Into the Mystic

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Captain Polglase stepped lightly out of the dimensional gate and took a quick look around. Satisfied that she had arrived at the right location, she moved to her left. Just in time, too, for the 1934 Indian exited the gateway at a velocity sufficient to set a land speed record for vehicles of its class. Once free of the vortex's grip, however, friction took control and the hurtling motorcycle decelerated so rapidly it was all Gloria could do to keep it from cartwheeling down the sloping hillside.

"Tree!" Lex shouted.

"I see it," Gloria said, swerving to avoid the stately elm in her path. "Don't turn into a back seat driver, Lex."

She missed the tree by a good eighteen inches, the next one by a slightly wider margin and a sizable rockface by less than a yard as she navigated their way to the bottom of the hill. Finally, the cycle slowed to a stop near a small copse of elders. Gloria reflexively reached down to turn off the ignition, then remembered that she had never turned it on.

In the sidecar, Nate craned his head around to look at his younger sister and gave her a wink. She caught his meaning immediately.

"Are we there yet?" they whined in chorus.

"Don't make me turn this thing around!" Gloria threatened, and all three of them began to laugh. "First one to say something about Kansas gets grounded for a month," she added. That set them off again.

"So this is Novagrove," Gloria marveled after the laughter died down. "Doesn't look all that different."

"Y'think?" Hannah countered. "Take a look at the sky!"

They all did. Billions upon billions of stars, far more than could be seen from Earth, glittered in the firmament and five moons were clearly visible. Together they provided enough light to see where they were.

"Woo!" Nate whistled. "Holy Cow! You can see the constellations... I mean, they aren't just, you know, connect-the-dots where you gotta kinda squint and imagine real hard. It's like... stippling with points of light! Cool!"

"Indeed," Lex responded. "I never tire of it. It's good to be back."

Hannah took a deep breath then let it out. "Whoa, I feel a little dizzy."

"After a ride like that," Nate commented, "who wouldn't?"

"I think there's a higher oxygen content," Hannah observed. "Not to mention an absence of incompletely burned hydrocarbons and other emissions."

"It smells so clean," Gloria sighed.

"That's what I just said," Hannah grumbled.

"Everyone in one piece?" Polglase asked, sauntering up to the motorcycle. The tall blue humanoid followed close behind. He appeared highly agitated, though not in a bad way. He looked almost like a puppy straining at an invisible leash.

"All present and accounted for, Captain," Gloria reported. "Mission accomplished."

"What's up with him?" Nate asked, pointing at the Seaserpent. "He's doing the pee-pee dance."

"He feels the mana all around him," Lex answered. "I believe he's happy to be here. Yet I think he would be happier still back in his element and we're far from the sea."

"I believe you are correct," Polglase said, tapping the jittery creature on the arm. "Go," she gestured. The Serpent looked at her as if for confirmation. "Go," she repeated and their erstwhile opponent took off for the east like a bolt of blue.

"Will he be all right?" Hannah asked.

"Now he will," Polglase replied. "Mana will reinvigorate him and he will not stop running until he reaches the sea, which unless I miss my guess will take him right through the heart of Allyn. Would you not agree, T'Lexigar?"

"What? Oh, yes… Allyn it is," the Minstrel answered absently. His eyes still looked in the direction the creature had gone. "Allyn it is," he repeated.

"What do we do next?" Nate demanded. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm hungry. It may look like the middle of the night here, but my stomach tells me it's lunchtime. Do they have any late night drive thru's around here?"

"I know a place," Lex answered. "They should still be serving food."

A few minutes later, Gloria parked under a huge oak tree and killed the engine. Everyone got out and headed for the entryway of the adjacent building, where Captain Polglase stood with a 'what-kept-you?' look on her face.

"Welcome to the Greenhill Tavern," Lex told them. "I recommend the leg of lamb."

They all found seats around a large round table and the proprietor hurried over to take their orders. He acted particularly deferential around Polglase, Gloria noted, and chattered nervously in a language she did not recognize. Polglase responded in kind, curt and commanding, and the owner scurried away.

"What did he say?" Hannah asked.

"He asked what we wanted and begged me not to destroy his establishment again," Polglase replied. "I told him to bring us whatever was hot and ready."

"You destroyed this place?" Nate asked.

"In a manner of speaking," Polglase admitted. "It is a long story."

While waiting for their food, Gloria looked around. She found the décor decidedly more rustic than Gilda's, with rough-hewn tables and heavy chairs, and the patrons sported no shirts advertising athletic companies or proclaiming their wearers' support of a particular sports team or musical group. Otherwise, though, it looked much like any similar eating and drinking establishment on any given night. The people looked like people. A few had pointed ears like Lex, and they chatted among themselves in a foreign tongue, but Gloria felt more like they were merely visiting rural Transylvania than another planet. Then a seven foot tall creature covered in orange fur shuffled into the place, went straight to the bar and pounded on it with a fist the size of a soccer ball. All at once, Gloria felt better.

