Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Telling Characters Apart

Day three of revision work on City of the Saints, and I think it's going well.

City has six POV characters, and I want each of them to sound distinctive in his speech and feel distinctive in his POV.  What are some of my tools?

  • Vocabulary (some think; others reckon).
  • Elision and contractions (for some it's not; for others it ain't).
  • Oaths (Jumpin' Jehoshaphat! Rostam's mace!  Jebus!  Egad!).
  • Wordiness.  Correctness and precision of grammar.
  • Slang (one character is a carny).
  • Use of foreign words or phrases.
  • Long versus short words.
  • Subject matter obsession.
  • Lyricism vs. prosaicness.
  • Gnomic speech, folk wisdom.
  • Interjections and contentless words, er, that is to say, et cetera.
  • Speech impediments (at one point, one of my characters gets his dose broked).
  • Specific memories / references unique to the character.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Sitting down to revise City of the Saints.  I get comments from the Story Monkeys weekly and revise as I go from the beginning of writing, so I never feel like my "rough" draft is really, really dire, but I want to straighten up its tie and wash its face before sending it off to the mines to earn its keep.

Here are my revision objectives:

  • Resolve all collected and not-yet-resolved comments.
  • Make each POV character's inner monolog, and all characters' spoken lines, consistent and distinctive.
  • Make sure each POV character has at least one crisp sub-plot running all the way through and clearly resolving, and clear, sympathetic and true-to-life motivations throughout with respect to the main plot.
  • Add steampunkiness!  (Victorian dress details, machines!)
  • Smooth narrative flow, eliminate infelicitous word choices, and increase vividness of prose generally.
I plan to work all the way through one time for each POV character.  I am hoping to get through each character's work in one day, which would make this a six-day task.  In bocca al lupo!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chocolate Jesus

Rounding out a Tom Waits weekend, in honor of his recent release, which I have been listening to just about non-stop.  At twelve years old, this has just about become a classic.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bad As Me

This song is the most surprising, and true, love song I've heard all year.

Friday, November 18, 2011

If You're Willing to Stoop

They walked down South Tabernacle.  In the five days since Brigham Young’s return to his office, the street had been repaired and most of the windows, but the street’s many trees remained blasted and withered stumps, or bare baked earth, and much of the old plascrete still had black scorch marks on it, obscuring the sparkle.

“If only you Americans had put in your Transcontinental Railroad or your telegraph earlier,” Burton commented as they neared the Lion House, “we’d be spared the journey.”

“There won’t be a railroad,” Sam said, “and Young still isn’t convinced about the telegraph.  Young doesn’t really want either of them in the first place, and, at least for a little while, he’ll need to keep outsiders out of the Kingdom, to avoid giving away his bluff.  Besides, don’t you want to get home to your fiancée Isabel?  And to writing your books?”

“I do,” Burton admitted.  He looked slightly embarrassed as he said the words.  “I have in mind a memoir of this journey, though I don’t know whether anyone would believe it.”

“Sell it as fiction,” Sam suggested.  “I think you’ll find you can tell a lot of interesting truth, if you’re willing to stoop to writing novels.”

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What Is Steampunk? (Steam-Trucks)

City of the Saints features a lot of action on and around steam-trucks, steam-powered, rubber-wheeled vehicles.  Check out this real one.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


