Tag Archives: Three Parts

Sore and tired

I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about for this next post.

Lakers?  The NBA’s in its deadest spot of the year right now, mid-summer with most of the major personnel moves already made and training camps still more than a month away, but I can always come up with something to say there.

U2?  I could let you know the results of this mad march through their entire career (still going, btw, with Zooropa just about to wrap up as I type this; I’ve had to take the expected breaks for family/food/bathroom/etc., so it may not finish tonight), or any of a hundred other thoughts I’ve briefly touched on here and elsewhere and expand on it in full.

But no, neither of those, at least not tonight.  If I’m going to complete this Refresh of the blog, catching both it and everyone who swings by up on where my head is at right now, then I need to cover all the bases.  And aside from my family (which I will not now nor at any point the future be writing about here), the three most important things in my life are the Lakers, U2…and writing.

So, a post about writing it is.

I need to point out something that I’ve mentioned in the past but never quite explicitly laid out before:  writing has seldom been a compulsion for me, the way it seems to be with every successful, productive writer I’ve read and admired in my life.  Sure, there have been stretches in my life where nothing has felt right unless I’ve been at a keyboard, or sitting with a notebook and good pen, churning out the wordcount.  As recently as this past spring, I had stretches where I was putting down well more than 10,000 words a week.  (To give a reference point, the average published novel is approximately 90k-100k words, meaning at a rate of 10k words a week, you could write five complete novels in one year.)

But that’s the exception, not the rule.  I don’t ever really get hit with writer’s block; it’s more what Kevin Smith so eloquently referred to as “writer’s laze”.  As in laziness.  As in, more often than not, I don’t want to expend the energy to create something that will entertain others as much as I want someone else to entertain me.  Getting back into a groove where that someone who’s entertaining me is me takes a convergence of events that I have yet to fully understand, let alone master.

Viewed another way, my relationship with my writing would be familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time working out.  When you’re in the thick of it, taking even a single day off leaves you feeling awful, with your entire life out of sorts until you get your body moving again, muscles working, sweat flowing…  But if you take more than a few days off, it gets harder and harder to remember how good it feels when you’re in the thick of it, and easier and easier to reach for the remote/beer/chips instead.  That’s not the whole of it, but it’s a measurable part.

And I’d have to say, right now, I’m very comfortable on my writing couch, and finding it harder to remember how good it feels when I’ve worked up a wordcount sweat.

Part of it is just that this stuff is cyclical, and not something I’m going to beat myself up about.  If I ever, ever feel like writing is something I have to do, and begin chastising myself for not doing it, like a sinner eager for the burn of confession, then I will stop cold turkey.  Writing improves my life, its presence in my life makes it a better thing; I will never allow it to be viewed in reverse, that writing is the default baseline, and its absence is a sub-optimal, suffering existence.  So, I’m not working right now at the same pace I was recently.  That’s okay.  I love the people around me, I show up on-time for my job and work hard while I’m on the clock there, I find lots of things in my life that make it well more than worth living…a downswing in my writing production does not negate any of that.

Part of it is the new job I’m working at.  There’s a much longer post in my head, waiting to be written, about this specific sub-topic, but the short summary is that after eight years of joy and suffering, I’m in a new place, with a new vocabulary and syntax—and I don’t just mean the words we use at the workplace, I mean the rhythm and intent that the entire workplace operates at—and it’s taking me some time to figure out how my life fits with all that.  Imagine a musician, just joined an orchestra, learning a new piece of music.  And while he’s not worried about his ability to play the new piece and play it well, and fit in well with all the other musicians around him, it’s still new to him, and so all the little things that define him as a musician worth having around have to come from conscious intention, rather than unconscious trust.  I know, after I’ve been there for a while, I’ll know the people, places and processes well enough that I can focus my conscious intent on what’s truly important, rather than the moment-to-moment logistics, but at the moment, it’s consuming rather a large percentage of my mental RAM, which doesn’t leave a lot left for working on a novel that has three main characters, their stories intertwining, all while a massive religious war is breaking out (and I’m right now at the moment when the armies are invading and alliances are forming and breaking…it would be a bit much to wrap my head around if I were reading it, let alone trying to create it out of blank pieces of paper).

And part of it is just that the creative tank is low, and I need to fill it up.  You don’t tend to realize just how limited your input of vital nutrients is until you push yourself out of your comfort zone and start relying on every last ounce of what you’ve got.  Borrowing from an analogy earlier in this post, about six months ago I started working out in earnest, driving my body to do more and more each day, only to completely crap out a month ago, and realized that I hadn’t paid any attention to my diet.  I was still eating the same crap food, but my body needed far more of it, and much better of it, if I was going to be able to keep up at that pace.

If you replace “body” with “writing output”, and the food bit with creative stimulus…well, that’s where I’m at right now.  I can’t work off just the pure adrenaline that accompanies the realization that I can work, I need to make sure that all aspects of my life are pulling in harness, input supporting output, the rhythm and routine of things resulting in a harmony that’s pleasing and worth pursuing.

I’m in the earliest stages of that process right now, and thus the actual wordcount output has been a bit low.  I don’t expect that to last.

In the meantime, I’ll be posting an old story tomorrow, one of my all-time favorites, just to keep the fiction blood fresh here.  Something to keep the pump primed until the spice begins flowing again.

Downhill slope

So, Chapter 10 is done. And I’ve decided to post it here. Conventional wisdom be damned; it’s my story and I’ll post it if I want to. Besides, it’s draft zero, and whenever I start putting forward the final result it’ll be different enough from this go-around to not matter too much.

So here ’tis. Shit, as the kids say, is getting real. People dying. Not saying who, but things are definitely starting to move.


Chapter 10

Joseph and his Guard topped the final rise before entering the Valley of Innias, the city of the same name laying in the center of a broad plain. Before them, the Highway, recently completed, winding just to the west of the city walls and continuing off into the distance, eventually coming to its end at [the capital] far in the north. Bisecting that dark line was the other major road this far south, unpaved but still dark, a wide breadth of dirt impacted into a permanent scar by the thousands and millions of travelers’ feet, animals’ hooves and wagon wheels that had followed its course. And in the center, where they met: Innias, its unnaturally black granite walls highlighted with a golden shawl in the setting sun.

The Highway before them was nearly empty, only a few people walking along the shoulder, thankfully staying well out of their path. They were pushing their bikes hard, wanting to make the city before full dark, the urgency of their tidings more important than conserving fuel. And there were other reasons: Thomas’s leg injury was proving worse than they’d initially thought, and he was nearly too weak to hold onto Matthias, riding behind him. And Joseph had his own reasons, one only Matthias and Canaan were aware of–his heart was racing, sweat pouring down his face, the real world fading in and out of his vision, doubling with the world his Sight wanted to give him, life and intent and emotions dancing about him, constantly threatening to remain and consume him. It was taking all of his will to fight it back, hold it off, just a little bit longer. He tried to focus on the pain in his wounded arm, the dull fire that constantly burned and the blinding spikes of pain that came whenever he flexed his hand to shift gears or apply the brakes. And then there was his passenger, their prisoner, riding behind him, arms locked in a death-grip around his chest, a steady stream of mumbled words–prayers, presumably, given their cadence and repetition, though Joseph had no idea what he was saying. Just that one word that Canaan had been able to identify, repeated again and again as the litany circled back and around again. Aman. A warlord, Canaan had said, the historical precedents terrifying to him. Hopefully there’d be a scholar in Innias who could better translate what their prisoner might have to say, or a merchant who’d picked up some of their language in his travels who’d be willing to translate for them, or failing that at least some books Canaan could reference to refresh his memory enough to piece together a few more words and draw some sense out of it all. Hopefully, Kellen, his father’s cousin, Duke of Innias and the entire south-eastern province, would understand the urgency of the news they were bringing and act upon it immediately, without first trying to find an angle that would benefit him and his power base (or purse) first (which was admittedly unlikely). Hopefully Joseph could set all of this in motion before his Fit overcame him and he abandoned his friends to face the next few days without him.

It was a lot to hope for.

The formation roared through the encampments outlying the city, Joseph and his passenger safely in the center of his Guard. Matthias had been thinking some of the same thoughts Joseph had earlier in the day, prior to the ambush, and had exerted the small amount of authority he had over his Prince: instead of a long train with Joseph at its head, the formation was now riding in a diamond, five wide at the center, Matthias in the lead, his second-in-command Letam in the rear, and their charge right in the middle, protected on all sides.

Although the encampments were quieter than normal–Joseph could see only a few larger fires, and the leaking awareness of his Sight produced only a dull roar of emotion, like a distant sea, instead of the furious entanglements of negotiation, celebration, and the violence that could come when either went wrong–they drew more than a little attention as they made their way to the stables near the city’s gates. Innias was only a few miles from the coast and the small harbor town of [tradetown]; more importantly, [tradetown] lay at the base of one of only two navigable passages up the sheer cliff walls that surrounded the entirety of [heroland’s] peninsula. The other was on the west coast and was tightly controlled by the crown, as it was the closest access to the volcanic island of [volcanoisland], the sole source of the sulfur used to make gunpowder. Which left [tradetown] as the only sea access into or out of [heroland], and thus the one place where foreign merchants could enter the kingdom. [tradetown] was too small to serve as anything more than a way station, little more than a series of docks and warfs, a few small warehouses, the tariff offices and their supporting garrison, and a handful of inns, bars and brothels (usually in the same building)–there wasn’t enough open land for anything else. That left Innias as the nearest place where those coming and going could do business. And those who were too poor to afford offices and lodging within the city set up their temporary homes outside the city walls, forming a small suburbed city of their own.

A temporary city that was normally quite boisterous, a source of anything and everything a man could imagine and more than a few things he couldn’t. But tonight, there was a haunted feel to the place and the inhabitants, a quiet that felt forced and repressed.

