A few thoughts on “John Carter” and the horror of marketing

When I first saw the trailer for the movie John Carter in 2011, and realized it was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, I was seriously jazzed–

The trailers for the movie have been severely criticized (more about that later) as not really conveying the fact that the movie is an adaptation of APoM, but personally (perhaps because I knew the story) it gave me the shivers. I looked forward to seeing it.

While waiting for the movie’s debut, though, I began to hear rumors that the production was troubled. Among other things, the budget appeared to be out of control, coming in at $250 million. A movie generally has to make double its production cost to achieve profitability, so that goal was frighteningly difficult for John Carter to reach from the start. And then there was the puzzling fact of the name, which does not mention ‘Mars’ or ‘Barsoom’ or anything else to clue people into the fact that this is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars.

Then the movie came out, and many critics savaged it. That, and the thumbs-down the movie received from a couple of trusted friends, caused me to give the movie a pass, with regrets. I filed it away as yet another failed adaptation of a beloved book, and moved on.

Years passed. A week ago I happened to be in my local library, perusing DVD’s, when I spotted John Carter on the shelf and decided What the heck, I’m not paying for it. (Public libraries are one of humanity’s greatest inventions, right up there with fire and dark chocolate malted milk balls).

Let me say this about myself– while I am often willing to give a film the benefit of the doubt, particularly adaptations of well-known books, I have pretty good turkey-detection capabilities, honed by decades of watching a lot of bad science-fiction, such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Starship Invasions (yes, I sat through Starship Invasions. Give me a break, I was a kid). When I watch a film I usually get a sense about its quality fairly quickly.

(spoilers, spoilers, I mean it, SPOILERS!)

When I sat down to watch John Carter, I quickly realized that to me it didn’t look or feel like a turkey– at no point did it set off my alarms. On the contrary, I found myself quickly enjoying the story. Perhaps it helped that my initial expectations were low, and that I had a willingness to allow the movie to be its own thing. But a lot of John Carter just seemed to work for me.

The production values were excellent– more than that, director Andrew Stanton (a Pixar stalwart associated with Finding Nemo and WALL-E) really managed to convey a powerful sense of Barsoom (Mars) as a dying world, with civilizations in their final decadence. While the story varies from the source material in many ways, in other ways it seemed faithful– the aerial vessels of Helium and Zodanga powerfully evoke the books, as does the character design for the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks. In fact, in at least one respect, the movie is too faithful for my taste (more about that later).

Lynn Collins is superb as Dejah Thoris (in so many ways, and I’m just gonna leave it at that), and if there were an Oscar category for Best Performance Behind a CGI Animation, Willem Dafoe would have won for Tars Tarkas. Collins and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) seem to have good chemistry– some fans complained the romance between them was rushed, but it did not overly impress me as such. There is a nice balance of humor and drama through most of the film. Personally, I know I enjoyed a film when parts of it stay with me afterwards, and such is the case with John Carter.

The film is not perfect– the expositional prologue is clunky, some of the emotional notes the movie hits are heavy-handed, and the climatic battle, where the Tharks and Helium unite to defeat the Zodangans and their Thern masters, seems a bit formulaic. Worst of all (for me, anyway), there is a Earth-side framing story that was completely distracting and unnecessary.

This is where the movie was too faithful to the book. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was neither a scientist nor an engineer, writing for serialization in 1911, apparently could not think of any way to get John Carter to Barsoom other than by a sort of lame astral projection in which he appears to die on Earth and lives on Mars. That story element irritated me when I was thirteen, and it irritates me now– although I suppose I should give ERB a small break, since in 1911 even scientists and engineers would have been pretty fuzzy on how to travel to Mars. But for a kid who grew up watching Saturn 5 launches and cut his teeth on fictional warp-drives and star-gates, Burroughs’ means of interplanetary transportation left a lot to be desired.

In John Carter Stanton remained faithful to this feature of the original story, and in fact works pretty hard at rationalizing it– the story posits the existence of an advanced interplanetary transporter, which creates a living copy of a being on the destination world, while leaving the original in suspended animation at the point of origin. John Carter’s consciousness is active in his Barsoom copy, while his Earth-bound body lies in a cave in Arizona– and if one body dies, the other dies. As a rationalization it’s pretty clever.

I still hate it. In my opinion it would have been simpler to just put in interplanetary gates, and lose the framing story, which would have saved fifteen to twenty minutes of film time and remove an unnecessary plot complication.

Having said that, the interplanetary transporter is tied to a nifty sub-plot Stanton introduces (I know, one complication out, another in), which I do not recall from the original books. The Therns, who are manipulating the leader of Zodanga to do their bidding, are apparently immortal interplanetary parasites, who ‘feed’ off the dying of worlds. It is established early on that they are perfectly capable of moving between worlds, including Barsoom and Earth, and that they have their own nefarious designs on our ocean-gifted world. This creates a deeper sense of peril for John Carter– in a sense he’s not just fighting for Dejah Thoris, but for humanity. Personally I found this added element really appealing from a story standpoint, and it would provide a dandy unifying plot element, should there ever be any sequels.

On the whole, the movie impressed me. Sadly, however, it appears unlikely that there will be other films in the near future. In the final analysis, for whatever reason, the film badly under-performed on it’s initial release, not coming close to clearing the $500 to $600 million it needed to be called profitable. Nearly three years later there appear to be no plans to launch a John Carter 2, and most of the principals, especially Andrew Stanton, appear to have moved on– all of which I find regrettable.

After watching the film I did some belated research and found that there is a sharp division among fans about the value of John Carter, with some reviling it as unfaithful to the book and others declaring their undying allegiance (a division rather reminiscent of the Man of Steel controversy). I also found that there has been a considerable amount of discussion of the film as a failure of marketing rather than production. As Michael Sellers, author of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood put it, this movie was “a box-office flop, but not a turkey” (his book is now on my short list for future reading). The question of the film’s title alone raises issues about what was going on in the marketing department at Disney.

This thought has a certain resonance with me. Marketing, it seems, is emerging as the new choke-point for all kinds of creative endeavors. Getting the film-goer/viewer/reader’s attention seems to be increasingly difficult in a world that is flooded with entertainment and informational options. Certainly my own failure marketing my novels on Kindle has brought this point home. In the case of John Carter, it appears (although I need to do more reading on this subject) that many fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs did not know the film existed until after its run, while people unfamiliar with the Barsoom stories thought John Carter was a derivative rip-off of Star Wars(!), when in fact it’s the other way around.

The depressing thought for me in this is that if Disney, with millions of dollars available to market their product, can blow it, what chance do I have? On the other hand, if my marketing fails– and it has– I know where the problem lies. The fault is mine. There is no circular firing squad at Doug Daniel Productions. And it’s up to me to find a remedy.

I am also belatedly sad about this movie. When I thought it was a turkey it was just a missed opportunity. Now that I see that some good work went into realizing a believable world with some genuine entertainment value, it is a sadly missed opportunity. I know how hard it is to write a novel– producing a major film is orders of magnitude more difficult, and it is heartbreaking when it fails to win an audience, apparently for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Perhaps, in time, the movie will get the recognition it deserves.

Meanwhile, I will definitely read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Perhaps I can learn a thing or two about what to avoid in marketing a story. Failure, yours or others’, is a powerful teacher.

Oh, and I will be buying the DVD. I want this movie in my library. ‘Nuff said.

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PS– no sooner did I post this, than I came across this announcement–

http://barsoomia.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/john-carter-has-been-released/

Whoa– I don’t usually experience this level of synchronicity. A very interesting development….

Movies that inspire me– “Stagecoach”

This weekend I re-watched John Ford’s 1939 film, Stagecoach

I grew up on Westerns, both TV shows and movies. This isn’t really surprising in a household proud of its Western roots (and with a father who thought John Wayne was the bee’s-knees). If we went to the drive-in (five kids and two adults in a Ford Falcon), odds were we were there to see a Western. My earliest imaginary friend was an invisible horse inspired by Roy Roger’s Trigger (yes, I was a lonely child).

As with most over-exposure, inevitably a reaction set in– in my teen years I turned more and more toward sci-fi and fantasy for my dream-fulfillment, and less to Westerns. I had seen too many Westerns– more than that, I had seen too many bad Westerns. Hollywood, in its history, has produced thousands upon thousands of Western films and TV episodes, many of them mediocre at best, some of them positively dreadful. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it seemed as if every other show on TV was a Western. This massive over-production peaked just before a mood of severe historical revisionism set in in the late Sixties, in which the mythology of the West was questioned and overturned, resulting in films like Little Big Man and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. If you make a Western nowadays, you have to make it with very different premises than a film from the Thirties or Forties.

Having said that, I have long known that Western tropes and themes are deeply buried in my psyche– and that they strongly inform my writing, in whatever the genre. In particular, my fantasy writing has far more of a Western sensibility than sword and sorcery or high fantasy– there’s far, far more of Shane or Josey Wales in my character Mankin than there is of Aragorn.

