Dec 27

Post-Christmas Sale, and an Excerpt

As I write, the latest Gryphon Clerks novel, Hope and the Clever Man, is on a Kindle Countdown Deal over at Amazon. That means it starts out at 99c and goes up by a dollar every couple of days until it's back at $4.99. The sooner you get over there, the better the deal, if you don't have it already. (Realmgolds is still on sale at half price, too.)

I'm using some of my holiday time to work on the sequel, Hope and the Patient Man, so I thought I'd give you an excerpt from Chapter 1. To find out how these two characters get together, and how Hope got herself cursed, of course, you'll need to read Hope and the Clever Man.

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They’d had a delicious dinner at one of the more expensive Gulfport restaurants, and shared a bottle of excellent wine. Judging by the way Hope was walking, it was more wine than she usually indulged in. She took Patient’s right arm and stumbled against him, laughing.

“Careful,” he said, flinging out his walking stick to keep himself from falling, and mentally cursing his weak leg. The carved dragon head of his stick dug into his hand as he used it to lever his weight, and Hope’s, to the right.

“Sorry. It’s these shoes.” Her own footwear mostly had steel toes, so she had borrowed a pair of shoes for the evening from her best friend and flatmate Briar.

“I thought it was the wine.”

“And the wine. Shoes and wine, Briar’s two favourite things. What are your favourite things, Patient?” She laughed again. He would almost say she giggled, except that Hope didn’t giggle. Her large dark eyes met his with an unguardedness that he hadn’t seen before. Pale as she was from working indoors, her flushed cheeks brought her back to a more usual skin tone, and her black hair, gleaming and herb-scented, fell across one side of her face. She blew it away and laughed again, and his heart contracted sharply. He was still not used to the idea that such a beautiful woman wanted to spend time with him.

“I don’t think you should get on that airhorse,” he said.

“No? You’re probably right. But how’m I going to get home?” She stretched out the last word, crooning it.

“You could stay in town here and go home in the morning. Probably not much more expensive than a ferry back to Illene, then a ferry back here again to get the airhorse.”

“And how’re you going to get home?”

“I could take the ferry, I suppose, and walk.” Patient’s home in Redbridge, a village not far north of Gulfport, lay near the river that also ran through the city and through the university town of Illene, where Hope lived. Even with his leg, he could walk between the ferry dock and his cottage without much discomfort.

“Or you could stay in town too. Should we get one room, or two?”

“Now I know you’re drunk. Which means that the answer’s two.”

“Oh, come on,” she said playfully, and swung around in front of him on the pavement, seizing both his forearms. “We’ve had a nice night. Let’s live a little.” She slid her hands up his arms to the shoulders, stepped in, and raised her face to his. Startled, he let the kiss begin.

She screamed, convulsed, and collapsed. He staggered as he grabbed for her, trying to keep her from falling, but his weak leg folded under him and they both stumbled to the ground. Her head struck the stone kerb and rebounded.

“Hope!” he shouted. She was whimpering and twitching in some kind of fit.

He heard running footsteps from behind him as he tried to keep her head from impacting the hard surface a second time. They hadn’t walked far from the restaurant, less than a block, and he recognised the doorman as the man leaned over them.

“What is it?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”

“Not sure,” said Patient. “Some kind of fit. Help me get her safe, put…” but the doorman was already whipping off his jacket and wadding it up to put under her head. They got her stretched out and waited for the fit to be over, Patient pulling himself round to sit with her head in his lap while the doorman crouched next to her shoulder. Patient’s leg had woken up and was proclaiming its tale of woe, but he ignored it.

After what seemed like much longer than it probably was, Hope gave a gasp and her eyes came back into focus. She made gagging movements, and he rolled her quickly onto her side, whereupon she threw up a gourmet meal and half a bottle of expensive wine onto his new trousers.

When the vomiting was over and her breathing had settled down, she tried to get up, and he helped her as best he could. The doorman was more help; he had leverage, and heaved Hope to her feet.

“Are you all right, Mage?” he asked. The silver bracelet on her left wrist, proclaiming her status as a full mage, glittered under the street lights, and the gems set in it sparkled. She nodded mutely, clutching her head.

Patient had reclaimed his stick, and was trying to regain his feet. He nearly slipped in the puddle of vomit before the doorman, still propping Hope up with one arm, heaved him upright with the other.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to ignore the unpleasant dampness seeping through his trouser leg.

“Sorry,” said a still drunk-sounding Hope. She gently disengaged from the doorman and stood, a little shakily, on her own feet.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Oathconflict, I think,” she said. “Curse it.” Her voice came out toneless and dull, unlike her usual rich mezzo.

“Well, I think that answers the question of whether you go home tonight,” he said. “The answer’s no. Where can we find a hotel?” he asked the doorman.

“Just round the corner,” said the man. “You want me to walk with you?”

“Stone?” called a man’s voice from behind them. “Everything all right?”

“The lady and gentleman had a fall,” the doorman called back. “I’m just going to take them round to the Peerless. Can you watch the door?”

“All right,” called the voice.

“The Peerless?” said Patient, a little nervously. “That sounds expensive.” The doorman looked puzzled, as far as Patient could tell under the dim lighting, and rightly so. The restaurant they had just come out of was hardly Fat Berry’s Fry Shack, and if you could afford to eat there, you could afford to stay at the Peerless. He thought of explaining that their meal had been paid for by Realmgold Victory.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hope in a shaky voice. “I can cover it.”

Patient opened his mouth to argue, decided that it wasn’t the time, and shut it again. He and the doorman began to help her down the street, one on each side. She walked like a woman with three times her not-quite-24 years, but they turned the corner at last, and Stone the doorman called to his counterpart at the front of the Peerless.

“Hey, Willing! Come and give us a hand, mate.”

The other doorman hurried over, and helped Hope into the reception area, where another uniformed hotel employee bustled round the desk in concern.

“Should I send for a healer?” she asked.

“If you would,” said Patient quickly, before Hope could say no. Not that she looked as if she was going to. She even shot him a look of thanks.

The receptionist rousted out a youth from the room behind the desk and sent him on the errand, while the two doormen seated Hope in a chair in the lobby.

“Thank you, Mister… Stone, is it?” said Patient to the restaurant doorman.

“My pleasure to assist, sir,” said the man. Patient dug in his pocket and found some coins. He gave him the two biggest pieces, equivalent to a quarter of a silver hammer, and Stone seemed happy enough.

“I hope your lady’s all right, sir,” he said, and ran off to resume his duties round the corner.

“Sir, would you like us to assist you with your trousers?” said the hotel doorman. The receptionist was fussing over Hope.

“Eh? Oh, yes, thank you,” he said. “And we’ll need a room. Um, two rooms. No, better make it one room. I don’t want to leave her unwatched.”

“Are you all right yourself, sir?”

“Yes, yes, fine,” he said. “An existing injury.”

“In the war, sir?” said the doorman. Patient looked up and caught a look that combined respect and pity.

“Yes,” he said shortly. “As it happens. How far does the healer have to come?”

“Not far, sir, there’s a healer just two blocks over, and he’s contracted to the hotel. Did the lady have something that disagreed with her?”

There was a distinct tang of wine in among the vomit, and the doorman was clearly being tactful.

