Update. Julius, Livia and Elodie – new chapter.

brooklyn-test

Angel Stakes audiobook

I’ve completed the checking of the audio files. Julia has a couple of little corrections to make and then all that remains is the Audible/ACX internal processes. I’ll keep posting as it inches towards release.

Progress on Bian’s Tale

Two of five sections are now with the editor. I’ve actually torn up my earlier versions of sections 3-5, as they simpy were not working. Having done that, strangely, writing has been easier. For some peculiar reason, it’s quicker to rewrite than to amend.

Others

Less than a month to the publication of Vampires of the Caribbean anthology, which contains Enzili, an Athanate short story set in 1790s on the British island of St. Mark’s. There have been some teasers on the Bite Back Facebook page, and more to follow.

Bite Back 6 – not a lot of progress this last couple of weeks.

New York episodes

Father Julius, Livia and Elodie: the New York outsiders story with the twin threads is taking shape. Below is a summary of the story so far (with links) as it will appear in the novella, with the threads interleaved, and with one new chapter.

Chapter 1
Julius and Livia
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2016/12/24/christmas-story/
At St Judes. Introduction to Julius and Livia, the threat of Skylur’s arrival.

Chapter 2
Elodie
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/julius-and-livia-complementary-theme/
Greenpoint. Introduction to Elodie. Barlett abducted during meeting.

Chapter 3
Elodie
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/elodie-julius-and-livia-complementary-theme-another-chapter/
Greenpoint. Elodie background and illness. She speaks to Nathan.

Chapter 4
Julius and Livia
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/julius-and-livia-a-couple-more-scenes/
Brooklyn waterfront. Julius meets Livia and they go together to Manhattan to face Skylur.
Introduction to Keensleigh (Were alpha) and Hinton (Adept community leader).

Chapter 5
Elodie
This week’s chapter, see below

Chapter 6
Julius and Livia
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/julius-and-livia-two-more-scenes/
Meeting with Skylur at his office penthouse.

Chapter 7
Elodie
Next week’s chapter

Chapter 8
Julius and Livia
https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/julius-and-livia-another-chapter/
At the restaurant with Skylur.

And I guess 4 or 5 chapters after that…

Chapter 5

Elodie

Sunset Park, Brooklyn

The southwestern tip of Long Island is its own little world, made up of little countries.

There are Poles in Greenpoint. Russians in Brighton Beach. Asians in Flushing. Mexicans in Jackson Heights. Haitians in Flatbush. Irish, Italian, Jewish, Greek, Brazilian.

And vampires.

She hadn’t told Barlett that particular item of information. He’d thought he’d been investigating a super-secret criminal gang.

His office is on 2nd Avenue, down in Sunset Park. A single room off a short corridor, over a shop selling household electrical components. It has a coded keypad on the door.

But the door is unlocked, and someone has already been here. Elodie can almost sense them. They could still be watching. Or they could come back at any time.

If they’re watching it’s too late anyway.

She’ll take her chances. There’s no real alternative. And after all, that was exactly what she hired Barlett for; to find her a way to contact a group of people who don’t want to be contacted. If they find her, the job is done.

It is dangerous. They are dangerous.

But unless she’s hallucinated the whole language and conversations that she hacked into on the internet, they are the only people who can cure the growth in her head that’s killing her.

All she has to do is become part of their secret world, disappear from the sight of everyone she knew before…and be prepared to give her body and blood in exchange.

The thought makes her stomach contract and her head starts pounding again. She feels the dizziness returning.

No time for that. No time. Concentrate.

She pulls out her cell and clicks on the rabbit, watches the first few slides. It calms her. The cell is like a safety harness and a snapshot of her life all rolled into one. It’s her ID. Her email. It has copies of her medical records. Familiar photos and clips from her former life in Ann Arbor. All the useful apps. Even street maps to find her way here. And the soothing knowledge that her brain reboot slideshow is there whenever she needs it. My name is Elodie Villiers. I am not mad. I need to trust myself.

She pats her pockets. Spare battery. Charger.

She stops the slideshow, resets the timer and pockets the cell.

Then she switches on the office light.

Barlett said he was getting out today. She got the impression he’d meant he would leave straight after talking to her, not come back here. So, what did he do during his last visit to this office, besides call her and set up the meeting?

She stands at the desk and looks around.

The place is tidy. Barlett is an obsessive.

He hadn’t cleared the place; he probably believed he didn’t have the time, that they were too close. He was right about that. He thought he had enough time to meet her. He was wrong about that, but she suspects he intended to come back here at some point in the future when things cooled off.

So what would he have done last time he was here?

There’s no point checking the filing cabinets. He wouldn’t have taken time to file anything he’d found out, and they had been here already. There wouldn’t be anything left in the files about them.

They know about her from those files, but that’s limited to the cellphone number she’d given Barlett.

If they track her using that, so much the better, as long as she gets the opportunity to speak when they catch her.

She can’t control whether they hunt for her or not. Or how quickly they might. Time is running out for her.

What can she do? What clue might Barlett have left that will help her find them?

There was a laptop on the desk when she visited. She guesses he took it with him.

Or they did.

If there was anything  obvious he left here that linked to them, they’d have taken it.

Despair wells up.

She feels dizzy again and fights it off.

Think!

What else did he use?

His cellphone, which isn’t here.

Notebooks? Old fashioned paper notebooks.

She closes her eyes, swaying, and tries to bring an image of him to mind.

Yes, he had those small notebooks that fit in jacket pockets. Blue covers, lined sheets. There are packs of them unopened, neatly stacked in one corner.

No sign of any ones he’d written in.

Hats and scarves. No use.

Walking sticks. She sees an image of the pale one with the pistol grip handle lying in the road, swallows painfully, and puts it from her mind.

He has a half dozen well-used coats hanging up behind the door. She looks. One is missing—the one he was wearing.

Something more…

Closes her eyes again.

When she’d visited, she’d seen one of the coats had a newspaper rolled up in the pocket. He was a crossword addict and he said it gave him an excuse to sit in café windows and jot things down while doing surveillance. Less suspicious than a notebook.

He hadn’t had a newspaper in his pocket when he met her up in Greenpoint.

She opens her eyes.

The trash bin by the desk is empty. It’s the only place in the office he would have used to throw something like a newspaper away.

There’s a shredder, but that’s empty too.

Finally, she has to admit to herself she can’t think of anything else and the fervor of the search leaks out of her like air from an old balloon.

The office is a dead end.

An empty husk.

She stumbles outside and wonders whether they are watching her at this very moment.

It would be so easy if they just came and captured her. Of course that means, the way the universe runs for her, it’s definitely not going to happen. That they aren’t watching Barlett’s office.

She looks around for inspiration.

There’s a dumpster a few steps away. A couple of cardboard boxes. A small pile of bulging black trash bags.

If Barlett threw anything away earlier today, it might be on the top. If she’s lucky.

She uses her cell as a light to look inside the cardboard boxes. Packing foam. Discarded manuals. Old paperbacks. Some shredded paper, but it looks like bank statements and old legal documents. It could have come from anywhere.

The plastic bags aren’t worth checking; Barlett would have been in too much of a hurry to even tie up a bag, and he probably wouldn’t have had any bags to hand anyway.

That leaves the dumpster.

She knows she’s starting to look like a bag lady already.

She lifts the lid, shines the light from the cell down into the darkness.

