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Robert Asprin

I focused on the candle’s flame. Forcing myself to remain relaxed, I reached out and gently wrapped my mind around it.

The flame didn’t flicker. If anything, it seemed to steady and grow.

Moving slowly, extended a finger, pointing casually at the object of my attention. Then, as I released a quick burst of mental energy, I made a small flicking motion with my hand to speed the spell along it’s way.

There was a tiny burst of power, and the flame flared and went out.


I leaned back in my chair and treated myself to a bit of smug self congratulations.

“Have you got a minute, Skeeve?”

I glanced toward the doorway. It was my curvaceous assistant. At least, the theory was that she was my assistant. Since she tagged along when I retired from M.Y.T.H. Inc., however, she had taken over not only running the household and the business side of things, but also my life in general. Some assistant.

“Bunny!” I said with a smile. “Just the person I wanted to see. Com’on in. There’s something I want to show you.”

With a casual wave of my hand, I relit the candle.

“So?” Bunny said, unimpressed. “I’ve seen you light a candle before. If I remember right, it was one of the first spells you learned.”

“Not that.” I said. “Watch this!”

I wrapped my mind around the flame, pointed my finger, and released the spell again.

The candle exploded, scattering droplets of hot wax across the table and onto the wall behind it.

“I see.” Bunny said, drily. “You’ve learned a new way to make a mess. Some day you’ll learn a spell that helps with cleaning up. Then I’ll be impressed.”

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work.” I protested. “I did it perfectly just before you came in.”

“What is it, anyway?” she said.

“Oh, it’s a new spell that was in my latest correspondence lesson for the Magikal Institute of Perv.” I said. “It’s a magikal way to extinguish a flame. It didn’t seem very difficult, so I’ve been puttering around with it as a break when I’m working on the other lessons.”

“A magikal way to extinguish a flame.” she repeated slowly. “Is it really a vast improvement on simply blowing the candle out?”

“It’s an exercise.” I said, defensively. “Besides, if I get good enough at it…I don’t know, maybe I could put out a whole burning building.”

“Hmpf.” she said, and I realized I was losing an argument when we weren’t even arguing.

“Anyway, what was it you wanted?”

It’s an old ploy. When in doubt or in trouble, change the subject. Sometimes it works.

“I just wanted to say that I think you should take a look at Buttercup.”

“Buttercup? What’s he done now?”

Buttercup was a war unicorn I sort of inherited early in my career. While he isn’t as inclined to get into mischief or break things as Gleep, my dragon, that still leaves him a lot of room for minor disasters.

“Nothing I know of.” Bunny said. “He just doesn’t seem as perky as he usually is. I’m wondering if he’s coming down with something.”

“Maybe he’s just getting old.” I realized that I know even less about the longevity of unicorns than I did about their ailments. “I’ll take a look at him.”

*   *   *

We were currently based in what used to be an old inn. Actually, I had a bit of my history tied up in the inn even before my current relocation. When I first teamed with Aahz, this very inn was the headquarters for our adversary of the moment, one Isstvan. After successfully vanquishing him and sending him off to roam the dimensions, Aahz and I used it as our own base until our subsequent move to Posssletum, and eventually to the Bazaar at Deva. It seemed only natural to return to it when I retired and was looking for a quiet place to pursue my studies.

Buttercup shared the stable area of the inn with Gleep, though more often or not they only used it to sleep. The rest of the time they roamed the grounds playing with each other and getting into the aforementioned mischief. To say the least, this insured that our neighbors and folks from the nearby village gave the place wide berth as a general rule.

I wasn’t wild about running him down if they were out terrorizing the countryside, as they were both fleeter of foot and in better condition than I was. Fortunately he was in residence when I reached the stables.

“Hey, Buttercup! How’s it going?”

The unicorn raised his head and glanced at me, then let it sag once more.

Bunny was right. Buttercup did seem very droopy, not at all his normal manner. What was more, his coat seemed dull and dry.

“Are you okay, fella? What’s wrong?”

