2012 Year in Review

Like the sun eclipsing on Aenya, the age of 2012 is come and gone.

This will be the last post of 2012, so I thought it’d be fun to look back at the year. While my quest (and make no mistake, it is a quest) to find an agent or a publisher for Ages of Aenya continues, it’s been a great and productive year for my little niche of the Internet I call The Writer’s Disease.

This year I rewrote Anna & the Devil, the story of a nun trapped by fear, a college favorite I’d lost to a computer virus; I also did a major edit for my favorite childhood comic, with original artwork from 1981, The King of Castle Grayskull; and of course, I am very proud of my seven year old, Jasmine, who illustrated all of the pictures for my first children’s book, No, Sophia! Later in the year, I worked an old novel into the first novella on this blog, the zombie-horror/adventure, The City of the Drowned.

In Reviews, I discovered some truly great fiction. With the death of legendary author Ray Bradbury, I just had to pick up The Martian Chronicles, and, not surprisingly, it blew me away. My review even got the thumbs up from the director of the opera adaptation. Not to be outdone, in the fantasy realm I rediscovered a story I’d loved as a kid, but in 2012 I finally got around to the book version. The Never Ending Story, by German author Michael Ende, is better than the movie by leagues. I was also fortunate to have read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, which now ranks as my #2 favorite novel of all time.

With regards to the miscellaneous, the absurd, and the popular, I was honored to interview Michael Sullivan, author of Theft of Swords, and was utterly flabbergasted to get a response from Alejandro Núñez, astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium, who was generous enough to answer my questions about Aenya regarding the effects of an orbitally locked moon/planet on human like inhabitants. This was also the year I came out to the world, officially, as a naturist/nudist in What Naturism Means to Me, my most popular article to date with over 6000 hits, and I am happy to report that I have yet to be socially ostracized. I’ve even added a Naturism section. As for Ages of Aenya, we got to see some fantastic new artwork from two great artists; Thelana 2012 and Emma, by my friend from the Ukraine, Alexey Lipatov; and an awesome scene of Xandr fighting the merquid by my Italian colleague, Tazio Bettin. Least but not last, David Pasco, my #1 fan and figure sculptor, graced us with his interpretation of the horg and bogren (complete with bios).

What can you expect from 2013? More great reviews, articles, and fiction, of course! I am currently reading American Gods by one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman; and on the story front I have big plans. Two-thousand thirteen will be the year of The Princess of Aenya, an entirely new novel, the first I’ve worked on since 2001, set in the Aenya universe. Sneak Peek: You will see the first three chapters here with original artwork. For those familiar with Aenya: Princess will center around Demacharon, the disillusioned ex-commander of the Hedonian army, and Noora Radia, the young princess of Mythradanaiil, once capital to the entire planet, now in ruins.

As for Ages of Aenya, my wife continues to send out queries on a weekly basis (love you, hon!) like a bluebird or cricket calling its mate. Hopefully, some agent will realize he or she would be foolish to pass me up. If there is any point to this blog, to the two years and the hundreds of hours I have dedicated to it, it is to show that I am not just a guy who, in a mid-life crisis, decided to pick up a keyboard. Writing is my life. I have dedicated everything to the craft—I not only aspire to make entertainment for the masses, but to create art that will be remembered for generations. I believe in Ages of Aenya. It has taken me thirty years to learn to write it. I believe in the story and in the characters, enough to visit every bookstore if need be, until the world sees what I have been seeing all this past decade. But if, by the end of 2013, no agent calls, I may consider making an e-book, except it won’t be $2. You don’t spend your entire life making something to sell it for less than a copy of 50 Shades of Grey.

So that wraps it up for 2012. To all my friends, my fans, and to the people who have shown me support:

HAPPY NEW YEAR.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: Real Life Naturist Hero

I dedicate this post to Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, intrepid feminist, champion of freedom, and culture warrior fighting the oppressive doctrines of Sharia Law. She is also, to my mind, a naturist hero.

In much of the Muslim world, Sharia Law has kept women in positions of inferiority. Women in Afghanistan risk their lives simply going to school. To prevent their education, fanatics throw acid in young girls faces, causing life-long horrific deformities. In countries like Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden from driving, dating, voting, divorcing, or even disobeying their husbands. Whenever leaving their homes, married women must be accompanied by their husbands or a close male relative. Wives can be stoned to death for unfaithfulness or, as is often the case, merely the accusation of unfaithfulness. The same rules do not apply, however, for men, who are legally permitted up to four wives. To fully understand the kind of oppression women endure under Sharia, I highly recommend A Thousand Splendid Suns by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini.

This oppression is vividly demonstrated by how women are allowed, or not allowed, to dress. In Saudi Arabia, a woman cannot show her face or hair in public. In pre-9/11 Afghanistan, the women were forced into burqas, a type of gown that covers every part of the body, including the eyes (allowing vision through a fishnet like screen) enslaving half the country and turning the entire female population into what looked like blue ghosts. Make no mistake, defenders of Sharia are not prudes. In the past, punishments for violating the Law have included forced weddings (to much older men) and gang rape. In Islamic culture, women must dress modestly because, it is believed, men cannot control their urges. In cases of rape, the woman is often blamed for her revealing clothing and the rapist found guiltless. Just as in our own textile culture, this notion of uncontrollable urges is a myth, but under Sharia Law, it is an outright lie, a system designed by men for men. As a naturist, I have spent days surrounded by nude women, many of them attractive. Never once did I struggle with unwanted urges, because I could see beyond the outward appearance; I saw fellow human beings, mothers and daughters and sisters, friends and school mates, people deserving of respect. No woman, under any circumstance, should be seen as anything less. Perversion is the fault of the male mind. But the message Sharia Law sends is clear: women are property. They do not own their bodies and they are not allowed to choose what they can do with it.

This is offensive.

This is where naturism becomes more meaningful, because Naturism = Freedom. It may seem a trite observation. Even textiles understand the sense of freedom being without clothes provides. But what has recently come to my attention is how much the human body can become a symbol of freedom, not just from clothes, but from any oppression, whether political or religious in nature.

