Greater of Two Evils, part 3

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 12:26 PM

With his entourage camped in the murmuring quiet of an oasis a few miles away, Tristan exulted in his solitude. Around him, the desert's empty landscape dissolved into the dark of night, with only a few scattered stones to mark the endless sand. The bright of the moon made everything pale and grey, even the rich red and black of his flowing scarves. There was a power in these wide roaring spaces, especially at night when the horizon was destroyed and distance was a dream. He remembered experiencing such a place in his youth, standing at the cliffs that overlooked Slumberdrake glacier, and he was pleased to find the same wonder in himself now.

Squalid crowds, ancient teetering cities and the decadence of a people who had nowhere to go; these things were the legacy of Tristan's birthplace. For the spirit to survive, one found a way to drown the poverty or one reached inside to find silence and space. Half a world away from his birthplace, and half a world away from the desperate, frightened and determined boy that he'd been, Tristan felt as if he'd finally come home.

Alone, listening to the howling of the arid eastern wind, he felt the first true smile he'd had in weeks come to his face.

Part of it was the success, he knew. His arrival was the conclusion of a long pilgrimage of ruin. Like a subtle fire, he'd swept through a good many demon cults, secret societies and splinter religions on the way south. He'd left them in ashes, sparing only those few with potential or loyalty enough to suit his purpose. Over time, he'd painstakingly collected certain secrets, little tatters of legend and rumor, and it had created a map for him.

Now, walking through pearl-gray sand, his mind matched the broken stones around him to the map he'd drawn. The worn nubs of stone were like the hands of dead men, rising from the earth in a last attempt to be remembered, and Tristan was pleased to know them. Following their guidance, pausing on occasion to discern the correct direction, his walk began to take him towards a great heap of rock and sand.

The fragments were the corpse of a city. Like its name, it had been eroded near to nothing by the passing of time. It had been a wise and cruel place, full of learning and sophistication, a place of monuments, kings and scholars. Tristan did not know why it had come to an end, but he'd known why it was built.

Tristan's first teacher had been a failed scholar, a plodding man with no intuition and no imagination. From him, Tristan had learned about devils and spirits, and the dangers of making pacts with them. He learned instead, with his own fierce determination, how to find them, bind them and steal power from them. His refusal to become a pawn to the infernal drove him further than he'd expected, but he eventually had to recognize the risks. Tristan had been lucky, and he didn't like relying on luck.

So, he'd found a patron worth an alliance with. He would gamble one last time, dare to beg that patron's indulgence, but if he succeeded, he would have the authority and power he wanted. He would be above and beyond the constant infighting and squabbling that was the only constant of demon cults. Here, in the ruins, that patron would select his chosen. Never a pawn, but a peer.

Finally, he stood before the remains of a sphinx, faceless now except for the scars of wind-driven sand. Once there had been an aisle of sphinxes, a great hall of columns with a tremendous oculus peering down on a great dias. Now, it was only a single twisted heap of rock and pools of sand, but Tristan imagined the grandeur it would have been in the past. Standing beneath the featureless oval of the head, he peered up to check the positions of the stars, and found that he had only a few moments yet to wait.

Being in the exact right place at the exact right time filled him with a tranquil confidence. From here, there were only two possible futures for Tristan, and he had done all that he could to ensure one of them. There was an inevitability in the situation that pleased him. For years, he'd struggled against doubt and uncertainty. He'd managed to stay alive and unbroken in his cold-hearted homeland. He'd outwitted his enemies, betrayed and destroyed so many of the wicked, and piece by piece built the beginnings of his own merchant house.

Now, the months-long ritual that began with the destruction of the Crimson Boar cult would come to an end, one way or the other. It would not be his choosing. There was no room for doubt.

Extracting a gold pin from his cloak clasp, he pricked one finger and let a droplet of blood fall on what remained of the sphinx's withered paw. The droplet made a small black dot on the stone, and then there was a great rush of hot wind that whipped Tristan's scarves around his shoulders. With it came coils of dark red flame, whirling into a spiral as if it were dust or sand, and it howled and hissed into a tall shape with plumes of blazing shadows. A second later, and it was a slender, lethal, crimson-lit thing with wings that bled, and then it was a woman wearing the sashes, veils and scarves of an age lost. She flowed into a slight and antiquated curtsy.

“Your blood is the blood of kings,” she pronounced with a heady voice. “You are the recognized Heir, to bear again the inheritance of the Iron Crown. To you comes the authority of the Trueblood Scepter, and the right to rule.”

