Archive | December, 2020

Stuck in Magic CH6

31 Dec

Chapter Six

We left the following morning, bright and early.

I couldn’t believe just how clean the air was, after a week in the city.  It was hot and dry – I thought I could taste sand with every breath I took – and yet it was so pure.  The stench of human sweat and waste that had pervaded the city was gone, blown away by the smell of fields and pollen.  I thought I could taste sand in the air, whenever the wind shifted slightly, but I didn’t mind.  It was so far superior to the city that I honestly didn’t understand why so many people stayed there.

They don’t have a choice, I thought.  The city was … the city.  I’d picked up enough about local politics to know the cityfolk couldn’t simply move into the countryside and stay there.  The lucky ones would wind up swearing loyalty to the warlords or moving from place to place in hopes of finding work.  The unlucky ones … I grimaced.  The slave market haunted my dreams.  They’re stuck.

I glanced at Jasmine, sitting beside me as we led the convoy further down the rough road.  She looked oddly pensive.  She’d explained, as we waited to pass through the gates, that she’d be returning to magic school – I couldn’t help thinking of it as Hogwarts – within the month.  The thought bothered me more than I cared to admit, to anyone.  Jasmine was the closest thing I had to a friend, in the strange new world.  When she was gone … I didn’t know what I’d do.  I didn’t want to stay with her people and I didn’t want to set out on my own.  And there were no other choices.

My mind churned.  I’d moved from place to place before, but this was different.  This wasn’t my world.  The underlying assumptions of how things worked would be different.  The city might be reasonably tolerant – Jasmine had told me that merchants from all over the world passed though its gates – but the countryside would be suspicious of strangers.  I could see ways to irrigate the drying fields, yet … would they listen?  I’d met enough do-gooders back home, idiots who hadn’t understood how the world actually worked, to fear the locals wouldn’t listen to me.  They’d think I was just another idiot.  I would have sold my soul for the remainder of my old platoon, or even a handful of army buddies with guns.  If nothing else, we wouldn’t have been so vulnerable.  This was a dog-eat-dog world.

The wind kept shifting, blowing through Jasmine’s hair as she guided the horses onwards.  I frowned as we passed a set of hovels, the locals so worn they didn’t even look up at us as we passed, and headed deeper into the countryside.  The terrain was strange, a weird mixture of tundra, thickets and sandy near-desert that puzzled me.  I thought I spotted people living amongst the trees, but it was hard to be sure.  The back of my neck prickled as we headed further and further from the city.  I was certain we were being watched.  It was hard not to escape the feeling that some of the unseen eyes weren’t human.

“It’s good to be on the move again,” Jasmine said, more to herself than to me.  “We’ll find a place to camp somewhere …”

Her eyes narrowed as she peered into the distance.  I followed her gaze.  Three men on horseback sat ahead of us, holding what looked like spears.  It took me a moment to realise they were lances, honest to God lances.  A whiff of something unpleasant crossed my nostrils as the wind shifted again, a scent of horseshit mingled with something I couldn’t place.  They were knights in armour, yet they lacked the polish of movie knights or SCA recreationists.  It was hard to be sure – they were some distance away – but they looked more than a little grubby.  I reminded myself that didn’t mean they were useless.  I’d learnt the hard way that a military force that prized appearance over reality was certain to get thrashed when it actually had to fight.  And yet, it was hard to take them seriously.

I grimaced as the distance narrowed.  A tank would have squashed them flat and never even noticed.  Hell, an AFV or a police car – even a regular car – would have had no trouble running them down or outrunning them.  I doubted the horses would willingly charge a tank or an AFV.  And yet, I didn’t have a tank.  My hand dropped to my pistol, combat instincts screaming a warning.  There was going to be trouble.  I knew it. 

Jasmine scowled.  “Don’t say a word, unless they speak to you first,” she ordered, curtly.  I heard an edge of worry in her tone and shivered.  “And don’t tell them where you came from.”

I winced, inwardly.  Jasmine had more power in her little finger than most people had in their entire bodies.  I’d seen her use magic for all kinds of things.  I’d even encouraged her to show off a little, in hopes of understanding my new home.  It was hard not to feel a little intimidated by the power at her disposal, although she’d never done anything remotely threatening to me.  And yet, she was worried.  I eyed the knights worriedly.  Did they have magic too?  Or … or what? 

The knights moved into the middle of the road, forcing us to come to them.  My instincts kept sounding the alarm.  I felt as if we’d moved into an ambush, with insurgents on both sides ready to pour fire into our positions.  I found myself looking for cover, for places we could hole up while calling for air support … I shook my head in frustration.  It wasn’t going to happen.  We were trapped and yet … there were only three of the bastards.  Magic or no magic, we outnumbered them.  We could fight our way through easily.

It won’t be that easy, a small voice reminded me.  The knights represent the local warlord.

I kept my face impassive, somehow, as the convoy shuddered to a halt.  The knights managed – somehow – to look both ridiculous and dangerous.  Up close, their armour was tarnished and patched in dozens of places; their faces were twisted with grim anticipation that only sharpened when they looked at Jasmine.  I shuddered, bracing myself for real trouble.  They weren’t anything more than bully-boys, throwing their weight around as if they might lose it at any moment.   I knew the type.  They liked pushing people around, but they were useless in a real fight.  And they tended to alienate everyone, even potential supporters.

The knights dismounted and walked towards us, moving with surprising grace despite their armour.  They kept their swords in their scabbards – I was surprised they weren’t carrying gunpowder weapons, just swords and whips – but I was certain they could draw them at incredible speed.  Their armour looked heavy.  I made a mental bet with myself that the knights were at least as strong as me, probably stronger.  Their faces were brown, scarred and pitted with a lifetime spent in the open air.  They looked mad, bad and dangerous to know, but they wouldn’t be weaklings.  They were carrying heavy armour all the time.

And what sort of threats do they expect to encounter, I asked myself, if they’re wearing armour all the time?

The leader scowled as he stopped beside the caravan.  “Get down.”

Jasmine obeyed, putting the reins to one side before clambering down to the ground.  I followed, feeling uncomfortably exposed.  There were only three of them … I stared, silently assessing my chances.  I could draw my pistol and put a bullet through the first one’s head before he could react, probably.  They hadn’t moved to take my pistol, even though it was clearly visible on my belt.  I frowned.  They stared at me in cold disdain.  I realised my mistake a second too late.  I’d met their eyes.  There were cultures where meeting someone’s eyes was an unspoken challenge.

Perhaps I should grovel, I thought.  I hated the very idea of kneeling in front of a trio of thugs, but … perhaps there was no choice.  Perhaps I should …

The knight waved a hand at me.  “Who is he?”

“My prospective cousin, here to learn the ropes,” Jasmine said, quickly.  I kicked myself, mentally, for not suggesting we put together a cover story.  “He’s from Galicia.”

The knight looked me up and down, his eyes lingering on my face for a long thoughtful moment.  One of his companions made a remark I didn’t quite hear, but sounded crude.  He grinned, rather sadistically, and shot me something that might have been a pitying look.  I guessed he thought I was attracted to Jasmine.  I didn’t know much about marriage customs amongst the Diddakoi, but if I was a cousin she was presumably off-limits even though it was pretty clear we weren’t actually related.  I felt a wave of loathing.  Jasmine was young enough to be my daughter.

“Our lord has commanded us to search everyone who enters his lands,” the knight said, in a tone that suggested he hoped we’d try to resist.  He raised his voice.  “Everyone out of the caravans.”

The Diddakoi obeyed, looking as pissed as I felt.  I gritted my teeth as we were herded away from the convoy and ordered to wait by the side of the road.  The knights leered at us as they started to poke their way through the caravans.  Something broke inside one of the lead caravans, the sound echoing in the air like a gunshot.  Jasmine’s fingers shaped themselves into a spellcasting pose, then stopped as she forced herself to relax.  I told myself it would all be over soon, that we’d resume our drive shortly.  It wasn’t very reassuring.

I leaned closer to Jasmine so I could whisper in her ear.  “What’re they looking for?”

Jasmine shrugged.  “Runaways, probably,” she said.  “The serfs are bound to the land, unable to leave without permission.  Their local lords never give it, so they run away.  The cities are supposed to capture and return runaways, but as long as they’re careful they don’t get caught.”

I shuddered.  My ancestors had had much the same problem.  I wondered if there was anyone in the city helping the serfs to run and hide.  It was possible, although unlikely.  Damansara would be easy to starve, if the warlord laid siege to the walls.  The city fathers might try to turn a blind eye to any runaways, but if the warlords came calling with an army … I cursed under my breath.  The runaways might keep wages down, too.  It was quite possible they’d find themselves locked out of the local guilds, ensuring they’d have problems finding work.  My ancestors had had that problem too.

The knights finished poking their way through the caravans and headed back to the front of the convoy.  I had the impression they hadn’t done a very good job, although it was hard to be sure.  They’d probably made certain they’d checked everywhere big enough to hide a grown man.  I frowned at the look on their faces as they walked up to us.  They looked dark with anticipation.  It wasn’t over yet.

“On your feet,” the leader ordered us.  “Now.”

I stood, keeping my eyes lowered.  I couldn’t understand why the Diddakoi were taking it so calmly, not even trying to put up a fight.  Jasmine wasn’t the only magic-user amongst them, surely.  The knights had had their fun … I tried not to grimace as they formed us up into a line, Jasmine at the front.  I knew what was coming … I knew what was coming, even as I hoped and prayed I was wrong. 

