"More tea?" The voice dragged Alice back to reality and she looked up with a start at the waitress standing over her waiting patiently with a steaming tea kettle.
"Yes, thank you," she mumbled distractedly, quickly turning away again. Her eyes wandered to the door and paused automatically on its knob, waiting still for that moment in which it would creak to life and begin turning, so full of promise, promise that would quickly become mockery as it would once again admit someone who's not him into the dim cafe.
Tea poured into her cup and swirled like an earthy, brown nebula as the waitress addressed her again. "Are you going to wait for him all night?" she asked matter-o-factly, as if such a thing would not surprise her.
"Wait for who?" asked Alice, arching an eyebrow in surprise.
"Beats me," the waitress shrugged. "Whoever it is you're waiting for. You've been sitting there staring at the door like that for the better part of two hours." She tapped her chin and looked past Alice. "And it's not a very pretty door."
Alice sighed defeatedly and rocked back in her chair. "All right," she admitted, crossing her hands behind her head. "I am waiting for someone, an old friend."
"A friend?" the waitress asked with a sly wink.
"A friend." Alice repeated dryly.
The girl - Alice estimated her to be maybe twenty-two or twenty-three - bit her lip awkwardly. "I see... But an important friend nonetheless?"
Alice reached for her cup and took a sip of tea, then squarely met the misty blue eyes of the waitress. Just how my sister's eyes were, she remembered with a faint shock, shaking her head to close the floodgate of grim thoughts that surged open in the wake of that observation. "A friend I grew up with went the past six years without seeing," Alice finally replied. "He's traveling north from New Tirol. He wired ahead from there that he would be on time, and that's no more than ten miles to the south. It makes no sense for him to be two hours late... so I have to say I'm getting worried." It felt good to get that out, to acknowledge that the anxiety. It brought her fears right to the forefront of her mind, where they could be whittled away at by her optimistic side: He made it a hundred miles from Wintersea to New Tirol without issue. He's been on the road half of his life. He knows what he's doing. Right?
The waitress clucked and waved dismissively. "No need for worries, there's nothing dangerous down there and it's a well traveled road. He probably sat down for a break and fell asleep. It happens all the time. People get awfully tired walking around everywhere, you know." She glanced quickly out the window, as if she were joining Alice in her wait.
Alice just nodded, feeling better but still not totally convinced. She heard the door swing open, but it was only a man holding it for a woman to leave the cafe. He left behind her, and Alice glanced around the room. It was empty. She was the only customer left, sitting alone and passing the hours staring at the door.
The waitress seemed to have noticed too. "It's getting late and we close in half an hour," she reminded Alice, pursing her lips slightly.
"I realize that." Alice muttered tersely.
The waitress just smiled warmly at her. "So I'll be off of work about fifteen minutes after that and if he still isn't here I'll get my boyfriend and we will go look for him, okay? Better if you don't go running around alone at night."
The offer took Alice out of the blue and she finally recognized the concern in the other woman's eyes as genuine, not a polite facade as she had so quickly assumed. When did I become so cynical, she wondered grimly. "I appreciate it," she answered honestly, "but I can manage alone. What's your name, anyhow?" she asked, standing up and proffering her hand.
But their introduction was interrupted as the door creaked open and their eyes were instantly attracted to the figure it revealed: a tall young man in a threadbare, midnight blue traveling cloak that reached to his knees. Candlelight glistened from his oiled, ghostly white hair as he carefully shut the door behind him, lay his pitch-black walking stick against the wall, and approached their table, his light, measured steps hardly making a sound even on the cranky wooden floorboards of the cafe. On his back rode an enormous hide backpack, its bottom resting against his thighs and its top protruding above his shoulders. His crescent moon of a smile widened with each step and his stars of eyes grew ever brighter.
"Berlioz!" Alice leapt towards him and almost knocked him off balance with her embrace, her hands awkwardly struggling to reach other around that massive backpack. "Where have you been?!" Relief warmed her like hearthfire after a storm. "I've been waiting for two hours!"
"It's good to see you too..." he said softly in that voice she'd always loved, that everyone had always loved. Smooth, steady, with of a hint of mystery that carried secrets bigger than them all. Somehow, just listening to him speak could make one feel small and insignificant, and yet part of a miraculous whole that lay just beyond understanding. That voice had cut through indifference, soothed worries, and curbed wrath. It was just what she needed. "There was a fork in the road and it wasn't on my map, I took my best guess, and I was wrong. But, here I am. And here you are. All's well that ends well, right?"
