Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 8

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“The pleasure place has a dungeon?” Adia’s saw the lush comforts of the upper levels vanish as she descended. The soft lamps became guttering torches. Chains hung from the walls at random intervals. A low wind carried a damp, musky scent from deep within the catacombs.

“We service softer pleasures upstairs, but more rugged ones here.” Livia tapped one of the torches, knocking away ash until it brightened. “There is a certain decor which must be kept. Clients expect it. It adds to the mystique.” They walked to a double-barred doorway. Two guards in full armor, chain draped across their faces like veils, barred the way. They opened the door and allowed them to enter. “Welcome to the arena.”

Adia walked a miniature of the training arenas she knew from her time in central Alaque. She expected the weapon racks. Every blade imaginable, from small dirks to massive double-length swords with jagged cuts in the sides, rested in oiled wooden holders. This she expected from an arena.

But she didn’t expect the fountain.

A series of carved lion’s heads spat clear water into a small pool. Tables surrounded a central area decorated with heavy pillows. Fruit and drink of every variety rested in simple bowls.From easy view of the seating area sat an oval shaped fighting pit. Sand, freshly cleaned and lined by a rake, filled the lower area. It was not a full arena, but it allowed the combatants a measure of separation from the viewers

“Ivre’s very proud of its running water, isn’t it?” Adia dipped her fingers under the stream. It prickled her fingers. Cupping her hand, she took a sip.

“Lord Protector Claudius insisted on it. He believed clean water, especially when fed by abundant underground rivers, was a sign of civility.” Livia offered Adia the main seat before the arena.

“So, how does this work?” Adia pushed the soft, rich pillows around. They almost drowned her.

“It is simple. The room is yours for the night, as are the two fighters within. When the door closes, they will arrive, choose weapons and duel for you.” Livia spread her hands, encompassing the arena. “The purpose of the duel is to disrobe your opponent. No damage is to be done to the fighters. After, you may choose to spar with them… or engage in other physical activity.”

Adia set the overstuffed pillows aside and sat on the bare floor. “This should be interesting.”

Livia bowed. “One hopes you enjoy yourself.”

The door closed. Adia pulled a small, round fruit from a nearby bowl. She nibbled on the skin. It burst in a gush of sweet juices.

“Not bad.”

A door to the arena’s left opened. Two men entered. They wore full helmets which covered every aspect of their face and head. One helmet carried a bright red crest. The other wore bright blue fringe. The only armor they carried were vambraces and grieves. Otherwise they wore loose pants and tunics. A cut would slice the clothing, but not scar the skin underneath.

The fighters selected two long, needle-sharp swords from the armory. They raised the blades in a salute and began the duel. The cuts became a whip-cracks in the air.

Adia leaned forward, engrossed in the dance. It reminded her of Tellus’ ajedrez matches. Move and counter-move, feint and counterattack – the dance of war at high speed.

Red and Blue knew each others attacks. They fought with precision, feints and counter feints matched in the sharp ping of steel striking steel. Blue dipped his shoulder. It was slight, but enough to allow Red a stinging riposte. He drove away the blade and on the backswing, cut Red’s tunic open.

The cloth parted and fell away, revealing an oiled, muscular chest. Scars and curled yellow hair decorated his skin in equal proportion.

“Oh.” Adia took a long, slow sip of wine. “Not bad at all.”

***

“Well played.” Anton applauded, and tipped over his king.

Tellus shook his head. “It was a near thing. You nearly had me.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Anton took a long sip from his beaker of wine. “I have never seen a midgame quite like yours. Who taught it to you?”

“The best teachers I know: elders in the Red Desert, waiting out sandstorms and the heat in their tents.” An uncomfortable crowd surrounded their table. Other gamers and even couples partway through undressing for further revels watched in awe. Tellus leaned forward, cupping his mug of tea. “Are the games usually so…well watched?

“Oh, no. But this is the first time I’ve lost in half a year. They’re curious.”

Tellus nearly choked on his tea. “Half a year?”

“Does that surprise you?” Anton reset the board in a flurry of quick moves.

“Surely other players of greater skill than I have come by and challenged you? I heard grand masters face three opponents every night, and never play fewer than five games.”

“Oh, very true. And we have many good players” Anton finished his wine. It was refilled before the beaker touched the table. “Do not sell your skills lightly. You should seek out more masters and grand masters. They could learn from you.” Anton raised his hand. “But do not go to the Five Princedoms and try it without gaining more of a reputation. They respond to upset tourneys with assassinations.”

“A fair warning, I thank you.” Tellus finished his mint tea and asked for another. “Though I am still not sure I earned such praise.”

“Then let us play again. I still think you are hiding something behind those lovely eyes.” Anton stretched out, cracking his fingers. “How about a speed variation. It should convince you I’m not playing for a loss to learn your secrets.”

“You would learn such secrets by winning, too?” The tea arrived, poured by a serving man in a long stream into his cup. Jasmine tea, matching Anton’s scent note for note. “And while I am flattered by the compliment – ”

“Yes, I had heard you were a ensayyadin, a man of the faith and oathbound. You follow Atamal, yes?”

Tellus stilled. “We do not speak the name of our god. He may begin to follow us – not the other way around. How do you know him?”

“There is a scholar in the city that hungers for knowledge of every faith he can.,” said Anton. He touched his finger on one of the counselor pieces. “He often discusses matters of faith as he plays.”

“I hope to meet him, then, and play a round or two.”

“And correct him where errs?”

Tellus shrugged. “Should it come to it,” he said. “How shall we time the moves?”

Anton waved over a young woman. In her hand she carried a small pendulum suspended inside a rig. It moved very slowly. Each swing caused a tiny strip of metal to click loudly as it waved back and forth. “Twenty clicks per move.”

“Better than heartbeats between sandstorms.” Tellus rubbed his beard. “This shall be a challenge.”

Anton flashed another smile. “Most excellent.” He nodded to the timekeeper. “Begin.”

The first piece fell like the peal of a hammer. Tellus barely drew breath before his hand reached out and responded. The spare, contemplative moments between the moves vanished. Within the time he would normally take to make his second move, the midgame had already begun.

Breathe, Tellus reminded himself. In every moment, there exist hundreds of smaller moments. Time is a dune sea, with more grains of sand than one can ever count.

Each tick grew longer. Between the ticks lay all the time he needed.

Pieces moved and fell. Anton’s ability to deduce his moves and counter moves astounded him. Every attack was a prelude to another, pushing him into ceding territory on the board. He was relentless.

Tellus imagined Anton as a great dust storm, flowing from the desert. He needed to deflect the storm, to channel it away and onto itself. He built thick walls, channeling the attacks, and left only one way for the storm to travel.

Anton moved. Tellus’ heart leapt. But, before he could reach for his piece, his opponent raised his hand. “Stop!”

The pendulum froze. Anton stared at the board, smiled and laughed riotously.

“Oh, were you not a man of faith I would kiss you.” He tipped his king over. “Congratulations. A second victory.” Everyone burst into applause.

Tellus shivered. The adulation washed over him like icy ocean water. “Please, no, it’s not necessary. This was sheer chance.”

“Nonsense. Our grandmaster got careless after playing the same people over and over.” A woman parted the crowd. Tall and imposing, her eyes and hair were raven black. Thick ringlets fell across her ears and cheeks.

The sword caught Tellus eyes first. It was modeled after a simple soldier’s weapon. But the pommel carried an ornate, hand carved seal: a raven in flight over a city of Ivre’s tower.

“Ah, looks like I’ve been called out.” Anton sighed. “And I have some variety in my opponents.”

“Not enough, it seems.” The woman prodded Anton in the shoulder. “Will there be a third game?”

“I hope so.” Anton looked to Tellus.

“Yes, indeed,” said Tellus. “I would hope grandmaster Malleus would wish to even the score, lady..?”

“General.” She clapped her hand across her chest in a salute. “High General Bellia Ivre of the Raven Guard.” She pulled a low chair from one of the other tables. “But here, I’m just another enthusiast enjoying our Anton having to work for a change..”