“More than that, I think,” said Patient. “She’s a mage, and she was involved in a kind of magical incident some years ago that has left her with… I suppose you’d say a curse. It got triggered.” His tone was curt, partly with worry for Hope, but mainly because it was none of the man’s wretched business.

“Ah,” said the doorman. “Well, sir, if you’re all right I’ll go and watch for the healer, shall I?”

“Please.”

With the doorman gone, Patient limped over to the chair and carefully lowered himself to one of the arms, trying to keep his spattered trouserleg well clear. “How are you doing?” he asked, while going through a checklist in his mind. As a former part-time village warden, he had been trained to deal with emergencies, and he was trying to remember what you did for someone who’d just had a fit.

“Thirsty,” she said.

“I’ll get…” began the receptionist.

“Let’s wait for the healer,” he said. “I don’t think we should give her anything until he gets here.”

Before either woman could argue, brisk boot-heels rang on the marble of the foyer, and the healer arrived, the round hat of his profession askew and his coat and trousers pulled on over a nightshirt. The boy entered in his wake, and the receptionist made a curt gesture sending him back to his lurking place behind the desk, while hovering herself.

The healer knelt and took Hope’s wrist, reading the state of her body while asking, “What’s happened here, then?” in a calm professional voice.

Patient fell into the rhythms of an incident report, giving an unemotional summary of events. He included the fact that Hope had had an oathconflict reaction, though he didn’t go into the background. He wondered if he should, because not doing so risked the implication that she was oathbound to someone else and seeing him behind her oathmate’s back, but decided that it was nobody else’s business and he didn’t care what they thought. The healer, who hadn’t previously looked at him, shot him a sharp glance, flicked his gaze briefly at the stick, and nodded, without apparent hostility. He touched the side of Hope’s head where it had met the stone kerb. The skin was unbroken, but reddened, and she winced away. He closed his eyes to concentrate, sensing underneath the skin.

“There’s a bit of bleeding under there,” he noted. “Not a lot, but enough to be of concern. Merriment,” he called to the receptionist, “send your boy for a cab, will you? We need to get her into the healing house overnight.”

“Oh,” said Patient.

“Sorry, sir,” said the healer. “Not something to take lightly, a head injury. I’d deal with it myself if it was most other things, but head trauma wants a specialist. I’m afraid your evening is rather ruined.”

Patient smiled grimly. “Thank you,” he said.

While they waited for the cab to come, he leaned down awkwardly next to Hope. “I hate to mention this,” he said, “but I don’t have enough money to tip all these nice people, pay the healer, and pay the cab.”

She fished out a purse and handed it over.

“Thank you,” he said again, and circulated, handing over money to the boy, the receptionist, the healer (rather a larger amount) and the doorman.

“Oh! Your trousers, sir,” said the receptionist. “The cabbie won’t let you in like that, I’m afraid, or he’ll charge you extra. I’ll see if I can find you a pair. What’s your waist size?”

Patient told her, and by the time the cab arrived he was in a pair of the hotel’s uniform trousers which were attempting to cut him in half, the closest pair the receptionist had been able to find, and she had taken his away to be cleaned. He made arrangements to pick them up next day and slipped her more copper.

He had never, he reflected, spent so much money on what was supposed to be a free evening, a reward for Hope from the Realmgold for working so hard last year. He returned to her side in time to help her to the cab. The cabbie looked at him oddly when he got in, with his stick and his too-small trousers, and again when he paid from Hope’s obviously feminine purse, but he was well beyond caring. He had fallen into the mentally distanced state that they taught in the military and that he had held onto through much of the war — especially the part after his injury. It allowed him to move on to the next thing that needed doing, and put off anger, fear and frustration until later.

The night staff at the healing house were quietly efficient, and a young healer came and sat beside Hope in one of the tiny treatment rooms, using her gift of Invisible Touch to stop the bleeding inside Hope’s head and ease the pressure. Patient leaned against the wall, giving them as much space as he could manage. He shifted his stick uncomfortably, trying to ease his throbbing leg.

“All right,” said the healer eventually. “I’ve done as much as I can for now. Let’s get you to bed.” Patient helped Hope walk along the gleamingly clean corridor in the impractical shoes. They helped her to a washroom to clean up, and Patient stood outside while the healer helped her change into a nightgown, then returned to assist with getting her into bed. She looked grey and exhausted.

“I’m going to give you the Healer’s Sleep now,” said the young woman, and worked a spell with the confidence of someone who performed it multiple times a day. Hope’s strained face relaxed as her eyes closed, her breathing deepened, and she fell into a deep sleep almost instantly.

“That should hold her until well into tomorrow morning,” said the healer. “You’re her… what? Oathmate?” She glanced at their hands, obviously checking for rings and, of course, not finding any. “Promised?” she amended.

“No.”

“You’re courting, then?”

“I’m her… friend,” he said. This, at least, was true. He wasn’t sure what else they were.

“Would you mind staying the night with her?”

“I’ll insist on it.”

“All right, let’s set you up with a pallet. You’re injured?”

“I got a knock to my bad leg,” he said, “but nothing new.”

“Let me take a look.” She sat him down in the corner and ran her hand over his leg above the borrowed trousers, eyes closed.

“That’s been well cared for, considering what a nasty injury it must have been originally,” she said. “Was it the war?”

“Yes,” he said, in the tone he used to discourage people asking anything more.

“How’s this?” she said, and he felt the cramped muscles relax and the damaged flesh flooding with warmth, as if he was in one of the herbal baths his local healer made him take. His pain eased.

“Oh, that’s helping,” he said.

“Good. I’ll send someone in to do your pallet. Do you think you can get to sleep?”

“Yes, I should be all right.”

“Good. I don’t want to give you the Sleep, because having you in here with her and able to wake up is an extra safety measure. Not that I think anything will happen overnight, but just in case. Someone will be with you very soon.”

Of course, with the best of intentions, it was actually some time before one of the healers’ assistants came in with a pallet for him, and he was able to take off the terrible trousers and fall onto it. Whereupon he lay awake late into the night, listening for any shift in Hope’s breathing.

She was still breathing steadily when he finally drifted off in the deep hours of the early morning.

Sep 30

Hope and the Clever Man excerpt

Edits are proceeding on Hope and the Clever Man and its sequel, Hope and the Patient Man. I'm planning to have them out before and after Christmas, respectively. Here's an excerpt from the first Hope book to whet your appetite.

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Bucket led her to a newer part of Illene, where the ancient, organic-looking, rounded or hexagonal elven buildings were replaced by newer dwarfbuilt structures, foursquare and solid. The small university city was built on the old river floodplain, and the streets were straight and wide. He flung open an undistinguished door and bowed her through as if welcoming an ambassador to the audience hall of a realmgold.

The room beyond was large, but she only knew this because she could see the enormous skylight that made up the whole ceiling. Her view of the room itself was blocked by a number of wheeled boards, covered in spidery dwarvish script interspersed with magical sigils and some other symbols that she found completely unfamiliar. She navigated through them, and found herself in what looked like a serious collision involving a print shop, a mage’s workspace, the stockroom of a mad glassblower, sixteen or twenty more boards, and the junk-midden of a medium-sized dwarfhold. Standing amid the ruins, bent over a draughtsman’s table, was a man no taller than Hope, and probably not much older, though his face was creased with worry-lines.