In my possibly jaundiced view, there are a mere handful of really great Western movies– Shane, The Searchers, possibly the 1969 True Grit (but, unfortunately, not the 2010 version), and a few others. One of those others is Stagecoach.

(DANGER: huge and hairy spoilers lurk below)

The film is definitely a product of its time, and it rings all the typical changes you would expect from a Thirties Western– gunfights, hookers with hearts-of-gold, perfidious Native Americans looking to massacre white folk, the inevitable rescue of said white folk by the cavalry at the last moment, as well as a dose or two of racism. Within that framework, though, John Ford created a timeless film that constitutes nothing less than an advanced primer on how to tell a story.

Based on a short story, “Stage to Lordsburg”, the film has a motley crew of characters boarding an eastbound stagecoach in one dusty town in Arizona to go to another dusty town in New Mexico. There’s a prostitute being run out of town by the local morality league, a drunken sawbones in the same boat, the snooty, aristocratic young wife of a US Cavalry officer looking to join her husband, a pompous banker, a whiskey drummer, and a card-sharping gunslinger. Before the stage departs, the local marshal learns from the stage driver that Luke Plummer is in Lordsburg, the stage’s destination. The marshal has been hunting the Ringo Kid, a local man whose father and brother were murdered by Plummer and his brothers, and who was sent to prison on the Plummers’ perjured testimony. Ringo has escaped, though, and the marshal realizes that he will be headed to Lordsburg for revenge. The marshal joins the stagecoach as a guard, intending to arrest Ringo.

Just before the stage leaves, a cavalry officer informs the passengers that the Apaches under Geronimo are on the warpath, and that they will have a cavalry escort– but, as it turns out, only part of the way. On the first leg of the trip, the stage is stopped by Ringo (John Wayne), who is, indeed, trying to get to Lordsburg. The marshal places him under a sort of loose arrest, and the stage resumes its journey.

Most or all of the characters in the coach, in one way or another, have agendas, or secrets– the banker is actually absconding with a payroll, the officer’s wife is stubbornly insistent on joining her husband, despite the fact that she is about to give birth, the gunslinger joins the party out of a Southern sense of chivalry, intending to protect the officer’s wife (while giving off serious sexual vibes toward her), Dallas (the prostitute) wants to keep her employment history from Ringo, who has taken an immediate shine to her, and Ringo just wants to get to Lordsburg to take care of the Plummer boys. The mix of characters and agendas keeps the story rolling (no pun intended), with plenty of both conflict and humor in the coach, quite apart from the overarching danger that they may all be massacred by the Apaches. These people squabble and argue and display the full range of human courage and stupidity under stress. At different points they make the decision to keep going, despite the danger, always because of their own agendas.

At each stage of the journey, Ford ratchets up the hovering danger– the next expected cavalry escort is a no-show, the officer’s wife goes into labor and the doctor has to redeem himself by delivering the baby and saving the mother, war smoke-signals are seen, the next stage station is a burned out wreck with its operators massacred. The stage is floated across a deep river, whereupon everybody thinks they’re in the clear– until the whiskey salesman takes an arrow in the chest and one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed takes off, as the Apaches chase the stage. Not until the passengers are out of ammunition and all looks lost– the gunslinger is prevented from shooting the officer’s wife, to keep her from being captured, only when he himself is shot– does the cavalry show up and save the day.

In most films this is where we would get the end-credits, but there is still the unfinished business between Ringo and the Plummers, not to mention the unfinished business between Ringo and Dallas. As the stage pulls into Lordsburg, the word gets to the Plummers that Ringo is in town. At this point the film very nearly reverts to a silent picture– there is almost as much acting with faces and body language as with words, as the Plummers gather and contemplate facing Ringo (summary: they’re scared out of their boots). The silence and the faces remind me, personally, of Kurosawa. Ringo wins the gunfight, and he and Dallas escape (with the marshal’s connivance) to a better life.

One of the tremendous things about the film is how Ford created the smaller conflicts that snarl and tangle among the passengers as they try to escape the greater danger. If this were a film simply about a stagecoach being chased by Indians it would very quickly grow boring. Instead we quickly get invested in these people, even the ones who aren’t particularly likable. It is perhaps the mark of a genius that, despite being largely cliches we’ve seen before, none of the characters seem dull. Certainly the 1966 remake did not replicate the magic of this film, despite the presence of Ann-Margaret.

It absolutely does not hurt that the acting is all first-class, and the cinematography is nothing short of epic. Altogether the mix produces a piece of world-class cinema.

Here I want to note a detail regarding the background of the movie that says something about the artifice that story-telling sometimes requires. The climatic chase has been criticized for unrealism– spoil-sports have pointed out that all the Apaches had to do was shoot the lead horse of the coach’s team, and the coach would have come to a very sudden halt. When someone suggested that to John Ford, the director is famously reported to have said, “Then you wouldn’t have a story!” Sometimes suspension of disbelief must be stretched to cover such points– however, the great strength of the scene, as Ford shot it, is that you’re generally too busy hanging on to the edge of your seat to worry about details like why the lead horse isn’t dead yet.

Ever-increasing danger…characters you root for…action that conveys a sense of immediacy and realism, whether or not it actually is realistic… these are essential story-telling elements all too many movies ignore, or handle in a formulaic manner. When a filmmaker gets it right, though, you get pure gold.

Horse Tamer– Chapter 10 – The Triumvirs

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
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“You were very lucky,” Deremanoi said.

“I know, sir,” Mankin said. “With those numbers against us, Denetoi and I should be dead.”

“That is not what I meant,” Deremanoi said. “You are fortunate in that you were attacked in broad daylight, in about as public a space as can be found in Venia, unless you arranged to be ambushed attending the Arena. There is no doubt that the attack was unprovoked.”

“Ah,” Mankin said. “I see.”

The two of them were talking by themselves, but the forecourt of the Triumvir’s Basilica was crowded. This was where all the foreign officers and officials to be presented tonight had been gathered; under high lanterns a crowd of folk were gathered under the eyes of several rather stern-looking major-domos. There were at least fifty people to be presented, and every one was dressed in the best garb of their respective lands. Mankin wore his new blue and gold clan uniform, while Deremanoi wore the red and black of the Copper clan. Mankin would never have admitted it out loud, but he had always thought the Copper Clan had the best uniform in the Hegemony. In blue and gold Mankin always felt like a parakeet.

“As a consequence,” Deremanoi said, “everyone knows you and your man were merely defending yourselves, and the Imperial authorities are obliged to conduct a thorough investigation. They are embarrassed that a representative of an Imperial tributary, although not yet officially presented, should be attacked in the streets.”

Something in the way Deremanoi said this disturbed Mankin. “What will this investigation involve?”

Deremanoi shrugged. “The secret police are hunting this…Chumaki? Chumaki, and bringing in his associates for questioning, even as we speak. I received word that they found the man whose hand you cut off, and are holding him for later questioning. Of which we shall be allotted a share.”

“I see, sir,” Mankin said. The thought did not make him happy.

“His name is Staka, of Brenaj,” Deremanoi said. “Is he known to you?”

Mankin shook his head. “No, sir.”

Deremanoi nodded. “I didn’t really expect so– apparently the man has lived in Venia for years, since before the war. But you never know what odd connections may come to light in matters of this sort.”

“Yes, sir,” Mankin said.

Deremanoi peered at Mankin. “Are you all right, young man?”

Mankin forced himself to stand straighter. “I’m fine, sir– it’s just, well, there’s always a bit of a reaction whenever someone tries to kill me.”

Deremanoi nodded. “Of course. If you I wish I could make an excuse for you….”

“Oh, no, sir,” Mankin said at once. “I’m quite all right for tonight.”

“Good. This first impression is very important, Mankin. All the more so after what you’ve been through today. Fortunately, your role is very simple. Present yourself to the Triumvirs, salute them with proper courtesy, say the formula, wait for their response, and then bow yourself out. If you can endure for a little while the socializing that will come afterward, it will help cement whatever impression you make. Remember, it’s not just the Triumvirs who will be watching– most of the Highborn of Venia, and nearly anyone of consequence, will be here.”

“I understand, sir. I will be fine.”

“Excellent.” Deremanoi glanced at the major-domos at the far end of the court, who were now conferring between themselves with earnest looks. “It appears you’re about to be admitted. I should leave you. Do your best, Mankin, and we will talk afterwards.”

“Yes, sir.” Mankin saluted. Deremanoi left.

Mankin let out a relieved breath when Deremanoi was gone. It was bad enough to face the rulers of the Venian Empire, with hundreds of the Empire’s elite watching; doing it with Deremanoi hovering about only made it worse.

He was still shaky from the morning. He was often like this after a fight. Never during, just after. It made him want to drink, or have a woman. He needed to be sober tonight, and there was no woman he wanted other than Alektl, so one impulse could not be satisfied in the immediate future, and the other, never.

It didn’t help that his scar ached. The weather must be changing.