Bellia folded her hands across the chair’s back rest and placed her chin upon her forearms. Her eyes were level with the board as Tellus and Anton reset the pieces.

Tellus finished the last of his tea in a deep gulp. A city where ajedrez matches draw generals and priests? This is either paradise or damnation.

When Anton made his first move, Tellus felt closer to the latter place than the former. He picked up his soldier and the game began in earnest.

***

Adia sat forward, fruit in hand, admiring the scene. It was down to helmets and loin cloths. Red and Blue, as she called them, took a pause after the last scrap of cloth fell away from Red’s legs. Each pieces of felled clothing taught her more and more about the duelists.

One was blonde and the other dark haired. Both were professional soldiers. The scars on their bodies mapped a lifetime of combat. They were fit. She could easily see sweat roll down the muscles defining their chests, bellies, legs and calves.

Red and Blue were lithe and quick. They had a savanna cat’s speed. The duel became an erotic art. By now, Adia knew the dance well. She saw Red’s arm steadily weakened over time. A large scar across the meat of one shoulder, dangerously close to the sinews, explained the fatigue. Even with the best of healers, the damage would create a disadvantage.

Red knew his disadvantage, and compensated with his greater speed, minimizing Blue’s attacks. But Blue knew red. He pressed his advantage with brutal strikes and quick lunges. It forced Red into expending more energy in defense, exhausting him.

Steel pinged against steel, faster than raindrops hitting the still surface of a lake. Blue drove Red back against the edge of the arena. Sand flew in arcs as his feet dug in against the assault. Adia at up. It would be decided here.

“Ha!” Red yelled out and dropped into a squat just as Blue dove forward into a disarming blow. Lunging forward, he caught the tip of his sword in the fabric of Blue’s loin cloth, just as it rested on his hip bone. It sliced the fabric. The loin cloth tumbled to the sand and left Blue naked.

“Damn!” Blue retaliated the only way he could. He quickly aimed his sword downward and caught the knot holding Red’s loin cloth. Spearing it like an apple on a stick, he cut away and left his opponent just as naked. Only their helmets remained.

Adia grinned. “Good job, Red. Exactly the blow I would have struck. Though, I think I’m the only winner here.” She tilted her head. Both were well formed, front and back.

“Now, the victor gets to rest while the loser gets to show me those parries he used.” She stretched and pulled off her boots. “Oh, and take the helmets off. ”

Red and Blue looked at each other and shrugged. Adia pulled her tunic off as they pulled away their helmets. No sense in further damaging her only clothes.

When she opened her eyes, Ulfric and Cormac stood in the sand, tired but smiling.

Adia brushed her hair back and laughed. “Really?”

“Yes. The guard pays well, but everyone has living expenses.” Ufric, once Red, leaned against a pillar and wiped sweat from his brow. “Besides, it was Cormac’s idea to start.”

“It was my idea to teach sword fighting to others. It just happened we could do both, together, for a lot more money this way.” Cormac grabbed two practice swords, and a jug of fruit juice.

Adia watched him place the swords before her as she peeled off her pants. Ufric stretched, working the muscles in his shoulders and back. They were so unlike the men of her tribe: rough and unshaven both above and below the waist. Hair curled around uncut members in untamed thatches. No fear of grove mites, or ritual cleanings with envenomed blades to keep the skin smooth for them.

“Thank you.” Cormac passed Ufric the juice jug, and followed it with a kiss. Adia held her breath. It was a simple kiss, quick and on the lips. But they lingered, touching hands and feet. Ufric brushed sand from Cormach’s cheek, and their eyes reflected nothing but love.

Jealous, Adia? she thought. No, not quite. But there was tint of envy. Lovers came and went. Life was cheap, especially under Mother Mangrove’s arms. Her tattoo kept her from unwanted children and unwanted attention; the venoms of her tribe’s sages kept disease at bay. Should she want a lover after the heat of battle, she could always find one. She was luckier than most.

But not as lucky as these two.

“Do the Raven Guard allow fraternization?” Adia hefted one of the swords, and took a practice swing.

“It depends” Ufric stretched his arm, glancing at the old wound.

When his lover was not forthcoming, Cormac shook his head and said, “It was once a tradition in the Gallatian Empire. Lovers were paired together in fighting units. They would fight as one, and if one died, the other would go into a killing frenzy.”

“Once?”

“Relations between men is considered a blight against purity by the church of the New Sun. Only places created by the exiles keep the tradition.” Cormac exchanged his juices for a blade. “It is why we never stayed with the Legion or joined any of the mercenary companies from the Five Princedoms. The unit chaplains…” He shuddered.

“Stop!” Adia playfully batted him on the ass. “Past is the past. You’ve survived it. You’re here, now, with a man you love in a place which lets you be you. Now, do you want to dance?”

Ufric smiled and smacked Cormac’s unadorned asscheek. “She has paid for the night. Can’t disappoint her, now can we?”

“No, that we can’t do.” Cormac walked into the arena. Adia followed, standing beside him and mirrored his stance.

“Good.” Adia nodded. “Now, show me that parry you did. Then, Ufric, you pulled this one low lunge I’d like to see.”

Cormac nodded. He took a starting stance. Adia mirrored it, and then she lowered her sword. “Just to ask, are you two only interested in each other?”

“We never would have suggested this if we weren’t interested in you.” Cormac brushed against her, lifting her arm back into place. He let a little ripple of breath hit the nape of her neck. Gooseflesh rose along her skin.

“I hope I stay interesting, then.” Adia put her hand behind her back, toying with the curly hairs around Cormac’s cock. He responded quite well. Laughing, he returned to his stance and walked her through the parry. They mirrored each other, sweat dripping onto the sand.

After a few more mirror passes, Adia and Cormac began to dance in earnest.

Life in the Hermitage

Old hermit Roy Ozmer reading a book at his house: Pelican Key, Florida

(Old hermit Roy Ozmer reading a book at his house: Pelican Key, Florida)

It’s been a month too long since I’ve posted. Chapter by Chapter revisions of Ivre continue. I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead and haven’t posted recently. For the one person who’s reading, I apologize. I’ve also been redrafting a short story, and working on flash fiction, but my focus has been elsewhere.

It’s been working on a massive garden remodeling project at home. I’ve been throwing myself into writing project documents, process documents and other items for work. I’ve had people visiting, and visited people.

I’ve been writing in bits and pieces, reading – but never fast enough – and finding room to breathe. And I’ve been pondering Metaphysical Graffiti, working on an outline and where I want the story to go. What does it say? What am I saying?

But I’m still here. Still noodling away. Word by word, line by line, haiku by haiku.

A little time in a hermitage wouldn’t be remiss, however.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 7

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“You build their homes like toy blocks set upon each other.” Tellus gazed up as Strom guided them through the streets. If this was where some of the poorer citizens lived, he could not see it. The streets, paved even, were clear of garbage. Even the tiniest of rooms had an open area with a small garden growing in a planter. “I feel for the old ones who live on the topmost areas. All those stairs…”

“That’s what the lift carts are for. You can’t see them, but many of the homes have small carts in the back on ropes.” Strom pointed to a stucco house seated atop a building, connected to the street by long and winding stairs. “My mother, gods rest her and keep her, lived on a topmost home.” As they traveled, she pointed out building styles from across the continent – Cunis, the Suzaranate and Gallatia, and beyond. “We tend to get a lot of travelers settling here.”

The street joined and crossed with two others in a triangular plaza. Tucked in between the high walls of the noble section, the gates of the scholar’s quarters and the great curve of the inner keep was a tall, reddish brown building.

The main archway carried a sign in many different languages, but each one read the same. The Wayfarer’s Rest. Columns created a small sheltered area outside the doors. They carried on up for at least three levels. On the higher floors, multi-layered cloth covered the entrances. Privacy for the rooms there, perhaps?

Strom walked them inside. One was already pulled aside, held open with a small urn. They walked inside, scraping their boots against a strap of metal provided for the purpose. Pegs hung beside the door, should anyone wish to leave rain soaked gear to dry.

