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Zara – episode 2

Another couple of chapters, and I did some polishing on the first two, so here they all are together.

I’ve never written romance before (‘We can tell’ the shouts come in from the back).

Have I made it too much of an adventure to start with? Is it too technical, or not technical enough? Is the tech stuff that’s there easy to follow? Am I drawing pictures in your head? Have I held off what’s happened on the planet too long? Am I being too coy about the role of Dancing Mistress? Are you in Zara’s head? In her corner?

I hope you enjoy….

Your comments welcome as always.

Chapter 1

 

You are nothing without me. Nothing! It will serve you best to remember that.

My grandfather shouting, looming over me. Terrifying man, utterly terrifying. Strong and confident adults were afraid of him, let alone a fifteen-year-old slip of a girl as I was at the time. Those wild eyebrows over the cold, piercing eyes. That cruel mouth, and the voice that issued from it; born to command. The way he carried tension in his body, as if it could break out into violence at any second.

…remember that.

I remember. He’d spoken those words standing in front of the panoramic window in his study.

That window looked over the formal manor gardens, past the ornamental lake and down into the stretching crop fields below. There were misty woods in the far distance. No inch of ground that he saw from that window was not under his ownership. The manor itself bore his Name.

You are nothing…

Quivering in fear, I had stubbornly refused to believe it then.

The arrogance of untried youth. I’d put a lot of faith in the weight of history that lay on the manor and estates. Even later, as I began to see the troubles that he’d long known, I refused to believe.

Nothing!

The weight of history, I’d thought, though I’d not dared not speak.

But history has no weight, and forms no shield. History is simply a long time to collect enemies.

…without me.

And I am without him now. He is dead, murdered by exactly the enemies he warned me about, not six years after that lecture in his study.

The large counter at the front of the room clicks loudly. Everyone’s eyes jerk up, even though we know the number displayed is one more than the last number, and we all know what number we hold in our sweaty hands.

The last woman who’d entered the office at the front hadn’t come back. She’d gone out another way, gone through. They’d let her through.

As a distraction, I try to call her to mind. Young, tall, thin, short blonde hair, serious look. Nervous, but then all of us are. Who is she? A student perhaps, hoping to join some distant university off-world? A course unavailable here?

I don’t know. All I really know about her is she has been let through; that she’s getting off this planet.

Would I trade places with her? Without even knowing who she is and where she’s going?

She didn’t look stupid; she wouldn’t trade with me, even if it were possible, not for all my ‘privileges’ and ‘history’.

And neither would I trade with her.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile! Your pride will slow you, and then the hounds will drag you down into the dirt where you will die. I imagine my grandfather’s anger at my refusal to trade places with the student, spitting out the kind of hunting metaphor he always used.

In a strange way, it is comforting to imagine him still here, still angry at me.

The man whose number is displayed on the counter is walking to the front with a display of confidence. But I can see the sweat staining his shirt, and he surreptitiously wipes his hand on his trousers before he opens the door.

What? Does he think the official’s going to shake his hand?

I try to sneer, to show how confident I am. It doesn’t work, and no one is watching. Everyone is wrapped in their own world of misery and uncertainty.

I concentrate on my breathing. It’s not impossible that they have biometric monitors in the office. Everyone who goes in is nervous, even those that have no reason to be, but too much might seem suspicious.

The officials are suspicious of everyone; it’s their job. I must do nothing that increases that suspicion. It is, absolutely literally, a matter of life or death for me.

It would probably be more calming to distract myself by talking to the people sitting around me, but my throat feels paralyzed.

My number will be next.

The man comes stumbling back out of the office, his face a picture of confusion and shattered hopes. Rejected.

I tense.

Wait for it. Wait.

The counter clicks and I stand, walk on suddenly clumsy legs to toward the office door.

Now.

Now will you trade with that student?

No.

Fool! Arrogant imbecile!

 

The room is bright, cold, impersonal. No pictures, no windows. A table. A chair on either side. A woman sitting facing me. A pad in front of her, slightly tilted so I can’t see what’s on the screen.

Without being told to, I sit.

I curse myself silently, almost standing up again. I should have waited to be told. This woman has power over me. What if she feels I’ve been rude? What is the etiquette for such situations? I should know.

But she’s doesn’t care. She’s looking down at the pad. Stabbing the screen. Presumably still dismissing the last man from the list of applicants to get off-world.

Then…

“Name?” she says. Her fingers poise over the pad like poisonous spiders in ambush-stillness.

“Izarra Azenari,” I say, and spell it out. My throat is dry. I want to drink some water, but there is none in the room.

The woman taps her pad.

It’s not my name, obviously. I have shed my Name, and put aside my history because those things will kill me.

See; I am nothing, Grandfather.

I present my ID. It’s a genuine ID in the name of one Izarra Azenari, recent graduate, provisionally employed, and it’s from the real government department that issues IDs. It’s not a fake, and yet it is – Izarra, or Zara as she would be to her non-existent friends, is a fabrication with a real ID.

The picture is me, even if it shocks me to see it. Short, unstyled black hair in the common fashion. Tilting green eyes and outdoor skin that hints at the scrambled ethnic history behind the Name which I must now deny.

I recall seeing the photo for the first time, when the artist had finished manipulating it: removing the elaborate hairstyle, making the skin paler, the freckles more noticeable. I will never look like that I’d thought.

And here I am, recognizably the face on the ID, thanks to scissors and creams.

The ID with its embedded photo is a precaution from six months ago, when my Name was still my own and my money could still buy a ‘genuine’ identity document.

Grandfather didn’t know I bought it. I was still arguing to his face, too proud to concede.

And now, my famous Name and position, all my unbending arguments and pride, all my supposed privilege and history, everything has been subsumed and exchanged for that little card.

She passes it across the scanning contact on the pad.

And now I find out if my family’s enemies were watching me even then. I paid the clerk who made the documents, and I paid him well, but there was nothing I could do to stop him giving or selling the name of Izarra Azenari to others once I left him.

Such betrayals have dragged the rest of my family into the dirt and killed them. Every single one of them.

I wait for the woman’s eyes to rise back up to mine, an alarm to be sounded, and my life to end.

 

Chapter 2

 

The woman’s eyes remain on the screen.

“Reason for requesting permit to leave?” she says mechanically.

“Employment offer,” I reply.

She flicks her fingers impatiently, and I hand over the employment chip card. This one is genuine. I have an offer of employment off-world. All I need to do is to get to where the job is.

She slides the card across the scanner and places it neatly on the table beside my ID. She does not give them back to me.

Her eyes come up, and she’s frowning at what she’s seen on the screen.

“Dancing Master?”

“Dancing Mistress.”

