rowyn: (studious)
Somewhat to my surprise, the many hours I spent staring at the files for my current work-in-progress has resulted in actual progress. I only have one item left on my to-do list for the first book! I expect to cross this item off in the next day or three, so I'm looking for beta-readers for it now.

This is book one of a duology. It's a long book (over 220,000 words; a little longer than A Rational Arrangement ). I am still editing book two (which is around 120,000 words and about the same length as The Moon Etherium), but expect to finish with book two before month-end. So I want beta-readers who will be able to read and comment on both novels in the next six weeks or so.

Book one's current title is A Dragon's Scales. I have called it variously Silver Scales and The Warlock, the Hare and the Dragon. I'm going with the current version because then I can call the sequel A Dragon's Birthright and they look like they go together. This is the book I started writing in 2003, finished the first draft of in 2006, and then trunked when I became hopelessly blocked on the sequel. Unlike some of my other projects, I never forgot this one. In part because my first readers kept reminding me of it: "When are you going to publish Scales?" (In 2017!)

For those who read it while it was in progress: I've changed a lot of small things, but much of the substance remains the same. If you'd like to beta-read it again, that would be great! I expect it's been long enough for most of you that you've forgotten much of it anyway. :)

For those who haven't read it, Scales is a fantasy of manners, with some action and a romantic side plot. Unlike my other works, the romance is not the main plot and doesn't get resolved until book 2. There are also no sex scenes in either book.

Blurb:

The fate of Sir Damon Kildare's soul rests on finding the silver scales of a living dragon. One catch: everyone knows that dragons are extinct.

Zenobia Gardsmark, daughter of the one of the few surviving dragonslayer, may hold the key to finding those scales. But how can she help Kildare when she can't cast even the simplest spell?


Kinds of feedback I'm looking for:

* General feelings about the text (this scene was fascinating/boring/sweet/confusing/exciting/implausible/fun, etc.)
* If you don't like a part, I love to hear suggested changes (which doesn't mean I'll change it, obviously. But suggestions are great.)
* Favorite lines and lines that made you laugh (I want to use some good single lines in teaser images).
* Suggestions to improve the blurb.
* Because book 1 is so long, I am particularly interested in things to cut from it, so comments about things to remove are welcome. Not as concerned with that on book 2.
* Continuity issues
* Proofreading and editing artifact corrections.

If you'd like to read book 1 & 2 back to back and so want to wait until I'm done with book 2 to start, that's fine too.

If you want to volunteer, leave a comment with your email address! I have them screened, so email addresses will not show. You can also email my gmail account, LadyRowyn, or use Dreamwidth or Livejournal's message system. Or ping or DM me on Twitter. Whatever works for you. :)
rowyn: (studious)
"But these are vital aspects of marriage. If one cannot discuss them, what's the use in meeting at all? This is like trying to decide what you'll have for dinner without mentioning food. "

Wisteria Vasilver does wish to marry. Truly. She just doesn't understand why society has to make arranging a match so unnecessarily difficult.

Nikola Striker, Lord of Fireholt, expects he'll wed ... someday. But not now, and never to a rich icicle-woman like Miss Vasilver. No matter how much his parents might want the match, or his house might need her dowry. Besides, he has his own problems -- most of them people who need his help as a mind-healer.

Lord Justin Comfrey, Viscount of Comfrey, would be more than happy to help Striker with his financial troubles, and not just to ensure that Miss Vasilver's dowry doesn't tempt Striker into marriage. If only he could find some way to make his proud, stubborn friend accept the money!

There must be some way they can come to A Rational Arrangement.
*

So I am ... done? Editing A Rational Arrangement. I even wrote a blurb!

I have the "I finished" feeling all over again, including the "crap, what do I do now?" sense.

There were changes that I wanted to make that I didn't do, most because I couldn't figure out how to work something in or because I ran out of energy to keep picking at it. Even now, I am thinking "I should go back and do that! IT'S NOT TOO LATE."

I am trying to resist. I have gotten to the point where I am sick of the book (this didn't happen until the last few weeks, to my utter amazement). Editing, as with painting, is not a task you finish. It is a task you abandon, because you cannot keep fiddling at the same thing forever. At some point, I have to say "Good enough. I will do better in the next book."

Good enough.

*

I'd like to have some people read the manuscript now, mostly for the following:
  • Proofreading: I am sure there are grammar mistakes that I missed, not to mention editing artifacts that I created (this happens when one starts to rearrange a section during editing and fails to make ALL the necessary changes). Most of what I expect from readers at this stage is just this. If the characters/plot/etc. needs fixing, it's too late.

  • Continuity errors: If you happen to notice that I changed a character's eye color halfway through the book, or if the setting for a scene mysteriously alters partway through, or inconsistencies of this sort, I'd like to know.

  • Confusing text: If you find yourself confused about what's going on, or what this word the characters keep using means in the context of the story, or things of that nature, I want to know.
If you read it and have a suggestion or comment that doesn't fall into the above categories, that's fine too, but the above list is the kind of feedback I'm specifically looking for.

The book is in three parts on Google Drive. In order to read it, you'll need to have a Google login (if you don't have one, Google will be happy to give you one on request, but you'll have to get one and be willing to login. You can use a non-Gmail account to log into Google, but it's easiest if you have a Gmail account). I'll give all betareaders view-and-comment access, and you can leave comments with your observations. (You don't have to explain the necessary correction for a proofreading error -- you can just highlight the problem part and put a comment with an abbreviation for the error type, or just "err" by it.)

If you'd like to be a beta-reader, please leave a comment! If I don't already have your email/Google account login information, you can email it to my Gmail account, LadyRowyn, or message me through LJ.

I'd like to have comments on the manuscript back within the next month or so. If you want to be a beta-reader but don't think you'll be able to do it in that time frame, please leave a note with about how long you think it'd take you.

A Rational Arrangement is a polyamorous fantasy romance. It includes bisexual characters and a few sex scenes. It's about 215,000 words long; I'd guesstimate it would be 550 pages as a mass market paperback.
rowyn: (studious)
One of the people I follow on Twitter linked to this Tumblr post quoting Junot Diaz more or less saying that men can never write  convincing female characters.

This kind of thing seriously aggravates me. Let me begin by acknowledging that yes, I have found many female characters written by male authors to be unconvincing and/or stereotypical. And yes, I am less likely to find this the case with male characters written by female authors. I don't know if that's because women have a more accurate vision of men than vice versa (it is certainly true that the media affords a lot more exposure to the latter) or because I'm less likely to notice a bad portrayal of a male character.

But to call that possible trend deterministic -- ALL men write worse female characters than ALL women -- is such ridiculous hyperbole that it raises every hackle I possess. Will whoever is teaching people to speak and write 'with conviction by avoiding qualifiers and making sweeping generalizations' PLEASE STOP?

This kind of gender-based nonsense is pernicious, not the least because women do not become magically immune to sexism merely by being women. This is our culture: we are all soaking in it. We are all brainwashed by its assumptions. Women may have more incentive to resist and more inside knowledge on why it's wrong, but that doesn't mean that every woman is free of all gender stereotyping.

In fact, the linked article is perpetuating gender roles. "You are male so you can't write half the human race". I don't know what the point to doing this is. Does Diaz like gender roles and wants them to continue and be strengthened? Because that's the effect of making claims like Diaz's: make sure we can never escape gender roles. Your life and skills must always be defined by your gender. That the gender sterotypes Diaz offers are unfavorable to men and favorable to women does not make them any less of a role based on gender alone. Talking about how one gender does things better than the other is how we got INTO this mess.  It is not the way OUT.

I also have to wonder if Diaz thinks women are over-represented in fiction and we need more men in books? Because telling half the populations "your female characters do now and always will suck because you are male" is NOT the way to get them to include more female characters in their work. That is pretty much telling them "write people just like yourself and no one else because your gender makes you physically and mentally incapable of every understanding anyone else". This is not my idea of productive.

I want to say right here: if John Green, Brandon Sanderson, [livejournal.com profile] howardtayler, [livejournal.com profile] the_gneech, [livejournal.com profile] jimhines* can't write female characters, neither can I.  Being female did not endow me with mystical powers of writing convincing characters of either gender that mere males cannot possess. I'm really quite sure of this. If their female characters, many of which I've become quite enamored with, are all flat and underdeveloped, then every one of mine, male or female, is at least as bad or worse. If they don't know what they're doing, I don't even know how I'm supposed to tell when someone does.

* This is an "off the top of my head who can I think of" list, so it ended up as some of the male authors I follow on either LJ or Twitter. There are LOTS MORE.
rowyn: (studious)
[livejournal.com profile] haikujaguar was pondering the question of what makes a story belong to the romance genre -- why does, for example, one vampire love story get shelved as romance and another shelved as urban fantasy? It's a topic of some interest to me, especially since I just finished writing a fantasy romance novel. So here's what I see as the key properties of a romance:

Does it have characters who fall in love with each other? Then it might be a romance, but is not necessarily. The "fall" is significant: romances are about the deepening of a relationship. If the characters start off happily in love and continue to be so without the relationship becoming more intense/fulfilling, it's not a romance. The characters can start off in love, or start off married, as long as there are still major obstacles to overcome in the relationship.
Is the majority of the book devoted to interaction between the romantic leads and/or the romantic leads' thoughts about each other? Again, not necessarily a romance, but might be. If, on the other hand, you have a romantic subplot between two characters who spend 60% of the story occupied with other characters, it's almost certainly not a romance. The Hunger Games, for example, has a romantic subplot but for most of the book Katniss isn't neither thinking about nor interacting with her love interests.
Is the main plot of the story about the relationship between the romantic leads, or is it about something else? The interaction between the leads of a romance does not have to be romantic in nature throughout the entire story: they can start off fighting each other, or as partners solving a mystery, or whathaveyou. But the focus does need to be on how the characters interact -- on their relationship and how it changes over the course of the story -- and not how they interact with other people/how they solve the mystery/how they prevent global war/etc. This is subtle but very important. You can have two different books about spies who are trying to stop a dangerous weapon from falling into enemy hands and who fall in love in the process, and one might be a romance and the other a thriller. It all depends on what the focus is on. If the romance is tacked onto a gripping narrative revolving around the whereabouts of a stolen deadly virus, then it's a thriller. If the stolen deadly virus is a MacGuffin that serves as an excuse to put the spies in close proximity to each other so they can fall in love, it's a romance.
Is it mostly about sex? A romance can be completely chaste or it can be riddled with sex scenes. However, if the book is mostly "the leads having lots of sex without much thought or development in their relationship", then it's probably erotica rather than romance. This is a gray area -- if it's 2/3rds or more sex, I'd say it's almost certainly erotica. If it's less than 1/3rd, it might be romance. If it's between 1/3rd and 2/3rds, it might not be satisfying to readers looking for erotica or romance.
Do the romantic leads spend a significant portion of the book reflecting on their feelings? This is neither necessary nor sufficient, but it's still a good indicator. If a book rarely shows either of the romantic leads thinking about their feelings for one another, it's probably not going to be a very good romance even if it otherwise falls into the genre.
Does the setting/worldbuilding provide excuses to make the feelings of the romantic leads more intense? This, too, is neither necessary nor sufficient, but is an indicator. If the novel is about werewolves who soulbond for all eternity with their one true love, it might be a romance.
Does the narrative include in the denouement a scene where the romantic leads come together to joyfully discuss the resolution of the problems in their relationship? Another neither-necessary-nor-sufficient, but if the story doesn't have this kind of payoff -- the "awww" moment where they talk about their feelings for one another and the misunderstandings or whatever that have caused them problems up until now -- it's probably not a romance.
Does the story* end with the romantic leads in a happy, committed relationship with one another? If it doesn't, it doesn't belong in the romance genre. Readers may well describe it as "romantic" when a love story ends in tragedy, but this is not what romance readers are looking for, and they will lynch you if you market a tragedy to them as part of the romance genre. No, really, they will hate you forever. Just don't.
* In most cases "story" = "novel", but in theory you can have a romance-genre series with one love story that spans multiple novels. This used to be more common, but it's not nearly as popular with romance readers as having the love story wrap up in a single novel.

I think that covers my thoughts on it. Anything I missed?
rowyn: (studious)
Like all game economies, Flight Rising's is quirky. Some of Flight Rising's quirks make sense to me but are intriguing nonetheless.

For example, most MMO economies experience inflation, often rampant inflation, as more and more treasure chases the most desirable goods. But most of Flight Rising's player-based markets have been either fairly stable or deflationary over the month or so I have been informally watching. Silver ore has a low of around 1k and a high of around 3k*, gold ore has a low of 8k and a high of 15k, basic dragons of plentiful breeds have highs and lows from 3k to 10k depending on how hard-fought dominance is. Gened dragons and rarer breeds have become cheaper. When I first looked at imperials, the cheapest was 700k. Now, the cheapest is 350k. Cheapest pearlcatcher a few weeks ago was around 80k; now it's 40k. There's a few other miscellaneous goods that I watch that have stable price ranges.

(* Price ranges are based on "cheapest available at the time I looked". Players set the price for their goods when they offer them for sale to other players, so often there will be similar or identical goods for sale at several times the price of the cheapest.)