The Realmgold had mentioned things her clever man didn’t do well. These clearly included sleeping, eating, dressing, washing and shaving. His hair looked like it should be arrested for disorderly conduct, his eyebrows as if they had been partially burned off, and he had scars all up his arms, which were visible because his worn and threadbare sleeves were unevenly rolled up above his elbows. The state of his fingernails would have shamed a drunken farrier. His once-white shirt and beige trousers were marked and stained with scorches, odd colours and more than occasional burn holes, as was the tradesman’s smock he wore over them.

He didn’t look up at the sound of Hope’s footsteps.

“Master,” said Bucket loudly. “Master. The Realmgold has sent you a mage.”

The man looked up from his work, and visibly came back into the room from a great mental distance. “Oh, Bucket,” he said. “Did you go out?”

“For half the morning, yes,” said Bucket, but with more amusement than irritation. “Master, this is Hope at Merrybourne. She’s here to see if she wants to work with us, so you’re going to have to talk to her.”

“Oh,” said the man, and peered at Hope curiously.

She flushed a little under his gaze. It wasn’t the gaze she was used to getting from men. For one thing, when he looked away from her face his eyes didn’t go to her chest, but to her wrist, where she proudly wore the mage’s bracelet she had earned from the University (and was still paying off). It was made of silver set with a prominent ruby, showing that she was a full mage in energy magic. The clear diamond for the High Distinction and the cat’s-eye topaz for the Master-Mage’s prize would join it once she could get it to a jeweller. The bangles of a Mage-Minor in mindmagic (blackwood) and lifemagic (bone) bracketed it. It was fresh and unmarked — she would eventually have spells she used frequently scribed into it — and she valued it more than the arm it was clasped around, not only for its monetary worth but for the years of effort it represented.

She adjusted the bracelet nervously, making sure that he saw the ruby, and, on impulse, strode forward. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, holding out her other hand across his workbench for the mutual palm-press that was the usual greeting. He stared at the hand, and after an awkward couple of heartbeats, she took it away again, wiped the sweaty palm on her trouserleg and put it in her pocket, then took it out again.

“Tell her your name, Master,” prompted Bucket.

“Oh,” he said. “Dignified Printer.”

She had to swallow a smile. Not only was the name completely ill-suited to him, but it was rather an odd one. Silvers, people of the merchant and administrative class (as the name Printer revealed him to be), generally copied the Gold nobility and named their children after desirable abstract qualities, but Dignified was not one of the usual names.

“Hope at Merrybourne,” she said, in case he’d forgotten already. It seemed likely. He nodded, and kept staring at her inquiringly. She was obviously going to have to carry this conversation herself. Perhaps she could find something he was passionate about.

“So,” she said, “can you explain these symbols to me?” She pointed at random to one of the nearby boards.

She had spoken in Pektal, but at her question he perked up and began talking in rapid-fire Dwarvish. He had a good accent for a human, hardly adding any vowels at all, but she barely had time to notice that because she was busy trying to keep up.

Hope knew she was very intelligent. Nobody gets High Distinction at the University of Illene without a lot happening above and behind the nose. But Dignified was off over his own distant horizon of intelligence, somewhere that looked a lot like insanity to the casual observer. Despite her good mathematical education, it still took her some time to even figure out that what he was doing was mathematics, and another hour, and a lot of questions, to understand how that related to magic.

“Oh, right,” she said, as something Dignified had said finally connected two other concepts. “So…” she turned to a nearby fresh board that Bucket had unobtrusively rolled up. There was a kind of pen, a stubby thing with a thick barrel, resting in a little cup hung off the bottom of the board, and she snatched it up and started writing out the standard spell for making a permanent light. It was one of the first she’d learned, and she could write it out without thinking about it.

“If you say that this is…” she wrote out a formula in his notation, “and this bit is…”

“Not exactly,” he said. “You need to…” he snatched up another pen and wrote in a correction.

“Oh, I see,” she said. “And that means…” she scribed up another formula, looked at it for a moment, changed one variable, and turned to him with a questioning look.

Yes,” he said.

“That’s obvious,” she said. “Why didn’t my professors tell me this?”

“Old-fashioned,” he said. “Reactionary. Defended against the new. Whereas…” he started writing another formula next to hers, and she jumped up and down.

“I’ve wondered about that for years,” she said.

Bucket, smiling, manoeuvred carefully and quietly around the junk piles, retrieved some requisition forms from his little office and started to fill them in. Hope would need a few things, since she was obviously going to be staying.

Sep 17

Three Points of View of a Flat

I'm working on two books at the moment, as I mentioned in my last post, both of them featuring the brilliant young mage Hope. In the second one particularly, I'm playing with point of view, telling the story through several different people's eyes.

As it happens, three of those people are shown seeing the same thing (a house) for the first time in the course of the two books. It's a classic writing exercise to reveal character through point of view by describing the same thing through different sets of eyes, and here I've done that writing exercise in my actual novels.

Let's hear from Hope herself first. She's the daughter of upper servants in a remote part of the realm who has come to the mainland to study magic, and she and her friend Briar are looking for a place to live. As an energy mage with a special interest in light, she mostly notices things like the colour of the paint.

The old house had been converted into several flats when the neighbourhood lost its cachet and the well-off families moved elsewhere. Built of brick, probably, Hope thought, but surfaced with plaster so you couldn’t really tell. There were no cracks, the steps were clean, and if the exterior paint was not fresh it was at least clean too, and a cheerful yellow.  Someone had made some attempt at a garden in the front, and it was free of rubbish and the shrubs were in good health, if a little shaggy.

Now let's hear what Patient thinks. He's a woodcarver.

He reached the house without further incident as the light faded from the sky. He hadn’t been there before, and was impressed with the tidy exterior. An older house, but well cared for, and some nice jigsaw work on the bargeboards....

He ascended the old-fashioned staircase -- all dark-stained wood with some very decent banister carving, though it could do with a touch-up on the stain -- turned right and knocked on the door.

And here's Rosie. Rosie's parents are wealthy, and she's lived a sheltered life. She's considering moving out on her own, though.

Promptly at the twelfth deep bell (she had inherited her respect for other people’s time from her father), Rosie fetched up in front of a smaller, plainer house than she had imagined Mage Hope living in. Of course, the mage was from a servant family, so she didn’t have inherited money, she’d made it all herself. That presumably made a difference. Which would mean that this was the kind of house Rosie could afford to live in, if it wasn’t for her parents. Hmm.

Same house. Three different viewpoints. Three different voices.

I love doing this sort of thing, having developed a taste for different character voices by reading my earlier book, City of Masks, aloud in order to put it on Podiobooks.com. It only takes a few little touches to give characters distinctive voices, and I think it provides the reader with a richer experience.

Mar 27

How to Raise the Stakes (and Prevent Your Protagonist from Becoming a Tourist)

I mentioned a couple of posts back that one of the best pieces of advice my editor, Kathleen Dale, gave me was to give my protagonist a problem that he's trying to resolve right from Chapter 1.