Egyptian born and raised Muslim, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy shows real courage, as public nudity is not only forbidden in Islam, it’s unthinkable. Even in the arts, the Koran frowns upon depictions of humans, clothed or otherwise, which makes her actions all the more remarkable. Posting a nude picture of herself on her blog incited outrage throughout the Muslim world among both liberals and conservatives; she inspired hate blogs and received death threats. Even feminists opposed to Sharia admonished her, arguing that by going nude, men now see her as a piece of meat, that by surrendering her dignity, she has harmed her cause. But if clothing represents oppression, what better way to protest that oppression than by the extreme opposite of the burqa? Shamelessly displaying her own nude body was the most powerful message Aliaa could have sent the Muslim world. It reaffirms that her body is hers and belongs to nobody else. It would have been easy for her to keep a low profile, to remain an anonymous blogger, to complain of the many cruelties and injustices against her sex without impacting real change. Instead, she rocked the boat and made waves; she risked her safety for the attention of the world.

Which brings me to my next point, Naturism = Power. As we can see, the human body can be a symbol, and as a symbol, it possesses power to arouse, draw attention, or illustrate a point. Oppressive societies often use shame to steal power from others. In the Bible, slaves were stripped of their clothes (the “naked” were slaves or poor); a rapist will strip his victim to make her feel vulnerable; the Nazis stripped Jews in concentration camps to assert dominance and authority. But if a woman, or man, chooses, of their own accord, to remove their own clothes, what power is left to the oppressor but violence?

On her Facebook page, Aliaa states that the image, “screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.” Now she has done one better, going nude in public in Sweden, which, even in our own Christian culture is taboo, illegal and for some people shocking—that takes real courage. Unfortunately, it will take some time before the Islamic world develops to a level where it can see her point. As a free human being, Aliaa can do with her body what she pleases. It is not the right of any religious or political institution to dictate how she is allowed to dress.

Just to be clear, I do not mean to imply that there is anything wrong with the religion itself. During the golden age of Islam, between 700 and 1200 AD, there was an explosion of artistic and scientific achievement in the Middle East. Muslim scholars mapped out the heavens, translated Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato into Arabic (therefore preserving them) and invented algebra. Andalusian Spain, once controlled by the Muslims, was a mecca (pun intended) of education. Seville and Cordoba contained libraries with over one hundred thousand books. Islamic architecture also greatly exceeded anything the Christians could make at the time. In the Arabian Nights, high born women are afforded greater freedoms and even political power. Before Taliban control, Afghan women enjoyed the right to work and go to school. The Koran itself states that men and women are equal. Unfortunately, radical practitioners have radicalized their faith. Either way, the outrage of the Muslim world should not be directed at feminists, who choose body freedom over shame, but at the primitive culture that forces half the human race into a position of submissiveness and subservience.

The female body, designed by Allah. How is this offensive?

When I look at you, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, I see a beautiful, intelligent, courageous woman, an inspiration to oppressed women everywhere, a woman who should be proud. After all, the human body is the direct handiwork of Allah himself. By removing your clothes, the only shameful thing you have exposed is the hate and intolerance of your country.

Post Script: If you’re out there reading this, Aliaa, I want you to know that you have inspired me. The writings of a Greek-American fantasist probably won’t mean much to you (and why should it?) but I have decided to add your name to my novel in your honor. You will be Aliaa, sister to Thelana, from Ilmarinen, a land where women are equal to men, a land free of oppression. 

Ages of Aenya: Book 3, Chapter 3

Chapter 3
Fabulous Secrets

The way forward was darker than Emma expected, and so she turned back to the brassiere, removed it from the wall, and listening once more for her father, continued on. Centuries-worn masonry hugged her shoulders, leading down another set of steps to a sharp turn. The swinging glow from the brassiere gave glimpses of unlit candelabras, rising like stalks of corn from many tables. Others came up from the floor, elaborate crowns of candles tall as a man. She proceeded to touch flame to wick, though much of the wax was short and fat with tears and would not last the hour. In due course, her father’s study emerged amid the flickering light in wisps of smoke. Whether grand as a ballroom or small as a war closet, Emma could not tell. Everywhere she looked, there were things in great heaping piles. Books stacked like twisting minarets above her head. Shelves lined every wall, buckling under the weight of countless pages, a few coming unchained from the mooring. Some shelves had collapsed upon others to form sloping hills of paper. If there was any passage behind the books, she could not have known it lest she tunnel through.

With fear induced caution, Emma made herself part of the mess, venturing deeper amid the tomes until she could no longer see her way out.

She was not only taken aback by the sheer volume of books in her father’s collection, but by the number of books in existence. Who could have penned so many pages? And could there truly be so many tales, so many subjects in the entire world to write about? How long would it take to read them all? Was that what Father was doing, trying to read every book ever written? To what end?

And why keep it all secret? No . . . this can’t be all there is. There must be something else.

But the secret, if one existed, she could not see, even as she stood in the midst of her father’s most private sanctuary. And it made her angry.

Her eyes began to crawl, by their own volition, along leather bound covers and spines, picking out words. Most were without titles, but many she found intriguing. She immediately recognized her favorite story, The Epic of Thangar and Sint, and wondered how it had left from under her bed. Two heroes crossed many lands in search of a princess, to do battle against the three-headed dragon, Polykefalos. When Sint died in Thangar’s arms, Emma mourned him for days. She did not, however, recognize any other title. On the Origin of Monsters. The Ancient Zo: Masters of the Universe, a History. The Great Cataclysm: Contemplations on Planetary Geology in Relation to the Decline of Giant Species. A History of the Great Aean Migration to the Founding of the Sea Kingdoms, a Translation of Eldin. Lost Expeditions: From Mythradanaiil to Baartook.

She tugged her eyes away. The words were befuddling her brain. What did contemplations on planetary geologymean? It sounded like gibberish. Nobody she knew, even those well-to-do aristocrats she loved to spy upon, talked like that. And she could not stretch her imagination enough to guess what sorts of tales those books might contain. Even still, she felt a longing to keep searching, to keep reading. If you only had more time!

Without warning, a monstrous, human shape jumped at her, and she nearly tripped over the hem of her robe with fright. It was snarling, with eyes glazed in fury, mouth agape, threatening her with its finger-length, pointed molars. But it was not moving. It never did. Her hand worked under her robes to still her mutinous heart. The other reached out with trepidation, to touch its eerily real, blood red fur.

 “It isn’t alive, Emma,” she assured herself. Hearing her voice, her own name, had a calming effect. She stepped back to examine the figure in its entirety. Stuffed. Like the trophy kills in the tavern. What was the word? Taxonomy? Taxidermy? That’s it . . .

But Emma had never heard of such a creature. It was very clearly a beast, neither bogren nor horg, and yet, it was so remarkably human. She could almost read the expression of rage on its face. It could not have been native to the Pewter Mountains. What was it? A placard beside the creature gave the answer: Eastern Halfman, Forest of Narth.