Dragons are a product of the passage of real-time: plentiful-breed dragons can breed once every 15 days and clutches take 5 days to hatch. Treasure is mostly a product of time spent playing the minigames, with a cap of 75k per day. There are some treasure-sinks: gene scrolls and other goods from the NPC marketplace, expanding your lair, adding nests, etc. Apparently, the treasure sinks are actually keeping up with treasure production to a degree. Demand for dragons also drops over time as lairs fill up and people have the kinds of dragons they want for their collection. Dragons consume food ( = money) and the only thing they produce is more dragons -- and that only if you've got nest space for them. So a lair stuffed with dragons is likely to cost more than it brings in. Now, many players (myself included!) are not playing to maximize revenue and want more little pictures of dragons populating our lairs regardless of monetary advantage or lack thereof. But the deflationary impact is still clear. Dragons don't die; you can choose to exalt them (which takes them out of play, contributes to the dominance struggle for your flight, and gets you a small amount of treasure) but that's the only way they leave.

Which is interesting but not inexplicable.

No, what perplexes me is the irrational pricing on swap goods.

The game doesn't have crafting as such (yet). But there's "Swipp's Swap Stand". Every two hours, Swipp offers a new site-wide trade, generally of a format "lots of X gets you one of Y". Here's a list of all his swaps..

Let's look at one of these: 200 Nightwing Bats (a food item) for 1 Runic Bat (a familiar). I think Swipp's is the only place you can get Runic Bats, and the only thing you can do with Nightwing Bats is eat them or trade them to Swipp's.

Cheapest Runic Bat on the player market right now is 28,000. Most expensive is 42,000.

So I'd expect Nightwing Bats to sell for no more than 1/200th of what you can buy a Runic Bat for, or 140-210 each. There might be some upwards pressure -- people who have 190 bats might be tempted to pay more to get the last 10 when the swap is available -- but also some downwards pressure, because it's annoying to visit Swipp's every two hours to see if he's got the right swap yet.

Actual price range for Nightwing Bats? 500-1000 each.

So the right economic ploy if I want a Runic Bat is to sell Nightwings to players and then buy a Runic from a player. (In fact, I just bought that 28k Runic Bat, even though I don't particularly want one, just so that I will never be tempted to save up Nightwings to do the swap.) And it's not that these are fictitious sell prices (ie, players hoping to get this much but there are no buyers) -- I have sold dozens of Nightwings for 450-750 each.

There's another chain that I play around with:

20 copper ore + 20 iron ore = 1 silver ore
5 silver ore = 1 gold
5 gold + 3 rusted chests = 1 gilded chest.

The first swap I don't bother with -- copper sells for 180-1000 each, which puts it far out of the range to justify making silver. Silver I will buy cheap and swap for gold, and then sell the gold. If I can get 15k for the gold (and I have several times), that makes the swap for a gilded chest about 83k (around 3k each for rusted chests). Gilded chests have been selling for 50k-80k lately, so not really worth it. Opening gilded chests seems even less worth it -- it's been something like 'one familiar, one clothing item, 6k-25k treasure, and a few random pieces of junk' for me, although perhaps there's a lottery effect where you might get something much more valuable from them.

You can also use 3 gold ore to make a platinum ore. Platinum ore sells for less than gold. I don't know if anyone ever does this swap; maybe people dig up the platinum that sells on the market instead. I really hope so.

Anyway, in other MMOs where raw materials sold for more than crafted goods, I understood that people were "skilling up" and didn't care about making money on the intervening steps -- perhaps didn't care about making money at all, even long term, just liked seeing the number rise. But the swaps are not a skill -- anyone can do them and you don't improve a stat by doing them. So it's interesting to me to see people still pursue them even when there's a monetary cost to making the swap over selling materials to players and buying the final good from players.
rowyn: (Me 2012)
On my hatchday, my clan fought.

My sister, DelaRenta, was born with my mother's scales of delicate cream tinted with gold and wings the color of chocolate, halfway between my father's dark maroon and my mother's midnight. "She'll be as beautiful as her mother," my father, Smoke, growled affectionately, licking her clean of the albumen from the egg. The clan was gathered about the nest, lined with cloth, rushes, and treasure, for in what else might a dragon be born?

"Maybe more so," Goldrush said, earning a casual swat on his lemon-gold flank from my father.

No one doubted that she would have a place. Whether she stayed in our clan or left for another's, she would find a home and mother elegant children like herself.

I was another story.

"I don't think anyone's going to want to foster him," Rowyn said. She is my mother's pet and friend, a small person who cares for the nest, butchering and preparing the food, running errands, buying and selling for the clan. Though she is no dragon, it was at her suggestion that my mother, Cloudkeeper, founded our clan, and Rowyn's advice is tolerated if not heeded.

CloudkeeperMy mother tucked me against her forelegs and nosed off a bit of eggshell. My scales were medium grey, dull but not ugly. My wings were a clashingly bright pink. "Then we will keep him."

"I suppose we could put him in the auction house," Rowyn said. The other dragons shifted, exchanging glances, but everyone was thinking it.

"Someone would buy him," Waterwillow, a tundra dragon of purple, said. "His colors aren't that bad."

Cloudkeeper mantled her wings. "No son of mine is going to be sold into slavery."

"It's not slavery," Rowyn said. "Every clan needs to exchange members to keep their clan healthy. The treasure is just a way of showing they'll value their newest member. Like a bride-price. Other clans do the same things we do. We bought Waterwillow and Goldrush at auction."

"I offered to go," Waterwillow added, her furred purple forelegs folded over each other.. "My previous clan's lair was overcrowded and we didn't know a clan that needed new dragons. So I went to the auction house. And I ended here! No one's ever acted like I was a slave."

Goldrush was quiet for some moments, before saying in a low voice, "I remember being hungry all the time." Everyone looked at him. "From the day I was hatched. There was never enough food. The adult dragons were listless. They didn't hunt or fight, just waited. None of my clutch had names; no one cared. Then one day, the clan progenitor hauled me to the auction house without a word and left me there, with a price tag around my neck. For days. Until Lady Rowyn paid for me and brought me here." Rowyn doesn't really have a title, but Cloudkeeper calls her that to tease her, and sometimes the others do too.

In the ensuing silence, Cloudkeeper said again, "No child of mine will be sold."

"I really think Waterwillow's experience -- " Rowyn cut herself off as my mother raised her pale serpentine neck and looked down on the small person. "... right. No auction house. Exalt him?"

Cloudkeeper snorted. "He just hatched. Exalting a hatchling is preposterous; what servant to Wind would he be?"

"Other clans exalt their hatchlings," Rowyn said.

"And other clans let their dragons slowly starve of neglect. We are not 'other clans'. Would you make my god a nursemaid?"

"What are we going to do with him, then? There's only so much food in our territory, and so much space. If we keep every unattractive dragonling we'll be overrun with them," Smoke, my father, said at last. "And their children and grandchildren will be no prettier than they."

"I will not judge a dragon by the color of his scales." Cloudkeeper stroked my back as I fussed in her forepaws, rolling over. "He is a member of Lady Rowyn's clan and will have a place here as long as he wants or needs. If and when he has a mate, their children will also be so welcome."

"And when there's no food on the slopes -- " Waterwillow started, and stopped as my mother rose and spread her vast wings over the nest, neck arched, her shadow long over all.

"This is not up for debate," Cloudkeeper said. "It is clan law."

My father looked upon me and shook his head, meeting Cloudkeeper's eyes. "I did not join you to found a clan of misfits and rejects, of dregs."

She snarled then. "You too, have a place here for as long as you want or need, Smoke-my-love."

A puff of smoke snorted from his long dark grey face, and he stalked away.

*

Smoke did not leave our clan, but he had little to do with me. Not long thereafter, my sister was named and traded to Alinsa's clan. They gave us their daughter, IndigoRain, in return.

No one asked for me.

My clan considered names for me, when I was old enough to make my feelings known. We were wandering the green slopes near the nest, IndigoRain and I helped along by Waterwillow and Cloudkeeper, Goldrush sometimes flying in the clear Wind-kissed sky above. "Pinkwings?" Goldrush offered, and Waterwillow made a face at him. I shook my small head. I would not be named for my worst feature.

"I bet he'll be a strong fighter. Smokewarrior?" Waterwillow said, but I shook my head at that too.

"Silverlining?" Cloudkeeper said, smiling at me. "You are my little silver one."

I hesitated, but shook my head to that too. "Stormson," I said at last.

The others looked askance. "Bu' your mama's CLOU-EEP and your Dada's SMO'," IndigoRain pointed out, in even-I-know-that tones. "Na' STORM."

Stormson"Hatch to storm," I insisted. "Stormson."

"It was a clear day when you hatched." Waterwillow patted my head with one fur-backed purple forehand.

I looked at my mother. She raised her head and gave a solemn nod. "So be it. You are my son of storms, child. Weather them well."

[[ NB: The phrase "small person", as a draconic term for a non-dragon sapient, was coined by Bard Bloom in the excellent novel Mating Flight, serialized here. Mating Flight is a work of original fiction an unrelated to Flight Rising. It does have lots of dragons and is generally awesome, however. ]]
rowyn: (Default)
I've been writing away at the fantasy-polyromance I mentioned last week. I am somewhat impatient about it: I keep thinking "this story isn't going to write itself" and "I need to write it before I can read it.". Aggravating, that last. The story has a working title now, "A Rational Arrangement", which is unfortunately too long for a LiveJournal community, so the community is rationalarrange. I put up the first entry this morning. Future entries will be friends-locked: if you're interested in reading them, leave a comment either here or there.

I am not particularly looking for critical feedback on the story -- at this stage, mostly I just like to have some encouragement to keep writing until it's finished. :)
rowyn: (studious)
At school, the principal reprimanded both Jim and Scotty, one after the other, for causing trouble on the bus.

Bobby's teacher took him aside before class to try to calm him down and clean out his hair. "I used to get bullied too," the teacher told Bobby as she brushed his hair.

"By Scotty? He's a big meaniehead!"

"No, no, when I was your age. By other bullies." The teacher smothered a laugh. "You just have to learn to ignore him. Don't give him what he wants."

Class went smoothly for most of the kids, though Adelaide got yelled at by her teacher for reading during class instead of paying attention to the lesson.

*

During recess, Mark stole over to Kristi as she and Adelaide were playing with Kristi's plush Cthulhu. "Hey, um, Kristi?"

"Mmmm?" Kristi looked at him.

"I overheard some kids talking about Scotty ... no one pays much attention to me so I hear stuff ... and he's telling everyone that he and his buddies are gonna get the 'boy scout' and 'that girl with the squid doll' after school."

"It's not a squid -- oh." Kristi stopped to consider the implications of this. "... thanks for warning me." What am I going to do? I better talk to Mrs. Wilson. Maybe she can help. Mrs. Wilson was Kristi's teacher and her favorite adult in the world.

Mark gave an embarrassed shrug. "''s okay. I was gonna tell Matt too."

Matt was with his twin, Natalie, and Bobby was clinging to her leg when Mark let them know. "We'd better all stick together, then," Matt said, and crossed the playground to talk to Kristi. "Hey, do you want to sit together with us on the bus? So Scotty can't catch us alone."

Kristi blinked in surprise. "Really? You'd do that for me?"

"Sure."

Kristi smoothed down her skirt, flustered and pleased by the novelty of some kid being randomly nice to her. "That sounds like a great idea. Thanks."

*

Meanwhile, Bobby -- having overheard the gist of the problem from Mark and Natalie -- decided to take matters into his own tiny hands. He snuck up on Scotty in the playground and kicked him the shin. Before Scotty could exact revenge, the teacher on recess duty swept in and carted Bobby off to the principal's office.

Bobby was used to being sent to the principal's office by now; he was always getting in trouble for one thing or another, no matter how much he wanted to do well in school. The principal called Bobby's mother to have him pick him up for being disruptive. When she arrived, the principal explained, "He attacked another boy, ma'am."

"He was mean! He blew snot in my hair," Bobby protested in his ow defense.

His mother turned to the principal, purpling in anger. "Some boy put bodily fluids on my son and I was not informed?"

"Now, Mrs. Leon, I don't think -- " the principal raised a placating hand.

"Obviously you don't! Has this other boy been tested? Do you have any idea what diseases he could have? I demand a Hepatitis B test! How dare you subject my son to this kind of environment!" For a solid half hour, Mrs. Leon delivered a paranoid and overprotective rant on the evils of germs and the failures of the public school system in general, and for that matter the kind of language her son was learning, until at last Bobby interrupted her.

"Mommy mommy I wanted to know! Is BJ a bad word? Because it's only two letters ... "

Mrs. Leon looked blank. "Where did you hear that, baby?"

"From Uncle Clyde ... " Bobby drummed his hands against his knees, thinking hard. "He said ... he said ... ohh ... 'I gotta go to the hoe-house and get me a -- '"

Mrs. Leon turned from purple to white. She grabbed her son's hand. "We have to leave now. Excuse me." She hauled her son from the room, muttering, "You're not allowed to see Uncle Clyde any more, understand?" As soon as they were outside, the principal closed his office door behind them, then locked and bolted it for good measure.

