Rigel followed the meek assistant healer down a long corridor, lined with heavily locked, warded, and soundproofed doors. Near the very end they turned toward a door next to a plaque that said:
THE BOGLEY SQUINT WARD"You'd best put these on," said the assistant healer, offering Rigel a pair of earmuffs from a basket hovering nearby. "They filter out the screams and banging, but you can still hear when someone talks to you."
for Spell Damage Causing One to Become a Public Nuisance
Rigel took the assistant healer's advice with bad grace, and tugged the earmuffs over his ears. It was a good thing, for when the door opened even the earmuffs did not completely banish the sound of the wind-up gramophone playing a record called "Banshees I Have Known." Hammers were battering a half-dozen hovering, cast-iron saucepans. Directly beneath all this clamor, four pale, frail-looking wizards sat round a small table, playing cards. They were the only people in sight not wearing earmuffs; and when, a moment after Rigel entered, the recording came to an end, the four men suddenly clutched their heads in agony. One of them even fell out of his chair.
"Quiet headaches, the poor souls," said the assistant healer, as he hurried to set the needle back to the beginning of the record. "The quieter it is, the worse their agony."
The men resumed their game, panting with relief. Rigel's veneer of sullen indifference was chipped; he almost stared at the men for a moment, before shuffling off behind his guide.
The next stretch of the ward was given over to a group of three witches and two wizards, who were arguing very anxiously over a large book of jokes.
"For all sakes, Elphaba," one of the witches exclaimed, with a shudder, "don't read another elephant joke. You know they give me nightmares."
"Everything gives you nightmares," retorted Elphaba, though she herself looked a bit green.
"Stop saying 'nightmares,'" moaned a wizard, rocking to and fro in a cold sweat.
"Let me guess," Rigel muttered to the assistant healer, feeling the return of a bit of his smugness. "The curse of the Heebie Jeebies?"
"These jokes aren't funny enough," wailed the third witch. "We'll never be cured!"
The assistant healer, after giving Rigel a sharp look, patted the witch's shoulder, causing her to give a small scream and to drop the stuffed rabbit she was clutching. "Don't give up just yet," he said reassuringly. "You just have to be in the right frame of mind."
"Well, it's hard to be in the frame of mind to enjoy a good joke," the second wizard whinged, "when you're bloody--"
"Aargh! Don't say that word!"
"--jolly terrified of the sound of laughter."
"Eurgh! What is that?" said one of the witches, taking notice of Rigel's rough appearance. "Take it away!"
Unfortunately, the others noticed Rigel at the same time, and they all began to shiver, cowering. One of the witches burst into tears.
"We'll be going, then," said the assistant healer briskly, tugging Rigel out of their way by an elbow. Rigel shook him off and followed with a dangerous expression, rather suspecting that he had been insulted.
A moment later, this turned into a look of disgust. A wave of nauseating odor came at him, straight from a niche where a grimy-looking man was furtively pouring a few drops of eau de cologne into a basin of water.
"My heavens!" the assistant healer cried, hastening toward the man and wrestling not only the bottle, but also a small towel and a sliver of soap out of the man's struggling fingers.
"I only fancied a bit of a bath," the wizard sniffed rebelliously.
The assistant healer shook the sliver of soap in front of the offender's face. "I've told you a thousand times, Gerald," he scolded. "You must not, under any circumstances, wash or perfume yourself until Healer Conkmyer says otherwise. This little splash could delay your cure by weeks!"
"It'll make no odds, I reckon," said Gerald. "It is called the Curse of the Eternal Stench, isn't it? Not much chance of curing that, is there?"
"Why, as to that," said the healer, clearly treading on uncertain ground, "I really cannot say a word without consulting Mr. Conkmyer. But consider the rest of us. Have you no concern for the fact that your smell grows worse the more you try to cleanse and deodorize yourself? Could you not consider other people?"
"I'm very sorry, I'm sure," Gerald said, "but you see, I itch all over."
"Apology accepted," the assistant healer said briskly. Then he waved his wand and vanished soap, towel, perfume, and water basin all at once. "Excuse us."
Rigel was amazed at how the ward kept stretching on and on. He had no real concept of how large it was, even when they encountered the gravel-strewn region where a circle of patients surrounded a table where two wizards were playing table tennis, using their wands to control hovering paddles. One of them reached up to clear his forehead of what, at first, looked like beads of sweat...but which, on landing with a crunch on the floor, turned out to be the same kind of small crystal that appeared everywhere. Another wizard, standing by with a small sack of sunflower seeds, spat out a bunch of small diamonds along with some husks.
