Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Proper Duel

I don’t know why Annabelle invited her to the tea party at all. I will admit that Lily Fitzmilan dresses fashionably and has impeccable manners, but she is not really a proper lady. So of course I hardly listened to a word she said. However, the phrase, “And so I killed him, of course,” will filter through even the most thorough snubbing, and that is how Miss Fitzmilan concluded her story, in a most brash and boastful tone.
Annabelle and the others were listening to her with rapt attention, so I felt it was my duty to put her in her place. “I don’t believe a word of it.”
Miss Fitmilan’s eyes flashed. “Are you calling me a liar, Miss Wickham?”
“Why, yes, I am.”
“I require satisfaction.” Everyone else gasped.
“You want me to duel you? I will do no such thing!” I protested.
“It needn’t be to the death. First blood will be quite enough .”
I sat up as straight as I possibly could and gave her my iciest glare. “Ladies don’t duel.”
She ignored the insult. “If you forfeit, I will of course accept your gracious apology at once.”
Well, I could hardly apologize to her. “I’m not forfeiting. I merely… mean to appoint a champion.”
“Fine. I’ll fight your noble surrogate tomorrow at noon, in the garden. Will that be suitable?”
As soon as the party broke up, I went to find my betrothed. “Lionel,” I told him, “I need you to defend my honor.”
“The way I heard it, it’s the other lady’s honor that’s at stake.”
“She doesn’t have any, and she’s not a lady.”
“Can’t you just apologize, Evelynia?”
“No! Please, Lionel, you have to do this. Surely you don’t want me to have to take up a blade and fight a duel.”
“Fine, fine; I’ll fight the woman.”
So at noon the next day, I stood with bated breath in a small ring around Lionel and Miss Fitzmilan and watched them duel. While I of course don’t know enough about fencing to be able to tell what they were doing besides waving swords around, it quickly became clear even to me that Lionel was losing rather badly. This was not, of course, because he was so unmanly as to be beaten by a woman, but because he was such a gentleman that he had to insist on going easy on her. Of course he never admitted it, and during the fight he had to put on a show of trying his hardest so as not to cause anyone embarrassment--but I know there is no possible way Lily Fitzmilan could be a better fighter than my betrothed.
They hadn’t been dueling for more than five minutes when Miss Fitzmilan swung her blade into my poor Lionel’s arm. This was first blood, and the fight was over. I ran to Lionel and pressed a handkerchief into his wound. “Really, Evelynia, it’s just a nick,” he said, but I know his exasperation was aimed at his wound, not at me. He turned to his opponent. “You’re quite a formidable woman, Miss Fitzmilan,” he told her. I refrained from screaming.
“I believe you owe me an apology,” she told me.
“Of course,” I smiled my sweetest smile. “I’m sorry I called you an ugly, unladylike liar who’s not fit to be seen in polite company. Oh, did I not say those things? Well, if I ever do, I’ve apologized in advance.”
My satisfaction at getting the last word was short-lived, however, for that very night Lionel told me he wished to break off our engagement. “It’s about that b---” I uttered a word unfit for polite company, but I was in quite a state of shock at the time, so I may be excused, “Isn’t it?”
“If you are referring to Miss Fitzmilan, no, it’s not. I have merely come to realize that we are not right for each other, Evelynia.”
It was about Miss Fitzmilan, of course. Not a week later, he danced with her three dances in a row, and would have danced a fourth if she hadn’t refused. Not through any virtue of hers, of course, I’m sure the seductress was only trying to play hard to get. I’m afraid I quite lost my temper and slapped her. She only laughed. “I’d think you were challenging me to another duel, except that you seem to have lost your champion.”
I glared at her, trying to think of a retort, but before I could say anything, Miss Fitzmilan said, “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. If it’s any comfort, you’ll be rid of me soon; I’m growing quite bored of society here. I mean to head east.”
It was a great deal of comfort. We will be well rid of her.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Usually, I stay in my little house deep in the woods, alone with my books and my cats and the herbs I gather in the forest. But every once in a while, I forget that I don’t like people very much, and that’s when the trouble begins.

It started out, this time, with a boy--he would have called himself a young man, but he was a boy--found half dead in the forest and brought to my home. This happens occasionally; the forest is a dangerous place for adventurers and poachers and other fools who don’t know what they’re doing. Usually it’s alright. I fix them up, let them stay until they’re better, or I can’t stand them anymore, and send them on their way to continue poaching or adventuring, or, if they have any sense, to go home.

Jakon was more sensible than most, and also worse off than most. As a result, he stayed in my cottage for a while. He never told me what he’d been doing in the forest, and I never asked. Our conversations consisted of me telling him to drink this or lie still while I set a bone or changed a bandage. The only somewhat social interaction I had with him was when he asked what I was reading and I showed him the cover of the book. What can I say, I’m not really a people-person. Jakon was okay, though. He didn’t yatter nonstop and he liked my cats. He recovered better than I would have expected, though he had a limp. He understood that it was something of a miracle, that he’d recovered as well as he had, and was duly grateful. So he went home, and my life continued as normal. For a few months, at least.

And then there was a knock at my door. I ignored it. The knocking continued, and I continued to ignore it. But a few hours later, I opened the door to go outside, and nearly tripped over Jakon, who was sitting on my doorstep.

“What are you doing here?” I demanded.

“Vayran, I need your help.” Even when he’d been at death’s door, he’d never sounded so desperate. I should have known better than to get involved.

But I have to admit, I was rather fond of the boy, so I didn’t tell him to go to hell. At first, I was just going to hear his story before sending him away. But somehow, that wasn’t how it worked out.

“It’s Celidh. My sister. She’s been accused of witchcraft.”

“Why did you come to me? What do you think I can do?”

Jakon looked away. “You’re the only one there is.”

“Is there a reason she’s accused of witchcraft?”

“No, they’re accusing everyone. Doesn’t make her any less likely to die, though.”

Great, I thought. Not only am I considering going into an area occupied by crowds of people, but it’s one in which there’s a witch scare. I knew I was a fool for even considering it. If anyone would be though to be a witch, it was me.

As you may have guessed, I went.

The town was far enough that had I stayed home, I wouldn’t have been sought out; the journey long enough to give me time to regret my decision. With every step I took I berated myself for my idiocy, but I didn’t turn back.

I’d thought to do a simple jailbreak, but when we arrived in the town, a small crowd was gathered around a fountain. At the fountain, two men appeared to be trying to drown a girl. By Jakon’s expression, I could tell it was his sister.

“Hey!” I yelled. People turned to stare at me. I had some vague idea in mind of either convincing the people what idiots they were--that never works, and I usually know it-- or creating a distraction. What happened was that, when everyone had turned to look at me, someone cried, “Witch!” and everyone took up the cry.

As I said, trying to convince people how stupid they are never works, but I was angry, so I wasn‘t being particularly sensible. “You’re fools,” I screamed. “If I was a witch, do you really think you’d be able to do anything against me? You’re farmers.”

“Get her!” someone screamed, and they rushed towards me. I like people even less than I normally do when they’ve formed into a mob, and even less than that when the mob is trying to grab me.

So I was too angry to think straight, and I called up as much force as I could muster and shoved it around. I’m not really a very murderous person, so nothing happened to the mob, but all the buildings in the town began to go up in flames.

The people stared at me. I don’t know why they were so surprised; they’d known I was a witch, hadn’t they?

I don’t know whether they would have came after me as they’d planned or backed away in horror, but they didn’t get the chance to do either. In the distraction, Jakon had managed to sneak up to the fountain and grab Ceilidh. The three of us ran. Not fast, Jakon couldn’t with his limp, and Kelia was still half-drowned, but we ran. I didn’t even stop to put out the flames. Let them have something more to deal with than torturing innocent people.

Jakon and Ceilidh stayed with me for a few weeks, long enough to be sure no one was coming after us, before leaving to find a new home. Ceilidh came back a few days later. Jakon had gotten a job as a printer--apparently that was what he did, though why a printer had gotten half-killed wandering in the woods I have no idea--and it payed enough for him to rent a small house, and Ceilidh could have stayed with him for a while…. But what she really wanted was to learn magic, and wouldn’t I please teach her?

I told her I’d think about it, and after doing so, against my better judgment, agreed. So I went back to my peaceful--if somewhat less solitary--life. Somewhat less peaceful, now that I think about it, what with Ceilidh accidentally blowing things up and such, but I did the same, when I was first learning, and at least no angry mobs are involved.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Sunrise Is A Miracle