Alice looked up at him, perplexed. "Between here and New Tirol? There's no fork in the road. Just ten straight miles of dirt and a few farms. I was down there a few days ago."
Berlioz's expression suddenly darkened, the dance of shadows flitting across his face taking on a sinister cadence. "I had feared that," he whispered. "Strange things have been happening to me lately, more than usual."
"Strange things?" Alice asked curiously.
Berlioz seemed to quickly wrench his smile back to the surface. "Ah, it's really no matter," he assured her. "I'm more concerned with how you've been getting on. It must be difficult without her."
"It is," Alice admitted, allowing the topic to change without realizing it. "It gets easier every day, but somehow that's painful on its own. I'm getting on much better than Mom at least. She's hardly left her house since."
Berlioz removed his backpack and they took seats at the table. The same waitress from before came to pour tea for the both of them. It was already past closing time, but she didn't say a word, just winked. They talked of the good and the bad, the interesting and mundane, everything that couldn't be expressed properly by telegram: old memories, old friends, old places. Alice had been afraid she'd end up crying on his shoulder, but just the opposite happened, and her sorrows evaporated, though she could still feel them floating above ready to rain back down.
Alice stirred her tea absentmindedly with a spoon. "You mentioned strange things happening to you? Like what?"
"Oh, nothing much," he chuckled. "Like I said, it's no matter."
"Stop that," she scowled at him. "I know you better than that, you looked positively disturbed when I told you there's no fork in the road. You know I'm not going to laugh at you. Or let you get away without telling me."
Berlioz considered for a second. "I suppose. The thing is, I don't really understand it myself and I don't know how well I can explain it if I have no explanation for it... Somewhat of a paradox, no?"
"Somewhat of an excuse more like."
Berlioz shrugged. "Very well. I guess I should start with why I'm here in the first place then..."
It was early on a mid-spring morning, as beyond the veil of clouds the sun emerged from its slumber and threw its blue light into the all-encompassing wall of pearly white. Berlioz had already awoken an hour before, rolled up his bivy sack, and returned yawning to the road. It was still very dim, but his eyes were well-adapted. Around him stretched an illimitable infinity of tall, snaky, clay-colored grass.
Dad, what do you miss most about Earth? He'd asked his father once when he was very young. There were plenty of things Berlioz could have imagined missing, the sun being one of them, but his father's answer caught him by surprise: The grass. It was soft, and green as emerald, no, greener. It felt so natural... standing on the grass there, barefoot, it reminded me that I was Earth's child, made me feel connected to it all. He had stared across the room with a faraway look in his eyes. That's what I miss most about Earth. Grass under my feet. Real grass... The grass here feels like bullwhips made of hay...
That description had sunk deep into Berlioz's psyche, nestling into that corner of his mind where he kept his fantasies and imagined sensations of that hallowed place across the stars which was quickly becoming legendary among those who were never there or couldn't remember it. He had never again felt quite right rolling around in the wood chips that substituted for such grass in his town's playgrounds. The grass of this world - the bullwhips made of hay - grew about a foot and a half tall, was about as thick as an index finger, and if one were to cut it it would die and leave behind a yard blanketed by decaying plant matter until the next batch grew in. The trees were a somewhat different matter. They had the same rough, hay-like texture as the grass, but their bark was one continuous, tough, penetration-resistant shell, and you could sit against them without fear of insects coming out for lunch. The individual leaves were more or less like those of the trees on Earth, although the blue light of the sun, even after being dimmed to a fraction of its full power as it struggled through the thick clouds, lent them a distinct turquoise hue. And each tree here had many more leaves than trees on Earth, on larger, much longer branches that spread them in a thick dome large enough to trap sufficient light from the dim glow of the clouds. His father had even preferred the trees here, but Berlioz couldn't help but imagine how grand they must have been on Earth, just because they were on Earth.
So caught up in the trance of the journey, Berlioz hadn't even seen the tree beside the road until its shadow fell across him. He didn't notice the man sitting against it either, and almost jumped as he suddenly heard a voice.
"At last. You look like Berlioz Chancel, son of the jeweler, Arthur Chancel. Is that right?" the man asked as his eyes eagerly searched Berlioz's face. He was an old man, probably over 70, and his teeth were spaced with gaps like a picket fence. His hair was thin and grey, and along his face ran a network of cracks and channels. Nonetheless, he appeared strong and independent, and Berlioz guessed he was one of those farmers who seemed to live forever, plowing fields well into their eighties. His grass-stained overalls did nothing to detract from that assumption. He swayed slightly, like a reed in the wind, but his veined hands were steady as stone.