*

At noon, the kindergartners and pre-schoolers went home, while the older kids ate lunch. Natalie happened to see the teacher on duty loading the toddlers onto the bus to go home; the teacher had Wayne on a tether connected to her wrist to keep him from wandering off. "That's brilliant," Natalie said, marveling. "I need that!"

*

Kristi cornered Mrs. Wilson during the lunchbreak to talk to her about Scotty. "He's horrible! He's threatening to beat me up. What am I going to do?"

"What happened, dear?"

"Well, he says I broke his retainer."

"Did you?"

"... maybe kinda."

Mrs. Wilson raised her eyebrows.

"I stepped on it."

"So it was an accident?"

"Not ... exactly. But he was picking on Bobby! And he's like twice Bobby's size! I had to do something."

Mrs. Wilson sighed. "I know, dear, but you can't go breaking his things."

"What am I supposed to do? Just let him beat up little kids whenever he wants?" Kristi gestured wildly, indicating the relative size differences.

"No, of course not, but you need to let the adults handle it. If you have a problem, talk to Mr. Jacobs."

"But he's drunk!"

"I assure you he is not!"

"Hungover, then. He smells like a drunk."

"He's allowed to be hungover. I'll talk to him, Kristi; I'll see if he can keep Scotty under closer watch."

Kristi gave her favorite teacher a grateful smile. "Thank you, Mrs. Wilson."

*

As the older kids lined up to board the bus for home, they found the front seat was marked off with "CAUTION - POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS" tape. Mr. Jacobs escorted Scotty on board personally, unsticking the tape to put Scotty in the seat demarcated by it. He gave a stern look to Matt, Kristi, and their friends. "And you lot, no sitting behind him. Or anywhere near him. Got it?" Matt, Kristi, Natalie, Adeleine, and Mark all filed to the back of the bus. Jim, oblivious, played games on his phone for the ride home.

As they were riding, the other kids on the bus handed back two notes: one for Matt and one for Kristi. "Ugh. I bet it's from Scotty." Kristi felt sick just looking at hers.

"Want me to read yours?" Natalie asked. Wordlessly, Kristi handed it to her. Dear Shithead, it began. Natalie stopped reading, tore it to confetti, and let it flutter out the window. "Yeah, it's from Scotty."

Matt read his note, looking increasingly angry the more he read.
Dear Moron:

You're real brave when you're hiding behind teachers and bus drivers, getting them to do your dirty work for you. Are you willing to face me without any adults to protect you? You and Kristi better meet me outside the haunted house on Maybury hill tonight at midnight, or I'll tell the whole school about what a coward you are. And all those things you do with your sick sister, too.
It got worse as it continued, describing incestuous acts in perverse and insulting detail.

Natalie noticed how tense her twin was getting. "What's wrong, Matt?" She peered over his shoulder to look at it. She swallowed, then started to cry.

"Don't -- don't let him get to you." Kristi grabbed the note and threw it out the window. "It's just words. He can't hurt us."

The bus got to their stop, and the kids piled off. Bobby and Wayne were waiting at the stop. "Nattie! Mattie!" Bobby cried. He was carrying fistfuls of cookies, his face smeared with chocolate and crumbs. "I brought cookies! Do you want some? What's wrong?"

Wayne pedaled up behind Bobby, riding in his mini-batcar.

"Bobby, what are you doing here?" Natalie wiped the tears from her face, then set to work cleaning cookie detritus from Bobby's. "Shouldn't you be home?"

"I wanted to see you! What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Natalie lied.

Kristi asked Matt, "Was he threatening you?" She wondered now if maybe she should've read the notes after all.

Matt wrestled with his conscience. He knew he had to meet Scotty's dare, for his own sake and especially his sister's. But maybe it'd be safer to keep Kristi out of it. Yet -- she hated it when kids teased her, and if she didn't come, Scotty would be worse than ever. At last, Matt said, "Scotty dared you and me to meet him at the haunted house at midnight, or he'd call us cowards."

"At midnight? We can't go at midnight. My parents would kill me. And you. And Scotty. So at least we wouldn't have to worry about Scotty any more, but we'd still be dead so no. You can't go, Matt."

"You're going to the haunted house?" Bobby asked.

Natalie was horrified. "Don't talk about it in front of the little kids!"

"I have to go," Matt answered Kristi, grim.

"No you don't. Please don't go, Matt," Kristi pleaded. "You have no idea what he's planning. And the stories about that place are awful."

Jim went online with his smartphone, researching the mansion's history. "Wow, yeah. It hasn't been occupied since 1837, when the owner, Mr. Vernon, was executed after his whole family had ... disappeared. He was drawn and quartered."

Matt just shook his head. "I'm going."

"Well ... if you're going ... I won't let you go alone," Kristi said.

"Of course he won't go alone!" Natalie hugged her brother.

Adelaide found her best friend's hand and squeezed. "I'll come too," Adelaide whispered. "If you can talk my parents into letting me sleep over at your place." Kristi squeezed her hand in return, scared and glad for the company nonetheless.
rowyn: (studious)
[livejournal.com profile] ysabetwordsmith mentioned the Fish Out of Water motif, and I was thinking: "Does it still count as a motif if it's part of every story?"

If you define this as "character dropped into alien setting", then it's not something that happens in every story, true. But if you define it broadly -- "character in new, unfamiliar surroundings/circumstances" -- then practically every story has one. It's usually a character that (a) gets stuff explained to them, in lieu of the reader, and/or (b) sets the plot in motion by shaking up/exploring the existing environment. Some examples of the broadly-defined "Fish Out of Water" from my recent reading:

* A Study in Scarlet: Dr Watson (unfamiliar with detective work)
* Master and Commander : Stephen Maturin (unfamiliar with the seafaring life)
* Emma : Frank Churchhill (new to the neighborhood)
* The Demon's Lexicon : Mae and Jamie (unfamiliar with magic)
* The Stepsister Scheme : Danielle (unfamiliar with fairy and the whole princess-as-secret-agent business until introduced to the other princesses)
* Blameless : Alexia (travelling in France and Italy, unfamiliar settings to her)
* The Lies of Locke Lamora: Locke (introduced to the Gentlemen Bastards and their lifestyle in the extended flashbacks)
* The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms : narrator (unfamilar with palace setting)

Honestly, it's hard to think of a series without a Fish. Sometimes sequels don't really have one -- everyone is used to the setting by then, including the reader who acclimatized in the earlier books. Soulless, interestingly, despite being the first book, doesn't really seem to have a fish as a major character. I could argue for Alexia and supernatural culture, I suppose, but she's not really immersed in the unfamiliar here; she's got some prior experience with it, and she's dealing with familiar surroundings frequently as well. Anyway, I think it's possible to write a story with characters who all belong to their current environment, but my experience is that even with books set in contemporary, non-fantasy-or-sf settings, it's pretty rare.

It's still a motif, though -- not every character fits the type, even if nearly every story has a character who does.
rowyn: (studious)
Last night, I had the urge to re-read a story that I never got around to writing.

...
Cut for writing-about-writing whinge )
rowyn: (Delight by Tod)
[This is the for [livejournal.com profile] terrana's tarot story prompt. Since Terrana likes Delight, I decided to make it a [livejournal.com profile] delight_in_wt story. Delight is long-winded, so this will take several entries. Cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] delight_in_wt.]

Guess what? I'm going on another adventure! No, not because I need money. I'm still rich from the last adventure! This one is kind of a favor to Mirhandrax. Well, I guess technically to Outcast but I'm not really doing it for him. I should probably start more at the beginning.

Archonandi, Mirhandrax, Outcast and I met up yestereve at the pub in the Vheshrame Adventurer's Guild. (Mirhandrax has managed not to start any brawls in this one so he's still welcome here. Unlike Ulmarn.) We were seated on the second floor's interior balcony, overlooking the main floor where patrons sat on benches before long tables. The balcony seating is big comfy arm chairs and tray tables and I like it lots better. Mirhandrax, being the biggest bear of a Gormorror EVER, had to sit on a bench anyway because chairs big enough to seat two normal primes aren't large enough for him.

Being a smith for months and months and not adventuring has changed Arcsy. His arms and chest muscles are bigger than ever, but his grey-furred body doesn't have quite the same lithe agility he used to. There's something in his eyes too: an ease and affection behind the raccoon mask of black fur, instead of the constant state of wary, alert preparation.

And you know, Outcast looks SO DIFFERENT from the scrawny scraggly brown otter-man we rescued from bandits back in Chirreb. His fur is a glossy mahogany now, paling to soft beige on the underside and he's let his headfur grow out long enough to pull back in a ponytail. He's filled out -- not plump but muscular; his shoulders look twice as broad as they were. I don't think I'd recognize him if I hadn't been seeing him every couple weeks since we met. It's weird to realize that this must be how he's supposed to look and that the way he was when I first saw him was the result of months of imprisonment and abuse. Sometimes I wonder what it was like and mostly I'm glad I don't know. I know he brought it on himself in a way but I still feel sorry for him because NO ONE deserves that.

We'd gotten together just to be sociable since Archonandi's retired from adventuring and I'm rich. There's no reason Mirhandrax shouldn't be rich too, except that he probably gives all his money away because he's that sort of prime. Also he's determined to help Outcast.

Their current plan to find Outcast's really-should-stay-lost-if-you-ask-me-but-no-one-does mewellicapfriend was to have an enchanter make a Tempador-based tracking enchantment. Then they could go to the spot where we'd thrown her off the world-branch (well she was with the other bandits how were we to know she was being blackmailed?) and the enchantment would see into the past to find which way the elements had taken her, and they'd follow the trail from there. Of course they'd be months behind her, but they were hoping this would get them close enough to track her by more immediate means. Outcast had found an enchanter willing to create the enchantment for a payment of more money than he or even I have. Outcast, Mirhandrax and Archonandi were discussing ways either to raise the funds or get the cost down.

"Adventuring is the best way we've got of raising this kind of sum, and we did have a good run for the last couple of tasks." Mirhandrax drummed the claws of one giant paw against his tray table. "But the market of high-paying adventuring work has dried up recently."

Archonandi took a swallow of ale. "I don't hear as much as I used to, but I'll let you know if anything comes my way."

"Lady Inithia gave me the list of reagents she'd need for the enchanment." Outcast laid a short scroll on a tray table and pushed it where the others could reach. "Some of these are irritating to gather but not particularly difficult. Third-minute milkweed blossoms, for example, I can get myself with patience."

I made a face at the idea. Third-minute milkweed blooms for 9 seconds at random intervals between three and nineteen days apart. It is super annoying to harvest and hardly anyone cultivates it because of that. Well, it wasn't me going to do it.

"The most expensive item on the list is fresh knowledgefruit, though." Outcast tapped a blunt claw against the final line.

Mirhandrax wrinkled one side of his broad muzzle. "No wonder. I didn't think that grew anywhere in Ketheria."

"Not in the Flats, no. Lady Inithia has a source in Borenexia. That's six branches down and four thousand miles away. And since it has to be fresh, not preserved ... "

"At that distance, it'd be easier to get Lady Inithia to it than it to her," Mirhandrax said.

Outcast smiled wryly. "True. Unfortunately, she doesn't like to travel and her laboratory isn't mobile. And even setting aside the cost of an express courier, the prices from Borenexia aren't cheap."

"I think there might be knowledgefruit trees closer than that," Archonandi said. "I've heard rumors of it growing in the Underneaths of Dentheia. With the secret of its exact location guarded by an azgrath."

Outcast grimaced. "I don't mind taking risks, but going into the Underneaths to face an azgrath might be more trouble than this one is worth."

"That depends on how old it is. A young azgrath ... " Mirhandrax started.

"That rumor's over a decade old," Archonandi said.

"Never mind, then. To be honest, I'd rather not kill an azgrath for the sole crime of having a thing that I want, anyway." Outcast exhaled. "I did some research and there are closer known knowledgefruit trees, but not from anyone who will sell the fruit. A nyacanth raider in the Verticals of Mrasteia is said to have one."

"A raider? How many monsters does it lead?" Mirhandrax asked.

"Fifteen or twenty, by most accounts."

Archonandi whistled. "That's a bit much for two adventurers, unless they're all scawn."

Mirhandrax grinned. "Sounds like a worthy challenge to me."

"They're not scawn. I wouldn't want to plan an all-out assault on them," Outcast said, "but a distraction and a snatch-and-grab might be feasible. I'd need more information first, to know what their defenses are like."

All this planning talk was WAY too much like work if you ask me, so I interrupted to say, "What's knowledgefruit anyway?"

"Wrinkly yellow-brown berries." Archonandi held thumb and forefinger a half inch apart. "Some say they look like curled-up infant Orren. If you eat a bunch of them, they'll give extra power to the next Kennoc spell you cast, and -- some say, though I personally doubt this -- improve its accuracy."

"Ohhh babyberries!" I said. "There's a crefian nest in the Verticals below Vheshrame that grows those why don't you just trade with them?" Everyone stared at me. "What?"

"Crefian nest ... ?" Outcast said.

"Yes I met them when I was still an adventurer like a year ago maybe? They're nice they look like gigantic butterflies with intangible wings if you've never met one and they traded us some babyberries so we could boost a tracking spell we needed."