Inter-system, faster-than-light communications are at a premium. Governments and commercial combines, the militaries, and other pan-system or federated organizations take the lion’s share of bandwidth. A private individual seeking employment off-world submits her messages to a server which bids for tiny gaps of opportunity in the data stream, and she pays for every word, every character. With words at such a cost, work description is reduced to a four character code which does not bother to differentiate on gender.

I bite my tongue, swallowing my retort about the official’s parentage, eyesight, intelligence and likely prospects.

I must remember, I am nothing.

I do not want to call attention to the job, because there’s a code within the code; another layer of deception. The definition of the role of Dancing Master/Mistress in the code frame is not the true definition of the job.

Something like that is known among the Names. I beg the stars that it is not known to this bureaucrat who has such power over me.

All for nothing if I do not get off this planet.

“Clearly, a poor choice of career,” the woman says.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She means that it’s a poor choice because it has led to my seeking employment off-world. Every world out here on the Margin clings its peoples. There are worlds where the population has fallen below the critical point; they remain only as salutary reminders to the rest.

But staying on this world means death for me. My family’s enemies have already claimed the estates. My re-appearance would be inconvenient for them, and an irritation that would be remedied swiftly by a fatal accident, regardless of whether the government arrests me for my fake ID and the slew of bogus charges in the meantime.

So much for history. So much for a Founding Family Name.

“There are opportunities here outside of your chosen career path,” the woman says.

Yes, there are always opportunities. There are thousands of jobs, mostly without prospects, but many of them are well paid. They’re traps. The planetary government is lavish with its currency, because you can only spend it here. Do well and attract a life partner. Have children. Put roots down. That’s their plan for you.

Not my choice, and anyway irrelevant to me. Some unforeseen event would reveal my fake ID, or I’d be recognized and dead shortly afterwards.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I say meekly. “I’ve come to realize that, but I thought I’d give my choice one last try.”

She looks at me with distrustful eyes. Perhaps I’m being too polite.

“What does it entail?” she says. “Dancing instruction? Is that any kind of job?”

Officials can refuse your permit to leave for any reason, including disapproval of the employment you’ve been offered elsewhere.

“It’s just the old title for the position. The Dancing Mistress is privately employed by a family to provide a finishing education for the female children of the family.” I spoke carefully, as if quoting from a book. I was. “Yes, formal dancing is included, as are deportment, etiquette, social graces, estate and household management. The Dancing Mistress also provides the services of a chaperone and confidant as needed.”

The woman grunts, unimpressed. “Anything else?”

“Sports, of specific, approved types,” I say primly.

I don’t list them. They vary from place to place, family to family. They include sailing, swimming, tennis, horse riding and fencing. So much for the official list. I must not think of the unofficial list, in case some suggestion of it appears on my face.

“You’re fully qualified for all of this?”

“Not exactly.” I bow my head as if to hide a blush. “I was also honest that it would be my first position. I believe the offer I have reflects that inexperience and lack of full qualifications.”

She grunts again, and surprises me by leaning forward, her elbows on the table. She makes eye contact, softens her voice deliberately.

“Look, Izarra, why chance it all? This job takes you deep into the Inner Worlds. The Inner Worlds. You know, they’re not like us, back there. They’ve no sense of honor. They are decadent, without the ethical backbone that makes the Margin such a fine place to live.”

“Ma’am,” I respond. Polite, without agreeing or disagreeing.

“This wealthy family might decide you’re not right for the job,” she continues. “They could discard you, leaving you penniless, without support and far from your home. That’s even before we get into the possibility that the job has been taken when you reach there. And this world you want to go to,” she glances down at her pad before locking her gaze back onto me, “Amethys. What do you truly know of it? There are planets in the Inner Worlds which are industrial nightmares, where you can’t even breathe the air without filters, where they tax the air. Whereas here, on Newyan, your home world, among people you know and trust…” she spreads her hands to encompass everything I will give up.

Her point about the possibility of losing the job if I’m delayed is valid. It’s a provisional offer with no guarantee that other offers have not been made. Similarly with the security of the position. I could fail and be out of a job the same day I take it up. That’s the level of desperation my search arrived at before I found this advertisement.

As for the rest of her arguments, well, on a personal level, the honor and ethics displayed toward my family here suggest I can’t find a lower level elsewhere, however hard I try. I will not use the name of the planet, the name the Founding Families chose. It hurts too much. It means promise, and that promise has been broken.

She’s not to know all that. In her eyes, she’s made good arguments. Given me sound and sensible advice.

My grandfather made good arguments, too. Perhaps ones I should have heeded.

But both their arguments are two sides of the same coin.

Grandfather wanted me to form alliances with stronger, more politically secure Names, to protect us against the attacks he saw coming. To form those alliances, all I would need to do was marry one of the eligible bachelor sons, and cement the union by producing more sons like a conveyor belt.

“It’s not like we’re some Frontier world,” the official says, pulling my attention back to where it should be. “I know you have college education, but that’s not a problem with all men. Some of them quite like it, you know.”

How kind of them.

I will pull my fingernails out, one by one, without anesthetic, before I’m allowed, allowed to have an education or an opinion by a husband she considers suitable for me.

And from a completely different section of society, that was exactly the problem I had with my grandfather’s plans. The Founders must be turning in their graves to contemplate the spineless, opinionated, ill-educated, arrogant fops that their descendants—

“It seems to me, that your intended career is really just a way of teaching young women how to be more marriageable in their society. Now that’s a skill we could value here.”

She’s changed tack. My reactions must be showing on my face.

I clear my throat. “There is the…the social opportunity of my position,” I say, and shift my weight on the chair as if uncomfortable. “I might be fortunate, and better myself.”

I lower my face again, pretending a shame I do not feel, because there is no way, no way that I will be using this job to claw my way back up the social ladder. I will not return to a point where I attract enemies such as my Name attracted here.

And no marriage. All my fingernails, and all my toenails. Without anesthetic. Stars witness my oath.

The point of telling this lie is that the official understands the mercenary motivation. She thinks I’m looking to snare myself a rich husband, or become a kept woman. Earning my living on my back one way or another. Grunting in childbirth or grunting to convince some sweaty oaf he’s a rampant sex god.

No.

Not here on this world, and certainly not where I’m heading.

If she lets me go.

I have plummeted in her opinion, but I don’t care about that. I want her to think this world would be better rid of me, and the sooner the better.

It may be working. She stops trying to engage me. The voice goes back to brusque, all-business tones.

“Assets.” She flicks her fingers again.

I hand over the last data card and she wipes it over the scanner, then places it next to the others.

Her hands poise and then tap-dance across the screen.

It takes an age.

“Well,” she says finally. “If you’re convinced you know your mind.”

“I do, Ma’am.”

She makes a last entry, then she hands the cards back, one by one.