The formation pulled off the Highway and approached the stables, hoping to find an open corral where they could leave their bikes. The stablemaster did, indeed, have enough room for them, and after recognizing who they were, initially refused payment for keeping their bikes safe. Matthias finally tossed a small purse to the ground before him, telling him that he could either take their money or deal with the riot that would form after they left as every man nearby raced to claim at least a small part of it for himself, at which point he knelt and gathered the purse to his chest and bowed, over and over again, mumbling thanks. They left two of the younger members of the Guard, Dorian and Jaimie, with the bikes to watch over them, promising a relief before the night progressed too far along, and then headed for the city’s gates. Thomas was laboring now, depending on the shoulder of one of the other men just to keep limping along, and Matthias fell in beside Joseph as they walked.

“How are you?”

“Well enough. I’ll leave the talking to you, though.”

“Finally. It’s for the best, you know. I’ve been begging you to keep your mouth shut for years.” And then, after laughing at his own joke, “Are you okay?”

“I’ll last. Best to save my strength, though.”

“And what of him?” Matthias asked, pointing to their prisoner, walking docile alongside them, head down.

“He appears content. I’m in no hurry to turn him over to the Duke, whatever happens.”

“Alright then.”

There was a small crowd following them, merging with those already camped closest to the walls, as they approached the gates…which should have been open. But weren’t. Matthias called out to the guards lining the top of the wall on either side of the gates, demanding entrance, and there was a bit of confused murmuring before a new face appeared, leering down on them, dressed more formally than the rest, an officer of rank in the colors of the City Watch.

“I’m sorry, my Lord,” he called down to them, “No one is to enter the city without a pass. Orders from the Mayor. You can camp outside tonight and we can sort this out tomorrow.”

Matthias looked back at Joseph, and he waved at him to take care of it; Joseph was working to conserve what little energy and sanity he had left for dealing with Duke Kellen…a task that could be trying even in the best of times.

Matthias nodded and turned back to the officer on the wall.

“Are you daft? Do you know whom you address?” he yelled, projecting loud enough for everyone to hear. “Open these gates in the name of the Crown!”

There was an odd smile on the officer’s face; he appeared to be taking a bit of pleasure at this.

“I’m sorry my Lord. In the absence of His Grace, the Lord Mayor has given us explicit orders. My hands are tied.” And he held them out, palms up, clearly not tied.

Joseph could see the rage building in his Captain–was feeling it a bit himself, though he was too distracted with his other struggles to allow it to get a solid grip on him–and wished for the hundredth time that day that the attack had happened anywhere else in the kingdom, anywhere but near Innias. They’d been planning on skipping the city on their return before the day’s events had made it necessary. This sort of bureaucracy was all too typical of the province his father’s cousin ruled over, the unfortunate outgrowth of the machinery of trade than occurred here, combined with Duke Kellen’s love of rules and regulations (and the additional power and profit they could bring him). Though this was taking things to a new and absurd level.

And then his mind returned to what he’d said about the Duke’s absence…that was not expected, and could prove to make things even more difficult. For all that Kellen understood that he ruled here at his cousin the King’s pleasure, and at least gave outward appearances of respecting the responsibility and loyalty due his family, the Mayor of Innias was Kellen’s man entire, bought and paid for, with no allegiance to anything beyond his own power and the man who allowed him to wield it.

“Then you’d better get the fat bastard down here now!” Matthias yelled back, his hand dropping to rest on the holster at his side, more for comfort than as any kind of threat…though Joseph knew the temptation to to more than feel its comforting weight must be growing in his Captain.

The officer looked about to reply, then paused and quickly glanced behind him, as if hearing something. After a moment, he turned back to Matthias, a smile still on his face but slightly less confident.

“My Lord…Your Royal Highness…I apologize for–” He was interrupted by a series of loud bangs and clanking, and then the sally port to the left of the gates opened, two men passing through it.

The first man was short and grotesquely overweight, a clear film of sweat coating his face, matting the sparse hair on his head and soaking a dark ring at the collar of his robes of office. He was breathing heavily–clearly just the act of walking was a serious exertion for him–but appeared pleased with himself and what he was doing all the same. This was Octavan, the Mayor of Innias, and Joseph sighed; if Octavan was really in charge in the Duke’s absence, everything he’d been hoping for would prove far more difficult, if not impossible.

The second man was taller, very obviously not overweight, the wiry muscles at his neck and along his arms standing out clearly against his thin frame. He was wearing an odd amalgam of formal dress and the colors of the City Watch, a short-sleeved tunic under a worn, studded leather vest, a similarly studded helmet, and carried both a long-bladed spear in his hands and a sword bound about his waist. Joseph didn’t recognize him, couldn’t remember ever having seen him before (though he’d made a point of avoiding visits to Innias as much as he could in recent years), but the man just came to parade rest, standing silently behind Octavan as the mayor continued on, reaching out his fleshy hand towards Matthias.

“My Lord Captain: may you be Matthias to me?–this is unexpected and welcome.” Matthias took the fat man’s hand in his own, and Joseph knew he was suppressing a grimace of disgust; he’d had occasion to shake Octavan’s hand in the past and knew the creeping feeling his soft, painfully-effeminate grip could have on someone. “And Your Royal Highness! You do us incredible honor with your presence. How may I serve you?”

Joseph nodded in the fat man’s direction, and then glanced in his Captain’s direction; he still didn’t trust himself to speak, and was conserving himself for when it was absolutely necessary.

“The fuck is wrong with your people, Octavan?” Matthias asked, unwilling to imply any deference by stepping back fromt he man before him but unable to keep himself from wiping the hand the Mayor had touched against his leg. “Demanding a pass from the Crown Prince?”

Octavan’s face curdled for a brief moment, clearly upset at Matthias’s words (and Joseph knew it was discomfort at his Captain’s vulgarity that bothered him, and not embarrassment at the behavior he’d called out), but recovered quickly, a sickly smile returning to the folds of his face.

“My most sincere apologies, Captain. There are some unusual causes for concern, especially with His Grace away. They were only following their orders. Vigorously, as is to be hoped for.”

“Where is His Grace?”

“Why in the north, Captain, bringing tidings to the King of…well, we can discuss that later. But of course you knew that.”

“We’ve been away from [thecapital], almost two months now.”

“Oh. That is…interesting. May I make you welcome, then, in his name?”

“You can if we can skip the small talk. I have a wounded man here and news of my own my Prince and I need to discuss with you.”

“Oh dear, of course.” Octavan turned to the man behind him, clapping his hands together. “Danal, please see that their injured are taken care of?” The tall man behind him called back into the sally port and three men of the City Watch immediately appeared.

“Danal is my most trusted servant, and will see to your men’s needs posthaste. Now…Captain, Your Royal Highness, please, come with me.”

The three men of the Watch moved to assist with Thomas and were immediately waved off, Letam and the other men of the Guard unwilling to let an outsider help with one of their own, and the Watchmen instead turned and led them through the sally port, leaving only Octavan, Danal, Matthias, Canaan, Joseph and his prisoner behind to follow them into the city.

As they passed through the narrow doorway, Canaan moved alongside Joseph, speaking quietly.

“How are you?”

“Close. Holding on.”

“It’s…unfortunate, Kellen’s absence, isn’t it?”

“You know my feelings on Octavan.”

“I do, yes.”

“Can you and Matthias handle him? I don’t have much time left, and we can’t afford to wait until I’m better to act on what happened today.”

“I’m sure Mat will be fine, once he remembers that he can’t just shoot the man, however much he wants to.”

“And you?”

“He’ll have to handle things himself. You’re wounded, and stressed well beyond where you should have been this close to a Fit. My place is at your side.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s not my first time.”

“It is under these conditions. I’ll at least want to see you safely through the rites.”

“You worry too much. I’m not what we should be concerned about right now.”

“On the contrary. After today, your safety is more important than ever.”

Joseph paused, mentally, trying to gather himself. It was getting more and more difficult to focus with each passing moment, and there were too many nebulous implications to what Canaan was saying to drift too far afield just yet.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“Look around you, as best you can…”

Joseph did. They had already passed through the outskirts of the market district, everything but the bars, inns and brothels already shuttered for the coming night, and were approaching the walls of the interior castle and adjoining Care-Keep. The streets, unusually, were mostly empty, with none of the expected activity he remembered from his previous visits to the city. With all the foreign visitors and [heroland] travelers that passed through here, Innias had been, in the past, as alive after the sun went down as it was during the day, and in some ways much more so. Late night negotiations, celebrations of deals struck earlier in the day…any excuse, really, to spend the money that so readily changed hands here, indulging in all of the things that money could buy. But now that had all been replaced with darkened windows and locked doors. And soldiers, he noticed. Lots of them, more than he could remember ever being within a city at one time. Men of the City Watch were stationed at seemingly ever corner, patrols of the local militia were marching about, far more orderly than any militia had a right to. And most surprisingly, there were several platoons of the Southern Army about, some on the move from one place to another, others stationary, disciplined and observant, all of them in full battle gear. There was nothing ceremonial or casual about any of it.

And though he was doing his damnedest to ignore it, to hold the Sight at bay just a little longer, it was impossible to completely block it out, and what he was sensing from all of them–the Watch, the militias, and the Army–was tension. Malice. Aggression. Uncertain fear and apprehension about something undefined that was yet to come.

Canaan could see the look on Joseph’s face as all of this washed over him, and as they approached the great doors to the central castle–manned by over two dozen men of the City Watch, Joseph noted, all fully armed and on alert–the priest leaned in close to say one last thing.

“I’m not sure what all of this means. Perhaps the good Mayor is just being overly cautious in His Grace’s absence. But in light of what happened earlier today, perhaps not.”

Octavan stopped before the doors and turned to face them, the very model of formal supplication.

“My Lord Captain, Your Royal Highness, my Lord High Priest…and your…guest… Please be welcomed to m– His Grace the Duke of Innias’s home. Let us within to discuss these matters so urgent.”

Without waiting for a response, he turned back to the Watchmen and motioned for them to open the doors. They did, and the group passed through them, the heavy doors closing behind them with a deep, loud thud and shudder that Joseph felt resound within him on a deeper level than his bones.