Though I sit alone in the cell, waiting for the sun to rise, I can close my eyes and see that elsewhere, everyone is doing the same. The crowds of people in streets and on rooftops; the mother sitting at the foot of her child’s bed, staring out the window, barely daring to hope; even the cynics who shut their curtains and light their rooms brighter than day and pretend to believe everything is normal, who would never admit they peak out, and lose a piece of hope each time they see only darkness.
Is the world going to end? It would be easier, perhaps, if we knew it would. Then we--well, those who are not imprisoned, at least, could eat their favorite meals and hug their families close and live the world’s last moments the way they chose. But perhaps the world won’t end, but endure under the clouds of hopelessness and the eternal darkness. Or maybe, and this is the only real hope, it’s a lie. Maybe the sun will rise after all, and though nothing will be the same, living ruled by the essence of evil, at least, well, life will go on.
Nobody knows, because this has never happened before. Evil is always defeated. I don’t mean bad people, tyrants and sorcerers. But this…. In the epic battle between good and evil, good must prevail. Pure evil, as a force itself, has to be defeated. But it wasn’t. We failed. I failed.
I close my eyes for only a moment, not wanting to take them from the eastern horizon for long. The moment is enough; there’s not much to see. Tani and Raida and Zes sit in cells just like mine, peering through tiny barred windows just as I am. Tani’s wound is no longer bleeding, I’m glad to see, and Raida is holding together better than I would have thought after the loss of the man she loved. Zes’s window faces west, and I know it must be hard for him, knowing that he won’t even be able to see whether the sun rises at first. I linger on him longer than I should. His hands grip the bars on the window and he murmurs so softly I can barely hear, “Haeril.” At hearing my name I can tell he loves me as much as I love him, but it brings me no joy. It’s too late for that now. We’ll never see each other again, and even if we do…. There’s no room for love in a world ruled by evil.
I turn my attention back to the sky. Stars are out, that must mean something. I can hear the desperation in my thoughts. All it means is that there’s not a cloud in the sky, so if the sun doesn’t rise, there are no excuses.
It is dark. It is dark. It continues to be dark.
For distraction, I turn my gaze on the strangers sharing this vigil. People stand on rooftops, the better to see the horizon, but also to jump if dawn does not come. Their deaths will be on me, on us. It was up to us, the five of us, to defeat the evil. We were the best; we should have been able to. Now one of us is dead, one injured, and all who are alive imprisoned. We tried our best, did everything we possibly could and then some, and we failed. I blame myself, of course, but I’m sure Raida and Tani and Zes each blame themselves. It doesn’t matter. When the world ends, it doesn’t matter whose fault it was.
I close my eyes and look at burned remnants of my home, at the meadow I played in as a child, at a lake surrounded by mountains that I’ve never seen in person, and then at Zes again. I wish I could tell him I love him, even if it is too late. I want to be with him and tell him it’s not his fault, and hear him tell me it’s not mine.
I open my eyes again. It takes me a moment to realize what I’m seeing. The sky has begun to lighten. I stare, transfixed, as it turns pink and rays of light break over the horizon, and slowly, slowly, the sun begins to rise.
It’s halfway up, a glowing ball of hope framed against a pink and orange sky, when I hear a sound behind me. I can barely draw myself away from the sight to turn and look. To my shock, the door of my cell opens, and Raida is standing there.
“It’s not over,” she says, and I’m shocked to realize she’s right. We haven’t lost yet after all.
“A guard came in my cell with breakfast. I knocked him out.” She holds up a ring of keys, studies them, and hands me one. “Go get Zes; I’ll get Tani. We’ll meet at the stairs.” She rushes off.
Zes is staring out his window when I arrive. The cell door scrapes the floor as it opens, and Zes turns at the noise. He stares at me. “Haeril.” He jumps to his feet and we rush to each other. I don’t know if I kiss him, or he kisses me, but we stand in the middle of the prison cell, kissing. Finally, we pull away. “I love you,” Zes tells me.
“I love you too. Let’s go save the world.”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My Feet Have Never Touched the Ground

I was born in a tree, I’ve lived my entire life in the trees, and I always expected I would die in a tree as well. Back when I was young you could look out above the canopy and see nothing but an ocean of treetops, all the way to the horizon. Those days are long gone, of course. Nowadays, those of us that are left are squished into living in the little patch of forest that’s left. Once you get past the homes on the outer edges, you can see the edge of the trees. And beneath--nothing. Dirt and cows don’t count.
Though I personally have never climbed down to the ground, plenty of us have. I just never had the inclination. This is the most beautiful place in the world; nothing could be better, so why would I ever want to leave it? We have everything we need up here--food, shelter--don’t think we just sleep on branches, we have homes, or did, before the trees supporting them were felled, clothing, medicine, entertainment, and of course, anything we don’t have--metal and such--can always be brought up.
Even most of us who do leave the trees agree that it’s much better up here. The first time people I knew went was when I was a teenager, and a few of my friends went for a short vacation. They tried to convince me to come, but I wouldn’t, and when they returned, they told me I hadn’t missed out on much. Sure, it was different, and there were some interesting things, like how the ground doesn’t move at all beneath your feet--but there general conclusion was that though it might be an okay place to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there.
It was my sister, Maerilla, who said that. She lives down there now, married to some farmer who bought land that was once part of the forest. She says its all for the best, for her, since if she hadn’t been driven down she’d never have met the love of her life and given birth to her three beautiful children. I say that if they really were fated to be together, he could have climbed up here. Nothing, nothing is worth this destruction.
We didn’t even notice, at first. When the forest is so thick you can walk across the canopy, what’s a few trees here and there? Then it wasn’t a few trees, but it was still far off, the edge of the forest. It was only the edge of our world that was crumbling. The edge moved inwards. And it will continue to move inwards, and even the tiny remnant of my home will be gone.
The people below tell us to just come down. They say they’re being reasonable, that they’ll give us land, or pay us a portion of the filthy blood money they get from their damned lumber. Many of us, I’m sad to say, have. And I expect most of the rest will, eventually. Or all of us, even--if the trees are brought down, we will be brought down with them.
I think most of the people will leave, before that point. I won’t. I will stay here until I am clinging to the branches of the very last tree, and when the tree falls, I will still be in it. Perhaps they will think my death unfortunate. Perhaps they won’t care. I will be dead, it will hardly matter to me.
Maerilla comes up to visit me. She tells me that I will of course be welcome to live with her, that they have an extra room. She says they are planting an orchard. I just barely resist pushing her down to the ground. An orchard. “Why the hell do you need an orchard?” I demand, screaming. “There are already real trees right here!”
“But they’re not fruit trees; they’re not profitable,” she fumbles to explain.
“If they’re not fruit trees, then what did you eat for the twenty-four years you lived in them?” I lower my voice and try to be reasonable. “Look, Maerilla, the edge of the forest borders your home. You could stop this; just buy a little more of the land and use the trees that are already growing as your orchard.”
“I’ll talk to Doyn about it,” Maerilla promises, and I know that’s the most she’ll agree to.
She leaves, and I sit there imagining the conversation. “I know she’s crazy, but she’s my sister, and it’s important to her,” Maerilla says. I don’t know Doyn well enough to guess his reply, but I know enough about people to know it will be negative.
So I’m not surprised when, the next time Maerilla visits me, she tells me it’s not going to happen. And since by this point, there’s only me and a few other families still up here, I’m not any more surprised at the news that what’s left of the forest is to be razed. “I love you,” I tell Maerilla, and cry, because I don’t actually want to die.
“Why can’t you just come live with us?” Maerilla begs. “You’ve never even been there; you can’t know you won’t like it!”
But I do, so I prepare to die with my home.
And I would have, if I hadn’t came up with the plan. It’s less than a week before the inferno, and of the few of us left up here, I‘m the only one who doesn‘t plan to leave. Maerilla comes up one last time to plead with me, and that’s when I see it.
“Buy the land,” I tell her, “And I’ll work for you until it’s paid back.”
She doesn’t think much of the idea, but she knows it’s the only possibility of preventing my death, so she goes home excitedly, and comes back the next day waving a land deed. The agreement is, I owe them five years work, or the equivalent in money, and then the deed will be transferred to me and I’m free to return to the trees.
So, for the first time ever, I climb down. It’s as horrible as I expected, life on the ground--no, worse. But I keep up my part of the deal, working the miserable dirt, sustained only by the knowledge that at least a bit of my forest is still there, and I will return to it.

Interesting Politics

Maybe I should have just went along with the whole thing. Vak promised he’d get me out. “Oh, like you did last time?” I asked him, furious that he would even suggest I be caught again.
“That was different, Rakayl. This wouldn’t be you really being captured, just allowing yourself to get taken in. And there‘d be all kinds of fuss made over the criminal who obliterated an entire plantation, and just think of what I could do in the distraction. ”
But I refused out of hand. So the bastard betrayed me, and there I was sitting in a cell hoping that he would get me out even though I didn’t agree to the damn plan--if you can even call it a plan.
I’d known Vak for a long time, and we’re friends, sometimes, and occasionally more than friends. But I didn’t trust him, or rather, I knew he wasn’t trustworthy. I didn’t blame him--I’m hardly a paragon of loyalty and honesty myself. But I was not going to depend on Vak rescuing me. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to stay in the dungeon, or let myself be sold or executed. And if I hung around long enough to be tried, I’d be executed.
The problem was, I had no idea how to escape. I wasn’t just in any common jail, but the best guarded dungeon in Balirmind, deep underneath the castle. The walls and floor and ceiling were solid stone, the door heavy iron, with a window too small to fit through, and barred to boot. Heavily armed guards paced outside the cell. I’d sworn that I’d learn to be able to escape if I was ever captured again, but though I’d learned how to take down basic wards and magic barriers, it would be of no use.
So I’d have to escape through subterfuge. Vak had been right, when he said that my capture would cause a fuss. A constant stream of people came to peer at me through the window. King Narden, a very young man who’d only recently been crowned, came by several times, as did various government officials, relatives of my so-called victims, and concerned or merely curious citizens.
At first, I sat in the back corner of the cell, thinking and plotting and pretending to ignore everyone who came by, though actually studying them carefully. Sir Briyad, the man I finally settled on, was well dressed and had an aura of power--probably one of the king’s more important ministers. He was clearly wealthy, and wealthy men tend to be greedy. And the greedy are easy to manipulate.
I went to the door and said quietly, through the window, “Do you know why I’m here?”
“Because you’re a mass murderer who destroyed an entire plantation.”
“Surely you don’t really believe I could have done that,” I scoffed. “Everyone knows that it was the king of Majardea that did it.” For that was the rumor, in Balirmind.
“He swears he didn’t.”
“You can’t expect him to admit to mass murder, can you?”
“Just saying I believed you--which I’m not--why are you here, then?”
“Well, it was my, erm, friend. See, he has… something he shouldn’t, something valuable, and I know about it, so he made up that whole story about me being behind all that so I’d be put away and nobody would believe anything I say. Seems like it’s working pretty well, wouldn’t you say?”
“I never said I don’t believe you--” Sir Briyad assured me hurriedly. I smiled inwardly. “What specifically is the valuable object your friend has?”
I leaned forward, and whispered, “The Mirror of Azerbjingardolinderia.” I was even telling the truth, for the most part.
He was hooked, of course, and the next time the guards brought my food, they “accidentally” forgot to lock the cell door. I slipped out, climbed the stairs out of the dungeons, and snuck out of the castle through a side door.
Vak was waiting directly outside it. “You bitch,” he said.
“You’re the asshole who had me arrested!” I retorted, and tried to step past him. He blocked my path.
“You had my mirror stolen. don’t you even realize what you’ve done? Now not only do I not have it, but some Balirmindian noble does!”
“Your loss.”
“Actually, it’s not. I have the king.”
Vak gestured to a small copse along the castle wall. I stalked over and found the young king of Balirmind tied to a tree. “So just go back in and tell your little friend that if he values his king’s life, he’ll give back the mirror.”
“Tell him yourself! I’ve no love for anyone in Balirmind, most especially the king.”
“Fine. Guard him, then.” Vak handed me a knife and went inside the castle.
It was true that I had no love for King Narden, but I wasn’t feeling particularly happy with Vak at the moment, either, so as soon as Vak was inside, I cut the king’s ropes. I then pointed the dagger at him. “Get away before I change my mind,” I growled. He obeyed. “And you should really put an end to slavery!” I called after him. He glanced back, surprised, then disappeared into the castle. I began to walk down the road.
Vak caught up with me about ten minutes later. “I have it!” he announced, flashing about the mirror. He stopped suddenly. “This isn’t it!”
“Your own damn fault for not checking,” I said.
“Why the hell did you let the king go? Didn’t you realize we could have ransomed him off for a lot more than the mirror--than a fake mirror?”
“Maybe you should have kept a closer eye on him, then. So what, you lost the mirror, it’s not like you really need it; I mean, what good is a mirror that shows the future when you don’t actually plan things out in advance?”
He ignored me. “I’m going to get it back.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
“I didn’t spend all the time you were locked up kidnapping the king. I looted the treasury bit as well. Shockingly easy, really. I didn’t take everything, of course, but I must have a good three sacks of gold and jewels. If you help me with this, I’ll split it with you.”
“You already owe me.”
“You owe me, actually, after arranging for someone to steal the mirror!”
“You owe me for getting me arrested; that was payback, and you’re going to get the mirror back anyway! And if I go back in there, I’ll be arrested again.”
“Fine, wait here, and I’ll take you to where the money is when I get back.”
“And I get half.”
“Yes, fine, if you’ll stop being so mad about the whole getting you captured thing.” He went back into the castle.
I almost just left, but I really did want the money, so I waited. And waited. It was several hours before Vak returned, dragging Sir Briyad along with him. “This oaf of a scum ball claims he doesn’t have it!”
“I gave it to you! If you lost it, that’s your problem.”
“You gave me this!” Vak shoved the fake mirror at Sir Briyad.
“Yes; that’s what I took from you!”
“It is not!”
“Yes it--”
“Is not!” Vak turned to me. “I searched him and everything; he must have hidden it somewhere, or given it to someone--”
“I gave it to you!”
“Or, he’s telling the truth,” I suggested to Vak.
“He is not. If I don’t get the goddamn mirror back….”
“Then you’ll have to go back to not always winning your bets. Find it or don’t, I hardly care.”
I thought about waiting around to follow Vak to his loot, but decided that would be more trouble than it was worth and that I really just wanted to be out of Balirmind. So I picked a few pockets to get enough money to leave the country, and was on the next ship to Majardea.
About a week later, Zyre, a friend of mine, came up to me in the Cat’s Corpse. “Rakayl! You know that mirror that we helped Vak steal?”
“If you’re going to tell me he lost it, I already know.”
“I bet you don’t already know that the king of Balirmind has it!”
I took a long sip of my drink to hide what I was feeling, and all I said was, “That’s going to make for some interesting politics, don’t you think?”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


