Verse 6: THEN THE MORNING COMES
T'Lexigar woke from deep sleep, dimly aware of someone licking his right eyebrow. It was, on the whole, an odd but not unpleasant experience, and he decided to go with it for the moment. Most of his other sensations were rather less agreeable. He ached all over and was not sure where he was, aside from the fact that he was not in his own bed. What did I drink last night? he wondered. How much and with whom?
Then it all came crashing in on him: the poker game, the Forest Trolls, the fight, the chase, the vortex, the second fight, the woman… Ah, yes, the woman. Maybe the pretty woman in the helmet was doing the licking. Maybe she had some kind of eyebrow fetish. He opened one eye to check…
…then came fully awake with a start.
The creature ceased its ministrations and retreated slightly, allowing the Minstrel a better view of its face. Two beady black eyes ringed with dark circles regarded him, and a small wet black nose tentatively touched the Minstrel's. Slowly, so as not to startle the animal, T'Lexigar reached up and stroked its soft fur, then lifted it off his face. It was a chubby ferret, grey in coloration with a creamy undercoat, white paws, and a bandit facial design. It was also male. The ferret accepted his attentions placidly and he scratched it behind its tiny ears.
"Hello, little brother of Angira," T'Lexigar addressed the placid beast, invoking the ferret goddess known as the Guide of Worlds, "Have you come to lead me home?"
"Warlock, leave him alone!" a female voice scolded gently.
At the sound, T'Lexigar turned his head and saw the woman entering the room. He recognized her from the night before, although she was no longer wearing her helmet and was recognizably not a Dwarf but a Man. She was a redhead, he noted, with shortish hair and bangs that all but covered her forehead, stopping just above sylvan green eyes that shared one thing with her pet's: dark rings. In her case, though, they clearly indicated a lack of sleep. Despite her fatigue, she was very attractive, and she carried herself with the ease of a woman who knows she looks good and does not need to be reminded of it once an hour. She wore a fuzzy blue robe, held closed with a loosely-tied belt of the same material. It did little to cover her bare and shapely legs which ended in equally bare and shapely feet. She carried a steaming mug.
"I apologize, good lady," he said, sitting up. "I did not mean to get so familiar with your, um, familiar. But I am no Warlock; merely a Minstrel."
She smiled tiredly. "No, I was telling him to leave you alone. The little noodge's name is Warlock, and he shouldn't have woken you up. He loves climbing on furniture, and sometimes on the people using it." She eased herself into a nearby chair and sipped from the mug. T'Lexigar set the ferret down on the couch. The animal slid to the floor gracelessly, almost landing on its head, then waddled over to his mistress. He rested his head on one of her bare feet and lay there inert.
She took a long look at his bare chest. "Wow!" she said, then added, almost as an afterthought, "You heal quickly. Sorry ‘bout the shirt, but as you can see I managed to save the vest." And she gestured to the low table in front of the couch. "How are you feeling?" she asked. "And by the way… who the hell are you?"
"A thousand pardons, my lady," the Minstrel said. He stood and bowed. "My name is T'Lexigar Machallo. I am quite recovered from last night's battle, and am clearly in your debt. Might I, in turn, inquire as to the name of my benefactress?"
"Gloria," she replied, taken by his courtly manner. "Gloria Robinette. This is my house, and… what did you say your name was again?"
"T'Lexigar Machallo," he repeated.
She crinkled her nose. "Lexigar? What kind of name is that? Machallo sounds vaguely Italian, but I've never heard the name Lexigar before. Is it Serbian or Croatian or some other kind of Balkan? 'Cause your accent reminds me a little of that guy on the tube, whatshisname, plays a doctor, real good looking? Oh, never mind me. I tend to babble on and on when I'm nervous."
"I make you nervous?" the Minstrel asked. "How can I ease your mind?"
"You could sit back down for starters," she answered. "I'm getting a crick in my neck." He sat. "Much better. Now tell me where you came from."
"Allyn originally," he replied. "Now I am headquartered in Yorvadan."
"Yorvadan, Serbia?" she asked, sounding very much like she devoutly wished it to be true.
"I have never heard of this Serbia, but then I have never left Drigala Province. Perhaps it is somewhere else in Novagrove. Could you enlighten me as to my current whereabouts?"
