Into the Mystic

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Verse 36: TELL THE TRUTH

"What do you want?" Gloria snarled.

Bobbie held up her hands, as if to demonstrate that she was neither packing heat nor palming an ace. "Whoa there, sister! Don't bite my head off!"

"What do you want?" Gloria repeated, her fires only moderately banked.

"First, I want to apologize. I was an insensitive newsbitch the other day and let my hunger for airtime get the best of me. I treated you like some restaurateur with more health code violations than menu items. That was wrong of me. At a moment of personal tragedy, I ambushed you. So on behalf of myself, my crew, and my station, and the world of broadcast journalism, please believe me when I say that I am truly, sincerely sorry."

"Who is this woman?" Polglase demanded. "Is she another friend of yours, Minstrel?"

"Hardly," Lex growled.

"Captain Polglase, I presume?" Bobbie turned from Gloria, reached over the side of the boat and offered her hand. "I didn’t recognize you out of your armor."

Polglase ignored the proffered hand. "Be gone. This is no concern of yours."

"I beg to differ. I don't know how things work where you and Lex come from, but we have something called freedom of the press. That means when big sea monsters threaten to turn American towns into kibbles 'n' bits, and two wizards from another planet or dimension or alternate reality stop it, I get to ask questions and tell the people all about it."

"A gossipmonger," Polglase spat into the water. "I have no time for the likes of you. Step aside." She gestured and the still sleeping blue humanoid rose into the air. The Captain hopped out of the boat, trudged down the jetty, and disappeared into the tent, her charge floating serenely after her, much to Bobbie's astonishment.

"For the third and last time, lady," Gloria said, "what do you want?"

"An interview, of course."

"You're kidding!" Gloria scoffed.

"I have never been more serious in my life, Ms. Robinette."

"I'll give you ten seconds to get off my property, and then I'm going to let Lex turn you into a fruitbat. Ten, nine…"

"Please listen to me, both of you –"

"…eight, seven…"

"I swear it's in your best interests!" Bobbie took an involuntary step back, then held her ground.

"…six, five…"

"Give me one minute to explain, and if you say no to my proposition, I'll get lost! I swear it!" Bobbie's voice was high enough to be a menace to low-flying aircraft.

"…three, two…"

"What happened to four? Come on! Give me the break I didn't give you! This is bigger than all of us!"

Lex put a hand on Gloria's shoulder. "Perhaps we should hear what she has to say."

She looked up at him, then nodded. "One minute," she said. "That's all you get before I toss you off this jetty."

"Thank you," Bobbie gasped in relief. "First, I really meant it when I said I was sorry–"

"Tick, tick, tick…"

"All right! We got the whole fight on videotape!"

"You did?" Gloria groaned. "All of it?"

"Pretty much, yeah. The rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, and the big finish where Lex walked upon the water and sang Rockabye Baby. That was mighty fine singing by the way. I can see why the boss's daughter got all moist over you."

"Videotape?" he asked.

"It’s how we record events as they happen," Bobbie explained. "My cameraman has pictures of you three saving the town."

"Where is your cameraman now?" Gloria asked guardedly.

"In a safe location, with the tape, waiting for my call," Bobbie replied.

"This is bad," Gloria told Lex.

"No! It doesn't have to be," Bobbie insisted. "You're heroes. Don't you want the people to see that?"

"Gloria does not want anyone else to know that I am not from this planet," Lex told her. "She fears your government will try to abduct me and cut me apart."

"Lex!" Gloria shouted, aghast.

"This woman should know what is at stake here," he replied.

"Then this is your lucky day!" Bobbie broke in. "I can fix all that!"

"You?" Gloria scowled. "Bullshit!"

"No, really! Look, as long as you hid under a rock, there was at best a fifty-fifty chance that you could go unnoticed, but you'd never be certain that vans with tinted windows wouldn't swoop down on you in the middle of the night and take you all off someplace nice and quiet and not on any map known to Rand-McNally. After that stunt you just pulled, this whole community is going to be swarming with spooks trying to figure out how three people in a speedboat managed to accomplish what the whole military-industrial complex couldn't. Their spy satellites might not have told them yet who was in that boat, but they'll figure it out eventually. Now is not the time to keep secrets, Lex. Now's the time to go public. It's your only hope!"

"I do not understand," Lex shook his head. He looked to Gloria for assistance.

"The last thing we want is a media circus," she said.

"Au contraire!" Bobbie enthused. "You not only want a media circus, you need one: Jugglers, clowns, daring young men on the flying trapeze, the whole megillah! You'd be untouchable. As a public figure, the government would have to treat you with kid gloves. They wouldn’t dare try to make you disappear. It would raise too many embarrassing questions. I know you two have no reason to trust me, but at least trust the system. You'd have powerful allies on your side, not only the press and its overpriced lawyers, but millions of potential voters who'd scream bloody murder if the men in black tried to pull a fast one."

"What do you propose?" Lex asked. He did not understand all the woman's words, but he thought he had the gist of them.

"The story is going to come out, no matter what," Bobbie said. "There's nothing you can do to stop that. However, how it gets spun is entirely up to you. We sit down someplace quiet, you tell your story, and tomorrow everyone in the world will learn that we are not alone in the universe, that life exists on other worlds, and that it has powers far beyond those of mortal men."

"And you get the scoop of the century," Gloria pointed out.

"That too," Bobbie agreed. "I don't pretend to be altruistic. I wouldn't insult your intelligence that way. Besides, I know this may be an overworked turn of phrase, but this is one time where the people really do have a right to know."

