You can now download Joe Haldeman's classic, The Forever War, for only 3.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
A THOUSAND YEAR CONFLICT. ONE SOLDIER LIVES THROUGH IT ALL. CAN HE MAINTAIN HIS HUMANITY?
The Forever War is a science fiction classic that chronicles the life of William Mandella. Due to the time distortion associated with deep space travel, he is present during both the first and the last battle of a thousand year old conflict with the alien Taurans.
A masterpiece of not just science fiction, The Forever War illustrates the futility of all wars and their effect on the human soul.
The Forever War won all major science fiction awards including the Hugo, Nebula and Locus. Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner and Alien, is currently adapting this classic for film.
This is the author's preferred version and includes a foreword by John Scalzi, author of Old Man's War.
After the disaster that was Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, I hesitated before giving another Nobel prize-winning author a shot. But Orhan Pamuk's novels were everywhere during my stay in Turkey. Every time I entered a gift shop, I would once again see his books and then peruse them, and my curiosity was piqued. Back in Canada, I ordered two of them to give the author a try. And since Márquez's so-called masterpiece left me so thoroughly disillusioned, I elected to read the work that earned Pamuk the Nobel prize in Literature.
Unlike One Hundred Years of Solitude, Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red captivates you from the very beginning, grabbing hold and never letting you go. Though not fantasy per se, the setting and Pamuk's writing style should please most speculative fiction aficionados.
Here's the blurb:
From one of the most important and acclaimed writers at work today, a thrilling new novel—part murder mystery, part love story—set amid the perils of religious repression in sixteenth-century Istanbul.
When the Sultan commissions a great book to celebrate his royal self and his extensive dominion, he directs Enishte Effendi to assemble a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed, and no one in the elite circle can know the full scope or nature of the project.
Panic erupts when one of the chosen miniaturists disappears, and the Sultan demands answers within three days. The only clue to the mystery—or crime?—lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Has an avenging angel discovered the blasphemous work? Or is a jealous contender for the hand of Enishte’s ravishing daughter, the incomparable Shekure, somehow to blame?
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red is at once a fantasy and a philosophical puzzle, a kaleidoscopic journey to the intersection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.
Essentially, My Name Is Red is a muder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. On a different level, it is also an exploration of the concept of art within the confines of Islamic society and how their interpretation of art clashes with that of the Western world. The story takes place in 1591 during the reign of Sultan Murat III, and the author's depiction of 16th century Istanbul and Ottoman Empire gives this work an unforgettable vibe. Exactly the sort of Islamic "flavor" I expected Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon to have. This is an exploration of Islam by a Muslim author, which means that there is a lot of depth and countless nuances that imbue My Name Is Red with the type of realism that Christian authors or writers of various faiths simply cannot grasp or portray.
Like George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter of Pamuk's My Name Is Red features a different narrator, more than a dozen in total. This cast of disparate protagonists allows us to see the tale unfold through the eyes of vastly different men and women. There are a few odd POV choices, such as Satan, the color red, a tree, a dog, and a corpse. These narrators do serve a purpose, that of shining some light on various elements of 16th century Islamic society.
The pace is crisp for the better part of the book, as Black seeks to unveil the identity of the murderer of Elegant Effendi. The panoply of POV characters, the witty narratives, the arresting imagery, and the convoluted plot all make for a page-turner. Near the end, the rhythm becomes a bit sluggish and Orhan Pamuk's novel suddenly become a treatise on Islamic art for a while. Still, the various info-dumps don't take much away from the overall reading experience.
Intelligent, richly detailed, and thought-provoking, as a murder mystery work Pamuk's My Name Is Red remains an accessible novel that should satisfy even jaded readers looking for something different.
Thanks to the author's generosity, here's an exclusive excerpt from Sam Sykes' upcoming The Skybound Sea! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
The skies bleed. The earth groans. The sea howls. The world is rent asunder as the Kraken Queen claws her way from hell. And the only ones standing in her way are a young man with a piece of steel and a voice in his head, his many companions, and their many, many problems.
As Lenk journeys to the Island of Jaga, the tomb of Ulbecetonth, he is hunted. By enemies, by the woman he loves, by the demon he has to kill, by an army of any number of bloodthirsty purple berserkers, savage lizardmen, vicious monsters, and colossal demons.
In the lands where sky and sea have forgotten they were ever separate, Lenk and the companions' destinies await at the tip of a sword and the mouth of hell.
The Shen came surging up the highway in a riot of color. Lanky green muscle trembled beneath tattooed bands of red and black, weapons of bone and metal flashed in their hands, yellow eyes grew gold with fury at the sight of her.
Great webbed crests rose from their scaly crowns, displaying colorful murals tattooed on the leathery flesh. Giant fish on some, serpents on others—various peoples in various stages of dismemberment seemed a rather popular choice.
They bent at the waist, long tails risen behind them as they picked up speed, raised their weapons and howled.
Like hounds, she thought. Big, tattooed, ugly hounds. With weapons. Sharp ones. She glanced up the road. Why aren’t you running, again?
If her head couldn’t form a response, her feet did. And they spoke loudly and in great favor of screaming loudly and running away. She agreed and tore down the highway, folding her ears over themselves to block the sound of a dozen warcries growing louder.
She saw Lenk a moment later, the young man leaning on his knees and trying desperately to catch his breath. She opened her mouth to warn him, to tell him that they were close enough behind that he had to keep moving.
“YOU SON OF A BITCH!”
That wasn’t a warning, but it made him move, regardless. He sheathed his sword and took off at a sprint, falling in beside her.
“You could have warned me,” she snarled between breaths.
“Did you not see me running?” he screamed back. “What, did you think I was just that excited to see you?”
“You had your sword drawn! I didn’t know what was happening!”
Her ears pricked up at a faint whistle growing steadily louder. She leapt and the arrow cursed her in a spray of sparks and a whine of metal as it struck the stones where she had just stood.
“How about now?” he asked. “If you’re still confused, they’ve got more arrows.”
And in symphonic volleys, the arrows wailed. They came screaming from atop the walls, making shrill and childish demands for blood, skulking in clattering mutters when they found only stone.
The archers took only a few opportunistic shots, shouldering their bows and racing atop the wall after their fleeing pink targets as soon as they moved out of range. But there were always more archers and ever more arrows.
Precise shots, Kataria thought. Hungry shots. Little wolves of metal and wood. And like wolves, they came from all sides.
She glanced over to the side. The kelp had thinned out, giving way to another, stranger forest.
Coral formations rose out of the sand and into the gray sky. Jagged blue pillars, spheres of twisted green, great cobwebs of red thorns and sheets of yellow blossomed like a garden of brittle, dead gemstones.
It might have been beautiful, had each formation not been host to yellow eyes lurking in their towering pillars, green feet perched upon the colorful branches, bows bent and arrows drawn.
They ducked, weaved, hid where they could, tumbled where they had to. Arrows snarled overhead, jagged tips reaching with bone-shard barbs. They darted behind one of the twisted bells to avoid a volley. The arrows struck, sent the misshapen metal wailing, screaming, weeping, laughing, grinding sound against sound in a horrifying cacophony.
Kataria clamped hands over her ears, shouted to be heard. “How far back are they?”
“I don’t care!” he shouted back. “Just keep going until we can find someplace to hide!”
She glanced over her shoulder. The tide of Shen seemed a distant green ebb. They had checked their pace, pursuing with intent, not speed. They were up to something. Or maybe lizards just weren’t meant to run on two legs.
“Must be the tails,” she muttered. “We’re bound to lose them soon. For a bunch of crafty savages, you’d think they’d have a better plan than just chasing us and—“
“Damn it, Kat,” Lenk snarled. “Why the hell would you say that?”
She didn’t have to ask. The moment she turned, she saw it, looming overhead, its gray so dark it stood out even against the cloud-shrouded sky. The monolith statue stood upon the wall, palm outstretched, a symbol of a great, unblinking eye set within its stone hood.
While it certainly didn’t seem to object to the cluster of Shen around its feet trying desperately to push it over and onto the road below, Kataria picked up her speed.
“Stop!” Lenk rasped. “We’ll never make it!”
“Yes, we will! Just go faster!”
He did go. Faster than her, even. Their breath became soundless, coming so swiftly and weakly it might as well not exist. Their legs pumped numbly beneath them, forgetting that they were supposed to have collapsed by now. They had nothing left to give but the desperate hope of passing before the statue fell.