Despite the halfman being dead and filled with sawdust, the very sight of it unnerved her. Surely, if she came across such a thing in the woods, she would die of fright. It made her appreciate the thick city walls which kept out the wild. But why would Father bother to keep such a dreadful thing in his study?

Segmenting the labyrinth of books, she came upon other, equally curious objects. There were collections of bones in varying stages of decay, some yellowed with age, others black as obsidian and just as hard. A fractured, humanoid cranium fit neatly in her hand. She pondered it a moment before replacing it, exactly as before, lest her father discover her snooping. One set of bones was arranged into the nearly complete skeleton of a saurian like creature, with branching, finger-like joints forming what looked like wings. Another skull dominated one corner of the room, serving as the base of a table.

Amid the clutter, there was an empty space, like a clearing in a forest of books. It was her father’s desk. His chair. She shuddered, suddenly remembering him in his most foul moments, even as she was drawn forward like a needle to a loadstone. It was not, as she came to expect, a clean work surface. There was more parchment, more lines of books, so much so that the underlying wood grain was impossible to make out. Beneath the loose pages was another layer of ink outlines, the dark eastern hemisphere and the bright western Dead Zones, the borders of kingdoms clustered about a solitary Sea—configurations she recognized from the tapestries hanging in wealthy peoples’ gardens. Her hands quivered from object to object. She considered opening the compass, which she recognized from one of her faerie tales, but thought better on it. Her fingerprints could mar the gold surface. There was also a quill and an inkwell, but she did not touch these either. And then she came across an open journal, freshly inked.

By Strom! It’s his writing . . .

She forgot her apprehension, leaning eagerly over the desk.

Should you be flogged for this, it’ll be worth it . . .

She thumbed through the pages, with great care not to tear the edges,

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After considerable contemplation and research, considerable, I might add, and far beyond the scope of any detractors who might doubt me or call me mad, I am become determined, that my work, however misunderstood, however abominable it may be deemed, continue. Why should it be, after all, for a man, any man, of any society, to consider madness what I seek; why should it be thought insanity, to be unwilling to preserve that which we, as a species, hold, or declare to hold, most precious? If such a quest as mine be called folly, or madness, then it is only from doubting and fearful minded fools, who cow before remote and dispassionate gods and reject the reasoning that is the natural fruit of man’s brain, that which is man’s heritage . . .

She halted mid-sentence, thinking hard upon the words, but was left with only impressions. She was desperate to understand, to absorb as much as possible, but all she knew was that her father wanted something very badly, and was angry that others did not approve of it. Too many words. She thumbed forward through the years, pausing before a charcoal sketch of two skulls, one smaller than the other, with a heading that read:

BOGREN = HUMAN?

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It is not beyond my comprehension how such an inference may be made, though blasphemous, some might even say, an abomination of reason. And yet, with reason and evidence as my guides, I have, inescapably, arrived at just such a conclusion. There is little difference between these two specimens, though we know with certainty that one is human and the other is not. What is the significance of this? This transmogrification over the aeons? What is the mechanism at work? And what natural purpose is served, by the one becoming the other? More importantly still, how then does “the theory” shed light on our most recent history, with regards to our endless struggle, which we find, myself included, as a native of Northendell, threatening us yearly at the very gates of our fair city, which, without the good graces and sacrifices of our men-at-arms, I would never chance to live enough to discover the objective of my research?

 

Emma wanted to scream. None of it made sense. None of his words could explain why he had chosen this room, these books, over her, or even more curiously, why he was unable to share with her these obsessions, however odd. One more try. . .

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. . . we see them everywhere. Why are the people of this world so blind? Why can’t they see? Or do they not wish to see? Though I have not laid my own eyes upon them, men have testified to the mysteries abundant in this world, returning from long exploits with tales of things beyond our imagining. What is, for instance, the secret of the Golden Halo, which rises high as a hilltop in the midst of the Endless Plains? Or the Pyramid in Ossea, made entirely of glass, which men have sworn possesses no entrance, and yet is centered by a single, solitary seat (throne?). Who sits there, or sat therein, I wonder? And what of the stone golems that litter the countryside, from the mountains to the valleys? There is not a child in all Aenya that does not know of them, and yet the eldest among us are utterly ignorant as to their origin and purpose, despite my own theory. These wonders were left to us by the Ancients, which, I cannot refrain from repeating, is a misnomer, as the documents I have procured has revealed to me their true name, as that of the Zo.

What is it of these marvels, these Ancients, if you must, that my countrymen so fear? Why can we not speak of them plainly? And not be subjected to the torch, or imprisonment? Magic is a word spoken in ignorance. Magic is whatever is not understood. If we should banish magic, let us do so by demystifying it, by understanding it . . .

Emma abandoned the nonsensical script, drifting deeper into the study, as if digging to the core of her father’s brain. She felt oddly buoyant, as if her feet did not touch the floor. The amassed knowledge surrounding her was too overwhelming to process, though the potential for understanding was intoxicating. There were many more skeletons to be found, most incomplete, held together by pins; more stacks of books, and loose papers, and hurried charcoal sketches. Despite her care not to disturb anything, her arm bumped against some object, and it teetered to the edge of the table before her eyes could pick it out from the clutter. It was a rectangular box of fine wood, as smooth as brass. Her fingertips brushed over the flower pattern etched onto its surface. The dust made her eyes water. Years of neglect kept the box tightly closed, but with some effort the hinges cracked apart. A small paper floated free, its folded halves catching the air like the wings of a moth. It was a note, written in a hand different from her father’s,

My Dearest Mattathias,

You have always been a great contributor to our cause, and more importantly, I would like to think, a faithful friend to Ilsa and me. Do not torment yourself any further. You did all that could be done.

As for my gift, I pray you not refuse it. I considered safeguarding it for when the little one comes of age, but I am too stricken with grief and cannot bear the sight of it any longer. It never strayed far from Ilsa’s lips. You will find it possesses some remarkable qualities, as it is made from a rare, possibly extinct, Ilmarin oak.

Your friend,

Dak

Mattathias? She knew her father’s name as Mathias, but who was Mattathias? Could they be one and the same? Emma lowered the paper, folded it nervously and tucked it into her pocket. Dak’s gift was a long wooden tube pitted with holes, engraved with swirling lines, a short flute, or piccolo. It was fixed in a bed of silk, and though Emma feared to disturb anything, she figured her father would not notice its absence. Besides, it was beautifully made, and she possessed so few beautiful things. She propped the flute from its bed and slipped it under her sleeve, then proceeded to align the empty box to the dust-vacant rectangle on the table.

