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.

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 4

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

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

“Garis?” Quin Bin Laval poured a handful of seeds mixed with scrap meat into a tray beside the raven cage. Cawing with delight, the ravens landed on the battered wooden feeding tray and feasted on the bloody mix. “Has the last of the reports come in for the night?”

“We do have a latecomer.” Garis walked to the cage. A raven sat on his left forearm. “Oh, and we’ve also got a dinner invitation from your family. Again.”

Quin stroked the bird’s head, smoothing its ruffled plumage. He fed it a bit of rat. The second set of eyes scribed onto the raven’s beak glowed, red as rubies. They blinked in time with the bird’s eyes. Subtle sorcery, but it allowed him to see the position and condition of every bird in their care.

He pulled a small leather cylinder from the bird’s left leg. Once free, he uncapped it and removed the tiny note inside.

“It looks like there was an attempted attack on the caravan coming south from the logging settlement.” Quin shook his head. “No real casualties but it may delay them a day while they burn the dead.” He brushed back his long, dark hair as it caught in his eyes. The wind grew more demanding, tugging at his clothes. Dry, hot days like today lead to cold, windy nights.

“We can consider it as part of the books.” Garis opened the cage door and allowed the raven to settle into its usual perch. “Now, should I tell your family we’re on our way? Or are we staying home. Again.”

Quin watched Garis check the cages. He ran his long, tapered fingers over the gridwork and along the doors. He lost one raven to a break in the cage. It stuck its head in and, so caught, strangled itself to death. Garis refused to lose another one.

Handsome, attentive and a bird lover. Perfect husband.

“I’ll send mother our regrets.” He kissed Garis’ forehead. “But soon. Tonight, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

They descended, oil lamps in hand. The yellowish glow flickered across the daubed mortar walls. They made their way to the main study. One floor beneath them sat the living quarters. Beneath that were the kitchens and servant’s quarters. And beneath that, on the ground floor, stood the great mercantile exchange of the city of Ivre. It was the financial heart of the city, where Quin stood as its executor and arbiter.

But the real work was done in their study. Deep bookshelves and scroll holders covered every wall. Enclosed lamps with glass doors and polished brass reflectors kept the room bathed in light. A massive table of dark, knotted wood sat in the center of the room.

At this table, Quin and Garis controlled the markets of Ivre. Every day, goods and coin from dozens of nations were traded. Prices were set and fluctuated based on demand, supply and other factors. On the floor of the great trading room, dozens of scriveners noted where prices began and ended, and how they changed. At the end of the day, they reported to Quin, who compiled all their work into the next day’s starting prices.

The city took a tiny bit from all transactions. The trading of commodities and exchanging currency from across the globe brought in a tidy sum and helped keep the city maintained. They did their best to manage the corruption and cheating. Like sand and dirt, it was impossible to keep out of the house. But, moments when an ambitious newcomer sought to overturn the system were handled by a quick trip to the basement.

Quin reached for a large leather scroll, the size of a decorative rug. He unrolled it onto the table. A map of the known world, from the Baradus islands in the Gallatian Empire to the Suzaranate Empire, down to the very tip of Alaque where storms, forests and the remnants of the Temeran empire hid, covered the battered table.

They rang to the kitchen for dinner. Quin sent a raven to the Lady Protector’s tower, informing his mother they would not be able to attend. Garis arranged that day’s notes and read through them:

“The Gallatian’s war is first in everyone’s mind,” said Garis. He read through one report after another: Fears of the Empire’s war along the west coast of Alaque spilling into the central regions lead to a run on mercenaries, building materials, food and other materials. The commodities market would see another jump.

“I’m sure it has my sister in a fit.” He tapped Dubrov, the massive city covering the west coast of Alaque from the rain forests to the straights marking the beginning of the Gallatian empire’s territories.

“Yes, and I’m sure she’d appreciate seeing you, and not just your reports.” The movement of money and goods told the Raven Guard as much as their spies. Gallatian legions from the Baradus isles now re-enforced troops in the Gallic highlands. And those legions moved to further secure the besieged Yspanian peninsula.

