Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 2

in which a summit is held in an uncomely place

(featuring one costume change)

    Keshena had got the measure of the city from the gates.  The cold was sharp, a slap in the face that drove thoughts out of her head, and she welcomed it.  She welcomed the assiduous indifference of its people – they asked her few questions, and she answered fewer.  She welcomed the stark quarters issued her by the Kumani when she arrived, although it made changing problematic.  She’d have to look into renting a room in the Basilica.  For the moment, the other novices kept their eyes down, and so did she.  They weren’t much to look at anyway – the uniform went deeper than livery, as if the grey in their tunics stained their skin and shrunk them, transforming even the women into the same lean, ashen young men.

Without thinking much about it, she adjusted her schedule to leave her alone in the barracks when she was coming and going.  The parts of her that wanted company were still in hiding, and for now she was more than satisfied with the attention of the guild’s sour-faced head of novices.

She knew Lin was coming into the library before she arrived, before the girl’s good eye swept over her and away without recognition.  The eye noted Keshena’s nailed boots planted on the table, a victory that had driven the librarian deeper into the stacks in frustration when Keshena had merrily refused to be moved.  Al-Akir slipped on past without comment.

Tipping her chair back on two legs, the apprentice eyed the Speaker upside-down, half an amused grin on the intact side of her face.  When Lin turned from the shelves, it was to an unsettling mouth full of pointed teeth, filed into a bear-trap smile.  Too surprised not to stare, she broke stride for a moment.  Then Keshena thrust a hand backwards at her.  “Nice to see you again.”

“I’m… sorry, have we met?”

The firm grip that seized Lin’s unoffered hand was inescapably familiar, though the red curls and scarred, youthful face on the other end of it were not.  “Keshena Den Roth, at your service.”  The voice was rough, almost masculine.

The confused child of rage crawled across Lin’s face.  “Wh-what… what in the Hall?”  She snatched her hand free and dropped it to her belt.

Keshena was up before her chair legs hit the floor.  “What’s the problem, miss?”  Her hand turned, offered its palm in wary peace as Lin’s dirk approached it.  “Gonna shed guild blood in the library?”

“Is this some kind of joke?  Why did you pretend to be an old lady?”

Pocketing her hands for safekeeping, Den Roth grinned again.  “Did I?  Or did an old lady pretend to be me?  Or is someone pretending to be both of us?”  Her eyes twinkling merrily, she leaned forward to give Lin the kind of confidential wink that begged a stabbing.  “I’ll tell you this much for free, though: I really am a hundred and ninety.”

Lin tossed her hair impatiently.  “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I’ve been swinging this damn blade at mirrors for the past hour and I’m very much ready to cut a real person, or whatever you end up being.”

“That’s what apprentices are for, aye?”  Keshena spread her hands.  “But let’s take it outside.  I’ve already ruined the librarian’s day.”

Lin spun her dirk back into its sheath, and by the time it bit home there, her face too was sheathed in cool professionalism.  “I am being inhospitable.  Yes, outside.”  When she passed without a glance back, Keshena was too amused not to follow.

The novicehead had shed her silks for slacks sometime in the day since they’d met, and a good thing – the path down through the terraced farmlands was a mire of icy mud.  Among the broken hills they came to a place where the spires were almost out of sight, a pit thick with mist and little else.  Glancing around, Keshena barked a short laugh.  “Well, don’t you just know all the good spots to dispose of bodies.”

Lin turned, fumbling a flask out of her jacket.  When she spun the top off, it breathed steam, clouding the black glass surface of her left eye.  The other scrutinized Keshena suspiciously, and the expression looked quite at home there.

“Not killing you, friend.  Talking to you.  I like it here.”

Keshena snorted and reached out for the flask.  “So talk.  I don’t have any secrets.”  Her opaque smile lied.

“Mmhm.”  Though Lin gestured with the flask, she kept a firm grip on it.  “Keshena is your real name?”

“Sure is.  You might hear me referred to differently from time to time, but when I was born, they called me Keshena.”  Another slipshod grin.  “I’m pretty sure.”

Unable to keep the shadow of a child’s disappointment from her voice, Lin asked, “Are you really from Blackwall?”  She looked so dreadfully young, sometimes.