"... yes. That does sound much easier. Thank you."

Then Mirhandrax asked if I'd show them how to get there and I figured I'd just come with them because I'd like to see the crefians again anyway. I don't know if this will really be an Adventure but it's in the Verticals! So probably.
rowyn: (jaunx)
"Come play a game with me, Limit." A video window opened, showing a brown-and-beige space otter at a computer.

"Hello, Arc. Sorry, I have work to do." Limit was a space otter as well: a genetically modified human adapted to life in space, whose exterior appearance mimicked a Terran otter's. Unlike Arc, Limit looked the 'space' part of his species name, with a coat of midnight blue dusted with white dots like stars.

"So do I, but I'm not doing it either. C'mon, you've been staring at the same file without doing anything with it for half an hour."

"I'm thinking."

"Then you can think while playing. Seriously, Limit, you need a break," Arc said. "And I need some help with Kingdom of Death."

Limit chuckled. "Are you still playing that?"

"Yes. And I really need a partner for this section. Plus it'd be more fun with company. The NPC AIs don't count."

The midnight-blue space otter gazed at a window full of diagrams, charts strategic options, available resources, supply lines, and probable outcomes. Maybe pondering a scenario where no one I knew was actually going to die would be a nice change of pace. He sighed. "All right."

*

An hour later, they were pinned down on the wall of a crumbling fort, besieged by slavering hellhounds and fire-breathing demons. They'd lost the NPC spellbinder and rogue, Arc's archer avatar was nearly out of arrows, and the only components Limit had left were for his avatar's weakest heals and some esoteric spells to which their enemies were generally immune. Limit tossed another heal on the NPC warrior that was holding the smashed gate, while Arc took aim at a demon tearing apart the wall, brick by brick. "You know," Limit said, reviewing his spell list to see if he'd overlooked anything that was still available for casting, "if you want a constant struggle to maintain a bare minimum of necessary supplies in a war against hopeless odds, near-friendless, and facing almost certain death, we could go back to reality."

"Shut up." Arc loosed the arrow at point-blank range, spearing the demon through its eye and taking it out. "I'm sure we can do this." Another monster moved up to take its place.

Limit tried casting Create Water on the demon that was barbecuing their warrior. With a sploosh, water filled the demon's mouth, extinguishing the blast of fire breath and sending the enemy into a choking fit. Their NPC warrior closed with the monster and beheaded it, then backed up to avoid a counterattack by a hellhound. "That worked?" Limit said, surprised.

"That's terrific! How many more times can you do that?" Arc asked, aiming another arrow.

"As often as I can make the gestures, really. It's a cantrip, no components and not much mana." Limit put out another fire-breather. "This will not be enough to turn the tide, however.."

"Yeeeaah ... not at this point. But I bet we can get through this if I reload from an earlier save and we use that trick from the start."

*

On the second attempt, they kept the computer party members alive and fended off enough of the horde of monsters to escape the fort. They were still perilously low on everything: neither the hellhounds nor the demons had carried any supplies of note. "Didn't the developers ever hear of loot?" Arc complained.

"We just have to get to the Light Isle," said Misty, the NPC spellbinder. She was a beautiful elf with black skin and long black hair. Nearly all the PC and ally avatars in Kingdom of Death were elves, half-elves, or humans, with the exception of a couple of demons that the player could recruit to his team under certain circumstances. Their warrior, Asmodel, was one of the ally demons; his backstory was that he wanted to learn to be good. The rogue was Kitty, a human street urchin. Arc's archer was a brown elf, and Limit's healer-mage was a blue-skinned human.

"You keep saying that." Kitty didn't get along well with Misty. "'Everything will be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns as soon as we get to the Light Isle'. I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. Or maybe you just don't know how to get there?"

"I do!" Misty insisted. "The ferry to the Light Isle is east along this road, down by the sea."

"And the ferry still runs?" Limit asked skeptically. "What's it ferrying between here and the Light Isle? Demons? Skeletons?"

"It's only a game, Limit. The economy doesn't have to make sense," Arc said.

"It'll be there," Misty said, earnestly.

*

The ferry was docked where Misty had said it would be. The docks were in disrepair, demon-clawed and scorched, and the surrounding grounds had the same blighted look as the rest of the Kingdom of Death. The water around the ferry was brackish and choked with weeds. No one was visible on the boat, but it appeared unharmed.

"Well, that doesn't look like a trap at all," Limit said, looking down on the dock from the top of the adjoining bluff. Hellhounds howled in the near distance behind them. The NPC party members whooped in triumph and ran towards the deserted dock. "Do they have to charge in like that?"

Another baying behind them, closer. "Might as well," Arc said, running after them, "or we're just going to get caught here."

"Or we could get caught in the trap and by the enemies behind us," Limit said, but Arc was already gone. Resigned, Limit cast a few Create Water spells on the dirt road behind them, turning it to mud to slow the pursuit down, then followed suit. By the time he caught up to them, the NPCs were already on the boat and surrounded by an army of skeletons. The skeletons were fragile, but there were a lot of them and Arc's arrows were ineffective against skeletons, forcing him to use his flail. When the pursuing monsters finally caught up with them, the NPC party members started dropping.

"All right, new plan," Arc said, bashing skeletons with his flail. "We'll reload from save, then take the pursuit on top of the bluff. Then we can take the ferry ambush separately."

"Why are we taking the ferry ambush at all?" Limit cast a weak heal on Asmodel.

"To get to the Light Isle?"

"How? The crew's dead. Does your avatar have sailing skill? What makes you think the boat's even seaworthy?"

"I can sail," Asmodel said, stabbing a hellhound through the heart, while skeletons clawed at his back.

"See? It's got to be this way," Arc said.

"Very well, but later. I've got to get back to work."

"C'mon, Limit! We're almost there. Just one more fight." Arc reloaded the game, putting them back on the road to the bluff.

Limit sighed. "This is the last fight, though."

*

Somewhat to Limit's surprise, once they had cleared the pursuers and the ambush, the ferry was salvagable. It needed minor repairs, but a few minigames were sufficient to cover that. ("It's not a fight, Limit, it's a puzzle game. That doesn't count.") Misty and Asmodel were able to crew the boat, and soon they were at the Light Isle.

It was as beautiful as Misty had promised.

Blue waves and white sea foam slapped against beaches of golden sand. Tall green trees covered in white and orange blossoms waved in the gentle breeze. Inviting green meadows full of flowers peeped out of the forest. The party docked their boat at a city of white marble, where an impromptu audience of elves and men gathered to welcome the war-weary strangers with cheers, eager for news of the mainland. The Queen of the Light Isle herself came to offer them sanctuary, and ask for their help in the continuing struggle to protect the Light Isle against invasion.

While Arc started on the tutorial for the resource-gathering-and-building game that followed from the Queen's request, Limit took his leave and logged out of the sim.

*

Three days later, Limit returned to his quarters after running some errands, and found a message from Arc on his computer: "Can you take a break for a while and join me in KoD? There's something I need help with."

With a shrug, Limit logged into the fully-immersive sim. He asked one of the city guards where Arc was, and was directed to a hostel. There, he found Arc's elven archer avatar in a small spartan room. Making out with Misty on the room's single bed.

Limit cleared his throat. "I'm pretty sure you can manage that minigame on your own."

Misty leapt apart from Arc, embarrassed. Arc gave Limit a sheepish grin. "Eheheheheh. Noooo, it's that the main game has gotten really annoying."

"How's that?"

"'Taxes'. The building game lists all kinds of cool stuff you can make -- siege weapons, armor, enchantments, even non-combat stuff like buildings and furniture. The building game is sort of annoying in itself -- if you do the puzzle just wrong, you can get a 'catastrophic failure', which for enchanted items means 'will explode on equipping', so you have to recycle those immediately. Because of course there's no warning tag on it or obvious defect, if you don't notice the problem while you're making it. But the worst part is that I can't get to any of the good stuff, because it all requires gathering sufficient resources and crafting tools and building intermediary stuff. And before I can get half the stuff I'd want for something awesome, the Queen sends her guards around and they take everything."

Limit raised one of his human avatar's eyebrows. "Everything?"

"Yes! And I have to start over from scratch with gathering. They say it's for 'the defense of the Isle'. I'm wondering if it's a bug, although the documentation does say she's supposed to collect what we make. But everything? I'm still stuck in the equipment I arrived in."

"I didn't expect her to be so ... greedy," Misty said, reluctantly. She was perched at the foot of the narrow bed. "I know the Light Isle needs materials for its defense, but we're part of that defense. Why does she want us under-equipped?"

"Maybe I need to build faster, somehow?" Arc said. "So I can finish the good stuff before the guards come to take it?"

"But we still wouldn't be able to keep it," Misty said.

"At least I'd feel like I was getting somewhere. Sort of. Contributing to the defense."

Limit was thoughtful. "What's Kitty doing?"

"She's on a resource-gathering mission."

"She's got spying skills. Send her out to find out if the guards 'tax' everyone like this. And maybe what the Queen's actually doing with your goods," Limit said. "Let me know what she comes up with. I'm going to log out."

Arc wrinkled his nose as Limit's avatar winked out, then glanced to Misty. "We've still got some time before Kitty returns. So ... where were we?"

Misty grinned, and crawled up the bed to kiss him.

*

A couple hours later, Arc called Limit, fuming. "She's completely corrupt! She's just plain stealing from us!"

Limit ran through his mental list of untrustworthy singletons. It wasn't a short list. "Who's this?"

"The queen!"

"... you're talking about that game again, aren't you?"

"Yes! I can't believe I've been wasting my time building things for her! She's not using it to 'defend' the Isle! She gives the best stuff to her favorites or keeps it for herself, and sells the rest! To -- and this is the best part -- the frigging Kingdom of Death. To demons! Argh!"

"Ahh."

"I sent Kitty on like eight different missions to figure it all out. The queen confiscates almost everything anyone makes. Practically everyone in the city is stuck in tiny rooms like the one I'm in. All the mansions and grand carriages and tall ships, they're just for her and her cronies. And if the Kingdom ever does turn on her, the defenses are in shambles. Everyone resents her, but they're scared because she sics demons on dissenters, to 'disappear' them. Gah! It's almost as bad as the KoD itself."

"If you're tired of playing in a crapsack universe, you could go back to the one we live in," Limit suggested.

Arc glowered. "It's a game. There must be some way to win."

This was more than Limit could say for the universe he lived in. "I'm not getting a lot done right now anyway. I'll log in and look at it in a few minutes."

*

Kitty's unmasking of the Queen's corrupt regime had triggered scripts in all the NPCs. "Is this what good is supposed to be like?" Asmodel asked. "It's an awful lot like the side I left."

"No," Limit answered.

"Just let me steal it back!" Kitty begged. "We made it and she's got no right to use it for her own selfish ends."

"Not when you can use it for your selfish ends?" Misty said. "Sorry. ... It's not that I wasn't expecting better. A lot better. But I don't want to be on the run from demons again. No offense, Asmodel."

"It's all right," Asmodel said. "I don't like running from demons either. Or getting caught by them."

Arc said, "There must be a way to cheat her. Keep her guards from getting what we make while we stockpile it."

"But she'll still be defrauding the rest of her city," Limit pointed out. "You said she kept the 'best' stuff for herself. How does she determine what's best, anyway?"

"She keeps anything that uses one of the three rarest resources ... " Arc trailed off, his eyes lighting up. "That's it! Limit, help me look through these recipes." He passed over a set of files: in the game's UI, it looked like a fat tome of blueprints.

"All right. What are we looking for?"

"The perfect failure. We're going to give that queen exactly what she wants." Arc cackled, rubbing his hands together.

*

They had to plan the creation carefully, distributing tools and resources evenly among the party to make sure no one of them had enough items to trigger the 'tax' routine that would take it all. When they had enough between them to make the Golden Crown of Storm Summoning -- an enchanted item requiring all three of the rarest resources -- they handed everything over to Arc at once, and he immediately started the construction puzzle for the item. The tax routine initiated at almost the same time, but it couldn't finish while Arc was in the construction puzzle. So the guards waited while Arc botched the minigame in exactly the way he wanted, creating a normal-looking Golden Crown of Storm Summoning while getting the 'catastrophic failure' message.

The tax-collecting guards took possession of the crown, oblivious. The party waved cheerily to them. "Enjoy!"

"Do you think the game actually has her use it?" Limit asked, after the tax collectors were gone. They were on one of the public balconies that overlooked the city.

Arc shrugged. "Hope so? Kitty did say she used the best stuff."

"Have you ever actually seen one of the catastrophic failures explode?"

"No. The tutorial said it depended on how powerful the enchanment was, but that it was always ... " In the distance, the queen's palace exploded. A giant plume of smoke and dust rose into the air. Rubble rained down for blocks. "... bad."

*

With the queen and the best of her guards dead, her AI-run people revolted against her remaining cronies. Limit and Arc were appointed by general acclaim as the Isle's new leaders. A great festival was held in their honor, for their cleverness in tricking the queen to her downfall. It was quite lovely. Arc spent part of it figuring out what resources he needed in order to build a new palace for himself.

"Enjoy," Limit told him.

"You're not leaving in the middle of the victory cutscene, are you? Really?"