In his heart, Mankin knew there was another reason for him to count himself and Denetoi fortunate. Tejoi had been a veteran soldier, but as best he could tell the others had hardly known which end of a sword to grab. An interesting datum, which Mankin had not chosen to share with Deremanoi. Chumaki, in whatever scheme he had cooking, did not have many experienced men at his command.

Denetoi, with no role to play in this high-end reception, had gone off to his favorite brothel to work off his jitters in his own way. For tonight, at least, he went with two city militiamen, not as minders, but openly, as guards. “The more the merrier, Cap’n,” he’d told Mankin, “but those boys are paying their own way.” A bodyguard awaited Mankin when he left the reception tonight, as well.

Welcome to Venia. So Deremanoi’s first warning to Mankin about the need for caution had been fully justified. How many other disaffected members of the Black Party lurked in the city, waiting for a chance? And did Chumaki have something more in mind than just Mankin’s death? It would be like the man, who’d always reveled in schemes.

Mankin wondered what the Unchanging was about, giving him a cousin like that.

One thing was certain, though– there would be no scampering home just because people were looking to avenge themselves on him. Deremanoi had not suggested it, and Mankin would have been surprised if he had. Which meant, he realized without much surprise, that there was a good chance he would die in this assignment. The thought did not bother him a great deal.

He frowned. If his grip on life was still shaky, why had he fought so hard that very morning? It would have been easy to let the assassins kill him. Perhaps he had become, after three years of war, a mere creature of instinct and reflexes. The thought troubled him.

But then, of course, if he had died almost certainly Denetoi would have, too. Mankin felt better about that. It was strange how a comrade could anger you one minute, and the next you’re fighting to save his life. But then, Mankin had seen many stranger things in the last few years.

A staff was tapped on flagstones, a sharp sound. One of the major-domos stepped forward. “Ladies, lords,” he called, “it is time.”

#####

Crisonia, for a moment, felt almost wealthy. She had been afraid she would have to hire a palanquin for the evening. Instead, word came that morning first from Garus Pilius that he was sending a chair for her; then word arrived from General Rebonius that he was sending a palanquin with his own slaves to carry it; and then word came from Ramius Eunitus, another old friend of her father’s, that he was sending a chair. It was quite a sight to see them all lined up at her front gate when it came time to leave for the reception.

She, of course, chose General Rebonius’ palanquin, as he was the highest ranking of the three. But she told the leader of each of the other two teams to convey her thanks their masters, and she resolved to thank them in person if she saw them at the reception.

The bearers breasted the traffic in the streets with steady strength, their leader shouting clear the way, clear the way! They got her to the basilica in good time. The leader told her they would return for her at the reception’s end, or the lady could send word to Rebonius’ house and they would come for her sooner. It gave Crisonia a small glow, which she carried with her into the basilica.

She had been here many times before, but almost always under happier circumstances. She had often accompanied her father on his business. Because he had no son, Mario had tried to impart to his daughter a sense of the business of the government– and who was important in that government. If she was to inherit his estate, he reasoned, she would also inherit his responsibilities in the New Way. Of course, Crisonia could never hold office, but her husband might– which led directly to Mario’s second reason for bring his daughter to the Triumvir’s Basilica. The eldest sons of so many Highborn fathers congregated there, learning the business of government, that Mario often referred to it as the “best husband market in the Empire, with the widest selections!” The joke rarely failed to get at least a smile out of his daughter.

In the end, though, Crisonia had never found anyone there interesting enough to spend the rest of her life with. Her father had indulged her, as his only child, while dropping hints that she couldn’t be too picky. Then their lives had unraveled, and Crisonia’s marriage prospects had appeared to shrivel like grapevines in a drought.

Until yesterday morning. She was still trying to digest Garus’ proposal. It was ridiculous, and flattering, and charming, and utterly impossible. She would be glad when Garus’ father smacked it down, which Crisonia thought was a certainty. It would save her the embarrassment of having to refuse him herself.

She had since resolved to refuse any and all marriage offers she might receive, at least for the foreseeable future. It would just complicate what she had to do. She knew that meant, at minimum, months or years alone. Her higher purpose, she decided, was worth it.

She entered the basilica by way of the Senator’s Entrance. She was not alone on the wide steps; other attendees, Highborn and officers, were streaming into the building. As Crisonia gained the top of the stairs, and saw the bronze doors standing wide, she caught sight of Talia Setima. The young woman saw her, too, and turned back from going in. “I was hoping you would be here!” the other woman exclaimed.

“I’m hardly going to give the Order the satisfaction of thinking I am pining away at home,” Crisonia said. The Setima were stalwarts of the New Way, and Talia a friend since childhood.

“Good!” Talia exclaimed. She embraced Crisonia as if she were a blood-sister. “Yes, frustrate them at every turn! Mother is already inside– come, you must sit with us.”

Crisonia smiled. She did not think at all of disputing Talia. They went in together.

The reception itself was to be held in the Hall of the Protecting Gods, a broad, circular space that could accommodate hundreds of guests. A dais for the Triumvirs, with ornate seats, had been erected against one wall. A broad stretch of floor had been left open in front of the dais. Here, Crisonia knew from past such receptions, the foreigners would present themselves to the Triumvirs. It was, she supposed, a remnant from the days when Venia was a small city-state and every foreign-born person who came to the city had to make themselves known to the rulers– first the kings, then the tyrants, and now the triumvirs. As it stood now, it was an occasion for a little pomp and pageantry, as well as an excuse for the better-born of the city to congregate and socialize.

Around the open space were the couches reserved for the families of sitting Senators, where they could recline in comfort while hearing the foreigners’ conversations with the triumvirs. Behind them, the lesser families, retired officers and those invited by a senatorial family milled in a murmuring crowd. There could be, Crisonia reflected, as many as a thousand people here tonight.

Mirana Setima was a thin, elderly woman whose normal demeanor was stern reserve; but tonight, she condescended to smile warmly at Crisonia as she came in on Talia’s arm. “Well met, child,” Mirana said, and she increased the honor she showed to Crisonia by rising and planting a kiss on each of the younger woman’s cheeks. “Yes, you must sit with us, they’re about to let the barbarians in.”

Crisonia reclined on a couch by Talia. Slaves brought edible tidbits and cooled wine. Crisonia hid a sigh of contentment. Let it all go, just for now.

As she nibbled and drank the sweet wine, Talia plied her with questions– how she was feeling, how was she passing the time, was she tired from having to do her own housework? Talia seemed to be quietly horrified at the thought of having to sweep and clean. Crisonia tried to assure her that housework was not disarranging her internal organs or driving her to distraction. She got the sense, however, that Talia simply had trouble conceiving of life without slaves, or, at least, house servants.

“Well,” Crisonia said, “there’s just the two of us now. And Rema is a great help. Of course, we won’t be entertaining very much, so that simplifies matters a great deal. It is the time, perhaps, that hangs the heaviest on us.” She forced herself to smile. “Perhaps I’ll take up scholarship– teach myself Serinian or something.”

Talia’s mother had listened without speaking up to this point. Now she scowled. “Dearest child, this is such a degradation! For one of the oldest house’s of Venia to be reduced to such straits! The Senate was cruel in judging your father, but doubly-so in leaving you with nothing to live on– and nothing for a dowry, on top of it.”

Crisonia shrugged. “What is to be done, lady? Both trial and sentence are over and done with.”

Mirana’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly some restoration of your property may yet be possible. My husband wanted me to tell you, if I saw you tonight, that many in the New Way are in favor of a law in your favor, to do just that.”

Crisonia was surprised. “Lady, this is unexpected. Thank you.”

Mirana shook her head. “Do not thank me, and do not thank anyone, yet– it is merely an idea being mooted among our friends. And, in truth, it is not just out of sympathy for you. We want to let the Order know that we will not tolerate this kind of…legal brutality. Their precedent must be countered with one of our own.”

Crisonia nodded. “I understand. I am still grateful.” She hesitated. “I miss the presence of your honored husband. I trust Carus Setima is not ill?”

Mirana hesitated in her turn, if only for a moment. “No, my husband is quite well. Other business detained him tonight.”

Crisonia was surprised again. Carus Setima, to her certain knowledge, had not missed this event as far back as she could remember. Her father and Setima usually attended it together, using it as an occasion to shore up alliances and confer with other Highborn they might not see on a daily basis. Despite Mirana’s words, Carus’ absence seemed odd. All Crisonia said, though, was, “I am sorry to miss his company, lady.”

The sound of wood on stone echoed through the chamber. “Now heed my words!” a major-domo cried, in a booming voice. “Greet the Triumvirs, the guardians of the people!”

Everyone in the room reclining at table stood, as the three Triumvirs entered and ascended the dais. In the lead was Farus Tolius, the Triumvir of the Green. Genial old fool, had been the judgment of her father, and Crisonia saw no reason to doubt it, for all that Farus was of the New Way. If there had been a strong will and sharper mind in the Green chair, perhaps her father would still be alive.

