The City of the Drowned: Chapter 6

Image courtesy of my favorite artist, Frank Frazetta
Chapter 6
Queen Frazetta
Beams of sunlight angled through openings in unseen walls forming an illuminated square about a raised platform. At the periphery of this square were four arcades, each to a domed ceiling, flanked by pairs of narrow pillars. Impressions marked every wall, arch, and dome, a matrix of such perfect symmetry and detail as to boggle the mind, to make envious the greatest of architects, rivaling in smallness the awe one experiences before the immense. But it was the negative spaces that gave the throne room its texture and form, where substance receded to absence.
A dozen magistrates stood along the arcade, in the same black robes and hats, with the same white beards. They could be heard mumbling over legalities. Beside the raised throne, dark skinned slaves used long shafts of bundled peacock feathers to fan the sultry queen.
Frazetta was middle-aged, with skin like chalk and a figure like an hourglass. Her eyes were murky and feline, with black lines drawn thickly about the lids and across her face. Gold hung about her ears like tiny chandeliers and her ample bosom lay buried beneath meshes of gold. Pearls, jewels, and other trinkets adorned her wrists and ankles, and a long dress extended from her broad hips to the steps of her dais. An enormous black panther sprawled lazily about her knees, her one hand grazing the back of its ear.
“Bring in the next one,” she said, suppressing a yawn.
A soldier came into the light, wearing bright Hedonian armor with a scarlet cape and plume. His face was like a slab of raw meat, large and red made up of sharp angles, the stubble of his chin was like spikes. Following him were a pair of guards and a gray-bearded man.
“This fisherman, your Highness, is accused of conspiring with the terrorists.”
“Is that so?” she said. “What proof do you have, Cambses?”
“He does not deny it. And the proof, your Highness, is here with me. Would you permit me to bring it in?”
She slouched against her cheek. “So be it.”
Cambses gestured to the guards and a human-shaped thing was brought forward. At the mere sight of it, the magistrates gasped, some even recoiling in horror. Even Xandr was unprepared, who looked on, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. It was short, like a boy of about eight, its limbs thin as bones, and it hunched forward. Unlike a human, the creature was covered in greenish-gray scales, and its hands and feet were flat and webbed. Where its head met the shoulders was difficult to guess, as its neck was amorphous with pink and pulsing gills. If its face were human, it would appear as though someone had flattened it, as it possessed no noticeable profile, no lips or nose of any kind, just openings for similar organs to function and fins where ears would be. But its eyes were the most disturbing, large and round as teacups, and black as polished obsidian. With no eyelids, the boy-creature seemed to stare and stare perpetually.
Even the queen sat up in her throne with sudden interest. “Is this the merquid the fisherman has been conspiring with?”
“Yes, your Highness,” said Cambses. “We caught him at the docks. He appeared to be . . . speaking to it.”
The fisherman stumbled forward, kneeling at the steps of the dais. “Please, your Majesty, let me explain–”
Cambses drew his sword with remarkable speed, pressing the man’s back. “You have not been given permission to speak!”
“Oh, let’s hear what he has to say,” she replied. “Speak, old man, but only if you have something worthy to say. My time is not to be wasted.”
The fisherman cupped his hands together prayerfully. “Thank you, your Highness, thank you! This merquid you see here,” and he gestured to the creature, “is no terrorist. He is my son!”
The queen sounded surprised. “What?”
“It is true—he is . . . like my son. Years ago, I cast my net wide and far, and Sargon smiled on me that day and the fish were plentiful. But in my net I also found a giant pearl. I knew them in Hedonia to be prized, but a fellow of mine, an appraiser, told me it was worthless because of its odd shape and color, so I kept it for myself.”
The queen reclined in her throne. “Does this tale have a purpose, or should I have you executed now?”
“No!” he cried. “Hear me out! The pearl . . . the pearl, it broke and a merquid was inside! A merquid infant! The pearl was no pearl, see—it was an egg! My wife departed this world ages ago, and I am without sons or daughters, so in my loneliness I raised the infant to health, feeding him from my catch, letting him swim alongside my boat. Just look at him! He is only a child. He knows nothing of his own kind. He does not understand the trouble between our two peoples. How can he be called a terrorist?”
The man’s tale touched the hearts of Emma and Thelana and even Xandr, who had slaughtered his share of merquid. Even the magistrates looked to show pity. But the queen’s face was impassive as the panther at her feet. The man waited, in silence, for a sign of understanding and compassion that would not come.
“Did you not know the law?” she said, “that it is forbidden to be seen cavorting with merquid, to commune with or aid a merquid in any way? Did you not know that any act other than killing a merquid on sight is treason?”
“But–,” the fisherman muttered, “but he was only an infant–”
“You should have smashed it with a rock then! Cambses, execute them both.”
“No!” the man screamed. “I beg you, take my life, but let the merquid boy alone! He is not to blame! He knows nothing . . . nothing!”
The fisherman’s voice could be heard resonating throughout the halls as he and the merquid were taken away.
Queen Frazetta suddenly looked bored again. “Who’s next?”
“A man here is claiming to work miracles,” Cambses replied, “claims to be the Batal of Legend. He is an outsider, and there are two others with him. They caused quite the riot in the streets today.”
“Let him come forward.”
Xandr did not hesitate. Upon seeing him, she straightened, and for the first time, let loose a wicked smile. She was no longer the cruel judge sending men to their deaths, but a woman aroused. “So, you claim to be the Batal?”
“I am,” he replied.
“And you very well might be,” she added. “Tell me, stranger, do you have any proof of this claim?”
“I do indeed,” said he. “If your Highness will permit me?”
“Show me.”
He reached into his backpack, removing a round, bandaged object. Slowly, he proceeded to unravel the bandages. When all the wrapping lay strewn about the floor, he lifted the object from its top, and thrust it into the light for all to see. For the second time that day, the magistrates gasped with wonder. But Thelana and Emma were well aware of that which had been hidden, and been carried, for so long amongst their belongings. It was slightly decayed, but the expression on the obsidian face was preserved, the horror and disbelief. From a clump of red hair, the severed head dangled from his hand. “Look closely, your Highness, it is the head of Nessus, the Dark Centaur, the bane of empires.” 
“Is it truly?” she asked, marveling at the sight.
“I offer it as a gift,” he said, “as proof of my identity, and my good will.”
One of the magistrates came forward at her behest, and took the head away. “And what,” said she, “is your intention in coming to Thetis?”
“I come to act upon my destiny, to prepare you, your citizens, of the coming peril.”
“And what would be the form of this peril?”
“War,” he replied somberly.
She laughed. “We are already involved in war, and are preparing for a second! Now you bring news of a third?”
“What wars are these you speak of?”
“We war with the merquid, of course. Do not imagine that the destruction of Hedonia will go unanswered.”
“And the other?”
“We must deal with . . . rebels.”
“Rebels?”
“You heard me! There are those who refuse to accept my birthright! The High Priest Urukagina was my brother, and there are no other heirs to the Suppilumiuma dynasty. After the fall of Hedonia, the local governor of Thalassar assumed power! He and his followers are traitors to the Empire and I will destroy them, raze Thalassar to its foundations should they refute me.”
Xandr paused, and thought, and chose his words carefully. “With all due respect, your Highness, these wars are as spats between comrades, compared to the horrors that march on us from the Dark Side. I come to you as an emissary from the Kingdom of Mythradanaiil, to fulfill the oath that I have taken. I am here to rally the kingdoms of Enya to confront the Dark Queen Hatshepsut and her goblin legions.”
Frazetta glared at him coolly, weighing his words. “Does not the prophecy of Batal speak of one king to unite all Enya? One world under one ruler?”
“It does indeed.”
“And is it not convenient for you, that you now stand before me claiming to be Batal, seeking a way to unite Enya against some presumed threat?”
“Do you doubt the prophecy?”
“I doubt whatever would have me surrender power. Hedonia is the greatest empire this world has ever known, and I am its master. Would you challenge my rule to fulfill this prophecy?”
“Ruling Enya is not my desire, but protecting its people.”
“And how are we to know whether this so-called Dark Queen even exists?”
“You have heard of the destruction of Nibia and Kratos, have you not? You know of the sieges in Northendell? My own homeland, Ilmarinen, was lost to the evil growing in the East. I have fought the goblin hordes; I have ventured into the Dark Side myself, seen whole battalions decimated by horrors unthinkable.”
“You have just brought me the head of Nessus,” she answered. “The centaur is the only creature known to human eyes. Perhaps, with his demise, the armies of the East are scattered to the four winds; perhaps there is no other tyrant brooding from the time of the Great Cataclysm to retake the bright lands; perhaps there is only you, seeking fame and glory with the severed head of a notorious marauder.
“But even if what you say is true, and there is a monstrous host marching to our ruin, Hedonia cannot stand divided. I must regain Thalassar, as it is second only to Thetis in power, and then united we must deal still with the merquid.”
Xandr sighed. “Your dealings with Thalassar are your own. But I have fought the merquid. I have witnessed the crumbling of Hedonia’s proud walls. Hedonia was doomed by its own hubris; it was the will of the gods that it be unmade. Now that the city is no more, there will be no merquid raids. Let it remain so.”
Queen Frazetta crossed her arms defiantly. “No! Their treachery will not go unpunished. We will root out all the merquid that have gone into hiding.”
“And upon finding them, what shall you do?”
“What must be done with terrorists! Enslave them, interrogate them, eliminate them.” Her icy demeanor reminded him of her late brother.   
“What of mercy?” he asked quietly.
“Mercy? What mercy did they show us? As they murdered our innocents, so shall we slaughter theirs!”
“You belie the meaning of innocence, your Highness. Even enemy warriors are shown mercy when the fighting is ended. And the merquid, they are not fighting. There is peace now.”
“Peace must be maintained through aggression. If we show weakness, it will only spur them to strike again. I will never allow what happened in Hedonia to happen here. I will not fail as my brother did. I shall strike them at the root!” And with that she gestured as if uprooting a flower.  
Xandr’s eyes narrowed, laboring to keep his annoyance in check. Still, he could not help but object. “Violence begets more violence. Seeking to destroy the merquid will only give them cause to retaliate.”
“I did not expect this coming from such a renowned warrior!”
“Even a just war must be carried out with the heaviest of hearts. The bards who sing its praises have never seen battle, and the queens who persist in pursuing it do not suffer from it, only their people. Of those who have known war in its most gruesome guise, few live to speak of it. There is no honor in genocide. Only the gods can decide such heavy-handed vengeance. To believe otherwise is hubris.”
“You speak of genocide when tens of thousands perished at the hands of those cruel barbarians! What god can show them pity after what they’ve done?”
Xandr gazed at her in frustration, torn between rage and despair. “You Hedonians were not without blame . . . In labeling the merquid evil, none can judge your actions against them. But know this; your brother plundered thousands of merquid eggs, to use as currency! These acts continued for decades and the merquid retaliated in kind.”
Frazetta stood angrily, her earrings jostling in place. “Your tongue strays too closely, I fear, to treason. Lies are not tolerated in Thetis! Besides, I know that the merquid killed my brother, and so there shall be no mercy for them. Wherever they are hiding, they shall be found, and wherever they are running, they shall be hunted. And if you are not with us, Batal, you are against us, and I will show no more tolerance for you than for them!” With a wave of her hand she dismissed him. It had become quite clear that she was unwilling to listen. The tragedy at Hedonia clouded all of her thoughts. Now there was only hatred and fear.
With that, Cambses came forward. “Shall I escort them to the dungeons?”
She turned suddenly, as if remembering some important matter. “No! No,” she added more softly, “take them to the guest rooms, but make sure they are well guarded.” 

