WARNING!!– Incoming Grumpy Old Man Rant!! — STAR WARS!!

So, there is a rumor that a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode 7 will be attached to The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies when it premieres on December 17th. Considering that I will be ardently boycotting THBOTFA, I am unlikely to see the trailer for Episode 7 until it hits the internet– and I may avoid it, even then.

It is safe to say that I am not anticipating Episode 7 with any sense of joy. True enough, the franchise has been taken from George Lucas’ dead hands and given fresh impetus– but as a part of the Disney (ugh) corporate machine, which seems to have an instinct to trivialize everything it touches, and then, placed in the hands of J.J. Abrams for execution (no pun intended. Well, maybe….).

Let me be clear about my feelings re: Mr. Abrams– he is a quite competent film director and producer. His two Star Trek reboot films have been technically more than competent. They do not have the embarrassment/silliness factor that afflicts the Star Wars prequels (Episodes 1, 2, and 3). He at least takes his material seriously.

But…I don’t think much of his story-telling chops. The two ST films were, in my opinion, unnecessary in the first instance, and untidy story junk-piles in the second, especially Star Trek Into Darkness, with its head-scratching revision of Khan Noonien Singh. Both left me dissatisfied and wanting more, or, better yet, a time-machine, in which I would go back in time and fix the whole business from the start.

I will admit that part of the problem is my distaste for Abrams as the creator of both Alias and Lost, shows which started out incredibly strong, and then withered under the weight of reboots (Alias) and muddled, unresolved plot-lines (Lost) (to be fair, I am aware that Abrams’ involvement with Lost was intermittent, and the collective sins of the production were committed by a number of people). To put it succinctly, I don’t trust Abrams to create a story-line for Episode 7 that I will find enjoyable or even comprehensible.

An online cartoon from some years back around the debut of Revenge of the Sith still pretty much sums up my feelings–

http://pvponline.com/comic/2005/05/10/tue-may-10/

Admittedly, this is all probably more than a little unfair, since Episode 7 is more than a year away. Abrams may yet pull a Wookie out of the storm-trooper helmet. I don’t expect him to, though, based on his past track record. More likely it will be an Ewok….

I will also admit that this rant is more-or-less just an old fart grieving the apparent inability of Hollywood in general, and probably Disney in particular, to deliver the kind of wonder and excitement I knew when I saw the first Star Wars. I will probably never again feel the kind of joyous punch-to-the-gut I felt the first time I saw that Star Destroyer pass over my head, chasing Princess Leia’s ship. That scene is so iconic now that those who didn’t see the film in first release in 1977 can probably never grasp just how stunning it was– how much, in short, this was something that had never been seen before, and how much it was a watershed in film history (both for good and bad). Perhaps it is unfair to hold up any subsequent film to comparison with that kind of culture-changing event.

But, then, I am not noted for being a very fair person. For me, the Star Wars franchise is dead, and neither Disney marketing pixie dust nor Abrams’ problematic story-telling skills are going to revive it. Requiescat in pace….

Meanwhile, if there are no earth-shaking movies on the horizon, there is at least the prospect of something good. And, by golly, guess whose fingerprints are on it….

Horse Tamer – Chapter 13 – Routines

Looking back over what I have written of this story so far, I am thankful I declared this a first draft from the start, thus giving myself permission to be considerably less than perfect. Because I am, and this chapter, in particular, is. If a writer can allow themselves the freedom to be imperfect the first time around, it can be tremendously liberating. The willingness to plow ahead in spite how bad the work is, in its first incarnation, has kept many a writer going in the teeth of adversity.

At the same time, it is true that imposing a first draft on the public is either an act of arrogant chutzpah or complete insensitivity– probably both. My instinct is to apologize to you, the long-suffering reader, for beating you up with my half-baked prose. I am sorry. Bear with me, and hopefully things will start picking up soon.

Having said all that, I have to admit that, to a certain extent with this story I may have hit the point of work-in-progress loathing Chuck Wendig described in a recent post. As is often the case, Chuck hits the issue on the head pretty precisely (and, uh, colorfully). Perseverance is obviously called for, especially as I know there are some good bits a-coming.

At this point, in my normal writing process, I would be tempted to jump ahead and write those good bits, as a way to keep my momentum going. In this instance, it would be awfully confusing to my poor readers if they finished Chapter 13 and then were confronted with material properly belonging to Chapter 16. I must therefore slog onward in a straight line, and hopefully the effort will be redeemed by what follows.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Over the next few days Mankin settled, at last, into something of a routine. His mornings were spent at the embassy, where Deremanoi put him to work reading correspondence from the agents the Hegemony employed. It made for interesting reading, although not for the reason Mankin had originally supposed. These agents were not spies in any sense of the word, but individuals authorized to act on behalf of the embassy, in particular, and the Hegemony in general. Their tasks were mundane– purchasing required items for the embassy, overseeing the procurement and delivery of items specially ordered from Imperial merchants by the government back home, carrying messages between the embassy and Attau merchants and traders in the Empire, and so on. Occasionally they were called on to assist those traders in misunderstandings with Imperial authorities. It was all unexciting but vital stuff; Mankin applied himself and plowed his way through the correspondence.

He was very much aware that Deremanoi did employ secret operatives, or, at least, covert informants. The Speaker had a couple of assistants, closed-mouthed young men named Kanemoi and Screde, both from the Copper Shield Clan, who actually worked with the informants and paid them out of a special fund. Mankin gathered the informants mostly funneled to Deremanoi the sort of back-room, under-the-table gossip and news that every diplomat needed to round out his picture of how things stood with the local elites. But that was as close as Mankin got to the informants– Deremanoi kept him isolated from that part of the embassy’s operation.

If he wasn’t reading reports, Mankin was writing them, for the government back home, and for Vikeres. There was his report on his impressions of the Imperial countryside, which he was still finishing, and now he had to write, in detail, of the attack on the Silk Wharf, the reception and his conversation with Procus and the others. Deremanoi also had him include his impressions of the city. Mankin wondered if his grandfather and the ministers back in the Hegemony actually needed every detail of the last few weeks, but he included them as best he could, just as Deremanoi asked.

