Category Archives: epic fantasy

Okay, one more– some predictions for Season 8 of Game of Thrones

I said I was going to put Game of Throne to rest for the hiatus, and now here I am again.  I wouldn’t quite use the word “obsession”, but I’m close, really close….

Naturally–

Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

I realized today that I didn’t get around to making any predictions for Season 8 in my last post.  Now, it has been proven that my ability to actually prognosticate the direction of the show, even in the short term, is pretty much crap, but my hubris, acknowledging no restraint, will not allow me to sleep tonight until I’ve scribbled down at least a few.  I can come back in a year or a year and a half (or two years, God forbid) and see how far off the mark I actually flung the predictive darts.  Hopefully nobody gets punctured in the volley….

  1. Dany and Jon will have perhaps one episode, perhaps less, of happiness, and then Bran and Sam are going to drop their bomb, and I-cannot-tell-a-lie Aegon Targaryen will tell Dany, and the two of them will breakup in sorrow and remorse.
  2. Not before Jon knocks Dany up, however.  It is known.
  3. Not sure how Dany will handle finding out that Jon has a better claim to the Iron Throne than she does, even though I am sure Jon will repudiate any interest in it.  Dany’s self-identified for so long as the one legitimate heir that finding out who Jon really is may send her spinning off in dangerous directions.
  4. Clegane Bowl will happen.  Count on it.  There is no way the two of them are going to settle their hatred any other way but with a knock-down, drag-out blood-match, not after their face-off the in the Dragonpit.  Anything less would be anti-climactic.
  5. You can also count on a showdown between Euron and Theon.  Theon’s redemptive arc demands it, and if he dies saving Yara, it will be with Theon having found himself at last.
  6. Drogon vs. Viserion– it’s coming.  There’s no way the showrunners can refuse to give us that spectacle. Just no way.
  7. Poor Rhaegal, though– something dire is going to happen to him in the Great War before we get to the climax, if only to even the odds for DvV.
  8. The writers appear to be positioning Tyrion to do something stupid/traitorous.  I hope I am wrong, and I think it would be a horrifying mistake with his character, but hey, I’m just a watcher, not a writer.  Otherwise the good guys would have fuel-air bombs to use on the wights.
  9. Wait a minute– wildfire?  High altitude bombing?  Hmmm….
  10. How Tyrion’s retrograde character development will play into the Jaime-Cersei dynamic is unclear, but that’s another face-off that will resolve itself, probably in blood.
  11. And talking about showdowns the story arc demands– how about the biggest of them all, Jon going mano-a-mano with the Night King?  This was set up right in front of us in Episode Six, when Beric pointed his sword at the Night King and suggested that killing him would destroy all the wights.  Even without that setup, how could we wrap this tale up without the lead good guy, Jon, facing off against the lead bad guy, the Night King?  Three thousand years of Western literary tradition insists on this climactic confrontation, from the Odyssey to Star Wars.
  12. Jon, of course, will die heroically in this fight, after vanquishing the Night King.  For extra points he’ll die in Dany’s arms (crap, this is writing itself).
  13. Which brings us to the subject of who will die.  Actually, it’s easier to say who I think will live.  Personally, I feel fairly secure in saying that the survivors will include–
    • Dany
    • Arya
    • Yara (if only because Theon has to rescue her)
    • Drogon
    • Sam
    • Gilly
    • Little Sam

And that’s about all I feel sure of.  Every other character in this show has at least the potential of supplying a really gripping death scene to the story.  Every other one.  I’m sure there will be other survivors, but my instinct cannot predict with certainty who they may be.  Brace for a blood-bath.

Thinking about what may happen in Season Eight actually sharpens for me an insight other people have shared, that Season Seven really was about getting all the pieces in place, and establishing the inevitable, climactic confrontations that have to play out so this epic can have a halfway satisfying resolution.  From that perspective, despite the haste that typified Season Seven, the show-runners did their job, and I applaud them.

And, now, for sure, I need to put GoT aside for a while.  It’s going to be a long wait, no doubt filled with frustration and spoilerish temptations.  Fortunately, I know, if not a remedy, then at least a means of distracting myself.

Write my own epic.  ‘Nuff said.

Later.

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Okay, now that I’ve caught my breath, my take on Game of Thrones, Season Seven, Episode Seven. Woof….

One more time–

Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****Spoilers****

Wow.  Huh.  Sheer dumbfoundedness and gobsmackery.

In my last post I explicitly held off making a judgement about Season 7 in general, because Episode Seven had yet to air.  I am very, very happy I did, because this episode righted a lot of wrongs.

Until Sunday evening, for the most part, I was disappointed with Season Seven.  Not with the acting– it was generally superb.  Not with the writing– it was about as brilliant as ever.

It was the sketchy and rushed feeling of the season to which I objected.

Frankly, the writers, and show-runners Benioff and Weiss, were quite obviously trying to tie up too many loose-ends, connect too many characters,  and lay too much foundation for Season Eight in too little time.  From Jon and Dany’s rushed romance to the cockamamie raid beyond the Wall to grab a wight, it was a season sketched out in suggestive lines rather than painted with full-bodied shapes and colors.  The line-drawings are well-done, but inevitably they lacked the depth we’re used to.

I have no insight into why HBO decreed that Season Seven have only seven episodes (for some strange reason, I was never invited to the story-planning meetings).  Perhaps it was budgetary, even though that’s hard to imagine, considering the show’s success.  I hope that the haste in Season Seven has solid plot imperatives driving it, and that now we’re set for a balanced Season Eight (with only six, albeit longer, episodes).  I hope.

What I fear, however, is that six episodes will not be enough.  I tremble at the thought that GoT will suffer a fate similar to Lost, the poster child of brilliant shows that lose their way and fall flat in their last season. I would kill me, and probably a lot of other people, if Game of Thrones, brilliant as it has been, somehow just peters out and loses all its narrative power as it concludes.

Having said that, I take comfort from the fact that GoT has an distinct over-arching narrative structure passed to the show-runners by George R. R. Martin.  They at least have a general idea where they are headed, and how things will end, something that Lost never seemed to have.  Lost had so many elements thrown into a mix that never quite gelled into a distinct story-line, and so many threads that were never satisfactorily resolved, all coupled to an ending that was like drinking flat beer when you were promised sparkling champagne.  I think, and I believe with some justification, that GoT can avoid that fate because, ultimately, it has the brilliance of Martin behind it, and skilled show-runners in Benioff and Weiss (unlike a certain other popular producer/director, but J. J. is a topic for another rant, at another time).

Having said all that, however, Episode Seven went a long, long way to redeeming the season.  It was not entirely without sin– the whole interaction between Samwell and Bran seemed particularly to gallop past– but on the whole the episode seemed better paced, laced with tension and conflict in the right places, and it brought everybody to where they needed to be, not only to wrap up Season Seven, but to lay the groundwork for Season Eight.  The characters and their interactions felt right, and the action kept you riveted.  And the ending, which for me includes Bran and Sam talking about Jon’s true heritage, Dany and Jon acting on their feelings, and the destruction of the Wall, tied it all together.

So, even though we may have to wait until 2019 for Season Eight, I’m okay with that.  Naw, not really, it’s going to be hell, but it gives me something to look forward to in my lonely old age.  I have hope that Benioff and Weiss may actually pull off something that is, in truth, quite difficult– giving an tale of epic fantasy a truly satisfying ending that resolves the various threads and conflicts in a way that makes you say, “that’s the way it should have ended.”  No pressure, guys….

And now, to sum up, a few final random observations and thoughts on Season Seven–

  1. My personal predictions about the course of the show over the last few weeks have often been off the mark, but, man, did I miss it with Dany and Jon.  Maybe I’m an old romantic who thinks you should build slooowwwlllyyy to the mojo, but I admit it worked out okay– aside from the incest part, that is.  Despite the hurried nature of their romance in previous episodes, this moment felt as if it were a logical– if you will pardon the expression– consummation of how these two people have interacted down to this moment.
  2. From here on out, of course, nothing but heartbreak lies ahead for D&J, especially if Sam and Bran don’t keep their flapping mouths shut.  Does Jon really need to know this bit of family history, especially as it is really doubtful he will want any part of the Iron Throne for himself?  I don’t think so, but I didn’t set up this particular bomb in the story-line, and if you plant a bomb in Season Seven, it has to go off in Season Eight….
  3. One of the big question marks I do have about the characters is, what the hell is going on with Tyrion (or, more precisely, what are the writers doing to Tyrion)?  Working backwards from that look of anger and seeming jealousy he throws at Dany’s door while she and Jon are doing the naughty, to his interview with Cersei in which he seems willing to take the blame for the disasters the Lannisters have suffered, to what appears to be a deteriorating relationship with Dany, I wonder if he is being set up to do something foolish, drastic, or (gulp) treasonous in Season Eight?  I hope not, because that would seem to be the negation of much of his character arc through the whole show, which is why I find it puzzling.
  4. Note also, we seem not to be presented with the whole discussion between Cersei and Tyrion– it cut off right after Tyrion realizes Cersei is (allegedly) pregnant.  Did the two of them talk about something else?  Did the potential of a new nephew and/or niece change something in Tyrion’s attitude and– gasp!– loyalties?  Did he cut some sort of deal with Cersei to get her to come back out and mouth the words of truce and united purpose for Dany and Jon?  I fear we’re going to get an unpleasant surprise on this point in Season Eight.
  5. Littlefinger– yes.  It’s a wonder the collective shout of joy from fans didn’t set off seismometers around the world.  It was worth being played by the writers to be surprised along with Baelish.  Pleasantly for us, badly for him.  An excellent portrayal by Aidan Gillen of a schemer who realizes, too late, that if you plot against everyone, eventually you will find yourself in a cold room, surrounded by hard faces, confronted with the sharp edge of a knife, and with no friends to save you.  Oak-leaf clusters on Gillen’s medal for this scene in how he makes Littlefingers’ self-assurance crumble into whimpering on his knees.  It seemed a fitting way for this bastard to go out.
  6. I also applaud the writers for navigating what I perceived to be a particularly treacherous channel– if you convince Cersei of the reality of the Night King, how does that work with her self-centered take on everything?  But, of course, with utter consistency, Cersei says one thing and does another, still attempting to turn a situation that should be beyond political calculations to her advantage.  Jon would not lie, but of course Cersei did.
  7. For a moment I, and probably a lot of other people, really thought Jaime was going to die when he called Cersei on her BS.  With this open break with his sister Jaime is very close to completing a redemptive arc, possibly the greatest and most profound of the whole show, from an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who shoved a child out a window to someone who is willing to stand up for other people and not think of his political advantage– and who wants to live up to his word.  He sets out alone for the north (and I wonder if he tried to talk Bronn into going with him?), just maybe finally free from Cersei’s vampirism.  He’s probably going to die, but it looks very much as if he will die a man, and not a self-important little asshat.
  8. Also, Brienne is in the north.  I wonder….???
  9. But then, so is Tormund.  Oh, now we talking a serious triangle….
  10. Regarding Tormund (and Beric, for that matter) it took me looking at the scene a couple of times and reading some internet comments to realize that the two of them have mostly likely survived the destruction of the Wall at Eastwatch.  As people have pointed out, they fled westward along the top of the wall (the guys going down the stairs didn’t have a snowball’s chance, which is kinda ironic), and were past the point where the collapse began– and the collapse went from west to east, which means, almost certainly, the two of them are standing on what is now the sharp eastern edge of the wall, looking down on the army of the dead as it advances south.  This realization gave me a sense of relief, because 1). I didn’t want either one of them to die (yet), and 2). I didn’t want the writers to have to engage in some bogus hand-waving to allow them to survive the fall.  They live, without writerly fakery, to fight another day.
  11. The Wall’s destruction was just cinematic gold.  Most movies don’t do it this well….
  12. It’s snowing in King’s Landing.  Where Gendry, in a life of more-or-less twenty years, has never seen it snow.  The bad mojo is rising fast…..
  13. I mentioned heartbreak for Dany and Jon.  The truth is, in Season Eight, if the writers fulfill the promise of this last episode, sorrow and loss are going to spread over Westeros as thick as the winter snows beyond the Wall.  We still have death and betrayal and sorrow ahead.  And now no one– no one— is safe.  We should brace ourselves.

