Margaret doesn't usually have magic accidents. But this time she was holding her whole rune dictionary and also an unlabeled thing she found in the magic shop, and she really wanted to see what the thing did as long as it wasn't fatal, and now she is somewhere unexpected. If it turns out that the thrift shop thing was a teleporter that'll be kind of disappointingly redundant but not actually a problem.
This could be any of six different continents, which is pretty exciting. Well, no, it can't be Australia; it's nighttime in Australia right now. But the easiest way to narrow it down from there is to pull out her phone and . . . okay, she's somewhere with no signal, which she probably could have guessed from the architecture.
She stores her current location in one of the empty slots on her teleportation ring. Theoretically she could teleport home and investigate this later, but that sounds less fun than doing it now. She walks over to the farmhouse and knocks on the door.
The farmwife seems to understand this; she smiles brightly and bobs her head again and pats Margaret fondly on the hand, then goes in.
The fields are quiet and peaceful. Off in the distance, somewhere, a donkey brays.
- the door creaks open again, and then there's a loud crash as the woman drops the tea-tray with a teapot and biscuits that she was carrying out, hot tea splattering and china cups breaking.
A glowing threshold has just appeared from nowhere, and men in uniforms are streaming through.
The first quartet of men spread out and form a perimeter; then another two men in uniforms with a lot more gold braid on them follow, and approach. One of them takes the lead, his body language indicating strongly that he's in charge.
He stops five yards from the patio; his eyes play over the cowering housewife and stop on Margaret. He barks something to her in the same unfamiliar language, his expression cold and demanding.
Margaret considers turning invisible and running away, but they're blocking her teleport (and how is anyone on earth other than her capable of that?!) and invisibility isn't likely to do much better. She holds up her hands in the universal gesture of those who are out of options.
She tries to think :yes: back at him and also nods in case that doesn't work. She's still uncertain whether this is something to do with her being a dragon or whether she's being very hypocritically arrested for teleporting where a human might see but being able to communicate at all will probably help.
Whaaaaat okay time to re-evaluate everything since she got here. Possibly she is in the extreme middle of nowhere. Possibly she is on a secret critter island that hasn't interacted with the human world for hundreds of years. Possibly she has gone back in time or into an alternate history or something.
:It's in North America, it's west of the Atlantic Ocean and east of the Pacific--does this telepathy do pictures?: She tries composing a mental image of a slowly spinning globe with the United States highlighted and trying to put it where the telepathy can see it.
Well, at least that isn't 'the secret kingdom of Atlantis, where dragons are illegal' or something. :I knew I was lost but I was expecting to be lost somewhere that was publicly known to exist on Earth in the year 2005.:
It occurs to Margaret that her teleport failed not because these people were blocking it but because she has gone too far for it to know the way home. Now she's a little less scared of them and a lot more scared in general.
The man seems to recognize neither 'Earth' not the year. He doesn't ask, though, just ushers her across the glowing doorway; there's a moment of disorientation and then they're somewhere else, in a room with walls of unfinished wood.
The initial leader among the Guards lingers for a moment, exchanging some foreign words with the farmwife and patting her shoulder reassuringly, before slipping across, and then the doorway-to-somewhere-else vanishes and there's sudden, uncertain silence.
It's good that they don't seem to have decided the farmwife was her accomplice or whatever. She isn't sure how to ask whether she's under arrest without giving the impression of a guilty conscience, so she just sort of stares around awkwardly for a bit and asks, : What's going on? Why did you want me to come here?:
:Well, it sounds like you're, er, pretty lost, and you don't speak the language. And we need to put in a report on the alarm we responded to, it's protocol, so I have to ask you about what kind of magic that was, and all that. Do you need anything first, though - food, water, to sit down for a minute...?:
:I bought a magic artifact in a store, and the shopkeeper didn't know what it was and I didn't either, so I pushed the button on it to find out what it did, and suddenly I was outside near the farmhouse where you found me. I thought I had teleported to somewhere else on my own planet, because that's a thing I know is possible. I haven't heard of anything like the way we're communicating now or like the portal thing you did, but I don't know everything that's been invented.:
:I was aware of the risk but I was expecting the effect to be very small-scale; most artifacts are. Unfortunately it didn't come with me.: She's not especially impressed with herself either, honestly; if she's actually stuck here that's going to be unpleasant and she should have been more willing to suppress the thing.
The guard nods. He has no idea how to assess which of those bizarre implausible scenarios is more likely! Or which would be more concerning for Predain!
:I - think I need to bump this up to my superiors: he says, apologetically. :I could get you some tea or something while you wait? And then I expect they'll want to send a mage with the right training to ask you questions about the magic:
Anyone who knows anything about runecasting is going to take one look at her level of recklessness and peg her as hiding something immediately, but if this is another planet maybe they have different magic or probably they didn't have exactly the same war. :Okay. Sorry for being complicated.:
This is kind of a lot of police officers or possibly soldiers for the middle of nowhere. Margaret sits and drinks a little bit of the tea and tries to look like the harmless kind of bizzare magic accident.