“Your ID, updated to show an exit permit. The ID is keyed to allow admission to the secure departure area for passengers, and remains your prime form of identification in transit off this world. Identification requirements for any worlds you visit are solely your responsibility.”

The second card.

“Your employment card, updated to show off-world.”

She gives a satisfied little toss of her head as she hands the last one back.

“Your asset card. The goods you have declared to be shipped off-world have attracted the statutory 35% export tax applicable for miscellanea. The passenger ticket, which auto-confirmed on the change of status on your exit permit application, has attracted 40% emigration tax. Those charges have been debited. I have allowed 250 credits to remain on your balance, and marked that sum as permitted to be exchanged for pan-system credits to cover your incidental travel expenses. In compliance with Emigration Credit Regulation 403, section 5, all other assets are subsumed into the Emigration Holding Fund. You may apply for a return of those assets, should you decide to return to this world, such application to be made at any suitable Bureau of Immigration office.”

I can see that I have ceased to exist for her.

I take the cards and walk numbly through the door behind her.

They’ve stripped me of nearly everything. 250 local credits converted to pan-system credits won’t pay for my food on the journey.

But my equipment is cleared. I’m cleared. I have half an hour to board and I don’t care what they’ve taken from me. I’m leaving.

Interrogating the asset card gives me the shuttle bay of the ship that picked up my ticket bid, and a warning that loading will commence momentarily.

It’s all I can do not to run down the corridor to the passenger boarding zone. That would not be dignified behavior for a Dancing Mistress, whatever her true and secret role out there among the Names of the Inner Worlds.

 

Chapter 3

 

“First time?”

Turns out escaping the Emigration office isn’t the end of questions and lies.

A man in a merchanter uniform is hustling people aboard the shuttle already, reading ID cards and asking questions I can’t answer truthfully.

“Yes. First time. Really nervous.” I put in a little quaver and flap my hands a bit, hating myself.

It works. He goes into protective mode. I’m seated up near the front, and as I clearly can’t even manage to log into the seat’s infotainment pad, he taps it with his override card and logs in for me.

As soon as I can, I will find a Universal Temple and chant prayers to atone for all the lies, banging my head on the floor if that’s what the priests advise.

And then I should find a Shrine to the Goddess and tear my flesh for every time on this escape that I have helped perpetuate that stupid, helpless, nervous female stereotype.

My humor is getting as dark as my worldview. I’m going to have to ditch that and my current attitude before I start work on Amethys.

We’re still connected to the world’s InfoHub, so the infotainment pad has endless channels of the local low-budget shows and dramas. There are news channels as well. I’ll get back to them. At the moment, I skip past everything and go straight to the ship’s information channel, flicking down through the menus to get the real skinny.

She’s called the Shohwa. New, barely five Terran years old. Latest inter-system freighter design out of the Xian Hegemony. She’s a gleaming spine two thousand meters long, surrounded by modular, multi-functional racking systems, capable of storing blah, blah. Drill down. Flexible envelope of operations, blah, blah, more advertising. I drill down again, looking for the engineering specifications.

It’s too late to recall my bid and I really need to be off this planet, but I want to know how much risk I’m going to be exposed to as a result of the way I’ve had to purchase my ticket.

I’ve heard that, on the Inner Worlds, they run scheduled services between planets. Out here, in the vast expanses of the Margin and the Frontier, if you can’t afford your own inter-system ship, and you’re in a hurry, the only option is to log onto a travel broking system and set up an automated bid for a passage.

It’s a gamble. You can end up with just about anything. One of the infrequent passenger liners with unexpectedly free cabins, a chartered ship desperate to fill the last passenger bunks, a top-line freighter filling unused cargo capacity, a tramp freighter looking for unskilled crew, all the way down to the manifestly inadvisable and vague ‘passage in exchange for services’.

I’d gotten lucky with the Shohwa. Maybe. Maybe. Something just felt out of kilter.

I’d bid for what I could afford which put all the options with passenger liners out of the question. It looked as if I’d got the next best possible result, a good freighter, but I’m increasingly wary of anything that could be described as good luck.

Another two levels down into the information and I’m finally into top-line engineering description.

Triple redundancy systems for the FTL jump. Triple?

Historical jump navigational accuracy is showing to within minute fractions of a percent, with each jump actually appearing in the table. Show offs.

In-system propulsion rated at 30 ms² and acceleration compensators. They need the compensators for the load hauling capacity and flexibility, I guess.

‘Estate management’ covers a great deal. Grandfather had insisted I supervise an entire cycle of the estate’s business. I was no expert, but over a year, I’d had to learn about soil nutrients, field preparation, planting, reaping and storage. Then I’d shadowed a cousin on the floor of the Bourse, forced to stand with my hands behind my back as trading was done with hand signals, shouts and nods, where that final nod committed our estate produce to a price and delivery contract, as firm as a book full of legal phrases. And, thanks to my grandfather, I’d shipped with that cargo to its destination on another planet. When the last container had been emptied, I was the one, alone, the representative of my family, that stood tall and shook hands with the customer to confirm the deal had been met in all particulars. I’d never told Grandfather how incredibly proud that made me, and now I never would.

I hope he knew.

But all that means I know about freighters. About haul capacities, and the economics of risk and return.

The Shohwa doesn’t look like a freighter under the skin.

Eight interlocking Chang generators and triple phase Suidao FTL engines?

That’s military grade equipment.

Oh, crap. I’ve leaped out of the frying pan, but what kind of fire have I landed in?

The engineering detail runs out. I work my way back up through the menus and try and find where the Shohwa has visited, but that’s not logged. The distances are shown as part of the promotional bit about how good their navigational systems are. There’s nothing there that looks alarming: they seem to be inter-system jumps between the Hegemony, the Inner Worlds and the Margin. Nothing to suggest the Shohwa trades in dark depths of the Frontier.

They would hardly advertise that, would they?

The goods are only mentioned in terms of how diverse the shipments that they’ve carried are. Again, no obvious red flags like ‘heavy agricultural equipment’, which all too often means weapons.

Costs?

I follow the links. Actual costs would normally be settled in the Bourse, but indications are given. They’re on a rough par with what my cousins arranged for shipment of our produce. Slightly more expensive, but the Shohwa is trading on its speed and reliability. Nothing there to increase my suspicions.

Crew?

And here again it gets strange. There’s no mention of the flight crew or officers. All the details are about Cargo Management Teams and Dockside Controllers and Handlers and Environmental Specialists. They’re all labelled staff.

Why isn’t there at least a captain’s name?

Passengers? Accommodation?

Down in a sub-menu. Clearly not the priority in the operation of the Shohwa. A half-dozen private cabins, but those aren’t in reach of the travel bid I put up on the clearing board. I’ve got a bunk in a shared room with four others. Mixed.

