Monday, May 06, 2013
Not sure what I'm going to do with this place, to be honest. It's mostly just collecting comment spam for boner pills now; and I've got to wonder how long Google will continue to support the Blogger platform anyway. The model seems, if not actually dead, then certainly dying.
This is the curse of being a consistently late adopter — getting onboard with a service just as it inevitably begins to crumble under the weight of its own limitations. Sometimes I feel like a harbinger of the apocalypse; as soon as I get into something, it goes away.
That's why I'm still not on Facebook — as a mercy to all of you who are. Because I would kill it for sure.
Anyway. Now you know where to find me; I'll see you around, maybe.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
57. The Queen’s Remedy
It was snowing, and it was going to snow. From the high window of her citadel, the Regina gazed out at her city, at the forecourts of her stronghold that had once been gardens, where flowerbeds had painted the turf around the fruit-trees with the colors of precious stones, all of it churned now into thick yellow mud. From her high place she could see the blackened frames of houses smoking in a distant poor quarter of the city — poor in relative terms, for there was no quarter of the Apiary now that was not poor — where a starving family had turned corpse-eaters in their desperation, and the madness has spread amongst their neighbors ‘til the whole district was rife with butchery and tallow-reek and the Regina, in her compassion and goodness, had sent a battalion into the streets, summarily to execute any suspected offenders, burn the properties, and dispose of corpse-eaters and corpsemeat alike in the lime-pits, by way of containing the unfortunate incident.
Yet not even such a happy sight as this could lift the Regina’s spirits. For all that a dire threat to the safety and peace of the Mélif people — that is, to the unquestioned continued sovreignty of her own hallowed self — had been so efficiently checked, the Mistress of the Nation was anxious and ill-humored, and all the Apiary anxious and ill-humored with her.
In an impetuous moment — in a brioef concession to mortal appetites — the Regina had followed up the previous evening’s inspection of military barracks by taking a pretty young bravo back to her bed. The bravo had been taken away early in the morning, to be destroyed upon the wheel, and now the Regina sat at her window, sipping a draught of poison to purge from her inviolable body all traces of him; and take it though she did from a goblet of gold, the draught was bitter, and it left her queasy and out of sorts. She sat and watched the snow, wincing slightly as she shifted in her seat. She was absolutely alone.
The Regina drank off the last of her bitter medicine, and gingerly set the goblet aside. below her window, a cluster of Mélif milled aimlessly around the dry fountain in the forecourt. It might have been a market-day, but that there was nothing left to buy or sell, nor had been for many and many a month; it being scarcely colder outside than in, the folk came forth to mingle in the feeble sunshine — for warmth as much as for any other reason. Not a one of them spoke.
But the Regina knew their hearts by watching them, their graceless defeated slouches . They were too ill-fed now for anger; but the Mélif of the Apiary were discontented yet, and the Regina hated them for it. Serene Majesty of the Nation, she kept them, safe, kept them united, held back the hand of change. And in their ungrateful spite they starved, and bred malcontents and usurpers and pretenders. The people were restless, and the Regina was filled with hate, and her hate bled out into the People and came back to her as a sullen undernote to their Voice which thrummed always in a corner of her head. And their sullenness moved her to greater resentment; and underneath it all her terrible, gnawing fear.
And her fear could not be assuaged by draughts of queensbalm or by righteous killing, not by the fleeting delights of a soldier’s strong body nor by cleansing fire. For this, only the death of the apostate could answer. Only the death of her brother.
And he was coming to her.
She did not know his mind — of all the Mélif, he alone she did not know — but she had had no word of him from all her scouts, from all the companies whom she had sent forth to burn the settlements along the Queen’s Highway to the Alef Line; no word from her spies in Cathedral or the port-towns along the rivers; no word from her best hope, the Long-Livéd, since she had signed on with the contingent of Poor Red Sisters. But she knew beyond knowing that he was coming. Her brother was coming, alone of at the head of an army; it mattered little which, for he was coming nonetheless, with murder in his heart.
There was a stirring in the courtyard below. The Regina’s envoy had returned, in her shining armour and her saffron cloak, and whereso she walked the throng of drabclad poor folk parted, such that she came on like a golden boat ploughing a wake in dark waters. The Regina unpinned her window and swung open the casement. The morning air was bracing, with a trace of smoke. The Regina breathed deeply; the aching in her head and the cramping in her belly began to ease. She closed her eyes. Far below, the envoy started up the steps to the gates of the Citadel.
The Regina turned abruptly from the window and called in the empty chamber, “Subjects, attend!”
At once the chamber doors flew open, and two warmaids who had been standing guard without entered in, bowing low.
“Send word to the front gate that our returned envoy shall be sent up to us immediately. We shall receive her here, in our place of meditation. Alone.”
The warmaids said not a word; but one was off as quick as the puff of a candle, while the other bowed and withdrew to her guardpost. Alone again, the Regina smiled with a childish eagerness. She paced about the chamber, tidying the placement of the goblet and flash on the credenza, pausing before the glass to smooth her hair. As she slipped the comb into her lacquered toilet-case, she caught a faint jarring sound from far off — a cry, thin and feeble and distant, but distinct; the wail of an unhappy infant.
She went to the window. The crowd below were again roiling about without direction. In among them was a dame, none too young, with a bundle as ok rags cradled in her arms; comfort having failed, she was trying to silence the child with nervous hissing. Her eyes flickered uneasily around the court; she happened to glance upwards, and met the Regina’s eye. Her face went ashen and her eyes grew big with terror.
The Regina fixed her with a glance; her face had no expression you could read — none that you could name, anyroad. She only looked. And the crowd around the mother began to shift, slowly coordinating itself, moving together in a lefthanded spiral fashion, a widdershins vortex with the mother herself at its center. The mother stopped shushing the child and stared upwards. There was no pleading, no appeal or cry; she was a practical provincial dame, and had no more strength to waste on useless things. The Regina searched her face for reproach, but saw only a terrible sadness.
She turned way and slammed shut the casement, her eyes squeezed shut, fists clenched and trembling. She stood like that for a moment, until a rap sounded at the door. She straightened her cloak around herself. “Enter the presence,” she called.
The envoy stepped in, golden, resplendent; she bowed.Drops of melted snow clung here and there to her hair, her boots, her brilliant gilded limbs, and shone there in the morning light like diamonds. Her travelling cloak and satchel she had left at the gates; but she carried a box, a case of polished mahogany, hinged and latched and handled in brass, the size of an infant’s coffin. She carried it lightly, swinging it by its handle from one golden gauntlet, and her face was savage and exultant.
“Serenity,” she murmured, and knelt before the Regina. “Gracious Majesty.” She inhaled deeply, greedily. “O Best Beloved of Queens. Long have we awaited our return to thy presence, and longed again to dwell within thy house.”
The Regina smiled down on her. “No more words, sister,” she said. “Words are no need of ours. They are the tools of lesser people, not of our Communion.”
The envoy dropped her head, shivering in the presence. A tear splashed from her face onto the wood of the case she had lain before her on the carpet.
“Unlatch thy burden, that we may see this wondrous gift thou hast brought us.”
The envoy worked the latches with trembling hands, flung the case open, and sat back on her heels, hugging herself.
And the Regina beheld, with greedy eyes, the cunning metal fixtures, polished and oiled, and took in the brimstone smell; looked upon the engine of power and destruction, and found it good.
“Hast brought all that is required?”
The envoy, not daring to look up, nodded.
“Hast learned its uses?”
Nodded again, trembling.
“Then thou shall it be who instructeth us,” said the Regina.
The envoy turned her face up to her Queen, eyes brimming with tears of joy. “We thank thee,” she said, her voice a husky, broken thing. “We thank thee, we thank thee.” And she began to shudder with a violence, sobbing freely.
The Regina laid a hand atop her head and drew her near, and held her as the weeping overcame her. Held her like a sister.
Far below, the throng of poor folk was already dispersing. The mother, none too young, lay dead upon the cobbles of the forecourt, the breath quite crushed from her body. Of her infant child, there was no sign or trace. Not even a rag of her bundle could be seen among the many footprints sunk in the mud of the royal gardens
More next week…
Friday, July 29, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
56. Iron To Sharpen Iron
Katy and Quiñones were drawn into the circle. The brigadier, whose name was Fix, bade them sit upon the ground, and a valet brought them verbena tea hit and strong from a copper samovar. They sat with their steaming cups. Fix introduced his staff officers — Katy noted the names, though as yet they had no meaning — then hitched back the plackets of his greatcoat so the new winter sun shimmered on his brocaded dolman jacket and on the heavy golden chain that he wore at his breast.
“We are well met, imperterriti meum,” he boomed. “We have word of your courage and your honor from he who commands us.” Here Fix inclined his head to Pismire. His voice was oratorical and faintly amused, Katy thought, like a riddler’s competition at a marketfair. “Both do you credit. We welcome your expertise in particular, Captain Quiñones. Our numbers are taken up primarily with of infantry, with a contingent of mounted forces. If a prolonged siege is required, we shall have use for your talent… and you tactics.”
Quiñones nodded. “I have high hopes for our alliance,” said he, and though his face was cheery it was plain to Katy that he was choosing his words with care.
“And you, Madame Saltimbanco,” said Fix. “Gusto Imago, you shall not find your time among us unduly wearisome. The chosarioi of this company know many songs. Doubtless you shall find much to keep you profitably occupied.”
She thought his voice had an edge of sport, and she came over in a brief flush of anger. But his face was utterly unchanged; she looked for some tell to show that he was making mock of her, and so justify her annoyance, but found none. And in her uncertainty the heat fled from her tongue and she could find no words of protest; she only muttered words of gratitude that she did not feel.