For a long moment Keshena didn’t answer, looking at her interrogator across four feet of cold mud.  Both faces hovering in unsteady air were used softly by time, if cruelly by fortune.  Keshena saw her own sharp smile turned into a leer by the ugly scar that tore up her left cheek, all in miniature, an oilslick shadow on the surface of black glass – at this range she could examine the peculiar prosthesis in detail.  It looked like a marble, perfectly smooth, not quite opaque but depthless, had been inserted behind Lin’s lid where perhaps once an eyeball had lived.  Or perhaps the gods had touched her, turned her eye to stone.  Stranger things happened in the Reach.

Lin’s face around the false eye was twisted by the curved surface of her flask, the dark, squinting little face of a desert imp.  In unison both women tilted their heads, a habitual gesture that cast a sheaf of fringe – red curls, black silk – over the damaged half of each face.  Keshena grinned again, real warmth fighting the sneer and winning by a hair.

“Yeah.  I am.”

“So then… what ARE you?”

Laughing, Keshena thumped her chest with a small fist.  “Human.  I bleed when you stick me, aye?  I’m an apprentice with the Kumani Defenders as of last afternoon.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the Reach before, but like I said, I don’t remember my first century all that well.”

Lin’s frown had softened a little.  “I want to be able to trust you.”

Keshena’s fear had gone, what little had trespassed.  She had been ducking her death a long time, and now she was certain that whatever else Lin might be concealing, all of the blades were on the outside.  “You’re Kumani, I’m Kumani.  From what I understand, distrust is kind of how we get along, right?”

“No.”

Keshena regarded her with a raised eyebrow.

Gesturing emphatically with the flask once more, Lin took a step forward.  “Not anymore,” she said, “We’re professionals, not mercenaries.  We’re Defenders.  We are goddamned Knights, Keshena.”

Keshena took the flask from her with a careful hand.  “Knights,” she said, keeping her interest and skepticism both pitched low.

“I don’t blame you for the impression.  I mean, a few of us are old – a very few older than you, if what you say is true.”  Lin began to pace, circumnavigating the worst of the mud.  “The old guard is slow to change, and they were given appalling license not so long ago.  The Kumani have always run Lion’s Reach, sometimes openly, more often not.  That’s not going to change.  But the city could change, could grow, if we didn’t have to spend so much time policing our own.  I… I don’t mean to rant at you; it’s just that this is so rarely expressed.  If we can’t trust our family, who can we trust?”  She glanced up, smiling faintly.  “You can’t live like that.”

“You can’t live like that,” Den Roth echoed, squinting into the flask, then sniffing at it.

“I don’t need anything from you that will make you vulnerable, Keshena.”  Lin ran her fingers up into her hair, exhaling slowly.  “I just don’t want to see you become another problem.  There are plenty – too many who are past their trials and ought to know better – who take our training as tacit permission to act like thugs.”

The stuff in the flask was bitter and hot enough to burn.  Keshena rubbed her numb tongue against the roof of her mouth a moment as she thought.  As if on its own initiative, one hand crept up her face, plucking at her temple where the deep gash began.  Her fingernails seemed about to cut into her flesh, and then the scar peeled away to leave a paler streak across her skin that ended in an unharmed mouth.  She held out the remains to Lin.   Between her fingers was a little shred of painted cloth and the wooden bit that had held her lips in their perpetual sneer.

“All right,” she said quietly.  “I’ll try to be someone you can trust.”

 

*******

 

The apartment was cheap, and cold enough to frost under the door.  Keshena ducked her head to miss a hanging line of clothes, then pushed through two more before she stopped shivering.  From here the door was out of sight.  The bare stone floor, covered everywhere else in piles of clothes and ephemera, in this back corner was exposed to the wan sunlight that seeped through the slit window.  On her right, a softer pile still held the imprint of her body.  On her left stood the only thing of real worth she owned: a triptych mirror large enough to reflect every inch of her as she began to shed her clothes, and then her skin.

The woman who had entered the room was six feet of grim, scarred mercenary.  Keshena Den Roth – the name on the rental agreement – dressed in black leather and linen, and the man who had watched her skeptically as she moved in crate after crate of mismatched clothing had thought her a woman not worth questioning, so long as her money stayed good.  He hadn’t been watching when she came home this afternoon, or he would have noticed the absence of the ugly scar that had cut her left cheek from temple to lip.  It was in her pocket; Lin had been interested, but hadn’t touched it.

