A curious person strode the halls of the royal palace in Stichting that morning: under a meter and fifty tall, with slick blond hair held back by large pointy ears, blue eyes and most strikingly a lion tail swishing behind him, which added playfulness to a youthful appearance. Heads turned at the sound of steps on the granite floors and the creaking of shiny, elegant space age clothes, as sunbeams streaked through the ornate windows. A couple of robot maids standing in a doorframe bowed in unison, receiving a nod in response. A middle-aged man in a tailcoat stopped in his tracks. "Magister," he greeted. "Chief Secretary," was the amiable answer. From a perpendicular corridor which seemed gloomy by way of contrast came a woman with a sour expression, in a conservative skirt suit, passing by without so much as a sideways glance, a large tablet in one hand, briefcase in the other. Without hesitation, the short figure turned left, away from the light, casting a long shadow ahead.
This wing of the building was more muted in appearance, without the columns and arches that could be seen closer to the main entrance; "Do Not Disturb" signs adorned identical doors on both sides. Just where light from behind became insufficient, a short tunnel off to the side led to an inner courtyard, filled with whirring and thumping noises which almost covered a high-pitched voice crying for help.
It was a schoolgirl, prone in front of a robotic cart, her foot caught in a tangle of metal bars. The machine had backed away, and the too-tall pile of boxes it carried wobbled dangerously after hitting a low beam, attempts to rebalance the load hindered by the need to avoid the human being in danger.
The stack of boxes leaned way forward.
Its fall was stopped by a delicate white hand.
Thin fingers rubbed against the boxes, and a network of glowing lines started spreading over the heavy items. A push, and the entire tower moved as easily as if it was a balloon. It straightened up just as the glow faded, and the robot stopped, blinking its lights. The blond-haired rescuer breathed and turned his attention to the girl. She was actually the taller one, once she managed to stand.
"P-professor," she stammered, "I...!"
The professor flashed an amused smile. "Getting yourself into trouble again, Matilde?"
"I didn't know you were back!" blurted the girl. "I thought I saw you passing through and..."
"...forgot it was dangerous to run across an active construction site?" the little professor scolded gently, waving a hand at the scaffolds covering the walls, other robots milling all over them.
Matilde blushed. She must have been fourteen or fifteen years of age, well-built, with unruly red hair, wearing a fancy uniform and toting around a school bag that looked too small for her.
"So, what did you want to see me about?"
The girl waited until they were back inside and walking along the hall before answering.
"It's our substitute magic teacher. I swear she wants me to fail her class."
"Oh? What did she do?"
She fished a tablet out of her bag and handed it over. "Just look at this assignment she gave us. The entire class working together couldn't cast a spell like that! And she wants each of us to do it alone!!"
"M-hm! I see. Didn't she give you any hints?"
"She gave us a book on computer science! See? This one. What's that have to do with anything?!"
"Matilde..." the little professor sighed. "You're a good girl, but you must learn to think for yourself. Show some initiative! Did you look over that book at all?"
"N-no?" Her face fell, lower lip quivering.
"It's a good introduction to the subject matter. Read the chapter on simulations and the one on emergent behaviors. Either should suggest a solution."
"But nothing! Magic doesn't exist in a vacuum!" Two corridors intersected in front of them, and a security checkpoint lay right ahead. "Listen, I have to go. See you at school soon! And stop crying, it doesn't help!"
They went their separate ways, tears streaking down the girl's face.
It was a very quiet corridor, with no doors or windows on either side. Overhead, skylights made of little transparent squares trapped in a grid of wrought iron let in plenty of sun, making the visitor's hair shine like polished gold as he stopped in front of the imposing double doors at the very end. The sentinels on either side, resplendent in their power suits, stood at attention.
"Your Excellency," said the one on the right.
"Hello, William," greeted the visitor cheerfully. "Could you please..."
"Go right in," the sentinel replied, "Her Majesty is expecting you."
He took an armored hand off his heavy Gauss carbine to knock. "Come in," came a faint voice from inside, and His Excellency complied, tail flicking in excitement. He carefully turned to face the door before closing it, then again to face the desk at the other end of the room.
It was a latticework of chromed pipes supporting a panoramic monitor and a keyboard tray. The entire office was like that, all reflective surfaces and flat pastels. Only the intricately carved wooden door was dissonant, as if the room's present occupant wanted to remind herself that outside was another world, from which the office provided shelter, like a living planet in the depths of space.