*

The conversation went about as well as Joseph had expected it, which is to say frustrating enough to make you want to gnaw your own arm off.

Octavan had led them to the receiving hall where the Duke normally took his audiences. The Mayor wasn’t crazy enough to have claimed the Duke’s own seat high on the dais for his own, but he had placed a long chaise lounge directly in front of it and reclined his considerable girth all along it, clapping imperially for servants to bring them wine and a “small bite”, which turned into a parade of fruits, cheeses and enough sweet, dripping roasted meats to feed a small town for days. Men of the City Watch lined the walls, holding the same ceremonial positions that the royal guard would normally hold.

It was clear, in His Grace’s absence, Octavan was not just at home in these surroundings–he was absolutely wallowing in the temporary power he was wielding.

That wasn’t the source of the frustration, though; flush with his new powers, Octavan had magnified his usual skills of non-committing dissembling to an art form. Arguing with him was like punching a week-old corpse: initial resistance, followed by a complete giving way, bathed in the aroma of rot and corruption, with no real sense that anything meaningful had been accomplished.

Matthias quickly recapped the details of the attack for him, and before he could get to any of the important parts–that their attackers were from [badmanland], or what little sense they’d been able to make of their prisoner’s mumblings–Octavan jumped in with exclamations of shock and surprise, overly poetic and with so many twistings and turnings that they weren’t sure where one sentence ended and another began.

He promised that Thomas would be cared for by the finest doctor’s in the land–Joseph didn’t remember Duke Kellen maintaining more than half a dozen here, all of them better equipped at purchasing new and fancier clothes for themselves and finding sweet, dim-witted companions for the evening than they were at healing even a bruised thumb–and swore that his men would get to the bottom of this attack, even if they had to burn out and torture every soul in the province.

Matthias pointed out that this wouldn’t be necessary, that their attackers had been from [badmanland], and what they’d learned so far suggested that this was just the beginning of something much, much worse. Octavan again made with the shock and surprise, going so far as to bring a doughy hand up to his mouth as he inhaled sharply, and then swore again that his men would find the truth of this, whatever it took. When Matthias asked that riders immediately be sent north to [thecapital] and west to [thirdmajorcity] with the news, he promised that they would leave at tomorrow’s first light with tidings written personally in his own hand. When Matthias asked him what preparations he would make here in Innias, patrols to search for other [badmanland] forces that might be nearby, and increases in the city’s own defenses, Octavan urged him not to worry himself with such details, that he had everything well in hand and that Joseph and his Guard should consider themselves his guests, perfectly safe under his watchful eyes.

And when it was apparent that the next thing Matthias would be asking was where the fat man wanted him to place his sword, in his gut or through his neck, Canaan reached out and stilled him with a hand on his shoulder.

“That will be sufficient, I think, for tonight. You’ve been most kind,” the priest said to the Mayor. And then to Matthias, “Captain, we are clearly in good hands. Would you be so good as to escort us to the Care-Keep before checking in with your men?”

Matthias stared at him, the rage very slowly falling from him, and then nodded.

Through clenched teeth he turned back to the Mayor and said, “My Lord Octavan, thank you for your kindness. I would see my Prince and his Priest to their rest, if we have your leave?”

“You may. And if you or your men require anything throughout the night, do not hesitate to ask.” Raising his arms in feigned supplication, he added, “I am here only to serve.”

Matthias, Canaan, Joseph and their prisoner walked from the receiving hall, leaving the Mayor to continue engorging himself upon the “small bite” still laid before him. As they passed through a doorway into the relative privacy of a connecting hallway, the Captain began sputtering, curses and the occasional “blubbering” and “sickening”, accompanied by angry growls of frustration.

“Well,” Joseph said, trying to pull together a few last moments of clarity, focus and levity, “that went well.”

Matthias stopped walking, stopped his inarticulate ranting, and stared at him. And when he saw the expression on his Prince’s face, he gave a wry smile himself and shook his head.

“Better than expected, to be sure.”

“I need to get to the Care-Keep, sooner than later. Will you be okay while I’m out?”

Matthias thought for a moment, then nodded.

“I can go directly to Lucien, the Captain of the Watch. I knew his sister some years ago…hopefully he’s forgotten about that, actually. And we’re lucky the Militia and Army are here now too. I have some favors I can call in, get things moving regardless of that fat fuck.” He cocked his head to one side, then added, “I’m oddly not bothered by the idea of going behind his back.”

“Is it luck, though?” Canaan asked. The priest wasn’t smiling. Matthias thought on it for a moment, shrugging.

“I’m not sure what it is. It’s unusual, their all being here. What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know. Just that there’s more here to think about than there should be. Did you notice, he barely mentioned our prisoner here?”

They all took a moment to look at the [badmanlandian]. His hands were still tied, but it almost didn’t seem necessary. He’d been following along with them as docile as an old gelding, occasionally murmuring his litany under his breath, but otherwise keeping his head down and shuffling along wherever they led.

“He didn’t mention much of anything, beyond his own graciousness, as far as I could tell,” Joseph said, “no matter how many words he used. Where are you planning to keep him?”

“I’ll keep him with me,” Matthias said, “turn him over to Letam when I check in with the men. Canaan, do you still think you can find someone to help translate?”

“I do, but that has to wait.”

“It’s that close?” he asked Joseph, who nodded.

“I can hardly… Maybe an hour, no more than that.”

“Okay.” Matthias turned to Canaan, placing a hand on the prisoner’s arm. “Get him settled. I’ll go to our rooms, and then call the other Captains to get things in motion. We’ll meet there when you’re done?”

Canaan nodded, and Matthias looked directly at his Prince.

“Hurry back to us.”

*

Joseph knelt before the altar, taking a small pinch of the dried hiaku leaves in his good hand and crushing them over the candle he’d just lit. Their scent–dark, green, bitter–caught the flame and swirled up and around him, a calming incense. He breathed deep of it, closing his eyes, trying to find the quiet, still place at the center of him, where the Sight lived. He could feel it immediately, a caged beast pushing at the borders of his will. As he always did, this close to a Fit, he found it hard to resist; there was a strength there, a waxing power that was as seductive as it was terrifying. All he wanted to do was give in, abandoning himself to its surging promises. It scared him, always, the notion of disappearing, like stepping directly from waking to the heart of a violent nightmare he wasn’t sure he would ever wake from, but that was part of the allure, the adrenaline doubling his beating heart, sending fire burning down his arms and legs, overlaying and then turning to ash his awareness of his own self.

But he couldn’t give himself over to it, not yet. The hiaku helped, somehow dampening the violence of the effect the Sight had over him when it reached the apex of its power just prior to a Fit. But it was the meditation, the quiet and controlled manner in which he gave himself over to it that would allow him to return. It was a controlled burn, the moments leading up to the final instant of release that could help turn a week or more of uncontrollable suffering into two or three days of a a difficult but manageable fever-sleep. It was hard–so much harder than anything asked of him in his normal life–to resist, especially now, on the very brink, but it was necessary, and this is why he practiced through all the times in between, the measured, deliberate breathing, the steady cadence of his repeated prayers, the ability to find that quiet stillness at the center of the angry, raging beast within… It was, more so than his family, his title, his future, his friends–it was what defined him, and he would not allow this most basic, primal part of himself free reign, not when it was possible to bring some small bit of the mastery to it that he had built the rest of his life upon.

He took another few, deep breaths, and began to rise to his feet, taking care not to trip over the long, soft white robes in his distraction, ready to turn to Canaan and the two local priests waiting behind him. They’d lead him from the chapel to the small room reserved for him for the duration of a Fit. It would be intentionally sparse, little more than a bed for him to lie in, a chair for the observing priest to sit in (they would take shifts, watching him day and night until he passed through), a basin with cool water in it…the unfortunate straps that might need to be used to hold him in place if the Fit took a turn for the worse. And that would be it; to bring anything more into his vicinity would only give the Fit more things to fixate upon: the less there was to latch on to, the better.

Despite the day’s events, it’s confusing beginning, it’s violent middle, it’s maddening end…he felt at peace. He trusted his men–his friends. Mat had been by his side since he was old enough to work a door handle by himself, thus proving himself in need of an eventual protector, and Canaan had been with him since he had his first Fit at eleven years-old. They were closer to him than his father, who had from the beginning abandoned Joseph to his tutors and trainers, treating him as a resource to be cultivated rather than a son. He didn’t have any bitterness about that, not anymore, though it had nearly eaten him whole when he was younger: his father’s primary responsibility was to the kingdom, and he had gone about preparing Joseph to succeed him as best as he could. He’d done a pretty lousy job of it, as he did of most things, but that didn’t change why he had done what he’d done.

And with no siblings, and with his mother dead nearly twenty years, Mat and Canaan–and at a slightly more distant extension, though still very close–were the only real family he had. He trusted them completely to handle these events while he was out. It was the only thing allowing him to find the quiet peace that would get him through this.

As he gained his feet, there was a loud bang from the rear of the chapel as the main doors were thrown open, crashing into the walls beside them. Matthias came running through, the rest of Joseph’s Guard close behind him. He immediately began giving orders, sending pairs of men to the three other entrances, and then approached the altar.

The quiet stillness Joseph had been cultivating within him shattered and dissolved, and he felt his Sight, the beast unleashed, surging through him, an unchecked fire in his blood, spinning wildly out of control. He was only peripherally aware of his Guard’s appearance–full battle readiness, swords and guns drawn–and the words Matthias was saying. Everything was overlaid with emotion and intent, the men bright spots of near panic, zeroing in on their assigned positions while orbiting about him, tendrils of awareness snaking back to him at the center. And–he could feel it–in just moments this would no longer be a phantom overlay, it would be all he knew, and their lives in a physical world would, for a time, be a near-forgotten ghost.