She stepped out of her boots, down from six inches of cleverly concealed built-up heel, and kicked them aside.  The armor went with more care onto a shelf, and then the under-armor.  She glanced up, but her eyes avoided the mirror as she ran her hands into her red hair.  Sighing, she closed her fingers, as if to tear at the curls, and gently tugged the wig free.  It went on a bare wooden head on the half-buried mantel, next to a hirsute row of others.

The woman who stood before the mirror was not much over five feet, and slighter by far than the burly mercenary, but she didn’t scrutinize herself.  She kept her eyes down as she poured water from a pitcher into a basin, as she shivered through a cursory scrub with a cloth that brought away more cosmetics than dirt, as she peeled away scar after scar.  They lined up on a tray, little shreds of cloth and putty.  And then, without once meeting the eyes of the woman she’d revealed, she opened a box of paints and began to bury her again.

To Fractal in Motion

To Fractal in Motion, traveler, Penitent, Pilgrim, Disciple of the Sacred Teapot:

You speak truly when you say no one can fix you… but I think not in quite the way you mean. None of us can be fixed, not because we are not broken – we break each time we make contact with one another, for things in this universe are not meant to truly touch, are they? Your Little Gods, your atoms, never brush against one another, live always in their sparkling cloud of probabilities.

But we do. What occurs at the intersection of two sentient phenomena – I say phenomena, my friend, because I have counted many very personable Occurrences, Axioms, and the occasional Force among my beloved – is very literally metaphysical. To transcend the physical. When we interact, we touch, in a way no other particle in this universe can. And so we break. Fragile, never touched before, our skin cracks at the slightest contact, and we feel that we will shatter.

In that moment, we discover the only true opposition to entropy: our evolution, our becoming. Molten gold runs in the cracks and you are remade, the same but not the same, for now every inch of your soul is a map of where you fell apart, these scars not hidden but gilded.

So I agree that no one can fix you. You are fixed already, Wandering Gyre, Restless Spiral. The entirety of your pain, your loss, your forgetfulness, your destruction and reincarnation, are encompassed in this moment, in who you are. And so too are the things that enabled you to survive those events – the gold that holds you together.

Only when we make contact can we be broken, and only when we make contact can we be reforged. No one can fix you… but no one can fix themselves alone.

To Fractal in Motion

To Fractal in Motion, traveler, Tender of Stellar Weeds, Cold Wind and Wakefulness, Smell of Molten Silver:

There is so much worry in your letters.  I am sorry it’s taken me so long to answer – I have been immersed in your past.  It is interesting to hear the resonance between the words of years ago and these words you send me now – as if the same melody were played on the same instrument, but by a different musician.  There is not so much discordance between the two as you think, nor so much as I believe you hope.  The primary change I perceive is a distance that seems to have done you good.  In your journals, you are drowning in your own thoughts.  Now I believe you are merely submerged in them.  Perhaps you are learning how to swim.

I wonder – do you still perceive yourself as containing multitudes?  The iterative soul you contain seems to cause you grief, to scrape against your insides.  I see it pushing up your skin, rattling your ribs like a cage.  If it were within my power to reshape you with my fingers, I believe I could create a cage you would like better… but you may never find a physical embodiment that truly feels like home to you.  Perhaps you are late in your journey, impatient with this realm, eager to move on to the next.  Still… though you wear your humanity like an ill-fitting suit at times, you are human underneath as well.  Heartbreakingly so.  I have never known a human like you, and it seemed to me when I met you that perhaps I had never known one before.  The exception that proves the rule, I believe is the phrase?  Perhaps you wear a disguise to hide from yourself.

I hope you feel that today you have woken up, if only for a moment.  I hope you breathe in deeply this morning and taste each ray for its different flavor.  There is a flower in the garden to whom I have spoken your name – she nodded, and promised to keep you in her thoughts all day.