The Raven Guard profited handsomely from the expanded war. Their traveling armies now guarded caravans of raw material flowing to the city itself, and bordering nations, as the war demanded arms, siege engines, food, and magicks. The princes of the Five Kingdoms saw their coffers filled with fresh sea trade along the northern coast.

“Oh, and the church of the New Sun is seeing a heavy increase in their tithes. But…” Garis pulled a folded sheaf of paper from his sleeve. “Recent reports show they are taking the profits and re-investing them into the war itself. The Church has unofficially declared this a holy war and is directing the princes to support it. In exchange, the Princes are having their tithes ignored.”

Quin picked up the paper and read it over. “Wonder why they haven’t been open about calling this a holy war?”

“They could be waiting to see if the Gallatians can win before making a declaration.” Garis shrugged. “Who knows? In either case, their war extends down to our continent now. Dubrov is officially in siege footing. And you can see what’s that doing to the markets.”

“And the enemy they’re fighting? These raiders from the sea?”

“Your brother has confirmed what our spies have seen. But they’re being forced to keep quiet or the contract will be held in abeyance.” Garris rubbed his chin. “And we should hide it as well. Our network gives us an edge. If the market hears about it too soon, there will be runs.”

“The traders are nervous enough as it is… Someone is already leaking information.” Quin tapped a fingernail across his front teeth. His twin brothers headed the Raven Guard’s mercenary forces. When one legion fought abroad, the other stayed home. Every two years, they switched places, ensuring the Guard in the field remained fresh and resupplied.

“And we’re still seeing Gallatian currency show up more frequently?”

“Gallatian and from the trader princes as well.” Garis pulled a ledger from the shelves. “A steady rise in conversion demands. No flood just yet, mind you, but enough to bounce the exchange rate around.”

Four knocks echoed through the door. Garis covered the ledger. Quin went to the door and opened it a hand’s span. “Ah. Dinner is ready.” An elderly gentleman entered, carrying a covered tureen of beaten iron in hand. Two bowls rested on the lid. He placed them on a ledge, in easy access. From a satchel at his belt he removed two spoons, bread and two glasses. Without a word, he opened the soup, tasted it with a bit of bred, and then bowed as best as his hunched back would allow.

Quin closed the door and smiled. “Same way, every time. Even when he was father’s personal cook, he served soup the same way.”

“Let us be thankful your father gave him to us, then.” Garis pulled a bottle from one of the scroll racks, along with two cups. He poured a dark red wine for himself, and for Quin. “How is the soup?”

“Very sharp.” Quin returned the spoon to his bowl. “It warms just right. I think he found a bit of the spice from the Suzeranate – kure, was it? – and added it to the mix.”

“Speaking of them, we haven’t begun to touch on their latest market-baffling moves.” Garis corked and replaced the bottle. “I can’t tell if they’re reacting to their Oracles or just trying to force an acceptance of the blasted hard-shelled fruit of theirs.” As he reached for a sheaf of reports, Quin put his hand over Garis’ fingers.

“No, not just yet.” Quin leaned over and kissed Garis, softly. “First, dinner. Then, onto wars, markets and oracles.”

***

Lady Protector Issala Ben Ivre watched her food taster sample the roast bison, baked plains tubers and steamed greens with sliced bloodfruit. When the taster did not die, Issala dismissed her and the other servants Picking up a long, slim knife she began to carve the bison and serve it to her husband and daughter.

Markat Ben Urat sat with his hands folded under the lose sleeves of his shirt. He kept his head bowed, contemplating the meal as it was served. He still wore his stole, decorated with golden thread designs indicating the scholarly ambitions he mastered. The brightest of the marks was the tower, symbol of the city and his office as head scholar in the college of Ivre.

Once, the entire family would be together, wearing their dinner finest. Not, time had dispersed her children. The twins, Kentos and Tavrak, handled the day-to-day running of the Guard; one always abroad, fighting, while the other watched over the city. Quin took dinner at home and only visited when Garris could persuade him to leave his books.