“Your road ahead is shadowed and perilous,” muttered the gypsy.  He held Sam’s right hand clutched in his own, which were armored in fingerless black kidskin gloves, and peered closely at the creases in Sam’s flesh.  Close enough, Sam thought, that the man could just as easily be smelling his future as seeing it.  “Your future is one of failure, disaster and great sorrow.  You should reconsider your course, sir.  You should turn back.”
The gypsy fell silent and arched an eyebrow at Sam, as if underscoring the fearfulness of his message.  The silence between the two men was filled with the babble of the saloon around them.
“That’s refreshing,” Sam quipped, chomping fiercely on his Cuban cigar.  The air inside Bridger’s was heavy with smoke, but it was the smoke of cheap American tobacco rolled into cheap cigarettes, mixed with gas lamp emanations and the occasional ozone crackle of electricity.  Sam filtered the stink, as well as the rancid smell of sour, sweaty human bodies and the drifting odors of horse and coal-fire, through a sweet, expensive cohiba.  Nothing, he thought, beats a government expense account.
The gypsy stared at him.  His gray-streaked black mustache hung asymmetrical under his bulbous nose, and was no match for Sam’s fine, manly soup-strainer.  His jaw looked misshapen, too, sort of hunched sideways into the thick, mostly gray, beard that veiled it.  Above all the facial hair and the badly-cast features, though, the man had dark, intense eyes, with baggy pouches under them, and those eyes stared at Sam in surprise.  “Did you hear me right, sir?  I told you that your future is bleak.”
“Yes,” Sam acknowledged.  “Your honesty is marvelous.  Most fortune-tellers would take my two bits and tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.  Beautiful willing women, rivers of smooth whiskey and horses that run faster than the sun itself are in your future, sir!  Come again soon.”  He grinned, took another suck at the cigar and winked.  “I respect your integrity.” 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Aboard the Ammon

            “There’s no one aboard the other two, either,” Poe said.  “How on earth is Pratt controlling them?”
            They looked together at the control panel, and Poe immediately knew the answer to his own question. 
“Hunley,” he gasped.
The controls looked simple enough.  There was a wheel like on any terrestrial ship, and beside it a binnacle, glowing blue around its rim and containing a simple compass whose needle was a stylized brass bumblebee.  There was a broad, wool-padded belt-and-shoulderstraps harness that bolted into the center of the wheel for the pilot.  Beside the wheel was a small knob-headed lever marked PITCH AND YAW that appeared capable of moving in all directions; next to it was another level like a steam-truck’s throttle, currently at the lowest position in its range; and from a solid block of brass beside the ship’s wheel protruded a monkey’s head that Poe knew all too well.
“What do you think this does?” Roxie asked, touching the PITCH AND YAW lever without moving it.
“Controls pitch and yaw, is my guess,” Poe suggested dryly.  “That would let you alter your elevation, as well.  And there you have acceleration.  But I find that the monkey is the interesting thing.”
“How so?”
“Because Horace Hunley made it, and three others like it, and this is the one that I smashed against my cabin door in the Liahona.”
Poe looked up from the controls to the Phlogiston gun, but it was dormant, and he knew from the reddish light playing against its side that a Phlogiston weapon must have been fired on the mooring tower.
“So what?”
            “So,” Poe said, “I think this is how Pratt is flying the ships.  This is what Horace Hunley did—he built four devices that communicate, somehow, with each other.  Ether waves, maybe.  And one of them is the master and the other three are slaves—forgive the expression—so that the person in the right ship can control the other three.”
            “So Pratt can pilot the entire fleet by himself.  So he doesn’t need anyone else to help him get his revenge.”
            “Yes.”  Poe looked at the controls again.  “But I must have damaged the monkey-headed jar, so hopefully we’ll have local control of this craft, whatever it’s called.”
            “It’s called the Ammon, actually.”
            “As in the Egyptian god?” Poe was amused.  “Identified with the sun and with Ra?  You Mormons love your Egyptian things, I must say.  Robert was wise to suggest that I disguise myself as an Egyptianeer.”
            “Mostly we identify him with chopping off arms,” Roxie said.  Poe didn’t know what she meant, but he was happy to be with her and she smiled at him, so even though he was dying and he didn’t understand the joke he threw back his head and laughed.
            A bright flash of blue light snapped behind them—
            and the Ammon hurtled directly upward, into the morning sky.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Essential Classics: The Kalevala

Following up on Friday's comments dialog: the Kalevala is the national epic of Finland.  It looks at first glance like it might be a single unified poem, a la Homer, but is in fact a family of sung poems about the same mythological / heroic characters (who rejoice in such improbable names as Kullervo son of Kalervo, Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkainen... and I'm not even putting in the umlauts), first collected in the nineteenth century by Elias Lonnrot, a physician.  This makes it a little like the Eddas and a little like the work of Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

The Kalevala is mythic-funky, shamanic and wild.  Like the Mabinogion, it is probably the post-Christianization disguised telling of old pagan mythologies, and it has a surprising connection to Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

David Byrne

"Girls on My Mind".  If this isn't from the Monster in the Mirror tour, it's from the same album and time, anyway.  I went to this concert -- it was terrific.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cyndi Lauper

You've heard this song.  You may not have heard it like this.