"Gloria? Is everything all right down there?" Zoot called from the upper landing.

"We're okay," she hollered back. "We'll be upstairs in a minute."

Zoot left.

"You have good loyal friends, Gloria," Bobbie commented. "I want to be your friend, too, yours and Lex's. Please let me help."

"Lex?" Gloria asked.

"It makes sense," he said.

She sighed. "I suppose it does."

"Terrific!" Bobbie smiled. "You won't be sorry."

"I wouldn't count on that," said Gloria wearily. "Still it sounds like the lesser of two evils. But we’ve got to set some ground rules first."

"Fair enough," Bobbie nodded. "Like what?"

"I don't know yet," Gloria acknowledged. "It's something we're going to have to discuss. Privately. And I'll need to have someone here with a bit more authority than you to sign off on the conditions."

"I'll talk to my boss," Bobbie promised, "but I'm sure that be arranged."

Gloria remained unconvinced. "You'll hold off on going public until after the interview?"

"Absolutely. Swear to God."

Gloria looked to Lex, who nodded. "Looks like we have a deal. Now, if you don't mind, I need to get out of these wet things. You coming Lex?"

"In a minute. I should look in on Captain Polglase and her guest first. I shall be up presently."

"That big naked blue meanie?" Bobbie asked. "He was the sea monster? How'd he do that?"

"You can ask all the questions you want later," Gloria interrupted. "For the moment, you better come with me. You can wait for your ride in the house." Gloria kissed Lex on the cheek and led the reporter away. Once they had gone, Lex went inside the field pavilion. The Serpent soaked in the bathtub, still sleeping, and Polglase had changed into a dry uniform. She sat on a camp chair, puffing at her pipe.

"Is that impertinent woman gone?" she asked in Seshnei. Lex had been talking Ganta exclusively for days and had to mentally shift gears to speak his native tongue.

"For the moment," he replied. He quickly described the bargain they'd struck with reporter. "Do you think that was wise?"

Polglase shrugged. "I cannot see how it makes much nevermind. You shall be gone in one day's time and I daresay I could hold off their best efforts to abduct you until then."

"Actually, that leads into the real reason I wanted to talk to you," Lex said. Polglase arched an eyebow, then indicated the adjacent chair with her pipestem. Lex chose to remain standing. "Captain, I cannot begin to express my gratitude for your coming to, as you said, rescue me. However…"

"Yes?"

Suddenly the necessary words lodged in his throat and refused to come out.

The Captain grew impatient. "Let the jackdaws have it, Minstrel."

"Would you be terribly disappointed if I chose not to accompany you back to Yorvadan?" Lex blurted out. Polglase puffed on her pipe, saying nothing. Lex began to feel foolish, but pressed on. "I – I wish to stay. Here. On this planet. With Gloria."

Polglase puffed thoughtfully and blew a perfect smoke ring. "You've thought this through?"

"I've thought of little else. Each time the portal opened, all I could think about was what I'd be leaving behind. I love her, she loves me, and we belong together. It's that simple."

"If that's how you felt, why did you even make the effort?"

It was, Lex knew a reasonable question, and one for which he'd no reasonable answer. He decided to use one of Gloria's instead. "This world is toxic, and its effect will worsen the longer I remain. But if that's the price I must pay, I pay it gladly."

"Is that all?" Polglase unbuttoned her tunic and removed an amulet from around her neck. She handed it to him. "Sovereign Health charm," she explained. "Proof against all diseases and poisons. My gift to you."

"I cannot accept –"

Polglase waved a dismissive hand. "I have spares. Wear it in good health. Ha!" She laughed at her jest and Lex joined in politely as he fastened the chain around his neck. "Now, is there anything else troubling you?"

Lex started to say there wasn't, but chose instead to take the chair Polglase had offered. "Am I making a mistake?"

"Several!" she laughed. "I think you're quite mad! You are in love, for the first time I presume, and nothing else seems the least bit important. D'you wish me to enumerate the contraindications?"

Lex had been hoping for a different answer. "I'd rather you didn't. I know them well enough."

"If you say so," the Captain said. "Frankly, I'm relieved to hear you say that. For a second I thought you'd mistaken me for your mother. If you wish to put all you are and ever knew behind you and go where your heart dictates… Well, I'm the last person in the universe to try to convince you otherwise. For what it's worth, I wish you a long happy life together." She blew smoke out through her nostrils. "Then again, that may be difficult, her being low like me. But so roll the bones."

"It's worse than that," Lex admitted morosely. "Gloria will age and die long before I reach a century."

Polglase relit her pipe while mulling that over. "She knows this?" Lex nodded. "That explains a lot."

Lex stood. "I would rather have those few short years with her than a lifetime without her," he declaimed passionately.

"Those sound like lyrics, not life, Minstrel," Polglase observed wryly.

Lex had to concede the Dragoon was right on that score. "Occupational hazard," he mumbled, and slumped back into his chair.

"You wish my advice?" she asked. "Tell your ladylove of your resolve. Hold nothing back. This decision should be made jointly. After that, please join me for a celebratory meal. Bring the others, if you like, even that intrusive woman with the bleached hair."

Lex promised to do the Captain's bidding, and took his leave.

Nate, Hannah, and Zoot swarmed over him as soon as he entered the main room. Bobbie, he was relieved to note, had departed.

"Gloria told us everything," Tully said. "I'd've given my left nut to have been there. It sounded like one helluva fight."