"Really. Good night, Arc."

But Limit didn't go to bed after logging out from the sim. Instead, he found himself studying his strategic problems in the real universe. Pity there isn't any way to use the greed of my real enemies to lure them to their destruction, Limit thought. He reached for the 'sleep' button on the computer, then paused. He rested his chin against one paw. Though, given their typical motives, perhaps that idea could use further consideration.

[From a prompt by [livejournal.com profile] terrycloth, using his characters Arc and Limit from the Space Otters stories. I think this is the first time I've ever written fanfic that wasn't using an RPG setting. This story would take place around the second half of Familiar. ]

Cards behind the cut-tag: )
rowyn: (Bethany)
The arrival of the first garden faerie was, to be honest, a relief.

It was the height of a summer drought. The grass in my neighbors' yards was brown, and the grass in my own yard wasn't. Not "wasn't brown" but "did not exist". Over the years, most of the grass had been choked out by weeds, and now even the weeds were gone, destroyed beneath the wheels of CAT construction vehicles when my old septic tank was excavated and the new one installed at a different location. Most of the remaining greenery in my yard was black locust trees and poison ivy.

So you can imagine my astonishment when I saw the garden faerie surveying my yard from the giant lopsided oak tree whose surviving branches create a canopy over half my house. She was about as long as my hand, with bark-brown skin and curly black hair held back from her face by a wide headband. She wore denim coveralls, gardening gloves and laced-up workboots. Dragonfly wings flickered at her back, and she carried a carved wand a little larger than a toothpick. A riding hawk in harness waited beside her on the branch. When she saw me staring at her, she flew near and landed on the clothesline by my head. "You're not very good with nature, are you?" she said.

"Well." I considered my blighted yard. "I didn't do this on purpose."

"I'm not sure how you could have." She gave the yard another look, then held out her hand. "Name's Gentle. I like a challenge, so I'm going to help you out here."

I gave her my index finger to shake. "I'm Ashley. That's awfully kind of you, ma'am."

Gentle eyed my yard again. "Yes. It certainly is."

*

After that, Gentle asked me to bring this and that for her work, which I thought fair. If a garden faerie is willing to use her magic wand to eradicate the poison ivy climbing up the walls of one's house, it seems the least one can do in return is bring her seeds and mulch when she wants them. Granted, some of the requests were a little odder than that; however little I may know about plants, I don't think hedges actually feed on fresh snickerdoodles, and even if they did it probably wouldn't be necessary to feed them at three in the morning. Nor am I convinced that there has ever been such a thing as a "compost emergency". But I wasn't the one prying the thorny limbs of black locust trees out of the wire mesh of the fence, or removing the six-foot tall pile of dead leaves and brush from between the shed and the garage, so I did not regard myself as ill-used.

One day, I returned home to find a faerie ripping vines from the top of my fence. "Aww, I kind of liked those vines, Gentle."

The faerie emerged from the cluster of vines to stare at me, and I realized she wasn't Gentle: her hair was straight and pulled back in a single braid, and her skin a lighter shade of brown. "You liked these vines?" she said incredulously. "Do you know what they are?"

"Not poison ivy? And less ugly than the fence."

She shook a fistful of green leaves and white flowers at me. "This is Japanese honeysuckle!"

"... okay?"

"No! Not okay! This stuff is a pernicious killer! It'll take over your whole neighborhood if you don't stop it, and choke out all the native vegetation. Next you'll be wanting to plant kudzu!"

Gentle flew over to join us, landing her riding hawk on a fence post. "Hey Ashley. I see you've met Temperance."

Temperance rounded on Gentle. "Who is this nutjob mortal? Did you know she likes Japanese honeysuckle?" she said, in the same tone one might say 'she approves of genocide' or 'she murders kittens for sport.'

"She doesn't even know what Japanese honeysuckle is. Go on inside, Ashley. We've got this."

I quit the field while the opportunity was available, without even asking where Temperance had come from, or why.

*

A week later, there were two male faeries, one bright green and the other nearly white, weeding what had once been the daffodil beds around the back patio. Temperance was with them. I waved to them and went looking for Gentle. She was by the oak tree, talking to a different green faerie, this one female with red hair. I called out, "Hey, Gentle?"

"Hey, Ashley. This is Tranquility, and that pale one is Hope, and the green boy is Surety."

"Great, nice to meet you all. Say, what happened to my fence?"

"It's in the garage."

"The garage."

"Yeah, you should call someone to get rid of it. We can't dispose of metal."

"So ... is there any particular reason it's not, y'know, surrounding my property instead?"

"It's hideous?"

I allowed this to be true. "It's not exactly a weed, though. Or an invasive non-native species."

Temperance grumbled something under her breath about all human handiwork being the product of an invasive non-native species. Gentle waved off my complaint. "You don't need a fence, Ashley. It'll be much easier to take care of the garden without it. No more weeds growing through it!"

"Well, yes, but you could've asked me first."

Gentle looked surprised. "But you told me I could take care of the yard."

"Yes, but I thought that meant weeding and planting and stuff."

"Exactly! Removing the hideous fence is part of 'stuff'. Go on inside, Ashley, it's all under control."

*

A week later, I awoke to fireworks over the daffodil bed. I peered out my window to see Temperance, Hope and Surety dueling with wands. Sparks flew. Perenials perished in a hail of magic, while Hope and Surety struggled to shield them. "Daffodils are not an invasive species!" Hope shouted.

Temperance shrieked, "They're not natives either!"

"These daffodils have been here for fifty years! How much more native do you want?" Surety yelled.

"I don't know, howabout, oh, prairie?" Temperance said, aiming a defoliating blast at another dormant daffodil plant.

"Faeries, faeries, please." Gentle flew into view from around the side of the house. "Calm down. I thought we agreed the daffodils were staying?"

"You agreed." Temperance folded her arms, hovering in the air with a grim expression.

"We're not recreating the prairie here," Surety said.

"Why not?" Tranquility piped up.

"On a quarter-acre of yard?" Hope was incredulous.

"Gotta start somewhere."

I cleared my throat. "Do you think you could start some other time? Like in the morning?"

"Sorry, Ashley!" Gentle looked embarrassed. The other faeries were annoyed by the interruption.

"And maybe let the daffodils live? I like the daffodils." That made Hope and Surety happy, if not Tranquility or Temperance. I went back to bed.

*

Within a month, my yard had been divided into five separate quadrants. Temperance had planted one slope with native prairie grasses and flowers. Tranquility had done the same, but apparently they hadn't been able to agree on which plants were most native, or most in need of cultivation, or something that kept them from agreeing on the same plot of land. Hope was cultivating a flower garden with tulips and peonies around the daffodils by the back patio. Gentle had replaced the fence with hedges and berry bushes. Surety had a vegetable garden. It looked -- well, less bizarre than my dusty plantless yard had. But still pretty weird. At least the hedges screened it from casual view.

I thought that would be the end of it, until war started at dawn one day.

Afterwards, I found out it started over a tulip. One had taken root in Temperance's prairie. Temperance had come to Hope's flowerbed to insist that tulips were invasive: "They're invading right now!"

"So weed it! One tulip! Are you afraid it'll ruin the immaculate ugliness of that scrub you're cultivating?" Hope sneered.

"I'll show you ugly!" Temperance started blasting tulips in the flower garden. Hope tried to shield them. Surety counterattacked against the prairie to draw Temperance back, but he misaimed and hit some of Tranquility's plants instead, drawing her into the fight. Gentle came out from the hedge to try to restore peace, deflecting wand-bolts of vegetative death into the sky. That prompted the enraged combatants to use stronger bolts to avoid deflection and pierce shields.

No one was exactly aiming at the giant oak tree, but some of the deflected bolts hit it, and then some mis-aimed bolts struck it, and, well, it had been laboring under a blanket of poison ivy for years, as well as losing half its branches to an ice storm two years ago. It was a great sturdy monster, but the faerie war was too much for it.

It fell.

On top of my house.

That's when I woke up.

The house was not, technically, destroyed. Granted, I climbed out of my bedroom by going through one of the smashed holes in the roof, which was near ground level and had a large section of flattened wall underneath it. But most of the basement was intact, and there were a couple of walls still standing.

The faerie war had stopped by then. Even Temperance was taken aback. Hope and Tranquility were crying, over the dead oak, I think. Surety was stunned.

Gentle had dived into the wreckage to help me get out. "I ... um ... I'm really sorry about your house, Ashley."

I stood in the patch of prairie, looking at what was left of my house. And the poor old oak tree.

"We'll go now," Gentle was saying. The chastened faeries gathered around my feet.

I shook my head, slowly. "You know what ... no. You stay. I'll go."

"What?"

"My insurance covers fallen trees and Acts of Fae. And ... I think some people just weren't meant to own houses. Keep the yard." With that, I waved and walked away.

It's for the best, really. I never could take care of it on my own.

[Prompt by [livejournal.com profile] ankewehner. Tarot cards drawn were: Three of Coins, Five of Wands, and Death. I don't have the cards with me, so I'll add a photo of them when I get home.]
rowyn: (studious)
Over the weekend, I finished the last of the prompts from my first call for tarot story prompts. That means I get to do a new call for prompts! Yay!

I bought a new tarot deck from [livejournal.com profile] djinni: Tod's Creatures Tarot. This deck is illustrated with adorable cartoon animals, and very different from the Silicon Dawn deck. For one thing, having most of the figures be cartoon animals makes many of the cards feel gender-neutral, which is neat. I'll be drawing from this deck for this round of prompts. I am curious to see what effect it'll have on the stories!

If you'd like to participate:

* Provide a question/question/situation. This can be the same kind of question you'd ask in tarot reading, or it can be any random concept that interests you.

Optionally, you may also provide:

* Character(s). You may supply your own original characters (or ask for particular ones of mine). No fanfic unless one of us holds the copyright, please..
* 1-3 cards. If you want to pick one or more specific cards, you may. I will be using the versions of the cards from Tod's Creatures Tarot regardless, though, because I like being able to hold the physical cards. I'll draw three cards at random if you don't have a preference.

Note: by prompting, you agree that any stories I write belong to me and I can publish them as I see fit. (You are still free to use anything you provided in your prompt for your own stories, of course.)

Thanks for participating!
rowyn: (studious)
Angela Mercado sat at the vanity in her room, opening a fresh pair of disposable contacts and then putting them in. She rubbed at her eyes for a moment, blinking, before tweezing her eyebrows to fashionable slender arches. She curled her straight hair into loose waves, brushed to frame her face. Next came makeup: foundation the same shade as her olive complexion, smoothing out barely-perceptible blemishes in teenage skin. A hint of blush to highlight her cheeks, a hint of shadow to accentuate the hollows, eyeliner to make her eyes look larger, white on the inside, black around the edge. Eyeshadow in three different natural shades, to bring out the contours. Mascara to lengthen her eyelashes. Eyebrow pencil to darken the arches of plucked eyebrows. Glossy lipstick matched to her fingernail polish, a shade redder than her lips. A whole new face, like her own but subtly different.

Better.

Mask in place, Angela hid her school papers in an oversized purse and slung it over her shoulder, before she went downstairs to eat breakfast and catch the bus.




Before she got off the bus at school, she checked her reflection in a compact and touched up her lipstick. Angela had a secret.

Actually, she had two.

Her first class was on the south side of the second floor, but as always Angela headed to the north stairwell when she entered the first floor of the school building. On the way, she passed locker 117, where Stephen Mamarsh was stowing his jacket and getting out his school books. She gave him a little smile and a wave as she walked by.

Stephen smiled in return, his handsome face open and expressive. "Hey Angela." Her heart skipped a beat, and she paused, breathless. He usually smiled and waved back, but he hardly ever spoke, in the tumult before class. "Do you remember if the quiz in World History is tomorrow or Thursday?" he asked.

Thursday, she thought. "Let me check." She pulled her notebook from her purse and went through it slowly. "It's Thursday."

"Cool, thanks. See you later." He waved. Angela waved again and turned to the stairwell. He said my name! her heart sang.

Stephen Mamarsh was her second secret.




Being a good student was her first secret.

Oh, everyone knew that she wasn't a troublemaker, and her teachers and parents knew that she got straight As. But she was careful not to draw attention to herself in class. She didn't raise her hand to answer questions in class, and if called on, she answered slowly and hesitantly, as if she weren't sure of the answer. Even though she was. Always. She managed her homework with care so that she was never carrying more than two school books home in the evening. She didn't want anyone to think she was an egghead. No one liked a smart girl. She'd learned that lesson in junior high. And she was a good student.




Angela had lunch during fifth period. She sat every day with four other girls at a table in middle of the left side of the room. Stephen and his friends sat at the table behind theirs. Stephen sat down directly at her back today; if she turned her head, she could see his dark hair, wet and freshly-showered after football practice.

Angela's friends were talking about movies they wanted to see, but Angela wasn't paying much attention to them. She was following the conversation at the table behind her instead. Sometimes they talked about football or last night's TV shows or girls, though Stephen never seemed to have much to say about that last. Today, though, they were talking about economics. "It's a simulation," Stephen said. "If you raise the price of your goods, fewer people will buy them."

"But the real world doesn't work that way," one of his friends, Matt, said. Yes it does, Angela thought. "I mean, not if you've got monopoly power."