Whatever god it was supposed to represent, though, the monolith appeared unmoved.
By their efforts, anyway.
The collective heaving of ten Shen proved to be far more persuasive.
The monolith tilted with a roar of rock and the wail of wind as it teetered and pitched over the wall, plummeting to the road below. She felt the shock of it through her numb feet, coursing up into her skull as the old stone god smashed against the rock below, sending a wave of pulverized granite dust erupting.
His legs desperately trying to remember how to stop, Lenk skidded into the great stone eye with an undignified sound. He came to a rasping, gasping halt.
Kataria did not.
With an almost unnerving casualness, she leapt, racing up his back, onto his shoulders, leaping off of him like a fleshy, wheezy stepping stone and scrambling atop the statute’s stone flank. She turned, looked down at him as he scrambled to follow her, failed to even come close.
She clicked her tongue. “Okay, so I was halfway right.”
Had he the breath to respond, he probably would have cursed her. Had he the energy to lift his sword, he probably would have thrown it at her. She didn’t watch him for long, though. Her eyes were drawn down the road, toward the advancing Shen horde. Archers continued to slither out of the coral forest to join the tide, bows added to the throngs of clubs and blades raised high and hungry for blood.
But even that did not hold her attention for long.
Her ears did not prick up at the sound, for she did not hear it. She felt it, in the nothingness of the mist. Determination. Compassion. Hate. Anger.
He was out there, somewhere. Somewhere close. Watching her, even now. And his were not the only eyes upon her.
But the Shen were also close. And growing closer. Stay and chase them off, she thought, and the greenshicts would come and kill Lenk. Leave to chase off the greenshicts and the Shen would kill Lenk. Neither option was attractive.
But then he decided for her.
“I can’t make it,” he said, finally finding his breath. “You have to go.”
“Right,” she said, making a move to leave.
“I didn’t mean it! I was trying to be noble!”
“Ah…” She looked at him and winced. “Well.”
And Lenk was left staring at an empty space she had just occupied. Had he breath to speak, he still wouldn’t have had the words to describe what he felt just then.
Someone else did, though.
“Told you,” the voice whispered.
Don’t be an asshole about this, he thought in reply.
“More important matters, anyway.”
The voice was right. Lenk knew that the moment he heard the hissing behind him. Breath coming heavily, sweat dripping from his brow, Lenk turned around very slowly. But he was in no hurry.
When he finally turned to face them, the Shen were waiting.
In June, our resident fantasy go-to reviewer Steve Hubbard presented you with 20 Must-Read Fantasy Series titles, and now he's back with Part Two --- a curated list of his favorite Stand Alone Fantasy books.
Complete with the "grandfather of fantasy" --- THE HOBBIT --- and other essential fantasy novels including AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman and THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum, this collection will help you get lost in a number of mysterious and magical worlds. Whether you are new to the Fantasy genre and wondering where to start --- or already are a fan, checking our list to see what you have missed --- we hope you’ll note titles you want to explore.
Of course, all lists are subjective and that's as it should be. But this one is a bit weird, especially with the presence of Sanderson's The Way of Kings.
Here are Steve Hubbard's picks:
- Neil Gaiman's American Gods
- Burton Raffel's Beowulf
- China Miéville's The City and the City
- John Gardner's Grendel
- J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
- Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
- Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter
- Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn
- Sir Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur
- Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon
- Christopher Priest's The Prestige
- William Goldman's The Princess Bride
- John Myers Myers' Silverlock
- Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes
- Steven Brust's To Reign in Hell
- Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven
- Eve Forward's Villains by Necessity
- Richard Adams' Watership Down
- Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings
- L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
You can now download Jo Walton's Nebula award-winning Among Others for only £0.99 here.
Here's the blurb:
Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Startling, unusual, and yet irresistably readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.
'It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.'
Fifteen-year-old Morwenna lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother who spins dark magic for ill. One day, Mori and her mother fight a powerful, magical battle that kills her sister and leaves Mori crippled. Devastated, Mori flees to her long-lost father in England. Adrift, outcast at boarding school, Mori retreats into the worlds she knows best: her magic and her books. She works a spell to meet kindred souls and continues to devour every fantasy and science fiction novel she can lay her hands on. But danger lurks... She knows her mother is looking for her and that when she finds her, there will be no escape.
Seeing a woman's bare face, speaking to her, and witnessing her humanity opens the way to both pangs of lust and deep spiritual pain in us men, and thus the best of all alternatives is not to lay eyes on women, especially pretty women, without first being lawfully wed, as our noble faith dictates. The sole remedy for carnal desires is to seek out the friendship of beautiful boys, a satisfactory surrogate for females, and in due time, this, too, becomes a sweet habit. In the cities of the European Franks, women roam about exposing not only their faces, but also their brightly shinning hair (after their necks, their most attractive feature), their arms, their beautiful throats, and even, if what I've heard is true, a portion of their gorgeous legs; as a result, the men of those cities walk about with great difficulty, embarrassed and in extreme pain, because, you see, their front sides are always erect and this fact naturally leads to the paralysis of their society. Undoubtedly, this is why each day the Frank infidel surrenders another fortress to us Ottomans.
Well, I'm sad to report that it took everything I had for me to finish this book. Honestly, I haven't had such a hard time reaching the end of a book since David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale. I kid you not. . .
As was the case with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash a few weeks back, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude had been siting on my shelf for well over a decade, awaiting my attention. Yet every time I decided that the time had come to finally read it, for some reason in the end I would hold back. One Hundred Years of Solitude has become such a classic and is considered a literary masterpiece, and hence is raised my expectations to what I felt was an impossible level to reach. To put it simply, Márquez's signature work had to be the very best novel I had ever read. Anything else would be a disappointment. . .
And what a major disappointment it was. The only reason I finished the book was because two people close to me loved it to such a degree that I felt it would be like letting them down if I didn't read it from one end to the other. One of them called Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind "vulgar fluff" compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sorry, but I get to differ. . .
Here's the blurb:
One of the 20th century's enduring works, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a widely beloved and acclaimed novel known throughout the world, and the ultimate achievement in a Nobel Prize–winning career.
The novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. It is a rich and brilliant chronicle of life and death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the noble, ridiculous, beautiful, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America.
Love and lust, war and revolution, riches and poverty, youth and senility -- the variety of life, the endlessness of death, the search for peace and truth -- these universal themes dominate the novel. Whether he is describing an affair of passion or the voracity of capitalism and the corruption of government, Gabriel García Márquez always writes with the simplicity, ease, and purity that are the mark of a master.
Alternately reverential and comical, One Hundred Years of Solitude weaves the political, personal, and spiritual to bring a new consciousness to storytelling. Translated into dozens of languages, this stunning work is no less than an accounting of the history of the human race.
As you undoubtedly know by now, I'm a plot kind of guy. Always have been and always will be. And since Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is a meandering book following the random tribulations of generations of the Buendía family with no plot to speak of, it was impossible for me to get into it.
Yes, I understand that Macondo is a metaphor for Colombia, and the entire novel is sort of a metaphor for Latin America history. I get all that. But Marquez is all over the place, with storylines going everywhere and nowhere, which prevented me from getting into it. Also, the non-linear narrative spanning a number of generations precludes any sort of depth in terms of characterization.
Gabriel García Márquez's prose is awesome, though. The narrative is smart, witty, humorous, and you find yourself chuckling all the time by various turn of phrases he uses. At the beginning, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. And then I started reading Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie (Canada, USA, Europe), which is one of the most touching and rewarding books I have ever read. Problem is, for years I had been told that One Hundred Years of Solitude was so touching and rewarding. For all its wit and humor and the metaphoric aspect of the underlying Latin America history, the plot itself was so much fluff that Albom's heartwarming work totally killed Márquez's classic for me. Still, I plowed on, hoping to encounter what made countless people fall in love with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Unfortunately, the narrative remains the same as it focuses on various members of the Buendía family at different points in history.
At one point the whole thing became so pointless that it took me over two weeks to read the last 200 pages or so. The narrative was as fun to read as it had been in the beginning, but the total absence of plot meant that I was just going through the motions, hoping to reach the end without giving up.