She doesn't want to try teleporting out again because she wants to look nice and cooperative and not like she's trying to run away, but she really hopes she can get back to Seattle somehow. Her parents and Bella are going to think she got herself killed. (Bella would know what to do in this situation. Bella is empirically better at escaping magic police than she is. Bella is the coolest and smartest person and Margaret already misses her.)
It seems like it might be a shift-change rush; the movement slows down after a few minutes.
A man sticks his head out of an office, calling out in the same foreign language. "Oy, Travers, you can read Tantaran right?"
"- Yes, why?" The answering voice sounds suddenly more stressed.
"Don't worry, not an emergency, just, we got the original bill of sale for the new inventory, and it must be from down there. I can't read it."
Gusty sigh. "Coming, I'll be right there."
The man in the office, who's older with greying hair around a bald spot, shoves a yellowed piece of paper at the new arrival, a tall younger man with a mop of curly hair, who unfolds and squints at it.
"One bale boot leather, two bales broadcloth - blue - two bales canvas..." he reads off, slowly and haltingly but otherwise perfectly understandable to Margaret.
What? That's not English and it's not French and she didn't speak it yesterday but she does now. Now that she knows where in her mind to look for it there's a whole new vocabulary in here, wow. What was that artifact? And should she tell someone? She doesn't want to interrupt but it might be relevant to how she got here and also she doesn't want to eavesdrop on people who think she can't understand them and might be mad when they find out. She compromises on raising her hand like she's in class at home and hoping it's a comprehensible enough gesture.
This earns her looks of bafflement and alarm! The two men exchange some rapid-fire foreign words and then the older guard-officer leaves and the tall young man approaches her, fidgeting. "Miss, you were - waiting to talk to a mage about an accident you said happened, yes?" he says, in halting Tantaran.
"Sorry to bother you." She can't tell if the side-eye means he thinks she's six kinds of idiot or if he's thought of some implication of her new fluency or what. She'll just sit here and try to come up with Tantaran/French puns until she hits the top of someone's priority queue.
After this point it doesn't take long!
A new person arrives, a woman, somewhat out of breath and in a different uniform - not fancier, exactly, but he's wearing robes instead of a tunic and pants - and darts into the office with the older officer. They lock the door and, one assumes, confer briefly.
The woman slips back out. She looks about forty, her dark hair showing a few streaks of grey and pulled back in a tight bun. "You speak Tantaran, yes?" she says, less haltingly than the other young man.
"That's a big question. Um, we have six billion or so people. There's not a lot of magic and what there is is secret from most people. We have electricity and airplanes and a tiny bit of space travel. Is that the sort of thing you want to know?"
It occurs to her belatedly that "Don't lie. We can tell." might mean she has magic lie detection. If all it's doing is detecting lies, that's fine; she wants to leave things out but not actually say any falsehoods. (This train of thought does not make her any less opaque to the Thoughtsenser.)
Margaret wonders if it's in some sense illegal to explain that, but this person clearly knows about magic and Margaret is legitimately uncertain as to her species, and also if they don't swap magic explanations how are they ever going to get to the bottom of this.
"Some people used to be able to make the inside of a building or a cave or whatever bigger than the outside, so you could fit a whole town in one building. Nobody has made a new one in a while; the knowledge got lost."
That gets her a boggle-eyed stare, and some mutters with the others. "That - is not possible given what we know of magic," the mage says. "Even in principle, I think, it is not just that we do not know how - unless it is a somehow Gate to another plane, I suppose, does that sound right...?" She seems very doubtful that this would make sense.
She can describe it's physical appearance, egg-shaped with a pushable button, and that she got it from a magic shop and the owner of the shop didn't remember where he had gotten it from, and that most magic items that turn up abandoned and unlabeled in shops do either nothing or something pretty trivial.
"The magic store was in one of the towns that had that rule. I have some magic but I don't know if it works here." Probably any of it does or she would have appeared in fullform, and wow is she glad that didn't happen. "Um, side question, does this planet have the concept of people who can talk and stuff but aren't human?"
"I can do that, but doing anything new would be potentially dangerous and also require hours of prep work. I can try testing the artifacts I have on me; I have a ring for invisibility and one for teleportation. I could turn invisible for a few seconds and then turn back?"
The woman nods. "I'll watch you doing that. I - mainly want to see what your magic looks like, to us, and how different it is." (This seems like a good way of checking the strange woman's story about being from another world somehow, as well as getting more information about whether she's a threat.)
"Okay, trying it now." She says an unfamiliar word and disappears (to ordinary vision; it's clearly visible to Mage-sight as a brief flash of magic from one of her rings), then reappears with a different word and another flash of magic a few seconds later.