A ring had taken the place of the drop of blood. She swept this up and offered it. “Your signet. Behold, your court awaits you even now, and you have but to claim it.”

Accepting the ring, he slipped it onto his hand, steadily looking at the dark eyes which studied him in turn. “Does my patron offer any other message?”

“Your patron, my liege, knows that you need no messages.”

Tristan, for the first time in his life, bowed with all sincerity.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 2

Friday, September 26, 2008 - 10:47 AM

Tain hated Tristan, but he did so quietly.

From the smoky shadows of the Crimson Boar hall, Tain watched the dark-haired man, lounging next to the priests of the demon cult. Around them, the other cultists were enjoying the spoils of their furtive labor; they'd sacked a caravan earlier that night, and had dragged what remained to their lair.

And of course, there had been whispers about Tristan. It was Tristan who found the route, Tristan who convinced the caravan master to hire certain guards, Tristan who discovered the opportunity. Tain was thankful they'd looted a lot of fine wine; the whispering had since faded, replaced by far more raucous activity as the cult started abusing the surviving caravaners or each other.

This bothered Tain also, but it was a small, gnat-like bother. He'd joined the cult to get away from banditry. The Crimson Boar cult had terrorized the region for well over two years now. No one went into the dripping, mossy forest where they met, and no one dared to come against them now. He'd wanted that power, to belong to something greater. That drive had made him a captain in the cult, but the priests called him too weak to be ordained.

This rankled him considerably, particularly when it was Cena who said so.

She sat next to Tristan, with her lover Naul to the other side, and Tain tried to stave off the brackish envy rising in him by taking a long drink of wine. She was everything Tain wanted. His fingers ached to touch the little scar that hung from one corner of her mouth, or to breathe hot words in her ear. But Naul was a fierce and jealous man, and a sorcerer besides.

And yet, there Tristan lounged, and Naul seemed content with it, glutted though he was on wine. Even a light touch from Tristan to Cena's hand went unnoticed... but Tain saw. Even through the dim haze of the hall, he could see the softening of Cena's eyes, and wondered how Naul could possibly miss it.

You have them deceived, thought Tain, but I am not.

It hadn't take long for Tristan to win the admiration and envy of the others. He was vastly clever, eloquent, handsome and only threatening to the cult's enemies. His many blessings were offset by a sliver of need in him, the the need to be accepted and approved of. It made him vulnerable, just enough to be safe, to make friends with for the bloody-handed cultists.
No, Tain had never trusted him, but he'd wanted to.

Maybe, said his bitter inner voice, Naul doesn't care if Tristan sleeps with Cena. Maybe he lets it happen, because he trusts thrice-bedamned Tristan.

Tain took another long drink of wine, and did not feel it.

Something changed at that point, and he was surprised to realize that he could hear Tristan speaking. There was a confused mumble from the hall as others realized it too.

“Without me,” said Tristan in an even, clear voice. “Without me, you'd all just be thugs paying lip service to some demon. And I don't have any interest in your petty demon, either, considering he's content with drunkards and base violence.”

Naul blinked fully awake, his face reddening, and then his face went white because Cena stabbed him.

Suddenly, Tain was in the middle of frantic murder. Stunned by the cudgel of incomprehension, he scrabbled backwards to put his back to a corner, and tried to remember where he'd left his sword. There was nothing clean or elegant about what was happening; wine-soggy heads were smashed in by firewood, wine-numbed hands slapped ineffectually against the knives that found their mark again and again. Panicked, Tain managed to find his dagger, but he realized that no one was attacking him.

He saw Tristan standing, unhurried and quite unmoved, studying the bloody ruin that the hall had become. The ones who had killed their own were either watching him or making sure of the wounded. Tristan smiled, then, and the smile froze Tain into the corner where he crouched. He could only watch as Tristan turned and offered a hand to Cena, who breathlessly took it and stood, only to have her throat cut from behind.

There was a horrible moment when Tristan looked straight at Tain, but he turned away again and faced the altar near the hearth. Tain did not understand the words that came from Tristan, but they slipped through his ears and rooted in his bones like threads of ice water. He dimly understood that the others were kneeling now, and his instincts told him that to stand was death, and worse than death. Tristan's words became comprehensible, delivered with iron-clad courtesy.

“Hear me, Kingmaker, Iron-Crown, Overlord of the Ruby Scepter. I do not acknowledge greatness other than yours and mine. I invite you now to my court, taken by my hand from a petty Baron who is not worth your regard. Recognize a new peer, a master over humanity and a possessor of hearts. With our alliance, you shall grant me power over your realm, and I shall in turn grant you power over mine.”