One of the senior officers — a major, Van Meter by name, tall and ribbon-thin — arose and said, “Brigadier, should we not to business? We shall need to make the measure of their forces before we can best plan our assault.” He was most precisely turned-out, was Van meter, foursquare and trig and exquisitely-shorn, with only the fur-edged pelisse that hung from one shoulder to spoil the symmetry of him. “Numbers and figures, and sooner is better.”
“It’s many a klick and many a day before we see the Apiary,” said the warmaid Colonel Moira in her cloak of pelts. You could never doubt that she were a soldier, thought Fiddlin’ Katy, but her hands were those of a weaver; long, wellshaped and artful. “There’s no need to hurry on our fate,” said she. “We shall come to it soon enough, and it shall find us, ready or not.”
“All things move toward their end,” murmured the second major.
“That they do, Ciseaux,” said the Colonel. “And all our preparations cannot hasten them on. Patience, Van Meter.”
“Well said, Colonel Moira,” said Brigadier Fix. “Let us hold in abeyance our talk of strategy, and reconvene when evening comes. You three shall take your supper among my senior staff. But for now we must be underway.” Fix turned away to the flap of his tent. “You may dismiss them, Moira,” said he, and disappeared inside.
Moira saluted the empty space where Fix had been, then turned to the others. Her smile carved a divot into one cheek, making her plait bob on that side. “Until dusk, then. Van Meter, Ciseaux — I dismiss you to your duties. Honored guests — honored allies — all that we have is at your disposal. I release you to the hospitality of the Death’s Head Legion.”
And so it came that they were all gone for soldiers. The Legion struck their tents with no less speed and silence that that with which they had pitched them, and they were on the march again by terce. Fiddlin’ Katy, her strength much refreshed by long sleep and metheglin, at first fell into step with the infantry lancers only warily, for their sudden and unbidden appearance still had her spooked. She confessed her unease to Quiñones, who only shrugged.
“We cannot trust their paymasters,” said he. “But in my experience a soldier is a soldier, and a soldier-for-hire even moreso. We shall have nothing to fear of them while we march among them. Not now. Once the thing is done — who can say? But not before.”
Thus emboldened, Katy took Quiñones’s suggestion and sought out the quartermaster — a shatterhanded gaffer called Sticks. The old fellow’s plaits and eyebrows were threaded with silver, but his mustaches were suspiciously dark. Katy guessed that he combed them through with bootpolish; she forgave him his concession to vanity, though, when he was able to scare up a woolen cloak to replace her ruined mantle; for the cold was settling in. She had no fear of freezing — she’d been a Lady of the Roads through many and many a winter, and she’d learned to keep the frostbite off, hook or crook — but the prospect of tramping long through the snowy mountains wrapped in blankets while those of the Legion were so elegantly togged was a prick to her own vanity.
Sticks dispensed gear from a two-wheeled barrow that he wound unfailingly down the forest trails. “My stocks is runnin’ thin, Missus,” he grumbled. “Until we reaches the roads and the wagons catches us up, I’ve next to naught for yez.” And yet from the unseen interior of his pushcart he somehow managed to produce every item for which she called, and a few more for which she hadn’t — spare bedrolls, fresh tarpaulins and coils of rope, heavygrade singbullets, darning floss and needles, even combs and soap — and rummaged through the depths of his rolling armoire with marvelous deftness, his crippled claw-hand notwithstanding.
“You haven’t got an arquebus in there, by chance?” asked Katy in jest; but Sticks shook his head, giving a doleful smile though his bootblacked whiskers.
“They are fierce fusiliers, your people, en’t they? But naw, Missus, not among this Legion. Black powder and plumb shot is fearsome stuff, I’ll grant yez. But this regiment is powerful ancient — and that’s speaking not just for meself, mind.” Katy had to laugh at that; but Sticks jabbed his pincered hand at her for emphasis.
“No one remembers, these days,” said he. “Before the old powers was drove from the land — the Death’s Head legion it was that held the territ’ries, from the Silk Towns to the mountains of the south, even unto the strand. And all of it done without wheel-locks or powdersmoke, but with sabers and lances and chosarioi. Have you ever seen mounted troops, Missus?” he asked, then waved away her answer before she could make any. “Not in any numbers, I’ll warrant. There en’t billycleggs nor bluetails sufficient to it now. Not for how it was in them days. Breath all snorting and eyes a-rolling and hoofbeats like the roll of the almighty sea.”
The old gaffer had grown faraway and milky about the eye, and faltered a moment in his telling. “Sticks,” said Katy softly, “how many will be joining us, when we are come to the roads?”
Sticks shook his head, as to clear his eyes, and smiled. “Not so many as in days gone by, and not near so many a-mounted. But enough for the task. And we’ll fight in the ancient ways,though no one remembers us now. But they’ll know us when we’re through, eh?” He clapped Katy on the shoulder, as if he had forgotten she was a civilian. “They’ll know us when we’re through, Missus. And with nary a grain of black powder.”
The old sergeant latched shut his rolling armoire; Fiddlin’ Katy bade him good day and, with gear piled high upon her shoulders, filtered back into the moving mass of soldiery, working through the columns and ranks with a license near-unprecedented. On her way back to Quiñones and Pismire, she kept pace briefly with a squad of lancers who doubled up on sling, and fell to talking with their captain, a sharp and smiling warmaid called Acker; her wiry hair could not be constrained by her plaits, and fell in tendrils about her gay face. Katy liked her immediately. She was talking with her troops of setting up a target range as soon as they should bivouack in a town of any size, and Katy joined with delight in the plans and the boasting of the slingers.
Moving on, she passed through ranks of infantry, brass-handled sabers clashing in time to their steps, a handful at the rear mounted up on slow-plodding billies and all of them singing as they marches, singing to the rhythm of great thumping drums, and of the whisk of their own boots in the snow. Fiddlin’ Katy cut a series of capers, Katy did, adding the tambourine rattle of her spurs to the rumble of the drums, and the soldiers ‘round her grinned and cheered. She felt a moment’s pang of shame — the allure of performing, as always (she thought), proves too great to resist — but the feeling did not long persist, swept away by the heady gaiety of the soldiers’ song. Maldito Imago if Fix is not in the right, thought Fiddlin’ Katy; a condescending, chiselfaced, riddling jackaninny he might be, but he’d surely read her right.
At the front of the rank she saw a number of figures that she took for fusiliers, for each had slung across his back a metal tube, which, if stood on end, would be taller than himself. Drawing closer, she saw that these were not rifles, but long bronze trumpets. “Hoy, you fellows!” she cried above the singing. “Will you not join in the music?”
Two of the horn-bearers glancved at each other; then one burst out laughing. “Naw, Missus. We’ll likely not play ‘til we’s at the Apiary gates.”
“These trumps en’t made for merry songs, Missus,” said the other. “They’s trumpets o’ judgment, like. All as hears ‘em sound, they knows it’s time to face their fate, and be as like to meet their Maker.”
She must have looked grave at that, for they laughed again; and one of them slipped a tin whistle from his jacketsleeve and took up piping the marching tune ‘til Katy smiled again and, bidding them good day, danced along on her way to rejoin her friends.
At high noon, they stopped a while to rest and regroup. They sky had dimmed and the snow was falling again, but it was light and dry and easy, and the day did not even feel particularly cold. Biscuits were circulated, and the company stood queue for draughts of fresh water from great casks of curiously-white oak. Fiddlin’ Katy sniffed the water and caught a flat, familiar chemical whiff. She raised an eyebrow and looked at Pismire; he sat, similarly dumbfounded, with his mouth full of biscuit. She took a bite herself, and with the shock of recognition her face assumed such a comical cast that Quiñones had to ask (with some concern) what was the matter; at which Pismire and Katy burst into a shared laugh that sprayed salty, chalky biscuit-crumbs everywhich way most disgracefully.
In the waning of the day, they kept to a pace that was brisk but comfortable, and made another ten klicks before the Brigadier called halt and they settled in to pitch camp for the night. The snow had tapered off, and the sun was a rosy eye turned upside-down, with the brow of the mountain rising up to close it over. They had found a high meadow in which to make their camp, and seeing the profusion of soldiers and tents spread out on the flat, Fiddlin’ Katy would have sworn that there were more than there had been.
“I almost fancy that our numbers have increased since morning,” she said to Pismire.
He nodded. “If it is a fancy, then I share it. The Brigadier said that more would join us. I assumed they would meet us on the roads, or in the towns along the way. But it appears we will not have to wait.” Pismire took a long, appraising look over the camp. “There were no more than fivescore in camp this morning. It looks twice that, now.”
“That can’t be so.” Katy blinked. “Can it? From whence would they have come?”
Pismire shrugged. “From whence came the first detachment? They were not here last night, and this morning they were.”
She shook her head. “Did they simply spring up from the earth?”
“Perhaps they did,” he said. “Perhaps there are soldiers, too, stored in vaults beneath the hills, along with blankets and biscuit.”
Fiddlin’ Katy shuddered. “You Sharing Peoples are not renowned for your powers of imagination, Master Mélif, but yours has grown quite vivid.”
She thought that Pismire tried to smile then, but could not quite manage it. “I am a Nation of one now, Mistress Katy,” he said. “And I must make myself up as I go along, I fear.”
At dusk they retired to the Brigadier’s tent. Stout cairs and a trestle table had appeared there as by magic, and, with Moira and Ciseaux and Van Meter, they took jasmine tea and drank each other’s health and passed bowls of nuts and briny olives. The valet brought them whole wild pumpkins, harvested young and gutted and stuffed with cubes of loaf-bread and slivers of leeks and fennel and tree-ears tossed in a mushroom broth, and the whole slowroasted to golden in the embers ‘til the yellow pumpkinflesh melted into the filling like butter; and they ate until their spoons came through the pumpkinrinds.