"Turning something into a magic artifact requires drawing a really precise diagram and speaking a precisely-worded incantation and then it works from there. For a bigger effect you need a bigger diagram so I think the power comes from the runes somehow. Spell effects that aren't attached to an artifact wear out but ones on artifacts last a long time."
"Yeah, I think we just have completely different stuff going on. I actually have a book with a bunch of runes in it; I was holding it when the artifact sent me here." She pulls the book out of her biggest cargo-pants pocket and opens it to a random page. Each rune has a shape, with the lengths of lines and the angles between them labeled, and a list of meanings like "fire" and "border" and "life" that the runes have different amounts of. "Also, actually doing anything with runes is really dangerous, like lots of people have died trying it dangerous, so please don't go experimenting."
"I could do one that just makes something glow? The reason it takes so long is that all the runes have a bunch of different meanings, and you need to set them up to cancel each other out so you're left with only the meanings you want, and then draw the diagram really precisely. I'll need a sheet of paper about this big," hand gesture of about ten inches, "and something to write on it with, and some more paper for working out the math, and ideally a ruler and a protractor if you have any."
Nod. "Yes, of course, I'll work on getting you all that."
It takes the guards a while to rustle up all the requested supplies, but they do eventually hunt down a protractor and ruler as well as pen and ink, and then the mage leads her down some stairs to a stone-walled windowless room, with an oddly dampened feel. She lights it with a mage-light hovering at ceiling-height.
She wonders if the protective magic on this room would actually help at all if someone other than her failed at runecasting in here, but there's no good way to find out. She braces the paper against the most convenient flat surface and does algebra and then geometry. It's not very interesting to watch.
Margaret sets her pencil down on the diagram and says some incomprehensible stuff and the pencil starts glowing, all over with a uniform green light. To mage-sight, it looks like the runes stop being dormant, dump a bunch of magic into the pencil (where it remains), and then become as utterly inert as a child's drawing.
"Hm, it's pretty freeform and there are definitely things that I don't know are possible--manipulation of heat and light and sound, including seeing things far away, and teleporting and making spaces bigger, and healing and other biology things, and," yup no Tantara word for electricity per se--"uh, controllable small amounts of lightning, and detecting other magic, and at least one person could walk through walls but I've never tried it."
"No, I haven't." She went from breakfast to a while of being busy in her workroom to being too confused and scared to consider food, but now that she considers it it's subjectively a long time past lunch. Also she's probably going to turn out to be interdimensionally jetlagged. "By the way, what time it is here?"
"Late afternoon. We'll get you settled somewhere and bring you lunch, all right?"
She takes Margaret back up to the waiting area, and then has a long conversation with the older Guard on shift, in the foreign language. It sounds as though finding Margaret somewhere comfortable to stay is complicated.
Eventually the mage comes back out and walks with her, out of the Guard-station into the middle of a bustling but visibly very very low-tech city - the road is cobbled with ditches for sewage along the edges, the people are on foot or occasionally riding horses, there's no sign of electric lighting - and leads Margaret across the street to what seems to be an inn.
(Another of the Guards follows, keeping a discreet distance but obviously intending to supervise Margaret.)
"I'm sorry, no one here is likely to speak Tantaran," the mage says to her, after talking to the innkeeper and bringing Margaret up to a room. "I'll have them bring you food, and if you need anything else you can - mime, I guess, or I can tell you how to ask in the Predain tongue for food or water and things...?"
Oh no, sewage ditches. They probably aren't going to have toilets and showers like she's used to, either. Ugh. (She tries not to let any of this show on her face; it's not their fault. Maybe she can invent indoor plumbing.)
"Learning a few words of the local language would be good; I'll need to learn it eventually and I'm good at languages."
"Thank you! Sorry for taking up so much of your time; I'm sure you didn't have 'help extremely lost person' on your schedule today."
Once the mage is gone, Margaret saves this location over the earlier one and tries teleporting home again. Still nothing. She eats her dinner and flops on the bed and misses home and wishes she felt sure enough she wasn't being watched to transform.
She can scrub her own back, thank you. Being nude in front of a stranger and not having any money to tip her with are new and exciting vistas of embarrassing but at least she's clean. She goes down to the common room to get some language immersion. Hopefully "selling magic items" is a reasonable way to get by in this society and she'll be able to find her feet while she works on a spell to get home.
It's a big enough city that people are fairly friendly and curious about the exotic-looking stranger, rather than mistrustful, and when she manages to get across the concept of 'selling magic items' they seem to recognize this as a known thing, and smile and bob their heads. She gets some language immersion. The guard watches her from across the room, but isn't very intrusive and seems apologetic rather than hostile about the whole thing.
After that she can go to bed.
...Rather early the next morning, there's a loud knock on her door.
He doesn't even lead her out of the inn, just takes her arm and raises his hand and another of the glowing doorways forms on the door to her room, and while the young Guard who's watched outside her door all night watches, he leads her through into somewhere entirely different.