The hall timbers groaned. The blood-stained altar stone split with a resounding crack, and with a sudden chill, Tain realized that Tristan had been heard, and not by the Boar.

“Leave us,” said Tristan in a voice so inevitable that he and the others would have run to the door if they'd had the strength to stand. As it was, they crawled.

Later, Tristan found Tain not far from the hall, shivering not entirely from the cold. Tain saw no sign at all of the vulnerability everyone had seen in Tristan before, and Tain knew in his heart it had all been lies.

“I never trusted you,” said Tain, after a moment. He knew Tristan's traitors were watching, waiting. “Why did you not kill me, too?”

Tristan smiled slowly. “Because you are not a fool, and I have a need for wise men. Come with us; you will never be a mere bandit again. Lead my men for me, Tain.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 1

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 - 11:43 PM

'Salu catamite' was the first thought Deivon had upon seeing the young man before him. To Deivon's eye, the slight girlishness in the lad's features would harden into rather handsome lines in later years, and the dark eyes would not seem so large. But with his long, sleek black hair and light complexion, the boy would probably fetch a fine price on the slave markets to the south.
But the boy did not have a slave's modesty. He stood at ease, eyes downcast and undaunted, and his shoulders were back. The stony calm around him was one that Deivon recognized, however; it was the sort that covered turmoil, not the kind that came from the heart.

So, the lad's done something, at least.

Deivon was the High Magistrate of his province. It was a coveted position, and he'd wheedled, intimidated and bribed his way in. Secure in his station, Deivon presided over all provincial law in interpretation, approval and condemnation, and was never called upon except for the most severe of cases. Generally, unless it was something to benefit one of his powerful friends, he passed on his cases to lesser Magistrates.

This time, the Lord Whitemire made it clear that Deivon should provide, in no uncertain terms, a conviction. He also made it clear without saying so that Deivon would find himself quite a bit richer if all the loose ends were cut.

Buying his son another title appealed to Deivon, so he agreed.

Now, he wasn't sure why the Lord Whitemire was so emphatic about all this. The court was full. The commoners had their blood up. It wouldn't be difficult at all to hammer in the last coffin nail of a conviction. The commoners would even do all the work; he'd seen it time and again. All they needed was a reason to blame someone else for their problems, or a chance to hate someone more than they hated their own lives. It was an easy thing to make them do it.

He was assessing the lad for any similarity to nobles at court, entertaining the notion that the boy was a bastard that needed removing, when the warrants came to him. He glared at the warrants, sat back in surprise, and then looked down at the bailiffs who towered over the boy.
What he had intended to say changed when he saw the bailiffs. They hardly knew Deivon was there. They kept looking down at the boy with the attitude of a very large dog who, having discovered that the cat can inflict great harm, is anxious for permission to hurt back. Rather than address them, he spoke to the boy.

“Is your name Tristan, of the house of Sarna?”

The boy did not look up, and pronounced a firm and rather serene 'Yes.'

Deivon glanced at his peers, and the other Magistrates present looked back at him with cold and wary eyes. He'd heard rumors about devil worship in the province, but there were always rumors, usually targeting little hedge mages. The Tristan rumors were different, though. There was a ring of cold truth behind them, threatening.

He'd expected Tristan to be older.

Filing quickly through the warrants, he noted the silence of the crowd. That was usually preface to the havoc before a hanging, he thought. And what IS Whitemire's interest in all this? He briefly considered finding out Whitemire's interest and using it to push the very rich Lord, but dismissed the thought.

The warrants told him what he'd already heard, but with the dagger pointed at Tristan quite definitively. Evil omens, disappearances, blackmail, a couple of mysterious deaths and a plethora of other complaints he assumed were false accusations. Raising his eyes, he noted Tristan was now watching him directly with dark, hot eyes, and this unnerved him for some reason.

“Tristan ahn'Sarna, you have been accused of commerce with devils,” he snapped, lifting the warrants for emphasis. “You are also accused of causing the curse-death of Magistrate Lira Detweys...”

Here Deivon was forced to pause due to a blast of outrage from the crowd. Lira had been very popular. He let the crowd rant for a moment, and then rang the bell for silence.

“...and of Master Mathlan of Grofae, and of counterfeiting money, of theft, of the disappearance and possible death of five peasants, property of the Lord Whitemire, and of creating evil omens and vile marks in the land. There are a good many other crimes listed here, but they are incidental compared to your first. Do you deny the charges against you?”