More columns and arches. Tellus scanned the room. Like most taverns and rest homes it held a bar, stairs to the upper rooms and tables in a common area by a fireplace and small stage. But the execution was unusual. A gridline of columns and arches supported the entire room. From the X where the arches met hung glowing lamps, illuminating the seats below. Every table was hexagonal, giving one a good amount of room to sit, yet not dominating the space. There was no traditional flue fireplace. Instead a stone box jutted out into the room, holding the fire and several haunches of meat roasting on spits.

A stage, hexagonal like the tables, rested in the far corner across from the door. A woman in a red tunic and loose trousers sat in the corner, with a massive stringed instrument in her lap. She plucked at it with a relaxed fury. A man danced beside her wearing a mirror of her outfit. He carried bells on his wrists and ankles, and beat a counterpoint to his partner’s song with a small drum

In the far back was a massive stone bar, carved from some salvaged piece of marble . Behind there bar were doorways to a kitchen area and a stairwell into a basement – the storehouse no doubt.

Tellus heard Adia whistle at the sword on the wall. It was twice her height and wide as an arm-span. To him, it resembled a reaper’s scythe more than a sword. This weapon carried no finesse. It was designed for brutal, efficient slaughter, hewing through lines of soldiers like a storm felling trees.

The bartender filled a clay mug for a patron. He belonged to the sword: they looked cut from the same dark metal. A claw mark decorated one eye. The other, pale blue, reminded him of an old hunting lizard’s gaze

After a moment, he left the bar and went to the fire place, checking on the meat roasting there. The woman who took the bar was almost a laughable contrast. Where he was a massive war machine, all muscle and fury, she was a hunting snake. Build more like Adia, with the grace of a hunting cat, she carried scars across her arms and face. She picked up several bottles from beneath the bar and began mixing their contents, flipping them around as if they were toys.

Tellus throwing knives and darts tucked into her belt. He imagined her hands sending the sharp blades into a poor soul’s vitals instead of juggling bottles of spirits. Now and again, she gave the massive one’s backside an appreciative glance as he carved off long strips of lamb or boar for various customers..

“For someone who once sliced warhorses in half, he manages to carve meat with amazing delicacy.” Strom smirked. “Oh, and start with the ale. Few are ready for the way she mixes spirits.”

“I do not drink ferment.” Tellus wondered if it would be limes and waters again. There appeared to be little tea around.

“Well I drink the ferment.” Adia watched the bottles fly through the air. “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.” Strom pushed through the crowd. “Visik, damn your eyes the boar smells as good as ever.” She clapped the massive cook on the shoulder. He grinned and sliced off another fine cut of meat, serving it to her on the end of his fork. She ate it without reservation. “Gods, this is heaven after rations and lizard meat.”

“Lizard meat is amazing if cooked correctly. I need to teach your company how to properly roast one of those beasts in the field.” Visik cleaned the knife on an oilcloth and sheathed it. The butcher’s blade hung at his side like the tiniest of swords. “Glad to see you’re back. The markets were buzzing when the raven came in reporting the attack.”

“Aye, it would be, damn vultures.” Strom licked her fingers. “Gods, I’m hungry enough to slaughter a bullock for your spit. But then I’d have to drag it here by hand…”

Visik laughed. “I missed you, pup. Best damn lance corporal I ever had, you were.” He cast his eye to Tellus and Adia. “And apparently acting as a guide for newcomers to the city?”

“For now. They helped us with the raiders. May I introduce Adia and Tellus.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance. It’s been a while since we’ve had a visitor from the Red Desert. Not since the Junatai clan made their last long trade loop.” Visik offered his hand to Tellus, who shook it, and to Adia, who tried to crush it.

Visik just smiled. “It’s has been nearly six years since the last member of your tribe came through my door, lady of the Black Blade. Father Ocean and Mother Mangrove keep you. Welcome!”

Adia grinned. “A good welcome, indeed.” She pulled out the voucher. “This should cover our stay, and we thank you in advance for your hospitality.”

“Hanud’s credit?” Visik peered at the marking. He glanced to Strom, who nodded and shrugged. He handed the voucher to the lady behind the bar. “Right, Ionna will sort you out then. She can validate the seal. Have to pardon the caution. Hanud rarely gives those out.”

“I suspect the cargo we assisted him in saving would be worth more than our stay here,” said Tellus

“As he is a member in good standing of the league of city merchants, I cannot say anything ill about him.” Visik lead the way to the bar. The clogged floor opened around him. “Not without the wife giving me what-for, as she runs the bloody thing.”

“Lay off, Visik. If we denied league membership to anyone with less than friendly personalities, I’d be the only member.” Ionna held the voucher with the edges of her fingers. She brought it to a lamp behind the bar, peering at the symbol and ink through the light.

“The handwriting looks like his.” Ionna turned the page sideways. “Yes, the way he accents his N’s is unique. Now, let’s check the seal.” She produced a tiny loop of wood with two small pieces of crystal fixed in either end- a miniature version of a lookout’s scope. “Ah, yes. There it is. Love signet rings. They have their own character. And this is his, all right.” She stamped it with her own signet ring and tucked it away beneath her vest. “This will cover four nights in our most basic room. It comes with meals, but the meals are always chef’s choice. You eat what he cooks.”

“Does it always smell like that?” Adia eyed the roasting boar again.

“Usually it smells better.”

“Then I have no problems eating anything and everything the chef prepares. How much for bedding and the like?”

Ionna shook her head. “Bedding comes with the room, as does one bath a night. I’ll have Senna set you up.” She whistled. From the back appeared a young woman with the bartender’s eyes and the chef’s muscles. “We have two new guests. They will be needing separate rooms. Can you see to them?”

They were laid up from the main hall to the sleeping quarters. The stairs curled around, like a vine crawling up a tree, and spilled out into a corridor lined with rooms. A few torch sconces hung along the walls, waiting for evening to come. The curve of the stairway deadened the noise from below. Senna guided Tellus to the far end of the hallway. Across from his room, another was open. A young man, hair and features matching Ionna’s, stuffed scrap cloth and rags into a mattress.

“We have a deal with the cloth merchants. All of their scrap gets washed and sent to us.” Senna opened the door to her room. “Here you are.”

No opulent rugs or filigreed decorations covered the walls. The room held all the simple essentials: a bed to one corner, facing the door, a small table, shelves in the walls for candles, a trunk for the storage of personal items. But each essential was well made: the bed carried a fresh blanket and a mattress. It rested on a framework of wooden slats, not a simple plank with four legs. The trunk looked strong enough to withstand any blow. The wall sconces were clean and well kept, with some kind of candle tucked inside a clay jar.

And then there was the large, rectangular structure in the far corner of the room. It was small, one could sit in it if you tucked your legs close, but it was stone and the inside gleamed with some kind of glazing. Another small, glazed box sat beside it. Tellus blinked.

“Is that a tub?” He reeled from the decadence.

“Indeed. There is one built into every room. We will have hot water up soon, but if you want cold water it is in the tank beside the tub.” Senna walked over and pulled an odd device from the tub, attached to a chain. It looked like a metal tube, think and reed like, attached to a sphere with a series of holes in the bottom. “And the sprinkler.”

“The what?”

Senna dipped the sphere in the tank. “You fill it with water and place your thumb over the top.” She did so, and lifted the dripping sphere. “The water stays in until you remove your thumb.” Lifting her thumb away, the water spilled from the sphere in a small rain shower.

“Ah, a well dipper! Rarely see one so small like this. Thank you.” Senna’s brother entered with a skin made from some creature’s stomach and poured it into the tub. She thanked him, and tested the water. It steamed, and almost scalded her fingers. It would need a moment too cool.

“The room is all yours. Your companion is set across from you. If you need anything, use the bell pull.” Senna pointed to a length of rope along the wall beside the door. “And welcome.”