“Let’s see what you’re carrying,” the knight said, with a leer.  “Let’s see …”

I felt a surge of anger as the knight started to search Jasmine, hands wandering all over her body.  How dare he?  Jasmine stood still, but I could tell she was shaking with rage.  I’d been taught how to search prisoners, yet … it wasn’t about safety or security.  It was about naked sadism and power and … they wanted to do worse, much worse.  I knew the type far too well.  They weren’t going to stop until …

The pistol practically leapt into my hand.  I pointed it at the leader’s head.  “Step away from her!”

He laughed.  It wasn’t a nervous laugh.  I was pointing a gun at his head, my finger tightening on the trigger, and he genuinely thought it was funny.   It struck me, too late, that he honestly didn’t recognise the threat.  The flintlocks and muskets I’d seen in the city were handmade things, strikingly crude.  The pistol in my hand had come from another world.  He probably thought I was threatening him with a truncheon.

“Step away from her,” I repeated.  “Now!”

“I’ll teach you to threaten your betters,” the knight growled.  He tugged the whip from his belt.  “I think fifty lashes …”

He shoved Jasmine to one side.  I shot him, instinctively.  The shot was strikingly loud in the silence.  He staggered, then crumpled to the ground.  His companion gaped, unsure what had happened, then grabbed for his sword.  I shot him too, then turned to look for the third knight.  He turned and fled, running for the horses as fast as he could.  I guessed he wasn’t Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, even though I supposed a hasty retreat was the best choice under the circumstances.   He’d just seen two men killed through what might as well have been magic.  Even if he knew what a firearm was, he would never have seen anything like mine before.  And putting some distance between us was his best chance of survival.

I hesitated, then shot him in the back.  He tumbled – I breathed a sigh of relief that the bullet had gone through his rear armour – and hit the ground.  I paced towards him, keeping my pistol pointed at his head.  He wasn’t dead, but – from the way blood was flowing out of the wound – it was just a matter of time.  I grimaced in disgust.  If he hadn’t been wearing armour, he might have survived long enough to get medical treatment.  The bullet hadn’t just punched through the armour.  It had rammed chips of metal through his body.  He was beyond help.

Jasmine stumbled to her feet.  “What have you done?”

I blinked at her.  “They were going to rape you!”

“I could have handled them,” Jasmine snapped.  Sparks darted around her fingertips.  “You didn’t have to kill them.”

“You could have zapped them into frogs or something,” I pointed out.  “Why … why did you even let them stop us?”

Jasmine looked pained.  “There are agreements,” she said.  “We’re not supposed to get involved in local politics.”

I scowled as I turned back to the dead knight.  The guards might not have been magicians, I supposed, but their master probably had magic-users under his command.  Maybe Jasmine could have taken them out, easily.  Their master would have sent others after the travellers and who knew where that would have ended.  I wondered, sourly, if I’d made a mistake.  The local warlord might be an asshole who made regular assholes look bland by comparison, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take care of his men.  I’d seen too many warlords in Afghanistan to feel otherwise.  The smart ones treated their men well.  The stupid ones rarely lasted long enough to make a mark.  And if this local warlord had lasted long enough to establish a dynasty …

The thought mocked me as I searched the bodies.  They weren’t carrying much, beyond small pouches of coins.  I poured them into my hands and studied them thoughtfully.  They were so rough and imprecise that it was impossible to determine what they were worth, not without a pair of scales and some dumb luck.  Or magic.  One of the knights had a dagger concealed in his sleeve.  Jasmine sniggered when she saw it.  I didn’t get the joke.

“What’s so funny?”  I turned the blade over and over in my hand.  It was very well made, certainly compared to the swords.  I had the feeling they would snap under the right – or rather the wrong – conditions.  “It’s just a dagger.” 

“That’s a virgin blade,” Jasmine explained, as I removed a miniature scabbard from the knight’s arm.  “Noblewomen carry them, in order to defend their virtue.  It’s very rare for a man to carry one.”

“Probably why he carried it,” I said.  I knew the value of a concealed weapon or two.  The dead knight might have been endlessly mocked by his comrades for carrying a lady’s weapon, but it might have saved his life.  Particularly, my thoughts added, if it was something he wouldn’t be expected to carry in the first place.  “He could stab someone who thought he was defenceless.”

The thought made me smile, which vanished when I looked at the knights.  They were walking slabs of muscle.  It was hard to believe they’d ever be helpless – or seen as helpless.  I’d seen tougher men in the army, but not many.  I was strong – I knew I was strong – but I was relieved I hadn’t had to trade punches with them.  I had a feeling I might have lost.

“We’ll have to bury them, then let the horses run off,” Grandfather Lembu said.  I tried not to glare at him.  He, not Jasmine, should have spoken to the knights.  “And we have to talk.”

Jasmine looked as if she wanted to say something, but he cut her off and looked me dead in the eye.  “You can’t stay.  Not now.”

She-Ra And The Princesses of Power Overall Review

30 Dec

I find it hard to put my feelings regarding She-Ra and the Princesses of Power into words because, in many ways, they depend on points of view.  The final season was not a bad season, unlike – for example – Battlestar Galactica – but, at the same time, it represented something of an abandonment of its previous concept.  The show expanded to the point it could handle an ensemble cast, yet this weakened many of the characters.  Indeed, the whole thing was let down – to some extent – by several characters grabbing the idiot ball in quick succession.

Originally, the core of the series centred on Adora and Catra, who grew up together as Horde Cadets in the Fright Zone.  They were both subjected to abuse by Shadow Weaver, their surrogate mother, who expected Adora to be a hyper-perfect cadet and, at the same time, piled Catra with physical and verbal abuse.  By the time we are introduced to them, the damage has been done.  Adora feels responsible for everything, while Catra – blamed for everything – feels permanently trapped in Adora’s shadow (and responsible for nothing).

Their paths diverge when Adora finds the Sword of Protection, becomes She-Ra, meets Glimmer and Bow and joins the Great Rebellion.  Catra, in the meantime, chooses to stay with the Horde (particularly after Hordak gives her the first true appreciation in her entire life).  The first season remains focused on them, with the Best Friend Squad and the Super Pal Trio serving as backup characters.  Team Adora and Team Catra clash repeatedly despite the remnants of Adora and Catra’s former friendship; both characters build up their positions and powers (Catra, in a moment she thoroughly deserves, bests Shadow Weaver for the first time and then comes within a hair’s breathe of total victory).  In a sense, both characters come out ahead.  They both beat Shadow Weaver, then win what they crave (a meaningful life for Adora, power and respect for Catra).

This balancing act starts to fall apart in seasons two and three (which are really one combined season).  As more characters take on significant roles, the two main characters are partly shunted aside.  Worse, the good guys keep winning undeserved victories (one of the less pleasant aspects of the show is the way in which the good guys are so much better than the bad ones, when they use their powers – an odd hint of elitism I don’t like).  It’s difficult to blame Catra for starting a villainous breakdown, particularly as she discovers that being Force Commander (Hordak’s second-in-command) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yet, with her being well aware of Shadow Weaver’s true nature, she allows herself to be manipulated far too easily.  Adora, of course, makes the same mistake. 

This is the point where too many characters grab the idiot ball.  Hordak tortures Catra because he’s in a bad mood, not because she deserved punishment.  Catra allows Shadow Weaver to manipulate her, accidently freeing her from prison.  (I’m not including Catra trying to lie to Hordak, because he gave her plenty of reason to think he wouldn’t take the truth very calmly).  Adora heals Shadow Weaver (when she makes it to Bright Moon).  Angelia (who has good reason to know about Shadow Weaver) doesn’t think to fill Glimmer in on the truth.  Adora, Glimmer and Bow set off to the Crimson Wastes without bothering to make any preparations; Adora tells Catra about Shadow Weaver and the Portal.  Catra decides to open the portal, rather than staying in the Wastes with Scorpia and building a kingdom of her own.  Between them, they come pretty close to blowing up the entire planet and Adora had every right to be angry at Catra, but Adora bears some of the blame too.

Season four covers an ever-expanding war between the Horde – now co-led by Catra and Hordak – and the Great Rebellion.  The war extracts a price on its fighters, with Catra and Scorpia having a falling out and Glimmer, Bow and Adora coming ever-closer to a falling out of their own.  Catra makes a serious – but understandable – mistake and loses the war, only to have Glimmer return the planet to the original universe … allowing Horde Prime to invade.  Season five covers the war against Horde Prime, a far more powerful and determined enemy than Hordak (now exposed a defective clone).

It isn’t a bad season, but it’s greatest flaw is that it abandons the Team Adora and Team Catra format.  Characters have switched teams before (Entrapta to Team Catra, Scorpia to Team Adora).  It might have worked better, IMHO, if Glimmer had switched teams and, with Catra and Hordak, found a way to break out of Horde Prime’s custody … allowing Adora and Catra to meet as equals.  The moments we get – Catra risking everything to save Glimmer, Adora returning the favour for Catra – are good, but they’re not good enough.  In a way, they diminish Catra.  It’s nice to see Adora and Catra get together, at the end of the show, but they’re not quite equals. 

Catra is not the only character to be diminished by the ongoing series.  Hordak is introduced to us as a powerful warlord, with a very definite presence.  He’s evil, but he’s not completely unreasonable.  Season two/three weakens that by giving him a sympathetic backstory and partnering him with Entrapta, who eventually ends up in a relationship with him at the very end of the series.  It’s something of a cop-out – Mermista is the only one to ask if Hordak and Entrapta getting away with everything is fine – although, to be fair, he does make a stand against his abusive ‘big brother.’ 