I'm aware that my lofty expectations were so high that One Hundred Years of Solitude had no chance of satisfying me. Yet I never expected such a renowned work to be such an epic fail for me. For all of its metaphors, I found the book to be more or less meaningless and impossible to get into. Is Love in the Time of Cholera like this? If so, I'm throwing it into the box of book I donate to libraries immediately.
Incredible prose, but no plot to speak of. Sadly, this one wasn't for me. . .
Here's the UK cover art for Ian Cameron Esslemont's Blood and Bone.
Like the setting, but the warrior is a bit off-putting. I guess it's the chainmail and the helmet. . .
Here's the blurb:
In the western sky the bright emerald banner of the Visitor descends like a portent of annihilation. On the continent of Jacuruku, the Thaumaturgs have mounted yet another expedition to tame the neighboring wild jungle. Yet this is no normal wilderness. It is called Himatan, and it is said to be half of the spirit-realm and half of the earth. And it is said to be ruled by a powerful entity whom some name the Queen of Witches, and some a goddess: the ancient Ardata. Saeng grew up knowing only the rule of the magus Thaumaturgs -- but it was the voices out of that land's forgotten past that she listened to. And when her rulers mount an invasion of the neighboring jungle, those voices send her and her brother on a desperate mission.
To the south, the desert tribes are united by the arrival of a foreign warleader, a veteran commander in battered ashen mail whom his men call, the Grey Ghost. This warleader takes the tribes on a raid like none other, deep into the heart of Thaumaturg lands. While word comes to K'azz, and mercenary company the Crimson Guard, of a contract in Jacuruku. And their employer... none other than Ardata herself.
Thanks to the generosity of the author, here's an exclusive excerpt from Jacqueline Carey's Dark Currents! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…
The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.
To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.
But when a young man from a nearby college drowns—and signs point to eldritch involvement—the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime—and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.
And that was a good thing, since it helped distract me while Jen went on and on and back and forth about Cody Fairfax, and whether or not he really was a jerk, whether or not he might call, whether she should go out with him if he did—
Well, that was an easy one.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “So he is a jerk?”
I sighed. Lying isn’t one of the Seven Deadlies, but I tried to avoid it. When you’re condemned to go through life worrying about being the spawn of Satan, you learn to avoid anything that leads you down a dark path. “Not exactly. It’s just... you know his track record.”
“Yeah, but people change.” Jen scanned the crowd, looking for her eleven-year-old brother. “Brandon! Stay where I can see you, okay?” Lowering her voice, she turned back to me. “Is it true that Cody only became a cop so he could make sure his family doesn’t get busted for growing pot in the county woods?”
“No,” I said honestly. “I’m pretty sure that’s not true.”
“They’re a little like the Joads or something, aren’t they? Like one of those inbred redneck families Mr. Leary made us read about.” Jen nibbled on a manicured thumbnail, caught herself doing it and stopped. “But Cody’s different.” She shrugged. “Anyway, who am I to talk about family?”
I didn’t say anything. Jen’s family was no prize. Her father worked as a caretaker and handyman for a bunch of wealthy families with summer homes. He could fix almost anything, and when he was sober, he had a reputation for being a reasonably decent guy. But he wasn’t sober often, especially at home. He had a chip on his shoulder that grew ten times bigger when he drank, and he took his temper out on Jen’s mother.
Still, compared to my father, that was nothing.
“Sorry.” Jen made a self-deprecating face. “You know what I mean. Your mom’s great. You know I love her.”
“Yeah.” I smiled at her. “I know.”
It was true. Ever since Jen and I had become friends in high school, when I helped her track down her older sister Bethany at the House of Shadows and make sure she was okay, or as okay as she could be under the circumstances, Mom had taken Jen under her wing, doing her best to make sure Jen didn’t get into the same kind of trouble. Which is sort of ironic if you think about it, since dating a werewolf might fall under that category. On the other hand, I knew plenty of girls who’d dated Cody Fairfax without suffering any side effects worse than common heartbreak, so I guess it’s nowhere near as dangerous as becoming a blood-slut out at Twilight Manor.
By the way, if you’re ever conversing with an actual vampire, do not refer to the House of Shadows as Twilight Manor. There’s a reason vampires aren’t known for their senses of humor. If you accidentally do so, I’d say run, but it’s probably already too late.
Los Gatos del Sol ended one song and went straight into another rollicking number. It’s hard to stay moody when you’re listening to a good Tex-Mex band, and they were cute, especially the accordian player. Funny how accordian players are dorky in a polka band, but kind of sexy playing Tex-Mex or zydeco. This one was working the whole smoldering Latino thing, tossing his head to keep an errant lock of black hair out of his eyes. Catching my gaze, he winked at me. There was a faint sheen of sweat on the brown skin of his bare throat, and I imagined myself licking it.
A jolt of lust shivered the length of my spine, making my tail twitch.
Yeah, I said tail.
No horns, no batwings, no cloven hooves, and Mom swears I don’t have a birthmark that reads 666 on my scalp. Since I trust her, I haven’t shaved my head to check. Mostly, I take after her. I have her pert nose, her cheekbones, her chin. I inherited her fair skin and that white-blonde Scandinavian hair everyone thinks comes from a bottle.
But I have my father’s eyes, which are as black as the pits of... well, you know. And a cute little tail, which I’ve learned to tuck as carefully as a drag queen tucks his package, only back to front.
For the record, I’m not actually the spawn of Satan. My father’s name is Belphegor, lesser demon and occasional incubus. Here’s another piece of advice: If you’re vacationing in Pemkowet, or anywhere on the planet with a functioning underworld, do not mess around with a ouija board. The spirit you summon might just pay a visit. Mom learned that the hard way, and I’m living proof of it.
Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn. That’s me.
At any rate, there’s a fine line between desire and lust, and and unfortunately, lust is one of the Seven Deadlies. With my emotions roiling under the surface, it wasn’t safe to skirt around the edges of it; not to mention the fact that casual hook-ups tended to go south at some point. There are circumstances under which it becomes very difficult to conceal a tail, even a small one. Believe me, that’s an awkward conversation to have.
“Check it out.” Jen nudged my arm, jerking her chin at the accordian player. “He’s checking you out.”
“Yeah.” Ruefully, I folded up the image of my licking his throat and packed it away in a mental suitcase, zipping it closed. “But it’s complicated.”
“Yeah, I know.” Jen was quiet a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” I was grateful for her understanding.
In the west, the sun sank slowly behind the treeline. Los Gatos del Sol took a break. The Pride of Pemkowet, a replica of an old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamboat, churned down the river to catch the sunset, laden with sightseers. There was a splash, and then oohs and ahs from the tourists aboard the boat. They’d caught a glimpse of something this time; a flash of a naiad’s pearl-white arm, maybe, or an undine’s hair trailing like translucent seaweed. The locals stayed seated while the tourists in the park rushed to the dock to see, returning in muttering disappointment. Whatever it was, they’d missed it.
By the time the band began its last set, the dusk was luminous. I watched the children at play.
It was a lovely sight, and only a little bittersweet. I missed the careless unselfconsciousness of childhood, when a boy on the bus could be a hero and nothing more complicated. The youngest kids flitted around the park like dragonflies. There were little girls forming friendships on the spot, one in a flounced polka-dotted skirt, one decked out in tie-dye by latter-day hippy parents. There was a young gymnast showing off, turning cartwheel after perfect cartwheel. Jen’s brother Brandon was hanging out with a couple of buddies, trying to look like they were too cool to play with the little kids. He was a surprise baby, what they call a change-of-life baby.
There was a dad letting his three daughters spin around him like a Maypole, making themselves dizzy until they fell tumbling onto the soft grass. Over there, a boy who couldn’t have been older than five or six was swiveling his hips like a miniature Elvis. There was a giggling blonde girl with a doll in the crook of one arm leading another little girl in gingham by the hand toward the bushes—
My skin prickled. One of those kids wasn’t a kid. Reaching into my purse, I eased out my police ID and stood slowly.
“What’s up?” Jen asked.
My tail twitched again, this time in a predatory reflex. “Hang on. I’ll be right back.”
I followed the little girls behind the curve of the ornamental hedge, catching them just as the one was handing her doll to the other.
“Don’t take that, sweetheart,” I said to the girl in gingham. “That’s not a nice doll.”
She gave me a confused look.
“We were only playing!” the blonde said in a sweet, piping voice. She had pink, rosy cheeks and blue eyes set in a heart-shaped face.