Shadowplay: Act 1, Scene 1

in which our fairweather heroine observes environs of Lion’s Reach

and encounters the Speaker for the Kumani

    Lumps of spine stood out on the old woman’s bent back when she pulled the cloak tighter around her.  Her filthy toenails jabbed through her worn leather shoes, which barely separated her soles from the pitted, winding track, and didn’t separate them at all from the muddy snow.  There were faster ways to get to Lion’s Reach, she thought, feeling a familiar resignation.  Doing it as a younger woman would have been chief among them.

She gained the crest of the hill and stopped to heave and hack a bit – all for show, a show with no audience she could see, but someone was always watching.  The eyes that took in the bleak, frostbitten hills were cloudy, and should have appeared vague, but ate up the view with youthful hunger.  For a moment her spine straightened, and the knotted stick in her hand hovered an inch above the ground, forgotten.  Then the old woman bent again, shriveled up again, and plodded on into the foothills.

At the start of this road the shivers had been half window-dressing, but by the time she passed the first guardpost of the Reach the snow had begun again.  She had never been this far north in her long, long life, and she wasn’t dressed for it.  That was all right.  She would freeze awhile.  Warm clothes would come, along with a fire, and maybe a place to sleep.  But in their order.  The old woman was good at waiting for her cue.

She suspected the guards were nearby long before she saw one.  As fallow farmland turned to the sprawling outer mess of a city, other travelers joined her on the track, coming and going.  They were ordinary enough – farmers with carts, peddlers, hunters, mercenaries.  The guards didn’t have anything in particular in common; there was no uniform, no insignia, not a weapon in sight.  But the old woman had worn others’ faces too long to miss the way a man moves when he plays a role, the unconscious consciousness of being watched.  A wild impulse rose in her, to reach out and twist the wrist of the sloppy young man with his foot up on the fencepost she was passing, to see how quickly and from where he would produce his blades.  She swallowed the urge, only offering him a vague smile when he looked her way.  She felt him assess her and quickly forget her, and was warmed by pride.  The Kumani, too, could be fooled.

Stone underfoot made the going less painful, but more treacherous.  Several times she slipped and staggered, or had to jab her stick into the crevice between cobblestones to keep from toppling over.  Pretending to break a hip would take time out of her day, but she’d do it if she was clumsy enough to make it necessary.  She paused in the shelter of the inner gate, and retreated into a corner to fumble a crumpled scrap of paper out of her cloak.  The guards’ eyes were on her – much more obviously now, and these young men and women did wear uniforms, green and grey and gold, and shining weapons that would probably prove far less effective than the hidden ones.  But her destination was not one of the many things she had to hide, and her other secrets would keep themselves, or not.  There was nothing to do about it now.  Once you got out on stage, you carried on with your chin up whatever happened, and never mind if your garter’d come undone.

She mumbled through the directions just loudly enough for the sharp-eared fellow behind her to hear, and his scrutiny slackened, though it never entirely faded.  The sense of being watched was everpresent.  The other citizens seemed to feel it too – this was not a city where one strolled, or promenaded with one’s head held high, although that might have had just as much to do with the vicious weather as anything else.

“North on Basilica Street, down to the end of the western atrium, then south before the last shop door…”  She shuffled off.  Great limestone walls surrounded her and hemmed in passers-by until the heat of their combined commercial exertions melted the falling snow at shoulder level.  The shopkeepers offered the same blandishments as anywhere else – clothes, candies, gifts for your lady – but these clothes were clotted with fur, and these ladies liked knives for gifts.  The old woman thought some of the candies might be poisoned.  At least one of the shiny lumps of sugar she was offered had a fat black spider entombed in it.

Basilica Street became, at some indeterminate point, an actual basilica, the mottled grey sky giving way to arches and lamplit naves.  At the intersection of the atria she stopped and looked up.  She wasn’t the only one doing so – other newcomers stood to gawk, and others also had to lean on their sticks to keep the sudden vertigo from toppling them.  The great central spire of Lion’s Reach was a spiraling shell of mezzanines as tall as the mountain that supported it.  Here oil-burning lamps gave way to cantilevered constructions draped with cables, and at the end of each cable, a clouded orb emitting steady light.  Far above her, she saw a thin man climbing across to service a flickering globe, and when he reached it, he cupped the air around it and whispered to it until it began to behave.  Magic and mathematics… the major exports of Lion’s Reach, when you left aside skullduggery.

