Sunday, 13 November 2016

Nanowrimo snippet, 2016 - The Magpie's Celestial Sanctum

Hello to readers!  I realise that it's been a while since I posted something on this blog, so I thought I would share the following small scene from my Nanowrimo 2016 project.  Set in the same world that is explored in my earlier blog entries, 'My Travels Through Imaginary Lands', we find ourselves in the city-state of Kassium, which is honouring the most brilliant young engineer from their foremost institute.  Dynamic, talented and forceful, Isabella Crome is expecting to be assigned responsibility for the beating heart of the nation - the furious, inexplicable core that powers their industry - The Engine.  What will happen, and what deceptions she will uncover, will determine not just her future, but the future of a fractured continent.

I hope you enjoy this small snippet - stay tuned for more!

* * * 

The sanctum was everything Isabella had been told to expect and more.  The room was both toplit and bottomlit in ivory white, the former emanating from the vanilla tallow candles in the mandala chandeliers strung from the conically sloping roof.  Beneath the floor, lamps powered by The Engine sat in half-moon lightning-glass prisons that one could walk across like bridges from certainty to certainty.  The effect of the up-and-down lighting was to parse one's face in the quarters of a saltiric cross, forehead and chin prominent, cheeks and ears in shadow.  Five hundred eyes glinted like the teeth of predatory animals.

Below the chandeliers, great corkscrew garlands hung in the shape of dovish birdflocks, echoing the whorl of marble pillars that led down to the central hub of the room, the celestially-inspired mezzanine that was known simply as The Breadth.

At her insistence, Sarasota had already explained the nature of The Breadth to Isabella.  The floor was composed of pressed sheets of black calcite overlaid with hardened obsidian which had been fractured with irregular clots of fired opaline cystals.  These had been fanned and pressed down to form fragmented, discoloured stars against the nightly backdrop.  The passages between the stars were marked out with slender channels of gold paint and powdered cherry garnet; the whole picture that formed was an astrological representation of the titanic, mythical battle between the continent-sized Varkenboor and the Heltenzeer bird that tore the Nebran continent away from the world pangaea so many millennia before.

Many times since then had the sun risen and set.  The Ondian Empire had ascended and then fallen back into decline, just as the Yzyrobians had before them.  The patch of land remaining to their descendants retained the name of the Empire, but like the language employed in formal situations, everything else had been lost, save in the minds of those who came later.  Gods had been cast aside, and production quotas took their place.  Now, the whispered words in the street were of rivets, armour plating, tobacco harvests and munitions.

'The Breadth is tremendously beautiful,' Sarasota had told her.  'There's nothing else quite like it in the world.  The first time I set foot upon it, I felt like I was desecrating something holy.'

'I rather wish I had seen it being constructed,' Isabella had replied.  'I could have learned much from the processes.'

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Institute of Meandering Minds

The wind whistled as the cowled figure stepped out across the timeless stone of the faculty floor.  Soft footsteps brushed over the cinereal surface, moving from corner to corner.  These corners were dominated by heavy candalabras, each constructed from the beams of the inn that had once stood upon this spot - the spot where millennia ago, the settlement of Meander had been formed.

Of course, Meander had come a long way since then.  A simple village, a trading hub, a thriving port, a centre of commerce. 

The figure paused only once, as though considering the time that had passed since Meander had come into being.  In the mind, chronology streamed away relentlessly like vapour into the void.  At the tapered end of that imagined surge, roughened skin cupped around tallow and wick, and fragile light gave birth to shadows.  The wind briefly gained strength, only to die away to frigid whispers.

The city teemed and flowed, and with that flow came ideas.  Meander became a haven of philosophy, a sanctum of knowledge.  Wood yielded to marble, and air to glass.  Small, unbidden embers burned in a hundred grates.  That was when they built the Institute.

Only when all the candles had been lit did the figure approach the upturned steel coil that doubled as a throne at the end of the room.  The figure rested lightly on the edge, testing the surface, and then flipped back her hood to reveal a cataract of auricomous hair.  She glanced upwards, amused, to where the statue of a squid, carved from obsidian, stretched its tentacles into the air.

The Headmistress was home.

She set a tiny brazier down onto the coal table before her and crushed sandalwood bark and powdered mhiatic into the bowl with her thumb.  When she was done, she touched the surface with the index finger from each hand, and the bowl began to glow.  In a minute or two, the aroma filled the enclosed space and she allowed her shoulders to settle.

The delta surrounding the city was rich, the farmlands fecund.  The granaries filled and the specialists thrived.  In this most golden of ages, The Institute produced the first of the Great Reports.  Four calling birds, four houses.  Four classes of people.

The masses, strong, uncomplicated, infinitely fertile, with shoulders that carried the world.  They encompassed all roles from simple farmhands and fishermen to the rawhide tanners that coloured the markets with their wares, but their first leaders were the buttermakers and the bakers.  They became House ButterTart.

There was a knock at the door.  The Headmistress said, 'Enter.'

The dark-skinned man that came into the chamber was so immense that he had to unfold himself after stepping across the threshold.  His muscles shone beneath a threadbare shirt and loose cotton shorts, and he wore light moccasins upon his feet.  A bright scarf was tied around his stubbled head.

The Headmistress nodded.  'You are welcome, Representative.'

'Zakaria Al-Aymane, of House ButterTart.  I offer you greetings, Headmistress.'

'Your greetings are acknowledged and appreciated, Representative.  What can my humble house offer the people of ButterTart?'

Zakaria opened his hands like a salesman offering wares.  'What can you offer, Headmistress?  Why, you can offer the things that rich men have refused to poor men since society began.  The people want work, they want security, and they want freedom.'

'The people of ButterTart already have the freedoms of association and action.  What more does a citizen in possession of aspiration desire?'

Zakaria counted the freedoms in the palm of his hand.  'Freedom from poverty, and freedom from fear, to name but two.  But you should know that there is more to freedom than an individual's choice for themselves.  There are the choices they would make for their children, and for those generations still to come.'

'I trust that the workers are making ample provision for those future generations.'

Zakaria grinned, showing off a single jewelled tooth.  'We make our sacrifices so that others may better themselves, 'tis true.  But well you should remember, Headmistress, that a leader rules with the permission of the people.  Heed this advice, for we will not long tolerate tyranny.'

The Headmistress raised a single immaculate eyebrow.  'Your warning is heeded, Representative, and the strength of a thousand years of mutual respect and teamwork between our Houses should serve as evidence that you can trust my word.  Rest assured that the well-being of your people is uppermost in my thoughts.'

Zakaria observed the remainder of the formal obligations and left, closing the door softly behind him.  The Headmistress regarded his warning as the posturing it surely was.  Yet, if anyone could marshal the masses, it would be Zakaria.  He was handsome, charismatic, and she had heard rumours that he was father to a dozen children.  Like a dysfunctional family, the members of House ButterTart were wild, furious, uncontrollable.  But if their power could be focused, it could overwhelm the other Houses in a day.

That day had not yet come.

The Headmistress stared into the glowing bowl before her.  The concoction within fizzed and smoked.  The Headmistress' mind swirled, and she was once again within the rainbow flow of time.  Angry shouts echoed into the abyss.  Embers became flames within a thousand brick hearths.  Minds once devoted to the accumulation of wisdom swelled instead with ambition and avarice.

There was another knock at the door.  This time the Headmistress did not look up.  'Enter.'

This figure was well-known to the headmistress.  Melania Wittgenstein of House Bleeding Moon sidled inside and glanced around nervously.  Her pallid demeanour might have been frustrating to some, but the Headmistress had not risen to Head of the Faculty without a natural gift for diplomacy.  Rather than hurry the other woman, she waited as long as was necessary for her to feel comfortable.

The traders and the artisans, creative and shrewd.  The landowners, the lobbyists and the makers of laws.  The explorers that went to the corners of the earth, the wide-eyed wonderers that looked to the heavens.  All were given to House Bleeding Moon.

Wittgenstein introduced herself and her house in clipped tones.  She had dark, perfectly-straight hair and tended towards consumptive, with the narrow bones in her wrists particularly prominent.  A network of blue veins ran across her pale skin, spiderwebbing in her temples and the backs of her hands.  Her eyes searched constantly in all directions.  Despite this, the Headmistress knew that her brain was needle-sharp, and afforded her respect accordingly.

'It is a pleasure to see you again, Representative.'

Melania glanced around.  'Headmistress, I am concerned that we are not alone.'

The Headmistress flicked the edge of the glowing bowl that was sat between them, letting out a dull tone that reverberated around for a few seconds.  She tipped her head and listened.  When she was satisfied, she met the other woman's eye.