"Can I see the Seaserpent?" Nate asked.

"Soon," Lex replied. "The Captain has invited us for brunch in her quarters."

"Extend my regrets," Tully frowned. "Don't think I'm up for climbing stairs yet."

"I shall carry you," Lex offered. "There's no reason for you to be left out. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must speak with Gloria."

"Upstairs," Zoot reported, and then – with a sly smile – added, "I think you know the way."

Lex grabbed his purse and went up to the second floor. He found Gloria in the bathroom adjacent to her bedchamber, adding a handful of aromatic crystals to the steaming water filling a large clawfoot tub. The clothes she'd worn lay strewn on the floor and she had donned her robe.

"Thought you might enjoy a nice hot bath," she commented as he entered. "I know I would. There should be room for us both in this monstrosity." She wiped her hands on her robe and embraced him. "Ugh, you're all clammy and disgusting," she said, showing no indication that she wanted to let go.

"I have been too preoccupied to attend to matters of grooming," he pointed out, kissing the top of her head. "Mmmm, salty. I am quite accustomed to communal bathing."

"I bet you are," she said.

"I need to talk to you," he started.

"And I need to talk to you, too, but first things first. Get undressed. We can talk while we soak." She began tugging at his sodden clothing. Once he was naked, Gloria slid her robe off and let it fall to the floor, revealing herself to his delighted eyes. "Someone's feeling his oats," she commented. He looked downward. "You could hurt someone with that thing if you're not careful."

"Then I shall be very careful." He bent to kiss her. She responded eagerly, her desire even greater than his own. "You are an untamed vixen," he panted.

"And you are a stone fox," she replied pressing herself even harder against him. "Let's show that seaserpent that we can make waves, too."

Steam rose off the bath, but neither was the least bit cognizant of the heat. They slid together, face to face, mouth to mouth, loins to loins, thrashing, writhing, churning the bathwater to froth; their skin squeaked on the tub's enamel finish, but their moans were louder still. Despite the tub's depth, water sloshed over the side, further soaking their already wet clothes. They reached the summit together. Gloria tightened her grip on him, then relaxed like a bowstring after the shaft has flown. She fell backwards, her head sinking beneath the water. She stayed that way for so long Lex started getting worried, but in due course she came gasping up for air.

"Scoot towards me," she requested. He slid his buttocks forward, making a noise that set them both to giggling. Gloria could now lean back without the risk of drowning and she sighed contentedly. "Stay in me," she pleaded, "as long as you can."

Lex leaned back himself until his head collided with the taps. "Ouch" he exclaimed, and Gloria giggled again as he rubbed the injured spot. He shuffled to one side to avoid another similar mishap, and they lay there awhile enjoying the all-enveloping warmth. Aside from the occasional ooh and ahh, neither spoke for several minutes. All their tension, all their soreness and fatigue, all was washed away.

"You wanted to tell me something," Gloria said at last.

"So did you," he countered.

"You first."

"I forgot what I had to say."

"Me too." They both lapsed into serene silence. Lex tried to find the right words to tell her of his decision to stay, but they proved elusive, paltry things.

"I remember," Gloria broke through his deliberations. "I want to come with you."

"Again?" he inquired. "That can be arranged."

She splashed him playfully. "That's not what I meant. I want to go with you. To Novagrove. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people. I'm not sure about the your Gods, my Gods part yet, because that still weirds me out, but dying where you die sounds like a plan."

It took awhile for the full import of her words to register and then Lex burst out laughing.

"Not exactly the response I was hoping for," she pouted. Lex tried to answer, but found he could not rein in his amusement. "Anytime you're ready, chuckles," she said, then started giggling herself. "Why are we laughing?" she asked between chortles.

"Because," he fought to catch his breath. "Because I was on the verge of telling you I'd decided to stay."

That set her off again. "Exactly when did you arrive at this momentous decision?" she asked.

"On the boat, when I suggested we go home," he reported. "I realized that I had started to think of this house as home and that was all I needed. When did you decide?"

"Just now."

"While we were making love?"

"Don't give your sexual prowess that much credit," she laughed again. "No, I decided when I started running the water. I watched it fill and it struck me how empty my life would be without you. As metaphors go, it's pretty lame, but that's what convinced me."

"So when I said I had something to tell you –?"

"Yes. What a perfect O. Henry moment!" she declared.

"Who is Henry?" he asked.

"No one of consequence. Anyway, what do you think?"

Lex shifted his position. "I must confess that, as long as you keep doing what you're doing, rational thought is not an option."

"Sorry." Gloria moved backwards a tad and released him. "Better?"

"Not one bit, but now I can pay attention to your question. Um, what was it again?"

Gloria sighed in mock exasperation. "Men! What do you think about me leaving my castles and estates to follow my gypsy rover?"

"All I can say is 'Ah-dee-doo, ah-dee-doo-die-day!'" He sang the last part, and she sang along. "But first what about my offer to remain here?" Lex told her about the Sovereign Health amulet that now hung around his neck. "Between this and the interview, I can see no barrier to our remaining just as we are. On Earth, that is. Not in this tub. Although I would gladly remain here for another decade."

Gloria reached for the soap and began lathering her body. Lex followed her movements with avid interest.

"It still won't work, Lex," she explained. "Once you go public, even if we're safe from the government – and I'm not 100% sure about that, no matter what that woman says – we would have a whole new set of problems. Are you paying attention?"

"Absolutely," he lied.

