Paul woke with his face buried in the pillow, stinking fit to wake the dead; his hangover only intensified the pain of his memories. He stuck his arm out and groped on the night table for a vial of healing potion, but he'd run out days ago and kept forgetting to buy more. "Shit, he mumbled, then winced as the word ricocheted around his skull. Stiffly he kicked the covers off and hauled himself up. He'd gone to bed fully dressed.
The room lurched; he swayed on the edge of the bed. His stomach churned like a volcano about to erupt. "Fuck, whyn't I get more? he moaned, holding his hand to his mouth as he staggered to the window and vomited into the yard. He heaved and heaved, trying to purge mental as well as physical poisons.
When his stomach had yielded all it couldwhich wasn't muchhe wiped his mouth on the last clean spot of a towel crusty with dried vomit. Then he drank from a pitcher of stale water, swilling it round his mouth and spitting out the window before swallowing any.
When he finished the water he looked at the door to his room. He didn't want to go out, no he didn't, but he wanted to leave so badly that already he was turning the knob and opening the door. Thank God! No one in the hallway, just food smells (making him gag); better yet, the bedroom doors were closed. Paul hurried to the stairs, keeping his eyes forward, but was unable to avoid suffering an image as a door scraped his peripheral vision:
Behind it, Ringo lying on his bed, eyes closed but hardly asleep, smiling, smiling, smiling; every so often a chuckle bubbles up; worse yet, sometimes but Paul jerked his thoughts away, concentrated furiously on how he was going to Taakan and check in at the Temple of Ardavat least the door was closed, he didn't have tohe had to see if the god had finished his researchsometimes the door wasn't closed, he had to walk by with his eyes shutyes, he had to go to the temple! Even when the door was open!
Paul bit his lip and started down the stairs. But as the main room came into view, he stiffened and gripped the banister with both hands. Ringo, far from being decently tucked away in his room, sat with his chair tilted against the wall, smiling. His eyes were wide open, but if he saw Paul he gave no sign. His attention was focused on a plate on the table with bread on it, and Paul watched it rise into the air and glide, wobbling, to hover unsteadily above Ringo's legs. But as Ringo reached for a piece of bread, the plate dropped, bounced off his knees, and hit the floor, sending slices, crumbs, and chips of pottery in all directions. "Shit, Ringo said mildly. He reached down, then laughed and clasped his hands firmly together in his lap. One piece at a time, the bread scooted back to the chipped plate; when they were all on, the plate rose and flew back to the table.
Paul's hands grew white from strangling the banister. His mouth was a thin hard line.
"Need a broom, Ringo murmured, turning to face one leaning in the corner. Like a witch's broom, it twitched and nodded in evident delight at being noticed. "C'mere, you! Ringo ordered cheerfully, then held still, and it came, rocking back and forth on its bristles like a broom from the Disney version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." It bowed, began to sweep. Soon it backed away from a neat pile of dirt and leaned against the table, lost what small life Ringo had given it as he shifted his attention to a dustpan that had been sitting in the corner behind the broom.
Oh, yes, Ringo was having fun.
Paul moaned softly as he took another step down. Ringo looked upthe dustpan clattered to the floorand waved grandly. "Hi, Paul! Have a seat! A chair pulled away from the table and skidded to the bottom of the stairs.
Hot, brilliant envy lanced through Paul, though outwardly he kept a bland, slightly annoyed expression. How long had it been? How much time had passed since that terrible day when three of them had become wildly, ecstatically magical while Paul was left as impotent and powerless as a corpse? When they played in the heavens while he remained anchored to the ground, where he always had been and always would be?
"No, Paul whispered, answering much more than Ringo's careless query. Ringo wasn't even looking at him any more, had refocused on the dustpan. "No. He brushed past the chair and passed through the door into the grass and sunshine. Bitter anger and jealousy roiled in his stomach, but neither of these produced the glistening in his eyes; it was shame that did that, the humiliation of knowing that someone had decided he wasn't worthy of magic.