I think that’s all the observations I have at the moment.  Perhaps with GoT on hiatus I can spare some of the energy I’ve expended talking about it for my own writing.  There’s nothing more inspiring than watching good writing at work.

Farewell, Season Seven.  You ended strong.  Tell Season Eight to move its butt.

Later.

 

 

 

Still more random and wild-eyed thoughts on Season Seven of Game of Thrones

As always–

Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

And, as what follows is based, to a certain extent, on what I deem fairly reliable internet rumors, be doubly wary!

So, one more episode for this season, and it promises a great deal.  The meeting of the Lannisters, Dany, and Jon, plus all their assorted allies, followers and twisted mad scientists (I’m looking at you, Qyburn).  The final full revelation of Jon’s parentage.  Dany and Jon’s first smooch (probably, although I doubt they’ll get as far as second base in this season).  Arya turning Littlefinger into a throw rug (I admit, that’s just wishful thinking).  The continuing advance of the Night King’s army, now complete with its own undead air force.  And whatever stunning surprise the show-runners have in store for the season cliffhanger (although I don’t think it’s actually going to be that much of a surprise, as I shall explain below).

A few random predictions–

  1. I am definitely thinking just “first kiss”.  No mojo, no bedroom rodeo, no makin’ bacon.  If Dany and Jon do get down-and-dirty, I’ll actually be kind of disappointed– it’s still much too soon.  I have no patience for those fans who have been panting to see these two get it on.  C’mon, guys, take a cold shower or something.
  2. All the competing factions of Westeros– or, at least, the surviving ones– meet to under a flag of truce to see Jon and Dany’s evidence of the fact of the Night King and his army.  It’s the pay-off of Episode Six’s intense raid beyond the wall.  Unfortunately, for me the whole plan, concocted by Tyrion, has never made any sense.  It seems more than a little contrived, and I doubt it would have the intended effect, if the characters involved are true to their own arcs.  Cersei, in particular, with her superb ability to see only what she wants to see, will doubtless view it as some sort of trick.  If the writers suddenly turn her into someone amenable to logical argument, then I will be sorely disappointed.
  3. On the other hand, I can see from a story-perspective why the writers would want to somehow fashion an alliance out of all these enemies– it would be a logical course of action in the face of the Night King.  Of course, this would be the ultimate alliance of convenience, and if everyone survives then it will fall apart once the immediate danger is past.  That would lead to the end-game for the Game of Thrones being played out in the last moments of Season Eight.  That could be good, or it could be really bad….
  4. Tyrion’s deteriorating relationship with Dany– I don’t know where the writers are going with this.  I know the essence of drama is conflict, but this one feels not only contrived, but also like a major character is being marginalized prior to being…eliminated.  I hope I’m wrong….
  5. Just for the heck of it, I’m shipping Bronn and Arya.  It sure ain’t going to be Bronn and Sansa.
  6. Unless…he’s always wanted a high-born wife and a castle…no, no, no, I can’t go there….
  7. Brienne and Tormund have to have a scene in this last episode, one in which Brienne either starts to warm to Tormund a little bit, or slices him open to get at his liver, just as the Hound suggested.  It could go either way, but we need resolution.
  8. We also need to see Yara and Ellaria, at least just a brief scene each.  Doubtless Tyene is dead by now, so that’s a bit of inevitable heartbreak.  If a genuine truce is established between the Lannisters and Dany, it would be logical to me for Dany to demand Yara and Ellaria’s release as part of the truce.  Whether Cersei can be convinced to do so is another question.
  9. I predict the whole scary/weird interaction between Arya and Sansa is actually a ploy, at least by Arya and maybe by both of them, to wrong-foot Littlefinger and set him up for a fall.  Again, this may be wishful thinking.
  10. Actually, he’d make a pretty poor throw-rug.  Turn him into a drum-head instead.
  11. I am increasingly in the camp of those who think the Night King laid a trap for the Magnificent Seven so he could get a wight-dragon.
  12. Of course, one of the huge gaps in the story-line itself has been the motivation of the Night King.  What does Mr. Freeze want, anyway?  Aside from wiping out humanity and turning the world into a snow-cone.  At this point you got me.
  13. They’re probably going to hold off on killing off any major characters in the season finale.  Because they’ve never done that before, right?
  14. I think it’s obvious that the season cliffhanger is going to be Viserion destroying the Wall.  What else is the Night King going to use him for, aerial advertising?

Enough of that.  I was going to express some opinions about the overall course of Season Seven in general, but I decided to wait until after Episode Seven.  That’s because 1).  the season is not over and I want to be fair, and 2).  my opinion may just get me chased around the countryside with pitch-forks and torches.  I’ll wait.

Later.

Thoughts, questions and “OMG, Why did she do that?!”- Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 5

More a review than previous posts, but I’m saving some space for the wild-eyed rants at the end.

SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS****SPOILERS*****

Okay, a slower-paced episode than last week, which could be like saying a 747 is slower than an SR-71.  Almost anything would feel slow after the Battle of the Loot Train, so it’s a relative thing.

At the same time, the narrative seemed, ironically, sort of rushed.  Look how many high points the story hits– the aftermath of the battle, Randyll and Dickon Tarly are executed (more about that later), Jon gets to pet Drogon, Jorah returns, the plan to snatch a wight and bring it south is hatched (more about that later, too), Gendry is found (after what appears to be a fifteen minute search), Jaime and Tyrion meet, Gendry meets Jon, Jon and company head north to connect up with Tormund, Beric, Thoros, and the Hound join the party, and they all head out into the north.  That’s leaving out Arya’s spying on Littlefinger (and his disinformation campaign against her) and the fact that bat-fuck crazy Cersei is going to be a mother again.  If I left anything out it’s because it all went by really fast.

Oh, yeah, Samwell missing the secret of Jon’s birth because he wasn’t listening closely enough to Gilly.  Listen, son, if you’re going to be in a long-term relationship with a woman, you need to work on your listening skills….

Basically, I have the sense that the writers felt they had to cram a lot of sausage into the casing of one episode, in order to set up the climax of this season, and to properly lay the groundwork for Season Eight, which will have to be about the Great War, lots of major characters going down for the count, and that bittersweet ending GRRM has been promising us.  Because this particular kielbasa link is tightly packed, we spent mere minutes on reunions, plans, spying, dragon-petting (don’t try this at home, folks), executions, plotting and Avengers assembling that could have occupied two or three or even more episodes in previous seasons.  It’s not nearly as satisfying presented in this warp-speed manner, but I can’t fault the writers too much.  They are running out of time (to be precise, scheduled air-time), and I suspect that they felt it necessary to cover this much ground quickly so as to make sure the climax of the season, and the beginning of Season Eight, work the way their supposed to.  Hopefully the remainder of the season, and the remainder of the show, will be better paced.

Re: the execution of Randyll and Dickon– I agree with Tyrion, Dany shouldn’t have done it.  At the very least Cersei will use it against her.  Serious political mistake.  More than that, though, it reminds us that Dany does have a dark side, a willful insistence on her way that sometimes leads to unnecessary deaths.  It doesn’t make her mad, it makes her a frail, fallible human being who sometimes does things out of frustration and spite.  Also, as I feared, she has arrived at the point of demanding fealty she has not earned.  “Bend the knee, or die” is a threat as heavy as chains.  As Varys put it, someone indeed needs to make her listen.

And then there’s the plan to capture a wight and bring it south to convince Cersei the threat from the Night King is real.  Leaving aside the fact that Cersei will use any truce to her advantage, and that she will see anything Dany and Jon come up with as some sort of trick, the whole thing just sounds cockamamie to me.  Capturing a wight, transporting a wight, displaying a wight– I’d almost say its a waste of time, considering how oblivious Cersei is to anything but the agenda spooling out in her head.  I love the idea of a desperate raid into the North, but couldn’t the writers have come up with a better mcguffin than this for its object– a wonderblatt horn of the First Men, perhaps, or a pool of magic volcanic fire that would make effective ammunition against the Night King’s army?  I do wonder, but then, I’ve never had to write for TV show, nor have I ever been under the kind of pressure the writers for GoT are under.  The whole world, and probably a significant portion of the heavenly host, are watching, so I hesitate to criticize them too much.

But, as much as I quibble, it was a pretty good episode, and got us, however imperfectly, to where we needed to go.  Along the way, I should mention that I like how the writers are handling Dany and Jon’s growing affection for one another– again, a piece of business that would best have been developed over a whole season, but, again, the clock is ticking.  Instead they are doing it by expressions and looks and a few words spoken in just the right way.  If you have only so much time to work in, this is the way to do it.