The trash is right at the bottom, partly covered by a discarded newspaper, folded to the puzzles page. She can see handwriting on it. And there’s a notebook with a blue cover peeping out beneath it.

It is Christmas. Close enough.

The dumpster is tall.

She can just reach the trash, if she balances on the edge.

A little further…

The edge of the dumpster cuts into her hip. She hitches herself higher, keeping a firm hold on the edge. The smell is overpowering. She tries not breathing.

Her head is pounding, pounding and the light seems to fade a bit.

Just a bit further.

She grabs the newspaper.

The dumpster is deep and dark, and it spins. The rotten fruit smells bright purple. Rock music sears the inside of her nose. She can hear the taste of rotten pears. It makes her cry. The world twists around like one of those crazy pretzels, hits the back of her head and cuts abruptly everything off.

Silence.

Where am I?

What am I doing here?

Something very important. Very, very important. Must remember.

A man with a walking stick. Empty streets. Dangerous.

Flakes of snow drift down out of the night and settle on her nose.

Oh, God, it stinks.

She staggers upright. The whole world is reeling around her.

I’m in a dumpster!

What’s happened to me?

There’s someone coming.

“Nate?” she says, and her voice wobbles, but there’s a buzzing in her ears and she can’t hear.

Who’s Nate?

Who am I?

A flashlight shines in her face, blinding her. She can’t see, can’t hear, can’t think.

 

“What the hell? Get outta there, stupid bitch!”

Ross Woodward doesn’t have an issue with the homeless. He doesn’t actually care if one of them sleeps in the dumpster. It’s just that they throw stuff out and it always ends up with him clearing up the mess.

The woman looks bewildered, and she’s shaking. He’s sorry about that. He didn’t mean to scare her.

He lifts her out and puts her down gently on the sidewalk, trying not to wrinkle his nose at the smell.

“Go on,” he says, speaking mildly. “This is no place to stay. There’s a shelter up in Brooklyn Heights, and you can get food on the way. There’s a place on 4th will feed you.”

The woman sways, blinks. She seems completely confused, or frozen in panic.

Ross turns her north and points.

“Go up to 4th, take a bus. Here,” he offers her a few dollars. She doesn’t move to take the money and he has to slide it under her stiff fingers. She’s clutching a newspaper to her chest.

He sighs. Maybe that was all she was after. He knows they use paper as insulation when they sleep rough, but that isn’t going to be enough tonight. At least the woman is dressed for the weather. The clothes look good quality, but that coat isn’t ever going to smell good again.

He’s thinking maybe he should walk her to the stop, but then she starts on her own, still looking frightened and confused.

Shit. He feels bad about it, but he can’t be a knight in shining armor for every homeless woman on the streets.

He watches her shuffling away until she’s out of sight.

She’s obviously ill, mentally ill, and it looks as if she’s not had much chance to adjust to this kind of life. He wonders what her story is. A good life, friends, maybe even a family, a job, no worries, and then suddenly this? She’s young. Younger than him.

He shudders.

The temperature is dropping. Time to get back inside.

The dumpster lid is wide open, and snow is falling inside. He might as well throw the trash that’s been piled up alongside before he closes it.

I mean, what is it with people who can bring the trash out, then just leave it next to a half empty dumpster? he grumbles to himself.

He shines the flashlight into the depths.

There’s barely anything in there. A couple of trays of rotten fruit. Some spoiled TV dinners. Someone’s old notebooks. A broken cellphone – a good one. Looks like someone stepped on it.

Shit. Only in Brooklyn, he thinks and tosses the rest of the trash in before he slams the lid closed.

 

Elodie (Julius and Livia complementary theme) – another chapter

3594375-central-park-and-new-york-city-skyline-at-mist

I have the audiobook of Angel Stakes from Julia and I’m checking it. Very few fixes required, so should be quickly returned to Audible to process.

I’ll tidy this New York story up into one post with links to all the sections in order at some later stage, but at the moment, this just follows on from the first scene with Elodie:

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/julius-and-livia-complementary-theme/

I’m guessing the two stories will come together in a couple of weeks.

Enjoy! (And tell me what you think…)

<<***>>

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

She dives through some shops, trots across a couple of back streets, her heart pounding and her head swiveling left and right.

No one is following her.

The streets are empty.

Am I hallucinating again?

Was Barlett even there?

She’s in Greenpoint. Surrounded by film studios. Huge square buildings. Uniform and near featureless on the outside. A different world in each of them on the inside.

Each of them like a rabbit hole.

How many rabbit holes have I gone down?

She has to believe she’s not hallucinating, or else she might as well sit down and die right here.

Her cell is purring, but it’s not the alarm this time.

She knows the phone number. A landline. From an office. If she closes her eyes for a second, she can actually see the desk, almost hidden by the piles of paper, each pile with a foliage of multi-colored Post-it notes peeking out the sides. The drooping angle poise lamp. The reference books.

She doesn’t mean to answer, but there’s an ache in her throat, and while she’s hating herself for that, her thumb swipes the little green icon.

“Yes,” she says. Meaning I’m still alive.

She can’t go back. She told him that before.

“El.”

“Nate,” she says. “Why are you calling me?”

“I…” he stumbles over the words, and she suspects he changes what he was going to say. “I still care. You’re not well.”

She can hear the pain in his words.

“I know I’m not well,” she replies.

“The doctor said you should be resting at home.”

The doctor had said that. He’d said the growth in her brain was inoperable. That she would experience bizarre hallucinations. That it would be best to remain quiet in familiar surroundings. With people to look after her.

He hadn’t said she should give up and wait to die, but that’s what he’d meant.

She’d chosen not to. She couldn’t just lie in bed, dosing herself with drugs, letting the darkness creep in through the door like a tide. Wondering, every time she fell asleep, if this was the one she wouldn’t wake from.

“I can’t,” she says to Nathan, who would have taken time off from his research at the university at Ann Arbor, and would have sat with her while the long evening fell. “I free you.”

She closes her eyes again. She can imagine him sitting at the desk in the cramped little office with its single window looking out onto the campus. The view would be shrouded in snow now. Ann Arbor is white and cold and still this Christmas.

That office was the place where she developed her interest in the architecture of languages. Where she traced the roots of Sanskrit and Dravidian and Anatolian up into Proto-Indo-European and back down into Scythian and Mycenaean Greek.

The place where old languages come to die, the students joked.

The place where the close-faced federal agent had given her a frightening non-disclosure agreement and a few pages of puzzling transcript he wanted her to assess.

“Is it a code? Some kind of dialect of an old language?” he’d asked.

With nothing but the occasional headache to hold her back, she’d unleashed the full weight of her knowledge and her computing expertise. And had found, in the tangle of dead roots and archaic grammar, hints of a wondrous new language, just begging for investigation.

It was like finding gold in the pan, except the federal agent had closed the project and warned her to forget everything she’d ever known about it.

She hadn’t. She couldn’t.

Not even when the headaches and dizziness became impossible to ignore. When the doctor’s solemn words started pressing down on her, every word heavy as a boulder, every visit more and more of them, squeezing the breath from her chest, stealing the light from the day, until the only light she lived by seemed to be from her laptop screen.

And in chasing a supposedly dead language through the shadowy corners of the internet, she’d found the chance of hope, to buttress against the crushing weight of the doctor’s certainty.

Nathan is still talking, still trying to draw her back into his world. His arguments have grown cold.