Mankin’s afternoons were largely his own, unless some function demanded his attendance in the evening. He usually ate his noon meal at the embassy, a not-inconsiderable supplement to his tight budget. Thereafter he often went up to the Great Library, to spend an hour or more among the stacks, wandering the aisles, or sitting to read a book or two. He favored mostly histories of Venia, with which the library seemed to abound. He made a particular effort to locate the Narrative of the Venian Race, a volume of which he had heard so much, but it always seemed to be in use by someone else.

Two or three times a week Mankin went out riding. There was a public garden a mile north of the Plaza of Ven, with a graveled path on which many Highborn rode in the mornings or the cool of the evening. Mankin had sold the horse on which he came to Venia, but the embassy had a stable, from which he was allowed to select an animal. An hour’s ride seemed to help settle his mind, and, for a little while, he could be once more a young man who just enjoyed riding.

Other days Mankin went out to visit other parts of the city, and to see more sights. He visited the Pyramid of the Earth, which was much like the Sky Pyramid, only on a smaller scale. He went and sat for an hour in the Speaker’s Lane in the Leather Market, and listened to sophists arguing obscure points of logic. He dared to return to the waterfront, and watched ships from the whole known world– Serinia, Carhan, Tafania, Uhrhal– unloading a dizzying variety of goods on the wharves– spices, silks, wheat and barley, whale-oil and amber. Deremanoi wrangled permission for Mankin to be escorted on a visit to the Arsenal, up one of the branches of the De, where the Imperial navy built and repaired its warships. He got to watch, for a short while, the building of one of the fast galleys the Empire used in the Inner Sea, which his guide whispered would soon be sent to the Eastern War. To Mankin, a landsman who couldn’t even swim, the shipyard was a complicated and mysterious place, where wood and metal met skill and were transformed.

On his journeys around the city Mankin was still escorted by never less than a pair of City militiamen. The Imperials’ investigation of the assassination plot continued, and initially the name ‘Rela’ turned up nothing of immediate use. Mankin resigned himself to having company for some time yet on his meanderings.

On those meanderings, he was sometimes accompanied by Denetoi, and sometimes not. It often depended on whether the sergeant saw a fair prospect of a good supper and beer in the trip. Just as often, though, Denetoi had his own errands to take care of. He, too, had acquired a routine of his own.

Mankin had left Denetoi’s duties as his servant and backup man open-ended, as neither of them had known ahead of time what would be expected of them in Venia. As it all sorted out, Denetoi took it on himself the buying of necessities for both his and Mankin’s ‘households’. He saw to Mankin’s Clan uniforms– he now had three– when they were required for a function or a dinner. There were occasions when protocol demanded that Mankin be attended at a function by a servitor, and so Denetoi sometimes had to stand behind Mankin, in a Clan uniform of his own, through some ceremony– a task Denetoi found tedious in the extreme, and which always produced complaints and mutterings about needing an increase in pay.

Another task Denetoi took on, however, was one Mankin had not anticipated at all. After the first couple of days Denetoi dispensed with his militia guards. “They get in my way, Cap’n,” he told Mankin, “and, ‘sides, it’s you they’re looking to kill.” Mankin worried about the older man, but let him have his way, because without his guards Denetoi apparently could maneuver much more easily through the taverns and brothels he favored. And that, as it turned out, allowed Denetoi to bring back some interesting pieces of intelligence.

It was Denetoi who was able to tell Mankin details about the resident Attau population– to start with, that practically every Attau in the city had been horrified by the assassination attempt. Some were horrified because they had no quarrel with Mankin, and some were horrified because they saw trouble coming down on them because of the attempt. “But there ain’t a passel of people looking to rejoice over your cold corpse, Cap’n,” Denetoi told Mankin. “Just so you know.”

Mankin wished he could have found that as reassuring as Denetoi seemed to think it was. Deremanoi, on the other hand, understood why he felt that way. When Mankin passed that bit of information to the Speaker, the older man found it very interesting. “Perhaps this Chumaki really is working with a small circle of like-minded thugs,” Deremanoi said. “But, of course, a small conspiracy is more difficult to unravel than a large one,” which exactly captured Mankin’s thinking on the subject.

It was Denetoi who brought the first information to Mankin and Deremanoi, a full day before the Imperial secret police found it out, of the mysterious Rela. Few, if any, of the people Denetoi spoke with had actually seen the man, who closeted himself closely with Chumakai and the other conspirators, but it was clear the man was neither Attau nor utau, despite his name. “Had a Venian accent, they say,” Denetoi told Mankin and Deremanoi. “Educated, spoke Attau well, but the accent wasn’t right.”

“Very strange,” Deremanoi reflected. “Why would a Venian involve himself in an Attau quarrel?”

Denetoi shrugged. “That I can’t answer, sir. But he was the one handing out the money. Or so they say.”

In view of this kind of intelligence, Deremanoi and Mankin both, by a sort of mutual (if silent) consent, acquiesced to Denetoi going out on his own. Mankin doubted the two of them could have really held him down if they tried. It became routine for Mankin to hear Denetoi coming in late from his expeditions, sometimes the worse for drink, and sometimes not.

Mankin was almost always in his flat when Denetoi came in. Unless there was a ceremony to attend, or a special task at the embassy, Mankin went home when the sun began to set. He got the impression that this was the source of some wonderment and disappointment to his militia guards– some of them, at least, would not have minded escorting Mankin to livelier scenes.

Mankin, though, had no taste for nightlife. He went home every evening and ate a simple supper, bathed and laid out his clothes for the morning. He would then finish reading any non-classified reports he had left for the day….

…unless, after a while, he found himself simply sitting and staring at the guttering lamp on his table. Some nights it was hard to concentrate. Mankin found himself drifting off into memories, or worse, regrets.

It was easy to hear most everything his neighbors on the floors below and above were doing. The young couple directly above him argued plenty, and he heard most of their arguments. He also heard most of their often energetic reconciliations. He wasn’t sure which was worse.

Mankin had quarreled with Alektl about whether she would follow the army to Skull Bluff. “I want to be there,” she’d told him. “And you want to see your son born. If I go back to Takari you won’t be there when my time comes.”

Mankin had argued with her, but surrendered in the end. Everyone knew the rebels were beaten; a little push and they would fall.

But they didn’t– the fighting had gone on all day, the rebels selling themselves dear in their last desperate moment. And no one foresaw how their cavalry would sweep right into the baggage train, slaughtering everyone in their path….