Not only do we identify with someone who's trying to solve a problem, they're a lot more interesting to read about. I've read a few books lately in which the would-be protagonists are actually more like tourists. They get on the airship (literally, in at least one case) and watch out the window as what plot there is goes by. Other people do things, and the viewpoint character acts as a kind of mobile lens that observes without much participation. Sometimes, they seem to be there mainly to tour the author's wonderful setting and exclaim over it.

This is boring. Protagonists should protagonise.

Therefore, set your protagonist up with something they want that they're going to have to work for.

Raising the Stakes

The next obvious question is "why does the protagonist care?" If the protagonist isn't invested, the reader won't be invested. They need to have some skin in the game.

This is where raising the stakes comes in.

You could not do better, at this point, than to head over to Writing Excuses and listen to their podcast episode on Raising the Stakes, because they do a great job. One of the things they emphasize is that it's not necessary to use what I call the Alderaan Gambit in order to raise the stakes. Blowing things up, or threatening to blow things up, is not necessary. It's not even sufficient. What you're setting out to do is to give a compelling reason why the character is emotionally invested in a particular outcome (and then you put obstacles between the character and the outcome, and suddenly you have a story).

Here's what I did, following Kathleen's advice and the advice of the Writing Excuses crew. Kathleen noted that I didn't need to make the Chapter 1 problem the main problem of the book, but as it happened that worked better than anything else I thought of, so my character's problem is that the Human Purity movement is gaining in power and popularity in the realm he's supposed to be ruling.

So why is that a problem? Well, he's supposed to be in charge, but he's feeling like he's not in charge, so...

No. Stronger.

He's educated in history, and he opposes their racist philosophy because he knows it's built on a foundation of lies and distortion, and...

No. It needs to be much stronger than that. Make it personal.

Now, I knew that Determined, the protagonist, and Admirable, the antagonist, were around the same age and had both gone to the College of Ancient Turfrae. Could they have met there? Could there be history between them?

And then I thought about my own university experience of becoming involved with a (much less sinister) group which had a particular ideology, and how they trained me to see everything through that ideology, and to identify with their "in" group against the "out" group, and this is what I wrote. Determined is talking to his ally Victory.

...

“All right,” he said. “The Countygold of Upper Hills and I were at the College of Ancient Turfrae at the same time. Actually he was there first, he’s a couple of years older. By the time I started, he was already establishing himself as an important leader in the Human Purity movement, which had begun a few years before with a small group of professors and students. Simply a theoretical thing at first. Silverstones — as he was then, he hadn’t inherited the County yet — took it and made it a movement.”

He flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “There was a girl I wanted to get to know, and I heard her say to a friend of hers that she was going to one of his meetings, so I went along, hoping, you know… And I didn’t see her, but I listened to him speak. He was good. Brilliant, really. Inspirational. In those days he was more subtle, his arguments were more sophisticated, tuned, I suppose, to his audience. I started going regularly, and he took notice of me, cultivated me. In retrospect it was obviously because I was related to the Realmgold, but at the time he made it seem like it was for me, myself, that he respected me and valued me. He was good at that. He did it with everyone who he thought he could use, more or less, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I… I became a follower. A passionate one. I was looking for meaning in history, some overarching story, and Silverstones and his group provided it. And I was looking for a group to belong to, as well, one that made me feel like what I did and said and thought was important.

“At that time a lot of the history faculty were starting to come over to a Human Purity line. But there was one professor, an older man, near retirement. He was my favourite teacher, because he made everything so interesting and vivid. He would take us walking around Ancient Turfrae and describe things that had happened in the places where we stood, and you could almost imagine they were happening in front of you. I still remember his lecture in front of the Column of Willing practically word for word.

“Anyway, he had always stayed quiet on Human Purity, for or against. His great work was a translation of an old Elvish book. He’d spent twenty years on it. And one day I arrived in his office for a tutorial, and he was excited. He’d been working on his translation, and he’d found, he said, evidence that when the elves had brought us, humans, to this world, they’d changed us somehow so that we could do magic.”

“Interesting,” said Victory. “They would certainly have been capable of something like that, from all I’ve read.”

“Yes, they would. Both technically and morally. But of course the first thing I seized on was what that would mean for Human Purity. It would mean not only that we weren’t pure, but that nonhumans had shaped us, made us what we are.”

“I suppose I can see that. You argued?”

“I was an insufferable little snot, if you call that arguing. Ended up storming out and going straight to Silverstones.”

“What did he say?”

“Thanked me for drawing it to his attention.”

Determined shifted uncomfortably in his chair and ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed them together. “The next day, there was a fire in the professor’s rooms.”

“His translation?”

“Yes, and the Elvish original. But he came in unexpectedly, and somehow he hit his head, and… Well, between that and the smoke… He was an old man.”

...

Now there is a character who is not going to sit in the airship and watch things happen. (If you enjoyed it, it's from Realmgolds, and you can get it from Amazon through that link.)

Oct 04

Excerpt: The Trial from Realmgold

Now that I've submitted The Gryphon Clerks for consideration to a small-press publisher, I'm concentrating on finishing the draft of Realmgold (formerly "the political book"). I like it. It might even become the "first" book, since both cover the same time period and it's a little more mainstream - more conflict, for one thing.

Here's an excerpt. Constance is a Countygold, a local ruler, who is acting as a magistrate here.

 

Constance’s official judicial table that she used in her usual courtroom had been moved to the platform of the hall. She stood up behind it, a slight, fiftyish, grey-haired woman who needed the reading glasses that she looked over at the gathered crowd.

Here we go, she thought.

“We are here,” she said, “to ascertain the facts about the incident which occurred night before last, just south of Boulder Bend, between a dwarf caravan and a group of local men. I will hear testimony from all who were present and survived, and I will render judgement based on the principles of justice and the law of Denning.” She paused and very deliberately tracked her gaze across the various groups. “Anyone who disrupts the proceedings will be ejected without appeal. Is that clear to everybody?”

There were nods from various parts of the hall. The grey-clad RBP men didn’t nod, just sat stiffly. There were mutterings among the dwarves, but she chose to assume they were translations being made for those who didn’t speak Pektal. The newswriters scribbled, and the Coppers shuffled their feet.

“Good,” she said, and sat. “I will have the participants in the incident come in one at a time and give testimony as to what occurred. Call…” she squinted at her notes… “Tree Stonecircle.”

The advocate for the Coppers popped to his feet as if on a spring. His appearance was against him – he was pop-eyed, with a receding chin and advancing teeth – but he was a highly skilled lawyer, too highly skilled for the Coppers to be paying him themselves, thought Constance.

“Advocate Trustworthy,” she said, acknowledging him. She thought: Trustworthy, what a name for a lawyer.

“May I inquire of the court why the first witness to be called is the principal accused?”

“One of the principal accused,” she pointed out. “And I am calling him first because, having read through the depositions made by the participants, I concluded that his account gives the fullest outline of the incident. That is not,” she said, as he opened his mouth, “a judgement of its accuracy, only of its level of detail.” She nodded to the corporal, who had been waiting for her ruling, and he hurried out the back to fetch the centaur.

There was some murmuring among the Coppers when Muscles appeared, which Constance hushed with her bell and a hard glare that said: Remember, I can throw you out. The RBP men sat silently, obviously determined to give her no excuse.

It was the magistrate’s prerogative to question the witness first, so she began, once he had been sworn in.