Behind him came Polius Manico, Triumvir of the White. Crisonia wished looks truly could kill, but she knew the fat man was, in truth, just the puppet of Junius Valerius. She still despised him from afar, loathing his simpering look of superiority, hating the fact that the innocent Earth had to bear his ponderous weight.

Last came Attius Ternarum, Triumvir of the Red. This man was an Imperialist, everyone knew that, but Crisonia heard the whispers that he had opposed the war in the east in the private councils of the party, and argued against the more extreme ideas of his compatriots. In public, though, hardly anyone knew more than what he spoke aloud, and that was not much. His bland face, as always, gave nothing away. He had stood by, though, while Crisonia’s father was condemned, and that was enough to mark him down as an enemy in her mind.

The three climbed up on the dais and stood before their seats. “Ladies, gentlemen, Highborn,” Attius said, in a voice that carried. “We welcome you to this Remembrance of our Heroic Ancestors. Let us all recall the deeds of our forebears, as examples to us of how we may maintain their great legacy.”

Everyone in the room bowed their head in silence for a moment. Crisonia wondered how the ancestors felt about the fact that this was about all the actual remembrance they would receive this evening. Probably used to it by now.

Attius lifted his face. “And we welcome you as witnesses to the reception of honored foreign officers, representing their several peoples and nations to our mighty state.”

With rustling silk and cotton, those at table reclined or sat once more. The rest of the crowd murmured and stirred, as the first foreigner entered.

“Oh, a Serinian,” Talia murmured to Crisonia.

Crisonia looked closely at the man who stepped out on to the open floor– a compact man in foreign silks, belted tight at the waist and tucked into boots of soft leather. Crisonia had seen only a few Westerners from across the Great Sea before, so the fellow’s brown skin and narrow eyes were strange to her. When he had bowed to the Triumvirs, though, he said his name in clear Venian. “Tungus An, of the Serinian Supremacy, at your service, my lords.”

“We greet you, Tungus An, and recognize that you have come to serve your Speaker,” Farus said. “As such, your person is inviolable and sacred. We invite you to enjoy the hospitality of our nation, and to respect its peace and harmony.”

“I respect your peace and harmony, and I am grateful for your generosity.” Tungus bowed again, turned and walked off to the left, and that was that for him. The next barbarian was already at the entrance to the chamber.

“A Serinian,” Talia whispered, openly fascinated. “How…interesting.”

“Be quiet, girl,” Mirana said, sounding irritated. “Control your fantasies. Eastern, Western, Middle, men are all the same.”

“Not quite,” Talia whispered to Crisonia, with a sly grin.

The next foreigner was a Massanian. By the time Crisonia turned to hear him address the Triumvirs, she had missed his name. He was hardly less exotic than the Serinian– tall and red-headed, with hands tattooed with strange, blue whorls. She wondered a bit at his presence– the Empire had only lately made peace with the far-northerners, and to see one loose in the capitol came as a bit of surprise. Crisonia had not even been aware the Massanians had a Speaker in Venia.

The northerner left, and in came another exotic sight– a short woman, black-skinned, dressed in glittering scale armor. Her hair was cropped short, and she carried a silver helmet under one arm. She was armed with a curving sword in a polished scabbard that reflected the lamplight.

“What’s this, then?” Talia exclaimed lowly.

“Tarthia vul-Pasar,” the woman said, “First Captain of the Mother’s Chapterhouse of Devotions, of the Kingdom of Cahria, at your service, my lords.” Her Venian was very good.

“Quite a title, for such a short woman,” Talia said. Indeed, Crisonia doubted this Tarthia was more than an inch over five feet. “What’s it all about?”

“Child, it means she is a warrior-maid dedicated to the Mother Goddess of Cahria,” Mirana whispered. “I do wish you had paid better attention to your lessons.”

“How is anyone supposed to keep track of all these foreigners, anyway?” Talia complained. To Crisonia she said, “I’d pay attention better if she were a male warrior. It would make all the difference.”

Tarthia vul-Pasar finished the formula and departed. A tall man came after her, tall enough that the height difference between him and the Cahrian caused a titter of mirth among the watchers. Crisonia saw a man dressed in dark, high boots and tight gold britches, with a dark blue jerkin over a white linen shirt. He carried a broad-brimmed hat, leaving himself properly bare-headed before the Triumvirs. As a consequence, his long, golden-brown hair shone in the lamplight. Crisonia might have delighted in the color, except that all that hair was clubbed into a horridly barbaric pig-tail at the back of the man’s head.

He wore a sword that might have possibly been the longest one-handed blade Crisonia had ever seen, four feet or even longer. As a weapon to be borne into the presence of the Triumvirs, it seemed singularly plain and practical, contained in a sheath of black leather lacking any ornamentation, the bell and hand-grip without decoration. Crisonia wondered why the sight of it troubled her.

The man stopped and bowed to the Triumvirs. “Mankin, son of Toren, of the Hegemony of the Attau, at your service, my lords.” His Venian was quite good– only a trace of a burred accent showed through.

“Oh!” Talia exclaimed in a low whisper. “I’ve heard stories about this one. He’s one of those wild horsemen from the northeast– the grandson of their headman, or whatever he’s called. They say his wife and child were killed in the war they fought among themselves, and that out of grief he tried to die by feeding himself to tigers. Or it may have been bears. I forget.”

“Indeed,” Crisonia said. She eyed the foreigner, as Attius spoke the formula to him. Weakling.

“I wonder where he got that scar,” Mirena pondered. Indeed, the outlander had a long, curving scar down the right side of his face, temple to jaw. Crisonia had no trouble seeing it from forty feet away. She wondered if the man had grown his beard out to hide the lower portion of it; if he had, it did little good, for the wound had turned the beard hairs over it white. “It must have been quite a blow.”

Crisonia could not have cared less. But she was startled out of indifference when, as the Attau finished the formula and turned to leave, Farus stood up. “Young man, a word.”

“What is Farus doing?” Talia gasped. She might have been heard, except that the whole crowd in the chamber murmured and whispered at the same moment, startled by the sudden break in the ceremony.

The Attau stopped, faced Farus and the other other Triumvirs again. “Yes, my lord?”

“I wanted to offer you the apology of the Triumvirs, and the Venian people, for the insult you received this morning, and the danger you faced. Be assured, all the conspirators will be hunted down without mercy.”

The Attau seemed as surprised as any of the spectators at these words. “I-I thank my lord,” he said, stumbling a little.

“I trust the rest of your time in Venia will be more pleasant.”

“I’m sure it will be, my lord.” Hesitating, the Attau bowed again, turned, and left the floor.

“What was that all about?” Crisonia asked Talia, having to raise her voice a little over the increased murmuring that followed the Attau’s departure.

“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Mirana said, sounding indifferent. “There was an affray involving that one this morning on the waterfront. Apparently some of his countrymen thought to revenge themselves on him. Farus is simply being polite, I expect.”

“It’s not every day a Triumvir is heard begging the forgiveness of a barbarian,” Crisonia said.

“Well, Mirana said, “it’s an embarrassing incident. He had to say something, just for form’s sake.”

“Oh, Mother, you take the juice out of everything!” Talia complained. “I heard that this man and his servant were set upon by ten assassins, each pledged to kill them or die. The two maimed one and killed the other nine, and suffered not a scratch between them.”

“Of course,” Mirana said, dismissive. “Killing comes naturally to barbarians.”

“Didn’t you think him a fine-looking fellow, though?” Talia asked.

Crisonia wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Oh, no– all pig-tails and scars. And that uniform– it made him look like a giant parakeet.”

Horse Tamer– Chapter 9 – An Incident on the Silk Wharf

Note: This chapter has some graphic violence. Be warned.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
********************************************************

The tall grass burned, pale yellow flames in the bright winter sunshine. The guns had set it alight. Wounded men who couldn’t crawl out of the way burned alive. Their screams seemed to go on forever. The stench of their burning drifted over the field with the smoke.

Mankin surged up out the dream, gasping. It was as if the stink of roasted flesh still lingered in his nostrils. But there were no burning men here, no screams– just the quiet of a dark room.

He sat up. Skull Bluff. Four months before. Not now. Thank the Unchanging, not now.

He looked around. By the dim, gray light that filtered through the slats of his flat’s windows, it was still short of dawn by an hour or more. The covers on his pallet were all tangled and askew from his struggles. It was cool in the flat, but he was drenched in sweat.

He sat for some minutes, his head in his hands, waiting for his breath and heartbeat to return to normal. It had not been the worst dream he’d had lately; no, those featured Alektl. Or Sime. Lately his cousin had been coming back to him more and more in nightmares. Mankin wondered what that meant.

No going back to sleep now– he rose, pulled on trousers, and went out and downstairs to the apartment block’s courtyard.

Despite the hour people were already stirring. Apartments rose in three stories on three sides of the courtyard, with railed balconies guarding each floor on the courtyard side. Lights shone behind the slatted windows in several of the flats, and Mankin smelled gruel and flat-bread cooking. His stomach rumbled, but his own breakfast would have to wait.