Bonus: dulcimer!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Essential Classics: the Eddas

They are the basic sources of our knowledge about Viking mythology, and there are two of them, readily available in English translations.

The Poetic (Elder) Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems, mythological, apocalyptic and heroic.  It's the older of the two, and the poets are anonymous and unknown.  Read it closely, and find the names of Tolkien's dwarves!

The Prose (Younger) Edda is the work of the medieval Icelandic poet (and historian and politician) Snorri Sturluson. It is a how-to manual for skalds and includes in one of its sections, the "Tricking of Gylfi", our best prose source for Norse myth.

Stop reading bad summaries written for kids -- go to the source today!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Horse de Combat

            Jed saw two men, one mounted on a clocksprung horse and the other trying to mount up—
            he thumbed the vibro-blade’s switch to on and hurled himself through the air.
            Hummmmmmmm, sang Sam Colt’s deadly blade.
            Jed landed in the empty saddle of one of the horses.  While the man whose mount he’d boarded cursed and reached for a pistol, Jed swung the vibro-blade in a neat arc—
            slicing through the head of the other horse—
            and cutting off one leg of its rider.
            Jed wasn’t used to fighting with knives that met no resistance, and his own blade pulled him forward and off the horse.  He scrabbled with his free hand at the sculpted metal saddle horn and missed, tumbling to the ground and narrowly avoiding impaling himself on his own humming weapon.
“Aaaagh!” the mutilated rider screamed, and fell backwards onto the ground in a spout of red blood.  The horse kicked aimlessly with its back feet, then kicked again, and again, trampling its own severed head with its razor-sharp metallic front hooves.  Jed rolled, narrowly avoided being crushed by the clocksprung horse, and then the other cavalryman got a bead on him with his pistol and started firing.
            Bang!  Bang!
            Jed threw the vibro-blade.  It wasn’t meant to be a throwing weapon, it wasn’t especially balanced and it wasn’t weighted in the tip.  But Jed was a carny who had done his time at every conceivable kind of joint, including throwing knives at beautiful girls, and Jed knew the secret of throwing any kind of knife at all, even one that would chop your finger off if you so much as touched its tip.
            Jed threw the vibro-blade by the handle, overhand, so the blade launched out from his shoulder in a straight line, and not tumbling like a weighted knife.  He let his extended index finger drag along the knife’s hilt as he threw, truing up his aim at the center of the cavalryman’s chest by simply pointing at him.
            Pain lanced through Jed Coltrane as a bullet hit him in the stomach.
            The vibro-blade slammed straight into the center of the man’s gray-breasted uniform, punched a hole right through his entire chest, and hurtled straight away like a perfectly pitched baseball, into the air.
            “Aaaagh!” One-Leg kept screaming, thrashing around in a growing puddle of his one arterial spray.
The standing soldier dropped his pistol, stared down at the bloody hole in the middle of chest, looked at Jed with something that was half-accusation and half-puzzlement and then toppled forward, crashing face-first into the grass.
            Jed grabbed the dropped pistol and turned on One-Leg.
            “Shut up!” he yelled, and put the man out of his misery.

*   *   *

Okay, Sara, did I get the knife-throwing right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Export the Import


 There was a guy named Person who imported stuff to Venice. Person was entering Venice one day, delivering monthly milk. Three fourths of the way through a tiny black hole fell onto the water, close to the ocean liner, and even with her mighty engines in reverse, the ocean liner was pulled further and further into the canal. So Person took some stuff like the motor. He put them together, and  that made  a sort of mini raft. Person threw it out of the boat, jumped out after it and swam away. The water was white from then on, due to milk flooding. It also happened that Person lost his job, he made up for it with water racing.  