'You need not be concerned, Representative.  Now tell me - what does House Bleeding Moon require?'

'Guarantees, Headmistress, such as only you can give.  If the city is to truly thrive, we must be sure that our pioneering spirits are rewarded for their investments.  Corporate power is waning, and in its stead, there will be a vacuum that is unhealthy for all parties.  We need to be able to market our goods and services, and to create the demand where it does not already exist.'

'The lobbyists within your ranks are already champions at exploiting opportunity.'  The Headmistress studied her nails.  'Surely you agree that rewards are to be earned, not provided?'

'Stability cannot be taken for granted,' Melania advised.  'Tariffs from abroad already threaten our prosperity and to make matters worse, we are concerned that the workers become too bold.'

'I don't know what you mean.'

The Headmistress had never truly seen another person splutter until that moment.  Despite her distaste for intervention in inter-House affairs, she had to admire Melania's horrified protestations.

'It is Zakaria, Headmistress!  He fills the workers' heads with nonsense.  Tells them that they can be kings...he has no respect for the natural order of things!'

The Headmistress smirked.  She was remembering Zakaria's vast frame, his absolute confidence as he warned the ruler of the consequences of not following his advice.  And those muscles...

She sighed and came back to the present.  'What would you have me do?'

'Rein him in,' Melania hissed.  'Surely you must appreciate the potential problems of allowing any House to dictate to the others.'

The Headmistress was aware of this, of course, but she wondered if House Bleeding Moon was aware of the ironic nature of its own stance.  'I will deal with Zakaria.  Think no more upon it.  And now, if there is nothing else?'

'If the Headmistress would consider it, House Bleeding Moon would appreciate guarantees of minimum prices for our goods...'

Affairs risked becoming bogged down in trivial detail, and the meeting was quickly adjourned.  Melania fussed as she withdrew, and she stopped once again in the doorway to look around, before seeming to feel that any potential danger was lessened by leaving. 

The Headmistress ran a finger around the steaming bowl, feeling the heat surge up her arm and the raised skin forming a welt on the tip of the digit.  Then out of nowhere, she snapped her fingers, causing the light to briefly flare.  A figure, dressed all in grey, was standing just a few feet from her desk.

Wherever there is light, there is shadow.  The two are like lovers, walking hand-in-hand.  And wherever there are shadows, there are those willing to hide in them.  As progress determined, the city grew and developed, but there had always been those that fate left behind.

House JaBooty was home to the beggars and the nightwalkers, those who were light on their feet, and desired to lighten the purses of others.  Those who caused pain, and those who treated it.  Those who lived by swords and cudgels, broken souls that yearned for war.

Those who were victims of a terrible genetic plague that destroyed their bodies, survivors who prospered only thanks to their unique skills and steely determination.

'Your presence is appreciated, Representative, but decorum strongly suggests that you should enter the sanctum only after the others have left.'

The laugh that answered her could best be described as gravelly, vocal pressure forcing itself out of the tortured tubes that made up the throat of the figure before her.  'If we agreed to that, how would we know what was being discussed?'

The Headmistress knew the greyshirted figure only as Ken-Ken, though her sources advised that he also answered to the name 'Null'.  It was a tradition within House JaBooty for the members to take new names, ones that played down their former personalities and reduced them to nothing.  Beneath the bandages that covered Ken-Ken's face, the Headmistress could see sores and rapidly-decomposing skin.

Even though she had known Ken-Ken was there all along, the Headmistress was surprised to find him so close to her desk.  It was a rare and delicious feeling, not knowing everything.  Realising that she could still be discomfited was a reminder that she had not ascended, and was still every bit a living human being as those she greeted.

Though were they human, the JaBooty?  The silence was lengthening, and their representative had not moved so much as an inch.

'Tell me,' she said, 'what does House JaBooty want?'

'Power,' the figure said, in a voice like the rustling of dead leaves.

The Headmistress stared into the darkness.  'And how do you propose to achieve that, Representative?'

'However the opportunity presents.  Whenever there is darkness, we shall rest within it.  Wherever another House shows weakness, we will exploit it.'

A thousand hearths became a million communal smokeshafts, and the shadows that grew from them became large indeed.  Shape us, they called.  Lead us, for we are many, and our hunger is great.

'I rather like House JaBooty,' the Headmistress whispered, 'if only because your goals are so transparent and single-mindedly pursued.'

Ken-Ken said, 'I couldn't help but hear that you are having some trouble with a man called Zakaria.  If you wish it, House JaBooty could see to it that this problem is appropriately resolved.'

'Rest assured,' the Headmistress snapped, 'that if I decide to take that course of action, you will be the first to know.'

Even as she finished speaking, the Headmistress admonished herself for betraying an emotion.  It was unbecoming of a woman in her position, and that only magnified her irritation to a further degree.

After an appropriate time had passed, she said, 'Do not let me detain you, Representative.'  The shadows licked at the walls, and laughed like hyenas.  The next sound that she heard was hissing, and the gaseous form of Representative Ken-Ken disappeared through the keyhole at the other end of the room.  The Headmistress let out the breath she had been holding.

Above the now-empty space, past the obsidian squid, the heraldic shield of the city had pride of place above the door.  Next to the horseman archer, the trumpeteer and the curved-blade-and-star that represented the other Houses, the image of the feline was that of her own House, TacoCat.

They were the leaders, the rulers, those marked by divine right.  Those that planned for the day when a million smokestacks would become a ship to the stars.

TacoCats were the only ones who really understood the responsibility, and for that realisation, they became as Gods.

'Are you ready?' she whispered to the smouldering bowl.

'Yes,' the fire replied.

Eudaimonia awaited, and the Headmistress was impatient.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

General Update - May '16

Hello!  Time for one of those regular quarterly updates that you've all been waiting for.

What Comes from the Earth

My first novel, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the mining communities near Johannesburg, is now available on Kindle worldwide for the princely sum of £2.81 (and Kindle Unlimited readers can get it for free!)  The link to buy in the UK is here.  Cheaper than a Starbucks coffee, and better for the soul.  Why not buy a copy?

Shadows at the Door

After a successful Kickstarter, the first 'Shadows at the Door' anthology is in production!  A huge thank you to all fans who are contributing to making this a reality.  I'll be providing further updates from Mark Nixon as particular milestones are reached - but with the horrorific nature of the content, I'm expecting that copies of the book will be winging their ways to contributors sometime around the end of October... 

Caribou Chronicles

Hot on the heels of the anthology, I'm shortly going to be working on a new project with one of my co-contributors.  Fresh from her triumphant writing workshop at Kcon just a few days ago, I'm pleased to announce a new collaboration with Caitlin Marceau.  Over the next few weeks, Caitlin and I will be preparing material for a new venture that we're calling 'The Caribou Chronicles'.  Set in Canada and full to the brim with all manner of fun fantastic creatures, this will be a new rural fantasy work sure to thrill fans of the genre!

This Burning Man

My sci-fi serial about bounty hunters in future Arizona goes from strength to strength, with over 1,500 readers to date!  I'm in discussions with a cover artist about a cover for a Kindle version, with the aim of releasing the finished story in Fall 2016.  The blog will continue to be updated fortnightly, and readers will be able to read it all

So far, our protagonist Phoenix has met a whole lot of crazy folk wandering the Sands - which one can point him in the right direction to find his missing family?  Get caught up now so you're ahead of the game when Chapter 11 is released tomorrow!

My Travels in Imaginary Lands

Likewise, 'My Travels in Imaginary Lands' continues to build an audience (on this very blog!) and I have all sorts of fun and games planned for it.  Unlike TBM, I don't have a schedule in mind for a Kindle release or anything similar, but I'm looking to build a catalogue of back work, so it will inevitably find a home at some point.  In the meantime, I'm loving writing it, and I hope you're enjoying reading.

Escalator Fiction

Sadly, this wasn't to be my year in Escalator Fiction, but simply to get longlisted given some of the up-and-coming literary talent in East Anglia is a fantastic achievement *quickly adds line to CV*

Other Stuff

I have all sorts of fun plans for story submissions, horror work, new serials, etc. but there are only so many hours in the day!  One of my goals for the year is to migrate this blog to a dedicated website, but until then, watch this space!

Monday, 2 May 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt. 9

The hiss of the rainfall was quickly followed by the rumble of thunder, and as the skies turned in seconds from yellow to black, by the anxious cries of men.  The forewoman had not stopped looking at me and now as an immense crowd of drenched labourers began to fill the space behind me, she beckoned me through the door where she stood and closed it after me.