“You don’t have to stay in bed,” he says. “You could come into the office when you feel up to it. I’d drive you. Take you back whenever you wanted. God knows I need the help.”

The way it is at the moment, his words spark off images in her head.

Office. Office.

She sees herself in a different office, and suddenly knows what she needs to be doing, right now.

“I’m dead,” she says, trying to grow a hard, shiny surface on her soul. “Whatever happens. Grieve and move on, Nate. I wish you every joy. From the bottom of my heart.”

“What do you mean—”

She ends the call, cutting him off.

Go, she wants to say. Be at peace. Turn away and find a new life. She wants that charmed combination of words that will comfort him and free him at the same time, but she’s better with old, dead languages than modern English.

Or maybe with a language that is old, but not dead. A language of hope.

She starts to jog.

It’s too late to worry about attracting attention.

Julius and Livia, complementary theme

new-york-city-skyline-photograph-by-jim-richardson

As previously mentioned, to make Julius and Livia into a novella, I’ve decided to bind in a second thread. This is a story I started to write while I was staying with the daughter in Brooklyn this fall and it will make the second thread. The two threads will come together at the end.

So…Julius in St Jude’s will probably be chapter 1 and this chapter will probably be 2. There might be a short chapter after this that explains more of what the PoV character is attempting, then the novella would alternate between the two threads until they join.

Other stuff… Not had a good week for progress on the main writing projects. (But I said before, the chapters I put up here are just ‘playing’ at weekends with different ideas and techniques).

 <<***>>

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

For a heart-pounding minute… the street is empty in the numinous sunlight. Bright, blank advertising boards above the sidewalk numb the brain. The street signs twist and lie. The shops are silent; they leak their pungent breath over the street, over her.

She leans against a wall and pretends to be reading a message on her cell.

Important message. On the cell.

Her eyes are squeezed shut so tightly it makes her dizzy.

It—whatever it was—passes.

The sounds of cars and people and life seep back in.

Her sight is blurry with tears when she opens her eyes again.

What’s going on?

In a panic she can’t remember anything. Not even her name. Then there’s a vague sensation of talking to someone. Yes! There was a man, Barlett, speaking. It’s dangerous, he said.

Your funeral. He said that, too.

“You all right?”

A guy on the street. Talking to her.

“Get away from me,” she says. The words slur. Her mouth feels lopsided and she starts to walk away hurriedly. It takes effort.

Left foot. Right foot.

Gotta keep going. Important.

The man who spoke says something else. Probably as rude as she was to him. She ignores it.

It’s dangerous. It’s even dangerous for people to be seen with you.

Barlett had told her that, but she doesn’t know why.

Her cell is vibrating. There’s something showing on the glossy screen.

She keeps walking, but she looks at the cell.

Important. Something very important she must do.

There’s an animation on the screen. A rabbit in a waistcoat, with an old-fashioned pocket watch is gesturing at her.

Time to go down the rabbit hole.

Follow. Hurry. Tick tock.

Her fingers seem to remember, and she swipes a code in that sets it going.

The screen fades to black and she falls into a slideshow.

 

I am not mad.

I need to reboot.

My name is Elodie Villiers.

I am not mad. I need to trust me.

 

It feels like rocks colliding in her head. Things fall back into place, and it is a dark place.

 

I am 28.

That is too young to die.

 

Although she remembers the slide that will come up next, she lets it come anyway.

 

I have just suffered a blank.

I just need to reboot.

 

She stops the slideshow, and resets the timer in case it happens again—the blank as she calls it.

The episodes are getting more frequent now.

Or maybe it’s triggered by where she is. It’s her childhood home. Brooklyn. But the streets of this Brooklyn are like old friends who’ve grown strange while she’s been away. They look narrower. More people and yet less lively. Less real.

She looks around and seems to see new and old Brooklyn superimposed, like one of those trick photoshop images. Disorienting.

She stops looking. It’s what set the last blank off.

A block west.

Her head hurts, but she’s sure she remembered that right. She has to get there on time. Barlett won’t hang around, and he’d said something on the phone about this being the last meeting.

Either he has the information she needs.

Or her life is over.

She hurries, but stops herself from running. Running will attract attention. That’s dangerous. Not just because Barlett said so, but because she knows.

She knows things she shouldn’t.

She’s dangerous for them, and that means they’re dangerous for her. They protect their secrets with an absolute, fatal ferocity. How else could they have survived, especially here, in such a crowded area. Over 2.5 million people in under 100 square miles of city.

And that’s just Brooklyn.

All of those millions of people…none of them see it. She hadn’t, until she’d gone looking with electronic eyes and desperation. Now she knows, and she knows where they are, in general terms.

When the internet couldn’t make the last resolution, she resorted to old-fashioned methods. Most of the PIs she talked to wouldn’t touch it. Barlett said he was the best. He didn’t ask too many questions and she could afford his fees—just.

Somewhere here. This intersection.

She slows.

Barlett set up a meeting style. She’s never to go to his office, after the first meeting. She’s never to approach him. Just be where I say and wait, he’d said.

He’s ultra-cautious. And now he’s running scared.

Either he’s got what she needs, or he’s pulling out and she’s dead.

Or he’s set her up.

Imagining her head in a telescopic sight makes the skin on the back of her neck crawl, even though a bullet in the head won’t make much difference now.

Tick tock.

He’s not here.

Just as panic starts, and she’s about to look around wildly, she hears a hiss from behind.

“Walk, dammit.”

She walks.

She can hear a walking stick tapping, so she slows a little, catches a glimpse of him in a shop window.

Barlett looks different every time she sees him. Not huge things. No wigs or cross-dressing. Simple little things. Today, he’s limping and walking with a stick and a fedora tilted over his eyes. Scarf muffler, gloves, old coat buttoned against the cold. He looks like he’s eighty years old. He’s maybe thirty-five.

“Jesus,” he mutters as if talking to himself. He’s close enough she can hear him, far enough away it doesn’t look as if they’re together. “This is it. We’re even, and I’m done.”

Shit.

“What happened?” Her voice betrays her anxiety.

They walk on for several paces before he answers. He keeps his voice at the level of traffic noises. “I got too close. They’re good. They made me. Barely got away.”

The tap of the stick is like a metronome. It seems to cut through the sounds of the road—the big engines, the fat tires running over badly fitted manholes, people yelling, horns blaring.

“I give you what I got, and I’m gone. Today. Got my bug-out money. Got a place way down south, on the coast,” he says, and there’s a humorless bark of a laugh. “Reckon I’m taking up fishing.”

“What have you got?” she says.

She doesn’t try to change his mind. Actually, him staying on would achieve nothing. It’s too late. Either he’s got what she needs, or she’s dead.

“Not a lot. They like a couple of restaurants,” he says. “There’s also a club, and a church that seem to be something to them. Haven’t found where they live and I’m not going to try.”

A church? She’s surprised.

Old habits die hard. She’d visited one when she’d got back to New York, on the basis of some old memory about the patron saint of lost causes. But her cause was too lost, or maybe God was busy watching the sparrows fall or something. It just made her angry and she left before the priest noticed her and started asking awkward questions.

But what would they want with a church?

There’s a squeal of tires and a driver hammers on his horn.

Cars stop and there’s shouting and cursing. People slow and get in her way, rubber-necking the street theater.

She’s twenty yards down the road before she realizes she can’t hear the tap of the walking stick.

