Thursday, 17 April 2014

Naturalising


It rolls us under, much and less than before.
Fleeting caress of tongue over teeth, lips,
drool spools words gone dry.
So, you pass it back.
So, I sigh, breathe, release a tenative smile.

Winds drift between us, cold chasming,
but we bridge it with thighs pressed together.
Eyes, many eyes, too many
snatching memories;
my brows drawn in, your blush, my fingers dancing,
your breath stirring neglect.

We flex, pass it back
Amlost...not enough
is this freedom?

There is hope that the broken parts are'nt
too sharp.
Though they claw beneath the yawn
and fear, red, worming into silences that stretch
strangely comfortable.

we have lips that could kiss...
we know

Watching round faces of strangers, seen, always at the edge
we are not alone, nor able to escape (that which shaped us)
Movements stunted then too broad,
in rebellion, soon forgotten.

So, you pass it back.
So, I, I make an offering of a smile.

And it stings.
Burns beneath my breast, the pit of me
an aching
breathless yet with laughter, hidden behind a hand that shakes.

I take sips from the gentle ocean of you
your eyes reflect my storms


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Danny is Dead

My friends call me Zig on account certain accident with hair dye at the remarkably awkward age of fourteen. I think it stuck because none of our so called peers got it. We delighted in our retro randomness.
Long time ago now, that, but for some reason I find myself thinking of it once more as I sit here across from these people.
My family. Purest form drudgery of the mundane. Everything I hated.
There is an extra place at the table, despite the fact that all of the guests have arrived, in an obligatory fashion, for my niece's firstborn's baptism. I suspect many are only in on it for the free booze and food. Mum always did make good sausage rolls.
Upstairs I can here a TV blaring, men's voices jeering as the ref gets political.
The women, of course, are gathered around the sofas, the children bellowing and screeching around them in a din so permanent their only reaction is a fearful tightening of the eyes, wrinkled hands steady as they sip their tea. I can almost hear the tick tock of the countdown until bedtime.
Thank fuck I'm barren, I tell myself. I read that somewhere, in a fantasy book I got out of the library. One summer it just always seemed to be raining and I had learnt how despicable people could be so I retreated. Read my way through them, maybe I was searching for something.
Maybe I found it there, or maybe they just gave me the courage to keep looking.
It grates on me, sitting here, but I am used to the feeling. It is not so keen anymore.
When I arrived my uncle at looked at me sideways, shoulders looming wide across my vision like some sort of shield from societal gossip in what he was about to say. But he only muttered gruff gratitude at my nice shirt. Very neat. Very sensible. If a bit...dark.
I can see the funny side now. Sometimes. OK not right now because I cannot lift my eye's from that empty place, at the knife and fork neatly lined up, and the pristine white circle that remains hungry and so glares up at me. I have heard them, when they thought I wasn't around. Is Danny OK? I make them uncomfortable.
I reach for my baccy and roll a cigarette, using the cover of a gale of cawing laughter to snatch another cake and stuff it into my mouth, annoyed when my fingers, glistening with icing, stick to the rizzla.
The spoons lay above the plate like stern brows, fiercely drawn together in disapproval. Now I know this is getting a bit extended, but think how I feel. I've lived this. The bloody plate is even reflected in the 'o' assonance of monotone. I've dwelled on it. Even if it may not be real. Maybe someone cancelled.
I lean against the fence, bored gaze skipping over the featureless houses to rest upon the blue.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

London Author Fair


On the 28th of February I attended the first London Author Fair in the rather luxe setting of Covent Garden's Hospital Club.
 "The London Author Fair will host hundreds of authors across three floors of the private members club, for a day of radical seminars, intimate workshops, one-on-one collaborator hubs, educational films, the live PitchUp! literary agent submissions event run by LitFactor, and a lavish late-night drinks reception and networking event to close."
This conference is different to others in that it is not a writing 101 affair, it is taking a more in depth look at the industry and is also trying to break down artificial barriers between traditionally published and self published authors and the more tangible barriers between authors and the industry. An excellent networking opportunity.

If you click through (and I recommend you do, the programme is available on the site, videos of seminars to come and there may be a sneaky picture of me looking pensive in the audience) you will notice that the founding collaborators are Kobo, Blurb, Createspace and Nook Press. At first I was concerned that this implied that it would have a narrow focus on self publishing.

Be reassured there were so many seminars and workshops to attend, looking at lots of different aspects, that any attendee could organise their schedule to meet their own personal needs and interests. Alongside representatives for the collaborators there were many agents and folks connecting with the industry in varying capacities (and all were happy to mingle and chat in the in-between times).

I was lucky enough to book a pitch, with David Headley of DHH Literary Agency, but as the result is yet pending (you'll have to await a later blog post).

It was a wonderful day, so many exciting and interesting things going on, getting to listen to and speak to agents and industry folks directly, swapping stories and support with other writers (the cafe was lovely but under the eyes of several industry stations, the smoking area was the easiest place to skip through social awkwardness and get chatting. Even if you don't smoke!). The atmosphere was really comfortable, but with an edge of excitement and determination. I definitely recommend booking a ticket, the next fair is going to be in New York in the autumn, then in various locations in Europe next year.