"Here, let me turn around and you can wash my back. Maybe that will keep your mind on the discussion." Gloria swiveled and presented her only slightly less captivating rear view to him. He lathered up a cloth and began massaging her neck and shoulders. "Ahhhh! That's nice. Anyway, the part Miss Halliwell left out was that once you become a media sensation, you won't have a moment's peace. Paparazzi – photographers – will dog your every step. You'll be inundated with requests for more interviews, appearances on talk shows, endorsement deals, and just plain nuts who'll want to see the man from another world. Fame may protect you, but it also makes you vulnerable in other ways. You'll find it impossible to put the genie back in the bottle."

"That is ridiculous. Djinni do not live in bottles."

"Figure of speech. In addition, oh yeah right there, a little harder, oooooh… what was I saying?"

"Something foolish about djinni."

"Right. Okay, you can wash yourself down. I'm clean enough. What I meant by that was once you appear on television, you – and me, and the kids and everyone who came in contact with you – will find it very difficult to have anything approximating a private life again. Now, maybe that is what you want…"

"No! It sounds ghastly."

"Some people get off on that sort of thing," she said with a shrug. "I just wanted to be sure. All things considered, going seems the wisest course of action. Hand me the shampoo. Green bottle." He did so and she began to lather her hair. She handed him the bottle and he did the same. It smelled of herbs and flowers.

"What about Nate and Hannah?" he asked.

"Ah yes, the big question. Best of all possible worlds, they come with us"

"Of course," he agreed.

"You don't mind?" She bent forward and started rinsing off the shampoo.

"Why would I mind?"

"Some men would balk at being saddled with an instant family." She boosted herself to her feet and stepped carefully onto the bathmat. "I assure you that, if they come, they'll be my responsibility, not yours."

"That, my love, is even more foolish than that saying about djinni."

"You have shampoo in your eyes," she said, toweling herself off. He submerged and the shampoo rinsed away.

"I want to share in the responsibility of helping them acclimate to a strange new world, as they did for me. I have grown very fond of them. But will they want to go?"

"Only one way to find out," she handed him the towel. "They're both old enough and smart enough to make up their own minds. We'll leave it up to them."

"And if they refuse? Would you go without them?"

"That, my dear, is a very good question."

They both went into her bedroom and began to put on fresh, dry clothing. "I haven't made up my mind about that, but probably not. I am, after all, the only family they have. I think Nate will jump at the chance to live in a world of magic, but I'm not so sure about Hannah. Sometimes she's hard to read. Tell you what. Let's put the question to them as a hypothetical, so they won't feel pressured one way or another. We can ask Zoot and Tully, too. That way, they shouldn't suspect what's really at stake. Once we see which way they're leaning, we can tell them our decision together."

"You are a very clever woman."

"Cute, too," she prompted.

"That goes without saying."

"Some things never go without saying," she stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly on the lips.

"You are beauty incarnate," he replied.

"That's what a girl likes to hear. I look forward to hearing that for the next several centuries." He looked at her with surprise. "The Captain told me longevity treatments are available in Novagrove."

"They are?"

"You didn't know about that?"

He shook his head. "Then again, why should I? It's not as if I need them."

"I see your point. Anyway, apparently, I won't have to worry about growing old gracefully for a very long time."

"So that's your ulterior motive," he smiled. "You love me for my world's medical advances."

"You found me out. Actually, I do have an ulterior motive. I hope you don't take that the wrong way."

"No, I appreciate your honesty. So what is your secret reason?"

She sat on the bed and slipped on shoes. "Ever since my father got sick, I've put my life on hold, and I don't think he ever wanted that for me. He always encouraged me to chart my own course. He bragged about me becoming a world class doctor and never once envisioned me on the path I'm traveling now. In Novagrove, I can learn more about healing than I could in six lifetimes on Earth, plus I can be with the man I love on a journey that will take me places I can't even imagine. Will I miss Mystic? Of course. Mystic is my home, but you can't live at home forever. Besides, I will carry it with me wherever I go, right here."

She tapped her chest. Lex took the hand and pressed it to his lips.

"You two took your own sweet time," Zoot commented when they got downstairs. "If you'd been gone five more minutes, I was going to send out a search party."

"They were probably doing it again," Nate observed. He brandished the game Lex had given him. "I keep falling off the boat."

"I did that too at first," Lex admitted. "It takes some time to get accustomed to moving within the game. Here, let me join you."

"It has a two-player mode? Awesome!"

For the next half hour Lex and Nate wandered the game world, with Lex giving the youngster tips and hints about what to do, where to go, the best places to purchase supplies and weapons. Once he was sure Nate had a handle on things, Lex exited the game and let Nate continue solo.

"Boys and their toys," Hannah sniffed when she noticed Lex's return to the non-virtual world. "He's going to forget to eat."

"I doubt it," Tully laughed. "If I know Nate, he'll find a way to do both."

The phone rang and Gloria answered. "Yes? Speaking. Hello, Mr. Delahanty. I've been expecting your call. Yes, I'm sure it was. Four o'clock? That should be fine. See you then." She then called someone else. "Mr. Westbury, it's Gloria Robinette. Yes, it was terrible, but at least no one was hurt. Look, I know this is short notice, but I really need an attorney's help today, and since it involves the estate… Yes. No, there are reasons why I can't come to the office." She took the phone onto the deck and slid the door closed behind her.

Lex and Zoot exchanged looks.

"That's Hiram Westbury," Tully explained. "He was Bert's lawyer for twenty years. Mine too. A credit to his profession. Gloria probably wants his input before the newspeople arrive from Bahston."