“I can’t believe we’re finally going to do this!” I said excitedly.
“Yep. By the day after tomorrow, Loifle will be a better place, thanks to us. The plan is in motion. You, Carthi, Jek, and Roan will be standing guard, I’ll be making the preparations and implementing the getaway, and Hesethi will be the one to actually do the killing.” Saola beamed at him.
I froze. “Wait. We’re going to kill the king?”
Everyone stared at me. “Yes, Isletia, that is the point,” Saola told me exasperatedly. “We haven’t been planning this for two years just to, what, take him captive? Let him step down? Force him into exile? Tyranny must end; we kill him.”
“It’s for the best,” Hesethi said, more kindly.
“But… I thought we all agreed he isn’t really that bad, mostly.”
“It’s the principal of the thing, dear,” said Saola in her most patronizing tone. “You’re free to back out if you like, of course.”
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to. I agreed wholeheartedly that monarchy is tyranny and the only fair government is one that governs itself; I wanted to help bring democracy and equality and justice to Loifle. I just wasn’t quite sure about the means.
But I hadn’t been involved in the plot for two years just to drop out at the last moment. “No, I’m in.” I wanted to try to convince them that it wouldn’t be necessary to kill King Brhyme. Why couldn’t we just let him step down and go into exile? But I knew it would be useless. I was the youngest in the group, and none of the others accorded me the least shred of respect. They wouldn’t listen to a word I said, and if they did, they’d only laugh.
So I went home, and went through the rest of my day as normal, and eventually went to bed. The idea of standing guard while Hesethi committed murder haunted me. It would be one thing if King Brhyme was a tyrant, but while he occasionally raised taxes a bit too high and sometimes passed laws that the vast majority of the country disagreed with, he wasn’t really a tyrant, not compared to some kings. And his wife and children… I hadn’t even thought of them, and when I did I wanted to run out and ask Saola what would happen to them. But in truth I already knew. If any of the royal family lived, the monarchy would continue, and our goal would not be achieved.
I don’t know whether I would have been able to be part of the murder of King Brhyme or Queen Jaiya. But I knew that I could not stand by and let my friends kill ten-year-old Princess Elfithia and eight-year-old Prince Adre. I decided that the next morning, I would go and tell Saola that I wouldn’t be part of it, and with that decision made, I was eventually able to drift off to sleep.
When I woke up, I knew that backing out of the plot wouldn’t be enough. They would carry it out without me, no worse for having three lookouts rather than four. The royal family would be dead due to my inaction rather than my action. That wasn’t good enough. And thus I, a rebel, made up my mind to rescue the king and his family.
The rebellion was planned for very late in the night; I had time, though only a little. I only prayed that King Brhyme would listen to me, or at least not have me arrested before I could deliver my warning.
King Brhyme was holding audience, so I had to wait in line and watch him listen to complaints and mediate debates over chickens. I thought he handled most of them well enough. My knees trembled when I finally reached the front of the line. Surely someone would recognize me as a rebel--never mind that our faces were not known--and have me seized.
“Your majesty, might I have a word in private, concerning a matter of great importance to you and your family?” My voice shook.
Everyone seemed surprised, but I was hardly going to say what I had to say in front of everyone. “If you like,” King Brhyme agreed. “My guards will need to be there, of course.”
“Of course,” I agreed, and followed the king to a small room off of the larger hall. Two men with swords stood on either side of the king.
“You need to step down from the throne and take your family and leave the country.” My words came out in a jumbled rush. “There’s a plot to kill you.”
“Tell me of this plot,” he commanded, looking unworried.
“No, I can’t.” I knew he wouldn’t give me a choice, and that I’d made a mistake in coming, but they were my friends, and I would not turn them in. “There’s nothing you can do to stop it. If you want to live, if you want your children to live, you’ll leave Loifle before tonight.”
I fled. I expected him to stop me, or to order his guards to stop me, or for someone to prevent me from leaving the castle and running all the way to my house, but no one did. I wondered whether he took my warning seriously, and if he did, whether he would do what I said or merely heighten his guard. There was, after all, no reason for him to flee. With that kind of forewarning, he could quash a rebellion. I hoped I hadn’t just gotten my friends killed.
On the other hand, our plan--their plan--was good, and their backup plans numerous. I wouldn’t have cared to place odds on King Brhyme’s life, if he decided to stay.
I fretted, and paced about the house. Would the king be killed? Would my friends? Would someone come with a warrant for my arrest for being part of a rebellion? Or, once King Brhyme had been overthrown, would my friends--maybe my former friends, in their eyes, at least--have me arrested for betraying them?
I hadn’t chosen a side, or rather, had chosen both, and I knew I would have to pay for it. My house, which had felt like a refuge when I left the castle, now seemed a trap.
I jumped at the knock at my door, convinced that whoever it was, they probably wanted me dead. But it was too soft a tap to be guards to arrest me, and my friends wouldn’t yet know of my betrayal. Even so, my heart pounded as I opened the door.
It was a little girl. I recognized her immediately as Princess Elfithia, and was utterly shocked. “Are you Isletia?” she asked.
“Yes, your majesty.”
“You’re the one who warned my father to escape?”
I nodded.
“May I come in?”
“Of course.” I let her in, and she closed and locked the door behind her. “How did you know where to find me?”
“You were followed home, of course. And then once my father poked around into what you’d said and realized that it’s not just going to be a rebellion, but a complete takeover, with the army involved as well--”
“What?” I was surprised, but at thinking about her words, I wasn’t, really. It would be just like Saola to coordinate the rebellion with a military coup, and not tell any of us.
Princess Elfithia nodded solemnly. “So we’re going to do what you said, and escape, and well, he doesn’t trust much of anyone right now, so he wants your help.”
“Why on earth would he trust me?”
She looked at me as though it was obvious. “Well, you warned him. Anyway, he sent me so nobody would be suspicious--well, I convinced him to, he didn’t want to let me out of the castle, but somebody trustworthy had to go, and my mother’s too conspicuous. So you need to come back with me!”
I did, of course. It could have been a trap, but I didn’t think so--if King Brhyme had wanted to arrest me, he would have sent guards, not his ten year old daughter.
Elfithia led me into the castle through a back entrance, and into a book-filled room on the second floor. King Brhyme was alone there. He seemed afraid.
“I’m going to take your advice,” he told me. “But there’s more to the plot than you told me, and I need to know what it is. I don’t know who I can trust, and I don’t know how much time I have.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I never knew there was any more to it than a simple rebellion; I didn’t know your army was involved. I was told the rebellion was to take place very late tonight, but now I don’t know if that’s true, or if that’s just the end of it. And I don’t know anything about which of your people are involved.”
King Brhyme nodded, as if that was about what he’d expected, and said, “Then I need to get my family away immediately, without trusting anyone. Will you help me?”
I wanted to ask him why he was trusting me, but I didn’t. “Yes.”
“Book passage on a ship. Jaiya will smuggle our children out and meet you, and I’ll come as soon as I make the announcement that I’m stepping down.”
I stared at him. “But that’ll let them now what you’re doing, and give them so many more chances to kill you! Surely it would be safer to just slip away.”
“Safer, yes, and that’s why I’ll wait until my family’s gone, but if I just disappear, Loifle will be left in turmoil and I can’t do that to the country. I’m going to announce that I’m relinquishing the throne in favor of democracy, and appoint a few people to be sure it’s carried out.”
I saw there was nothing I could do to dissuade him, so I left the castle and booked passages on a ship to Majardea--their king was a relative of Queen Jaiya; they’d be welcome there. I met the queen and her children outside of the castle; they were dressed in plain clothes so as not to be recognized, though Jaiya’s features were distinctive enough I doubted it would help. But she wore a hood and kept her head down, to hide her crimson hair and the bright tattoos around her dark eyes.
Still, we made it to the ship without incident. I took care of speaking to the captain so they wouldn’t be recognized yet. Finally, Jaiya, Elfithia, and Adre were locked in their cabin, and I breathed freely. Until I remembered the king.
It was three hours before he arrived, running. He nearly leaped onto the ship. “Can you take off immediately?” he asked the captain.
“Your majesty?” said the surprised captain.
“Not anymore. But please, go.” King Brhyme turned to me. “Are you coming as well?”
I nodded. “If my role in all this get’s found out, it would be better if I’m not in the country.”
And so it was that I achieved my dream of bringing democracy to Loifle, and left before I ever got to enjoy it. I didn’t really mind, though. When I’d been in Majardea a few weeks, I learned that Saola had been elected as the head of Loifle’s government. I’m sure she’s being completely insufferable, and though I sent a card to congratulate her, I’m glad to be an ocean away.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cold Revenge