So sudden had been the flow of events that I hadn't really taken the time to think through what I was doing, or what motive my new companion might have for inviting me in.  When I stood awkwardly there, she gave me a sharp look, like she was waiting for something.  All I had in my repertoire at that moment was the wherewithal to place my bag down at my feet, so I did that and then waited for further instruction.

The room was sparse and functional as you might expect, but it had the odd touch that hinted at the predilections of its occupier.  The bed in the corner was wide and the sheets were of far higher quality than anything else here.  The bed was made but a single corner was folded back, as if to invite the weary labourer to rest.  A small upright mirror, the kind a man might use for shaving, stood on a nightstand immediately next to the bed. Close to me, a sand-coloured set of drawers was topped by a single red rose in a quartz vase.

The forewoman was gazing into the mirror.  I watched her press a calloused fingertip to the loose skin below her eye and then reach towards her hair.  A peppering of unselfconscious grey lurked there among the darker strands.  For a moment she was still as she pulled at the bandanna, and with an artist's eye, I committed that moment above others to memory.  It seemed important somehow, though for what reason I could not hope to articulate.  Not a second later, her hair was loose and fell away.  It didn't tumble exactly, but there was a joyous flourish to the movement; a storyteller's embellishment it might seem and somewhat trite to boot, but it was as if in that second she sprang off a canvas and came to life.

For the first time, her eyes met mine in the mirror.

'We don't get many tourists this far out,' she said.  'I felt I had to save you.  If I'd left you in there, you'd have some damp, sweaty farmer sitting in your lap right now.  You're not in a place for the faint-hearted.'

I smiled, despite myself.  The air in here was cooler, and I was quickly beginning to feel better.  At some point I would have to take stock of the shame I would feel for my earlier grumpiness, but that was something for the future.

'The train journey here was pretty much like that.  It was okay, once you got used to it.'

She said, 'Ha!  If I'd have been you, I'd have stayed on the train.'

'The train already took me where I wanted to go,' I said.

She tugged underneath her blouse, shifted the strap of a linen undergarment that seemed rather distressed by her dimensions.  'Well, if you came looking for profundity, we have that in spades.  That, and sorgha.  Lots and lots of sorgha.'

'I shall have to take some with me as a memory of my journey.'

She turned towards me, shook the bottom of her skirt and grains disentangled themselves from the wool, pooling around her bare feet.  'When the rain stops, go and take a walk outside.  I guarantee you you'll still be finding it in your pockets weeks from now.'

The idea of returning to the Ministry with my expanded mind full of dangerous ideas and my pockets full of sorgha amused me greatly and I hid my expression behind the pretense of scratching my nose.  She continued to loosen and rearrange her clothing, and when she finally reached a level of comfort that she was happy with, she let out a short sigh.  I stood politely, feeling myself slip into a conversational rhythm.

'I'm Petra,' she said, lighting an oil lamp and placing it on the nightstand.  'I take it I can trust you to be a gentleman while I change?'

'Patrick.  And of course.'  I turned to face the wall, though I'll admit to studying the intriguing, blurred shadow that leaned over my shoulders.  In a few seconds, she indicated that I could turn round.  She was now wearing a maroon blouse that left very little to the imagination.  A small heart-shaped stone hung from a chain between her breasts.

'So, Patrick,' she said.  'You're an artist, or a writer.  Which is it?'

'I'm a diplomat,' I replied.  She tensed a little at this.  One of the things you learned early when the Corps posted you to Rhigo was that the local language did not distinguish between diplomats and spies.  'Please don't be alarmed.  I'm just a man on holiday, nothing more.'

'Just as well,' she said, carefully clipping tiny jewelled earrings onto her lobes.  'There's not much to see here that you haven't already seen.'

'I had this idea that I could walk west from here until I got to Camir, but it's pretty clear that if I try, the local weather is going to broil me and then drown me.'

She laughed.  'That, like everything else you've seen, is something you'll have to get used to.'

'Have you worked here long?'

It was a ridiculous question, given her tanned skin and absolute dominion.  Nevertheless, she bore it with good grace.  'Only my entire life.  Fifty years and more in the Sholl.  It's all I've ever known.'

'You've never wanted to travel yourself?'

'There was a time when I thought about it.  One of the men that worked here with me wanted me to give up my role and travel round the world with him.  I told him that he'd have to marry me before I did that.  He said to me, "I don't think I'd be a good husband.  I'm a great lover, a good friend, but I don't think I'll make a good husband."  And I laughed, because it was impossible not to, and I replied, "My sweet, you are a very good friend, but you are not such a great lover."  He agreed to marry me the next day.'

'And yet, you still didn't go travelling?'

She rubbed a pink powder onto her lips with a forefinger.  'He was every bit as bad a husband as he said he would be.  I should have listened to him, but if I listened to everything men said...'  She tailed off.

'Careful,' I said with a grin.  'I am a man, you know.'

'As if the beard didn't give it away.  No, I haven't travelled.  And in recognition of my hard work, I now own this little plot of land in the centre of the world.  Everything for a hundred miles around is my garden.'

There was a knock at the door and she flashed me an ugly, devilish grin.  'Best of all, forewomen privileges mean that I get my pick of the younger men, whenever and however I want.'  It immediately became clear why she had been preparing herself.

'Get the door, please.'  I did so, to be greeted by a stocky young man in his late teens with a bashful expression on his face.  He seemed surprised to see me, but averted his eyes respectfully.  Petra said, 'Come in, Ioan.'

The young man followed orders.  She took him by the hand and led him over towards the bed.  I hadn't been sure how Ioan might feel about being hand-picked for this purpose, but he seemed to be quite excited - even honoured - by the prospect.  Certainly he had no qualms about peeling off his clothes in double quick time and sliding beneath the sheets.

Petra looked over her shoulder at me.  'I know what you're thinking.  But I make it very much worth their while.  Stay if you like.  Watch - or join in.  I haven't been with an Ondian before.'

Some part of me was revolted by the thought, but another quite separate part of me was massively intrigued.  I retrieved my bag, offered my goodbyes and made my way outside before that part of me could gain some purchase.  When I stepped through the door, I found myself face-to-face with a group of young Rhigan farmers.  At first they seemed astonished, and then as one they grinned and each one patted me as I passed through the group.

As I made my escape back in the direction of the railway station, one called in Ondian, 'Best trip ever, right?'


Tuesday, 29 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt. 8

The sun was still climbing in the sky as I and my freshly-laundered daysuit stepped onto the northbound Y-train for Rhigo’s northern climes.  My cloth bag was a little heavier by this point, as I had added to it yesterday a copy of Bernird Doregun’s childhood classics.  It had been nice to spend the previous evening under soft candlelight, reacquainting myself with long-forgotten heroes and villains.

I had no particular destination in mind this day, and the northern tip of the country had little to offer to casual sightseers unless they had particular interest in the historical sea-fortresses that guarded the forelegs of the Barking Dog, or in the Carrier Birds that lived on the rock beaches there.  For my part, neither held any particular fascination, but I was not feeling any pressure to commit myself and it would not have come as a surprise to me if I had spent the evening alone on a stony shoreline, eating my dinner in the company of Carriers.

Exposed to the sea to the north, south and east, invasion from the waves has been a frequent feature of Rhigan history.  Several centuries ago, my own kinsfolk sailed across the narrow expanse between us and seized control of the southern half of the country within days.  Before that, northern pirates, buccaneers sailing on the behalf of states whose names are now long lost to us, raided the exposed towns year after year, burning crops and buildings, and carrying off the residents as slaves.  It was these incursions that prompted the building of the sea fortresses, early examples of Rhigo’s engineering prowess.  History suggests that they were paid for directly from the pockets of local military officers, who had no other means of responding to the lightning raids of the northmen.

Of course, these days it was land-invasion that presented the greatest concern to military minds across the continent.  With Ondia adopting an isolationist stance in response to its fading military influence, it was the Rzermis raiders to the far north who had started to make incursions southwards.  Camir, their enemy for the better part of two millennia, had responded to repeated raids by strengthening troop and ship numbers on its own borders, but the northern tribes, normally notable for their infighting, had recently been showing signs of uniting.  Each month their armies swelled with greater numbers, greater purpose, and by now even the Ministry had concerns about their ultimate intentions.
Still, one cannot allow the shadow of war to dictate one’s actions.  It is precisely when the stakes are highest that cool heads are most in demand.  At some point I would have to head west, towards the escalating conflict.  First though, I would cross the Sholl of Grains.