“You are Tree Stonecircle?”

“Yes, Countygold,” he said, in a surprisingly tenor voice. His head was about three dwarfpaces above the ground, and, seated, she had to look up at him.

“You can address me as Magistrate while we are in session. You were hired by the dwarf Pack of Sevenhills as a caravan guard?”

“Yes, Magistrate.”

She led him through the outline of events, which he recited calmly and clearly, like a military officer giving his report. His enormous hooves stayed planted foursquare on the platform, and he didn’t fidget, nor did his speech stumble. She handed him over, as was the tradition, to Trustworthy, who as far as Tree was concerned was acting as the opposing advocate.

Trustworthy leapt to his feet and leaned forward, gesturing up at the centaur (the advocates were not seated on the platform, since there wasn’t room). “Tree Stonecircle,” he said, “you have testified under oath that the humans you killed began the altercation. Is this true?”

“Yes, Advocate,” said Tree.

“And does the oath bind you?” he asked.

Tree blinked, at a loss for the first time. “I’m sorry, Advocate, I don’t understand,” he said.

“Are you bound by your oath in court?”

“Of course I am, Advocate.”

“But you’re more than half an animal.”

Murmurs began on both sides of the court, and Constance rang her bell sharply. “Advocate, I suggest that you desist from this line of questioning,” she said. “I am mindmage enough to confirm that the oath does bind the witness, as it does any other witness.”

Trustworthy bowed to her unctuously and continued.

“So what was it that led you to conclude that the humans concerned had attacked you?”

“One of them shouted ‘let’s get them’, and they all ran at us with weapons,” he said. More than one of the reporters smirked, and they all scribbled faster.

“And these so-called weapons, of what did they consist?”

“Sharp bits of metal on poles, mostly,” he said. One reporter laughed openly, though briefly, glanced at Constance and fell silent.

“They were, in fact, agricultural tools, were they not? Hayforks, mattocks, scythes and the like?”

“Yes, Advocate. Sharp bits of metal on poles,” said Tree.

“They were not, for example, spears and swords?”

“No, Advocate, they were not. I imagine that such items are difficult to obtain for civilians.”

“What you imagine is not evidence,” said Trustworthy sharply. “So you admit that they were not weapons?”

“No, Advocate, I admit that they were not spears and swords. They were capable of doing harm to us and I judged that that was the intent of the people holding them, which made them weapons. It is my job to make these determinations and act upon them.”

“So had they actually laid their implements on you when you fired your bow?”

“No, Advocate. That’s rather the point of a bow,” said Tree. “You can defend yourself from a distance.”

“So you shot – how many?”

“Three, Advocate. After that they were too close.”

“And what did you do next? Remind me?”

“I drew my sword and defended myself, my employer, and my fellow employees.”

“So you attacked a group of peasants, who had nothing but farm tools to defend themselves, with weapons of war.”

“Advocate, I defended myself and my group against an unprovoked attack with improvised weapons. It’s my job.”

“And you stick to this story.”

“I do, Advocate.”

“Yours to question,” said Trustworthy to the other advocate, a skinny man called Hopeful with a big blade of a nose, and sat down.

Hopeful stood, straightened his lawyer’s shoulder-width black poncho, and asked, “Mr Tree, how many of your opponents were killed in the encounter, do you know?”

“I believe it was three, Advocate.”

“And you base this on?”

“Rapid examination at the scene,” he replied. “It’s possible that one or two more may have died afterwards, after I left.”

“And how did they die, these three?”

“Two from my shots. The third man I shot, the big one with the pickaxe, looked as if he would live to me. Then one of them was kicked by one of the mules, and he hit pretty hard. Looked like he had internal injuries.”

“So the ones you fought with your sword…?”

“One I disarmed by cutting the head off his weapon. Two I knocked out with the flat of the blade. The last one I kicked, but he should have survived all right.”

“So you had a sword, but you didn’t stab anyone with it.”

“Broadsword, Advocate. Not really a stabbing weapon.”

“You didn’t cut anyone, then.”

“No, Advocate.”

“Why was that?”

“I try not to kill people if I can avoid it.”

“Thank you, Mr Tree,” said Hopeful, and sat down.

“Thank you, Mr Tree,” echoed Constance, “that will be all. The court,” she said to the room at large, “has sighted documentation which shows that the centaur Tree Stonering is a licensed caravan guard, permitted to carry and use weapons in defence of his employer and his employer's goods.” She paused, looked down at her notes, and said, “Call Root Pinegrove.”

The corporal led Tree back into the back room on Constance’s left, emerged, ducked into the back room on her right and brought out a medium-sized Copper who walked rather carefully, as if in pain. His heavy breathing was clearly audible in the courtroom, silent except for the scribbling of the reporters.

Tree would probably have recognised him as the man with the mattock.

Constance moved through the formalities of confirming his identity and involvement in the incident as rapidly as she could, given his thick dialect.

“How many of you were in the group involved in the incident?”

“Eleven, Magistrate.”

“And what had you been doing previously?”

“We been at pub.”

“Drinking?”

“Yahs, Magistrate.”

“Why did you have your tools with you?”

The man’s mouth, which featured some truly hideous teeth – green and worn or missing – worked briefly as he tried not to answer, but the oath compelled him.

“We was lookin’ for shorties.”

“Do you mean you were looking for dwarves?”

“Yahs.”

“And what did you intend to do when you found them?”

Root muttered something.

“Speak clearly, Mr Root,” said Constance sternly.

“We was gonna do ‘em over.”

“You were going to attack them?”

“Yahs.” The man was sweating, trying not to answer.

“And did you attack the dwarf caravan in question when you found them?”

“Yahs.” Very reluctantly.

“In your statement given previously, you claimed that the dwarf caravan attacked you. Are you now saying that was untrue?”

“Yahs.”

“You lied in your statement?”

“Yahs.”

“Why did you lie, Mr Root?”

“Was sceered.”

“You were scared. What were you scared of, Mr Root?”

“Sceered of Localgold.”

“And why was that?”

The man struggled visibly, but didn’t answer.

“Are you under a compulsion not to answer that question, Mr Root?” she asked, knowing full well what the answer was.

“Yahs,” he said, with a mixture of fear and relief.

“Did the Localgold suggest that you go out after the dwarves, Mr Root?”

Trustworthy popped up on his spring, but she waved him down. Root’s eyes bulged as the conflicting oaths fought to force him in opposite directions.

“It’s all right, Mr Root,” Constance said after a few heartbeats, as the Copper’s face started to flush, “you don’t have to answer that question. Be it noted in the record that the witness was unable to answer.

“So you attacked the dwarf caravan. Another witness has told us that one of your group cried out, ‘Get them!’, or words to that effect. Did you hear those words, Mr Root?”

“Yahs.”

“Who said them?”

“Sky Tanner.” He added a tongue-click to the end of the name, as superstitious Coppers did to the names of the dead.

“And what happened then?”

“We run at the shorties and the horse-arse.”

“Mr Root, in my courtroom you will call things by their correct names. You will call dwarves dwarves, gnomes gnomes, and centaurs centaurs. Is that clear?”

“Yahs, Magistrate.”

“So what happened after Sky Tanner called out?”

“We run at the… the dwarves and the centaur.”