The jewelry in the shop was of the highest quality. The displays were full of rubies like demons’ eyeballs, pearls like tiny moons, gold shaped into every imaginable form…. The whole room glimmered with from with the light reflected off the jewels.
There were three people in the shop-- a lady of obvious wealth browsing necklaces, a young man looking around the room uncomfortably, and the woman behind the counter, who was carefully doing something with pliers to a piece of chain.
The doors opened, and another man walked in. The customers tensed when they saw him; he was clearly up to no good. He was large, ungroomed and not recently bathed, and heavily armed; a cutlass and several knives swung at his side, and he was carrying a pistol.
He aimed at the woman behind the counter. Even with the gun pointing at her, she looked far less intimidated than her customers. “Give me everything of value,” growled the man.
The woman behind the counter smiled and pulled something out from under the counter. “You don’t really want to--” Midsentence, she shot him in the leg.
He dropped to the ground and gaped at her. She ignored him, and turned to her customers, who were also gaping at her. “Excuse me,” she asked the young man, “Would you do me a favor and help me get him out of here?”
“Certainly,” he agreed, too surprised to argue. The shopkeeper grabbed the robber’s legs, her customer took his shoulders, and they carried him out of the shop and dumped him in the street outside.
The woman went back to the chain she’d been working on, and the man paced around the shop until the rich woman left. “I believe you knew my mother,” he told the woman.
“Doubtful,” she said. “I’m not from around here.”
“She was a pirate, on the Crimson Revenge. Perhaps you know of it?”
“Perhaps I do, perhaps I don’t.”
“I’ll pretend to believe you for a moment. It was one of the more infamous ships. The captain was a woman by the name of Ryshe. My mother was the quartermaster; her name was Enend. As I said, they were quite notorious, for a time. Eventually the law caught up with them, and all but the captain were hanged. The stories differ on what happened to Ryshe. Some say she was killed in the fight, some say she went down with her ship, some say she escaped.”
“Let me guess, you believe she escaped.”
“My mother wrote to me, before she was killed, and said so.”
“And you want what--to find their treasure?” the shopkeeper asked mockingly.
“No, I’m sure the captain long since took it and used it-- to start a new life, would be my guess. Maybe buy a shop?”
“If its location wasn’t gotten from the rest of the crew, before they were killed.”
“It was in a bank.”
“And of course the authorities couldn’t possibly take stolen money from a bank?”
“They could have, but they didn’t, did they, Captain Ryshe?”
“No,” she agreed, and didn’t deny her identity. “No, they didn’t. So you’re Enend’s son--Drach, is that right? She spoke of you often. Are you here to demand her share of the money?”
“No, she always sent my father money; if she was owed anything at the end it couldn’t have been much, and I’ve no need of it; I’ve done quote well for myself. I’m a doctor.”
“Enend would be proud.”
“I was only six, when she died. My father didn’t tell me the whole story, how she was betrayed.”
“I hope you’re not implying I betrayed her.” There was a dangerous edge to Ryshe’s voice.
“Oh, no. I meant how they agreed to let her live if she confessed. She confessed. They didn’t let her live.”
“I never heard of that,” said, Ryshe, shocked.
“It was the judge--Yering, his name is--who went back on his word. I turned eighteen, a few months ago, and my father told me. I mean to get revenge.”
“I see. So you’re here for my help.”
“You have to understand, Drach, I’m an honest citizen now. I haven’t killed anyone in a while.”
“You didn’t blink an eyelash when you shot that man, just a few minutes ago. Anyway, I’ll do the killing. I’m just not sure how to.”
“A bullet in the brains usually does the trick. Or a knife to the neck, a blade through his heart, a rope around his neck… it’s not that difficult.”
“I know that! I mean, I’m not sure how to get to him, kill him, and get away afterwards.”
Ryshe smiled. “He lives here?”
“At the top of the hill. But his house is full of servants, and guarded, even if I could kill him there, I’d never get away.”
“Is he married?”
Ryshe grinned, went over to a display, and carefully selected a diamond necklace. She broke its clasp, carefully, so it looked normal but wouldn’t close, and handed it to Drach. “Go to the house, and sell this to either the judge or his wife; offer a price high enough to be valuable but lower than it’s worth. It’s a very good piece; they’ll buy it. When they realize the clasp is broken, they’ll come here, and you’ll have your chance.”
“What if his wife comes here?”
Ryshe shook her head. “A man like that would go himself, or at the least accompany her, so that he can bully me into fixing the clasp, or giving him some of the money back. He’ll be here.’
Drach left the store, and returned a few hours later. “He bought it,” Drach said, and they waited.
Judge Yering came into the shop the next day. “Excuse me, I bought this necklace for my wife and the clasp seems to be broken; would it be possible to have it fixed?”
“Of course,” said Ryshe, taking the necklace from him. Drach was loitering by a display, a knife tucked in his belt. Ryshe looked at him pointedly, but Drach avoided her gaze. Ryshe fixed the clasp, working far more slowly than she needed to. She gave Drach one more pointed stare, then handed the necklace back to the judge. He thanked her and left.
“What happened?” Ryshe asked Drach when she was sure the judge was long gone.
He shrugged. “I guess I changed my mind.”
“All right.”
“You don’t mind?”
“This was your idea, not mine.”
“Thank you. For helping me, and all.”
“Enend was my best friend. I’m glad to have met you.”
There was an awkward silence. Finally, Drach left.
Ryshe closed her store early and went out. She bought a bottle of expensive wine, and a smaller bottle of a very different kind of liquid. She arranged for the wine to be delivered.
Judge Yering was found dead the next morning.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Saving Souls

“You know you don’t have to do this.”
Vie frowned at the older woman. “Don’t make this more difficult than it already is. Sahrinad is the only home I’ve ever had; do you think I’d leave if I had a choice?”
“You’d be safer here than anywhere else,” said Rikimi. “You know how well Sahrinad’s fortified, and nowhere else in the world can you find so many magicians.”
“These things are powerful, Rikimi. They’ll break through every defense we have in five minutes, and every being on the island will be dead, magic stolen and souls ripped to shreds. They’re going to get me, there’s no real hope of avoiding it, and I can’t bring them down on everyone else.”
“I know. I wanted to be sure you know you’re not being kicked out. This is your choice.” She hesitated. “I’ll miss you, Vie.”
Vie forced a grin. “I’d have thought you’d be glad to see me leave.”
“Oh, you’ve always been trouble, but never the bad kind, really.”
“Until now.”
Rikimi gave Vie a stern look, the same look she‘d given Vie so many times over the years. “You know it’s not your fault.”
Vie shrugged. “It would be, if I stayed and let Sahrinad be destroyed.”
“Knowing what we do, it would be, yes; I’m glad you’re able to take responsibility for that. I just find it difficult to believe that your fate is inevitable.”
“Every seer and oracle in Sahrinad’s seen them suck my life force out of me, no matter what course of future they’re seeing. Everything that’s been seen, or heard, or thought of, or prophesied says its unavoidable, whatever I do,” said Vie, her voice tinged with suppressed anger at the unfairness of it. She hesitated. “If it turns out not to be, if I find a way to beat them somehow… I’ll come back.”
“You don’t really have any hope,” said Rikimi, mildly surprised.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’d be able to survive if I didn’t have at least the smallest shred of a chance of ever coming back here.”
“Well, I’ve never put much faith in prophecies.”
That comforted Vie more than anything else had, and she embraced Rikimi awkwardly and stepped onto the ferry.
Vie had no idea where to go. She’d been barely more than a child when she came to Sahrinad, and her memories of life outside the island were foggy. It wasn’t so isolated that she didn’t know of the outside world--which countries were where, what the landscape was like, how to get from one place to another. But she didn’t know where she wanted to be, except on Sahrinad.
Somewhere isolated, she decided, to limit the damage as much as possible, so when the ferry landed she walked west, away from the nearest town and the roads twisting around it.
Vie tried, as she’d been trying, to come up with a way to stop them, but her mind would only show her the fate she knew she couldn’t avoid. They--no one knew what exactly they were, and they had no name--would swoop down on her and steal magic, leaving her weakened but alive, and then her soul, killing her, or worse. She couldn’t hide from them, couldn’t fight them, couldn’t trick them. The most she could hope for was to be their only victim.
She passed a stand on the side of the road. She knew she should hurry on so as to avoid risking the person working at it. But she wanted that one last bit of human contact.
She needn’t have worried about that. As she approached, it became quite clear that the person selling whatever was being sold was not at all human. The being--Vie couldn’t tell its gender--had aqua skin, shining white antlers, and huge feathery wings. Being from Sahrinad, Vie had of course seen nonhumans before; but this person was different. She somehow felt that it wasn’t just not a human, but wasn’t a mortal at all.
“Hello,” Vie said, because she could at least have one last friendly nonhuman interaction before they found her. “What are you selling?”
“Whatever I have, or whatever I need…. But from you, I think I will be buying.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to sell.”
“I have seen you in my scrying dish, being devoured by kashiu jalt.”
“A lot of people have. Is that what they’re called?”
“It’s what I call them. It means soul rippers, in some language or other.”
“Do you know how to stop them?” Vie’s heart beat quickly, though she told herself she knew the answer would be negative.
“You cannot defend against them, or hide from them.” The being paused. “I wish to buy your soul.”
Vie jumped back. “What? But… how? And won’t that kill me?”
“No, I will take good care of it for you, and sell it back to you when you’re ready. You can consider it a kind of pawning. As for how, we simply agree on the deal and I will take it from you, very gently.”
“Sell it back to me… you mean, once the… soul ripper’s are gone?”
It wasn’t that Vie didn’t know better than to sell her soul, but surely selling it was better than having it stolen. “All right,” she agreed. A shimmering white antler touched her forehead, and she felt… something, and then she felt nothing. She was conscious, she felt no pain, or even numbness, just nothing. She could see and hear and touch the world around her, but it could not touch her. Nothing mattered.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s rather terrible.” Vie didn’t know whether that was true. It just was.
She left, and continued walling, and eventually stopped walking and lied down and did not sleep. The sun was beginning to rise when they came.
Had she been able to feel, she would have felt fear, but as it was they simply were there. They picked through her mind and sucked out her magic, and as she felt it draining away she knew it was a good thing she couldn’t feel. When it was gone--when the magic that had been so much of her life was gone--they dug deeper, searching for her soul. Vie squeezed her eyelids together. When she opened them, the sun was up, and they were gone.
She walked back to the stand on the side of the road. The being touched his antler to her forehead again, and her soul trickled back in, and she began to cry.
“Thank you,” she said, and still crying, headed back to Sahrinad. By the time she stepped off the ferry, she was almost used to feeling again, almost able to deal with the loss of her magic, almost able to believe that she had escaped the inescapable.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