I can survive narrow bunks and being cramped for space with men.

Don’t I sound tough?

The shuttle’s doors are closed and sealed. My ears pop. A vibration builds up, and I can feel the heavy clunks as the shuttle is re-oriented by the bay handling gantries.

I look around the cabin at the other passengers.

I guess there are seventeen, sharply different from the Shohwa staff. There’s nothing defining about them—they’re just a group of travelers of mixed age, race, gender and current fortunes.

Not what you’d expect if the Shohwa wanted to press-gang crew, or sell passengers to slavers out in the deep.

I shudder. I paid way too much attention to holovid dramas in my teen years.

The boarding officer buckles in beside me.

“Feeling better?” he says brightly.

“Oh, yes, just sitting down and browsing made everything feel more normal again. It’s silly. I mean, this is just routine for you, isn’t it?”

I give him a little eye flutter in case I decide to pump him for information later.

It’s too much of a risk now. I can’t afford to attract attention by asking too many questions. Of course they aren’t going to sell me into slavery on some desperate Frontier world. Of course. Rationally, it’s a lot more dangerous to attract attention to myself and have questions asked about who I really am. So I shut up.

He can also see what I’m browsing, and I head back up into the news channels.

I pull up the overview pages and scan down the main items.

‘Advances made in securing assets of mega-corruption enquiry’. They’ve seized more estates. Some property has even been surrendered in an attempt to prevent what had been done to my family. Making an example of us had clearly worked; the other Founding Families are panicked. Or they’re exempt because they’re part of the plot.

The boarding officer glances over and I flick past the article, pretend to read something about a holovid star instead.

When he gets bored and looks away, I return to the news overview screen and I see more confirmation tucked away in a corner among the ‘Other headlines’. Last week the strapline was ‘Fears for safety of missing heiress’. This week it’s ‘Heiress wanted in connection with corruption enquiry’.

The picture next to the news item is me. It’s a year old, taken at one of the ridiculous debutante balls where I failed so spectacularly. The media use that picture because I look like a debutante and that fits with their story. Good. I look nothing like that now.

Heiress is a misnomer. They’ve already stolen the estates. I’m heir to nothing.

And the corruption? That’s theirs, entirely theirs. I know. At Grandfather’s insistence, I worked a year on the estate accounts. There probably are vast amounts of money missing, but they’re missing from the Bureau of Industry accounts, not from our estates.

I don’t follow the links to read the articles. Somewhere on the InfoHub there’s a AI spider, feeling the tug of the strands as people read articles. Even if I’m logged in as the boarding officer, I can’t be sure of how much analysis might be being done right at this minute. Could they connect all the dots? Work out that it’s me on board this shuttle? I don’t know.

And I’m still on the planet, although that’s about to change.

There’s a snap as the shuttle locks in above the maglev rail, and red warning lights come on for the passengers. The seals open and we’re shunted into the evacuated tube of the space elevator. Immediately, we start to move forward, and from there the acceleration is gradual but relentless. The tube begins its rise and we’re pressed back into the seats.

After five minutes the acceleration eases off gradually until we’re back to near-normal weight, hurtling along silently and without vibration inside the vertical tube.

The tube is an opaque nanostructured sheath, and this is a no-frills freighter shuttle so there are no windows to look out anyway, but I close my eyes and imagine the planet falling away beneath us and the curvature starting to appear.

The boarding officer touches my hand to catch my attention and taps the info pad screen.

He’s read my mind and selected a channel with a view downwards which is transmitted live from the tube terminal, still a thousand klicks above us. On screen, the tube itself disappears from view as it falls away beneath the terminal. The rest of the picture is dominated by the planet. It almost glows, and there’s a swirl of white weather systems like lace over a pale blue and green surface.

It’s beautiful. It looks so calm and peaceful from here, my home planet.

That’s so false, that thought. It’s not calm and peaceful, and it’s not my home planet any more.

That is, it’s not my home planet as long as I get on board the Shohwa and out of the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Industry, and the grasp of whoever else betrayed and murdered my family.

 

Chapter 4

 

An hour after being spat out the terminal of the space elevator tube, the shuttle floats into the docking bay of the Shohwa, and gets locked into position.

They actually seal and pressurize the bay, so we get to disembark from the shuttle for the short walk to the exits. I get to look around.

From the folded wing structure, the shuttle is not only compatible with maglev space elevators, it’s capable of atmospheric flight. Not a standard freighter shuttle.

What is this ship?

But technically, I’m still within the jurisdiction of the planet, so I keep quiet.

We’re immediately under way, only the slightest tremors getting through the acceleration compensators and revealing the movement.

Inside the ship, my opportunities to look around are limited. The inside of the freighter is divided: flight deck, engineering, environmental, staff quarters, passenger quarters, common eating and recreational areas, the holds. All areas except passenger quarters and common areas are out of bounds to me. I see a couple of instances of passengers visiting staff quarters in the company of staff, but I’m not interested in that.

What I am interested in is that I never see anyone accessing the flight deck area. Access to areas is by elevator and each elevator has a level indicator above it. The elevators are right opposite the eating area, so I can sit and watch without looking too obvious. The flight deck, level 1, never lights up.

So maybe there’s another way to access that area. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe there’s a reason for every anomaly that I’ve seen, all of which suggest that the Shohwa is not exactly what it says it is.

My shared room is okay. The woman and two men I bunk alongside  would be good travelling companions if I could relax. As it is I listen and keep my distance, saying as little as possible.

The recreation area has info pads, and I try to query the ship’s navigational data. How long will the trip take? How fast are we going? The sort of queries any passenger unused to space travel might make.

I get fobbed off with a bare minimum of information. I know the navigational parameters of any FTL trip are complex. The Chang generators work better the further they are from any massive bodies. Get far enough away from a star and its planets and, to outside observers, a Chang generator would look like a small, perfectly symmetrical singularity as it pokes a hole in the local space-time dimensions. However, navigation from inside the Chang field requires ‘referent masses’ – you need to measure the distortion of the field by those masses to know where you are. Too close and the distortion itself creates an error, too far and the limit of sensitivity of measurement creates an error.

In very approximate terms, for a star of unit solar mass, any FTL jump requires you to be around two Astronomical Units or say, 300 million klicks, away from the star, and about one AU away from any super-massive planet. The shortest path to achieve that is to move out of the plane of rotation of the planets.

You need the same considerations of distance from mass for any waypoint you use to check your position while the Chang field is active, and of course you need them again for the star system where you intend to arrive.

And the velocity and acceleration with which you enter the Chang space is preserved on exit, but of course, the departing and arriving star systems may have motions relative to each other which also need to be taken into account.

Get any factor wrong by a significant amount and the deep takes you. Or you smear the ship across a million klick arc of space.

