We’re rational adults. We’re educated. We have the facts. If we want more facts, we have the internet. We’ve got everything we need to agree – and yet we disagree. How do we manage it?
You’d think it would be much easier to agree than to disagree. Look at this liberal democracy of ours. We share a culture of inclusivity; we ban prejudice; we embrace difference; we congratulate ourselves on being–
“Any chance you could hurry this up? He’s polishing the lamp.”
“I know you think this is just my waffly bit, but–”
“I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry.”
“–it’s an integral part of what I’m trying to–“
“I said I’m sorry.”
“–achieve here. To have a platform and not to use it is to–”
Pipsqueak had used his sleeve to bring the side of the lamp to a shine. In the brightly polished oval shape he could see his own face and, behind him, the roof of the tent.
He could still hear the two voices in the lamp.
If there were two genies, one could look after Myrtille – but perhaps he had to polish the whole thing before they'd appear.
He rummaged in his rucksack and brought out his spare long-johns. He wrapped the lamp in them and polished furiously with both hands, reminded of how sometimes he would dry Myrtille’s hair after she’d done her thing with that week’s newly launched shampoo and the strategically placed leaves in the forest glade with the sparkly sunlit waterfall and that weird music they always insisted on having.
Pipsqueak stopped polishing. Sometimes, after the sitar players and the choral singers and the shampoo promoters had left, he and Myrtille would have wild animal sex in the undergrowth before washing off in the waterfall and letting the sunlight dry them off – except for Myrtille’s hair, which always needed extra rinsing and then furious drying with a towel to get rid of (first) the itch of the shampoo and then (secondly) the lustrous sheen.
Pipsqueak held up the lamp and inspected it. Perhaps a little fine work in the difficult-to-get-at bits around the handle, but overall – yes, he’d done a good job. He stared into his own eyes.
And then – pouf! There was a sudden – pouf! – in the air and–
“You’re not alone. You’d be surprised how many authors don’t know how to describe that sound.”
–a sudden release in the air, a release of pressure, like a bubble popping, ears clearing, a pulse, a heartbeat, a kind of–
“Eek!” said Pipsqueak.
He was staring into eyes not his own.
The eyes stared back.
And then – something else happened.
One moment, Pipsqueak was staring into an unfamiliar pair of eyes – green eyes with hazel flecks, big pupils, slightly bloodshot whites, small framed windows somehow fixed over them – and that was bad enough.
But the next moment, a large rectangular panel had been ripped out of the fabric of reality, right in front of him, and he was staring through the gap at a bearded figure, strangely dressed, same windows on his eyes, seated on a horse.
"Aaaargh!" said Pipsqueak.
“Sorry we’re late,” said the figure. “But good job on the lamp.”
“Oh genie,” said Pipsqueak, because he wasn’t stupid.
How can I help?" said the genie.
Pipsqueak listened to his own heartbeat returning to normal. He stared at the genie and the genie stared at him.
"I thought the Queen getting ahead of you was a nice touch," said the genie. "Bit spur of the moment, but hey, that's the way I write."
"I know that road," said Pipsqueak.
“Yes, we’re right behind you. Wouldn’t do to catch up, though.”
The genie made a complicated series of gestures with both his hands, said something that sounded a lot like “Whoo, whoo, shazzang!” and all of a sudden Pipsqueak was looking through the gap in reality at a tropical beach.
The sun was setting. Twangy music played in the background. A woman knelt in the shallow water and worked shampoo into her hair. There were no leaves. Pipsqueak watched her for a long moment, then glanced at Myrtille, who was still asleep.
While he’d been distracted, an argument had started up on the other side of the gap in reality.
“Think about the debate they’ll be having tomorrow morning! That’s the refusal of the call. This is the meeting with the mentor – and that’s supposed to be me.”
“But he’s got the lamp and I’ve got to–”
“Edgalcius?” said Pipsqueak, leaning forward. “What are you doing there?”
The genie – and with him, to Pipsqueak's astonishment, Edgalcius – had been standing to one side of the gap in reality. The horse – two horses, if Edgalcius had had one – had gone, and they were leaning against a makeshift bar made of washed-up planks.