Then they took pale wine and wedges of wolf-peach, sweet and musky, and Quiñones told again stories of the old wars away north, and Katy shared the jests of the Grailfolk and soldiers’ tales overheard in the Cathedral steelmarket. Pismire did not join in at first, bring buttonholed in a corner with Van Meter and the Brigadier, jotting scrawls on their maps and summoning numbers from memory; but at length the Brigadier rolled his maps and put them away, and Pismire joined the circle and related again the tale of their encounter with the Lady in the Dunes. Katy was delighted with the improvement in his telling.
Some time after full; dark, Fix dismissed Quiñones and Katy, requesting Pismire stay behind a while. The two of them took a lantern and walked out into the camp. The first watch were taking up their posts at the little fires that flared around the meadow. The sky above was clear, and the stars shone clear and cold over the mountains. The chill stung Fiddlin’ Katy’s face, and she flipped up the hood of her new woolen cloak. Uiñones laid his warm hand against her cheek.
“I begin to see from whence you get your cheerful disposition, Captain,” said Katy. “From what I have seen of a soldier’s life, it seems rather a jolly one.”
Quiñones took his hand away. “How do you mean?”
“There are the usual miseries of the road, I imagine,” she said. “But there are companions with whom to share them. And there’s food, and dry bedding, and the safety of numbers. And purpose to fill the days, and songs to fill the hours, and tales to shorten the road. It’s not much, but I suppose it must be pleasant enough.”
Quinones puckered his brows. “And I suppose the life of a farmer is jolly, as well — aside from the tedious business of plowing and sowing and harvest,” he said, and Katy’s face felt warm without his hand there. “When this war is fought and won — talk to me then of a soldier’s life.” He looked hard at Katy; then his face softened. “Perhaps by then my cheerful disposition will have returned,” he said softly.
“Are you afraid?” she said. “Afraid of the fighting to come, I mean.”
“For myself? Not at all,” said he. “Whatever occurs, it is the life and the end that I have chosen. It is not my fate to die in my bed. I have known this since I was a child, and I am at peace with this.” He sighed. “But I am worried. For you. And for Pismire most of all. For what he stands to lose. And what he might gain, and what he could lose in the gaining. If you follow me.”
Katy thought she did, and nodded. “I seem to have left my fears behind on the doorstep of the Paperhouse,” she said. “What terrors can the Regina hold, to compare with the Fatherless Ones? She is only a mad queen, in all.”
“A mad queen who is Pismire’s equal in all respects,” said Quiñones, and Katy had no answer.
Quiñones let his words hang fire for a moment, then asked, “Has he told you what happened, back there inside the mountain? What bargain he has struck? You need break no confidences; I don’t need to know the what of it. Only — has he told you?”
She shook her head.
Quiñones lowered the lantern, and for a moment Fiddlin’ Katy thought that he looked terribly old. “That, more than anything, troubles me in my heart, Mistress. That he has chosen to bear his burden alone, and for all that we may wish to help him, we may not.”
Fiddlin’ Katy squeezed his warm hand, Katy did. “I, too, shall be gald when this is done and you are again yourself, Captain,” she said. “For now, we must trust that when Pismire needs our help, he will let us know.”
“Or that we may have strength and discernment enough to know without being told,” said Quiñones. Then he bade her goodnight, and Fiddlin’ Katy pushed aside her tentflap, dropped her cloak and curled barefoot into her bedroll.
She awoke some time after midnight and rolled over. She could see a scattering of stars through the gap in the canvas. She felt very much alone, though she knew herself surrounded by the body of the camp, lying much at her ease in the quiet dark, with none of the anxious racing of the mind that sometimes comes with lying awake. She was in no hurry to get back to sleep; she was warm and untroubled, and scarcely even weary. She lay for some time, breathing slowly, and at length she became aware of a rhythmic scraping noise from somewhere close without the tent.
Fiddlin’ Katy listened for a while, and the sound neither slackened nor rose. It was harsh enough in itself to keep her from sleep, but it worked on her curiosity like oil of cloves n the tongue — a tingle, an enveloping heat, at last a teasing arousal of appetite. She slipped into her poor abused boots and out of the tent.
It was the darkest hour of the second watch, and most of the watchfires were only embers now. There were perhaps a dozen chosarioi awake in all the body of the camp. A little way from Fiddlin’ Katy’s tent, Pismire was sat crosslegged by himself at the fire-ring, working at something with a coarsetoothed iron rasp. She sat down opposite, belling her cloak around her. He glanced up, but kept to his work.
“Has the Brigadier kept you all this time?” said she.
Pismire smiled a little, and Fiddlin’ Katy was pleased. “Major Van Meter is a great one for numbers. I managed to gain release halfway through an accounting of every brick in the Apiary’s walls,” he said. “I’ll turn in soon, I imagine. I only wanted a little time to myself, to think.”
“If I am disturbing you — ” she began, but he waved her words away.
“It is curious,” said he. “When first I was cast out from the communion of the Mélif Nation, I was terrified by solitude — shaken to my soul. Now, I have quite come to rely upon it.”
“What are you working at?” she asked.
He held it up for her to see. It was one of his rockirons, which he had carried all the =way from the Farm — a single shaft of steel, of a length to reach from your palm to the crook of your elbow, and as big around as your smallest finger, tapered near to a point at one end and looped over at the other into an eyehole big enough to thread a rope through. “It’s the last of them,” he said. “The rest have been lost, one by one, along the way.” He had filed nearly through the shaft, near to the ring-end. He paused in his work to blow the iron filings from his rasp; they fell into the fire, sudden blue dancing sparks, and were gone.
“And what do you propose to make of it?” asked Fiddlin’ Katy.
“I have been a long time away from home,” said Pismire rather absently. “And it is only fitting that I should bring back some souvenir of my travels.” He set the file aside and graipped the rockiron at either end. It bent at the gnawed place with a little creak; then Pismire twisted his hands and the iron parted altogether, leaving the long tapered shaft in one hand and the ring, with a stub about as long as his thumb, in the other.
He set the shaft aside, and held the iron ring between his thumb and forefinger, held it to his eye. “I am making a gift for my sister,” he said.
Fiddlin’ Katy looked at him long, searching for some sign that he was jesting, and found none. Slowly, she asked, “And what gift would you make her?”
Pismire was working again with the file, smoothing the jagged stub. “What hjave I told you of the Influence?” he said.
Fiddlin’ Katy blinked. “That it is chemical in nature, like a scent, or a venom. That it issues from the body into the air by way of the skin.” She sighed. “Rather like sweat, I suppose. Or not like sweat, but more like it than like anything else.”
“And the rest?” he said. “Of its origins within the body? The organs, just beneath the skin? Just here, behind the ear, and at the base of the throat, and beneath the arm, and in the crease of the groin?” He shook his head. “What a thing this is,” he said. “You cannot know, Mistress — among the Sharing Peoples, there are things that one simply knows, without this need for constant telling and explaining…”
His voice trailed off into a noise of frustration or disgust. Katy waited for his wandering thoughts to light elsewhere, but he only worked the iron in silence.
At length, she said, “Van Meter was hard upon you. Harder than you wish to admit.”
Pismire paused and wiped a hand across his brow, although the night was very cold. “He has pressed me considerably, yes. And I will bear it, because it is a thing that must be done. But with Van Meter bent on measuring every defense and weakness, and Ciseaux talking only of destruction…” He ground again at the iron, carelessly, striking sparks. “They are still my people. Or they were, once. And she is my sister. And the same Apiary which is the stronghold of our enemy was once, to me the sum entirety of the world.”
His voice did not rise, but his words came now in a flood. “And now to hear them debate over tea and biscuits how many in a hundred we must kill to take the city, and how many more we must kill to secure it, and the number beyond which we must not kill, lest we provoke an uprising…” He wiped his eyes. Katy pretended it must be sweat. “If I am to do this thing, I must divide my heart against itself,” he said. “Split it by an act of will, before it breaks on its own.”
“Cannot more be spared?” asked Katy. “Can you not appeal to the Brigaider?”
“Fix? I cannot figure him, “said Pismire. “He leaves the planning of the attack to his officers. My guess is that he is concentrated mainly on what is to come after. When it is time for the bargain to be fulfilled.”
Fiddlin’ Katy watched him working for a while, her eyes half-lidded, summoning herb courage to ask what, at length, she did: “What did you promise them, Pismire? What bargain did you strike with the Fatherless Ones?”
He worked a while, and could not look up; til at last he fixed her eye with his, and said, “It is a thing that I alone can deliver, at a great price in blood and treachery. More than this you must not know. There is nothing my heart desires more than to unburden itself to you but you must. Not. Know.”
Indignant words rose themselves up in Fiddlin’ Katy’s throat, nearly burst into the open. She dearly longed to tell him You can trust me; but something in Pismire’s eyes caught her short. Her mind had not the swift-turning gears of his, but she felt great truths spinning into their places, and knew what she must say instead.
“I trust you,” she said. “And I will ask no more. Your word is enough for me.”
She came around the fire and embraced him, laying her forehead against his, and then without a word gathered up her cloak and returned to her tent. The rhythmic whisk of iron on iron took up again after a while, and soon lulled her into a contented dreamless sleep.
More next week…
Friday, July 22, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
55. The Morning Brigades
It was past noon before Pismire returned. Quiñones did not see him come, sat as he was beside the fire, lashing runners made from saplings to the ashstick frame of the litter to make of it a crude sledge. Fiddlin’ Katy slept nearby, wrapped in the remains of her beechleaf-yellow mantle. The sky had cleared to the palest blue of cornflowers, drybrushed with smoky white. The snow was easy on the rustycolored fir-needles on the floor of the grove.
And then Pismire was there, stepping out from among the firs without hail nor greeting, his boots silent on the snow. When he stepped into the light, Quiñones saw that his face was ashen gray, and his eyes rimmed in scarlet. He stopped some distance from the fire, and stood looking at Katy, not speaking.
Quiñones did not stand to greet him, but kept to his work. After a while, he said, “I did not think to see you there.”
