The Princess of Aenya: Chapter 3: Eros

“The world is full of black hearts, but mine is the blackest heart of all. I like the sound of that, don’t you? The alliteration, the poetry. But I will not bore you with names of poets.”
Eros sat across the table from a man long rumored to be a monster, not merely a savage, but a literal demon. He could now see what he long suspected to be true. Rumors could be used for deception and intimidation, and as Eros made his living by such methods, he had to admire the implementation. Even without the blood-red helm of spikes, Zaibos was a monstrous figure, taller by a head than himself, with shoulders like a horg. The king of Tyrnael sat, even now, in full plate, as if the armor was a part of him. An elaborately wrought iron chair, riddled by gaps, accommodated the spikes protruding from it.
“I speak only the poetry of stealth,” he replied, “like a dagger in the night, silent as a gliding owl.”     
Zaibos’ lips curled into a wicked grin, his sinewy beard swaying like snapping vines. “I like you, assassin; you do not fear to look into my eyes and speak your mind. That is just the kind of man I need.” He tore into his meat like a sabertooth, his fingers greased with fat, and downed the morsel with mead.
Eros leaned into his chair, trying to look at ease. He did not feel hungry and only sipped at his chalice, which was heavy enough, he considered, to use as a weapon should the need arise. It was not as though he had never met with evil men before, but he made deals under cover of the moon, in lonely alleyways and forgotten alcoves. Here, the sun was full on his face, and colorful tents surrounded them. Soldiers bustled to and fro, grinding swords on whetstones, picking straw men with arrows, testing weapons against armor and muscle with muscle. Murder was open for discourse and Zaibos showed not an inkling of concern. 
“You’ve not yet told me the job.”
Zaibos picked his bone clean and spat greasy slivers with his answer. “I want the princess’ heart in a box, a jewelry box I will provide you.”
“Princess Radia?” Even with his assassin’s heart, Eros could not rein in the shock in his voice. “Isn’t she your . . . sister?”
The king’s eyes were like dull steel. “Should that matter?”
Eros took a swig from his cup. The mead tasted bitter. There were times when he had refused to take money, usually from a husband who still loved his wife, when he could still see the hurt in their eyes, the desperation, and in those instances the assassin would talk his would-be clients into less bloody resolutions. But in the man who sat across from him, he was nothing, only a hunger. 
“For the heir to the throne, it will cost you a mighty sum.” In truth, Eros had never killed anyone of royal birth, but he assumed, as anyone might, that the fee must be higher.
“Cost is irrelevant.” He slammed the chalice down and wiped his chin. “I could make your likeness out of solid gold, if you want.”
In a clearing not three steps from their table, two men were making a raucous noise with morningstar on shield, sword on helm. Eros could almost hear their sweat. Were they preparing for war? Did this have some connection to the princess? He could only guess, but sigils and banners meant nothing to him, to a man of his profession. There would always be the need, in any society, for dirty deeds, for men in the shadows to maintain the illusion of purity. Whoever ruled in Tyrnael, whether Radia or Zaibos or Skullgrin himself, he would blend in like a chameleon, because he had come into the world like few others did, a man born without identity. A thought occurred to him in that moment, a possibility he could only dream of since the time he was old enough to understand injustice. He quivered with the thought, wondering if it was even possible. And why not? Zaibos was the master of Tyrnael and the secrets of the Zo were at his disposal. 
“Gold does not interest me. Nor jewels either.” 
Zaibos smiled, as if let in on a perverse joke. “Lands, then? Titles? A lordship, perhaps?”
“Nothing so crude,” the assassin answered. “What need does a man with my talents have of lands? No, what I desire is . . .” and he pulled his hood away to reveal the brand on his forehead, like a serpent with an extra head for a tail, the shame mark, his aleph. He offered nothing more, waiting for his employer to catch on, fearing the derision known to him since birth. 
Zaibos slicked his beard with the grease from his fingers. “And all this time, you’ve kept it hidden from me, that I should not be speaking to you?”
“Does it matter what I am?” Eros said angrily, “the manner of my birth . . . or what I can do?”
Laughter echoed from the monster’s metallic frame. “Relax! What do I care of the taboos of Dis? I could raze that city to the ground and kill everyone whoever shunned you. Or I could fix that here and now, with my knife . . .”
“The mark is a part of me. A man who is not seen or spoken to cannot be questioned or sought after. It is the greatest tool in my profession. What I request is not for me, but my mother, who carries the same mark. No one has spoken to her since the day I was conceived. In Dis, shit-covered pigs are treated with greater respect. If there is any way to undo the mark, to make her visible again . . . Well, that is my fee, a life for a life.” 
In the arena beside them, a giant of a man with a gleaming morningstar struck a powerful blow, and his opponent fell to pieces. Armor scattered like a porcelain doll on a stone floor. Zaibos watched with delight, seeming to forget their conversation, but as the fallen warrior’s broken body was carried off, he turned to Eros. “Our scientists can give your mother a new face. She will be young again, unblemished and beautiful. But first, you must prove yourself capable.”
“The child should pose no trouble. If you call away the guards, I will be able to—”
“It is not so simple! Radia is not as foolish as she seems. She has fled the castle, possibly the kingdom, and is not alone. Her lapdog protector is a Hedonian by the name of Demacharon, a dangerous man, killed eight of my best in single combat. Do you think that will be a problem for you?”
“No man is a problem for me, Zaibos.” 
“Oh? You’re that good a fighter?”
“I do not fight men. I kill them. There is a difference.” 
“And if you come face to face with this Hedonian? What then would you do?” As if to illustrate the point, another man fell beneath the morningstar. The way the helm was smashed into the skull, Eros doubted the man would live through the night. “A golden age is dawning upon Aenya, and as in the days of yore, Tyrnael will be its capital. There can be no weaklings in this new utopia, which is why the princess had to go. Her weakness, like that of her ancestors, has been a blight on our people for generations. She represents all that I aim to cure. Now, if you would join my cause, show me your strength!”
Eros was never so offended. Any other time, he would have balked, no matter the offer. But Zaibos frightened him like no man ever had. And the possibility of saving his mother from the mark of invisibility, of removing her aleph, was too tempting to walk away from. Still, lines of respect had to be drawn. “Understand this, I am not one of your soldiers to command. But if you need me to demonstrate my services, I can oblige you.”
The sparring champion was called Horgin and for good reason. He was much like the king himself, heads taller than the assassin, and covered in bronze from head to toe. Horgin opened his helm to wipe the sweat. The sun was cooking men in their armor, and by now the brute was sure to be stewing. Good, Eros thought, heat makes a man slow to action.
“This is what you bring me to fight?” he barked, shaking blood and entrails from his morningstar, “a peasant-insect?” 
It was all a song and dance to the assassin, the roaring and chest pounding of a halfman, an attempt at intimidation that did not faze him. “Is that a new term you’ve invented? Peasant-insect? How unexpectedly clever.”
Horgin lobbed a ball of phlegm at him, but Eros dodged quickly enough to avoid the sticky mess. “Was that your first attack?” 
Feinting outrage, the giant slammed his faceplate down and moved into an offensive posture. Squires rushed to the assassin with a variety of swords, axes and maces, but Eros brushed them off. The only things he needed were in the pockets of his cloak and around his waist. There was a dagger, a particularly nasty species of spider in jars around his belt, spools of special silk thread from a worm found only in one part of the Dead Zones, and a sling. 
Eros stood, motionless, until the gathering onlookers thought him paralyzed with fear. Horgin hesitated to kill him, out of pity, or shame to strike down an unarmed opponent. It was Zaibos that gave the order, with a raised finger, to proceed. The distance between the two men was not more than two strides. Horgin had to but bring up his morningstar, make one step, and Eros, sans helmet, would have his brains turned to oatmeal all over the grass. But as Horgin took that first step, the spiky head of his weapon catching the light, he was lying on his back, inexplicably screaming, tears of blood trickling from his left eye. All but Zaibos gaped at the stranger, with a mix of horror and admiration, and from more than a few mouths came the word sorcery! But keen eyed observers saw things as they happened, those who had been focused not on Horgin, but the assassin. They saw the cloth sling, now crumpled in his palm, and the flash of something quick and round and heavy.  
As if were picking flowers for a loved one, Eros strolled over to the giant’s fallen body, plucking the metal object from the bronze crater in Horgin’s helm, where his left eye had been. 
Zaibos looked on like a proud father. “It seems my faith was well placed in you. How did you do that?”
Tools of the trade were a closely guarded secret, as to show anyone would compromise his ability to work, but for the self-appointed king of Tyrnael, Eros figured he would make an exception. From a hidden pocket, he produced a silvery-grey sphere etched with runes. It was smaller than his fist, but so heavy, it was tiring to hold. Every time he used the sling, he risked popping a joint in his shoulder. His arm would be aching for weeks. 
“Iridium,” he explained, “heaviest metal known to man and more highly prized than gold. Cuts through bronze as if it were papyrus. Horgin never thought to shield his face, not while wearing his helm, which is why he is lying on the ground and I am not, although I made certain, in case you needed him, that he live; he’ll only need to be more careful watching his left side. 
“You see, brains trumps strength every time, and if this Hedonian is anything like the soldiers I’ve known, he should fall just easily. And if he fights to protect the princess, then he is a man with ideals, with honor, which is all the better for me, because I am not hindered by such delusions. I do my job, and I win, no matter the cost.”
“You’re a man of my own heart, so you shall have all you desire!”
As he slipped the iridium back into his pocket, Eros could not shake his discomfort. Zaibos looked as if he could not be more pleased, and to the assassin, that was the most unnerving thing of all. 
“So you want her heart in a box. Why not her head?”
“I see your meaning. You suspect I cannot trust you, that you might offer me a pig’s heart instead, but my people have ways of knowing. There is a signature to every life, in the blood, teeth and in the hair. What I desire is her essence, her soul if you will, that which makes her what she is, and so you must bring me the container in which the soul resides. You must bring me her heart.”  
“One last thing then . . . how old is she now?”
Zaibos eyed him accusingly.
“If she has gone into hiding, she is likely in disguise. If I am to go looking, should I ask for a twelve year old girl? Thirteen? Fourteen?”
“How should I know? I am not her nanny. Although I believe she has just flowered, so she must be fifteen, sixteen; to a barkeep’s eyes, it will make no difference.”  
Fifteen. Almost a child. 
“Besides,” Zaibos continued, “the greatest fool in the land could not mistake her for a peasant. No one who sees those eyes can fail to notice. One is turquoise, like the greater moon, and the other violet, like the lesser.”
“The Moon-Eyed Princess,” Eros murmured. “So what they sing of her is true? I thought it just a fanciful rumor.”
“Fanciful, yes, and accurate, much to her detriment.”
From the time he was old enough to hold a blade, Eros had been running “errands,” or so he would tell his mother. It started with a dog who liked to steal the butcher’s scraps, and evolved from there, to debtors and creditors, and to witnesses of crimes. Men were wretched things, undeserving of life, and women fared little better. It made his job all the more easy, which is why, for an innocent life, he charged a higher fee. But this princess was like no other quarry. If what he had heard was true, she was a paragon of virtue, her clemency legendary. And there was also the story of her illness. Not a heart in Tyrnael was unmoved by the young princess, a child of six, standing at Death’s door as the king turned mad with grief—and if the bard’s are to be believed—his hair turning white overnight. Whatever the truth, no man or woman was greater loved than the daughter of Solon. But if Eros could bury his pity to bash a hungry mongrel’s brain in with a rock, he could run this errand. The dog’s death put five silver in his pockets, enough to feed himself and his mother for a cycle. It was his way, and his mother was the only thing that mattered to him, all that he loved in the world, and for her, Eros would strangle an infant in the cradle.  
       