"How you talk!" she laughed. "You're in Mystic... Mystic, Connecticut. Well, strictly speaking we're in Noank, but that's just part of Mystic. We're south of West Mystic, right on the…" she trailed off, aware that she was babbling again. "I've never heard of Yorvadan, but I've heard of Novgorod. Isn't it in Russia?"
"Not Novgorod," he corrected. "Novagrove."
"Oops," she apologized. "I always mangle foreign placenames. We have an atlas somewhere, probably in my sister's room, but I don't want to wake her." Gloria stared at him, taking a long drink. The silence grew between them, but not uncomfortably so, as she pondered her next line of inquiry. Diffuse sunlight shone through the drapes that covered one long wall and T'Lexigar surmised that it was not long after daybreak. He should pray, and soon.
Gloria took one more sip and broke the silence tentatively. "You have no idea where you are, do you?"
"The realm of a Mystic named Ken Atikut, you said. Perhaps he knows Shim Po, the Mystic who apparently sent me here, although I must admit his motives are a complete mystery. I should speak with this Ken Atikut. He might be able to shed some light on the subject. Can you arrange for me to meet with him?"
Gloria laughed again, a pleasing sound to the Minstrel's ears, though most of her words only served to confuse him further. "Connecticut's not a person, silly! It's a state, and Mystic is the name of our town!" She looked at him for a few more seconds, no doubt taking in his look of total befuddlement. "This is like shoveling sand against the tide. I really should get that atlas. Wherever you come from, your English is very good."
"My Ing-leash?" T'Lexigar repeated the unfamiliar word.
"Yes, you speak our language very well. I'm terrible with languages; I nearly flunked Spanish and all I know now is 'Mas cervezas, por favor' and 'Vaya con dios.' I really admire people who can handle themselves in several languages. It's so… cosmopolitan."
"My good lady Gloria, I am speaking Ganta, a language of the Dwarves. You are Weren; why do you not speak Seshnei or Harjo or... or one of the other Wer tongues?"
She digested that for a second, then shook her head and stood up. "Lexigar, I have no idea what you're talking about," she announced, "but that's about par for this course. The more you talk, the less I understand, and I suspect the feeling is mutual. When I get back from the kitchen, we will start over, and maybe this time it will make some sort of sense but I'm not holding my breath. I'm operating on little sleep, and am tempted to consider all this a dream."
She walked through an open doorway into an adjacent room, with the ferret trundling dutifully behind her. Part of the wall was missing, so he could see her open a white cabinet and remove a carton labeled Sealtest in Ganta letters. "Where are my manners?" she said. "I'm not being much of a hostess, am I? As long as I'm in the kitchen, would you like some tea? Or would you prefer coffee?"
T'Lexigar could not believe his ears. "Coffee?" he gasped, his voice tinged with awe. "Did you say you have coffee?"
"Sure. I've got some Folger's Crystals, and I just may have enough Blue Mountain left to make a cup or two. Let’s go for the good stuff. It won't take more than a few minutes." There was no reply. "Hello? Earth to Lexigar?" She looked over the counter at him. "I thought for a second that maybe you went back to sleep. You do want coffee or not?"
T'Lexigar regarded her with something approaching wonderment. "How did you get coffee?"
She took a small paper sack from the white cabinet. "There's a place in New London, a sort of combination bookstore and coffee shop." She poured some of the contents into a glass container, then turned a knob on what T'Lexigar assumed was a stove. She looked out at him, cocking her head to one side. "I've heard about food shortages in Russia, but one would think you hadn't had coffee in years."
"My lady Gloria…" he began.
"And knock it off with that 'my lady' business. I'm just Gloria."
"Gloria," he continued, "I have never had coffee before in my life. Moreover, I have never met anyone who has ever had coffee. The only reason I have even heard of coffee is because The Neaman has made it widely known that he will pay vast sums to any who can procure some for him. He developed a taste for it some years ago, and since the stuff grows nowhere in Novagrove nor any of the countless millions of realms connected to it, coffee is more valuable than any substance save iridium. And you bought it in a bookstore?"
They stared at each other for a very long moment. Then it was his turn to pierce the silence. "Gloria, I do not think I am in Novagrove anymore."
She digested that. "Novagrove isn't in Russia, is it?" she ventured at last, voice very soft. "It's another… planet?"