Mankin knew exactly how much he would give to have the chance to argue with Alektl again. It was simple. He would give everything.

Horse Tamer– Chapter 12- Questions of Blood

Warning– this chapter has violent images and action that might disturb some people.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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“I have to say,” Deremanoi said, “I am very pleased.”

“Thank you, sir,” Mankin said.

They sat together in a sun-lit chamber of the Hegemony’s embassy, the morning after the reception. Mankin felt tired, and a little disoriented. Neither a hasty breakfast nor bath, after he had slept in later than he had intended, had not helped him shed his weariness or his sense of dislocation.

Apparently, he was not alone in that– Deremanoi had ordered tilaak, a restorative tea from the homeland, made up for both himself and Mankin. Mankin’s cup steamed at his elbow. He sipped at it, and said nothing as Deremanoi drained his and started on another.

“You handled that little surprise from Farus well,” Deremanoi said. “Completely unexpected business, I have to say. And what I hear through back-channels about your interview with Marius, Valerius and Procus is quite favorable, as well.”

“I don’t think I impressed Marius,” Mankin pointed out.

“I would have been surprised if you had,” Deremanoi said. “At the very least, in the presence of a foreigner Kaius Marius would have to make noises of disapprobation, suitable to his place as the head of the Order. But in the past he has proven amenable to being influenced on issues by other members of his party. And your very favorable communication with Procus opens the door on that possibility. You will, of course, dine with him next week.”

“Of course, sir,” Mankin said. Procus had extended the invitation the night before when he and Mankin had parted company. “This morning I also received an invitation to dine with a General Rebonius two days before Procus.”

“Ah!” Deremanoi exclaimed, with a sudden animation that startled Mankin. “That is excellent. Rebonius is a leader of the New Way, and as highly ranked as Procus is himself. You seemed to have made a serious impression on the Highborn last night, young man.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Mankin muttered.

Deremanoi gave him a sharp look. “Can’t you? The Venians are proud, and of a certainty they look down on outlanders, but they admire bravery and martial skill. Your exploit of yesterday morning has gone a long way to paving your path into the halls of the Highborn.”

Mankin restrained a grimace. “A shoddy way to do business.”

“You think so?” Deremanoi snapped, looking quite severe. “I suggest you think again. We have a critical task on our hands, Mankin, and we must use every tool the Powers give us. Even the accidents. If you have scruples about how you gain the ear of those who can help keep our people fed this next winter, I suggest you box them up and put them under your bed for the duration.”

Mankin sat straighter. “My apologies, sir.”

Deremanoi hesitated, then shook his head. “No, I should apologize.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “It was a long night for everyone. I was stuck in a meeting with the Massanians until midnight.”

“The Massanians?” Mankin had briefly talked with Deremanoi after his interview with Procus and the others, and secured his dismissal for the night. He had been unaware that the ambassador had lingered on after he left.

“Indeed– now that the Empire and the Harmony have made peace, their new officer, Colm of Shinarn, is here with a warrant to negotiate for the release of those Massanians yet held in captivity by the Venians.”

“Since the Venians and Massanians were at war for essentially a whole generation,” Mankin said, “there must be quite a number of prisoners.”

“Yes– many thousands, in fact, held as slave labor, or fighting in the Arena.”

“But sir, what has that to do with you, or, should I say, the Hegemony?”

“We have no direct relations with the Massanians,” Deremanoi said, “and Colm and his Speaker thought they could extend his warrant to engage in the same talks with us, for those prisoners-of-war of Massanian birth we still hold from our own war.”

Mankin scowled. The Black Party had employed mercenaries from several different nations, Massania among them. Mankin remembered the screaming mass of a Massanian battalion overrunning a Loyalist outpost, and the mutilated bodies his company found afterwards. The Black Party had promised its foreign fighters gold, land and slaves, and many had fought with vicious enthusiasm. For a moment, Mankin’s impulse was to suggest the Massanians could go choke on their negotiations.

He resisted the impulse. There was no indulging his own personal prejudices here. If anything, sending captured mercenaries home would relieve the Hegemony of a burden. And Mankin supposed that he did face a certain test of his own consistency– he could hardly rail against slavery in general and then be in favor of keeping men in chains just because they had fought against him.

All he said to Deremanoi, therefore, was, “I see, sir. Will you be negotiating with them?”

Deremanoi grimaced. “That’s what took me a good portion of the evening, to convince Soll and Colm that I have no powers to negotiate this issue on my own. I will have to refer the matter back home. I think it likely I’ll be given a commission to start talks, but, in the meantime, the Massanians will just have to be patient.” Deremanoi smiled. “Colm told me he was sorry he had missed meeting you. He said he was eager to see your skill with a sword. He said he would invite you to bout with him sometime soon.”

Mankin, remembering the size of the Massanian, grimaced.

Deremanoi’s smile faded. “One more question, Mankin. Junias Valerius– what was your impression of him?”

Mankin did not answer at once. “I found him very difficulty to read,” he said at last. “He seemed polite– surprisingly so– but he gave nothing away about how he felt. Quite the opposite of either Marius or Procus, in fact.”

Deremanoi nodded. “It was something of a rhetorical question. Valerius is a powerful man in the Order, but he is not known for revealing his inner workings. He holds a seat in the Senate, but he does not lead there– he prefers to spend most of his time assisting the Triumvir Manico.”

A power behind the throne. Mankin wished he had known that before he had gone into the interview.

“In any event,” Deremanoi said, “you can mostly likely expect an invitation from Valerius very soon, as well. And that young man, is all to the good. This is how business is done in this city– we will plead our case over fine dinners and while admiring their stables. The formal meetings with the Senate are just that– if we have not convinced the Senate before we present our appeal at their doorstep, we will have failed.”

“I understand, sir,” Mankin said, although the thought dismayed him. “I rather hope it does not all depend on me.”

Deremanoi smiled at him. “Oh, I have my own schedule of luncheons and viewings of the moon in reflecting lakes,” he said. “But I am a known quantity, old and familiar with use, as it were. Whereas you, you are young and comparatively new– or as new as things get in this jaded place.” The smile turned rueful. “As I said– we use the tools we have been given, Mankin. It is all we can do.”