          
      
     

The Princess of Aenya: Chapter 2: Demacharon

When there is only the darkness, silence, I am comforted. There is peace in not remembering. But sometimes I go deep into the maelstrom, down into the abyss between realms. That is my dread, whenever exhaustion forces my eyes. 
It is not a dream. There is an awful clarity to every little thing. I could describe, if you were to ask me, the shape of each rock on that damnable plain. But at first I am only aware of dread, not merely the feeling of it, but a pervasive, palpable reality, like a knife in my being causing me to sweat and tremble. 
There is no sun in this land. No stars. No moons. What dim glow permits my sight to function, I cannot say. The sky is the wrong color, perhaps you could call it violet, the deepest shade one could fathom, but is in truth like nothing the eye can perceive. For a thousand-thousand leagues around me, there is only rock and gravel, bottomless trenches and distant mountains. Even in the most arid of deserts, there are cacti and lichen, worms and lizards, serpents crawling the earth. In this place, there is not a soul. I look for direction, some sign to lift my spirits, but am utterly lost. The terrain is without feature but for the hilly silhouettes on the horizon. Might those peaks promise better pastures, a city perhaps, a place where vagabonds gather? I wonder, holding fast to hope, and yet the way the mountains are arrayed, how they loop and twist at impossible angles, disturbs and disheartens me. 
Who am I? What is my purpose? How did I come to this unfinished creation, this place abandoned by gods? And how can I still breath where there is no vestige of life? At the fringes of my mind, my name teases me, but it is a long lost memory. I cannot even be certain as to the nature of my existence, whether man, woman, or other, or if, before this very moment, I ever lived at all. The only clue to my identity is a tiny wooden carving in my palm, a trireme the length of my forefinger, meticulously engraved with a battering ram and a double tier of oars flat against the hull. The standard etched into the lateen sails, the trident, is familiar to me also. Was I a sailor once? A captain? I only know that the ship is dear to me.
The carving is the one constant, for I sometimes find myself in rags or in the full regalia of a centurion, or else entirely naked. It matters little, for clothing is unsubstantial here, as is the flesh. My body is numb to cold, and though I have long to eat or drink, thirst and hunger are but wistful thoughts. Rocks tear across my soles, but there is no blood, no pain. I am a hollow vessel adrift in the waters of beyond. 
Solitude consumes me, and I long for escape, to expire entirely, to cease my tired and tormented being. I have fallen through all the layers of existence and can fall no greater depth, and still, in this remotest of hells, there is light. I cannot describe the nature of it, whether a sun or star or some lighthouse fire calling lost souls to hopeful shores, but dread and despair recede from it like the night shrinks from the day. The light is life. Hope. I cannot but follow it. 
For how long do I trek across that plain, a day, a year, a hundred-thousand years? There is no answer, for in this otherwhere, time does not exist. And yet, however great my travail, the light remains beyond reach. 
At last I come to a pen for goats and hens and other livestock. The fence is unremarkable as fences go, with rivets showing between the seams, but to me it is a work of exceeding beauty. Anything aside from rock and gravel is a sight for weary eyes. Even the earthly feel of it—the course cedar grain against my fingertips—gives waves of pleasure. Oddly, I wonder where the farmer must be and his animals. I stand awhile, delighting in my discovery, as the ethereal light continues to beckon. But I fear to leave that place, because it is a place, a memory, a tether to my childhood. 
Beyond the pen, shapes flit to and fro, inking the ground with elongated shadows. Only living things move about so, and whatever its manner, I think it of no consequence. To escape my loneliness, I would befriend a bogren, but the fence prevents my crossing. It stands to my thigh and yet I cannot climb or leap over it. Some force keeps me and does not let go. With every part of my being, I struggle against that barrier, until I surrender upon the railing, resting my palm against it, and the fence is suddenly behind me. It was the little wooden ship, my key, permitting me passage. 
The space beyond is choked with people. They press me should to shoulder, knocking me about as they bustle past. Some are dressed in rags, others in fine embroidered silks or gleaming mail, and more than a few are utterly naked. Paupers and merchants and soldiers, high-born aristocrats and priests and kings, they are all mixed like fish in a fishmongers net. I recognize the garb of the Hedonian, a man from my own city, and a great many from Thetis, Thalassar, Northendell and Shemselinihar. But an even greater number are foreign to me, whether races from beyond the map, or extinct peoples from the pages of history. 
They do not seem to notice me, nor do they speak to or acknowledge their own in any way. Here is a continent-sized population—a host too vast to measure—and yet they are blind to themselves, each man and woman and child a stranger. Their eyes are soulless, lost and bewildered, but some power drives them, causing them to swarm about like gnats, searching, eternally searching. It is a placid mob, a procession of the mad, and a thought seizes me with terror, that I must count myself among them, that I am surely no different.  
Again, with the talisman in my hand, I find my way. The ship is my identity, my purpose, my very existence. Holding fast to it, I push through the mob, shouting and beating them with my fists, but my blows do not sway their desperate course. No matter, I am determined to persist, to not become one of them. The light is my salvation and the ship my passage.
Guided through that sea of faces, I find them at last, and know myself at once. Ages ago, I leapt from a high place, and the ground raced up to meet me, and I found myself in this dreadful place. Now they are within my reach, the two I came in search of, the people for whom I surrendered everything. She is in the same black tunic and shawl. Our son has her hand, and she is leading him through that awful gathering, despondent and lost and broken. Her hair is ashen and her face is like a drowned woman. The boy at her side, despite his age, shares her deathly aspect. 
I push bodies from my path, reaching, screaming their names lest she move away and is lost to me again, but she cannot hear. Fighting for every step, I grip her by the shoulder, forcing her around to see my face.     
“Niobe!”
She stares and stares, as if through a window, offering no reply.
“Don’t you recognize your husband, Niobe? It’s me . . .!” 
I tilt her chin, so that she might gaze fully into my eyes, but she is dead to the world. The boy holds to his mother out of some habit, I realize, like the fingers of a corpse stiffened about some precious remnant from life. There is no tenderness in their clasping hands, for he does not know his mother, nor she him. And the thought occurs to me how the two came to be joined for all eternity, yet strangers to one another. Before my fall, Niobe came seeking our son, and after finding him forgot herself and was lost—lost like the others. Surely, I am to follow . . . but do not accept the truth of it. 
I shake her, lovingly, angrily. “Say something, Niobe! Speak to me, I beg you.”
And I do plead with her, and embrace her as if she might become immaterial and slip away, and still she does not know me. On my knees, sobbing and quaking, a terrible certainty takes root in my mind. It is imperative that they know me. If they do not speak my name, I will soon forget it, and by not knowing it will cease to exist. 
Surrendering hope for my wife, I turn to my son. How often has he run into my arms? For how many countless nights have I cradled his head and heard him whisper that he loves me? Surely, he will remember, gods be good, let him remember!
“Astor . . . look upon me . . . look kindly upon your dear father, so that I know that you know me.” But he only stares, his face contorted, as though searching for a memory, and at last speaks not a word. 
I can feel his wrist, slender as a sapling, and yet there are no veins, no pulse—he is just as I found him all those many years ago, the day my Niobe came down to this place in spirit. I touch his side and recoil. The gash is still there, from when the creature spilled his entrails on the sand, and I reach for my face, finding my own scarred face, the reminder the monster left me, of the life I failed to save. He had been playing by the shore that morning, playing with his . . .
“Wait!” I cry, “the token!” Pressing the wooden ship into his palm, I watch as he ponders it and looks at me and then his ship. It was my gift, given to him on the day I shipped out for war. He loves his toy, is never without it, a reminder of his absent father. He will remember the ship and remember me. I do not doubt it. 
My son does not speak, but I can see the change in his eyes, a spark of recognition. Niobe is also beginning to see me, and I come to her aid, recounting memories, from when our lips first touched on the shores of Sarnath, to our wedding day when we danced on gold painted litters, to the evening when our newborn son first wailed and trembled in my hands. Slowly but surely, they are coming to know me. We will exist together, even in this horrid place, never in solitude.
But in piecing together my identity, I become recognizable to others I knew in life. Like vultures to carrion, they swarm about me, whispering awful things in my ears. Shame falls on my heart like an anchor, and everywhere I look, there are faces—faces without bodies—growling and hissing and murmuring. This one I slew in battle when he was very young. Another was unable to pay his taxes and so I had his home burned to ash. Still another lost his sons at my commands. They are pulling me now, tearing my clothing and hair. I try to fight them, but am overwhelmed, outnumbered. Hands pin my arms and legs. Niobe is calling to me, weeping for mercy, as is my son, Astor. They know my name, but not my misdeeds, and those I have wronged will not let me go to them. I am dragged away from my family, watching my wife and son shrink from my eyes, framed by those horrid faces. Fingers fill my nostrils like worms, bury my mouth, dig out my eyes. Having given my token to my son, I am dragged back across the fence, to the blasted plain of the damned. My eyes are gone now, yet still I can see it, somehow I can see the light. The faces press upon mine, enveloping me like the mouth of some demon, swallowing me whole, and in that last moment I recognize the source. A city. By the gods, the light is a city! 
I do not fear to die as other men do. It is not the great mystery that causes me to dread my eternal sleep, but the certainty of that undiscovered country, in knowing what awaits me. 


BETA READERS for "The Princess of Aenya"

I am calling all beta readers to help make “The Princess of Aenya” the greatest book it can be. Similar to a video game play tester, a beta reader helps authors as they work, reading chapters and giving feedback. The author can then consider the feedback and make corrections.

Sounds nice, you say, but what’s in it for me? Well, just imagine you were a beta reader for Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games? Imagine, a decade from now, as you are sitting in a movie theater waiting for The Princess of Aenya to start, you can turn to your friends and say, “You know, I helped this thing get made. I was there from the beginning. Originally, Nick Alimonos was going to ____________, but I suggested that he _____________.” How cool would that be? Aside from impressing your friends, give me feedback until the end of the book, and you can see your name in print in the acknowledgments page! You’ll be immortal! What’s better than that? OK, if the promise of immortality seems dubious, at least you’ll get a sneak peak into the next Aenya story, and that in itself is reward enough, methinks.

So what do I have to do, you ask? Well, not anyone can be a beta reader. As a beta reader, you will have exclusive access to sensitive material, stuff that might end up for free on the Internet if I am not careful, so there is a vetting process. To apply for this honored position, simply fill out the form below (you can cut and paste it or just retype it):

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The Princess of Aenya: Chapter 1: Radia