That said, the expanded format does have its upsides.  Scorpia grows and develops as a character, as does Glimmer.  Both Sea Hawk and Swift Wind grew on me, as did many of the lesser characters (King Micah’s attempts to practice fathering on Frosta come across as creepy, particularly as Glimmer is six years or so older than Frosta).  Indeed, Horde Prime is perhaps the only completely irredeemable characters in the series.  Shadow Weaver sacrifices herself to save her daughters, leaving the question of just why she chose to do it.

The show has been both praised and criticised for feminist and lesbian themes.  This is something of a mixed bag.  On one hand, the princesses inherit their power by birth rather than ability (Scorpia may be the only exception, as she’s the one who makes a conscious decision to lay claim to power).  There’s a certain elitism about the show that is only called out once, by villagers caught in the middle during the fifth season.  On the other, Catra – who works for her victories – is also female.  It’s also true that Bow, Sea Hawk and Hordak worked for their skills in a manner  none of the princesses could match.  It’s fair enough to say that the vast majority of the best and the worst people in the series are all female (Horde Prime being the major exception, although he may well be genderless).  How important you consider this to be is up to you.

And while I’m happy to see Adora and Catra wind up together, the relationship wasn’t really developed properly.

Overall, it’s difficult to rate the show.  As an action and adventure cartoon, it does very well (but, to some extent, it becomes more focused on characters than the action.)  As a look into the effects of abuse, it does better; it puts human faces on the abused, much as Anne Frank is a human face on statistics.  At the same time, however, it is quick to absolve too many characters of their mistakes and offers quick solutions rather than more thoughtful (or deserved) answers.  Format wise, you pretty much have to follow from the beginning.  That’s something that, IMHO, should have been rethought.   

On the whole, I enjoyed it.  But it could have been so much more.

Schooled in Magic/General Update

29 Dec

As you know, Little Witches came out just before Christmas (Happy Christmas) and, pretty much immediately afterwards, I finished the first draft of The Right Side of History, which picks up immediately after Little Witches.  I’m hoping to get the eBook out by mid-February, but obviously it depends on editing and cover designing.  After that, my rough plan is to write The Face of the Enemy and Child of Destiny in February and April respectively.  After that …

I do intend to expand The Cunning Man’s Tale (which will be published in Fantastic Schools III) into a full novel, perhaps as the first of a trilogy.  It follows a very different character from Emily –  for starters, he’s not a magician – as Heart’s Eye becomes the home of a steampunk-style world.  I’m scribbling down notes for that, although – as always – I intend the first novel to be fairly stand-alone.  I also intend to continue with the Stuck in Magic serial – I hope you’re enjoying it. 

I do have more story ideas for Emily, so she will be back.  <grin>.

On different books …

Cast Adrift is being looked at by a publisher, but – of course – there’s no guarantee of anything.  If it doesn’t get through the filters, I’ll publish it online and then start writing the squeals. 

Fighting for the Crown (Ark 16) just came out too and I’m scribbling notes to turn the Drake’s Drum concept into an actual plot. 

I have a rough plan for The Prince’s War, which will be the first of a new series following Prince Roland as he kicks ass in the chaos of the dying empire.  I’m not sure, yet, if I should write that one in March or Drake’s Drum.

I’m messing around with other ideas, both fantasy and SF.

One of them is set in the very dawn of empire, in which a star union is bent on reuniting the human race for very good reasons … not, of course, that everyone sees it that way.  The hero would get in serious trouble as he graduates the space academy and, for political reasons, is punished by being promoted to Lt. Commander (he graduated as a LT), given command of a rust-bucket and told to establish law and order in a distant sector.  His enemies think he’ll be blown away (it’s a rubbish ship), find it an impossible task or simply get lost when the time comes for more promotion,

Another – more fantasy than anything else – would follow a princess, the twin sister of the Crown Prince, who escapes her uncle’s clutches when he takes the throne for himself, poses as her brother and raises a rebellion. 

I’ve also been looking at a handful of short stories for the Fantastic Schools set and suchlike.

What do you think I should do first?

Chris

OUT NOW – Fighting For The Crown (Ark Royal 16)

28 Dec

HMS Lion and HMS Unicorn have made it home from their first mission against the alien virus, opening the way for humanity to take the offensive.  Now, a major fleet is readying itself to depart into enemy space, intent on smashing the virus’s ability to wage war and destroy the threat once and for all.  And Captains Hammond and Campbell will take the lead.

But humanity itself is buckling under the strain of endless war.  The stresses of fighting are tearing the fleet apart.  And a very personal betrayal threatens to plunge the captains and their crews into a bitter feud, deep in alien territory.  The stakes could not be higher …

… And the risk of total defeat has never been so great.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the following links: Amazon USUKCANAUSDraft2Digital (more links coming, so check back regularly.)

OUT NOW – Little Witches (Schooled in Magic 21)!

23 Dec

Merry Christmas!

The Necromantic Wars are over, but the Allied Lands are unprepared for peace.  In the aftermath of the war, old grudges flare to life.  And, with the White Council scattered, it is only a matter of time before the fragile peace is shattered beyond repair.

In a desperate bid to save what they can, the Allied Lands plan to hold a conference at Laughter Academy.  But all is not well in the witches school.  The girls are growing increasingly reckless, increasingly out of hand, preying on the mundanes below the mountain school as their tutors plot and scheme to take advantage of the chaos.  And no one seems to know why.

Emily is in no condition to intervene.  But when Lady Barb, her former tutor, asks for her help, Emily cannot refuse.  Heading to Laughter, taking up a teaching position, Emily finds herself dragged into a world of schoolgirl games, staffroom politics and a deadly plot aimed at the heart of the Allied Lands themselves …

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase from the links HERE (new links being added as we speak).  Plus, Nanette’s Tale – a semi-prequel – can be found here.

FREE BOOKS

20 Dec

(And Now I’ve Got Your Attention, Vote For Me)

Between 24th December and 26th December, the below books will be free to download from Amazon.  Check out the start of five great series …

The Empire’s Corps

Ark Royal

The Zero Blessing

Storm Front

Outside Context Problem

The Right Side of History Snippet II

7 Dec

I can’t post CH1, because it’s full of spoilers, but here’s the second prologue.

Prologue II

When she’d become Queen, Alassa had instituted a very simple rule.

She was not to be disturbed, she’d told her courtiers, between dinner and supper.  Not unless the matter was urgent.  Truly urgent.  She’d made it clear, and backed it up, that anyone who disturbed her without very good reason would be spending the next week as a frog in the royal frog pond.   It wasn’t something she was proud of, and she was uncomfortably aware she might miss something important because the messenger was reluctant to interrupt her, but it was vitally important for her sanity.  A reigning monarch had so little time to herself that she had to do whatever it took to make sure she got it. 

It irked her, more than she would willingly admit to anyone, that she hadn’t realised just how much her father had to do until she’d inherited his throne.  The king had risen early and worked from dawn till dusk, the men of his bedchamber – his inner councillors – feeling free to interrupt him whenever they pleased.  The one advantage of being a Ruling Queen, Alassa had discovered, was that she didn’t have to keep her inner council so close, but it hadn’t taken king for her courtiers to reason out that they could send their wives, sisters and daughters instead.  Alassa would have preferred to banish them permanently, but there was no way to send them away without causing massive offense.  The last thing she needed was their husbands, brothers and sons plotting revenge.  She had enough troubles already.

She kept her face under tight control until she stepped into her inner bedchamber, then allowed herself to relax as the wards shimmered around her.  It was hard, very hard, not to sag as she leaned against the door.  Winning the war had been easy.  Winning the peace, it seemed, was a great deal harder.  She had to find a balancing point between factions that hated and detested each other, factions that would hate and detest her if she showed the slightest hint of favouritism to their enemies.  It felt as if she was stirring an unstable cauldron, the brew within permanently on the verge of exploding.  There were times when she was honestly tempted to grab her husband and daughter, empty the royal treasury and go into exile.  In hindsight, she wondered how different her life would have been if she’d stayed at Whitehall instead of going back to Zangaria.

Gathering herself, she walked past her daughter’s bedchamber – Princess Emily was sleeping, her nursemaid sitting beside the cot – and into her bedroom.  Jade was seated at the desk, reading the reports from the royal spies.  They’d made sure to pick up the remnants of King Randor’s spy network and build their own, in hopes of preventing another coup or another aristocratic uprising.  Alassa thought she understood, now, why her father had gone mad.  There was never any shortage of disturbing reports, but how many of them were anything more serious than a slighted aristocrat venting to his friends?  She didn’t know.

Jade stood and gave her a hug.  “Bad day?”

“I had Lord Hardin, again,” Alassa said.  It was hard to hide her disgust.  “He wants to marry his ward.”

“Bastard,” Jade agreed.  “Want me to kill him?”

Alassa was tempted.  Lord Hardin had played his cards very well, somehow managing to remain on King Randor’s good side without alienating either the Noblest or Alassa herself.  He’d certainly not taken any part in the civil war, ensuring that he evaded the sanctions Alassa had handed down to her father’s more open supporters.  It helped, she supposed, that Hardin’s territory was right on the edge of the kingdom.  It gave him a ready-made excuse for not sending anything more than thoughts and prayers.  But it also made it hard for her to squash him like he deserved.