This is the sequel to Vengeance. I reccomend you read that first, if you haven't yet.

“I don’t like it,” Aldasha said.
“They’re just rumors,” I assured her. “They’ll pass.”
“They’re not just rumors, they’re the truth. We both know I really did plan all along to kill my husband and take the throne for myself. “
“No, the plan was to go ahead with his plans to marry you, but thwart his plan to kill you and start a war.”
“But did it work, or did it only shift the battleground? If people start believing that I’m a murderess who stole the throne--”
“They’d know you were still better than your predecessor,” I interrupted firmly.
“I know, Onisy killed the previous royal family to take the throne. But how am I any better?”
“You don’t know anything about it,” I said.
“Maybe I should.”
“Then go ask someone else. Order them to tell you, if you must. I won’t speak of it.”
“And if I order you to tell me?”
“Then you’ll have far more trouble on your hands than a few rumors.”
Aldasha knew that what I said was true. I’d helped her get the throne; she couldn’t boss me around just because she sat on it. She never tried. “Any suggestions on who I should ask, then?”
“Anyone who was around twelve years ago would know the basics, at least.”
Aldasha left the room, and I disappeared into the passages in the walls and followed her.
The hidden passages are extensive, running through nearly every wall, with peepholes every few feet, so it was no difficulty to follow Aldasha all the way to the stables.
“Nyen?” she called, and I smiled at her choice; the hostler always knew everything that was going on, though he was too close-mouthed to be much of a source of information. “Do you have a moment?”
“Of course, you majesty.”
Aldasha went straight to the point. “What happened when Onisy took the throne?”
Nyen looked at her. “You’ve heard about the rumors.”
My smile broadened; he really didn’t miss anything. I made a mental note to recruit him as one of my spies.
“I was just wondering,” Aldasha said.
“Alright. There’s not much to it, really. It was a king and queen who ruled back then. They were young, and had three children, and… I believe eight nieces, nephews, and cousins. There was no lack of heirs, and the king and queen and their children were well liked. Then Onisy appeared--he was in the army. It was quite small back then, and he rose up through the ranks to general. And then one day, he led a few men into the castle--he was trusted, it wasn’t difficult--and killed the king and queen, and their children, and seven of the other possible heirs. He married the one he let live--she was barely more than a child, and he thought he could control her. When he found out he was wrong, he killed her as well. Everyone hated him, but he had the army on his side, and after he crushed the first uprisings, everyone learned to grumble quietly.”
“Thank you,” said Aldasha.
“We’re well rid of him,” Nyen told her. “You’ve no call to feel guilty. I don’t know whether it’s true that you planned all along to kill him, and I’m asking, but either way the country’s better off.”
“Thank you,” Aldasha said again, and left the stables.
“So, did I tell her the right amount?” Nyen asked when she was gone, addressing the peephole I’d been watching through. I was duly impressed.
I emerged into the stables. “What do you mean? Surely you told her all there is to tell, if only the bare bones of it.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Have you ever considered becoming a spy?”
“I like my job. And you’re changing the subject.”
“You wouldn’t have to quit your job, just pass on anything you happen to learn.”
“I’ll keep it in mind. And you’re still changing the subject.”
“Yes, you told her the right amount.” I hesitated. “I didn’t know anyone else knew.”
“A haircut and a change of clothes, and of course the lack of all that ridiculous makeup, is enough to fool kings and nobles and people who only ever saw you from a distance, and of course, you weren’t seen much at all for a long time. But you’re still the same person.”
“You’ve never told anyone?” I asked hopefully.
“No. I didn’t even tell the queen, as you just saw. But really, don’t you think she has a right to know?”
“I don’t know. Telling her would just make things so uncomfortable. It wouldn’t help anything, and shouldn’t change anything.” Something made me add the real truth. “I don’t like to think about it.”
“I’m sure ignoring your past is quite effective at making you forget it.” His tone was neutral, but he was being sarcastic. I scowled at him.
“But telling everyone my gruesome story would be so much more effective,” I retorted.
I left fully intending to keep my secret. But that evening, when I met with Aldasha, the words spilled out of me almost against my will. “I was Onisy’s first wife.”
She stared at me. “What? But… he killed her? And you’re… that means you’re the rightful queen.”
I shook my head firmly. “No. I was a second cousin of the queen, and never really in line for the throne, nor have I ever wanted to be.”
“How… I’d always heard he killed you. You even told me that Onisy killed his first wife.”
“He did his best. It didn’t take. He never knew I was alive. No one ever connected the dead young queen to the girl in the passages. I am not that person anyore, and I don’t want to be.”
“So you just want everything to continue on as it is?”
“Yes. Though I’d appreciate it if you could stop worrying about how you gained the throne. Think of it as aiding me in my rightful vengeance, of you must. Remember, I was the one who dealt the fatal blow.”
Aldasha considered for a long time. “Fine.” She paused, then added, “And I’ll keep your secret.”

Twenty Questions

I know everything. I know what wars will come, and which side will win, and who will die and who will not die quite yet. I know the meaning of life and the secret ingredient in your grandmother’s cookies and how the world will end. And I know that I can’t tell anyone any of it, unless they ask, and then I can only tell them yes or no.
Perhaps that’s a good thing. I don’t know that for sure, because it’s subjective. But my knowledge is as much burden as gift, and there are some things people aren’t meant to know.
I just wish these idiots would learn to ask the right questions. I mean, I don’t know how many people have made the arduous trek up my mountain to ask, “Am I going to die?” Actually, I do know. Three hundred sixty two (though one was an immortal for whom the answer was no, so that one doesn’t count as a stupid question. But still.) And then there’s those who ask me where something is. Not one of them ever thinks to bring a map so they could point and ask if they’re getting closer. “Where?” is not a yes or no question.
I’d just been dealing with a particularly difficult knight, who’d wanted to know whether he would die (yes), what he should quest after (silence from me, though maybe I should have answered, “No”), and where it was to be found, though of course he still didn’t know what it was. When I didn’t answer, he started screaming at me, calling me a fake and enchantress and con. I wondered if he would attack me physically, and instantly knew that he wouldn’t, but he was still quite an annoyance.
I’d long since stopped listening to his ranting when another voice called out, “Hey, bozo! Read the sign, she can only answer yes or no. It’s not her fault you’re too dumb to figure out how to ask a question.”
The speaker was a woman in her mid-twenties, dressed in clothing practical for climbing a mountain, and wearing a sword. A small dragon was perched on her shoulders.
“You!” the knight shouted. The woman put her hand on her hilt. The knight started to take a step towards her, and shook his fist at her, but turned and fled down the mountain.
The woman turned to me. “Let me guess, he wanted to know how to defeat me?”
“Something equally stupid?”
“I’m Yaleria. You probably know that, I guess?” I did. “I know this probably isn’t the kind of question you usually answer, but do you know how to make people have a little common sense?”
“Yes,” I said, automatically, and searched my mind for the answer. To my shock, I couldn’t find it. I didn’t know, if I’d known, I would have used the knowledge myself by this point. “No.” How could I not know it? Was it impossible? Or subjective, or to vague--that was possible.
“It’s okay, I don’t really think there is a way, with these people.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I can only dispense information by answering yes or no, but I’m perfectly capable of speaking normally. Yaleria must have known that already, because she didn’t seem surprised.
“It hasn’t been so bad. It used to be just individual knights who would come try to kill the dragons, and not very good ones, to go after the babies. But now the king’s planning to lead an army to eliminate them all.” She paused. “I guess you know that. My real question is, is there a way to stop it?”
“Yes,” I told her, because I saw that there was, and hoped fervently that she’d be able to ask the right questions.
Yaleria considered carefully. “Is it physical?” she asked finally.
“Is it persuasion?”
I hesitated. “Yes….” I wished I could just tell her. There was no reason I shouldn’t be able to, except that that was how it worked. I didn’t always mind, sure, it could be frustrating, but I must admit I enjoy thwarting the stupider querents. But at times like these, I felt my life was a game of twenty questions, only not a game.
Yaleria thought before asking again. “Will they stop willingly?”
I grinned. “No.”
“Will something happen to them if they don’t stop.”
Yaleria figured it out then. “Blackmail!”
“Yes.” And then it was only a matter of her asking questions about possible foibles of her enemies, until she guessed correctly that the king was having an affair with his general’s wife, the general took bribes, one of the king’s ministers had a vested financial interest, another had committed murder…..
I watched Yaleria leave, armed with knowledge, and knew she would have nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Kingly War

Quaos was surprised by the sudden appearance of an elderly woman in the middle of Malexandra‘s room, but only for a moment. “Good disguise,” she said when she realized the toothless old woman smelling of sewage was, in fact, Malexandra.