Xanth: The Prequel to Harry Potter?

I just finished Piers Anthony’s A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in the Xanth series, which was published in 1977. The similarities between his world and that of Harry Potter are difficult to ignore. People born with magic powers? Check. A magical world set on Earth during modern day? Check. Centaurs, dragons, mermaids, and a host of other magical creatures? Check. Animated plants that kill people? Check. Not convinced? In Harry Potter, non-magic folk are called Muggles, while Piers Anthony calls them Mundanes. But whether J.K. Rowling intentionally stole her ideas is difficult to say, and if you’ve read my article on cliches you may understand why. In fiction, similar ideas come up again and again, specifically because they are good ideas. It’s hard to believe that among the grand scope of authors, a story about a magical and non-magical world existing side-by-side could not have been conceived of independently. But unlike J.K. Rowling, Piers Anthony takes a more scientific approach to magic. Typically, I don’t like plots that revolve around the supernatural since, for me at least, it robs the story of tension; it’s like a dream where anything can happen and there is no real sense of danger. But Piers Anthony’s rigid adherence to the rules governing his universe makes the magic feel both believable and at times threatening. A Spell for Chameleon does a great job telling the history of Xanth, explaining why and how magic and non-magical people exist, and why and how they are separated. It even goes so far as to explain the evolution of magical creatures. These are just the kinds of questions my analytical mind couldn’t help conjuring while reading Harry Potter. I wanted to know more about the Wizarding World that J.K. never explained, like why the Ministry of Magic felt the need to hide from the Muggle world. I always assumed it had something to do with the Spanish Inquisition and the danger billions of Muggles with guns and atomic bombs posed to a magic gifted minority. While J.K. Rowling only hinted at possibilities, Piers Anthony went straight to the issue. Of course, not everything in Xanth is the same as in Hogwarts. Humans in Xanth are forbidden from interacting with the Muggle, er, Mundane world, and they are born with only one power, called a talent. If a child in Xanth cannot show his or her talent after a certain age, he is forever exiled to the Mundane world. This is where the story starts, with a guy named Bink (yes, Bink) who just wants to settle down and marry his girlfriend. Unfortunately, as far as anyone can tell, Bink has no magical talent, so his quest to find one begins.

I love this kind of story and this book, a straight up fantasy adventure. But while Xanth continually fascinates, it’s the plot and characters that keeps you reading. Piers Anthony is my kind of writer. At first, he comes across as somewhat juvenile, something for my seven year old to read. The style is simple and direct, often humorous in tone, but there is a real depth to his story that reveals itself the further you read into it. At times, I had to pull up the dictionary function to look up a word. I also love his near limitless imagination. This author is not afraid of the fantasy genre! Every chapter abounds with monsters, illusions, spells, and just crazy stuff the writer makes up, and somehow he makes it all work.

But Piers Anthony’s greatest talent is in making you relate to his characters, despite that he seemed to have gone through his high school yearbook to name them. Bink is a simple-minded every man that’s easy to like. There’s also (minor spoiler) Chameleon, a girl who goes from ugly-intelligent to beautiful-stupid throughout the course of a month. As a side note, some reviewers accuse Anthony of sexism, since Bink is overly preoccupied with sex (don’t ask how centaurs are born) but honestly, I just think his writing reflects the attitude of the seventies. His greatest achievement, however, is Trent the Evil Magician. Without giving anything away, Trent breaks with every literary convention in being both villain and protagonist. Not to be confused with an anti-hero, Trent is honorable, honest, eloquent, and impossible not to like. His only downside? He wants to takeover the world.

While the mysteries in A Spell for Chameleon won’t take you by surprise, the writing and the story is so charming and fun, you’ll be glad you picked it up. This is old fashioned fantasy the way it should be done, and while everything is neatly wrapped up by the last page, you’ll likely want to revisit Xanth in the many novels that follow just for the fun of it.  

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 5

Chapter 5
Riot for a Savior
She and Xandr did not hesitate for a breath. When they entered through the door, he seized her, his arms about the pits of her knees, her ankles at the back of his neck. Warriors of lust, they collapsed to the floor, disregarding the soft bed, consuming one another like cannibals, swimming in the oasis of their entwined flesh.
From the balcony, the lights of so many candle lamps spread across Thetis like constellations. Thelana breathed in the cool night air, so full of the Sea. For the first time in many cycles, a roof was about her head. Not since Mythradanaiil had she felt so at ease. But exhaustion came down hard. Soreness permeated every fiber of her body. Things long past were taking its toll: days riding the plains, pains that recalled the dragon, burns from rivers of ash and frost. She’d been racing from these pains for many moons, but they caught up with her. She felt as worn as a blacksmith’s mallet, and knew that should she ever live to be old, there would be a great price to pay. But that was the fate of all aged warriors, she supposed. With the youthful vigor that she still possessed, she returned to her waiting lover.
“Are you ready for me?” she asked.
He was sitting at the edge of the bed, hands clenched.
“What is it, my love?”
“There was a woman in the streets,” he said, “she was poisoned, dying. And she touched me . . . no, merely my kilt, and the gods only know her fate, but when last I looked on her, the blood was returned to her cheeks. Her husband brought her on his shoulder to the apothecary, but she walked home alongside him.”
“Xandr, what in Enya are you talking about?”
“Better that I show you.” He opened his hands and a bluish jewel, radiating from his palm, bathed them in light.
She bent to examine it and almost fell backward. As far as her eyes could be trusted, it was, within the crystalline boundaries of a blue sapphire, the golden spires of the Kingdom of Mythradanaiil, right there in his hand. “Why did you not tell me about this?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I waited to find . . . the proper time.”
“How did you come by it?”
“It was bestowed to me, by Princess Radia, before her disappearance. She said it was like a seed, for a new kingdom, a new utopia. I still don’t understand what it means.”
“She was sure a mystery, that one.”
“Yes, well, I believe it made that woman whole today. This might even be what has kept us from death these many moons. The princess trusted many secrets to me and to me alone. We must respect her wisdom. I suggest that we never speak of it, not even to Emma.”
“Yes, but why not–?”
“Swear it to me!”
“All right,” she said, with little enthusiasm. “I swear.”
“Swear to the Goddess, to Alashiya.”
“Don’t you think you’re being ridiculous? I am a master thief, remember? I know to keep secrets.”
He smiled, and in closing his palm, they were left in the dim light of the turquoise moon. “You are also Ilmarin, and there were no secrets in our land; there was not even such a word in our language.”
“Well,” she said, kneeling, “I guess I’m a contradiction—a naked thief. Now come and sleep with me. The moon is high in the heavens.”
“What of this fine bed?” he asked. “It’s filled with goose-feathers. We paid a mighty sum for it.”
“Oh Xandr, do you wish to soften me with such luxuries? I’m no princess to be pampered. I am Ilmarin, born in a cradle of straw, shared by my brothers and sisters!” 
To this he gave no response, but slid neatly to the floor where her warmth enveloped him and all was made right in the universe. But in the uneasy quiet her thoughts drifted, and she pulled from him at last, letting a foot against the wall and an arm under her head. “Tell me again, as you did in the volcano, how you love me.”
He did not turn, but answered, “You fear the words have devalued with time’s passing?”
She smiled in the darkness. “I fear nothing, brave Batal. But your revelation was in a dire circumstance, when rivers of flame licked our heels. One might be afraid to die without ever having known love.”
He laughed at her accusation. “Your mind is burdened with nonsense in these late hours! Better to let actions prove love’s worth than words which may be fickle.”
“But love’s actions should be proven in the day-to-day, not merely atop fiery volcanoes, as a husband and wife.”
“If that is your choosing . . . we shall be joined by morning!”
She grinned at him, taking his meaning. “Is that it? You wish to make me a simple housewife?”
“Perhaps, some distant day, we might raise little Ilmar . . .”
“Never,” she replied. “You think me to wake, day after day, like some fattened heifer, to the same walls, to the same chores? Better I chase the horizon, over a thousand lofty hills, through summits high and low, and plains forever long, to die someday without aching bones and wrinkled flesh, but as a young maid, with my beauty about my bloodied corpse, and sword proudly clasped in hand. That is the way I will die, Batal. Do not forget it.”