Shop doors siphoned off portions of the crowd down the western atrium.  She smelled sausage and gravy and beer, hearty northern food that made her salivate.  She couldn’t afford to get much fatter, but a pound or two of insulation wouldn’t go amiss.  The shops declined sharply in quality as she neared her destination, and the browsing first became cursory, then ceased altogether.  The old woman nearly missed the alley pinched between a bar and a blacksmith.  No one followed her when she turned down it.  No one visible, at any rate.

The Basilica had an almost geological way of blurring the line between indoors and outdoors.  The alley became a series of storerooms, with the old woman shuffling along a clean track through inches of crates and dust.  The storerooms became staircases that threatened in earnest to break her hip.  Her fingers followed the groove in the wall that served for a banister, and found ice there.  It was two sharp doglegs before she came to the first light, a greasy lantern leaking an amber streak down the stone.  Then two more flights – must be descending into the very heart of the mountain, here – and an arch guarded by a pair of guttering braziers that failed even to melt the frost at their feet.  Following her directions closely, but not aloud any longer, the old woman made three turns past forbidding halls – but what hall was not forbidding, in this place – and then the black stone opened around her.

The air was wet and chill, cavelike, and she raised her head to follow the natural rise of the ceiling into a towering cavern.  It was as if the spire above were mimicked in the earth below; as if the entire mountain were hollow.  Pale, cold lights adorned a complex built of black glass, or so it appeared.  A cascade of water fell from the darkness into a glowing lake, which itself poured off a cliff’s edge into unknowable depths.  And there were people here now, moving silently on floors that reflected the soles of their shoes.  They looked at her as she came among them, with curiosity but not much concern.  She looked in return, carefully.  There were still no visible blades.  But as well as she knew her cues, she knew that she had come to a place she would not leave.  Either she would earn her place here, or she would die.  The thought, and the environs, suited her mood.  She was glad to be cold, glad to be frightened.  It had been a long time.

The library tunneled into the cave wall, and for the first time in this city she came upon a closed door.  Air like the breath of a forge struck her in the face when she turned the knob.  Scholars bowed over books, surrounded by braziers much more carefully tended than those outside.  So much fire so near to such a mass of ancient parchment… but better than the cave’s damp.  She could see a handful of dark-clad soldiers in the war against mold, shuffling and airing old volumes.  And near one of several enormous hearths, she spied her contact, if the description was to be trusted.  She closed the door firmly and tottered into the warmth.

Her hand fell on the shoulder of the young woman by the fire.  Pale as milk and skeletally thin, the very hand of Death, it looked a fright on the girl’s dark skin.  A habitual scowl was raised to meet her greeting, and the elder smiled inwardly.  This was the right soul, indeed.  There couldn’t be two here wearing a black stone in place of one eye.

“This is a private guildhall, ma’am!” the girl snapped.

“Al-Akir, yes?” the old woman said.  “Did you not invite me?”

The girl first stared, then cast her eye around the library to squelch any other stares with a curled lip.  “Lin al-Akir, yes.”  She bounced out of her chair and offered a small brown hand.  “I’m the Speaker here.  You must be Keshena; I’m sorry, I was expecting…”

Again the touch of that withered hand, cold as the stone and trembling very slightly.  “Go on,” Keshena murmured, stepping closer.  “What is it that you expected?”

Lin pursed her lips.  “I don’t mean any disrespect, ma’am, but our discipline and training requires a great deal of physical activity, and –“

The claw tightened on Lin’s fingers with sudden, startling force, and the old woman’s eyes crinkled along well-worn seams.  “Try me before you dismiss me.  If I surprise you, I’ll surprise your enemy, hmm?”

With an uneasy frown, Lin tightened her own grip.  “…Who are you, old one?” she whispered.

Keshena’s colorless lips stretched around a grin, and for a flickering second the eyes went pale and sharp – and then the clouds of cataracts rolled in again.  “You may never know, dearheart,” she whispered.

Shock kept Lin still, both hands clasping the old woman’s as one would cup a live moth.  Then with a blink, surprise retreated, masked beneath reserved courtesy.  “Right.  Feel, ah… free to sit, if you wish.”  She took her own seat again, folding her legs beneath her, and leaned over the arm to retrieve a small lute from her satchel.  Keshena took the nearest chair with clear relief that was only half feigned, and watched the girl’s fingers travel the strings aimlessly.