Gloria came back inside, told Nate to save and quit and check to see if the Captain was ready for them. Nate grabbed a walkie-talkie and ran down to the beach. A minute later, its twin squawked and announced that brunch was ready and they had better get their asses down there before everything was gone.

Lex gave Tully a choice between being carried or levitated; Tully chose the latter. When they reached the bottom he declared the ride smoother than a Cadillac El Dorado. On the trip to the beach, Lex forced himself to look out to sea; he was unsurprised that it no longer filled him with dread, though it still made him feel uneasy. Once inside the Pavilion, they found Captain Polglase had prepared a sumptuous cold buffet of succulent sliced meats, robust cheeses, hearty bread, and pickled vegetables. They all complimented the Captain on the lavishness of her table and dug in with gusto, all except Hannah who smelled everything before putting it on her plate. For drinks, Polglase had tapped a keg of dark ale, which Lex greeted like a long lost brother. Soon Gloria, Tully, and Zoot all knew why he had found the local brew such a poor substitute.

"Whoo-yah!" Tully declared, holding out his mug for a refill. "That stuff packs quite a punch."

Nate wanted to try some, too, but at Gloria's prompting the Captain produced a jug of cider which both underagers found to their liking, although Nate continued to eye the adults' beverages with envy. Finally, Lex convinced Gloria to let him have a sip. The boy immediately made a sour face and returned to his cider. The locals explained to Polglase about the laws regarding teenage drinking, which she viewed as "paternalistically quaint." Lex, who had learned of the ritual of carding during his brief but memorable stint as a bartender, silently concurred.

On a mutual trip to the keg, Polglase asked in a low voice how Gloria had reacted to the news of his change in plans. Lex confided that matters were as yet unresolved, and asked the Captain's momentary forbearance. Polglase gave him a puzzled look, but agreed to play along.

"You set a fine table," Tully complimented the Dragoon when all had eaten their fill. "I'm not sure I want to know what everything was, but it was mighty tasty." Everyone else agreed and raised their glasses to salute their host.

Lex and Gloria kept exchanging glances throughout the meal, waiting for the perfect opportunity to broach the subject, but there seemed no easy segue into a conversation about how everyone would react to an offer to go to Novagrove. To their amazement, it was Zoot who gave them an opening.

"I'll never be happy with store-bought beer again," she declared. "I'm half tempted to hitch a ride back with you just to get some more of this stuff."

"You're not serious, Z, are you?" Gloria asked casually. "What if you really had the choice?"

"Get thee behind me, Satan," Tully laughed.

"All joking aside," Gloria pressed lightly. "Given a choice between staying here or going to another world, which would you pick? Hypothetically speaking, of course."

"Of course," Zoot took another swig and considered. "Well, as fine as this beer is, I think I would have to say no. Mystic is the home I've chosen, and here is where I intend to stay until I'm old, grey, and still oversexed. Not everyone can find the place they truly belong, and I thank whatever powers there may be for leading me here to the Promised Land. No offense, Lex."

"None taken," he assured her. "How does everyone else feel? Hannah?"

"I'd go in a heartbeat," she replied without hesitation.

"Really?" Gloria asked, surprise evident in her voice.

"Absolutely. You know I want to be an astronaut, but given the way our space program is heading, I'll be lucky if there is one when I grow up. Even if, my chances of making the cut are pretty slim. But let's say I am accepted, and by some miracle I get to go into space, what then? A ride on the shuttle? Six months on the International Space Station? How could that compare to the opportunity to see billions of planets with their own unique cultures and inhabitants. It's a no brainer."

"I thought you didn’t like the idea of magic," Lex chided her gently.

"Magic-shmagic," she said. "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from science. You taught me that, Lex."

Lex breathing an inward sigh of relief. One down, one to go, he told himself. "Tully, what about you?"

"Not a chance, son," he said with as much conviction as Hannah. "I spent the last thirty plus years fantasizing about what I would do if I got the use of my legs back, and there wasn't anything on my wish list about going to another planet. I've barely scratched the surface of what Mama Earth has to offer. Aside from my tours of duty in Nam, I've never been out of the country, and I can count the places in the USA I've seen outside of the northeast without taking my shoes off. Come back and ask me again when I'm 80. I might – repeat might – have done everything by then. How about you, sport?" He asked Nate.

Nate gave Tully a funny look.

"What's wrong, Nate?" Gloria asked.

"You must think I'm a complete moron," he said bitterly. "You think I don't know what's up with your so-called hypothetical questions? You're going with him! You've already made up your mind!"

"Nate, I haven't –" Gloria started.

"Don't lie to me!" he shouted. He stood and his chair tumbled to the ground behind him. "You want to run off with your boyfriend and you want us to come along so you don't feel guilty about deserting us! Well, I think that sucks big time, and I'm not going."

"No one's trying to force you to do anything," Gloria stood and reached for him, but he pulled away.

"Don't touch me!" he screamed. "The hell with Sexy Lexy, and the hell with Novagrove, and the hell with all of you!" Tears streaming down his cheeks, Nate ran out of the tent.

"I'd better go after him," Gloria said, trying to follow.

"No," Lex took her arm as she passed and got to his own feet. "Let me."

For a second, Gloria hesitated, but she must have seen something in his expression that convinced her. "All right," she said at last. "I'll wait for you here."

