Month: March 2014

The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby

Tan knelt in a narrow stairwell and reloaded his steam-bow. He grimaced as its familiar hiss filled the tiny space. The sword strapped to his back was both quieter and more elegant, but it was also ineffective against the terra cotta golems that were chasing him.

He was glad that his master hadn’t lived to see the way the world had changed. Steam-powered men policed the streets, and cowards hid behind weapons that killed from a distance. Even the people had changed. No one had moved to help or hinder him on his mad dash from Lord Chen’s palace. They had huddled in the shadows of their peaked roofs and turned their faces away.

The door exploded inward, its thin wood no match for a terra cotta boot. Tan fired on instinct. The bow recoiled into his shoulder, and a short metal rod burst from the end with another hiss. It blew a hole the size of Tam’s fist in the golem’s chest. Steam billowed out of the wound.

The golem used its last moment of animation to bellow an alarm and crumpled to the ground.

Tan vaulted over its cooling body and fled. He had to find someplace to hide–sooner or later, they’d wear him down, or he’d run out of bolts.

He almost wished he’d never heard of The Steam Lord’s Autumn Ruby.

A Dose of Treachery

I trudged up the gravel path as the summer sun attempted to smother me. Sweat dripped down my brow and stung my squinting eyes. Shoulders aching, calves straining, I pushed myself forward. I wondered, as I often did, why the temple had been built atop a high hill rather than next to the well. Water sloshed inside the buckets when I jerked back from a flitting insect. I daydreamed of pouring the water over the top of my head.

The trail, bordered on either side by flowering bushes and slender beech trees, led up to the place I called home—a squat, columned temple built from beige stone. Mid-day glare radiated off its graceful curves, rounded pillars and bulbous dome. Beyond, puffs of cotton floated amid an endless azure expanse.

Mistress Eskelle stood atop the rise in her drab prayer robes, long white braids dangling at her back. Two strangers, one tall and one short, stood with her. “Lazio!” called Eskelle, her tone urgent. “Leave the water there and come greet our visitors.”

I lowered the buckets and wriggled out from beneath the bar. We rarely received visitors. Apprehension stole over me as I hurried over.
The first of the two strangers was a girl, roughly my age, which is to say newly an adult. Auburn hair, green eyes, and a freckled face marked her as an Easterner. She watched me approach, but looked away when I tried to meet her gaze.

The second was an older man. Tall and thin, he stood straight as a pillar. His long black beard hung clean and well-groomed. Thick eyebrows, beneath a wrinkled brow, strained to meet above the center of his eyes. A thin-lipped frown gave me the impression he was used to looking down his nose at people.

“Lazio, our esteemed visitors are from far Abados. This is Paltos Xerax-Thal and his apprentice Lanna.” Eskelle motioned to each as she named them.

My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped a beat. A Paltos. Wizard-councilor to the King. I knelt immediately, bowing my head. “Your lordship,” I mumbled, not sure if I’d used the correct honorific.
“You may stand,” Xerax-Thal said. His voice rumbled like a landslide.
I straightened, keeping my eyes fixed on the tops of my shoes. The girl snickered at my sudden submissiveness.

“Come inside and rest. We will talk as my boy prepares us tea,” Eskelle said.

I glanced up to see the Paltos nod. “That would be most welcome. We have travelled far, and could use a respite. Even so, events unfold as we speak.”

Events? What events? We lived simple lives out in the lowlands, far away from the machinations of the great cities.

“Of course, Paltos. Please, follow me.” Eskelle turned and strode back to the temple. She rarely moved with such purpose of late. Her joints had been giving her problems.

Xerax-Thal and Lanna followed, and I brought up the rear. It gave me time to appreciate the Paltos’s apprentice. She had a lithe, feline grace that brought a blush to my cheeks. I admired the hypnotic sway of her hips as we entered the temple, noticing too late that Lanna had glanced back. A private smile and an arched eyebrow told me she knew exactly what I had been doing.

My Father’s Withered Hands

The strings of my father’s oud were broken. Unchanged for five cycles, the gutted strings snapped in the humidity like the arthritic sinews in his hands. Soon, mine was the only music left.

I sat by my father’s sandaled feet, the heavy bowl of my instrument resting between my legs. My left ring finger cramped as the final note resonated and hummed a gentle vibrato with the hot wind.

Children and their watchful parents lined the tent, listening with feigned indifference. My note rang. Surrounding brush and the heavy fibers of their tattered robes absorbed its final sigh.

When the venom took father’s hands, it damned him and rendered him feeble, unable to perform. There was no cure, the Crones said. Its cause was unknown. I refused to play without him until ghastly visions of my mother guided my unwilling hand.