She sat on the bed and rubbed her forehead.  Lord Hardin’s ward was too young for a betrothal, let alone a marriage.  And yet, Hardin thought he could bind her to him – and ensure permanent control over her lands – before she grew too old to object.  Alassa allowed herself a flash of cold anger.  She knew how she would have felt, if her father had announced her betrothal before she reached her majority.  It might have been years before the marriage was solemnised, but everyone would have treated it as a done deal from day one.  If she’d had a brother …

“I might need you to go look at her lands, to see how he’s ruling them,” she said.  She hated the idea of sending Jade away for a few days, but there were few people she trusted completely.  And besides, Hardin wouldn’t be fool enough to give Jade a hard time.  If he did … Jade would smash him flat well before word reached Alexis.  “Perhaps even to provoke a fight.”

Jade nodded as he sat next to her.  “How much do you want me to provoke a fight?”

“Only a little,” Alassa said.  She wanted an excuse to take a swing at Hardin – or, at the very least, to park a garrison in his lands – but it had to look legitimate.  “I don’t want to push him so blatantly everyone takes his side.”

She leaned into Jade’s arms, allowing him to hold her tightly.  It was a display of weakness she could never allow herself in front of the court, not when half of them already believed Jade gave her orders in private and the other half thought he should.  Bastards.  It hadn’t been that long since they’d been slated for execution, if they fell into Randor’s hands.  A little gratitude was not too much to expect, was it?  It probably was.  Courtiers had short memories.  And now there was an infant princess, she’d bet her crown that some of them were considering the advantages of having a monarch who couldn’t talk.

And if I die early, she thought, Jade will take Millie and run.

Jade kissed her, lightly.  Alassa lifted her lips to his, enjoying the sensation.  His hands started to roam her body, fiddling with the clasp.  The dress was designed to be difficult to take off in a hurry, something that Alassa had once found a little amusing.  It wasn’t so funny now.  The unmarried ladies of the court might have reason to wear a chastity belt, or something that served the same purpose, but she was a married woman.  And she was the queen …

The wards jangled.  Alassa jumped, swallowing a curse.  Whoever had disturbed her was going to regret it.  Whoever … she reminded herself, sharply, that she needed to hear the messenger out before she did something unspeakable to him.  No one would dare enter her chambers unless it was urgent.  She stood, straightened her dress and gave Jade a meaningful look.  He headed for the secret passage that ran beside the reception room.  King Randor had used it to conceal guards, when holding meetings with untrustworthy aristocrats.  Alassa preferred to use it to allow her husband to listen to the meetings, without making his presence obvious.  It was yet another compromise she’d had to make between what the court expected of her and what she had to do to maintain her sanity.

She raised an eyebrow as she stepped through the door and saw Mouse waiting for her.  The young woman – she was practically a commoner, although her father had been knighted long ago – was loyal.  She had to be loyal.  Alassa had rewarded her for her services by elevating her over the countless noblemen who thought they should be Mistress of the Queen’s Bedchamber.  It had made her enemies, but … Alassa tried not to grimace.  Mouse was loyal to her personally and that was all that mattered.  And besides, she wasn’t anything like as hidebound as the rest of the court.  She didn’t waste time trying to turn her queen into something she wasn’t.

“Your Majesty.”  Mouse curtsied.  Her face was pale, fearful.  “Prince Hedrick has arrived.”

Alassa blinked.  “Prince Hedrick of Alluvia?”

Mouse nodded.  Alassa’s mind raced.  Prince Hedrick had wanted to marry her, years ago.  He’d attended her wedding, but then … she didn’t recall hearing much of anything about him.  Hedrick was a second son.  He wouldn’t be promoted over his brother … hell, there was a very real chance he would be sent into de facto exile.  If he had … why had he come to Zangaria?  Alassa couldn’t think of a good reason.  It wasn’t as if she was obliged to give him more than the time of day.

“He just galloped into the courtyard,” Mouse added.  “He requests an immediate meeting.”

“I see.”  Alassa was tempted to tell Hedrick to wait.  And yet, he wouldn’t have broken protocol so blatantly unless the situation was dire.  What was it?  “Please have him shown to the blue room.  I’ll speak with him there.”

She glanced at the walls as Mouse turned and hurried out of the room.  Jade would make his way down to the next cubbyhole, while Alassa moved through the monarch’s private corridors.  She thought fast, trying to determine why Hedrick had galloped all the way to Zangaria … even using the portals, it was a hell of a long way.  If he’d come to pledge his love … she snorted at the thought.  It would be preferable, she supposed, to a bid for his kingdom’s throne.  That would be a major diplomatic headache.

I suppose I could tell him to get lost and swear blind I didn’t see him, she thought, as she stepped into the blue room.  But too many people will have noticed his arrival.

She took a seat and waited, folding her hands on her lap as the door opened.  Prince Hedrick stepped into the room – he’d lost the swagger, part of her mind noted – and bowed deeply to her.  There was no hint of reluctance, no suggestion he thought he should be bowing to a king instead.  And yet, as he straightened, he looked nervous.  His eyes flickered from side to side, as if he expected assassins to teleport into the chamber and jump him.  Alassa hadn’t intended to offer refreshments, let alone alcohol, but she was tempted to do just that.  Hedrick looked like someone who needed a drink.

He was handsome enough, she supposed.  The unfinished cast to his features she recalled from his unsuccessful courtship was gone.  His face suggested a strong character, his short blonde hair suggesting a martial mindset.  Or, perhaps, martial ambitions.  Hedrick was old enough to have fought in the last battles of the war, but Emily hadn’t mentioned him in her letters.  His father might not have let him go.  Losing one prince would be bad.  Losing both would be a disaster.

“Your Majesty.”  Hedrick didn’t stumble over the words.  “On behalf of my father and brother, I must plead for your help.”

Alassa’s eyes narrowed.  She would have understood the younger generation rebelling against the elder.  She would have understood Hedrick waging war on his father and older brother.  But … asking for help on behalf of both of them?  What had happened?  And why was he so fearful?

“Your Majesty, I …”  Hedrick swallowed and started again.  “There has been an uprising in the streets.  We have lost control of Jorlem City and many smaller cities.  The rebels have my father and stepmother prisoner, along with my half-sisters and many others.  I … I barely escaped with my life.  The Crown Prince is assembling his troops to retake the cities, but … we need help.”

Alassa kept her face carefully blank.  Zangaria was quite some distance from Alluvia.  It would be tricky to assemble troops and dispatch them to the other kingdom, even if it wasn’t politically impossible.  She knew there were factions within her government that would flatly refuse to send help, and others that would use it as an excuse to demand crackdowns at home … hell, just sending troops would cause problems with other kingdoms.  The Necromantic War was over.  Alassa was uncomfortably aware that the Allied Lands were starting to fracture, as old grudges came back to life.  She didn’t regret the end of the war, but … she had to cope with the problems of victory. 

“Zangaria is a long way from Alluvia,” she said, carefully.  “Why do you require my help?”

Hedrick looked down.  “The rebels claim to have been inspired by one of your noblewomen,” he said.  “The rebellion is in her name.”

Alassa raised her eyebrows.  “Emily.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hedrick said.  “They claim to have risen in her name.”

“Emily would not have set out to trigger a rebellion,” Alassa said, flatly.  “She’s been … busy.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Hedrick repeated.  “And yet the rebels claim to have risen in her name.”

Alassa wasn’t sure how seriously to take that.  Hedrick was describing literally world-shaking events.  Alassa should have heard something, beyond vague rumours, well before the younger prince arrived at her door.  Alluvia was a long way away, but still … she sighed, inwardly.  The tale had probably grown in the telling.  Emily wouldn’t have set out to overthrow a kingdom, but …

“I will discuss the matter with my trusted advisors and then get back to you,” Alassa said, slowly.  “I do not believe, however, that she is behind your rebellion.”

“They claim she inspired them,” Hedrick said.  “Our councillors advised us to request that you bring her to heel.”

Alassa hid her amusement.  Emily was, technically, a liegewoman.  She was supposed to support her queen in all things.  But Emily didn’t really accept the responsibilities – or half of the rights – of a liegewoman.  She didn’t even understand them.  Alassa knew Emily couldn’t be pressured into doing anything.  King Randor had tried and the result had been an utter disaster.  She could see how Hedrick, and his advisors, might think Alassa could control her …

Which means I might get the blame, if Emily is credited with starting the uprising, Alassa thought.  Shit.

She stood, signalling that the interview was over.  She’d have to discuss the matter with Jade – and then Emily herself.  Emily’s last letter had said she was going to Laughter Academy … quite some distance from Alluvia.  That was meaningless, of course.  Emily could teleport.  And she’d figured out how to craft a teleport enchantment too …

“Your Majesty!”  Hedrick looked stunned.  “I appeal to you …”

Alassa bit off a sharp response.  Hedrick didn’t appeal to her, not really.  Instead, she summoned Mouse and directed her to show Hedrick to the guestroom.  The servants would take care of him – and, also, keep an eye on him.  It would be useful to know just what sort of person he was, although … Alassa shook her head as he followed Mouse out the door.  He’d just dropped a massive hot potato in her lap …

… And, for the first time in far too long, she was unsure how to handle it.

The Right Side of History Snippet 1

4 Dec

Comments?

Prologue I

The room stank of fear.

Constance, Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Francoise of Alluvia, pulled her dress around her as the noise from beyond the walls grew louder.  Night was falling, but the city outside was cast into sharp relief by towering infernos.  The riots had become a revolution, crowds of rebels and thugs throwing lighted torches into the homes of the great and the good.  She huddled closer to the rest of the royal companions as the queen stared at her husband.  He’d once been a great man and a greater king.  He’d chucked Constance’s chin and whispered promises of royal favours, if she wished to become his.  Now, he seemed almost diminished.  The kingdom was fading alongside its king.