She turns, even though Barlett has always told her not to.

Like Orpheus in the underworld, he’d said. Never look back at me, or you’ll lose it all.

There’s a walking stick. Pale, with a pistol grip. It’s fallen into the road, next to the edge of the sidewalk.

There’s no sign of Barlett.

 

Julius and Livia – another chapter

3594375-central-park-and-new-york-city-skyline-at-mist

I’m at a point in this ‘doodle’ where something is about to happen, and because I’ve just written it as I’ve gone along, I haven’t prepared for what happens. 🙂

Anyway, this continues seamlessly on from https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/15/julius-and-livia-two-more-scenes/

What I’ll have to do is go back and write the other thread, and post that, because the end of this post is approximately where I think the two threads will collide. As I said before, this is just weekend writing exercises, so it will come out when it comes out.

As I’ve also mentioned elsewhere, the audio of Angel Stakes has completed the recording phase, but has to go through editing and checking and various other processes before it’s released, which will hopefully be sometime in February. I’m working on Bian’s Tale and Bite Back 6, but I’m not in a position to start giving estimates yet. I’m still annotating Angel Stakes for the German translation.

<<***>>

Manhattan Island, restaurant.

They walk. To the world around them, just three friends, out at night.

The restaurant turns out to be eccentric French-Asian. It claims gourmet cooking, and has tables in private circular booths set in an arc around a semi-open kitchen.

Julius realizes Four Altau security have followed them discreetly. One pair take single-diner seats on the bar that overlooks the kitchen, the other pair wait outside.

The conversation, mainly between Julius and Skylur, is desultory while they order meals and Skylur picks a wine.

The maître d’ presents the bottle. Julius and Livia remain silent while Skylur declares it acceptable and they each get a glass poured.

It’s a Chateau Margaux, ’82, and Julius is glad that Altau has indicated that he will be picking up the tab. How many meals for the homeless could he…

He can’t be distracted. He has to pay attention.

Skylur is resting his elbows on the table and peering at them over steepled fingers.

“You have made yourselves an interesting community, hidden away in New York,” he says. “Not truly diazoun, since you all interact with each other.”

It’s an unexpectedly gentle opening to the topic.

“It is unorthodox,” Julius says, picking his word deliberately, “but I believe it’s in tune with the requirements of the wider Athanate world. It is ahead of the trend, maybe.”

“Really?” Skylur slips effortlessly into Athanate, making their conversation private. “Trendy? Unorthodox is the new black?”

The word he uses for unorthodox is epitre. Rogues are epitre, and they are put down mercilessly.

“I’m not talking of fashions,” Julius says. “Things we can elect to do, if we so wish. I’m talking of a way of co-operating that we have to undertake in the modern world. And if we, as a people, can find sixteen words to describe the emotion of love and thirty-two ways to modify each of them, then surely we can see some differentiation in the quality of unorthodoxy.”

Livia smiles coldly.

“We will have to,” Skylur says, conceding the point gracefully. “Just as we will have to remain responsible for policing ourselves. For example, disposing of untreatable rogues. Or dealing with others who could damage our community.”

Julius blinks. Others could mean anything. It’s a conversational invitation to discuss what might and might not be acceptable behavior for members of the Athanate community, but there’s a point he wants to make first.

“You agree that we’ve been successful in living together and policing ourselves in the way we’ve pioneered in New York?” he says. “That we could be seen as an experiment for the whole paranormal world?”

If Altau agrees that, then Julius can argue that individual Houses, and the people in them, should be acceptable, regardless of their individual tastes.

“You exaggerate your case,” Skylur says. He’s seeing exactly where Julius is heading. “Hiding from the Warders and then revealing yourself to me because you knew you wouldn’t escape my attention is not the same as being discovered and judged by humanity. You have some merit to your argument, but your ship may founder on this one rock—will humanity accept what we reveal?”

The meal arrives. They’ve elected to go straight to the main course.

Conversation flags again as they begin to eat. Hinton’s recommendation has turned out to be excellent. The food is delicious and yet Julius’ appetite is not good.

“Are there other communities like we have in New York?” Julius asks. “Or anywhere else where evaluating what could damage the community is not based on a literal reading of the Agiagraphos?”

Julius has come to hate the Agiagraphos, the Athanate book of laws. It is so definitive and prescriptive. The world has changed, and the Agiagraphos has not. By the laws of the Agiagraphos, Livia should have killed the Athanate that failed to blur the memories of the girl he fed from. And Julius believes that is wrong.

However, though Julius has no time for the Agiagraphos, he worries about admitting such blasphemy in Skylur’s hearing. A disdain for the Agiagraphos is definitely epitre. Athanate have been executed for it before.

And yet the greatest law in the Agiagraphos is to remain in hiding from humanity. Whatever they do, that law cannot stand for much longer. Skylur’s Emergence plan acknowledges that, but what does Skylur believe?

“Well, the whole of Ireland has declared itself non-partisan and unaffiliated.” Skylur sips his wine thoughtfully. “And there have long been cities like Istanbul, which both sides have declared neutral zones, but yes, there’s nowhere that has developed quite like New York.”

“And the strict interpretation of the Agiagraphos? Surely, if the greatest rule is impossible to keep, then all the rules are due to be re-evaluated?”

“There have been many changes,” Skylur agrees. “Some quite startling. Recently, an Athanate who went rogue was not executed. It seems, at least in that case, there might be differentiation even in the status of rogues. That rogue was treated and has recovered.”

Even Livia is shocked. She stops eating to stare at Skylur for a long minute, then returns attention to her food.

“This is very good,” she says.

Julius is unsure whether she means the meal or the news that the absolute rules of the Agiagraphos are becoming nuanced. He suspects the ambiguity is deliberate. Although Julius knows she fears the Altau’s powers, she’s not overawed and she’s certainly not cowed.

“So ‘unorthodox’ is not a death sentence anymore,” Julius presses the point.

Skylur purses his lips. “Possibly. Let’s say that anything that gives us examples of the different Athanate philosophies co-existing responsibly has some value. After all, there have been times in the past when the different creeds of Athanate were not in conflict.”

Livia looks up again, her gaze calculating. “You’re looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses,” she says. “Panethus and Basilikos have been at war since long before your brandy was laid down. Exceptions are just that.”

It requires some gall for Livia to lecture Skylur on history, but he lets it pass with a shrug. “Maybe we are doing something entirely new. Maybe every previous example of co-operation was just an exception,” he says. “But the first sea-creature to pull itself out onto land was an exception.”

Julius feels they’re agreeing on individual points and yet totally in conflict, but before he can redirect the conversation, Livia speaks again.

“So we must evolve,” she says. There is anger smoldering in her eyes.

Julius wants to say something, anything, to calm her down, but she anticipates him and one glance from her silences him.

Livia and Skylur are like beasts circling each other, waiting for a sign of weakness.

Skylur remains silent, eating his dinner, sipping his wine and watching Livia. He does not have to wait long.

“What haunts you, Altau?” she says. “When you wake in the long winter nights, with a word on your lips, or a vision fading before your eyes, or perhaps a scent escaping into the cold air, what is it that’s woken you?”

Julius shivers. They’re still speaking Athanate, but she’s slipped into the older, formal style, the language of the oral tradition and recitation, with its own rhythms and descriptive phrases. He’s witnessed this before and it’s never a good sign.