After that day, which had culminated with Paul being unfortunate witness to George's first change (hed been peeping out the kitchen door), he'd hid in his room and tried to sort out his emotions. And he'd decided, logically enough, It's my turn next. There was no reason for the ball to stop rolling, now that three of the pins had been knocked down. So he sat back and eagerly awaited his magic, imagining all the wonderful things he might get.
And he waited, watching the others play,
and waited, growing impatient,
and waited, as three, four, five days slipped by,
and waited, desperately wandering around Ta'akan as George had when he got his ring, then rushing back to the house, terrified that magic might show up there while he was away,
and waited, and waited, and waited,
and gave up.
Why not me? Why them but why not ME? he'd cried many times to the heavens. He mumbled it now, his eyes averted, knowing how useless the question was. If no one was listening, what was the point? And if someone was listening, he/she/it was hardly likely to offer an answer at this late date.
Oh, it hurt, it hurt so much .
The sky was cloudless, and a shadow passed over him.
Paul's gaze lifted; to look up martyred him, for too well he knew John was overhead, naked but for a pair of cutoffs made from George's discarded jeansthe last vestige of anything Earthlike about him, unless you counted his glasses, which he now wore tied around his head so they wouldn't fall offand brown from his beautiful windburn/tan. He wheeled over the front yard, thumbs hooked through the belt loops of his cutoffs, oblivious to the world below. Bitterly Paul stared at the blue-tipped white wings taking up fifteen feet of sky, the hard ropy muscles on John's arms and legs, the weightlifter's chest that seemed to grow larger each day, and the goddamned smile that everyone had except Paul!
"Hi, Paul! John yelled, swooping past. He didn't really see Paul. None of them had looked at Paul for weeks.
Paul whipped around and walked very quickly for the forest, breaking into a trot when another tear threatened to emerge. He dove into the trees, but he could not run far; he barely had the energy to reach a clearing, where he flopped down on the grass and panted. Strength came slowly. He could ill afford to lose what he'd vomited away that morning. He couldn't remember his last real meal.
As he rested, his mind squirmed with impatience. The forest wasn't his place, especially not the isolated section he had wandered into. It was George's place, and sometimes Paul was lucky and avoided him. That was the best he could expect from luck these days.
What made things even worse was that Paul knew quite acutely what he was missingmore so than just watching the others frolic. Because he hadnt just passively accepted the decision of the gods (or whomever) that magic wasnt for him. After it became clear that nothing was forthcoming, he had grabbed Grunnel and pleaded with the illusionist to teach him magic. The man was willing and cast upon Paul the teaching spell, making him able to sense the raw unformed magic, the kvar, around him. As the spell took effect, Paul felt like hed been immersed in warm water, and from then on he was always conscious of magic in the air, much as hed have been conscious of water pressing against his body if hed waded through a swimming pool. Then Grunnel had held Pauls hand and cast a light spell, and Paul had felt the kvar flow into the illusionists body, bend and twist, and emerge as a ball of light in Grunnels other hand. The illusionist had also explained that more advanced spells sent the magic through various materials, like diamond, for further changes. While spells required no magic words per se, casters often vocalized, sang, grunted, waved their arms, etc. as an aid to memory.
Paul had absorbed it all gleefully. There wasnt anything mysterious or cosmic (or soul-compromising) about magic; manipulating it was akin to running an imaginary thread through a series of imaginary needles in the correct pattern in perfect time to a guitar solo. Hed need to practice, of course, but he was confident that within a short time hed be dazzling the others with a repertoire of tricks. And in the long run, who knew how good he could get?
Grunnel had cast the light spell a few more times so Paul could get familiar with the spells pattern. Then Paul, full of excitement, cast it himself.
And he passed out.
He had awoken flat on his back with the taste of a healing potion in his mouth and Grunnel kneeling over him. Paul had feltGod!like hed run a marathon. What had happened?
Helping Paul into a chair, Grunnel speculated that because Paul came from a nonmagical world, his body was not accustomed to channeling magical energies, so magic was ultra-fatiguing for him.
But what about the others? Paul had cried. What about Ringo?
But Grunnel had no answer for Paul. And he wouldnt teach Paul more magic. If a mere light spell knocked him out, something more powerful would kill him. Grunnel would only continue the lessons if Paul got good enough at the light spell that he could cast it without fainting.