I think I can refine a few of my first predictions now–

  1. Jon and Dany will share one romantic kiss before Season Seven ends.
  2. The real hanky-panky will start after about the five minute mark of Season Eight.
  3. Then Jon’s true parentage will be revealed, and the two will break up with tears and heartbreak and disappointment.
  4. Jon will then die heroically saving the world of men,
  5. Just about the time Dany discovers she’s pregnant.
  6. At some point Arya will slice Littlefinger open like a seven-layer red velvet cake.
  7. And the Night King will end Season Seven by blowing up all three hundred miles of the Wall.  Now that will be a season cliffhanger.

Later.

Game of Thrones and the Worrisome, Awkward, No-Good Topic

If you’re a fan of the show, you know what I’m talking about…..

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Okay, let’s tackle this puppy– Dany and Jon.  Such a cute couple.  I mean, these guys are obviously made for each other. Two dynamic leaders meeting after both have struggled and suffered and lost, and then triumphed, but who need each other.  Two youngsters with oodles and gobs of chemistry and probably lots of compatible psychological profile stuff and major inter-fertility and all the jazz that Make Relationships Work.

Except that she’s his aunt.

By most modern standards, we have entered serious no-no, uh-huh, hands off the girl-or-boy territory.  This is despite the fact that the Dany and Jon are about the same age, and have no idea, at least at this point in the show’s story arc, that they share anything other than leadership qualities and hormones.  In 21st Century American society we have been conditioned to consider anything that smacks of incest to be taboo, to be universally rejected and and even criminalized.  In my lifetime there has been a growing recognition of the terrible price incest and child-abuse exacts from its victims, and we rightly reject attempts to normalize it.

Except….

Well, here’s the deal.  We’re talking about a television show.  We’re talking about television show set in a fantasy world.  We’re talking about a television show set in a fantasy world with distinctly different rules about sexuality, consent and what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.  That has to alter the way we talk about this.

Allow me to digress for a moment to talk about the show’s source material– George R. R. Martin’s five (and counting– c’mon, George, Rome was built faster than this) books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  Admittedly the show long ago diverged from the precise story- line of the books, but the universe Martin created, and the general story arc, remain its guidance system.  It is well known that Martin has drunk deeply from the well of history to inform his work, and particularly the history of Medieval Britain.  And part of that historical understanding is that the rules about sexuality, consent and incest that nowadays we think are set in stone were often very, very different in ancient or medieval societies.

Take, for example, age of consent.  In Martin’s universe, girls who have their first menses are immediately considered marriage material, which means thirteen year-olds are getting married.  In the books, Dany is, in fact, thirteen when she marries Khal Drogo (this was changed in the show to sixteen, for obvious legal reasons).   This attitude is distinctly at odds with modern sensibilities, but was actually common in previous eras, and is still prevalent in certain non-Western societies.  And the shift in Western attitudes is actually a comparatively recent phenomenon– the age of consent in Texas was ten– ten—  as recently as 1880, and that was not unusual among American states in that period.

Even what has been considered incest has varied from time to time and place to place.  Before the American Civil War it was legal in every state for first cousins to wed.  It still is in some states (e.g. California) while it is restricted in some and outright illegal in others (Texas– go figure).

Bear in mind, as well, the cross-cultural weirdness of how elites and nobles in different eras and cultures determined who could get hitched to who.  It’s well-known that the rulers of Ancient Egypt and Pre-Conquest Peru both permitted brothers and sisters of royal lineages to marry, to keep bloodlines “royal”.  Martin drew on this history directly when he created the Targaryens, whose kings often wed their own sisters.

And then there is the startling institution of “avunculate marriage“, which was a piece of history unknown to me before I started thinking about this subject.  Apparently this custom had a heyday among European royals in the Middle Ages and afterwards, in which uncles and nieces, and occasionally aunts and nephews (ding!) were wed to one another, again in the interest of keep bloodlines pure, and wealth and power in the family.  Unfortunately, it had the at least occasional effect of producing children with major mental and physical defects, such as Carlos II, the last Hapsburg king of Spain–

Rey_Carlos_II
Poor guy…not his fault his parents were uncle and niece….

Rather more startling, avunculate marriage is actually legal, sometimes with restrictions, in several modern countries, including Russia, Argentina, and the Netherlands.

Give me just a second– gotta slow down my brain’s RPMs.  Whew, that makes me dizzy….

Okay, so what does this all mean for Dany and Jon, two fictional characters in a fictional universe with way different rules about sex and marriage and such like?  And how wound up should we get that these two probably related characters may– and it’s still just potential at this point, folks– be doing the mambo sometime in the near future?

In all of this the saving grace is that there is no hint or suggestion of abuse, which, aside from genetic risks, is the most destructive aspect of sex between close kinsfolk.  Dany and Jon are consenting adults, even by American standards, and doubly so by Westerosi.  They have met as equals, however much Dany wants Jon to bend the knee, and the story-line so far gives every indication that their mutual respect and attraction will grow.  If Jon’s little secret never came out they would have nothing to cloud their budding relationship, aside, that is, from civil war, invasion, winter, the Night King and his hordes of White Walkers and undead.  You know, the little things that every couple has to put up with.

I think, in the final analysis, fans of the show (including me), whether pro-Dany-Jon or anti, all need to take a big calm pill and chill out.  This is fiction– moreover, it’s fiction about a time and place with its own rules.  We need to trust Martin and the showrunners Benioff and Weiss to take us where the story needs to go.

Of course, given that this is Game of Thrones, where heartbreak and disappointment are daily meat and drink, this may all be a lot of worrying about a whole lot of not much.  Westeros is not devoid of rules about incest– certainly Jaime and Cersei’s relationship is widely censured.  It may be that Dany and Jon will get really close, only to pull back with the aforementioned heartbreak and disappointment when Jon’s true heritage is revealed.  That’s one way this could go.  Another way, and maybe more likely, is that they establish a relationship, and then one of them (I’m betting Jon) dies heroically/tragically/spectacularly in the show’s finale, or close to it.  Either way, given the nature of this show and its willingness to impose suffering on its characters, the odds are way stacked against Dany and Jon walking hand-in-hand off into the sunset in the closing minutes of Season Eight, Episode Six.

And if, by chance, they do– well, I think I could deal with that.

So….everybody calm down (me, too).  Let the story unfold.  And brace yourself.

Later.

 

 

A few somewhat more focused thoughts on Game of Thrones

I’m going to have to start numbering these puppies or something.

***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***

Episode Four  was so epic that it just keeps on giving.  I’ve already stated my opinion that this sequence is one of the greatest battles ever on TV, and probably one of the greatest in any sort of cinematic presentation, period.  The editing and beats just keep you riveted to the screen, and our prior commitments to characters on both sides leave us in an ambiguous state of wanting everyone to win, or at least survive, simultaneously.

But online controversy about the sequence has sprung up like toxic weeds in a fair garden.  Some people, it seems, accuse Dany of being the “Mad Queen”, as her father was the Mad King Aerys, whose hobby of burning people set off Robert’s Rebellion in the first place, for burning Lannister soldiers in the battle.  Some of the criticism seems somehow tangled up with snarling diatribes against progressives, feminists, “SJWs”, and blab blah blah, as if Dany is somehow some man-hating feminist icon and anybody who roots for her is a limp-wristed, hypocritical “librul” who cheers when manly men are barbecued.

That kind of rant is too deep and convoluted for me to try to refute or even unpack here and now.  I’m going to focus instead on what I think Dany, as a character in the show, was trying to do in the Loot Train Battle, and maybe guess what show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were up to by having her do it.  And the best way I think I can do that is to compare Dany to the real mad Queen in the show, Cersei Lannister.

By now almost everyone hates Cersei.  I mean, holy shit, this is a woman who’s one redeeming feature, often noted by other characters in the show, was her love for her children, and now they’re all dead.  She blew up (with wildfire, note) the Sept of Baelor without batting an eyelash to settle the hash of her political foes, along with that of doubtless thousands of innocent bystanders.  Her treatment of Ellaria Sand and Tyene is not only the action of someone who’s never heard of “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”, but who would have thought it silly clap-trap if she had.  She has usurped a throne to which she has no right by terror and force, and now believes she can do what she wants precisely because she sits on the Iron Throne.  Lastly, her one remaining emotional attachment to the world of human beings is her incestuous relationship with her brother, in which she plays the role of emotional vampire on Jaime’s genuine affection for her– a parasitism to which Jaime’s starting to get wise.

Dany, for her part, is not without sin.  She has at times acted impulsively, even cruelly.  She arbitrarily put to death leading masters of Meereen as an act of vengeance.  She has at times been willing to engage in deception.  She lately has been displaying a distinct tendency toward political theater and intimidation, as well as a rather unpleasant arrogance toward Jon Snow, et. al.,  and she appears to be on the verge of accepting the idea that the ends justify the means.  Perhaps even more critically, her un-examined insistence that she is the rightful queen of the Seven Kingdoms based on her descent comes perilously close to demanding fealty she has not earned.  To put it another way, she needs to rethink the whole ‘bend the knee’ business.

Despite this, there is a qualitative difference between the actions of Cersei and what Dany has done.  Cersei has used terror, torture and outright murder as instruments of state policy.  Most spectacularly of all, she blew up the Sept of Baelor without regard to the cost in lives, an act perpetrated on largely unarmed (if we disregard the Faith Militant bozos) civilians.

For a moment in Episode Four it looked as if Dany were about to embark on the same path, when she says she will take her dragons to King’s Landing and burn her enemies out of the Red Keep (in the process, note, she quite cruelly attacks Tyrion, virtually accusing him of going easy on his relatives).  Critically, however, she does something Cersei has never done– she turns to an outsider, Jon Snow, for honest counsel.  It’s Jon who convinces her not to attack the Red Keep– and, I am convinced, is instrumental in redirecting her frustration into another course of action.

Instead, Dany launches her Dothraki and Drogon against the Lannister army.  Herein lies the qualitative difference– Cersei destroyed civilians in political vengeance, but Dany attacked soldiers as an act of war.  The two actions are not the same at all.  The online Dany haters who are trying to establish an equivalency need to rethink their premises, or perhaps, start thinking in the first place.

Cersei perpetrated a massacre.  Dany attacked soldiers who were, however inadequately, armed and ready.  The two situations are clean different.