It had all happened so quickly!  Constance could barely keep track of each piece of news – bad news – before the next arrived.  There had been fights over bread in the marketplace, of all things, fights that had turned into riots.  The Royal Guard had arrived to break up the fighting, the City Guardsmen had turned on them and … Constance wasn’t sure what had happened next, but the king had lost control of his city.  The castle gates had been slammed closed, wards snapped into place by royal magicians, but it hadn’t been enough to save everyone outside the walls.  She’d heard a messenger screaming a warning about mansions going up in flames.  The mob was running rampant, tearing through the aristocratic walls and hunting down the money-lenders and speculators.  Constance had heard a tale of horror from the guards on the battlements, before the queen had cut them off.  The money-lenders had been marched to the embankments and thrown to the rocks below.  Their wives and daughters hadn’t been treated anything like so kindly.

She shivered, helplessly, as the shouting grew louder.  The mob was calling for blood … royal blood.  Constance herself was a very distant relative of the king – her family lands were on the other side of the country, near the border with Rose Red – but somehow she was sure it wasn’t enough to protect her.  The bodyguards and chaperones her father had sent with her, when he’d allowed her to enter the queen’s service, were nowhere to be seen.  She hoped they were safe, wherever they were.  But she feared the worst.

“Got out there.”  Queen Francoise voice cut through the stifling tension.  “Order them to disperse.”

Constance winced and tried to hide it.  The queen was a sharp-tongued woman, more of a man – Constance would never dare say aloud – than her husband.  Two male children who’d survived to adulthood, as well as three daughters, had made her position unassailable.  The king could hardly refuse to treat her with the respect she’d earned, even though he had no compunctions about taking mistresses and then discarding them.  And yet … Constance could tell that the queen was making a mistake.  Her husband was trapped between fire and water, unable to confront the crowd or lead his men into battle against the mob.  All he could do was wait.

“If only Dater was here,” Queen Francoise snapped.  Her favourite son, according to rumour, had been disbanding his army when the rioting had turned into full-scale rebellion.  “He would teach them all a lesson.”

“Dater is a long way away,” the king said, mildly.  “And I sent Hedrick out as soon as the trouble began.”

“You should have sent him to deal with the crowds,” Queen Francoise accused.  “And now they’re at our door!”

The king turned away from his wife, his fists clenching with anger.  Constance understood.  A king could not be a king if he couldn’t exert authority, over his wife and children as much as his kingdom.  Everyone knew it was just a matter of time before the Crown Prince, perhaps pushed by his mother, started to demand more power and authority than his father could reasonably give him.  Dater was old enough to rule and young enough to make his mark, if he inherited the throne.  He was certainly prominent enough to seem a viable replacement, if the king lost too much face to rule.  It wouldn’t be the first time a king had ‘voluntarily’ surrendered his power and gone into exile.

Constance looked at the stone floor, trying not to attract attention.  The king’s temper was starting to boil.  She didn’t want to face his fury, not when no one would lift a hand in her defence.  The assembled nobles feared the king too, feared what he might do if his back was pressed against the wall.  Constance felt cold, wondering – deep inside – if it might be better if the king was … convinced to abdicate in favour of his son.  Dater was a dashing young man, so handsome and bursting with energy that no one would dare to stand against him.  Had he not been the hero of the wars?  Had he not taking on a necromantic army and smashed it in an hour of furious combat?  Had he not turned down the hand of Lady Emily herself, for the good of the kingdom?  Constance’s heart fluttered at the thought.  She was too lowly-born, for all the blue blood in her, to attract the prince … but she could dream.

She glanced up as Councillor Triune ran into the room.  He was normally jovial and warm to everyone, even the lowliest maidservants, but now his jowled face was streaked with sweat and his hands were shaking.  Constance knew she shouldn’t listen, as he hastily knelt before the king, but she couldn’t help herself.  Knowledge was power in the court, particularly if one got it before anyone else.  She had long since mastered the art of eavesdropping without making it obvious.  She didn’t know why she bothered sometimes.  As a young woman from the borderlands, she was rarely considered important enough to matter.  The only thing that kept her from being sent home was the favour of the queen.

“Your Majesty!”  Councillor Triune sounded as if he wanted to panic.  “The sorcerers are dead!”

A rustle ran round the chamber.  Constance swallowed, hard.  The walls were strong, but the royal court didn’t have enough men to hold them after the Royal Guard had been slaughtered.  Or deserted.  Or joined the rebels.  The stories just kept getting worse and worse.  If the rebels turned their attention to the castle, they could get over the walls.  The sorcerers were dead.  It was only a matter of time before the wards fell. 

The king glanced at his queen, then at the barred window looking over the courtyard and the city beyond.  The bars weren’t that strong.  If the rebels captured a catapult, or one of the new-fangled cannon, they could put a shot right through the window.  Constance took no interest in military affairs, but even she knew that walls couldn’t be held forever.  And then … she tried not to think about it.  The rebels wanted blood.  Her blood.

No, she corrected herself.  It was unlikely any of the mob knew who she was.  They want the king’s blood.

An idea flashed through her mind.  She could leave the chamber, perhaps on the pretence of going to the toilet, and swap clothes with a maid.  She could pretend to be a maid.  No one would know, if she was dressed as a maid … the rebels would ignore her, allowing her to walk out and then … and then what?  She didn’t know the city, beyond the inner walls.  She couldn’t hope to walk home.  She had only the faintest idea of the way!

“We have a plan,” Councillor Triune babbled.  “The troops will create a diversion.  The rest of us will get into carriages and flee to the army camp.  And then …”

“Excellent,” the queen said.  “Dater will purge the city with fire and blood.”

The plan didn’t seem a very good idea to Constance, but no one bothered to ask her opinion.  It was just taken for granted she’d be accompanying the queen, along with the remainder of her ladies.  Councillor Triune’s men urged them down the stairs, into the rear courtyard, as troops ran forward to rally at the forward gates.  They’d always struck Constance as fops, when they hadn’t been trying to court her in their clumsy manner, but … they were going to die in defence of their king.  She wished she’d been kinder to the last knight who’d tried to court her.  He’d been so dreadfully earnest she’d laughed in his face.

She winced at the noise as they scrambled into the royal carriages.  It was hardly her first time in a coach, but … she wished she was on horseback.  An eager horse and a clear road … it was all she asked.  The littlest princess asked for a horse for herself as she was bundled into another carriage with her nanny, her mother ignoring her cries as the door slammed firmly closed.  Constance was tempted to suggest the princess was given a horse, that she was given a horse, but she didn’t dare.  Councillor Triune fussed around, snapping orders to the guards as the sound of fighting grew louder.  His face was too grim for her to risk speaking her mind.  If he got the royal family out, his future would be assured.  He was hardly going to alter the plan on her say-so.

“Get in,” the queen snapped.  “Now!”

Constance heard someone – Councillor Triune, perhaps – give the command to open the rear gates as she scrambled into the carriage.  The regal vehicle lurched as the door was banged closed, then started to move.  Constance found a seat and sat down, trying not to look at the queen.  The expression on her face promised death and destruction – and social exclusion, perhaps, for the one who disturb her.  Constance tried not to shiver openly.  Law and order was breaking down everywhere.  She didn’t want to think about what might happen if the Crown Prince couldn’t regain control of the city.  How many of the dressmakers and jewellers and others she’d patronised were about to die?

“They’ll pay for this,” the queen said, more to herself than the rest of the passengers.  It had the air of a blood oath, a promise that could not be broken.  “They’ll pay in …”

The shouting grew louder.  The carriage lurched again, then crashed to a halt.  Constance reached for the window to pull back the blinds, the queen slapped her hand hard enough to hurt before she could touch the fabric.  The carriage was quivering, as if someone was beating their fists against it … Constance started back as the door shook, then came free.  A grim-faced man stared at her, his gaze swiftly turning into a leer.  Behind him, the city burned.

“Look,” he shouted.  “We’ve captured the royal whores!”

His hand snapped hold of Constance’s wrist before she could pull back and yanked her forward.  She tumbled out of the carriage, hitting the paving stone before she could catch herself.  Pain shot through her as strong arms yanked her to her feet, holding her so firmly she couldn’t pull free.  The queen was dragged out too, to hoots and hollers from the rabble.  Her eyes were wide with fear.  Constance struggled against her captor, but she couldn’t break free.  He was just too strong.

She felt horror, numb horror, sinking into her as she looked past the carriage.  The king’s carriage was ahead of her, the king himself being manhandled away by a group of men in red shirts.  They were on the embankment, too close to the river to escape … she wondered, suddenly, if that had been deliberate.  She couldn’t see Councillor Triune anywhere.  The king’s man had vanished …

A commanding voice cut through the crowd.  “Take the whores to the Final Prison!”

Constance shuddered as her captor started to push her forward.  She’d heard all the stories about the Final Prison, about how it was the last port of call for men sentenced to death.  If someone went in a prisoner, they didn’t come out again.  Panic gave her strength: she stamped on her captor’s foot as hard as she could, then ran to the embankment.  The river had dwindled over the last few months, as summer had started to bite, but if she could get into the water she could swim down to the distant lands beyond the walls.  They wouldn’t expect her to be able to swim.  Countrywomen learnt as a matter of course, but cityfolk regarded the idea of women swimming as perverse.  It was …

“Stop,” someone shouted.  “Now!”

Constance jumped … and realised, too late, that she’d misjudged.  The river had shrunk too far.  She was plummeting towards jagged rocks and the remains of sunken ships, not waters that might hide her long enough to let her escape.  She thought, suddenly, of her parents.  Would they ever know what had happened to her?

In truth, she feared they would never know.