Radia loved to watch the morning creep from beneath the moon, the sunlight washing the dark gray shadows from the mountains. Foothills glittered with places she longed to visit, and as the day continued to spread, the familiar sights of her city emerged, one by one, from the gloom of night. Astride the Compass Tower, a thousand feet above her slumbering subjects, she watched the world unfurl like few ever could. Tyrnael radiated like spokes of gold, its spires rising like lotus flowers, its terraced hills green with moss and hanging vines and tall grasses. Arches moved between each structure and beyond the city, reaching impossibly outward. Once, the bridges served to unite the surrounding kingdoms, with the Compass Tower at its hub, but those days were long forgotten and the framework of steel and marble fallen into disrepair. Tyrnael was a city of unearthly beauty and wonder, if only one did not look at the cracks. 
And all of it is mine, she reminded herself again. But the enormity of that truth failed her imagination. How could she rule anything when all her life, things were done for her? She did not know to prepare meals or sew and without Larissa’s aid, she was helpless to lace her own bodice. Not that she wanted to. Her queenly raiment was heavy and stiff and stymied the blood to her limbs. Most mornings, she could scarcely touch her toes, but dressing maintained the hierarchy, helped her subjects to know their place. Or so her advisers impressed upon her time and again. A lady of royal birth cannot be seen naked like some commoner! Of course, she never took advice from her advisers.
Everything was different now. Her gown was translucent white samite, the color of foam after a crashing wave, inlaid with golden thread and beads of pearl and lapis lazuli that shimmered like a starry night. Larissa had the good sense to match the gown with the late queen’s tiara, which shone from Radia’s forehead in pure platinum. What would I do without her? Today of all days, Radia needed to look the part, 54th descendent of the Zo, ruler of Tyrnael, princess of Aenya. Her youth spent frolicking naked in the gardens, diving into fountains and being chased by tutors, was over. She was fifteen and a woman, and her father was dead.  
Radia gathered her hem in fistfuls and moved away from the bailey, the silhouette of her bare feet showing through the fabric. She playfully followed the arrow etched into the granite floor like a child on a balance beam. Every arm ended in the same rune indicating south. As sovereign of the world, Radia stood atop the planet, at its pole. She was true north. 
There was no roof above her, only the sun and turquoise moon and fading galaxies. A curved wall and a crescent of steps protected her from the chilling altitude. Her throne rose like a spire, the highest point for more than a hundred miles—a symbol of authority—but she could never imagine herself, or any other person, upon that chair. It was her father’s place. With each breath, she could feel his absence, a gnawing emptiness in the heart of her being she could not shake. Now more than ever, she needed his counsel, courage and wisdom. He had always been around to give just the right words. Though innocent to the ways of the world, Radia was certain of right action from wrong, good from evil. She knew it from the many stories her father told and the books he bequeathed her. Heroes of old, batals of legend, lived in her imagination, giving her guidance. No hero would allow the kingdom to continue down its current path and neither would she.
Radia climbed to the top of her dais, the accouterments of her station heavier than ever, the train of her gown, thrice the length of her body, spilling down the steps and across the floor like a carpet. To sit where her distant forefathers’ buttocks had rested for untold aeons, felt wrong somehow, forbidden. Royal butts. She giggled at the thought of it. Beneath all that fancy clothing, they were all the same, human. Her throne was quarried from amethyst crystal, from the core of the planet, and was hard against her shoulders. She resisted the urge to tuck her legs in and sit sideways, but the arms were too far apart and she felt herself sliding forward. Whoever sat here comfortably? Were the Zo made up of giants? Everything was built to exude power and authority, she knew, but could she project power from the throne like her father did? After fidgeting some more, she managed a stately position, with elbow tucked in and backbone arched and her chin up. 
“Father, help me.” She said it for his ghost to hear, and with her heart throbbing in her throat, reached for the topaz switch in the armrest.
Archers gathered like silver birds along the periphery wall, up and around the spiraling stairwell. Their composite longbows reminded her of goose wings. Facing the throne, rising from a wide berth of steps, a contingent of knights flanked her in two columns, their sarissas swaying high above the ib feather plumes in their helms, the unicorn sigil of Tyrnael gleaming from their cuirasses. It was her praetorian guard. The sixteen knights swore fealty at her coronation only weeks before, the last and only time she sat the throne. It made her ill at ease that men she hardly knew should offer their lives in such a way. At the very least, she could learn something about them, if they had wives or children, but she was never good at matching names to faces. The praetorians were an elite few, carefully selected among the tallest and strongest and indistinctly handsome. Only one was difficult to look upon, perhaps the most hideous man Radia had ever seen. His face was creased, like a sheet of papyrus crumpled and straightened again, and when he carried his helmet under his arm, there was not a single follicle to be seen on his scalp. When she first met him at her coronation, all she could do was stare at the scar dividing his eye and lip. She could not fathom why he had yet to fix his face, but he seemed oblivious to it, to how his ugliness disturbed her. Why ever would he choose to become my protector, looking like that, and whoever was so foolish to appoint him?
Her brother was last to enter. His mere presence made her palms sweat and grip the edges of the throne. When they were children, they played at pretend, and she may even have loved him then. But even as a boy, he loved to pull the wings from the butterflies, slowly and methodically, watching and delighting in the agony he was causing. She used to cry and threaten him with father, but the king only listened sympathetically, taking no action. When his cruelty evolved from torturing insects to hammering frogs, she had had enough of him, and what love she might have felt waned to nothing. When I am queen, I will see you pay, she remembered herself thinking. Now father was dead and she had the power. So why did she not feel powerful?   
To anyone looking upon him, Radia’s brother was a monster. From horn to heel, he was chains and iron the color of rust and blood, and he bristled with spikes like some demonic urchin, with pikes that protruded from the sides of his helm like horns. His mask gave the impression of a face, with a nose and absences for eyes through which he might look out. Radia understood the need for a soldier to shield himself, but war had never been known in Tyrnael, not for a thousand-thousand years. His readiness for battle was unnerving and yet it would not have surprised her if she caught him sleeping in armor. The cacophony it made, as each metal plate grated with another, was an assault to the ears, and a further insult to her rule as he marched before the throne. Zaibos exuded the power she failed to gather, even as he fell to one knee before her. 
I must not be intimidated. “You may remove your helmet,” she managed, without a tremor in her voice. 
He tugged at his horns, but what emerged from underneath the mask was just as fierce. A perpetual scowl was etched across his jaw, as if his face were made of stone, and his eyebrows were dark and bristly, like dead caterpillars above deep set, iron hard pupils. The hair that spilled over his shoulders was black as pitch, and about his chin and cheeks, a beard grew like a thorn bush. 
Radia suddenly became conscious of her small, girlish features. Her mismatched eyes, one turquoise, the other violet, stared sixteen-fold from the praetorians’ rounded helms; her cheekbones were framed by golden braids—not blonde—but gold. Brother and sister looked nothing alike, but they were not of the same blood. 
“Why did you call me here, sister? I am very busy . . .”
“I am your sister, Zaibos, but you will address me properly. ‘Your Grace’ or ‘your Highness’ will do, but not ‘sister,’ not here, not when I am on my throne.” Her voice was small and was swallowed by the space. She sounded more like a songbird than a monarch.
“Very well,” he groaned, adding, with a measure of contempt, “Your Grace.” 
“Seeing as you are busy, I . . .” she started, No, stupid, use more forceful language! “Tell me all what you have been doing.”
Doing, Your Grace?” His eyes were steel, were archers taking aim. 
“I know you have been doing things . . . taking distant forays into the dark hemisphere and . . . I hear rumors of battle, that you return with blood on your armor.”
“I act upon my duties, Your Grace, those bestowed to me by your father.”
“And what duties might those be?”
“Protecting the kingdom, your kingdom, of course.” 