Pismire looked at him. “They have not killed me,” he said. “And I would not go without speaking to you.”
Quiñones clucked his tongue. “I did not think to see you there,” he said. “I thought you would come up from the valley, where last I saw you.”
Pismire’s head bobbed. “The Paperhouse is a labyrinth within,” he said. “I believe I have walked some clicks in those corridors. After my business was concluded, I was escorted out and found myself deep in the woods. I followed the smoke to find you. How is Katy?”
Quiñones nodded towards her. “Sleeping, mostly,” he said. “She’s been waking on and off, spitting up gobbets of something vile. I imagine it’s the poisons a-passing.” He shrugged. “Her color’s good, though. That gouge in her side is closing already, and I judge her lungs to be sound.”
“Seen no more of them. That chieftain never looked back on us. Even the bodies are gone.”
“Some time after you went in. After I got Katy comfortable, I had a reconnoiter, looking for survivors.” He frowned. “Nothing left but gear and arms. I never saw them carried away. Poor devils.”
“There are surely devils in that place,” said Pismire, “but not the Hamazakaran.”
“You have seen them, then?”
“I have not seen their faces, no. But I have concluded my negotiations with them nonetheless.”
Quiñones waited for Pismire to explain further, but he did not. So Quiñones nodded and said, “And now?”
Pismire sighed. “I must make haste north and northeast, to bring war to the Regina.”
“You will go through the mountains, then? Do you know the way?”
“To the Apiary?” Pismire nearly smiled. “I know my way there from anyplace in the world, and could walk the route blindfold.” He knelt beside Fiddlin’ Katy and put his black hand to her cheek. “As soon as she has strength, you must take her east,” he said. “Rejoin the Sisters’ caravan if you can, but in anywise do not stop until you are in the domains of the Sóf. No harm will come to you in Cathedral.”
Quiñones cocked an eyebrow. “And why should I go east, when there is fighting away up north?”
Pismire hid his face. “You know why.”
“I do not, for the life of me.”
“Do not make me say it.”
Quiñones was on his feet now. “Am I to suffer in ignorance, then?”
Pismire swallowed. “You have seen the truth,” he said. “Of what I am. The whole truth.”
Quiñones stiffened. “I have,” he said. And I am not a delicate blossom, to perish at the cold touch of the truth. You are a thing the like of which I’ve never seen. I don’t know what that means. Be as may it makes of you a monster.” He shrugged again. “Or be as may… a miracle. But whatever the mysteries of your nethers or the alchemies of your guts, I have sworn myself to your service, and pledged that where you led, I’d follow. The truth does not change that.”
Pismire said nothing. His chin trembled, or perhaps he nodded. Then he said, “That is a cunning sledge you have made, Captain. I shall need to sleep soon, but I should like to cover some ground while I have still the strength to pull it.”
They loaded Katy up, wrapping her in both their cloaks as well as her mantle, and set off north within the hour. A fresh wind made the going colder than it might have been, and they were glad they had the hard work of pulling the sledge to keep them warm.
The sky slowly cleared as they went. They managed a few hours of travel time before stopping to rest, an hour past none. Pismire proved an able pathfinder, discerning possible threads through the piney barrens, but they were both badly winded; the terrain was steep, and the sledge made their way clumsy and slow. Pismire flopped down across a blown-down fir, devoured two apples from his satchel, chasing them with mouthful after mouthful of snow, burped once, and fell instantly asleep with his head in the crook of his arm. Quiñones had strength enough to boil a little water in a tin cup and steep a handful of dried mushrooms into a broth for Katy. She did not fully wake when he lifted her head, but gave a little hiss when he held the cup to her lips.
“Hot,” she said.
“Drink,” he said softly. “It will give you strength.”
“Pismire?” she said, and sipped.
“He is well. We are traveling north.”
She nodded, and drank the broth, still only half-awake. Then a light seemed to come into her eyes. “Don’t let him — promise — ” she began, and then was stricken with a violent bout of coughing.
Quiñones helped her to sit up, and gently patted her back. Something loose and liquid came free inside her, and she leaned forward. He held her hair back from her face as she launched a luridly-colored shower of spittle, then wiped her mouth. She lay back on her elbow, breathing hard. “Promise,” she murmured.
“What is it, Mistress?” said Quiñones. Nearby, Katy’s spew hissed and stank in the snow. “What promise would you have of me?”
Fiddlin’ Katy made a sound of displeasure. “Pismire,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t let him promise them anything foolish,” she said, and slept again.
And Quiñones looked at Pismire, and smiled ruefully; and soon he slept himself.
They dozed no more than an hour or two before the cold woke them, and determined to press on until they lost the light. Pismire was eager to get some clicks under his heels as fast as they were able, the sooner to reach some settlement.
“What of your men-of-war?” asked Quiñones. “Will your army be provided? Where will you meet them?”
“I have been assured that the army shall find me.”
“And do you trust their assurances?”
“I trust the circumstances under which they were given, “said Pismire. “It will be best, I think, to find some place of safety, there to await word from the captains.”
In the end Quiñones persuaded him that they would be best served to move slowly, foraging as they went; for they had left the camp of the Birds of Our Lady with only such food as they had on their persons, and it was uncertain when they would find a settlement. Pismire was reluctant, but he assented to the logic of it; though the compass in his head pointed him always in the direction of the Apiary, he yet knew not what might lie between the city and himself. The region was strange both to him and Quiñones, and they had no reliable maps.
And so when they came upon a lone chestnut tree among the pines in the hour after vespers, they took it as an omen and set up their camp. They had scavenged little else upon the way but a few handsful of bitter greens and a bundle of wild onions, already tough and gone to seed; the year was too far gone for either berries or fruit, and neither Pismire nor Quiñones knew these woods well enough to know which roots might be safe to eat. But they fell upon the chestnuts, sweeping them from the ground into Pismire’s knotted cloak. Hey had to pick through them, no easy task in the failing light, for many were spoiled with a powdery mold; but in the end they had enough to make a meal. Pismire nicked crosses in their husks with his butterfly knife while Quiñones gathered fuel and stones for a fire-ring.
While the fire burned down, they found a spot out of the wind and rigged a lean-to of springy limbs, overlaid thickly with pine boughs. They spoke little as they worked. It felt somehow unseemly, Quiñones thought, to share stories or plans, or even to press Pismire for details of his negotiations at the Paperhouse, while Fiddlin’ Katy yet slept; the circle was incomplete.
When the embers were glowing red, they loaded the chestnuts into Quiñones’s old steel helmet and set it among the coals; the pop and sizzle that soon followed mingled comfortably with the gentle sound of Katy’s sleeping breath. They sat for a while in silence, chewing wild greens and drinking cups of snowmelt.
When the sweet, earthy smell told them the chestnuts were well-roasted, Pismire roused Katy and led her by the arm to the latrine-pit. Katy was silent and groggy for a while, but she was able to walk back to the fire on her own. Her gait was off, like a sleepwalker’s.
“I have no strength in my legs,” she murmured, pausing to lean against a tree. “A fine Lady of the Roads I am now.”
“You have been poisoned,” said Pismire. “It is working its way out of you, but you will be weak for a while yet.”
“Poisoned?” she said. “How is it I am not dead?”
He looked away. “I found — a medicine,” he said. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded, but her eyes were unfocused. “I thought — but I must have dreamt it.”
“What did you dream?”
“I imagined — while I slept, I thought perhaps you stole a kiss.” She laughed, then coughed — a clean dry cough. The poison had nearly left her. “A foolish fancy.”
It was by now quite dark, and she could not see his face. “You are no fool,” he said. “We imagine all manner of things when we are ill.”
They came back to the fire and sat. Quiñones had pounded handful of chestnuts into a porridge for Katy. For Pismire and himself he plucked them smoking from the helmet, barehanded, and popped them from their husks between his thumbs. They ate quietly for a while; then Katy, in a sleepy voice, asked, “Where are we bound?”
“We should be north of the mountains soon,” said Pismire. “We’ll take on provisions in the nearest village, then arrange a rendezvous with — ”
Katy interrupted him with a soft cry.
“What is it, Mistress?” asked Quiñones.
“My rebequin,” she moaned. “I have left it in the Sisters’ camp. I carried it so far, and then forgot it when we rode out.”
Quiñones smiled and laid his warm hand on hers. “Do not trouble yourself, Mistress,” said he. “The Birds of Our Lady will see your fiddle safely home, I will warrant you that. And when all this is done, I myself will escort you to Cathedral to collect her.” He looked at Pismire. “Help me put her back to bed, will you?”
Between them they soon had her laid back across the frame of the sledge and well-bundled. Pismire piled more firewood on the embers, and Quiñones rekindled the blaze with a pass of his hands. The sky had fully cleared, and they could see the stars winking between the overhanging branches. They sat a while, warming themselves and watching the flames.
In time, Quiñones said, “Shall I take the first watch, then?”
Pismire shook his head. “I do not think we shall need to set a guard,” said he. “We are both too much in need of sleep. And in any wise, the worst has already happened. I cannot imagine there is any disaster left that could befall us.”
Quiñones shrugged and retired to the lean-to. He did not bother to voice his disagreement aloud; he thought, Things can always get worse, my friend. I only hope you don’t live long enough to learn it firsthand. But he was asleep within moments nonetheless.
Quiñones knew nothing more ‘til he felt Fiddlin’ Katy’s hand shaking him awake. “Captain,” she whispered. “You’re going to want to see this.”
With effort, Quiñones pulled back his heavy eyelids to uncover a landscape transformed. They had lain down their heads the previous night in an empty wood; they had apparently awakened in the middle of an armed encampment.
