The Lodge is so weird when there’s nobody here. It’s probably my imagination but you can almost feel the curse, like it’s trying to grab you. Well I wasn’t having it, not today buddy. I figured I’d get away for a bit.
I headed down to the port, and even though it’s not that far from the Lodge, the Market’s always so busy it takes a bit of effort to get through the crowd. Being honest, I’m still not used to people staring at me all the time. I was a bit of a ‘local celebrity’ (I hate saying that) back home but that just seemed more funny to me that anything. Here though, it’s so much more intense, so much more intense. You can’t go out without people coming at you like you owe them your presence. And then obviously it doesn’t help when your face is on billboards and stuff which people seem obsessed with getting a picture with you in front of. What’s the appeal there? ‘Look, it’s big you with little you and I’m not you but I’m with you!’ I can’t seem to explain to people that I’m really not worth all the fuss, I’m just some guy who got lucky. They don’t listen though, they just scream and shove something in my face to sign (my handwriting is awful as well, I actually practice my signature because it’s so embarrassing).
I figured I’d go to Khasgar. The Lodge has basically no presence there at all, so the chances of people gawking at me there were as slim as I could hope for. Just a bit of time to go somewhere quiet to have a good think. Shako wouldn’t miss me, he was busy finishing up the deal with the new guy, though he wouldn’t tell us anything about him. I hoped they weren’t thinking of replacing me. I’ll take rabid fans and ancient curses over going back to Dhalia any day.
I actually made it to the port without getting hassled at all (which kinda worried me; were people getting bored of me? Or had they forgotten about me? I needed to get another track released soon). There was a portal to the Ruheri province on Khasgar opening pretty much as I got there, and I always prefer portalling to flights. A lot of people don’t like the feeling of being teleported, like my pal Gera back home, but I find I get some of my best ideas whilst in molecular transit. It’s hard to explain what it’s like, but basically you still experience time at a normal rate while you’re crossing the fold, but your body doesn’t know, so it’s basically like getting six hours work done in six minutes. I know a few people who portal recreationally just to manage their workloads, but they reckon if you do it too much it can have a really nasty effect on cellular composition so I try not to overdo it.
So yeah, it wasn’t really that long before I was on Khasgar, but mentally I’d managed to get myself into a much better headspace, so stepping out at Eckel Station, I was feeling pretty good. There were far fewer people on this side of the portal, and the ones who were barely seemed to notice me, which was exactly what I wanted (I think).
One thing I love about spirit season is all the ancestral fires burning, so everywhere feels warm and bright even in the middle of the night. I headed up the hill and realised for the first time in ages (in ever?), there was nowhere that I had to be. I’d completely forgotten what that felt like. Even before I joined the Lodge I was always pushing towards the next thing, the thing that would get me away from the current thing, but the next thing always became the current thing until I realised no thing was ever going to be enough. The thing about competing with yourself is that you never get to win. You also never get to rest; taking a bit of time to just relax and watch something mindless on the couch was always out of the question — the guilt in taking some me time when it wasn’t ‘my time’ yet was too unbearable. People were always saying ‘this is my time’ and then doing nothing, and I couldn’t stomach being like that. In my head, I had to get to where I wanted to be before I could stop and take a breather. All seemed a bit dumb really when I considered where I was and why I’d come here.
The path curved sharply upwards at a point where the hill levelled off into a promontory overlooking the valley, and I decided to stop here rather than carry on upwards (the further you go, the further you have to go to come back, and I’d come here to relax not get my steps up). There were a couple of stalls and a few people knocking about, some faint music playing through a battered radio and the smell of onions sizzling on skillets. The vibe was warm, and not just because I was stood next to a brazier — maybe a little too close, so I moved away and caught sight of a newspaper stand screaming a headline that made my heart sink.
I’d probably been holding the paper for a good five minutes when I felt someone standing next to me.
‘They’re good they are. I really like that new song of theirs, what’s it called again? Oh, that’s really gonna bug me now… are you okay?’