And thats when Paul truly gave up hope.
By the time Paul felt ready to continue on, no one had come, and he got up shakily and continued, glad that George at least had the decency to play in secret most of the time.
Then he encountered another clearing, where a full-length mirror leaned against a tree. A fly buzzed around the mirror, and landed on it for a moment before taking off again. Paul ducked down behind a bush and closed his eyes, bracing himself for the inevitable
George stood before the mirror, rubbing his arms. "Whew. I'm not gonna make a career out of that one! Four legs are bad enough. And I hate being that small anyway.
Paul gritted his teeth and opened his eyes, martyring himself again. He crawled around to get a better view. George stood with his left side to Paul and didn't noticeor didn't acknowledgethe slight rustling noises that betrayed Paul's presence. "Well, what now? George asked his smiling image in the mirror. "What haven't I seen meself as? He pondered, then grinned and backed away from the glass.
Paul braced himself -
The transformation was too swift for the human eye to follow; a flash of light that wasn't really light, and George became a magnificent red stag with sixteen-point antlers, prancing and nosing around the mirror. Nothing about him suggested that a human lay beneath his ruddy coat; his great liquid eyes were as empty of intelligence as any deer's. Only this complete separation between George and stag made it tolerable for Paul to watch. A humanized animal, a Disney deer, would have been just too hideous.
No warning this time. Jolted, Paul fell on one elbow, but recovered, burning with anger. Oh, he hated John and Ringo, but George was the worst; his magic came from a ring, a removable, shareable object. Which, of course, he had never offered to let Paul try.
"I can't think of anything different to be, George complained to the mirror. He paced with his hands clasped behind his back; Paul saw him rub the green ring with his thumb. Then George smiled slowly, mischievously. With a furtive glance around, he *ping* became nothing, as far as Paul could tell, except that his hair seemed darker, his shape a little different; then Paul caught a glimpse of what was in the mirror, and he almost screamed.
George had become... Paul.
"Did me voice change? the apparition said, and Paul's voice rang through the trees. With a wicked grin, George/Paul began singing "Yesterday," then stopped and winked at the mirror. "I wonder if I could collect his royalties?
Paul had to force himself to stay hidden. It wasn't enough that they trampled on his mind; no, they had to steal his body as well, take what little he had left for themselves. But why not? He was just a lousy shirt for George to change into, nothing more.
He couldn't suppress a whimper then, and George/Paul swung around startled, then saw Paul. Their eyes locked like some surrealist mirror, the copy standing embarrassed, the real thing lying in the dirt, furious. Then George/Paul mumbled "Uh, hi, Paul... *ping* He became himself again, grinning sheepishly, or perhaps not so sheepishly. "I, uh -
Paul, with as icy an air as he could manage, got up and walked away. He would ignore George, cut him dead, if George ran after him with apologies and offers to use the ring.
Deep down, of course, he hoped George would. But he knew George wouldn't. And he was right.
Some time later Paul sat in a corner of the only tavern in Ta'akan that would admit him as dirty and smelly as he was: the Fish Eye, a tirin place down by the docks and too close to the fish merchants for most other Taakanians. It was decorated with laminated fish eyes and fish, dried seaweed, and sawdust on the floor, and its patrons were mostly sailors and fishers. Except that fights rarely took place (and those that occurred were a lot clumsier), it was just like any skahs tavern. Certainly the tirin customers hadnt taken Paul to their bosoms simply because he too was a tirin. They were just as good as the skahs at asking him if he sold anything, and then ignoring him afterwards. And the booze was just as good at getting him stinking drunk.
If only Ardav would come up with a method of getting him home. But Paul wasn't going to hang his hat on that vague chance. Better if he dared leave the others and live by himself in Taakan, or, better yet, in one of the other two cities Grunnel had mentionedCoarse or whatever it was called. He would fill his pockets with gold and the most valuable-looking gems and jewelry, grab his guitar, and strike out at night, make his way to Coarse, take a room at an inn, figure out something to do.
