"You have to leave so soon?" my friend and relative Dan Ur-Jennan asked me plaintively.
I moved the ice bag from my temple to the top of my head. All the water I had drunk and the cold compresses on my skull could not relieve the throbbing hangover headache I had from following Danner from tavern to tavern the day before. "Yes. As soon as I can walk without my eyeballs shattering and falling out of my head." I really had known better than to try to keep up with Danner. There was no excuse for me.
"Listen," she said, "there's an incantation Cloudraft chants when he's had too many seven and sevens; I think I can cast that spell on you and poof! -- no more headache!"
"No!" I shouted, grabbing the ice pack with both hands. "Don't do me any favors! I'll end up a two-headed cameleopard or something equally repulsive!" Danner was not the shiniest apprentice in Midgard by any means, and I was not about to let her try out magical crap on me. No way did I want to become a Headless Shaman of Ur.
"But I don't want to stay in this hole by myself, Aser. With Cloudraft gone, the only company I have are the baboons. They're sweet, but mostly they just argue over how documents should be filed and who writes correspondence more elegantly than the other. Magical baboon librarians aren't party animals, it seems."
"They have better sense than I have, apparently."
"Hey! I know. Let me mix you a drink -- you know what they say about 'taking a bit of the hair of the dog that bit ye' -- I'll bet a Bahama Mama will put your head right back where it belongs!"
"You tell me 'No' more often than my mother did." She stomped to the window on the west side of the penthouse apartment and glared out at the sea.
"Everybody does," I answered her, shifting the ice bag to the back of my head. "Your mother and father were the most besotted, permissive parents I ever saw in the Jennan Clan," I gritted in pain. "They might have taught you some restraint."
"Yeah?" Danner said combatively. "Well, your mother should have taught you how to lighten up a little."
"Me? Lighten up?" I moved the ice bag back to the top of my head. "Who's the one who signed up for an apprenticeship to a wizard and has to stick with the wizardly residence? I'm footloose and fancy free most of the time. I live in a cave under a tree and hedge when I'm not traveling, and no one tells me what to do. Oh, yeah, I should lighten up like you do, and have my hair combed all the time and wear boots and pants and capes and gowns like you do, and fetch and futter for a wizard whenever he wants. No thanks. If that's what lightening up does for you, I'm glad Ma didn't teach me."
"Maybe I should cast a spell on you and have you attract ants for the rest of your life," she said.
"I could visit a mage I know on Front Street and have the spell taken off in fifteen minutes."
"Really?" Danner asked honestly. "Am I really that bad at this wizard shi -- stuff?"
"I don't know. I think I'm required by law somewhere to tell you only exactly that."
"If that's the best lie you can come up with, you must be feeling pretty terrible. Stop trying to go any-where and just rest today, Aser. Let me get you some chicken soup and crackers." Danner left me with such alacrity that I almost thought she was enjoying my discomfort.
As the Day lengthens, the Winter strengthens, the saying goes, and although I thought it a good idea to vacate Danner's company for my health's sake, I wasn't really all that keen on setting off for home. The wind had picked up this morning and a few snowflakes were blowing past the windows, making for one of those hatefully cold days when it feels colder than if you had to wade through a foot of snow. The last week had been warm enough to make me think Spring was arriving early, in spite of the rain.
Obviously the thought had been merely wishful, as the air had chilled deeply overnight and the sky had darkened to a pale leaden color. I crept to the hearth of Danner's fireplace and curled up there, still clutching the icebag to my head. All my instincts told me to hibernate while I could.
A rattling sound aroused me from my attempt to sleep, along with a scratching sound on the stone floor. I opened my eyes to see an imp in apron and tall white chef's hat set down a bowl on a saucer, be-ringed by crackers and a spoon.
"Thank you," I said.
"Shaddup and eat it, do ya think I do this for show?" groused the imp, wiping his hands on his apron. "If ya want seconds, shout. We don't read minds around here, ya know." His toenails scraped on the floor as he left.
Danner came back and sat down cross-legged by the fire. "It is good soup. The imp's rude, but I hate to admit it, he does cook better than I do."
I almost began to tell her how bad her cooking was, but then remembered I'd already insulted her magical abilities. And her judgment. And her choice of sticking out her apprenticeship with Cloudraft the Great until her wizardly spell-induced attributes wore off. "Danner, from the time you knew you were supposed to be a shaman, you haven't had any time to devote yourself to the study of domestic arts."
"Domestic Arts?" screeched the imp from the doorway to the kitchen. "Don't confuse culinary with domesticated! If I was a domesticated imp, I wouldn't have these, now would I," he shouted, flipping up his apron. Danner and I both looked away.
"See why I never wanted to get into Kitchen Management when I was being trained?" Danner said.
I could have said, "You never wanted to get into Mouth Management when you were being trained." Or perhaps I could have snapped out, "Maybe you should have." Or after tasting the really fantastic soup, I might have said, "Maybe you should have gone to Imp School instead." But instead of any or all of those cheap shots, I just sipped the soup, after adding a sprinkle of dried dandelion and burdock leaf to it to help my body clear the toxins from my brain. Sometimes you just have to know when to quit tormenting someone, especially someone close.
Close relatives or friends are the people with whom we let down our guard the most. We say things to them as they come to mind, trusting that they'll understand and accept what we utter. For instance, I would never consider telling Lord Stonewall that he was every bit as judicious as a hound dog in a deserted butcher shop -- he'd have my head adorning his battlements by sundown. Okay, he wouldn't dare that, but I know I'd be forcibly invited to leave his desmesne by the next morning. However, I say that kind of thing to Danner all the time, and most times, she just ignores me.
But today, having her ask, "Am I really that bad ...? " I have to recognize that it is Winter, and the days have been dim and cold and snowy and damp and -- did I mention dim? Everyone who has been cooped up indoors is feeling touchy and sad and at the end of their ropes. People get to a point before Spring when they just want to see the sun for a day or two, and have the air warm enough that they can go outside without their noses freezing and falling off. They feel sore and dull and unhappy and unloved. So before that balmy, sunny day comes, it's wise, and kind, to be gentle to them in what you say.
"Danner, thanks for taking care of me." I handed her the empty soup bowl. "That was really good."
"You're welcome, Aser, old buddy, old pal. Next time, you need to drink a glass of water between beers." She patted my shoulder in commiseration.
The imp clattered in on his toenails and took the bowl and plate from her hand. He sniffed at it. "What the hell didja defile my soup with? It wasn't good enough for ya, was it?" He threw his chef's hat on the hearth and jumped upon it several times. "That's it, I'm never cooking anything for ya again, ya ingrate!"
See what I mean?
Tomorrow, when I wake up without a headache, I'll leave him a tip and a flowery thank-you card. Maybe the sun will shine and he won't burst into tears.