Emma continued to search, but was growing frustrated. Everything she came across left her with questions, and she was beginning to feel like a fool. What did you expect to find, a book clearly stating the reasons for Father’s neglect? Such an answer, she came to realize, she would not find, as no scholar would bother to make the necessary inquiry.

The back wall curved into a circular alcove. A series of glass spheres, stained in varying colors, were suspended from struts in the floor. Emma was mesmerized, never having seen a contraption so strange, ornaments so perfectly round. The central orb, about which every other emanated, was the circumference of their dinner table, and was composed of clusters of kerosene lamps. The outer spheres were smaller, their supporting struts linked to an intricate apparatus of toothed wheels which allowed the spheres to move about one another. It was a delicate arrangement that Father could not help but notice should it be moved, yet Emma was compelled to toy with it, her daring bolstered by what she had so far discovered. Stepping over cogs and ducking under struts, she slinked her way toward a triad of spheres. One was violet, no bigger than a drachma coin. Another was the size of a pumpkin and turquoise as the moon. But what caught her fancy was a ball of exceeding complexity, like a gaudy piece of jewelry. It was the size of a pomegranate, consisting of a transparent outer shell of silver dots—constellations. Looking deeper, in a plethora of earthy hues, she could make out the familiar outlines of mountain ranges, and a solitary Sea made of lapis lazuli, and a great rift—looking like someone had thrown the sphere and cracked it—marking the divide between the eastern hemisphere and middle Aenya . . .

“Step away from that!”

Emma was crippled. With moist palms, she caught onto the surrounding struts to keep from falling, turning on her kneecap, which still ached where the stone had hit her earlier that day. Now she was facing him. Fear and shame and doubt swallowed her whole.

His eyes were round and silver, like silver coins, staring so intently she could feel his pupils stabbing into her. Mathias was an unassuming man, with tufts of gray at the temples. He looked prematurely aged, as if he’d worn his young face too long. But when enraged, he only resembled her father, becoming something else entirely, the creature that lived beneath her father’s skin.

“What are you doing here?”

All she wanted was to confess the anger, to admit the hurt that lived within her, to let him know how lousy a father he had been and how much a daughter needed a parent’s love. But she could not bring herself to voice such honesty.

“Come here!” he barked. “What did you see?”

Her legs shook as she stepped away from the spheres, so dreading to damage anything that she had to hold herself from swooning.

“Stupid girl . . . Answer me!”

“. . . I don’t know . . .” she managed, in a barely audible whisper.

“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’? How can you not know? Or are you afraid to tell me?”

She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t. Rather, she studied the cracks in the floor, so much like riverbeds; they could carry her to far distant lands, to better, freer places, where every parent loved and listened to his child. He snatched her arm and shook her violently. Robes fluttered like a sail in a storm. The silver key sprang from her pocket, ringing upon the stone floor.

“Please . . .,” she said, wincing, “don’t hurt me!”

“All this time . . . I thought I could trust you to obey me!”

“I’m sorry.”

He tugged her out of the room, knocking pages into the air, showing little concern for the position of his belongings. Passing from the astrolabes to his desk to the candles to the entryway, she was amazed by how short the distance was, by how vast curiosity and dread had made his study seem. Her arm contorted painfully in his grip, but she did not resist as he dragged her up the stairs.

“This will not go . . . unpunished!” he screamed, breathless with rage. “You’ll learn . . . I will teach you . . . I will teach you to respect your elders.”

She found herself facing her bed. The door slammed and a lock clicked into place.

He’s locking you in . . . Oh, God, no!

“You want to explore, do you? Wander all about, do you?” His voice sounded clearly through the timbers of the door. “Well, I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll not soon forget! You will learn your place, young one . . . or you’ll stay in your room forever!”

Her knees buckled at the doorframe, and she turned into a heap, a heap with a porcelain white face and raven hair that became indistinguishable from the layers of her clothing. Her entire body convulsed, ached with silent tears. When Emma wept, she made no sound. “No, Father, forgive me. Father . . .”

But he did not give her time for explanations, or plea bargains. She could already hear his footfalls falling stiffly against the steps below.

She waited, steadying her sobbing, until the silence came again, pervasive, cold, and much too familiar. Her bedchamber was sparse, lonely. The empty aching in her bosom continued anew.

Certain he was out of earshot, she reached for the shaft hidden under her sleeve, lifting it to her lips. A sharp stinging sensation reminded her of Bood and Deed, though it seemed ages ago. And then it occurred to her that he had not even noticed, that her father—no, she would never call him that again—that Mathias did not even notice her swollen lip. She brought the piccolo to the corner of her mouth, where the flesh was less tender, and forced her breath—her pain and despair—through the wood, until a single sad note floated from her window, carried in the wind like a raven’s feather.

Ilsa.

 

Return to Book 3: Chapter 2  

Ages of Aenya: Book 3, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Through the Gates of the Silver Key

The tower rose out of the northeast Wall, a simple cylindrical shape of mossy uneven stones with narrow archery windows. In centuries past, when the city was little more than a castle, it would have defended against an armies’ easterly advance. But now, the tower was a curious relic overlooking a crowded neighborhood, a throwback to days long gone. Children never visited Emma’s home and for good reason. To them, it was a ghastly and foreboding place, something to conjure tales of ghosts and witches and dark rituals.

With her shoulder against it, Emma forced her way through the tower’s single door of aged wood and iron. The inside was no more pleasing to look upon than the out. Sunbeams crisscrossed from high windows, forming strange patterns of light and dark, illuminating objects in unnatural ways. Each room was sparsely furnished, with the occasional rug or tapestry, though the scenes upon their fibers had long faded from recognition. But despite its unwelcoming and forlorn appearance, Emma was relieved to be home, to be anywhere far from Bood and Deed.

The base floor split at the entrance into the upper and lower levels. The stair leading up to her bedchamber was narrow and steep and without a handrail, with steps less than the width of her foot, so that going to and from her room was fraught with the possibility, however slight, of tumbling to one’s death. But it was the lower, broader stair that frightened her. Even to look in that direction caused her palms to sweat, and she had, in recent years, learned to not look there, to forget even that that section of her home existed. The reason for her fear was a mystery, a memory on a distant shore, too indistinct to make clear in her mind.