Here I'm going to share my pickings, this blog post has already crept into essay length although I have only really written what floated to the surface. What to expect from industry, what you need to be; developed, identifiable, aware.

Developed

Your book. Edited, revised, beta read. Again. This may seem like standard, basic advice. It is. But as writers we have to be as objective and professional as possible when viewing our work against this criteria. Specially if you wish to self-publish (or be an author-publisher as the new phrasage seems to be swinging toward) as one of the reader concerns is the slew of published e-books that are terribly edited, formatted, gaping plot holes ect. We are the minders of our integrity.

Which is, of course, equally important if you wish to take a more traditional route. Perhaps more so as you will be confronted with critical gate keepers at a sooner stage. This is a lesson it took me a whiles to grasp, or rather I understood it but I did not have enough distance from my work to make a good assessment. It took a few months of rejections, some personalised with useful critique, to make me have a good hard ponder. And, after buying my ticket and booking a pitch with an agent, a few weeks before the fair was to take place...I cut nearly 40k from my book. An entire childhood! It's now up on my blog as a free novella Innocence in bite-sized chapters. Was it bad? No. It just wasn't good enough for today's market. Book two merged with A Song of Sorrow and rather than a series I am now writing a duology. I feel my work is now a lot stronger, the reader is pulled more directly into the plot and I have let go of the constraint of my fledgling writing style, embracing my development.

Your craft. Study stories, story structures, your genre, different writing techniques. Know your industry and market. Research. Saturate yourself.

Asses your resources and skill sets. Offset desire with logic when considering a publishing route.
Self-publishing or traditional. What wealth do you have? If you go the typical self publishing route you will need to buy services: editorial, cover designs, advertising, distribution. All the things a traditional model would provide.


Identifiable

Your Brand is a concept that is under ever increasing focus. Whether trad or SP authors need to be quickly identifiable to their audience. What sets you apart from other writers in your genre, what is unique or interesting about you and your work? If a reader becomes a fan what values or ideas are they associating with?

I believe this can be separated, somewhat, into two categories although those certainly overlap. Core message with personal brand association, and visual/material branding IE the cover designs of your books being of a theme and standing out on the shelf/web page.

If you are anything like me this may be a struggle. Good luck! If you're not? Bah. Grumble. ::admiration::.

Marketing. This is why you need a strong brand. All authors are increasingly reliant on their own marketing skills.Whatever route you take, you will be doing the leg work. If this is a particularly strong skill for you then this would help SP, if not then perhaps a trad route will offer more guidance (the level of which depends upon what agent/imprint/publisher you catch).

Social media presence. Twitter (get on it now if you are not. Lots of industry folk and fellow writers are on it and tweeting tidbits of advice, industry buzz and engaging debate.) Facebook (specially if writing romance, crime, general fiction). Have a voice. Listen.

Genre presence. Goodreads is good here, connecting with readers and writers over their love of reading. Lots of groups that are genre specific to join. Blogs: find out who is blogging and keep an eye out for trends, concerns, movements, debates. Community sites. Get involved.

Gigs. Find out what goes on in your local area. Literary festivals, writing/reading groups, poetry/spoken word nights and slams. Get involved.

This all boils down to community: Embrace it! Between writers, connecting to readers. Something I hope to see imprints and publishers embracing more. It is a symbiotic relationship between book lovers, one that we all should nurture and revel in.

Aware

When you are in the development stage I'd recommend looking at what this assessment brings to light and letting this inform your decisions. There are more and more services that are catering to different writer's needs and these could prove very valuable in shaping your journey. IE if you plan to SP then look at what companies are offering what services, at what prices, look at what community sites they have attached to these services. Take advantage of them, from the earliest point in your writing career. You will form friendships with other writers in the same position as you, you will have a network to share advice and experiences with. Something to consider here is the processes your book will have to go through before it reaches the reader, looking at the distribution channels of those you are associating with and if this is the best for your book. Some still use the same companies as the big publishers, other are looking to invest in more dynamic print-on-demand methods. Cost is key here, both for the providers of services, and for authors in what they are willing to pay. Investigate carefully before making a decision.

Here I must admit that I walked out of the distribution seminar. I was looking for nitty gritty, and the panel was made up of representatives from the sponsors detailing what they have to offer in this area. Excellent if I was shopping around for such, but, alas, not my agenda for the day.

In this regard there were some concerns raised from the industry folks in services that demand up-front fee's. This is still frowned upon, but becoming an increasingly grey area. As reflected in the phrase Author-published. Implying that not only is a writer an author upon publication, with all that entails, but they are also a publisher and have to consider their choices through a business perspective, purchasing services publishers purchase. (No picking peppers, promise.) It also worth looking to the growth of imprints and small press here, routes that mingle different aspects of trad and SP.

If trad? Research who's who and who's representing what, what trends are shaping the mainstream and what gaps you can fill. #MSWL is useful here, agents and publishers use it to tweet their manuscript wishlists. Look at what agents offer as part of their representation, consider what sort of publication you want to pursue, of what you want your career to be. Make no mistake: you do not hand over your ms and then wait a few tense months before the gold and accolades role in. This is work and if you want success you will have to work your ass off.

Porter Anderson's review and discussion can be found here and is a fascinating read. (And yes that's me, A Fox, lurking beneath Wise's crafty quote. No joke. Caveat: I get nervous in front of cameras!)