The forest floor in all directions around was dotted with little bivouacs, frame tents, two dozen of them at least, each just large enough for two to sleep, head to foot. They were of mottled canvas, stippled now with leaf-shadow in the dawnlight, sprung up overnight like so many silent mushrooms. A dozen little cookfires threw spits of smoke up into the treetops, and armed figures sat warming themselves, or moved with rapid quiet bearing canteens and washbasins.
They were no regiment that Quiñones recognized — broad-chested, dandy-splendid in high boots and stripe-legged trousers, bearing at their belts sabres of fine make, with elegant brass hilts; their leather dressings had a soft gloss. Menfolk and warmaids alike wore their hair in curious plaits at the ears and the nape, the bravos with drooping mustaches, and all about were bedecked in coats and cloaks of fur, shaggy and barbaric with it. There were perhaps a hundred soldiers in all, or less; but if it were less it were not much less.
Quiñones, a thousand questions bubbling in his mind, reached for the most important. “Pismire,” he said. “Where is Pismire?”
Katy took his are; she was still pale, but Quiñones thought now that was merely from fear. Her hand on his was warm and steady, and her step was sure as she led him through the camp — for such it surely was now — through throngs of warriors checking their weapons and mustering their breakfasts, gaudy and magnificent in cords and waistcoats and ribbons in the colors of autumn, brown and orange and gold, up about their work but each with a moment for a gesture of respect as he and Katy passed, and smiling one and all with some secret gaiety; led him to a tent rather larger than the rest, across the entrance to which there hung a standard, a black banner blazed with a naked skull, white and grinning.
Before the tent, beneath the empty gaze of the skull on the banner, five figures hunkered in a circle. There were two hardcases, whom Quiñones took for junior officers, lieutenant commanders or some suchlike; they rubbed their hands upon their haunches to keep warm, backs presented. Another, her nobler bearing marking her higher rank as surely as any insignia, crouched on one knee, her big cloak of pelts drawn around her. A fourth, with a cool chiseled face half-hidden by upturned collars, knelt with the hems of his coat trailing in the dirt. He had his hands spread over a large terrain-map of the mountains.
And Pismire was there, one black finger stabbing into the map, and nodding. They murmured low; then Pismire looked up, with an expression that was not quite a smile, and said, “Captain Quiñones. As promised, the army I have requested has found us.”
More next week…
Friday, July 15, 2011
Taking a skip week for Fiction Friday. Longtime readers (hello, both of you!) may remember that I've been pretty much dumping stuff straight from the longhand notebook into MS Word; but Chapter 55 — currently entitled "The Morning Brigades" — has undergone some offline tweaking, and I'm taking some time out from posting for transcription, reshuffling, and minor surgery to this chapter and the next two (to be called "Iron To Sharpen Iron" and "The Queen's Remedy").
Absent any new writing content, enjoy a couple of fresh mixtapes, both themed, both kind of funny (IMHO) and both featuring some pretty rockin' tunes (IM incredibly subjective and easily-discreditable O).
Friday, July 08, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
54. The Covenant
The room into which they brought him, so far as Pismire could tell, was vast and bare and shadowy, cut through here and there with shafts of doleful viridian-yellow light. On a dais before him, some thirty paces away, a great desk bulked up, something like an acre of teak with its top higher than his head. Behind the desk, towering above him, they sat, or stood: The Fatherless Ones.
The light fell behind them, leaving the figures themselves cast in shade. Pismire had no idea of their features, or of their stature, or, indeed, of how many were there. He could see — he thought he saw — six, for certain, and perhaps more towards the unseen edges of the room. But the light was dicey, and perhaps there were only four — or as many as eight. His eyes swam and he squeezed them shut. It is a sleight, he thought, and nearly smiled; stopped himself; opened his eyes. The clerk has taken a position at a sort of ambo at the foot of the great desk. His writing-tools were at the ready, and he gestured for Pismire to come forward.
Pismire stepped up into the waiting pool of yellow light; his shadow, no blacker than himself, puddled at his feet. He looked at the clerk who nodded and began to speak:
“The matter before This Honorable Institution; the plea of the Supplicant here before you to entreat ion his own behalf; this Son of the Mélif Nation, and of Her regal House, yet exiled now and of no claim to the throne; said Supplicant, who styles himself with the vulgar sobriquet of Pismire, comes now unto this Institution freely and under no compulsion, to make entreaty and compact, any agreements herein entered to be considered binding and absolute.”
The central figure at the bench — the one nearest Pismire — inclined its head, or seemed to. “So understood,” it said. The voice was neither loud nor soft, and it seemed to come from neither far nor near. Though it was deep — so deep that Pismire felt it more than heard it, reverberating in his bones — it seemed somehow neither male nor female. It was simply present, all around like the very air when it sounded, and absent when it stopped.
“Supplicant,” it said. “Present your case for our consideration.”
Pismire cocked his head. “Why do you not reveal yourselves?” he asked.
There was silence for a moment, and the weight of his offense hung in the air. Then the voice came again, and Pismire heard (or thought he heard) a hint of amusement. “Is this your plea?” it said. “To have knowledge of why we do or do not as we do? You have a long way for a great disappointment, we fear.”
“Oh, soon enough I shall make my plea — and do it honestly in your sight, with my face uncovered. Will you afford me the courtesy of receiving it in like fashion?” Pismire wondered when he had lost his talent for keeping schtum.
The shadowed figure shifted, and all trace of mirth was gone from its voice. “If you know nothing else of the Fatherless, know that we do no thing without a reason,” it said. “It suits us that you should stand so before us/ But it serves no purpose of ours that we present ourselves to such as you.”
“And yet you have already revealed much,” said Pismire. “For there were particulars in the deposition of yonder clerk that I never gave him. Word of my coming has preceded me, then?”
Silence again. Then another voice — or perhaps the same one in a different register, Pismire could not rightly tell — said, “Your case is not unfamiliar to us.”
“Then it is twice that you know me, said Pismire, “by my own account and by that of others. And still you will not show yourselves to me.” He gave a joyless bark of laughter. “Beneath every mask of power, mask upon mask — strip them all away, they say, and you’ll find the face of the Fatherless. Is that face so unimpressive, then, that you must hide it in the shadows?”
“Do not presume to treat with us, He-Queen,” said the voice, and it seemed dreadfully loud now, and crushingly present. “Mind what befell your companions. It could easily befall you. We have arts and poisons, and even metheglin is no proof against them. Your very body could be ours. We could take from you the control you have over your own limbs, and leave you a vessel for our purposes.”
“Your purposes,” echoed Pismire, and his mouth was dry. He remembered the voices of the Gospodarim, how they had filled the very world, and they had not seemed half so loud as this.
“Our young, He-Queen, our young. They are without fathers, yes. But they need some warm place to grow. And feed. Some dozens of them. Their teeth are sharp. You would be awake and know your mind the entire time. That is our art. And you would wish to plead many times for death before it came; but even the pleading would be denied you.”
“All the lands were ours once,” said the other voice — there was definitely another voice now. “This world in all its gardens and all their bounty were ours by right of ownership. And though much is lost to us, this place is ours still. In this Paperhouse, of all places, you live only by our sufferance. This house is ours. This hour is ours. Who are you to dare presume? Before the nations were, we were. What are you? No name, no place — the Sharing of your people forever lost to you. What are you? Another beggar come to grovel for our aid, and thinking to repay us with insult. Do not presume.”
“I am no beggar,” said Pismire, rather louder than he meant to. He took a deep breath, and was surprised to feel himself shudder as he did. “I am come to bargain.”
“Then tell us your desire,” said the voice (which voice? Pismire could not tell).
And in that instant Pismire felt keenly every craving to which his flesh and spirit had been heir. To know his mother’s warm touch, and the gentle voice she had used with his sister. The sweet oblivion of his individual consciousness dissolving into the collective Voice of his people. Slaking rainwater after hard work. Fingers that did not linger dull and stupid behind his quicksilver mind. Quiet and liberty and the easy company of the road. He wanted desperately to hear Fiddlin’ Katy sing again, to laugh at some tale of Quiñones’.
And he wondered at what might be his for the asking, and at what he might accomplish. To drag the stiffnecked Emeth up from their ignorance. To delve into the secrets of the Imago. To hunt and conquer the great monsters of the earth, Crazy Eights and dragons and nameless ancient desert-dwelling things. To make of the Mélif a great Nation once more, his Nation, with himself at its head — Pater Patria, Father of the Nation, and the tribe remade in his image, noble and upright and just.
And he longed for these things, longed fopr them deep and aching in the twilight of the Paperhouse. Longed for them, and knew that the Fatherless Ones could provide all and more — for a price.
Longed for them, and knew his longing to be vanity.
And, choosing his words with care, said: “I seek only what is needful, and that is the means to make war upon the Apiary. I must drive the Regina from power.”
“This is your wish?”
He shook his head. “Not my wish. But it is what I ask of you. Because I must.”
The voice was amused once again. “Your sister has treated you most unkindly, He-Queen. To wish for her downfall is only just.”
Pismire’s lips were tight. “Whatever you may think you know,” he said, “you have not the truth of me.”
And did not say: Nor have you power over me. Should I be afraid of you? The Imago himself has not seen the like of me. I am a Son of the Mélif, who alone among the Nations have eluded your corrupting hand. You skulk here in your darkness, in your place of safety, setting a price in yellowgrain on all the things of the world, and they are all denied you. And you have no power over me, because there is nothing you have that I truly desire.
“Suppose we were to do this thing,” said the voice. “Suppose we should give you the means to prosecute your hatred and envy of your sister.” The voice was rich and sly. “This is within our capabilities. It is a thing easily done.”
We come to it now, thought Pismire.
“Fatherless Ones do no thing without a reason, “said the voice. “Suppose we should provide you with armaments and soldiery and the machineries of war.”
And the figure, still shrouded in darkness, shifted; seemed to lean forward, avidness written in the outline of its form. And from its face — from the place where he assumed its face to be — came a faint glimmer that Pismire took for teeth, sharp and eager. And in Pismire’s heart was a great hollow, from the bottomlessness of the treachery he contemplated there.