***

With the arrival of the sun came shouts from beneath the balcony. At first, they were few in number, but as the golden disc of morning separated from the faint turquoise moon, till both hung in the sky like a pair of great round pendulums, the noise intensified, waking the slumbering Ilmar.
“What is all the commotion?” Thelana asked, wiping the crust from her eyes.
Xandr sat upright as she rolled off of him, saying, “Stay, my love. I will go.” Wrapping his kilt about him, he hurried to the curtain, pulling them apart and stepping onto the balcony. The inn was a mere two-story building, and the crowd was but a short distance below. From what he could tell, two kinds of people had gathered. The larger group was much like the ailing woman from yesterday. They were in tattered clothing, some with eyes completely bandaged, more than a few with stumps where an elbow or a knee should be. The smaller group was attempting to push through the center, Thetis soldiers in bronze helmets and armor. Upon seeing Xandr emerge, an old woman fell to her knees, crying, “Save us, Batal!”
Before Xandr could react, he noticed Thelana beside him. “What’s happening here?” she asked.
“I am not sure.”
Leaning through a bramble of human limbs, a guard caught the old woman by her graying hairs, his mace looming high in his other hand. “Silence, peasant!”
“Stop!” Xandr cried. “What goes on here?”
“These peasants are causing a ruckus,” the soldier replied. “Never you mind. Go back to your room.”
“It’s him!” the old woman declared, and the people swelled into an uproar. The soldiers became more agitated and their actions proved desperate. Somewhere amidst the tide of faces, Xandr could make out a familiar couple, the husband with his wife. Already the old woman, along with a number of peasants, was receiving a beating.
“Stay your hand!” Xandr cried over the shouts and the turmoil. “Stay your hand!”
The guard looked back, pausing, a drop of blood falling from the tip of his mace. “What are they to you?”
“These are . . . these are people, by the gods, just like you and I!”
“Not like you or I,” he replied, “these are untouchables. They’ll spread disease throughout the city if they’re not quarantined.” He turned back to the woman still squirming in his grasp.
“Stay your hand or you will know that I am the Batal!”
“You–” said the soldier. “So you admit to this blasphemy?”
“What blasphemy?”
“These people here claim someone in this inn can rid them of all suffering. They even claim to have a witness, but he won’t come forward.”
“What have I done,” Xandr muttered to himself. And then, speaking to the soldier, he added, “I never claimed to have such power. Tell these people to get to their homes.”
“But you do claim to be the Batal?”
“I am.”
“He is the Batal!” a man in the crowd shouted. “Save us!”
“Save us, Batal!” another voice pleaded, and it became the common refrain “–I am ill!” they begged, “–I am dying!” “My mother–please–my mother!”
But the soldiers collided again with the growing masses, making their commands heard through bludgeoning maces. “Silence! Back to the streets, all of you!”
Tears started about Xandr’s eyes. “These people . . . I did not see . . . Alashiya have mercy on them!”
Thelana tugged his arm. “It’s not your fault.”
At last, the old woman, who had implored Xandr for aid, slumped to the earth, clutching the soldier about his greaves, whether alive or dead nobody could tell. “Do you see,” said the soldier, looking up to the balcony, “what happens when men come making outlandish claims? These people’s suffering is the will of the gods. No man may challenge it.”
“And by whose authority do you act under?”
“By the Queen herself.”
“So there is a queen in Thetis?”
“She is, Queen Frazetta, rightful successor to the Hedonian Empire.”
“And I suppose Thetis is its new capital?”
“Quite right! Now do you deny being the Batal—the Batal that legends speak of, he who shall end the suffering of the Dark Age and unite Enya under his rule?”
“I do not deny it.”
The soldier drew his short sword and waved to signal his men. “In that case, you and your companions are under arrest, for blasphemy and treason.”

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 4

Chapter 4
A Witch in Love
Emma figure courtesy of David Pasco
A crowd was gathering at the center square with the snake handlers and baboon profiteers, where the baby ibs ran aimlessly. Thelana stepped out of her tunic like a bathrobe, placing her sandals beside it. Onlookers stared aghast, with laughter, in mocking whispers; a few shouted, “Whore!” But she remained oblivious to their jeers, continuing her routine of stretching. The red-haired woman was equally surprised, throwing her an inquisitive look.
“Oh, um, I fight naked,” Thelana explained with an awkward smile, pulling the sole of her foot against her cheek. “It makes me more agile.”
The midday sun cast a warm glow over the Ilmarin’s shoulder, and the two stood eyeing one another, opposites in almost every way. Thelana looked diminutive in front of her, a muscular waif. The warrior maiden was tall and shapely, heavy of hip and bosom. But the difference in their demeanor was even more striking. To the aristocratic spectators, Thelana was more animal than woman, hunched low with heels lifted, like a battle cat ready to pounce, a single braid dangling between her bare thighs. Her adversary, on the other hand, stood tall and proud, her arms slack against her sides, a sarcastic grin on her face, her bracelets and arm bands intricately embroidered, matching her knee-high boots, plated brazier, and skirt of gold. 
The little Ilmarin was confident of the other’s misplaced pride, so confident that she awaited the first blow. As the edge of the halberd flew at her neck, she glided and rolled, crouching safely to a flanking position; she could have followed through to an unshielded rib, but it would have been a fatal blow, and she did not wish to kill the stranger who had done her no harm. But Thelana was ignorant as to the other’s willingness to kill. With the halberd positioned for a second attack, Thelana was back on her feet. Down came the ax-head, clumsily and with a groan from the warrior maiden, as if to split her foe like a log. Somersaulting away, the Ilmarin proved too swift, and in this way she continued to toy with her assailant, like a squirrel chased by a woodsman. The armor-clad woman soon lost her composure, panting in unladylike fashion, slouching as she neared exhaustion. After a long minute of near misses, Thelana decided to end the embarrassing ordeal in the most humane way she could think of. With a twist of the wrist, the link keeping the redhead’s brazier together split against Thelana’s sword. The heavy garment went clanking to the ground and the warrior maiden’s face flushed as red as her hair. Shielding her pale bosom with her arms, she turned and fled as the delighted onlookers laughed in her direction. Victorious, Thelana let out a broad smile. Humane, yes, and humiliating. What’s more, she’d won a prize, lifting the golden brazier into her backpack before anyone could seize it.
Much of the crowd pressed about her now, but Thelana was not about to stand like some exhibitionist pandering to the fancies of the male, and perhaps even some of the female, audience. She snatched up her tunic and concealed herself again, blending into the modest crowd.
Only the children, whom she could tell were of the lowest class and who had not been shooed off by their parents, refused to leave her side. The boys mimicked her maneuvers while the girls marveled in silence, never knowing that a peasant could grow to become so fierce and able a fighter. In their hungry faces she saw younger versions of herself, and could not turn them away. But she could not afford to attract more notice. Quietly, in an alley where the impoverished went and were forgotten, Thelana appeased the children with the tale of how she slew Moontalon, a black dragon, and as young children are oft to do, they listened dreamily and without skepticism.