“From whom? We have no enemies . . . Tyrnael has not known war since before the Cataclysm!”
“That is precisely the matter. We have become a tired and stagnant people. Tyrnael was once known throughout the entire world. Now we are forgotten, existing as a myth, in songs. The greatness our people once knew has been denied too long. Empires grow out of conquest. If we go on as we have, hiding behind our mountains, without the conquered to fill our bloodlines, our civilization will continue to decay. And so, as I told you before, I am doing my duty, protecting the realm.”
“Do not speak to me as if I am a child, brother . . . I’ve read the histories, but we need not go to war to be great again. There are other ways . . . we can send emissaries to the Outside, make ourselves known again, make friends.”   
His armor rattled with laughter. “Friends? I fear you are much too young, sweet sister. If we open our gates to the world, the world will come in like a flood, rob us of our secrets. They have always sought what we possess. Why else have our people hidden for so long? If we had only the numbers to fill our ranks, to build true armies, I’d welcome the chance to defend our borders. But alas, Your Grace, a child is born only once in a cycle if we are fortunate, and the rate is decelerating.”
At fifteen, Radia could count on her hands the number of girls she knew her age. Larissa used to tell awful stories of mothers losing their newborns to theft, and it always upset her, as if her handmaiden was telling lies. Childbirth was a miracle in Tyrnael. But that could not justify the cruelties of war. 
“How do you do this, then? Make conquests without armies?”
Zaibos was standing, his helmet under his arm, clanking in his armor. “Alliances have been made. The dark hemisphere,” he explained, “there are denizens of the sunless lands, bogrens and horg of countless number, who seek to sate their bloodlust.”
Horg and bogren? Those were the names of inhuman things, a product of nightmares, fitting company for someone like her brother. “You can’t—it is forbidden!” 
“It was your father, the king . . .”
“My father would never!” she cried. “He loved peace and compassion, something you’ve never understood! These actions have nothing to do with the kingdom, only you, your hunger for cruelty!” 
Radia was standing without realizing it, shaking with rage and fear, waving her finger at him. Father would never have done that. A princess should be composed, speak firmly but never rashly or in anger. She was still only a child. Everyone could see it, her brother most of all. If only there was a kind face amid the masses, someone who loved her, she might find a measure of courage in it. Larissa had pleaded to stand beside her, but Radia was too stubborn to listen, fearing that keeping her handmaiden close would make her seem weak. She rejected her father’s most trusted adviser as well. Nessus was kindly and wise, but always stressed patience and moderation, when what was needed here was bold action. Now, Radia wanted nothing but to end this ordeal, return to her books and dolls. She could not even find the strength to match eyes with her brother, focusing on her feet instead, dismissing him with a tremble. 
She waited, battening down the heart in her chest like a sail in a windstorm, but to her dismay, there was no sound of retreat, no reaction to her command. The court was frozen in place. Zaibos did not move and his archers stood like stony sentinels. Did they not see her gesture? Would she lose face repeating it? Or was this a sign of open betrayal? 
“No. I am not one of your handmaidens, sister, to be sent away so easily.” His tone was like the hiss of a snake when it threatens to bite.
“I command here, Zaibos, not you. Am I not the blood of the Zo? Am I not True North?” She was pleading now, not with him, but with the others in the room.
“Titles do not confer loyalty, Your Grace. There is a high price to pay, blood and sacrifice on the field of battle. My men die for me, as I would for them. Honor is our bond. But what do you know of such things? The power of Tyrnael lies with me. I command the army. What do you command? Cooks and seamstresses?”
Radia had prepared endlessly for this day, rehearsed every word, and yet she stood paralyzed, robbed of speech. Her pretty gown and seat of amethyst meant nothing. She could see it in the eyes of her protectors, their doubt, and dread crawled into her mind. “This is . . . high treason . . . Zaibos! Be dismissed or I’ll . . .” 
“You’ll what? Have me hanged? Beheaded? Drawn and quartered? Does your compassionate heart have the strength to enforce your dictates? I think not. And yet you cannot accuse a man of treason without carrying out the sentencing. You are weak, my sister, and innocent.” 
Spurred by the insult, Radia found her courage. “Guards! Take him to the dungeons!” But even as the command escaped her lips, she knew she had made a terrible mistake. Zaibos donned his helmet, becoming the monster again, and no one dared move against him. 
With his back to the throne, he addressed his archers, the voice from his faceplate sounding eerily. “I had hoped for a peaceful transition of power, no angry mobs to contend with, no rebellions to quell, but now you’ve forced my hand.”
By the Ancients! He is going to kill me . . . She had always known him to be cruel, and this frightened her, but she never imagined dying by his hand. Did their childhood memories mean nothing? No . . . he is a monster, nothing like my father, or me. Sensing the threat at last, her praetorians moved into action, joining together with their sarissas thrust outward like an immense morningstar.
Zaibos was undeterred, walking against them, armed only with the poison of his tongue. “Who among you is prepared to die for this girl? She slumbers here in this tower on silken sheets and sups from silver goblets every night . . . and what have her people become? We are like lichen under a rock, living in the shadows of past glories, and she would see to it that it ever be so, that we continue to bend the knee and serve, until her children come of age and the cycle continues again—again into eternity! I say no more! The progeny of the Zo ends here. Follow me into a new age of Aenya, or do your duty, spill your blood here and now for this undeserving brat.”
Radia’s guards did not flinch, not until Zaibos raised his gauntlet, and the chamber echoed with the sound of drawn bows. Knights broke rank in turn, until the phalanx fell apart, and a mere six stood before the dais, torn between duty and self-preservation. 
Only one spoke out. “I am.”
“You are what?” the monster barked, towering a head above him and every other knight, but the guard with the scarred face did not step away.
“I answered your question. I am prepared to die for this girl. There is more to life than death.”
“Then you are a fool!” Zaibos blood-red gauntlet came down and hundreds of arrows reached into the sky, perched in mid-air, and dropped with sudden terrible force. 
Men were dying at her feet in twos and threes, clutching at the seems of their armor,  their eyes wild with terror. Feathered shafts grew from their knees and throats and from the open grills of their helms. Her guards were young and naive of battle. Praetorian was a position of high honor, but their training was ceremony, more dance than combat. No historian could recount when blood was last shed in the Compass Tower, and now the unicorn sigils of her praetorians were lined in red and blood was pooling across the floor, staining the hem of her gown. A second volley of arrows arched into the sky, dimming the sun, and not a man remained to shield her from them. After only fifteen years, Radia’s life was to be cut short, less than a tenth her father’s age. She closed her eyes to welcome the end. 
I hope it doesn’t hurt much. Don’t scream. Don’t weep. Give him nothing. 
Arrowheads were chiming like rain on a plated roof, and she waited, with no place to run or hide. My dress will be all bloody, and Larissa worked so hard to ready it . . . 
But death did not come. Nor pain. When she dared to look again, the view was saturated with the scarred visage of her last remaining guardian, the only man she had ever seen stand up to her brother, and he was groping at her thighs—no, that wasn’t right—he was shielding her with his own body, his armor. 
“I should be dead . . .” she murmured, checking herself for holes to be certain she wasn’t.
“You’re not out of this yet, your Highness.” He played with the switches on the armrest until finding the one he needed. The throne started to turn into the floor with the both of them on it. Everything was spinning. Stone masonry was passing over her eyes. They were in a long vertical shaft and dropping quickly. When the throne settled into place, dim orbs of light played with their shadows. They were in a blue room large enough for two to stand abreast.
“Are you hurt?” 
Radia could hardly think or hear. What she witnessed only moments before dominated her vision. “No, but what of you? You should be—”
“The throne was built by the Zo,” he remarked, “for just such an occasion, no doubt. There must be a field within range of it, or we’re both just terribly lucky . . .” 
Before she knew why, tears ran hot across her cheeks. “Those men . . . they’re dead because of me.”
“They did what was expected of them, Your Highness,” he replied. “Now you must do the same.”