Tristan paused for a moment, lifted his chin and spoke in a voice that carried through the courtroom.


The boy is mad, thought Deivon. “Such a crime, confessed, warrants a most painful death. Do you have any contrition? Asking the court for mercy and repenting of your crime may lessen your suffering.”

“I will not ask mercy for my crimes,” said Tristan clearly, and Deivon noticed how everyone listened. “But I will beg the court's indulgence to explain how I came to this, and reveal the name of a fellow conspirator.”

Deivon, at this point, believed the boy a fanatic. Fanatics unnerved Deivon, and he did not want it to show. Looking disdainfully at Tristan, he used his best world-weary but stern voice. “Speak, then, but be brief.”

There was a rumble of assent from the gallery, and Deivon was pleased until Tristan started speaking again. He was beginning to understand why the Lord Whitemire hated Tristan so much. The lad had the sort of poise and voice where people listened, even if they didn't want to.

“Brief as you like,” began Tristan, looking momentarily upward. “You and your fellows leech the wealth from those who create it. You and your fellows use the law to secure your own success at the expense of others. You and your fellows squat atop your hoards of spoiled children, of property and privilege, and you sneer at the common for having nothing. Yet the commons support you, buoy you up, and you keep them ignorant so that they never understand how little they have. And then, you and your fellows put on a kind mask and coerce your sad little followers into dying and starving just to make you richer. You, lords of the land, protectors of the people.”

Here, Tristan paused, and there was silence. Tristan looked at Deivon, carefully, as if he wanted to remember every detail, and Deivon saw a sliver of bright fear in those dark eyes.
Spurred by that fear, he was ready to condemn Tristan but the boy's soft, powerful voice kept him silent.

“Better that I consort with devils, who are sincere about their work, than the hypocritical monsters who judge me now.”

Then, the red flames erupted throughout the court, and when Deivon tried to scream, the fire ripped the air from his lungs and burned the life from him.

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Friday, September 12, 2008 - 9:06 AM

It's been a while; I've been 2500 miles away from where I usually am, relearning the fine art of relaxation. Part of the misery of being a writer is that you never really have a free moment. There is always an overwhelming sense that you should be Doing Something, at all times. Sleep starts to become a hindrance. For that little tittering part of the psyche called sanity, a break is very much needed from time to time.

Also, my East coast people, keep it real. You are all awesome.

Naturally, I have a huge docket of creative work to deal with at the moment, and the one at the top of the list is a novel. Some of you were privy to the short experimental series I entitled Customs, under my pen-name blog, which was originally based on a dream I had. The idea continued to grow, and I have the skeleton of a full-length novel involving the protagonist. Unfortunately, for the first time in my life I am having difficulty on starting the story. I know where the middle goes, and I know how it is likely to end, but the start is too muddy.

However, a little spark landed on some creative kindling, and I believe I have a way to get going on this.

Customs, the novel, is a prequel of the pieces I have already written, and for those of you not familiar with those pieces, the Customs world is a place where the supernatural exists and everybody knows about it. Yes, it is a popular genre these days, but my take on it isn't something I've seen in any of the books I've happened across. I do believe I have something new to offer, which is funny to me considering how much of the very, very old is ending up in Customs. A very large part of mythology has been popularized, distorted and reinterpreted to the point where most people don't even recognize the original stories behind it, and I have found that in many cases, the original stories are far more bizarre and unusual than the popular image. Being me, I fully intend to make good use of the bizarre.

Another aspect of Customs that I wanted to particularly explore is the nature of the supernatural and its role in the human psyche. In our world, the supernatural is a level of symbolic existence, a place where we can safely examine pieces of ourselves or others that we are not comfortable with or do not completely understand. We do this by creating an external story that incorporates these facets of ourselves within it, whether we are conscious of that choice or not. The popularity of the vampire myth is a fine example of this, in my opinion; vampires in the popular view, if stripped down, are dead humans who must drink the blood of other livings to sustain their immortality. They control and manipulate other people. Some try to be good but it is never easy for them, and yet, there is a strong romanticism connected with them. Why?

Because people instinctively see their own selfish hunger and their fear of failing to be a good person in the vampire. It is a story to help understand one's self.

So, writing about a world in which the supernatural is quite real provides some wonderful opportunities for storytelling and examination. Symbolically, it is a world where humanity is confronted by uncomfortable truths frequently, and they cannot merely dismiss them as stories or myths. Of course, they can try to redefine them into something safer, something less frightening to recognize in themselves, and that is part of what Customs is about.

The ability of humanity to deceive itself is truly astounding.