He went to the small fountain in the middle of the courtyard, which trickled water into a worn stone basin. He washed his face and arms, shivering from the cold of the water. It helped dispel his lingering drowsiness. A full bath would have to wait until this evening, when he prepared himself for the Triumuvirs’ reception. He and Denetoi planned to spend the morning at the Upper Harbor; Denetoi wanted to show Mankin the seaport, and Mankin, who had barely even seen the ocean before coming to Venia, was more than willing to go.

He leaned on his hands against the basin. The stone was cool and rough under his fingers. The shock of the nightmare was passing. It had been as vivid as if he were riding across the battlefield. Now, though, it was receding once more into mere memory.

Mankin wondered if this was going to be his life from now on– three or four nights’ sleep out of every seven broken by horrors from his past. Or fantasies out of some deep dungeon of his mind. Mankin wasn’t sure which was worse.

A door opened and closed, up on one of the upper floors, followed by someone speaking as if to rouse someone from sleep. It was a little lighter now; dawn was approaching. Somewhere, a cock crowed. Closer at hand a pair of hens pecked at bugs in the cracks of the courtyard’s paving stones. A cat eyed them from one of the second floor railings, but without much interest– apparently there were mice enough around here to keep the poultry safe.

This is a good place. Mankin had at first been put off that Denetoi had found for them a pair of apartments in a precinct populated mostly by Venians. Mankin had had a vague idea that he and the sergeant would find lodgings in a quarter frequented by expatriate Attau. But the center of Attau settlement in Venia was miles away, very nearly at the northern end of the city, and very far from the embassy. This tenement was a quarter mile away, on a side street away from much of the all-hours bustle of the city. Mankin’s apartment was simple but large, with a stout door that could be locked. More than that, the tenement’s courtyard gate was bolted and locked at night. There was a door-watch as well, but Mankin put little trust in that; from the fountain he could see the old fellow the tenants had hired for the job, snoozing on a bench by the gate. Still, Mankin took Denetoi’s word that this place was more secure than many in the city.

For that security Mankin and Denetoi paid a little more than average, but far less than if they had tried to rent a house, even in one of the poorer quarters. The rent here was a good compromise; Mankin’s monthly allowance while stationed in Venia was not over-lavish, amounting to little more than twenty Imperial solars after paying Denetoi– Mankin kept having to translate solars into Hegemony silver rands, and every time he was quietly dismayed. He and Denetoi would have to mind their money.

Mankin had wondered how the other residents of the tenement would receive their new neighbors. So far there had been few words between Mankin and the Venians, and most of those cautiously polite. Some of the looks were more significant, curious or fearful. Mankin ignored those. In one way or another, he had been garnering looks most of his life.

It probably helped that there were a few other foreigners living in the tenement– a family of Massanians on the second floor and a pair of Carhani in one of the third-floor garrets. The Hegemony’s embassy was not the only one in the vicinity. As for the Venians, Mankin gathered that most worked at different jobs in the Temple of the Sky, clerks and accountants and such. The sort of people, Mankin supposed, who had some hope of rising in the world, or of giving their children better start than they had. Not the desperately poor who lived near the factories and workshops beyond the western edge of the city, and still less the Highborn who did not have to work. People, Mankin concluded, who tended to their own business. He appreciated that.

The cock crowed again. From one of the apartments somewhere came the cry of a waking baby, and its mother’s voice soothing it. It was time Mankin got dressed and roused Denetoi, who had already taken to sleeping in when he could.

It was going to be a long day.

######

Mankin decided he liked crab.

They’d had come down to the harbor, walking (“Glad nobody back home can see us,” Denetoi complained) because maneuvering horses through the crush of the streets was something you did only out of utter necessity. Mankin didn’t mind; as a child in Sarnia he had walked everywhere, and being in the crowds gave him a sense of the city.

Crowded, was one word that came to mind; busy was another. His initial impression of the polyglot nature of Venia was confirmed by a casual glance around him– within eye-shot were a half-dozen nationalities, in addition to the hordes of dark-haired and dark-eyed Venians, all going about their business, arguing on street corners, hurrying off to work, or shouting for customers to come buy their baked buns or sample their spiced pork. And those were just the street vendors they encountered along the way; when the two of them skirted the Leather Market, which actually sold nearly every manner of commodity, the din of vendors clamoring for attention threatened to deafen both of them.

By now Mankin had decided that the only quiet places in Venia were the temples and the houses of government. In obedience to Deremanoi’s orders, Mankin and Denetoi had visited a number of the notable places in the city in the last three days. At the Temple of the Sky, standing before the great pyramid, Mankin had felt like an ant in a box. The only sounds there had been the chanting of the priests and the chiming of bells. In the Senate house, he’d stood in the gallery and marveled at the great, circular chamber, with the tiered benches leading down to the rostrum in the middle of the floor. The silence there had been almost profound, but, Mankin supposed, unnatural, the assembly being off-session at the moment and the chamber largely empty.

But the quiet he really appreciated had been the quiet of the Imperial Library.

Mankin had known libraries– the Eldest’s own at Takeri, the Archive at Deilu-amere. He had thought the Archive enormous, with ten thousand volumes in addition to the records of the Hegemony. Studying there for a whole year had not allowed him to get through more than a sampling, and he imagined he’d be there yet, had not the war intervened.

But walking into the vestibule of the Imperial Library had stopped him in his tracks, leaving him gaping like the country-born foreigner he was. From the entrance five vast corridors extended back two hundred yards, and more, all lit by daylight through enormous windows; off each of the corridors were galleries filled with books, shelves upon shelves of them. Attendants moved busily among the shelves, ordering and re-stacking volumes. Scholars and scribes worked in alcoves, or talked in hushed voices in the aisles. You could, Mankin thought, fit the whole Archive into one gallery.

At first it all provoked an odd sensation of lust in Mankin– not of the body, but of the mind. This was power, power of the most fundamental kind, the power to know. This was the ultimate source of the Empire’s primacy in so many areas– the knowledge stored here fueled their engineering feats and their prowess in exploration. It helped drive their oversea trading fleets and kept the floods of the river De from drowning the capitol. Small wonder, he thought, that the Empire had dominated the world for eight hundred years.

As Mankin walked through the galleries, though, the lust was displaced with burning, jealous resentment. All this knowledge, and the Empire hoarded it all to itself. Mankin understood the impulse of nations and empires not to give away advantages. He understood it, but he knew that, somewhere down at the bottom of things, that impulse was wrong, so wrong….

His resentment mingled with amazement when one of the librarians took him downstairs to the basements of the library. Here he was shown the printing presses, the machines of which he had heard so much, on which the Empire had a monopoly, turning out sheet after sheet with clean, crisp print. At the moment the printers and their apprentices were laboring on making copies of Surianes’ Chronicle of the Middle Empire, a book of which Mankin had read as a hand-written copy in the Archive. This, too, was power, power to spread the knowledge encapsulated upstairs. Mankin had gone back to his apartment that evening, both wondering and pondering.

In all their travels so far about the city, Mankin and Denetoi had been followed and watched almost constantly. Deremanoi had told them to expect it, and their minders were not hard to spot– either beady-eyed whippets of men, who’s whole demeanor marked them as habitual informers, or burly youngsters with thick wrists and heavy shoulders, obviously city militia troopers dragooned into this duty. These spies didn’t seem particularly good at avoiding Mankin and Denetoi’s notice. When Mankin mentioned this to Deremanoi, the Speaker nodded. “The Imperials are just keeping track of you. They’re always running short of fellows for that sort of routine surveillance, since they have to keep watch on most of the foreign embassies. Now, if they really suspected you were up to something, the duty would go to a much more skilled tracker, from the secret police. They’re far harder to spot.”

Mankin resolved to avoid being up to anything while he was here.

So now they went down to the Upper Harbor. Mankin had a sense this would be their last excursion, done purely to see what they could see, for a while. He had already written detailed reports on the journey to Venia, one for the embassy’s archives and one for his grandfather. Deremanoi hinted that other such tasks lay in his future, and that the all-important mission of securing loans for the Hegemony would effectively begin tonight at the reception. That, Mankin gathered, would be a matter of spending a great deal of time talking to important people, wheedling, suggesting, reminding, perhaps promising, but above all convincing the powerful among the Venians that it was in the Empire’s interest to lend the Hegemony money, lots of it, and very soon. Mankin was not looking forward to the task, in large part because he knew he was about as loquacious as a toad-stool.

But that was tonight– this morning the sun, as it rose, was warm. The day was clear and bright. They came down the last hill and Mankin saw the Upper Harbor spread out before him. It ran along both banks of the westernmost mouth of the River De–miles of wharves, docks, secure basins, and dry-docks, warehouses, factor’s houses, and livestock and slave pens. The masts of ships moored along the river banks were great thickets without leaves. Beyond the mouth of the river, Mankin could see the great expanse of the inner bay, within the low islands that guarded its approaches. Forts stood on those islands, ready to dispute the passage of any unwelcome vessel. Have to visit those soon, Mankin told himself. Assuming he was allowed to, of course.