There's a long hallway panelled in nice wood, lit by - glowing crystal globes set into the ceiling? There are some tapestries on the walls. It doesn't look higher-tech exactly but it's certainly a lot fancier and cleaner.
"Follow me," the man says, not unkindly, though his grip is still firm on her arm.
She shakes his hand and reflexively says "Nice to meet you too," which definitely goes against her decision from a couple days ago not to lie but whatever.
Also, Ma'ar's mage-sight is good enough that he can see the subtle ongoing effect of some sort of magic on her body, centered on something tucked into her shirt.
He doesn't say anything about this to her, just smiles, brief and tight. "Well, do have a seat. I am Adept Kiyamvir Ma'ar, advisor to King Arrak of Predain. I wanted to speak with you personally, since, well, it is hardly every day that a person with powerful magic arrives from another world."
He sits, layering his hands in front of him, and waits to observe her response to this. Also tries to read her mind, though per the report he got they weren't having any luck with that yesterday.
Nope. It's like her mind isn't anywhere he can point his thoughtsensing at.
"That makes sense. I don't know how much other people have told you; do you have specific questions?" Margaret has lots of questions but isn't asking any of them because on top of all the existing reasons to be anxious there's now a king peripherally involved.
"My understanding is that you came here by accident via a magic artifact of which you did not know the purpose." (If he thinks this makes her very stupid, he's not showing it.) "Your world has some magic, including very powerful magic, but it is kept a secret from most people. Your world's population numbers in the billions and they have advanced non-magical technology including the ability to travel to space." He is faintly but visibly awed by this. "You for some reason speak the Tantaran tongue but deny having been there first or sent by them for any reason. You do not know a way to return to your world, currently. Am I missing anything."
If she doesn't bring up critters at this point it's going to be really conspicuous when it eventually comes out. "That's most of the important things. The other big difference is that most of the people who know about magic have the ability to turn into a different shape--one per person, what kind runs in families. It doesn't sound like this world has that." At least not publicly or commonly; she's seen enough people now that if this were an Avalon someone would have been going around in midform.
"Sort of, but - more different, I would say. For example, the Elemental Plane of Fire is an extremely dense, high-energy, 'hot' place - it is not really full of the kind of fire our world has, but it is extremely hostile to human life, the kind of being that can live there is extremely different. Whereas you - look to my eyes just like humans here."
Ma'ar nods. Looks into the distance for a long time.
"I believe you are telling me the truth," he says. "In part because your magic is very obviously foreign, and I do not see what you have to gain by lying about any of the rest. So I am going to fill you in on some of the context, here, for - why your arrival attracted the level of attention it did, here in Predain."
"Tantara is a neighbouring kingdom. Led, currently, by one of the most powerful mages in the known world, Urtho. He was Archmage and led the greatest academy of magic in the world, before. I - studied there, in his Tower, once, before returning to help my homeland. About a year ago, he - unexpectedly invaded. We are now at war."
"Ah. I can see why that would make--my showing up--frightening. I apologize for scaring people. I don't think this Urtho was involved." Maybe he had some kind of hand in making her show up in the specific place with the specific language she did but she doesn't see how that would benefit him except maybe as a distraction, and if he could interact with her universe that easily he would be doing something more useful.
Ma'ar sighs. "I am sorry for frightening you with our reaction, if in fact you were frightened. It...is a very stupid and pointless war, honestly, and I would prefer we were not fighting, but Urtho has been uninterested in negotiation so far." He rubs his chin; in that moment he looks very tired. "I - cannot force you to do anything, of course, but if you are trapped here, then - perhaps we can discuss if I can help you research ways back to your own world, in exchange for your aid with our war."
Oh boy, what is a diplomatic way to tell an extremely intimidating person that she has no way to tell which side of the war is the right one or if there even is a right one and also that she has about as much interest in joining an army as she does in eating a pint of expired mayonnaise, and also she might not in fact have a choice.
"I'm--not trained to fight, at all. I. If there was a way I could help make peace I would try, but. I'm no soldier."
"Oh, I would not ask you to be a soldier. That is highly unlikely to be the best use of your magic. My greatest hope is that you might have some way of sending messages, or otherwise allowing secure communication with Urtho, so that I can try again to sort this out. Or -" he frowns, taps the table for a moment, "...or perhaps that I could - tell Urtho of your existence as a peace offering, he adores the study of magic and might be very tempted by the chance to talk to you... Though I am not sure he would allow himself to give in to temptation even then." He looks her in the eye. "And, of course, I understand that you have only my word for all of this and, if you are a smart person which I hope you are, you would not want to participate unless you had verified some things for yourself."
Oh, thank goodness, that's more understanding of her perspective than she was worried he'd be. "I want to do--things that would be good things to do no matter which side of the war I landed on. Passing messages sounds like the sort of thing that's a lot more likely to help than hurt."
"Yes, I think so, and also - I want peace, I want us to no longer be at war with Urtho, and at this point I think that almost certainly requires winning it first, but I would prefer if it did not cause any more death and property damage, since both of those are bad."