That’s why every jump has three computers dedicated to it.

Those three computers would have had their first estimates before we even left orbit. They are refining them as I try, and fail, to query the navigation.

The estimates I get from talking to staff are ‘a few more days to jump’ and ‘about the same time in the Amethys system’.

I think my best bet is to try the guy who was the boarding office for the shuttle.

“Oh! Well, Ms Azenari, it’s really complex, you see,” he says. “I mean really difficult, even for the guys with training. We don’t want to bother the passengers with all that stuff. Look, why don’t you use the time to catch up on your favorite holovid dramas. The Infotainment system got a complete update at Newyan—all the latest hot shows.”

When I was my family’s representative, and a ship was carrying our produce, all I had to do was ask and I got answers.

This is my new life and I have to get used to it.

It’s a good learning experience. A valuable lesson. I keep telling myself that and trying to unclench my jaw as I walk away.

I have to acknowledge there’s been…resistance to some lessons in my life.

For example, my grandfather’s lessons about cementing the family’s position in the planetary hierarchy. I spectacularly failed to snare a husband at the debutante balls and frustrated my grandfather into near apoplexy.

I can’t claim it was anything other than being headstrong and intolerant of patronization, but would my marriage have saved the family? More than half of those ‘stronger, better-placed’ Names that I was urged to ‘be more amenable to’ have joined the list of Founding Families who’ve lost their estates.

But maybe not their lives. That’s the sting.

We were singled out. We were the arrogant, isolated family that could be used as an example. The breath of scandal about my parents. My inability to attract marriage proposals. The fear my grandfather inspired in others. The success of our estates.

Yes, we were the perfect example, and that’s partly my fault.

Tears are an indulgence I’ve not been able to allow since I went on the run. I may not have the luxury again once I arrive at my destination.

Better now.

Letting go catches me by surprise.

There’s grief, like a cold stone in my chest. The death of my grandfather, my cousins. Murdered in a supposedly unrelated series of ‘incidents’—accidents, random assaults, home invasions, ‘suicides’. The deaths aren’t even limited to just the family. Some of our employees were fatally caught up in the incidents.

And the next zones of destruction, moving outward as if from an explosion with my family at its heart.

The tenants on our estates, the workers, all thrown out and decreed unemployable in whatever jobs they had been qualified for.

The whole structure of friends and associates, in business and personal lives, all under suspicion because someone powerful decided that their fake corruption enquiry needed a central character, a face, and ours was the best fit.

There’s little privacy in the passenger section.

By luck, I was on my way to the common area gym when I stopped to question the boarding officer. I continue to there. It’s empty.

I let the sweat hide the tears as I pommel the punch bag and thrash my body to exhaustion on the machines.

It’s efficient. A word my grandfather used a lot. I get to hide my grief and at the same time get my body in top physical condition as required for my role of Dancing Mistress.

Inefficient would be trying to squeeze any more information from the ship’s infopads. About anything of interest to me. I can’t even get current data about Amethys or about the family who I will work for. Inter-system information services share the same bandwidth restriction that I encountered when applying for the job—unless a major corporation or federated service has an interest, the data comes through like droplets through the roof while there’s a thunderstorm going on outside.

 

I’m in the gym again a couple of days later when some ship staff I haven’t seen before join me.

One comes across and introduces himself.

“Hi, I’m Danny. It’s my misfortune to be department boss for this bunch of lame-bones,” he says, indicating the rest of them with his thumb. He has a nice smile. His accent is pure Xian; liquid, quick-slow, quick-slow.

“Zara,” I reply, looking them over.

If he’s upset by my reticence, he doesn’t show it.

“Look, we want to do some sparring, ya mind if we move this equipment back over there?”

Some of them have already taken their tops off and are limbering up.

It’s written all over them: they’re security of some kind. Young guys, tall, powerful, brash. Cropped hair. Tattoos. Almost like a military unit.

What the hell does a ship need a security team of this size for?

Paranoia aside, I need sparring practice as well.

“Go ahead,” I say. Then: “You have an odd number.”

He chuckles. Little girly wants to play with the big bad men.

“Yeah, we make do. Gets a bit rough and that evens the numbers out sometimes.”

My jaw is starting to clench again. If I was thinking clearly, I’d go take my shower.

“Oh, I see,” I say with my brightest smile. “They’re just learners. It’s okay, I’ll go easy.”

Danny’s eyes, up to that point wide-roving and lazy, go suddenly narrow and gleam with focus.

“I’ll start with Fat Boy.”

I point.

He’s fat like I’m pretty, but there’s just a hint that’s he’s fond of his food. His pals will be merciless in teasing him, and he shows it’s a sore point with a scowl at me.

The guys all out-mass me, out-reach me, out-punch and out-kick me. If I let them, any one of them could pound me into the mats that they’re busy laying out. The trick is not to let them.

I have two huge advantages I can take. The first is the guys know how big and tough they are, but they have no idea how fast and sneaky I am. They’re overconfident. The second is Fat Boy is too angry to think straight, and he’s out to prove a point.

Danny holds up his hands and steps back. A ring of spectators forms.

“Competition rules and three points?” Danny suggests as Fat Boy bristles and glares.

“Done.”

Fat Boy moves from a perfunctory bow straight into a full lunge. Wants to grapple. I don’t.

I trip him as he hurtles past.

He lands like a pig in a puddle.

“Point!” Danny yells. The rest of them laugh.

“That’s not a throw!” the poor guy shouts as he gets back to his feet, red-faced. He’s actually right. Danny shrugs and smiles again.

My opponent is not fat and neither is he dumb, but he’s still out to prove a point.

He gets hold of me and hurls me, using brute strength. It works, and he gets a point, but then gets over-confident again.

One point each later, I catch him in ude garami, the bent-arm hammer lock, and he has to thump the mat to surrender or dislocate his shoulder. I win.

“Well, that was entertaining,” Danny says. “Okay, guys, show over, pair up.”

I think Danny means to pair with me, but he waves for me to choose.

“The slow guy,” I say and point.

The slow guy had barely bothered to watch the sparring. He’d been loosening up, moving like a sleepy bear, and looking for all the world as if he was rusty.

He blinks, and smiles like I’d just handed him an ice-cream with chocolate.

There are smirks on other faces, and I know I’ve made the wrong choice, big time.

But a call interrupts Danny. He picks up his comm unit and there’s a sudden tension that flows out from him to the whole group of them.

He turns to me. His eyes are back to that gleaming, narrow focus, his arms are loose, his weight held just so.

“Ms Azenari,” he says painfully politely, “your presence is required on the flight deck.”