If you are already SP and thinking of seeking representation to expand? Be careful. You will have to demonstrate clear success. Think 50k units sold, at least. And that is sold, not given away for free or at a very low price. The Bookseller's monitoring of digital sales (as much as they are able what with notorious silence from a certain uber publisher/store) demonstrates this: they only count a sale as a unit sold above £2.

There was some discussion of hybrid authors; authors who print publish traditionally but keep their digital rights, or fight for a contract which sells these rights at a competitive rate. Which, as an aspiring author sounds very appealing but so far it is authors who already have traditional deals, a back list and platform that are doing this. It is this which plays a big factor in many writers choosing to go SP, sacrificing trad experience, access level to market and marketing avenues. I hope the future brings more reconciliation in this area.

The democratisation of the industry was another hot phrase. Breaking down the barriers between writers and the industry. My concern here is that this seems to hinge upon services offered, many at an outlay cost. And if you are poor this may increasingly become a limit on your options. This is not democratic. We shall see. But we must also remember that this industry is at its best when it transcends social class.

And the biggest thing to be aware of? The industry is modernising, in a time of recession. This leads to much that is precarious, a shifting landscape, but also lots of innovative opportunities...and opportunistic traps.

There was an undercurrent of doubts, an uncertainty after technological upheavals, but also a sense of determination, a flash of a gambler's chance, and a question: Where are the publishers? A call for unity, stability with healthy competition in a modernising market.

And after? Adventures to be had...