He felt the enraged spirits of the local priests moving towards Matthias, trying to stop him, their words inarticulate ripples of thought. His Captain cast them aside and continued towards the altar where Canaan waited, standing between him and Joseph, concerned but minus the outrage of the other priests. There was a discussion about something, he could feel half-formed fears collapsing into explosions of reality, and he latched onto one of them, following it to its source, stretching out his awareness beyond the chapel, beyond the Care-Keep, expanding it further than he had ever imagined, enveloping the entire city.

There was violence. Fear, and hate, and pain, a wave cresting to fall upon everything and everyone. There were great fires where the fighting was the most intense, charred embers where it had already passed, and simmering sparks where it would land next. Most of all, there was confusion, a senseless maelstrom of uncertainty; the violence was indiscriminate, with no sense or purpose, just death, waiting and coming for all.

Joseph rose up above the city, his Sight embracing it all, the tiny pockets of furious intent briefly and brightly dying stars in the swirling cauldron of aimless conflict. It was here, his Fit was here, and though there was a dim echo in what was left of his physical self crying out, knowing that things were happening in that shadowed real world that needed his, Joseph’s, attention, there was no stopping it, not anymore, not now, at the peak of its strength.

Until, at the previously-lost center of it all where the mortal shell he once inhabited remained, there was a blinding shock, a slashing pain that rent the veil, and suddenly, at least for the moment, he was Joseph again, within his own body, laying upon cool stones before the altar. And his cheek hurt.

“You hit him too hard.”

“I didn’t know if it would work. If he’d been all the way gone…”

“Your Highness, can you walk?” Matthias asked. The Captain was kneeling over him, with another face besides his, Canaan. After Joseph failed to respond immediately, his Captain spoke again to the priest.

“You’ll have to carry him.”

“Give him a minute.”

“I’m not sure we have one.”

Joseph could see, with real eyes, actual physical bodies, could feel his own…but he knew immediately that it wouldn’t last, that this was a momentary reprieve. His Sight shimmered at the edges of his awareness, present and, for the moment, deferring to the sudden physical shock that had brought him back, but it was even now already leaking its seductive tendrils across his vision.

The words these people were speaking, he couldn’t piece them into a meaningful whole, but their intent shone through, and he pressed all of his will to follow that intent into action and meaningless words of his own.

He pushed himself into a sitting position and then struggled to his feet, leaning heavily upon Canaan for support, his own questions managing to disjointedly manifest themselves.

“I…what…”

“They’re coming for you, Your Highness. More [badlandians], and I can’t tell if our own people are fighting against them, for them, or just killing whatever’s in front of them. We have to get you out of the city. Can you walk?”

He felt his assent nod in reply. Matthias immediately turned and began barking out orders.

“Carey, Sam: on point. We’re going out through the front doors. Letam, Doyle, Alex: rearguard. The rest of you on me. Move!”

Joseph felt his body begin to move, and worse, the Sight begin to return, overwriting the small packets of will he was still trying to marshal and use. He became a stumbling, flickering hub at the center of his Guard, points of deadly, focused intent surrounding him.

He wasn’t able anymore to follow their progress through the city. Physical landmarks were meaningless, empty, lifeless shapes dissolving into the noisy background of chaos surrounding them. His Sight brought him through pockets of violence, until, as they were nearing the edge of the storm, a blazing ridge rose up before them, immense, and then swept down upon them. Within the shifting whirls of intent he could hear gunshots, and screaming.

And watched with his Sight as, one by one, the fires of his Guard were extinguished.

Then there was only himself left, the Fit working to break through the shreds of mortality still clinging to him, and at the very moment that he gave in, releasing the last restraints upon his Sight, freeing the beast to consume him completely, a shard of intent–a sword, a spear, a cry, a violent act given shape and form–pierced his side, and he knew no more.

Incoming

So, Chapter 10 is done.  Well, sort of.  It’s come together is a chaotic jumble, and it might take me as long to assemble all the various pieces as it did to get it down on paper in the first place.  I’m hoping to post it up here at some point over the holiday weekend.

But if it comes together the way I think it will…ooo, this one could be good.  Shit gets real, as the kids say.

Back in a skosh

Randomness, May 18, 2010

Felt like dropping by and dusting a few shelves.  Regular maintenance, that’s the key to a tidy household.
  • The job situation appears to have been resolved.  Where I’m heading is so busy with work right now that they actually don’t have a desk for me yet (I’d be on boxes in a hallway), and so I won’t start until the end of next month.  Which gives me over six weeks to relax and write.  Right?  I give it two weeks before I’m going stir crazy and inviting random strangers on the street to conference calls.
  • Speaking of writing, have begun work on Chapter 10 for a second time.  The first attempt was going well, but wasn’t singing, and if I can be excused a brief moment of crowing (it’s my blog, after all, and I haven’t been nearly self-congratulatory enough here), I was able to sort out what needed fixing, and I’m kinda proud of myself for being able to dissect and rework my own work to this extent.  Long story short, it started off quietly, flashed back to some conflict, then returned to the quiet only to have things blow up.  Which is my usual way of doing things, but at this point, both in this character’s arc and the overall book, I need the pace to be a bit more breathless.  I’ve had to allow myself permission to just put the damn thing in Allegro-Forte and charge ahead.
  • Another thought on the book, while I’m here and talking about it:  with the posting of Chapter 9, I now have half the novel up here.  And I’m not sure if I should continue posting it or not.  There appear to be conflicting reports about whether or not agents and publishers will be interested in a book that’s already been entirely published online.  I know Cat Valente has seriously bucked that possible trend, but this thing isn’t anything like that:  I’m posting draft zero’s (I can already see just how different the end result is going to be from this first pass, and hopefully how much better), and seriously doubt I’ll end up mimicking anything like the kind of success she had posting Fairyland.  (I’m hopeful for the same volume of success, but it certainly won’t happen in the same way.)  On the other hand, I see the viewership spikes that happen here every time I post a new chapter, and I’ll be damned if I bow to nebulous conventional wisdom; never worked for me before, why should I start caring now?
So, you tell me:  should I keep posting the chapters up here for all to read?  Drop a comment or send me an email or whatever.
And that’s that for this visit.  I’m hoping to drop by with a bit more regular ramblings in the future, but for now I’ve got a decent red wine, some lasagna, and a Bill Hicks DVD to watch.  Word to your mother.

Halfway Home

And here is Chapter 9.  Please remember, this is draft zero, so be gentle:  it’s rough.

It’s also the halfway point of the book.  I’m more than a little stunned that I’ve made it this far.  A little over four months ago, I had an idea:  three characters, three people, whose lives were turned inside out by a war.  And nearly 40k words later, those people have come to life, and are on the brink of events that will change them forever.  I’ve been privileged enough to serve as their witness, transcribing the events that will lead them into the darkest of nights with only the hint of a possible dawn to keep them keeping on.

I may need to take a moment, now that I’m halfway done with the first book, to reflect on where I’ve gone and where I still need to go.  There’s that story, “The Last Star”, which needs to be shaped up into a complete whole.  And a new job to find, and a family to love…in the immortal words of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, this means something, and I owe it to myself to figure out what it means.

In the meantime, enjoy.


Chapter 9

The sun was beginning to set, golden rays falling through the windows like physical beams, edges clearly defined against the shadows in the room, catching specs of dust that sparkled in the light. The old woman finished pouring tea into their mis-matched cups and took her seat opposite Charlotte at the table. Charlotte picked up her cup, using both hands–she was no longer shaking, but felt weak after the day’s ordeals and still didn’t trust her body to do what she willed it to, even simple things. She’d clung to the old woman’s arm for support the entire way here, and had settled into her chair gingerly, like a cripple instead of an athletic fifteen year-old girl.

Her earlier panic was gone now, slipping away from her with each step they’d taken away from the crowd and with each moment she was removed from the coincidental (it had to be a coincidence) mention of that name. Left in its place was an emptiness that felt physical, a mental and emotional void that felt like her stomach did after she’d been sick, hollow and sore. And as they’d neared this house, and then entered it, walking down a hallway that creaked familiarly under their feet, their brief journey ending in a kitchen where Charlotte was sure she could see the lingering imprints of her feet in the dust on the counters, as impossible as that was, weeks after she’d come through here in the middle of the night, that emptiness began to be filled by a new breed of nerves. These she could deal with, though, or at least they’d never been a serious problem for her in the past; feigning innocence at the scene of the crime is one of the core skills thieves need to survive.

Though, so was dealing with large crowds, which she’d also never had a problem with before today, so in this sudden absence of enough solid ground to stand upon, she focused on the little details. Like using two hands to hold her cup of tea.

The old woman–Lois, she’d said her name was Lois–started at Charlotte without speaking, a serious expression on her face. She appeared content to just sit there and let the silence grow for as long as it took. Charlotte was not as content.

“Thank you. I–the… I don’t normally…”

“Why don’t you start with your name.”

“Charlie–Charlotte. My name is Charlotte.”

“Please to meet you, Charlotte. Would you like me to call you Charlie?”

“No– Not that. Just Charlotte.”

“Okay then, Charlotte it is.” Lois paused a moment, then struck right at the one place Charlotte was hoping she’d forgotten about.

“Where did you learn to do that?”

“To…what?”

“The purse, hon. That wasn’t the first time you’ve done that.”

“Oh. I…” Charlotte found no more words to say. As much as she’d avoided large crowds since leaving Victor’s crew and the cities where they worked behind her three years ago, she’d even more deliberately tried to avoid sitting down and talking to people one on one like this. And especially never to discuss the types of things she did to stay alive, out on her own, the skills she’d spent most of her short conscious life trying to perfect. Jumbled thoughts battled for position in her mind: a possible attempt to run a con on this kindly old woman, lingering here just long enough to talk her into sending Charlotte on her way with some food, a supplement from the same source she’d already secretly drawn upon a few weeks ago (low chance of success–the woman was old and seemingly kind, but very obviously not addled or stupid); a desire to just up and bolt, with no thought of what might happen after (certainly nothing good); or just to sit here and dissemble, saying as little as possible until she could find a good excuse to leave.