Tellus waited for Senna to head downstairs before checking on Adia. She had brought her table to the center of the room. Laid out in front of her were both swords, still in their sheaths. Opening her satchel, she removed several small phials of carved, polished wood, a brush, and a sharpening stone. Lighting the candle, she kneeled before the table.

“Mother Mangrove, hear your daughter as she travels far from your sheltering branches. I thank you the gifts you have given me to survive.” Adia unsheathed her swords. Carefully, she ran the sharpening stone along the cutting edges, smoothing out any nicks and burs.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the beasts in your arms. They keep us swift and strong. I thank you for the gift of their venom and blood.” She poured a few drops out of the phials onto the brush. Thick and jellied, she painted it onto the edge of the blade. Lifting one blade into the candle flame, she let the heat melt the jelly. As it cooled once passed from the flame and formed a black patina against the blade, seasoning it.

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for the scars you have given me.” She touched the two ritual scars above her breasts, the two on the small star scars just over her hips, and on the scars above her knees. There were many others, but these scars mattered most. “They remind me of the harsh world, and all which is needed to survive.”

“Mother Mangrove, I thank you for my sharp eyes, my strong hands, and swift legs. I will not dishonor your gifts, and shall use them to survive. Honor to you, to the tribe, to the family I have now and the one which is to come.”

Tellus closed the door and left Adia to her prayers. He needed time with his own gods before the night grew long.

***

“Welcome to Zarina’s Tavern.” Tellus was not a short gentleman. But the owner of the pleasure house made him feel small. She dominated the doorway, dwarfing two bodyguards. Dressed in loose, flowing silks the color of a ripe peach, her skin was a very light brown. She wore no jewels save for a simple belt and a necklace of gold embossed with swirling circles. “Please, enter. We have been expecting you.”

They stepped into a room filled with gods. Right from the doorway, Tellus saw an image of the eight armed good-queen of the Suzaranate, the starburst symbol of the Gallatian Empire’s New Sun, and even a prayer rug with the symbols of his own gods woven into it.

Adia gaped. A mangrove sat in the corner of the room. The branches tangled into the shape of a wide hipped woman, hands stretched to the sky. She walked right to the mangrove. Touching her scars, she raised her hand to the holy tree, mirroring the rise of the branches. When she finished, she rose.

“Thank you. I never thought I would see Mother Mangrove outside of our jungles.” Adia bowed. Tellus had never seen her so well behaved. No quips or gruff observations. Just awe.

“She was a gift from a member of your tribe. As were all of the gods here. My adoptive mother’s grandmother began the tradition. She felt it important to say all faiths and joys were welcome in this home.” The woman bowed. “I am Livia Paaulus, daughter of Marcus Allinius Paaulus. Welcome to Zarina’s rest. What is your pleasure?”

“A question first.” Tellus pointed to the prayer rug. “Where did you receive this? It is from the Danutai tribe. They have not ventured from our desert in two generations as traders.” The knotwork on the rug, and the particular shade of orange in the symbols for wind and vision which made the unspoken name of his God, marked for the trained eye to see. The Danutai tribe discovered an oasis in the great desert and took it as a sign to follow the god of water and earth, their time under wind and vision having passed.

“It is at least four generations old. A traveler from the tribe – a wind walker – presented it to the house after my great grandmother assisted him in translating several old scrolls he found.” Livia smiled. “Do you wish to hear the full story?”

“One night, yes, thank you.” Tellus withdrew the letter of credit. “We have been presented with an opportunity to enjoy your hospitality by Hanud, the bowyer.”

Livia took the letter into her slim fingers. She held it to one of the lamps. Her eyes darted across the page. “Ah, this is indeed from Hanud. Thank you. You are welcome to all we can offer. What is your pleasure?”

“I am told you have a champion level ajedrez master.” Tellus bowed. “I’m hoping to test myself.”

“And I heard this story about a sword dance between two men?” Adia followed the gods on the walls with her hand. “I’m interested in seeing this.”

Livia smiled and bowed. “Then follow me.” She parted the great rug covering the entrance to the pleasure house. “We are here to give you a respite from the world.”

They entered a spiritual brother to the common room at the Wayfarer’s Rest. The columns and buttresses mirrored each other; pillars arranged in a harmonious grid. A stage, a bar and the offset chimney all mirrored the other buildings.

Men and women sat around the tables, talking, playing table games, or just lazing in each other’s company. The house workers were always visible by the necklaces, carrying the same swirling patterns Livia wore. He saw pleasure, but no open whoring or groping. There were spots where the veils around the pillars were thicker, but they only masked faces, not activities. He guessed the assignations took place upstairs…and the basement.

Livia brought Tellus to a table in the back. Unlike the others, it was square, and inset with a red and white grid. A half complete game of ajedrez sat on the table. On one side, behind the red, was an older Gallatian gentleman in long, white robes. A sunburst covered the woven stole around his shoulders.

His opponent was slim and graceful, with long dark hair wrapped in braids and skin the color of beach sand soaked in ocean water. Clear blue eyes watched the board. He folded his long, delicate fingers on the table and waited. Tellus saw grace and poise and sharp intellect in the beautiful man’s smile.

“There.” The man in white moved his red cavalier, attempting to trap his opponent’s counselor and two soldiers. “Check.”

Tellus saw the error right away. The beautiful man made no sign of triumph. He moved his plain soldier and moved it into range of the cavaliers’ attack. It triggered a flurry of movement. Pieces were swapped and exchanged.

When the board came to rest, the man in white frowned. He tipped over his general. “I concede.”

The beautiful man lowered his head. “Thank you for an excellent game, Elder Pisio.”

“Once again, Malleus, you confound me. Maybe one day the New Sun will grant me the vision to see through your ploys.” Pisio stood. “But I now have more to contemplate as I play the others in the mission.”

“You are welcome back any time.”

The priest rose and bowed. He tilted his head to Tellus and Livia, and departed, covering his vestments in a dark cloak.

“Tellus of the Anutai Clan of the Red Desert, may I introduce Anton Malleus, ranked ajedrez champion by Gustavi Sanrius.” Livia offered him the seat. Tellus bowed from the waist. Anton returned the bow, rising.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. I have not played anyone from the Red Desert tribes before. What form of the game do you follow?”

“We follow the original form, as played by the Aegyptian kings, though I have played the Gallatian, Urkuran and Princely variants.”

“There are some who say it was the Suzaranate which introduced the game to the Aegyptians.”

Tellus nodded. “True, but that variation was played on all four sides of the board. It is a very different game from the two sided version which the Aegyptians spread.”

In the back, Adia laughed, snorting a little. “Oh, if they start discussing faith and philosophy, Livia, you will have to drug Tellus to remove him.”

“I shall leave when asked, please never fear.” Tellus sat in the chair across from Anton and helped re-arrange the pieces. “Which game do you wish to begin first?”

“I always begin with a simple Aegyptian rule game. As a guest, you advance first.” Anton rubbed the skin of his thumb against a small callous on his finger. Tellus knew the touch. Already, his opponent felt the pieces in hand.

“Thank you.” Tellus moved his queen’s soldier ahead two squares and the game began.

On Hugos and Wes Anderson Quotes

(Updated: Now with the Whitman Brothers…)

There is a pivotal moment in The Darjeeling Limited where the Whitman brothers, traveling through India in an attempt to reconnect as family, have a massive brawl on their train. It ends with two of the brothers being maced by the third, who runs off screaming “Stop including me!”

Having seen the recent slate of Hugo nominations, I wondered if a similar moment existed for some of the nominees. It was my understanding more than a few were added to the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy voting slates. How did they feel upon finding they were now had a dog in this hunt?

Over at Black Gate (An excellent on-line fantasy magazine, by the way. Add it to your Feedly stream.) Matthew David Surrage discusses, at length, how it felt to be added to the Sad Puppy slate and receive a nomination because of it.

It is a detailed, very thoughtful and very through review of both his own experiences as an unwilling Sad Puppy nominee and a critique of the thesis which lead to the birth of the Sad Puppy campaigns. I heartily encourage folks to read it.