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Innocnece: Epilogue


   The drums beat.
   Above the mountains the air hung heavy, charged with electricity. The storm clouds stacked high above the south and eastern ridges slowly rolling over the vast valley, charcoal towers lit by internal lightning, the twilight dimmed to a harsh white light swiftly fading. The mountains formed a high, elliptical wall, sheltering the wide and rolling valley within. The distant northern point was pierced by the great river Vorath, which escaped its deeply carven bed in a myriad of waterfalls and smaller tributaries, before wending its way through the centre of the broad fields, until passing through the southern point, eventually thundering its way into the Sea of Sorrows.
   This was the valley of the broken Farrahnaan Empire, now more commonly known as the Grain Bin. It’s entirety taken up with intensely farmed fields, even the mountain’s feet terraced to yield. Instead of grain the valley held people, soldiers, a vast army camped amidst the stubbly fields. The harvest gone, sold, and sent to the Empire. Rations packed securely in long winding rows of carts, corrals of mules, the cavalry’s horses near by. For every armoured, scarred soldier there was a meagerly outfitted slave. Some corralled like the cattle, others bustling through the hordes.
   All seemed infected by the frenzy of the approaching storm, whose chill breezes broke through the humidity to pass over clammy skin. All across the fields tents were being taken down, their canvas snapping as if they struggled to escape, supplies being securely fastened and checked once more, soldiers checking weapons and armour. The hissing multitude of whetstones adding tension to the distant rumbles of thunder, to the drums. Fires spotted the terrain, ruddy glows belching smoke, over them hung iron pots full of uncommonly good stew. The last meal.
   The storm clouds rolled inland, closing over the eastern ridge of mountains, creating a roof over the valley. The underside traced in the orange of the fires, the black bodies with theirs flashing blue entrails pressing down, adding an ionised tang to the ripe air. The eastern ridge was punctured by three passes, the central pass leading to Merida proper. The gateway to the broken Empire. Here the last vestiges of power still clung, the faded line of Emperors still dwelt, though their reaches only extended to the valley and the wealth they wrung out of it. Their one time glory was evident in the palace that spanned the Farrahnaan Pass.
   Inverted and heptahedral the seat of Farrah hung suspended within the natural fissure between the two mountains that created the pass. Four of its sides ended in points driven into the very sides of the mountain, a third of their total height. The apex of the palace buried in the earth at the very centre of the pass, two roads leading around it a sharp angles. From this apex the building grew floor by floor, each taking up a greater area than the last, and all ringed in lavish balconies. The top floor was roofed by the very sky itself, around it’s edges broad steps led up to columned walkways offering views of the mountains and valley, and of Merida. In it’s very centre a great raised bed of stone, on which was carved and painted a map of what was once the Farrahnaan Empire and surrounding lands. The map itself was exquisitely to scale, and highly detailed, it would take thirty men to circle it. It was the last pride of the old days and was maintained, even the bodies of water kept filled to the correct level, the pond like seas kept free of plants and fish, the ancient mechanism still kept the rivers flowing. It was here that Teza of Farrah, the last son, stood and betrayed his people.
   He had been born into generations of resentment, of loss. Always reminded of what was, surrounded by faded glories and the legends of his bloodlines, knowing that his family were now little better than merchants. Wealth they still had, but only a remnant of power. Upon the map lay newer marks, river beds, even scars where hills and mountain tops had been removed, scars from the time of Lightnings, when the Stars Fell and the Empire was broken. It’s people scattered to join the mass migration that followed that time as people desperately sought some safe place. Always that reminder of what was, and what is. But he would change that, he would win back some glory! Once more Farrah would be powerful, and his name would shine with that renewed glory… even if he had to bow to a different power to achieve it.
   Once more and Empire would reign, and even if he was not the Emperor at least his family would rule the lands what were once theirs. It was a compromise that weighed heavily on his pride, yet not nearly as much as his desire for greatness, for power. And so he found himself here, thunder thrumming through his heart and the glow of the lightning reflecting in his black eyes, staring across at Alas, the General of the Black Dogs, the Emperor’s Personal Guard and Primary Army. The man to whom seven eighths of the masses below answered, the man who would lead this campaign to victory. And upon whose word Teza’s reward would lay.
   He was a giant of a man, unusual for an Imperialist, the ruddy paleness of his skin suggested origins from an unknown place, but his dark eyes and hair were typical. His hair was shorn short to his scalp, strange to Teza, leaving a surprisingly handsome face bare, the cheekbones standing out. Thick eyelashes framing those dark eyes, which watched everything with a certain quite calm. He had a powerful thickly muscled frame, not a scrap of fat left, yet moved with a sense of controlled grace. When he spoke it was in a clear, quiet way, giving respect without ever submitting. He never showed any inflection of emotion, his face unreadable.
   Not at all what Teza had expected, yet watching Alas in control had made him respect him, and he was told that the soldiers spoke of him with fear, pride and an almost worship. There were rumours that all of the Black Dogs were slaves, but nobody ever asked them, and he was willing to let it go.
    Around the map stood his own nobles, and captains, and the leaders of the Imperialist Legions. All knew the plan, how the campaign would go, but Alas had called them to gather for one last meeting before they used the coming storm and night’s darkness to hide their attack. Using a pointer he gestured to Farranaan Pass.
“ Here, we stand, the greatest army the Empire has ever amassed. We will conquer these lands for the Emperor’s glory, as he wills it. I will lead the Black Dogs through here, the Secondary shall sweep forth from the pass of Vorath’s Way, the Tertiary from the Gommoran Pass. The Gommorans are an unsurety, though unlikely to defend Merida. A garrison must swiftly be formed here. Each army shall fracture and sweep outward. There are four Great Families, twelve lesser holdings. These will be subdued by dusk tomorrow-”
Teza spat and interrupted.
“ The Great Family, here outside my pass, they are treacherous, but brave. I advise you show no mercy to these, kill them all, except the daughter. She will be mine. In fact, do it with all the Great Families, mayhap keep one alive, a small hope. Fear will spread ahead of us, we can offer to let the Families live, if they surrender.”
   Alas calmly regarded him. “You believe such terror will work? The command on high is for a swift beginning.”
“Oh yes, the Meridans love their Families.”
“So be it. We strike swiftly, and deadly. The Great Families are to be eliminated in the first offensives, save one to be held ransom, a possible heir. Any who fight are to be killed. Of the survivors a third are to be put in chains and sent to the slave block, the rest will be offered a choice. Death, slavery or indenture. Those who choose indenture are to be placed under an overseer and supplemented with our own slaves to work the land. Any produce is to be seized, tallied and sent to the Empire, save what is needed to survive the winter. Each holding will be made secure, a squadron, or garrison left as necessary. I want our backs protected.”
   His pointer swept to the north to the point where impassable mountains of Alhion separated the cultured world from the North, from the Empire, across the top of the Sea of Sorrows, into Merida, curling around the pasture lands of the Ceurans, separating the rolling lands of Merida from the North. The pointer rested near where the jagged mountains joined the pastureland.
“Here will the Eagles Legion descend, from the secret way through the mountains. The Ceuran are a ferocious people, the Emperor is not interested in their lands but knows them for the deadly warriors they are. The Legion will march through their lands, burning their Trees and taking what horseflesh is in reach. They will not veer from their path. A sally to show the Empire’s might, to damage their defences, but not a war that will linger. If they are wise they will pay heed. To the Vorath they will march. Here, the river runs wide and there is a good ford. A garrison will be established. The Eagles Legion will merge with our own, providing a relief, and the means to push further. By spring I want the locals subdued, fields cleared and ready for planting. There will be no rest, no succour. We push, we push hard. We have the element of surprise. We take it and we deliver them a great blow before they have time to gather. Clear?”
   A grizzled, hook nosed captain grunted, his fist tight around the hilt of his sword.
“What of the other Great Families? Shall the manoeuvre on the first offensives hold?”
“ If they fight, they die. Let it be known that if they surrender they will be allowed to live, in servitude to the Empire. My Lord Teza, do you agree?”
   Teza lifted his eyes from the map, from the lands that should have been his. The first rains began to fall, lightnings flashed over head as the storm finally broke above the valley. It felt, finally, as if he could breath easy again.
“ Oh yes, it is done.”


Saturday, 22 February 2014

Reading Habits: Gender Parity


   The last couple of years have seen an increase in discussion regarding diversity in the genre community, from heroes other than straight white males to visibility of women authors. Yesterdays article "Women's fantasy fiction: join the quest for a world unknown to bookstores" in the Gaurdian highlights some of the inherent misogyny at work, references the Twitter side of the discussion (which prompted the article, in part, to some criticism of the said paper's representation)...and the comments are full of wonderful recommendations (always a bonus as usually such articles call the tiresome trolls out of the woodwork to rave about biological imperatives and washing up). There have also been a number of reading challenges asking folks to take a good hard look at their own habits, how they may be influenced by marketing and SWM dominated fandom chat...and amend by purposefully countering the lack of representation. This has sparked quite the furor on certain blogs and comments sections, nigh on screaming rage at the audacity of these uppity femmes demanding attention. Which really only goes to highlight the necessity for such a discussion.