“What would you pledge to us, He-Queen? What promise would you make? What words will you swear, held as bond by powers more ancient and terrible even than ourselves? Nothing for nothing: If we do this thing for you, what return will you make to us?”
And Pismire did not answer for a moment, but only smiled, slowly; and when he spoke, he addressed himself to the clerk. “You’d best take up a clean page, fellow,” he said. “For you will not wish to miss a word of this.”
More next week…
Sunday, July 03, 2011
- An impromptu a cappella tear through “Bohemian Rhapsody” that starts in ragged three-part harmonies and collapses into helpless laughter on the kitchen floor.
- Tiny sidewise flick of the wrist answered by the hiss of fishing line on the reel and, much later, a faraway splash.
- The passage from full sun into leafy shade, and the incremental temperature drop.
- A tug on the starter rope yielding a finely-calibrated resistance and then the satisfying roar of a small gas engine.
- The thump and smack of baseball into mitt.
- An idea, then another, turning in your head like 3-D puzzle pieces, then locking together. Then another. And again.
- Cat’s sandpaper tongue against your thumb.
- Cottonwood tree’s leaves rippling in a stiff breeze like half a million little green flags, and banishing Cole Porter from your mind’s ear long enough to hear it for what it really is.
- First sip of shandygaff, mixed cold in a plastic cup on a hot day.
- Success against odds; virtue rewarded. The first and truest of pleasures.
Friday, July 01, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
Pismire stood in the doorway, staring into the blackness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. He laid his hand on the surface of the hillside. It was smooth and strangely warm. Though the hillside seemed solid enough, he felt it give slightly to his palm. At pressure, his fingertip sunk in, to the first knuckle. The wall was indeed of paper, leaves of it, each as fine and delicate as the scale that forms on old wine, overlaid in their multitudes to make this mighty house in the mountain. The façade, he saw in the new light of morning, was peeled and crumpled in spots, much-dented and much-patched. And yet the whole was unassailable, as sheets of dough rolled so thin that you might break one with a breath are layered and baked to fashion a crust that will not yield save to the sharpest knife. Pismire thought of the patience and toil that this structure bespoke, and shuddered ever so slightly. Then, squaring his shoulders, he stepped into the passage.
He had been walking for some time before he realized that the darkness had become absolute. Looking over his shoulder, Pismire could not see even the dim faraway light of morning at the mouth of the passage, though the path proceeded arrowstraight. He could only surmise that his feet had carried him on a downward slope without his noticing, down into the mountain. Pismire’s years delving in the mines of the Emeth had left him no stranger to the dark; he could sense the walls, their proximity to him, and it seemed that the passage had neither narrowed nor widened. He was taken aback, to be caught unawares by the descent, but he would not quail nor turn back nor grope with his hands. Instead, he drew steel. Swinging his blade in broad arcs before him, he set off again at an unhurried lope, for all the world as if taking his ease on some sundappled country lane of a fine summer’s evening.
For as dark as it was in that place, Pismire fancied with something approaching certainty that he was in some wise under observation, and was resolved to show no fear. He did not puff or swagger, as Quiñones might have done; neither did he whistle or make light as might Fiddlin’ Katy. He winced a moment, thinking of her. His mouth and throat were still sour, and he remembered the bombardier’s face, and his long silence by the fire; and then he pushed that thought from his mind and moved on.
His feet made no sound on the flooring. His blade, moving in slow arcs ahead of him, encountered no wall. His toes found no drop, no pitfall or stairstep. He began to feel that he was nowhere at all.
Gradually — very gradually — his eyes began to register a faint path before him, only the slightest trail of light. He turned to follow it as it curved to his left, then to his right — then stumbled into a wall; and he realized that the feeble radiance after which he was chasing was only own sword’s blade.
He stopped and breathed deeply. The ambient light had definitely increased. He could now make out his own hands and feet, if only barely. The ceiling, he felt, had surely grown higher, and the light only increased up ahead. Pismire put his sword away and walked on.
It seemed that he walked for a long time. Dark gave way to dim, and the space around Pismire continued to open up. He kept his steps directed towards the source of the light.
And the sounds. For into the fearful stillness crept the stealthy scuffing of feet, rifflings and flutterings and dry, scuttling scratches as of clawed hands clutching; low, reedy murmurs. Sounds of industry, but of no honest labor that Pismire could recognize; no sound of mining or milling, no tinkery or coopering, no sound of spindle, loom, or shuttle, no hurly of the marketplace; but a desiccated scrabbling, a thin unhealthy rustle.
In time, as the light increased like moonrise on an overcast night, he could begin to make out shapes — figures of medium height, hunched and ungainly, scuttling through the gloom on unknown errands. Listening hard, he could hear them murmuring low to one another or to themselves — though he could not make out any words they might have said — their voices scratched and reedy. There seemed to be some dozens of them at least, in the chamber that lay before him; yet not one of them had yet given any sign of noticing his presence.
He turned around, to take a measure of the exits; and as he turned, someone pushed past him — with roughness of intention but lacking any great strength, heading down the passage towards the other with head low and arms stacked with rustling paper, carrying the faint spoiled whiff of a sickroom as it went. On realizing that he might find himself surrounded unawares, Pismire’s poise fled him and he stormed up the corridor at speed, steel sheathed but elbows swinging to clear his way if need be. None approached him, though, and soon he found himself in a great open space, all bathed in a dismal greenish-yellow light, with its far walls receding into darkness.
To either side of him were workbenches in long rows, and at each stood ranks of crooked figures, each surrounded by sheaves of paper, dipping ink with slender writingsticks that might have been carved from lightcolored twigs but that looked suspiciously like bone. At the open center of the room, into which he slowly made his way, a great throng of them milled, all on their various errands, occasionally pausing to confer one with another but for the most part taking no notice of their fellows — or of him. The creatures at their benches crouched over their books, similarly oblivious, gnarled hands making cryptic marks on the sheets before them with marvelous speed and intricacy. In the space beyond the benches Pismire could see high banks of shelves, and row upon row of folios, maps, quartos and octaves sewn and bound and set in rows like vertical brickworks, ordered in some fashion Pismire did not know and could not hope to understand. He could see one of them ascending a curious wheeled ladder to return a volume to its proper place. The shelves stretched high, their tops vanishing into the yellow glare that came from above.
Pismire squinted upwards, trying to find the source of the light. He had a momentary impression of luminous bodies, of figures naked and chained in prisons of glass; and then some creature was standing before him.
“You’re in the wrong place,” it said. “Receiving is away to the east.”
Pismire looked at it — at him, for it was a he. He stood taller and straighter then the wretched things huddled over the desks, nearly equal to Pismire in height but gray and shabby withal. His shirtfront and his cuffs (where they peeked out from the sleeves of his colorless tradesman’s coat) were much soiled, and his dull brocaded waistcoat lent no luster. Pismire sought his eyes and found them so gravestone pale he thought for a moment that the creature must be blind; but he fumbled with a silver chain hung ‘round his neck and drew up a lens as of a spyglass, as big as Pismire’s palm and set in a thing like a windowframe, and peered at Pismire through it.
“Receiving is away to the east,” he said again, in a voice like the sough of dust. “You’ll need the venom, of course. And your gear. You’ll not need that. Come along with you.”
“I have not been taken in battle,” said Pismire. “I have come to bargain with the Fatherless Ones.”
“Ah!” The creature dropped his glass and stroked at his chin as if expecting to find a beard there. “Business,” he said, the word turning to an awful hiss in his mouth, and his expression of distaste turned to a powdery smile. “Then you must be registered. You must file a writ of petition. Have you file a writ of petition?”
Pismire said that he had not. The creature sucked his teeth, a sound of mingled exasperation and pleasure. “Then we must do so at once. I shall assist, if I may.” He gave a little bow. “I am Kesef, second assistant chief clerk to this honorable enterprise. One moment.” Kesef strode to the end of one of the long workbenches and bawled, “Daghet!”
In the throng of heads lowered to their work, one looked up and blinked eyes, spattering the papers with rheum. The creature Daghet set aside his work — Pismire judged it a he, without evidence, then decided it mattered little either way — weighting down the loose sheets with something round and pale that might have been either a stone or a skull. He — it — stepped into the alley between the workbenches and made his way to where Pismire and Kesef stood, tucking his writingstick behind his ear as he came and grumbling not quite under his breath; “Writs and liens for foreclosures to copy, transfer of deeds and assignee legatees and you’d have us for a messenger.” His voice was flat and toneless. He came up to Pismire’s elbow, and gazed at him for a moment, eyes blank, and then at Kesef. Then he said, in a timbre that Pismire knew was meant to be acknowledged as audible, “Pleadings for the chief clerk?”
Kesef nodded, then cuffed him across the head, not hard and without real anger. “My amanuensis,” Kesef said to Pismire. Daghet took the blow without flinching, then grabbed a flat canvas satchel from a nearby desk and set off into the depths of the Paperghouse so brusquely that Pismire did not understand that he was meant to follow until he felt Kesef’s hand on his shoulder.
Pismire stepped after Daghet quickly, both to catch him up and to shake Kesef’s touch. The hand fell away, but Pismire fancied he could feel a cool damp there still, something he might catch like a fever. He did not much like having Kesef behind him, but the path was so crowded with bustling, grubby scribes, all laden with bundles and folios, that there was no room for them to walk abreast. He kept his eyes fixed on the back of Daghet’s neck, some ten paces ahead, the skin blistered and peeling above the grimy collar as with sunburn, though the flesh was palest white. Only when Daghet left the main floor of the scriptorium and took to a wide and dimly-lighted corridor could Kesef move up beside him.