It takes an effort of will to see through a glamour, and not everyone can do it, but I can. The angelic-looking child before me turned into a milkweed fairy, all sharp-angled features and tip-tilted eyes, a halo of silvery fluff floating around its head, tattered, translucent wings springing from its shoulder blades. The baby doll it clutched had become a ripe milkweed pod oozing sticky white sap. I held up my ID. “Play somewhere else.”
The fairy hissed at me, baring a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth. “Thou hast no authority over me! I do not yield to a piece of plastic!”
“No?” I held up my other hand, my left hand, palm outward, displaying the rune written there, invisible to mundane eyes but plain as day to a fairy’s. “How about this?”
The fairy recoiled, but held its ground. “Hel should never have granted an ill-gotten half-breed such license!”
For the record, that’s Hel the Norse goddess of the dead, unrelated to the hell from whence my father came. Ironic, I know. An eldritch community needs a functioning underworld to exist, which makes Hel the number one supernatural authority in town. And I just happen to be her agent.
“But she did.” Anger stirred in me, and this time I let it rise, molten hot and delicious. I could feel the pressure building against my eardrums. On the other side of the hedge, someone let out a startled yelp as a bottle of soda popped its lid. The scent of ozone hung in the air, and electricity lifted my hair. I bared my own teeth in a smile, my tail twitching violently beneath the skirt of my sundress. And since you’re probably wondering, no, I don’t wear panties. “Do you yield?”
With another hiss, the milkweed fairy vanished.
The little mortal girl in the gingham dress burst into tears.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.” Reaching down, I took her hand and let my anger drain away. “What’s your name?”
She sniffled. “Shawna.”
“That’s very pretty.” I smiled at her. “Okay, Shawna. Let’s go find your mom and dad, shall we?”
Within a minute, I had her restored to her parents. Mom and Dad were a nice young couple visiting from Ohio. Caught up in the idyllic mood, listening to the band and watching the antics of the many children, they hadn’t even noticed their daughter’s fleeting absence. It had been so brief, I couldn’t blame them. It was easy to let your guard down on a beautiful evening in Pemkowet.
“Listen.” Lowering my voice, I nodded toward the public restroom, a squat cinderblock building rendered charming by virtue of a colorful Seurat painting replicated on its walls. While tourists emptied their bladders inside, 19th century Parisians strolled and lounged on the island of La Grande Jatte. “This may sound strange, but I strongly recommend you take Shawna to the bathroom and turn her dress inside-out.”
Ohio Mom blinked at me. “I beg your pardon?”
I laid one hand on Shawna’s head, stroking the wispy brown hair escaping from her ponytail. “It’s just a precaution. But your daughter caught a fairy’s attention. Better to be safe than sorry.”
Ohio Mom turned pale. Ohio Dad laughed. “Relax, hon. It’s just a publicity stunt.” He winked at me. “Fairies, huh?”
“It’s not a publicity stunt.” I couldn’t keep a hint of irritation from my voice. “Trust me, you don’t want to wake up in the morning and find nothing but a milkweed pod lying on Shawna’s pillow.”
Which could very well have happened if little Shawna had taken the doll. That’s all the fairy would have needed to make a changeling. Oh, we would have tracked her down eventually – I would have known what had happened as soon as I saw the missing persons report, which is how I came by my special role in the department in the first place – but it would have resulted in some seriously bad publicity.
Plus, there’s no telling how it might have affected the kid. People who get abducted by fairies come back... changed.
It took a bit of convincing, but Ohio Mom decided to humor me. I went back to rejoin Jen.
“Errant fairy,” I explained briefly.
She nodded. “Did you get them to turn the kid’s dress inside-out?”
Jen made a face. “Tourists.”
It wasn’t entirely their fault. The Pemkowet Visitors Bureau actively cultivates paranormal tourism. They don’t offer any guarantees – most visitors never catch more than a fleeting glimpse of a member of the eldritch community, or they fail to recognize those of us who pass for human – but the PVB isn’t exactly candid about the potential dangers, either.
What with being a goddess and all, albeit a much diminished one, Hel keeps most of the eldritch folk in line. The rune inscribed on my left palm is a symbol that I’m licensed to enforce her rules and act as her liaison between the underworld and the mundane authorities. It works pretty well most of the time, at least with the eldritch who respect order. Unfortunately, there are plenty who prefer chaos.
Especially fairies, of which we have many.
Los Gatos del Sol wrapped their last set. The crowd began to disperse into the warm night. Jen retrieved her brother Brandon, and we discussed plans to schedule a good old-fashioned movie night with my mom, or maybe a Gilmore Girls marathon.
I was relieved that she didn’t mention Cody again. Generally speaking, Jen and I didn’t keep secrets from each other. My crush on Cody was a glaring exception. It was tied up with keeping his secret, which I was honor-bound to do.
By the time I made my way back to my place, the young couple in the front apartment were making loud and vigorous love, which I could hear on the landing; but on the plus side, Mogwai had decided to make an appearance. I turned on the stereo and poured myself a couple inches of good scotch, my one grown-up indulgence, then lit a few candles and curled up in the love-seat on my screen porch to mull over the evening.
Mogwai settled his considerable tricolored bulk in my lap, kneading and purring his deep, raspy purr.
“Not too bad, Mog.” I stroked him absentmindedly. “One changeling scenario, averted. Hel would be pleased.”
He twitched one notched ear in a cat-quick flick.
I sighed. “And yeah, one hopeless crush flirting with my BFF. But it’s not really any of my business, is it?”
He purred louder in agreement.
On the stereo, Billie Holiday sang good morning to heartache, her voice fragile and almost tremulous; and yet there was a fine steel thread of strength running through it, a strength born of suffering and resolve. Of all the music in the world, nothing soothes my own savage breast like women singing the blues. The year I discovered it, I was twelve, and my mom was dating a bassist in a local jazz band, the only serious boyfriend I’d ever known her to have. He introduced us to a lot of music. His name was Trey Summers, and he was killed in a car accident that winter. I still missed him, and I know Mom did, too.
Outside, the night was filled with the sounds of a resort town in full revelry; partying tourists frequenting the bars, bass beats thumping. Inside, with profoundly poignant resignation, Billie Holiday invited heartache to sit down.
Robin Hobb (whose collection, Inheritance, we published last year), has just graced us with The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince, a brand new 37,000 word novella set in her popular Farseer universe. One of our favorite artists, Jon Foster, will provide the dust jacket, as well as two full-color interior illustrations, the latter exclusive to the signed limited edition.
Here's the blurb:
One of the darkest legends in the Realm of the Elderlings recounts the tale of the so-called Piebald Prince, a Witted pretender to the throne unseated by the actions of brave nobles so that the Farseer line could continue untainted. Now the truth behind the story is revealed through the account of Felicity, a low-born companion of the Princess Caution at Buckkeep.
With Felicity by her side, Caution grows into a headstrong Queen-in-Waiting. But when Caution gives birth to a bastard son who shares the piebald markings of his father’s horse, Felicity is the one who raises him. And as the prince comes to power, political intrigue sparks dangerous whispers about the Wit that will change the kingdom forever…
Internationally-bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Robin Hobb takes readers deep into the history behind the Farseer series in this exclusive, new novella, “The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince.” In her trademark style, Hobb offers a revealing exploration of a family secret still reverberating generations later when assassin FitzChivalry Farseer comes onto the scene. Fans will not want to miss these tantalizing new insights into a much-beloved world and its unforgettable characters.
You can pre-order "The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince" here.
Here's the cover art and the book trailer for Jeff Somers' forthcoming Trickster. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
From master storyteller Jeff Somers comes a gritty new urban fantasy series starring a pair of unlikely heroes: low-life blood mages caught up in a violent scheme not of their own making.
Lem has ethics in using his magic. Therefore Lem is hungry and broke most of the time.
Ethics in the world of blood magic, however, is a gray area. While Lem will grift his way through life by using small glamours to make $1 bills appear as $20s, enabling him and his none-too-bright pal Mags to eat, he won’t use other people's blood to cast. Stronger spells require more blood, and hardcore magicians use Bleeders or “volunteers” to this end. Not Lem.
So when these down-and-out boon companions encounter a girl kidnapped and marked with magic rune tattoos, it’s not at all clear that they’re powerful enough to save her…or themselves. Turning to his estranged Master for help, it quickly becomes clear to Lem that not only is this beautiful, strange girl’s life all but forfeit, but that the world’s preeminent mage had big, earth-shattering plans for her—and he and Mags just got in the way.