Sometimes, when examining some artifact in her home, or when her thoughts turned to some oddity, hazy images would inexplicably surface and then vanish like a stagecoach passing in the night. Whenever she attempted to focus on these memories, they became even less defined, slipping down into the pit of her psyche where her childhood fears went to be forgotten. She held fast, however, to one recollection in particular, from when she first walked on shaky legs unaccustomed to bipedal movement. Joy was mixed up in that memory, despite the terror that came after. She was looking for her father; she wanted to show him how well she could manage the stairs without his hand or the wall to balance. He was, she knew, in the same place as always. With confidence, she made her way down to the open doorway. She anticipated being lifted into his arms, being showered with adulation. But there was only screaming. Intense fear. Fear that gripped her heart and never let go. Forever afterwards, the door remained shut.

Once, when the world was still new for her, in that age when children begin to voice their wonders, she dared to question him about the door beyond the stair. It was his private study, he explained, and she was never to go down there, never to ask of the happenings within. If she was ever to disobey, she would regret it. He was never explicit in his threats, but his tone was firm, and her vague memories of terror served as enough of a deterrent.

Now Emma was possessed by more urgent troubles. Her knee ached from the stoning and she still walked with a limp. Her lip, far from soothing over time, was fatter and tenderer. But it was her heart that pained her most. Bood and Deed’s words had struck like arrows and remained festering deep beneath her ribs, forcing her to scrutinize herself, to gaze into the tall mirror beside the stair. A featureless girl stared back at her, looking so unremarkable that she might as well have not existed. Her face belonged to a porcelain doll, framed by long flat strands as black as pitch, which made her all the whiter, almost translucent to look upon, ghost-like. Making matters worse, the recent swelling of her lips had turned her mouth into a snout.

“You do look like a donkey,” she said to the mirror, lifting her sleeves to dry her eyes. “You’re so ugly! So ugly . . .!”

She balled her hands into fists, raised them against herself. She wanted to smash the image, but resisted the urge. Father would be furious should she break his mirror, no doubt an heirloom. Instead, she retreated, watching her reflection diminish, her limbs recede into the folds of her robes. At a distance, she could make out a dark shape, a raven. She flapped her arms and the sleeves transformed into wings.

“Not a donkey. If you were a raven . . . You’d make a beautiful raven. Your feathers would be blacker than all the others’, and the raven king would choose you for his bride, for how black your feathers are. You’d soar above the city, and poop on everybody’s heads, and fly south, to the Sea. Oh, to look upon the Sea and the splendors of the southern kingdoms! What a sight that would be!”

Round and round the tower she spun, fluttering in her robes, her cloak flowing and rippling like a banner, and when she was quite dizzy, she collapsed into a heap of cloth.

Suddenly, Emma felt very alone. She lifted herself and tiptoed about the tower. Where was Father? Beyond the windows, the sun was retreating, stretching red-orange-yellow fingers across the pale moiré sky.

He should be home by now. He should be done with his afternoon duties.

Every morning her father would leave, and before eclipse return, if only to lock himself in his study. She never knew to where or for what purpose he went out, only that he did so, and always with urgency, and when he returned it was with no less urgency. When asked about his comings and goings, he would say that he had important work and nothing more. It was in those brief moments that Emma hoped to see her father.

In the golden dawn of youth, Emma loved him as any daughter, when he fed and clothed and bathed her. No matter the substance of her meals or the quality of her garments, they were treasures fit for a princess. He even shared, with particular enthusiasm, knowledge of symbols, giving her books of faerie-tales and of adventures, which she devoured more readily than the food she was given. But as the sun and moons went about their cycles, she saw less and less of him, and by the time her skirt covered little of her thighs, her father took to half-measures, leaving her cold dishes at breakfast and garments at her bedside without a thought given to her shape or size. Her heart pined in his absence until it could pine no more, and like a flower that shrivels as it goes untended, so did her love for him. Her golden dawn of youth became dreams difficult to distinguish from waking memories. And yet, she never lost the seed of affection planted in her since infanthood, and still cherished the rare moments spent with him.

Now more than ever, she needed him. This was not her first tussle with bullies, nor her first encounter with Bood and Deed, but in the past Father had dismissed her tears, accusing her of being too soft hearted, or of exaggeration, or—what angered her most—of seeking undue attention. But now she could show him. Her broken face did not pain her nearly as much as their jeers, but it was something he could at least see. She could only pray he not return, as he so often did, in a foul mood.

But where is he?

She looked in each and every room, including her own sparse bedchamber, but he was not there. Could he have returned earlier? Or was he just late? She rounded the stairs again, between the upper and lower floors, when something glittering snagged her eye like a fish hook. She tiptoed toward the semi table, its back cut to the shape of the concave wall, fearing the small object catching the light of the descending sun. To anyone else, it would appear unremarkable; a key of the simple skeleton variety, with an oval loop and three simple tines, but Emma could not keep from shuddering at the sight of it. Her father was never without his silver key. Before leaving the tower, he would touch his breast pocket again and again, to assure himself, sometimes removing it to make certain that the thing he was touching was, in fact, the key. Now it was lying, unceremoniously, on the semi table. Had he actually forgotten it? Should she take it, to keep safe, or would that anger him? After much contemplation, she found the key balanced on the tips of her quivering fingers, gyrating slowly from side to side. There was nothing special about it. But she knew what it did. She knew where the key could take her.

For what seemed like eternity, Emma stood at the topmost step of the lower stairwell, trembling with doubt, the key in her palm cold and slick with perspiration. The door was set into an arched frame at the base of the stair and was split down the middle like a gate. The oak grain was bare and rough, with minimal patterning. No Delian would pause at such a door.

The power of her uncertainty was equally matched by curiosity. From the time she was an infant, she possessed a voracious appetite for knowledge. It was what drove her to becoming lost in the forgotten niches of Northendell, why she wondered at the ravens that followed her and the rainbows coloring the sky. But what was greater than simple curiosity was her desire to know her father’s business, to learn what consumed him and forced him into a prison of his own making. Something beyond the door had made her father a stranger to her, when she had no one else to love, and the more she thought on it, the more her heart turned from fear to anger. Anger, more than anything else, gave her the strength to confront the door, with purpose, with silver key in hand. She would know her father’s secrets, consequences be damned!

Emma fumbled with the silver key. It was slippery and unwieldy, like a captive mouse, but she managed, with both hands, to direct it toward the door. The base of the stair led beneath street level. It was lit by a single brassiere set into an alcove. Her shadow blacked out the lock, but after a bit of blind prodding she found the keyhole. The locking mechanism was long rusted, resisting her efforts to open it, and a dreadful thought occurred to her then, that it might not work, that perhaps she had the wrong key. More fidgeting and the key began to turn in the lock, erasing such fears just as her mind conjured new ones.