The two of them had a piece of business to tend to that afternoon. Together, with their guard following, they went down to the Fortress of the Martyr’s Rock. This fortress lay a half-mile south of the Temple of the Sky, and seeing it Mankin wondered for what purpose it had originally been built, and why. It commanded no eminence or height, and didn’t even have a decently-cleared killing field around it– houses abutted right up against its walls. Whatever its original role, however, he and Deremanoi had business within in its current role, as the central prison of the Empire.

A vice-governor of the fortress met them at the northern gate, and escorted them inside. His men, several of them, carried lanterns of the ordinary sort, as the party went down three flights of worn stone steps. They entered a long corridor, ill-lit by a few lanterns hung on the walls. Mankin’s nose was immediately assaulted by a stink of urine, feces, wet stone and unwashed bodies.

At the end of the corridor was a heavy door. The vice-governor pounded the butt-end of his staff on it. It opened from within.

Beyond was a spacious chamber, comparatively well-lit. Burly, sullen men stood back at the vice-governor’s entrance, bowing their heads. Mankin, entering, resisted the urge to put his hand to his nose. The chamber stank of blood, voided bowels, and vomit, far worse than the corridor.

Staka of Brenaj occupied the lone chair, in the middle of the room. Mankin saw he was, indeed, the man who had escaped from the wharf. Beyond that, Mankin did not know him, as he had told Deremanoi. Staka was a dark-haired, slight fellow, who would have been unremarkable in any crowd in the Hegemony. Now, though, he would have attracted stares, and, perhaps, horror and pity.

Staka was tied to the chair, evidently so he could not escape the punishment that had been visited on him. His face was covered in blood; one eye swollen closed and his lips were torn and bloody. His chest and shoulders were covered in dried blood and bruises. At the moment his head lolled forward, as if he had swooned. His right arm terminated prematurely in a bloody bandage. Both of his arms were chafed raw where the ropes bound him.

“Here he is,” the vice-governor said, speaking quite as if he were showing off a prize hound. He stood by the chair with an unconcerned air. “He’s been very reluctant to tell us anything, but we persevere.”

To Mankin they looked very likely to use Staka up before they got any answers. Mankin had no great affection for the man, but it galled him to see anyone, much less a countryman, tied up and bludgeoned senseless. Perhaps another approach. “With your permission, sir,” he said to the vice-governor, “I would like to speak to the prisoner.”

The vice-governor raised his eyebrows, but then bowed to Mankin. “Certainly.”

He stepped back. Mankin stepped forward. He bent down, trying to see if Staka was even conscious. Mankin nearly reached out to shake the man, but just then Staka raised his head. His one open eye wandered about for a moment before fixing on Mankin. “You,” the man whispered. He sounded hoarse, as if he had been screaming.

“It’s me,” Mankin agreed. “I don’t know you. There’s nothing between you and me, nothing between our families. Am I wrong?”

“No,” Staka croaked.

“So you had no feud to settle. You joined in the attack on me and my man, then, out of partisanship? Or did Chumaki just pay you well?”

Staka sat up straight; his eye blazed. “Damn you! I’m no hire-sword! I believe in our people!”

“Glad to hear it,” Mankin said. “So do I. Did the others believe as strongly you do?”

Staka glared at him for a moment. He breathed hard, either out of rage, or because holding his head up was a great effort. “Not everyone. I told Chumaki and Rela we should have taken only men we were certain of….”

“Rela,” Mankin repeated. “That’s a name I don’t know. A friend of yours?”

Staka, realizing his mistake, clamped his mouth shut.

Mankin sighed. “Staka, I still have nothing against you, despite the fact you tried to kill me. Too bad I have no say in what happens to you.” Deremanoi had already told Mankin that Staka was a dead man; as far as the Imperials were concerned, he had already been tried and convicted. “You can ease your going, and your conscience, by telling us who exactly the instigators of this attack were, besides Chumaki. If you do, you’ll also spare other Attau here in Venia trouble– my lord,” this to the vice-governor, “am I wrong that the Empire will sweep broadly in search for the conspirators?”

The vice-governor smiled, as if appreciating what Mankin was doing. “Our investigation will necessitate bringing in as many people as possible. Unless we have names.”

“As I thought,” Mankin said. “So, Staka– I am sorry for the state you’re in. Truly. I would not have attacked you in the street. The war is over, and this didn’t have to happen. You have a chance, though, to do one right thing before you die. Name the names of your ringleaders, and spare our people more trouble.”

“Go to hell,” Staka said.

Mankin sighed, and stepped back. “I’ve already been there. Think on what I have said.”

Deremanoi told the vice-governor he had nothing to say. He and Mankin stepped out of the room. The vice-governor followed, still smiling. “Young sir,” he told Mankin, “I commend you. Really, this man had been silent as a rock before you came. You may have some natural talent as an interrogator.”

Mankin resisted the impulse to hit the man. “Perhaps it’s the common background,” he said. “If I may suggest, giving him some time to consider may be fruitful.”

“Certainly,” the vice-governor said. “Even if it isn’t, at least we have a new name. We shall follow up on this Rela at once.”

It was a relief when Mankin and Deremanoi regained the street outside the fortress, and smelled only horse dung and wood smoke. “There are times,” Deremanoi reflected as they headed back toward the embassy, “when being a Speaker is something like being a commander– there are some duties you just can’t delegate.” He glanced at Mankin. “We will have to attend the execution.”

“I know, sir,” Mankin said.

They walked three paces or so before Deremanoi said, “Did you mean what you said? That you were sorry for him?”

“Oh, yes,” Mankin said.

“He tried to kill you.”

“So have better men than him,” Mankin said, and he spoke not another word all the way back to the Embassy.

****

Blood dripped from Ana’s mouth. It spattered on the stone floor of the library. The drops were very red against the cream-white of the stone.

“Do you understand now, bitch?” Denacles asked. He stood over her, breathing hard. “Do you grasp what I mean by, ‘Say only what I tell you’?

“Yes, m-master,” Ana answered, not lifting her eyes from the floor. She could barely talk– her lips and mouth were already swelling. The beating had sent her to her hands and knees. The floor was hard.

“You said that before. Hopefully this lesson will drive the point home.” Without warning Denacles kicked her in the side. White pain shot through her; she cried out and fell over. The stones of the floor were very cold against her skin. “Fail me the next time, slut, and you will get worse. You’re no use to me if you blurt out the first thing that comes into your head.”