Berlioz left the road and stopped where the man's legs rested among the grass before nodding respectfully and answering. "Indeed I am, sir. Can I help you?"
The old man was silent for a moment and then broke into a spell of throaty laughter. "You look confused. Never been flagged down on the road?"
Berlioz prided himself on having an excellent poker face, and the acuteness of the observation bewildered him. "No sir, I'm not used to being recognized. My father, perhaps, but not me, not here."
"Well son," the man started seriously. "I've been waiting for you. I have a small problem... See, there was a jeweller near here, you may have heard of him, Zaffron the Elder?" He cocked his head expectantly.
Berlioz nodded. His father had always kept tabs on the competition across the entire continent. According to him, most craftsmen were content to dedicate themselves to their craft day in and day out. But the truly successful artisans were those who could monitor and adapt to the changing landscape of their craft. And they were few. "Yes sir, I've heard of him. Word is he had a gambling issue and his creditors finally came to settle the score."
"Aha! So you've heard. Indeed, that is precisely what happened, and just a few days before I was going to commission a necklace for my granddaughter who is getting married before long. And therein lies the problem. So," the old man crossed his hands in his lap and looked up at Berlioz as if he were about to petition him really nicely. "That leaves me with no gift for my daughter and not much time. Your father is now the nearest jeweler of quality. But he's not so near that I can leave my farm for long enough to make the journey to him."
Berlioz realized what the man was getting at. "Well sir," he began, carefully wording his rejection. "I can't accept a job for my father, he chooses his own work, and turns down most jobs he's offered. Generally, customers come to our shop, we show them what we can do, my father sketches out a design for them, and if things are agreeable to all parties we then get to work. So I fear I can't be of much help to you."
The old man laughed again, so hard he lost his position and had to shift himself to get comfortable again. Berlioz couldn't imagine what could be so funny and wanted nothing more than to be back on his way, but he waited patiently for the man to finish wheezing and continue the conversation. "I'm afraid I've taken a bit of a penchant for rambling in my old age. You misunderstand me. It's all already settled! I sent your old man a telegram and we had some back and forth and he told me that if I can somehow manage to find and pay you, we'd have a deal." He reached into a small sack beside him and pulled out an even smaller cloth, drawstring bag. It clinked suggestively as it dangled in his hand "In this pouch are ten pounds of gold kaspars. The agreed upon sum. I'm just supposed to pass it off to you."
Berlioz started slightly. Ten pounds of gold? No wonder father agreed... It was an outlandish sum for anyone. Even among his father's richest clientele hardly anyone would be willing to pay that much. Yet here was an elderly farmer on the side of the road nonchalantly handing him such an enormous amount. "Well then sir... If you've made a deal with my father already then that's an entirely different matter. Of course I'll accept your payment."
"Excellent!" the old man exclaimed cheerily. "Very, very excellent." With surprising speed he tossed the sack of coins to Berlioz, who barely caught it in both hands and barely avoided falling on his face with his backpack pressing him into the grass like cheese in a grater.
Berlioz quickly re-secured his footing, found a safe place in his backpack for the gold, and bowed shallowly towards the man. "Well sir, is there anything else I might do for you?"
The old man just shook his head, satisfied. "I suppose you could go a bit easier on the manners but besides that, I agree that we're square."
After a polite handshake and a wellwish, Berlioz was back on his way home towards Wintersea.
"That's not that strange," Alice complained, her arm serving as her pillow as she lazily stirred her tea. She'd had her cup refilled twice as Berlioz related his tale. The caffeine wouldn't help her get to sleep that night, but she figured accepting the refills would help prevent the two of them from getting thrown out of the cafe.
"You don't think so?" Berlioz smirked. His hands were folded in front of him and he was leaned far over the table, his attention one-hundred percent on his audience. "Pray tell, where then does a farmer get money like that and how did he know when I would pass by?"
Alice shrugged. "Inheritance, luck." She laughed lightheartedly as Berlioz's expression turned sour. "All right, all right, it's a little strange, but I've come to expect stranger from you. Stories about premonitions come true, forks in the road that don't actually exist, and the like."
A devilish look stole across Berlioz's face. "Well then, I'd be glad to show you something that doesn't exist instead." He scooted his chair back noisily, stood up, and gestured for her to follow. "Come on, if that story doesn't perk your interest, this one sure as heck will."