Drogon’s attack is horrifying (it does bother me how some people in different reaction videos laugh and cheer when the Lannister soldiers burn.  Death by fire is very bad way to go, even for soldiers in the service of an evil queen).  It looks as terrible as it would be in real life, as terrible as I imagine getting hit by a pod of napalm would be.  As bad as it is, however, it is justifiable.  Because this is what you do in war.

War is the business of compelling your enemy to knuckle-under to your political will.  The mechanism of war is killing the enemy until they can no longer sustain the will to fight.  And killing, whether it’s done with a sword, or dragon-flame, or napalm, or a nuke, is always about turning another human being with feelings and hopes and loved ones into a mangled pile of meat, or, in this case, ashes.  That process is always, and inherently, horrible.

To accomplish the crushing of the enemy’s will to fight you employ every implement you have.  If you have a weapon to which the enemy has no effective reply, all the better.  It could well mean the killing will end sooner.  In effect, Dany ‘weaponized’ Drogon, and he’s a damned powerful weapon that probably sealed her victory at the start.  This is not the cruelty of Cersei, but the act of a leader intent on victory against a powerful foe.  It is not massacring innocents.  That’s Cersei’s path.  I think there’s a clear distinction between Cersei’s way and Dany’s.  I know which one I would pick.

To bring this back to the show as a show, what I believe Benioff and Weiss are doing is, quite simply, being honest about what war is and does.  If you try to pretty it up you’re lying about something that should not lied about.  B&W are too good a pair of storytellers to make that mistake.

I don’t think Dany is going to be the Mad Queen, not because she is sinless, but because she wants to do right, and listens to those who are trying to keep her on that path.  Hopefully Benioff and Weiss agree with me, and will keep on doing so right through the last episode of Season Eight.  If they have any problems, they should call me.  Really.

Later.

PS– I was also going to take on the subject of Dany and Jon, but I spent so much time on acquitting Dany of madness that I don’t think I have the energy to dive into such a fraught topic.  On top of that, I’m trying to digest my discovery of the historical fact of avunculate marriage  (it’s utterly amazing sometimes what you can learn from Wikipedia– or disturbing, depending on your point of view).  I’ll leave D&J as a subject for another post, some other time.

DD

 

 

Yet more random and wild-eyed thoughts on Game of Thrones, with particular reference to Episode Four, or, Holy crap!!!!

A day later and I’m still trying to catch my breath.

**Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers***Spoilers

This was probably one of the best episodes of the show ever.  It might even beat out the Battle of the Bastards.

One thing I will own up to right now– four episodes in and many if not most of my previous speculations are totally trashed and revealed to be the off-the-beam ramblings of an unhinged mind.  Oh, well, that’s the prophecy biz.  Melisandre can tell you about that….

  1. The episode started out slow with Jaime and Bronn on the road back from Highgarden,  Their relationship is fraying, and despite being handed a large bag of gold Bronn still complains that Jaime and the Lannisters (what’s left of them) haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain.  At the beginning of the episode, I would have said that Bronn would be looking for another situation soon, so to speak, but we have to take into account how this episode ended, which might throw all usual calculations out the window.
  2. Did they have to make Bran quite this distant and weird?  Some is understandable, but between when he and Meera left Benjen north of the Wall and when they reached the Wall, he turned into a total automaton.  Not sure I’m buying it.  Plus, he broke Meera’s heart.  Boo, hiss.
  3. Arya returns to Winterfell.  Talk about being wrong– my shot not only missed the target, it went over the wall, through the window of an inn, shattered a beaker of ale in a patron’s hand, and nicked the left ear in a picture of Donald Trump pinned to a dart-board.  The girl simply walks up and confronts Beavis and Butthead of Winterfell.  I kinda hope we see more of those two tossers in future episodes.
  4. Oh, wait, not Beavis and Butthead– Laurel and Hardy.  Oh, God, the potential!
  5. Not only was the scene in the obsidian mine between Jon and Dany full of eerie reveries of the most ancient past, it was the stage for escalating heat between these two.  I wish I wasn’t so damned ambivalent about the (apparent, probable?) fact that these two are related.  I’d enjoy the growing sexual tension more.
  6. It’s significant that Dany asks Jon directly for his advice about how to use her dragons.  Not only does it show Dany’s growing respect for Jon, I believe it’s something of a hidden turning-point in the episode, and maybe the show.  I suspect that, off-camera, Jon turns Dany’s attention to the fact that Lannister armies and fleets are completely fair game– this is war, and you use the weapons you have that are most likely to compel your enemy to quit the fight.  In any event, that’s how I would have written it.
  7. Speaking of sexual tension, I love the sequence where Davos and Jon are coming down the steps outside the castle at Dragonstone, Davos asks Jon what he thinks about Dany, Jon says, “I think she has a good heart” and Davos says, “I’ve noticed you staring at her good heart.”  Brilliant.
  8. And then Davos has the sand to go and get all pimply-seventeen-year-old-guy-who-just-had-a-cheerleader-smile-at-him-goofy over Missandei.  She’s taken, you skeevy old fart.  On the other hand, I can’t fault Davos’ taste.
  9. Ah, Brienne has a little sister.  A fast, deadly, face-changing sister.  I meant no disrespect…..
  10. And, finally, a battle sequence that, if it doesn’t leave you simultaneously on the edge of your seat and totally wrung-out, may mean that you’re a wight.  It starts out almost like a classic (or cliched, but it worked) Western where the cavalry scouts go, “Wait– what’s that?” and suddenly it’s time to circle the wagons.
  11. Except the Lannisters are caught flat-footed and don’t circle the wagons.  The showrunners have generally done a fair-to-good job getting medieval military tactics right, and I knew the Lannister army was in trouble the moment I saw it drawn up in two thin lines, with shields and short spears.  Infantry in Westeros have probably suffered from playing second-fiddle to armored knights for centuries, and have apparently never heard of twenty-foot pikes and block formations.  They have never faced Dothraki before, either, and so the Lannisters brought inadequate weapons and bad tactics to this field.  Bronn called it at once– “these fuckers are about to swamp us.”
  12. In about a twelve-minute sequence the battle delivers horror, carnage, courage, confusion, more horror, and the crushing panic of infantry under air attack– as if an army of the Hundred Year’s War was on the receiving end of a pod of napalm from an A-10 Warthog.  Except that the foot-soldiers are not wholly without a defense, a fact that ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable point.  In some reaction videos I’ve seen (yes, I watch those, it’s almost like having a social life) people actually cling to one another for support.  The sequence is tightly edited, and yet there’s room for emotional moments, like when Tyrion is trying to telepathically get Jaime to flee and not charge the giant dragon that’s in a really foul mood at the moment, on the off-chance you might skewer its mother.  Who is a tiny, delicate little white-haired girl, and how could you even think of doing that, Jaime Lannister…?
  13. But perhaps the strangest aspect of the battle is how we find ourselves rooting for both sides.  Despite his residual moral ambiguity, we don’t want Jaime to fry; we don’t want Bronn, the cynical sellsword, to be barbecued; and we sure as hell don’t want Dany skewered, despite the fact that she’s showing some moral ambiguity of her own.  You don’t know who to root for, while you root for everybody.  I’ve never quite seen a film sequence that so effectively captures, in an emotional sense, how, at the level of the individual, there’s usually not a lot of difference between the two sides of a war.
  14. A final note about that moral ambiguity of Dany’s– she’s always been willing to do what is necessary, and she has been merciless with masters and slavers in the past.  But now that she is in Westeros she seems to be heeding Oleana Tyrell’s counsel to “be the dragon” a little too completely– the whole ‘bend-the-knee’ business is getting out of hand.  She seems to be on the verge of accepting the proposition that the ends justify the means– and that she is entitled to fealty she has not earned.  Dangerous stuff, and I am on tenterhooks waiting to see how it turns out.

Whew.  I don’t have the strength to launch any speculations at this point.  At some point major characters are doomed to die, although I begin to think most of that is going to be pushed to Season 8.  Jon’s expedition to the north is going to come a cropper, as is well known by now.  He and Dany are almost certainly going to grow closer, but what kind of heartbreak will that entail when his parentage is revealed?  Littlefinger is already surrounded by suspicious Starks; when will that suspicion turn into a Valyrian steel dagger in the dark?

And how the hell are they going to cram all this into just three more episodes?

Beats the crap out of me…..

Later.

A PS, a day later—

I hope I’m wrong.  I really, really hope I’m wrong.  But what if Jamie and Bronn are taken prisoner after the battle and Dany executes Bronn out of hand for hurting Drogon?  It would be another brick in the blood-slick road Dany is traveling toward becoming the tyrant everyone fears she might become.  In the previews for Episode 5 Tyrion looks pretty wrecked– I wonder if this is why?  I really want to be wrong on this one.

 

 

More random and wild-eyed thoughts on “Game of Thrones”

Okay, Episode Three is in the bag, and I’m feeling maybe a little less wild-eyed and more thoughtful about the show at the moment.  These are less predictions than they are reflections.  Still, I now have a stronger foundation for my whacky ideas about what is to come for the rest of the show, so buckle up– here we go.

And, of course….

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS**

Again, tentatively, but I don’t want somebody hunting me down with a catspaw blade because I ruined the show for them.

One note about spoilage– there has been a great deal of it online around leak episodes and scripts, and so far some of it has been pretty accurate.  At this point, for example, everyone knows Jon is going to lead an expedition north of the wall, probably in Episode Six, which apparently will get its ass kicked and cost Dany a dragon.  That common knowledge helps feed my speculations.

(What, you didn’t know?  Sorry about that.  Please put the knife down.)