"That's why the real world has anti-trust laws," another friend, Jose said.

"Even a monopoly doesn't give you total market control," Stephen said.

"Yes it does. Duh. That's why they call it a monopoly." Matt again. No, it doesn't, Angela thought. There are equivalent goods if your raise your price point is too high.

"No, it doesn't," Stephen was saying. "Even if you control all the corn in the US -- heck, let's say the world -- if you raise the price to $10,000 a bushel, people aren't going to buy it. Or not very much of it. They'll do without. They'll buy wheat or potatoes or whatever."

"What if I had a monopoly on all food?" Matt asked. "People can't do without food."

"You can't have a monopoly on all food," Jose said.

"Even if you owned every farm in the world, people would grow their own food in their backyards, or hunt, rather than buy yours, if your price was high enough," Stephen said. "Look, this isn't the point."

"Howabout if I made it illegal for them to grow food?"

"Then they'd break the law. Being illegal doesn't make something impossible, it just raises the cost of doing it. If your price is high enough that the risks of law-breaking are cheaper, they'll break the law. But my point is, there's an optimum price point for goods. Based on cost of production, supply, and demand," Stephen said. "And, um, how much the most demanding consumer is willing to pay. Because selling one uint at $10,000,000 is better than selling ten thousand at $100, even if your cost of production is negligible."

"Okay ... "

"There's a formula for figuring it out," Stephen continued. Yes, Angela thought. That's what you use calculus for. "But I don't know what it is." I do.

"Don't look at me," Matt said. "I'm still not convinced markets even work like that."

"Well, I need to figure it out if I'm going to finish this paper." Stephen sounded glum. Angela tried to will the formula to appear in his head.

"So what did you think of The Hunger Games, Angela?" Michelle, sitting next to her, poked her arm.

"Calculus," Angela blurted out.

"What?"

Angela tried to cover up her mistake. "I was just thinking there's a lot of math in it. Economics, I mean." The other girls looked at her askance. "You know. The way the artificial food shortages caused by the Capital prompts District 12 residents to hunt, even though it's illegal."

Michelle gave her an are-you-crazy look, but Kiana said, "Uh-huh. You don't see it so much in the movie as in the book, but there's a lot of interesting stuff on the periphery about how what the government's doing makes them poor. It's not like there really isn't enough to go around."

Stephen leaned back in his chair to look over at them. "Hey, are you all talking about economics too?" he asked.

"Apparently?" Michelle said.

"Because I'm writing this paper, only I'm stuck ... " He explained the problem to them. "I don't suppose any of you know? It seems like it should be something simple."

"I don't think it is," Kiana said. "Simple, I mean."

Angela didn't say anything. Don't be smart don't be smart guys don't like smart girls. Stephen was giving her a pleading look. ".. do you know how to do integrals?" Angela mumbled, almost involuntarily.

"... kind of?"

"I think that's what you need."

"Really?" He passed over his notebook. "Hey, can you show me what you're thinking of?"

He's talking to me! Angela's heart sang. Yeah, so you can do his homework, her mind thought, bitterly. She gave up and wrote out the formula for him, and then drew a graph to help explain. "It's a lot easier to understand if you look at it visually."

"Wow, yeah. I didn't know you were so good at math." Stephen looked from the page to her with an admiring smile.

Angela couldn't help blushing. "I'm not."

He chuckled. The end-of-period bell rang and everyone got up to go to their next class. "Thanks, Angela!" Stephen said as he headed out.

Her stupid heart would not stop rejoicing, no matter how many times she told it she had just relegated herself forever to the status of "undateable girl who will do your homework".




On Wednesday, Stephen was standing by the school's front door when Angela walked in. "Hey, Angela!"

She couldn't stop herself from smiling. Please don't ask me to do your homework please don't ask me to do your homework, her mind chanted. "Hey," she said, softly.

"Thanks again for your help yesterday." Stephen fell into step next to her. Out of habit, Angela walked her usual circuitous route that would take her past his locker.

"You're welcome." Please don't ask me to do your homework.

"So ... I was wondering ... "

"Yes?" Please don't ask me to do your homework.

"I was going to see this play The Invisible Heart on Friday and would you like to come with me?" Stephen gabbled out in a rush. Angela blinked at him, too surprised to respond. "See it's sort of about economics but it won't be boring I'm sure it's also a romance I know that sounds weird but the troupe is really good -- "

Angela touched his arm and he cut off in mid-sentence, holding his breath. "You mean like ... a date?"

Stephen gave her a panicked smile. "Yes? It doesn't have to be The Invisible Heart we can see something else if -- "

"I'd love to."

Stephen's face lit up. "Really?" She nodded. "All ... all right then. I'll pick you up at 7?" She nodded again. "Great. Great! See you then!" He stopped by his locker and waved to her.

Angela waved back, smiling, stunned, and walked on to the north stairwell, as part of her mind filed away a new lesson: Maybe not everyone dislikes a smart girl.

[From a prompt by [livejournal.com profile] the_vulture, requesting a story using the cards from this reading. It uses more the message I got from that reading ("don't be afraid of what other people will think, and don't be afraid of using your abilities to their full potential") than from the individual cards. I think this is the first time since 1996 that I've written a story that wasn't fantasy or sf. Also, I'm now done with all the tarot story prompts. Yay!]
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Before his rounds the next day, Aunbrel stopped by the captain's office. Captain Tasker was a tall stocky woman of middle years, hunched at her desk as she went over the day's assignments. He tapped at her open door. "Ma'am? May I have a word?"

Captain Tasker waved him in. "Yes?"

"I've noticed there's something of a chronic backlog in the matter of filing reports and logging case notes in this peacehouse."

"Are you offering to fix this?" the captain asked, dryly.

"After a fashion, yes," Aunbrel said. Captain Tasker raised her eyebrows, surprised. "My nest-partner has an -- "

"Wait," Captain Tasker interrupted. "Did you just say 'nest-partner'?"

Kinsley had found out two days ago and been teasing Aunbrel about Ember ever since, along with half the peacehouse, it seemed. Aunbrel had assumed everyone knew by now. "Ember. The viper-dragon who lives with me. Yes."

"'Nest-partner'?" Tasker repeated.

"If I may continue?"

Tasker shook her head to clear it. "Go ahead."

"Ember has a knack for organization, excellent penmanship, and an eye for detail. If you are amenable, I'd like to invite her to help with the peacehouse's paperwork."

"Huh. You want me to offer her a job? I don't know that we've the budget for more clerical staff, though you're right that we could use some. Never had a viper-dragon working here before. They can write?" The captain looked skeptical.

"And sort, shelve, file, and pretty much anything you would assume one would need hands for. So far as I can discern," Aunbrel said. "If Ember's willing to do it at all, I suspect she'll be amenable to part-time volunteer work to start." It's not as though I'm paying her to index my books as it is. "If you're happy with her after a few weeks, you could see about finding room in the budget for another clerk. It might be cheaper in the long run than the mad scrambles to produce needed documents at the last moment."

Tasker snorted. "There's that. I'll talk to the Bright Lady about it. It's the sort of thing she likes to be kept abreast of."

Of course. "Thank you, captain."

When Aunbrel finished his rounds several hours later, a message from the captain was waiting for him on his desk: Bright Lady gave it her stamp of approval, send Miss Ember to see me if she's interested.




When Aunbrel returned home, Ember was working on the book project on the kitchen table again. Dinner was in the oven. "Why are you samassas?" Aunbrel asked.

Ember raised her head to give an open-mouthed smile in greeting. "Because I'm tiny," she answered, returning to her writing. "I can't take care of myself."

"You can't really believe that." Aunbrel scrounged about the kitchen drawers for another pen.

"I can't?"

"You can cook, clean, and scribe. There's plenty of humans, and elves for that matter, living independently with fewer marketable skills." Aunbrel returned to the table with pen in hand, and took a seat.

"But I can't do that outside the nest."

"Because you're samassas. You do realize that's circular reasoning?" The elf took one of the books from the waiting pile, and one of the blank cards.

"I ... yes. But it's not safe for me, going outside alone. Any larger viper-dragon could ... what are you doing?" Ember asked, a note of horror creeping into her voice.

Aunbrel paused in writing out the author of the volume on the card. "Helping with your project?"

The viper-dragon shrank back. "I'm sorry it's just there's so many and it's slow going I am trying I didn't realize -- " she gabbled, trembling.

The elf blinked at her. "Er? I'm not upset, Ember."

"butyou'rdoingmywork!"

"Yes? I can do it while we talk and I don't have anything else to do with my hands." A flash of inspiration struck him. "It's an elf thing. We don't divide up work, so there's no worries about who does what."

Nicitating membranes flicked over orange eyes. "Ohhh." She digested that, and relaxed. "All right."

They returned to their respective cards and wrote for a moment in silence, before Aunbrel returned to the previous topic. "I understand that you're small, Ember, but it's hardly as though I am invulnerable. Any large viper-dragon could eat me for breakfast and be hungry again by dinner. Any large group of any people could kill me, for that matter if they were so inclined. I am not protected by my physical strength: I am protected by the rule of law. By civilization. Those protections may have ... certain exceptions, as regards nest matters among viper-dragons." Aunbrel made an effort to keep his tone neutral. "But those exceptions only apply to internal nest matters. I checked. You are my nest-partner now. No viper-dragon may assault, detain, abduct, or even harass you without violating that law. And I daresay they know that." Ember nodded, but didn't speak. Aunbrel forged on. "I don't know if that makes a difference. My profession is to keep this city and all its inhabitants safe, and the Air knows we don't always succeed. At protecting people in their own homes, for that matter. But it is a good system, and it works well enough that I do not think you should feel a prisoner here, Ember. I don't want you to be afraid to live in the world outside these walls."

Ember shifted her coil, pensive. At length, she said, "It's ... sort of like the whole city is your nest, isn't it? This is just a little part of it. You're protecting the whole city."

Aunbrel nodded. "I am."

"And the other guardians are your nest-partners in it. They keep the city safe too."

Aunbrel involuntarily tried to envision Kinsley or Captain Tasker in the role of nest-partner. "... I ... that might be stretching the analogy somewhat. After a fashion, perhaps." He gave her a curious look. "Does it help to think of it that way?"

Ember bobbed her head, nodding. "It makes sense. And it explains why you're not here during the day."

"I was wondering about that, after you were talking about samassas not working outside the nest," Aunbrel admitted. "Because ifisith don't either, do they? They stay to protect the nest. It's only the -- the mid-sized ones that work outsized."

"The mashisith. Yes. And you're not mashisith. But you're not really leaving, you're just protecting another part of the nest. And this part is being kept safe by the other guardians. Nest-partners." Ember gave an all-over happy wriggle. "So there's no reason I can't do nest-work at the peacehouse. It's just another part of the nest!"

Aunbrel smiled. "Does that make sense? To your hindbrain, that is."

"I think so? It's ... awfully large, as a nest. And encompasses other nests in a way, which doesn't make sense. But still. I think I can do it."

"Good. Because the Air knows we could surely use your help."




It took a few days to arrive at a good routine. Ember had to be introduced to every member of the peacehouse ("It doesn't feel right if I don't even know them"), although Aunbrel cautioned her against calling them 'nest-partners'. "Especially Kinsley."

After trying a few variations, they settled on going to the peacehouse together in the morning. Ember would work half a shift on filing, deciphering and transcribing notes, and organizing documents. Then she'd return to the flat to tend to home-chores or read, and cook dinner. Aunbrel had once or twice attempted to persuade Ember that he was, in fact, capable of feeding himself. "When I got here, your larder consisted of two tins of chicken, a half-packet of stale flatbread, and the remains of a bottle of wine turned to vinegar," she'd answered.

"I like chicken."

"You didn't have salt."

His heart wasn't really in it.

With her spending part of the day out of the apartment, the place was no longer obsessively immaculate, which was something of a relief to Aunbrel. The elf was inclined by nature to be tidy, but there was something vaguely unnerving about having freshly-scrubbed ceilings. Tonight, she was making a casserole of mushrooms, spinach, crabmeat, and rice when Aunbrel returned home. He sat at the kitchen table while she assembled the ingredients, and took up one of the blank cards and a book. They were still working in desultory fashion on the index project, because it was a terribly beguiling idea once conceived.

While dinner was baking, they talked about the day's incidents; Ember took notes to write up when she was at the peacehouse the next day. When the casserole was ready, they cleared the table to eat; Ember had grown used to Aunbrel's help and no longer took it as implied criticism.

During a pause in the dinner conversation, Aunbrel sipped at a mug of warm spiced cider, watching Ember snap up bites of food from her plate with quick and oddly dainty motions. "When I first invited you to stay, I had no idea what I was getting into. I daresay if I'd had the least notion what it would be like," he paused for breath, and Ember looked up nervously before he finished, "I'd have invited you weeks earlier."

Ember's tailtip wriggled in shy pleasure. "Truly?"

"Absolutely."

Ember dipped her head back to her plate. "I feel like an awful bother sometimes, with all my irrational impulses that don't make sense to you."