“Long ago, I had a villa, high in the Etruscan hills,” she says. “It was a place to be away from the relentless crush of Rome. A place to take my ease. It was very beautiful. Cyprus trees stood sentinel to mark the boundaries, and line the paths through the grounds. There was a farm, with meadows and wheat fields, orchards of citrus fruit, and rows of well-tended vegetables, bordered by herbs. There was a grove of olives, a hillside of vines, a stream that was cool even in summer. Closer to the buildings, I planted banks of maple for color, walnut and oak for shade, and beds of flowers, chosen for their scent.

“I loved it very much, my beautiful villa.

“My House comprised just five Athanate then, and we raised cattle and horses, sheep and chickens. And toru, sufficient to our needs.”

Julius twitches at the Basilikos word for human Blood slaves, but Skylur might as well be carved from stone, and Livia does not pause.

“We thrived, when others did not, and so we grew. Peasant families came to us: for food in winter when their harvests had failed; for protection from the bandits that still roamed the hills; for curing when they fell ill or were injured; for resolution when they had disputes.

“We gave from our bounty and, in return, we took our tithes: work when it was needed; food when they had spare; Blood when we so desired.”

“They feared you,” Skylur says.

Livia’s smile is tight and humorless. “All marai fear our fangs, Altau, unless we train them like you do your kin. In exchange for all we gave them, yes, we took the sacred Rahaimon, their offering of fear, along with their Blood, and we blurred their minds so that it seemed to them they’d had an unremembered nightmare. Such is the rule of the Agiagraphos, and besides, it suited us that their fear would be fresh and sweet when we next sought it.”

Again, Julius twitches. Livia is deliberately provoking him, but Skylur’s face does not betray what he thinks.

“But it was neither our toru,” Livia says, “nor the marai from whom we reaped our dues, that brought about what wakes me in the dark.”

And now, her eyes cloud. Julius stretches out hesitantly, covers her hand with his, and she allows it. He has not heard this, but he fears he knows what must come.

“I was in Rome with my Diakon, for, however much I hated the city, it was not wise to become forgotten in that society. Yet we returned early: some premonition sent me home, feverish with worry. As soon as Rome was out of sight, we left the carriage to follow us. Instead, we took two of the horses and rode. When they could carry us no longer, we ran on, into the gathering dark. And still, we were too late.

“This is what wakes me, Altau, in the shoals of the night. Not the sight of my beautiful villa destroyed, not the thought of the animals and stores stolen, not the crops torn up. None of those. It was the savagery. The viciousness. The thoroughness. The attackers had taken all of them—the remainder of my House, my toru from the farm and all the marai from the surrounding land that they’d been able to catch. They’d killed the men and left their mutilated bodies in piles on the ground. They’d violated the women and children, and when they’d finished with them, they’d trapped those still alive in a barn and set it burning.

“The details we learned later from those few marai that had been able to escape. When we arrived, all I saw was the bodies, the mob and the flames. All I could hear was the screaming from the barn and the laughter of the mob.

“Laughter, Altau, laughter, as women and children died in agony.

“Two against a mob of a three hundred? I would have fought, and died killing some of them. But my Diakon caught me, held me in the shadows, away from the farm, until the screaming from the barn finally stopped and the attackers left.”

“Who?” Skylur’s voice is soft.

“Villagers. Peasants. None of those we helped or fed from. Just people who were far enough away that we hadn’t had anything to do with them, and yet close enough that they were able to see how well we were succeeding, because that’s what caused it: plain human jealousy and greed and envy.”

Julius knows she wakes in the night, but she’s never before said anything about this.

“Do you hear screams echoing in the night, Altau?” she says. “Do you wake and wonder if your home is on fire, because your nostrils are full of that smell? Do you scrub yourself even though it seems you can never get rid of the feel of that smoke on your skin?”

“The screams will never fall silent,” Skylur says. “And those memories will never fade if you treat all humans as if they were the ones who attacked you.”

“I was Basilikos before the attack, and I’m still Basilikos, not out of some sense of revenge, but out the simple fact that we are greater than they.” Livia leans forward over the table. “It was right that we chose the name Basilikos, the House of the Rulers, and we should be their rulers, never their slaves. Yet by this path to Emergence you will make us less than humans. You absolve us of observation of the Agiagraphos rules, you sweep away its trusted certainties. Very well. But in its place you raise this simple creed, with its one great commandment—that all we can do must be acceptable to humans.

Skylur starts to argue, but Livia is in full flow.

“Once, they built many-columned temples to you, Altau. They sang songs and held games in your honor. They proclaimed you a god. They believed. They came to you for healing and divination, and you gave them what they asked for. Many years ago.

“So, what gods does an old god like you believe in, Altau?

“If in this bright new world, we may only do what they want, then we bow down to humanity as our god. Just as they bow down to their gods of fame and wealth and beauty. And jealousy and greed and envy. Gods for whom there is never enough.

“What will you do, Altau, when their hollow-bellied gods demand cleansing by fire and the sacrifice of living children? When your kin are screaming in the flames?”

“Not all humanity,” Julius whispers. He has to stop her.

“No, not all, but enough,” Livia replies. “You cannot convince all of them. No matter what the issue placed before them, humans will sink into mobs, each believing their own truths and decrying the lies of the others.”

Julius starts to argue the point, but Skylur cuts across him.

“Whatever our path,” he says. “I will do everything I can to prevent it descending into the scenes you describe, and I believe the quickest route to that situation would be for humanity to discover us while we are divided among ourselves and displaying behaviors that would terrify the majority of humans.”

Nyanga sample

steampunk_witch_doctor_by_direimpulse

No Julius and Livia today! A couple of reasons. Livia is about to start berating Skylur, and that speech has to be just right, like Diakon Huang before the Assembly. Also, thanks to being bullied persuaded by readers to extend Julius and Livia to a novella, I have a second thread which needs to come in and which I haven’t developed, so there will be a week’s delay.

Instead, I’ve had quite a few messages about the comment ‘Afro-centric steampunk’, used to describe one of my back-burner writing ideas, so I thought I’d post a chapter to illustrate it. (With the warning this is very much on the back-burner, whereas Julius and Livia will tick along at weekends)

I am posting the world-building background and how the story came to be as comments below the post. Just one quick word about Zulu names. Where names start with ‘M’ or ‘N’ for instance, and are followed by a consonant, the initial letter is usually pronounced separately. So Nyanga in n-YAN-gah, and Mlungu in m-LUN-goo.

<< *** >>

Chapter 1

The City of the Serpent

 

Hear me, you many hills and secret valleys, hear me. I am come. I am Nyanga.

Yes, I am named for the moon. The moon is my mother; her light shines through me. She is the source of my powers. She lifts the boundless seas with her beauty. She bears down the multitudes of men to sleep beneath her silver heel.

I anoint my brow with the cool air that she gifts to the dusty lands. I rise up to her song.

I am Nyanga, child of darkness.

Hear me; I am come.

My mother stood high above the gentle hills, wearing the aspect of the Great Buffalo, Nyathi: the bright, bone-white crescent of horns, carried on a black head as wide as the whole night sky, and dusted with stars. On those horns, she pushed the old year out before her, and dragged the new year in behind.

She moved at her own pace, as always, neither fast nor slow, but she did not stop.

As the worm-skinned Mlungu measure such things, it was about midnight on the southern winter solstice in the hills of the great Zulu homelands.