Once they were down in the harbor area itself, Mankin was very glad Denetoi was with him– he would have been lost very quickly. The wharves and their surrounding buildings were like a city within a city, if anything bustling more than Venia itself. Along the quayside hustles workers, slaves, dockside whores and people peddling food or drink dodged and jostled, alternately shouting their wares and cursing one another. The two Attau walked past dozens of river-runners, barges and galleys, some narrow and swift looking, other tubby and wide-skirted, designed to carry bulk goods down to De from the hinterland, and beyond. Slaves and stevedores sweated to lift cargoes out of holds; cranes operated by men working circular treadles hauled out larger loads and deposited them on the wharf. Denetoi described the goods being unloaded to Mankin, although in most cases they were no mystery to Mankin– bales of cotton, great loads of grain, lumber. Hogs were driven, squealing, up a ramp out of a barge’s hold and down a fenced-off path toward a pen. Mankin wondered whether he’d rather drive pigs or talk to Highborn. Maybe they’re about the same.

The blast of a whistle, of a sort Mankin had not heard in years. The crowd of workers, doxies, apple-sellers and slaves on the quay parted. Mankin scurried to one side as a high-wheeled contraption, built around a long boiler and emitting smoke from a metal chimney, came trundling along the cobblestones. A steam-hauler– the first Mankin had seen in the Empire. It was crude compared to those he’d known in his youth in Sarnia, but it was undoubtedly a steam-hauler. Two soot-smudged fellows crewed the machine, which pulled a train of empty flatbed carts toward a merchantman.

“Those things have gotten around,” Denetoi said. “Never forget first time I saw one, up in Sarnia. Thought I’d lost my mind.”

“It’s just a machine, sergeant,” Mankin said. For his part, he was not surprised to see steam engines here. They were simply too useful for certain tasks. But he was certain if he ever heard an Imperial boast how they’d invented them, Mankin would have a hard time not laughing in the fellow’s face. The whole world knew the Sarnians had first put steam to practical use.

It was now middle morning. Neither man had had more than a crust of bread for breakfast. A few hundred yards further down the quayside they found an open-fronted food shop, with a canvas awning that created a delicious patch of shade. Inside the shop women with straggling hair tended steaming pots, while a big-bellied man in a stained apron welcomed them. The two of them sat down at a trestle table under the awning and sipped beer while waiting for their order of crabs and mussels to dished up. When it came, Denetoi was pleased to teach his captain how to eat crab.

As they ate they watching the work going on around them. The vessels along this stretch of wharf were not river-craft– they were all tall-masted, sea-going merchantmen, long and huge-bellied, heaved to and emptying their holds. Mankin wondered what cargo could demand the capacity of such behemoths; then he glimpsed the cranes working, lifting bales into the air out of the ships’ innards and depositing them on the quay. Silk; hundreds, even thousands, of bales of silk cloth, come from Serinia and Malasa. The Empire had a monopoly on trade for silk with those distant countries, although it was violated every day by smuggling.

The breeze shifted and Mankin smelled salt-water, mud, and tar from the vessels moored close by, overlaying the scent of the spiced seafood before them. A pair of dockside whores ambled past the shop, their breasts bare to the noonday sun. Mankin told himself that custom was going to take some getting used to. The nearest whore smiled and winked at Mankin. He gave her nothing back, although Denetoi smiled with appreciation. Seeing neither man eager for an immediate rendezvous, the two passed on.

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

Mankin frowned in turn, looking at Denetoi. “And when have you ever hesitated to speak your mind?”

“Some things, it’s best to ask first.” Denetoi hesitated another moment before going on. “Cap’n, I’m worried about you.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, an old mother hen? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi met his look. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

Mankin sighed. “I’m past that, Denetoi.” I think.

“But you’re still unhappy,” the older man said. “I know something about what war can do to men, Cap’n– and losing people you care about. Some men just go to pieces, some men turn into tyrants, some men drink themselves to death.” Denetoi pointed a finger at Mankin. “You had one moment when you were ready to die, but since then you’ve bottled everything up. That sort thing will burst on you at some point, Cap’n. I promise you. You’re alive, but you’re not living.”

“Now we need to leave this be,” Mankin muttered.

“Let me finish my say, and then you can cuss me as you like. I know you have to grieve, Cap’n, and that’s the decent thing to do, but at some point– some point soon– you’ll need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin gritted his teeth. “And you think a whore will fix that up?”

“I could think of worse things.”

“We’re done talking about this,” Mankin said.

Denetoi shrugged, looked away. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything.”

They finished their meal in silence. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“As you say, Cap’n.” Denetoi’s face was closed.

Mankin settled their bill. They stepped back out on to the quay. Mankin put his hat on as the crowd on the quay thinned momentarily in front of him.

By one of the great mooring rings at the edge of the quay stood a tall man. He wore Imperial clothes, but Mankin recognized him at once. Chumaki.

“Cap’n!” Denetoi said.

The rush came from two directions at once, from up and from down the quay. People screamed. Mankin stepped to his left, pulling his gauche from its sheath. There was no time to draw his sword. The man rushing him from that direction, running into people and cursing, lifted a dagger. His face was contorted with effort and hate.

Mankin drove his gauche into the man’s belly and spun out from under his stabbing thrust. The man– an Attau, to be sure, but unknown to Mankin– screamed in agony and fell past him.

People scattered in every direction, colliding with the men trying to close on Mankin and Denetoi. Mankin drew his sword and with the same motion cut through a man coming at him. The man looked surprised and fell, skidding face-first on the cobblestones of the quay, his sword clattering beside him.

Denetoi had one man at his feet and another in front of him, but could do nothing about the man coming up on his left. Mankin stepped and lunged, running the attacker through with a stop-thrust.

Denetoi cut his man down; he and Mankin got back-to-back. The quay around them was now clear of bystanders, as if by some spell. Four or five more men came at them, but now they merely got in each other’s way. Mankin cut the sword out of one man’s hand, and the hand with it, parried another with his gauche as he flicked a backhanded cut that took a third man in the throat. He threw the second man off his gauche and ran him through.

And then there were no more. The man whose hand Mankin had taken ran off. Mankin and Denetoi were left, back-to-back, in the middle of a cleared space in the middle of the quay, with bodies all around them. The Venians on the quay huddled well out of reach, an apprehensive-looking crowd. The food-seller and his workers– there was blood on their tables– were hiding behind their pots. Mankin heard only his own hard breathing and a stunned murmur from the onlookers.

“You in one piece, sergeant?” he asked, still on guard, his eyes on the crowd.

“Just about as much as before the ruckus started,” Denetoi said, gasping. “Not used to doing this on foot. I do better with a horse under me.”

Mankin nearly laughed, but it came out as a wheeze of his own. “You did all right. Keep watch.”

He stepped across one body– all the dead men were Attau– to squat down beside the one man still breathing. This one was holding his belly, trying in vain to stem the blood flowing out between his fingers. Tejoi– recognition was a shock. How far did you come, just to die here?

“Where’s Chumaki?” Mankin asked. None of the bodies were his. Typical.

Tejoi glared at him with glazing eyes. “Go to hell. You think we won’t try again? Attau-hunu! The True People will triumph!” He seemed to want to say something else, but just then he shuddered and gagged. His eyes rolled up in his head, and he died.

Mankin stood. “Stupid,” he muttered.

And then, whistles blowing, the city militia surrounded them.

Horse Tamer– Chapter 8 – A Proposal

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
***********************************
All the slaves were gone– sold, freed, run away– and so it was Crisonia who took a broom and set out to sweep the after court that morning. Over the last few weeks no one had paid any attention to it, and a scattering of leaves and dirt had accumulated on the stones. Crisonia finally noticed its state and knew she had to deal with it.

She had a little experience sweeping floors, but the after court was larger than any room. It daunted her for a moment; not only was it a large space, it had uneven flagstones, a border of greenery on the north and south sides, and a drain in the middle. Go about your tasks step-by-step, her father had been fond of telling her, and then they will not seem so overwhelming.

Too bad he had not applied the saying to his own dealings….

After a bit she managed to get the knack of the broom, and began to make progress. It was good to do something merely physical. It gave her the opportunity to think.

There were three men she needed to destroy.

Destroy, not kill– as much as Crisonia wanted to see these men choking on their own blood, she understood that mere death was too good for them. Too easy– she wanted to break them, leave them shattered in their hopes and dreams, position and power and esteem stripped from them. Then they could die by their own hands, or be torn apart by their outraged followers. Crisonia did not care. She just wanted to be the instrument of, and chief witness to, their degradation.

The first and foremost, the most culpable, the linch-pin upon which the others depended, was Kaius Marius. Marius was the acknowledged head of the Order, whether he was actively sitting in the Senate or not. No program went forward, no law received a vote in the Senate from any member of the Order, without his approval. It was Marius who had insisted on the charges against her father, and his death sentence. A true believer in the cause of the Order, he had openly boasted that Massanio Karvani was an example intended to put the New Way in its place. Marius, above all, Crisonia wanted to see crushed.