*   *   *

The above is a story my eight-year-old son wrote for a school assignment.  Here's why it's awesome: it focuses on a character, he has a problem, he overcomes the problem -- complete plot arc.  The subplot implied by the lost job and the "water racing" is a total bonus.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Two Whistles

            Poe blew his whistle and it made no sound at all.
            Tam cringed back away from the man as he huffed and puffed into the little sliver of metal, ready to pop his knife out if the whistle produced anything dangerous, like, say, carnivorous beetles, or jets of fire, or flying poisonous serpents to make even St. Patrick cry himself to sleep.
            But Poe screwed up his face in concentration and wheezed in and out and nothing happened.  Not even a sound, much less anything that would actually knock down the door or kill Pinkertons or get them out of the locked room.
            “If I tell you I’m disappointed,” he grumbled, “will it hurt your feelings?”
            “Obviously the whistle is ultrasonic,” Burton snapped.  The others all nodded their heads and Poe kept contorting his face around the whistle.
            “Does ultrasonic mean broken?” Tam persisted.  “Here, I’ll show you how to fookin’ whistle!”  He stuck two fingers in his mouth and blew—
            hyoooooo, whup!
            Something loud happened on the other side of the door, and Tam yanked his fingers from his mouth.
            “What in Brigit’s knickers was that?”
            “Apparently, your whistle just killed our guards,” Burton said dryly.  “Go on, whistle some more.  This time, why don’t you cut out all the intervening steps and just sink Pratt’s air-ships?”
            “Ha ha,” Tam said, and got ready to spring out his knife.
            Poe coughed long and hard.  The gob of blood and mucus he spit on the floor was the size of a baby’s head, and Tam retched at the sight and smell of it.
            “Get away from the door,” Poe suggested.  He leaned on both Roxie and Burton to limp across the room himself, and Tam retreated into the far corner.  Whatever was happening was beyond him, and sounded dangerous.
            Then Poe blew his silent whistle again.
            The plascrete door snapped in half and something big and shiny and metallic and monstrostastic, the size of a small horse but with a strange head not quite like a dog’s, punched through and slammed into the room.  It landed on its four claws and stopped, staring at Poe.  Tam thought he could see and hear the thing breathing, and he shook himself.  It’s your imagination, you idjit, he told himself.  The thing is obviously clocksprung, like any plantation worker or twenty-four-hour-mule.
            Still, it made an impression.  “Bloody-damn-hell,” he observed.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dafydd Iwan

Time for another Welsh weekend.  Here's the grand old man, singing Yma o Hyd.  Bonus: some spoken Welsh.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Behold the Hypocephalus!