***

Far from the entertainment at the center square, Emma found herself lost amidst a plethora of objects. The bazaar was no less mesmerizing for her. Every object was crammed into narrow passageways. If she were to stand with both arms outstretched, she would have touched either wall. What was more disorientating was the absence of architectural planning. The walls snaked along the streets, devoid of any pattern. Even the ground was made of uneven stones. She would be trekking uphill one moment when suddenly the street would dip downhill. Chandeliers clustered about her like bronze vines. Tables chafed her thighs, laden with ceramic vases and ornamental plates, elegant oil lamps, shining teapots and glass-stained hookahs with swirling hair-thin lines. There were fine jewelry boxes of lemon wood, hand drums and belts and shoes and djellabahs and keshabahs, rugs of reds and royal blues. The jewelry was handmade by the shopkeepers. No two markets were identical. At times, Emma held her breath lest she choke on the dust from items that had sat for years without so much as a smudge from a customer’s finger.
Emma did not see anything that interested her, for the only real thing she desired was to eat something other than an insect or a lizard. The bazaar lacked in nothing, and her nose eventually led her to a vendor of spices. Salt! What I would have given for a month of salt! Across from the first vendor, another tantalized her with cashews, dates and dried figs. Off in the corner, where the street widened, a whole boar roasted slowly over a flame.
“Merchant!” she called towards the man with the fruit cart, “have you anything special today?”
He gestured to a small basket of black bulbs. “The hockenberries are in season, as are the watermelon-grapes,” he added, motioning her to the small pile of green and yellow-striped fruit.
“How are they?”
“The hockenberries? Eh, sweet at first, but leave a sour taste afterward.”
“I’ll take a grape then,” she said, but groping at empty pockets, realized her stomach had spoken out of turn. “Actually, I haven’t any coin on me.”
“For one so fair, methinks, one grape won’t be missed,” he replied.
Redness rushed to her all too-pale cheeks, and without so much as a gesture of gratitude, she snatched up the watermelon and popped it into her mouth. It burst in a shower of sweetness against her tongue, a welcome change from dry, salty lizard. “My apologies,” she replied, wiping her lips. “I’ll return with payment soon.”  
But Emma had nothing of value with which to barter. She would have to wait for Thelana to return from the money changer. With all the sights and sounds about her, she then realized, she’d forgotten to find an inn for the night.
Again Emma was distracted, from a small tent in a less crowded part of the bazaar. A soft melody resonated from a reed flute of the same type stashed in her cloak. The music was out of place, not of the Endless Sea, but more akin to that of her home in the Pewter Mountains. It was an uplifting change and she found herself inexorably drawn, like the cobra to the flutist, toward the tent.
Emma stooped under the flap and looked inside, finding astrolabes, hanging beads, expired candles, shriveled animal heads, and organs preserved in jars, among other things. The lady at the center of the clutter looked as though someone had crumpled her face in a ball and then attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to straighten it. Placing the flute in the folds of her lap, the ancient woman smiled toothlessly and gestured for Emma to sit.
“Come in, my child, do come in. I don’t bite.”
“I am sorry,” said Emma, “I did not mean to disturb you. It’s just that . . . I play the flute also, and your music was so . . . so haunting. I just had to see where it was coming from.”
“Of course you did. Of course! Now please, rest your weary bones. I can see you’ve come a long way.”
Though her surroundings were unsettling, Emma was obliged to do as etiquette demanded. “Thank you.” She paused to think of something more to say, to break the disquieting silence. “Um . . . where did you learn the flute?”
“Oh, here and there,” the old woman said. “I just do it to pass the time.”
“Oh? So what is it you do here in the bazaar?”
“I do henna,” she replied, letting her long sleeves slide down to her elbows to reveal the intricate markings along her forearms, hands, and fingers.
“Tattoos?”
“No!” she said. “Art for the skin, made from plants. Wears away after some cycles. Popular at weddings, here in Thetis, it is.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Would you like me to do some henna for you?”
“Well, I don’t have any money–”
“No matter!” said the decrepit lady. “You look like such a nice girl. Reminds me of a daughter I once had.”
“Once? What happened to her?”
“I outlived her,” she replied soberly. “I’ve outlived all my children, and grandchildren— it’s why I’m sitting here all alone in this foreign place.”
“Wait, did you say you outlived your grand–?”
“Give me your hands,” she insisted. “Or just one hand, please. It would make me so happy to sit a while with good company.”
“Well, all right.” Emma stretched out her left arm.
The old woman picked a small dish from a stack to prepare the muddy, dark green mixture. Starting with a line across Emma’s wrist, she peered intently through a single, bulging, yellow eye, inquiring, “So . . . do you have . . . a man in your life?”
“You mean a husband?”
“No,” she groaned, “I can tell you’re unwed. I meant . . . is there someone you love?”
The dark eyed sorceress blushed.
“ . . . or is in love with you?”
“Well, I am not really sure,” she replied uneasily.
“Not sure of what? Whether you love someone, or whether someone loves you?”
“Maybe both.”
“Pish-posh! A woman always knows when she’s in love. And I can see it now, in your eyes . . .”
“You see it in my eyes? What?”
“The longing, the daydreaming, the sleepless nights.” She smiled mischievously. “I’ve been around a long time to know.”
“Well, I suppose there’s no use hiding it.”
The woman’s face fractured into a grin. “You have been hiding it from yourself, as well as from your colleagues, haven’t you?”
Startled, Emma looked at her now, mouth agape. “How do you know so much?”
“I guess you could say I am a lay practitioner of the mystic arts, or as some might call me . . . a witch . . . but I don’t like the sound of that. You don’t have anything against people with our special gifts, do you?”
“No, of course not, in fact, I’m a–”
“Don’t speak, my dear, don’t speak. I know all about you. What I want to know more about is . . . him.”
“Oh, him.” The blood rushed to Emma’s cheeks. “Well, he is a great man: honorable, wise, and full of courage . . . He is destined for great things.”
“But that is not why you love him, is it?”
“No,” she admitted, biting her lower lip.
“Is he handsome?”
Now Emma felt the walls about her heart, which she had so steadfastly guarded, suddenly collapse. “He is the handsomest man in the world,” she said adamantly. “And . . . and I love him. Yes,” she continued, reaffirming it, “I love him.”
“That’s wonderful, dear! Wonderful!”
“No!” she exclaimed, and her voice broke. “No,” she said again in a half-whisper, “it’s terrible.”
“Terrible? How can that be so? Love is never terrible.”
“Oh, but it is! Can’t you see? He loves another, and the other he loves, well, I love her also . . . like a sister. I could never come between them.”
“Ah, but do not despair, there is always hope.” The lady pulled away, and Emma could see the abstract forms crisscrossing her wrists and hands. It was beautiful, almost too beautiful. How could the feeble old woman have done it so fast? She hardly noticed the artwork come into being. Was this the result of some sorcery? As if in answer to her thoughts, the ancient witch leaned forward, murmuring, “My henna can sometimes have . . . special qualities.”   
“You cast a spell on me!”
“Oh, don’t be angry. It’s a small thing, really. My powers are meager.”
“What does it do?” she asked, relenting. 
“It speaks of your . . . possible future.”
“It’s a fortune?” asked Emma.
“In a way.”
“Then I want to know about Xa– about the man I love.”
Peering with that yellow eye again, more intently now than before, the archaic woman smiled. “You have studied the ancient books,” she intoned with sudden vitality, “you know the future is not definite, that it is a river with many branching tributaries, a maze of possibility.” She fingered a line across Emma’s palm, as if demonstrating just such a model. “To have what you desire, someone must die.”
The words struck Emma’s ears like daggers. “Die?” she repeated, and only one name came to mind. Thelana. Emma snatched her arm away. “It was wrong of me to come here,” she muttered. “I should have never–”
“I apologize,” said the aged woman. “I can see that I have upset you. I did not mean to. It is merely the future that I see.”
Standing abruptly, the younger sorceress rubbed her arm vigorously, as if washing away the blood of a murder victim, but the henna would not even smear. “When will this go away?”
“I told you . . . in a few cycles.”
“Can it be sooner?” she said, guilt tainting her voice.
“No. But it isn’t what’s on your hands that matters . . . the real markings, the true art of the self, is in you, is in your heart, and that won’t wash away.”

EXCITING NEWS! The Hayden Planetarium on the Aenya-Moon System

 

aenya_planet_system__1__by_ageofaenya-d2r4pcw

Aenya system by Chris Emmons and Nick Alimonos

Back in June, I asked astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson whether life could exist in the Aenya-Infinity system, where Aenya (the moon) is tidally locked to Infinity (a gas giant planet). Here’s my original letter:

Dear Neil deGrasse Tyson,

I am a huge fan of your work. You not only have a brilliant mind for physics, but you’ve managed to bridge the light-year sized gap between human knowledge and those ignorant to it. My question relates to the novel I have been working on for the past decade, “Ages of Aenya.” The story takes place on the planet (or rather, the moon) of Aenya, which orbits a Jupiter like gas giant. Aenya is tidally locked, so one hemisphere perpetually faces the gas giant, while the other, at intervals, faces the sun. When Aenya moves into the dark side of the planet it is orbiting, the sunny side is also dark. In this way, one hemisphere remains dark while the other undergoes a kind of day/night cycle. So my question is this: On this type of planet, is it possible for humans, or beings with human-like anatomies, to survive? What happens to weather patterns if a planet doesn’t rotate? Is there any wind? What effect does a Jupiter sized planet have on the tides of that world? Am I wrong in any of my assumptions? Making a stab at feasibility, I have tried to wrap my head around these issues, but as I am not a scientist, the whole thing is beyond me. Any input on your behalf would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Nick Alimonos

Neil was too busy to answer me directly, but astronomer Alejandro Núñez was kind enough to offer this lengthy and in-depth response:


Your novel sounds like a very interesting story.