Stuck in Magic CH5

4 Dec

To answer a handful of questions …

The story is set just after the end of Oathkeeper, but it is on the far side of the Allied Lands (Think France vs. Korea) and there’s only limited awareness of everything that’s happened since Emily’s arrival in SIM.  Emily herself is partly a legend – and hardly anyone knows she’s a cross-dimensional traveller.  Elliot would guess it, if he put the pieces together.  (Jasmine isn’t going to say much about Emily.) 

Emily has scooped up most of the low-hanging fruit, when it comes to tech improvements.  Elliot knows stuff he can’t really use without investment and time (to make the machines to make the machines).  He’s far from stupid, but he doesn’t have any of the advantages Emily enjoyed.  (Heroine, Daughter of Void, Noblewoman, Sorceress, Etc).

There isn’t going to be any major contact between the two characters (perhaps).  I’m not sure how canonical this story is going to be, which is why I’m doing this as a long-running serial rather than a more normal project. 

Chapter Five

I couldn’t decide, not really.

The city did start to grow on me, as Jasmine and I spent a handful of days exploring the streets.  It was weird and wonderful, yet – in so many ways – alien and horrific.  There was a bit of me that insisted I could fit in, that I could find a job and build a life for myself, and there was a bit of me that wanted to stay with Jasmine and her people.  It wasn’t easy to decide.  The city wasn’t a very safe place and yet staying with the travellers would mean – eventually – subsuming myself in their society.  They’d made it clear they would accept me, but only on their terms.  And I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of life for myself.

I spent the week, when I wasn’t helping Jasmine and the others, exploring the city.  The basic design reminded me of New York – the streets and buildings were laid out in regimented patterns – but generations of inhabitants had laid their own work on top of the chessboard, creating their own little worlds within the city.  I walked past temples for a dozen different gods co-existing in uneasy harmony, then strode through a magical section – it was oddly empty, as if no one visited unless they had business there – and peered into what was self-evidently a gated community for the rich and powerful.  The guards looked nasty enough to deter anyone, beyond hardened thieves.  I guessed they had authority to do whatever they liked to intruders.  The law probably didn’t apply to the wealthy.

My instructors had taught me to learn the lay of the land.  Or the lie of the land, as one of them had cracked.  It wasn’t easy.  I spoke to people – Jasmine had encouraged me to speak to as many strangers as possible, to ensure I leant the language quickly – but few of them really wanted to discuss politics.  The questions I wanted to ask would raise eyebrows, I was sure, because they were the sort of questions that would make it clear I really was a newcomer.  I bought mugs of foaming beer in bars and taverns, then sat and listened unobtrusively as people – merchants and farmers, mainly, as well as runaway serfs – talked and gossiped.  And, slowly, a picture began to emerge.

The city was, technically, a free state.  It owed loyalty to the king, but the king didn’t seem to have any real authority over it.  The city itself was run by the city fathers, who were elected by property owners.  If you didn’t own property, I guessed, you were effectively disenfranchised.  The property owners could run the city to suit themselves.  Or could they?  The merchants grumbled about taxes and tariffs laid down by warlords and aristocrats, making it harder for them to turn a profit as they moved from city to city.  I had the uneasy feeling the city’s independence wasn’t anything more than an illusion.  The walls were strong, but the city could be surrounded and besieged very easily.  I doubted the locals had enough food within the walls to withstand a siege.  The local warlord could bring them to their knees very easily.

There were more and more details, from a hundred different people, that I tried to slot into a coherent whole.  There was a king, who had a daughter … and only a daughter.  The general opinion seemed to be that she’d be married to one of the warlords, sooner or later, and the outcome would be civil war as the rest of the warlords banded together against their new king.  It definitely sounded like a recipe for trouble.  I did my best to work out how the different places went together, but it wasn’t easy.  My mental map was effectively blank.  They might as well have been talking about somewhere on the other side of the world.

The stories seemed to grow wilder as they touched on events further and further away.  A king turned his kingdom into a land of the dead.  A naked woman rode a dragon and melted down a castle, in hopes of putting the rightful heir on the throne.  A sorceress lost her powers, only to come back stronger than ever before.  A university … the word brought me out of my listening trance.  Was there another dimensional traveller?  Or was it just a wild coincidence?

I mulled it over for a while, then dismissed it as useless.  The stories were so wild that I couldn’t tell how much of them were actually true, if any of them were true.  And even if I knew, what could I do with the knowledge?  I had no way of knowing where to find him or … or anything.  If people were being dumped randomly into the world, they could be scattered right across the globe.  The thought made me shiver.  I could have found myself drowning if my car had been dumped into the ocean …

A sense of loneliness washed over me as I stared down at my drink.  The night was growing darker.  The erotic dancers were coming onto the stage, but … I didn’t want to look at them.  I felt oddly disconnected from the world around me, lost in my own thoughts.  The patrons were starting to hoot and holler, waving their hands at the dancers.  It could have been a rough bar near a military base, except … I stood, leaving the beer for whoever wanted it.  I didn’t trust it.  Alcohol was supposed to be safe, but I had my doubts.  Besides, I’d seen enough shady characters around to know it was better to remain sober.  The last thing I wanted was to be mugged.

The darkness was hot and muggy, the air smelling of spicy food and rotting meat.  My stomach churned as I walked past a row of stalls, selling something akin to kebabs and sausages.  I didn’t want to know what went into the meat.  Behind the stalls, a sewer gaped open.  The stench almost overpowered the food.  I forced myself to breathe through my mouth as I kept walking, heading down the road to the campsite.  I didn’t want to be anywhere near the stalls, not when they didn’t even have the slightest respect for hygiene.  The sewer had to be a breeding ground for disease.

I kept one hand on my pistol as the crowd closed in around me.  They were just too close … I gritted my teeth, reminding myself that I’d been all around the world.  And yet … I tried not to look at the street rats – little boys, mainly – running through the crowd’s legs.  They wanted to rob me, to steal what little I had … I shuddered as I saw a small boy who was probably a girl.  Her face had been so badly mutilated that I knew it was just a matter of time before she died in a ditch.  No one seemed to be helping the poor kids.  Their lives had only just begun and yet they were already over …

My gorge rose.  I’d seen poverty in America – I’d grown up in poverty – and yet, this was different.  This was worse.  There wasn’t any hot and cold running water, let alone computers, televisions and any other modern concepts.  I’d learnt to hate the people who thought they were helping my community, as a young boy, yet I had to admit they were trying.  Sometimes very trying.  Here … there didn’t seem to be anyone interested in helping the poor.  I guessed that anyone who did would have very dark motives indeed.  The boys could be turned into pickpockets, like Oliver Twist; the girls … I shuddered.  I didn’t want to think about it.

I heard someone shouting further down the street, sounding more like a carnival barker than a protester.  I hesitated, then walked towards the noise.  I wasn’t the only one.  The shouting was coming from a courtyard, just like the one granted to the travellers.  I frowned as I passed through the crowds, noting that the onlookers seemed to range between very rich and middle-class.  It was odd, I thought.  What was it … a flash of light burst out of nowhere, illuminating the courtyard and revealing a stage.  A show?  I stared as five people were pushed onto the stage.  For a moment, I thought it really was a show.  And then I realised it was something far worse.

Horror flowed through me as I took in the sight.  Four of the five people were in manacles, making it impossible to fight or run.  The fifth wasn’t shackled, but had a nasty-looking collar around her neck.  Generations of atrocities flashed through my mind as the barker – no, the slave dealer – started to talk.  The slaves were a mix of colours, but … I recoiled in horror.  My ancestors had worn chains too.  Was this what awaited me, if I stayed in the city?  Or what …

The dealer kept babbling.  The shackled men had been legally enslaved, he insisted; they were good for five days work out of every seven.  I recoiled as the bidding started, the price rapidly going up and up.  I couldn’t believe anyone would bid for a slave … no, I knew better.  I’d seen slaves in the Middle East.  If this culture accepted slavery, if it saw nothing wrong with enslaving people … I studied the slaves themselves, trying to determine how they felt about the whole affair.  Two of them – insanely – looked pleased.  A third was loudly declaring that he was worth more than a pittance.  I couldn’t understand it.  It was just horrible.

My mind raced, trying to come up with a scheme to free them.  But nothing came to mind.  The crowd would tear me to pieces if I tried … I touched the pistol, then shook my head.  Back home, orders had prevented us from doing anything about barbaric traditions.  Here, I was just as helpless.  All I could do was watch.

I turned away as the collared girl was pushed forward.  The crowd grew louder, screaming for her to take off her clothes.  She was pretty, her tanned face a mix of a dozen different roots.  I granted her what little privacy I could by not looking, cursing myself for … for what?  There was nothing I could do for her, but look away.  I forced myself to push my way through the crowd and out of the courtyard, fleeing the helplessness gnawing at my very soul.  I’d heard of horror – I’d seen horror – and yet the sight behind me had unmanned me.  There was nothing I could do.

It’s easy to be detached if it happened in the past, or in a country that isn’t yours, I thought, in a fit of self-mockery.  But it’s harder to just watch it happen when you’re trapped in the same world …

I lost track of time as I stumbled through the city.  Rationally, I knew I shouldn’t be surprised.  Slavery was the mark of a primitive society, with a primitive mindset.  It wouldn’t survive the dawning industrial revolution … or would it?  Slavery had been on the decline in the United States before the Cotton Gin had suddenly made it cost-effective again.  I didn’t want to think about it.  And yet, the nightmare pressed against my mind.  What sort of society would condone such treatment?  I really shouldn’t have been surprised.  I’d seen enough, over the last few days, to know I was trapped in a medieval world.  Slavery and serfdom was just … normal, as far as the locals were concerned.  I wished, desperately, for a portal back home and a chance to recruit my army buddies.  Magic or no magic, a small army of men with modern weapons could punch out the opposition and start reshaping the world.