  1. What is it with people online expecting Dany and Jon to get down to business (and I ain’t talking about accounting) in the next episode. Crap, she and Jon just met, and they are antagonists at the moment, people– their agendas are in direct conflict.  You’ve waited more than six seasons for this encounter, give it a chance to simmer.
  2. This, of course, ignores the fact that if Jon is, indeed, the child of Rhaegar and Lyanna, then Dany is his aunt.  Face it, folks, that’s kinda problematic.  How does this work, boo for incest if it’s between the bad guys, hurrah if the good guys are doing it?  Ugh.
  3. On the other hand, it may yet be just an assumption that R+L=J.  People watched the Tower of Joy sequence, and because it cut from an unidentified infant to Jon Snow, they assumed the theory was confirmed.  I think it is at least possible that the show runners may yet jerk that rug out from under us.
  4. Of course, if so, then Dany and Jon are not related.  In which case, Defcon One, Jon Snow….
  5. The whole interplay between Jon and Dany at their first meeting was worthy of a stage play.  No special effects, no epic battles, just two determined people with irreconcilable agendas confronting one another.  Some people thought it was boring, but I’m not one of them.  What were they supposed to do, get into a knife-fight?  Story-wise, this is exactly what needed to happen, as Dany’s plans begin to run up hard against the reality of what’s actually going down in Westeros, and Jon risks being eaten by a dragon because he knows his war is the real deal, not this petty dynastic squabble with which everyone else has been obsessed for the last six seasons.  A foundation had to be laid, and this was it.
  6. And no, they don’t like each other.  Think Beatrice and Benedick, only with dragons and undead.
  7. Damn, that sounds good.  They did it for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (a wretched film, btw– can’t speak to the book), why not for Shakespeare?  Too bad Bill is dead, I think he’d love the concept.
  8. Speaking of reality checks, Dany has come to rely entirely too much on political theater (which was what the dragon fly-by was about, of course, and the whole recitation of titles).  I think she’s going to find that sort of thing doesn’t, well, fly as well in Westeros as it did in other parts of the world.
  9. The whole sequence where Cersei poisons Tyene and leaves her and Ellaria in the dungeon, just out of reach of each other, was heartrending.  Ellaria deserves to be punished, and Tyene has her own sins, but this is vengeance and cruelty, not justice.  Of course, one of the points of the show is that this is a world short on justice and very long on cruelty and revenge.  In that kind of world Cersei’s actions approach the status of logical consequences, which only tells you how depraved the moral order of Westeros is.
  10. Contrast, then, Jon’s treatment of Alice Karstark and Ned Umber –  where Cersei would have acted with petty cruelty, Jon shows mercy, even when his own sister is urging vengeance.  It makes you want to pledge fealty right there.
  11. In the realm of actual predictions, from here on out major characters are going to start dropping like whores’ knickers.  Melisandre hinted at her own death and Varys’ in Episode Three, and I suspect they won’t die in bed sipping cocoa.  Varys will probably get cross-ways of Dany somehow, because people who think in terms of “the realm” are sometimes awfully inconvenient to monarchs.
  12. I suspect the showrunners have a much dramatic end in mind for Melisandre.  Perhaps she’ll give her life in the fight against the Night King, and so atone in some degree for her crimes.  In any event, I doubt she will suffer a straw-death.
  13. Beric Dondarrion is going to get it (finally and for good) when he follows Jon north of the wall (oops, spoilers, remember?), but not before he gets to use Thoros’ flaming sword, which should rock hard as a scene.
  14. Arya will make it back to Winterfell, but I predict she’s going to cautiously infiltrate the place to determine the lay of the land, and there may not be the sort of uber-joyful reunion we had with between Sansa and Jon.
  15. In the process, Arya may kill Littlefinger.  I’m just hoping.
  16. If Littlefinger does make it past Arya’s return, at some point he’s going to spill the beans about Jon’s true parentage (if there be beans to spill).  There have been plenty of hints he knows the secret.  Who knows what will happen then; it could be someone will even silence him in a rather permanent fashion to keep the secret secret. From some points of view, Jon as a Targaryen would be an inconvenient truth– it would probably destroy the allegiance he has won from the northern lords, among other things.  This could go any number of ways, though, and nobody who isn’t named Benioff, Weiss or Martin has a genuine clue as to the whole story.

Enough for now.  With each episode the possibilities narrow and the dramatic tension becomes more focused.  Anyway you cut it, we’re in for a ride.

I just wish there were more than four episodes left in the season.

Later.

The Horseman- Part Eight

A note to the discriminating reader– this part came out both a little short and a little too much “tell” rather than “show”.  This is a drawback of posting what is essentially a first draft.  Properly, now that I understand what information needs to be imparted, I should go back and rewrite some of the previous chapters to lay more revolvers on the mantel (so to speak).  That may happen in the future; for the moment, please forgive my clumsiness.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

************************************************

Part Eight

As it turned out, Mankin did not see Gonatani again for three days.

The first day, Mankin did hardly more than sleep and eat the food brought to him.  He saw mostly servants and his guards.  As far as communications went, the former were skittish, and the latter, Mankin thought at times, might not have even possessed the power of speech.

The second day he felt strong enough to think about going outside his room for a few minutes.  It was mid-morning, as near as he could figure.  It had to be a sign of returning strength that he felt some guilt about lying about when the sun was well up.

He pulled his chamber door open, and was instantly met by the glares of both of the hulking guards.  Their uniforms told him they were house guards, personally pledged to the lord of the manor.  In this case that was doubtless Gonatani.  Mankin had had a little experience with Okharian house-guards, mostly those who were pledged to Okharians who had come over and sworn allegiance to the Electorate.  Soldiers such as these tended to be humorless, fanatically loyal to their patron, rather direct in thought and action, and generally selected for size and strength rather than wits.

The two glowered at Mankin; he tried to smile back.  “Good morning,” he said in his best Okharian.

“What are you doing?” the left-hand guard growled.

“Thought I might take a walk,” Mankin said, trying to sound as inoffensive as possible.

“It’s not allowed,” Left-hand said.

“Yes, it is,” Right-hand said.

“No, it ain’t,” Left-hand said, “the master said he shouldn’t be allowed to escape.”

“But master said he could walk about the gardens and go to the library,” Right-hand said.

At the word ‘library’ Mankin’s ears pricked up like a cat’s.  He had an impulse to interject, but the guards were still arguing.

“I didn’t hear him say that,” Left-hand said.

“Well, your ears are full of wax, you know.”

“Well, your mouth is full of shit, you know.”

“Gentlemen….” Mankin said.

“You always say that and it’s always stupid….”

“You’re the stupid one!”

“Seriously, gentlemen, I’ll go back to my room,” Mankin said.  He would have done so on his own, except that the door was closed behind him and the two guards were now leaning in toward each other and threatening to crush him between them.

“I ought to pound you…..

“Just try it!”

“Silence!”

The word was like a cannon-shot.  Both guards stood up straight at once; Mankin sagged against the door, relieved.

The command came from Seneschal Muri.  He came down a short flight of steps into the anteroom before Mankin’s door.  His expression was like a wind off a glacier.  “What’s the meaning of this noise?”

“Garana says the prisoner can walk about,” Left-hand said.  “But master says he’s not to be allowed to escape.”

“Tikomuni has problems with his hearing,” Right-hand said….

“Enough!” the seneschal said.  “Captain Mankin is our guest, and while’s he’s not allowed to leave the palace, he may walk in the garden at his pleasure as long as he is escorted.”

“Told you,” Garana said.

“Oh,” Tikomuni said, abashed.

“So, you two lard-headed louts can stop your squabbling and escort the captain to the garden,” Muri said.  “If I hear you two arguing like that again, breaking the harmony of the house, I’ll have the master assign you duties more suited to your limited talents, like shoveling out the pig-sties.  Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Garana said.

“Yes, Seneschal Muri,” Tikomuni said.

“Very well,” Muri said.

“I thank the honorable seneschal,” Mankin said, sketching out a bow.

The look Muri turned on him was beyond freezing; it was like a breath out of a bleak winter’s night sky.  “I serve the master, Khetuna,” Muri said.  He turned on his heel and left.

 

So it was that Mankin took his first walk around Gonatani’s garden.  It was not a long walk—perhaps ten minutes of slow progress, broken by frequent stops to catch his breath.  Mankin definitely felt stronger than he had when he arrived, but he still far from any thought of escape, even if he had not given Gonatani his parole.

The compensation for his weakness was being able to see open sky, to smell fresh air, and to, for a few minutes, walk among growing things that rustled in the wind and smelled of life.  Mankin had not realized how much he need to these simple things to clear his mind.

He was not so weak that he could not appreciate the gardens themselves.  Well-paved paths wound, in what appeared to be random patterns, between pools of water fringed with ferns and tall stands of flowering shrubs.  Flower-beds of roses and lupines lined the paths in other places, which led to little circular plots in which stood orange and lemon trees.  Mankin could hear bees buzzing among the plants that were in flower—a great number, it seemed to him, considering how late in the season it was.  Of course, in Okhar’s climate far more plants flowered year-round than in Khetun.  In any event, it was pleasant to see and smell something other than wet stone or the rancid bodies of other prisoners.  It seemed strange that a place as peaceful as this could exist in the same world as the Pits.

After a while Mankin had to sit down.  He picked a bench beneath an orange tree.  This one was filled with fruit.  Mankin stared up at its branches as he caught his breath, and wondered how long it had been since he tasted an orange.

“Are you done, Khetuna?” Garana asked, sounding gruff and put out.

“I suppose,” Mankin said, puffing.  “Give me a minute and we’ll start back.”

“Hm,” Tikomuni said, with obvious impatience.

Mankin examined the two of them, comparing.  “Are you two brothers?”

They looked at each other; Tikomuni jerked a thumb at Garana and said, “He’s the older one.”

“Ah,” Mankin said, nodding.  “That explains it.”

To Mankin’s left a flight of steps led up to a door; at that moment a man in the robes of a scholar came out of the door and down the steps.   He was small, middle-aged and wore the look of someone thinking hard about something and not really paying attention to where he was going.  He wore that look right up the moment he walked right into Garana.  The guard turned as the scholar stumbled back, surprised.

“By the Truth!” the man said.  “When did they move this mountain here?”

“Very funny, magister,” Garana said.  “You really gotta watch where you’re going.”

“Such is my keen observation of the universe, I always know where I’m going,” the scholar said.  That statement elicited a derisive snort from Tikomuni.  The man did not seem to notice, for just then he caught sight of Mankin.  “Oh, ho!” the man said, his eyes brightening.  “So this is our northern guest!”

Mankin managed to get to his feet, to bow to the fellow properly.  “Captain Mankin Tannersson, of Brema, at your service, sir,” he said.  He struggled to process what he had just heard—‘magister’ indicated that Tipal was a scholar of the highest rank, charged with not merely scholarship, but explorations and experiment.  Mankin had never met a magister in the flesh, since in the Electorate they were licensed and had their own college separate from the Lyceum.  “You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid.”

“Oh! Tipal Kash, magister, researcher into the known and unknown, humble advisor to the Consul, my lord Gonatani,” the man said.  He inclined his head in a polite—although definitely social superior to inferior—response.