Second was Junius Valerius, chief secretary to Polius Manico, the Triumvir of the Green. Crisonia’s skin crawled just thinking about the man. Valerius was the power behind Manico. Some whispered that he was the true Triumvir. She had a few dealings with him before her father’s disgrace and execution, and she had always carried away an impression of implacable calculation as sharp as edged steel. Valerius had orchestrated the Triumvir of the Green’s role in presiding over her father’s trial, and made it impossible to appeal to the Commons.

Third was Decius Procus– chief Senator, former Triumvir, a powerful man in the Order, and highly respected in all of Venia. Crisonia tasted bitter gall thinking of him. A former general of the Eastern Army, he had worked with her father; Massanio had once counted Procus among his friends. Only in later life had political differences pulled them apart. He could have put a stop to the trumped-up trial and sentence, but he had done nothing. He betrayed his friend– left him to the dubious mercies of lesser men. For that alone, Crisonia wanted him broken.

She told herself the destruction of these three men would fulfill her oath quite adequately. Beyond a doubt their removal would also strike a heavy blow at the Order– there were no leaders of their stature waiting in the wings to replace them. Revenge and political advantage both– a powerful combination.

Her great difficulty, of course, was that she had no idea how to accomplish all this destruction. At the moment her means were very, very limited.

The confiscations that followed her father’s condemnation had taken nearly everything– the houses in the city, the farms in the hinterland, the plantation in Ajani, the interest in the Masan fishing fleet, the shares in the Serinan spice trade, everything her father had inherited or built over the years. The ‘mercy’ of the Senate, ostentatiously displayed, left Crisonia with some of her clothes and a meager thirty solars a month income from rent shares on some of the confiscated properties. Aside from that she had some rent income from properties left to her by her mother, which the law could not touch, but this amounted to no more than an additional twenty solars monthly. Crisonia’s mother had laid aside another two hundred solars out of her own legacy. This house had been her mother’s, as well, and so Crisonia and Rema had repaired here when the lictors had come to condemn the family home and inventory its contents. Crisonia had managed to hide some of her mother’s jewelry and gold rings, but those were her reserves for the last extremity.

Everything else– all of the spaces in which she’d grown up, all the objects that had furnished them and been the background of her childhood– was gone.

Most of the house-slaves had been condemned along with the rest of the furniture. Three, the oldest and longest serving, were freed because of a previously probated provision of her father’s will the Order could not break. They had left with a few lunars in hand and tears in their eyes. Two others were set free and given heftier purses– they had given evidence against her father at the trial. Crisonia hoped those two would be swiftly raped and strangled in some back alley for their gold.

One young couple, a youth and maid by the names of Zun and Lura, had run off the night before. The last Crisonia heard the lictors were still hunting them. The rest of the slaves were taken away, to be sold to new owners at the Salt Market. The coffle had formed right outside the house’s main gate, in the common street, and weeks later the wailing of those people– most of whom had been part of her life since before she could remember– still rang in Crisonia’s ears. It was absolutely beyond Crisonia’s power to know what had happened to them all. Even if she could have found out, there was nothing she could have done for them. For that, too, she would be revenged.

Fifty solars a month were barely enough to maintain a decent household in the Coron district of the city, and by ‘decent’ Crisonia meant being able to hire a cook and a washerwoman and to bring in someone to make repairs when the roof started to leak. She absolutely could not afford to buy any slaves for her new, truncated household, not at the prices decent slaves were going for nowadays. As it was they spent two-fifths of their monthly income just on food, and Crisonia knew she and Rema would be walking most places they needed to go, whatever the condition of the streets.

Rema, being a freedwoman long in her mother’s service, had not been condemned or taken away. Neither, however, could Crisonia pay her anything like a decent wage. “You should go seek your own fortune,” Crisonia had told her, that first gloomy night in her mother’s house.

“Just try and make me,” Rema had said. “Lady.” That had ended that discussion.

I have nothing, Crisonia thought, and the thought gave added emphasis to her sweeping. No money, no land to trade for favors, no business interests of which she could offer a share. She could bribe no one, or offer anyone any sort of inducement of wealth. Being impoverished, she realized, was a poor platform from which to launch a campaign of revenge.

What did she have? First, the certainty that Marius and Valerius– although not so much Procus– were touched with the same brush of venality as her father. They had, so far, managed to cover their tracks, but both of them lived ostentatious lives that seemed out of step with their stated means. Somehow, it had to be possible to uncover whatever crooked business it was they were tangled up in.

She had her mind and she still had a web of connections among those who counted in Venia. At least she was not friendless. General Rebonius was one hub of friendship, but not the only one. Being poor and friendless would have reduced her hopes of revenge to true futility.

She had her body. The thought caused her sweeping to stutter. How far was she willing to go to secure her revenge? Certainly she had seen that sort of thing before, the widows and the daughters of attainted men allying themselves– selling themselves, in some cases– to the very men who’d condemned husbands and fathers, for safety, for a roof over their heads, even for bread for their bellies. The sight had always sickened Crisonia. Now she wondered if it was a possible path to her vengeance.

I will do what I have to– but there were practical reasons why selling herself would not work. First was the fact that she was known to despise most adherents of the Order in general, and the three men she had selected for vengeance in particular. A sudden change of direction would be suspicious. A gradual realignment…? Crisonia was not sure she was that good of an actress, maintaining a fiction with her own life for months or years. Plus, even a pretended alliance with someone in the Order would run the risk of alienating her true friends of the New Way.

But how much more powerful would her vengeance be, if she delivered it from inside the enemy ranks….

“Lady.” The word made Crisonia turn, startled. It was Rema, standing in the after court portal. “Forgive me, lady, but there is a young gentleman at the gate. He asks to see you.”

“Oh, Rema, you frightened me,” Crisonia said, catching her breath. “Who is it?”

“Garus Pilius, lady,” Rema said.

“Oh!” Crisonia was surprised. The family of Pilius was a close ally of Rebonius, and well respected in the New Way. Garus Pilius was the second son, after the elder brother who had been groomed to succeed their father as senator. A year or so older than Crisonia, she and Garus knew each other fairly well. What can he want?

“Take him to the greeting chamber,” Crisonia said. “Find some wine for him, and tell him I will be with him shortly. I have to change.” Greeting a guest in bare feet and a ragged linen kirtle fit for only housework would not do.

Rema bowed. “As you wish, lady.”

Crisonia hurried scrubbed her hands and her face in the bath-house, and exchanged her linen tunic for a good everyday robe. She could do nothing about her hair. Maybe she would start a new fashion.

She went to the greeting chamber. This was an airy chamber, with a southern exposure featuring good glass windows. Garus Pilius was pacing back and forth, apparently not having touched the wine breathing on one of the tables. Rema waited in one corner, her face servant-bland.

Garus was a tall young man with a prominent adam’s-apple and a somewhat dubious complexion. He was dressed in his usual neat fashion, a tidy day tunic and boots appropriate to traveling the streets. When he saw Crisonia he bowed. Crisonia returned the gesture. “My lord does me honor,” she told him.

“It’s not an honor for me to intrude upon you, lady,” he said. “I am sorry, but I could not find a better time to come talk to you. I trust I have not come at an inopportune moment.”

Crisonia wondered if that was prompted by the state of her hair. “No, we are merely tending to the house,” she said.

Garus winced, as if she had just admitted to being ill. “I am sorry for your present state, lady. What was done…it was cruel.”

“Thank you,” Crisonia said. She suppressed a flash of impatience. She didn’t need Garus, or anyone else, for that matter, to come across town to tell her that. “I am sorry I cannot offer you better refreshment….”

Garus waved his hand. “Please, there is no need to apologize, lady. And I do not have a great deal of time, in any case. My father expects me at the Eastern River Market shortly.”

So your father doesn’t know you’re here. That was intensely interesting. “Your pardon, Garus Pilius, if I ask what the matter is you need to discuss with me?”

Garus opened his mouth, closed it, then stepped closer to Crisonia. “Lady, I have thought a great deal on your situation. It pains me to see someone of your rank reduce to cleaning her own house.”

For a moment Crisonia wondered if Rema had blabbed to Garus what Crisonia had been doing, but then she supposed that it was fairly implicit in the state of things. “We do what we must,” she said.

“Indeed. But I believe I have a solution that will help you, and give me cause to rejoice.” He paused. “Lady, I have come to ask for your hand in marriage.”

Crisonia was so surprised that, for a moment, she was sure she had heard Garus wrong. “You…wait…did you say you want to marry me?”

“Yes, lady,” Garus said. “It would make me happy beyond any dream, and it would afford you the protection, prestige and wealth of our house. You would not have to live like a peasant, but with the resources a lady of your rank should have.”

“There are plenty of impoverished Highborn, Garus Pilius,” Crisonia said. “I am not the first Highborn lady to have to sweep out her own after court.”

Garus seemed puzzled by this turn in the conversation, as if he had expected Crisonia to rush into his arms and accept his proposal then and there. “But if you married me, lady, you would not have to do that at all.”