But it’s not going to happen, I thought.  Whatever force had brought me here had done so, seemingly, at random.  Jasmine had told me there was no way to guarantee I’d get back home.  I am trapped …

The air changed.  My instincts sounded the alert.  I looked up and frowned as I spotted a gang of older toughs, manning what looked like a makeshift checkpoint.  They were an oddly diverse lot, but there was no mistaking their intention.  A young lad eyed me as I walked towards him, gauging my willingness to stand up to him.  I looked back at him evenly, silently daring him to try something.  I didn’t like the odds, pistol or no pistol, but I didn’t have it in me to back down.  Show weakness to a human wolf and he will be forever at your throat.  The boy stared at me for a moment, then shrugged and said something to his companions.  I guessed it was a dismissive remark, a droll observation that I probably didn’t have anything worth the effort of stealing.  I understood, all too well.  It was important to save one’s face in such a world.

I heard laughter behind me.  The brats were laughing at me … I ignored them with an effort.  The City Guard should be dealing with them, but … the City Guard didn’t seem to be good at anything beyond pushing people around and, really, it wasn’t much good at that either.  I found it hard to believe they had any sort of authority, let alone a way to keep the street toughs under control.  Back home, the cops had all sorts of advantages.  Here … they didn’t even have a monopoly on legal force.  No wonder the city was so ridden with crime.

My thoughts were spinning, again, by the time I reached the campsite.  The travellers were packing up, readying themselves for the next stage of their eternal journey.  Brother Havre gave me an unwelcoming look … I balled my fists, trying to resist the temptation to start a fight.  He’d spent some time, yesterday, trying to convince Jasmine to walk out with him.  She hadn’t been interested.  I thought he was jealous.  Idiot.  Jasmine was young enough to be my daughter.

Jasmine herself was sitting by the caravan, brewing a potion over a fire.  She looked up and smiled as I approached.  “Did you have a good time?”

“No,” I said, bluntly.  I was too tired to dissemble.  “I saw a slave market.  I … how did they wind up slaves?”

“Depends,” Jasmine said.  “People in debt sometimes sell themselves into slavery to pay off their creditors.  Or they are enslaved, by order of the court.  Or … criminals are enslaved to repay their debt to society.  In theory, we are told, a slave can earn money for himself so he can buy his freedom.  In practice …”

“Let me guess,” I said.  “The slave’s master will keep charging interest until the slave owes him more money than ever before.”

“Sometimes,” Jasmine agreed.  “It does work, sometimes.  The slaveowners aren’t supposed to cheat the slaves.  A slave who knows he has no hope of buying his freedom is a slave who can turn on his master, or simply run away.  There’s a certain incentive to play fair.”

I squatted beside her, feeling sick.  “It’s disgusting.”

“Yes,” Jasmine said, flatly.

“Doesn’t anyone try to change it?”  I shook my head in disbelief.  “It’s … it’s horrible.”

Jasmine shrugged.  “The city-folk have their little ways,” she said.  “They can govern themselves as they wish.”

“As long as they don’t upset the local lord,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

“Yeah.”  Jasmine let out a breath.  “Even for us, freedom is never free.”

I sighed, inwardly.  I thought I understood.  The Diddakoi had their freedom, but it came with a price.  They were a highly-stratified society, one that could never put down roots or become a steady community.  Those who chose to play by the rules were welcome.  Those who didn’t were either shunned or asked to leave.  I wondered, suddenly, if Jasmine would be pressured into marrying  her father’s choice, even though she had magic.  It was never easy to leave a tightly-knit community.  I’d known people who’d been cut off from their families for marrying outside their culture. 

Jasmine snapped her fingers at the fire.  It died, instantly.  I felt a shiver, despite the warm air.  I was never going to get used to magic.  It was just … unnatural.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Jasmine said.  She stood, brushing down her skirt.  “Do you want to stay?”

I hesitated.  I didn’t want to stay in the city and I didn’t want to lose myself in the Diddakoi.  They weren’t bad people, but …

“I think I’d like to see the next city,” I said, finally.  “Is that allowed?”

Jasmine grinned.  “It’s just the same as this one,” she said, waving a hand towards the nearest building.  “The name is different, but the people are just the same.  Unless you go to Dragon’s Den or Pendle and they’re both on the far side of the world.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t sure Jasmine’s grasp of geography was any better than mine, given how vague she’d been about how some places related to others, but if a town was over a hundred miles from Damansara it might as well be on the other side of the known world as far as the locals were concerned.  There was nearly three thousand miles between New York and San Francisco and, without modern transport, travelling from one to the other would take months.

Jasmine touched my hand, lightly.  “You can stay for the next part of the journey,” she said, “but you’ll have to make up your mind soon.”

“I know.”  I wished I had an answer.  There wasn’t much I could do for the Diddakoi, beyond manual labour.  It wasn’t as if they needed me.  Jasmine had been very kind and helpful, but I knew it was just a matter of time before she went back to school.  And then … I snorted at the thought of going back with her.  What place did I have in a school of magic?  “I’ll decide at the next city.”

“Good.”  Jasmine grinned at me.  “And right now we’d better get some sleep.  Grandfather wants to leave bright and early tomorrow morning.”

I saluted.  “Yes, My Lady!”

Stuck in Magic CH4

2 Dec

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Chapter Four

The city – Damansara – was … striking.

I was used to cities that sprawled out until they blurred into the suburbs, overrun towns or countryside.  Damansara was a walled mass, with a clear line between the city and the country outside.  The land immediately outside the city had been cleared, providing absolutely no cover for an invading army bent on looting, raping and burning its way through the city.  I could see a handful of men on the battlements, watching the distant horizon.  I hoped it was just paranoia.  The idea of being caught up in a war was far from appealing.

The stench grew worse as we made our way towards a gatehouse that looked a lot like the Jugroom Fort.  It wouldn’t stand up to modern weapons for a second, I decided, but it would be difficult to assault without firearms and explosives.  The gates were designed to allow only a couple of wagons and carts through at any one time, ensuring the guards would always have the advantage in numbers.  I was pretty sure there were cauldrons of boiling oil positioned above us, ready to make life miserable for anyone who caused trouble, and archers on the battlements.  I’d seen archers in the SCA.  Bows might not have the flexibility of guns, but an arrow through the gut could be lethal.  The men who’d died at Agincourt might as well have ridden straight into machine gun fire.

I shivered, helplessly.  There was a sense of age around the gatehouse that was almost a physical presence.  I’d seen buildings from the colonial era and none of them had the sense of being hundreds of years old.  This one looked as though it had changed hands time and time again without ever losing its sense of purpose.  I felt tiny and insignificant as we joined the line of horse-drawn carts waiting to pass through the gatehouse, my eyes threatening to water as the stench grew worse and worse.  I’d been in a dozen hellholes with poor sanitation and no clean water and this was worse.  The stench of too many people and animals in too close proximity was almost unbearable.  I did my best to bear it without complaint.

The guards eyed us nastily as we inched through the gatehouse – I was uneasily aware that the building was designed to let the defenders pour boiling oil on unwanted guests – but waved us through without comment.  I was surprised.  They looked the type of guards to demand bribes before they let anyone through the gates, their clothes so tattered that the only thing that marked them as guardsmen were the white sashes on their shirts.  I’d seen more impressive policemen lazing in their cruisers or stuffing themselves with donuts.  And yet, some of them had lean and hungry looks that bothered me.  It was never good to attract the attention of the police in a third world country.  They were almost always deeply corrupt.

Jasmine looked uneasy as we made our way onto the streets.  I didn’t blame her.  The city reminded me of New York, although the buildings were smaller and much less impressive.  They seemed to hem us in, looming over the crowded streets and casting long shadows into our hearts.  I had the sense we were driving straight into an ambush, although I couldn’t have said why.  A team of men with modern weapons could have made an attacker pay in blood if he wanted to take the city.  And the local population would pay too.

I studied the crowds curiously as we made our way down the road.  They were of all colours and creeds, from men darker than myself to women so pale I thought they were albinos.  There was no unity, as far as I could tell: there were people covered from head to toe and people wearing barely enough to cover their privates.  Some looked extremely rich, surrounded by cronies and bodyguards as they paraded through the city; some looked so poor they had to be beggars, constantly begging for alms.  I felt a pang as I saw a handful of amputated men, sitting by the roadside.  There was nothing I could do for them.

The stench – incredibly – seemed to get even worse.  I tried not to think about the sewers.  I wasn’t convinced that any of the buildings had any plumbing.  The buildings themselves were an odd mix, a blending of medieval styles from all over the world.  I thought I saw European influences, mingled with Arab and Far Eastern.  It was easy to believe, suddenly, that I wasn’t the first person to find my way across the dimensional gulf.  I was alone, but if an entire town or city had been scooped up and shipped to a new world …

Jasmine pulled on the reins as we entered a large courtyard.  “We’ll be setting up here,” she said, as the rest of the travellers parked their caravans in a circle.  It reminded me of cowboys readying themselves to repel an ambush.  “And then we can go explore.”

I nodded, stiffly.  My arms and legs were aching, but that was nothing a little exercise wouldn’t cure.  Jasmine hopped down effortlessly and waved to her grandfather, who started barking instructions with the air of a man who expected to be obeyed.  I scrambled down beside him and hurried to work, lifting boxes of goods out of the caravans and piling them up as directed.  Jasmine was setting up a small stall, a structure that looked oddly childish until she completed the finishing touches.  A couple of younger girls hurried up with a tray of tiny glass jars and bottles.  Potions, from what she’d told me earlier.  I still found it hard to believe they actually worked.