Her heart was a bubbling cauldron of confusion, dread and pity. “Wh-What’s that?” 
“Run.”
But Radia did not leave her chair. “I can’t . . .”
“They won’t be long,” he said, pulling the longsword from his belt and moving forward, as if to gut her. “We’ll have to be quick about it.” He worked the blade through the fine muslin fabric. “You’ll forgive me, your Majesty.”
Radia could not watch. It was her great-great-grandmother’s dress, but when he was through it, she could feel the air on her knees, the freedom of motion. “That’s good.”
He nabbed her by the wrists, harder than she would have liked, and dragged her through an open archway. A flight of steps led up and another set spiraled downward. She could hear the stomping of boots above, the clank of armor, the rattle of arrows in quivers. 
“By the Ancients, they’re coming to kill me!”
He gave only a scowl and loosened her shoulder from its socket. Walls pushed on them from both sides as they took to their stairs. The descent was steep and narrow and slight, with just enough space to set her foot.
“I think they hear us!” she hissed.
“Be quiet, will you . . . !”
Radia stole back her arm, which was already sore. This guard of hers acted nothing like the heroes in her fairy tales. “Are you rescuing or kidnapping me?”
Again, he brandished his longsword, as if to attack her. She followed the length of steel to the line of marching boots crossing the stairwell like some monstrous centipede. In that same moment, an archer poked his head under to spot them, and a volley of arrows ricocheted overhead, clacking and clattering like hailstones. 
He grabbed her again, moving faster than she thought he could in mailed knees and greaves, traversing the steps in twos and threes. Even in her small bare feet, she had difficulty keeping pace. “We need to reach the bottom before they do. If we give them a clear shot, we’re done for.”
“Who are you?” her voice echoed, “and why are you helping me?”
His silence was infuriating, and if not for the threat of death, she would have refused to move unless he gave an answer. 
They continued on, her right hand pressing the inner wall to keep from toppling over her tattered hem, down and down until the whole of the tower opened into a vast hollow. The stairwell curved for hundreds of feet to the bottom and went up just as far to the throne room. Seized by vertigo, she reached for a support that was not there, finding only a sudden empty drop. Even her guardian slowed pace, moving with deliberation. They circled the tower as they descended, watching the archers chase precariously across the other side, looking like insects where Radia had been only minutes before. A few took aim, but their footing was too narrow and the updraft carried their arrows every which way. 
The base of the tower led to an inner courtyard. Sunlight from a domed ceiling streamed across the walls, gilding the granite frieze-work, the sculpted planets and the replicas of cities, the great orators and scientists and heroes immortalized in stone. It was a marvel of antiquity from the Age of the Zo, but there was no time to wonder at it.
Beyond the courtyard, they passed through the pleasure gardens, through citrus groves and stone ponds, under the cover of grapes growing from a trellised ceiling. Fairie butterflies with luminous azure wings, some the size of her palms, fluttered about their ears, as pod flowers with purple and pink buds swayed with anger as they went by, threatening to knock them over. Radia could spend days in the gardens reading, swimming, or chasing the phosphorescent fauna, without stuffy tutors demanding stuffy clothes, but such frolic would never come again, she realized, nor would she sleep again in her own soft bed, or know the company of . . .
“Wait . . . Larissa!”
“Your Highness, we must hurry—”
“I go nowhere without my haindmaiden!”
“I did not swear an oath to protect your Highness’ handmaiden!” he growled, reminding her of a dog, an old, ugly, scarred dog. “Follow me!”
“I won’t and you cannot make me.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Am I not True North, am I not . . .”
“OK OK, where is this girl of yours?” 
“In my chambers, of course, where else—?”
“Are you insane? A hundred men are coming for us both, and you want to go to the one place they’ll most expect us?”
“If you wish to protect me, you’ll simply have to do it there.”
“Where?” he barked.
Holding the threads of her gown, she skipped to the edge of the enclosed garden, through an arcade of jasper, tourmaline and chalcedony, and out to a postern door. Another rumble echoed through the walls, succeeded by the pitter-patter of water droplets. “That isn’t the army—it’s a storm!” he remarked, pushing through to the outside. 
The sky was somber gray and the stones below were slick and glistening. The rain was falling hard and harder and sideways with the wind. “The sun was ablaze this morning . . .” he said with a bit of confusion, “. . . the gods must be smiling on us. This will give us cover, skew their arrows at least, should they find us.” 
Radia followed him and secured the door. It would be some time, she figured, before her brother’s men could determine where she’d gone. 
The ledge led directly to a one-man bridge. It seemed to be suspended in air, with nothing but sky on either side, crossing high above hills and waterfalls and tiled rooftops. A great distance off, at the opposite end, stood a lone minaret like a lance in the turquoise moon. 
“What are you waiting for?” she asked.
He stared over the brink, as if measuring the distance to the bottom, which shifted with the motion of the clouds. “There has to be another way.”
“To my bedchambers? It’s right there,” she said, pointing, “in that tower.”
He took a wary step, clutching the railing firmly as he stepped onto the bridge. Radia paced behind him, lifting her cheeks to the rain to take the brunt of it, letting it rush down her neck and clothes and drip from her braids. It was invigorating, empowering. She loved the rain like a sunflower, but not enough to stand and be soaked forever. “Go!” she cried, shoving him. 
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“Wait . . . you’re not afraid of . . . Are you afraid of heights?” 
“I do not prefer them.”
“You faced off against my brother and his army and now you shrink before a bridge?”
“Men I can handle. The ground is another matter.”
“I walk this way every morning, noon and evening, as does Larissa. Now let’s make haste before they find us!”
The royal bedchamber was in order. Frilly, her swan, drifted lazily in its fountain pool, and behind the silk partitions of the room, her bed was straightened with linens newly washed and pressed, and her collection of dolls and perfumes was neatly arrayed, and her books were all in order in their shelves, except the one she was reading, the fairytale collection with the unicorn seal on the cover. Larissa, you’re so good to me, how can I leave you behind?
But as Radia twirled giddily about the room, their predicament somehow far from her mind, her praetorian paced to and fro like a hunted beast. “So where is she?” 
“I don’t know,” she said, running a jeweled comb through her hair, “maybe the stables.”
Maybe the stables! You said she would be here!”
Radia recoiled, frightened by his sudden temper. “I said no such thing . . . I sometimes find her here is all. But she does love the stable ponies. We might find her there.”
“Princess . . . for the sake of your life and mine, we must depart this castle immediately. Do you understand what that means? Immediately! No more detours!”
“If I’m never coming back, let me at least pack a few things, change out of this outfit, which you managed to ruin, by the way.” She tucked her book under one arm and reached for a small box encrusted with gemstones. The lock was a gold heart clasped by a dagger. Book and box went into a satchel, and she then proceeded to fight with her great-great grandmother’s gown, but the lace was too tight about the waist and held her like a giant’s fist. “Praetorian, if you would come here a moment . . .”
“Princess, please, we haven’t time for this,” he argued, “we must—”
BANG! 
Nothing could ever threaten her here, she had thought, not where she was born, not where father had sat when she was ill reading her fairytales. She had not been able to imagine life ending where it began, and yet she could hear them beyond the walls, men clamoring to run their swords into her heart, and the illusion of her sanctuary shattered with the sound. 
The praetorian pushed furniture against the door, but already it was splintering, throwing intricately patterned wood chips into the pool, ruffling Frilly’s feathers.
“Is there another way out?” he cried, “a trap door?”
“The mirrors!”
Radia showed him to an octagonal dressing room. Tall, oval mirrors stood on each side. He saw himself, a scowling, hairless head with a long scar cutting through his eye and lip. A young girl stood at his side, with hair like spun gold and eyes of different colors, turquoise and violet, so much like the moons. 
He shook his head. “What is this? This is a—a waste of time!”
“Have you lost all your faith? Look closer.”
“I see nothing.” 
“Only our reflections,” she answered, “see?” It was true. There was no wall or curtain behind them, nothing to indicate their surroundings but a blurred, glassy surface. 