The seasons turned. Old ways died and new ventures began; the circle was unstoppable, whether I tried to slow it or not. I might as well try holding the broad Mgeni river in my hand.

I trembled.

Was it the night itself? It was not that cold, and the night holds few terrors for a follower of Ngoma; witch-doctors as the Mlungu call us.

Yet I trembled. For I tell you this; it is a fearsome thing to stand before the City of the Serpent under the uncertain light of the waning moon.

For the city is a living thing, and it should not be.

It moves. It speaks.

Its tales are of graves and death, the chill, bitter end of dreams, and the heavy yoke of duty. Its voice is the clink and clatter of many stones, striking one against another. Its breath is cold decay.

It moves like a blind and dying man, dragging itself along the ground. The whole city shivers and its walls writhe in the moonlight. Its grey arms reach out. Its dead, grey fingers tremble on the ground, seeking out its path.

Look up again and the bulk of the city has loomed closer.

Closer.

It is the place all followers of Ngoma must come to learn their fate.

I am Nyanga. I am come.

But one does not walk toward the city of cold stones and lamentation. One stands in its path and waits, trembling.

My left arm hissed and chattered, which it does when I am afraid. I made a fist and moved my elbow in a circle to ease it. My mother’s light gleamed softly on her daughter’s metal arm. The gears whined and pistons huffed at the limit of hearing, and then they all fell quiet when I stopped moving.

The city crept closer, uncaring of my fear, and slowly, it revealed its true self to me.

It is a city of stones. They are grey and flat, those stones, and they are numbered like the antelope in the herds of the plains, like the stars in the cold, black sky, like the fish in the great rivers of this land. And the city moves because a boundless host of people crawl like ants over its walls. They take the stones from where the city has been and they place them where it will be, one by one. One by one.

Where the city passes, nothing but dust and ashes remain.

The people of the city walls do not pause. They are in rags, or naked. They are men and women, old and young. They are black and brown and white and yellow, but all skin shares the color of corpses in the light of the Great Buffalo moon.

I could see that, without regard to their heritage, there were roles and ranks within the undead congregation: there were those that carried and those that directed.

Hear me: this is the great humor of the City of the Serpent. Those that direct are blind; their eyes have been put out. Those that carry are missing a hand or foot, struck off at the joint. And they all must sing, so they all have had their tongues ripped out.

This I saw, as the city surrounded me.

And I tell you this, that you will remember, should your time of hearing come; it is a fearsome thing to stand as the City of the Serpent pulls you into its dead embrace, but stand you must.

Some of its inhabitants stared at me as they passed, whether they had eyes or not. And some giggled, or smiled dreadful smiles. Some without hands held their stumps out, as if to beg, or to stroke me with long-lost fingers.

They are the Dangele, the Sorrow of the Serpent, and such is the fate of a follower of Ngoma who breaks the laws of the City of the Serpent. Or runs away. Or fails at their appointed task. They are bound in their misery to the city forever.

But it was not for me to ease their torments; if I stumbled tonight, I would share them.

So I stood silently, and trembled while the center of the city, the Hall of the Ancients, swelled up before me, stone by impatient stone.

The building was a huge tower, conical, leaning in at the top, about a hundred paces wide at the bottom.

There was only one entrance, at the bottom of the wall facing me; low and narrow.

A thousand, thousand stones spoke all around me with their rattling voice.

Hurry, hurry, they seemed to say.

I knelt down at the entrance and started to crawl like a hunting dog.

The passage smelled like an old fire-pit, and it got lower.

How long was it? How thick was the wall? I could not see.

Lower. Until I had to squirm like a lizard, and my left arm shook. Until the very breath felt crushed from me.

And thus you come before the Ibandhla, the Council of Ancients: trembling, on your belly, with your face in the dirt.

Julius and Livia – two more scenes

A continuation of my weekend scribbling, taking the story of Father Julius and Livia in New York from the end of the last post

https://henwick.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/julius-and-livia-a-couple-more-scenes/

Work on Bian’s Tale was slow this week as I came down with a head cold. Should be back on track next week, but I also have the annotations for Angel Stakes to be translated into German, and the checking of the audio for Angels Stakes, which is due.

While suffering like a man from my cold, I did have some great ideas for scenes in Bite Back 6, which *might* be called Inner Game.

I also have had some messages asking what the hell is the ‘Afro-centric steampunk’ I mentioned recently, so I’ll give teasers from that as well.

Julius and Livia seem popular enough for a novella, but I’m not sure there’s enough from just them alone. I have a second thread which I sketched out when I was staying in Brooklyn last year, which might work. Stay tuned.

<< *** >>

Manhattan Island, penthouse.

Skylur Altau leads them to a room that owes more in design to a luxury penthouse than a business meeting room. And when they’ve shed their coats and are seated around a circular, sunken sofa, he fetches a tray with an oddly misshapen bottle, an empty jar and five glasses.

It appears they are alone on this level. No servants. No security.

“I found this when I was packing to come here from Denver,” Altau says, holding up the bottle for their inspection. It is made of strange, coarse glass that is opaque and gritty. “I’d completely forgotten it.”

The bulbous base of the bottle is held in the remains of a sort of leather cover. There are characters branded into the leather, but not even the alphabet is familiar to Julius, let alone the words.

“Oh! Exciting! What is it?” Hinton says, leaning forward with her eyes shining.

“A brandy made from fig wine,” Skylur replies. “I believe I remember the family who used to make it, now I think back. They presented some to me as a gift. They lived near the Alzani River, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.”

The seal on the bottle has been removed, but apparently not entirely successfully, as Altau carefully decants the brandy into the jar through a filter.

The brandy is dark. It appears oily and smooth.

They watch silently as he pours a generous tot from the jar into five glasses.

Altau are not known for using poisons, Julius tells himself and picks up his glass, swirls the brandy, sniffs like a connoisseur.

Livia’s mouth twitches, as if from half a smile.

Keensleigh frowns, his nose held over the glass, his Were sense of smell probably trying to untangle the aromas to test them for poison.

“Of course it may be ruined.” Skylur holds his glass up against the light. “But I have hope.”

“Hope,” says Livia quietly, raising her glass as well.

The others echo the toast, touching glasses, and they sip.

Julius does not die. Not immediately anyway. The impression on his tongue is sweetness, not entirely masking great strength.

“It’s lovely!” Hinton says. “This would be such a good mystery drink for my Wednesday wine society. Do you have more? Could I buy some?”

“Alas, this bottle is the last survivor,” Skylur says.

Hinton gasps and covers her mouth with her hand. “And you got it out just for us!”

“How old is it?” Keensleigh asks, intrigued despite himself.

“I admit, I’m not absolutely sure. I believe it was bottled shortly before it was given to me, about three thousand years ago.”

There is a momentary stunned silence. Then, even more shocking than his words is Livia’s reaction.

She laughs; a bright, sharp sound in the quiet penthouse.

“Your reputation has you as a subtle man, House Altau. That was as subtle as a truck.”

He smiles.

“Call me Skylur, please. May I call you Livia, House Fabia?”

She nods, eyes narrowed.

“Subtlety is a gift to those with time, Livia,” he says, taking another sip and leaning back, resting his arm along the sofa. “We don’t have that luxury.”

“The Athanate have made their own problems with their own damned political preoccupations and conflict,” Keensleigh growls, and indicates Hinton and himself. “Why are we being included in them?”