Nod. "Wars are awful. I think I can figure out a way to send and receive messages. If I did it as a pair of objects where any sounds made near one came out of the other, would it be possible to get one end to Urtho? And would that be the sort of thing that would help?"
"Is there anything else you want to know? I'm sure you're very busy." Margaret wants to know where she's expected to stay long-term and how she should go about exchanging labor for money and/or food and paper and how free to wander off she hypothetically is, but there's sure to be someone less simultaneously busy and intimidating she can pester about it later.
"I want to at some point know everything that you, personally, can do with your world's magic using resources you have here or that we could provide for you. And of course whether you need special setup so we can arrange that. I have upcoming commitments, though, so it could make the most sense to have someone set you up with a guest-room and you can write it up for me? I read Tantaran well; I am not sure if the magic gave you the ability to read and write it too? We ought test that."
She has no idea what her options are and what's reasonable to ask for at this tech level, and really what she mostly wants is to not be under surveillance all the time but if she's going to get that it won't be by asking. "Not especially? Somewhere with a window would be nice."
"Very reasonable. Yes, of course, and you ought feel free to ask for anything more if you think of it."
A servant in uniform arrives at the door, and Ma'ar exchanges some back-and-forth with them in the Predain tongue, at which point they leave and come back with an older woman who speaks some Tantaran.
The guest suites she's being shown have multiple rooms, actually! They're small and cramped and old by modern Earth standards, but she can have one with a window in the bedroom or one with a window in the parlor sitting-area; the one with a window in the bedroom has a writing-desk in the second room. Both of them also have a third littler room with a bathtub in it.
Her point of comparison is a bedroom in her parents' house, so in terms of space that's primarily hers it's not much of a step down except in terms of bathroom quality. She picks the one with the writing desk, thanks the woman, and asks if she knows how Margaret should go about getting meals, expecting the answer to be some variant on a shared kitchen or a cafeteria.
"Ooh, you're a mage! Goodness. I - will need to get permission to unlock one of the Work Rooms for you, but I'll do that right away. For the language... Hmm. We don't have a lot of diplomatic guests right now, there's the war you see, but if you want to join the Court for dinner in the hall, I can show you over there."
"Now is fine; I haven't really got anything to unpack," she adds with a wry smile. The lack of a second set of clothes and a toothbrush has not stopped being unpleasant, but she knows how much fabric cost before the mechanical loom and she wants to be of some benefit to someone here before she asks about clothes.
"You poor thing, how inconvenient. Hmm, let me think what we'd better get you to borrow - you must not have a nightie to sleep in, we can get you one. I'll have a think, in the meantime you can learn the language some..." The woman is leading her back down the hallway in a different direction, and then down some marble stairs.
Based on the angles of corridors and stairs, and the places they pass with windows onto courtyards and gardens, the building is a complicated arrangement of linked wings; the part they're in is vaguely shaped like a letter 'H' but the overall structure could be more complicated. It seems like she was initially on the second floor, on the upper right limb of the 'H', and the hall is downstairs and in the crossbar.
...The hall, when she's led into it, proves to probably take up at least two storeys worth of height, actually, with its tall arched ceiling painted and decorated with bas-relief carvings and frescoes. There's a large decorative fireplace, not currently lit, and more crystal glowing globes hanging from long chains, and some varnished wooden tables - some long, some little and round. It's not heavily occupied right now but there are a cluster of people, dressed in clothing that's probably fancy for the era and tech level, sitting at one of the long tables and talking over drinks.
They notice her and there are a lot of sideways glances but no one interrupts, it seems like sitting alone at a table is taken as a signal that this would be intruding.
They're talking in a slightly different accent and dialect of the Predain tongue from the one in the other city's inn, but she can still catch a lot of the words. They seem to be mostly arguing about whether an upcoming marriage between two acquaintances known to the group is one they approve of.
Excellent. She can tell she's going to miss dessert if it isn't a common thing here, but unfamiliar food is exciting and fun. She eats and thinks about what things are likely to be good inventions on this tech base and how to go about getting paper. Maybe there's a library somewhere nearby where she can learn more context without anyone having to spend time explaining things; if not maybe it's because she can invent the printing press.
When she's finished, she looks around at whether there's somewhere people are bringing their dishes or if you're just supposed to leave them on the table like at a restaurant, and once she's done whatever the customary thing is she goes off to explore the building a little. She doesn't go anywhere that looks like it might not be a public area, and if it's not clear which areas are the non-public ones she'll just go back to her rooms.
Most of the doors in the hallways are locked or otherwise look non-public, but most of the gardens and courtyards are easily accessible! The flowers here are less sad and straggly; there are some interestingly foreign-looking trees, and also ones that look exactly like the pine trees and apple trees she knows on Earth.