+++++

What happens next? Next episode: Episode 3

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Update and progress

Change of Regime

The serialised story that appeared here on the blog is now available as a novella on Amazon. It’s edited, and there’s also an additional chapter, an epilogue, which didn’t appear on the blog. It’s 25k words long.

USA https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0711ML84S/

UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0711ML84S/

The appearance of this novella and also the fact that Bian’s Tale is my priority at the moment has prompted several people to contact me asking why Bite Back 6 is not my priority project. I’ll take the opportunity to answer that here.

Firstly, Change of Regime didn’t actually take any time from my writing schedule. It was conceived, planned, plotted, written and delivered in my development time. Do I need development time? Yes. I want my books to be 20% better than other books and I want readers to tell me the books get better and better. Part of what I do to achieve that aim is I practice and experiment with writing styles and tools. Change of Regime allowed me to look at multiple PoVs, use the present tense and trim down descriptions. It also kept me fresh for Bian’s Tale. I’ll continue to use my development time in this way – which means any new serialised novellas/novels will be produced in the same way – a chapter a week. (Development time is 2-4 hours at the weekend).

Secondly, I’m writing Bian’s Tale as my priority project now for several reasons, not least because readers asked me for it. However there is a hard-headed economic reason as well. I’m losing readers, and I’ve been losing readers ever since Sleight of Hand – each Bite Back book I release has fewer readers than the last. Now, some of those may be readers who love the story and are waiting for me to finish the series so they can binge. Great, but not something I want to rely on. So, what can I do to gather more readers into the series? Write other books, like Bian’s Tale and Change of Regime. Submit stories to anthologies like The Biting Cold (which went into the ‘A Very Paranormal Holiday’ anthology) and Enzili (which went into ‘Vampires of the Caribbean’ anthology). Serialise novels. Marketing. Etc. Etc.

New serialised story

Okay, Change of Regime was well received, so I will continue to use my development time to produce serialised stories. The next will be away from the Athanate storyline. I did show you an example a couple of months ago, a chapter from a steampunk story set in Africa, but the response to that was muted. I will write that story anyway, but perhaps not as a serialisation.

So what do you want to see here on the blog? I have an outline for a Sci-Fi Romance and another for a Horror. Place your votes in the comments.

New pages on the blog

I’ll be adding a new page or pages on the blog to handle the serialised stories (when I work out how to do it!).

Other stories

I mentioned Enzili above. This story is in the Vampires of the Caribbean anthology, but will shortly be available for me to publish seperately. Now… Enzili is a short story and ends with the resolution of one major incident, which was all there was space for. There are three other issues that are left ‘for later’, and I have the plot to resolve these in ‘Enzili 2’ (not decided on a name yet).

Do I publish Enzili now and Enzili 2 when I write it? Hold off publishing Enzili until I have Enzili 2? Hold off until I can put it all together and make 1 novel instead of 2 novellas?

Vote in the comments.

Progress

All writing was on hold while I spent the last week with Jessica in New Orleans, where she’s filming ‘Underwater’ with Kristen Stewart and others. Back now.

Bian’s Tale is still being problematic. I’m getting feedback from beta readers on the first 2 sections (out of a total of 5 for the first book), but the feedback is not concentrated on one single issue. It will sort itself out, but it is taking longer than anticipated.

Inside Straight, Bite Back 6: I have some good chapters done and loads of scenes sketched out. This book is nudging me, wanting to be written NOW.

 Audiobooks

Unbelievably, we are STILL waiting for Angel Stakes to go through ‘checking’ and ‘processing’ at ACX/Audible. I have no control over this part of the production I’m afraid.

Raw Deal is done. I have submitted a minor correction and the audiobook should shortly go into the ‘checking’ and ‘production’ at ACX/Audible.

 

 

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.

<< * * * >>

Thank you for visiting one of the posts from Change in Regime. This novella is now available on Amazon, and to also make it available on Kindle Unlimited, I have to remove these posts from my blog.

Anyway, here is the cover copy and link:

Like an electric current, arcing from ear to ear through the New York underworld, the word comes; he’s here. The city has a new Master of vampires, House Altau, and the existing, unaffiliated community is now facing a sentence of death.

The storm builds, and one of the leaders of that community, Livia or Julius, must chose to be the lightning conductor to save the rest from destruction. But will that be an acceptable sacrifice to Altau?

And if so, which one of them will it be?

 

 

News: road trip and writing update

My apologies for the silence on the blog.

Road trip!

This is going to be a mixture of family holiday, writer’s retreat, photo shoots and research. I’m not planning to turn up at any bookstores to do signings, but I will be delighted to meet readers at a coffee shop or restaurant if I’m in the area. Message me on the contact email or Facebook.

 Family holiday: From the 23rd August to the 5th September, I’ll be in New York, with the whole family. Jessica will still be filming the first season of Netflix’s Iron Fist (she plays Colleen Wing), so the schedule will be worked around that. I do plan to have a visit for Amber to New York in Bite Back, so I will be meeting readers, scouting locations and taking photographs as well.

Writer’s retreat: Home life has been ‘disrupted’ to say the least over the last few months, from replacing floors to garden landscaping. I’m going to find out how well I write when I’m not at home with these distractions. Back in 2011, I visited Denver for research and I did find I could write quite well while mixing it with doing research and being a tourist. I intend to be writing a few hours a day on average throughout this trip.

Research (and photo shoots): I’ve just about exhausted the notes I took from my first research trip to Denver, and the geographic scope of the Bite Back series has grown a lot. I actually meant to visit New Mexico and Los Angeles while I was writing Cool Hand and Angel Stakes, but it didn’t come off. So…this year I get to do the Rockies, north to south.

I have to visit the sites of the Confederation’s main packs: Wind River, Big Horn and Bozeman. I have to visit the equivalent sites for the League in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I’ll do a side trip to Nevada to take in Humboldt-Toiyabe and Highway 50. And I’ll spend time based in Denver and looking around Colorado. All of the above are for research, but of course, I’ll be touring and hiking and taking photographs and meeting people as well.

The schedule is: 6th September to 18th September in Wyoming and Montana. Starting in Cheyenne, with the farthest north probably being Helena. I may cut through Idaho on the way back. If you have recommendations for spooky, strange or unusual photogenic places, or you’re in the general area at the same time, message me on the contact email or Facebook!

19th September to 30th September. I’m based in Denver. I’m already meeting a few friends and readers and would love to meet more. I will be full of strange questions about Colorado in general and Denver in particular.

1st October to 4th October. Nevada. Route 50 and the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

5th October to 10th October. New Mexico. Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Route 14.

Back to Denver, fly to New York and then fly home, hopefully with head and laptop full of ideas, scenes and photos.

If it goes well enough, there’s lots more of America I want to see.