Julius is tense. There is merit to what the Were says. The great ideological clash of Panethus and Basilikos Athanate has broken out into constant armed attacks, from what he has heard. However careful and secret those attacks are, eventually they will lead to humanity discovering the Athanate.

“May I call you Aaron?” Skylur says mildly. When the Were nods curtly, he continues. “Aaron, it isn’t just our problem, nor is it entirely caused by us. In truth, as far as conflicts go, the largest battle of recent times was when the Were of the Central Mountain Confederation tried to invade Colorado, the territory of my associates, the Denver pack.”

Julius appreciates the clever riposte. It’s not just that one battle; the Were Confederation has been far too open in its sometimes violent takeover of packs down the spine of the States, and everyone here knows it.

Skylur holds up a hand to forestall Keensleigh’s rejoinder, and reaches to a side table to pick up a small, utilitarian box. He places it on the table between them.

“Here’s an example of our problem,” he says. “This was manufactured by the US Army. It detects the presence and concentrations of specific proteins in the blood. Those proteins are present in Were as well as Athanate, and not in humans.”

Keensleigh’s eyes widen.

“And in Adepts, to a much lower, but measurable extent,” Skylur says to Hinton. “We are all discoverable by humanity. And even if we stopped all conflict right now, the possibility of hiding in the regulated, documented, electronic, recorded and paranoid modern world is evaporating. We all will be discovered, whatever we do.”

“So much for our toast,” Livia says. “It’s hopeless, then?”

“Nothing is hopeless.” Skylur leans back again, the relaxed host. “But we need to prepare, and we need to start that now. All of us.”

“This is Emergence, I guess,” Julius says. “The problem with being hidden is that we, I mean the hidden Athanate of New York, have been cut off. We’ve had little more than hints and rumors of the issues. Even at the meeting with your Diakon…”

“Which was, of course, a tense affair,” Livia interrupts him. “Very short of any exchange of real information.”

Tense hardly covers it.

They’d been admitting to living illegally, against the rules of the Agiagraphos and the Assembly, in the domain assigned to the Warders. By the old rules, that was a death sentence. Julius had made the argument that the Warder’s domain was an exception created by the Assembly and only subject to the more lenient Assembly rules. The Altau Diakon had observed that any historical exception might be arguable, but that it no longer applied was not.

The Diakon was right; this was Altau’s domain now.

They are sitting in his penthouse. His word is their law.

“I’ll ensure that a summary file of information on the global situation will be sent to each of you later,” Skylur says. “All of you. It’ll include an analysis as we see it.”

Keensleigh isn’t interested in the Athanate by-play. Although he has co-operated from time to time, in a minimal way, with Julius and Livia, he doesn’t really care about them or the Athanate rules. If Altau executes them, it’s simply not important to him.

He’s interested in what that file will say of course, but Julius can see he’s suspicious. A sharing of information suggests alliances.

“You’re just assuming that we’re going to go ahead and enter into an association with you?” Keensleigh can’t seem to stop sounding confrontational.

Julius is still unsure why the Were has come. It must be something powerful that has drawn him into Manhattan. Something that’s important to Were.

Skylur shakes his head. “The information is free, Aaron. The same applies to what you fear I will hold over you.”

Keensleigh twitches, his face pale. He knows exactly what Skylur means.

Julius does not, but Hinton evidently does.

“Oh! The ritual,” she says, excited. “Aaron, that’s wonderful. Not that your pack has a problem, of course I don’t mean that, but that other packs with halfies can get help.”

Isolated as they have been, Julius has heard this rumor. He’d dismissed it as fantasy.

“This is about the rumor of a ritual that helps new werewolves change?” he asks.

“Yes,” Skylur says. “But it’s no rumor. It works.”

If the Altau have control of it, Julius can’t believe it would be offered for free. A halfy, a werewolf  who cannot change, is facing inescapable, painful death. Packs will give anything to save them.

“It so happens, we do have a problem,” Keensleigh says.

The words come out painfully. Julius thinks he sounds like a man with his testicles in a vise.

“That’s so awful!” Hinton says. “But it’s good news then, isn’t it? Why… Oh… You’re thinking there’s a catch?”

She turns back to Skylur, her face a picture of moral outrage.

Julius is very good at reading people, but Skylur is difficult. There might be a hint that he’s enjoying Hinton’s act, but Julius can’t be sure.

The Altau leader takes a card from his pocket and reaches over the table to offer it. Keensleigh accepts it warily.

“That’s the contact for the Denver pack,” Skylur says. “Call it and arrange with them for your halfies to attend the next ritual. Send a lieutenant along to keep order and observe.”

“And in exchange…” Keensleigh prompts, still suspicious.

Skylur shrugs. “If it works, tell other packs. Pass on the contact information. That’s really between you and the Denver pack.”

“So why am I here? Just so you could hand me this?”

“So we could meet. Although the woman who performs the ritual is an associate of mine, a sub-House in fact, she is also the Assembly syndesmon, and that position must be independent enough to represent both Were and Athanate, each to the other.” He empties his glass. “She insisted that the ritual had to be open for everyone, so it is. She’s even intent on offering it to the Confederation.”

Keensleigh chokes on his drink. “What does the Denver alpha think about that?”

Skylur actually chuckles. “That’s his problem, isn’t it? Ask him. Tell me what he says!”

Keensleigh smiles. It’s an uncertain thing, his smile, but genuine. “Thank you.” He looks down at the card as if the writing on it might fade. “Is there really nothing in exchange?”

Skylur makes an airy gesture. “I would welcome co-operation for mutual benefit. We’d like to see you down in New York more often, Aaron. Liaison meetings, sharing of information, and so on. If that develops into an association, that would please me, but it’s by no means a prerogative.”

He pours another tot for them all.

The Were alpha leaves half an hour later, a spring in his step, eager to be home with good news.

Julius suspects that the Adirondacks pack will be a full associate of Altau within a month.

 

Manhattan Island, office.

Skylur suggests they find somewhere to eat. Hinton recommends this wonderful restaurant. It’s only a couple of blocks away. Unfortunately, she has to return to Long Island. There’s a gathering of her community and she’s needed.

Julius is impressed. He can sense that there’s something the Adept desperately wants to ask Skylur, but she’s resolutely refusing to raise it at their first meeting. Her goodbyes include ensuring that she can return for a further meeting.

Of course, the Altau leader has unfinished business with them, so Julius and Livia agree to dinner with Skylur.

There’s a brief hiatus while Skylur insists on arranging a car to take Hinton and her purchases back home. Julius is left alone with Livia in the lobby.

Livia has become very focused.

Altau has been a model host so far. What has concerned Livia so much? Not the revelation of ages. She has to have known that Skylur is older than her.

Julius and Livia met the Altau Diakon together. Julius is good at estimating relative ages, and he knows the Diakon is older than Livia. He assumes she knows it too, so it should not have been a shock to hear Skylur is even older.

And Livia is old. She is Roman. Not the modern Rome of the crumbling Coliseum. Not even the old Rome of the Empire. No. House Flavia dates back to the days of the Republic. Like all Athanate, she guards her exact age, even from him, but he’s a good student of ancient history. Over the years, he’s engaged her in discussions about the principle characters in the formation of Rome.

He’s sure the woman standing next to him was an observer as Roman politicians first developed public, traitorous backstabbing into a fine art.