Clearly my face had betrayed my confusion, and my voice didn’t handle the situation much better. ‘I, uh… well, not a fan, really, urm…’
The girl just smiled. ‘Sorry, it’s just from the way you were staring that paper, it looked like you were in some kind of trance. You know, like a rabid super-fan.’
I looked down at the faces staring out at me from the page, and had to shake the feeling that they knew I was looking and were deriving some smug kind of satisfaction from my attention. It took a second for me to remember that a conversation typically requires at least two people, and so far all I’d offered was garbled nonsense.
I cleared my throat. ‘Urm’—good start—‘no, I’m not really a fan. See, it’s a bit awkward, well, painful actually, if you want the truth. Basically I used to be in the band, but nothing was really happening and we all ended up going our separate ways. At least I thought we had, but… clearly not.’ I can’t believe they replaced me with Jasper. Jasper.
‘So is it that they carried on and didn’t tell you, or the fact that they’re doing well without you that’s got you standing there gawping like your brain just slipped out your ear?’
‘I don’t really know.’
‘Well do you wish you were in that picture?’
‘Because I wasn’t happy. And I have my own thing going on now. It’s just hard seeing something you left become successful…’
The girl snorted. ‘It’s only a local paper.’
‘A local paper on a distant moon. We’re all from Dhalia, it’s a pretty big deal to be known this far out.’
‘The Ruheri Evening Post isn’t a big deal anywhere, I’d stop panicking if I were you.’
Somehow we’d ended up in front of one of the stalls and I only realised when the girl asked me what I wanted on my hotdog.
‘You say urm a lot. I hope you don’t write lyrics, otherwise your old band made the right decision giving you the boot. But you should have the peppered mustard, it really sets the onions off. Go on, it’s my treat. Don’t look at me like that, I insist. You need cheering up.’
We sat in the grass by the fire pit, watching the flags rippling in the breeze. Neither of us said anything for a while, largely due to paying the hotdogs the attention they deserved. She was right about the mustard — I was having a great time. Eventually though, I remembered I was supposed to be feeling bad.
‘It’s just, whenever it seems like things are going well for me and I made the right decision, I see something like that and it makes me think they’re doing better than I am.’
‘What’s so bad about that?’ the girl asked, ignoring the mustard on her nose from a particularly ambitious bite. ‘It sounds to me like you’ve got something to prove.’
‘Are you always this charismatic?’
‘Is it charismatic to sink your nose in mustard?’
‘Actually, it’s a mark of success round here,’ she grinned. ‘But I should probably wipe it off before you get the hump with me as well.’
I laughed. ‘I suppose I do feel like I have something to prove. It sounds stupid, but it’s important to me that they know I’ve been successful since I left, and I don’t know if they do.’
‘Maybe they’re just as jealous of you as you are of them.’
I shrugged. ‘The Lodge has a pretty big following on Dhalia, it’s possible.’
‘And which Lodge would that be?’
‘Shako’s Sound Lodge.’
The girl looked at me. ‘See now that’s a big deal.’
‘You’ve heard of us? I didn’t think we had much of a presence out here. That’s actually why I came, to give myself a break from the constant bombardment.’
The girl shook her head. ‘You’re unbelievable Bayard.’
It sounded surreal to hear her say my name, and it served to remind me that I was actually quite famous. ‘You know who I am?’
‘Of course I do. I don’t live underground.’
‘Actually, we have quite a big following in Burrow… it doesn’t matter, why didn’t you say you knew who I was this whole time?!’
The girl paused for a second. ‘I wanted to talk to you as a person, not a fan. And from the looks of things, that’s exactly what you needed. I like that you’re just as insecure as the rest of us. And I like that, in spite of everything, you still succumb to a little professional jealousy. But I think you should really focus on the path in front of you, and stop worrying about what you left behind. It seems to me you made the right decision, and who knows — maybe one day you’ll be on the front page of the Ruheri Evening Post too!’
I didn’t really know how to respond to that other than to laugh, a big, genuine laugh, the kind that relieves you of your stress and makes you feel weightless. ‘Thank you,’ was all I eventually managed.
The girl smiled. ‘Don’t thank me — I’m the one who gets to say she took Bayard Brasko for hotdogs!’
I think I’ll start coming here more often.
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