Editing Winter’s Kiss

Current top-of-the-pile project is editing Winter’s Kiss. This is a novella sequel to The Biting Cold, which follows a different set of characters than Bite Back. However, I did rashly promise to weave them together and this is part of the reason that Winter’s Kiss has been a difficult job. While many readers will be from Bite Back, I’m hoping some new readers will come in from having read only The Biting Cold. My task is then to give them enough of a flavor of what goes on in Bite Back to read the series as well.

I’m about half way through editing and I *really* want this finished before I go on the road trip.

Editing So Many Doors

This is a background project. The book was written by my late mother in 1964 and never published. My sister and I have decided to put it up on Amazon, but there’s a surprising amount of style change required to make it ‘readable’ to modern readers. The book is set in Africa, in Northern Rhodesia, on a remote Colonial administrative center and it’s a murder mystery.

Cast list and synopses

A long-promised project. I have a lot of characters, and I’m writing a brief description of each to put in the back of the Bite Back series books, along with a synopsis of the story so far.

Next up

Bian’s Tale book 1, Saigon – The Reach of Lies. I know, I should be in Saigon researching this! However, the Saigon I’m writing about is the ‘Paris of the Orient’ in 1900, and that doesn’t exist any more.

I got about half way through writing Saigon a couple of years and it wasn’t going well, so I put it aside. It’s time to get it back out and finish it.

Schedule for publication? You know me and schedules. I’ll post progress.

Then…

Bite Back 6, as yet unnamed. Obviously, this will be next year. I have lots of scenes and ideas and I hope to have more from my road trip.

Also…

I may try my hand at writing something short and completely different, just to keep everything fresh. If you have a genre you’d like to see me try (there’s a challenge), email me at the contact address or comment here.

 

 

 

News, Progress and Round-up for May 2016

Yeah, the usual look at the sales and WiP and stuff.

But first! MILESTONES IN REVIEWS

The US Amazon site logged it’s 200th review! On 31st May, Hao-Ying Feng logged a 5 star review after a binge re-read of the series. Thank you! And thank you to each and every one of you who reviews on Amazon, Goodreads or by messaging me. All hugely welcome and important for me.

AND while I’m talking reviews, 95% of the SoH reviews are 4 or 5 star. That I wouldn’t have predicted when I started.

Almost at the same time, Angel Stakes hit 50 reviews in the 6 weeks since launch, and the percentage of 4 & 5 star has remained the same.

What are the next milestones? I guess 250 for SoH or 750 for the series on US Amazon (currently 604). On the series total, I will ‘cheat’ once Winter’s Kiss is written, because then it and The Biting Cold will be part of the series. 🙂

And then 1,000 for both US and UK Amazon added together (currently 711), or 350 on Goodreads (currently 303).

WRITING PROGRESS

Winter’s Kiss is more than half way done. As I mentioned in posts on Facebook, this sequel isn’t the same length as The Biting Cold (20k words). TBC was written to a specification on length for an anthology, and WK is just to link the story in with Bite Back, so I have more leeway.

I’ve given a couple of teasers on Facebook, linked by mentions of jazz (Amanda loves jazz). In case you didn’t see them there, here they are again:

“Morning found us just a few miles east of Marquette. The sun inched above the horizon, flooding the car’s rear window with hazy gold, etching the edges of the long, low buildings, and throwing our shadow out in front, where the road unwound like an old jazz song in a smoky club.”

and later…

“I switched switches on the music center. Little LEDs started to glow, and I pulled out LPs at random until the words jazz and soul songs caught my eye. A collection of instrumentals based on old songs. The list had some of my favorites, spanning the years.

I put the LP on the turntable. It was lucky it was one of those that loaded the arm automatically, because my hands were shaking.

I closed my eyes and waited; part of the drama and romance that I loved about LPs was that moment at the beginning.

A quiet hiss and crackle, full of anticipation, then the music started. A few falling notes were tossed out from a sax, as a ticking drum marked the beat. The piano picked up a couple of the notes, tossed them back. The saxophone held one note, almost too long, and then just let it drop and tumble and flow into the bittersweet melody of Ain’t No Sunshine.”

What else have I been doing?

The print books are a mess. Cool Hand and Angel Stakes not yet available, the sizes have changed, the covers don’t match. What I thought would be a simple overhaul turned into a nightmare. And to help out, CreateSpace (Amazon’s Print-on-Demand company) have changed their specifications. Everything is a PDF now. Not such a problem for the body of the book, but I have no graphics programs that save as PDF. I ended up loading the image into Word and using that to save. Which of course leads to warnings that my resolution is low. Grrr.

Adding to the frustrations, I use Word for writing, and Word’s print book formatting functions are flakey.

Anyway. I have submitted Cool Hand and Angel Stakes to CreateSpace and they now enable reviewing online, allowing me to skip the physical book review process. The print books *should* be available in the next week or so.

I apologize for the covers. What I’ve done is simply take the eBook cover, added black for the spine and back page and written on the black. All fine as long as the I’ve allocated *exactly* enough width for the spine.

I will do a rework of the covers and get everything to match in size and style, but it’s not on the critical path.

The print book fiasco means that I haven’t progressed with my other non-writing writing project, which is to create cast lists and summaries of story-so-far for each Bite Back sequel.

SALES

I did a big review last month, so I’m not going to repeat that since the figures haven’t changed dramatically. Instead, I’ll look at the overview and implications.

Averaged out at the moment, I guess I’m selling 600 books a month and that needs to be 1,200.

I’m still selling 70-80 Sleight of Hand a month, and a percentage of those go on to read the entire series. Amazon only knows the exact figures, but the sales stats suggest to me that about 80% of people who pick up SoH now go on to read all of the books in the series. This is as opposed to the figures of readers who picked up SoH back in 2012, which is about 25%. That low percentage is based on the total sales ever of Cool Hand as a percentage of total sales ever of Sleight of Hand, and it does creep up as some people just take their time going through the series.

What does this mean? Very approximately, I believe that if I had ten Bite Back books now, my monthly sales would be 1,200. The problem is that writing that next 5 will take me 5 years, and in the meantime SoH would slide.

What am I going to do about it? Write realted or unrelated shorter stories that I believe may bring in readers who wouldn’t otherwise have picked up Sleight of Hand, but who like the shorter stories enough to try the series.

I’d like to try out writing novels in two parts – a short story of around 10k words which tells a story but ends on a cliffhanger, and leads straight into a novella of around 50k words. This is close to the way The Biting Cold turned out. TBC was actually 20k words and Winter’s Kiss will be about 40k, and TBC didn’t end on a cliffhanger, but you get my drift.

I have a couple of ideas kicking around in my head – one in the Bite Back world but set in Canada and sharing none of the cast, another a SciFi novella and completely different. Oh, and one set in the 17th century Caribbean that popped up in a conversation with Debra Dunbar (that one might be related to Bite Back).