The meandering music calmed Lin’s nerves, and at length she found her way back to her usual line of questioning.  “Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Keshena let the question lie there for a moment.  She kept the smile off her face, but amusement bubbled up inside her – the privilege of age was to inconvenience the young, and she always enjoyed it.  “Ah… Blackwall.  Once upon a time.”

“Blackwall?” Lin gasped.  “Gods, that must have been… it was before my time.  My father claimed he grew up there.  I hardly believed the city was real.”

The old woman sat almost unnaturally still, her tremors gone with no fidgets to replace them.  “It was stinking and cold,” she said.  “I lived there a long time… kept pigeons on the roof.  Then the plagues came.  When the downstairs neighbor died, I thought I’d best get out ahead of it, hmm?”

Confusion returned to Lin’s eye.  “But that was just a story – the plagues and all that.  It was a war, wasn’t it?”

Again the rattling laugh.  “Hard to say what’s a story anymore.  So let it be a story, then.  In this story, I kept pigeons on the roof, and a plague killed the old ladies and old men when I was… I was… forty?  And I left.  And then there were swamps and ruin where the city had been, and my house was gone.”

“There has to be more, then.  I mean, with all due respect, ma’am, I can’t see what would make you come up north.  This climate – and this city…”  Her tone became detached, respectful by habit but dubious by nature.  “I mean, it’s clean here, and very lovely, in a dark sort of way.  But the people here, they’re as filthy as the pictures of Blackwall in books.”

Keshena rolled her shoulders with a creaking that sounded as if she might need putting back together afterward.  “We all have our reasons, Miss al-Akir.  Perhaps we’ll trade sometime.”

The touch of a hand on her arm caused Lin to look sharply after the old woman’s, but both were in plain sight and behaving themselves.

“Miss al-Akir?”

A young man held out a sheaf of notes, nearly striking her in the nose with them as she turned.  Snatching them out of his hand, she spread them across her knees, keeping her good eye half on Keshena all the while.

“I feel as if I should be asking about you, but I don’t know quite what to think,” she confessed to the ancient.

Keshena tilted her head.  “Why’s that, d’you think?”

“It’s sort of my job.”  Lin turned over another page, frowning.  “But you… it feels rude to interrogate you.”

The old one closed her eyes, her thin lips bending slowly.  “You’re too young for your job, and I too old for mine.  You needn’t hesitate, girl.  I barely remember my first century, so you couldn’t intrude there if you tried.”

A page fell to the floor, sending the student to his knees to save it from the fire as Lin gaped at the old woman over his head.  “Gods…”  She clapped a hand over her mouth, her cheeks coloring at her own rudeness.  “I-I’m sorry, but… how old are you?”

Keshena eyed her with deep amusement for a moment.  With sudden clipped precision she said, “One-hundred ninety-three years old.”  Then in her former wandering tone, “Or… thereabouts.  Give or take.  You know.”

Lin shook her head slowly, stammering with exaggerated courtesy.  “Well, we have few near your venerable age in the guild, ma’am, but I’m honored.  The guild, that is; we are.  I, ah, hope you like it!”  The student fumbled his notes back into her lap and she scrambled to gather them as Keshena rose laboriously to her feet.

“Like it already,” she answered.  The words it would have taken to stop her from straying away were one too many things to hold onto.  A practical creature, Lin kept her grip on the pages in her hands and the comprehensible world, letting the ancient novice totter toward the door with only a speculative glance to chase her.

Captain’s Log: M1.337.12.9021 Enasa

                “Captain’s Diary:

                An hour out from Enasa System and within shouting distance of civilization.  The ship is dirty and so am I; the dry shower doesn’t wash off everything, especially when a prudish AI won’t let you get naked in it.

                We’re riding pretty light, lighter than I’d hoped.  But Enasa is an export kinda place, so I hope to pick up some cargo there, even the wiggling kind.  Got to meet with Gerund before I do anything else, but I’m expecting a few hours’ layover for refueling and a couple minor tune-ups.  The back loading bay is –“

“A few hours?  Captain!”