As for my feelings: First, I do agree with Matthew’s assessments. He spoke with more rigor and eloquence than I could possibly muster.

Second – this is, in some ways, parallel to what I’ve seen in the grassroots community when Citizen’s United and the rise of 501(c)4’s came into being. The likelihood of a change in the rules is slim – this is the new reality. In the future, I see competing slates jockeying for our attention. For on-line media who cover the genre without publishing short stories (I see you, io9.com) this is a chance for them to start dominating via editorial picks. Who will get more attention? The Sad Puppy slate? Or IO9’s recommended Hugo nominees?

Oh, what brave new world…

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 6

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Almost there. We’re reaching the outer limits now.” Strom pointed to a series of low hills covered in walled farmlands and orchards. Late afternoon sun soaked the odd and crooked trees in amber. Winds picked up and rattled along the roadside. Even the elephants seemed to sense the trip was ending.

As they rode, the scent of the sea grew stronger. Adia suspected the coast hid behind the rocky outcroppings to their left. From the descriptions she received, this part of the coastline consisted of high cliffs and black rock. She found himself glad their former captain unleashed the creature. A few leagues north and they may have been dashed against cliffs.

“What kind of farms thrive on hillsides and cliffs?” Adia peered into the distance. She rode with Strom today and discussed business, strategy and the differences between soldiering and bodyguard work. Cormac and Ufric rode with Tellus, telling him about the legends of their land. The Baradus isles favored stories of heroic men who lost arms or hands, yet used the deformity to their advantage though cleverness and magick.

“Olive and date orchards, amongst other things.” Strom pointed to the terraced hills, connected by earthen aqueducts. Adia imagined ancient floodwaters curling against the once rocky hills, depositing soil and breaking through the weaker barriers as it rushed to the sea. Over aeons, the desert would drink in the waters. Some day, it was said, the earth would eat Father Ocean in much the same way.

“We will be meeting the outer perimeter patrols soon. I will talk with them, and then they will do a quick inspection before we’re routed to the sea gate. It’s a slow walk but you’ll get to see the city before sunset fully hits.” True to Strom’s word, the hills along the road grew high and bore the marks of stonemasons. Archers appeared along the hilltops. Unlike the ones which guarded the caravan, these carried bows much like Tellus’ – multiple curves, instead of a single one.

Two riders approached Strom. Adia glanced over her shoulder as they spoke. Hanud glanced at the sun and fidgeted in the saddle. His yakkul snorted and waved its horns, irritated. She could not blame the beast. Any sensible animal would have thrown Hanud off by now. The rest of the caravan seemed just as eager to be home, or at least well guarded.

Adia fell back beside Tellus. The logging cart next to them rumbled away. Afternoon shifted into very early evening before they first saw Ivre. A gentle slope took the smaller road onto a massive causeway. Thousands of footsteps beat the stone and sand into a flat pathway, big enough for five elephants side by side. To the east the great roadway traveled to the docks cut from the sea cliffs. Ships still unloaded their cargo onto oxen and elephants even as the night approached

Ivre showed itself in a beam of rose-colored light. Adia stared at the city’s tower: a pillar of pure marble stretching skywards from the city’s heart. It dwarfed the massive keep surrounding the base, built from the same stone which lined the coast. A beam of light would sweep from a massive crystal seated atop the tower and illuminate the coast.

“The sorcerer kings of old knew how to make their navigation beacons, eh?” Cormac trotted beside them. Adia could see generations of soldiers and generals building this city. The inner keep held a clear view over the rest of the city as it stretched out to the outermost walls. Four stout towers kept the city and the approaches in view They jutted from the corners in strange oblongs. And the walls were not straight, but curved slightly, dipping in wards.

Ah, I see. They prevent blind spots. Outside the massive city walls, a smaller city of low brick houses and stone walls hugged the city for protection. They faded out into the hills, merging with the farmlands.

“Is that an eye on the gates facing the sea?” Tellus pointed to the two massive doors spread wide apart. The construction was not fancy – timbers worked and riveted together, held in place by massive iron bands – but the scale impressed. Two columns of elephants and their carts, one entering and one leaving, flowed through the massive portal.

“Indeed. The doors are made from old ships and imported woods. The original gates for the inner part of the city contributed wood to the final ones.” Strom pointed to several notches within the door, facing inward. “The Lord Protector who designed the door also made an inner set.”

Adia nodded. “Ah, I see. In case of storm or siege, you can winch down braces which tie the doors together. The two doors become one, and create a kill zone between them.”

“And the words?” Tellus peered at the massive carvings along the door. They mirrored ones cut in the walls, in six different scripts. “Is it the same set of phrases?”

“‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” Adia smiled, enjoying everyone’s surprise. “I can read at least three of those languages, thank you.”

As they traveled under the archway, men in red vests walked to the elephants and lead them through the crowd. She saw similar uniforms worn by others tending the animals: a porter’s guild.

The inner gate gave way to a massive plaza. Columns, almost as high as the city walls, ringed the market space and sheltered permanent store spaces and workshops clustered. She saw a blacksmith’s in one part of the market and smelled a tanner’s in the other. People of every kith and clan made way for the massive caravan.

Adia looked upwards, unashamed. Guardsman patrolled the parapets and causeways, which linked to a barracks in the center of the market. Raven Guard filed up along the side of the wagons, inspecting them, before lining up and presenting arms. Strom checked her troops, nodded seriously, and dismissed them. She dropped from her yakkul and watched as the mounted soldiers cared for their beasts. Adia and Tellus followed Cormac and Ufric’s lead, returning their borrowed mounts to two of the Raven Guard.

“Hurry up!” Hanud road up to the sledge with the heartwood stacks. “I need this in my storehouse by sundown. I’ll pay you double to clear the whole sledge.”

“Then maybe you will compensate me for taking my part of the shipment?”

Adia looked up, over the crowd. A dark-skinned woman with almond eyes stood beside a group of porters, arms crossed. She wore a simple brown tunic, belted in the middle, with long flowing trousers and battered boots. Curls of wood hung in her ebony hair. Glue stains dotted her clothes.

Her hands fascinated Adia. Calluses dotted the fingers. They matched the ones she saw on Tellus – another archer. Moreover, another bowyer. And here is the rival.

“The porters know their business, N’Talle.” Hanud waved dismissively. “This load is mine. You don’t need that much heartwood for the small orders you have to fill.”

“And you do not need the fines for remarking wood shipments meant for others. Again” She clambered onto the wagon, looking at colored fabrics nailed into the feet of each log. “Ha. Your old eyes missed it. My section of the heart wood is on the bottom. I can wait while your porters take your section.” N’Talle hopped off the cart with ease. She gave Strom a quick bow. “Captain, I heard there was an attack on the caravan. How did your troops fare?”

“We did take casualties. I will have sad notices to send to some family members.” Strom unbuckled the straps of her chest plate, loosening it and pulling at the padding beneath. “But we had assistance from two travelers.”

“Adia and I had the fortune to be where we could help.” Tellus bowed his head respectfully. “Tellus of the Anutai Clan from the Red Desert, at your service.”

“Adia of the Black Blade tribe, and available for hire at this point.” Adia smiled and crossed a hand across her chest.

N’talle bowed to Adia, but fixed on Tellus’s back. The outer curve of his bow drew her attention. She almost slipped, staring the way she did.

“You carry a beautiful bow.” N’talle spoke, voice low, in the language of Tellus’ people.

“Thank you.” He bowed his head once more.

“Yes, they were quite instrumental in turning the battle.” The exchange did not go unnoticed by Hanud. He waved over a young man carrying sheaves of paper.He scribbled a note onto one and stamped it with a signet ring.

“Here. A note of credit for the two of you.” He handed it to Tellus. “This will see you room and board at the Wayfarer’s Rest. It is the finest lodging in the city. And…” Another quick scribbling on the page, another mark, and Hanud handed Adia a second voucher. “This will give you a night at the Zarina’s Tavern, the only true pleasure-house of the city.”