What can I say about this place that more able scholars have not already said?  Imagine a land longer than anything a man could walk, in one day or ten.  Then imagine you are standing in the middle of that land, and all you can see in every direction are the bowing heads of the various sorgha grasses that feed the continent of Nebra.  Feel their softness in your hands as you pass by.  For a sholl, think of a waist-high ochre sea, one that you could wade through in any direction until the strength in your legs failed you and you dipped beneath the surface into a world of endless green stalks.  Above you, as you lay there, clouds rushed across the yellow sky with all the speed and adroitness of windborne caravels.

The Y-train was absent of tourists, but packed to the brim with buff Rhigan labourers.  They were dressed for conditions in lightweight, light-coloured clothes.  Loose trousers were secured at the waist with sashes, and many went bare-chested altogether.  Each of them seemed to know all of the others, and their erstwhile greetings were repeated time and time again, swelling up the body of the engine like a wave.  In their hundreds, they swarmed the carriages, taking up the seats, the tables, one another’s laps.  Outside, they climbed upon the roofs and hung from the sides.  Many of those who arrived early could have got inside but chose to stay outside anyhow, proud of their acrobatic prowess.  In this ubermasculine environment, I became the focus of much attention and merriment.  As per usual, I did my best to bear this with good grace, but as we accelerated into the countryside, the temperature in the carriage rose dramatically and quickly became wearing on everyone.
It was some hours later when the train pulled into one of the tiny nameless supply depot stations that acted as storage for villages within the Sholl.  I was hungry, cranky and desperate to get out of the baking carriage, which by now smelled hellishly fruity and oppressive.
I was whistled as I hauled my bag through the crowd and fought my way out the door.  At no point had their attentions moved beyond simple ribbing for my beard or the smartness of my daysuit, but the heat had left me ill-tempered and I was conscious of dozens of pairs of curious dark eyes following me as I stepped out onto the platform.  Still more traced my steps through to the sand-coloured tent that doubled as a mess canteen for labourers passing through the area.  Such was my antagonistic mood that none of the food there appealed to me, and I was forced to eat a stew that would normally have been quite palatable but which on this day conspired to burn my mouth while simultaneously tasting of nothing.  I rejected all attempts at conversation with an escalating succession of glares, and sulked to myself in the discouraging atmosphere.
When my dish had been taken away, I picked up my bag and considered my options.  There was nothing except sorgha fields for fifty miles in every direction, and there seemed little point in wandering when all it would lead to was sunstroke.  I had heard much of the sweeping beauty of the vistas in the Sholls, but those I had spoken to had been people like myself, passing through on the way to somewhere else.  Now that I was here, amongst the sweat and the stifling, endless nature of the toil, there was far less glamour to it than I had imagined.  It was no wonder that an artist and storyteller like Doregun had made whatever sacrifices were necessary in order to leave this place.
When this thought had come and gone, I moved onto a different and still more sobering one.  How many more artists, storytellers, potential legends, lived their lives in the middle of this vast expanse and were so tired from their labours in the field that they never so much as picked up a pen?  In my mind, I could feel the righteous anger of whole mistreated generations, and they queued within my fevered mind, eager to denounce their wasted existences.
I was alerted to a change in the mood of those outside, many of whom suddenly stopped in their labours and began to run across the fields in the direction of the tent.  Still others called to one another, and there was evidently some curiosity.  All I was able to see through the rapidly-growing crowd was flashes of light on the horizon, as though projected by flames.  Then, in the wake of the light came a distant hissing noise, which gradually grew in both volume and intensity.
I could feel eyes upon me, and I turned to see one of the Rhigan forewomen who would have sole responsibility for a single farming detail.  Her loose cotton blouse was white and simply tailored, her body beneath it hard and heavyset.  A thick skirt prevented scratches from the grasses as one walked amongst them with a scythe, and a pair of leather moccasins completed the ensemble.  Maybe fifty years old, she had a light red bandanna knotted through her hair and burnished features that swelled outwards in their prominence, giving her the appearance of a large olive-skinned bullfrog. 
She met my eye with a measured stare, and said in Ondian, ‘Storm.’  Five seconds later, the hissing outside the tent intensified to a roar, and the rain fell upon the Sholl in torrents.

Go to Chapter 9 > > >

Saturday, 12 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt.7

I'm pleased to say that sobriety arrived before breakfast, but then breakfast came later in the day than usual, merging seamlessly into lunch in a most agreeable manner.  Both Taly and her late father, safely ensconced in his glass prism, attended, and they retained their genial good humour from the day before.

'Tell the world,' Taly said when I approached the table.  'Even when nursing a hangover, it's possible to be quite the dapper gentleman.'

She was being kind.  This was my third day in this particular day-suit, and while it was impeccably tailored, I was nonetheless keen to take it to be cleaned.  First though, I wanted an opportunity to sit and reflect.  I had returned to my room yesterday to a message from the Ministry informing me of Hernan's passing.  While I had of course been aware of this for several hours, it was still enough to cause me to sink into melancholia.  I had lain awake in bed while the room spun around me, thinking of the language projects we had worked on together.  True polymaths were rare in Ondia, and finding one who shared my passion for literary nuance had been a rare thing.

Secondary to that concern but still prominent had been the knowledge that the Ministry was clearly watching my movements.  This was of no particular surprise, and could be viewed in some ways as a compliment; I was clearly important enough in their eyes to be worth watching.  What I found to be discomfiting was the thought that anybody I met - the casual conversationalist in the bar, the fruit-seller in the market, the peasant woman with the empty eyes - any or all of them might be a person reporting on me.  In the same way that I was trading Ondian bonds for local currency as I travelled, so eyes and ears were the Ministry's currency on the ground.  It was inevitable that eyes would end up watching ears, and that ears would be listening to eyes.

And yet, one can only spend so much time reflecting on nostalgia or mindful of benevolent surveillance.  I was on holiday, keen only to stretch my legs, broaden my horizons and have a tasty lunch.  What better companion for that task than Taly, who charmed the waiter with her amazing smile and arranged us fresh fish fillets?

'What are your plans?' I asked when we had eaten.

'I'm hoping I can charter a boat that will take me to the northern coast.'

'It's a dubious strategy.  When the gunboats see you, they'll turn you back.  Just go south and take the train.'

She sighed.  'If I do that, I'll have to travel through Kassium to get home.  I have lots of memories of spending time with him there.  I'm not ready to deal with that just yet.'

It was a sentiment I could appreciate.  Here I was on the road, entirely free to travel as I wished, but not yet ready to commit to a route, to decide how to get where I was going.  Instead, I became the eternal wanderer, my simple cloth bag my home away from home.

I walked Taly to the docks and wished her farewell.  She gave me an enthusiastic hug.  When she had disappeared into one of the dockside taverns in search of her captain, I felt a wholly unaccountable sense of loss.  It took several deep breaths of the sea air before I felt fortified enough to head wearily back towards the centre of town.

I hadn't been walking long when I came across a small square, tucked back from the road, that I hadn't seen coming the other way.  In no particular hurry, I wandered over.  The paving was dark and even, very different to the roughly-hewn yellow sandstone so prevalent elsewhere.  Neatly-trimmed bushes lined the edges, and a number of dark wooden benches were arranged in a circle around a bronze statue.  The benches were occupied by children, some sitting quietly with parents, others seemingly devoid of adult company and instead grouping with their peers.  All of them were listening intently to the tall thin man who was standing in front of the statue, reading a story from a book.

The story was about a bird who stole a magic plum from the Gods, and was seeking to flee their wrath.  Such was the ingenuity of the text, evocative and yet deceptively simple, that both children and adults were rapt.  Even I became one with the tale, and felt a secret satisfaction when the bird grew magnificent red-gold plumage, and fled to safety disguised as a candle flame.  I sat down as others around reluctantly got up and left, and in a few minutes, I and the reader were the only two left in the square.  He smiled at me as he packed books away in his bag.

'That was quite excellent,' I said.  'Is it your work?'

'I wish.  Have you heard of Doregun?'

I had heard of Bernird Doregun, and so had every other boy who had spent part of their childhood outside of Ondia.  He had come to Vairin a hundred years ago, the youngest son of a farming family somewhere up in the nameless villages that made up the Sholl of Grains, and he had travelled to the coast in hopes of escaping that life and earning passage as a sailor.  However, he quickly realised that sea travel left him hopelessly seasick, meaning that a life on the waves was not for him.  Crestfallen and faced with a humiliating return to his homeland, Doregun instead tried to make his way as a musician.  In that regard too he was terribly unlucky, and at the point that he first began to attract attention, his threadbugle was stolen. 

