“Wizard?” Raulin asked.
The curtains had been drawn, so it was hard to see detail in the suite, even with his mask on. Al laid on the bench, but his chest heaved as he sobbed. “What do I do?” he whispered.
Raulin walked over to the edge of the bed and sat, unsure of what to say. So, he waited.
“I’m nothing. I’m less than nothing, I’m useless,” Al whispered again.
“You’re neither nothing nor useless,” Raulin said.
“I am, though. I have nothing in my life, nothing. My wife and I are through and my step-daughter is out of my reach. I have no job. I have no home. My best friend sold me out. All I had was you three, and now neither of you wants to talk to me.”
“Well, you did stab Sakilei and abandoned Anladet to be sold into slavery. Neither are things that are exactly endearing.”
Al sat up and wiped the tears from his face. “I know you won’t believe me, but I did have a plan to help her. If we could have pushed those bounty hunters back into Eerie, she would have been free. It’s against the law.”
“Did you know she was almost raped?” Raulin asked. “They took away all the defenses she had and made her obey whatever the leader told her to. She was declawed, to put it in such terms, and she couldn’t even kick the man attacking her to stop him. She couldn’t fight back, she couldn’t run, she couldn’t yell for help. Maybe your plan would have worked after she had been abused a few times, but I still doubt it.”
“Oh,” Al said.
“Yes, ‘oh’, Wizard. She’s fine, by the way, and her magic was returned. And I don’t know how much you remember of the last week, but she’s been caring for you, making sure you’re fed, bathed, and not trying to jump off cliffs. And, again, she could have used her magic at any point to make you better or do something so that Sakilei didn’t have to pull a cart from a town and then return it just so we could carry you, but she didn’t.”
Al said nothing. Raulin thought he might have slipped back into his trance, but he wouldn’t let him. “An apology will do wonders, Wizard. I’m sure of it. One to her and one to Sakilei.”
“What else do I do? I think I’ve been doing things wrong. People don’t seem to like me.”
Raulin raised his eyebrows at that. It was more insight into his own character than he’d ever shown before. “While you’re not pretentious like most of your ilk, you still like to make sure people know you’re smart to a point of annoyance. You spend a lot of time wondering where people fall on your scale of good and evil, even though you yourself would judge yourself poorly by now. And you’re so disconnected from what’s in front of you at times that you don’t realize that you should react to the world and not make the world react to you.
“But, you’re also intelligent, helpful, and resilient. You’ve gone through quite a bit in just a few months and have come out stronger for it. That’s a start at change.”
“I don’t know how to be, though.” He began to rub his arms in a desperate manner. “I don’t want to be the way I am anymore. I need you to help me, tell me how to act and what to say.”
“Absolutely not,” Raulin said, shaking his head. “I am who I am, but it doesn’t mean I am always proud of who I am. Nor do I think I’m right about who I am. But, most importantly, telling a man how to be ultimately robs him of the choice to find out how to be himself. This is what I’ve been trying to tell you about your obsession with Tichen; you keep wanting to be this virtuous monastic person that he wrote about, without understanding how Alpine Gray can accomplish that feat as himself. You’re trying to boil water in a pot made of ice. You’re just not the type of man who can achieve that. And that’s okay. I don’t think I’ve ever come across someone who could claim to actually obey all of Tichen’s prerequisites for that lifestyle.”
“It wasn’t a stasis, it was a pinnacle,” Al said. “Tichen said that it was something to strive for constantly.”
“And do you think you ever achieved it?”
He thought about this for a few moments. Even on an average day, when he hadn’t complained about caring for another man’s child, when he swallowed the angry words he wanted to have with his wife, when he had meekly earned his wages and plied his trade in peace, he couldn’t admit that he had attained anything close to what Tichen wanted. “No,” he admitted.
“It’s a high bar, Wizard, and very hard to attain in the real world.”
“It was something to aim for. It gave me purpose.”
“Then you need to find another purpose.”
Al let out his breath deeply. “That’s what I’m trying to say. I have no purpose. There is no reason for me to continue living. You shouldn’t have saved me.”
Raulin bent his head for a moment in thought. “I don’t consider myself a faithful man. I’ve been let down too much in my life for that, I think, or maybe that’s not the kind of man I am. But, sometimes you have to have faith that you’re here for a purpose that you don’t yet know about.”
“You sound like Tel,” Al said, bitterly.
“Maybe I do. Maybe he has a point. Maybe there’s something to kouriya that I don’t quite get, but makes sense when you add faith to it.”
“Kouriya is why Anla was captured.”
“Yes, but kouriya also brought you three together. There’s something to be said about that.”
“I need direction, though. Please tell me what to do.”
“What do you want to do? What would you have done if I or anyone else hadn’t been here?”
“I would have opened up the window and stepped outside.”
“Why? It would have been a terrible waste, you must know that. You’re an incredibly brilliant man, Al, one of the sharpest minds in Gheny if not Yine. You set records in Amandorlam that won’t be broken for a long time. How can a smart man want to end all that?”
Al’s head hung down. “The problem is not this,” he said, pointing to his head, “it’s this.” He slapped his palm over his chest. “I know that I should be figuring out what to do next, examining my surroundings, determining what the best course of action is. I can’t feel it, though. I should be excited, hopeful, determined. I’m not; the spark is not catching the wood.”
“What do you feel then?”