So I thought I'd have a quick tally. I've roughly broken down by genre. Women (W), men (M), unknown (U) and co-authored by both men and women (B). The figures are number of books: number of authors.


Fantasy:
Books:
W- 76:22
M- 57:20
U- 1:1

YA/Children
W- 23: 5
M- 3:1
B- 1:1

Classics/Odd/SF
W- 20:17
M- 44: 28

Urban/Horror
W- 74: 12
M- 13: 8
B- 4: 1

Totals
W- 196: 58
M- 116: 57
U- 1: 1
B- 5: 2

These are the books immediately visible on my bookshelves, not including those lent out, lost under the bed, borrowed, non-fiction and other myriad reasons for not being available for counting.

An even parity between gendered authors is nearly achieved, with a slightly more women authors which increases greatly when viewing total books. I seem to be a third more likely to read a book written by a woman.

However, let me add some context. I'm poor, and whilst I'm far more likely to buy books than, say, clothes or other such items, my purchases are dictated by price to a certain extent. Most books are bought from cheap shops such as the Works, or charity shops, online promotions and auction sites. I usually reserve full price purchases for favoured authors or books I've heard a lot of good things about and have been tempted by for awhile. These are nearly always women (based on story attraction, gender noted due to above).

In fact up until about five years ago nearly all my books were written by women. Gifts of books tend to be written by men (giftee's shopping influenced by known genre preference and marketing visibility?), and if I like them I will be more likely to read more of the same author, or authors who have been favourably compared. And most comparisons are to men authors. This time also saw more of my time spent online in reading/writing communities where there is more recommendations of men authors.

Do I begrudge? Yes, of course. I'm a woman and a writer and when my publication time comes I want equal visibility and oportunity to my fellow men writers. As a reader I want to have the best books pushed under my nose, not limited by ridiculous and harmful traditions.

But this is changing in light of critique, and now my wishlist is very much dominated by women. Again. :D

So how falls your parity?