Margaret has not traveled widely enough to have confident guesses whether any of the plants have no Earth equivalent, but it gets her thinking about the nature of multiple worlds. The biology suggests that this world diverged from hers at some point, but the telepath didn't recognize Earth's continents. That's not really proof, though; maybe they just don't have accurate maps of the whole planet or that person hadn't seen one. Or maybe this is alternate Australia and they draw their maps the other way up. She has no idea whether any of this speculation will help with designing a way home, but it's interesting to think about.
Eventually she goes back to her room just because it's somewhere she's definitely allowed to be and also if anyone is looking for her that's probably where they'll look.
Awesome! She starts writing (very small, to save paper) notes on ideas for interdimensional travel and rune math and incantation drafts for the communications items and a list of things to invent (indoor plumbing, the telegraph if it seems likely to be better than mass-producing magic comms items, the printing press if they don't have it, various appliances backed up by her infinite electricity artifacts . . . )
It's well past a sensible dinnertime when she realizes that she needs to eat; after some hesitation she pulls the bell anyway. Hopefully whoever answers won't be annoyed.
Pig feet? Really? She supposed it's not objectively any grosser than eating any other part of a dead pig. And it tastes alright. Also the fact that both drinks have been alcoholic suggests that one of the other things she should invent is the concept of boiling your drinking water.
She works a bit more and sleeps and works some more and gets breakfast and finishes a first draft of a diagram for communication items, and an incantation that could be refined further with more information on what UI Ma'ar wants but should, if it works at all, be pretty serviceable as is. Now she just needs a work room and two relatively durable objects to enchant. For this first try she'll just get a pair of uninteresting rocks from one of the gardens; she plans to make them turn on and off at a tap and a word so they don't need any moving parts.
The Work Room is two floors down, in the basement, but otherwise not too far away. The woman unlocks a heavy oak door and then hands Margaret the key, "hang onto this."
The room itself looks a lot like the Work Room in the guard-house - bare stone, windowless, with an oddly sound-dampened feel. No furnishings at all.
Key goes in another cargo pants pocket. (She has finally gotten secure enough in her room to let the rune dictionary out of her sight; it's currently under her bed.) "Thanks!"
No furnishings and stone everything is perfect, because it means fewer things to prevent bad things from happening to. She sets the paper and the rocks down on the floor and chants, in French because she hasn't had a chance to test Tantaran incantations yet and she's used to thinking about French with the right kind of precision anyway.
And now she has magic rocks! She checks that they work the way she was envisioning and have decent sound quality; she can't tell from in here if they have sufficient range, but if they don't that should just be a matter of a bigger diagram.
That's more than long enough for her purposes! She sets one down and walks away talking to the other; she gets out of earshot of the first one before it cuts out. Then she tries putting it near a bigger rock and chucking pebbles at said bigger rock from increasingly long distances, but her aim isn't good enough for this to be much improvement on the first thing. Ironically, if she hadn't specifically exempted sounds that come out of the rock from being transmitted by the rock she could test the range trivially by listening for the feedback, but feedback is really annoying. Eventually she concludes that she's definitely not going to be able to test whether the range is long enough to reach wherever Urtho is so it doesn't matter much, and goes looking for someone who might know the appropriate way to schedule a meeting with Ma'ar or send him inter-office mail or whatever.
That's about how Margaret would feel if someone showed up from a place with higher tech than hers! She can explain sewage systems and internal combustion engines and the telegraph and some of the things electricity is good for. She doesn't have the procedural knowledge of how to build most of the stuff, especially on this tech base, but she knows what general materials and capabilities are needed. Also this is how the germ theory of infectious disease works; is that consistent with local knowledge and observation?
She would be happy to talk to the Healers! Is he interested enough in any of the other things to provide materials for them? Also does he have any problems that look amenable to engineering solutions, there might be something she hasn't thought of where she can combine technology and magic for useful results.
Ma'ar thanks her for her time and dismisses her to go back to his other work; he asks her to make a list of all the materials she'll need for that project, someone will be by later that day to collect it and schedule a time for her to talk to the Healers.
Someone is, in fact, by a few hours later. One of the palace Healers will meet with her tomorrow morning, if that's all right?
She writes up an equipment list. Mostly she needs wire; a few meters for a prototype but eventually kilometers and kilometers of it to make a network between everywhere that will use it.* Also something to make and break a connection between two wires repeatedly very fast, which can be like this or like this or like that depending on what's easiest to make.
Tomorrow morning would be an excellent time to talk to a Healer.
*She gives this in Predain units but also starts outlining a paper on the metric system, because that's good too and doesn't require any materials.
Getting her a prototype length of wire is easy, they can do that by tomorrow; lots of it will be harder but they have time to figure out a system for making it more efficiently. For making-and-breaking connections, they'll send over one of the mages who specializes in fine-detail metalwork and have them work on it with her?
The next morning, a woman of about forty arrives and knocks on her door. "I'm Healer Norma," she says in fluent Tantaran. "You wanted to consult with the Healers on something from your world?"