As Lex exited the Pavilion, he saw Nate just reaching the top landing of the staircase. He knew he could catch up with the merest exertion; after all, his stride was longer, the gravity weaker than normal, and he could always Levitate himself to the top of the bluff. Yet he knew a door-slamming moment when he saw one. Sometimes, he recognized, events so conspire against you in an unfair world that you must proclaim your outrage by closing a door upon that world with enough rebellious force and finality that the very foundations of the building shake. It was a moral imperative he respected. He reached the living room just as Nate fulfilled that emotional requirement.

Once the door in question had been well and truly slammed (and he would have awarded the slammer 11.1 out of 12 with a deduction for neglecting to kick the door after slamming it), Lex counted slowly, "one, two, three... eleventy-ten, eleventy-eleven, one hundred" then climbed the stairs. He had never been in Nate's room before, but he recognized it immediately by the signage: "No Admittance - Trespassers Will Be Reduced to Component Parts," "Licensed Sister Hunting Preserve" and, most telling, "Nate" in a miniature version of what Lex had come to recognize as a Connecticut license plate.

Taking his life into his own hands, Lex rapped deferentially on the foreboding entryway, knowing full well the danger that awaited within. There was no response. He repeated the action, thrice this time and a little harder.

"Go away, Gloria!" Nate growled.

"Gloria is not here," Lex reported. "I'm alone."

There was a momentary silence, and then the voice came again. "Then go away, Lex."

"Nate, I'd like to talk to you without this door between us. Please give me leave to enter so that we may converse man to man."

"I don’t wanna talk to you, and every time someone says 'man to man' they mean they want you to do something and figure they'll make you feel all grown up by calling you a man when what they really think is 'He's just a dumb kid and I'll pull a fast one on him.' So you can take your 'man to man' and shove it, Lex."

The Minstrel leaned his head against the door. This was not going to be easy.

"Are you still there?" Nate asked.

On the other hand…

"Yes, Nate, still here."

"Then go away!"

"I'm prepared to stay here until you open the door. I'm patient and wily and just as stubborn as you."

"Ha! You wish! Go back through your stupid portal to your stupid Imperius and take my stupid sisters with you. I don't need any of you!"

"Nate, do you know what kind of wood was used to make this door?"

A pause. "No, and who cares?"

"I care very much. We have no doors where I come from. The very concept is foreign to us. I could take this door off its hinges and carry it to Novagrove. With the right type of wood I could manufacture thousands of these and become the richest Minstrel in the Universe selling them to those who, like you, value their privacy. I would be willing to share the profits with you."

"Hardy har har."

Lex chose a different approach. "On second thought, this door is too plain. I think it would be much more attractive with, say, a man-sized hole in the middle. Shall we see how that would improve its appearance?"

"You wouldn't dare!"

"Are you certain?"

"Yeah. Even if you break it into kindling, I'm still not talking to you!"

Lex ignored the inherent inconsistency of the last remark. It was time to put away the dagger and bring out the broadsword.

"Nate, high up in the mountains northwest of Yorvadan there's a mine where an extremely rare ore called ophacite is found. Ophacite contains traces of an element known as iridium which is among the rarest and most valuable materials in all the Universe. The mine is so big and rich in this ore that five shifts work around the clock extracting and processing it. Ophacite miners, both Dwarven and Weren, get very thirsty and the local taverns also stay open around the clock to accommodate those thirsts. Since at any given time, these establishments are liable to be packed with thirsty, sweaty, grimy miners, cleaning them becomes very difficult, as I'm sure you can imagine. Left unchecked, the dust would pile up so high that it would present a health hazard, so the taverns must be swept at least once a day. One cannot efficiently sweep around people's feet, so the tavern must be emptied for around an hour to allow the dustdrones to do a proper job. Unfortunately, miners in the midst of drinking are often loath to depart as long as there's drink yet to be had. I am certain you can see the nature of the predicament."

Lex waited for a reply that did not come. Undaunted, he continued.

"How then does a clever tavern owner force a large group of well-muscled and often intoxicated miners to leave premises they do not desire to vacate? The answer is simple. They use Minstrels. Any reasonably skilled Minstrel knows at least one song so bad, so intolerable, that a single stanza will send even the hardiest miner running for the exit with hands over his ears. I know six such songs, Nate, and I'm not afraid to use them. Are you prepared for such a musical onslaught? I warn you – the results will not be pleasant."

The door opened.

"Bullshit," Nate said, but Lex saw how hard the boy was fighting not to smile.

"You wish to test me? All right then." Lex cleared his throat loudly and opened his mouth as if to sing, but Nate folded.

"I believe you. Now just say what you came to say and get lost."

"May I come in?"

"No."

"As you wish. First, I apologize for trying to fool you. It was a low, underhanded, and cheap ploy, and you saw through the ruse so easily that I am ashamed for ever entertaining the notion that you could be bamboozled. I shan’t underestimate you again."

Nate nodded grimly. "Go on."

"You were, of course, correct. Gloria wishes to accompany me to Novagrove. We wanted to see if you, Hannah, and even the others had any leanings along the same lines, but not being honest enough to put the question directly we resorted to subterfuge. However, you don't know the complete situation. We agreed that unless both you and Hannah chose, of your own free will and with absolutely no coercion on our parts, to come along, neither of us would go. So the trip is canceled. Gloria will stay here and I with her."

"Really?" Nate brightened. "You're not yanking my chain?"

"If I comprehend your meaning correctly, no. Either all four go together, or none at all. Does that satisfy you?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"You don't sound convinced." Nate looked down at his feet. "Are you sure I cannot come in?"