“It’s a little quieter than I expected,” Brother Havre said, from behind me.  I tried not to jump.  I’d always had the feeling he didn’t like me.  Given that he kept making eyes at Jasmine, I was fairly sure he was jealous.  “There should be more people on the streets.”

I gave him an odd look.  The courtyard was empty, save for us, but the streets beyond were crowded.  New York wasn’t so busy and, the last time I’d visited, it had been heaving with people.  It looked as if there was no hope of getting out of the courtyard, let alone back to the gatehouse and onto the road.  The older folk looked uneasy as they finished setting up their stalls.  I didn’t blame them.  I’d grown up in a city and I found Damansara oppressive as hell.

“There should be more,” Brother Havre repeated, reading my face.  “It’s oddly quiet.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.  A pair of wealthy men – judging by their clothes – appeared on the edge of the courtyard.  “Who are they?”

“Inspectors,” Brother Havre said, darkly.  “You go back to Jasmine.  I’ll take care of them.”

I nodded.  I had no trouble recognising his attitude.  I’d been much the same, before the army had knocked it out of me.  I was tempted to point it out to him, but I knew he wouldn’t listen.  I wouldn’t have listened at his age.  Instead, I turned and walked back to Jasmine’s stall.  She smiled at me as I came up.

“Grandfather says we can explore the town,” she said, pressing a pair of coins into my hand.  “We just have to be back in time for tea.”

I felt an odd little qualm.  Jasmine hadn’t said anything about it, but … it was clear I’d have to make a decision, soon, about what I wanted to do with myself.  Stay with the travellers or find a place somewhere else … I cursed under my breath as I accepted the coins and studied them thoughtfully.  I just didn’t know enough to make up my mind.  What was I going to do?  I didn’t know. 

Jasmine passed me a long cloak, then donned one herself despite the heat.  I pulled mine on and followed her out of the courtyard, into the packed streets.  They weren’t as bad as I’d feared.  The crowd seemed to know when and where to move, walking in long lines that moved surprisingly quickly.  It was worse on the roads.  Oxen carts clashed constantly with horse-drawn carriages, their drivers shouting curses at each other … it struck me, suddenly, that they might be real curses.  A handful of guardsmen were trying to calm everyone down, but it didn’t look as though they were having much luck.  It looked as though a dozen fights were constantly on the verge of breaking out. 

I kept my eyes open, watching the crowd.  A small boy – he couldn’t have been older than eight – eyed me speculatively.  I eyed him right back and he looked away … a pickpocket, probably.  An older man groped Jasmine’s rear … I started forward, intending to punch his lights out, but there was no need.  There was a flash of light and a wave of heat … he staggered away, clutching his hand and cursing openly.  I stared at her in astonishment.  I would never be truly used to magic.

It was all around me, I realised dully.  Street magicians played with fire for the locals, or performed tricks that might have been sleight of hand … or real.  I’d seen my share of street performers, in the states and overseas, but I wanted to stop and stare like a rube.  Jasmine stood next to me for a few moments as a man turned a woman into a statue, moved her into an absurd pose, then released the spell.  She staggered, her face twisting as if she was unsure if she wanted to laugh or cry.  Jasmine caught my hand and pulled me away.  I didn’t try to resist.  I didn’t dare lose her, not in a city I didn’t know.

Jasmine kept up a running commentary as we made our way onwards.  The veiled men and women were high-ranking aristocrats … or, the cynical part of my mind added, people aping their social superiors.  How could one tell if one couldn’t see their faces?  The middle and merchant classes wore more dramatic clothes respectively, showing off their wealth if not their breeding.  The poor wore rags.  I couldn’t help feeling sick at the sheer number of poor and desperate people on the streets, from pickpockets working the crowd to topless prostitutes who looked as though they were coming to the end of their lives.  I saw the desperation in their eyes and shuddered, helplessly.  They didn’t want to be on the streets, but what choice did they have?

We walked past a row of temples – Jasmine’s disdain was obvious – and past a set of mansions before circling back towards the marketplace.  There were fewer people on the streets, something that alarmed me before I realised it was getting hotter and hotter.  The locals probably took siestas, sleeping through the heat and returning to the streets when it grew cool again.  Or as cool as it ever got.  The terrain outside the city strongly suggested the kingdom was one bad summer from drought and famine.

“This might interest you,” Jasmine said, as we stopped by a stall.  “What do you think?”

I stared.  The stall was covered with books.  They looked oddly tattered, as though they’d passed through multiple hands or simply produced by printers who didn’t quite know what they were doing, but … they were books.  And the letters on the front were English letters … I reached for one and picked it up.  The language was impenetrable gibberish, as if someone had tried to transliterate a foreign language into a pronunciation guide, but … they were English letters.  And Arabic numbers.  I’d wondered, earlier, if I was truly the first person to cross the dimensional gulf.  I knew now I was not.  There was no way a completely separate world could have duplicated the letters and numbers so precisely.  God knew Latin and Chinese numerals had nothing in common with their Arabic counterparts. 

The sense of unreality washed over me – again – as my eyes swept over the rest of the books.  There were instructions on how to build a steam engine … I couldn’t read the text, as if the book had been produced by IKEA, but I could follow the diagrams.  Others showed how to produce printing presses, abacuses and looms … one of them looked something like a spinning jenny.  I stared down at a book about the human body, shaking my head in disbelief.  It was just … unreal.

“My wife laughed at that book,” the stallkeeper said.  He had the air of a man telling a joke that never got out.  “Can you believe they left out one of the holes?”

I put the book down, wishing – suddenly – that I could read.  It was easy enough to sound out the words – I guessed there was no clear agreement on proper spelling – but … Jasmine’s spell didn’t seem to work quite right when I said the words to myself.  I was tempted to ask if we could buy one of the books, but … I frowned as I realised the true implications of what I was seeing.  I’d assumed my knowledge of modern life would give me something to sell, when – if – I left the travellers … I cursed under my breath.  I should have known better than to assume anything.  All of the low-hanging fruit, when it came to industrial development, had already been plucked.  I didn’t know if there was another cross-dimensional traveller or not, but it didn’t matter.  I could no more produce a jet engine or a computer for them than I could get pregnant and give birth …

Jasmine steered me down the stalls.  I followed, feeling numb.  Stalls selling food contrasted oddly with stalls selling weapons, primitive blunderbusses and muskets that looked as if they would explode in the user’s hands.  It was strange to note that the stallkeepers had gunpowder weapons out in the open, but no edged weapons bigger than a dagger.  There were no swords, no spears … it made no sense.  Or did it?  If gunpowder weapons were unreliable, and I had the feeling they weren’t particularly accurate, they might not be seen as dangerous to the balance of power.  The thought made me smile.  If the gunsmiths were producing blunderbusses now, what would they be churning out in a decade or two?  I hoped I’d be around to see it.

I touched the pistol at my belt and smiled.  The odds were good it would be worth a lot of money, if I sold it.  I didn’t want to sell it.  I’d had to leave behind far too much already.  And besides, it would useful … at least until I ran out of ammunition.  There was no hope of finding more, not here.  I doubted the local gunsmiths could do anything with the pistol, except – perhaps – taking it apart for ideas.

Jasmine stopped in front of a food cart and bought a pair of squidgy sandwiches that might have passed for hot dogs, if they hadn’t been squashed by the seller.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat it – the cart looked terrifyingly unhygienic – but my stomach rumbled loudly the moment I took a sniff.  The stench of the city had faded … no, it hadn’t faded, I’d just gotten used to it.  I wanted a bath.  It didn’t look as through the locals bothered to wash.  Even the richer ones looked filthy.

This city is a breeding ground for disease, I thought.  I’d seen all kinds of diseases in third world hellholes, some of which had been alarmingly close to home.  Do they even know to boil water before they drink?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.  There was no water on sale, not even the ever-present bottled water I’d seen in the Middle East.  Everything looked alcoholic, which made a certain kind of sense.  Beer and wine had been safer, at least in the short run, until people had figured out the importance of clean water.  I gritted my teeth, then bit into the sandwich.  It tasted better than I’d expected, with a spicy sauce that make my mouth burn, yet … I didn’t recognise the meat.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what I was eating either.  Cat?  Dog?  Snake?  Who knew?

“We’d better start heading back to the caravans,” Jasmine said.  She gave me a sidelong look as we started to walk.  “What do you think?”

I hesitated.  The city might grow on me, if I let it.  I could find a place to stay, surely … I shook my head.  I didn’t know where to find a job or … or anything.  I looked at the beggars and shuddered, wondering if I’d end up begging myself.  What could I do, to make a living?  Teach the locals how to make sandwiches?  They already knew how to make sandwiches.  I probably knew all sorts of things they could use, but … how could I make myself heard?  I didn’t know. 

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  The city did have its good points.  “If I stay … what would I do?”

“They’re very accepting of newcomers here,” Jasmine told me.  “People come from all over the world, just to trade their wares.  There’s always work for someone who’s willing to work.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.  The Diddakoi weren’t that accepting.  I’d have to dedicate myself fully to them, if I wanted to stay permanently.  It was just a matter of time, I feared, before they started asking pointed questions.  “When do I have to decide?”

“We’re due to leave in five days,” Jasmine told me, as we entered the courtyard.  She squeezed my hand, reassuringly.  “You have until then to decide.”