The elf shook his head. "I don't know that all my habits are based in strict rationality either. Not that it's not an adjustment. And more than a bit peculiar at times. I rather feel like I'm taking advantage of you, to be honest." She looked puzzled, and he gestured vaguely around the room. "You don't need to do all of this. Cooking and cleaning and whatnot. You're not my servant."

"But I like doing it." She glanced away. "Maybe because you don't expect me to."

"If you ever change your mind, I promise not to complain if you stop. But I think I am done trying to talk you out of it." Aunbrel smiled. "In any case ... thank you for accepting the offer."

The little dragon ducked her head again. "I think I should be thanking you. This is a very strange sort of nest -- and I love it. All my life, I've been told so many rules, so many codes of behavior, all designed to keep me safe. And it seems like none of those rules matter now. And you know ... for the first time ... I actually feel safe."

Aunbrel raised his mug in salute. "To our very strange sort of nest, then."

Somber, Ember curled her tail around her glass and clinked. "May it never be normal."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
They stayed up too late talking, about everything. How to mend rugs (because Aunbrel had no idea and it seemed like magic to him, and still seemed like magic after Ember showed him, especially her deft handling of the hook and yarn with the curl of her tail). How Ember's former nest-partners had treated her on the visit ("Very well! I think we'll get along wonderfully now that I'm not living there.") Commander Lisia's informal commendation and attendant lack-of-enlightenment from her. Viper-dragon nest behavior. Elf home behavior. By the end of the evening, Aunbrel still did not feel he understood, but he was beginning to conceive that understanding was, perhaps, more journey than destination. And he might be farther down the road than he realized.

Aunbrel left Ember coiled up in her blanket on the couch, thinking I should get a bed for her in the spare room. Or something. What do viper-dragons normally sleep on? When he'd originally let the apartment, he had intended to use the spare room as a study, but all it had were more bookcases at the moment. He just hadn't gotten around to furnishing it yet.

He'd changed and settled beneath the thick furs of his blankets and was starting to doze off when a click at the bedroom door and a slithering sound snapped him to full wakefulness. "Ember?"

A little red dragon head peered at him over the side of the bed. "Um."

"Is something wrong?"

"No." Ember shifted uncomfortably. Her blanket was curled in her tail. Aunbrel waited. "It's just I know elves normally sleep alone and that's fine I'm sure I can get used to it eventually I managed to sleep last night and in the cage at jail for that matter but viper-dragons usually sleep in piles and -- "

Aunbrel threw back the covers, and bent to scoop her up. He settled her at his back, and pulled the furs back over them. "Better?"

She snuggled in against him, a warm solid weight at his back, tucking her own blanket against her other side. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Sleep well, Ember."

"You too, Aunbrel."




Four days later, Aunbrel returned home to discover Ember at the kitchen table, with dozens of small white cards spread before her, and more in boxes beside her. A dozen books were neatly stacked at her other side. Ember was carefully printing on one of the cards, using a pen held in her tail. Dinner was simmering on the stove.

"What are you doing?" Aunbrel asked curiously.

"I'm indexing your book collection."

Aunbrel blinked. "What?"

"I thought it might be useful. You've got so many! And at least a third aren't even fiction. I thought I'd make an index first, and cross-reference them by author, title, and subject matter. Then maybe regroup them by subject matter. I mean, all the cookbooks should at least be together, for example. I'm putting the entries on cards so they'll be easy to reorganize. And add to." Orange eyes turned to him. "Oh! You got a new book!"

Aunbrel set his latest purchase on the table, feeling somehow guilty. "You're indexing. My books."

"It was that or strip the kitchen table and re-varnish it, and the novelty of housework without being interrupted is wearing off." Ember looked a little anxious. "Do you think I shouldn't?"

Aunbrel leaned against the table, giving the little dragon a considering look. "I think there is a growing mound of rather more urgent paperwork at the peacehouse that would benefit from your attention."

Ember wiggled her tail, amused. "It's a pity I can't do that."

"Why can't you?"

The viper-dragon's tail stilled as she saw he was serious. "I guess if you brought it home and showed me what to do ... ?"

"No, I mean, why can't you come to the peacehouse and do it? The filing cabinets are all there. Clearly you are capable of such organization."

Ember looked agitated. "But that'd be outside work!"

"No, it's indoors."

"I mean outside the nest! I can't work outside the nest! I'm samassas!"

Aunbrel took the simmering pot from the stove, inhaling the fragrance of chicken stew and dumplings, and set it on a trivet. "Is this a problem because someone else told you it should be, or because you feel it is one?"

"I don't know. Yes?" Ember coiled up on herself, her scales rumpled.

The tall elf sat in the chair beside her. "It's all right, Ember," he said, gently. "I'm not going to make you do it if you'd rather not."

"I'd do it if you told me to," she said in a small voice.

"... is this another viper-dragon thing?"

"Yes."

"I am disinclined to ask you to do things you don't want to, Ember, much less order you," Aunbrel said. Ember didn't reply. She gathered the loose cards with her tail and tucked them into boxes. " ... do you mean that you want me to tell you to?"

"... maybe?"

Aunbrel attempted to digest this concept. "I don't think I've quite got the trick of this nest-partner business."

Ember's tail gave a weak wiggle. "Me either, and I was born to it."

"So. Why might you want me to order you to do something you don't want to do otherwise?"

"Because then I'd know I was supposed to."

"And if I suggest it but don't order it?"

"Ifisith don't make suggestions to samassas."

"May we opt out of this rule of nesting behavior?"

Ember wiggled her tail again. "I think we already did. But it's still there, in my hindbrain."

"I didn't order you to index my book collection. I didn't even ask you to."

"But that's different. It's just another part of nest-care. I'm supposed to do that. I'm not supposed to work outside the nest. I'm not even supposed to go outside the nest without an escort."

"But you have been," Aunbrel pointed out. "To the grocer's. I didn't buy fresh chicken or rosemary. And I didn't tell you to."

Ember rested her chin on the table. "I know. That feels sort of wrong too, still, and sort of wonderful. I did sneak out from the Coalstone nest a lot. It's still strange not to be sneaking."

Aunbrel took a deep breath. "Why don't I talk to the captain about you doing the work, and you can think some more about whether you want to do it? Or need me to order you to, I suppose."

She nodded, clearing the rest of the book-index project from the table so they could eat.
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
After they finished their rounds the next day, Aunbrel was in even more of a rush to leave the peacehouse than Kinsley. The elf dumped the day's notes in his drawer and headed for the door. "What's gotten into you, elf boy?" the old officer asked, shrugging out of his uniform jacket.

Aunbrel had spent the day not explaining the situation to Kinsley, and wasn't about to ruin his record now. "I am taking the admonishment that I not work so hard seriously. You should be pleased."

"Hey, did I complain you worked too hard?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. Don't know what I was thinking." Kinsley walked with Aunbrel down the steps to the main floor. "Want to get a drink?"

"No, thank you." Aunbrel crossed the big main room, headed for the door. "I just want to get ho -- "

"Commander on floor!" a senior guardian's voice barked. By reflex, every person in the large room, including prisoners, complainants, Kinsley (somewhat creakily) and Aunbrel, turned to the door and dropped to one knee, ducking their heads as Commander Lisia entered the peacehouse.

"As you were," the Commander said, her leopard pacing beside her. Everyone rose and returned to their purposes, stealing covert glances to the Bright Lady's fur robes and gold headdress. She carried a leather folder tucked beneath one arm. Aunbrel and Kinsley kept their eyes respectfully averted as they moved to the door.

"Guardian Aunbrel?" Commander Lisia touched his arm.

Aunbrel reflected that twenty-foot viper-dragons had nothing on the Bright Lady when it came to intimidation. And she's not even trying. "Yes, Bright Lady?"

"I'm glad to find you here. Might I have a word with you?"

Aunbrel wondered what he'd done wrong now. "Yes, Bright Lady." He trailed obediantly behind her as she entered the guard captain's office. The captain rose and started to kneel at her entrance, but stopped when she waved off the formality.

"Thank you for bringing the Coalstone nest matter to my attention, Captain Tasker," the Commander said. "You were quite correct; it's exactly the sort of thing I need to be informed about." The captain acknowledged this with a nod.

Ah, that. Naturally.

Commander Lisia turned back to the tall elf. "You've been causing quite a stir with the viper-dragon populace, Guardian Aunbrel. They're not used to interference in nest affairs."

"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel held himself formally, hands clasped at his back. You did say I should get a hobby.

The commander leafed through the folder in her hands, saying absently, "Some of them did not appreciate it much, although Mistress River ... I'm sorry, Guardian, were you in a hurry this evening?"

'No' was untrue and 'Yes' was impossible. "Bright Lady?"

"No matter." She closed the folder. "I appreciate your efforts. Well done, Guardian. You may go. Have a good evening." The commander turned back to Tasker, taking a seat opposite her at the desk and putting the folder on the desk. "There's a few things I'd like to discuss with you, captain."

Aunbrel stood near the door, blinking, as his superiors fell into discussion. Need warred with prudence. He opened the door, and started to step outside, before need overthrew caution and prudence both. He cleared his throat.

His superiors looked to him. "Yes, Guardian?" Commander Lisia said.

"Permission to ask a question, Bright Lady?"

A graceful nod. "Speak."

"... do you know what's going on? That is, does any of this viper-dragon business make any sense at all to you? Because if you could explain it to me, I would be forever in your debt, Bright Lady."

A small smile formed on the commander's face. "I do believe, at this point, that you understand as much of it as any other person in Hopestart, Guardian Aunbrel."

"... that is not the reassurance I had hoped for, Bright Lady."

"Now you know what my job's like. Go home, Guardian."




When he got home, Aunbrel opened the door to an apartment he barely recognized.

It gleamed.

The hardwood floor in the front room had been polished and the tile in the kitchen waxed. The rugs had been aired and beaten, making them two shades brighter, and the threadbare patches in them mended so faultlessly they looked new. The tattered sofa had been patched artfully over the top and arms. The books stacked two-deep in the row of cases against one wall had been pulled out, dusted, alphabetized, and returned with the back rows stacked atop small empty boxes so that the spines were visible above the front rows. An appetizing smell of spiced beef and vegetables wafted in from the equally-pristine kitchen.

Ember called out from the kitchen, "Good evening! I know you weren't sure when you'd be home but I thought I'd try cooking something -- I remembered you saying that the izkawa beef from A Hope in War sounded good, so I found a recipe in one of your cookbooks ...." She slithered into the front room and trailed off. Aunbrel was standing open-mouthed by the entranceway. "Is something wrong?" she asked in a small voice.

"What happened here?"

Ember coiled up on herself. "I'm sorry I just thought I should straighten up a bit and I didn't think you'd mind you said it was all right to go to the grocer's if I needed anything and well I didn't mean to mess up your books I can put them back the way they were if you don't like it -- "

The elf threw his arms out. "I don't -- " He took a deep breath. "I'm not angry, Miss Ember. Surprised. Yes. Surprised. I thought you'd spend the day reading or somesuch. Did you do all this yourself?"

"... mostly? Glasscale, you remember him, he stopped by with Mistress River to bring some of my things and they helped with getting the boxes to prop the books on. But mostly me."

"... what happened to 'I'm lazy and hate all my work'?"

"Well. It's much easier to get things done when there's no one around to interrupt me. And I couldn't spend the whole day reading. And I thought I should try to start things off right. I'm sorry."

"Miss Ember," Aunbrel said, with a straight face but a smile in his voice, "You are as bad an overachiever as I am. Is that food ready? Because I am ravenous."

Ember uncoiled, her tail giving a tentative pleased wiggle. "Yes."

The viper-dragon insisted on transfering the meal from pan to serving dish before serving. Aunbrel hadn't even known he had a serving dish. The table was already set with plates and napkins; Ember looked chagrined when Aunbrel retrieved flatware for himself. Aunbrel was somewhat relieved to see that though the scuffed kitchen table had been scrubbed and polished, it had not been stripped and revarnished. Yet. He sat in one chair while Ember coiled atop the other. They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Ember spoke. "Guardian ... do you think you could call me Ember instead of 'Miss Ember'? Since we're nest-partners?"

"Only if you'll call me Aunbrel," the elf replied.

Ember's eyes widened. "Oh, no, I couldn't do that."

"Miss Ember it is, then."

Her tail tip gave a nervous wiggle. "But you're ifisith! I ought to call you Master Aunbrel."

Aunbrel set his fork down and favored her with a look. "Don't you dare." She tilted her head to one side, puzzled. The elf sighed. "I understand this is all different from what you're used to, but I did not invite you here to be my servant. Or samassas, for that matter. I invited you as my friend. I should like us to still be friends. Ember."

She ducked her head, then opened her mouth in an imitation smile. "Me too ... Aunbrel."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
River flowed down the street faster than Aunbrel could run; when the viper-dragon realized he wasn't keeping up, she scooped him into the curl of her tail and carried him. It was the most undignified mode of travel he'd ever experienced. Even when they reached the nest, she didn't stop. He had never been inside its labyrinthine halls before, but River bore him inside now, slithering through passages into a wide low-ceilinged chamber at its heart. The room was packed with seething viper-dragons in an echo of the situation he'd first seen them in: medium ones watching, big ones circling, Ember at the center. River bored through the pack. hissing "Stop," in their native tongue. Aunbrel could not speak it, but he'd learned to understand a bit of it by now. She deposited Aunbrel in the inner ring, between two of the large viper-dragons. They hissed their displeasure.