“Behold the hypocephalus!” Poe cried, and Jed Coltrane, leaning against the wall near the rear door of the stateroom, resisted snorting out loud.  At least, he thought, the poor bastard wasn’t coughing up a lung.  He wondered how much time the Richmond doctors had given Poe to live—he didn’t think it could have been very long. 
It was a bally, in the end, a free show.  At least it was free from Jed’s point of view—the entire price of admission was two cents, and Captain Dan Jones took both of them.  But a free show now would mean better word of mouth for the paid show later.  Even a carnival without a secret mission put on ballies from time to time.
The hypocephalus, which to the dwarf sounded like the name of a particularly nasty strain of a soldier’s disease, was pinned against an upright display board.  It was a complicated circular diagram, full of little drawings of stick figures, thrones, animal-headed people, stars and squiggles, all inked onto an old-looking piece of yellow cloth that might have been linen.
It looked Egyptian.  Like the scarabs, though, it was bunkum, and Jed knew it.  Some Richmond clever-dick had painted it.  Poe always called it the hypnotic hypocephalus, but Hunley and his boys were geniuses, and Jed figured you could probably wear the thing over your face and it would let you breathe underwater or spit flame or deflect bullets.  Poe probably knew, but he’d never told Jed.  Still, bunkum aside, he did his best to look fascinated and attentive, to encourage the audience be fascinated and attentive, too.
Poe stood to one side of the hypocephalus in his full carnival-gypsy-snake oil-doctor costume, on a low platform that looked improvised out of a wooden pallet; for that matter, Jed reflected, he hadn’t seen his boss out of costume since they’d left Richmond.  He hadn’t even taken off the fake nose and beard, unless he’d done so out of the dwarf’s sight.  To the other side of the hypocephalus stood the Englishman Burton, jaw resolutely clenched and eyes burning.
“Behold,” Burton called out his stubborn counter-introduction, “Doctor Archibald’s famous ancient Egyptian pillow!”
The old carny in Jed almost laughed at the big explorer—he’d done such a good job increasing interest and therefore attendance, Jed doubted any shill could have done any better.  The stateroom of the Liahona looked like it might have been built to seat twenty for dinner.  Whatever table usually filled its floor was gone, though, and in thirty-odd folding wooden chairs, paying passengers sat and stared.  Burton’s associate, the diplomat Absalom Fearnley-Standish, was one of them.  He sat beside a pair of empty seats, looking lonely and forlorn as he protected them with a battered top hat that was missing part of its brim.  No sign of the woman Jed was waiting for, though.  That was a shame; it wouldn’t hurt to collect a little cash from the evening’s show, but really, of course, it was supposed to be a distraction.  Oh, well, maybe he’d have to be satisfied with just dealing with the Englishmen.
Poe smiled at Burton’s jab and continued.  Even in the weak electric light of the stateroom (pulsing blue from glass globes pegged in two rows to the room’s ceiling), he wore his smoked spectacles.  If pressed, he would claim that his eyes were weak, but of course the glasses were an important component of his disguise.
As was the show.
“My colleague would describe the great pyramids of Giza as mere tombs,” Poe said with a wise and condescending smile.  “The sorcerer-priests of Memphis and of Thebes have long had the practice, handed down to them by their forefathers, who learned the dark arts at the feet of Hermes Trismegistos, the great Ibis-headed Thoth himself, of sleeping with their heads upon cloths such as this.”  He locked his eyes upon a pair of spinsterly women in the front row and proceeded to talk to them intimately, as if giving a private lecture, switching his gaze exclusively back and forth between the two.  “You observe the great throne at the center, the rightways upper section and the inverted underworld, the stars and the symbols of the great expanse of earth.  The hypocephalus is nothing less than a map of the universe, as known to the ancients, and dreaming Egyptian sorcerers drew from it the power to control their dreams… and the minds of their fellows.”
The two ladies gasped a prim objection and a murmur crept through the audience.
“Bullshit!” roared Burton, his face turning purple.  “I mean, nonsense!  Nonsense of the highest order, and reeking of base deceit and fraud!  This man owes you all a refund!  There is no basis for any of this hogwash, these explanations are not scientific!  What kind of Doctor are you, man?”
The front stateroom door opened and the woman Jed was waiting for slipped in.  He let no expression cross his face, but felt a satisfying mixture of pride in the success of their distraction and anticipation of the crimes he was about to commit.  He discreetly patted the bulges in his jacket to reassure himself that he was appropriately armed.  The woman sat by the diplomat, as Poe had suggested she likely would, and Jed continued to wait.  He’d give her a minute to settle in before he exited, just in case. 
The pale Englishman looked disappointed at her arrival—or maybe he was disappointed that he was still holding an empty seat.
Poe bowed in mock deference.  “I’m sure we would all be eager to hear a proper scientific explanation of the hypocephalus, sir,” he said in a wheedling, groveling way that again almost made Jed laugh.
“There is none!” Burton barked loudly, his fists clenched and punching at the air.  “We don’t know what they’re for!” 
Poe affected a look of pitying disappointment.  “No?” he said.
“No,” Burton growled.  He punched his forehead and jaw forward, like a bull glaring at a matador.  “They’ve been found under the heads of a few mummies, priestly mummies, and there is no scientific explanation for them.”
Poe let his spectacles wander out over the breathless crowd in the stateroom.  “They lay under the heads of priestly mummies,” he restated the Englishman, “and science cannot explain what they were for!”  He smiled puckishly.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Fornication Pants