“To attack them?”

“Yahs.”

“With what object?”

“Magistrate?”

“What was your purpose? What did you hope to achieve by attacking them?”

“Beat ‘em up, take their stuff.”

“You were going to rob them?”

“Yahs,” quietly.

“Did you intend to kill them?”

“Nah.”

“Just to hurt them?”

“Yahs.”

“And what stopped you?”

“The hor… the centaur.”

“He stopped you from beating up the group any worse than you did, and from robbing them?”

“Yahs.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Kicked me in guts.” He touched the area in question and winced.

“Thank you, Mr Root. Yours to question,” she said to Trustworthy.

Mar 16

Gnome Day

The memo went round, everywhere Gryphon Clerks worked.

Attention: Important: Command of the Realmgold: Effective Immediately, Internal Distribution Universal Prompt Required, External Distribution Prohibited with Penalty.

As at midnight tonight, a clarifying law takes effect which defines slavery in such a way that it includes the dwarvish concept of gnomeservice. The effect of this law is to emancipate any gnome who is outside a legally constituted dwarf hold.

Should any gnome or gnomes seek refuge or assistance at your place of work or ask you for assistance in any place or time, you are to provide such refuge and assistance until otherwise advised.

Register said gnomes using form GA-Reg/001.01 (attached) and return to Office of Gnome Affairs as thereon indicated.

Submit any cost claims using cost code GA-000000001-01.

Volunteers sought to open offices overnight, partially paid. Advise availability to Office of Gnome Affairs.

Attention: Important: Command of the Realmgold: Effective Immediately, Internal Distribution Universal Prompt Required, External Distribution Prohibited with Penalty.

Mage-minor signmakers had been at work for days in the cities of Koskant, placing glow-in-the-dark silver gryphons beside the entrance to any office where a Gryphon Clerk could be found. They activated or deactivated when touched by one of the clerks’ gryphons, so they could mark whether an office was attended.

A hat manufactory had received, some time before, a large government order for traditional gnome hats, but sized to fit humans. The dwarf in charge shrugged, and had the hat blocks moved around. His business was making sure that orders were filled, not asking why the Realmgold wanted human-sized gnome hats.

Among the gnomes, no memos circulated. Whispers and, in the noisier factories, handsign had to do instead. But the message was carefully phrased to be easily memorised:

The human Realmgold is declaring gnomeservice illegal from midnight tonight.

If you want to leave, look for the sign of the silver gryphon and ask for help, and you will be helped.

Keep it quiet, pass it on.

 “Something’s up with the gnomes,” said one dwarf overseer to another over a cup of mushroom broth.

“Ah, they’re always muttering about something,” said his colleague.

 

Shortly before midnight, in the industrial district south of the river, large, unmarked steam vans belonging to the Realmgold’s agents chugged quietly to several key intersections and stopped. Their sound went unremarked among the normal brick-building-muffled noises of steam engines, compressors and power tools from the factories on either hand.

Black-clad agents bearing silver gryphons on their chests, and wearing the tugboat-shaped hats that gnomes wore outside to protect them from the sun, slipped quietly from the vans and went to lurk in nearby shadows.

Suddenly, just on the stroke of midnight, first one factory, and then another, started to shut down. The Realmgold’s agents straightened and, against their long-trained instincts, moved forward into the light, where their hats and their gryphons would be visible to anyone coming out of the factories.

As the machines fell silent, from some of the nearest factories they could hear shouting in Dwarvish. First one voice, then it was answered by another, and finally a shout went up from many throats at once. The agents, all of whom understood Dwarvish, looked at each other. The shout had been “shvv,” the Dwarvish word for “victory”.

Moments later, the factory doors burst open and a flood of gnomes spilled into the street, chanting “Shvv, shvv, shvv.” In between the chant the agents could faintly hear increasingly obscene and desperate shouts from the overseers inside.

The agents waved, but the gnomes had already spotted their hats and headed towards them.

A burly, no-nonsense-looking gnome approached one pair of agents and gave a tilt of the head that communicated, “I acknowledge that you’re here in front of me, what now?”

“Greeting,” said one of the agents, in rough but serviceable Dwarvish. “Do you need help or directions?”

“We were going to head into the city,” said the gnome.

“Yes, that’s right. Look for the silver gryphon on any building.”

The gnome nodded and led his people off.

As the street cleared, a couple of dwarf overseers came panting up. “Are you in charge here?” one asked.

“Yes,” said the lead agent.

“Can’t you do something?”

“We’re doing it,” said the agent.

“What? You’re just standing here.”

“We’re providing directions,” said the second agent.

Directions? What about my runaway gnomes?”

“Realmgold says they’re not your gnomes. They belong to themselves.”

“That’s right,” said the senior agent. “No slavery in Koskant.”

“But… but…”

“You have a problem, you submit it to the Office of Gnome Affairs in the morning,” said the senior.

“Since when is there an Office of Gnome Affairs?” asked the dwarf who hadn’t spoken previously.

“Since now.”

“You can’t do this,” wailed the first dwarf. “Our grandmothers will be furious.”

“Office of Gnome Affairs,” repeated the senior agent. “Not our problem.”

 

The Office of Land Registration happened to be opposite the Municipal Theatre, and both had silver gryphons glowing outside. Also glowing were a couple of portable braziers, on which sat large metal urns filled with water. Eight or so volunteer Gryphon Clerks were enjoying a brew-up on the Municipal Theatre side of the street. As the midnight bells sounded from a couple of public clocks, they came alert and took their places by the doors.

Before long, a tramping noise could be heard, coming across the Long Bridge from the north bank of the river. Over the sound of many feet came jubilant cries of “shvv!” and “trr-kn!” (“freedom”).

A middle-aged clerk turned to the youngster beside him, a keen young lad just out of the Clerks’ College. “You’re watching history tonight,” he said. The youth nodded, his eyes shining, and they moved forward to greet the oncoming gnomes.

Feb 24

Excerpt from Book 2

[Grass Badger is a beasthead shaman, and Stone is the Gryphon Clerk sent to negotiate with the beastheads. They're at what is basically a hui (Google it if you're not a New Zealander).]

When Stone sat down, there was a pause, and then Grass Badger stalked out of the crowd and seized the staff.

If the speeches up until now had been aimed at unity and friendship, Grass Badger’s set a new tone. Marching back and forth, gesturing with the staff to emphasise his words, occasionally pounding it on the ground, he spoke of the growing number of incidents between beastheads and humans, the evils of the liquor trade, the greed incited by trade goods, fights over metal tools, and, above all, the raids of the Human Purity movement - though he didn’t identify them by name. He didn’t propose a course of action, but simply listed the grievances and then sat down - but inside the edge of the circle of people, not back in his place. Tiny Bird explained quietly that this meant that he intended to say more, but was giving a space for discussion of what he had said so far.

Berry expected Stone to stand up and say something, but he left this to the Clangolds and other respected speakers from the local and visiting clans. The first woman spoke directly to Grass Badger and pounded the staff on the ground as she distinguished between the humans who attacked them and the humans who defended them, the humans who traded liquor and Stone, who tried to stamp out the trade. She pointed at Stone with her other hand while she said this and shook her finger vigorously in time with the thumps of the staff.