But what would happen when he ran out of money? He didnt want to spent his nights playing music for meals and tips. Hell, he could barely look at his guitar any longer, much less pick it up and play it. And oh horrors, what if the others came looking for him? (Would they even notice that hed gone?) What could he say to them? I thought Id better come here to see if someone could send us home. Someone needs to keep up the quest, yknow. Right. Maybe they couldnt read his mind (and was Paul sure that they couldnt? What if Ringodont go there! Dont go there!), but they knew where Paul stood in relation to them.
They were probably laughing about it amongst themselves right now. Ha-ha, Paul didnt get any magic, what a loser. Ha-ha, Paul cant stand to see us, so he skipped town. Ha-ha, Paul thinks he can hide from us, but were just playing with him, we can find him whenever we reckon hes worth the bother.
What if he wasnt worth the bother?
Bastards, Paul muttered, glaring round to include all women and all men in that statement. "Goddamn assholes. Couldnt do that to me on Earth. Not me. On Earth, I beat them, he told a weather-beaten woman at the next table. "I'm richer than all three of 'em put together. That means I'm smarter. Got it up here. He tapped his head. The woman ignored him. "I don't need magic, I already own the whole bloody world. They don't have everything, so they have to have magic. They gotta get up to my level by havin magic! Paul slammed his mug down, slopping liquor on the table.
The other patrons, mostly regulars, had long ago learned the words of this song, and Paul heard a few men at the bar parroting him. "FUCK YOU! he shouted across the room, glad of even this attention. If someone would just talk to him, ask him how he was or the time of day, or even insult him back! He was even getting to the point where he wished someone would take enough interest in him to beat him up or rob him. But the server set down fresh mugs and took his money in silence, and (as he had learned long ago) he was not at all challenging enough for the sailors or even the thieves.
And Grunnel, the one person left on Chou who still wanted to talk to Paul . Paul couldnt bear to be around him any more. The spellcasting debacle, the constant questions about Earth that only intensified Pauls longing for home and familythe illusionist was as bad as the other three, and so Paul had avoided him as much as possible, snubbed him if their paths crossed, replied in monosyllables if forced to speak to him.
And now, of course, Grunnel didnt try to talk to him any more.
Oh, Paul was so terribly, terribly lonely.
Hed never been away from Linda for so long, much less cut off from her and his children so thoroughly. When he first arrived on Chou, he hadnt missed them as muchhadnt had time to miss them as much. Between trying to find a way home, all the Idri chaos, and (he had to admit) the presence and comradeship of the others, hed been able to ignore, or at least back-burner, his feelings about them. But with the protective lid of purposeful distraction removed, his simmering emotions had boiled over.
How was Linda? How were his kids? Did they think he was kidnapped? Dead? What was Linda doing to find him? Did she miss him as much as he missed her? Was she crying herself to sleep? Did she yearn hopelessly over her wedding ring, like Paul wished he could do with his lost one? Did she run to the door thinking he was home every time she heard a noise outside? Did her heart skip a beat every time the phone rang?
What if he died on this crazy planet without ever seeing his family again?
"Gimme thief, he ordered of the server.
Thief: a wine that stole memories. Not permanently; the drinker lounged in happy mindlessness until something triggered his memories. But the trouble with forgetting was that remembering hurt all over again. Usually Paul preferred straight intoxication, dulling the pain rather than putting it off. But today the pain was too intense; he needed a few hours of peace at the expense of tomorrow.
So Paul drank thief, gradually forgetting John and George and Ringo and Earth and his family and even his own name. He passed out several times, woke up, and drank more. Twice, having forgotten that he was a vegetarian, he ate from a communal plate of fish sandwiches.
It was always a toss-up as to whether he would run out of money or memory first. That day it was money, and he staggered out with a vague feeling that he should go home. Wherever that was.
The next thing Paul knew, he was lying in bed. It was night outside. He tried to remember if he'd gotten home by himself or someone had helped him. But he decided it didn't matter and drifted back to sleep, slightly disturbed by something unpleasant that tickled at his memory.
The next morning, Paul woke with his face buried in the pillow, stinking fit to wake the dead; his hangover only intensified the pain of his memories .