If you have yet to give Jeff Somers a shot, you need to get your hands on the Avery Cates books ASAP!
Forbes have released their annual list of the world's top-earning authors:
1. James Patterson (and his assorted minions) - $94 million
2. Stephen King - $39 million
3. Janet Evanovich - $33 million
4. John Grisham - $26 million
5. Jeff Kinney - $25 million
6. Bill O'Reilly - $24 million
7. Nora Roberts - $23 million
8. Danielle Steele - $23 million
9. Suzanne Collins - $20 million
10. Dean Koontz - $19 million
11. J.K. Rowling - $17 million
12. George R.R. Martin - $15 million
13. Stephanie Meyer - $14 million
14. Ken Follet - $14 million
15. Rick Riordan - $13 million
Hmmm, even though GRRM's entire ASOIAF backlist has remained in the top 20 of the NYT bestseller list for the better part of 2011 and ADWD has been on the bestseller list since the day it was published, GRRM came in at number 12.
Then again, many of these authors have backlists comprised of so many titles that it's not all that surprising. . .
Inquiring about press credentials for the upcoming Worldcon, Chicon 7, I came across this warning in the Press Guidelines:
A final word: Please be respectful of fans, artists, editors and writers you encounter. As a journalist, you should be aware that SF fans have either received or been the targets of negative notices in the media in the past. Occasionally you may be rebuffed for interview requests or encounter some hostility yourself. We will try to mediate and resolve any disputes you may have during the convention... Please contact our office immediately if this occurs.
I've been curious about this title ever since the folks at Angry Robot Books told me about it. Lee Battersby's The Corpse-Rat King supposedly defies categorisation. I'm told that it is something with the deft voice of K.J. Parker and the wry humour of Joe Abercrombie, wrapped up in a rather fabulous low-fantasy setting that begs further exploration. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
You can visit Lee Battersby's official website here.
Here's the blurb:
Marius dos Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King - after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are. And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.
There are some objects in the universe so large, so immense, that they bend the laws of physics to suit themselves. Smaller things, even if they are themselves of such a size as to stagger the imagination, are caught within their gravitational pull, never to be released, and what does manage to escape is either too small to be noticed, or so broken and destroyed as to be useless. Philosophers in the King’s palace had recently announced that the planets orbited the sun in this way, and that light, a substance so large and all-encompassing that it covered the earth like a blanket, was actually held in thrall to the spinning of our own planetary surface. No matter how large, or powerful, there is always something bigger that will suck you in, slave you to its movement, and make you a mere satellite.
Borgho City was such a place.
It is said that wherever a King resides lies the governance of a country, but wherever the largest river meets the sea lies the true power. Borgho City squatted over the largest delta at the mouth of the largest river in the largest country on the continent, and whatever power was held within her massive stone walls was as twisted and incomprehensible as the street system that had grown up over the decades of occupation. Its walls, it was said, had exhausted quarries as far away as the Penate Mountains. In fact, most of the walls were made of rammed earth, deposited in vast hills when the first harbour had been dredged from the silt and sand of the delta mouth, but Borgho City had grown so big that truth and memory were only two of its satellites. A mile from the city walls the road Marius was on crested a rise, before plummeting down towards the nearest gate. Marius paused as he reached the top, found a nearby lump in the surrounding ground, and sat down to watch the traffic as it approached the entrance.
Foolish men, such as those who never have to leave a city, will tell you that the walls surrounding it, and the guards who man them, exist to defend the city from its enemies- to provide a barrier between the riches within and the covetous, barbarian masses without. Wise men know that this is nonsense. Walls exist to contain gates, and soldiers exist that they may stand next to those gates and demand tribute from anyone wishing to enter. Outsiders desire entrance, guards exact a levee, and then spend it on booze, women, and gambling. If they’re good, Gods-fearing men. If not, well, there are a million ways to part a guard and his money, and not all of them have to be approved by a majority of the churches to be fun. Thus the economy is kept vibrant, money moves in the right directions, taxes are manageable, and the whole system runs along as smoothly as a slaughterhouse production line. The truly wise, amongst whom you can count guards, guards mistresses’ and those who didn’t learn their lesson the first time they tried to get into a city, know the truth: there are a million ways to part a guard and his money, so to a guard, money is a useless and transitory thing. If you really want to get into a city unscathed, that is, with your belongings intact and all those special little items you’ve secreted about yourself in the hope the authorities won’t go searching for them, you need to know what your gatekeepers really want. There are as many desires as there are guards to a gate, and the only way to know which one is the most appropriate is to find a good vantage point, pull up a piece of ground, and watch a while.
It is said that the dead are infinitely patient, although it is usually said by the living, and how would they know? Perhaps they are, but only if they have nowhere to be, and nothing to be running from. Marius knew how to be patient. It was part of his craft. Even so, the hours chafed. It was mid-morning when he took his seat. By the time those passing him drew lunches from capes and carts and settled in to eat, his eyes were itching. Still he sat, eyes fixed upon the gate ahead. Carts arrived, arguments took place, and tolls were handed over. Marius paid no attention to them. What was important to him came afterwards, once each supplicant had passed through the gate and the guards were left with whatever bounty they had taken. He watched as lunch came and went, and the afternoon was spent one trudging step after another, one petulant transaction upon the next. The sun began its lazy descent behind the spires and towers of the city, and still he did not move. Shadows became puddles of black, then pools, then one large ocean that stretched from city to hill and up into the sky. The city bells rang for day’s end, then final prayer. Torches were lit along the final approach to the city, and over each gate along the wall, and still Marius sat unmoving. On the road around him, groups of travellers, deciding that one more night could stand between them and the attempt to find lodgings, drew their carts to the edge of the road and climbed inside, or nestled in whatever hollow they could find in the gloom, and drew cloaks over their faces. Marius watched a final few enter the city, and then, though the gates still stood open to receive guests, he watched the guards make ready for the long, empty hours of the night. Only then, when it was clear to him what by the men at the gates prized most dearly, did he allow himself a small laugh. He stood, and listened to the mumbling crowd along the road. Then he set off into the deep darkness, away from the campfires, to make ready.
It is commonly believed that an army marches on its stomach, like some million-headed snail. Marius had been in an army, once, for about six weeks. Long enough to learn the whereabouts of the regimental pay supplies, and separate it those who expected to be paid. He had learned many things during that time, chief amongst them being how far into the mountains he needed to run before he was safe from execution. But he also knew that it is not the stomach which is the most important aspect of a soldier’s existence. Any spear carrier with decent enough cunning and a sympathetic Sergeant can find a meal. What a soldier truly prizes, and considers the greatest skill to be acquired, is sleep. Not sleep as you and I understand it, in a bed, perhaps even in our own homestead, with a cuddly wife or acrobatic mistress besides us. But sleep in the rain, sleep on a mountain pass with hateful foreigners in the rocks above and a two hundred foot fall below, sleep while the legs still march and the ears still hear orders. Sleep, standing at an open gate with a rich, under-defended city at your back. Sleep, undiscovered.
A Sergeant may be sympathetic to many things, but sleeping on duty will never be one of them.
An hour after Marius left his position on the hillock above the final approach he shuffled the last few steps to the mouth of the city gate.
Twenty minutes amongst sleeping travelers had transformed him. Calfskin gloves covered his hands, and the worn-out shoes he had been wearing since the turn of the year were gone, replaced by a pair of sturdy leather hiking boots that looked as if they had only just embarked upon their first journey. His travel-worn clothes, and more importantly, the nature of his features, lay hidden deep in the folds of a hooded oilskin cape. A thick knobkerrie completed the ensemble, and Marius leant upon it as if it were a cane, surveying the hooded eyes of the guards. He suppressed a smile. Nobody likes being disturbed from dozing, particularly if they’re being disturbed in order to work.
“Gate’s closed for the evening.”
“Looks open to me,” Behind the guards, two wooden doors, twice the height of a man, thick and unadorned and of rough construction, stood open. A corridor the thickness of the wall above, perhaps ten feet in all, led into a short square. Marius could see an open hole in the roof of the corridor. Breach the doors, and the pot that undoubtedly stood above them could pour boiling oil directly onto you before you made the open plaza. Nasty stuff, but a city will do whatever it can to protect the dignity of its Gods-fearing mothers and pure, virgin daughters, even if nobody can remember having met one. He tilted his head to indicate the open passage, grunting slightly as he did so, and leaned further onto his support, shuffling forward a step in the process.