“Nothing, most of the time. A wet cotton-stuffed web of hollow that catches all my emotions and burns them clean. That’s the good time. The other is this pining ache for peace at last, to be done with it all and stop having to worry and disappoint everyone in my life. I’m just…weary and tired of it all.”
He understood what he was saying, but finding the right way to stop a man from killing himself was never an easy task. “Wizard, I think you’re having the wrong conversation with the wrong man. I don’t know what to say, but I know I don’t want you to die.”
“Why not, though? I’ve been a terrible person,” he said with an attitude that would be flippant if it was so pitiful. “It would be easier if I was not here and you three could continue on your journey without me.”
“Because friends don’t give up on each other like that.”
“Friend? How am I your friend? What kind of friend does what I’ve done?”
“I don’t know, Wizard,” he said, feeling some of that weariness Al had spoken of. “Maybe it’s one-sided, but I consider you a friend. You saved me in Iascond, you still talk to me even though I was cruel to you after that, you’ve helped me immensely with my contracts. I trust you, maybe not with a butter knife, but for most of the rest. I don’t have many friends in this world, so I try to protect and help the ones I do have.
“As far as your actions recently, Anla thought about what you’ve been going through and she thinks this was a major backlash due to magic overuse. If that’s the case, then you were acting poorly because you were ill, and I think that’s forgivable. Do you think she had the right idea?”
Al seemed surprised at this, considering the idea for a few minutes. “I would say ‘yes’ but everything is usually gone within hours, maybe a day. It’s never been this horrible.”
“But, you’ve been using for a while now, yes?”
“I don’t know. I can’t control it anymore. It’s just…there, even though I haven’t tapped into it. The body was never meant to sustain the Unease or the Calm for long periods of time and I don’t know how long I’ve been going for each time.”
“What does Amandorlam say about extended uses of magic?”
“We actually have to test how long we can go at some point in our training so that we know the signs when we’ve gone too far. Using for a long time also increases your tolerance to magic temporarily. And sometimes using extended amounts of magic will allow a wizard to pass into the next level. I was able to tap into the Calm first, then became a switcher after our second prolonged magic use test. At some point I became a cross-switcher, though I’m not sure when.”
“Huh. What if this means you’re becoming a…cyclical wizard?”
Al snorted. “If I were cyclical wizard, I wouldn’t be like this,” he said, indicating his state. “I’d be in equilibrium, constantly healing myself so that I’d be in that pleasant state without the problems that go with it. I’m far from that now.”
“So, you couldn’t heal your heart with the Calm?”
“Stopping the cycle of vexation and melancholy in someone might be enough to heal them of it, but the Calm doesn’t mend the mind like it mends the flesh. Basically, it will make me feel better until the tide comes in again.”
This was the most engaged Raulin had seen Al in the better part of a week. He wasn’t well, but his face showed emotion and his eyes had that sparkle he got when he spoke about things he was passionate about. He’d seen women and men in deep melancholia before, wasting away because life had lost all interest. For them, even the most skilled doctors had failed to bring them out of their fugue.
Al was different, though. This was a temporary situation. If he could buy some time, he was sure he’s recover. “How about this? I’ll make a deal with you. I want you to heal yourself with the Calm for the next two weeks. I want you to talk to Tel and Anla, and even Sakilei if you want to. I want you to think and feel and explore and plan. And then, if at the end of those two weeks you still want to end your life, you come to me.”
Al nodded his head slowly.
“You have to try, though. Promise me that you’ll try.”
Raulin was about to continue when he looked to his right and saw Anla standing in the doorway. He stood and walked past her, saying, “He’s trying.”
Anla took Raulin’s seat and sat across from Al. And she waited. Al did everything but look at her. She knew that he was thinking about what to say to her and she gave him that time.
Finally, he said, “I’m supposed to say ‘I’m sorry’, but I don’t feel sorry. I don’t feel anything, really.”
“Sometimes people say they are sorry when they don’t really mean it,” she said, “though I could tell if you didn’t mean it. Would you have been sorry if I had been harmed?”
“Yes,” he said quickly and firmly.
“Would you have been sorry if you had never seen me again, if the bounty hunters had broken the spell and escaped Raulin and Tel and wound up selling me in New Wextif?”
“No one deserves that,” he said. “Yes.”
“So what you grapple with is the disappointment that I wasn’t taught a lesson about my magic?”
He struggled with this point. “That’s what I remember feeling then, but it’s not what I feel now.”
“Why is it so important that I be taught a lesson? Why can’t I already be a master at understanding what my magic can do?”
“Because people mishandle magic all the time. I saw it so many times even while we were learning magic in Amandorlam, and those were supervised and trained wizards. You have no formal training, so how can you know what you’re doing to other people?”
“I’ve learned from every mistake I’ve made. No, I never had a teacher or a school or even a book up until recently, but I know what damage I can do. Why can’t you trust me on that?”
“I think I trust rarely. No, that’s not true; I think I trust poorly,” he said, thinking of Aggie.
“At least we agree on that,” she said, leaning forward. “What will it take for you to trust me?”
After some thought, he said, “Maybe…if I taught you? Not the magic, of course, but the magical ethics.”
“That I can agree to,” she said. “I think Raulin is finished, so we’ll likely leave Kikiyan in the morning. We’ll start then?”
He held out his hand to shake and she complied before leaving him alone. Al had a lot of healing to do, but at least talking with Raulin and Anla had brought some peace to his situation. He sighed, laid back on the davenport, and closed his eyes to think.