“Alas, the smell’s real,” Malexandra said. She removed the spell and returned to her normal appearance.

“Are you alright? You look… drained.”

“Nothing a few day’s sleep won’t cure. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury we can’t afford right now.”

“You found what you were looking for?”

“And then some. Get Anonymous.” Malexandra hesitated. “And tell him to bring the king.”


King Skyler had been in the Magiary once before, and even in that dire emergency, he had not exactly been made welcome. So when Anonymous told him of Malexandra’s summons, he knew it was serious.

A tall girl with cropped black hair met the two men at the door of the Magiary. She introduced herself as Quaos, and led them up into the tower.

The room stank. Malexandra was sitting at her desk, scribbling furiously and looking exhausted. Anonymous went up to her, waved his hands around, and the smell disappeared.

“Wow, I wasn’t aware you could do anything practical,” Skyler told him. Malexandra stifled a laugh.

“I’m sorry about that; I just got back from Balirmind and I spent most of the day in the sewers, and I’ve had more important things to worry about.” She looked at Skyler. “They’re preparing for war.”

“Against us?”


There was silence.

“Can Majardea survive another war against them?” Quaos asked. “I didn’t live here yet, during the last war, but I heard it was… close.”

“No,” Skyler admitted. “That was only three years ago, we’re still recovering. If we were attacked now--it’s not quite a sure thing that we’d be defeated, but even if not… another war would take its toll.”

“Is there a reason they’re attacking?”

“It’s because of what happened with your crown. The thieves that stole it used it to destroy a Balirmindian plantation. That wouldn’t be enough to start a war, except that it was owned by King Codroy’s nephew, and he was killed.”

“Could we give them the thieves?” Skyler suggested.

Malexandra shook her head. “Even if you could find them, and capture them, there’s no guarantee it would work. They blame you; it was your crown, and a Majardean subject who used it.” She looked at the paper she’d been writing on, “I’ve been trying to think of some way to stop it, but there’s not much. We could kill him, maybe.”

“Killing kings isn’t easy,” said Quaos. Skyler looked at her.

“You might not want to talk about that,” Malexandra warned her.

“What, it’s not like Majardea was on the best of terms with Sarca under their old king.”

“That was you?” Anonymous asked incredulously.

“The point is,” Malexandra tried to bring them back to the subject at hand, “Having Codroy assassinated might prevent the war. Except that, as Quaos said, it’s difficult, and his son is the cousin of the plantation-owner who was killed and might feel the same way, especially if he got an inkling that Majardea was behind the assassination. So that’s pretty much out.”

“We could try to treat with Balirmindian,” said Anonymous.

“No,” said Malexandra. “If Codroy would even agree, his terms would be too high a price--from what I gather, he wants to rule the country, or at least have control over it, get revenge on you, Skyler, bring slavery to Majardea…. We’re not that desperate.”

“Aren’t we?” Skyler said quietly.

“No! I don’t believe kings should have the absolute authority to rule over everyone else, but since you do, you should at least take responsibility to protect your people from that tyrant!”

“So you agree that not all rulers are tyrants,” said Skyler.

“I never said otherwise. I just don’t think that anyone should have that kind of authority.”

“Is this really the time to be having a political discussion?” Anonymous asked. They ignored him.

“What’s wrong with having power, if you do the right thing with it?” Skyler demanded of Malexandra.

She hesitated before answering. “It wasn‘t a tyrant that made me realize how oppressive power is. There was once a king, a decent enough king, who thought he might not like me very much. He sent soldiers to bring me to the palace, to decide what to do about me. I stood before his throne, in chains, a trembling rabbit in the hands of a hunter. We both knew he had complete, absolute control over my fate. It was his whim whether I lived or died. He let me live, obviously.”

“I don‘t understand,” said Skyler, “If he let you go…?”

“It shouldn’t have been up to him,” said Malexandra.

There was silence for a moment, then Anonymous said acidly, “We were discussing how to prevent a war.”

“Any ideas?” She matched his tone.

The four of them tried to come up with plans, but they didn’t really get anywhere. Finally, Malexandra said, “Could we continue this tomorrow? I’m going to pass out if I don’t get some sleep.”

“We’ll all keep thinking about it,” said Skyler. And then, more quietly, “Unless we come up with something, we’ll have to start preparing for war.” On that somber note, they left.

Skyler told the news only to his advisors, who had no ideas on how to prevent a war, but started making plans on how to fight one. He had to leave the meeting to stop himself from screaming at them. They had to find a way to avoid war!

That night, Skyler dreamed he was very small, and something--a giant hand?-- was descending on him, about to crush him, and then suddenly it wasn’t and he was looking up into a giant smirking face.

The dream was still vivid when he woke, and he understood what Malexandra had meant the previous evening. And then he realized he had a plan.

When he returned to the Magiary, it was not Quaos but Aniya who let him in.

“I miss you,” Skyler said suddenly. She looked away.

“Have you heard?” he asked her.

“About Balirmind? Yes. If you’re going to tell me it’s my fault--”

Skyler cut her off. “I wasn’t. It isn’t. I just wanted to tell you I have a plan.” He told her his plan.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Skyler, holding his breath and telling himself he shouldn’t care so much what she thought.

“I’ve missed you too,” said Aniya.

They went up to the tower. Malexandra, Anonymous, and Quaos were already there. None of them looked any more hopeful than they had the night before.

“Skyler has a plan,” Aniya said.

“Codroy wants revenge on me,” Skyler said. “Not on Majardea, but on me. Instead of Majardea fighting Balirmind, I’ll fight Codroy.”

“And if you lose?”

“Then I die, not thousands of people fighting for their country.”

No one argued against it. Malexandra gave Skyler paper and a pen and wax for his seal, and he wrote a missive to the king of Balirmind.

To His Majesty, King Codroy of Balirmind,
It has come to my attention that there are unsettled differences between the two of us that could lead to war between our countries. If you are of this mind, I hope you will agree for the two of us to settle the matter like gentleman, in single combat. I do not feel it necessary to involve any innocent citizens of my country or yours in this matter, if matter there is.
Sincerely yours,
King Skyler of Majardea

He folded the paper and sealed it. Malexandra touched it lightly, and it disappeared.

They waited tensely. For hours, there was no reply. Malexandra had food brought up. Skyler pushed his around his plate. It was nearly dusk when a letter appeared in the air in front of Skyler. It was sealed with the seal of Balirmind, and read simply,

When and where?

The details were arranged, and two weeks later, Codroy arrived in Majardea with an entourage.
Skyler had spent most of the intervening weeks practicing his swordplay. He was already good with a sword, and he was confident that he was in practice, but then, Codroy would be as well.

The fight took place in the square where executions were held. That was not, Skyler thought, a good omen, but practically, it made sense; there was plenty of room for the fight, and for an audience.

The crowd was far larger than that at executions. Skyler tried to ignore it and concentrate on fighting. He and Codroy were about evenly matched. The fight dragged on. They sweated and grew tired and blocked and dodged and hit and bled.

Finally, just when Skyler thought he couldn’t fight anymore, Codroy lowered his guard, and Skyler stabbed him in the chest.

The crowd cheered. Skyler tried to focus only on the fact that if there had been a war, the cheering people would be the ones killing and dying. He moved stiffly through the crowd, ignoring the cheering and congratulations and efforts to bandage his wounds, and went started home towards the castle.

Halfway there, he changed direction and went to the Magiary instead.

“You’re dripping blood,” Aniya told him. She had the beginnings of a black eye.

“Oh. Right.”

She gave him some bandages, and watched as he wrapped his wounds. None were major enough to require anything more.

“Were you there?” he asked.

“I went. I was too bust fending off people who recognized me to see much of it.” She gestured towards her eye.

“I’m sorry,” Skyler said. “You’d think people would have gotten over it by now.”

“Have you?”

“I voided the warrant. You’re not wanted for treason.”

“Maybe not officially. And you didn’t answer my question.”

“I don’t know if it’s that I’ve gotten over it… but I think you were right to destroy the Talisman. Funny how little that matters, what I think about it.”

“It matters,” said Aniya.

Monday, September 14, 2009


This story has been deleted because I am now writing a novel based on it. I will post an update in this blog when it is available.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Zandra was my best friend, which says more about the state of my social life than about our friendship. I had other friends, but they were the kind of friendships where, when we hung out, we chatted rather than talked. We knew about each other—what we were doing and who was dating who—but I didn’t know them, and none of them knew me.

I never knew anything about Zandra. I only saw her on Saturdays. Whenever I’d suggested we do something on a different day, she’d said she was busy. I didn’t know what she did with the rest of the week. I didn’t know if she had a job, or a social life, or even what her last name was. But it didn’t matter. Zandra was the only person who understood me.

It wasn’t that we spent our time having deep conversations, because we didn’t. But Zandra lived in the moment, and when I was with her the world seemed different somehow. Every passing butterfly was a miracle, and even the most insignificant chitchat was imbued with soul.

One day—it was a Tuesday—I got home very late, and surprised a burglar. I stood in my doorway, shocked at this invasion of my home. The burglar dropped my TV, pulled out a gun, and shot me.

The bullet hit my leg. I collapsed, and he rushed past me out of my house.

I was screaming. One of my neighbors must have heard my screams, or the gunshot, and called the police. My face was soaked in tears of pain when the ambulance finally arrived.

At the hospital, the doctor told me that the bullet hadn’t quite hit the bone, but was still in my leg and would need to be removed. I would be fine, they assured me.

The painkillers were beginning to set in by then, so my leg didn’t hurt as much, but I felt betrayed by the world at the invasion of my home by the burglar and of my body by the bullet. I didn’t think I would be fine.

The operation was successful. All my friends stopped by the hospital to give their condolences and express their shock. All except Zandra, and again I felt betrayed. So what if it wasn’t a Saturday? So what if she was busy? I was in the hospital recovering from being shot!

On Saturday, she did come, sneaking into my room without waiting for visiting hours.

“Hi,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” said Zandra.

I shrugged. “Life sucks.”

Zandra studied me carefully. “Can I tell you a story?”


She sat down in a chair. “Once, people caused each other a great deal of pain.”

“They still do,” I interrupted, gesturing towards me leg.