In the other room, a door was coming to pieces, chairs were clacking, tables were squeaking and groaning, and pottery and crystal were being shattered. Someone fell into the fountain with an obscenity, and Radia’s bird died with an awkward squawk. 
“Princess, I’ve failed you. I see now there is nowhere to run . . . was nowhere to go.” He drew his sword from its sheath and moved toward her, his eyes pained.
“No,” she whispered, “you haven’t, not yet. And you can call me Radia.” She offered her hand, not as a superior, but a friend. “Tell me your name, praetorian?”
“I am called Demacharon.”
The soldiers were in view now, their plumed helms bristling like angry hens, their arrows nocked. Radia gave them a smile and pulled on his arm, and together they fell through the mirror. 
It was like falling suddenly and unexpectedly through a trap door, like having your mind and stomach exchange places, but the moment went quickly. Radia was on the ground beside her protector, bent double, gasping, choking, retching. As much as she wanted to empty her bowels, only long lines of spittle dangled from her lips, as she had been too nervous that morning to take breakfast. Nessus, her tutor, once explained how the Zo traveled throughout on Aenya, and even between stars, using portals. Hand-in-hand with him, she once jumped such a mirror, but the unexpected disorientation and sickening feeling that followed dissuaded her from ever trying it again.   
“You should have warned me about that,” Demacharon grumbled, finding his footing like a drunkard.
“Sorry . . . I didn’t think there was time.”
“Where are we?”
The floor was rough hewn block covered in hay, with crab grass and other weeds growing from between the cracks. Fires burned from sconces, throwing long shadows about the room, and glittering in the oval mirror at their backs. In the adjacent hall, they met with rows of halberds, swords and spears, and shields in piles, and men made of straw.
“Why does it smell so foul?” 
“This is the armory,” he answered. “You couldn’t have chosen better unless you wanted to visit Zaibos’ personal chambers.”
“Hey—I didn’t pick this place—every mirror has its twin! We end up where the other is. I didn’t know it would be here.”
“You should have said so before,” he said, smashing the silvered glass with the pommel of his sword. “Now they cannot follow.” 
“Is there any way out of here?”
He examined the rack, weighing the gladius in his hand. “Of course, but without anyone seeing us . . . there’s the rub. This might not be entirely fruitless, however.” 
Radia watched him mull over their options. It was a strange thing to put her faith—her very life—in the hands of a stranger. And yet, what choice did she have? There was no one to trust but Larissa and what good was a handmaiden at such a time? Poor Larissa. She could only hope that no harm come to her, but knowing Zaibos, that hope was faint. 
Demacharon pulled off his cuirass. His upper body was discolored in many places, and it took some time for Radia to recognize the spots as bruises. There were lines through his chest and side and stomach also, marks drawn by weapons. She could only imagine how such wounds must have hurt him, and her spine began to tingle, and her body grew numb. 
As he searched among greaves and gorgets and sallets, she reached out, gently touching him. The skin on his shoulder was raised in the shape of a trident. “What is that? Did they—did someone brand you? Like a horse?”
“It’s nothing,” he said, donning a breastplate of boiled leather, “a memento from another life.” He strapped the gladius to his hip beside the longsword, and turned to her, pressing a dirk into her palm. “If something should happen to me, do not hesitate to use this.”
“A knife? I don’t think I could ever—”
Voices filled the room and Radia knew they were no longer alone. There was no place to hide or to run. Demacharon tightened his belt and walked into the common room, where a contingent of soldiers awaited them. 
Eight surrounded them, weapons in hand, and a young man stepped forward. He was uncommonly handsome, even for a soldier, and the unicorn emblazoned across his torso galloped in the torchlight. 
“Did you think you could escape us, traitor? We have men posted at every exit and mirror. Hand over the princess and the king will make your death a painless one.”
“What a generous offer, Captain Sly.” Demacharon slid his longsword from its sheath. “How could I pass it up?”
“Wait . . .!” Radia cried. “Traitor? How can this man be a traitor? He saved my life! He is the only one loyal to me.”
“You have been misled, your Highness,” the captain replied. “Alas, you are young and naive, and could not have known better. You are not to be blamed.”
She stood between the two men, trying to look tall, but she was short for her age, and barefoot. “What are you going on about?” 
“Did you truly believe you were being rescued? That this man—this man—an admitted outsider, would risk his life for yours? The world does not work this way, princess. This is not one of your fairytales. No one gives his all unless there is something to gain, and a princess of Tyrnael is no chimney sweep’s daughter, no, you are a jewel among women. The crown on your head alone is worth his weight in gold!”
She snatched the tiara from her head, tossing it to the floor where it rolled out of sight. “Is it true?” she said, turning to Demacharon. “Are you a stranger?” But she knew the answer before asking. Why did he look older than her father on his deathbed, yet move like someone half his age? And why did he have trouble pronouncing his words—a detail she had not noticed while fleeing for her life—if the language was not new to him? It all made sense now.
Demacharon lowered his sword. “It is true I was not born in Tyrnael, but I am sworn to you, the true heir, not the half-breed monster who would call himself king.” 
“The throne is his birthright,” the captain rejoined, “after all, he is eldest born.”
Radia could feel her cheeks boiling with rage, a rage that came in the face of blatant lies. “Zaibos is not of my blood!” she cried. “His father was not my father! He is the usurper, the traitor!”
“Politics aside . . . our liege has taken the throne for the betterment of the empire, but does not wish harm upon his own kin. He told me so himself.” 
“I may be young, but I’m no fool! ” she answered. “I heard my brother’s words! He intends to kill me! Shot arrows at me!”
“Not at you, your Highness. If we had wished you dead, you would be. Think about it, a hundred arrows came your way, and miraculously you were unharmed. It was the conspirators who were executed, your praetorian guard, led by this man whom you fancy a hero. We suspected the plot from the day he requested the position. Otherwise, we never would have allowed him near you. Forgive us for the charade, but it was necessary to uncover the truth. When this man came forward to speak, we knew our own people were involved, that they meant to steal you away to the South, to lands beyond the Crown. Come with us now, and King Zaibos promises you will sleep safely tonight in your own bed.”
“No,” said Radia. “He is an honorable man. I can . . . sense it.”
The captain raised his blade. “If you will not surrender peacefully, you will be forced to watch him die!” 
The two men came together faster than Radia could have imagined. Swords flashed, painting the air silver, ringing deadly music. Sly seemed sure of himself, dancing around her praetorian, lunging and parrying more swiftly. Demacharon, all the while, retreated against the wall, defending blow after blow. 
“I always admired your way with a blade whenever we sparred. Though I never trusted you. A foreigner cannot be trusted.” 
Demacharon pedaled backward into the narrow recess of the hall as the captain pressed and taunted and mocked, his longsword flying wide, chipping at the masonry, raining dust on them both. Her champion seemed to be weakening, and Radia feared for his life.
“Tired, old man? I can do this all day.” 
There was a sudden, somber look in Demacharon’s face that startled her, a darkness she had not yet seen. “You’ve never killed a man, have you? Never watched a man’s eyes as the life ebbs out of him . . . ”
“Wh-What does that—?”
“It means you’re green, boy, hesitant. You can’t cut me down because you don’t want to. It takes a part of you. Me? I’ve killed my share, much younger than you, watched men die before you were born. And I have nothing to lose.” 
There was an edge in his voice, enough to make the captain hesitate, and in that instant Demacharon lunged forward, embracing him. Radia was suddenly afraid for them both. She had witnessed the horror of men felled at her feet and did not wish to relive it again. In her most authoritative voice, she demanded, pleaded for peace, stopping short of throwing herself on Demacharon’s arm, but when he released the captain, she could see the blood flowing and the red stained gladius in his other hand. The boy’s face beaded with sweat and the color rushed out of him. Mirrored in his eyes, she could see the disbelief and confusion. Radia watched him shudder and grow cold and his pain became her own. She moved a hand to her nostrils to staunch the flow, her own blood spilling over her fingers, across her lip and chin. “Not again,” she heard herself saying, “not now . . .”
Demacharon was calling her name, but his voice was a distant echo. The boy was dead and she was falling beside him, down and down into the dark spaces between worlds. 