Denacles hesitated, then sighed and knelt down beside her. She flinched, expecting another blow, but instead he spoke softly. “I don’t take any pleasure in disciplining you, woman,” he said. “I suppose, since you’re a Kyrian, I have to expect some natural stupidity. I am a tolerant man, in most ways, and I do make allowances– but if you’re unable to follow the simplest instructions, you’re a dead weight. And dead weights get thrown overboard. Am I clear?”

“Yes, master,” Ana said, as best she could.

“So, just so your poor master can know what is going on, what exactly did all that mean about Alatanus and his wife? ‘Seek the wise woman of Antrias’?”

“Their son will fall sick,” Ana said. “Deathly sick. His life will hang in the balance, unless they seek out the wise woman of the Antrias. She will have the knowledge to save his life. I am sorry, Master, I don’t know what the Antrias is….”

“The Antrias is a district of the city, you stupid slut, outside the walls to the west. It is filled with poor scum who labor in the workshops and mills. A Highborn like Alatanus would go there only out of the direst need.”

“His son,” Ana said, “will be very sick, master….”

“And is the only hope of his house,” Denacles finished. “Yes.” He peered at Ana as if she were an interesting insect. “Perhaps this will not turn out to my disadvantage, after all. If Alatanus’ son lives, he will be grateful. Yes…but still, you were very stupid to blurt it out. Do it again, and it may be the last time you do anything. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master,” Ana said. It was barely more than a mumble now.

“I will hold you to that.” Denacles stood, then said, quite casually, “Dumb bitch– you got blood on my sleeve.” He left.

He sent Allia in to see to her, along with Salvanus, one of the household guards. Salvanus carried Ana to the bathhouse. Allia chased him out, and tended to Ana’s hurts. She bathed her, and the water was tinged pink with her blood. Allia put ointments on her cuts. She had the younger woman rinse her mouth three times with a mixture that stung the lacerations on Ana’s lips and cheeks, but afterwards soothed them. Her mouth was still swollen, so bad now that she couldn’t really talk. Allia compensated by supplying most of the conversation as she put poultices on Ana’s bruises.

“It seems hard, outlander, but Denacles is a man who expects to be obey,” Allia said. “You have to learn that, girl. I’m not saying he should have beat you so hard– but it could have been worse.”

Yes, Ana thought, she supposed it could have been– she had, apparently, no broken bones, nor had Denacles knocked her unconscious at any point. None of her teeth appeared to be loose. Denacles had been careful not to permanently disable her, or injure her so badly that her recovery would take too long. It could have been worse– but what it was was bad enough.

“I would have expected you to have learned by now, after all these months,” Allia said. “Please think about what you’re doing. It is the fate the gods have decreed for us, that we are to serve in this life. We please the gods when we are obedient to those who stand over us.”

Ana wondered if Allia really believed that. She knew the woman had been a slave since birth, in one household or another. Was it her way of accepting her place? Was it her means of killing the dreams of her youth?

“The master,” Allia told her, “says you are to rest, and that there will be no readings for a week or so, to allow you to get better. See, he’s not cruel for the sake of cruelty, child.”

Ana said nothing, but Allia’s words turned her stomach. No, indeed– his cruelty has a purpose. Cruelty was a tool to Denacles, an implement he wielded with nearly dispassionate precision. Just as Ana was a tool he used to climb higher and higher toward citizenship. Ana wasn’t sure if that were not worse than being hated.

Allia dressed her, gently, and Salvanus carried her to her room. “You rest,” Allia said as Salvanus laid her on her bed. “Try not to move too much. I’ll check on you later, child, and wake you in the morning.” They left.

When she was sure they were gone, and all that was left were the distant sounds of the city going to bed, Ana conducted a full inventory her hurts. No, Denacles had been very careful…and he knew just how to hit her, and to hurt her, in ways that would heal and not incapacitate her in the long run. It was not the worst beating she had ever received, but it was the most precise.

For a few minutes then, laying on her side, Ana wept. She wept, not because of her pain, nor out of shame at what she had become, but for lost dreams.

She stopped after a bit, though. It did no good. And I’m not quite ready to give up my dreams…not yet….

Moving carefully, gasping at the flashes of pain that shot through her, she half-crawled to the back corner of the room. She removed the brick and took out the book of laws. Allia had left a candle burning, so there was no need to light hers.

She went back to her pallet. Part of her just wanted to rest; but another part wanted no rest at all. What she truly wanted, now and always, was out. She wanted to be done with all the Vykranii and all the Denacles of the world, with beatings and performances and speaking what was not, instead of what she knew. She wanted her freedom, and if Denacles beat her every day, it still wouldn’t drive that out of her.

I will read this, Ana told herself, opening the book. I will read it, and if the answer is not here, I will find another way. The gods, all of them, could stand witness to that. And if Denacles suffered humiliation in the process, why, that would just be sauce on the dish.

Ana ignored her pain, bent her head, and began to read.

The fix we’re in….

WARNING!– Political post! You have thirty seconds to reach minimum safe distance!

I wasn’t originally going to post about the mid-term election. There didn’t seem to be much to say about it others hadn’t already said, and I didn’t want to assign the election more weight than it deserves– mid-term elections in this country tend to skew toward the base (aka the committed, or, depending on your point of view, the whack-jobs), and the incumbent party usually takes a beating. It’s painful to watch know-nothings crowing about their “electoral mandate”, but this sort thing of thing usually passes, and the wheel comes around again.

Then I read this piece by Nicholas Kristoff, who seems to crystallize the larger issue we’re facing in the US. Democracy is ailing in this country, ailing badly, and the mechanism of government is jammed with partisan game playing. Kristoff contrasts people in other countries, such as China and Ukraine, who have fought and died for democracy, with us, the inheritors of a democratic tradition, who are failing, and it is a painful contrast.

At one point in the last years of the Roman Republic one of Julius Caesar’s political opponents refused to take the auguries required to conduct a certain piece of business, not because the gods were angry, but because doing so would have allowed Caesar to look productive and useful to the state. In ancient Rome you didn’t twitch a political eyebrow without checking the auspices (from which we get the term ‘auspicious’), and thus Caesar’s opponents were able to manipulate the machinery of government to stymie him.