This does NOT mean that I’m less committed to Bite Back, but I think I can do these things and still get one Bite Back novel out every year. We’ll see.

Other projects – German

German translations have stopped at the moment. I need to get another translator, but I have to say that I need to re-examine the income to see if the cost is justified. I think I’d prefer to hand over to a German publishing company who do this as a business. I need to talk to people.

Other projects – Audio

Julia Motyka is unavailable until September, but assures me she’ll be back in the studio with Angel Stakes then. Audio sales are reasonable (as far as I know) – SoH 1,578, HT 668, WC 504, CH 273. Are there any writers out there with audiobooks who would be okay to share their sales with me?

Anything else

I asked people on the Facebook site what music Amber listens to. What a wonderful response, and a huge playlist to sort through! Great fun. Thank you all.

I’m planning a trip to America this year. My bio says I’m frequently in the Rockies and I haven’t been. At the end of August & beginning of September, I’ll be with my daughter in New York. After that, I hope to work my way down the Rockies from somewhere around Bozeman, Montana to Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking in Denver, Cheyenne and the loneliest road in the States. I hope to end up returning to UK via Boston and maybe catching some fall colors. This is a research and writing trip, not a book signing journey, but I’ll be happy to sign books, meet readers and attend conventions. If there’s interest, I’ll publish an itinerary closer to the time.

 

Update – what’s next – what’s up

Angel Stakes

The re-draft of Angel Stakes has fixed almost all the problems. There are a couple of scenes that need tweaking, some general grammar, pronunciation, British-ism removal etc. I’m reasonably sure that means no more than a couple of weeks before publication.

The offer of a teaser comprising the first 3 chapters is still open, just post a comment here or email the usual contact address.

So what’s up at the moment

I’m on Goodreads answering questions about Sleight of Hand specifically and the Bite Back series in general. Any questions you have? Bring them to Goodreads, please. I’d love to see you there. I’ll be offering a new free short story to anyone who posts on these discussions.

You’ll need to be a member of Goodreads, which is free of course, join at https://www.goodreads.com/ and you’ll also need to join the Urban Fantasy discussion group at https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/55293-girls-guns-and-grimoires.

The two discussion threads are https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18061756-sleight-of-hand-a-chat-with-the-author and https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18061752-sleight-of-hand-general-discussion

I’ve already fielded questions about how Athanate bite humans without infusing them, what hobbies I have in order to come up with all the crazy stuff, and how I can write a woman’s PoV book, but I’m sure there’s lots more to come.

If you haven’t already, do please post book reviews on Goodreads or Amazon. If you have, thank you, much appreciated!

What’s next

I’m working on a short story sequel to The Biting Cold, which will probably be called Winter’s Kiss. I’m restarting work on the first book of Bian’s Tale. I’m gathering threads and events that Bite Back book 6 has to deal with.

An excerpt from Bite Back book 5

Very slight spoilers…

I generally feel with these quiet parts of the Bite Back books that I’m going overboard. Readers generally come back and tell me I’m not. Anyway, I’m going to try out a short section on this blog that hasn’t even been seen by the beta readers yet…

How in such a complex, structured society as the Athanate, could you win an argument? The issue under discussion is this: when the paranormal races reveal themselves to humans, should they agree to abide by human law, or should there be a separate law for them? A very intricate sort of problem and one on which a great deal hangs in the balance.

The Empire of Heaven (China and most of south-east Asia) stood aside from the first Athanate Assembly when it was invoked in the 1920s. The Empire of Heaven is the largest group after the two main creeds of the Assembly, Panethus and Basilikos. As the parameters of the new Assembly are being hammered out in book 5, the Empire arrives at the meeting, in the person of their Emperor’s own Diakon, Xun Huang. What side of the debate will he come down on?

This is a small part, a quiet interlude in the usual rush.

This is Huang’s speech to the Athanate. He may have been influenced by Maya Angelou (paraphrased here): “They may forget what you said but they will never forget what you made them feel.”

 

Huang walked to the center of the floor and stood still, waiting until the silence spread.

When he did speak, his voice was so quiet everyone had to lean forward to hear.

I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what came.

“I am old, even as we Athanate count it,” he said.

His words were slow and formal, with a rhythm that seemed to carry me along.

“Many, many years ago, I buried my father in an unmarked grave, beneath a solitary Linden tree on a south facing hillside, near a quiet river. In the heat of summer, the Linden’s leaves are thick and dark and green. They take the shape of hearts, and beneath their shade, the ground is always cool; the air always holds the scent of limes. As winter nears, those leaves turn and fall like a harvest of the richest gold, and make a crown to rest upon my father’s head.

Between the wars that tore our land, I would return there, and lie on that hillside. It eased my soul, and restored my strength in a time of great turmoil.

Then, beside my father, I buried my sons and my daughters, their youthful faces as yet half-formed, unblemished by age.”

Huang paused and looked up and down the ranks of Athanate, and we were silent. The whole auditorium had unconsciously synced their heartbeats with their neighbors’, until we were a creature with a single pulse, waiting, listening.

“No man should bear that sorrow,” Huang continued. “No woman either, and my wife joined them before the leaves had fallen again. I planted the trees that were their only marker.

From that moment,  I slept only when exhaustion took me, because on waking, for a moment it was as if I could turn and see my wife again, only for that dream to fade, and the nightmare of life to begin again.

When the Emperor found me, I sought death every day in the face of the enemy. What prize could he offer me, in my despair, that would make me want to become immortal? What reward to become Athanate, and know that sorrow for eternity?

He spoke to me; simple words, words he told me he first heard from the lips of the Kumemnon herself, her own words: This is the gift and the sorrow of the Athanate; to see your loves pass before you like the days of summer, while your heart still beats. To keep your vigil in the shadows, and rise again with every sun.

That part you all know. Many carve it above doors to their hidden sanctuaries, to remind them that as there is light, there must be darkness, and the world turns regardless.

But the Lamentation of Arunne goes on: To be bound upon the wheel of heaven; to toil and toil and never be done. To love without reserve forever, and rise again with every sun.

He paused, and in the depths of the auditorium the Athanate shivered as the words touched us.

Huang went on.

“That is what he said to me, and I bared my neck to him.

On that hillside now, beside the quiet river, there grows a forest, such that I may not find my family’s trees among those that mark my kin. I return there sometimes for a night. To sleep, to dream, and rise again with the sun.

The war took away my family, and my Emperor replaced it with duty. He offered me no soft consolation, no comforting lies. As one who passes from childhood must put away the easy refuges of youth, to become Athanate is to shoulder a greater destiny. And to achieve that, one may not live as a man or woman may live, under the strictures of their society.

The Athanate people must retain their own laws and customs.”