What if Father returns now? What if he finds you here at his door?

“No,” she whispered, though she could feel her heart rummaging under her robes. “Don’t think like that, Emma. You’re his only child, after all, and he should not keep anything from you . . .”

But what if it’s something you’re not meant to see? That no mortal should ever see? Some evil to scar your sanity . . . ?

Her imagination summoned all possible horrors, from everyday experiences to whatever her mind could invent. And hers was a great and rich imagination indeed. But again, her anger overcame her paralysis, driving her hand, and the tumblers of the lock thundered, one by one, into place.

“It’s open,” she informed herself, and with her hem in her fist, Emma entered through the gates of the silver key.

Go Back to Book 3: Chapter 1

Go through the Gates of the Silver Key to Book 3: Chapter 3

Life of Pi

Wow.

I just put this book down a half hour ago, and I still feel warm and tingly inside. It’s one of those rare feelings you get from fiction, an emotion of transcendence, of religious revelation. This is what, I believe, men like Abraham and Moses and Jesus and Mohammed were feeling when they were talking to God. As a long time agnostic, I have never accepted the literal truth of religion. For me, the Torah and the New Testament and the Koran are parts history, science, philosophy, poetry and fiction; but fiction can be a powerful thing. This sentiment is at the very core of Life of Pi, because it is, at its heart, a book about God and the value of belief. The novel starts with a prologue written by the author, who allegedly meets a friend of the main character, Pi Patel. This friend tells the author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” A bold claim for anyone, including the author (who is obviously speaking to the reader), to make. So bold, in fact, I laughed it off, and continued reading in the hopes of at least being entertained, possibly enlightened. But while the book did not change my beliefs in a literal God, it did reaffirm what I have long held to be true, that metaphorical truth is sometimes as important, if not more necessary, than hard, scientific facts. Which is why I do not call myself an atheist.

If you’ve seen the movie trailer (and who hasn’t?) you may be wondering, what does a story about a  shipwrecked boy in a lifeboat with a bunch of animals have anything to do with religion? I was asking myself the same question throughout the whole of the novel. In fact, I had many problems with the story as I was reading it, and, since I plan to write these reviews, I kept a mental checklist of complaints (a bad habit, I know). The story starts off slow, reading like a National Geographic article on zoology. Entire chapters are devoted to the habits of various animals and to the upkeep of zoos. Interspersed between these chapters, a great deal of religion is thrown into the mix, as the main (and only) protagonist converts to Christianity and Islam, while remaining a Hindu as well, finding truth in all three faiths. Much of this seemed preachy and unnecessary to the story. Later, my list of criticisms had to do with the improbability of the events. Just how does a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a Bengal tiger get onto a lifeboat, when they were all locked in cages? Why do no other humans find their way to any of the boats? Even little details, like the extreme lack of water for the first three days at sea, made me question the novel’s plausibility. After all, Life of Pi isn’t fantasy or Sci-Fi. There are so many non-fiction survival stories out there. Why not, instead, pick up the excellent Between a Rock and Hard Place, which the movie 127 Hours was based on? A fiction survival story, at the very least, must feel 100% believable. These many problems unnerved me more due to high expectations, given all the acclaim the book has received, including the seal on the cover, “Winner of the Man Booker Prize” for which Cloud Atlas, one of my all-time favorites, was only a Finalist. 

And then I came to the end, which nullified all of my complaints, and I had to slap myself for my silly assumptions. Unfortunately, I simply cannot say much more about Life of Pi, because anything I mention could be a spoiler. All I can say is, keep reading and have faith in the author. There is much more to it than survival. Like the Pacific Ocean beneath Pi Patel’s lifeboat, there is a depth of meaning to be found here. Life of Pi is a subtle work of genius, with a powerful point to make, and if you keep an open mind, whether you are a fundamentalist, an agnostic or an atheist, it may just make you believe, maybe not in God, but certainly in the power of story.

Four stars.
          