"Yeah, okay," Nate stepped aside and allowed Lex into his lair. There was probably a floor somewhere beneath his feet, but Lex was not certain. Books, journals, clothes of varying degrees of cleanliness, boxes of all shapes and sizes, obscured the carpet so totally Lex could not tell what color it was. Posters and decals covered every inch of the walls and even some of the ceiling.

"Nice room," he commented.

"Thanks. You can move that stuff off the chair."

'That stuff' consisted of a pair of underpants, sixteen comic books in clear plastic bags, a box of something called Ritz Bitz and a model of some kind of dragon with one wing missing. Lex found new quarters for these treasures and sat down. Nate sat on the unmade bed and picked up a pillow, which he held to his chest.

"What's on your mind, Nate?" Lex asked gently.

"I dunno. I feel like I'm a party pooper. Everyone wants to go with you and now I'm holding you all back. I feel like a doofus."

"Can I ask why you do not wish to live in my world?"

"Because this is my home, Lex! This is my room and my house, and all my friends are here, and we have the beach and comic books and television and videogames and all kinds of stuff you don’t have. It might be fun to visit, but live there? Forever? It's a one-way trip, right?"

"Almost certainly."

"You see? I'd be giving up a lot. What if I got there and it sucked?"

"That is what confuses me. Gloria believed you would, how did she put it?, 'jump at the chance to live in a world of magic.' Why just play games when you could do the real thing?"

"What if I get there and can't learn? I'd be just a muggle."

Lex did not recognize the term, but the insecurity shone like a beacon. "Nate, we have an expression on my world: It takes one to know one."

"So do we."

"It means that a sufficiently advanced wizard, such as myself, can tell when someone else possesses something called the Shard of Unity, and thus has the potential to become a wizard as well. And you are chock full of potential."

"I am?" Nate's eyes grew wide. "No shit?"

"Not a speck. You have the intelligence, the daring, and the will – all you need are the right instructors and the patience to learn. I cannot tell how powerful you may become, but I do know that if you want it bad enough to work for it, you will achieve it."

"But you said it takes years! Your years, not mine. By the time I learned enough, I'd be too old to enjoy it."

"Wizarding extends the lifespan," Lex pointed out, "and according to the General there are other methods of increasing longevity. I can promise you at least a century to study. One of my centuries. I tell you true, Nate. I can see the Shard in all three of you, but I think you have more raw desire than either of your sisters, and that counts for a lot. As for the other things, I can only tell you that new friends and entertainments await you in my world. You would not be bored."

"You sound like a used car salesman."

"That is a bad thing?"

"Pretty bad, yeah. You're being straight with me?"

"As an arrow. I think you should have all the facts before you reach a decision. Life in Novagrove is not perfect, but I think you would enjoy it."

"Yeah, but…" He buried his face in the pillow.

"But what?"

"Nuffin."

"I've been completely honest with you. Can you not show me the same courtesy?"

"Whfshicobag."

"I am afraid I did not catch that."

Nate lifted his face, "What if she comes back?"

"Who?" Lex had no idea what Nate was talking about, but the depth of his concern was manifest.

"My mother! What if she comes back looking for me and I'm gone?"

"Is that likely to happen?"

"It could!"

"I thought you had not heard from her in many years."

"It could still happen!" Nate shouted.

"Nate, I don't know the whole story behind your birth mother's departure and neither do you. I do know that your real mother is waiting for you right now, worried that she may have damaged her relationship with you beyond repair."

"Who –"

"Gloria! She may not have carried you in her womb, but she holds you dear in her heart. She gives you love and concern and freedom and wisdom and nags you when you need it. That sounds like a mother to me."

"I never thought of it that way."

"Well, think of it now." Lex stood up. "I've given you much to consider, and now I give you the time to do so. When you reach a decision, or if you have any other questions, you know where you may find me." He headed for the door.

"Can I take Warlock with me?"

Lex laughed. "Not only can you take the silly beast, but there are mages who can bind the two of you together so that he will live, albeit in different bodies, as long as you do."

"Like a familiar?"

"Exactly."

"Wow! How do they do that?"

Lex shrugged. "I have absolutely no idea."

"Can I take all my stuff with me?"

"You'll have to ask your mother. I mean that is up to Gloria. So, are you coming?”

"I guess so. But if it sucks I'm never going to let you hear the end of it. Deal?"

"Deal."

Nate jumped off the bed and stood there awkwardly. "Are we supposed to hug now or something?"

"Only if you want to."

"Maybe later. C'mon, let's see if the Captain has dessert."

They found, upon returning to the Pavilion, that there was indeed dessert, along with a mixture of relief, rejoicing, and regret. People traded hugs and handshakes, tears were shed but quickly dried. They set to the not inconsiderable task of making plans for the next day's anticipated departure. Captain Polglase, who had once carried all the worldly possessions of thirty-five political refugees in her field pavilion, doubted that taking on the personal effects of only three would present much of a problem. She instructed Gloria in the use of a Levitation Pallet which, she said, should make the job much easier. Nate and Hannah were told to begin packing, and Tully volunteered to help scrounge up the boxes they would all need. By then, it was nearly time for Gloria's appointment with the lawyer, and she and Lex went upstairs to await his arrival, Lex giving Tully another 'lift."

Promptly at 2:00, Hiram Westbury, Esq. entered, accompanied by his paralegal Ms. Quaglia and a large briefcase containing all the papers regarding the Robinette estate.

The lawyer eyed Lex with curiosity. "It’s always a pleasure, my dear, but can you please tell me what in blue blazes all this is about?" the grey-haired attorney asked. "You were a tad vague on the phone."