A child sneezed like thunder claps and broke the lingering silence. My father tapped his foot, and the onlookers retreated. His yellow toes wiggled in the dirt that filled his shoe.

“Why that song, daughter?” He asked.

“Because you said it was her favorite.”

“It was.” Memories of her struck him. Deep wells around his black eyes filled. Tiny droplets ran down the dry canyons of his scarred cheeks, concealed themselves in the ruts of his face, and vanished. “And do you know who wrote it?”

“You did, Baba.”

“Yes.” He wiped his face on his sleeve and straightened his back. He wrote it for her during her final weeks. This was before the Crones’ assurances that her health would outlast his wandering the wasted lands for a remedy. In her moments of lucidity, she would happily hum the melody through her cracked lips. When he returned from the wastes, she was gone, and his limbs were ruined.

He stopped playing after that.

“So tell me what you did wrong,” he said.

“I’m slow. And the notes move too fast for me,” I said.

“This is all true, yes. But you’re forgetting something. It’s the most important part,” he hinted.

“My oud was out of tune?”

He shook his head. The white cloth around his neck unraveled. “Feeling. You must feel the notes. This only comes through possessing a true understanding of your subject.” He gestured for my oud. “Here, I will show you.”

I obliged, supporting the oud with both hands as I gave it to him, ashamed of my apprehension that his hands, which children mocked, would not be able to hold the instrument as they once could. But father clutched it in spite of the indelicate claws that had consumed him. There was pride in his eyes and poison in his limbs. He settled into a familiar position and smiled.

A smile like rain to end ancient droughts.

He watched the strings vibrate in anticipation. He brushed them with his knuckle to relieve them of their burden.

Father searched for notes with his fretting hand. His plagued fingers, which spent the recent months making crescents in his palms, refused to obey. Shadows of rage touched his face as he looked twice at his ailing hands. The strings whinnied under his touch, then brayed like horses. I strained to hear past fumbled notes, to focus on his intentions and the meaning behind his clumsy movements. But the sweat on his brow was distracting.

Donor Rules

The ripeness of female expectation swelled through the subterranean Great Hall. Jostling waves fanned out through the assembled women, two hundred or more, and deepened as Mayor Noa, a tall woman with waist-length steel-coloured hair, stepped onto the creaking wooden stage at the front. Extra-ordinary meetings like this one meant only one of two things, and everyone had seen the wooden ballot box already present on stage.

“Settle, please,” said the mayor.

The cavernous, earth-muffled space emptied of sound as if a giant wave had swamped the hall and back-swelled, dragging the noise away with its monstrous suction. The two groups of women, those who were eligible for the ballot and those who were not, were conspicuous by their stance: the first could have been magnetised by the forward pull on their bodies; the second, far larger group, stood keen, erect and interested but apart. Shades of grey and white formed the colour palate of the second.

But for any observer who had witnessed the ballot before – and there had already been several since Harvest – there was an extra frisson to the air above the crowded women: a rumour had tumbled from mouth to mouth and there was a shudder of something unusual this time.

“If I can have your attention.” Every eye was already trained on her striking figure. “We are pleased to announce the arrival of the fifth donor we have welcomed this year. All of you who are eligible have now been date-checked and those within the window have been entered into the ballot. You have until sunset tomorrow night to have your names removed should you wish to withdraw for whatever reason, without prejudice. We will reconvene tomorrow evening at sunset for the draw. Thank you.”

The tall woman left the stage to a pattering of applause and the swelling buzz of the rumour circulating the hall, refusing to be squashed.

Like the Grains of Sand

I sit quietly on my log beside the fire as Rena gathers the ingredients for our breakfast. Normally I’m the one to do this–crack and roast the snails, wash the sea greens, brew the coffee. Normally, she can’t be bothered. Not unless it’s sewing she’s asked to do, and even then she shuts herself into her room and takes twice the time she should. But today, Rena insisted it was her turn to prepare the food.

“Sit down and relax, Gram,” she said. “Let me do it for once.”

Took me by surprise, that did. Even though Rena never knew her mam, she’d been like her since birth. Taunting the lighthouse ghosts with the boys who ain’t learned fishing yet, sleeping in the woods just to prove she didn’t need the sea, disappearing for days at a time. But looking into her black eyes, her mam’s eyes, I still see heart.

Not that Rena’d ever admit it. She’s also got her mam’s way of not wanting to seem weak, of not wanting to care about anything at all.

As Rena rinses the sea greens in a bowl of fresh water, I push my toes into the warm sand and start the telling.