“I said it’s closed, old man.” The guards looked at each other over the top of Marius’ head. “That is, unless you can pay the toll.”
This time, Marius couldn’t help but grin. “Oh, yes. And what that might be?”
“Well,” the older, heavier guard said, resting his hands on his hips and squaring himself up between Marius and the doorway. “That all depends on what you’ve got, doesn’t it?”
Some things never fail, Marius thought. The old teach the young all the mistakes they’ve spent years perfecting, the strong never stop to look closely at the weak, and the prepared always vanquish the stupid.
“Got?” he replied, cheerily. “Oh, lads, I haven’t got a blessed thing.”
“Oh, dear,” the older guard said. “Oh, dear, oh dear. You hear that Jeltho? Not a thing, he says.”
“Yeah, Ej, not a thing.” The younger fellow laughed, a thick, hopeful sound.
“I find that hard to believe, don’t you, Jeltho?”
“Yeah, Ej, yeah.”
Big Ej stepped forward, looming over Marius. “I wonder if you’re not trying to hold out on us, old man. I wonder if I’d not be better off searching you for contraband, and see just what you’re hiding.”
“Is Sergeant Olling still Patrol Master of these gates?” Marius asked softly. Ej stopped, and glanced at his young offsider. “Only, I remember him being Patrol Master when I was in the Guard.”
Ej leaned back, and narrowed his gaze. “What about it?”
Marius waved his hand airily. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just, I can’t believe old Olling would be in charge and tolerate any, well, tithing, shall we say?”
The two soldiers shared another glance, and Marius pressed harder into the silence. “Does he know about the Maria Hole yet?”
“Oh, you know, the Maria Hole. Down the wall there, twenty feet or so? Base of the wall, hole like the shape of old Maria Fellaini’s front entrance? I don’t suppose you remember old Maria. Too young, you are. But oh, when she danced the peekaboo, a strong man would have to see the doctor, get a salve to help with the bruises, you know what I mean, hey?” Marius chuckled. “But I can’t believe old Olling’s in charge, and one of you isn’t down there having a kip, out of sight, in the warm. Must be someone else, now.”
The silence between the two men deepened. Marius waited, head tilted, watching their uncertainty with a smile. Slowly, without talking, the guards reached the right decision, as he knew they would.
“You served?” Ej asked.
“Oh, yes. Was here for the Whores Uprising. That was a weekend, let me tell you.”
Ej nodded. “What’s your name, brother?”
It was all Marius could do not to cackle. “Ebbel. Ebbel Samming. Sorry I don’t have anything to offer a former brother in arms. Should have known better. You have a good night, lads.” He turned his back to the gate, began to take a shuffling step away.
“Wait on, now.”
There was a hurried exchange of whispers. When Marius turned back, young Jeltho was absent, but the sound of rapidly moving footsteps could be heard, heading off down the outside of the wall.
“No charge for a brother in arms,’” Ej said. “You go on in. You’ve earned the right.”
“Of course,” Ej said. “Only… if you do catch up with the Patrol Master….”
“When did he last stand at a gate, hey?” Marius shuffled forward, leaned into Ej so that they stood, shoulder pressed to shoulder. He patted the bigger man on the arm. “I’m not one to rat out a brother guardsman, my friend. You have a good night.”
“You too, Ebbel.” They parted and Marius limped through the gateway. When he was ten feet or so past the gate, Ej called out.
Marius froze. He turned slowly, every muscle in his body preparing for flight. “Yes?”
“Try the Mandrake Root. Tell Dettsie I sent you. They’ll have a room for you.”
Marius waved the knobkerrie in salutation. “Thank you, friend. Thank you.”
He shuffled away as fast as his charade would allow. As soon as he rounded the first corner he dispensed with the knobkerrie, and the limp, and began to stride down through a maze of interconnecting alleyways away from the gate. He had spent a time in the Borgho City guard, or at least, as their prisoner. And there was a hole down the wall from the Southern gate, but it neither resembled nor smelled like anyone’s front entrance. It was, however, the reason he wasn’t still under the Guard’s stewardship. It had taken him three months to become trustee of the gaolers’ toilets, and another week to tunnel through the accumulated shit of the city’s sump holes. There wasn’t a bath strong enough to help those two guards tonight.
And, he thought, patting his breeches pocket, Gods help ‘brother’ Ej if he mentioned to anyone that he’d just been speaking to his old companion Ebbel Samming. At least, God help him if he mentioned it to anyone who knew how to curse in Feltish. There are worse insults, but it takes one man to mouth them and another to mime the actions. An open doorway beckoned, and Marius ducked into it, taking a moment to transfer Ej’s coin purse from his breeches to a hidden pocket sewn into the lining of his jerkin. At least three Riner in ‘tolls’, judging by the weight. Enough to start the evening.
Out in the street again, Marius took a moment to get his bearings, before choosing a side lane and setting off at a quick clip. The Mandrake’s Root was a soldier’s haunt, a sturdy old building in the backstreets of the merchant’s quarter: close enough to the food stalls and the prostitutes to be convenient but far enough from the foot traffic for a bit of peace and quiet, so that no casual passerby would interrupt the soldiers in their drinking, and no local would make the detour because they knew better. It was the perfect place for a former soldier to rest, have a tankard or two, and catch up on the gossip and rumour that made up the majority of a serviceman’s conversational skill set. From where he was, Marius estimated it to be no more than a dozen streets to the East. He set his back towards it and headed towards the docks.
Despite the hour, the streets were packed. Like all harbor cities, Borgho never really closed down. Come the night, it merely swapped on set of merchants for another, one form of trade for the next, one class of clientele for the lower. There may be less velvet in the clothing, and the manners may be easier to understand, but the transactions were no less urgent than those conducted in daylight, and the streets no less vibrant with the movements of a big city at work. The streets themselves changed character. Where Marius had entered, they were reasonably broad—enough room to turn a cart, at least—and the buildings that flanked them were white painted and open-fronted, a hearty ‘hello’ to the travelers who entered. But turn left and start moving down the hill towards the docks and the true nature of the city exerted itself. The streets became narrower, more winding; the buildings leaned in more, cutting the sunlight off before it could illuminate the dirt and graffiti that made up the city’s natural colouring. Signs were smaller, the writing upon them more crabbed, the spelling simpler and more often incorrect. Even the language changed. Up high, the Scorban was clear cut and elegant, and words of as many as four syllables could be heard through poured-glass windows by anyone who crouched outside them at night. Down here, though, all languages intertwined in a dance of commerce and aggression, a patois that welcomed all comers and gave each one the opportunity to be dunned in the pidgin of their choice. The world was a darker, dirtier, more openly dishonest place. Marius felt perfectly at home.
He moved along the cobbles with the grace of one who had been born to the streets. In truth, he had spent so long plying his trade amongst the night crawlers of cities from the Bone Coast to the Western Spires that it was part of his nature now. It was the daylight hours where he needed to remind himself of the mores and rituals. Only during the day could he not afford the luxury of relaxing as he walked, and merely taking in the sights, the smells, and the sounds of the city. Here, surrounded by the filth of window-emptied chamber pots, with darkened faces peering out of equally dark alleyways, and with the press of unwashed bodies nudging him and hustling him off his natural stride, he was as relaxed as he had been since before the Jezel Valley had called to him, and Marius Helles had become Marius the Dead. At the thought of his current predicament he shook his head, and lengthened his stride. He had things to do. There would be time for sightseeing later.
It was no more than fifteen minutes walk, to someone who knew the back streets and cut-throughs as intimately as Marius, between the Southern Gate and The Hauled Keel, nestled between a dozen identical taverns at the drinking end of the Borgho Docks. Sailors resemble guardsmen in any number of ways, except that they don’t give a damn who else drinks in their pubs, and their gossip has less to do with who’s rumpling whose bed sheets and more to do with who has the run of the waves, and who went out and never came back. In that time, Marius’ pockets were dipped no less than eight occasions, for a net loss of a dozen rivets, six flat stones, and two small bags of what he hoped were toy knucklebones. Sightseeing he may have been, but only with one eye. Thanks to those same dippers, however, he arrived at the tavern somewhere in the region of nine riner to the good. It would have been more, but dipping a dipper is tricky enough without the impediment of gloves, or dead fingers. Anyone can make a living in the big city, assuming you’re quick enough. The only way to make a living in Borgho City is not to get caught, or if you’re going to get caught, to only get caught by the right type of people.