“Yes, of course, but once there was twice as much pain in the world. I don’t know if twice as many bad things happened, or if each grievance suffered then was felt twice as much. Either way, the world is only half as cruel now as it once was.”

“It must have been pretty bad back then,” I said.

“It was. People were hurt, and saw their friends hurt, and were miserable. They say we are given no more than we can bear, but then why are there so many suicides? There were even more then than now. The whole world was in despair.”

“So what happened?”

“It was a small thing, in the grand scheme of the world. No one ever knew about it, ever knew about it, even. There was a girl. She had suffered no great tragedy but for living among the horrors of the world. She saw the pain around her, and knew she had to stop it.

“She went off in search of… she didn’t even know what. An evil to defeat? A last thread of hope to unleash into the world? She traveled far and wide, never knowing what she was looking for.

“Until she found it.” Zandra paused and stared off into the distance.

“What was it?” I asked impatiently.

"You would call him the devil, perhaps, though that is not quite right. He is not how you would think of him. He was simply a power with a lust for evil, but rather than committing it with his own hand, he stirred the rest of the world to do his work for him.

“How and where the girl found him does not matter. Perhaps he found her, even. However it went, she knew him for what he was. And he was no demon to be defeated, that was quite clear. So she did the only thing she could.”


“She made a bargain, of course. A deal with the devil, but she didn’t pledge her soul, and she knew what she was getting into. She couldn’t, of course, completely understand, but she knew.

“The deal was this: She would take on half of the world’s pain, for as long as she chose to.”
I let out a little gasp of astonishment. “But how could she? If the entire world couldn’t handle it, how could the one girl?”

“She just did,” Zandra said sternly. “Maybe she was stronger or more determined, maybe she was simply able to bear more, maybe it was because she took the burden on herself, a willing sacrifice. And of course, no mortal could survive thousands of years of constant pain. So she was given eternal, or at least extended, life, and youth. And… I forgot to mention this part of the deal—she was given one day off every week, to spend free in the world she had saved.”

I would have realized then, of course, had it not been for the painkillers. As it was, I missed the obvious. “Then what happened?”

“Then she kept up her end of the deal, and he kept up his, and the world is only half as bad as it once was. And every Saturday she is free to enjoy the improvement.” Zandra got up. “Get well soon. I’ll see you next week.” She began to leave.

“Wait,” I called. She stopped halfway to the door. “How can you go back to that?”

She didn’t deny it. “How could I not?” she asked, and left.

I was out of the hospital by the next Saturday, walking on crutches but otherwise fine. I was a little worried to see Zandra. I thought that after knowing her story, our friendship would be changed. But she appeared with a handful of brightly colored sharpies and drew her name over most of my cast, acting the same as ever. I realized that that was how she was able to bear half the world’s pain; by living in the moment; and that this was her retreat. So I didn’t dwell on it any more than she did, and I stopped dwelling on my own lingering pain and fear as well.

After a while, I began to wonder if Zandra had really told me that, or if it had just been a painkiller-induced dream. So I asked her if it had really happened. “Maybe,” she said playfully, but I could tell by her tone that she had told me the story. There was no proof that it was true, of course, but I believed it.

So life went back to normal. My cast came off. The man who shot me was never caught, but it stopped mattering so much to me. I am, for the most part, very happy, and at least on the days I see her, so is Zandra.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Second Shapeshifter

I like a good prank as well as the next person. And since I can shift skins, my pranks tend to be better than most. But it was only supposed to be a harmless prank. I didn’t know I was the one being tricked.

I should have been suspicious. After all, Ashley had been introduced to me by a mutual friend who’d told me, “She can do the same thing as you! Useful, in her line of work—she’s a con artist.” Ashley told me as much herself, when I finally met her, but it didn’t really bother me. She had a good sense of humor, and though we didn’t became close friends, we always had fun when we hung out.

It was my idea to take each other’s shapes, and Ashley enthusiastically agreed. “And then we have to do something totally outrageous as the other person, and then when people get upset, we can show that we were somewhere else!”

“Like what?”

“We can each decide what the other person does, in our shape. C’mon, Nick, it’ll be fun.”

“I didn’t say I don’t want to do it. I’m just thinking about what “Nick” should do.”

She laughed. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something good.”

We spent some time thinking about it. Finally, Ashley suggested, “We can go over to your girlfriend’s; me as you and you as someone else, and see how long until she realizes I’m not you.”

“That seems kind of unfair to Melissa.”

“C’mon, it’s a joke. It’s not like you won’t be there, and we don’t have to keep it up if it gets uncomfortable.”

I agreed, eventually, because I knew Melissa’s expression when she realized would be priceless. Ashley took my shape, and I took the shape of one of my friends, Jacob. Ashley knocked on the door.

Melissa opened it. Her gaze briefly swept over us before settling on me. “Hi, Nick. And, Nick’s friend who looks just like him.” Her face registered nothing. Ashley, however, was gaping. I am rarely shocked, so it was weird to see the expression on my face.

Melissa invited us in, and Ashley and I returned to our normal shapes. I introduced them, and explained what we’d been doing.

“Obviously,” said Melissa. “So what are you going to do as her?”

“The deal is that I get to chose,” said Ashley.

“So what should I do?”

She considered. “Get arrested. Go to the police station and confess to… murder.”

“Don’t you think that’s going a little too far?” Melissa asked.

I agreed. “How about I confess to something less serious? Theft, or I don’t know, something else.”

“C’mon, it’s not like we’re actually killing anyone! I’ll very clearly be somewhere else, somewhere with lots of people that will recognise me, and cameras, and everything.”

“But Ashley, it’s not when I’m confessing that you’d need an alibi; it’s when the murder actually takes place. And how would we know?”

“Oh.” She thought about it. “We’ll have to stage a murder!”

“Or, I could just do something besides confessing to a crime.”

“No; this’ll be so cool. You could pose as a body, and we could leave all kinds of fake fingerprints, and then you can go in as me and confess!”

“But that’ll waste so many police resources!” Melissa protested.

“Yeah. I can’t say I’ve never done anything like that before, but not without a good reason.”

“Oh, fine. We’ll wait until you have a good reason; then do it.”

I should have been suspicious about how insistent Ashley was, but I thought it was just her stubborn nature. So about two months later, when a girl asked me to help her escape her life, I called Ashley.

The girl’s name was Amy Dellon. She’d ran away from home twice, and had attempted suicide. A friend of mine who was her psychologist said that the problem wasn’t with Amy, it was with the situation that drove her to that point. He asked me to help her escape it. I do that kind of thing all the time.

So I took Amy Dellon’s form and played dead. I can’t take a form that’s not alive, or if I did I wouldn’t be able to shift back. But I can take a form that’s injured, and like Amy with slit wrists, and my psychologist friend called in some favors with a friend in the ME’s office. Amy was declared to have died by exanguination, apparently self-inflicted. Of course, at the time of her death, the real Amy was far away. And, as far as I knew, Ashley was at the mall, asking for help from salesclerks, displaying herself to security cameras, and paying for things with her credit card.

So the next day, I took her shape and went into the police station. “I killed someone,” I said, pretending to be distraught. “I can’t live with the guilt.” I said I’d killed Amy and made it look like a suicide.

I was arrested, of course. I could have gotten out of jail, but as I was being brought there something distracted the guards, so I took advantage of it. I took the shape of a guard, uniform as all, and was gone before they could even realize it.

Once I was home, I called Ashley. She didn’t answer.

The next day, an article in the newspaper told about the murder, confession, and escape. And one more thing. According to the article, Ashley Littlecomb had been arrested again later that day, at her home.

Okay, I thought, maybe she wanted that to happen; she can prove her innocence. But really, who would want to spend months in jail, waiting for a trial?

I went to visit her, in my own form. “Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“What do you mean? I didn’t do any of it! I never killed anyone, or confessed, or ran away! This is all some huge mistake.” There was a desperation to her voice that was not the mischievious Ashley I knew.

I left the prison and went to Ashley’s house. I took the form of a delivery person, and knocked on her door. She opened it.

I put my foot in the door, and shifted to my own shape. “What did you do?” I demanded.

She laughed. “I think you mean, what did you do, framing poor, innocent little Ashley for murder.” She shifted, into a form similar to the one I’d thought was her true form, but clearly not the same person. A relative, probably. “I’m Carliza.”

“So this whole thing was a trick, to get me to set her up?” I didn’t wait for Carliza’s response. “Why couldn’t you do it?”

“I needed to keep her from establishing an alibi. And she knows I can shapeshift, so if I hadn’t been with her, she would have known it was me.”

“What was the point? Why do you want her in prison?”

“She called the police on me. Just because I swindled one lousy millionaire out of his hard-stolen savings, my own sister tried to send me to prison. I’m just returning the favor.”

I’d expected it was something like that. I knew she wanted me to be angry at what she’d done, or at least how she’d used me, so I said politely, “Goodbye. Nice meeting you,” and left before she could respond.

I had to make up for my mistake, of course. I could go to the authorities and tell them what I’d done—if I wanted to be considered crazy or a criminal, or both. I could reveal that Amy wasn’t dead, either by bringing her back or by impersonating her—but the whole point had been for people to think she was dead, and I wasn’t going to call that off.

So I’d have to play Carliza’s own trick back on her.

I let Ashley out first—she shouldn’t be in prison, and her presence would make the rest of my job harder. Once the hue and cry had been raised, I took Carliza’s shape and went into the police station.

I made sure none of the officers involved in “Ashley’s” first arrest were present, then went up and said, “Excuse me, there’s been a mistake. My name’s Carliza Littlecomb; I killed Amy Dellon, and came in here and confessed, but I said I was my sister, and then I escaped.”

They arrested me. I stayed in jail for a few days, so they didn’t get too suspicious about how exactly I’d escaped. They didn’t catch Carliza, of course, but that wasn’t the point. She’s wanted by the police, which isn’t much of a problem for her, except she won’t be able to use her natural shape.

Not that I thought Carliza would leave Ashley alone. So I arranged for her to go stay with Amy. They were about the same age, and I thought they’d get along. I won’t say where—that’s the whole point of faking deaths and hiding people, after all—but they’re safe, and when I talked to them they seemed to be doing fine.