With no money to replace his instrument, he was forced to fall back upon the spoken word as a means of entertainment.  Here, finally, he struck gold.  He told bawdy tales of maidens and knights in the taverns in the evenings which were always well-received, but it was writing for children that was his calling.  His stories combined thaumaturgy, miraculous events and a string of heroes who resisted the will of the divine.  In time, he became an international sensation and readings of his stories packed out market squares across the land. 

Given that the Gods were frequently characters in his stories, Doregun's work had never achieved the acclaim in Ondia that it received elsewhere, but the fact that it had not been banned outright was a reflection of its power and influence.  Some things transcended rules.

The man tapped the statue's leg, which echoed dully.  'Doregun is Vairin's favourite adopted son,' the man said.

The man in the statue was short and stood with a stoop.  He wore a baggy cap and other clothes that seemed to be two sizes too big for him.  Over one shoulder, he carried a bag that stretched down to his knees, giving him the appearance of a child carrying a man's possessions.

'I know what you're thinking,' the man said, finishing his packing and lifting his own bag up.  'But not all things are as they seem.'

'Surely,' I replied.  In my head, I was thinking: this one is definitely Ministry.

Go to Chapter 8 > > >

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt.6

Upon arrival in Vairin, I realised quickly that the send-off Taly had planned for her father was not going to be a slow or sombre affair.  Furthermore, by the time she finished her third shot of danxo before we had spent half an hour in the small dockside bar, I realised that if I tried to match her tin for tin, she was going to drink me under the table.

At this point, I should perhaps apologise, dear reader, for assuming that you are Ondian, or otherwise familiar with our death customs.  Unlike the countries on the mainland (and as every true-hearted Ondian patriot would remind you, the narrow strip of land that chains us to the continent does not make us part of the mainland, any more than falling off a cliff means that you can fly), we have no links to gods or afterlife.  None whatsoever.  We are not secular, but rather actively atheist.  It surely seems obvious that your primary goal in life should be success and self-improvement within your allotted timescale.  In accordance with those nihilist principles, the Ministry rejects all applications to build places of worship.  You are here, it says, you are now.  Every day you get closer to the abyss, so do your best before you go.

Also, given that we are the most densely populated country in all of Nebra, we cannot simply allot land for burial purposes.  Not for us, the brutish Rzermis funeral pyre, or the simple Rhigan burial somewhere beneath the countless miles of dust.  No, we chose a process that was sophisticated, elegant, and in keeping with our place as world-leading innovators.

Okay, perhaps it's the danxo.  Perhaps.

So anyway, actually, we stole it.  But don't tell the people back home.

Once, a long, long time ago, before Ondia ruled half of Nebra, before the nation of Camir rose from the flaming ruins of Yzyrobia, before Gresia and Merin split into separate fiefdoms, the southern end of the Kolkas was part of a wider territory called Selii.  The mountains in those days contained a number of active volcanoes, and on one particularly portentous day, a superheated cloud of ash descended onto a village at the base of the mountains, instantly smothering all the residents.

The remains of those individuals was subjected to intense vibration under certain thaumic conditions that flushed out any remaining liquids and caused them to break down into powder.  The residents of the area knew of glass already, from the frequent lightning strikes on the sandy beaches.  All that remained was to move the dust to containers sculpted from the lightning glass.  They were placed on display and honoured.

That might have been the end of it, except that the first Ondian emperor chose a place in lightning glass in the same manner after his death.  The Empire collapsed, but the ideas at the heart of it fled back to our tiny southwestern peninsula.  Our own active volcano was used for centuries, and glass procured from the continent at great expense.  Now we can reproduce many of the conditions scientifically, with freeze-drying via chemically-induced cold being a popular choice instead. 

I stared at the pale blue cube as it sat forlornly on the table.  One day, I too would be placed inside one, and my remains transported back to my homeland, where I would be bricked into a wall, a ceiling or a floor in some important civic building; both a stepping stone and a curio for a future generation.  Not for the first time, I wondered who would carry me home when my time came.

'Are you going to stare at him all night?' Taly asked.

'No,' I said, immediately proving myself a liar by being unable to look away.  She rolled those beautiful violet eyes in an easy manner and placed my cloth bag between it and me.


'It seems strange to be here,' I said, looking at her flushed features, 'celebrating someone I met on the other side of the bay who did all his best work on the other side of the continent.'

Taly crossed her feet over the table.  Away, behind her, a group of sailors were singing songs at the bar.  'I get the feeling that he wouldn't have cared much to be remembered as a glass brick in a wall back home.  He was a problem solver, a brilliant mind.  Plus, he was my father.'

'I expect he shared much wisdom with you.'

'Honestly, I think his opinion was that people should find their own way and make their own mistakes getting there.  It amused him no end when I followed him into cultural anthropology.'

'Really, if we're to celebrate him in style, we should send out for cruorweed tobacco,' I said.

She regarded me carefully.  'I didn't have you pegged as a smoker.'

'I'm not really, but it would be fitting.  Food is here.'  The last comment was accompanied with a nod past her shoulder, where the waiter was carrying a steaming plate of the ubiquitous spear peppers.  He laid it before us, placed two more glasses of danxo next to it, bowed and left.

A shanty kicked off at the bar, and one or two in beards and bandannas tried to dance.  It wasn't the most elegant show.  Taly seemed less amused by their antics than I.

'Well,' she said, 'will you go first, or will I?'

'Ladies first,' I said, settling back.  The chairs here were well upholstered, fat and luxurious.  I could certainly think of less agreeable ways to kill a hot afternoon.

We had already discussed the circumstances of her father's passing.  Perhaps predictably, Hernan had been found at his breakfast table immediately after repast, newspaper folded across his lap, sunbeam illuminating his restful face.  'The earliest memories I have of my father were of him reading the newspaper at the table.'

'Every morning, regular as clockwork,' I said.  Hernan had been a great believer in breakfast.  You could have set your watch by his morning routine.

'So, what's your story, Patrick?'  The girl relaxed, dangled a pepper between her fingers, allowing it to cool.

'My story?'

'Yes.  You've talked lots about my father, but said hardly anything about what you're doing here in Nebra.  It seems inevitable that you're here on Ministry business, but you're allowing me to distract you with alcohol and idle chitchat.  That's not the behaviour of a man keen to get where he's going.'

'Oh, I am keen,' I said.  'Just not in a hurry.'

'Where are you going?'

'To visit a friend who's been assigned to a diplomatic post in Camir.  I am to meet the Rum, talk to him about matters of state.'

'So should I feel honoured,' she said, stretching in her seat, 'that a man who associates with kings in his professional capacity chooses to spend time with me in a personal one?'

I reached for a pepper myself and blew on it to cool it.  It dripped translucent oil into the bowl.

I said, 'I don't believe you feel that way for a minute.  Kings are just men, after all.  Fellows like the sailors at the bar.  Just better dressed.'

She bit into her pepper and giggled as green juice dribbled down her chin.  'Hopefully he'll be a better singer than those sailors at the bar.'

'Oh, I don't know.  They aren't so bad.'

Her eyes sparkled.  'Why don't you sing with them?  I bet you have a great voice.'

'I don't sing.'

'You could!'  She turned, waved to the sailors and called out in Rhigan, 'Hey, gentlemen!  This man here wants to sing with you!  Play him a tune!'

The sailors laughed and one of them pulled out a tin whistle.  He picked out a cheery tune and they broke into an eye-watering harmony, gesturing to me to sing along.  Instead, I bit into the pepper, intending to claim that my mouth was full.  This was a mistake.

The one pepper in a batch was hot, they said, but in truth even the hot ones could be manageable and a man could go many batches without even encountering one.  This time, I had picked one hot enough to sear my soul.  It slipped down my throat before I could stop it, causing me to cough and then to inhale deeply, trying to get cool air into my mouth.

'He's found a hot one!'  'Ondians shouldn't be trusted with real food, see what it does to them!'  'The danxo, quickly!'

After a delay I can only put down to heat-induced panic, I found the danxo and downed it in one.  It lessened, but not ended, the pain.  Quickly, Taly passed me her glass too and I duly drank that one as well.  All the time, she was doubled over with laughter, and when the inferno within me was quelled, I started to laugh too.

More peppers followed, and then hot zur soup with croutons, and much, much more danxo.  Needless to say, I did get involved in the sailing ditties that followed, and Taly duly congratulated me on my acapella.  'See?  I told you you would be excellent!'

