“How often are you wrong?”
Then question, when it came, had paralyzed Ondras.
His mind, as it always did, blossomed with fractal possibility. It was being asked because he had done something wrong? Improbable. A flicker of irony in that response to his own question. The reason behind the question was unimportant? No. It was certainly important. Ondras received so few questions like this. And the nature of the question! It played to his arrogance (admitted), his competence (vital) and even picked at the extent of his memory. What possible reaction to such a question was there other than to be impressed by the questioner? He was trapped in an instant, in social fabric that he had, moments before, manipulated with little more than a few commands.
Outside Ondras’ mind, another few seconds ticked by.
A social response was expected, certainly. A joke would deflect the question, but then Ondras would possibly lose respect, and that conflated too easily with competence. It was vital that he was viewed, at all times and places, as competent. But answering the question honestly gave that away instantly. Lie, then? What gain was there in lying? He hardly needed the practice.
Ondras scratched the beginnings of a beard, setting his face in wizardly stoicism as he stared into the wood fire. The scene would have had quiet dignity had Aris not been snoring nearby. The other’s face was unreadable, flat and expressionless. He certainly never had to trade a falsehood for a moment’s compliance.
Higher processes analyzed lower ones. Why was he delaying? Why hadn’t he produced a solution to a simple question yet? Fear, something said. Then, after another second’s thought, it added: Fear of being strange. Impossible. Ondras thought he had outgrown that. Apparently not. And there was the truth: if he spoke truth to this question, he feared he would be found as strange.
Then again, this was the company for it, no? And the time, he supposed.
The full ten seconds he had given himself to consider the question having passed, Ondras moved on to his response. “Not often.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t have a number for me.”
“Approximately two out of every hundred educated guesses are fundamentally flawed because of something I didn’t know over overlooked.”
“Nice of you to bundle an excuse in the answer. What’s the split between those two? Usually overlooked? Usually didn’t know?”
“The unknown does more damage than my distraction.”
“When do you overlook things?”
So it was a question of competence. “When I am distracted, the same as any man.”
There was the dismissive snort. “‘The same as any man’.” echoed back to Ondras, and with it the full weight of his alienation. Their alienation. “Not sure any of us would be cut for this if that were the case. You distracted now, conjurer?”
“Not just being ironic there, are you?”
“Lots of wishing going on these days.”
The two of them sat in silence a while longer. The fire burned down, but Ondras’ companion grabbed a fresh log with one hand and threw it onto the fire, ignoring the sparks that splashed back.
“It’s got to be done.” said the First Iconodule. “I suspect you just want to see if it’s possible, though.”
Ondras nodded his assent.
But how did he know?