The Minstrel shook his head.
"Oh?" Her face broke into a smile. "What a relief! For a minute there, I –"
But he cut her off. "Unless I am sorely mistaken, I believe I come from another reality."
"Another reality." There was no question in her voice, but thousands in her eyes. "A place where there are monsters and magic and people with pointy ears who have never heard of Starbuck's."
"I know a Druid named Starbuck," he offered, trying to be helpful. "He lives in a cave in the north slope of Mount Jurisko and–"
"Shut up shut up shut up!" she interrupted, holding up both hands and making small pushing away motions with them. The Minstrel stopped talking, giving her the time she needed to order her thoughts
When she spoke again, it was barely more than a whisper. "I suppose on some level I knew that all along, what with the rampaging tree and the big swirly disk. Only I couldn't bring myself to accept it. I'd hoped there'd be a rational explanation for all this insanity, but that'd be asking too much. So here I am, serving coffee to a Minstrel from…" Gloria's voice had gradually grown louder and higher, and by now had started to squeak. She paused, took a deep breath, and composed herself. "Tell me straight… are you really from a different reality?"
He nodded slowly, wishing to soothe her distress. To that end, he made his next words as calm and reassuringly as he could. "Gloria, I come from the planet Kal, part of the system of worlds known as Novagrove. In my native language of Seshnei that means 'Shield of Heaven' and it lies at the center of all realities. I was running away from the Forest Troll when I was drawn against my will into a strange vortex which transported me from my world to yours. I assume that it was some variety of trans-dimensional tunnel, created by the Mystic Shim Po for purposes unknown. When you spoke to me, I thought you were speaking in the language of the Tazyr – who some call Dwarves – although that is plainly not the case. Why your language and Ganta are so alike is an enigma I cannot begin to unravel. I can only say I am grateful for the coincidence, and for the hospitality of your home. While I enjoy your company, I would dearly like to return to my world and my life, so if you could direct me to your world's Council of Mages, I would seek their assistance towards that end." He stopped and awaited her reply.
Gloria stood mute, until a shrill whistle broke through her wall of disbelief. She shook herself, grabbed the kettle from the stove and poured boiling water into the glass tube with a trembling hand. Some water sloshed over the side, and she blotted it absently with the sleeve of her robe.
"So," she said at last, "could you answer one more question for me?"
"If I can, I will," he promised.
She took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. "Do you take your coffee with milk, sugar or both?"
Gloria watched as he drank, clearly amused by the range of emotions playing across his face. In order, he felt astonished, enraptured, and finally enlightened. "I've never seen anyone enjoy a drink so thoroughly," she told him, "and I've seen sorority girls sampling their first Fuzzy Navels."
"This coffee is incredible," he marveled. "I feel doors opening in my mind I did not know were there."
"Wait 'til you try espresso," she said. "That will probably make you see God." She waited as he silently drained the cup, then without his asking refilled it.
"I can see why The Neaman holds it in such high regard," he said as he accepted the mug. "Drinking this is a religious experience. It must make your people incredibly wise."
"I don't know about that, but I've met enough people who say they're not fit company until they've had their first cup in the morning. Some computer programmers mainline the stuff, and there's a coffee pot in every place of business in this country."
"Amazing," he took another sip, then put the cup down. "My mind feels so alive."
"That's the caffeine buzz talking," she assured him, then frowned. He noticed her change in expression and looked at her inquiringly. She shook her head. "Nothing. I was just thinking of someone I know, and wish I didn't. So who is this Neaman character, and does he have a partner named Marcus?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing. Lame joke. We have a chain of stores called Neiman-Marcus, and I can see I'm going to have to watch what I say around you. There are so many references you won't get. I can't believe we come from two separate worlds and yet we share a common language! And you look so human, although the ears are a little wonky, no offense. I wonder if there are any less obvious physiological differences? This all seems so damn unreal, but I always try to believe six impossible things before breakfast, and I've almost reached my quota. So anyway… you were going to tell me about Neaman?"