Kesef toyed with the chain hanging at his breast. His fingers were crooked and dirty; a chunky silver signet ring glinted on one. “It will expedite your registration if we begin your writ of application while en route,” he said. His smile was thin and false. “If you have no objection.”
“I have none,” said Pismire.
The tall clerk clicked his fingers, and Daghet stopped. Producing from the satchel a polished wooden board fitted with strong cords through its corners fore and aft, he looped the contraption around his neck and shoulders. It hung flat before him, making a sort of writing-table. He drew forth a leaf of paper, and took his inkstick from behind his ear. Pismire watched him scratching away for a few moments; then Daghet looked up and grunted, “Ready.”
“Very well,” said Kesef. Then, to Pismire, he said, “Have you any name that can be rendered in words?” Pismire shook his head. “No matter. What, then, is your social orientation?” Pismire looked at him and could think of nothing to say. Kesef sighed. “Are you of some eusocial community, or are you an independent operator?”
“I am born to one of the Sharing :Peoples, if that is what you mean.”
“It is,” said Kesef. “What is your tribe or nation of origin?”
“I am of the Mélif,” said Pismire, and in the clerk’s eye he saw a gleam of recognition and avarice that made him shiver. “But I am no longer in communion with the nation of my birth, an I come to petition not on behalf of any tribe or people. Only for myself, as a private person.”
Kesef arched an eyebrow. “Daghet?” said he. “Is all is order?”
The squat one did not lift his eyes from the paper. “Petition is admissible under Clause Seven, Section Three,” he said. Daghet scratched his nose, and a great strip of dead silvery skin came away under his raggedy inkstained nails. “The form is the same, but the petitioner must countersign on the exception order prior to filing.” He put his finger in his mouth and chewed in silence.
Kesef nodded and tuned back to Pismire. “Since you plead as an individual, we must have some means to designate you in the hereinafter-referred-to. Have you some preferred alias, commonly known, to stand in place of a name?”
Pismire told him, and the clerk’s mouth closed tight in anger. “You insult the dignity of this institution and these proceedings. Such crudity of language will not be tolerated.”
“The name has sufficient dignity to satisfy me,” said Pismire. “If it offends such a horde of skulking corpse-eaters as you serve, so be it. I will stoop to treat with your master: My need is that great. But I shall not abase myself in flattery. Pismire is the name first chosen for me, and I in turn have chosen it for my own. I shall answer to no other. Not to please you, in any wise.”
“So let the record show,” sighed Kesef. “And your insolence shall be noted, as well.”
“As you wish,” said Pismire. “Am I given to understand that the marks — thereon drawn by your creature — that these marks serve to render the words we have spoken?”
“Recorded for all time,” said Kesef.
“To what purpose? I have told you little enough — surely no more than you could hold in your memory.”
Kesef shook his head. “What you who are unlettered fail to comprehend about writing is that we have freed words from the tyranny of remembering. And that is how our masters have ruled the world from of old.”
“I do not understand,” said Pismire. Beside him, Daghet had stopped writing ; he scratched absently at his ear, then tucked his pen behind it.
“Think on this, then. If you enter into a covenant with your neighbor, his debt to you shall persist only until one of you dies. Perhaps not even so far as that. Be as may you shall forget, or forgive him what he owes.” Kesef puffed out his chest and clutched the silver chain at his breast. “But when such a debt is recorded, it outlives the principals. It is passed on to your neighbor’s heirs, and to yours. If the agreement is worded right, his spawn shall never be free of it, and his progeny will be slaves to yours forevermore. Is that not pleasant to contemplate?”
“It is abhorrent,” said Pismire. “The world moves on, and all things move towards their end. It is vain to think of holding private promises as eternal.”
“You are as children, you unlettered,” said Kesef. “You place such stock in forgetting.”
“Small grievances are best forgotten,” said Pismire.
The clerk scoffed. “You have no sense of grandeur,” he said. “Small grievances, held and nurtured, may grow into great ones. And a great grievance is a thing of beauty, and a certain sign of wisdom. For surely only a great soul can accommodate a great grievance.”
Pismire kept schtum, and only stared. Daghet, oblivious, was scratching again at his ear; it came away in his hand, leaving an oozy gap at his temple. His inkstick fell clattering to the floor. He stared dumbly at the ruins of his ear, sticky on his fingers, and shook his hand violently to dislodge it. It flew some paces away and splatted to the floor; then he stooped to pick up his pen, and stuck it behind his remaining ear.
Kesef gazed at Pismire for some time, searching (Pismire thought) for some sign of agreement. After a moment, he shrugged and sniffed. “What is the purpose of your petition?”
“What do I ask of your masters?”
“I seek the means to make war,” said Pismire. “I wish to — ” He caught himself short, groping for words he had turned over a thousand times in his head, appalled at the shape they made in his mouth. “I must make war upon the Apriary, and overthrow my sister the Regina from her place of power over my nation.”
The clerk’s eyes glinted behind his lens. “Perhaps I have misjudged the depth of your grievance.”
Pismire shook his head. “I do not take this course for grief, or for gain.”
“Then to what purpose?”
“My reasons are none of your concern,” said Pismire. “Only that it is a thing as needs doing.”
Kesef sighed again, and looked disappointed. “Will that suffice?” asked Pismire.
They had stopped walking. The corridor ended in a great set of doors. Kesef made no move to open them. He moved around behind Daghet, looking over the little one’s shoulder at the paper, scowling at the marks; said nothing.
“Sir,” Pismire asked again, looking at the doors — their iron bands, their heavy locks. “Will that suffice?”
“It will,” said the clerk, at last and (Pismire thought) grudgingly. “If only just. All that remains is for you to seal it with your mark.”
“By setting your own hand to the document, you attest to the truth of it in its specifics, and further that you enter into any agreement absent any compulsion and of your own free will. Just here,” said Kesef, pointing to the figure of a rectangle drawn at the bottom of the paper. “As you possess neither the trick of letters nor a name as such, a simple cross will suffice.” He traced the figure in the air with his fingertip and smiled a thin, expectant smile.
Daghet held out the writingstick; but Pismire shook his head again. “Any mark I make will mean nothing,” he said. “For I lack the understanding of this art. How can we be bound by signs whose meanings I cannot read?”
Kesef’s smile grew deeper. “No sign has meaning in itself,” he said. “Every mark is arbitrary. Its meaning comes from the agreement of we who have the trick, do you see? It is the assent of those who participate that imbues these figures with significance. The power to read the signs is beyond you; but you have the power of assent. And that is all that is required.”
Pismire hesitated. “I am told,” said he, “that the agreements of the Fatherless Ones are inviolable. That they are bound to honor their terms — bound by powers far greater than themselves.”
The clerk’s smile faded.
“And further,” said Pismire, “that to violate those terms is to call down certain doom. Do you know the powers of whom I speak?”
The clerk tried to answer; failed; nodded.
“Then in their name, and in their sight, who hover ‘round us always, all-seeing but unseen, I proclaim the truth of all I have said.” Pismire reached for the writingstick. “What I do now,” said he, “I do by choice.”
He had no practice at letters, and the pen was a new tool for him. But his hands were clever and steady; without a tremble or blotch, he scratched out in bold strokes, black on the thick yellow nap of the page, the tidy figure of the star without points, the six-handed circle.
More next week…
Friday, June 24, 2011
More about The Honeythief. Read an updated synopsis here.
52. Sweet of Tongue
Pismire with his clever hands quickly rigged a litter from their walkingsticks and a tarpaulin. They loaded Fiddlin’ Katy on, and between the two of them carried her on further north. Quiñones gave no objection. They had come too far through too much danger to track back; his only immediate goal was to find shelter from the wind and from the snow, which was falling again in fits and starts.
Fiddlin’ Katy could not be roused. Her eyes came half-open a few times, but they could not call her back to wakefulness for long. Pismire took up the rear of the litter, looking down at Katy — the shallow rise and fall of her breathing, the passing of the color from her face, the ugly shade of blue rising in her fingers and her lips — and Quiñones at the front could feel through the ashsticks the tremble in Pismire’s arms.
The ground continued to slope down, and the timber in the highlands grew thicker, ‘til away to their north and east a forest rose of juniper and fir. The hazy sunrise filtered through the boughs, streaking shadows on the rocky western hills, and they came upon a blowdown. Two large firs in the stand of trees had been felled by the wind, and in falling had splintered the trunks of several others; the downed trees formed a rough semicircle, out of the prevailing wind. They laid down Katy’s litter and cleared a patch of ground. Quiñones gathered an armload of deadwood, and with the merest brushing of his hands kindled it into a blaze.
“That is nearly all my fire for the moment,” he said.
“It must suffice,” said Pismire. He knelt beside Katy. “Help me move her close. We must keep her warm.” He frowned. “I do not like her breathing.”
“Look at the wound,” said Quiñones. “The blade went clear through.” He came down and put his ear to Katy’s breast. “Didn’t go near the heart, but it sounds like an edge skipped between two ribs and nicked the lung.”
“She needs a surgeon,” said Pismire.
“She’ll not find one in these hills,” said Quiñones. “And anyroad, I can close her wounds.” He thrust a hand into the naked flame of the campfire and held it there ‘til it faired glowed clean. Then he blinked hard and rubbed his two hands together, and a thin sheet of blue fire gloved them, crawling and crackling. “Hold her,” he said.
Pismire knelt with his hands strong on Katy’s shoulders. Quiñones reached into the puncture in Katy’s side with the lightest touch of a single finger. Her eyes did not open, but she bucked upwards, teeth clenched and gasping. Pismire held her still as best he could. There was a brief ugly hiss and a whiff of a smell like a corpse-eater’s kitchen, and the edges of the wound sealed. Pismire rolled Katy on her side, and held her while Quiñones cauterized the entrance wound. Then they laid her back and left her resting.