Ages of Aenya: Book 3, Chapter 1

The Third Omen

Flesh & Steel

Chapter 1
Donkey Face
The only thing Emmalina wanted was to be loved. But nobody loved her; she was sure of it. Of friends she had none, nor did she understand how friends were made, or why other people seemed to have friends when she did not. There was only one person in her life, the man she called, albeit with little affection, father. Between his strange comings and goings, Emma possessed hours with only herself to talk to, or sing to, and as the years passed she found a kind of solace in loneliness—in that no one could disappoint her with their absence. She became her own friend and sister, and parent. And who better to understand her than Emma? Cloaked in isolation, she felt safe from other human beings. The cloak belonged to her mother and was black as a moonless night. Since her mother had been a tall woman, the sleeves drooped well past Emma’s fingers, and sometimes wrapped around her waist when she was feeling shy, which was almost always.
The world Emmalina knew was gray and cold and hard. But sometimes, after the Thunder God shook the world and split the sky and loosed rain that fell like pebbles, a band of colors would appear bridging the sky. Delians called it Strom’s Bow and it was a good omen, a sign that the god’s anger had abated. But Emma was never satisfied with such explanations and so would sit in wonderment, watching as the last hint of violet faded, dreaming of places strange and ancient and faraway. Occasionally, orchids sprouted between the cracks of the Wall, with blue and red and orange, but this color did not last long either, wilting quickly in the cold.
As far as she knew, there were two seasons in Aenya: high moon and low moon. During high moon, the people of Northendell huddled inside their houses to watch fireballs rain down on them, and men-at-arms returned from the Wall bloodied or broken or carried on the bier. In the peace that followed, the streets became slick with ice, and clumps of frozen sky dropped out of the either to shatter shingles from rooftops. Delians did not dare venture out on such days, but year after year there were those too stubborn for caution, who were later found with their skulls caved in with ice.
When the snow flowed out of the city, the second season began, and the people felt safe enough to set up tents in the market square, to barter and to haggle and to gossip. In the alleyways, boys played at war as girls hop scotched, or together they went into hiding and seeking which was an ideal game in the labyrinthine city. When the snows came down softly to cover the streets like white linen, the children found joy in it, all except Emma. For eight years she’d watched from her tower window, pining, ever pining for play, to explore the city as the other children were wont to do. But the door to the tower was locked from the inside. Father was fond of keys. The iron ring at his belt chimed heavily wherever he went, so Emma could hear him marching downstairs to his study, or out the front door in the pitch of night. By her ninth year, her father relented and Emma came into possession of her own key.
Emma was now ten. She turned the key in the lock twice, put her weight into the door, and looked up. Was it morning or late afternoon? The sky gave no indication, looking gray and bleak and ready to crush her under its weight. There was no horizon in Emma’s world, only a distant haze and the silver outline of the Pewter Mountains poking through it.
She started down the cobblestone path, fingering the gaps in the Wall. Long before she was born, fig trees ripped through the masonry, and no one ever bothered to repair it. Her father had forgotten breakfast years ago, so Emma was fortunate when the fruit was in season. Drop fruit, as Delians called it, littered the cobblestones, dappling the ice and rock with purple splotches. The fuzzy brown ones split into soft sweet clovers like honey. She ate until she was no longer hungry, filling her satchel with as many as she could, and continued down.
She moved sideways where the houses were built too closely together and walked with her palms where the streets tilted. Missing cobblestones sometimes bloodied her feet. But such unforgiving passages were advantageous to one who longed to be lost, who, unlike most children, was never missed. Scrawny enough to disappear beneath her robes, Emma was able to slip through alleyways too narrow for grown women, finding alcoves that even the lords of the city could not lay claim to, finding mysteries she was certain no one knew existed.
Though she had never seen beyond the Wall, Northendell, she knew, was built into the mountain. Where the natural rock tapered off and hand worked stone began was difficult, if not impossible, to discern. Finding remnants of a home or church in what was once believed a boulder was not uncommon. Behind the city, the caves went on forever, or so Emma, unnoticed in the niches above the people’s homes, heard people say. Adventuring locals who went into them were said to be there still, navigating the remainder of their lives to get home. Such stories were enough to frighten children, even many adults, from becoming lost. But Emma was undeterred.
In walls within walls, Emma found her place of solitude, where she came to poke and prod at life’s queries, to wonder and hear her own voice and feed crumbs to her friends, the ravens perched in the niches above. But she became distracted watching a copper line of ants marching off to battle a horned beetle. Their mandibles clamped against its armored shell, but the beetle kept plodded along. She had never seen such a resilient and stubborn creature among the insect world, and as the ants continued to scurry and fight with increasing urgency, she devised a new story and became a goddess, swooping down to the ant world in an act of divine providence. The horned beetle kicked pairs of chubby thighs helplessly between her fingers, where the birds hovered, crowding about her arm and shoulders. In a snapping of beak too swift to be seen, the beetle’s armor cracked like a walnut. Part of her was saddened by its demise, but the ravens were growing bored with bread. Other Delians shunned the black birds, believed heralds of the Taker. A flock of milling ravens was a sign of imminent death. Families with elders or sick children watched fretfully as the birds lingered about their household. But Emma was skeptical from the time she—not knowing of the omen—spent an entire day in their company, without either herself or her father falling dead. Besides, ravens were beautiful. Their feathers were sleek and black and shimmered in the moons, much like her hair, contrasting sharply against the pallid backdrop of broken masonry. And like her, they were reclusive and unloved.
“But you can fly above these walls,” she murmured. “Above the city. High above the world . . .”
Snickering sounded behind her, and she turned, her heart leaping into her throat. No adult could hope to fit between the narrow passages to her secret place, but she was not the only child in Northendell. The faces confronting her, wide-eyed, bemused, hateful, were not unfamiliar.
“Look at her going on like that . . .,” said the roundest of the three boys, “I knew she was bonkers, but by Strom, she’s downright loony!”
Emma knew him as Bood, the one whom other boys listened, who made friends and managed, beyond her comprehension, to earn respect. Like a dog at his heel was Deed. He was not as well fed and his clothing was always too tight or loose, which was not uncommon for a bastard, a whoreson, as she once heard someone say. Deed clung to Bood’s every word, proving his friendship through acts of cruelty. The third boy, Obi, was younger than the two and finely tailored. Emma did not see him often, knowing only that he fidgeted a lot and spoke rarely and with a stammer.
Deed approached her with an accusing look. “Were you talking to yourself this time or to the birds?”
“I wasn’t—” she started, searching for a believable lie, any justification to alleviate her embarrassment.
“Whadd’ya think?” Bood answered for her, “she talks to both. I would too if I was as ugly as she was.”
Deed gave a nervous chuckle. “Hey, that’s a good point!” Obi stood in their shadows, trying to look large and important.
“You know crows can’t talk, don’t you?” Bood asked her.
      “They’re ravens . . .,” she corrected.
“Crows, ravens, who cares . . .? They’re just stupid, ugly birds. Obi, your father’s a knight, right? He kills dragons, right? Show us how he does it.” He presented the boy with a smooth rock, about the size of his fist, as if it were a fine sword.
“I c-c-can do it,” he stammered, squinting at the perches overhead.
Emma followed his aim and her sleeves came up like banners, to shield the birds from harm. “Don’t!”
“What do you care?” said Bood. “Oh, I forgot, they’re your friends, aren’t they?”
“Why won’t you leave me alone?” she replied. “This is my place.”