Presently she sat up from the workstation, an athletic woman with brown skin, dressed in a semi-formal suit with military overtones. Her eyes lit up at the sight of her visitor.
"Jinx! How's my favorite sorcerer today? Feeling recovered after your ordeal yet?"
"It takes more than a few months in a preindustrial society to get me down, my queen," answered the blond-haired Jinx with a shy yet warm smile, tail drooping a little. "Though I did miss indoor plumbing."
The host waves towards a pair of low armchairs flanking a coffee table, and they sat down, the half a meter difference in height between them much less apparent that way.
"Well, you missed all the fun."
"Political trouble again, my queen?"
"You mean political trouble as always." She sighed, looking very tired. "Only moreso. I swear, they find a new way to attack the Royal House every other month."
"They envy you. The Cabinet and the Parliament hold all the power, yet the citizenry looks up to you, not them."
She nodded, and Jinx examined her with sympathy. Queen Laetitia kept her body at an apparent age of about 45, just enough to command some respect -- since humans, even augmented, were still wired to look up to their elders -- while not so much as to seem old, and she hit the gym every day like clockwork. Silvery lines along the sides of her head made it look like her face was sewn in place, and tattoos of electronic circuits adorned the side of her neck as well as the back of her hands. It was customary for a new monarch to be elected from among the previous one's descendants, and she had been groomed for it since childhood. So after her father's untimely demise, she had been snatched from an already honorable military career and placed on a throne she had never wanted.
"Too bad there is no magical spell to make people more responsible," chuckled the sorcerer. "So, what did you really want to see me about?"
The queen laughed. "You know me too well, Jinx." Then she sobered up again. "I'm sorry to call on you so soon. You deserve more rest."
Her guest shrugged. "I came this close to spending the remainder of my natural life at the leisurely pace of a world that hasn't yet discovered the steam engine. Rest is overrated."
She grinned and reached for the nearby replicator. "Then let's get down to business. Coffee?"
"What do you know about the Baselmann Conglomerate?" asked the Queen, looking intently at her guest through the steam raising from her coffee cup.
The little sorcerer sipped from his own cup before answering.
"It's that island nation in the Harouf Archipelago, down south. Didn't we try to buy some leviters from them, until it turned out the damned things recorded every movement of the vehicle for their mechanics to download?"
"That's them all right," nodded the host.
"What did they do this time?"
"Wait for it, you're going to love this." She paused. "Lately they had to look for customers off-world. Found a big one, too -- in a two-bit dictatorship some 300 light years away, roughly antispinwards from us. Back towards Earth, basically."
"Let me guess: their research has stagnated so much, even Baselmann products are hopelessly superior."
"Just so. Now, with the latest sample of genetic material Baselmann takes as payment came a rather... unusual specimen."
"A stowaway?" joked the guest.
"Bingo! And not just any stowaway, but a high-profile dissident who promptly announced his arrival and asked for political asylum."
The sorcerer took another sip of coffee. "Now I remember seeing some reactions online, while I was catching up with the news. Did they grant the request?"
"It's not that simple for them. If they did, that would cost them a very lucrative trade partner. And if they shipped the poor man back..."
"...Everyone on this planet would be cross with Baselmann... again."
"I'll make a politician out of you yet, Jinx," teased the queen. "That's their current dilemma." She quickly drank from her own cup.
"Sooo... what do they plan to do?" asked Jinx once silence lasted for more than a few seconds.
"That's where the fun starts. A few days ago, they've contacted us discretely with a proposal. If only our runaway could somehow sneak over and ask for asylum with us instead..."
"Oh," said the guest, "I see. Wait... what do you need me for?"
"Why, to escort him. Answer the man's questions, make him feel at ease, and of course keep him safe. We can't send a military flight, it would be too obvious."
"Sounds like a job for our embassy in Basetown."
"We don't have one there."
"Huh? Why not?"
"Because," the queen said carefully, looking into her coffee cup, "Baselmann isn't a proper state, they're a corporation. Our Ministry of External Affairs advised that it would be improper to dignify them with a full ambassador."
The sorcerer brought the cup to his lips. It was cold already. A touch made it glow briefly, and then the coffee was steaming again. "So it's fly over, pick up this guy, fly back?"
"Pretty much. With a little luck, you'll be back before the weekend."
"With a little luck, eh? Didn't have much of that last time I left home."
"I know, Jinx. That's why I won't order you to go. But there's nobody else I would rather send."
"And you also know I can't shirk on my duties." A wide smile spread across the little guest's face. "So, when do I leave?"