  

Fan Mail: Collin Stoltz

 

After publishing The Dark Age of Enya in 2004, a number of readers were kind enough to send me their enthusiastic comments. One fan, Mel Dyer, went so far as to send me an actual Hallmark card. Thanks, Mel! Fan mail is a crucial element to helping me do my job. It not only pushes me to continue writing, but also allows me a glimpse into readers’ heads, to see what they respond well to, so I can better shape my stories in ways people will enjoy. The things that resonate with readers often surprise me. When I get enough letters like these, I will make a dedicated Fan Mail page, because every fan deserves something back after giving me their time and attention. But it was really this guy, Collin, who so impressed me with his beautifully written letter, I felt compelled to post it here (with his permission of course) for all to see.

Dear Mister Alimonos,

I am an American college student with a slight penchant for the “Masters of the Universe” franchise as well as for H.P. Lovecraft. I discovered your fiction through a website which contained what seems to be an early version of the first three chapters of “Ages of Aenya.” They appeared to star a version of Xandr who was called He-Man rather than Batal, and the city in question was Sarnath. The whole plot seemed to be a fascinating re-telling of Lovecraft’s “The Doom That Came To Sarnath.”

I’ve been recently struck with the depressing reality that Mattel, owner company to He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, is in that game entirely for the money. Your work looks to be what Tolkien called “Work of the Heart”, and I respect your dedication to it, and to your morals and the way you stick to your guns on the naturist nature of your heroes. Very commendable! But I digress. Basically, I liked what I had read and decided I wanted to read more of it. To that end I looked you up and discovered that you had written and self-published a little-known novel called “The Dark Age of Enya,” which I resolved to buy. However, before I could do that I discovered that there was a version two called “Ages of Aenya” which was presumably much better revised. I know that as an aspiring writer myself I sure prefer for people to read my fiction AFTER I consider it fully revised, not before. In addition, the information you’ve posted on your “World of Aenya” blog just makes me more curious.

 Right, here’s the question I’m sure you’ve heard a million times. Is “Ages of Aenya” going to be published any time soon? I would absolutely buy it in a heart-beat, or pre-order it. Hate to bother you, I’m sure you’re very busy with your own life, but I’d really like to be certain and some of your blog posts leave me less than sure.