So it was that with hazy, cloudy heads, we stumbled onto makeshift seats on the wharfside, and talked for hours more.  The good people of Vairin laughed and danced and sang around us as the evening progressed.  I think I had an innocent arm around Taly's shoulders when the lanterns in the bars were lowered and the night sky was suddenly pinpricked with white and blue lights.  Each colourful explosion was punctuated with a bang that sounded like the firing of a distant cannon, and behind us, the crowd murmured appreciatively.  Taly hugged her father as he rested in his ignoble cloth casing, and we smiled together in acknowledgement that we had given him a very appropriate send-off after all.

Go to Chapter 7 > > >

Monday, 29 February 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt 5.

By mid-morning, the residents of Pitchek had roused themselves from their collective hangover and they all seemed to be milling aimlessly around the town while I waited at the flagpole for a carriage to take me east.  With the holiday weekend in full swing, the soldiers from yesterday's parade were already out in force, drinking openly in the square, and those same bordellos I'd been warned off before had their doors open and bead curtains pulled discreetly across the entrances.  The beads clicked merrily with the warm breeze.

Yesterday, in the dusk, I'd evidently missed the sapphire-and-alabaster bunting that had been strung across the streets and between the houses.  Some had inevitably fallen casualty to excessive frivolity and the roped triangles of cloth tied themselves into despairing knots that drooped in the dust.  Those that remained added much-needed threads of colour to the sandy visage of the town.

Unlike the peasant carts I'd already seen, the passenger carriages were far grander affairs.  Rose-coloured Vaariewood panels stretched across wide iron cages the same shape as the flaxseed pumpkins that they brought across the western border and crushed here for lamp oil.  The vertical boiler at the centre fed two twin-cylinder engines, each of which powered a pair of wheels via chain and sprocket mechanisms.  The front wheels turned about a centre that lay on the extended line of the back axle, allowing for a wide, safe turning circle and a top speed reputed to be in excess of twenty miles an hour.  Lower frictional resistance meant that the Ondian steam trains could travel far more quickly; however, they were of course restricted to their tracks.  Personal vehicles were always regarded suspiciously in Ondia, where any deviation from collective commitment to societal development was seen as vulgar and pretentious.

There was an evident degree of confusion in the square around which carriage was to go where; while my own countrymen would have had a rigid timetable and been tutting as they checked the seconds off on their pocket watches, here there was a delicious sense of anarchy.  The drivers called destinations out to one another, and there followed joyous negotiations and loud appeals to the crowd for customers.

I had been lingering around the fringes of the crowd for some time, when one saw me and pointed.  'You!  Ondian!  You go home?  Hamrh, or further south?'

'No,' I said.  'I'm looking to go north.  I want to soak up some sun.'

There were a few laughs and a sense of general agreement.  Out here on the plains, they probably saw hot sun most of the summer long, but there was precious little time to sit and enjoy it.  Pitchek was a worker's town.

I'd expected the coachman to move onto someone else, but he stayed with an eye on me, clearly having me pegged as someone here with a long journey in mind.  'Vairin, then,' he said.

Vairin fitted the bill; it was on the coast, but it was a proper resort town rather than one of the working ports further south.  If I chose, from Vairin I could catch a ferry around the tip of the continent, travelling around the spurs of land that formed the back legs of the Nebran Barking Dog (looking south to north, Ondia was the tail.)  If I left now, I would be there early afternoon and would have the chance to wander.  I could soak up some of the sea air and salty atmosphere that I was missing in this desolate chalky outpost.

The coachman beckoned me on, lifting my bag over the heads of the crowd members who turned in curiosity at the sight of my beard and dark creased suit.  The inside of the coach was pleasantly cool, though it would soon became apparent that the boiler in the centre of the carriage hissed incessantly throughout the journey, meaning one had to shout to make oneself heard.

I was the first passenger to board for Vairin, and I was joined in due course by two elderly tourists from somewhere to the south-west who had managed to get themselves lost looking for the coast, a pair of dark-eyed soldiers who looked like they wished they were anywhere else, and last but definitely not least, a beautiful young Ondian woman with shapely legs inside leather trousers and a fur-lined cloak clasped at the neck over a plain, Merin-cotton blouse.  She caught my eye as I caught hers and coolly held my gaze; so as she would have immediately recognised my nationality from my beard, so I could tell hers from her violet eyes and dreadlocks.

'Good morning,' I said, smiling.

She nodded back to me and returned the smile.  I looked around for her baggage and at first saw nothing.  Only at second glance did I see a vacuum-sealed flatpack bag pressed into the space behind her.  As if reading my mind, she reached back and produced a smooth glass box, the perfect size to hold between two small hands.  It was perfectly see-through, and I noticed that the inside of the box was moulded into a shape not unlike that of a spiralling, curved bottle.  At the very bottom of the mould lay a small pile of dust, no more than an inch deep.

It was an Ondian funeral box.  'Oh.  I'm very sorry for your loss,' I said automatically.

'Thank you,' she said, her lips thin and sallow.  Beyond that point, I expected her to say no more to me, and I wouldn't have presumed to have forced further conversation upon her, particularly at a time of grief.  But quite unexpectedly, it was she who seemed to have the desire to break the silence.

'Sir,' she said, and it was the kind of sir that implied at best jokey, token respect, 'you'll forgive me, but I'm sure I've seen your face before somewhere.'

I shook my head.  'That seems unlikely.  I'm no-one particularly special.  Just a simple traveller, making my way to the coast.'

'Oh, of you say.  I'm sure I must be mistaken.'  She scratched a spot on her cheek with a single fingertip, and once again, I expected conversation to end there, but she persisted.  'Still, your face really does look familiar.  It's the shape of your nose.  Wide.  Handsome.'

Immediately, she looked as though she regretted the last word and bowed her head.  I was more than a little nonplussed, not least because she was so stunning in her own right.  The soldiers glanced at me and then sulked quietly to one another, perhaps jealous that she hadn't made conversation with them instead.

More to end the lengthening sense of awkwardness than because I wished to know, I pointed to the box that she clung to tightly.  'Is it a friend, or relative?'

'My father,' she said, by way of explanation.

'His box looks quite amazing,' I said.  'The wave in the glass shows impeccable craftsmanship.  He must have been a man of some importance.'

'Hernan Sera-Stahl,' she said.  'He was a linguistic anthropologist, a man of some repute.  Perhaps you've heard of him?'

Hearing the name was a tremendous shock to me.  Not only had I heard of Sera-Stahl, I had worked with him on a number of projects, the latest of which had been a study of dying languages in central and western Nebra. He was - had been - a quiet, cultured man, fond of sports, the scented inhalant known as cerba, and cruorweed tobacco, which he had smoked relentlessly by the pipeful.

'I'm...greatly surprised.  In fact, quite shocked.  I'm sorry.  I knew your father well.  We worked together at the ministry some years ago.'  The girl looked momentarily startled, and raised a hand to me.  I had the realisation at the exact same moment.  'Of course, that would make you Taly...Taly Sera-Stahl.  We only met briefly.  At the time, you were still at the academy in Hechda.'

'I've been finished there for eighteen months now.'

'Yes, and your father had written to me to tell me that you qualified with distinction.  One of the top five in your field in the country, he said.'

She was embarrassed now, but smiled again despite herself.  'Cultural history isn't a popular subject back in Ondia.  A lot of people tend to be fairly...introspective in their inclination.'  I could tell she'd chosen her words carefully so as not to risk even the smallest chance of offending me.  For what it was worth, I couldn't have agreed with her more.  Many Ondians had a strong cultural appreciation for their military history without actually being able to tell you anything about it.  In these fearful, feverish times, this was a useful political crutch for the ministry.

'Like father, like daughter.  He was incredibly proud of you.'  The words flowed automatically and they were no less true for that, though I was still startled that my old colleague had died so recently and no-one else had thought fit to tell me.

Taly looked at me for a moment, opened her mouth as if to respond and then shut it again without doing so.  She seemed to think deeply on a matter for a second or two, as though unsure if she was asking an appropriate question, before taking the chance and doing it anyway.

'You'll forgive me - this is terribly presumptuous - but my father has had no ceremony yet to mark his passing, and as an old colleague of his, would you perhaps be interested in celebrating his life here in Rhigo?  Of course, there'll be a formal ceremony when I return him to Kassium, but he identified strongly with the continental way of life, and I can't help thinking that a Rhigan celebration might be more appropriate for him.'

She was absolutely right.  While he might have seemed typically Ondian in the stuffy style of his dress and the relentlessly formal manner of his professional bearing, the Herman Sera-Stahl that I remembered was a tenacious man, with a keen, jocular wit.  Having already gone through the process of being freeze-dried, crushed and placed in the traditional glass container, I saw no joy in a final ceremony in the cold, gray halls of his alma mater.