Outside evening had surrendered to night, but the unbroken dome of clouds above still glowed faintly under the light of moons and stars floating silently, invisibly in the unfathomable blackness beyond. Lanterns hung from cottages and trees and the dirt roads of the town were traveled solemnly by the flickering shadows they cast. The breeze played an amorous game with Alice's chocolate locks, and Berlioz threw up his hood to prevent it from doing the same to him. He worries about his hair more than I do... Alice thought. Then again, delivering jewelry to weddings does require certain care.
He led her a little ways on the path north out of town, past shuttered homes and sleepy shops, and then along the old jetrail tracks into the forest and around a bend until they were alone with nothing but the trees to bear witness to whatever he had in mind. He turned to her and grinned a nervous grin, a grin dominated by excitement but shadowed by a modicum of fear. She couldn't ever remember seeing such an expression on his face. "Ready?" he whispered softly.
"What is it?" she asked, confused.
"Don't say anything please, just give me a few seconds." He closed his eyes and cupped his hands together, as if he were hiding something inside. His lips moved, forming words, but no sound came out, and his head inclined slowly towards his hands. After a few moments his eyes flashed open again and he looked back up at her, his grin now giddy and triumphant. He quickly pulled his hands apart and dozens of little lights exploded from his grip, hovering in the air around them, buzzing, flickering, and slowly flying away.
Alice watched as the fireflies disappeared into the woods, her sense of childish wonder gradually waning and being replaced by a sense of confusion. She spun back to Berlioz. "What was that?" she demanded. She looked around him, not knowing what she was looking for, something to explain the trick.
Berlioz, who had been watching her reaction intently, seemed to be pleased with it and suddenly exploded in exultant laughter, pumping a fist in the air. "You saw it too! Yes!" He jumped forward and enveloped her in a hug, kissing her on the cheek and then jumping away to spin in a frantic dance of victory. Alice just looked on, her mind working full time to puzzle out what the heck was going on.
Berlioz came down somewhat from his artificial high, his chest still heaving and his eyes still shining. "How did I do that? Magic!"
Alice waited a moment for the rest of the explanation, but it didn't come. She giggled indulgently. "No, really though. It's a neat trick."
"I'm not messing with you, Alice, that was magic. Perhaps not the most convincing demonstration of it, but I'm improving. I thought I was seeing things again, worse than ever, but you just proved that it's real. Real magic. " His eyes radiated authenticity, and in that moment she knew it was true.
"But..." she suddenly felt dizzy and leaned against a tree to support herself. "Magic's not real..." she insisted numbly.
He sighed solemnly and gazed towards the Cloudwall, as if including the entire universe in his audience. "You've been raised to adulthood convinced that magic is not real. It's not easy to reject the wisdom of millenia. But trust me Alice, magic is real. And you've witnessed it. And it's getting stronger."
She knew it was true, and she knew it wasn't. She'd seen it with her own eyes, she'd felt it, and yet everything else she'd seen in her life thus far had begun and ended without a vanishing trace of anything that looked like magic. If magic was real, it was weak, unnecessary, and inconsequential. If magic was real, it was a fatal flaw in a world that seemed so well explained. If magic was real... "Can... can you teach me?" She heard herself ask. She felt like she was on autopilot, an alien part of her mind taking control of her voice.
"I don't think so, Alice," Berlioz murmured remorsefully. "All I can tell you is: The journey is the end. I found it because I looked for it. I spent a decade searching for it, and in the end it was right there all along, and I only needed to recognize it."
"There must be more to it than that."
Berlioz shrugged. "That's the kind of thinking that will close you to it. Why does there need to be more to it? I could try to get you thinking in the right way, maybe, it would be an interesting experiment. But that will need to be on the way home. I missed the caravan out of here and I doubt I could catch up if I waited even a single day." He smiled crookedly at her. "Now I feel guilty, springing this on you and then having to disappear."
"You're leaving? Now?" Alice asked incredulously.
"I have to, I'm sorry." He bowed his head and the darkness hid his expression, but she could hear grief in his voice. "But I'll be back in less than a couple of weeks. You can show me your novel and I'll show you my magic!"
Alice didn't know what to say, she almost felt betrayed. Berlioz waited for an answer, some sort of acknowledgement of agreement, he seemed to her now a shadow, surrounded by darkness and fading away into it, escaping her grasp, melding with the unknown, into that shadowy underside of reality which avoided human reason and mocked attempts to uncover it. "All right," she whispered weakly, not really meaning it.
He stepped forward and wrapped her in a friendly hug. "Until then."
She said nothing, just watched with detachment as he left along the tracks, his silhouette soon indistinguishable from the surrounding night.