Only Bellia remained at the table. She waited the last few slices of bison reached her plate with arms folded across her lap in rigid precision. The last slice served, everyone bowed their head in thanks to the household gods before eating. She may be the High General of the Raven Guard, but it did not excuse her from the dinner rituals.

It took a few moments before the debating began. This time, spurred by the Quinn’s apologetic note and mention of the attack on the caravan. It lead Markat do discuss complaints about restraint of trade, which mentioned Hanoud. This prompted Bellia to wonder if the price of bows would rise, which then lead to an argument over the design of bows.

“N’Talle’s design is revolutionary.” Markat drew shapes in the sauces on his plate. “I’ve done some testing and it shows a definite advantage. And her manufacturing process is very ingenious.”

“There’s no doubt the bows are well made.” Bellia sopped up sauce with a bit of bread. “But they are impractical given the weather conditions we face abroad. We can only use them for city defense and local contracts. We can’t have our archers holding disintegrating bows when fighting in the jungles or -”

“Ah, desert.” Issala smiled. The servants brought in a deep dish and began slicing the contents. Markat contributed this aspect of the meal, carrying it with his family from Urkur. Honey, nuts and chopped dates lay within thin layers of fine dough. Baked together, the ingredients became flaky, sticky and sweet all at once. After the tasters completed their work, she used two knives and teased the sliced pastry free.

Markat and Bellia paused long enough to cut into their pastries before returning to the argument. Ah, Quin, if you could see us now. He never enjoyed the debates at the dinner table. Studying at his father’s side, days filled to overflowing with politics, he just wanted quiet after the sun grew heavy. But her husband and her daughter never left their respective battlefields, even at the dinner table.

After the last of the desert vanished, she clapped her hands. “Very well, you two. That’s it. I hereby declare this discussion remanded to the battle room. You two can argue over the merits of various bow designs while feathering targets.”

“Will you be joining us?” Bellia wiped her hands on a rag, meticulous.

“No. I have a few matters to attend.” Issala rose from the table. Her husband followed suit. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before leading his daughter away. Issalla watched them go before heading down a back hallway from the family dinner room.

She ran her hands along the walls. Like most of the city, a mix of clay and mud covered the inside of the keep, but it did not hide cheap brickwork. They rough surface hid solid stone, cut from the coastal cliffs and hauled up around the great tower. The path beaten by those stones over the decades became the great road to the sea-side docks.

At a dead end, the stone under her hand changed, smoothing into a pristine marble the color of moonlight on the ocean. Veins of rose colored crystal ran up and down the wall. They caught the lantern glow and carried it along their length, down into the depths of the keep’s foundations.

“I am the protector.” Her fingers found a tiny symbol etched into the marble. She kissed it, tongue finding the grooves. “I speak for the tower and the city. Grant me passage to the sanctuary.

A door opened along the stone. There was no grinding of rock against rock, no clanking of iron mechanisms in the background. The surface opened in silence. She stepped into the opening archway and walked down a long, spiral staircase. It was one passage of many which dove into the structures under the city.

This one opened to a massive cavern. Water rushed beside her in a continuous hiss and the red light of the crystal veins flooded the air in a constant sunset. The crystal caverns and the hidden river lay before her. The river fed wells across the continent, but here it carved out magnificent caverns and caves. The great rush to the sea pressed fresh water up into the soil, creating fertile land.

The base of Ivre’s great tower found root here. It sat on a rocky island. The river flowed around it. Massive jets of crystal burst from the earth like flowers. They twisted and grew into a wide tower, stretching up the surface, through it, and into the sky

Issala wasn’t alone. Tonight, the sunset warmth showed two members of the Raven’s Guard elite corps, armor blacker than obsidian, holding a man in chains.

Blood spilled from cuts and scrapes along his face. Sweat poured down his flabby jowls and darkened short, black hair. What remained of his fine, silken clothes hung around his corpulent chest and belly in disarray.