Marius heard the taverns long before he saw them. The docks are a noisy, twenty four hours in the day, area. But the taverns seem to find an extra hour, and an extra layer of noise, as if those who work outside desire, rather than respite from the endless walls of sound around them, something to block the sounds out. Fights are rare in these pubs- the men have spent all day proving how hard they are. They’ve no need to do it in their down time, and besides, there are better ways to go about it than something that might result in spilled booze. The Hauled Keel’s Krehmlager is one of the best. Hard men drink Krehmlager. The suicidal drink two.
Marius pushed open the door and found a booth towards the back of the smoky, badly lit room, just as it was being emptied of drunken, snoozing bodies. He slid in, and signaled to a passing serving girl.
“A tankard of Krehmlager, a spice roll, and something for your break.” He laid a tenpenny on the table. “If there’s any left, save it for your old age.” Serving girls may not make the world go round, but they give it a much more interesting shape. The girl smiled her thanks and left to fill his order. The beer would come from the heavy end of the barrel, and the roll would be fresh.
She returned in short order and laid his repast before him. Marius placed another coin on the table. “Is Keth in tonight?”
The serving girl eyed him warily, taking in his gloves, the cape and hood that covered all features. “You been away, sir?”
“She, uh…” the girl looked over her shoulder. “She doesn’t do that anymore.”
Marius snorted. “I know. Just tell her… tell her Marius is here, could you?” He pushed the coin forward. The girl took it, and hurried away. Marius stared at his beer until he felt a body slip into the booth opposite him.
“You wanted to speak to me, sir?” Marius closed his eyes for a moment. Keth’s voice was as warm as he remembered it: mulled wine, with just a hint of a massage later in the evening. He kept his head bowed, and indicated the tankard.
“I want to drink it, but I’m afraid of what’ll happen.”
Keth laughed, and it felt like a long, slow swallow of something wonderful on a cold evening. “You might be right, Mister. Krehmlager isn’t for the foolhardy. I’ve seen bigger men than you made into crying children after a couple of tankards of that stuff, no offence.”
That was an understatement. The Hauled Keel’s special brew had a reputation that far exceeded that of the city’ heroes, and every awestruck whisper of it was deserved. Marius had seen grizzled veterans swearing they could see the Gods, and not the right ones, after no more than three tankards. He himself could usually manage no more than half a draught before he either fell asleep or ran for the nearest exit to be violently sick. He stared at the mug in front of him.
“I’m worried about what’ll happen. If it’ll have any effect. If I’ll even taste it. What’ll I do if it doesn’t, Keth? What if I don’t?”
A tiny line of puzzlement dragged down the inside corners of Keth’s eyebrows.
“There’s only one way to find out, Mister. If you’ll excuse me, I thought Senni mentioned an old friend’s name, but I think she was…”
“It’s me, Keth.”
“Me. Marius. It’s me.”
Keth stared at him, doubt in every angle. “You’re Marius?”
Marius nodded. “Back of the left knee, about half an inch up, never fails.”
“Oh, God.” Keth sank into her seat, stretched out her arms across the table. Marius reached out gloved hands, and she squeezed them between her strong, warm fingers. “Marius. What happened?”
“You don’t want to see the worst of it, Keth. I’m in real trouble this time.”
“What is it, sweetheart? Is it fire? I’ve seen men after fires. Pox? Spear wounds? Come on, sweetie, I’ve seen it all. You can show me.” With a quick movement she slipped the fingers of her left hand down to the end of his glove and tensed. Marius, realizing what she was about to do, pulled away. It was too late. His arm came backwards. The glove stayed where it was. He and Keth stared down at his exposed hand. Keth swallowed.
“Pull your hood back, sweetheart, won’t you?”
“Just do it, Marius. Please?”
Slowly, Marius reached up and touched the hem of his cloak.
“Please, Keth. I don’t want you to scream, or be frightened. I don’t want you see this.”
“I’ll be fine, Marius. Please. I have to see it.”
Marius pulled back his hood. Keth didn’t scream, or faint, or beg him to stop. She simply took in his features, her face a mask of blankness, for five or six heartbeats. When she spoke, her voice was very careful, and calm, and very neutral, as if she was speaking to an intruder with a knife.
“Okay, then. Perhaps you’d better put it back over yourself, love. Just in case. Best not scare the customers.”
Marius replaced it, and sank further into his seat. They sat that way for long moments. Marius peered at Keth from the safety of the hood’s depths. She stared at him, her teeth working hard against her upper lip, then her lower, and back to her upper. Finally she reached across, pulled the tankard towards her, and took a moderate sized pull.
“So,” she said when she had recovered her breath.
“This is why you haven’t come back before now?” She giggled, then cut it off quickly. They could both hear the panic.
“I almost had it,” Marius said, his gaze falling to the table. “One more time, maybe two.” He shrugged, stared at the table. “Maybe three. Then I’d have enough, and I’d be back, and we’d have enough, and it would all be…” he trailed off, waved his hand limply at nowhere in particular.
“No, you wouldn’t.” Keth smiled sadly. “That’s not you, is it? We’ve learned that.”
“No. I guess not.”
“It’s bad, though, isn’t it? Really bad.”
“Keth.” Marius held up his hand, turned it so she could see both sides. “I think I’m dead.” He picked up the glove and put it back on. “I need to get away.”
“Sweetheart, how can you be dead? You’re walking, and talking, and…” she stared at him, stared at his chest. “Oh, God. You’re not breathing, are you?”
“I need passage, Keth. On a boat, a good sized one, headed to the Far Isles. Something big enough that I can rent a cabin with some privacy.”
“You know who’s in and who’s going out. You can find me one. Here.” He reached into his pockets, pulled out his remaining coins. “Take it. That’ll be enough to reserve the cabin. Get a price. I’ll have the rest by the time we ship.”
“Shit.” Keth swept the money into her skirt, fumbled about under the table for a moment, then stood, the money nowhere in sight. “What are you trying to do, waving money about like that? Trying to get us both…” She stopped, raised her hand to her mouth. “I’ll… I’ll try.” She turned away from him, took a step, turned back. “Have you a place?”
“No. Not yet. I…”
“I’m on the second floor. At the end.” She fumbled in her apron, withdrew a key and tossed it on the table. “I’ll be off in a couple of hours.” She nodded at the tankard and the roll. “Take those. No sense in letting them go to waste. I’ve got… I’ve got to go.” She backed away, and pushed through the crowd. In a moment, she was lost to view.
Marius stared at the spot where she had been for countless seconds. Then, slowly, he reached out and gathered the key. He stood, took the food from the table, and sidled towards the staircase at the back of the room.
At the top of the stairs, a short mezzanine led into a dark, sweat-smelling corridor that ran the length of the building. Sconces lined the walls between anonymous, un-numbered doors. Most of them bore scorch marks above, where drunken tenants had stumbled and spat, or worse, upon them. Sailors, especially drunk ones, aren’t picky about their surroundings. A pillow to rest their head and a pot to piss on the floor next to was all they generally required, and as long as they stayed sober enough to tell the difference, they were happy. Marius had seen worse dockside rents-- at least these had their doors on. Anyone who cared to complain about the dirt and the generally seedy air was either a stranger or still sober.
There was one exception. At the far end, directly facing him, a white-painted door with lit sconces at either side stood out like a princess in workhouse. A garland of dried flowers hung from a nail, and a circle of spotlessness surrounded it where the walls had been washed and the wooden floor swept free of dirt and dead insects. Marius snorted in recognition and strode towards it. The key fit on first attempt, and he noted the absence of scratch marks around the hole. Whatever else may be said about them, the clientele of the Hauled Keel had obviously paid attention when warned to leave this room alone. The door swung inwards on oiled hinges, and Marius stepped through.
Inside, the room was clean, but little more. Marius closed the door behind him, made his way across to the dim outline of the bed, and found a lamp sitting upon a table next to it, a pack of lucifers at its base. He lit the lamp, then picked it up and used it to light three others at strategic points around the room. Once a modicum of visibility had been established he made his way to the single chair beneath the window, move the neatly folded clothes onto the bed, and sat, throwing back his hood and running his fingers through his hair in relief. Only then did he take the time to thoroughly examine his surroundings.