"We have doctors. They don't have magic, but they have lots of different devices for seeing tiny things and the insides of people's bodies, and they've tried a lot of things and learned what works and what doesn't. How to tell similar diseases apart, what treatments work and their side effects, stuff like that. I might be able to reinvent some of the devices and I can tell you what I remember of the rest."
"Yeah, I think even bacteria--the biggest disease-causing organisms--are smaller than the smallest blood vessels." Inconvenient how AP biology was going to be next year. "But even without being able to see them you can do things to get rid of them. Soap and water kills a lot of them, and so does alcohol, and I think also certain kinds of light. And if you keep as many as possible out of your food and drink you get sick less."
"Yup. Also the insides of people are full of them at the best of times, so it's important to wash your hands before and after surgery, though I guess maybe with Gifts you don't need to do surgery. And isolating sick people from each other, that's important too. And there's a kind of bread mold, of all things, that makes a substance that kills bacteria; I would need to do a bunch of experiments to figure out what kind of mold and how to get the chemical out of it and that's if it even grows here, but the general point is that there are things people can eat that will cure diseases and some of them have probably been discovered already but there might be more. Oh, and do you have, uh, the thing where you can give a person a version of a disease so mild they don't get sick and then they can never catch it for real?"
The Healer looks puzzled. "I - hmm. We know that happens sometimes - there's a lot of common illnesses that tend to be milder in kids, and if they catch it then they're immune, but people moving here from different regions can get very sick. There's sometimes discussion of whether children should be exposed on purposes, but - we don't know how to ensure it's mild, even in little ones they sometimes end up with a serious case."
"There are ways to get a sample of the thing causing the disease--viruses, they're usually called, when it's the kind you can do this with--and boil it or something to make it weaker or even totally dead, and expose someone to that. You would need to experiment with mice or something first."
"A man named Edward Jenner; he got really famous for it. We should try to invent it here--and I should also try a spell to replicate the effect; it will scale better if we do it without my kind of magic but might as well work on both. What are the names of some diseases here that you can only get once?"
"Is doing medical experiments on animals a common thing here? Also what are the procedures for taking a medical thing you've invented and telling people about it and proving it works so people will be willing to try it?" This time she is going to do everything in the right order and not get any more kinds of arrested.
"It's not as common as it should be, in my opinion! Here in the capital we have a Healing centre and we study mice and sometimes pigs, they're more similar to humans. ...Some history here is that until a few decades ago, Predain didn't actually have anything in the way of infrastructure for training Gifted Healers. There was - still is - a big medical college, the Predain College of Chirurgeons, but they thought Healing Gifts were just superstition." She snorts. "Which is kind of an impressive thing to overlook! I guess it's easier when no one has any training and we couldn't reliably distinguish Healing from, say, Empathy."
"Wow. I'm glad they figured it out eventually! Do you think it would be possible for me to do some experiments in the Healing center? For non-magic stuff I can just tell the existing experts what I know but it would be really helpful to have access to mice and a way to safely expose them to diseases and similar for the magic side."
Two days pass before she hears anything back from the Healers, though she does get an apologetic note saying they're discussing it; in fact, before she gets a time to visit their station, she instead receives a note from Ma'ar asking if this afternoon would be a good time to meet.
The one convenient thing about how her kind of spell design works is that she can basically always put it down on short notice. She meets him at whatever time and place he suggests, nervous but also excited because he might have been able to talk to Urtho with the magic phone.
"No, I do not think he would," Ma'ar says, sort of absently. "His greatest weakness has always been that he flinches from ruthlessness, most of the time, even when it would be correct." He turns to look at her. "Also I will send you well-protected, and with a way to contact me if you need rescuing."
"Of course." The last thing she wants is for the war to escalate, and she knows what a war with her kind of magic can become. Besides, Ma'ar has been, well, an extremely good foreign government person to be debatably imprisoned by, and she has no interest in double-crossing him.
Ma'ar nods, briskly, and then gets up and paces while he explains what to expect. Urtho's Tower is like so. This is what he remembers about Urtho's most trusted staff, though with the caveat that it was decades ago. The plan right now is for some of Ma'ar's people to Gate her to the border, there's a stretch with a sort of no-man's-land neutral region in between the two garrisoned borders. And then she'll cross to Tantara, be met by an escort, and transported to the Tower from there.
He'll send her with an artifact of the kind he can make, which won't let her contact him with a message per se, but which she can trigger to send an emergency signal. Also, if it's not too much inconvenience, maybe she could make another set of the paired rock artifacts? Just for redundancy, and also it would let them actually exchange messages, though not ones they can trust to be especially secure.
She can definitely make another pair of telephone rocks, and it won't take as long as the first one did since most of the hard part is out of the way. If he wants a bunch more for his other staffpeople she can keep making them as long as she has rocks and paper, at least until it's time for her to leave.