“Magister,” Tikomuni said, “I’m not sure you’re supposed to talk to this Khetuna….”

“Tush,” Tipal said, waving a hand.  “I know no military secrets, so there is no danger of me betraying anything.  Come, captain, may I sit by you?”

“Certainly,” Mankin said, hiding his surprise.

The two of them sat down on the bench.  Tipal did so with an audible sigh of relief.  “I must tell you, captain,” he said, “it is a pleasure to be able to sit in the sun for a moment.  I’ve already had a day, and the day is only half-over.  The packing—oh, by the gods, the packing….”

“Do you, um, have a lot to pack?” Mankin prompted.  He did not know what Tipal was talking about.  Years in the Army, though, had taught Mankin that, even if he had no clue what a superior officer was going on about, listening with an attentive expression would often supply important clues.

“Oh, indeed- I did not bring my entire laboratory, you understand, just enough to continue my essential studies.  Still, that’s enough to fill seven or eight crates some mules are going to have to carry, and the packing itself—well, my retorts simply cannot be flung into boxes.  I had to supervise everything.”

“It sounds as if you had to take special care…,” Mankin said.

“Absolutely,” Tipal said.  “If any of the retorts are broken, it will set back my research many days.  Do you know that I have to heat some of the Kunai materials as hot as a blast furnace just to be able to detect their component elements?  Without a working retort that sort of thing is impossible.”

Mankin hoped no one noticed he was holding on the edge of the stone bench, in an effort to keep from falling over in shock.  “Indeed?”

“Yes,” Tipal said.  “But when I succeed- ha!  The mysteries I discover!”  The man paused, turning thoughtful.  “One must be careful, of course– if I were to heat a device that still possesses an energetic charge, the results– well, ‘catastrophe’ hardly covers it, don’t you think?”

“Oh, yes,” Mankin said, desperately trying to keep up.

“But,” Tipal said, smiling again, “once we’re back in Desumanu, and I am returned to my own laboratory, I should be able to wrap up my studies and be ready for the great journey.  I am glad you will be helping us, captain!  We are not natural enemies, the Khetuni and the Okharians, and it is proper that we all work together on this venture.”  Tipal stood, rather more spry than seem proper for a man his age.  Mankin rose more slowly.

“I have to be about,” Tipal said, “still much to be done.  It was a pleasure speaking with you, captain.  We shall see each other soon.”

“I look forward to it,” Mankin said, lying through his teeth.

Tipal nodded, smiled, and was off.  The three men were left standing in his wake; Mankin, for his part, definitely felt like a chip of wood in a whirlpool.

“So why does the master keep that daft fool around?” Tikomuni asked.

“He knows things,” Garana said.

“Does he know how make a girl lift her skirts for you?” Tikomuni said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what use is he?”  Tikomuni looked at Mankin.  “You done with your tour of the gardens, outlander?”

“More than done,” Mankin whispered, struggling to comprehend what had just happened.

Mankin spent the rest of that day and most of the next mulling over what Tipal told him.  The magister, in apparent innocence of what Gonatani had told Mankin about why he was here, had said a great deal, but not nearly enough.  Mankin, puzzled after his first interview with the consul, was now worried.

‘…heat some of the Kunai materials…’.  Who in their right mind meddled with any of the artifacts of the Kunai?  The Ancients had left their ruins and debris scattered across the face of the world; occasionally, a discovered device revealed itself to be still energized.  Every nation on Ohon shared the stories of what happened then, tales of horror and mystery.  As far as Mankin was concerned, Tipal was either far braver than he was, or an incredible fool.  Based on their so-far brief acquaintance, Mankin leaned strongly toward the latter.

But Tipal was Gonatani’s magister, so in some way or another he labored at the consul’s command.  Gonatani’s interrogation of Mankin suddenly obtained a context.  What was Gonatani’s interest in the Kunai?  Mankin doubted it was simple intellectual curiosity.

Power.  People had tried to resurrect the technology of the Kunai before; the legends of the Ancients’ power and glory tempted many.  All such attempts had failed, horribly.  How did Gonatani think he would be able to succeed where others had not only failed, but been obliterated, or left raving, or transformed?  Mankin had no idea, but he was sure of one thing; Magister Tipal might be a fool, but Gonatani Samar was not.  He knows something…. 

A consul of the Okharian Empire looking to appropriate the power of the Kunai– Mankin shivered.  There could only be one reason– to win the war.  Perhaps win it in a manner that would leave Okhar master of the world.

And what are you going to do about it?  Mankin wasn’t even sure he could make it a day’s march in any direction.  He surely couldn ‘t assassinate Gonatani; besides, that left Masanata, and Kunatara , and Tipal, and who knew who else.  But his duty was clearly to frustrate the consul’s designs.

Play the fool yourself— or, at least, the innocent.  That seemed to be the only way ahead. Play along, find out what was afoot, find his opportunity.

Mankin just hoped the Unchanging would let him know when opportunity came knocking.

 

 

To be continued…..   

 

 

 

 

The Horseman, Part Seven

Warning: this piece contains violence and vulgar language.

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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Part Seven

Mankin drove his fist into Sergeant Torman’s face.  The man fell backward, colliding with two of his bully-boys.  Kass and Denetoi came in from the sides and punished the others with their fists.  The thieves, stunned by the sudden attack, stumbled backwards.  Mankin took the opportunity to grab the bag of bread and retreat.  Another one of the sergeant’s henchmen tried to grab the bag from Mankin; Mankin rewarded his impudence with an accurately aimed knee to the groin.  The soldier fell sideways, clutching himself, and Mankin, Kass and Denetoi broke free of the melee in front of the food-distribution gate and ran for it.

They passed through the Third Archway and reached the north-west pit before they slowed down.  Other prisoners, streaming toward the food-gate, avoided them; in the half-year since coming to this place the other Khetuni prisoners-or-war had learned not to meddle with the half-Attau captain and his men.  Or most of them had.  Torman is a problem, Mankin told himself.

They walked, and Mankin was glad.  The spurt of frantic action he and the others had launched themselves into to recover their ration of bread had left him shaky.  I’m getting weaker by the day.  Even a few moments of energetic movement left him dizzy.

He glanced up at the Okharian guards pacing the wall that ran around the perimeter of the pit.  Back above the food-gate off-duty guards laughed and placed bets on the scrimmage down below, as they always did.  Mankin had long since stopped caring that the bastards looked upon the Khetuni prisoners in their charge as entertainment.  He no longer had the energy to spare.

He had to admit, though, that the prisoner-of-war camp was effective, despite its simplicity.  On a rocky plain a series of open-air mining pits had been enlarged by the Okharians into more-or-less circular holding pens, by themselves thirty to fifty feet deep and up to three hundred yards across.  On the rim of each they had built a wall that added another twenty feet; at the base of the masonry downward pointing iron spikes had been mortared into the stone in a hedge that extended all the way around each pit.  The Okharians had connected each of the pits by carving archways through the living rock, which were fitted with portcullises that could be dropped down from above if the Okharians ever needed to isolate one pit from the others.  There were only three gates in or out of the camp, tunnels carved down to the pits and fitted with heavy doors and more portcullises– the main gate, the food-gate, and the death-gate, where prisoners who died were collected for removal.

Beyond guarding the walls and distributing a ration of food every day, the Okharians left the prisoners to their own devices.  By all appearances the southerners did not care what the Khetuni did in the pits, even if it was to each other, so long as they did not try to attack the gates or scale the walls.  The latter was virtually impossible, and even if the prisoners could break down one of the gates– unlikely, as they had no tools, not even knives– they would find themselves in a narrow tunnel facing cannon and bowmen and more portcullises, and it wasn’t even worth thinking about.

Once, Mankin understood, there had been a command structure among the prisoners in the pits, which had kept order and made sure that food was distributed fairly.  But then an epidemic of blue flux had swept the prison, the officers and sergeants who had maintained the order mostly died, and prisoners began to form gangs and fight among themselves.  Again, the Okharians did not care; they neither provided help during the epidemic nor interested themselves in restoring order.  Instead, they watched and laid bets.

Mankin and the others made their way through another arch into the Western Cell.  This was one of the largest of the pits.  Crossing it made Mankin feel like an insect on a bare floor.  Other soldiers, in ones or twos or small groups, late-comers to the food distribution, hurried past the three of them.  Some of the soldiers eyed them and their bag of bread, but none of them made a move.  Reputation is a wonderful thing.

The three of them reached the caves that sheltered what was left of Mankin’s command.  Ben and Hal were on guard; both men grinned widely when they saw the group returning with their burden.  “You made it, sir!” Ben called.

“Not without a few bumps and bruises,” Mankin said as they climbed the steps carved into the rock-face.  “Food distribution’s getting a little vigorous.  We’ll have to take more men next time.”

“If we’d taken more men this time, it would have saved my knuckles some rough duty,” Denetoi muttered.  Mankin ignored him and enter the caves.

Inside was a warren of interconnected rooms cut from the stone.  The chambers further in were gloomy and dank, and most of the Mankin’s soldiers tended to cluster in the spaces nearer the entrance.  When Mankin and the others entered they were immediately surrounded by his men.  Some cheered their arrival, but others hobbled silently forward, leaning on crude staffs, or the shoulders of comrades.  They were all ragged and thin and dirty.

“One at a time, boys, one at a time!” Kass called out, as he and Denetoi opened the bags.  “Line up neat and proper, that’s it.”  The two of them began to hand out the loaves of bread.

Mankin stepped aside, wanting to make sure he went last, and felt a tug on his sleeve.  It was Corporal Marsh.  “Beg pardon, sir,” the young soldier said, “but Private Gahl is going.”

Mankin’s heart sank.  “I’ll go see him.”

 

In one of the further chambers a little fire burned in a crude lamp, painstakingly chiseled out of a block of sandstone.  Private Gahl lay against the far wall, under a covering of rags.  As soon as Mankin entered the room he smelled its peculiar stench—sickness and bowels and unwashed sweat, which by now Mankin thought of as the stink of despair.

He knelt down beside Gahl.  The young soldier was a skeleton with skin stretched over its bones.  His sunken eyes were closed.  A sheen of sweat covered his emaciated face; his hands clutched the rags under which he lay as if he were holding on to them for his life.  Perhaps he is.

“Private,” Mankin whispered, “Private Gahl.  Can you hear me?”