Innocence: Chapter Fifteen





   The Oculus was astir with rumour, eddies of curiosity stirring through the gently mingling throngs of nobles occupying the vast space. Vents and doors had been wedged open to coax any stray zephyrs to cool the humid summer heat, shafts of golden sunlight piercing the cool recesses, in which gauzy draped women lounged in padded couches. Demure servants at hand to offer refreshment, and dandies posing nearby. The lulling notes of harps mingled with the burbling fountains in the Gardens beyond to create a veil of confidence over the murmur of conversation.
   The King and Queen had passed by not so long ago, to the Little Council Chamber, at their heels the Lord General Karse clanked, coiffed hair and armour gleaming. The High Priestess Vervain, and Anise her consort followed. She serenely gliding, her sleeveless white gown fluttering, the jewellery of her prestigious rank warmly glowing in various golds. He stalking at her side, muscled chest bare, oak green kilt tied about his waist, garlands in his hair. A closed court was announced by Navew, the whipcord thin Keeper of the Seal, his ever present harried expression in place as he struck the beaten bronze gong once.
   In their wake the nobles had flown, Tomas caught up with them. As he surveyed the hall he felt bemusement at the peculiarities of Danuans. Rather than be perturbed by such an unexpected meeting, a meeting of the most powerful people in this court, indeed this country, they treated it as an impromptu fete. Whiling away the time with refreshments and delicacies, whilst they gossiped about the cause for the meeting. All Houses currently at court were represented, none would be seen to be behind the times. Nor miss out an opportunity to test out the balance of a rivals perspective, or a possible alliance.
   The general consensus was that it must be about the Empire. The solidly built veterans of Arabis House, of course, thought perhaps the King had finally decided to crush Gommor. Or at least hopefully declaimed such views, blue tendrils of smoking herbs drifting past hard, penetrating dark eyes. Lord Caderos of House Twining Ivy listened but kept his own council. Captain Madder gruffly nodding, his eyes scanning the room, knights young and old at their backs. At their feet crouched Caderos’ hunting cat, seemingly cast in shadow, yellow eyes gleaming as it playfully swiped at the scabbard of a reluctant young knight.
  With amusement Tomas noted the presence of the head of House Dahlia languishing near by, looking resplendent in scarlet silk with ebony hair coiled about her head, casting sultry, and speculative, glances at those who waited attendance on her. Dracaena’s gaze shifted occasionally to the infamous and single Lord Knight Caderos. It was well known her eldest daughter was ripe for marriage, the hot house blooms of House Dahlia had a reputation for exotic beauty, and a sly wit at trading.
   Her nubile consort was engaged in a heated discussion with the Mullein of Sea Holly House about the possibility of, and competition, in trading Sanguine. The wily old sea dog kept his composure and held out his reluctance on giving the Empire a toehold in Danua.
   Passing them by Tomas paused in an errant beam of light to take up a glass of elderflower cordial, its sweet coolness easing the tension in his head and eyes, most likely from too long reading into the night. Dawn had caught him unawares, again. His moment of peace was burst with a hearty booming chuckle. Situated in a broad band of sunlight lounged Houses Helianthus and Yarrow. The Lord Coleus of House Yarrow was wiping the mirth from his rotund cheeks, grey speckled curls awry. His sun haired brother Cleome, the Head of House Helianthus, grinning with a mischievous humour. Their wives reclined near by, Lady Dianthus Head of Yarrow  and Lady Artemisia, with raised eyebrows and identical expressions that seemed to acknowledge that it seemed their husbands would never escape boyhood. Tomas hid a smile as he meandered past hearing snippets of conversation centred on the harvest to come, and the expectations of the sister’s new breed of apple and the quality of cider it would make.
   Seeking the coolness of the shadows Tomas drifted toward the third and final grouping of Houses. Of these he felt compelled to watch. He rather  suspected there was much of the old blood in these houses, betrayed by a certain wildness in their beauty, and it reminded him of days long gone, of another place he once hoped would be his home.
   In the soft, stirring shade dwelled a member of House Foxglove, soft brown hair hanging loose about his shoulders, green eyes coldly watching the ladies with whom he stood , and yet at a remove. A man entering his late twenties, as of yet unmarried, his House known for their steadfastness to the Crown and Rose. Lord Aruncus and Lady Astilbe,  the Heads of Iris House, sat side by side. Dusky brown and silver hair mingling, identical blue eyes that held a feral humour. Their fingertips stained with the muted hues of the rainbow, evidence of their skill and trade with dyes. They worried that whatever the council was about it would cause more levies on the land, yet their expressions gave the impression that they secretly found it all very amusing.
  Listening politely and offering reassurances were House Water Lilly. The whole clan held an ethereal beauty, long golden hair, pale blue and green eyes, gentle flush of pink on cheeks and lips, puddles of watermarked silk in blues around them. Their faces held expressions of wide eyed innocence and good faith, as the Lord Shastra, a remarkable tall and svelte man, maintained that nothing could tarnish the grace of Danua. When his lady smiled there was a subtly to it that suggested nothing would dare to tarnish that grace.
   The garrulous old man that was the Head of Gentian House ambled up to them, his bald pate glistening with sweat, velvet jacket rumpled. He grabbed a handful of canap├ęs from a near by attendant, somehow managing to put them all into his nearly toothless mouth, and whilst chewing set about his discourse.