Other speakers either agreed with Grass Badger or supported the first speaker’s points, in alternation. After six more speakers - three on each side - apparently Grass Badger’s supporters had run out, because there was a long pause, and then Grass Badger came up again to give his real speech.

Despite her attempt to retain a shaman’s calm, Berry’s stomach sank a little as Bird murmured the translation.

“Recently,” said Grass Badger, “I met a human woman who claims the status of a shaman. Now we all know that shamans own nothing. We respect a shaman because a shaman owns nothing. A shaman stands alone, walks alone, except for an apprentice perhaps. A shaman is not beholden to a Clangold, because a shaman is beyond clan and belongs to everyone. A shaman belongs to the beast, the natural beast, the beast of the land, who has marked and claimed that shaman. A shaman teaches the shaman knowledge to other shamans and to shaman apprentices - not to healers, not to mages, not to potters or weavers, but to shamans. A shaman serves apprenticeship faithfully, staying close to the master shaman who teaches, and is chosen by the natural beast of the land, who alone can release the apprentice oath, so that the office of shaman remains uncorrupted and the knowledge is passed as it is meant to be passed.

“Everyone knows this. But this human woman knows better. She broke her apprentice oath. She walks around wearing silver, the silver symbol of her oath and service to a Realmgold. She claims that her totem beast is a gryphon, a magical creature and no natural beast. She teaches the shaman knowledge to anyone who wants it, and she does not walk alone, she walks with friends who are not shamans. And she comes here, in her arrogance, to change our society and our people, to break what is true in front of us and toss it away, to lead us into her corrupted imitation of what it is to be a shaman. Oathbreaker, I name her, faithless and without principles, a teacher of wrongness and distortion. And I say that this is what we can expect if we allow these people in. Corruption, corruption, corruption and oathbreaking and evil, all the time. We are better off without them.”

He looked straight atBerry, raised the staff and slammed the end into the ground so that the shaft sank in a hand’s breadth, and stood leaning on it for a moment, breathing hard, before stalking back to his place.

There was a stunned silence. Berry felt a great calm descend from somewhere, as if she was pulling back from her body and observing herself from a distance. She saw herself stand and walk unhurriedly into the circle, and touch the staff - but not pull it from the ground.

“May I speak?” she asked quietly, and various members of the crowd called out different answers. She looked at the elder Bird, who said, clearly, in Peqtal, “Yes.”

She still didn’t pull the staff from the ground, nor did she raise her voice. But she raised her head so that the sun shone off the gryphon’s beastmark on her forehead.

“My parents are shepherds,” she began, and paused for Tiny Bird’s translation from his place in the crowd. Even sitting, his huge chest had enough resonance to reach easily to the edges of the crowd. “They have almost nothing, but I never noticed that they received much respect for that.” There were a few chuckles, some before and some after the translation - there were a number of Peqtal speakers in the audience. “A shaman is respected because a shaman needs nothing, nothing but the blessing of the totem beast, who alone can make or unmake a shaman. A shaman does not need power, or respect, or to be thought right, but only to listen to the world and to the totem beast. And a shaman is fallible.

“Grass Badger speaks of corrupted shamans. I was apprenticed to such a one. Although she had the beastmark, she did not want to be a shaman, did not want me as an apprentice. She was always angry.” Here she paused a little longer than the translation required.

“She was so angry that her anger destroyed the oath that was between us. Any shaman has seen this. Anger burns at the oathbond, pushes oathbound lovers or friends or master and apprentice or Gold and Copper apart, and one day it snaps. So it was.

“I fled in fear. I came to the Gryphon Clerks, and they took me in and treated me with kindness. I became one of them and Victory, the Realmgold and the mother of the Clerks, gave me her silver gryphon to wear in token of my service to her and to her realm. It is not mine, it is given to me in trust, and she alone can take it from me.

“I was no longer apprenticed to a shaman, but I kept some of the practices of a shaman. I lived more simply than those around me, though not as simply as a shaman does. I spent time in trance. And one day when I was in trance the Gryphon came and spoke to me, touched me on my forehead as you see, and left its mark. It is not mine, it is given to me in trust, and the Gryphon alone can take it from me.

“The Gryphon spoke to me, and told me to serve Victory, and so in serving her I obey the Gryphon. If the Gryphon tells me otherwise I will stop, for I must obey the Gryphon. Only the Gryphon has authority to tell me who to serve.

“So I come here, for Victory has sent me. And she has sent me to do this: to discover and report to her what the people who live here need, and how it can be given to you.

“Not what you want. Not what we want to give you. Not what will make you exactly like us. What you need. I do not know yet what you need. If I knew that, I would not need to come, I would not need to speak to you. So far I know that you are a happy people, you are a healthy people, and most of what you need you already have. Perhaps you need nothing from us, and we can leave you as you are. We do not know yet.

“What I do know is that Victory would not want us to impose on you against your will. Anything you get from us, you will get because you have agreed with us that you need it. And we will ask as many of you as we can. Golds, Silvers and Coppers. Cattleheads, dogheads, goatheads, sheepheads, horseheads and catheads alike.

“But I ask you this. Do not let the people who are angry decide what you need. Do not let the people who are afraid decide what you need. Do not let the people who are greedy decide what you need. I have lived under the rule of an angry master. I did not learn much, except that angry people don’t think very well.

“I am a shepherd’s daughter from the mountains, and I grew up in a little world. Now I live in a much bigger world, and it is full of wonders. I never regret having opened up my little world, because I am not afraid of what might be out there. If you are afraid, talk to us, and perhaps we can show you a way out of fear. And perhaps you can show us wonders that we do not know yet.

“Thank you for listening to what I had to say.”

Dec 06

A New Blurb

Still a work in progress:

Dig is a mad scientist who spent 10 years in jail for sedition. Hope was nearly expelled from the university for attacking an unfaithful lover with magic. Rain is an ex-gang member who once slashed another woman's face with a broken bottle. And Berry was a shaman's apprentice, until she broke her oath and ran away.

These are just half of the elite group of Gryphon Clerks that Victory, ruler of Koskant, has assembled to solve her most pressing problems. There's also a statistician, a religious scholar, a noblewoman and a nervous werewolf.

Because when the dwarves are illegally exploiting gnome workers, when beastheaded farmers are asking for protection from savage Copper Elves, and when the proliferation of steam carriages threatens the magical flux in the city - you need the most heroic civil servants.

You need... the Gryphon Clerks.

Nov 16

Meet Thorn and Midnight

Here are two of my favourite characters so far, perhaps even as much as Bucket. I'm not sure how the hardass skycourier and the little feline shamus figure into the wider story yet, but they're great to write. They bicker so beautifully, I could listen to them for hours.

Thorn White was gritty and greasy inside her flying suit. Koskant's subtropical climate meant that unless you were high up in the air, it was uncomfortably hot – but if you were high up in the air, you wanted the suit, all right. Her traditional Montanusi vest, sheepskin with the wool on the inside, was worn backwards for flying, so the fastenings were where she couldn't easily reach them while leading her skyhorse, The Zephyr, back to his stable. She paused, though, to unhook at least the top toggle. There was a wind, and it kept whipping the white scarf attached to the back of her helmet which protected her face while in flight. It bashed annoyingly against her hand as she fumbled with the fastening.