First, there is a mistake in how you are picturing the day/night cycles of Aenya. If you think of Aenya and its gas giant as the moon-earth system, you will realize that the side of Aenya that perpetually faces the gas giant also gets daylight. If it did not, then we would never be able to see the moon shine from Earth.

Second, whether human-like anatomies could be possible in such a place would depend more on the atmospheric conditions of Aenya than on day/night patterns.

An exception could be the visual organs: assuming that the gas giant is at a similar distant to its host star as Jupiter is to the sun, then the type of light that would mostly shine on Aenya would be the one reflected by the gas giant itself, and not the sun. In such situation, human-like creatures would have eyes more sensitive to the peak light frequency of the gas giant reflection, the same way that our eyes here on Earth are the most sensitive to the peak frequency of light coming from the Sun. Check this blog post to get a better idea of what I am getting at:

http://astrobob.areavoices.com/2012/01/05/what-would-the-sun-look-like-from-jupiter-or-pluto/

Third, Aenya IS rotating, only at a pace that matches its orbital time around the gas giant. Again, think of the moon-earth system. If the moon did not rotate, then we would see a different moon surface as it orbited around us.

Keep in mind that the main driver for wind is temperature differences: cool air sinks, hot air rises. Even if Aenya were not rotating, different areas on its surface would be exposed to more heat (either from the star or the gas giant) than others as it orbits, thus creating temperature gradients.

Finally, the gas giant will most definitely create tides on Aenya, assuming large bodies of liquid on its surface. The tides would occur because of the change in distance to the gas giant, from its closest to its farthest point along its orbit. This blog post explains these tides as they occur in Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon:

http://blog.scienceinsociety.northwestern.edu/2010/08/tides-of-titan/

As a matter of fact, if Aenya is close enough to the gas giant, even its rocky body could get deformed by tidal forces. This, indeed, is what happens to some moons of Jupiter and Saturn, including Titan. This article on Sky & Telescope describes a recent discovery on Titan that you may find interesting:

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/Titans-Latest-Twist-A-Hidden-Ocean-161224705.html

Good luck with your novel.

Alejandro Núñez, Astronomer
Hayden Planetarium
American Museum of Natural History
http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/

Cool, huh?

As suspected, real life is much more complicated than fiction. I was afraid the response would be, “There’s no way humans could exist on such a world!” but fortunately that wasn’t the case. In fact, it seems the biggest problem is minor, light, and who’s to say Aenyan-human eyeballs aren’t more sensitive than Earth-human ones? I was also happy to learn that things like wind and tides can exist on Aenya, since those things are mentioned somewhat frequently in my book. As a fantasy writer, it’s difficult to create a sense of atmosphere without using any of the things we, as Earthlings, are familiar with. And how could I write a dramatic piece about Thelana without having the wind frolic in her hair? I suppose if we all lived on Mars, I would make references to things unique to Martian life/geology. Of course, I was dead-wrong on several occasions. I didn’t realize that all astral bodies rotate, even our moon, at least a little bit. Perhaps Aenya’s rotation is so slow as to seem negligible to its people, so that day and night has more to do with the eclipse of the moon, which happens more frequently. The biggest DUH! moment for me, however, was the fact that the moon is bright! So maybe the dark hemisphere of Aenya is not quite as dark as previously thought . . .

Anyway, I have a lot of reading to do with all these links. A good dosage of science should help add credibility to my fictional universe, and I have Alejandro Núñez and the Hayden Planetarium to thank. So if you’re out there reading this, Alejandro, here’s a big THANKS!

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 3

Forward: This chapter was written in Morocco, after visiting the famed city of Marrakesh, which serves the basis for the bazaar in most fantasy books and films (if you’ve ever seen Disney’s Aladdin you know what I mean). It’s no wonder I wrote this during my trip, which gave me the opportunity to be directly inspired. Morocco is, after all, an exotic location, even by fantasy standards. Also in this chapter, Thelana meets Red Sonja. 

Chapter 3
The Bizarre Bazaar of Thetis
Beside the orange-red wall, beneath the square guard tower, a typical lady of Thetis set out to dry her laundry in the noonday sun. Her clothesline was already sagging with the weight of newly washed sheets, and to it she added her husband’s kilt and her daughter’s white sleeveless tunic. She then stooped to her wicker basket to grab another set of clothes. But upon returning to the line, she found herself utterly dumbfounded, for the kilt and tunic were gone.

***

Thelana turned her foot from side-to-side, showing him how the leather laces crisscrossed up her calves.
“You also stole someone’s sandals?” Xandr said.
“Hey, you know I had no choice . . . they don’t welcome Ilmar in the summertime,” she quipped, a snatch from a childhood rhyme, “or accept the sky as raiment.”
He gazed over the gleaming white tunic that fell from her neck to her thighs. It was strange seeing her this way, with clothes. She seemed giddy and radiant, like any young girl with a new outfit. “How you look beautiful.”
She smiled lovingly.
Ghostly quiet and unnoticeable as ever, Emma watched her Ilmar companions, puzzled by their sudden difference in attitude.
 “Change is welcome,” he said, fastening the kilt about his waist, “. . . from time to time.”
“Yes, but,” Thelana replied, “it does feel awkward, after so long.” She tugged at the neckline of her tunic, “. . . and is this chafing usual?”
“You will adjust,” he answered.
Their horses were tethered at the main gate, an open archway flanked by wooden doors inlaid with iron rivets. The main street was wide enough for several wagons to pass through, bustling with the traffic of pedestrians, lined on each side by simple, two story buildings of reddish earth and stone, with doors and shutters painted a vivid blue. The walls were draped with purple bougainvillea. Islands of myriad flora were set between them, with windmill-shaped jasmine and fragrant gardenia, tall cypress and leaning palms. As the three strolled along the jigsaw of pavement, narrow avenues made themselves apparent between the houses and the shops. At the central square, children could be found kicking at an empty gourd. Stripe-tented arcades led to the more densely populated bazaars, where craftsman went about their daily routines, as did the basket weavers with their baskets and tanners with their oils and ox hides and sculptors with their spinning pottery wheels. Towering above it all, a ziggurat-shaped monument rose some distance away.
Thelana shook her head disapprovingly. “So many people, living such oblivious lives . . .”
“I prefer it to shrubs and rocks,” Emma retorted. “I was beginning to think we were the last three humans in the world.”
Rubbing his unkempt beard, Xandr turned to his two female companions. “We should split up. These cities can be bewildering.”
“Maybe for you,” said the dark eyed sorceress, “but I can find my way. We’ll need to find an inn before the moon eclipses.” She sighed with relief at the thought, An inn! An inn at last!
“I’ll look for a change merchant in the bazaar,” Thelana chimed. “I doubt we can spend the jewels I have here.”
Xandr cautioned them with a look. “Be careful, both of you, we do not know the customs of these people, and we cannot draw any attention to ourselves. The least you say and do the better, especially you, Thelana.”
She folded her arms, mocking offense. “And where will you be off to?”
“There,” said he, pointing to the ziggurat. “Do not forget our Oath. We must gain audience with the ruler of this city. I aim to find the way.”