Like the genie, Edgalcius was wearing a brightly coloured, short-sleeved shirt decorated with odd-shaped trees and sunsets over water.
Like the genie, Edgalcius held in his hand a drink in a straight-sided glass out of which a tropical forest seemed to have grown. Over it all loomed a yellow umbrella.
Pipsqueak had never seen The Mage look sheepish before.
“You’re still the Chosen One,” said Edgalcius. “One of them, anyway. I think.” He shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
Pipsqueak's brain clicked into gear. "What did you mean, spur of the moment?" he said.
"Oh, I had no idea she'd get ahead of you," said the genie. "But that's how this is done, you see."
He looked like he was about to launch into an explanation. But Pipsqueak spoke first.
“You’ve sent us on this quest,” said Pipsqueak, “and you don’t know where we’re going?”
As he said it, he knew that it was true.
“I’ve got a life!” he said, feeling a sudden surge of anger. “I was happy where I was!”
“Look, kid” – and Pipsqueak realised that Edgalcius couldn’t even remember his name – “this is a very unusual situation.”
“But you’re supposed to know what’s going on! You’re supposed to be looking out for us!”
“Ah, but this is the true nature of storytelling, you see,” the genie began. "It's like life in that respect, because–"
But Pipsqueak rounded on him before he could get started.
“I don’t care about storytelling! I had a grocery business!”
“There’s a happy ending!” said Edgalcius, stepping away from the bar. “You get to live happily ever after! You’ll be rich!”
“I don’t care about rich. I just want to go on delivering–”
Myrtille was awake. She was leaning up on one elbow. Her hair was – let’s keep this simple – a mess. A bird could have nested – never mind. She spoke quietly, but the simple question stopped them.
“Tell us about the happy ending,” she said. “Maybe we can work something out.”
Continued after the picture.
The entire litter was packed into a box next to a stove, and the kitten was the only one not fast asleep in the warmth.
The kitten was annoyed. The old witch was losing her touch.
She’d thought she was rescuing him after he’d strayed and been picked up by strangers.
If she’d had any sense of who he was, she would have realised that he had found – no, chosen – his Forever Family in that group of four young people setting off on a Hero’s Journey at the direction of a Mage summoned by a first-time fantasy author working from a how-to-write-fantasy book about heroes and the stages of their journeys.
The kitten struggled loose from the press of bigger kittens. This was ridiculous! He’d been rescued – the young princess had picked him out of the tree – and he had been properly gifted – the young princess had handed him to the young Deliverer of Perishables as they’d approached the Queen’s camp – and now his kitten-farmer of an original owner had messed up the whole story.
The kitten stood motionless in front of the stove, watching the interplay of ghosts and never-born spirits and sunlit dust-motes in the oak-beamed kitchen of the witch’s cottage.
Could he let them rescue him again? Or would that stretch the story?
The kitten reached a decision. All the how-to books went on about rescuing a kitten, but they didn’t say to do it multiple times. He was on his own.
He picked his way carefully and silently across the flagstones to the rough wooden door, which unlatched itself as he approached. It creaked open.
The old witch was in her rocking chair, watching through a[nother] gap in reality as Myrtille, Pipsqueak, Edgalcius and, er, the genie negotiated the terms of this story’s hero’s journey.
“Come to me, Pretty,” she said, lowering her hand in invitation, and the kitten hissed. He didn’t want to get stuck with the name Pretty.
The witch realised her mistake. “Come to me, kitten,” she said, and the as-yet-unnamed kitten wound himself around her feet before reaching up and sinking his claws into her knee.
“This is fascinating,” the old witch said, not feeling the pain. “They’re calling it a risk assessment; did I hear that right? All of the foreseeable risks quantified, but none of what’s actually going to happen? A strange process.”
The kitten pounced up onto the witch’s lap.
“They’ll need you for that magic,” the witch said softly. “You have a strange destiny, kitten, truly you do.”
The kitten washed its paws as the spirits moved in the air.
“We could come with you,” they whispered. “Jump through. Jump through the gap in reality. Jump through, and we’ll follow.”
The kitten braced itself, and jumped.