The silence grew again as all of these possibilities weighed against each other in her mind, and she was so lost in them that she startled herself when she opened her mouth and began talking, selecting a fourth option: none of the above.

“I always have. It’s just what I do.”

“Where are you from?”

“The south. Innias, I think. I don’t know; I moved around a lot.”

“With your parents?”

“No.”

“Where are they?”

“Dead, I think. I never…” She couldn’t find the words to finish that thought, never had been able to, not even when asking herself the same questions in the stillness of her own head, and so she just shrugged and hoped it would convey what needed to be said.

“Well now. What are we going to do with you,” Lois said, the last bit clearly not a question, more of a thesis statement, the opening moment of whatever came next. Charlotte was about to reply–with what, she didn’t know, was as curious as anyone to find out what might come out of her mouth next–when they heard a loud squeal, followed by a door slamming open and the thudding of tiny feet moving very fast.

“Grammy! Grammy! Guess what Daddy said!”

A little girl came tearing into the kitchen, maybe six or seven years old. Her long blonde hair was a tangled mess flopping all around her, but was no worse off than the rest of her: bare feet so encrusted with dirt you couldn’t see the toenails, a long baggy dress with a multitude of stains in various places, the hem and ends of both sleeves darker than the rest, soaked through, the sleeves with the girl’s saliva from the nearly constant unconscious sucking and chewing that had recently replaced thumb sucking, the hem with god-knows-what. There was a scabbed over scratch on her right cheek, drawing even more attention to her big, excited blue eyes.

She ran straight for Lois, slamming into her with no braking between her charge and impact, wrapping her arms around her Grammy’s neck and burrowing her check against her Grammy’s chest. Lois embraced her granddaughter right back, appearing no worse for the wear after the joyful violence of her arrival.

“What did he say, sweetheart?”

“He said– Charlie!” The little girl’s eyes had found Charlotte, and unlike the sleepy sadness of their first meeting, the squeal of her name was at least as joyous as everything else she’d so far done and said. As was her second assault in as many minutes: she untangled herself from her Grammy and made straight for Charlotte, wrapping her up in the same loving chokehold.

Charlotte froze–a distant part of her mind was getting more and more upset at how often that was happening recently, how out of control things were getting–but only long enough to take a single breath. She inhaled, and smelled dirt, and grass, and childhood sweat, and the ghost of a little-girl fart (which probably had a suitably little-girl name, at least when she said it, like “fluffer” or “poofy” or something equally cute)…and, somehow, sunshine, which didn’t have a scent, as far as Charlotte knew. Nor did fun, nor love, nor joy…but all of those things and more were given her in a single breath taken with this little girl hugging her.

She closed her eyes, and after another moment’s hesitation–she hadn’t hugged or been hugged in so long, there was no muscle memory to guide her actions until she caught another whiff of the little girl and realized that there was no wrong way to hug someone who was hugging you, other than to not do it at all–put her arms around the little girl, feeling the tiny heart beating against hers.

She wasn’t sure how much time passed sitting like that–it couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds, though it felt much longer–when a hand, adult-sized and strong, grabbed her wrist and started to unwrap her arms from around the child. She opened her eyes to find Lois standing over them, panic on her face, and anger, though it was tempered with a confusion that was causing her to restrain herself slightly, or at least to act less hastily than those emotions alone would have dictated.

Charlotte knew the exact questions running through the old woman’s mind: her idle curiosity for who Charlotte was and how she’d ended up here in this small town had turned into a protective imperative to find out how this strange thief knew her granddaughter. The hesitation came from the child’s obvious excitement at seeing Charlotte and her immediate outpouring of love…children were perfectly capable of lying convincingly, Charlotte knew that well enough from her own life, but there was no mistaking genuine emotion on this scale. The child clearly knew and cared for Charlotte, and the important question was how.

Charlotte was already wondering the same thing herself.

Lois was about to speak when there was more noise from the front of the house, the measured pounding of multiple pairs of adult feet in boots, likely male given the weight and cadence, which was confirmed when one of them spoke, calling out.

“Mother?”

A large man entered the kitchen from the hallway, defined in an instant as something paternal by his large mustache, the same deep black as the hair on his head, both sharing the hint of gray creeping in at the edges. He was followed by two more men–barely men, actually, the larger of the two sporting his own non-gray, not-nearly-as-large mustache, the smaller still plenty big but probably not much older than Charlotte himself–neither of them as tall or as broad as their father but definitely showing the potential for it. They all carried in their hands the kind of wide-brimmed hat common this far to the north, and were wearing similar outfits, dark blue shirts and pants intended for work but relatively clean and pressed, clearly saved for occasions where they wanted to look their best.

“We need to…” the father said, then changed the train of his thoughts as he noticed Charlotte. “Who’s this?”

Lois continued to stare at Charlotte, trying to decide how to answer, but the little girl jumped in before either of them could speak. She bounced off of Charlotte and ran to her father, slamming into his legs, arms outstretched; her preferred display of affection was clearly to charge like a tiny blonde bull at whatever she had currently fixed her eyes and heart upon.

“Daddy! Daddy! Can I tell Grammy what you said?”

He looked down at his daughter, hugging her to his side with one large hand, then looked back at Lois, still waiting for an answer to his question.

“This is,” Lois started, pausing for a definite moment to look at Charlotte before continuing, “Charlotte. Found her at the faire today. She’ll be staying for supper, if that’s alright.”

The man looked from Lois to Charlotte and back again. If he had any more questions–and he clearly might, if only to find out what had caused the expression Lois was wearing on her face, and that deliberate pause before Charlotte’s name–they could wait for now.

“That’s fine. You’re welcome here. We have to eat soon, though, and no dawdling. They–”

The little girl, still clinging to his side, interrupted with another round of, “Daddy! Daddy!”

“Yes Miri?”

“Can I tell her?”

“Yes.”

Miri ran back to her Grammy, stopping just short of another full-body collision and said, in between giggles, “Daddy said I could wait up with you tonight!”

“That’s nice dear,” Lois said. And then to her son, Miri’s father, “What are we waiting for tonight, Samuel?”

The man gestured to his sons, still standing behind him, and they nodded and set out for a different part of the house, their footsteps echoing their progress as they took the stairs continued moving around on the second story. Then he sat down at the table, moving aside the teapot and cups to make room for his hat.

“The militia’s called up. Too many folks today who couldn’t account for themselves.” He didn’t actually look at Charlotte as he said that, but it felt like he had to her.

“The mines?” Lois asked. Samuel nodded.

“Georges thinks it likely. One, maybe more. We’re going up to see what we can find. I’ll be taking the boys with us.”

“Are you sure… They won’t take kindly to it, not if their already risking the Crown’s wrath up there.”

“That’s why we’re going tonight. They’ll be drunk, and happy. The full militia’s been called, so we’ll have enough with us to discourage anything from happening. We’ll just ask them to move on, and if they haven’t yet in a day or so we’ll send word down to Toman, get them to send some soldiers up this way to handle things.”

“But the boys?” Lois’s eyes drifted up, where they could still hear the two boys moving around and their muffled voices.

“They’re old enough. Fritz certainly, and Chris is big for his age.” Samuel leaned forward, taking one of his mother’s hands in his own. “We’re just going to look and talk, nothing more.”

The little girl, still clearly excited by anything and everything, interjected.

“Can Charlie and I come?”

Samuel was hung up for a moment before realizing that his daughter had meant Charlotte, then smiled and reached out to ruffle the hair on Miri’s head.

“No sweetheart. I need you to stay here with Grammy and keep watch for us. Can you do that?”

“Sure!”

Samuel smiled and stood up again.

“Now, I need to wash up. Can you girls put something together for us, short order?”

“Yup! C’mon Charlie! C’mon Grammy!” Miri grabbed one of their hands in each of her own and began pulling them to follow her. And even with all of the uncertainty in the air, the unspoken and unanswered questions still waiting to be given voice, and all of the panic and strangeness the day had already brought, and no idea what might come next, Charlotte found that she was smiling.

*

Supper was finished, dishes cleared, night draping the windows in a silent black rimmed in the gold of spilling light from the torches lining the street outside. Samuel and his two sons were standing near the door, each having added a leather coat–matching only in the amount of wear and repairs done to them–each holding a quarterstaff. Samuel and the older boy, Fritz, held theirs with confidence; Charlotte couldn’t tell how much skill they might have with the staff, but it was clear they were at least comfortable and had had some practice with them. The younger boy, Chris, looked much less comfortable, and had already dropped his noisily to the floor once…but Charlotte thought that might have more to do with her than with a lack of experience wielding the blunt weapon.

He was about her age, and had been more obvious in his attempts to avoid staring at her than if he’d just given in and looked right at her the entire meal. Charlotte wasn’t sure how she felt about that…there was a small bit of pleasure at the idea that she was old enough now to exert a new kind of power (after years with Victor’s crew–in which, as a child burglar, she’d been the exception, rather than the rule–she knew full well what went on between men and women once they stopped being little boys and girls), but no real interest from her side in him beyond that, certainly not anything approaching what he’d clearly been going through.

It had been a relatively quiet meal otherwise, most of the spaces filled in with Miri’s excited voice telling them about something she’d seen or done, or thought that she’d seen or done, or wished that she’d seen or done. She was obviously well-loved, the men smiled easily at her ongoing, jumbled narrative, and Lois only interrupted her when one of her pronouncements led to an accompanying gesture that threatened to knock something over. Charlotte had been especially glad for the little girl’s never-ending enthusiasms: there’d been no room left over for questions, and she wasn’t sure just yet how she was going to answer any of the ones she was expecting Lois (or even worse, Samuel) to ask, or even if she could. She’d been able to set aside her own questions during the meal, the new ones generated by the awfulness and unexpected events of the day as well as those she’d been carrying around with her for the last two weeks, ever since she’d first met this little girl in the silent middle of the night–namely how this little girl seemed to already know her, and more specifically knew her by a name that she hadn’t used in years–but now that the evening was closing in, the silence between moments growing longer, there was less to hide behind. Not to mention the increasingly obvious and pointed glances Lois was giving her…the time for answers was drawing near.