In due course, a pretty young woman in apron and cap brought a large tray laden with a steaming tureen of lamb stew, fresh baked honey-almond bread, and a pitcher of dark ale. She set everything before the party, pausing to dimple coquettishly at Lex and give Gloria a knowing look loaded with subtext. Polglase said something to the serving wench, who went away and returned with a second pitcher of cider for the kids.

"Do they allow pets in here?" Nate asked worriedly. "The only reason I ask is 'cause Warlock's scratching at the inside of his cage. Can I let him out?"

"Go ahead," Lex answered. "Just keep an eye on him."

Nate opened the cage door and the ferret peeked out. Delighted to be somewhere new, he jumped onto the table, sniffed at Gloria's mug, shook his head as the bubbles tickled his nose, then climbed up Lex's sleeve and onto his shoulder. Looking all around, he chittered excitedly. Lex proffered the fuzzet a morsel of bread, which he sniffed. Finding the offering acceptable, Warlock opened his mouth and took it, then headed back to the table. He found an unoccupied spot and began to gnaw at the thick crust. Nate took a small bowl from the carrier and filled it with dry food from a Ziploc bag. Soon, the little beast was crunching away contentedly, joining everyone else in the repast.

"This is your home court, Lex," Gloria said between mouthfuls. "What do you suggest we do now?"

"Find a place to stay tonight. We can share my rooms at the Guildhall, although quarters may be cramped."

"I still have a room at the Festival Inn," Polglase interjected. "No need to worry about me."

"That should help," Lex conceded. "Then, in the morning, I suggest we visit the Outfitters to purchase luggage capable of holding all your belongings."

"Like your purse?" Hannah asked, excitedly.

"Much the same," Lex nodded. "Bigger of course. Then we transfer everything from the Captain's Pavilion. The Outfitters should have golems to help with the heavy lifting. Next, I believe we should stop by the Transporters Guild. I hope you do not find this presumptuous, but there is someplace I feel I should go, and we can arrange passage there."

"Another trip?" Gloria looked at him. "Where? Oh, wait, I think I can guess. Allyn?"

"Correct. Tis time and past time I made peace with my father. I predict stormy seas, but I've faced stormier of late. Besides, I don't know the practice is among your people, but here it is customary to present the person one intends to marry to one's family."

"Marry?" Gloria spluttered. "Aren't you being just a tad precipitous. After all, we just met!"

"But I thought –" Lex stammered.

"Let's not rush things, Lex. We should date for a couple of decades first, make sure we're compatible. Then when you come up with a decent proposal, down on one knee, flowers, poetry, a big old ring, maybe then we can talk about marriage."

Lex looked at her and saw the tiny crinkles around her eyes. "You're yanking my chain, right?"

"Absolutely. We're in this together for the long haul, buster." She put her hand on his and squeezed. "In the meantime, we have to decide where we're going to live, check out neighborhoods, enroll the kids in school –"

"School!" Nate protested.

"School?" Lex asked, puzzled. "Aren't they too young?"

"No school? Awesome!" Nate crowed.

"Pipe down, Beefy," Hannah told her brother. "Lex, we've been in school since we were toddlers. How do children here learn to read and write and things like that?"

"At home or in temple, naturally. Their parents or grandparents or older brothers and sisters teach them whatever they want to know, but childhood isn't a time for schooling. It's a time for being a child. Playing games, getting dirty, causing wanton destruction. Time enough for learning when you reach Testing age."

"When's that?" Nate asked.

"Varies by race," Lex answered. He looked Nate over. "You actually look older than I did when I joined a Guild. Perhaps we should have you tested."

"No one said anything about a test," Nate groaned. "I didn't even study."

"This is a conversation for when we have all the facts," Gloria said. "Plus it would be helpful if we could all start learning the language so we don't come across as total tourists."

"We speak Ganta," Hannah commented.

"Does everybody?" Gloria wanted to know.

"No, but enough do that you should be able to communicate on a basic level. Yet I agree that language lessons should be a priority. I shall have to engage a private tutor in Seshnei." His brow furrowed in obvious concern.

"What's wrong?" Gloria asked.

"Nothing important. I can see these matters will place some strain on my available finances, that's all. I shall simply borrow money from the Guild to tide us over until I can land some more lucrative bookings. What's so funny?"

Gloria's whole upper body trembled with pent-up laughter. "You never looked at your going away present, did you?"

"That package you gave me the first time I tried to leave? No, I confess it completely slipped my mind, what with all the cancer and falling in love." Lex opened his purse and rummaged inside. He came up with the brightly colored paper bag.

"Open it," Gloria instructed.