“Ah, Duke Mirokiv of Dubrov. I had hoped not to hear from you so soon after your arrival.” The guards hauled his body up the crystals and dumped him in a heap by her feet. Liquor and old onions tinged his sweat; it followed him in a stinking cloud.

“This is an outrage, Lady Protector!” Spit and blood fell in strings from his mouth. “I have done nothing wrong. Your thugs have laid spurious charges upon me, beaten me and arrested me for no reason.”

“It amazes me, Duke Mirokiv, how often I hear those exact words on this spot.” She touched the base of the pillar. Veins in the rock pulsed around her fingertips. “This tower is a marvel. The old sorcerer kings of the Temeran Empire raised it, whole, from the rock and crystal within this cavern. It has many interesting properties.”

The Duke opened his mouth, but Issala closed it with a sharp glare.

“You violated the first law of this city. ‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” She leaned down. “I know you know this. It’s set in stone on all the gates of the city. Look at our crest. ‘By thunder or sword, this will be neutral ground.’ That came from when a prince of Aegypt in exile who tried to fight a vendetta on this ground. As he raised his sword to command his troops forward, lightning pealed from the towers and struck him, cooking him inside his armor.”

She put her arms behind her. “In Dubrov, laws are fickle things. They vanish with enough money.” Issala leaned down. “Not. Here. Not in my city.” She pressed her hand on one of the deeper veins of crystal circling the tower. “You broke the first law the moment you stepped foot in the city and began seeking a way to strike at Ankiriv.”

The Duke kept her gaze, intent on not looking like he had been discovered. She continued. “A rival in Dubrov and, in secret, a former lover. Which gave him easy access to embarrassing information and documents. Given the city’s very public conversion to the New Sun, this would have been very damaging.”

“I can’t say we are completely corruption free. No system or city is perfect. “Issala watched the Duke’s face. “But you crossed the line.” She snapped her fingers.

Two more guards entered from the dark. They held between them a thin figure in torn clothes. The Duke sucked in a breath, surprised.

“We manage corruption. You can keep your bribe… if you report it afterwords.” She forced the Duke’s eyes upwards. “You followed your rival, under a false name, with the intention of killing and humiliating him. You spied on him. And while you did, this man procured all you needed. Information, poison… children.”

The Duke stammered, but Issala just glared.

“Please. In Dubrov you hide your predations behind money and massive slums. Ivre is a far smaller city. We know when our children go missing.” Her voice grew soft and she spoke every word behind a mask of controlled rage. “Three children, born to normal citizens, abused and killed by you. One was a cobbler’s son. The second was a stonemason’s daughter. And the last was a chandler’s son.” She snapped her fingers once again.

One of the guards brought a blood-soaked bundle forward. He laid it before the Duke. The cloth fell open. Where cuts did not cover the dead child’s body, there were burns and gouges. Isalla grabbed the Duke’s hair. She forced him to face the child’s ravaged body.

“So it’s summary execution, then?” The Duke glanced around. “Are these to be the last sights I ever see?

“No.” Issala released him. She wiped her hand on a crystal’s surface. Pink light curled around her fingers like vine. She let it dance along her hand. “As I said, this is not Dubrov. We have laws and courts for this very purpose. You will be taken for trial. Unlike your city, they are not for show.”

“Four judges will see to your fate. One from the military courts, one a scholar of laws, one a noble, and one a merchant. You can have a scholar speak for you if you wish.”

“And should they deadlock? What then?” Already she saw the Duke’s eyes dreaming of an escape through well placed bribes.

“Oh, I have a vote as well. But unlike the others, I may express my judgement before the trial begins. Ivre votes through her protector.” Issala touched his forehead with one single finger.

The rose lightning curling around the Lady Protector’s hand burrowed the Duke’s skull. As glowing arcs of power dug into his skin, he screamed. The Duke’s voice resonated in the cavern. The crystals sang in response, vibrating under her feet. “The city finds you guilty, Duke. May the others have more mercy than Ivre.”