Samuel shifted the staff in his hand again and spoke to his mother, though his eyes were watching Charlotte as he did.

“Will our guest be staying the night?”

Now Lois was staring at Charlotte, as were the two boys (Chris’s face turning red as he realized what he was doing)–she was the center of attention and wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing, just that it was a new thing, and making her incredibly uncomfortable. Her skin began to itch under their eyes, and she couldn’t tell if Lois was waiting for her to say something or if she was going to answer herself and was just thinking about it first. And then, as she had been all evening, Miri saved her from the moment.

Bouncing up and down, swinging between her father and grandmother, the little girl said, “Ooo! Ooo! Can Charlie stay? Pleeease!”

“We’ll see,” Lois said, still watching Charlotte closely, “but I think so.”

“Yay!” And Miri accompanied her victorious yell by jumping into Charlotte’s lap, nearly knocking the wind out of her, and hugged her tightly enough around the neck that she had to reach up and loosen the girl’s grip on her a bit to continue breathing.

“Okay then,” Samuel said, and started towards the door, his sons falling in line behind him.

“Be careful,” Lois called after him, and he nodded, reaching for the handle. As he opened the door, Miri realized that they were leaving and jumped out of Charlotte’s lap as quickly as she’d jumped in, running to his side.

“Wait! Daddy!”

He picked her up, kissing her on the cheek then turning his own to her so she could return the favor. The he held her out so she could repeat the ritual with both of her brothers, then set her down again.

“Mind your Grammy, okay?”

“Okay!”

He glanced at his sons, cocking his head towards the open door, then went out into the night, the two of them following. Miri stood at the open door waving, yelling out a succession of goodbyes, until Lois told her to close the door. She did, and ran back into the kitchen.

“Miri,” Lois said, “I need to talk to Charlotte. Go on up to your room and play for a bit.”

“Can I go outside?”

“No. It’s dark already.”

“Please?”

“Miriam…”

“Okay.” It was hard not to smile at the little girl pout of disappointment on her face. She tried to stomp off angrily, but that didn’t last long, and by the time she reached the stairs she was running again, excited and happy.

Lois, watching her go, said, “Dear thing. She has two speeds: running and asleep.”

Then she turned back to Charlotte and sat there, waiting for her to say something. Charlotte had no idea what exactly she was waiting for–now that they were down to it, just the two of them, alone, there were a dozen different doors waiting to be opened, and she didn’t know which of them they’d be going through first–so she tried to find something nice to say, something unimportant that would fill in the waiting silence.

“Thank you for the meal. It was…really. Nice.”

Lois sat there for a moment, ignoring the pleasantry, and then leaned forward.

“Who’s Charlie?”

Not the question she’d been expecting. Charlotte wasn’t sure she could fully admit to herself where it had come from–she had these simple mental phrases, like “the time I spent in Victor’s crew” or “the things Victor taught me” that served to cover huge stretches of her life, a shorthand that allowed her to refer to people and events without actually having to remember any of the details, even to herself…that way lay madness. But Lois wouldn’t understand any of her shorthand, and yet it was no use trying to pretend it didn’t mean anything. She stumbled about, trying to find words that didn’t hurt.

“It’s a nickname…I…it’s what–I haven’t…years ago…”

Why don’t you start by telling me how you know my granddaughter.”

“I don’t…I’ve never…” Met her before was how she was about to finish, then felt a wild impulse to tell this woman the truth, at least as much as she understood. All of her instincts still pushed her to lie, to find some innocuous story that might pass muster and get her clear of this place, however nice they’d been to her so far. She was better off alone, it was the only lesson she’d learned that had held true for her.

But still…the brief bit of truth she’d shared earlier had given her an adrenaline rush that she could still feel. Like she’d been blind in one eye and only realized it in the sudden relief of being able to see out of both of them again, if only for a short while. She didn’t know what would happen if she went even further down that path, speaking openly and honestly about who she was and what she did–she realized she hadn’t even admitted many of those things to herself, choosing to ignore the larger questions, burying them, focusing on the plan she’d set out for herself and the details of execution, staying constantly in the moment–but she knew her heart was beginning to race at just the thought of telling this woman the truth, and decided to find out what would happen if she spoke just a little bit more.

“She said…she dreamed about me.”

“What did–when…” Of all the things she might have been expecting, it was clear that Lois hadn’t been expecting that. She had gone in an instant from a curious, determined interrogator to a flustered old woman. Charlotte could see the years creep back into her face with the sudden confusion…and there was fear there too.

“When did she-” Lois started again, then realized something. “It was you, wasn’t it?”

Charlotte didn’t answer immediately, not sure what the woman was referring to, then understood, even as Lois went on.

“Two weeks ago. Our pantry thief.”

“Yes, ma’am. I–”

“What happened?”

“I was…I didn’t want to go hungry again.”

“Not that. I don’t care about that. What happened with my granddaughter?”

And that was more than a little surprising. Lois had lept to the one fact Charlotte had been trying to hide, then skated right past that to something else entirely.

“She was awake when…when I was leaving. She knew my name. Said she dreamed me.”

“What else did she say this time?”

Charlotte almost got hung up on that last bit; there was something else the woman was worried about, something ongoing that Charlotte had clearly stumbled into.

“She asked me if it was time to go. I didn’t…it didn’t make any sense. I just…I didn’t want her to wake anyone up, so I said it wasn’t, and she should go back to bed. And she did.”

“Was there anything else?”

“No.” And then, because there was clearly more to this than Charlotte could understand, she added, “What is it?”

Lois didn’t initially appear to have heard the question. She was lost in thought, staring at her twisting, worrying hands.

“You’ll stay here tonight. I need to talk to my son about this. You can sleep with Miri.”

Spoken with a sense of authority that wasn’t used to anyone questioning her decisions. And Charlotte still had a brief impulse to refuse, to get up and leave, head back to her cave and try to forget this entire day and everything that had happened. But it had happened, too many strange and tiring things for her to make any sense out of them, and all she wanted was to sleep and wait for tomorrow to try to figure out what was going to happen next.

So she just nodded, and a short time later found herself curled up next to a very tired, very warm little girl.

*

That night, she dreamed of men fighting, swords clashing, painful screams and yelling, the whoosh of sudden fire…and a few loud pops which she thought might be guns, though she’d never seen nor heard one fired before.

It was all very chaotic, and exciting, until she woke, still in the middle of the night, and found that she’d only been dreaming about what she was hearing through her sleep, a battle raging in the street outside.

And on we go

Not much to preface here; Chapter 8 is done, and at a rate of 3-5 days per chapter (which is hopeful extrapolation but not completely unreasonable), the book should be done by the time summer is in full swing. And typing those words just made the bottom fall out of my stomach.

Anyway, enjoy.


Chapter 8

There was a beautiful dance within his movements. Gabby could see it for what it was, as could a few other members of the King’s Guard. The rest weren’t consciously aware of the details of what they were seeing, but even still could tell that there was something different about Henry, something both graceful and deadly. He’d only been in their ranks for a few weeks, but could already easily handle everyone else in their daily sparring and drills, and even Gabby, and that was no easy feat.

The only bump in the road so far had been introducing Henry to his sword, first the weighted wooden boken they used for training, then the lethal steel blade. It had initially felt awkward to use and trust a specific weapon when fighting, instead of his own body and hands–even now, weeks later, he carried the dwindling ghosts of serious welts on his arms and legs from those first few days, when he’d underestimated what a sword could do in trained hands and just swung wildly, trying to close in for the grapple–but after a short while something had clicked for Henry. It was one of many things in the past weeks that had suddenly, seemingly in a matter of moments, made complete and total sense to him. His mind had never worked very well before, slow to pick up some things and hopelessly incapable of kenning others, but the daily martial training had awakened a part of him that didn’t hesitate, didn’t doubt.

And now, the welts ended up on his opponents. Though he still spent a good bit of time each day sparring with Gabby and the few other members of the Guard who could keep up with him, he spent most of his time working by himself with his live steel, practicing forms and counters, making the blade even more an extension of his body with each passing moment.

That’s where he was the next time Tynnalus came looking for him: at the side of the yard, sword in hand.

Henry wasn’t wearing his armor–there’d been no serious threat to the crown in a generation, and so the guard kept their official raiments, armor and uniforms, in the armory, cleaning, polishing and mending them once a month, reserving them for ceremonial functions (which hadn’t happened yet since Henry had joined the Guard)–but had been wondering lately how the extra weight and constrictions would effect his movements. So despite the heat of the midday, without even a breeze making its way into the yard, he was bundled in three layers of heavy winter wear, sweat streaming down his body like a river. So far, he’d discovered how much easier it was to overbalance, and was trying to find a middle-ground between keeping centered but still being able to put the desired force behind each swing.

Tynnalus walked across the yard, nodding briefly at Gabby but ignoring everything else, making directly for Henry. He stood and watched Henry for a moment–as everyone in the yard stood and watched him watching Henry–as they boy went through a complicated series of twisting counters. After a few swings he overbalanced again, stumbling slightly, and was so involved in what he was doing that he didn’t notice his Captain standing behind him until he spoke.

“You’re extending too far on the second pass. It only takes a small twist, with the wrist.”

Henry stumbled again–feeling more awkward than he usually did–startled by the sudden comment. Then he realized who was speaking to him and tried to pull himself to respectful attention, knowing that his labored breathing was seriously undermining it.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Tynnalus appraised him for a moment, then drew his own sword. It was longer than those the rest of the Guard used, thicker, with an ornate hilt covered one end to the other with carvings and gems; it should have been an effort just to raise it, if it were true steel and battle hardened, but the Captain raised it easily with one hand. It rasped against the scabbard as he drew and assumed a defensive position.

“You must learn to use your opponent’s efforts against him. Here, come, I’ll show you.”