Adia tightened her grip on the page. “Are you making an assumption of my interests and whom I prefer to keep company with?”

“And I think you assume what I enjoy doing…” Tellus crossed his arms. “I was ordained as ensayyadin. They preclude me from taking advantage of the pleasure houses.”

Hanud raised his hands. “My apologies, you misunderstand. It is not that kind of pleasure house.”

“Well, it is.” Cormac knocked on the side of his saddle. “But it’s more than that. All pleasures are welcomed there. They’ve got poets reading on a regular basis.”

“And there’s a ranked ajedrez master in residence.” Ufric brushed his mount as they spoke. “They say he’s beaten every scholar and in the city at least three times.”

“No, four.” N’talle smiled. “They held a tournament while you were out. He rousted the entire college, including the Lady Protector’s husband. You could see them spitting fire and magick in frustration.”

Adia saw an itch crawl up her companion’s fingers Tellus lost his small ajedrez set during the shipwreck – a gift given to him by his father before he began his travels.

“Still nothing to interest me, though.” Adia handed Tellus her voucher.

“There are the duels.” Cormac stepped forward. “Arms demonstrations.”

Adia shrugged. “If I wanted to watch two people fight, I’d hang around practice yards.”

“Not like this.” Cormac smiled. “It’s more art than war. The objective is not to hurt or injure the other one, but to carefully cut away the opponent’s clothes…”

“…and the loser is left naked.” Ufric rubbed bits of dander from his hand. “Good show last time I was there.”

“Sounds a bit like blade dancing…” Blade dancing was a storyteller’s art back home. Dancers carried history and recited it back with each movement. The thought of using it to tell a dirty story never crossed her mind. She pursed her lips. “Well, as long as the dance paid for I might as well give it a go. At least I won’t be bored while Tellus contemplates the intricacies of strategy and gameboards.”

“Then it is settled.” Strom gave one last glance to the caravan. “Tellus, Adia, if you come with me I can escort you to the Wayfarer’s Rest. Just one small note, though. Do not start a fight there.”

Tellus blinked, looking genuinely hurt. “You think we’d break hospitality?”

“In all fairness, we do look rather… unsavory, Tellus.” Adia brushed her hands against her ragged trousers.

Strom laughed. “I warn everyone who stays there. Giant-killer of a sword over Visik’s fireplace is not for show.”

Adia’s paused, then laughed. “So that’s what he meant…”

Tellus frowned. “That is what who meant?”

“My father.” She stooped, and deepened her accent. “‘You’ll go many places and see many things. But the one thing you must never do is start a fight in an inn where a sword hangs behind the bar. It means the innkeeper knows how to use it, and survived long enough to retire!'”

“Soldiers never retire.” Strom motioned them deeper into the city. “He and his wife head the merchant’s council. They traded one kind of war for another. Now, come, let’s get you settled.”

They followed Strom into the city. Adia glanced behind her. N’talle and Hanud ordered their respective porters around. One would watch the other, waiting for any sign of theft. But in spare moments, both bowyers turned and watched Tellus vanish into the crowd.

Who is this Biomechanoid?

“Who are you?”

This isn’t just one of the great existential questions permeating our existence. For folks who’ve followed me since I began this on-line venture, it’s a legitimate question. “Who is this guy? What does he think he’s doing? What’s with the book chapters?”   Although some of this is covered in the About page, I wanted to dig a little deeper.

Now, I could write something like this:

“Author. Visionary. Dreamweaver. Andrija Popovic’s literary powers have stunned the community into silence. The publishing world is unable to comprehend the sheer primal nature of his antediluvian brilliance. But here, today, at this moment, you can experience him via the shared consciousness within…. the internet!”

But really, it would be an excuse to post this photo again while making an oblique reference to Garth Marenghi. No, the truth is much more mundane.

I was born in one of the nicer parts of the DC metro area. Both my parents are immigrants – one from Serbia and one from Venezuela – so I’ve never quite had a normal relationship with the world around me. I felt both American, and alien, all at once. This solidified when I was very young, and saw my first episode of Cosmos. The episode was “The Life and Death of Stars” and, at the very end, I watched Carl Sagan describe a galaxy rising on the shores of a distant planet.

Over the end credits the pinwheel of the milky way rose over a deep blue-green ocean. Hints of a fiery sunset touched the tops of the waves. My jaw literally dropped and, for the first time in my life, I wept for joy. Every time before, in my memory, I wept out of shame, pain and humiliation – usually at the end of an intense spanking. Not this time.

I wanted to be on that planet. I wanted to see that sunrise. I wanted to feel the sand under my feet. Would it be the same sand? Would it feel different? How would the breeze feel?

Most of the kids around me didn’t think like this. They were focused on the Redskins, or rough-housing during the play periods. I was weird. Football didn’t interest me. Weird places and unusual ideas did. I started writing then. Writing, and later photography, would keep me going through very rough times. They were secret joys, hidden from the demands of family or money. My hobbies, my secret forays into the arts, kept me sane.

But in the last few years, something turned. For the longest time, I was writing, but not for myself entirely. I wrote as a vent, or a way of getting the attention of selected folks.  The point wasn’t to tell my stories, but to tell stories I thought others wanted. But as I wrote my way through short stories which went nowhere, and what would become my first novel, I started writing more and more about the stories I wanted to read, and wanted to tell.

“Well, what stories do you want to read? Which ones do you want to tell?”

I’m still discovering this. Like many things, I’m late to the party but trying to catch up as best I can. This journal, focused on my writing, my convention experiences, thoughts on genre, is one way I’m trying to answer those questions. It my be the long-way around. But it’s how I learn and grow. But as you can probably tell from this entry, memories and the ripples pact acts have on the future interest me quite a bit. As does identity.

“Who are you?” I’m a work in progress. I’m both the same person who started this blog three years ago, and yet not the same person in the least. I am a biomechanoid under constant construction. And this is where you can see the work in progress.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 5

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

“Bartolio! Why are you not enjoying yourself?”

“I am the host, Praet.” Bartolio Milicara bowed his head and clapped his hand Kidina’s shoulder. The gilded edge of his silken red robe whispered against the floor. He was a study in contrasts with the other noble. Beneath his robes were a simple set of trousers and a tunic of good fabric, hiding a fit body leaning towards middle age. Kidina wore layers of silk woven with as much gold, silver and precious gems his corpulent body could manage. “Guests always take precedence. Please, enjoy. After the fight…”

“… we have earned it.” Kidina raised his wine gobblet. He drank a little, and poured the rest down the body of the half-naked pleasure girl in his lap. She giggled convincingly and pretended to enjoy the wine soaked through her white shift. Kidina dragged his chapped, broken across her wine-soaked clothes.

Bartolio swallowed bile and smiled. He hated these events, and hated hosting them more. But they were expected, especially after a victory against Praet Irtolus conservative factions in the city council. Another roadblock to newer merchants establishing themselves removed, and only hundreds more to go.

But as wine flowed, and it washed away inhibitions. Decorum decayed. He gradually replaced his normal serving staff with pleasure servants of both sexes. They were trained and well compensated for their services. His staff worked hard and the meaty caresses of one like Kidina was no reward.

He hated these events because, sadly, they worked. A mix of young merchants and first generation nobles mingled and talked. The merchants interested him the most. He spoke to the nobles every day at council. Like him, they were once scholars, traders or political operatives who were gifted with land, title and responsibility by the Lady Protector. But the merchants either recently acquired homes in the permanent markets, or were long-time residents of the constantly shifting bazaar on the city’s west side. They fought and scrapped for every piece of respectability they could get.

Bartolio saw fire in their eyes as they talked of the future. They hoped their children could live better lives than they did. New Sun preserve them, the city needed the fire if it was to survive.

Bartolio touched the sun blossom pendant under his robes. Warmth filled him. He returned to his guests, seeing to their needs.

His home felt alien. Its previous occupant found himself at the wrong end of the Lady Protector’s justice. At trial’s end, she ennobled Bartolio and gave him all of his predecessor’s possessions – a public reward for the private work exposing the old Praet’s crimes.