***

Rounding another narrow spiral of steps, Xandr found Thetis to be more labyrinthine than he had at first believed. The great pyramidal structure, what he assumed to be a government or religious center, or both, was clearly visible but beyond approach. From the look of his surroundings, Thetis had in earlier days gone by other names, as old streets, fractured by time and foliage, oftentimes led nowhere, into walls and houses, and newer streets overlapped them. Foundations had collapsed and been rebuilt or abandoned. Even the rusty-orange outer wall with its square guard towers showed evidence of changing materials and building techniques.
After a little while, the sensations of the sea drew him up a flight of stairs that ran along the perimeter wall to an aperture overlooking the harbor. Gulls glided in pairs distantly below, over rich blue waters, between arms of sloping hills that embraced the Sea like the crescent of a waning moon. At his feet, the red-orange wall disintegrated into salty white boulders beside the mooring docks, where fishermen untangled their nets to count the day’s bounty. The merchant galleons were anchored, as were the warships, consisting of the fifty-oared pentaconter and the trireme with its sleek hull and double-decked set of oars, one hundred and seventy in all, tapering elegantly to a solid bronze battering ram. Xandr had longed for the Sea, for its scent, the calming sound of undulating waves, the moist wind breaking against his bare torso. But his meditation was interrupted as angry shouts rang from the city below.
In the streets behind the Sea wall, homes were stacked like white cubes, with tiny windows and doors barely sufficient to pass through. Two men stood quarrelling at one such door. The one was reaching for a blue-painted doorknob, while the other cradled a swaddle of rags Xandr surmised to be a woman. It was this second man that was shouting, in desperation.
“Please! My wife–my wife should not be out here as it is. But I brought you to see her, to see how badly she is!”
“I told you already,” the other man answered, his voice cold and measured, “there is nothing more I can do.”
“But–but once she is well . . . I can return to work and . . . you know I cannot leave her alone, you told me so yourself!”
“I need payment today,” he said, “not tomorrow.”
“But we have nothing!”
“Sell your house if necessary.”
“Sell my house?” The peasant’s voice broke into sobs and his wife slipped momentarily from his grasp. He pulled her back up. She suppressed a whimper. “But where will we live? How will we survive?”
“I do not know and neither do I care. I am not a charity. What if everyone said that Tsigunis gave away his medicines for free? They would all come flocking to my door, not a one willing to pay. Business would be ruined. Conjure up the dirham, or let me be!” And he hurried back to his doorknob.
“But she’ll die!” the husband cried, and he laid his wife across his lap, falling to his knees to beg.  
“That’s your problem.”
Xandr knew he had heard enough. Approaching suddenly, he halted the apothecary at the shoulder. “Hold a minute, sir.”
Tsigunis was short and unimposing, and turning to face the wall of bare muscle and the great scar crossing it, he became startled. “May I be of service to you?” he asked the Batal after regaining his composure.
“Yes,” said Xandr, “you may indeed. I am . . . a good friend of your patient and of her husband here.”
“You are?” he said in disbelief.
“Long time friends. But I have been out of town, in the barbarian lands to the north. I overheard your predicament, and suggest you let him pay you later.”
The peasant, seeing this, did not know what to think, and a mixture of joy and despair passed over his face. He half-stood, his wife sitting upright, and opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out.
“My apologies, but that is not possible,” Tsigunis replied. “I have my policies.”
Xandr looked on him unhappily. “Ah, but I assure you, you will be paid. I will see to it myself.”
“Do you have the dirham to loan him?”
“No, as I am a barbarian, I carry no worldly goods. I do have, however, this hand,” and Tsigunis became suddenly aware of the sinews in his shoulder as they compressed in Xandr’s grasp. “With this hand, I could break your every bone, leaving you a mangled sample of humanity. Children would flee at the sight of you. I do have my sword, but I feel not like having to taint it with your remains. No, this hand will do. Keeping it far from you is all the payment you should need.”
Tsigunis did not relent, but became very nervous, and started to shake and stammer. “You cannot threaten me! I will shout out! The guards will come! We are a city of laws and the law is with me!”
Wrapping his fingers about the man’s throat, Xandr pushed him through the door. The room was small and dimly lit. Shelves with small jars lined the walls.
“Show me what my friend needs,” Xandr ordered. “Show me now!”
Scampering to his feet, the doctor reached for a small brown jar and handed it to the Ilmarin. Xandr did not immediately notice it, the root soaking in its own murky fluids, but memories soon materialized, of himself as a boy walking quietly through the mist of the Ilmarin wood. He remembered QuasiI schooling him in the names and purpose of every living thing that grew in the earth. Many of these could be eaten or be ground to enhance the taste of that which was eaten. Some were for healing, others never to be touched. Opening the jar, Xandr plucked a brownish root with many finger-like threads that ended in hooks like tiny red sickles. Curare root, he mouthed to himself, a good substance for hunting.
“This is what you have been giving him?” asked the Batal at last.
Tsiguni’s eyes narrowed to gashes, and he reminded Xandr very much of a snake man. “Why . . . yes.”
From outside the small pharmacy, the peasant couple watched as the door tore from its hinges, followed by the doctor landing with a thud. The Ilmarin was quick to follow him out, a terrible countenance about him. He stooped over Tsigunis and it looked as though he would tear the man to pieces. “What treachery is this!” he screamed. “What heinous trickery! . . . What loathsome greed!” Xandr stared at the husband with pity. “Poison!” he spat, “this man has been giving your wife poison! How did this come to be?”
Now the peasant looked wide-eyed with a new sense of horror. “W–We came to him one night, many eclipses ago, my wife with fever. He gave us this medicine . . . this root . . . for a small fee, told us to grind and mix it with water, said it was potent. She did get better, for a time, but later felt poorly. We kept returning for more of the–the root. It always seemed to help. I did not know . . .”
Xandr looked down at the apothecary, radiating hate. “I should tear out your eyes, one-by-one—I should—”
“Stop!”
It was not a voice that he, or anyone, had expected to hear, and at first Xandr thought it to be Radia, the Princess of Mythradanaiil, Avatar of the Goddess, so soft and melodic it first seemed, but then he looked to see the ailing woman, who had pulled back her hood. The effects of her illness had yet to spoil her simple beauty. “Don’t hurt him,” she murmured.
His hands, hooked like talons, released, and Xandr could see the fear in Tsiguni’s eyes, and his hate subsided. “Why?” he asked. “Why should I let him live?”
“You are the Batal. Do not let this small man ruin us, make murderers of us.”
The Ilmarin stood slowly. “Your wisdom and compassion are matched only by the grace of Alashiya.” He turned to her husband. “What say you?”
“I am proud of the wife I have chosen, and I . . . I agree with her. Let this rat crawl back to the cesspools of Thetis. The gods will judge him.”
“But what of your wife?” Xandr asked. “How is she to be made well again? Is there no other apothecary in this city?”
“It is too late,” answered Tsigunis. “The curare has saturated her being. Nothing can stop it now. She will never recover.”
“No,” the woman declared, and she stretched out with feeble fingers, brushing the hem of Xandr’s kilt. “He has come as I have foreseen . . . the Batal will make me whole.”
“Please, woman,” said he, pulling away, “I have no power over illness or poison.”
“Ah, but I believe you do. I have seen you before, in my dreams. I believe.”

***

Thelana wandered through the bazaar of Thetis in a daze. Never had so many sights and sounds clashed for dominance against her consciousness. If she looked at any one thing for too long, it seemed, she might never get out. In the center square, where the streets branched away to different market areas, she came by a rug and two men with a fondness for serpents. One was an adept flutist, forming powerful and hypnotic tones through his gaita, a long trumpet-shaped instrument. The music was traditional to the region, known throughout the southern regions of the Endless Sea. It continued to play without beginning or end, an endlessly cyclical middle. Snakes were bundled on a rug like twigs, slithering between themselves, and the second man’s job was preventing their escape by herded them in his hands again and again. Passing too closely, the snake handler grabbed Thelana by the wrist. There was a long cobra about his arm, and he removed the simple round fez from his head to show her a stash of coins. He spoke the common tongue, but it was broken and heavily accented. “Touch cobra, is good luck.”
Thelana blinked. “What?”
“If no bite, good luck.” He jingled the coins in his hat.
“That’s quite all right, thank you.” The man did not appear to understand, or feigned ignorance, and in a polite attempt to escape, she freed her wrist with a strength surprising the snake handler and proceeded to another rug to accost another merchant. “Excuse me, do you know where I can find a money changer?”
The man smiled through a mustache that looked to be eating his face. A baboon ran along his arm hopping over to her shoulder. The simian was preferable to a cobra, so she let it gaze with curiosity at her face, exploring her nose and ears with its tiny hands. She did not expect how warm and human-like they would feel.     
“Money,” the man said suddenly. “Give me money.”
Thelana looked at him perplexed. “Money . . . for what?”
“You touch baboon: twenty dirham.”
Before she could protest, a second baboon appeared atop her opposite shoulder, and there was another man with his fez awaiting coins. Frustrated, she shook herself free of the baboons, launching them to the floor, and pushed herself from the men attempting to block her path. “And they call me a thief!” she grumbled to herself. Not that she could have paid them anyway. All that she had in her possession were a few gems recovered from the ruins of the Septheran tombs, which had been safely stored in her stomach for quite some time.
Finally, she neared a man with a pen of yellow birds, tall as her waist, with beaks that could crush a watermelon. He was loudly displaying them as exotic baby ibs, but she was not so certain, never having known of any domesticated by humans. Only the fabled bird men of Nimbos had ever managed such a feat. Nonetheless, she was sure not to stray too closely, or make eye contact, lest she have giant birds pecking at her knees and men asking for more money.
She pushed through the throng of patrons at the mouth of another tented avenue. There were many, many things being sold in the bazaar. Offers were being shouted over alternate offers, and the sound of haggling over prices permeated every niche where sound might find purchase. Taken at once, the street was a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, a diorama of beautifully ornate patterns with amorphous stacks of junk, a recess where planes, angles and curves functioned sometimes harmoniously, overlapped, or were consumed.
In a wide section of the street, Thelana’s eyes fixed on a single market, where weapons of bronze and silver were prominently displayed. Most were daggers, beautifully fashioned with minute detail, studded with semi-precious stones, pearls, topaz and lapis lazuli. Others were entirely of alabaster or ivory. Swords hung in rows above her, exotically crafted in “S”–shapes. She reached to examine them when her hand drifted to a rack of bows. But before she could ask for prices, her attention was diverted again, to a tall, attractive woman with hair of flowing red. What was most unusual was the woman’s attire. The redhead was laden in armor, with a saucer-shaped brazier cupping her breasts, a length of gold chain jangling between her thighs, and a pair of boots binding her feet and calves. Thelana was accustomed to battle with nothing but her Ilmarin hide before a bristling phalanx, but the purpose of this woman’s armor was beyond comprehension. Aside from an attack directed solely at her boob or womanhood, the woman was defenseless, her armor serving but to encumber her. With these thoughts, the woman turned to Thelana, appalled by her bemused stare.
“Why do you look at me so?”
The Ilmarin blushed. “I–I apologize. It’s just that I’ve never seen a . . . what are you supposed to be?”
“You dare mock me!” the woman shouted, and turned sharply, revealing the tall halberd in her hand. “I am a warrior maiden of Thetis, of the high-born warrior class!”
Thelana suppressed a laugh. “You’re no warrior . . . at least not a very good one.”
“You–!” her face creased with rage, “what would you know of war? Of battle?”
“More than you, I should hope, as I’m not wandering the streets in a preposterous costume like that!”
“You have insulted me for the last time, peasant! Apologize or be smitten!”
“I’ll do no such thing. I already gave you an apology. You don’t deserve another.”
The woman’s browsing hand flew to her weapon. “I’ll cut you down where you stand!”
Thelana, simultaneously, slipped a bundle from the pack at her shoulder, revealing a gleaming gold hilt. The redhead was a little more than taken aback, but remained steadfast.
“Let’s get away from all these people,” the Ilmarin added, “someone other than you might get hurt.”