            “What was your offer, then, Mr. Clemens?” Brigham Young asked.  His voice sounded deliberately cheerful.
            “Excuse me?”
            “I can guess what the English had to offer,” Young said.  “And the secessionists, for that matter—either of them might have offered me land, to the north or south of my Kingdom, that would have been very valuable.  But I don’t want the Wyoming Territory.”
            “Who does?”  Sam agreed.  “But what about Colorado, with its silver fields?”
            “Is that the Union’s offer, then?” Young asked.  “Join with us to prevent secession, and you can have the silver of the Rocky Mountains?  Couldn’t I get the same thing from the southern states, in the event of their victory?”
            “You certainly could,” Sam conceded, “and the victorious United States could offer you land all the way from St. George to Mexico, so land promises are cheap.  Which is why the Union didn’t send me to promise you land.”
            “No?” Rockwell was curious.
            “No,” Sam continued, “my offer is one trainload of fornication pants, sizes to be specified by a duly appointed agent of the Kingdom.”
            Young snorted, then began to laugh. 
            “I don’t mind fornication pants myself,” Rockwell said, shrugging, as Young continued to guffaw.  “The rivets up the front make it easier to empty your bladder quick, and sometimes that can be a real advantage.”
            “Urination pants, if you prefer.”  Sam grinned, knowing that he was reeling them in.  He was, after all, still on a diplomatic mission, and when the evening’s crisis was over, whoever was still standing in the Lion House would still have to make a decision about the war.
            “Pissing pants!” Rockwell barked, and he started laughing, too.
            The dwarf just shook his head like he thought everyone around him was crazy.
            “All pants to be delivered by train to the Great Salt Lake City,” Sam finished.  He jabbed an imaginary cigar at Young’s chest for emphasis.  “On the new Transcontinental Railroad, one hundred percent owned and operated by the Kingdom of Deseret.”
            Young stopped laughing.
            “All land to be provided and all track laid at the expense of the United States government,” Sam added.  “Along with rolling stock up to five million dollars in value, training in railroad operations for up to two hundred persons of your choice, and a ten year maintenance guarantee for the entire length of the track.”
            “President Buchanan really wants me in the war on his side,” Young observed.
            “President Buchanan really doesn’t want a war at all,” Sam disagreed.  “And he thinks that the best way to avoid one is to have the Kingdom of Deseret on his side from the beginning.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ruffian Dick

            “Is there enough whisky in that bottle that you’d be willing to share?” a woman sat down opposite him and Burton completely forgot about Absalom Fearnley-Standish and all the obnoxious things he had ever done.  She was small, with a face of straight lines and a natural grace to her movements that made Burton’s heart stammer.  Her appearance was ageless, though faint lines around the eyes suggested to Burton that she might be his age, or even older.  Not that that put him at ease—the she-wolf can bite to her last breath.
            “Permit me to get another glass, ma’am,” he told her after a hesitation that seemed to him to last forever.
            In answer, she lifted his shot glass to her own lips and took a sip.  “If you feel you need one, sir,” she said, mocking him with her arched eyebrows and poker face.
            Burton heard her statement as a challenge and his blood boiled within him.  Still, something held him back, and it took him a moment to identify the restraining impulse.  “I must tell you, ma’am, that I am not entirely at liberty.  I am affianced, betrothed, engaged to be married.”