If this sounds familiar, it should– it’s exactly where we are in this country, at this moment. And that is a thought that should scare everyone, because the Roman Republic lost the consensus it needed to maintain itself, dissolved in civil war and then devolved into an imperial monarchy. If that is probably not the exact path the US will follow (actually, I’m afraid it could turn out worse), it should be self-evident that if the political class is more interested in frustrating its opponents than in actual governance, the whole country is bound to suffer.

I have another book on my short list to read, Chris Matthew’s Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked. Having lived through the ’80′s, and remembering the partisan sniping of the time, it is sobering to see someone looking back on the relationship betwween President Reagan and Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House, as an example of politics that worked. It’s a measure of how bad things have actually gotten.

Perhaps we all need to remember that partisan differences do not inevitably mean all-out ideological warfare, with no prisoners taken and the ‘victors’ inheriting only ruins. Because that’s where we’re headed, folks.

Horse Tamer– Chapter 11- A Conversation with the Mighty

Okay, I have to confess to a small amount of retcon– really, just a tiny bit– after floundering a while trying to figure out the shape of a Part Two to Chapter Ten, I decided to let this be its own thing as Chapter 11, which meant going back and modifying the title of the last installment to just read Chapter 10. Hopefully all my retcons on this story will be that minor.

One thing I have noticed in writing Horse Tamer is that I usually have more goodies in mind than I can conveniently fit into one reasonably sized chapter (I want to avoid any more 5000 word installments). Material I had planned to include here is basically being deferred until later chapters. This at least means I won’t run out of stuff to write, but it is a little frustrating.

FYI, I continue to make progress on Princess of Fire, but it seems to come in fits and starts. However, I am, by the grace of God, once more over 85,000 words. No projections at this point as to a time-frame for completion of the first draft. Bulletins to follow….

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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Mankin made it to the far doors. Beyond the audience chamber was another large room. Here those foreigners who had already presented themselves milled about, talking to their Speakers. Mankin, however, did not see Deremanoi. He felt like a child who had strayed away from its nanny.

Nevertheless, he sighed in relief. At least that was done. Mankin heartily wished he could go home now, but Deremanoi had insisted that he would have to stay on hand for awhile, in the hope that certain of the Highborn would want to speak with him personally, once the presentations were over. Mankin couldn’t possible imagine why any of these Venians would want to talk to him, but here he was, just in case.

He was still surprised when a man wearing the livery of a Highborn house– Mankin was not sure which; he was still learning to distinguish the colors and sigils of each– approached him and bowed. “Honored guest,” the servant said. “My master desires words with you.”

“And your master is…?” Mankin asked.

The servant looked surprised at Mankin’s ignorance, and more than a little disdainful. “General Decius Procus, Senator, and, in former times, Triumvir.”

“Your pardon,” Mankin said. “Yes, I would be honored to speak with the general.”

The servant’s look said Yes, you should be. Aloud, however, he said nothing. He simply bowed, turned and led Mankin through the crowd.

They passed through a small doorway and down a flight of wide flight of steps. They crossed a wide court planted with orange trees. The trees were still in blossom– rather late, Mankin thought, but then perhaps they were a variety he wasn’t familiar with. The scent of the blossoms was a sweet counterpoint to the close interior of the audience chamber, which had smelled of lamp oil and people.

On the other side of the court the servant led Mankin into a portal; inside it was a set of solid bronze doors. By these stood two city militiamen, fully armed and armored. Mankin’s eyes widened a little at the sight of them. The two militiamen eyed him in turn, but neither of them moved to stop him, nor did they say anything as the servant opened the doors and led Mankin through.

Inside was a spacious chamber, well-lit. At first Mankin thought the light came from candles, but a second glance revealed several nolore on stands about the room. Mankin was surprised again; he had seen these sort of ancient lamps before, but never so many in one place. They illuminated the room with a cool, pearly light that left few shadows. There was a scattering of furniture, a couch, chairs and desks.

In the room stood, or sat, three men in the robes of Venian citizens. One was an older man, somewhat heavy with age, but whose bearing was that of a soldier. He stood by the cold hearth– no fire was laid on this warm night. The other two citizens were men of middle age, or just short of it– a solid, rather square man, seated on a hardwood chair, who glared at Mankin as he entered, and a rather more sleek and elegant-looking fellow, who was making a show of reading a book as he stood by the far wall, which was lined floor to ceiling with shelves of books.

To one side two scribes sat at writing desks, styluses, ink and paper ready. This was obviously not a private meeting, then– not only was Decius Procus– Mankin guessed he was the older fellow by the fireplace– not alone, he was going to have the discussion recorded. Mankin was rather relieved– the walk here had been just long enough for him to begin to wonder if it had been strictly wise to accept a conference in private, where whatever was discussed might be distorted. Not that a written record absolutely prevent that, but scribes plus additional witnesses at least suggested that Procus meant to keep things above-board.

One of the scribes, Mankin noticed, was in the garb of a freedman. No surprise there, half of the Imperial bureaucracy was populated, it seemed, with freedmen of one stripe or another. The other scribe, however, was clearly a Venian, although he wore no robe of citizenship. Mankin wondered if the man felt it a degradation to work alongside a former slave, or if things were close enough to the knuckle in Venia for ordinary men that he was just glad for the job.

The older man turned as the slave escorting Mankin announced, “Mankin, son of Toren, of the Attau Hegemony,” and ushered Mankin in. The slave smoothly stepped back and closed the door with a thud.

“Mankin,” the older man said. “I am General Decius Procus, senator and consul. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us.”

Mankin bowed. “I am honored by your request, sir.”

Procus gestured toward the others. “May I make known to you Kaius Marius, senator,” this was the squarish man, “and Junius Valerius, who is here in the stead of the Triumvir Polius Manico, who is unavoidably detained at the moment, as you well know.”

“Lords,” Mankin said, bowing to each. He reflected that all this diplomacy was liable to give him a backache. “I am honored.”

Marius’ look seemed to say that he damn well better be, but Valerius closed his book, turned and inclined his head toward Mankin, a surprising courtesy to a foreigner. “I, for one, am glad for the opportunity to speak with someone of your rank, grandson of Vikeres.”

Mankin refrained from pointing out to Valerius that rank did not work the same way in the Hegemony as it did in Venia, at least as far as heredity was concerned. “Thank you, my lord.”