Go back to Chapter 2
Move on to Chapter 4

Confidence and Myths of the Writing Profession

I’ll never be an Olympic gymnast, but watching these young athletes spin and flip through the air only solidifies in my mind my utter lack of agility. This doesn’t happen to me when reading other authors. Instead of intimidation, I feel relief, a boost in confidence. I can’t help saying to myself, Dang, if this can get published, I know I sure can! The intimidating thing is never the reality, but what I imagine the competition is. Which is why, sometimes, a good imagination can be a bad thing. Like when you’re an aspiring writer perusing your local Barnes & Nobles’ New Science-Fiction and Fantasy section. The number of titles may as well be endless and the beautiful cover designs (with some books of up to 900+ pages) can be intimidating. Based purely on the illustrations, my mind conjures bits and pieces of brilliantly realized worlds and utterly fantastic stories, and the overflowing praise on the back flap doesn’t help matters.

My biggest anxiety, however, is not that I can’t or don’t measure up, but that the literary world is quite simply saturated. Where does my book fit on the shelf? Who has time for one more fantasy adventure? Our society is currently suffering from information pollution and I am not helping the situation with my fiction. I’d wager there are enough decent books to satisfy an avid reader for a lifetime. Quite frankly, we may not need any new publications. My only saving grace is knowing that in most cases, the story is rarely as good as its artwork, and the praise is completely overblown. The snake oil salesmen of the modern age are book critics. How often does a book come out that you truly can’t put down? And is that even a good thing? You’ll never see a movie trailer claim to be so entertaining that you can’t look away. It’s gotten to the point where true masterpieces like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles need new monikers to set them apart like grand masterpiece or supreme masterpiece. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before your read-it-and-forget-it novel goes under the heading of grand masterpiece too, which makes me wonder what reissues of books like Dune will say in the future, super-duper-ultimate masterpiece? Point is, there’s a scarcity of great books in the world, or if many exist, they’re buried beneath the dreck. The reality makes the bajillions of new books seem less intimidating.

Imagination can also hamper confidence with the many ridiculous (and imaginative) misconceptions and misrepresentations about writing and writers. Hollywood would have us believe five year old prodigies can write operas or that masterpieces can be knocked out in one sitting. Even experienced writers get taken in by these myths, such as Conan creator Robert Howard, who insisted each of his works were completed in one draft during sweat-drenched nights of terror (research has found numerous drafts). And who remembers D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival) a story about a piece of fiction so incredible, people are murdering each other just to get their hands on it? What’s really frustrating is that, even if you don’t believe the myths, other people do, so if you’re not writing like Shakespeare by age five you’re just not cut out for the job (see: my Dad). When I tell people I’m a writer, they either treat me like a genius or like some delusional hack (which is why I usually don’t tell people). They simply can’t conceive of a person who just works really hard everyday at getting better.

I am always annoyed when people ask me, “So, did you get your book published yet?” It’s like asking me if I took out the garbage. Honestly, most people have no clue how daunting the task is. Or worse, they think it’s like winning the lottery, all luck and no hard work. Worse still, if you don’t get published right away, it automatically means you are hack and will always be one. That’s the misconception everyone has, that there’s some guy in some lofty literary tower somewhere, some wizard of words, reading every submission from cover to cover. The truth is, neither publisher nor agent is in the business of achieving or even understanding literary excellence, that’s our job. They’re just salesmen. Their job is to facilitate the sale of books. Typically, the primary deciding factor is whether your book looks like another book which sold well, which might explain the half dozen or so hooded rogues brooding on covers these days. Whether a book is good in some grand artistic sense is irrelevant. For this reason, writers are often at odds with the business side of things. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a financial failure, but what writer wouldn’t want to have written that book, one as immortalized as Melville’s? Often times, great books see a lot of rejection, like Dune, which was turned down 11 times. Question is, did anyone bother reading it before throwing it in the trash? Was it rejected on the basis of Herbert’s query letter or did someone actually read through it and say no thanks? Nobody probably knows, but I imagine Dune was way over the heads of most editors. Cinnamon like drugs that make you see into the future? Giant worms the size of skyscrapers? NO THANKS!  

At thirty-seven years, I’ve become aware of the realities of the publishing world, and that only helps to boost my confidence. Ages of Aenya doesn’t have to measure up to Melville or Tolkien, or anybody for that matter. People just have to like it. I am certain a segment of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi crowd will no doubt hate it, based on their own misconceptions, and I’m prepared to ignore them. Only the fans matter, and if the fans I have represent a sample size of the reading public, then it’s just a matter of time before Ages of Aenya is sitting pretty on a shelf with other titles with great covers, making young aspiring writers everywhere feel anxious.