            “You make it sound so lawyerly,” she commented, eyes and brows smiling at him though the lines of her lips were rather pursed and skeptical.  “Shouldn’t love be an adventure?”
            Ishtar’s pearly teeth, but wasn’t that the truth?  “I will not tell my solicitor that you have so thoroughly dismissed his profession,” Burton managed to riposte, weakly.  Who was this woman?
            She took a second sip, smaller this time, and shrugged.  “And yet I don’t mean to.  I have a lawyer myself, a good one.  For that matter, I have a husband.  And I also have… adventures…”  Her dark eyes glittered.
            Burton wanted to resist, but he felt himself becoming intrigued.  “Are you a traveler as well, ma’am, or do you reside in Fort Bridger?”
            The woman laughed lightly.  “You mean, am I a woman of virtue passing through, or am I some disreputable Wyoming whore?  Have no fear, sir, your wallet and your venereal health are both safe from me; I am here di passagio, on my way to the Great Salt Lake City and merely looking for company with which to pass a slow and chilly evening.”
            “I meant no disrespect to you, ma’am,” Burton joined her in laughing, a little ruefully.  “Nor, for that matter, to whores.  The history of the race is replete with powerful and—” he leaned forward to whisper the word—“sexual women.  Think of Bathsheba, for instance.”  He wanted to claim the initiative of the conversation, wrest back some of the control he had lost to this aggressive houri.
            “Nefertiti,” she countered.
            “Cleopatra.”  Part of Burton mutely rebelled against the conversation.  What if Isabel could see him now?  But he felt compelled, by pride and also by lust, to press on.
            “The Queen of Sheba,” she smiled.
            “Her name was Balqis, according to the Arabs,” Burton offered.  “They should know, they’re experts in all things pertaining to the harim.”  Was he sweating?  He thought he could feel drops of moisture beading onto his forehead.
            “And are you an Arab, then, sir?  You might be, with that dark, wild, romantic look of yours, those mustachios and those scars, and your foreign accent.” 
            Burton laughed out loud again.  “No, ma’am, I’m a true subject of Her Britannic Majesty Queen Victoria and an Englishman of Anglo-Irish heritage, though it’s been suggested I might have Traveler blood in me.”  He effected a slightly awkward bow, still sitting in his chair.  “Richard Francis Burton, at your service.  I’m known formally as Captain Burton, but I’m often called less flattering things.”
            “Such as?”
            “Ruffian Dick is my favorite,” he offered.  “Most of the others are unprintable.”
            “My name is Roxie,” she told him, “Roxie Snow.”  She made a small curtsy from the waist up.  “I’ve been called more than one unprintable thing myself.”  She took a third sip from the shot glass.
            Burton hesitated.  He felt quite strongly attracted to Roxie, who was obviously being very forward with him.  He was by no means averse to—adventures, as Roxie named them, but now he was engaged to be married, and being engaged meant he was no longer a free man.
            Not only did he have Isabel to think about, but there was also Fearnley-Standish.  Burton tried to look about the room to spot the Foreign Office man, but found he couldn’t take his eyes off Roxie.  Fearnley-Standish, too, was an anchor chained around Dick Burton’s neck.  Burton was chained to orders, chained to a mission, chained to authority, chained to a useless companion and a cold, boring fiancée.  He was totally unfree.
            The weight of his servitude hung on him hard and heavy.
            He took the glass and raised it.  “To the unprintable,” he toasted, and drained the glass.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Game of Okwe