Lex removed the tissue paper and took out a brown sack held closed by a wire-reinforced paper strip. He undid the ends and peered inside.

"Coffee," he marveled. "What a wonderful gift! I hope you don't object if I sell this to The Neaman? He'll pay handsomely for this, and our financial concerns should be greatly alleviated."

"Why don't you keep that for personal use?" Gloria advised. "After all, I have five hundred times that amount in Captain Polglase's tent." She nonchalantly began sopping up the last of her stew with a crust of bread.

"I think he's going to pass out," Nate chortled.

"Breathe, Lex," Hannah advised with a knowing smile.

"Five… hundred?" Lex whispered.

"Almost six, actually, but I think we should keep some for ourselves, don't you?" Gloria grinned.

"Like this?" He held up the bag.

"Some of it’s decaffeinated."

"I have to sit down," he wheezed.

"You are sitting down," Nate observed.

"Then perhaps I should lie down," he responded.

Polglase laughed uproariously. "He can face down a raging sea monster but the news that he is wealthy unmans him completely!"

Lex shook himself out of his stupor. "Wealthy? That does not even begin to cover it! But Gloria, you brought the coffee. Any reward should be yours."

"Ours," she said firmly. "Case closed."

"How much money we talking about, Lex?" Nate demanded.

"I have no idea," Lex conceded, shaking his head in wonderment. "I am not sure I can count that high."

"Glorai Robineti!" a gruff basso profundo voice demanded.

They all turned in surprise. A Tazyr stood at the doorway, holding a brightly wrapped package nearly as tall as himself. He consulted a bill of lading.

"I'm Gloria," she answered.

He looked at the paper again. "Sorry. Gloria, not Glorai," he walked over and set the package down before her. "Make your mark here, please." He shoved the paper before her and took a stylus from behind his ear. She took it and scratched her name where he indicated. The Dwarf accepted the paper, but remained by the table with an air of expectancy. Lex reached into his bag and withdrew a leather pouch from which he took a copper coin. The dwarf took the tip, pulled at his forelock and departed. Everyone stared at the mysterious object.

"Who knows I'm here?" Gloria wondered.

"Open it, girl," Polglase suggested.

Gloria untied the ribbon holding the wrapping paper in place and tore the covering away.

"It's a fruitbasket," Hannah stated the obvious. "Who's it from?"

Gloria plucked a thick envelope from its place between a pomegranate and something resembling a bosc pear, only blue. She broke the seal and withdrew a sheaf of rectangular pieces of parchment. She took the top sheet and unfolded it, reading to herself. Warlock began to investigate the wrapping paper, which rustled under his paws.

"Well?" Hannah demanded. "What's it say?"

Gloria stared at the paper without speaking. Hannah took it from her unresisting hand and read aloud.

"My dear Miss Robinette –" it read, in perfect American English,

May I be the first to welcome you and your family to Novagrove. I hope the enclosed items will ease your entry into our society and help you acclimate yourselves to your new home. I have taken the liberty of hiring a palanquin for your personal use until you get settled. The driver will facilitate the moving of your belongings and take you wherever you wish to go. Your carriage should be waiting for you by the time you have completed your dinner.

At your earliest convenience, I would like to discuss the purchasing of the commodity you brought with you from your world. Until then, consider the contents of the enclosed pouch as some 'walking around money.' Spend it in as profligate a manner as you see fit. There shall be plenty more where that came from.

Until we meet, I remain, yours truly,

--The Neaman

"How did he know?" Gloria asked, still visibly stunned.

"He is The Neaman," Lex said simply, as if that explained everything by itself.

Nate fished the pouch mentioned in the letter from the basket. He untied the drawstring and removed a fistful of coins, some crystalline hexagons inlaid with delicate tracings of silver circuitry, others slightly larger triangles containing threads of gold. He turned them over in his hands, regarding them avariciously.

"I want a pony," said Hannah.

"Congratulations," Polglase laughed. "You have friends in extremely high places."

"What are the other papers?" Lex asked. Gloria thumbed through them.

"They seem to be coupons," she answered. "Here's one for 20% off on rug and tapestry cleaning."

"What does palanquin mean?" Nate asked Lex.

"It means we ride in style." Lex stood from the table. "I believe our chariot awaits. Shall we continue our journey?" They all began heading for the door when a voice stopped them in their tracks.


Lex turned. A party of men and women waved their tankards in his direction and they spoke to him in the same language Gloria had heard before. "What do they want?" she asked.

"They request a song before I go. You don't mind?"

"I think we can wait five more minutes before setting out on the next phase of our adventure," she said. She retook her seat, as did the rest of their group. Lex found his mandojo in the recesses of his purse, checked the tuning, and considered for a moment.

"This is by a bard named Van Morrison on a world far from here," he announced. "I hope you find it suitable for the occasion."

With that said, he began to play.

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