Gahl at first seemed not to notice; then he stirred a little, and his eyelids cracked open, just a little.  “Is that you, Father?” the boy murmured.

“He’s been going in and out like that all morning, sir,” Marsh said.

“It’s Captain Mankin, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“Captain?  Where’s my father?”

“He’s coming, private,” Mankin said, not sure what else he could say.

“Good,” Gahl said.  He breathed heavily, one, two breaths.  “I just wanted to tell him…I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I got angry.  I didn’t mean it.”

“I’m sure he knows, Gahl,” Mankin said.

“I want to tell him…I want to tell him…,” Gahl trailed off, and then he sighed and his hands slowly unclenched from the rags.

Mankin sat there for a moment, then reached over and closed the boy’s eyes.  “Once you’ve eaten,” he told Marsh, “and we’ve said a few words, get a detail together and take him to the collection point for burial.”

“Yes, sir,” Marsh murmured.

Mankin got up.  He went back further into the cave, to nearly the last chamber.  The attenuated sunshine barely reached this space at all.  Mankin sat down on its moist floor, put his face in his hands, and wept.

Sometime later he realized someone was standing close by, just outside the chamber.  “Who’s there?” he said.

“Denetoi, Cap’n.”  The sergeant stepped forward.  “Look, I got you some bread, and those bastard Okharians actually threw in some pepper-pods, I gotcha a half of one.”

Mankin shook his head.  “I don’t want it.”

“Now, Cap’n,” Denetoi said, “you’re being plain foolish.  Nobody blames you….”

“Maybe they should,” Mankin said.  “I’m the one who surrendered us.”

“And if you hadn’t our bones would be bleaching in the sun, even now,” Denetoi said.

“So instead,” Mankin said, “I brought us here.  A slow death instead of a quick.”

Denetoi hesitated, then sighed.  He sat down next to Mankin.  “You know, Cap’n, I’ve never wanted to be any sort of officer,” he said, “much less a commander.  Never wanted the responsibility.”

Mankin said nothing, which Denetoi apparently took as tacit permission to go on.  “I’m not going to sit here and pretended that I understand everything an officer’s got to think about,” he said.  “All complicated and meshed together, parts working here that affect other parts over there.  Keep men fighting while seeing how everything fits into some bigger frame.  That’s not me.”

“Not sure it’s me, either,” Mankin murmured.

“More you than that damned Lyon,” Denetoi said, “and more than many an officer I’ve known.  So stop second-guessing yourself.”

Mankin looked at him with raised eyebrows.  “Is that an order, sergeant?”

“Advice from an old soldier, sir,” Denetoi said.  “My point is, this much I can see this clear– even for officers, sometimes it comes down to doing the best you can with what you got, where you are.  ‘Cause in this life, when do ordinary men like you and me ever get a perfect choice?  About anything?”

“That’s what I keep telling myself,” Mankin said.

“You should listen to yourself,” Denetoi said.  “The point is, thanks to you we are alive, saving poor Gahl and Roas and Timms and the others who got sick—and only living men can have hope.  So, take your damned bread and pepper, sir, before I eat it all myself.”

Mankin looked over at Denetoi, who was holding the bread out to him.  “A practical moral position, if I ever heard one,” he said, and he nearly smiled as he took the food.

 

Before they removed Gahl’s body Mankin gathered his surviving command around him as he stood by the dead man.  Gahl’s comrades had made a small effort to make him presentable, washing him and arranging his limbs and tying up his jaw with a cloth.  It wasn’t much, but Mankin was grateful for the effort.

“We have to say goodbye to our comrade now,” he told his men.  “None of us have the strength to stand for a long sermon, so I’ll keep it short.  Private Gahl was young, and sometimes he was a silly fellow who was faster with a joke than his bow, but he never complained and he was always first to the wall when stand-to sounded.  We will miss him.  He came a long way from home, to die in this place, but we’re all a long way from home.”  Mankin hesitated, trying to think of what to say to encapsulate what he felt at this moment.  “The Unchanging grant that poor Gahl is the last of us to die here.”

“The gods grant,” the men murmured, in a soft, ragged chorus.

 

The three strongest men, Grer, Jason and Preet, bore Gahl’s body away to the corpse collection point, while the rest of them dispersed back into the caves.  Mankin settled back into his own space, and tried not to think about anything for a while.

Too soon, though, Kass came and found him.  “Captain,” he said, looking worried, “we got trouble.”

 

It was as big a party of Okharians inside the prison as Mankin had seen together since surrendering.  That was the first surprise.  The second was that they were not garrison guards, but regular soldiers, in full kit.  A half-company, at least, he estimated, as they spread out around the cave mouths, making sure no one could get out, or in.  There were swordsmen and pike-handlers, and a scattering of arquebusiers, who took positions that would all cover all the exits of the caves and all their approaches.

Mankin emerged from the caves just as the most senior Okharian present—a captain—stepped forward.  By this time most of the men of Mankin’s command were gathered around, and the Okaharian peered from face to face, just as if he were trying to recognize someone.  “Which of you,” he called, in fair Khetuni, “is the captain called Mankin the Attau.”

“Who’s asking?” Kass demanded.

The officer glowered.  “The man who’ll spread you guts over these rocks if you don’t answer me civilly, Khetuna.”

Kass looked as if he might be readying another smart reply, but Mankin held up his hand.  “Don’t, sergeant.”

Kass shut his mouth, but he did not look happy.  Mankin stepped forward.  “I am Mankin,” he said.

The officer looked Mankin over, as if examining him for identifying marks.  The Okharian’s eyes lingered on the scar on Mankin’s face.  “Very well,” the fellow finally said.  “You’re to come with us.”

“Why?” Mankin asked.

The Okharian flushed with anger.  He said, “Because, you stupid outlander, you’re required somewhere else.  More than that I don’t know, nor do I care, except that my orders are to get you to that somewhere else as quickly as possible.  Alive and in one piece, if that’s concerning you, although again, I don’t know why anyone would care if I carved my family crest into your stinking skin.  So come, now, or I’ll have my men carry you—oh, and if any of your starvelings get in the way, my men will skewer them, since nobody gives a damn about them.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Sir…,” Kass said.

“Sergeant Kass,” Mankin said, “at ease.  Seems like I have no choice.  I don’t want anybody hurt.”

“They’re up to something,” Kass said.

“Maybe,” Mankins said lowly, “but if they wanted me dead, they could kill me here and now without much fuss.  And all my military information is a year old, so I can’t imagine it being of any use to them.  So I’m going.  I’ll get back as soon as I can.  You’re in charge, sergeant.”

Kass looked from Mankin to the Okharians and back to Mankin, unhappy.  But he said, “Yes, sir,” and stepped back.

Mankin climbed down to the Okharians, unsure if his legs shook from hunger or fear.  He faced the half-captain.  “I’m ready.  Don’t have much in the way of baggage.”

The captain sneered at him for a moment, then told his men, “Bring him.”

 

The captain led Mankin to the main gate, with the half-company surrounding them both.  They all filed out the gate, and Mankin realized at that moment that whoever wanted him carried a great deal of clout.  The gate guards, all four layers of them, did not question the half-captain or even say a word to him as he led Mankin out.

Once he had Mankin in the outer court of the main-gate fort, the captain seemed to really look him over for the first time, and not like what he saw.  He sat Mankin down on a mounting block, and gave him bread and a handful of dates to eat.  Mankin downed them without question, almost before he had them in his hands.

“I’m not being charitable,” the half-captain told him.  “We have to ride, and I can’t have you falling off every half-league from hunger.”

“Fine,” Mankin said around a mouthful of bread.

They gave him water to drink, as well, and Mankin used some of it to wash his face and hands.  Then they brought out a squad’s worth of horses, saddled and ready, the strong, phlegmatic sort of beasts the Okharians used for long journeys, and Mankin knew his first twinge of misgiving.  “How far are we going?” he asked the captain.

“Far enough to leave this place well below the horizon,” the officer said.  “Mount up.”

Mankin was glad no one in the Reach saw what happened next; he had to be boosted into the saddle.  He swayed a moment, then got his feet into the stirrups and hung on for dear life.  Spearmen mounted the other horses, a good twenty men.  A large guard for one Khetuni who can barely hold on to the saddle, Mankin thought.

The captain mounted, gave Mankin the look of a man resolving to make the best of a poor situation, and waved to their escort.  “Let’s go.”

 

It was early the next morning when the detail clattered across a drawbridge into the outer keep of a huge palace-fort atop a hill.  They had ridden east through the night, with only brief breaks to change horses and drink and eat.  With each stop and each remount, Mankin had gotten weaker and weaker.  At the end he clung to the saddle only by force of will and the half-captain’s promise of more food at their destination.

As they entered the gate Mankin got only impressions of the palace; he was too exhausted.  When they stopped in the keep’s courtyard the Okharians had to help him off the horse, then they had to help him to stand.

As the soldiers did so an older Okharian appeared, wearing the robes and tonsure of a high steward, and a severe expression.  He looked at Mankin, then at the half-captain.  “Did you look to kill him?” the steward snapped.

The officer glowered back.  “I was ordered to get him here as quickly as possible.”

The steward growled in the back of his throat.  “Well, you’ve done that.  Now leave him to us.”

The steward snapped his fingers; house servants stepped forward and took Mankin bodily away from the soldiers.  Mankin, far too weak to protest, accepted the transfer without a word.

The soldiers stepped back; the half-captain in particular looked as if he had swallowed a dose of castor oil.  The steward faced Mankin, now literally in the hands of his people.  He inclined his head to Mankin.  “Greetings, Captain Tannersson,” the man said.  “I am High Seneschal Muri.”  He spoke the words with icily formality, as if he did not like their taste.  “This is the Great House of the Lords of Shining Rock.  Be welcome.”

It penetrated Mankin’s fuddled brain that he had just had the status of guest bestowed upon him.  This is unexpected.  Somehow he managed to stand a little straighter.  “I am…honored to step within…your sacred house,” he managed, just before collapsing completely.

 

He slept much of the day, in a cool room somewhere in the palace.  He hardly noticed anything from the moment he lay down to the moment house servants came to rouse him.

Once he was able to stagger to his feet they bathed him, then they fed him.  Mankin could not tell which left him more unstrung.  The bath was so warm and pleasant that he very nearly sank under the water, not caring if he drowned.

When he finally emerged they dressed him in the light cotton shirt and breeks of an Okharian commoner.  Mankin had no objection—the clothes were clean and new.  They left him barefoot, though, which Mankin supposed was a precaution against his running.