I spin slowly in my chair and almost miss my navigator’s pratfall onto the bridge.  Don’t get up.  If I jumped up every time she fell down, it’d qualify as cardio.  She scrambles to her feet, red curls in her red face.

“Captain, c’mon, only a few hours after three weeks in space?  We can’t even get drunk in a few hours!”

“Then you’re not doing it right, Arrow.”  I turn back to the console, though barring any unforeseen low-atmo collisions or newly-birthed black holes, the ship will bring itself in just fine without my help.  “And if we’re going to hang out on any planet, I’d just as soon not do it on Enasa Five, thanks very much.  Too many folks there think I owe ‘em something.”

Arrow takes her seat next to me – she actually has something to do there, checking our arrival time and making sure we have the right instructions and clearances from the port authority.  I bring up my mail on my side of the screen.  She’s not using it, right?

A few items of local and semi-local news – boring.  Threats and offers from people I don’t really want to see – also boring.  Message from an old friend tagged “personal” – promising!  Pop THAT one up…

Ah, Celestine.  A lady from a little red planet overheated by the smaller of the binary pair 1 Areitis.  She helped me out of a nasty spot on her homeworld a few years back, and we’ve kept in touch ever since.  Her mails are mostly chatty nothings about her family; she has about eighteen siblings – ‘scuse me, “broodmates.”  But this time, there’s an attachment.

My navigator grumbles as another binary system fills the screen, a pair of teal tits unrivaled on three neighboring planets.  Arrow is not impressed; she’s seen these tits before, but I have a rather more refined appreciation for –

Dangerous obstruction of workspace detected!  Elevated levels of hormone production detected!  Ship is beginning final approach to port on Enasa 5 and I must recommend complete focus on safe docking procedures and protocols!”

I snarl and thump the console as those precious orbs disappear from view.  “HELOISE!”  But there’s no point in arguing with a computer.

“Shoulda known better, Boss,” Arrow says.  “Celestine always sends ya stuff Heloise doesn’t like.”

“You get yourself back to work, or it’ll be your tits obstructing the visual field.”  I storm out of the bridge and take my elevated hormone levels to the shower.

No idea where this “cold shower” myth got started; the few times I’ve tried it, I’ve only managed to shock my erection into further aggression, but I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing about bathing in space that dims the libido, or does anything else, for that matter.  There’s nothing like a good shower, and this is nothing like a good shower.  I stand there squinting in my boxers as various supposedly cleansing powders puff into my face, feeling like nothing so much as a chicken wing being breaded.  As I try to ignore it, my mind is drawn irresistibly back to those tits.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m a soft touch or anything.  I’m parsecs out of my teens, and ordinarily it would take more than a picture of a rack – even one of the Local Group’s great racks – to put me in such a frustrating state.  But this I blame on Heloise.

She’s old gear, real old.  Came with the ship, and when I tried to replace her after I discovered her irritating proclivities, I found out that this old boat can’t even run without her anymore.  Might be her fault.  I wouldn’t put it past her to have worked her way into the other systems and made them all do her bidding.  At any rate, if I ever get my hands on the man who programmed her – or woman, more likely – I’ll let him stew on the ship with her for six months and then strangle him with his inhumanly distended member.

Heloise has a long list of things she won’t allow on board, but it’s the sexual prohibitions that get in my way.  That and the “no nudity in showers” thing, that’s just ridiculous.  She can detect elevated hormone levels anywhere inside the ship, and boy does it make her holler.  You try to maintain an erection while a computer-generated old lady scolds you.  Maybe there are guys who like that, I don’t know.

At any rate, by the time we’ve been a few weeks in space and I’ve gotten shouted at every time I even put my hands in my pockets, I get to a point where frankly, Celestine’s tits are overkill.  I can set Heloise off by looking at virtually any rounded surface in the engine room.  And while we’re on the subject, I think shipboard mechanics must be about as hard-up as I am – why must every stationary surface in there look like a shiny, upturned bottom?

I reenter the bridge, nicely floured but not especially less filthy in either mind or body, to hear Arrow giving our credentials to the port authority.

“This is navigator Arkina Arrow for transport ship Needlessly Large under the command of Captain Roderick Zarkov.  You should have our cargo report now.  Requesting permission to dock.”