"I think it would be easier if I just showed you," Gloria said. "Ms. Quaglia, you're a notary?"

"I am, and please call me Casey."

"Perfect. Would you both please follow me?"

The legal team traded bemused glances when they saw the large tent on the beach, but that was nothing compared to their goggle-eyed bewilderment when they got inside. Gloria made the introductions.

"Hiram, Casey, I think you both remember Zoot? This is Captain Polglase. She and Lex are visitors from another planet."

It took time to assure them that they weren't the victims of some ridiculous joke, but within ten minutes both newcomers were sufficiently convinced, though no less astonished, to get down to business. Gloria informed them of her family's planned excursion, and the timetable thereof, and all understood time was therefore of the essence. The first two items on the agenda took but a few minutes. As executrix of her father's estate, Gloria had the right to dispose of its assets, real and personal, which she did. In due course, the house and furnishings were deeded to Jethro Hanrahan, along with title to the boat. The Lincoln and the tavern known as Gilda's went to Zoot JustZoot, with full power of attorney to use the insurance proceeds to rebuild it as she saw fit. Zoot protested briefly but acquiesced upon Gloria's insistence.

"Dad would have wanted it this way" was the clincher. "There should be enough money to tide the staff over for a few weeks, but I leave that up to you, Boss. One more thing. Just a suggestion, but you might want to change the name to Zoot's."

Both transfers were set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, August 6, and could be revoked at Gloria's request at any time before then. After all, she reminded Lex, there were still "variables" in the exit strategy, as Polglase had to concede.

The next item, drawing up conditions attendant upon Mr. Machallo's imminent encounter with the fourth estate, was much more complicated. Lex gave up trying to understand what the lawyer said after half an hour, and retreated to a corner of the tent to play a game of shasho with the Captain. As four o'clock drew nigh, everyone besides Polglase went up to the house to use the printer and wait for the television people.

Roberta Halliwell, resplendent in a telegenic blue suit, introduced the rest of her entourage: Sam Delahanty (head of the news department), Jorge Villalobos and Mitch Ostrander (the technical crew), Yolanda Harris (make-up) and Messrs. Campbell and Hoover from the station's law firm. Hiram showed the last two the Terms and Conditions Gloria and he had hammered out regarding the interview, and the attorneys began to negotiate as Mitch and Jorge set up the cameras and lights.

Sam Delahanty immediately demanded proof that Lex could actually do magic. A few simple spells soon convinced him, but he remained troubled. "We have two generations of viewers so jaded by Industrial Light and Magic that they don't think anything they see on television is real, not even the news. What we need is something big, unfakable, and live in front of hundreds of impartial witnesses. Do you think you can manage that?"

Lex thought that over and nodded. "Tomorrow afternoon about –" he looked at Gloria.

"1:30," she prompted.

"Thank you. In fact, I believe you should show up somewhat earlier than that. A half hour should suffice. I think I know a spell that should more than meet your requirements."

"What kind of spell?" Delahanty asked.

"It will have to be my little secret until then, but I warrant you'll not be disappointed."

After a fair amount of haggling and raised voices, a revised contract was printed and signed by all affected parties. Besides prohibiting Roberta from asking questions regarding the personal relationship between Lex and Gloria, and any questions regarding matters which might later be the source of litigation (to wit, the altercation between Mr. Machallo and one Aloysius Kochanski, currently in custody and under observation), the agreement contained a lot of legalese which only the lawyers professed to understand.

What it boiled down to was this. Lex agreed to do the interview that afternoon and perform his big secret magical demonstration on a live broadcast starting at 1:00 pm the next day. He gave the station the exclusive right to air the footage. The station agreed to provide legal representation for Lex, the Robinettes, Tully, and Zoot, in case the broadcasts led to any difficulties with local, state, or federal authorities. (Captain Polglase had been offered the same umbrella protection but declined.) Half of all proceeds from the broadcasts, and later use of the footage in any medium, print, broadcast, film, or digital, as well as any book, article, screenplay, teleplay, or dramatization in any other medium were to be assigned to a trust fund, to be administered by Messrs. Westbury and Campbell with a third trustee agreed upon by both parties, with Zoot and Tully as Board Members for Life. That trust would fund the Bertram Robinette Foundation for Respiratory Disease Research, whose charter would specify that none of the people bankrolled by the Foundation could testify for any party involved in civil litigation over such diseases.

A marathon round of signings began. Lex insisted on using his Guild Badge's imprint in wax next to his signature on each document, which prolonged the process by a considerable margin. It would have taken longer, but Nate had some suitable colored wax in his room. Finally, Lex sat stoically while the make-up and lighting specialists fussed over him and rearranged the furniture to best effect. After an interminable length of time fussing and fiddling, Jorge and Mitch declared themselves ready. Lex sat on the selfsame couch where he had awoken a mere six days earlier (by local reckoning). Roberta Halliwell occupied a chair brought by the station specifically for this occasion. At 5:07, the cameras began to roll.

"Mr. Machallo, may I call you Lex?" Roberta began.

"Only if I can call you Roberta," Lex answered as previously arranged. He gave her his most dazzling smile.

"Please, make it Bobbie. You claim to be from another world called Kal, part of a system of planets known as Novagrove. Is that correct?"

"Yes, Bobbie, that is the truth."

"How did you come to visit our planet then?"

"That's something of a complicated story, although not without its own humor. It all started with a simple game of poker…"


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