'I would be delighted,' I said.  At that moment, the carriage hissed like a sea-kettle and sprang into life.

Go to Chapter 6 > > >

Sunday, 28 February 2016

General Update - Feb '16

So it struck me that with all the fun of actually writing lately, it's been a little while since I did an update for everyone.  So here goes with that.

Shadows at the Door

The 'Shadows at the Door' horror anthology gets closer to completion every day, and soon the Kickstarter will be coming into play for all of those great extras, like wonderful cover art, fantastic (ahem) editing and audiobooks!  From what I've seen so far, the anthology is going to be chock-full of truly superb stories, and all of the contributors have surpassed themselves.  To say I'm excited would be a massive understatement - and I can only hope that readers enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed being a part of it.

What Comes From The Earth

My first novel, set in contemporary South Africa, is finished, and with beta readers as I write.  The feedback I've had so far has been overwhelmingly positive, and while there may be a few bits to tidy up, I'm hopeful that it can be released in a form very close to its current one.  On something of a whim, I submitted it to a publisher who was looking for diverse characters - though I'm unsure if perhaps they wanted minority authors too - either way, perhaps we'll see.  If there's no interest, I'll revert to my original plan of self-publishing regardless.  I already have the cover, so there shouldn't be too much additional work to do.

This Burning Man

This serial is my first real foray into writing sci-fi, and it's incredibly good fun.  Chapter 5 went up this weekend, which is excellent, and I've managed to get a few episodes ahead of myself to free up the time and allow me to play with the plot a little in later stages.  The aim is to produce a novella-length serial, lasting exactly one year, with chapters spaced out evenly, a fortnight apart.  The whole thing will eventually be available for free, though I'm hoping that I can release the ending on Kindle for a couple of pounds a little bit in advance of its appearance on the blog, so fans can get it in advance and I can make a little bit of money from it.

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands

This is another serial piece which has been appearing on this very blog (Chapter 4 is here) and is inspired by my love for travel writing, particularly the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I came up with the idea to write a journey much like the one Fermor describes in his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1920s, but to set it in a imagined world of steam, conflict and thaumaturgy.  Because it is a travelogue, there is no underlying plot as such, but a whole lot of fascinating details about the world, its history and culture, the flora/fauna and so on will emerge as you read through.  Once again, when this is finished, I will probably make it available for a couple of pounds on Kindle.

This project, more even than any of the others, is something of a labour of love for me, so I would be very keen to hear what people think of it, and would like to see me do with it.

Escalator Fiction

Last but not least, I've applied for a spot in the 2016 Escalator Fiction competition, a chance for writers from the East of England to receive a year's mentoring, workshops and support from established writers and publishers.  I have a plan for second novel that I'd like to start really soon, though it's moving (both geographically and emotively) a long way from my first one, so I'm going to need to do a lot of research before I can begin.  That said, I'm hopeful that it will be both fun, and able to strike a lot of emotional notes at the same time.  I'll keep you updated when I hear more.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt 4.

The hazy pink sun was already sinking below the horizon on the following day by the time I reached the town of Pitchek.  I was now comfortably in the Rhigan heartlands, a bronze-hued grain hub that fed millions across Nebra.  For hundreds of years, this had been a garrison town, high on a hill above miles of farmland, and when I arrived today, Rhigan troops were parading through the marketplace.  The strident sound of threadbugles could be heard from some distance away.

Such had been Ondian might over the centuries that the Rhigan military had never posed a serious existential threat.  However, the ceaseless toil in the chaff fields meant that the peasantry here tended to breed for sturdiness, and the commander of the unit on show in the sand-cobbled square accentuated his already stern appearance with a moustache that was possibly more bushy than any other I had ever seen.  From a certain angle, one could believe that a fat vole from the lowlands had attached itself to his face and was clinging there now, waiting for him to retire for dinner where it could steal scraps from his plate.

I had never seriously considered a military career myself, though I had completed the two years of military service that were still compulsory in Ondia.  I had spent the vast majority of that in a Gresian shoreline barracks in the light south-west, where even the winters were warm and the only form of excitement we had was stealing punts at the local boathouse and trying to pitch enough water into those steered by our colleagues to sink them.  Even though my time in infantry had been brief and largely dishonourable, there was still something about a well-appointed parade that impressed me.  I settled in under a low arch and rested there as I watched.

As you might expect, given the largely khaki palette of their environment, Rhigan soldiers' fatigues tended towards tan-coloured, though given the dusty conditions, there was a surprising shine to the rows of heavy boots that clumped across the square.  They were orderly and well-disciplined, a quality often ascribed to the Rhigan disdain for showiness and individual flair.  The aforementioned commander wore a quilted jacket with tiny epaulettes that one might charitably have called olive-green, though honestly it could have just been that the dust thrown up by hours of parading to and fro obscured one's vision somewhat.  The length of the display did nothing to dent the vigour of the commander or the resolve of his unit.  The crowd was sizable given the population of the town, and entirely appreciative of their conscripts' efforts.

When the display was finished and the military men had returned in the direction of their billets, the residents of Pitchek filled the space themselves and got on with their day.  I was, of course, too late for the market, but I was hopeful of seeing it tomorrow and sampling some of the hearty Rhigan fare.  In addition to the food, I was keen to see what else they would have to offer.  Clothes here would be less than glamorous, but they would easily be able to withstand the rigours of the road.  Furthermore, I was keen on sampling both the local tobacco and alcohol, both of which being yardsticks by which I measured a town and its populace. 

Treading the margins of the gravelly plaza, I came immediately to the attentions of some the market's wizened patriarchs, who had clearly been enjoying the hospitality of the taverna since early in the day.  They hooted at me from beneath stark whitened pates and rugose caps, gesturing to me and throwing barbless insults in an attempt to goad me into joining their party.

'Hey, Ropebeard!  Will you drink a tin, Ropebeard?  We could find you a wife here.  Or maybe we should tie you by your chin to the flagpole!'

Little did they know that I am nerveless in the face of provocation, and I gave them only my best smile and a brief wave to let them know that I was party to their scheming.

Nonetheless, refreshment was required, and it was duly procured.  Ducking inside another of the dark, low-ceilinged tavernas that seemed to make up this entire side of the square, I instructed the barman to bring me his recommendations from the menu.  I was duly served salt-tack biscuits (more of a luxury than the name suggests) and deep-fried spear peppers, which were mostly tame but occasionally recipients of a fiery heat that could shock the unwary.  They have a spirit here, a thick white concoction called danxo which is said to be one of the reasons Rhigans enjoy long life.  I ordered one and sipped at it, and noted a vague, uninspiring taste of mint.  Thankfully, the cooling edge completely disarmed any hidden savagery in the peppers.

Upon inquiring with the barkeep, I was disquieted to find that there would be no market tomorrow, as the whole weekend was a national holiday.  Furthermore, as a result of this, many boarding houses would already be filled by travellers.  I was unlikely to find any accommodation now, he said, unless I was willing to rub shoulders with the soldiers in the redlit bordellos.  The face he pulled that accompanied these words was not the greatest advert for their services.

I am not averse to roughing it when necessary; indeed, I have met many fun and colourful people in supposedly reduced circumstances, only to be reminded that circumstances tend to be what you make of them.  There was a further problem though, one that I saw no reason to share with the imperious barman, but which was an issue for me regardless.

It was this.  Barely had I left the chilly coast some three days ago, but I was already missing the sea air.  Here, mid-country, the weather was tepidly warm, despite this not being the season for such temperatures.  So much space was there across central Rhigo and so few landmarks of note that even the weather saw little need to hang around here, leaving in its stead a kind of languorous lull.  Perhaps, after all, a detour was in order.

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Thursday, 18 February 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt 3.

I had left the misty docklands and the sandstone steps of Hamrh behind some hours before, and the land turned into a valley only a short way outside the city.  The vegetation was sparse and brown, with gorse hinterlands stretching away into a vague, undulating horizon.  Several carts passed me by on their way to the fields, laden down with the curious thistle crop of the area, which looks fierce to the touch but releases a sweet nectar when pressed between heavy surfaces.  I found out later that it is usually added to teas, or baked in trays to produce a kind of sweet bread.

The path beneath my feet was broken and hosted many stones large enough to turn an ankle.  This was not a problem for the carts, which were of typically sturdy construction and pulled by yoka, a type of ox with winding curved horns that folded in upon themselves to produce wide protrusions above their ears.  To my eye, these agglomerations looked like massive clenched fists.  If they went ungelded, the yoka males would spend all summer butting heads cheerfully together over females.  These ones were as docile as you can imagine, and their passive grunting as they passed by could be taken for a friendly greeting - or at least, a more friendly greeting than I was going to get from the farmers atop the carts themselves.