Aunbrel got to his feet, straightening as much as he could, though the low ceiling forced him to stoop. He stumbled to Ember's side. She was missing a half-dozen scales around her neck. "How bad is it?" he asked. She met his gaze with blank orange eyes, as if she couldn't remember how to speak his language. That bad, then.

River coiled between them and the other viper-dragons, repeating, "Stop" again and again, and then something longer that he didn't understand until she repeated it in the human tongue. "This one has protected the samassas. He has a right to be here. He is ifisith. He has a right."

I am what? "Ifishith"? That's ...a nest role? Leader? Aunbrel boggled, watching the viper-dragons around him. Frequent contact had given him a better feel for their moods, and he realized that the nest was not only angry and hostile, but pained. Wounded.

"Then he should stand with us," hissed the turqouise dragon. "Why does he stand by the samassas-fith?"

"And he must agree with the amendment," the indigo viper-dragon hissed.

"No." Aunbrel hunched, his head pressed against the too-low ceiling. "You're not fixing anything. Not like this." Like a wounded animal, gnawing at its own limb in an effort to stop the pain. "Tell me what's wrong."

A half-dozen voices called out answers in the dragon tongue: even if he understood it like a native he could not have made them out. River again slithered a circle just inside the ring of the leaders made, hissing a warning. They fell silent, then spoke one at a time.

"She defies the natural order."

"Refused work."

"Spoke against the will of a leader."

"Encouraged willfulness in others."

"Resisted all prior amendment."

"She must be amended." All of the leaders hissed in unison on the final words.

This is unbearably petty. Aunbrel licked dry lips. "Who was hurt?" He turned, looking from one viper-dragon to the next. They returned blank, uncomprehending gazes. "What did she damage? Because the only injury I'm seeing right now is on her."

"You do not understand." River slid into place in the circle of the other leaders. "She damages the order. The nest cannot continue like this."

Aunbrel choked. "Is your culture so fragile it cannot abide one tiny creature questioning it?" Then why am I here?

"This is the moment of amendment. We cannot lose it," the turqoise dragon hissed. "You need to understand."

"Well I don't! She's not broken!" the elf guardian growled, "And if she was, this wouldn't fix her! This is madness!"

"There is no other way!" Coils bunched about them, necks drawn back to strike.

Aunbrel shifted to a fighting crouch over Ember, truncheon in one hand and guardian blade in the other, painfully aware that neither was likely to do him or Ember much good against six dragons several times his size. He looked from one pair of dragon eyes to the next, waiting for the first strike. The elf's eyes fell on River, as ready to attack as any of the others. Why did you bring me here? To approve? You had to know I wouldn't. Is that a dragon custom too? What are you waiting -- Realization hit him. "You don't want to do this."

"Of course not!" River roared. "Do you think we would, if we had any choice at all? The nest cannot abide this turmoil."

'And where else am I going to go?' Ember had said.

"Ah." Aunbrel blinked, twice. "Ahh. Of course. Miss Ember, would you like to join my nest?" His tone was almost conversational. Around him, viper-dragons gaped, astonished.

Ember rolled her head back to stare at him, her eyes still blank. After a moment, she gave an all-over shake of her body, as if coming back to herself. "... what?"

"I know it's not an actual nest, as such. Just a flat. And I don't have any nest-partners so it'd be very different from what you're used to. But you don't seem exactly wanted here, as you are, and I'd like your company -- I hate living alone, in truth -- so. Er. Would you?"

Ember considered this for another two and a half seconds. "Yes."

"Splendid. That's sorted, then." Aunbrel holstered his weapons and lifted Ember. "Which way is out?"

The nest around them seethed in confusion. River sidled over to make a gap in the ring. Stooped by the cramped ceiling, Aunbrel made his way to the opening.

"Stop!" the indigo dragon cried.

"This is impossible," said the turqoise. "He is not even dragon!"

"I don't see how that enters into it." Aunbrel didn't stop. "Mistress River called me ifishith. You've let me protect your nest-partners before. If I am ifishith, I may lead my own nest. You cannot abide my nest-partner's behavior, and have failed to amend it to your liking; I have no such problem. Miss Ember is no longer your nest-partner, so you need not concern yourself with her any longer. Hence. Good night." Aunbrel moved forward on chutzpah alone. If I pretend convincingly enough that this makes sense, maybe we can get out of here before they realize it doesn't.

River slithered in a U-shape around the two, leading the way to the exit as her broad length shifted aside any other dragons. She ignored the protests and confusion, and Aunbrel followed suit. When they finally cleared the labyrinthine tunnels into open air, Aunbrel straightened, flexing his shoulders backwards and sighing. "Thank you, Mistress River."

"And you, Guardian. May your nest prosper. Farewell, Ember. Know that you both are always free to visit here." The giant dragon lowered her head to Ember, who lifted hers to bump noses gently, tongues flicking out. River turned and slithered back into her nest.

Aunbrel helped Ember up to his shoulders, wincing as his hand brushed one of the bare patches of skin where a scale was missing. "Will those grow back?" he asked quietly. "Do you need medical care?"

"I'm fine, now. They'll grow back in time." Ember rested her head on top of his. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. That is, you truly are. Honestly, I hate living alone, and I enjoy your company, and ... " A sudden horrible thought struck him. "... and ... and ... I didn't just ask you to, er, become my mate, did I?"

Ember convulsed with mirth, her coil shaking around his shoulders.

"You're laughing. That means no. Right?"

She bobbed her head, gasping. "No. Nest-partner is different from mate."

"Ah. Good. Good." Aunbrel exhaled in relief, and started walking home. "You know I don't have any idea what I'm doing, right?"

Ember nodded again. "Me either." After a moment, she added, "I think I like it. Oh, and samassas aren't normally allowed to mate. That's why it was so funny. That and your panicked tone ... you don't mind that I was laughing, do you?"

"No. Why would I?"

The little red dragon nestled her head in the elf's dark hair. "No reason," she said, with a happy sigh. "No reason at all."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Three days later, Aunbrel returned with a pack half-full of books: Ember's to return to her, and a few new ones to lend. A turquoise viper-dragon answered the door, eyed him suspiciously, and left him waiting on the stoop for several minutes. At length, the same midnight-blue dragon Aunbrel had met at Mistfield Park opened the door, upper body raised to fill the entrance. Ember was just visible beyond the dark dragon's body. The scales of both dragons were raised and ruffled. "Have you found some new false charge to place upon my nest-partner's coil, Guardian?" the midnight-blue dragon hissed.

"Not at all. I am quite convinced of her innocence in all things." More than I can say for you. "I lent her a few books by way of apology for my error. I'd like to speak with her, if she's so inclined."

"She is not. Go away, Guardian."

Aunbrel looked past the large dragon to meet Ember's worried eyes. "Is she a minor?" The midnight-blue dragon stared at him, and Aunbrel continued, "I was given to understand that minor viper-dragons had very fine scales, and that the large thick ones denoted majority, but perhaps I am mistaken. Is Miss Ember a minor?"

"You know she is not."

"Then by the laws of Hopestart, she's a right to determine for herself with whom she chooses to associate. As she is not three yards away, I should like to hear her answer from her own mouth. Miss Ember?" Aunbrel met her eyes. The large wedge-shaped head of the midnight-blue dragon turned to Ember as well.

Ember lifted her head as high as she could. "I am busy this afternoon, Guardian," she said, quietly. "Would you be able to come back tomorrow?" The big dragon hissed in evident irritation at this answer.

"Certainly," Aunbrel replied. "What time would be most convenient?"

"5 o'clock?" Orange eyes darted to the midnight-blue dragon. "Please, Mistress River. I'll be done with everything by then. And I want to."

River's hissing reply did not sound convinced. Aunbrel ignored the large dragon and bowed to the small. "5 o'clock. I shall see you then."




When Aunbrel returned at the appointed hour, Ember had the door open even before he knocked. "You came back!"

"Of course." Aunbrel shrugged off his pack, pulling out Ember's books. "I still had to return these." A dragon slithered into the hall behind Ember, glanced their way, then slithered off. "Did you have a chance to finish the other Hope novels?"

She nodded eagerly, taking her books back on her tail and stowing them atop a cabinet in the wall, then offering his own back.

"How did you like them?"

"I loved them! I think the second one is still my favorite, though. I miss Rielle."

"Do you? I always thought them well rid of her and her foul temper."

"Oh, but she had such wit! No one else gets half her good lines."

"If you call sarcasm wit." Aunbrel was dubious.

"I do! I think I could forgive all her misplaced anger, to have a travelling companion who provided so much entertainment." As Ember spoke, River loomed up behind her in the entranceway. Aunbrel noticed other viper-dragons were watching them through the round windows of the nest.

Aunbrel disregarded the audience and focused on Ember. They conversed for a quarter of an hour on the stoop. At length, Aunbrel massaged at the back of his neck. "I passed a little park about two blocks from here, with a few benches. Might we go there to talk? It would be nice to speak more on a level."

River hissed. Ember glanced back to the other dragon and sunk down. Aunbrel cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"

"She is samassas," River hissed, slithering past Ember to interpose between her and the elf. The midnight-blue dragon rose up on her coils to loom over Aunbrel. "She cannot leave the nest without a protector."

"She will not be without a protector. I will be with her."

"You? An elf?" River circled around Aunbrel, looping coil on top of coil in a wide circle around the guardian's feet, head several feet above his, looking down. "What would you do if someone menaced my nest-partner?"

"I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, an official protector of this city." Aunbrel caught River's eye. "And, Mistress River, if I felt Miss Ember were being threatened, I would ask the individual, politely, to cease in such behavior."

"You would ask. I could swallow you whole, Guardian Aunbrel, and leave neither bones nor body for your fellows to find." The midnight coils drew in closer, not quite touching his legs. At the nest's round windows, the faces of other viper-dragons watched them. "So what would you do if asking were not enough?"

"Do you truly want to know, Mistress River?" Aunbrel's voice was low and dangerous.

"Yesss," she hissed.

"Then move just one inch closer."

The susurration of shifting coils stopped as the dark viper-dragon froze. She stared at him for a long moment. Aunbrel met those near-black eyes unblinking, and waited. After a very long pause, River uncoiled, widening the circle she formed around him as she withdrew, her head lowering until it was of a level with his. "You have leave to go with this one, Ember. He will keep you safe."

Ember watched open-mouthed, small pointed teeth white against her gums, as River slithered back inside. Orange eyes turned back to the guardian. Aunbrel extended his arm, and Ember climbed up to encircle his shoulders. He'd walked halfway down the block before Ember spoke. "That was amazing! I've never seen Mistress River back down from anyone, not even another dragon! What would you do if asking didn't work?"

Aunbrel shrugged. "Get swallowed whole, I suppose." Ember gaped at him. "That's a lot of extra weight for a viper-dragon to carry, even a big one. It would have to slow one down. Might give you enough time to escape. I suggest you use the opportunity wisely in the event."




After that, Aunbrel returned every few days, to exchange new books and to talk about the ones they'd already read. On the third or fourth visit, Ember asked if she could invite other viper-dragons to join them. It struck Aunbrel as the sort of thing she shouldn't need his permission to do, and he said as much.

"But may I?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course? Yes."

Then on some days it would be four or five little viper-dragons with him, some of them chattering about books and some of them just wandering around the park and enjoying the day. Sometimes Ember asked to go elsewhere: a museum, a café, a local landmark, and Aunbrel would escort her and her nest-partners around Hopestart. She lent him one of her favorite books in her native language, and a translation dictionary to go with it: Aunbrel puzzled through it slowly with her and on his own, gradually making sense of it.

On making sense of the dragons themselves, his progress was more uncertain. The large ones no longer threatened or postured at him. The small ones deferred to him. Ember, whom he saw the most, seemed to think him a friend.

That was nice.

The rest of it was as confusing as a burning labyrinth, but not all bad. If he had been sure the nest wasn't still try to 'amend' Ember via physical trauma, he might have been content.

If he had been sure.

Then, during one of his still-frequent late nights at the peacehouse, River's head appeared at his office window. "Guardian," she hissed.

"Fire and Air!" Aunbrel jumped to his feet and went to the window. River had risen two stories on her coil to stare at him through it. "What are you doing there?"

"You must come."

"What? Where?"

"To the nest." River started to slide back down the wall.

"Er. Why?"

The giant serpentine body stopped. "You said you would protect Ember. Did you mean it?"

"Yes."

"Then come."

Smoke and blazes. "I'll come. Let me assemble a squad. What's going on?"

River hissed in fury. "No! It is not their business. It is ours. You must come. Only you."

And if that doesn't sound like a trap.... "On my way. Wait for me out front."

Aunbrel stopped at the front post to tell the guardian on duty, "I'm going to the viper-dragon nest at 101st and Coalstone to investigate a disturbance. No, I don't want backup now. But if I'm not back in three hours, send a squad to find me, or what's left of me. Blazes, send a platoon."

[Did I say this story would have three or four parts? I'm thinking ... maybe seven. ]

June 2017

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