            Obadiah grabbed four stones and spread them out around the rectangular board counterclockwise, one stone per scooped-out hole.  He tried to do it quickly, like the Iggy bastard across the board from him did, but he knew he wasn’t moving the stones nearly as fast and that made him feel big and awkward.
            The board and stones were nothing special, just a plank with its edges smoothed and depressions scooped out of it and a fistful of polished pebbles from the river.  It was the speed at which the Igbo played that made the game impressive to watch, a whirl of sparkling color and nimble brown hands.
            Except when Obadiah played.
            “Take,” Obadiah grunted, and snatched three stones off his opponent’s side off the board.
            The Igbo grinned under his little cap, rounded and brimless and embroidered with a wreath of interlocking green leaves.  He might have been fifty, but his curly hair didn’t show the slightest trace of gray and only a few deep lines around his smile gave him away.  Obadiah thought his name was Udo, but he insisted on being called Michael.  He was a cacao trader, he said, which almost certainly meant that he was a smuggler.  It hadn’t escaped Obadiah’s attention that Michael had sat down first, and he had chosen the seat with the unimpeded view of the highway.
            Most of the Igbo were smugglers.  If they weren’t evading the Emperor’s men, they were sneaking past the Chevalier or the Dons of Ferdinandia.  They were old hands at it, as a people; it was said that the great John Hancock himself learned the arts of forged custom stamps, fraudulent bills of lading and systematic graft.  This traditional occupation didn’t make the Igbo too different from the Dutch, really, except that the Igbo seemed to do everything in organized families or towns, whereas the Dutch, Obadiah knew from experience, were every man for himself.
            The Igbo apparently gambled in families, too.  Obadiah wouldn’t have minded so much the circle of brown faces around him staring at the game and cheering on the plays, except that he couldn’t shake a deep-seated feeling that he was about to lose.  Again.  Witnesses didn’t improve the experience.
            Michael’s brown, long-fingered hand scooped up stones and whizzed around the board.  “Take!” he rejoined, and then frowned deeply.  “But woe, I take a mere two stones.  Are you sure, Mr. Dogsbody, that you did not grow up in Egland playing Okwe as a boy?” 
            There was scattered clapping and cheering among the spectators.
Michael dropped his two taken shells into his pile.  His pile and Obadiah’s seemed to be approximately the same size, but Obadiah knew that Michael was still one ahead, because he kept track in his head.  When he wasn’t drunk, Obadiah was a good gambler.
He just wasn’t good at this game.  After all, he’d only just learned it.
They sat at a small, nicely-planed table in a large, one-story building with a high-peaked roof thatched with fronds and no walls at all.  The roof rested on four round pillars that might have been tree trunks growing right out of the ground, with the floor built around them.  The pillars were carved like trees, and the sturdy wood floor was scattered with reeds, just like the biggest buildings of the Academy had always been.
Obadiah thought the platform might be some sort of market building or town hall; he’d seen similar constructions in the other Igbo towns they’d ridden through, and like that one, the others always seemed to be roughly in the center of town, beside a large open square with a short, wide road leading to the Pike.  It seemed to Obadiah that all the Igbo towns were laid out more or less the same, and they had all been planned by traders.
Obadiah didn’t really like the Igbo. He didn’t like their thatched houses in their tidy little villages just off the highway (fifty feet off the highway, no doubt, he cynically guessed, and therefore not subject to direct Imperial taxation).  He was unimpressed by the nudity of their children, by their little round hats, and by the knee-length tunics that their men and women alike wore, no matter how ornately embroidered they were.  He was positively irritated by the constant chatter of buying and selling and of a bustling daily life that assailed him among them—it gave him the strong and unpleasant impression that the Igbo were determined to be happy.  He hated banjo-picking, and he couldn’t bear the taste of rice and yams.  He disliked the unfailingly happy sound of their accent—how could an entire people sound happy all the time?  It was impious.  It was an affront, it was the thumbing of an impish brown nose at the hard tragedy of life.
            He had agreed to sit down at the Okwe table because he thought he could at least still get a little entertainment from a game of chance, even if it meant he had to learn to play something he’d never played before.  He was sorely disappointed and vastly irritated to find out he had been wrong. 
            Just like everything else in his life, Obadiah found Okwe hollow.  Also, he couldn’t quite see how, but he had the distinct impression that he was about to lose.  He eyed the pile of coins to the side of the board: Michael’s Ferdinandian pesos against his own Imperial shillings, a decent sum.
            “Shall I point out to you your legal moves at this point?” Michael asked politely.  His polite and cheerful voice made Obadiah want to punch him.
            Some of the crowd made less polite noises that sounded a lot like jeering.
            Obadiah growled and spun stones around the board.
            Michael moved; neither of them had taken.  A player took when he ended his turn on the other man’s side with two or three stones in the hole, and the game would end when there were four stones or fewer on the board in total.
            Obadiah squinted, saw his shot, moved.  “Take.”  Two.  He was up one.
            “Oooooooh,” groaned the spectators in suspense.
            Michael moved.  “Take, and to my joy it is three.”  He grinned. 
The leftmost depression in front of Michael held one stone, and the third from the left held two.  Obadiah’s side of the board was empty except for three stones at his right.
            Obadiah grinned. 
He only had one legal move, but it was a winner.  He picked up his three stones and plunked them, one, two, three, in front of Michael.
            “Take,” he rumbled, and snatched away the three stones, tossing them into his pile.  “Four stones left means that the game be over, Udo.”  He used the man’s Igbo name on purpose and said it with a bit of a sneer.  It made him feel better for the two previous games he’d lost.  He reached for the pile of winnings—
            “ooooooooh,” said the crowd—
swelling in closer—
and Michael grabbed his hand.
            “’Ere now, Michael,” Obadiah said slowly.  “The game be over.”
            “Yes, the game is over, friend Obadiah,” Michael said, the smile not leaving his face.  “But we must calculate our scores.”
            “I’ve been calculatink,” Obadiah growled.  “I win by one point.”
            Michael nodded at the board.  “You are forgetting the stones still on the board,” he suggested.
            Obadiah looked at the board.  Michael was right.  Stones left on the board went to the player whose side they were on.  That was three more points for Michael, and that meant that he won by two.
            “’Erne’s bloody ’orn!” Obadiah spat, and staggered to his feet.