He did his duty, and followed the Sun’s teachings, and was rewarded. Bartolio tried to make the place his own. He preferred classical Gallatian styles, with their emphasis on pure geometries and harmonious ratios, to the more ribald later period, or the more extensive scrollwork and buttoning favored by the old Praet.

There was not much he could do with the explicit stonework in some rooms of the house but cover it with cloth and tapestries until the masons could get in.

It was in the library where he spared no expense. Here his scholarly roots blossomed into a garden of delights. Volumes and scrolls on architecture and design filled the rear wall of the library. He decorated the honey-comb like shelves with images of great buildings from across the known world. Sciences, histories and travelogues dominated the left hand side of the library. A rare map of the known world on lizard skin centered the collection. And on the right were the more creative works: folklore and legends from across the world, magickal treaties, and books on art and light.

A thickly woven rug from the Suzerainate covered the floor, inscribed in unique spiral and diamond patterns. Two chairs, thickly padded and slightly angled, sat beside an octagonal table tea table. Light streamed from a rune-covered dodecahedron. It collected sunlight in the day and streamed it out after dark. On cool nights, he could step into the library and feel the warmth of the day on his face.

Bartolio expected the library to be empty but for the mug of mint tea he left there before the party. But he found one guest there.

She held a book in her lap and a cup of tea in her hand. She wore woven shawl, decorated with brass coins, over a simple red robe with black trim. Black leather sandals wrapped her feet, worn but attractive. Her hair, dark as ink, curled under a simple headdress which covered her forehead and flowed down her back.

Bartolio coughed, politely. “Lady Davia, I hope your needs are being attended?”

N’Talle Davia lifted her head, startled. Her bright green eyes glowed in the sun, a sharp contrast to her terracotta skin. Shemarked her place in the book with a strip of cloth, and cradled it against her lap like a newborn.

“Oh, I beg your pardon. Yes, thank you, I am very well attended.” She touched the teapot beside her. “The mint tea is just perfect.”

“And how are you finding Umbero’s treatise on material strength and weight tolerances?”

“Amazing!” N’talle re-opened the book. “The tests he used to determine the flexibility and strength of objects and materials are so simple. Yet, they are repeatable and accurate. And then there are the composites he discusses…”

“This was the first book my mentor gave me when I first studied architecture in Urkur.” And back in Neffalio, before the grand exile. He suppressed memories of his father bundling everyone in blankets and rushing out of their childhood home. “I have this book to thank for my initial successes. Without it we would still have rickety walls protecting the neighborhoods outside the walls and sink-holes in the southern sections of town because of bad rain drainage.”

“All crafters owe a debt to those who studied and explored before us.” N’Talle bowed her head. “And I thank you, too. Without your efforts, I would have lost two of my best fletchers to the law. My business would be crippled.”

Bartolio raised his hands. “You directly contribute to the Guard and the city’s defense. You helped show how proposals such as this weaken the city as a whole. This is your victory.”

“A victory. There’s still more to do.” She sipped her tea. “And I thank you for all you are doing.”

“You are most welcome for any assistance I could provide.” He bowed. “Now, what else can I offer?”

“Praet, you have given me a library, warm mint tea, the single greatest reading light constructed and a moment of peace.” N’Talle smiled. “You spoil me.”

Before he could respond, one of his staff, Tiri, entered the room. She shivered and covered herself. Soaked to the skin in spilled white wine, her practical shift was as translucent the courtesans’ clothes.

“Sir, Praet Vadello entered the kitchen and found issue with one of the vintages. He asked to speak with you on this matter.”

Bartolio hid his clenched fist behind his back. He bowed to N’Talle. “My apologies. This needs attention.”

N’Talle bowed her head, touching her forehead with two fingers. “Please, do not let me keep you.”

“Thank you. Tiri, please, lead the way.” Bartolio touched his amulet in prayer.

Part way down the hall, Tiri stopped. She raised a finger against her lips, and looked up. “He is here.” She whispered. “He wishes to see you in the usual place.”

Barolio nodded. He made the sign of the Sun over Tiri’s forehead. “Thank you for your faith and patience. Please, rest for the remainder of the evening. I know dealing with him is tiresome.”

Tiri smiled, clutching her soaked clothes for a scrap of warmth. “Thank you, Praet.” She ran down the hall to the servant’s quarters. Bartolio walked up carefully hidden stairs to the master bedroom.

When he moved in, the bedroom puzzled him. Settled at the top of the house, it was built with two rings of supports around a single master pillar. The outer room, decorated on columns and chairs and gauzy curtains, showed the whole of Ivre. Chairs dotted the inverted balcony space. One could imagine many long discussions here, with the old Praet pointing to the city as if he owned the buildings and the people within.

The interior room felt cavernous. The ring design continued, creating massive amounts of space, only broken by the firepit and flue, and a sunken bed. One could lie in the bed and see the bathing tub, designed for at least four, without obstruction.

Bartolio’s first night, he felt open and exposed. On the second day, he ordered and installed several decorative privacy.

But then there was the central column. It did not bear any loads or connect to any supporting structures on the floor below. The design of the final floor used the outer ring of columns and the roof structure so all weight was evenly distributed. There was no need for an interior support.

Then Bartolio touched one of the carved stones on the central structure. A door opened. Within was a small room, big enough for three to sit comfortably, and watch everything.

Of course, he was waiting in the room when Bartolio arrived. He sat in one of the overstuffed chairs, bathed in the light from the viewing crystals. Cut with powerful runes and filled with magickal energy, each of the great crystal slabs mounted on the walls in the room tied to a smaller one hidden within the house. No space was unwatched. Glance to the left, and you saw the kitchen larder. A look to the right, and you saw the private room, were two guests were fumbling for their clothes.

And in the center of it all sat Evericus.

“Sun’s light shine on you, Praet.” He had no accent. His face was unremarkable, framed by thinning hair. Pale brown eyes watched the crystals with no particular sign of interest or excitement, just the calculated gaze of a predator studying potential prey.

“And with you, Evericus.” Bartolio sat down. He followed Evericus eyes to a specific crystal facet. It spied on the library, where N’Talle still read. “Did you find nothing of value from the other guests?”

“Nothing the Church does not already know. But finding the sins of the powerful is easy.” He leaned forward and pointed at N’talle. “It’s finding the sins of one unaware of power which requires more work.”

“Perhaps she has no sin to find?”

“She is a heathen, without the light of the Sun. She carries sin. It is a matter of finding it and using it.”

Evericus sighed. “Let me guess? ‘We do what we must, for the good of all?’

“Indeed. The enemy presses at us. Evil literally sits at our shores. We must defend the faithful. We cannot do so through good living alone.” Evericus rose and touched one of the crystals. The image rippled, and reformed. A young girl, naked and vulnerable, knelt beside a small shrine to the New Sun. She prayed to the tiny figure within, its golden arms wide, backed by a sunburst. Bartolio paled. Tiri.

“The faith must be defended.” Evericus made a starburst across his chest. “We will ask for forgiveness afterwords.”

“I assume you’re not here to lecture me.” He walked up and blocked Evericus’ view of Tiri’s room. “What would you have me do?”

“There was an attack on the caravan bringing wood from the south.” Evericus crossed his hands behind his back. “You’ll hear of it soon enough. I need you to make gestures to Haunud, as well as N’Talle.”

“Hanud? He’s funding the opposition.”

“Thus why showing concern for his business, as well as that of your allies, will make you seem magnanimous.” Evericus walked to the exit. “Remember your place, Praet. It’s a small request. Follow it and I’ll try to keep future requests… small.”

Evericus opened the walls and stepped out of the room. When the door sealed once again, Bartolio fell into one of the chairs.

He watched N’Talle read, playing with a lock of her hair, toe still wrapped in a sandal strap. On the other crystal, Tiri tried to wash wine from her hair. She had another set of clothes laid out, ready to go back to work.

“You’re right, Tiri. Time for all of us to get back to work.” He sat up, straightened his clothes, and pushed his face into a smile as he ventured back into the party.