Henry paused for a moment, realizing that his mouth was hanging open and unable to do anything about it. He gestured over to the rack where they kept the wooden practice bokens. “Sir, are you sure…?”

“I think we can avoid doing any serious damage, don’t you? Now come, High Guard.”

Henry hadn’t spent any time practicing the High Guard position–he found that a lower approach, something Gabby called Sweeping Bow, allowed him to better use the strength of his legs to augment his attack, which made up for his shorter reach–but he’d watched enough of the other guardsmen use it, both against him and each other, to have picked up the basics. It was another thing that had simply made sense to him after just a short time observing. So he faced Tynnalus, left foot slightly forward, right slightly back, sword raised high in the air, pommel slightly forward, with one hand controlling it and the other guiding, chest square to his opponent. He heard the conversation around him go quiet, knowing that everyone in the yard had completely stopped what they were doing to watch, and tried to put it out of his mind as he advanced.

Tynnalus was standing almost casually, legs barely wider than a normal non-combat stance, sword loosely in one hand, still at his side, and Henry brought his first swing in at the Captain’s unguarded left side…though not quite at full force, still a little worried about using live steel against a friend. Just a breath before his sword would have struck its target, the Captain whipped his own around, the blade moving almost too fast for Henry to see, and his attack was simply and easily deflected away.

The tone of Tynnalus’s next comment was not as friendly, though the expression on his face hadn’t changed.

“Am I a woman? Come at me you fuck.”

Henry gathered himself, trying not to let the words make him upset while accepting their intent. He resumed the High Guard and attacked again, this time holding nothing back.

And was deflected again, with ease. This time, Tynnalus flowed easily from his defense to the attack, whipping his sword one-handed at Henry with a flurry that forced him quickly back, needing to expend all his effort just to keep the attacks from landing, with no thoughts of a counter possible.

After a few moments, Henry felt himself overbalance, just a hair, the unfamiliar weight of his gear combining with the unfamiliar High Guard pushing him half a step further than he’d intended, and before he could correct himself Tynnalus took full advantage of the opening, bringing his sword around to land on Henry’s shoulder. At the last second he turned his blade so the flat landed instead of the edge, and while he was spared a wound that could easily have sent him back to the kitchens as a one-armed freak, Henry still felt his entire arm go numb from the impact. Tynnalus immediately backed off, having scored his sparring point, and looked to Henry for his reaction.

“Are you okay?”

“Yessir,” Henry said, shaking his arm until a bit of feeling returned to the hand, heat tingling from his fingers up his arm.

“Do you know why that happened? You invest too much of yourself in each swing. It is an easy thing, even aged veterans do it.

“The sword is not a club. It has an edge, and a bite, and a heart of its own, a silent life. Find that life, and allow it to breath.

“Now, again.”

Henry gathered himself, trying to resume the High Guard with an arm still in pain. He wasn’t sure exactly what Tynnalus had been talking about–it was a bit too poetic for him to wrap his head around–but he thought he understood what the Captain was talking about. Gabby and the others referred to the sword as an extension of themselves, and it was, but that didn’t mean it was the same thing. Holding a sword didn’t just make your arm thirty inches longer. It was as different from the rest of him as his hand was from his stomach. As the image memories of the last few moments played over again in his head, he saw that he was still clinging to his original notions, moving his entire body in the same way he would in a fist fight, only making allowances for the increased distance and the slightly longer time each swing took. Tynnalus, in contrast, had barely moved his center; at times, his upper arm had been locked to his side, and the only part of his body in motion had been his wrist and hand.

As Henry struggled to wrap his head around this new concept, a much deeper understanding of what was possible with this sword in his hand, Tynnalus interrupted his thoughts.

“You don’t prefer the High Guard?”

Henry stared at him, still somewhat lost in the cascading chain reaction of understanding that was breaking over him.

“Nossir.”

“Why not?”

Henry shrugged, knowing the answer wasn’t profound, but true.

“I have short arms, sir.”

Tynnalus chuckled, but not unkindly. “I see. Well, maybe you will come to a different understanding later…about the position, not how short your arms are. For now, I’d rather see you comfortable. Come at me as you will.”

Henry sighed and lowered his blade. He spread his feet wide, chest turned now to present the smallest target area to his opponent, blade held behind him as though it were a heavy sack he were dragging. Tynnalus tilted his head briefly in recognition of the position–it was not often used in Heroland–and then resumed his own defensive position.

As he began his attack, Henry felt his mind clicking into place, a sensation that was becoming addictingly familiar over these last few weeks. He was barely focusing any of his conscious thought on his opponent or his moves, trusting that whatever new understanding was unfolding within him would take care of the immediate details.

And it was doing an admirable job of it. Henry did not find himself fully on the attack, but neither was he frantically defending the way he had in the first two passes. He was able to observe, even while it was happening, how the tiniest of movements could shift the tip of his blade several inches, and that was all that was needed to guide Tynnalus’s sword wherever Henry wanted it to go. Henry noted that Tynnalus was using two hands now, and breathing through an open mouth.

The two of them sparred back and forth, feet shifting around motionless centers and only then to maintain balance, neither giving up an inch to the other. Henry’s new understanding came pouring out of him, his sword carving profound patterns of intent before him without the ultimate design ever crossing his conscious mind. But Tynnalus was no slouch either, better by far than anyone Henry had sparred with since joining the Guard, including Gabby (which was saying a lot), and the ultimate design of his own patterns did cross his conscious mind, evolving with each passing moment as more and more of this prodigious boy’s skill manifested itself.

Finally, just as Henry’s weariness was starting to catch up with him, the adrenaline rush of new understanding fading into the also (unfortunately) familiar dull crash that seemed to always come after new insight, Tynnalus stepped back, raising his sword in a formal salute to signify the end of the match. Henry was too tired to respond correctly in kind, but he did what he could, and Tynnalus sheathed his own sword and came to Henry’s side.

“Good,” the Captain said. “You learn quickly. I see what Gabby was talking about.

“Remember: your sword is a tool. Use it. Don’t let it use you, or your opponent will take advantage and use it against you. The battle is not won with the hardest swing; the slightest of hits in the proper place can end the fight.”

Henry nodded, not sure if the words he was hearing matched the understanding he’d just been given, but he was grateful for the lesson regardless. He was aware that Tynnalus rarely spent time with the rest of the Guard, and it was an honor for him to have visited today, and even more so to have given Henry a personal lesson. He looked up into Tynnalus’s face, and out of nowhere had a momentary flash of fear: it seemed that the Captain was looking at him as a tool, no longer a person, little more than another sword to be bent and whirled where he wished it to go. The moment passed quickly, but Henry felt goosebumps rising under the layer of sweat coating his body.

“Follow me,” Tynnalus said, and turned and began walking to the rear of the yard. Henry rushed to catch up, sheathing his own sword and trying to peel the extra layers of padding off as he jogged after his Captain, tossing them into a pile near the door.

Tynnalus led him through the Guard’s armory, turning left at the end of the long room instead of right, which would have led them to the mess and dorm halls. Instead he came to a small door, one Henry had noticed in passing before but never wondered much about, and pulled a small ornate key from a pouch at his waist. He unlocked the door and stepped through, Henry following closely behind.

A sudden acrid smell hit them, an old burning that immediately coated the back of Henry’s throat. It wasn’t from the torches–there weren’t any. Tynnalus instead sopped to light a small glass-enclosed lamp that he took with them. Before them were stair, a spiral winding down narrow and tight, so much so that Henry had to stoop over and Tynnalus was nearly bent completely at the waist. They descended only a short distance–something Henry’s legs were glad of, given how sore they already were from the day’s training–before coming out in a dusty room. It was entirely walled in stone, with an earthen floor. There were several masoned bins along the back wall, each filled with a coarse gray powder Henry didn’t recognize, though the smell seemed to be coming from them. Set into the wall to their left, like in a mausoleum, were several recessed metal boxes. They were crudely made, with no ornamentation on their blotchy doors.

Tynnalus walked directly to one of these boxes and began searching in his pouch for another key.

“You’re a special case, you know? It’s rare that a low-born is chosen for the Guard, rarer still for one to come to us nearly full-grown.”

Henry wasn’t sure what to say, but it was apparent Tynnalus was waiting for a response of some kind, pausing in his action and tilting his head in Henry’s direction. Henry went with a basic, “Yessir,” just to keep things moving along. It appeared to be enough.

“But you are definitely special, hmmm? I thought so, when I first heard what you did in the store rooms, three against one… They call you ‘Onion Boy’ now, don’t they?”

Another “Yessir.” Tynnalus found the key he was looking for and bent to open the box in front of him.

“You’re not bothered by it?”

“Nossir.”

“Good. It’s a sign of respect, that you have a place among us.” A pause, as he reached intot he box with both hands, then, “And Gabby tells me you’ve earned your place amongst us already, easily, with your skill.” Tynnalus turned back to face Henry, a bundle wrapped in cloth in his hands.

“Do you like fighting, Henry?”

“No. Ah…well, not for real, sir. The practice is alright, I guess.”

“But you’re good at it?”

“Yessir.”

Tynnalus chuckled. “Yes, you are. I’ve been watching you since you joined us. And our little match…not really a test, though if it had been, you would have passed.

“This is yours.” And with that he handed the bundle to Henry.

Henry took it, surprised at its weight, and peeled back the outer layers of cloth, revealing the oiled leather, polished wood and dull gray of metal within.

“Only the King’s Own Guard and those of his heir are allowed to carry firearms. As one of us, this is yours.”

There was an odd, steady cadence to Tynnalus’s words that Henry didn’t understand but responded to nevertheless. He understood that there was something more happening here than just just passing to Henry a new piece of equipment. It reminded Henry of when Gabby had presented him with his sword, though that had been in the training yard, surrounded by the rest of the Guard and plenty of cheers and jeers (and not a few cries of “The Onion Boy!”) from those watching. Here, in this still, quiet room, there was a solemnity that was threatening to steal Henry’s breath.

