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.

Go to Chapter 5 > > >

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.

Go to Chapter 4 > > >

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.

Go to Chapter 3 > > >

Thursday, 11 February 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt 1.

It was on the train to Kassium, in one of the open-topped tourist cars that I frequent when heading to the capital, that the pigeon found me. It alighted on the polished brass bar beside the table and turned a beady eye side-on, the better to judge my lack of providence.

I checked with the man sitting opposite, thinking that maybe the bird was intended for him, but he merely shook his head and disappeared beneath his newspaper. My interest suitably piqued, I took the tiny missive from my winged Hermes and began to read.

'Dearest Patrick,

It has been such a long time since I heard from you that I felt compelled to send you a missive. My sister sends news of your success in convincing the cabinet of the need for further negotiations in Nebra. I must congratulate you for your efforts, though surely, these are difficult times.

I have news of my own to share, and hopefully it will lift your spirits. Upon my arrival in the west, I was able to make acquaintance with several of my father's oldest friends, and thanks at least in part to their efforts, I have been inducted into the Diplomatic Corps. Naturally, this means I might be able to apply some of my own efforts to avoiding war. In my first posting, I have been aligned with the Rum of Camir.

It is for this reason that I am writing to you now. A diplomatic appointment in Camir will be an important step in securing political and economic cooperation. Your presence at my inauguration some ninety days hence would do much to give my appointment credibility, not to mention how much personal pleasure I would get from seeing your face again.

Yours, with affection


I folded the note, smiled, unfolded it, read it again and smiled some more. Its role performed, the pigeon vanished once more into azure skies, and the train skidded onward through the rose-tinted countryside, the great river Onn glistening in the distance. I breathed the scented air, feeling quite content.

'Excuse me,' a fair-haired woman sitting close to me asked. 'But are you Ondian?'

I smiled at her. 'Does my beard give it away?'

She may have blushed, though equally it could have been a reflected tint from the landscape. 'Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Many of the Nebran men have beards but not too many braid them like you.'

I was especially proud of those braids. The woman's name was Ruth, and she was on her first visit to Kassium. Plenty of tourists took the long road route to the south, joining the train only when they got onto Ondian soil. Ruth, being the wife of a businessman and a woman of some means, had taken the sea route via the port at Silvouth.

'So what you do?' she asked.

'I'm basically a social scientist, though honestly it's a title that may be a little grand for what I really do. I work for the Diplomatic Corps – measuring migration patterns in and out of the country, studying cohesion between communities. It's quite interesting work.'

'It sounds it. But tell me, if this is your own land, why travel in the tourist carriages?'

'Oh, I find the Dirges quite objectionable. I would rather meet people than be secured in a box for the duration of the journey.' The Dirges were the dark, loud commuter carriages, always found at the front of Ondian trains. They were dirt-cheap, unlike the outdoor ones, but they offered some protection from the elements, given the famously unpredictable local climate.

Ruth told me all about her own work, mostly with non-profits, and shared some peaches that she'd bought with her from the continent. The white flesh was tart, but pleasing on the tongue.

I passed the time in pleasant conversation with Ruth, who was on her way to her husband's side. 'Taking the chance', she said, 'to see Kassium while I can.' Behind me, the dianthan-hued countryside gave way to bushes of vellum, and then to grey soil as we approached the city.

'So what's your business in Kassium?' she asked.

'I was going to meet with some ministers,' I replied. 'But honestly, I think that I've told them everything they need to know. They can do some of the legwork themselves from here. Obviously, there's a lot of tension in Nebra just now. But you'll know that people there are keeping their heads down, quietly getting on with things. I've been invited to an event in Camir. It's been nearly a year since I travelled to the continent. I'm keen to revisit a few of the places I love.'

My plan was made then and there. I would take ninety days away from my job – quite possible in a field which was both well-paid and notoriously slow – and go to visit Sarielle in Camir. Once there, I would request an audience with the Rum and assist the new diplomat with the instigation of a dialogue which would facilitate trade and if necessary, some measure of military support, though the ministry were keen that as many resources as possible should be saved for defence of the narrow strait between Ondia and the mainland.

I could probably have made the journey across the continent by train in three days, but my wandering mind was tapping at the back of my head, and I decided instead to travel the whole distance between Hamhr and Uyusfan, the Camiran capital, on foot. It would be a journey of some four hundred miles, but over ninety days, it would be quite manageable. I would also have the chance to visit some of the most beautiful cities in Nebra along the way.

Ruth eventually got off the train before the Heartlands began, two stops before the Iron Gates. We parted with warm words, and I received an invitation that I should visit and stay at her house when I went through her country on the way west. Before she left, she said, 'May I...just?' Before I could respond, she had reached out with a hand and was stroking my beard. 'I should get my husband to grow one, but I doubt he would braid it.'

I watched her walk away with no small bemusement. She had only a small tartan travelling bag with a long handle, which ran on squeaky metal wheels. In seconds, she was lost in the crowd, though the squeak of the wheels persisted a few seconds longer. Before me on the platform, there was an old man selling cotton-boar trotters. The threads of his shirt were so worn that they were literally coming apart at the seams. Unperturbed, he weaved through the throng, gurning hopefully at anyone who paused. Not many did.

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