Your place? How is it your place? You don’t own the city. You’re not royalty. You’re not even high born. You’re just a wall born girl with a donkey face that nobody can stand to look at, which is why you talk to birds, isn’t that right, Obi?” Insults were Bood’s special talent. It wasn’t just the words, but the inflection of his voice, the emphasis on this or that word, the contortion of his face that cried mockery. The combined effect was like a dagger twisting in her heart. It was why others were eager to be his friend, for fear he might turn his talent against them. When the tears ran from her eyes at the threshold of her father’s study, she never managed to recreate the scene. She could recite the words verbatim, but from her mouth Bood’s insults fell flat, lost all their power to sting.  
Deed was nowhere near as clever, but no less cruel, mimicking Bood’s every action. “Donkey face!” he half cried, half laughed.
“Stop it!” she insisted, as if they could be reasoned with. “Stop saying that!” Each outburst brought lumps of sorrow to her throat, but she could not swallow down the pain. She wanted to say more, but found that she couldn’t.
Obi’s rock missed its mark, clacking against a third floor parapet. Dozens of ravens spread wing, abandoning their perches to circle above. Deed picked up another rock. 
“Stop it!” she cried. “Leave them alone!”
“Or you’ll what?” Bood threatened. “What are you going to do to me, princess?”
“More like princess of donkeys,” Deed added, throwing and missing.
All three boys were focused on the birds now, on their aim, not seeing the slender stone slip beneath her sleeve. She eyed Bood’s forehead with intense hatred, but Emma lived in the mind, in a world of imagined feats, and she drew first blood, instead, across Obi’s eyebrow. The youngest of the three boys, who’d never spoken unkindly to her, crumpled against the wall and started weeping.
“Dammit!” Bood cried. “His father’s gonna thrash us!”
“Get her!” Deed shouted.
Emma dashed between the walls as the rocks began to fly. She could hear them THUD against the buildings, heavy enough to open her skull. Bood squeezed through the passage in pursuit, his gut flattening, with Deed close behind, leaving Obi alone with his tears.
The panic went to her limbs as Emma pulled herself around corners, clamored up, ever up the sloping streets, tripping over the hem of her robes and bruising her palms, on her feet again and running blindly, things catching and tearing at her sleeves, shouts and the clack-clack-clack of stones following her. Walls came at her like battering rams, every which way, leading her, pressing her to the shoulder, twisting her heels, expanding onto broad courtyards in a kaleidoscope of possible directions. Her thoughts came in fragmented bursts. Which way? Not a creature of instinct, she hesitated, without knowing how closely the boys followed. Should she hide? Slip into a side passage in the hope they not see her?
No.
In a dead-end alcove, she would be trapped and they would kill her. What she wanted more than anything was to feel safe. Was home. Father would know what to do with these bullies, she assured herself. He can’t be too busy to help you at a time like this, can he? But Northendell was a mountain city, built in levels, and her tower was on the highest tier, on the outer edges of the Wall. The steps, having become dilapidated and uneven over the centuries, grew higher and further apart, and her legs began to ache. Exhaustion drove her to her knees. As she gathered up her robes to lift herself again, she wondered why Bood and Deed were not yet upon her, and then something white whizzed past her cheek. They had been stupid enough to stop and scoop up stones, and it had given her the advantage. A second stone ruffled her cloak, but the third crashed under her knee. She managed to limp to a courtyard where the cobblestones formed a circular pattern about an olive tree, just as Bood overtook her, knocking her onto the rough pavement. Despite his rotund belly, the boy moved quickly, at least more quickly than his waif partner, who caught up to them, panting.
No amount of imagination could help Emma escape her impending reality. She could only watch, beaten and bruised by the city’s hard edges, her breathing sharp and burning, a mix of exhaustion and fear rooting her to the spot. Bood tugged at the olive tree where she lay, littering the ground with dark green leaves. The makeshift sword in his meaty fingers swished to and fro.
He fancies himself a knight, a man-at-arms!
Her eyes darted between the two boys, desperately seeking a passerby. Even her father would suffice. Homes scattered around them, in tiers above and below, but no one would hear her screams but the ravens perched at the windowsills and banner masts.
“Please!” She was trembling, her sleeve masking her like a veil. “I didn’t mean to hurt Obi—honest!”
“What was that?” Bood cried, brandishing his stick. “Did you hear something, Deed?”
The boy shrugged, not catching on to the joke. “Uh . . . no?”
“Well I heard something,” said Bood, “and it went hee-haw, hee-haw!”
Deed shared a chuckle with his friend, adding his own, albeit poorly imitated, donkey sounds.
Emma’s eyes swam and as the tears made their way to her cheeks, she knew she would have preferred the beating to their mockery.
“Let me the stick,” Deed blurted, “and I’ll teach this donkey some obedience!” Deed’s cruelty was blunt, more brutal than his friend’s. She shut her eyes as something hard splintered against her lips and chin. It was like nothing she had felt before, a lightning bolt in the face, followed by throbbing and stinging. She awaited a successive blow, all quivering, but it did not come.
A heavy voice rang in the air and when she dared to look, a copper helm shone in her eyes. She could hear the marching boots, their orange breast plates clanking atop their shoulders. The stick spotted with her blood was in the hands of a man-at-arms, a copperhead, whose lip and jaw were squarely framed by the thick hairs of his mustache.
“Bohemond,” the man-at-arms admonished, his face-plate retracting into his armored collar, “you’re the butcher’s boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Bood answered, trying his best to look mature, though his voice was that of a frightened boy.
“And you,” he said, directing a furrowed eyebrow toward Obi, whom Emma had not noticed arrive, “I know your father. You’re Ovulus’ youngest, aren’t you?”
“Ovulus j-j-junior, sir,” he admitted, “Ovulus the s-s-second.”
“Explain yourselves.” His words and his looks were like the blows of a hammer on an anvil.
“W-W-Well, sir,” Ovulus said with his usual stammer, “I—we—I mean m-m-my friends and I, well we—”
“Out with it, boy, or I’ll beat it of you.”
“Well, we met this g-g-girl, you see, and then she hit me, so we ch-ch-chased her, and now we’re here and . . .”
“I can see that!” the soldier replied. “By Strom’s surly beard, they’ll be calling you Ovulus the Obvious someday! But what I don’t understand is what you’re doing here with this riff-raff. Your father is a knight. Someday you will be a knight. You’d best start acting like one. Understood?”
“Y-Yes, sir.”
“Now run off and tell your father what you’ve been doing. Or I will. And as for you boys,” he said, turning to Bood and Deed, “I don’t want you crossing my sight again.”
Both saluted him, Bood showing a modicum of sincerity, but Emma saw nothing but spite in Deed’s eyes. The man-at-arms glared back, his eyes an icy blue, and he sent them scurrying with a smack to their behinds.   
Emma tried to speak, finding it painful, feeling her lip doubled in size.
“You girl,” said the man-at-arms, “Don’t think I’ve seen you around.”
She was afraid to answer, as if she might get a beating for saying the wrong thing, but seeing she was without choice in the matter, broke the silence at last. “People usually . . . don’t see me, sir,” she said, searching for patterns in the cobblestones, unable to look at him, as she was unable to look at anyone.
“Well, you must have somewhere better to be than here. Where’s your mother?”
“Dead, sir,” she answered, matter-of-factly. 
“I see,” he said. “And your father, what of him?”
“Don’t know,” she replied.
“You’re no vagabond?” he half asked, studying the cut of her robes.
“No—No. He’s busy. He has . . . important work.”
“I see,” he said, working his mustache. “I take it you live somewhere, then?” 
“Oh, yes, sir. I live up there, on the Wall.” She considered pointing it out, but worried she might look foolish.
“Wall born, eh?” he replied. “No shame in that. I know plenty of good men born on the Wall. And you’d best get back there and stay put. Streets are no place for a girl your age.”
“Truly, sir, and I-I thank you . . .”
“Duncan,” he said. “My name’s Duncan. Now see to it we never meet again.”
Strolling back to his regiment, the man-at-arms noted the black feathers littering the stones under his boots. They were everywhere, perched all along the rooftops, some circling, others waiting. “Damn birds,” he grumbled, “worst omen I’ve ever seen!”