Pismire wandered over to the hillcrest and stood with his back to the sunrise, watching the shadows in the valley shift and diminish. Quiñones came to his side, the snow steaming and spitting where it fell on him. “The scars will not be pretty, but there is no more bleeding,” he said. “And if it were only that, I would have no fear. But — ”
“Poison,” said Pismire, looking at the valley.
Quiñones nodded. “I’m certain of it. She’s too cold, and going blue. The Long-Livéd, she knew her medicines.”
“Her parting gift to me,” said Pismire.
“Be as may. I cannot know the venom, and I cannot know if she got a killing dose.” Quiñones stepped in front of Pismire and looked him in the eyes. “But I am afraid, my friend. I am afraid. And more than that, I am sorry.”
Pismire did not appear to be listening. He was staring down into the valley, seeming to stare through Quiñones. Quiñones turned and looked; the slope dropped away and made a sort of bowl below them its northern side ending in a blank hillside — the terminus of the pass. But it was not blank. In the flicker of the dawn, Quiñones saw the face of the hill was not of featureless grey stone, but of something else, something smooth and dull, flaking in spots, pocked and partly-collapsed in others — and a hole, no, a doorway, like a ragged mouth, wide enough for three to walk abreast, opened to the valley floor. No light dared enter within; the doorway was as black as an inkspot.
“The Paperhouse,” he said. “So we come to it at last. We’ve had a good run under the protection of the Fatherless Ones, but it seems it’s failed us at last on their doorstep.”
“I could save her,” said Pismire, very quietly.
“She needs some curative,” said Quiñones. “If we had any metheglin, she might stand a chance, but without that — ”
“I must not. You don’t know.” Pismire still stared dead ahead, down at the paper wall and its wicked door. “You don’t know what I am.”
“You would bargain for her life? With them? That is no way — Pismire, they will destroy you!”
Pismire gave no sign of hearing. “Me absolvo Imago,” he said. And he turned away from the Paperhouse and ran to Katy’s side. He dropped his pack from his shoulders and tore through it ‘til he found a small pouch — a sack of yellowgrain that barely filled his palm.
He stared at the sack with a grief in his eyes that Quiñones could not understand, and raised it over his head. Then, turning his face towards the sky, he tipped the bag, pouring the yellowgrain into his open mouth. The first rays of the rising sun caught the stream of gold dust; it glittered and sparkled as it spilled down his chin and down his throat, where his gorge worked furiously to swallow the powder.
Quiñones was agog. Miseri Imago, he thought; He means to choke himself. He sprang at Pismire, trying to snatch the bag from his grasp. But Pismire struck him — once, left-handed — and sent him sprawling.
Quiñones shook his head, and cursed himself for having forgotten Pismire’s great strength. When he looked up he saw that Pismire had drawn steel; the Mélif was holding his greatpommeled rapier towards Quiñones in a warning manner. But his blade trembled, and his eyes brimmed with tears. Pismire’s cheeks bulged, and his lips were pursed shut; Quiñones guessed that his mouth was still full of powder. Silently gesturing Quiñones to keep well clear, Pismire dropped the empty pouch of yellowgrain and unslung the waterskin off his shoulder. He was awkward in uncorking it, as he had to do the job one-handed; but in a moment he had tipped back the skin and, with a grimace of effort, swallowed the remainder of the gold dust.
Quiñones held his hands open and far apart. “Pismire, listen to me,” he said, his voice low and easy. “I do not know what you hope to manage here, but we should — ”
Pismire did not speak, but shook his head and brandished his blade. Quiñones was reminded of the Long-Livéd Bez in her last moments; the same unreasoning panic had been upon her. Pismire stepped backwards to where Katy lay at the campfire, his eyes wide and streaming, his mouth clamped shut.
As Quiñones watched, not daring to move, a jolt of pain seemed to rip through Pismire. He clutched at his abdomen, nearly dropping his sword, and his knees sagged. When he raised his head again, Quiñones saw his eyes rolled back ‘til only the whites showed. Another cramp seized him, and this time his sword did fall. Pismire struggled mightily to keep his feet. Quiñones saw to his horror that he was thrusting his fist into his own belly — hammering punches that made a meaty slap. He coughed, belched violently, then gave a soft groan; he wiped at his eyes, and at his dripping nose. Then a spasm shook him, and wretched piteous moaning welled deep in his throat.
Quiñones turned away in pity and disgust. But the splash of vomit did not some; Pismire’s retching grew fluid and bubbly, then ceased, along with his breathing. Quiñones looked back in alarm. Pismire had fallen to his knees beside Fiddlin’ Katy, half-upright, with his face turned up. His mouth was open, and was filled with thick golden liquid. A single drop had spilled over his lips and crept down his chin, falling slowly as pinepitch from a broken bough.
Raw metheglin. Stronger than any wine, elixir of healing, every dram dearer than diamonds. There had been no metheglin abroad in so long that Quiñones had nearly forgotten the sunny amber hue, but he had never forgotten the sweet pickled aroma of the bottled stuff, the way that, even watered-down, it satisfied both hunger and thirst. Sovereign proof against poison, secret of the Mélif time out of mind.
And Pismire was gagging on it.
Pismire took Katy in his arms, cradling her head. Her eyes did not open. He put his mouth to hers and held her. Quiñones could see her throat bobbing as she swallowed the metheglin passing from Pismire’s mouth to hers in his kiss — one, two, three long draughts; then she pulled her head away and coughed, and fell back onto the litter. As for Pismire, he crawled a little way on his hands and knees and was noisily sick.
Quiñones watched for a moment, trying to calculate the worth of the steaming puddle that Pismire was leaving in the snow. He knelt by Fiddlin’ Katy — the cloying, faintly rotten stench wafting over him — and took her hand in his. It was warm, and the pulse was strong in her wrist. Her breathing was deep and regular, and a blush was returning to her cheeks and her lips. The bleeding of her wounds he had stopped himself, of course, but the angry red burnmarks had faded already to the silverpink of half-healed tissue.
“Mistress Katy,” he said gently.
She opened one green eye. “Captain,” she said. Her voice was muzzy, but she was only just-awoken — sleeping, not unconscious. “Is everything all right?” she said. “What’s the hour?”
“It is just come morning,” he said. “You were injured. Do you remember?”
“Not much,” she said, and yawned.
“The Mélif has saved your life,” he said. “But you must rest now. Go back to sleep, do you understand?”
“All right,” she said, and closed her eye. “Don’t let me doze too long,” she said. “We’ve still a long way to go.” And she was asleep again before Quiñones could make answer.
Quiñones rose to see Pismire getting shakily to his feet and wiping his mouth with the back of his fist. His face was smudged with tears and snot and sticky ribbonings of filth, and his breath still came unsteadily. Quiñones looked at him for a while, then stalked away from the fire a little distance to a large stone, where he sat down. He and Pismire and Katy made the points of a triangle. They looked at each other, the two of them.
Pismire sat back on his haunches. For a long time neither he nor Quiñones spoke. At length Pismire said, “Now you know.” The words were like heavy stones from his mouth. “You know it all.”
Quiñones considered. “I have learned much that I did not expect,” he said. “Long and long your people have kept these things hidden. The source of the metheglin. The means of its making.”
“The great treasure of the Mélif nation,” Pismire said, and still his words were heavy. He scooped up a handful of snow and began to scrub his face. “And the reason the Nation has never been conquered, and never been bought. The object of desire, precious beyond the gold from which it comes. From the day of creation, there has been no one not of the Nation who has seen what you have seen. Only you.”
Quiñones, who never felt the cold, had the urge to shiver, but he held it in check. Choosing his words with great care, he said, “One thing that was not a secret. Or so I thought. I had been led to understand that the alchemy of metheglin — whatever the means — was the sole province of your womenfolk.”
“You have understood rightly,” said Pismire, looking away. “And you know, now, what I am,” he said. “What manner of thing I am. At last, you know.” His eyes were closed, as if he could not bear to meet even the gaze of the Sun. “The making of metheglin, and the Influence — these are the domain of queens. For a male to be born with such gifts” — this word, a cinder among the stones — “is an abomination, an obscenity beyond imagining.”
“And this is the reason behind your exile?”
“Had I been only the Regina’s brother, I might have stayed in the Apiary,” he said. “I might have lived out my days in peace, and enjoyed such occupations as to which our menfolk are bred. But I am a monster. And they were right to turn me out.”
Quiñones did not argue this point; and indeed it seemed to him that there was nothing whatever to say, for the moment. And so they sat silent for a moment, listening to Katy’s peaceful steady breathing and to the crackle of the fire. And at length Pismire rose and went off down the slope.
He stood a moment at the doorway, and Quiñones saw him looking back up him on the hillcrest. He looked as if he wanted to say something; but in the end he turned and walked into the Paperhouse, vanishing into the dark, alone.
More next week…
Thursday, June 23, 2011
(a play in one act)
CURTAIN RISES on a gathering SCHOLARS of soul music. They are discussing the work and legacy of Michael Jackson.
…at this point, the contribution of Quincy Jones cannot be ignored. It really ties Michael into the continuum of great American music.
Oh, agreed. Those vocal harmonies on the bridge—they’re arranged like the saxophones on an Ellington tune. Just sublime.
While the Scholars are conversing, a WHITE ROCK FAN enters.
WHITE ROCK FAN
How dare you discuss the legacy of Michael Jackson without mentioning Eddie’s solo on “Beat It”? That was a watershed moment! It was an unprecedented fusion of rock and R&B! It introduced hard rock to an entirely new demographic!
The WHITE ROCK FAN stands, pale and sweaty, as the SCHOLARS stare at him for a beat.
Well, yeah. But we’re talking about Off the Wall.
WHITE ROCK FAN
(a moment of dumbstruck silence: then suddenly shouts, throwing the horns)
VAN HALEN 4 LIFE!
Runs madly for the exit, leaving the SCHOLARS bemused.
Viz. (scroll down for the comments)