When they set food before him, the spongy baked naan and hotly spiced beef that was typical of Okharian cuisine, he had to force himself not try to grab everything, but to eat with a measured pace, and to stop at the first sense of being replete.  That moment came much sooner than he thought it would.  His stomach, he reckoned, must have shrunk to the size of a grape.

When he was done it was close to sunset.  The servants, accompanied by two overly burly guards who kept their eyes on Mankin the whole time, escorted him through a maze of rooms and courtyards toward what appeared to be the center of the house.  The air outside was still hot, but the thick-walled rooms were cool and dark.

At last they brought him to a large, windowless chamber; water trickled down the far wall into a deep pool—this was obviously the house’s well-room, or one of them, but on a scale Mankin had never seen before.  The space echoed with the sound of the water and their footsteps; it seemed a place of rest and coolness and peace.

Kunatara Maso was there.  He sat, in ordinary clothes, on the ledge by the pool.  Mankin felt a strange mélange of emotions—relief at seeing a familiar face, mingled together with suspicion of why he was here, together with a powerful burst of rage.  He tried to put it all aside and to think clearly, for Kunatara was not alone.

Two other Okharians were there.  One was an older man, seated in a wide-armed chair by the trickling well.  He was a big man, dressed in a simple tunic, whose frame spoke of youthful power and vigor, but for whom age had softened his body and grayed his aspect.  His face was lined and pensive, and he hardly seemed to notice Mankin’s entrance.

The other Okharian paced on one side of the room.  He was younger, very fit, and although he, too, wore ordinary clothes, Mankin could tell he was a soldier.  The man glared at Mankin with unreserved hostility.  Mankin sensed that here was a man who would take no prisoners, least of all Khetuni.

The two guards stepped back to the doorway, leaving Mankin standing alone.  He took his best guess, made a shaky bow toward the older man, and said in Okharian, “I greet you, dread lord, and thank you for your great hospitality.”

Kunatara’s eyebrows went up; the pacing man scowled in even deeper suspicion, if that were possible; and the older man looked up.  Eyes as weary as they were intelligent met Mankin’s; and then the man gave him a small smile.  “That’s not bad,” he said.  “Your accent’s pretty good for a Khetuna; your form is slightly off, but nothing at which anyone would take offense.”

“Consul,” the pacing man said, “please allow us to judge that matter for ourselves.”

“Hush, Masanata,” the older man said.  As he spoken Mankin hastily revised his estimate of the man’s rank and status—Consul meant he was one of the Empire’s elite, someone who had sometime before served at the right hand of the Imperator.  “Captain Mankin is, indeed, our guest, and you should remember that.  Not to mention, we don’t want to poison the well from which we’re about to ask him to drink.”

As rebukes went, Mankin thought that speech was pretty mild; Masanata’s expression, however, darkened as if he’d been slapped.  Mankin, though, wondered what the consul meant by ‘wells’ and ‘poisoning’ and ‘drinking’, all of which, juxtaposed together, sounded more than a little ominous.

Kunatara stood.  “Perhaps, Consul, we should engage in a little more formality, and introduce ourselves.  Captain Mankin and I have met; Captain,” he gestured at Masanata, “may I make known to you Strategist and High Commander Masanata Rimun Basa, lord of Dere-naru.”

Mankin hid his surprise again; Masanata was a member of the Imperator’s inner military council, as well as a landed baron of some wealth.  What a strategist of the Imperator’s own council was doing here, a long way from the Okharians’ temporary capitol of Gesu-kana, Mankin had no earthly clue.

In any case, Mankin bowed to Masanata.  “I am honored by your presence, esteemed strategist and lord.”

Masanata glared at Mankin in open hate.  “I want no courtesy from you, you Khetuna bastard.”

“Lord Basa,” the consul said, and this time there was a snap in his voice, “please cease to insult my guest.  Keep it up and your words may begin to impinge on my honor.”

Masanata actually paled; he turned and bowed to the consul.  “Your pardon, lord.”

“And,” Kunatara said, smoothly, as if the consul and Masanata were exchanging pleasantries, “may I make known to you my lord Gonatani Samar, overlord of Usser, baron of Isu-kara,  March of Desumanu, Strategist and Overcommander, Royal Companion and Kinsman, former Consul of the Empire.”

It was all Mankin could do to keep from staggering, now from surprise rather than weakness.  Gonatani Samar—even common Khetuni soldiers had heard that name.  Four times consul of the Empire, the close cousin of the Imperator, the strategist who had kept Khetun from overrunning all of Okhar in the first years of the war, the man most said could have had the throne of Okhar for himself, but had loyally defended his cousin’s right to it.  If Masanata’s presence here was unexpected, Gonatani’s was like the visitation of a minor deity.

Mankin forced himself to keep his feet under him as he bowed deeply.  “I am unworthy to greet the dread lord, and I am indebted to him for his courtesy and grace.”

Masanata’s expression told Mankin that, as far as that point was concerned, he was entirely in agreement with him, but the general said nothing.  Gonatani smiled again.  “Well, captain, you are entirely welcome here.  I have to admit, though, I did not expect to hear this much courteous speech from a Khetuna officer.”

“If it please my dread lord,” Mankin said, “courtesy costs nothing.”  Of course, discourtesy in this context would doubtless be fatal, but Mankin reckoned there was no need to mention that fact.

Then, in spite of everything, he swayed on his feet.  The room spun around him, and he staggered.

Gonatani sat up straighter in his seat.  “By the high gods, where is our courtesy?  A chair for the captain, at once.”

The guards hustled about behind Mankin, and in a moment a chair was brought in, a seat that matched Gonatani’s.  Mankin sat down at once and gripped the armrests.  “I thank the dread lord,” he said.

“Well, we can’t have you falling on your face,” Gonatani said.  “I am sorry for the hardship you experienced in the camp, captain, but there was nothing I could do for you until now.”  The consul sat back.  “Better?”

“Yes, dread lord, thank you.”  Indeed, the room had ceased its revolutions.

“Hmm—you’re going to be here a while, captain, so you can cut your salutations back to an occasional ‘lord’,” Gonatani said.  He rubbed his nose.  “I understand, captain, that you were wounded in the fall of the fort at Senso-marta.”

Mankin wondered why Gonatani was being so circumspect, when the scar on his face was wide and bright.  “Yes, dre…yes, lord.”

“Does it give you much pain?”

Mankin actually had to stop and think about that one for a moment.  Many strange things had happened to him already in the last day, but having Gonatani Samar enquiring about his battle-wounds was perhaps the strangest.  “Only when the weather turns, my lord,” Mankin said.

Gonatani grinned.  “With me it’s my knees.  Too much marching about when I was young, I suppose.”

“Consul…,” Masanata started.

Gonatani held up a hand.  “No need, general.  I’ll get to the point.”  To Mankin he said, “You are weak and tired, captain, so I don’t want to detain you.  But there are a few things we need to clarify.”

“As it pleases my lord,” Mankin said, perplexed.

“You are called Mankin the Attau, but your family name is Tannersson?”

Mankin tried to marshal his thoughts with one hand while holding off bewilderment with the other.  “Yes, lord.  My father was Khetuni, my mother Attau.”

“Ah,” Gonatani said, as if Mankin’s answer had granted him some sort of comprehension of a previous mystery.  “And you’re descended from tanners?”

“Some generations back, yes,” Mankin said.  “Apparently my father’s great-great-grandfather had a tannery in Gereburg.  When the king of those days expanded the ranks of the Named, my forebearer had the wherewithal to pay the fee and earn a surname.”

Mankin was not surprised to see Masanata sneer.  He had gotten the same look from Khetuni officers from old-name families.  But Gonatani merely nodded.  “Good.  Good.  And you’re a man of some learning?”

If Mankin had been on a horse that had suddenly broken right when he had expected it to go left, he could not have been more thrown.  “Um…yes, my lord, well, I studied at the Lyceum, I did not earn my stole….”

“Excellent,” Gonatani said.  “If you would oblige me, please read something for me.”

Mankin blinked, then blinked again as one of the guards came to him, carrying a heavy codex.  He placed it, open, in Mankin’s lap.  Mankin peered at it.  “Oh, ah…this is strange.”

“Do you know what this is?” Gonatani said.

Mankin looked up.  “This is a chronicle, the Corso Havenum Brekis.  It’s a narrative of the Kunai.”

“Can you read it?” Gonatani said.

“Why, yes, lord,” Mankin said.

“Please do,” Gonatani said.

Mankin stared at him for a moment, then looked back down at the open book.  “Um…Heste urun harla terimini degusta parva….

He read about half a page of the Kunai text before Gonatani held up a hand.  “Excellent.  Now can you translate that text for us?”

“Yes, lord…ah…‘the ordering of the Kunai state is in five parts, all in opposition to all, so that a balancing of interests and powers may be attained, to the greater harmony of the commonwealth….’”

He re-read what he had first read, translating into Okharian as he went, hesitating only once or twice where rendering the sense of the Kunai words in Okharian presented some extra difficulty.  He finished and looked up.

Gonatani was peering at him with the intensity of someone undergoing a revelation.  Kunatara had covered his open mouth with a hand, as if to hide his surprise.  Masanata had stopped his pacing, and was backed up against the wall behind him; his expression had changed from disdain to something close to outright fear.

What is this all about? 

“That is…that is good, Mankin of the Attau,” Gonatani said.  “Well read.  Yes.”

He gestured, and the guard collected the book from Mankin and took it away.  As he did Gonatani said, “Mankin of the Attau, I have no wish to tire you further today.  There have been enough questions for the time-being.  My servitors will take you to a private chamber; you are my guest, and you may rest there as you please.”  He raised a hand in caution.  “Despite that, of course, there is still war between our nations; I must ask you not to wander about the house and grounds without an escort.  Some places, of necessity, must be forbidden to you; and I ask that you make no attempt to escape or leave this fortress.”

As if I have the strength to get more than half a mile, Mankin thought.  Aloud he said, “I hear, my lord, and will obey.”

Gonatani nodded.  “Doubtless you have questions of your own.  We will speak again, soon, and I hope to be able to answer some of those questions then.”

Mankin heard the dismissal in Gonatani’s words.  He bowed, backed away according the Okharian custom, bowed again, then turned to leave the room.  His guards fell in beside him, as he wondered, what the hell is going on?

 

To be continued…..