"Omnipedritis," Rigel whispered, almost in awe.
"There was a bit of an epidemic in Brinestow last week," the assistant healer confided. "Some fool of a wizard tried to use a spell to whip up a batch of rock cakes, and this is what happens. The rockapeller potion, to cure them, is almost done brewing, so that's all right."
"What's with that fellow's wand?" Rigel said, angling his head toward one of the table tennis players. Sparks of magical energy seemed to collect along the leading surface of the wand, sticking in globs to the wizard's sleeves and the folds of his robes, and causing his hair to bristle in an odd, glowy way.
"Wandruff," the assistant healer said sadly. "Some people just don't trouble with wand conditioner.
Suddenly they were confronted with a wild-eyed witch who grasped the front of the assistant healer's robes and said, in a pleading tone of voice, "What is the worst vegetable to have on a ship?"
"A leek. Do you want a leek, Madam Kiljoy?"
The witch shook her head, but looked relieved. With a meek, apologetic look, she handed over a large knife that had been concealed behind her back.
"You have to be on your toes with these sphinxitis cases," said the assistant healer, as Madam Kiljoy hurried away. "When they start talking in riddles, you'd better know the right answer because it usually means they have found a weapon lying around. They can't help themselves, bless them."
At last they found themselves at the very end of the ward, where Harvey and Spanky were just taking leave of the patient. Both wizards gave Rigel discomfitingly frank looks as they walked by. This was fortunate, because it boosted Rigel's contrary nature and prepared him for the shock of seeing Merlin's condition, without appearing to be shocked or even interested at all.
"The coward hit me with a fox pox curse," Merlin said cheerfully, waving a hand at his face. It was covered in tufts of red-brown fur, and there was something distinctly canine about his mouth and nose. "Don't worry. I'm only a danger to chickens. I could murder one right now, actually. Is it nearly suppertime?"
"I'll ask Cook when it may be ready," said the assistant healer. Before hurrying away he added, "She is not quite used to serving live fowl."
Rigel stood next to Merlin for a while, acting like a chance passer-by. Neither spoke nor looked at the other, until Rigel found a suitably sneering opening. "So those are your mates, sitting out there in the waiting room?"
Instead of making the sort of reply Rigel expected, like "you should try having mates some time," Merlin twitched his wet-looking nose and said with evident pleasure, "I suppose so. Who did you see?"
"Besides the dodgy copper and the well-bred pirate who were just in here," Rigel observed, "there were a manifestly phony vicar, a woman with a fake nose and mustache, and another woman who must have a real mustache and probably a wonky nose as well, considering the care she took not to remove her veil even when smoking."
"Oh, no," said Merlin. "That's only Sadie. You remember old Dung Fletcher, eh? They're cousins."
"That lot of low-grade looters and small-time, half-baked grifters," observed Rigel. "No wonder she hides her face."
"Not at all. It's only that she was the best-looking witch of our whole generation. Her family wouldn't let her have anything to do with their business--couldn't believe she had the nerve for it, looking like that; or maybe they thought her looks would give her away. So she went free-lance, and uses the veil to cover up the disadvantage. Merely a device of the profession."
"Some profession," Rigel said, with a nasty chuckle.
Merlin sobered him instantly with the reply, "I seem to recall you once meant to go into the same profession."
There passed another stretch of neither speaking nor looking at each other. Then...
"Is there a cure?" Rigel asked quietly.
+++ Double Challenge for TMQ #85 +++
Before I give you the next Survey and Contest questions, I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has been sending their answers. As you can see from this week's long list of credits, it is often hard to choose, and more fun to use multiple contest answers. It's a pity there wasn't room to use more of them! Honorable mention goes particularly to _houdini, whose "senile squib syndrome" I couldn't work into this story, but I hope I can find a slot for it later on. And now to business...
SURVEY: Should the chapter after next return to the making and breaking of Sadie's many fortunes? Or, should Mr. Oldmanson tell a story about raising Rigel?
CONTEST: Describe a sport to be played by ghosts.
To send Robbie your personal feedback or original ideas, visit the Feedback Form [EDIT: Rather, leave a Comment]. To vote in the Survey and Contest to determine what happens in the Chapter-After-Next, visit the Discussion Forum [EDIT: This discussion is closed]. The Survey Answer that gets the most votes, and the Contest entry that Robbie likes the most, will be featured in Magic Quill #85. So be sure to visit our Discussion Thread – and if you aren’t a member of COS Forums, join today!
[Originally posted 3/5/06]