“Are you alright?” he whispers in her ear, aware that there may be microphones in the lobby.

Her eyes swivel and fix him, making his heart forget to beat.

“I taught you about wines and spirits, many years ago, little Ruben,” she murmurs, using her pet name for him, a tease about his hair and his tendency to blush. “Tell me, what did you think of Altau’s brandy?”

“Sweetness in front, underpinned by strength.”

“Exactly. Get past the sweetness. Pay attention to underpinnings. Our lives may depend on it. Mine surely does.”

 

 

Julius and Livia – a couple more scenes

LOL. I wrote a Christmas scene that was just some doodling about what’s going on in the background at the start of Bite Back 6, and got a lot of positive reaction to it.  https://henwick.wordpress.com/2016/12/24/christmas-story/

So… here are another couple of scenes with Father Julius and Livia in New York. Remember, these aren’t main Bite Back characters and probably won’t appear in the main books, though I may sketch out a short story with them in posts like this. And no, it hasn’t distracted me from writing Bian’s Tale for long. I wrote these scenes on my ‘day off’.

Update on Angel Stakes audio… Julia thinks she’ll have the recording done this month. After checking and admin, I’m estimating that the audio will be available in February. I’ll do a specific post when I feel the schedule is clearer.

<< * * * >>

Brooklyn, waterfront.

Father Julius crosses the road, sidles around the iron gate with the flaking keep-out sign, and heads down toward the river, steps crunching on uneven gravel.

He wears soft boots which keep his feet warm, and are comfortable for walking. He doesn’t know how far he will have to walk today, beyond the five miles he has walked so far. By the same consideration, his coat is warm. It’s old-fashioned, his woollen coat; military, snug, double-breasted, with wide lapels. He has put his collar and hood up, even though he knows it completes the image and makes him look like the sinister assassin character out of the video game. The hood is necessary. It hides his thick, red hair, which is too recognizable. He doesn’t want to be stopped by any of his parishoners at the moment. Time is precious.

Is he too late? Where is she?

The red hair has always been a problem. He has it cut frequently to keep it from being unruly, and that makes the Bishop think he’s vain. Julius does not discourage it. Better the Bishop think of vanity than start to suspect what Father Julius really does in his own time.

Like keeping the hidden Athanate community of New York from spinning out of control.

A flurry of snow swirls out of the evening.

And behind it comes a young man. An Athanate.

He’s distressed, stumbling. He cringes at the sight of Julius.

But he’s not dead, merely ‘reprimanded’, and a load lifts from Julius’ shoulders.

Julius lets him go: alive he’s not a problem to them. Unless he makes another mistake, and then not all Julius’ pleas will save him.

He walks on quickly.

She’s there, down near the water. Her hands are thrust deep into her coat pockets and she’s looking at the river, lost in thought.

She doesn’t turn as he approaches, but in the same way he can sense her, she can sense him.

“You haven’t visited me for ages, Julius,” she says. “We speak only when there’s a problem.”

“We do. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t argue. They don’t have time to argue and besides, she’s right.

She spins, secure that the evening’s poor light will hide her uncanny speed and suddenly, she’s behind him, arms gripping his body, imprisoning him. She’s pulled his hood back and her lips are resting on his neck. When she wants, she moves in a blur, evidence of her elder Athanate abilities. She’d given him just enough time to gasp, no more.

“So visit me now,” she whispers.

It’s like falling, the rushing sensation in the pit of his stomach. But it’s not fear, or at least, it’s not just fear. It’s the same thing it’s always been, that shivery, rabbit-snake fascination. That heart-thrashing desire.

“Livia,” he says. His voice is thick and slow, and he has to swallow. “We don’t have time. A message has come. Altau wants to see us now.”

“Some things are more important than our new lord and master.” Her fangs are out. He can feel them graze his skin and he has to clench his teeth. She makes his whole body sing. She always has.

He takes her hands in his, raises them to his lips and kisses her cold fingers.

Taking a deep, calming breath, he speaks again: “We can’t keep him waiting.”

“We could run.”

“I can’t.”

She lets him go with an unhappy sigh, and they start to walk slowly back toward the light. They are close, shoulders almost touching.

He raises his hood again. The flushed skin of his face feels like a beacon in the darkness and he really can’t have his parishoners seeing him like this.

“You’ve come to take your disguise very seriously, Julius,” she says as he hides behind the hood. “So seriously, it’s become more important to you than…old friends.”

“It’s not, but it’s complicated,” he says,

She laughs.

Complicated? I disagree. Everything has become painfully simple. You do know, my little, black-frocked priest, there’s every possibility we won’t be allowed to walk away from this meeting with Altau?”

“If he wanted to hunt us down, he could.” Julius gestures, sweeping the argument away. He’s had this discussion with others, many times, over the last couple of weeks. “There’s nowhere to go, and no way to get there.”

“Yes, he could hunt us. But why bother to chase us all around the city or the country if he can get us to turn up at his door like good little sacrifices?”

“I really don’t think that’s what he wants.”

“Maybe. Bazhir wasn’t clear one way or the other. Anyway, I’ll amend what I said. There’s every possibility, I won’t be allowed to walk away.”

“I won’t leave without you, Livia.”

He hadn’t intended to say that. It sounds so trite. So melodramatic, so puffed up. He lowers his head to hide more blushing.

But Livia slips her hand into his and presses herself against his arm as they walk.

“Well then, that is the only reason I will go.”

 

Manhattan Island, office.

There are two others waiting in the lobby of the new headquarters building of Altau Holdings.

They’ve been there for some time, and Aaron Keensleigh makes no secret of his anger. The tall, powerful Were alpha probably couldn’t hide his emotions if he tried, and he doesn’t try. The Were don’t come down out of the Adirondacks much, and they don’t like the city. They also don’t like the Athanate. They certainly don’t like politics.

Julius is surprised the alpha is here at all.

The other person waiting is a complete contrast. Faith Hinton just loves the city. She only lives out on Long Island, you know, but the shops are so wonderful here in Manhattan, she simply cannot resist. Just look at all these…

Her hands press against her cheeks, framing her heart-shaped face, as if she is shocked by what she’s done.

She sits surrounded by branded shopping bags.

Julius has to bite his lip to stop the threatening laughter, entirely inappropriate in the circumstances. The Adept’s happy, babbling song of praise to Manhattan had to have been sheer torture for Keensleigh over the hours they’ve been waiting.

And he should not fall into the mistake of dismissing Hinton, as the Were probably has. That empty-headed facade is very practiced and expertly acted.

Both Keensleigh’s anger and Hinton’s exuberance simply bounce off Livia’s stone face. Since they crossed the river, Livia has not uttered a word.

And that, perhaps, is also practiced, he thinks.

House Altau does not leave them long, now they are assembled. Within a minute, one of Altau’s elite security is guiding them to an elevator.

To Julius’ immense surprise, the Altau leans in, enters the code for the penthouse into the elevator’s pad, and then steps back, leaving the four of them to ascend alone.

Even Hinton’s chatter stumbles as the doors open to reveal Skylur Altau himself, alone and casually dressed.

“Welcome,” he says, with an open handed gesture.

Livia tenses beside Julius. She does not like what she cannot predict, and in one move House Altau has demonstrated how unpredictable and confident he is. He is not scared of any of them, not even all four of them together, and he does not care if they know it.