"The Neaman," he corrected, "is an incomparably old, impossibly wise, and terrifyingly powerful Wizard. He started the Universe's first school of magic and founded the Grand Council of Mages, on which he still sits. He is also Chancellor of the Imperius, which makes him second only to the Imperior in temporal power. He also serves as Commissioner of the Sapphire Authority, tasked with interdicting any nefarious use of magic. There are many people named Neaman – which means “Witness” in the language of the Gods – throughout Novagrove, so we call him The Neaman to keep things straight. In fact, according to the official history, he was named after himself."
"'Tis true!" the Minstrel insisted. "He was born Neaman Herbert Varov –"
"What is wrong with Herbert?"
"Nothing, but –“
"Do you want to hear this story or not?"
She snorted, then waved a hand in his direction. "Please continue."
"Right," T'Lexigar paused to pet Warlock, who had fallen asleep in the folds of the blanket. "Anyway, when he was born, his mother, the Lady Shara Varov, Gods keep her, named him after the most famous Wizard who ever lived, a family friend who most believed recent dead. He spent his youth trying to live up to that name and was tutored by most of the great magical minds of his time, many of whom had studied under the dead family friend. Neaman Herbert had an older brother named Gemal – he of Accursed Memory, although he was not called that until later – who lost his sanity and humanity through delving too deeply into unspeakable magics. The Council of Mages and the Sapphire Authority moved against Gemal, and in the final confrontation, Gemal somehow sent his younger brother back in time, which is, as everyone knows, impossible. As it turns out, Neaman Herbert was sent way, way, back… to about twenty minutes before the creation of the First Universe. When Ule, the Primordial Manifestation of Knowledge and Keeper of the Record of All, came into being shortly thereafter, Neaman Herbert realized that he was in fact The Neaman. After all, the first line in the Cortex of Ule, which is the History of Everything, is 'And The Neaman said unto Ule: You are late!' So when Ule showed up, Neaman Herbert said 'You are late!' and closed the circle."
"Okay, that's six," Gloria declared. "Time for breakfast. How do you like your eggs? You do eat eggs where you come from?" He grinned and nodded. "Lexigar, there is something you have to know, and I don't think you're going to like hearing it. We don't have a local Council of Mages. We have a Chamber of Commerce whose website is mysticchamber.org, but despite that rather promising name I don't think they will be much help getting you back to Novagrove. The truth is we don't have magic here at all. Sure, people throw the word around a lot, but nobody really does it. Not the way you mean, at least."
"No magic?" the Minstrel repeated, crestfallen.
"None to speak of. You may be here a while."
He mulled that over. It made sense. He had noted an appalling paucity of mana in the environs, but had attributed that to a localized anomaly. Now it looked like the condition might be pandemic to this world.
"In that case, I really should pray," he told her, "since it looks like only divine intervention will see me home. In fact, I should have done so at daybreak, but I think under the circumstances the Gods will understand." He gently moved Warlock to the end of the couch, then got to his feet and stretched.
"Gods plural?" Gloria asked.
"Of course." He eyed her with some suspicion. The only monotheists he knew were the Shoqali, a thoroughly nasty bunch. "Do your people have only one?"
"Yes and no. It's complicated. I'll cook, you pray. Is there anything you need?"
"That I can provide," she said. "Let me open the drapes for you." She headed towards a long wall opposite the couch, stopping to move a wheeled chair out of the way so she could get to the pull chain.
"What is the purpose of that contraption?" T'Lexigar asked.
"That contraption is what allowed me to get your carcass into the house last night. Wasn't easy," she reported. "Good thing I've had practice carrying people. I put you in my bike's sidecar, and when we got home transferred you to this chair. Then I pushed you up the ramp and into the house. Anyway, doot'n doo doo, here comes the sun."
She pulled on the chain and, with a soft series of squeals, the curtains parted. The south side of the room consisted almost entirely of sliding transparent doors and the view was panoramic. "You know, even after all these years, I never get tired of this," she confided, looking out on the glistening blue expanse. Water stretched as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by a few small craft and distant islands. "That, my friend, is Fisher Island Sound. Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" she asked.
A strangled cry wrenched her attention from the ocean. All color had drained away from the Minstrel's face and his pallor shocked her. Worse still was the look in his eyes. The same man who had valiantly faced down a monster now looked terrified. Before she could react, his eyes rolled up in his head and he fainted dead away.
Gloria ran to his side, as did the ferret. She knelt and checked his pulse, which was racing. "You know, Warlock," she said, "this could get real old real fast."