The City of the Drowned: Chapter 2


Chapter 2
The Highwaymen
Three horses swept across the grasslands of the Endless Plains, Xandr upon the bulky white stallion, Warrior; Emmalina upon the ebony Shadow, and Thelana upon the lightest and most swift, the toffee hued mare, Arrow. Before them a strong gale whistled and frolicked through hair and clothing, and to their backs the ominous Pewter Mountains faded to a distant silhouette of overlapping grays. Thelana basked in the elements contesting playfully about her senses, her chestnut braid snapping like a whip, the ravished hairs along her body, the power of Arrow’s warm and throbbing muscles. The Ilmar possessed an intimate relation to the world, to the air, to the earth, to the water, and Thelana felt a similar bond to the beast beneath her. Its nature was her nature. Together they could fly effortlessly across the entire field and beyond, off the face of Enya. To cripple Arrow, any horse, so that it could not run, was to destroy its soul, and Thelana was aware of this as if the beast had told her itself.
The remainder of the day would have continued uneventfully, if something had not appeared above the western horizon. It was like a shifting mound rising above the wheat, expanding and contracting. Thelana steered the mare toward it and the others followed. Soon and without much commotion, the thing came into view, lumbering lazily out of the haze that billowed with each thunderous step, an enormous lizard. Its tail and neck were like cedar trees, and a tiny cranium swiveled like a pendulum from side to side as it walked. The body to which these appendages belonged was more than adequately immense, the size of a galleon. Thelana was enthralled, and called out, “Let’s go closer!” turning into its path. The lizard, known as a bronto, was not a remarkable thing, at least not to the three adventurers who had recently slain, among other things, a dragon. Sensing no threat, the bronto did not offer them as much as a glance.
“Isn’t he magnificent?” Thelana asked, daring to race between the bronto’s legs.
“It is indeed,” Emma replied. “I read that they were hunted to extinction . . . it’s nice to know that few exist somewhere on this world.”
“Careful, Thelana!” Xandr shouted, but she was already ducking beneath the animal’s many tons.
Emma sighed as she slowed her pace and closed beside him. “All of life’s a game to her, isn’t it? I wonder if she even knows what death is.”
“She knows how easily men can die,” he replied. “But in her mind, she is immortal.”
For a time they traveled with the bronto, watching the peculiar way in which it managed to keep up with the horses with its slow yet far-reaching feet. Crowning the sky, the greater moon of Infinity shone faintly in shades of blue and green, and the bronto offered welcome shade as the western rays glittered against its body. At the edge of the horizon, shapes in the noonday haze suggested other such lizards in lands untouched by man. At last, the russet field receded giving way to a rocky expanse of sloping hills. Buried beneath centuries of growth was a narrow road of hand-laid stones. Here was a welcome sight, and in their hearts new hope brewed, that the Endless Plains might come to an end.
The bronto parted from their path and the travelers came upon a two-wheeled wagon drawn by a different kind of lizard, a beast with a head half the size of its body, with a shell forming from its skull that fanned outward in an array of horns. It was a trike. They approached to inquire as to their whereabouts, slowly so as not to startle the trike or its crew.
From the surrounding thicket came others. Xandr and his companions were unsure as to their number, but their intentions were without doubt. Some of them had spears or swords, others bows notched with arrows. They were from all avenues of society, from farmers to sailors, merchants to soldiers. One of them stepped forward, brandishing a crude bronze-tipped spear, wearing the garb of a Hedonian soldier, but the helmet was lacking polish and the traditional feathered plume. His clothing suggested a patchwork of cultures, hard leather boots from Northendell, a gold-trimmed vest from Abu-Zabu.
“Stop right there!” he ordered. “Where are you three going?”
“We’ve come from the Endless Plains,” Xandr replied, tugging at Warrior’s mane.
“Is that so?” said the man. “There’s no land north from there but from the mountains, and those are bitter winds indeed. I say you are lost.”
“And what makes you think so?”
The man smiled. “By the habit of your dress, of course; you are Ilmarin, are you not?”
Xandr raised a brow. “You know of the Ilmar?”
“Certainly,” he said with an edge to his voice that Xandr did not like. “When I was captain in Hedonia, I ushered a whole lot of you into service.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Thelana inquired.
He glared at her with an offensive eye. “We helped them adjust to their new home. We taught them to dress themselves, and offered them a way to repay our kindness.”
“You enslaved them!” she cried.
“Indentured service is hardly slavery.”
“We– They,” she corrected herself, “didn’t ask for help!”
He directed his spear toward Arrow. “We could have let you rot instead! In fact, we should have, you undeserving, half-human filth!”
Emmalina, having kept quiet till now, muttered under her breath, “I don’t like where this is leading . . .”
“Enough!” Xandr exclaimed. “Tell us what you want or let us be.”
“Well,” the man said, as from poisoned lips, “if you’re heading south, you should know that this land isn’t free. It is in the bounds of the Hedonian Empire, and there is a tax to come through here.” The others in his company could be heard suppressing their laughter.
“A traveling tax!” Thelana blurted, “That’s outrageous! We won’t pay it.”
“A lady should learn to hold her tongue!” the Hedonian rebuked. “But you’re not a lady, are you? You’re an Ilmarin whore, shaking her ass in plain view for every man to grope!”
Like lightning out of a cloudless sky, Thelana was in possession of her gold and jade bow, an arrow emerging from the tips of her fingers. “I’ve killed men for less.”
Emma wished she could bury herself in the folds of her sleeves, wondering why no one bothered to mention her plainly un-Ilmarin appearance.
“Thelana, please,” Xandr cautioned, waving a hand of restraint. “Look, good sir, we don’t want any difficulty here. As you can plainly see, we are Ilmarin, and as the Ilmar possess no currency, we have nothing to offer you.”
“Ah, but you do . . . you might give us your mounts. They’d bring a fair sum.”
“Never!” Thelana scoffed.
Now Xandr could feel a raging burn within him, and he answered, “See here, I have tried to show you kindness, but it is plain to me that you are no more than lowly highwaymen robbing any and all passers by, and we will not succumb to this.”
“Oh, come now,” the spearman protested, “you are Ilmar . . . you don’t even know to fight. Do you really long to die in defense of your horses?”
Xandr’s countenance grew cold and grim, and a shadow passed over his eyes that made him appear like some brooding god. He glanced at the brigands that had come, and even their Hedonian leader stepped back in hesitation. “All of you, listen to me, I am the Batal of Legend; I am the slayer of Moontalon, the ancient dragon of a thousand generations; he who slumbers beneath Fire Mountain slumbers no more . . .” With that he slipped a hand into the bundle at Warrior’s side, and his fingers enveloped a shaft of gleaming silver. “I have wallowed in the blood of merquid and halfmen; I have trod upon a sea of goblin corpses; I have cut down men like weeds, and I tell you now that today I do not wish to spill the blood of men, but Emmaxis, the Sword of the Ancients, shall not sleep in its sheath if you leave me the choice. Part ways, I beseech you, for you have challenged the wrong people this day.”
There was a quiet after that, followed by a mumbling amongst the brigands, and some turned slowly and quietly away. But most remained.
“Powerful words, indeed! But you expect us to believe you slew a dragon? An army could not kill a dragon, even if one could be found!” And he turned to his men. “He is bluffing, you fools! What knows he of war? Look at him; he is a naked barbarian . . . He has nothing to meet the points of your steel but his bare loins! Let him boast all he wants . . . there is no Batal in this world, only those who take what they will.”   
The time of discussion was ended, Thelana knew. But there was no fear in her emerald eyes, only a contemplative determination, making note of the three archers among the attackers. They were amateurs to say the least, waving their ill-made bows threateningly. Of the three, only one appeared to even know how to hold a bow properly. The others would miss her even if she sat still. But Thelana did not intend to sit still. An eternity passed between the last words of the Hedonian and her next breath. Her arrow lodged between the eyes of the archer to her left. Not enough life remained in him to stretch back his bowstring. The other two bowmen panicked, spinning their arrows into the ground.
The dark eyed sorceress, not wishing to take part in the ghastly ordeal, began singing. Her robes folded about her steed and a raven emerged where she had been sitting.
Xandr ducked beside his mount, using Warrior as a barricade, then moved at his attackers carrying a long, narrow object wrapped in an earthen shroud. The men were quick to surround him. He unfastened the threads in his hands, leaving the shroud to the wind, revealing a gleaming sword, silver as a mirror, the length of a man from tip to pommel, six feet in measure, wrought as from one piece of iron. A terrible feature emerged from it like a thing longing to be free of its confines, with teeth like elongated thorns, a metallic, fiendish, grimacing, inhuman skull. Where the eyes would go, the emergence stared, as if a living thing.
At the mere sight of the sword, the brigands fell to the ground screaming, covering their ears. Others simply ran. But their leader was too preoccupied to notice, thrusting his spear at Thelana and her mare. She deftly avoided its point, and then hacked at its bronze tip with her bow-sword. Not far from her, a ring of spears closed about the Batal, but Emmaxis shredded their weapons, deflecting and crumpling their bronze tips like tin. The second to fall was a brigand who had dared to step near Xandr’s blade—his lower leg separated at the knee, and he collapsed in agony in a shower of blood. Thelana pounced like a great battle cat from the seat of her mare, and with a hand atop the Hedonian’s helmet, she brought him down. Before he could fully realize what had happened, her emerald eyes met his, and he could feel her breath against his throat, smell the sweat glistening from her brow. There was a gash behind his thigh and a hilt protruding from a space in his vest, clasped in the bloodied fingers of a woman.
She smiled at him. “I found a bare spot.”     
Already the group of brigands was disintegrating, only a few remaining to challenge the Ilmar. It was apparent they were unprepared for battle, perhaps never having had the need. A fourth brigand became mortally wounded by Emmaxis’ newly made cleft in his jugular, nearly removing the brigand’s head. It pained Xandr to do it.
“Is there anyone else that wishes to die?” he shouted.
The brigands fled all too agreeably, some dropping their weapons as they turned. Three bodies remained. The man with the severed leg was already cold and pale. Life ebbed quickly from the other, whose head bobbed loosely from a thread of flesh. But the captain remained breathing.
Emma swooped downward, her feathers lengthening into hair, her talons softening into feet. In human shape she snapped up her cloak, to quickly hide her nakedness, and accosted Xandr.
“Your sword,” she said. “Did you see what happened?”
He was silent.
“It terrified them. Some fled at the mere sight of it. There is power in it, like I’ve never felt before.”
“Yes,” he murmured, lifting the blade to his eyes, “I’ve felt it too, ever since Moontalon, ever since Nessus.”
Xandr turned from her to the Hedonian.
“Please!” he begged, “spare me!”
Thelana glared where she stood, dagger in hand. “And why should we, you scoundrel?”
“Please,” he said again, “I was once a captain in Hedonia. I was in the city when she fell, when the waters came and the merquid . . .” Tears began to roll across his cheeks, “I have a daughter– eight months to the day, I swear it . . . We’ve been forgotten  . . . left to wander the lands, homeless, penniless, seeking ways to live . . .”
Thelana’s eyes remained as steely as ever. “So you chose the way of the highwayman?”
“We didn’t mean to harm anyone, we just–” and he started to cough, violently.
Xandr brushed a hand across her. “Let him be.”
“Are you sure? He probably won’t survive the stabbing I gave him. Might as well end his misery.”
“No,” he said, “he’ll live. We can bind him. Send him back to his daughter.” Then he turned to the coughing man, saying, “Tell us, if you are truly a captain of Hedonia, and not just the thief of some poor infantryman’s helmet, where we can find the nearest city.”

Go Back to Chapter 1
Move on to Chapter 3