That inquiry didn’t even earn me a second glance.

Normally, I’d be at a loss for what to do. This time around, however, I had an idea. Glancing out the stable door to be sure Bunny wasn’t within hearing, I turned to Gleep who was watching the proceedings with interest.

“Gleep? Do you know what’s wrong with Buttercup?”

I had discovered that my dragon could actually talk, though only in halting sentences. At his request, I had withheld that particular bit of information from my colleagues.

Gleep craned his neck to look out the door himself, then brought his head close to mine.

“Buttercup…sad.” he said.

My pet’s breath was foul enough that it usually drove me back a step or two. My concern was such, however, that I held my ground.

“Sad?” I said. “About what?”

Gleep seemed to struggle to find the words.


“Not use him?” I echoed, trying to understand. “You mean he wants me to play with him more?”

The dragon moved his head slowly from side to side in ponderous negation.

“No. Not…play. You…not…use…him…to…fight.”

Slowly it began to sink in what the problem was.

Buttercup had been working with a demon hunter when we first met. The hunter, Quigley, had moved on to a career in magik, leaving the unicorn with me. While there had been many and varied adventures since then, I had never called on Buttercup to assist in any of them, preferring to deal with the problems by magical means. Well, magik combined with a fair amount of underhanded double talk. Whatever the reason, though, what was once a proud fighting animal had been reduced to the status of a house pet…and he didn’t like it.

That seemed to be the problem. The trouble was, I had no idea what to do about it.

For a change, this lack of knowledge or a specific plan did not distress me. If nothing else, in my varied career prior to my retirement, I had amassed an impressive array of specialists, most of whom were usually all to happy to advise me in areas where my own experience was lacking. In this case, I thought I had a pretty good idea of who to turn to.

*   *   *

Big Julie had been commanding the largest army this dimension had ever seen when we first met. I can refer to it’s impressive size with some authority as, at the time, I was on the other side.

Shortly thereafter, he had retired and was living in a villa near the Royal Palace of Possiltum. We had gotten to be pretty good friends, however, and he had helped me and my colleague out several times on an advisory basis. Not surprising, with his background his advice was unswervingly helpful and insightful. As such, his was the first name that sprang to my mind to consult with regarding my current dilemma with Buttercup.

As always, he was happy to see me when I dropped in, and we immediately fell to reminiscing about old times like old war comrades…which we sort of were. The wine and lies flowed in roughly equal quantities, making for a very pleasant, relaxed conversation.

*   *   *

[author’s note: Yes, that was an abrupt shift of time and location. Short stories don’t give you much space for lengthy travel sequences. Besides, if they can get away with it in STAR WARS, why can’t I?]

*   *   *

As he was refilling our goblets with yet another sample from his extensive wine cellar, he cocked an eye at me and winked.

“So! Enough small talk. What’s the problem?”

“Problem?” I said, taken a bit aback. I had figured to ease into the subject slowly.

Big Julie leaned over and clapped me on the knee with his hand.

“You’re a good boy, Skeeve.” he said. “I’m always glad when you take time to visit. Still, you’re busy enough I figure you don’t come all this way just to chit chat with an old soldier. To me, that means you’ve got some kind of a problem you think I might help you with.”

A little irked a being found out so easily, I filled him in on my perception of the problem. For all his self depreciating comments about being an ‘old soldier,’ as I mentioned before Big Julie had the finest mind regarding things military that this dimension had ever seen.

“A war unicorn, eh?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Don’t see many of those anymore. Still, you could be right. Do you know much about war unicorns?”

“Practically nothing.” I admitted easily. “I sort of inherited this one.”

“Well, you can forget about that poetic stuff with unicorns and virgins.” the retired general said. “Unicorns are fighters, bred specifically for their ferocity and loyalty. They’re particularly popular in certain circles because they’re all but immune to magik.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one retiring, though.” Julie continued. “Usually they die in combat. Once they’re trained, it’s pretty much all they know. I’ve had men in my command like that. Been soldiers all their lives and can’t imagine being civilians.”