A slave came in from a side door, carrying a chair. He placed it on the floor by Mankin, bowed and shuffled out. “Please be seated, Mankin,” Procus said.

“Thank you, my lord.” Mankin sat, while wondering if they would burn the chair when the interview was finished.

Valerius came and sat in one of the chairs by Marius; Procus, however, remained where he was. “Young sir,” he said to Mankin, and the pens of the scribes began to scratch, “first off, allow me to also extend my apologies for the incident this morning. I know His Honor, the Triumvir Farus Tolius, was sincere in the feelings he expressed, and I want to tell you that all the powers of the Empire will be used to hunt down the conspirators.” The hint of a grim smile touched his lips. “Those who are left, that is.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Mankin said. He hid the odd twinge Procus’ speech gave him. Two apologies from high-ranking Venians to a foreigner within a single hour– if it were not unprecedented, it was undoubtedly rare. It actually raised the hackles on the back of Mankin’s neck– something’s afoot.

Marius did not hide his disgust at Procus’ words. It was obvious that he did not feel that much courtesy needed to be spread over whatever hurt feelings Mankin entertained. Valerius, however, nodded in solemn agreement, although he said nothing.

“I asked to have a private conversation with you,” Procus went one, “because your mission in Venia is well-known to us. As it happens, we three constitute a major portion of the Senatorial quorum which will consider any requests from your nation for funds, and pass them on to the full Senate with recommendations.”

Ah. The mystery began to lift. “I see, my lord.”

“As such,” Procus went on, “we thought it wise to have a quiet talk with you, informally, to get your impressions of the state of your nation, and its immediate needs.”

“I am at your service, sir,” Mankin said.

“Of course,” Procus said, “we followed the course of the war with great interest here in Venia, but even official dispatches from our Speaker could not round out the picture for us. Perhaps,” he said, nearly hesitating, “you could tell us of the state of the country, in your own words.”

Mankin took a breath, and tried. He spoke, in broad terms, of the course of armies, and what came in their wake– the devastation of the valley of the Jalan, the rape of Hazana, the pillaging of the Kesani Plain. He told the three men of entire districts of burnt farms, fields filled with slaughtered livestock, the wrecked mines of Sitana. He described the vast refugee camp at Jusoma, where farmers and their families huddled in caves and brushwood shanties, and died of dysentery and fever. He told of men, veterans, fighting for bread in the streets of Deilu-amere.

Mankin stopped himself. “Your pardons, my lords,” he said, clearing his throat. “The short of it is, my nation is wounded, and we need help to put things right. What I described to you are things I have seen myself, and they are not half of what the Hegemony suffers at the moment.”

Marius’ expression had not changed through all of Mankin’s description. Valerius listened with apparent interest, but nearly as little change of expression; but Procus, from the somber look he wore, seemed to be picturing every scene as Mankin laid them out. Procus, of course, had been a general; on first impressions, Mankin doubted the other two men had ever even touched a sword.

“Does your Eldest fear a renewal of the war?” Procus asked.

“Not with the Black Party,” Mankin said. “There are stragglers, but they are scattered. There are, however, other factions in the Hegemony, and hungry people will listen to anyone who promises bread.”

“So the loans you seek,” Valerius said, “will be to keep your people from starvation?”

“Only in the coming months,” Mankin said. “We will be close to famine if the planting does not go well, true enough. But in the longer term, we need the money to rebuild, and to pay the army, so we can keep order and stabilize our government.”

“You spin a truly piteous tale,” Marius said. He didn’t sound particularly moved. “It occurs to me to ask, however, what concern is all this to the Empire?”

At least, Mankin thought, the man was to the point. “My lord, the Hegemony has been a loyal tributary of the Empire for three hundred years. It is our swords,” and the Sarnians’, but Mankin had to leave them out of it at the moment, however much it pained him, “that guard the far eastern frontiers of civilization. I would venture to suggest that it is very much in the Empire’s interest to keep the Hegemony strong and in the hands of people who understand the role their nation plays in the scheme of things.”

“Barbarian,” Marius said, glowering, “do not presume to suggest the Empire cannot defend itself.”

“Kaius,” Procus said, rather severely, “remember that this young gentleman is our guest.”

Marius glared, but fell silent. Mankin glanced at Procus, then said to Marius, “My lord, such was not my intention. It is not a question of whether the Empire can keep its borders secure– it is whether the Empire cares to take on additional costs and greater complications at this present time.”

He intentionally did not mention the eastern war, but he sensed he did not need to. The look Marius gave Procus, and Procus Valerius, was enough. “I believe we understand you, young man,” Procus said. “Thank you for your honesty.”

Marius stood. Mankin hastily stood as well, out of courtesy. “This has been a waste of time,” Marius said. “You’ve gone soft in your old age, Decius.”

“Perhaps,” Procus said. Mankin saw the older man’s jaw tighten, and wondered what words he bit back. “Nevertheless, this is an issue we will have to face over the next few weeks. Mankin, I am afraid that it will be needful for you to repeat what you have told us to other groups of senators, perhaps several times in the near future. There will also be questions– yes, a great number of questions, I’m afraid.”

Mankin bowed in acknowledgment. “I am, as before, at your service.”

Marius snorted. “He’s very polite, for a barbarian. Look, outlander– the Empire has no need of foreigners, whether they’re tributaries or not. Your sordid little civil war was your own business. As far as I am concerned, you can clean up your own mess.” He brushed past Mankin, nearly shouldering him aside, ignoring another bow, and left the room.

A blare of trumpets. “Ah,” Valerius said, standing, “your pardon, but that is my call to action. The presentations are over, and I must go attend on the Triumvir.” He nodded to Mankin, who bowed once more. “I look forward to speaking to you again, sometime soon.” He left as well.

“If you have a moment, Mankin of the Attau,” Procus said, “I would be pleased if you would walk with me. I have something to show you.”

They stepped out into the courtyard. There was a buzz of distant conversation from further within the basilica, but there was yet hardly anyone here. Procus led Mankin down a flight of steps to a lower level. Here, under a stretch of night sky– to one side Mankin glimpsed the top of the Sky Pyramid, over the roof of the basilica, in the distance– Procus led Mankin to a corner of the yard. There stood a large black stone, covered with moss. It seemed an odd thing to find, tucked away in a corner of the immaculate courtyard.