“Oh, yes, I understand, Garus,” Crisonia said. “And believe me, I am sensible to the honor you pay me.” Too sensible, in a way– Crisonia found herself suddenly caught in the cross-chop of confused and clashing emotions.

She was flattered by the proposal, and taken aback at the same time. She had known Garus since they were both children, but he was the last person she would have chosen as a husband. There was a simple-minded earnestness about him that Crisonia had always found amusing; being united to that simple-mindedness in marriage made her recoil inside. That revulsion, though, she knew to be unworthy, and it made her ashamed of herself.

At the same time, though, she was suffused with an overwhelming sense of danger, or, at least, caution. “But,” she said, hardly having missed a beat, “does your father know you are making this proposal to me?” She was fairly sure of the answer, but she need to confirm her suspicion.

Garus colored. “I have not yet spoken to him, no, but I am sure….”

“Garus, Garus,” Crisonia said, sounding far more maternal than she meant to. “However I feel about your proposal, without your father’s approval you cannot conclude a legal marriage contract with anyone.” Not without some very complicated legal maneuvers involving both the Senate and the Consul of Public Morals, none of which Crisonia judged Garus ready to take on. “You know that as well as I.”

“But,” Garus persisted, so earnest that Crisonia winced, “if I can secure my father’s approval, will you have me, lady?”

Crisonia hesitated. “Garus, I am flattered. Truly I am. But I am not sure I am in a position to marry anyone at the moment.”

That was another reason she felt cautious– she did not know how being married to an adherent of the New Way would affect her still embryonic plans for revenge. Wealth and status, and the protection of an important house, could all aid her. But, at the very least, if something went wrong, any husband of hers would be assumed to be in on her plans for revenge. Crisonia wasn’t sure she was ready to enlist a confederate, and she could not imagine Garus being a dependable conspirator. She doubted he could carry a secret, even one on which his life depended, as far as the corner fountain.

Garus was looking wounded. “Lady, why not? Why hesitate? Unless you find me unworthy….”

“Oh, no, no, Garus, it’s not that at all,” Crisonia said, while wondering how much of a lie she was telling. If she kept on like this, she’d find herself chasing her own shadow round and round. “It’s…it’s too soon for me to make such a decision. My father is not yet three months in his grave. I don’t know where I am supposed to…to go with the rest of my life. It might be that the gods mean for me to join the Virginal Guardians,” an outright lie, to be sure, but one that might assuage the hurt in Garus’ face. “I just don’t know. I need time.”

Garus’ face cleared. “Oh. Oh, I see. I understand, lady. I hadn’t thought of that. Of course, it would be proper for you to mourn. Forgive me….”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Crisonia said, sighing inside with relief. “You have offered me protection and love, and I honor that. But I need to mourn, and to seek the will of the gods.” That much was true– Crisonia was sure the destruction of Marius, Valerius, and Procus would please the gods. “And you must sound out your father and get his goodwill. So, let us say that we will give it some months more before I give you a definitive answer. Perhaps before the Winter Solstice?”

She could see that such a stretch of time dismayed Garus, but the young man hid it well. “If you think it best, lady.”

“I do,” Crisonia said. “We must be sure of where we stand with ourselves and the gods.”

“Of course,” Garus said. “In the meantime, may I see you, on occasion?”

The request was so pathetic that Crisonia nearly said yes out of reflex. “Within reason,” she said instead, “and with due attention to the proprieties. Certainly at public receptions and assemblies, which shouldn’t set tongues to wagging too much.”

“Certainly,” Garus said, and the youngster actually looked relieved. “Are you going to the Triumvirs’reception tomorrow night? My father, brother and I will all be there.”

“Yes, I am,” Crisonia said. As a Highborn, no one could refuse her permission to attend one of the grandest events of the year, and Crisonia had already determined that she would attend as many of the official functions of the city and its elite as she could, if for no other reasons than to build up a cover of normality and to break the monotony of her new life. “I will see you there.”

That seemed to please Garus no end, and he made his excuses. Crisonia escorted him to the outer gate, and bowed him out. The moment Rema shut the gate behind him, though, Crisonia sagged. “Oh, by the gods,” she moaned, “I did not see that coming.”

Rema discreetly coughed. “Lady, with all due respect, you better brace yourself. You may be poor, but you’re beautiful and young and well-born. And your story is sad. Don’t think Garus Pilius is the only young fellow in Venia with romantic notions.”

Crisonia closed her eyes against the image that created. She had a momentary impulse to have Rema nail the gate shut. But that would shut me in, too. “Well, if they’re lurking out there, they will just have to wait until tomorrow,” she said. “Right now I have to go finish sweeping up.” She turned and went back into the house.

A brief, short and otherwise very nearly insignificant update on my progress with Princess of Fire (certainly in the cosmic scheme of things)

I am now back over 84,000 words on Princess of Fire. This means that I have recovered somewhat more than half (very approximately) of the 30,000 words (in round numbers) I cut during the Great Prose Massacre. That still means I am still short of completing this draft by probably about another 30,000 words– the road does seem to lengthen as I travel it. Nevertheless, I am encouraged.

My latest sticking point seems to be psychological– not my psychology (at least, not directly) but the psychology of certain of my characters. Kathy is in the position of having to induce the cooperation of government ministers and bureaucrats in dealing with an approaching crisis, and getting tremendous push-back and passive resistance in the process. My problem is that I have been finding it difficult to get into the heads of these government paper-pushers– I basically do not understand the mentality of people who close their eyes to impending doom because the action required to prevent the danger interferes with their prerogatives or daily business. Certainly, of course, we have no shortage of examples of this sort of blindness in people, from Pompeii to 911. It’s just I have trouble getting into their skin.

I think I finally got a clue, though, when the minister of the Imperial Railways said, in response to Kathy’s threat to seize trains as they arrived in the capitol, “But we have schedules to keep!”

Ah, schedules– and routines, and procedures, and red-tape– the tyranny of daily business. In truth, it consumes most of us, for most of our lives. For some people, it becomes their god. Even for normal folk, it makes it hard to think outside the box when something novel threatens. So I think I’ve found my key to these people. It’s nice when that sort of thing emerges from the interaction of the characters on the page

It is nearly October, and at this point perhaps the most realistic estimate for the completion of the first draft of Princess of Fire would be January. Add three months on that for straightening out the narrative, editing, formatting, etc., to get it ready for publication. March or April 2015 would be about one and a half years from the publication of Princess of Shadows. That’s a lot longer than I originally intended, but a novel “will be done when it’s done“. Thank you, George.

A review of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

My wife is a big fan of this writer named Jane Austen. I mean, she has all the movies they’ve made out of her books, and she watches one of them about every other weekend. Me, I just go play Halo until she’s done. It’s gotten to be an issue in our marriage, though, and she finally made me read this book, threatening to cut off my supply of Cheetos.

So I read it.

I have to tell you, this novel has some serious problems.

First off, this has got to be the biggest chick-book in the whole world. It’s about nothing but these women trying to get married. Or they’re trying not to get married, just because they don’t like the guy. Or at first they don’t like the guy, then they do. I mean, come on, make up your minds.

Second, there isn’t a decent space battle or alien invasion in the whole story. I kept waiting for that shoe to drop, but it never did. There are no vampires, zombies, or werewolves, either. There’s no post-apocalyptic oppressive government making these women battle for the right to marry. None of them discover they have special powers, unless you count dancing, sipping tea and talking. The author just ignores all modern conventions of good literature. For pity’s sake, nobody even gets tied up in this novel! I mean, how is it supposed to hold the reader’s interest?

It would have helped if the author hadn’t set the story in Regency England. She does a pretty good job with the period lingo, but it gets convoluted at times, and it’s not really very realistic. I mean, there are several points at which it would have made a lot more sense for Lizzy Bennet to just say, “Hey, f*** off, Darcy!” A lot more to the point, too.

The two emotional high points of the novel are Darcy’s proposal to Lizzy and Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham. Lizzy rejects Darcy’s proposal because she doesn’t like him and because she’s pissed that Darcy kept her sister Jane from marrying Chuck Bingley. Ok, that’s good, except that the two of them go on for pages about it. This is where a good f*** off would have come in handy. That, and a sudden eruption of extra-dimensional demons. Would have moved the action along better.

The other high point, Lydia’s elopement, just puzzles the crap out of me. I mean, Lizzy and her family go on and on about Lydia running off with Wickham, like it’s some sort of family catastrophe. What’s the big deal? I mean, my sister Sissy ran off with the drummer of a rock band when she was sixteen, and nobody noticed for eight weeks. Just meant more gravy to go around at dinner.

How this novel is supposed to be a major piece of literature just escapes me. Austen just doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the modern publishing world. She’s not completely hopeless, but I would recommend she read up on what’s hot right now, like Hunger Games, Divergent, and Fifty Shades. Maybe throw in some time watching Transformers.

As it is now, though, she just can’t compete.

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

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