   “ Now, now young Sirs, Ladies. There’s no fret to be having now. We’ll do what we always do, lead him on by the apron strings, we’ll take, and smile, and do what’s best for us because that what they want really, isn’t it? A chance at us? At this? That’s why our King married that boy’s mother, now she wasn’t too bad, a fine Lady, a tragedy that was. That must have stuck in the old buzzards craw now, hey? But time flows on, he’ll do us proud and we’ll do what we’ve always done. Apron strings!”
   And so saying he veered off, trailing behind an unaware attendant carrying goblets of chilled wine. Tomas watched his retreating, age stooped back and wondered if there was any sense in the old coot’s words. Tomas wasn’t so sure the power and might of the Empire could be so easily dismissed, but he had a point in that Danua had done very well in keeping it at a peaceful arms length throughout the centuries. His form was slowly swallowed into the milling masses. The lesser houses and nobles flowing from group to group, in hopes of attaching themselves to a greater power, or perhaps already in the service of one. The young forming smaller groups attempting to imitate their elders, or using it as a chance to escape to the gardens and summer sunshine. And of course the endless flow of attendants and servants. All but Thistle House were represented, and it was said that the Head of that House was infirm and his Heir newly married and expecting a child. If the news was truly of importance it was timed remarkably well. With the summer solstice a short time away it was nearly a full court, the Houses gathering for the celebrations before going home for Harvest. Indeed, maximum impact.
   Tomas thought back through his letters and the gossip the children had brought. Of Danuan Court only the normal gossip; who was allied to whom, who had taken a secret lover, what challenges had been issued and met, the latest fashions and intrigues. A whole host of fanciful, daring, and sordid tales. Nothing out of the ordinary. Merida was calm, the usual abundance at harvest expected, the plans for the Embassy going ahead for the Empire’s toehold there. Of the Emperor continued debate on his search for a wife, and as ever, pervading everything else, the delicious wonder and mystery. Sanguine. Perhaps the Emperor was pushing his offer of alliance….
   With a soft sigh the door to the Little Council Chamber opened, the King strolling through talking quietly, the Queen on his arm laughing at some jest and waving a dismissive hand. At their entrance a hush spread out around them, like a pebble dropped into a lake before, as one, they rose to intercept them. Lord General Karse followed, a stiff expression on his face and a white knuckled grip on the hilt of his sword, he veered off making a beeline for Captain Madder and the Knights.
  The King raised his hand to forestall any onslaught, then deftly caught up two glasses of cordial. Passing one to his Queen, he raised his own.
“ I see I am blessed with the company of my gracious Court, is there a special occasion, or have you merely gathered to make free in the sunshine? To summer and happiness!”
   The gathered nobles hurriedly joined in the toast, the gathered force loosening up slightly, once drinks had been downed. The Head of Arabis House stepped forward.
“So what of the meeting sire? What news?”
“News, Andro? Very little I’m afraid, other than over zealous young courtiers. Nothing Navew could not handle on his own! Some showy affair in Kaelistra that has set tongues wagging. No doubt you’ll hear all the details soon enough.”
  At which Arabis gave a gruff nod. Navew edged forward looking a little wide eyed as he caught sight of the Mistress of the House, who it was said actually had more power than the King inside the Palace walls, and also happened to be his wife.
  “ My King, if you will excuse me? I have plenty to be getting on with, couriers to speak to, not to mention the outrageous prices of manure I intend to refuse to pay, and of course Privet will….ahem. Yes, good day!”
“ I think I may go sit and talk for awhile, husband.”
“Of course, my lady wife.”
   With a tender parting kiss the Queen was soon welcomed with open arms and settled into a couch with the ladies Dianthus and Artemisia, both of whom had young children. The sound of feminine mirth and exasperation soon filled the air around them.
   Across the way the Dracaena had intercepted the Lord General Karse, an elegant hand poised on his arm, and an immaculate eyebrow raised in invitation.
   “Karse, darling, are sure we’re not to have hordes of ravaging Gommorans or Imperialist descend on us? It would be a terribly frightful way to end a party that’s just getting started, don’t you think? Do tell!”
   “Oh have no fear, my dear lady, it seems it’s all a matter of gossip. That young Emperor seems to have felt a bit bad about that massacre he orchestrated a few months back. So he’s given a gift to the poor, a statue of that bloody Goddess of theirs. The height of two men and made of Sanguine they say. Set up in the razed ground and supposed to offer protection. Bit late for that, I think. Mmm?”
“ Sanguine! But that must be worth a fortune! Surely it’s merely plated, but even so…what does it do? How do they say it?” She wafted a hand. “Charged! What has it been charged with?”
“Well, my lady, that part was rather vague. Protection for the innocent, and to bring criminals to their feet is what was said. Now as to how? Charges, I don’t know, not so fancy as that light Salvias had.”
   The young Lord of House Foxglove had taken aside the King engaging him in muted conversation for a moment, a resolute expression on his face, before Coleus, Cleome and Lord Gentian descended upon them, followed by a host of lesser nobles. As the vision of the King was faded beneath a swirling tide of silk and gauze, Tomas noticed that the Vervain and Anise had passed unnoticed through the crowds to join Iris and Water Lily Houses.
“ Times are once more changing”
“ What will become of us now?”
“ A new power has been born, squalling onto the earth”
“ With life, comes death”
“ And out of darkness, comes light.”