I nodded my head thoughtfully. I had thought my problem with Buttercup to be fairly unique. I had never really stopped to think about what soldiers do once they leave the service.

“A lot of the boys go into police work or some other kind of security in the private sector. If you look at it close, though, that’s just another form of wearing a uniform and being ready for a fight if the situation calls for it. That’s why that plan you came up with to use some of the boys for tax collectors was such a good idea. It took care of our problem of what to do with our excess personnel once Queen Hemlock put her expansion policy on hold. It let us give them an option of a new assignment instead of just cutting them loose after a lifetime of service.”

It seemed I had done something intelligent for a change, though I’ll admit that at the time I had not been aware of the full ramifications of my action.

“So how does that help me figure out what to do with Buttercup” I said, frowning.

“Well, it seems to me you need to find Buttercup some action, even if it’s just a dummied up training exercise.” Big Julie said. “Between the two of us we should be able to come up with something.”

“A training exercise?”

“Sure. We do it all the time in the service. Schedule a war game to keep the troops on their toes.” he dropped his voice to a conspirator level. “We don’t ever admit it, but sometimes we even deliberately position our forces a bit too close to an opposing force…like over their border accidentally on purpose. Of course, they respond, and by the time things are sorted out and apologies have been made, the boys have had a little action to clear away the cobwebs. We could rig something like that for your unicorn.”

I got up and did the honors of refilling our goblets. I didn’t really want more wine, but it gave me a few minutes to mull over what Big Julie had said. Something about it wasn’t sitting right with me.

“Actually, I don’t think so.” I said finally, shaking my head. “I appreciate the advice, Big Julie, and it’s given me something to think about, but I think I’ll try a different kind of solution.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Well, instead of hunting down or making up some kind of conflict to make Buttercup feel useful,” I said, carefully, “I’m thinking what I need to do is spend some time re-training him.”

Big Julie cocked his head.

“Re-training him to do what?”

“I don’t really know just yet.” I sighed. “As you were talking, though, it occurred to me how sad it was that all Buttercup knows how to do is to fight. More specifically, that, in his opinion, his only value is as a fighter. Instead of trying to re-enforce that problem, I think I want to spend the effort to try to change his self-image.”

The general stared at me for several moments.

“I’ve never asked you, Skeeve.” he said at last. “Why did you retire?”

“Me?” I said, caught off guard by the subject change. “I wanted to spend more time studying magik. I’m supposed to be this hot shot magician, but I really can’t do all that much. Why?”

Julie made a derisive noise.

“Like the world needs more magicians.” he said. “As I understand it, there’s barely enough work for the ones we already have.”

That stung a little.

“Now I know you military types don’t think much of magik or magicians, Big Julie.” I said a bit stiffly, “but it’s what I do.”

“Uh-huh.” he said. “Like fighting is what Buttercup does.”

“How’s that again?” I frowned.

“You should listen to yourself, Skeeve.” the general said, shaking his head. “You’re saying that your only value to anyone is as a magik user. You still think that even though you admit that you don’t really know all that much. Do you really think that’s why you old team gave you their respect and followed your lead? You think I ended up running the army because I’m a rough, tough, invincible fighter?”

That really gave me pause for thought. I had never really considered it, but looking at his frail body, even allowing for age, it was doubtful that Big Julie could go toe to toe with any of the heavyweights I knew like Guido or Hugh Badaxe.

He leaned toward me.

“No, Skeeve. What you did just now, thinking through what’s best for other people…in this case, your unicorn…that’s a rare talent. To me, that’s more valuable than any new magik tricks you might pick up. The world needs more of that kind of thinking.”

Someone, sometime, might have said something nicer than that to me, but if so, it didn’t spring readily to mind.

“So what is it exactly that you’re suggesting that I do? Come out of retirement”

“Exactly?” he smiled and winked at me. “I haven’t got a clue. You’re the thinker. So think about it. Maybe while you’re working on Buttercup’s self image you can do a little tinkering with your own.”

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