Henry took hold of the revolver’s grip, a deep, dark wood the color of old, dried blood, and pulled it free from the holster. He was surprised to find it light in his hand–much of the weight of the bundle was in the belt and holster. He brought the gun up to his face, noting how the lamplight failed to reflect off its surface.

He’d never seen one up close before, certainly never held one before, but he knew what they could do, and he could immediately feel the inherent violence waiting within its folded chambers.

Tynnalus reached out for the bundle and asked, “May I?” Henry was nervous for a moment that Tynnalus was taking it back, that this was some sort of cruel joke, taunting him with something he would never, could never have (he’d suffered more than his fair share of like treatment while growing up). But he handed it back to his Captain, who replaced the gun in the holster and then unfolded the belt.

And then, in a moment that Henry would remember for ever after–no matter what later fell between them, in this moment there was no guile evident in Tynnalus, no plotting…this act was as close to something holy as the man was capable of understanding, regardless of his motives and loyalties–he knelt before Henry, paying no attention to their wildly differing ranks nor the dirt underneath his flawless uniform. He reached out and fastened the belt around Henry’s waist, bowing his head as he did so. And then looked up, into Henry’s face, repeating the words, “As one of us, this is yours.”

The next few moments were a blur. The weight of the belt was firm about his hips, its purpose evident as Henry began to move about: it kept the holster from flapping all around as he turned. Tynnalus regained his feet–the moment clearly over–and led Henry back upstairs, explaining to him that his training would be far more intense with the gun than with the sword, that he wouldn’t even begin to use live ammunition for months, but that Gabby was a good teacher and would be able to prepare him without needing that final explosive consummation. And then, as they were passing through the armory, he instructed Henry to remove the belt and place it entire into his locker, where his armor and uniform was kept: the guard did not make a habit of carrying their guns with them when out of uniform. And then he was gone, back to whatever circles he moved through elsewhere in the capital…though not without passing on one cryptic thought to Henry.

“You’ll remember me, yes? I think it important that we remember those who’ve remembered us.”

*

Later that evening, after their shared meal, Gabby called the Guard together and explained that they were expecting visitors from Innias the next day, so it was time to get out the “pretty bits” and get them all polished up. Before tending to his own gear, he began circling the room, checking in on everyone else’s progress. He started with Henry, coming up behind him, watching him from over his shoulder.

“You haven’t done one of these before, and there’s been no time to drill you since you joined us, so here’s what’s to happen…it’s thankfully simple:

“We’ll be in two lines, one to each other side of the Hall. That’s long before they show up, so you don’t have to worry about making an entrance with us. None of us are particularly ready for that kind of bit neither. Just focus on standing still, keep in line. We’re decorations, see. Part of the furniture, and furniture doesn’t draw attention to itself.

“They’ll come in eventually, and say some stuff, and then His Majesty will say some things, and other folks if we’re especially unlucky. And then His Majesty will leave, and the rest of ’em, and we’re done.”

Henry continued to work on his sword, grinding out the nicks left from his match with Tynnalus earlier.

“That’s it?” he asked.

“That’s it. It’s His cousin what’s coming to visit, so it shouldn’t be too formal, though His Majesty does like for things to look nice.”

“Okay, I can do that.”

“Now, don’t worry overmuch about how you’re fixed tomorrow beforehand. I’ll give you at least a once-over before we head in, and the Captain will definitely do the same, though he won’t be with us in the actual moments. He’ll stay up by His Majesty’s side.

“As for that,” and he pointed to where Henry’s gun sat, still in its holster, next to him on his bunk, “the rest of us will be carrying live rounds, but as you’ve only just earned your piece, you’re to keep it unloaded. We’ll give you enough bullets to fill your belt…it’d look odd without them…but none in the chambers, not until you and I have spent at least a month at the range. Understand?”

“Yes Gabby.”

The Sergeant reached down towards Henry’s gun, pausing to glance at his face, asking unspoken permission to handle it. Henry nodded assent and continued to work the stone against the edge of his sword. Gabby pulled the revolver free from its leather home and held it up, first checking to make sure the chambers were empty, then holding it out, looking down the sights, hefting it to feel its weight and balance.

“I thought so,” he said.

“Hmm?” Henry asked.

“This. It’s not a Trainer. I keep those myself, locked away tight.” He turned to look more closely at Henry. “You said he took you downstairs, to the magazine?”

Henry nodded, not sure where Gabby’s train of thought was going. He’d already told the Sergeant everything that had happened. He’d been obviously puzzled by the tale, but if he’d had any questions he hadn’t asked them then. Now, though…

“I don’t know why…” Gabby started, “It’s unusual, you know?”

“How so?”

Gabby took a deep breath before continuing.

“Everything. Bringing you in like he did. Can’t say it was a bad call, not with what you can do, but…

“Who are you, really?”

“I– I don’t understand.”

Gabby opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and reached down to re-holster Henry’s gun.

“Watch yourself, is all.” He took Henry’s hand in his own, pausing the work the boy was doing with his sword, gently demanding the boy’s full attention.

“There’s us that protect, for all that’s worth nowadays…His Majesty’s got more to worry about from a chicken bone than he does someone wanting to hurt him where we’d be called in. But we’re ready for that, if that call ever comes.

“And there’s some of us what wants to rise a bit higher, ’til they’re the ones needing protecting, without having to get their hands dirty.

“Just… Keep your eyes open, is all.”

Henry really wasn’t following what Gabby was trying to say, wasn’t sure he was capable of piecing it together anyway, so he just nodded. Gabby returned the nod, sighing.

“It’s probably nothing. I’ve spent too many years cooped up in here, fit to jump at shadows.

“Tomorrow will go fine. With any luck, we’ll be back here in plenty of time for supper. And ale: we’re getting some extra casks set out, since we aren’t actually invited to the party. It’s long past time we started in on that part of your training.”

Gabby clasped Henry’s shoulder, firm but friendly, and moved on to continue his inspection rounds. Henry went back to work on his sword, wanting to be ready for tomorrow, whatever might come.

Variety is…

…no, not the spice of life.  It’s a damn good excuse to do something other than what you are probably supposed to be doing.

With the book complete through Chapter 7, I’m over 30% done.  And so, it seems like a good time to take a step back and make sure I’m clear about what the next 1/3 will bring.  Add to that a pretty intense period of work coming up over the next two weeks, and I think I’m going to put the novel on pause for a bit.

But I can’t stop writing, so I’m going to spend some time finishing a few stories that I’ve been working on.  I’ve posted a bit of one of them here already–“The Last Star”–and while it needs some structural work, it shouldn’t be too hard to bring that one to completion.  And I’ve got another I’m working on, as of today, that is going to be as fun as anything I’ve ever done.  My only prayer is that it stays short; it’s winking and nudging at me that it wants to be more than a short story, and I don’t have time for that shit right now.

And so, late on this Sunday night, as a treat for those of you who visit regularly (as opposed to when the big “new post” announcements go up”), here’s a preview of a story I’m thinking might be called “The Good Stuff”.


The sword is pretty damn cliché, and there’s no way to carry it around without drawing attention to yourself, so I generally leave it in the trunk of my car. Still, it’s just about the only thing that gets the job done…it’s lighter than a chainsaw, quieter, and you don’t have the whole “will it start this time?” thing to worry about. And truth be told, there isn’t much else that’s portable that’ll get the job done. I keep a woodchipper out back of my house, for taking the small-ish pieces and completely breaking them down, and a big stone oven that can get up to over 1400 degrees for final disposal (ashing the tiny chips of bone), but you can’t exactly bring those with you, nor use them when your target is still up and moving. And since most of the other folklore remedies actually work in real life, I stick with a sword.

As I mentioned, it’s hard to carry one around without attracting all of the wrong kinds of attention. Cops aren’t a big fan of people walking around with lethal weapons, especially ones that fall into a pretty large legal gray area–the academies usually don’t have a class session on what to do when a short, bald dude pulls out a thirty inch two-handed katana–and you can guarantee that most citizens who see you walking around with one are going to notice it long before they notice anything else about you. That said, there are certain places where carrying a sword around isn’t such a big deal…you may get plenty of double-takes, but they’ll be mostly appraising and even appreciative, rather than the “is that short bald dude really carrying around a sword?” variety.

Goth clubs are a good place to move around unmolested, the kinkier the better (though the straight BDSM clubs–despite the similar dress code–frown pretty heavily on walking around with real weapons that they don’t have some control over); your local renaissance faire is also pretty easy to get around with a sword, though my personal choice of katana does stand out a bit next to all the broadswords and claymores. And then there are the LARP groups.

Nice kids, really. And they’re pretty much all kids, regardless of age, at least when they’re actively indulging themselves. And I get it, that’s kinda the whole point: if you’re going to act too adult about the whole business, it won’t work. You check your self-consciousness at the door, along with your cynicism and desire to be whatever flavor ofsocially-acceptable is most relevant to the area, or else it won’t work. It’s a sub-set of the willing suspension of disbelief that all fiction requires to work, a very conscious, deliberate one, and if that doesn’t describe some of the best parts of being a kid, I don’t know what does. Honestly, these kids are a lot braver than most of us, and a lot clearer about what’s important to them and what it takes to make that stuff real.

Unfortunately, a lot of what makes these events special for the kids who set them up and attend them also makes them a prime hunting spot for the Fangs. These kids are very close to each other, but it’s all very insular; they have their family, and their gaming friends, and maybe one or two people where they work who they can talk to, and that’s about it. Most “normal” people have complicated, wide-spread Venn diagrams to describe all the people they know and how they know them–which means, if they go missing, the ripples that disappearance will cause are pretty widespread. For the LARPers, and table-top gamers, and all the other variations that boil down to “people who refuse to give up the magic of make-believe”…well, if one of them disappears, the effects are pretty well contained.

And so, they’re ripe targets for the Fangs, who value their anonymity more than anything else, even more than the blood that keeps them moving. And if that’s where they hunt their prey, then that’s where you’ll find me, hunting them.