Keth had tried, Marius could see that. Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, she had decided to really try to make a home here. Nothing around him was new. The single bed sagged in the middle, and the wood frame was bowed and warped from years, maybe decades, of water-rich air. But she had piled pillows and blankets upon it, and perhaps the thickness of the padding made up for the shape. Those blankets, and the clothes he had moved from the chair, were clean. Perhaps not freshly laundered, but certainly sooner than the once-a-fortnight swish through a bathtub of cold water that most bedding received in an establishment like the Hauled Keel. The trunk at the bed’s end had been old and battered when Marius had given it to her, but the clasp and hinges were new, and the designs she had painted upon it, flowers and berries on a vine, had been carefully applied. The tiny table and mirror she used as a dresser were uneven, one leg straightened up with a piece of wood, and the mirror itself had a long stain down one side where the silvered backing had tarnished. But everything was neat, and orderly, and such toiletries that lay alongside the metal trough in the corner were newly purchased. More dried flowers, siblings to the bunch on the front door, were nailed to the walls, and from somewhere, the Gods only knew where, she had found a small painting of the Berries Veldt and hung it above the bed head. The overall impression was of care, and a determination to feel at home, and the whole thing saddened Marius more than he cared to admit. He felt out of place in his stolen cape and rotting skin, like leaves blown onto a freshly swept floor, just waiting for someone to notice and push him back out into the gutter. He got up, placed the tankard and spiced roll on the lid of the trunk, and returned to his seat to wait.
Taverns like the Hauled Keel never really close. At best, there is a short gap between one shift of clients reeling away to their beds or the street, and the next lot coming in from their boats or shift at the workhouses and piers to eat, drink, and raise the right level of noise to help forget their lives. The serving girls work long hours, longer than their customers can drink. Then they have to clean up afterwards, sweep away the butt ends and pipe tailings, mop up the spilled beer and vomit, push the last complaining drunkard out the door and point him in the direction of wherever he’s calling home that day. Only then can the takings be tallied, wages apportioned, and each girl find her own way to bed. Keth was luckier than most-- a flight of stairs is a short journey compared to many. Even so, when she pushed the door open and slipped inside, the lines of her body were heavy with fatigue. Marius watched as she slipped off her slippers and knelt to splash water over her face. She glanced at him and he, taking the hint, vacated the chair.
“I spoke to a fellow just in off a trader,” she said, settling into the chair and sighing. “It looks like the very job for you. Be a love.” She pointed to the food on the trunk. Marius retrieved it and passed it over. She bit into the roll, followed it with a sip of krehmlager, and sighed. “Fresh.”
“What did he say?”
“He’s serving on a 50 ton barque called the Minerva. They’ve been docked three days, taking on supplies for a run to the Faraway Islands. Reckons they’ll be out three, maybe four months, then as many back, trading iron and cloth for the usual stuff. They’re waiting for the right tides, but he’s due back on board in the morning so he thinks they’ll be off in no more than two days. They’ve got cabins.”
“Are you fussy, now?”
Marius shrugged, abashed. “No, of course not. Just so long as they’re private.”
“They will be. As private as you’ll get on a working boat.” She bit into the roll again and swallowed. “When did you last eat?”
“I don’t need to eat.”
She looked at him for several seconds. “I don’t need to cuddle, but it’s still nice every now and again. Have some.” She offered the tankard and roll. Marius hesitated, and she shook them slightly. “To be polite, if nothing else.”
Marius took them, bit into the roll and followed it with a mouthful of the lager. They tasted... nice. He blinked, swallowed, and took another bite and drink.
“Hey! Save some for a worker.”
Marius twitched, then handed them back. “Sorry. I... I don’t understand. I could taste them.”
“Don’t look at me. It’s your story.” Keth eyed him up and down. “It’s done you the world of good. You look better. Not, you know, you, but better.”
Marius snuck a glance in the mirror. Keth was right. He did look better. Not himself, no, not alive, but less... deadish. A hint of animation around the eyes, maybe. A touch of colour at the edges of his lips. “I don’t understand this at all. Gerd said...”
“A... companion. Guard dog, more like.”
“And is he dead?”
Marius smiled. The face in the mirror drew its lips up into a rictus. “We’re everywhere, don’t you know?” He grabbed the tankard from Keth, took a swallow, handed it back. “So what now?”
“Well it’s only a one person bed.”
“That never bothered you before.”
“You were a person.”
He snorted. “Fair point. I don’t need to sleep...” He caught himself. “Or cuddle.”
Keth laughed, then levered herself out of the chair. “Well, I need to wash and lie down. You can go out into the hallway for five minutes or you can promise not to look. What will it be?”
Marius placed his hand over the still skin of his heart. “I promise.”
“Liar.” She smiled and knelt down in front of the pail. “Go on. Turn around.”
Marius turned and faced the simple drapes over the window. There was a slither of clothing, and then splashing as Keth performed her ablutions. Marius resisted peeking, and tried not to remember how she looked naked. Not that such thoughts would do him any good now, anyway, he thought. Better to stay away from them. He did not need to add a lack of reaction to a naked woman to all the other signs of his continuing death.
“Tell me about this place,” he said in order to give himself something else to think about. “Why all the effort?”
“I know that. But why go to all this trouble? Surely when you move on...”
“No,” Marius heard Keth climb into bed, and risked turning round. Only her face was in view, her long hair brushed out of its braids and spread out over the blankets. If Marius could have cried, the lack of stirring in his groin would have driven him to it. “You’re not listening. It’s mine. I own this room.”
“I bought it from the Waldens six months ago. They’re the managers. Everything in here.” A long white arm emerged from the beneath the sheet and waved at their surroundings. Marius stared at the arm, and waited for a sign from below. Nothing. God damn it. “I own it.”
“What? You mean forever?”
Keth giggled. “Maybe. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”
“But why...?” Marius looked around at the dismal collection of furniture, the sad little decorations, the desperate attempts to add dignity to what looked like nothing more than a collection of cast offs.
“Because I can.” Keth sat up, a flush of anger spreading across her skin. The blanket fell away, exposing her body down to the waist, but Keth was too angry to notice. Marius did, and almost smiled. Not so dead after all. But Keth was biting out words, and he realised there was nothing to smile about at all. “Do you have any idea how hard it’s been to get all this? To convince someone to sell me even this lot, never mind this fucking room? Because I’m a woman, in this city? Do you have any concept how precious it is to know I can finish my shift and come home, safely, to somewhere that belongs to me? A woman, in this city, owning anything? Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked for this? Don’t you dare look down on what I have, Marius Helles.”
“But... you could have...”
“Could have what?” Keth glanced down at how she was sitting, and gathered the blankets about her. “What, Marius? Waited for you? Been kept by you? How was that ever going to work?”
“But I...” Marius turned away from her in confusion, saw the tankard and picked it up. “I could have given you better than this.”
“God damn it, you don’t understand a thing. It’s not the having, Marius. It’s not even the money. Look at all this. Look at it.” She gathered up a handful of blanket and shook it at him. “I own this. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, or that it’s not made of velvet or smells of lavender. It’s mine. I have it, and nobody can take it away from me. Everything in this room. This room. Do you know how many women own even a room in this city, for themselves? It’s not about money, Marius. It never was. I can work, and own things, and have my own life.”
Marius stared at her, saw the pride in her eyes, and the anger. And the words came before he had time to regret them, and realise what he was placing between them.
“How much of it did you earn on your back?”
She stared at him for longer than he could bear. When she spoke, she did so quietly, and her voice was the deadest thing in the room.
“Get out, Marius. Get out of my home.”
There was nothing he could say. Marius walked to the door, opened it, and made sure to shut it behind him. He stood a moment, waiting. She hadn’t even cried. Marius hung his head and walked back down the hallway, away from Keth. He was at the top of the stairs before he remembered to pull his hood back over his head. It was only when it struck him on the face that he discovered he was still holding the tankard.
“Ow.” He rubbed the where the tankard had hit, looked at it, and then took a long, deep draught. There was no taste at all. Marius stared at it, then let it drop to the floor. “Fuck.”
He was halfway down the steps before he doubled over and threw up.