That's too soon for anything to be set up with the Healing, so she has nothing competing for her time except thinking about vaccine incantations and applications of electricity, and she can do that from anywhere. She turns out nearly a dozen pairs in the next three days, counting the one she keeps one end of.
And Ma'ar meets them there, his expression very serious.
He hands her an opaque crystal hung from a bit of cord, with a slim pointed bit of metal hung next to it, like a dull-tipped pin. "Probably you should hide this under your clothes somewhere, or in a pocket? It is not magically detectable but it recognizably looks like an artifact, just visually speaking - and probably they will not try to take it away, I made Urtho promise not to have you searched or remove your possessions, but still. Caution."
He shows her a little hollow spot in it, a hole bored halfway into the stone. "If you put pressure on the surface in there, with the metal piece or with anything really, it will trigger an alarm and I will come pull you out of there. Understood?"
The neutral ground between the two army-guarded hostile borders is ugly and trampled and doesn't appear to contain anything alive, even grass.
There are enemy soldiers watching them from maybe a quarter-mile away, some on the ground, others standing on top of some wooden fortress-y structures.
Shouts are exchanged. In the Predain language, initially, and it's loud and windy so Margaret can only make out about half of the conversation - they're discussing the arrangements for sending a Predain guard to accompany her, or maybe reminding each other of something already agreed upon but still somewhat contentious.
Security from who? This whole thing was organized by both sides, which as far as she knows is all the sides there are. But she can tell she's not going to get much more in the way of answers, so she stands around and tries to get what she can from the soldiers talking to each other.
They make her wait around for a while, some muttered conversations happening in the corner, but eventually, there is another Gate!
This one brings her through into a pleasant courtyard, screened by trees and surrounded by gardens; it's probably in a city but the trees mean she can't see much of the surroundings.
The very Harvard-aesthetic archway leads her into a sort of tunnel screened by trees above and on both sides.
A lizard-like creature about the size of a human eight-year-old is trimming the branches of one tree. It jumps a bit, and then says "hello!" to them, brightly, in a slightly whistling voice.
Snowstar ushers her past, and then they reach a set of doors in a stone wall, and he leads her inside and down the hall and to a room with a nice oak table in it, and comfortably upholstered chairs.
"You may have a seat," he says. "Do you need anything to eat or drink, right now?"
Margaret sits and thinks about magic system interactions and printing press designs and what a cool story she'll have to tell Bella if she ever gets back to Earth. She's tempted to stick her head out the door and look around but doesn't want to get tempted into actually wandering off, so she doesn't.
"I've heard a few things about their - your - advanced technology, but I think it may have come through garbled in the report. You have - very fast carriages on rails called 'trains'? And metal birds that can fly through the air? And boats that can swim underwater?"
"We do! The boats that go underwater are basically never as good as the ones on top of the water, but they're good for exploring the ocean floor. The trains and airplanes--the flying machines--are actually used for getting from place to place, and I've been on both."
"Airplanes are really loud, but they're also really smooth--they don't flap like birds, the wings are fixed in place and shaped so that when they go through air really fast the air pushes them up. They need special areas called runways to take off and land because it takes them a few minutes to get up to speed and slow down again, and once they're in the air they go several miles up. You can see the tops of clouds!"
"I don't know if I could draw one well enough to show something that would actually work; the exact shape matters a lot. But they get their propulsion by burning a kind of fuel that burns very hot and makes the air expand and then forcing that air out the back of the engine, which pushes the engine forward."
"How wonderful!" Urtho spends a few moments staring at her engine diagram in awe. "- What else? There must be so many other things that were revolutionized, I cannot even think where to begin... Can your world build very tall towers? Here we can really only do it only with magic."
It seems to be a rough sketch of a possible building design. The structural parts of it are easy enough to interpret, even upside down; however, he seems to be using quite a lot of stylized-shorthand markings, perhaps to indicate specific kinds of magic, and these aren't legible to her at all.
Combining magic with modern construction techniques (and potentially also rune-based space-folding) could make some absolutely fantastic architecture. Skyscrapers where every room is a house and you never have to climb stairs, earthquake-resistant and cheap to heat and as tall as the bedrock in the area can support or even taller . . . It's definitely worth sketching about.
Urtho takes a deep breath. "I am no diplomat either, I confess – at least, I never wanted to be." He frowns. "It does seem important that... Hmm. Do you have an explanation for how or why you came from your world to ours, during this especially critical juncture? The timing is... Well, I suppose we shall see if it is fortunate or not, but it does seem significant."
"It's possible that the artifact that sent me here would have sent anyone here and now. And it taught me your language, which is two sufficiently different but related things to make me think it could have been on purpose. But I don't think whoever created it could have known I in particular would end up with it."
She doesn't add that given its unknown but potentially long-ago origin, it might have been intended to transport a dragon in particular.
"The other possibility I've thought of is that whoever made it was going to try to come here themself--or even that they might have been from here in the first place--and they lost the artifact before they could do it. Is there magic in this world that could potentially contact other ones?"