Northwest was the goal, in virtually a straight line for some two hundred miles.  Nebra is split in two at its heart by the fearsome Kolkas mountain range.  It is said that many of the peaks touch the very skies themselves, and while I cannot confirm that with certainty, I had trekked up several of the tallest in my younger days and they present a test of skill and endurance to sate any man.  In the heart of a Kassium winter, when the temperature drops precipitously and the snow begins to fall, I am immediately transported back to those glorious days and the heady sense of my own indomitability.

While I am still a young man in so many respects (No wife! No children! Limitless exhilarating potential for society scandal!) my days of mountain climbing are, I fear, behind me.  If I headed northwest as planned, I would reach a pass between the haphazard Vaarine lakes and Camir's easternmost border, where as if burned by the people of that fine nation's pride, the mountains die away in just a few short miles.

There are several optional detours I can take from the relentless northwestern trek.  Sheleb is a region directly to the west which is largely unremarkable except for their spring festival, when the young women dress in white robes and fight one another with cudgels for the right to be named their village's sankelveld, or spice-witch.  Wede lies at the eastern base of the Kolkas and is another of those cities from my youth where I was able to indulge in all of the traditional follies that young men can imagine and still others that they cannot have hoped to comprehend in advance thereof.  Wede has perhaps seen better days, but it is the place where I first fell in love and hence it is a city that still appeals to me, even for purely nostalgic reasons.

In addition to these colourful locations, I had not forgotten Ruth, who I had met on the train to Kassium before my adventure began.  She lived far to the north, past Rhigo's ancient ring of sea fortresses, beyond a massive harvest region known as the Sholl of Grains.  I am not a man to take such a warm invitation lightly, and I had no doubt of its sincerity; still, she would be with her husband for at least a while, and to visit would take me massively out of my way.  Still, I didn't feel it would necessarily be against the spirit of my journey to double back on myself, spend a day on the coast and then catch a Y-train north.  I would see where my whims took me.

And what, you might ask, of Nebra's verdant south-western plains, where Wilders still run free?  What of Tarnet and Crab Island, home to some of the finest gemcrafters and seafood dishes in the world?  What of the gleaming Milk Sea, where one can hang their head over the side of their vessel and drink their fill?  Of course, these are places too far away for me to visit ahead of Camir; still, I have seen them all, and I can (and will) tell you stories of them at more opportune times.

As I plotted my itinerary and wrote this section in my travel diary, I was sitting in a small hut at the centre of a Rhigan village.  I have touched before on Rhigan hospitality, which is a curious mixture of warmth and formality represented by the guest huts at the heart of each of their settlements.  It had been made available to me freely with a bare minimum of fuss, and before I bedded down for the night, one of the village elders bought me some dried zur flesh and yoka dung so I could build a fire.  I was well acquainted with rural Rhigan customs, which dictated that no-one should eat alone lest they choke on their fare.  Still, this old woman had an intense, challenging stare, and she availed me of it in utter silence throughout the length of my repast.

When I was done, I nodded to her, offered mumbled thanks and she immediately took the remains of my meal away with her.  It would be the last time I saw her.

The hut was perfectly circular.  Three platforms were stacked against the walls, and I took one of those now as my bed for the night.  I had a blanket in my own pack but the villagers had offered me one as well.  It was a heavy weave and scratchy as sackcloth, but I would be glad of it if the temperature dropped.  Here, by the light of my dung fire, I pressed my lead to the velveteen pages of my diary and planned my nightly dreams.

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Saturday, 13 February 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt 2.

Two days later, I stepped off the ferry in Hamrh, second city of Rhigo and mainland Nebra's most eastern port.  Ports all over the world are no different from one another; fractious, busy places, and Hamrh was busier than most.  The dock area was split in two, with the southern half reserved for passengers and the northern half dedicated to countless small fishing boats that bobbed easily on the silver waves.  The fishermen themselves were grouped together, blowing on their hands and laughing readily in the early morning chill.  Their work for the day was already done - tables of wriggling daggerfish were laid out on the quay, and the puffball-sized waterskaters that the locals called 'zur' were being carved up by expert hands and salted for transport inland.

Above them, tethered to stone posts on the dock with ropes thicker than an arm, the waveballoons swept from side to side with the whims of the breeze.  Earlier, they would have been shining their spotlights onto the inky sea, searching for the schools of fish and elusive zur that made the port such a hub of enterprise.

It was, in short, a scene of some incredible industry, and the workers added to the scene themselves.  Those fishermen I have already mentioned wore tough woollen cloaks over their broad shoulders, loose shirts and undershirts in layers, and heavy leather trousers tucked into their boots.  The dockworkers, almost exclusively women, tied their long hair back with dark scarves and wore shawls over dresses and trousers.  The swiftness and exactitude of their movements as they sliced, gutted and prepared is surely unmatched anywhere else in the continent.

The scene was afforded an ethereal air by the billowing banks of mist that floated off the water, obscuring and then suddenly revealing row after row of pinched white faces, all focused intently on the job at hand.  The sea mist became no less sinister for knowing that somewhere out beyond it, pods of Ondian gunships lay in wait for any force that would attempt to cross with invasion in mind.

Any man awake at the crack of dawn with a long walk before him will have just one thing on his mind - breakfast.  Ducking the crowds and heading into the streets, it wasn't long before my nose guided me down sandstone steps to a canteen where the narrow yellow doors had just opened.

A blubbery, shirtless man seemingly with no body hair whatsoever waddled through before me, easing a stew pot that really should have needed two men to carry.  When he saw me standing there, he greeted me with a nod of his head.

'Good morning,' I said.

Having manouevred the pot into an empty corner, he turned to me and mimed pulling at a non-existent beard.  'Ondian?'

I smiled.  It was the same everywhere.  Ondian beards, oiled, plaited, braided, often worn down as far as the wearer's knees, were a telltale sign of one's origin.  Here, I was a single Ondian face among many, and though there were fairer options for tourism further up the coast, Hamrh offered the most convenient gateway to those looking to head west. 

The blubbery man was evidently the owner of the establishment and he pointed to two tall chairs at the bar.  I took the nearest and sat my small canvas bag beneath me, leaving the one next to me as an option for others who might wish to sit at the bar.  Before me, rough wooden shelves laden with bottles bedecked the crumbling brick facade.  Beneath them, two stew pots that made their cousin from earlier seem small bubbled and frothed with volcanic intensity.

I was offered a choice.  'Which you want?'

My poor overworked nose failed me in a most uncharacteristic manner.

'Whichever doesn't have fish in it,' I replied.  'I can't stomach them so early in the day.'

The blubbery man grinned and ladled out a bowl from the rightmost of the two pots.  True to my request, the fatty red contents had some form of meat, a starchy root to give it body and strawcumbers, cut into rough slices.  It was delicious, and breathing in the steam did wonders for my constitution.

Other customers had filed in behind me while I was eating, but no-one took the seat next to me.  Rhigans regarded Ondians as being rather officious, unwelcoming types, a throwback to several hundred years in the past when much of eastern Nebra had been subject to Ondian rule.  The capital of the empire in those days, Esteryn, was now just ruins.  Modern Ondians held little affection for it, given that it had been closer to Camir than the peninsula we now called home, but for those with little historical knowledge, there was still a faint cultural call, a reminder within the bones that we had once been part of something much greater than ourselves.

The barkeep busied himself wiping glasses with the corner of an apron that was probably dirtier than the glasses.  When he saw me looking at him, he grunted.  'Holiday?'

'I suppose,' I said, tapping the spoon thoughtfully on the edge of the bowl.  'Visiting a friend, really.  But taking a long route.  I have lots of time.'

He nodded.  'You take the Y-train?'

'No.  I'm going to walk, and see where my feet take me.'

I could tell he thought I was mad.  Still, the Y-trains moved no faster than walking, and I wasn't about to fight someone for the chance to hang off the side and take the weight off my feet.

I finished the bowl with relish, and left a sizable tip.  The barkeep's eyes rested just a little too long on the coins as they jingled onto the bar.  I scooped up my bag and was already halfway out of the door when he called me.


I turned around and he motioned above my head to a sign in Rhigan on the lintel.  'Before you go, touch it.  Is lucky.'

I could speak Rhigan fluently.  The sign read, 'Our true friends never really leave us.'

'True, that,' I said, tapping it with my fingertips and waving before closing the door.

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