It’s not that I think Carliza will leave me alone, either. And sure, I could go into hiding easily, but I’m not. I have a few extra identities stashed away, of course—anybody who can shift shapes would—and I could always take one if I need to. But I can take care of myself.


I crouch hidden by shadow in the branches, holding a dart, waiting for the perfect moment.

That moment never comes. My target sees me. He ducks, and lunges, and I am on the ground, the dart knocked out of my hand. He carefully examines my weapon. “Poisoned,” he says in disgust.

He calls two other men over. They bind my hands and feet, and my life is over.

They don’t kill me. They don’t give me that mercy. I would have killed them, quietly, with a minimum of suffering, not dragged them away from their homes and their lives and their freedom, as they now do to me.

I know what happens to those who are caught by their enemies. I would have jabbed the dart’s tip into my own hand, if I had the chance. But my last resort is gone, and they march me on, every step taking me away from my home.

They march me along, through the jungle I grew up in, past the beautiful palace of our queen, over roads leading to the homes of my friends. I will never see any of these places again.

We are a peaceful people. We kill to eat, and we kill in self-defense. Once, we rarely needed to. Now nearly every intruder onto our lands is raider, there to kill and enslave us. We fight to stay alive, and free, under the onslaught. Or perhaps I should say they fight, now. I have lost.

No. I won’t give up yet.

They march me though the jungle for five days. Then the trees begin to thin, and a little after noon on the fifth day, we emerge onto the plains.

The brightness blinds me. I’ve lived all my life under the shade of trees, but here the sun reflects off every blade of golden-brown grass. The sea of shining grass would be beautiful, in a way, if I had chosen to come here. And if the plain was not covered by a small army of raiders, camped, for now, but clearly heading into the jungle.

My captors shove me into a tent. Another man is standing there, looking at me. Like the landscape, he would be handsome if I did not hate him. “We got another one,” one of my captors told him.

“I can see that,” he says coldly. “Leave her with me.”

They hand him my chains and leave. I’m terrified. I try not to let him see my fear.

“What’s your name?” he asks me.

I try to stare him down. “I won’t tell you.”

He shrugs, as if my answer makes no difference, and waits. Once we surrounded by silence, he says softly, “Do not despair.”

I glare at him. “And why not?”

“We’re going to stop them.”

I don’t understand. He’s one of them, isn’t he? Not just one of them, but one of them in a position of some authority. But who else could he mean, besides his army of raiders? And by we, does he mean to include me? I look at him carefully, but nothing about him gives anything away.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“My name is Arthend. I am an officer in this army of what you call raiders.” He smiles, and lowers his voice. “I also call them raiders, if only in my thoughts. There were once people who lived on this plain, did you know that? I was one of them. I was captured. Some of us were allowed to join them, rather than be sold. I pretend loyalty and bide my time.”

“Until what?”

“At first I was no one, there was nothing I could do against them. I did my best to rise as high as I could, but though these men follow me, they are not on my side. I have no one to lead, and I can’t take down the entire army by myself. They are a small army, true, but I would still be outnumbered a hundred to one.”

“What are you asking?”

“The raiders would not follow me, to destroy themselves. But they take captives, as you well know.”

“Clearly,” I say, my voice acidic.

“I ordered that a captive be brought to me. The men who brought you made the usual assumptions, of course. When I call them back, they will put you with the others.” He looked at me to see if I understood, or if he had to spell out what he wanted.

“And… I tell them what you told me, and we revolt?”

“Yes. You will be kept in a pen. I will see that the gate is not properly locked. In the middle of the night, you will break free and attack them in their sleep. There are weapons, in the large white tent. There are as many captives as there are raiders, and they have far more reason to fight.”

“What if I refuse?”

“Why would you refuse?” He sounds as though the possibility that I would not agree had never occurred to him.

“Maybe I don’t like being used.”

“All the more reason to fight, then. What do you think your life would be, as a slave?”

“Don’t worry, I have no thoughts of refusing. I was just wondering, is all.” A thought strikes me. “What if everyone else refuses?”

“You’ll just have to convince them—I’m sorry, you never did tell me your name.”

I hesitate. “Jai.”

Arthend calls back the men who captured me, and they bring me to a pen crowded with my people. I don’t recognize anyone, but they are still my people. They are sitting, and standing, and some even lying on the ground, and all are despairing.

I don’t know how to rally them. I’ve never been any kind of leader, I can’t just say a few words and start a rebellion.

But if I don’t I’ll never see my home again.

I turn to a woman leaning against the gate. “We’re going to escape, and fight them,” I say, with every shred of confidence I’ve ever had. She laughs. I tell her of Arthend, and his plan, and she shakes her head in hopelessness.

I go from person to person, saying the same things. Most are no more receptive than the first woman. Some agree to join me, though. A boy who can’t be more than half my age says that he’ll help fight. A woman nursing a baby says she’ll do anything for her baby’s freedom. I ask them to help spread the word, and more people agree, and soon people I haven’t spoken to begin to come up and volunteer. And by nightfall, even those who’d laughed say they’ve considered the idea, and even if there’s no chance of success, well, there’s no chance anyway.

We wait until the hour is so late as to be near to morning. I try the lock, and sure enough, the gate opens. We creep into the tent of weapons and takes swords and knives and bows and bludgeons. We creep into the other tents, and use them.

The raiders fight back, of course, and some of us die. But all of them do.

All of them save one, who is not really one of them.

When the fighting is over, the tents full of corpses, the plains full of former captives heading back towards the jungle, I search for Arthend.

“Thank you,” he says, when I find him.

“I’m free, that’s more than thanks enough.”

He nods. “Are you going home now?”

“Yes. What about you?”

Arthend shrugs. “My people are long dead, and this is no home anymore.”

“Come back with us. With me.”

“I… they’ll see me as an enemy.”

“No they won’t. I’ll make sure they don’t.”

He considers for a long time, and agrees.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Secret Better Kept

Anyone searching for the truth is trouble, and this woman was no exception. She seemed nice enough, and probably was, but that didn’t mean much—it usually is the nice ones who have trouble clinging to them like flies on carrion.

I knew what she was after as soon as she knocked on my door. “You won’t find it here,” I said.

She was startled, and a little confused, so she ignored my words and went ahead with what she had clearly been planning to say. “My name’s Alkoury. I’m looking for the truth.”

“Like I said, you won’t find it here.” Maybe I should have closed the door in her face, but I live a long way from anywhere, and I thought I might as well hear her out before sending her away empty handed. So I let her in, offered her a drink, and waited for her to start asking questions best left unasked.

Alkoury jumped right into the heart of it. “What really happened in the Cave of Shadows?”

“No,” I said.

She ignored it. “Two men went into that cave, and only you came out, along with something… else. Something evil. It’s still out in the world, wreaking harm. We deserve to know what happened.”

“You don’t really want to know.”

“I do.”

“The truth is like a feral cat,” I warned her. “You might think that you want it, that you can handle it. You might try to tame it, or think that you own it. And then it scratches your eyes out.”

“I think you’re being too hard on feral cats.”

“Perhaps. But we’re not talking about cats.”

“I want the truth,” Alkoury insisted.

“Then you have to hunt it down and capture it.”

“Why not just tell me? Save me the trouble, and get a burden off your chest while you’re at it.”

I shook my head. “Some things are better off kept secret.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I know. That’s why I won’t tell you.” I wouldn’t have told her anyway. Even those who believe in the value of secrets don’t always keep them. But Alkoury wouldn’t even have tried.

“I will find out,” she said. She probably would.

“Why do you even care?”

“It’s what I do. It’s more than that; it’s who I am. The world has been wondering what happened for ten years, and we deserve to know.”

“Surely it’s not the only secret in the world.”

Alkoury struggled for words. “It’s… I just… I need to do this. It’s pulling at me; I can’t just let it be. I have to know.”

“Like a geas,” I said softly. And my heart sank, for I knew all too well what that kind of irresistible pull can drive you to do. She would not give up, and she would find it.

And we would all be doomed.

So I made a bargain. Not to tell it; nothing would drive me to that. But I told her I’d give her the smallest hint of where to start.

“In exchange, when you’ve found it; you have to return here and speak with me before you reveal it.”

“So you can kill me rather than let it get out?”

“No. If that’s your worry, write it down and make provisions for it to be opened if anything happens to you, as long as you talk to me before telling anyone else.”

She agreed, and I gave her a name, not of someone who knew—I was the only one with that distinction—but of someone who might have known part of it, or where to find someone who knew part of it, or who was at least very observant. Alkoury would have found him anyway, eventually. From his piece of the thread, she would slowly, but not slowly enough, unravel the truth.

It was nearly a year before I saw her again. She had succeeded, if you can call it success. Her shoulders were slumped, and the idealism of one who seeks the truth had been replaced by the disillusionment of one who has found it.

“Congratulations,” I said.

Alkoury scowled at me. “There were three men, who went into the cave, and two came out.”

“That’s right.” She knew now, there was no reason not to confirm it.

“One created a monster, one became a monster, and one… one watched.”

“Yes.” It was an admission. I had been the one who had watched, who had done nothing to stop it.

“How do you think everyone will react when they learn that the beloved ruler of the country is behind the greatest working of evil in ten thousand years?”

“So you still mean to tell them.”

“How can I not?”

“With great difficulty,” I admitted. “It’s not easy to keep such a secret. But you can, if you chose to. You can go home and try to forget what you know, or spend your time thinking of it, but without telling anyone. Alkoury, how do you think people would react?”

“They’d be angry, of course, and lose their faith in the king. But after doing that, he doesn’t deserve their faith, or anything else. At worst he’d be dethroned, and that would probably be a good thing.”

I shook my head. “At best he’d be dethroned. Violently, in a civil war between those who believe you and those who don’t. That’s still the best case. Remember, the evil he created didn’t just affect this country. The rest of the world would be upon us. Or the countries that believed it would be, and some that didn’t would be against them, and the whole world would tear itself apart. Do you really want to be responsible for that?”

“But he can’t just get away with it!”

“He has. I was the only one who ever had a chance to stop him, and I failed to take it.”

“People think he’s a good king! It’s not right.”


Alkoury’s face fell into a tragic mask of disillusionment, and I knew she would not tell. It would be hard for her, even harder than it was for me. But she’d been able to find the truth, and she’d be able to hide it.

She realized a few minutes after I did. “I’ll keep the secret.”

“I know.”