Sincerely, 

            – Collin Stoltz (mild-mannered college student)

PS: If it isn’t currently slated for publication, I’ll keep an eye on your blog! But would you rather me buy “The Dark Age of Enya” until such a time as “Ages of Aenya” is slated to be published, or just hold on to my hat and wait?

I must say it was surprising getting fan mail for a book that isn’t even in print yet! It can only bode well for the future of Aenya. And in case you were wondering the same things as he is, this was my response:

Hi Collin,

It’s always nice to receive letters like these. Regarding your inquiry into “The Dark Age of Enya”; I have to admit that it isn’t very good (compared to what I can do now). While highly imaginative when published in 2004, I had yet to master the craft of novelist, to reach the level of quality to stand on the shelf with other published fantasy titles. Right now, there are a lot of garbage e-books piling the Internet and I do not wish to associate my name with them, to sully my rep with something I wrote 10 years ago. As for when “Ages of Aenya” will become available, I honestly do not know. My wife and I are hunting for agents, but if, in two years time, we have yet to find someone, I may take the independent road again. In the meantime, letters like yours are invaluable to helping me garner support. With your permission, I would like to post it to my blog.

Thanks,
Nick Alimonos 

Orson Scott Card is Gay; also, Ender’s Game Review

I have no evidence to back this up; this is just a theory of mine, just as Orson Scott Card thinks gays are the result of child molesting. But being called gay is no more slanderous than being called straight, though Card will likely take offense to this, as he has either rejected his sexual orientation or is in deep denial of it. Consider the ludicrous and embarrassing premise of his book, Hamlet’s Father, where Hamlet is tricked by the ghost of his gay father (you read that right) into killing his uncle. The real murderer is Horatio, though you cannot blame him, having been molested by the late gay king. What writer could come up with such a monstrous attack on homosexuality, and Shakespeare to boot, without some deep seated issues?

The job of any good writer is to get inside the minds of others, to relate to any human being, no matter how different or alien. I sometimes sympathize with my most evil creations in order to understand and write about them convincingly. Here’s a quote expressing this same idea:

“I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.” 

This beautiful sentiment comes straight from Ender’s Game, pg. 168. Hard to believe the very same person had this to say,

“There are no laws left standing that discriminate against gay couples. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

As a writer, how can Orson Scott Card be unable to understand the wants of a homosexual? Or bring himself to imagine the societal ostracism gays face on a daily basis? How can he remain blind to their position and be so ignorant as to believe it is a choice? Apparently, we can sympathize with alien bugs invading Earth, but humans of the same sex who love each other is beyond the scope of his compassion. But as a Sci-Fi author, Card’s anti-gay stance is even more perplexing, since, to write well about science fiction, you must know something about science, and all the scientific evidence supports the theory that homosexuality is the result of a difference in the brain established at birth. If anything, good Sci-Fi predicts how society changes over time, and if Card cannot see how gays will become as accepted in the next ten years as interracial couples, he is a very short sighted writer. But perhaps all of this can be best explained by simple denial. Card does not need to imagine himself in the shoes of a gay man because he is already there. Like any bigoted fundamentalist (Card is a Mormon) no amount of evidence can sway him, because he does not care to recognize the evidence. Is it any wonder his debut novel contains only two females (which he refers to as the weaker sex), while the rest are young boys who frequently dress and undress, sleep naked, take showers, and at one point wrestle naked in the shower?

I rarely criticize other writers harshly, but after reading some of the racist and homophobic things spewed by Orson Scott Card, I saw an opportunity to be more vocal. Many books, like Cloud Atlas, are greatly underrated, while Herbert’s Dune, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye are more than worthy of acclaim. But Ender’s Game, a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I found to be amateurish on numerous fronts. For instance, much of the dialogue is forced and unnatural, so that I never got a sense of real characters behaving as real people. Here’s a cringe worthy example:

“When I gave myself to starship travel, just so I would still be alive when you appeared, my wife and children all died, and my grandchildren were my own age when I came back. I had nothing to say to them. I was cut off from all the people that I loved, everyone I knew, living in this alien catacomb and forced to do nothing of importance but teach student after student, each one so hopeful, each one, ultimately, a weakling, a failure.”

Jeesh. While I have written a post defending the use of melodrama, Ender’s Game isn’t Shakespeare, or fantasy, or some other world—this is modern Sci-Fi, and the dialogue simply does not fit. Another problem is exposition. Thirty pages until the end, and we’ve learned virtually nothing about the war between humanity and the buggers (really, best name he could come up with?) and then, in a single block of dialogue, all the info is dumped on the reader. Better novels, like Harry Potter, introduce concepts gradually, allowing the protagonist, and hence the reader, to discover things for themselves.

I bring up Harry Potter because Ender’s Game is in many ways similar. Here we have a young boy whisked from his family and the cruel brother who torments him. Like Harry, Ender is the last great hope for mankind, only, he cannot know anything about it. He is sent to “suffer” through boot camp to prove his worthiness to fight buggers while becoming a ruthless commander in the process. Only problem, boot camp is hardly worse, if not easier, than Marine recruitment. Aside from being removed from his family at a tender young age, Ender doesn’t suffer any more than I did. Kids say mean things to him and he is kicked and punched, but for the most part, he spends years playing a zero gravity game of laser tag, where he (SPOILER ALERT) wins every single time. Poor Ender. Imagine Harry bitching about quidditch while always winning (and come to think of it, didn’t he lose his bones after being attacked by a rogue bludger?). I also take issue with the prodigy concept, mostly because I cannot accept anyone born to succeed where years of training and practice fail. Kasparov may have been a genius chess player, but he wasn’t playing the masters at age six. Accepting this caveat, some of the brilliant things Ender comes up with doesn’t seem all that brilliant. One of his tactics is to orient himself downward, so that the enemy can only target the bottom of his feet, making him harder to hit. It’s an obvious tactic that no commander in the history of the game ever thought of. In fact, it seems none of the other genius IQ children come up with anything.

As pulp Sci-Fi/military fiction, Ender’s Game is a highly enjoyable read. I appreciated the hard science approach, no surprise considering Ben Bova mentored Card. Space travel, for instance, is based on physics we understand, so that invading the bugger home world takes a good seventy years. Even relativistic time dilation is mentioned. As a Sci-Fi writer from the eighties, Card also predicts quite a few things accurately, like the rise of the Internet, school desks similar to iPads, and video game simulators like the latest PS4 consoles. On the other hand, he still has humans piloting individual fighters while drones could have done just as well. I also enjoyed the intricacies of zero-G combat and the strategies of three dimensional warfare. Star Wars and Star Trek look outdated by comparison, although I am still uncertain as to why so much time was spent floating around a room when the actual battle is based entirely around a screen. It’s like taking karate classes to excel at Street Fighter. Despite its shortcomings, however, Ender’s Game rises to three stars with its very clever twist ending. Though you’ll likely see it coming a good twenty pages off, it is still pretty damn cool, and I imagine, the inspiration for the short story that spawned the novel. Given the unnecessary back story and training regimen that comes before, I wonder whether the book worked better as a short story. But even this climactic twist is not without credibility issues. MAJOR SPOILERS: Highlight to read: Was it really necessary for Ender to believe he was playing a simulator the whole time? What if he rage quit or had to go to the bathroom? I had a hard time swallowing the reasoning behind it, the idea that Ender was too compassionate to kill alien bugs (he didn’t seem too kind to his bullies) or the idea that compassion is somehow necessary to know your enemy (tell that to Genghis Khan). 

Orson Scott Card works with other writers, teaches fiction courses, and has written two how-to books. He has gone on record stating that fiction should not be used for ideological purposes, a stance I strongly disagree with, and find hypocritical as well, considering the political posturing in Ender’s Game and the anti-gay tirade that is Hamlet’s Father. I had to argue with close-minded professors in my college days, including a PHd whose religious viewpoints skewed his understanding of my work. When thinking in absolutes, in writing or in life, you close your mind to possibilities, limiting the places you can take your story, just as you limit your compassion for people who feel and think differently from you.