over Digdoug’s shoulder, a little too quickly and vaguely for him to tell exactly which road she meant. “You looking for work?”
Digdoug smiled. “Oh, no. Maybe...I might post a job. A gig.” That wasn’t precisely true, but he was hoping that going there and reading the postings would give him some idea of where to find the right kind of caster.
“I was kiddiiing,” said the woman, grinning and touching his shoulder lightly. Her skin was ash white, but her face was pretty. She stood close to him, and that was quite nice. “I can tell you ain’t free.”
She rolled her eyes, but held on to her smile. “Barbarian. Not my favorite word, okay? So what’s the gig? Maybe I can hook you up. I know people.”
“Oh, um. Nothing in particular, really. Just doing some research. For my side.”
“Mmm-hmmm...” she said, narrowing her eyes and giving him a good-natured smirk. “C’mon, spill. What kind of work you offering?”
So this was his welcoming committee after all. She seemed friendly enough, and for some reason he felt like trusting her. But his orders... “I really can’t talk about it.” He shrugged apologetically.
“Well,” she laughed, “that makes it pretty tough to get what you want, doesn’t it, hon?”
Digdoug had to laugh, too. “Pretty tough. Yeah.”
“How ‘boooout...if I guess?!” she said excitedly. She reached down and grabbed him by the wrist. “Gimme three guesses, and if I guess right, you gotta give me a prize, okay?” Digdoug started to shake his head, but she swept on. “Guess one: you need a...Moneymancer!”
He smiled and rolled his eyes. “No, we have one too many of those right now.”
She grinned slyly. “Ohhhh...rich side, huh? Then you need...a...Healomancer?”
He shook his head.
She pouted with disappointment. “Awww. That’s too bad, I know a guy.”
“One more guess,” said Digdoug. He didn’t remember agreeing to this game, but he had to admit it was fun. And he didn’t think it violated his secrecy order.
Her nose wrinkled in concentration. “Okay, you din’t use a Hat Magician or a Thinkamancer to post the job, so it could be one of those...”
“Are you a hat magician?” Digdoug asked.
She shook her head. “‘Zat what you need, then? Do I win?”
“Nope,” said Digdoug. “Sorry about that.”
“Aww.” She said again, letting go of his hand and making a mopey face.
“What kind of a caster are you?” he asked. “I thought maybe with the hat...”
She touched the brim of her top hat, and felt the little card there. There turned out to be three of them: playing cards, with their backs showing. She spread them apart a bit. “Yeah it’s a magical hat, but I ain’t a Hat Magician. What kind are you?”
“A Dirtamancer. Lord Digdoug Mole.” He wasn’t sure if he should offer his hand, so he just vaguely touched his own chest to indicate himself.
She gave a little whistle of appreciation through her teeth. “Nice! Really? Holy crap.” Then she held up a hand in an apologetic gesture. “I mean, very nice.”
“Thanks,” said Digdoug. He actually had been about to take that the wrong way. “So what about you?”
The woman looked away sadly. “Well, I’m Dove. Lady Dove Barstool.” She offered her hand for a handshake, rather than a kiss. He shook it gently. “But I know you ain’t here to hire a Carny.”
Digdoug blinked. “I’m sorry? You’re a Carnymancer?”
She smiled again, but there was pain in her eyes. That ashen skin of hers was like Thinkamancer Willis’ had been. It was a bit of Signamancy that sometimes happened to units who’d been through serious hardship, usually casters. “Yeah, but I really could help you find somebody, y’know. Whoever you need. Really small commission, too. Tiny.” She held two fingers very close together.
Digdoug took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He leaned forward and whispered, “That’s what we need. We need a Carnymancer.”
Her eyes went wide. “Get out,” she whispered back. “For what?”
“Can you—” Digdoug looked around and over his shoulder for anyone who might overhear (they were right out in the open, for Titans’ sake). He just could not believe the sheer Luckamancy of it. “Can you help us cheat a Prediction?”