***

“Damn the bitch. And damn the desert dweller as well. I hope the sea’s devoured them.” Girad spoke the words like a prayer as he rowed. Jasbel focused on not losing his makeshift oar. Together, they pushed a remnant of their ship,Orhalcion, towards the glimmer of shore.

“If you’re going to damn anyone, damn the captain. He opened the box. Against their advice.” Jasbel looked up, searchig for stars. The unnatural mist which poured from the wreck of their ship followed them. It blocked any chance of proper navigation. So they focused on the shadows of land they saw through the darkness.

“We never would have found the wreck if it was not for the desert dog’s eyes. And the captain never would have opened the box if he was not attempting to impress the bitch.” Girad gripped his timber in salt-cracked hands. He begged for splinters to bring feeling back to his fingers. The waters remained unnaturally cold. He suspected they moved away from shore, into the deeper ocean, but said nothing. They needed what hope they could scavenge.

“If you say women on ship are a curse one more time, I will club you over the head with this plank, Girad, cousin or no cousin.” He glanced to the canvas and crossbeam remnants they rigged as a sail. The wind tugging the cloth faround, but he felt nothing against his skin. Jasbel whispered another prayer to the seas. Forgive my cousin’s vengeful heart. Please take my prayers in stead and see us to safety.

“I do not say all women on ship are curses. Captain Selia runs a good ship, for example. I only say this woman was a curse.” Girad looked up at the horizon and stopped rowing. “Oh, gods be merciful, please look ahead and see what I see.”

Jasbel looked, and his heart leapt. The dark shadow of solid ground filled the horizon. Even from this distance, he saw rocky outlines. This was no illusion of hope, it was land. “I see it, Girad. Now row, dammit, row.”

“Aye, cousin.” They dug into the water, hope fueling their efforts. The shore grew more distinct. Jasbel never thought the cliffs of eastern coastlines would bring him joy.

“Rocks. Low rocks. This means we may be close to Ivre!” Girad laughed. “If she survived, she would be there. I could find her…”

Jasbel gritted his teeth. “You need to actually reach land first, now row!” Driftwood, sea fronds and scraps of barnacle covered detritus bumped against their legs. Their arms and backs burned with exhaustion.

And then the tip of a rock grazed his toes. The moment Jasbel’s foot hit solid ground, he laughed. When oar hit rock, he wept. Girad yelped and hollered. Together, they pulled themselves onto the black stone.

“We can’t dally.” Jasbel hauled the makeshift raft further up the broken coast. He stumbled. The ground wobbled under his feet. “My legs feel like jellied eel.”

“Don’t mention food, for gods’ sake. The tripe crawling along the shoreline looks good right now.” Girad fell against their chunk of hull. “Stop, cousin. We’re away from the shore. Let me rest.”

Jasbel panted. “Aye.” He sat on a flat rock. Water lapped on the shoreline, a mother’s lullaby. He watched the mist from his breath mix with the foggy air.

“The fog has followed us.”

“It probably covers the coast, Jasbel.” Girad levered himself up on his oar. “Let is see how far we are from the cliffs. Maybe there’s a path up.”

“Give me a moment.” Jasbel braced against his own oar. The ground shuddered. He almost lost his footing against the wet rock. For a moment, it felt like a ship turned into the tide. It would be a while before his land legs returned.

They walked inland. The sharp rock beat sensation back into their icy feet. Jasbel looked for any sign of high rock walls, which marked the coast of Ivre. Nothing but flat rock greeted him.

“Did you feel that?” Girad spun around. “Something sticky touched my leg!”

“Pinpricks. We’re half frozen. Keep an eye for any dry driftwood. We will need a fire soon.” Jasbel shivered. He grabbed a handful of his hair and wrung it dry. When his hand came away, he felt sticky webbing caught against his fingers. He looked at his palm. A thin line of silk, gleaming white even in the darkness, crossed his palm. He rubbed at it with his thumb.

“Oye! You!” Girad waved his arms and ran into the fog. Jasbel cursed, hefted his makeshift oar, and hoped his cousin had not chosen this particular moment to go mad.

But soon, he saw the figure, too. A man, wreathed in the fog, waved them forward. Jasbel hissed to Girad. Fog parted, and saw the terrain for the first time.

No rough scrub or other plants clung to the rocks. There was nothing but a white spider web, woven into the earth itself. Light filtered into the air. White crystals, quartz pulled from deep within the earth, glowed like oil lamps set behind milked glass. He stopped. The ground continued moving beneath him.

This was not land. They were still at sea. This was a ship.

“Girad! Stop!”

“Jasbel, it’s Kerr!” The light grew stronger and he saw the figure more clearly. It was indeed, Kerr, the ship’s boatswain. He wore layers of odd cloth, scraps from a hundred different outfits woven together, and a hood. “Gods, Kerr, why did you not say anything? Where did you find that?”

“You. You are – Girad. Yes?” Kerr’s voice creaked and snapped. “Yes. Girad. And Jasbel. Cousins. Shipmates. We remember you.”

Jasbel held his oar as a club. “Back away, Girad. It is not him. Listen to his voice, it is not him.”

The creature who looked like Kerr nodded. “He, Jasbel, is correct. We thank Kerr for the use of his form and his mind. We are glad he is familiar to you. We seek help.”

The hood dropped away. Kerr’s face, narrow and sharp, rested atop another man’s body. Thick, glue-like thread stitched the two together. A chunk of ocean-blue crystal replaced his skull. Thick, finger-like protrusions stretched the face in a parody of natural speech. Hunks of rock, driftwood, metal and other garbage created the neck and part of the spine. All was lashed together , like a puppet built from the sea’s leavings.

“We seek your help.” As the creature spoke, the mechanisms behind the stretched skin clicked and chittered.

Girad lowered his oar. Eyes wide, chin quivering, he hauled breaths between his teeth. “Kerr? Gods…”

“We seek your help,” repeated the thing wearing Kerr’s face.

“Seek death, demon!” Girad howled. He drove the oar into the creature’s skull. The blow tore Kerr’s face free. The delicate mechanisms holding the mouth and neck in place shattered. The creature stumbled backwards.

“No! Stop!” Jasbel yelled in vein. Girad spun around and took a second blow. The flat of his makeshift club crashed against the creature’s ruined neck. It’s skull tumbled down onto the rock. The body collapsed, a puppet without strings.

“Why?” On the ground, the skull cracked and unfolded. The thick fingers became a multitude of legs. From under the face’s remnants a tiny crystal hermit crab appeared. Wide, alien eyes and a broad mouth stared at him. The small pincers where one would envision arms clicked. “Now the soldiers and builders must act. We are sorry.”

The earth moved. Tunnels of webbing and rock pushed up from the ground. Doors like the valves of a great heart opened and spilled forth more crabs. From the mist came a clanking noise. Jasbel saw armored forms, covered in urchin-like spines, rise from the ground.

Crystal crabs encircled them. The one who once wore Kerr’s face looked at him, blue eyes wreathed in sympathy.

“Forgive us. We had hoped we could speak. But time and sympathy are short. We need more information. We need to know about Ivre.”

The chittering and clicking grew. Thick, dripping strands of white silk drifted from the gauntlets of the armored dead, twisting into sticky whips. Jasbel lashed out, but the glue held fast, wrapping around him in a thick cocoon. The other creatures clustered around them. Blue energy drifted from their tiny pincers. The rocks and crystals a their feet turned to clay, wrapping up along their legs and rooting them into place.

“There will be pain at first. But the pain will cease when we have disassembled your nerves. Please forgive us.” Tiny legs ran up along their legs and chest, taking positions on their skin. Tiny blades of blue light formed at the tips of their pincers, poised.

And then one began cutting into Girad. He howled as it peeled away a long, thin strip of skin, like an orange rind pulled away from the pulp.

“Oh, Girad. What have you done?” It was all he could say before he began screaming. He only stopped when a small blue pincer disassembled his voice box.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 304 other followers