The Zephyr whickered, and stretched out his nose towards a nearby shadow, and Thorn noticed a small black cat sitting neatly on its haunches in the shade cast by the corner of a wall.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” replied the cat, and she started and almost dropped the reins.

“You're a talking cat,” she said.

“That's very good,” said the cat. “I'm a cat, I'm talking – I must be a talking cat. You humans. No getting anything past you.”

“Sarcastic wee beastie,” she muttered.

“I heard that. We have very good hearing,” said the cat.

Thorn had heard of the talking cats of Joria, but she had never expected to find one in Koskant. “So what's your name?” she asked.

“Midnight,” the cat replied. “Skyport Midnight, they call me. I know yours. You're Thorn White.”

“Oh, I'm well-known in the talking cat community, am I?”

“Now who's being sarcastic? No, but you're well-known at the skyport, and I make it my business to know what there is to know around here.”

“Oh, do you. Well, pleased as I am to meet you, Mister Cat, I have to get The Zephyr stabled and washed down and fed before he chills.” She tugged on the reins to get the skyhorse moving again, and he stirred his now-folded white wings a little and followed meekly, glancing sideways at the cat. The white skyhorses of Montanus are incurably curious. Like cats, thought Thorn.

“I'll come with you,” remarked Midnight, uncurling his tail from around his feet, and stalked after them uninvited.

He jumped up on the side of The Zephyr's stall and watched owlishly while Thorn fed the horse, wiped him down and brushed his brilliant white coat.

“I hear you were in a fight last night,” Midnight remarked suddenly.

“You hear that, do you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And from whom might you have heard it?”

“Oh, just around and about,” said the cat airily. “I hear you won.”

“That's one interpretation,” muttered the sky-courier.

“Come now, all opponents down and not a mark on you? Sounds like winning,” said the cat.

“Not having the fight in the first place would have been winning,” she said. “I don't like to use my stun-beamer. I especially don't like to use it in my favourite bar.”

“Well, but two out-of-control elves, what were you going to do?”

“You're remarkably well-informed.”

“Yes, well. I might have met those elves earlier in the evening.”

“Might you just.”

“Yes, it was probably them. Tall one and a medium one, at least, medium for elves? Tall one had a dark tabard, couldn't tell in the twilight if it was blue or green.”

“It was blue. Where did you see them?”

“Here at the skyport. They were looking for a place to eat.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard them harassing old Brook. Talking Elvish to him. Now, of course, Brook no more knows Elvish than he does higher mathematics, so they weren't getting far.”

“I'll bet. It can be slow going when you talk to him in Tenus.”

“That's true. But he feeds me sometimes, and towards people who feed me I feel a certain...” he paused, trying to find the right word.

“Affection?” she suggested. He eyed her with a hint of contempt. “Loyalty? Oh, silly me, you're a cat.”

“A certain interest. So I wandered over.”

“Did you now.”

“Yes, and by this time they were talking pidgin House-Elvish, slowly and loudly. 'We want eat. You boy show where?' Didn't make any difference, of course.”

“You understood them?”

“Part of the talking cat spell. I understand everyone.”

“How convenient. So what happened next?” She was going over the skyhorse's wings now, checking for loose primaries.

“Well, they started getting abusive, calling him a 'stupid wog', and I thought they might hit him, so I decided to play with them a little. I whispered to Brook in Tenus, 'Back into the shadows a bit'. Didn't want them to see his mouth wasn't moving. And then I gave them directions to Thunder's.”

You sent two aggressive elves into my favourite bar? Do you know about Thunder's obsession?”

“The whole elves-sacrificed-my-ancestor thing? It seemed appropriate at the time.”

She glared at him. “I wanted a quiet drink.”

“You got free drinks.”

“I can pay for my drinks. I like them quiet.”

“I can't help your preferences,” the cat said unconcernedly. “They had it coming to them, in my opinion. And thanks to you, they ended up with well-deserved headaches, no permanent damage, and Thunder didn't kill anyone with that club of his that he keeps behind the bar.”

“Were you watching?” she accused.

“I may have strolled in that direction.”

“By pure coincidence, of course. Do you know how scathing the portmaster was to me this morning? You nearly caused a diplomatic incident.”

“No, the elves nearly caused a diplomatic incident. You averted one. I was just an interested bystander.”

“Wretched little beast,” she said, but without much real heat. It sounded like the elves had had it coming, after all. She hadn't understood their demands to be served, of course, and nor had Thunder, but he'd picked up on the tone. She fingered her stunbeamer, a dwarfmade device of brass and crystal with a handle and trigger at one end and a polished opal at the other, which amplified her relatively minor magical talent of Domination and enabled her to knock out anyone who tried to interfere with her courier duties. She wasn't supposed to use it off-duty in a bar fight.

The little cat had made a lot of trouble for her, and was obviously unrepentant, but in the larger picture it was probably the best outcome there was going to be in a scenario that started with two elves with a bad attitude coming off their skyship and wandering intoGulfport.

The skyship had moved on this morning, anyway, headed south, so that was all right.

Midnight started washing himself and purring. She wouldn't ever tell him, of course, but he was a cute wee beastie and she couldn't stay angry with him.

She noticed how sleek he was, and the roundness of his belly as he washed it. “So, it looks like the talking cat hustle is going pretty well, Mr Fat Cat. Must be your charming personality. A lot of people feed you besides old Brook, do they?”

“Actually,” said the cat with dignity, “I’m self-supporting.”

Thorn laughed out loud. “Doing what?”

He stopped washing and looked her in the eye. “I play the harp in a street band,” he said, straight-faced.

“You support yourself with your comedy act?”

“No, in all seriousness, I’m a private inquiry agent.”

“You’re a cat!”

“Which makes me ideally suited to be a private inquiry agent. Especially,” he pointed out, “at night.”

“Wait on though. How do you handle money?”

“I don’t. I have an arrangement.”

“What kind of an arrangement?”

The cat sighed. “There’s an honest fishmonger two streets away, all right? He runs an account for me. My clients pay into it.”

“You charge in fish?”

“I charge in silver, same as you. But I get fish. Since fish is what I want, everyone’s happy.”

“Including your clients?”

“Especially my clients. I have an enviable reputation. Internationally,” he added.

“Meaning you used to run the same scam in Joria?”

“No scam. But yes, I did. Came here on a case, actually, and decided to stay after it was wrapped up. See, in Joria everyone expects a cat to talk, so they watch what they say around you. Here, it’s easier.”

“And you’re all in favour of easier, right?”

“Of course. I’m a cat.”

Thorn had to admit – to herself – that it made sense. The little cat was about ten inches tall at the shoulder, jet black all over and had silent feet, which were pretty good qualifications for a stealthy investigator. He could understand what anyone said, too, which had to help.

“So, you working on anything at the moment?”

“My clients expect, and receive, confidential service.”

“You’ve practiced that one, haven’t you? Hey, am I under investigation?”

“I’d hardly tell you if you were.”

After a brief moment of paranoid introspection, Thorn decided that the cat was just messing with her.

“Dangerous business to interfere with a Montanusi courier captain,” she said. Two could play at that game.

Midnight just stared at her briefly and expressionlessly, and went back to washing his paw.