...Epilogue


Friday, 14 February 2014

Innocence: Chapter Fourteen



   Meradith stretched upon the grass, soft spikes cushioning her pleasantly aching body, vision narrowed to the swaying tips of green peppered with tufted seed heads. One particularly rotund one gave up its burden with a shiver and she watched the soft white umbrellas drift away across the periwinkle blue sky. It was vast and void of any clouds, the golden sunlight setting the blue hue ablaze. She almost fancied that if she lost touch of the earth she would fall endlessly into that abyss.
   Sometimes she felt like that when she gazed into Cerid’s eyes, but they were dark, not blue. If ever she did succumb to that urge she didn’t think it would be as pleasant as falling through the sky, in those depths there was knowledge and secrets and sorrow. Betimes she thought she must have lived a hard life, typical of any peasant women, but then she would look at her more closely and know there was far more to her than that. She would catch a glimmer of her true nature, but as yet she had been too afraid to ask.
   It was a strange relationship, theirs. Meradith felt safe in her presence. Almost she could feel herself growing, her mind expanding. That morning Cerid had met her in the rowan copse just before dawn, sunlight merely a pale grey breath on the horizon, an they had walked deep into the woods in silence. Before Cerid had taught her how to listen, to recognize the sounds of the animals, to know the difference between the sound of a branch falling to that of one being trod upon. The tramp and skitterings of various animals, and the calls of birds. In times of silence she was told to listen. But that morning had been different, once they set out they soon settled into a comfortable rhythm, the dawn chorus started up in earnest and Meredith listened. She lost track of time, and gradually it seemed to her that she could hear something other, the trees gentle sighs, the creep of vines, the small movements of the little plants as their flowers turned to face the rising sun. The brighter it got, the louder it became, as if the forest had become one entity crying out in welcome to the dawning sun. She felt herself an abnormality at first, then the more she listened the more she felt…accepted.  
   Unwittingly she had stopped, lost in contemplation. Inside she felt as if she too was unfolding, turning to greet the sun.
   After some time she came back to herself, it was full morning and the forest had settled into its usual self. Cerid was sitting patiently nearby, watching her. Meradith blinked and took a breath to apologize but Cerid smiled serenely, and she knew she had pleased her. This then must be what she wanted her to do when she listened.
   The rest of their time together went much as it usually did, Cerid taught her the names of the various plants, and their uses, pointing out many that they had already seen in different stages over the months. Currently she was teaching her the best times to harvest, how to store the herbs once picked. That day Cerid had led her to a wounded badger, who seemed not at all bothered by their presence, and showed her how to poultice a wound. The various different types, each aimed to combat different things. For the badger they used one aimed to fight infection and seal the wound as soon as possible. Cerid had told her that soon when she would harvest, she must try to be in the state of listening.
   Even now she felt that state just at her finger tips.
“Mer! Mer!”
   She smiled as that shout broke the peace, calling for her to return, sitting up she looked across the meadow. In the middle a silken pavilion, cream and maroon, had been set up. Ringed about with liveried guards, the lush green forest in the background. She had barely seen her mother lately, what with her own studies and her mother looking after the twins. She knew it was much the same for Llew and his father. Hence today. Their highnesses had decided to have a family picnic, had chosen a glorious summer day. Meradith made her way through the vivid haze, toward them.
   Inside little Dittander sat amidst a pile of cushions, waving his plump fists and smiling beatifically at her entrance, two tiny little teeth sitting in that gummy smile. She couldn’t help but laugh.
  “Merrrrr” He burbled happily.
  Sitting down she looked to see where Dittany was. Although twins it seemed they each wanted completely different things. When the were newborns they had done everything together, learning to sit up at the same time. They had all loved to watch them roll on round bottoms, holding onto one another for balance. But there the similarities had ended, soon Dittander started to speak, surprising everyone with “mama”, now he had all the families names. Dittany showed no signs of talking, but had quickly learned how to move. Soon enough she was crawling everywhere, coming back to Dittander to touch him, and then escaping once again.
   Llew was piling soft tasselled cushions in her way, creating mountains for her to scramble up and roll down, his face flushed and laughing as he thrust his hair away from his face. The king sat with Dittander, both clapping at their romping.  Her mother sat a little back from the them, a tired, content look in her eyes. She plucked juicy strawberries from a bowl of beaten gold and sipped chilled white wine. She looked to Meradith and beckoned her to sit by her feet.
“I swear you grow an inch a day, my love. How are you faring?”
“I’m well mama.”
“We have heard good reports from Tomas. He says you are attentive and intelligent, an apt pupil. I’m proud of you, but you must take cares to be more ladylike. There are fairies in your hair!”
   So saying she plucked them up, and gently blew them out of the tent, her slim face limned in light, glowing strands of hair gently framing her face. To Meradith she seemed so beautiful, so elegant, her words stung even more. She would never be as graceful as her mother. Her mother turned back to the tent with a smile for her, it helped to calm the resentments.
   King Gaillardia swung Dittander up into the air, causing a torrent of giggles and screeches before depositing him in Meradith’s lap.
“It’s a pity the same could not be said for you, Llew. Tomas says that you are more than able, but less than willing. Still. This is the last warning you will get, I want to see improvements.”
“But Papa! I am improving, Captain Madder says….”
“ I know what Captain Madder says, but that is not the subject under question, is it?”
“No, Papa…”
“Good, I’m glad you understand. I have heard of your skills, son. Shall we put them to the test? It’s a fine day, you can show me the new thrust you were talking of.”
“Yes, Papa!”
   Llew ran out to get the practise swords, King Gaillardia strolling after him a proud look upon his face. Her mother laughingly gathered up Dittany, who had already started to crawl after them, and they both carried the babies outside. Already Llew had got the servants to clear an area, and was now limbering up, regaling his father with some lengthy story of his practise lessons. Soon enough they were both ready and facing one another, the servants stood around to enjoy the show, and to offer refreshments if necessary. Llew looked tiny next to his father. Although tall for his age and wiry, he barely came up to his chest and looked like a twig next to a tree. They had only just tested one another’s guarde, before pausing so the king could adjust Llew’s grip with some advice on what oils to use on the sword, and balms on the hand. Meradith lost interest and let her attention wander. Which was soon taken by the sight of a rider coming over a hill and heading toward them a fast clip. The rider wore the House colours of a royal messenger, it must be important to interrupt the picnic. With much muttering the gathered party watched the rider bearing down on them. King Gaillardia walked from Llew to stand next to her mother and await the messenger.
   “My King! My Queen!”
  Out of breath the rider bowed from the saddle and passed the King a sealed missive, the wax still tacky. The King quickly broke the seal and scanned the contents, he murmured something to her mother, who replied in undertones before turning back to the messenger and handing him his signet ring.
   “Tell Navew to call the Closed Council, the Queen and I shall attend anon.”
  With a final brisk bow the messenger wheeled his mount sharply and cantered back towards the castle. Soon enough the King and Queen were surrounded by their personal staff, whilst the other servants bustled about taking down the pavilion. A nursemaid came and took Dittander from Meradith’s arms, and it seemed to her that the absence of his warmth felt very much like her mother leaving again. She stole a look at Llew who was staring after his father with the look of a hungry puppy. Catching her looking he made a rude gesture.
   The King and Queen had already mounted up, bridles gleaming against prize horseflesh and velvet. Her mother was giving orders to the nursemaids, a slight frown marring her beauty. The King looked to their children, his eyes gone dark with his mood.
   “I am sorry this as been cut short, Llew, we shall finish our bout another day. Jessamine and I will ride ahead, you both shall return with the others…this will make more sense later. Knowing court gossips, not as later as I would like…but still. Adieu.”
   And with that they were gone, the family day out over. Llew looked furious, at being left out no doubt. At least his father had bothered to say goodbye, her mother had only been concerned with the babies, as usual. She bit her lip as guilt flashed through her.



...Chapter Fifteen