“Transport Needlessly Large, your cargo has been approved and you have permission to dock in hangar 24.  Be careful coming in, it’s a busy day down here.”

“Thank you, Enasa.”  She clicks off and turns on me as the ship eases itself down through the atmosphere.  “I wish you’d change that name again.  Or change it back.  I feel like an ass every time I have to say it.”

“It’s not wrong, though, is it?” I answer, taking my seat.  I like to be in the captain chair when we come in to port.  “You’re lucky Heloise does all the work of squeezing us into those little hangars.”

Arrow sees my eyes glaze over.  “Oh my god,” she laughs.  “You’re fantasizing about a ship going into a hangar.  That’s what’s happening right now.  Do me a favor, Captain.”  She gets up and goes to do whatever it is she does when we’re landing.  Maybe the shower works better for her.  “Try to get laid while we’re in port.  I’m sure you of all people can manage that in a few hours.”

Shadowplay: Prologue

She’s going to fall.

It’s not the dirt her boots have churned to bloody mud.  She’s up to her ankles in it, rooted like a tree, couldn’t be more stable.  In fact, it’s going to take the blow of the hammer currently headed for her back to even knock her free.  She goes to her knees, and she’s going to fall, but not yet.  Gets up, swipes mud and hair out of her eyes.  Looks around.

    The man with the hammer was just passing, giving her a lively little tap like a hello.  Now he’s going, and now he’s falling, and now he’s dead with his blood on her face.  There’s a smiling face behind him that she knows.  Breath comes back into her lungs, thick with smoke.  For a moment she’s human again.  Then the burly Paladin is no longer smiling, but taking her arm and turning her, giving her a mighty shove – she’s going to fall.  But not yet.  Back to work.

    She steps as he taught her, ducks a slash, puts her weight behind the sword in her right hand.  Sliding it in is easy – the tip finds the seam in a blackguard’s plate and nuzzles into warm, wet depths.  She can’t stop the subtle eroticism that prickles across her skin, the irresistible association.  It’s driven out first by shame, and then by the unbalancing jerk of her arm when the blade catches in his chain.  He turns, baring bleeding gums and shoving his shoulder into her chest.  She’s going to fall.

    Instead of toppling back, she leans forward, pulling on one blade to bring the other around opposite it.  Blind, she finds the corresponding flaw on his other side, and embraces him until her swords cross in his gut.  The weight of his body goes forward instead of back, and this time her swords come free.  His blood is red.  This one was human.

    She straightens up and snaps her wrists, sluicing blood from the fullers.  She’s looking for her company, for any sense of structure in this melee.  Strategy goes to shit down here.  She can’t remember anything but the faces she should see nearby, and she doesn’t see them.

    But there’s her Paladin.  His head is high, his gold hair dark with sweat, his face muddy and teeth clenched.  There is no battle-joy in his face, only grim serenity, the sorrowing face of an angel with a sword.  Not far away, but there’s nothing she can improve by moving closer.  Concentrate.  Give him room to swing.  He’s not going to fall.

    Dim through the blood-fog, she can see the White City’s minarets in the east.  She moves back toward them, scanning the faces she steps over for the men of the Seventh Company.  Now there you are.  Pain as dim as the sun-drenched spires, only a cold inventory at this distance, crossing off names.  Too many.  Far too many.

    “SHENA!”

    Wet curls fly and her head comes up, a lovely, unwonted curve to her neck as she turns, and the start of a smile that is more than reflex.  He’s just in sight.  His face is so pale!  She opens her mouth to call out in answer… and kisses the axe now crashing into her face as it opens her from lash to lip.  Can’t smile anymore.  Can’t see.

    She’s going to fall.

Well, here we are

Beginnings are the worst.  I have no idea how to start this.  Let’s just shove it off the gangplank and get goin’.

Welcome!  I’ll be updating the “Stories” section with stories, obviously, and this blog with commentary, bitching, and TMI.  If you’re good, I might post pictures of cats.

All stories are to be considered NSFW and inappropriate for children.  Please be 18, or at the very least lie to me about your age so my ass is covered.  Feel free to take off your pants – I feel that’s the best way to enjoy my work, as that’s how I write it.