Odder still, as they approached Procus began to mutter under his breath. Mankin recognized the tongue– it was not modern Venian, but Old Venish, the most ancient dialect of Venia. Mankin had studied the tongue, but his command of it was shaky– at the moment he seemed to be catching no more than one word in three. Procus appeared to praying, invoking the favor of his ancestors. Mankin intentionally lagged a step or two behind the general, giving him space.

As he came close to the stone, Procus confirmed Mankin’s interpretation by going straight into a prostration. Mankin stood well back as the older man lay flat on the pavement before the stone, speaking his prayer aloud.

Mankin struggled with conflicting feelings. This was no worship of the Unchanging, who was beyond being tied to any image or object– but the reverence with which Procus approached this monolith struck a chord with him. He waited quietly, keeping well back.

Procus finished his prayer and stood. For an older man he got to his feet without too much difficulty. “I must beg your forgiveness, Mankin, but I cannot approach this monument without prayer.”

“There is nothing to forgive, sir,” Mankin said.

Procus advanced, and laid a hand, gently, on the mossy stone. It was almost a caress. “I doubt you know what this is. Why should you, when so many Venians have forgotten it?”

“Your reverence tells me much about it, sir,” Mankin said. “It is, I take it, a venerable monument of your people?”

Procus nodded. “The most venerable. When the ancient Venians wandered down out of the north and reached the sea, Sarus, our first king, chose this very spot for the heart of our first settlement. It was here that the first council hall was erected. Two thousand years ago– but sometimes to me it seems as if I lived through it all in my own flesh.”

“Here, on this spot, Sarus raised this stone. There is no inscription on it, for our ancestors then could not read or write. He raised this stone, and told the people, who were gathered all about, that it would stand for all their ancestors, and for all those who had perished in the Long Journey. So it did, and it does, and I come here on every Day of Remembrance, to pay my respects to our remotest ancestors.”

Mankin shivered. He understood, now, Procus’ reverence. This is a powerful place.

Procus looked around. “But how many do you see here, besides you and me?” he asked. He smiled, but it was filled with sadness. “Inside they are now starting in on dove and candied fruit and wine. If you queried a hundred of my fellow Highborn, I think not one in twenty could tell you what this old rock means. We say we honor the Ancestral Dead with this day, but for too many the true meaning has been lost.”

He turned away from the stone. “I’ve shown you this, outlander, because I want you to understand that my people have deep, deep roots. In the coming days, though, I am afraid you will see a great deal of the spirit Marius showed you just now. He is a valuable ally, and powerful in his own way, but…limited in his point of view. We have become a forgetful people, Mankin, forgetful that we were once foreigners and wanderers, forgetful that we are not the only race in the world, forgetful even….” He hesitated, as if thinking better of something he had been at the point of saying. “Forgetful that, as powerful as we are, we need friends,” he finished.

“I understand, sir,” Mankin said.

“I favor the loans your government requests of us,” Procus said. “And suspension of the tribute for a term of years. The Hegemony is valuable to the Empire. The difficult task will be to convince the rest of the Senate to see that value. Some of my colleagues are…less than perceptive. I will help you as much as I can.”

“I am grateful, sir,” Mankin said, and he meant it.

Disney, the horror of marketing, and Michael Sellers’ “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood”

In my life I often come late to things. I struggled in my early years in school. I was forty before I became a father. And sometimes some great controversy rages in the blogosphere for months or years, with battle-lines drawn and rhetorical blood shed, unnoticed by yours truly, until one day I stumble over it, as if it were a footstool left out of place in a darkened room.

So it is with the movie John Carter. My last post reviewed the movie, and expressed my pleasant surprise at finding a good (not perfect, but good) movie that deserved a better fate, in my opinion, than it got at the box-office.

In my scramble to catch up with the rest of Barsoomian fandom and understand what happened to this movie, it was recommended to me that I read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael Sellers. The book details the corporate missteps and follies that led to John Carter under-performing at the box office. What it outlines is a lethal “perfect storm” of factors in which no one intended for the movie to fail to make money, but which still combined to produce a flop.

Essentially, John Carter, despite being based on a proven sci-fi property, and directed by an Academy Award winner, became an orphan project at Disney because of the departure of Dick Cook as head of Disney Studios in 2009, while the movie was in pre-production. More musical chairs around that time among Disney management types not only meant the advent of a new studio head with no commitment to the movie, but also a new head of marketing, a person with no experience in movie marketing. According to Sellers, John Carter was perceived as a film that did not fit into the Disney “brands” (Disney– princess films aimed at girls/Pixar– animation/Marvel– superhero films). As such, it was given a minimal marketing commitment and basically left to twist in the wind. Sellers outlines the failure of the film’s marketing efforts in painful detail. Only days after its opening the head of Disney was publicly talking about the significant loss the company would incur from the film, which only cemented the public perception that it was a poor movie, and killed any chance that word-of-mouth might have led to an improved domestic box-office– a move, as Sellers is at some pains to point out, almost unprecedented in the film industry. Sellers suggests that this was all colored by Disney’s impending acquisition of LucasFilms, which promised to give the company a ready-made “brand” appealing to young males (the supposed audience for John Carter).

Sellers’ book is recommended, although, on the whole, it makes for nauseating reading. Hollywood has always been a place where dreams meet harsh, jagged reality, and usually get shredded in the process, but in this case the collision is nearly incomprehensible. How do you spend $250 million on a film and then decide it’s not worth a decent marketing effort? Are the corporate heads of Disney so far above it all that the failure of an expensive movie is just one pawn in an elaborate corporate chess-game, and not a particularly critical pawn, at that? Sellers suggests this, pointing out that the Disney Studio is only one small cog in a huge entertainment/travel/leisure conglomerate. Even so, that sort of disconnect is disturbing, especially because it has a profound impact on the careers of the people involved.

This story makes me tired, and sad, and rather relieved to be a little self-published author who has to own his own failures and successes. There may be lessons in this tale I can apply to my own work. But that is a topic for another blog-post, sometime down the line.

Meanwhile, there is hope for a new John Carter of Mars movie, whether a reboot or a sequel. Whichever it is, I will be quite ready to return to Barsoom.

Thoughts on the daily struggle to write, with reports from the front line.

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