Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”


“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”


Where the Word Things Are

Way back when, roughly a thousand internet years ago (last September), I mentioned that I missed being asked about my research. Now, I get asked about my writing. It’s happened more than once, and sometimes happens even with relative strangers. It’s one of the dubious perks of being a writer. Theoretically, I’m always working on something. Sometimes I’m actually working pretty hard and I can answer with a smile. Other times it feels more like being buttonholed by my advisor in a hallway with questions about my dissertation progress.

With the exception of NaNo, when I was able to twist the contours of my life to make a bar graph go up, I’ve never been especially good at steady, smooth progress. I tend to keep plinking away at a project bit by bit, then claim a day or two for it and make substantial progress. Editing is more variable. Figuring out what’s broken and managing sentence or paragraph level fixes is fast work for me. (I credit my time with student papers for some of that.) Fixing large-scale problems is almost always slower, in part because I’m no better than most at killing my darlings. I also generally try and work my fixes out completely in my head rather than in intermediate, less-broken-but-not-fixed drafts.

At any rate, I haven’t written much lately about what I’m writing. Art is like a gas: it expands to spill the available space. Deadlines that don’t have a paycheck attached to them are easy to push back in favor of spending time with the partner, the kids, or, you know, sleeping. Here, though, are updates on my two current projects, with some brief excerpts.

The Dinadan Novellas

I wrote these over the course of several years for RetroMUD. I have a whole post about writing “inside” game worlds that will double as the prologue to an ebook collection of three novellas featuring Dinadan Whistler, a satyr bard. The first, Homecoming, is at its heart a father-son story, though it’s got its share of action and innuendo. The third, Dinadan Noir, is, as the title suggests, a detective story. It also involves shoes.

The second, Something Fishy, was originally written on a strict, self-imposed timetable. I produced two posts (of six hundred to a thousand words) each week until it was done. I managed that part of the goal. The problem was that I began without a solid outline, changed my mind about the plot several times while writing, and ended up with a lot of crap. It was, in miniature, an example of the kind of trainwreck NaNo can sometimes produce. I’ve blown up the middle third of the story, re-conceived the ending, and am slogging through the work of actually re-writing it all.

From Homecoming:

Dinadan finished replaying the fight in his head. “Nope. He couldn’t have been after me. In fact, I don’t think he even expected me to be here.” He looked hard at his father. “If I hadn’t been there, you’d probably be dead. I was sitting between you and the door, and he had to take a few swings at me before he even got to you. By then, I was able to hit him with some spells, and Lackhorn got his hammer out. Plus, the uruk didn’t follow when I ducked out of the way.

“So here’s the question, dad: why would the Unseelie be after you?”

Glim sighed. It was apparently contagious. “Honestly, Dina, I dunno. I was never more than a lady’s doorwarden, and I can’t on me life figure out why she’d send someone after me. Especially an Unseelie.”

The young bard did a double take. “Wait. You were a guard? For a Seelie lady?”

“Aye. Proud member of the Fighter’s Guild, too. Ye don’t think they just let Gifted ones in, do ye? No guild’d ever fill their ranks if they made queer souls a joining mark. Did ye think I’d been a woodcarver all my years?”

“Well,” Dinadan stammered, “yeah. I did. It’s not like you ever mentioned it.”

Glim shook his head and smiled proudly. “I didn’t get these muscles wielding a chisel, boyo.” The smile fell away. “But I retired near 80 years gone.”

From Dinadan Noir (where I’ve shifted to first person narration):

Playing the bravo is good fun. Bards don’t often get to throw their weight around—not that I’m heavy, mind. Whip-thin and resilient, that’s me. Anyway. There’s something entertaining about staring down bruisers who, if they stopped to think about it, could pound you flat in a fistfight, about making a hard line of your mouth and steel of your eyes when—inside—you’re laughing at the gulls. If push came to shove, of course, I’d be chucking spells, not knives. And part of the reason I could pull off the bluff was that it wasn’t really a bluff.

Digression is a professional hazard.

I put on my swagger suit and willed myself to Igneous. If you’ve never been there, keep it that way. The place is all twisted windows, crooked walls, and the muted stink of death. And chilly. I half-think that’s why so many undead call the place home. It’s always cool in Igneous, not quite cold, but cool enough to slow down rot. Never mind that the place is crawling with necromancers who’ll patch up your lifeless husk to your exact specifications. I drew plenty of stares just for being on the living side of the grave. I stared right back, a hairsbreadth grin letting them know I meant business.

Igneous is an easy place to get jumped, and a hard place to get found. It took me the better part of an hour just to pick the right bar, and I dropped two cutpurses and a gorgon mugger in that span. All, might I add, without recourse to a single blast of sound. I might not have been a brilliant swordsman, but I was good enough to take down gutter trash. The fellows in the Worm’s Abode were a step above gutter trash, though, and I made sure I picked out all the exits when I walked into the place.

The goal is to have the collection (which will also include some songs I wrote “as” Dinadan) available in early February.

Ghosts of the Old City

My NaNo project. I have fixed some of the continuity problems in the opening chapters, and cleaned up some speed-induced wordiness. There are more tweaks to make, and probably some more substantive problems that I’m in too close to see. I hope to have a six-chapter segment (about 22,000 words) out to my alpha readers in the next two or three weeks. To whet your appetite, here’s the first part of the prologue:

Maedoc was beginning to lose count of his new starts. The first ones had been his father’s, really: the grand tour of the Cliff States, the ill-fated attempt to buy a title in the merchant city of Mors, the ultimately futile effort to reconcile with Parukhi aristocracy after the Fairworth Treason. By then, Maedoc had begun to make his own new starts: the belated apprenticeship, the brief stint in politics, the gambling in Varna, the pitchforks in Dobrukh, the cattle herd in Ambhol, the second round of gambling in Varna…the terrible, terrible year he’d spent as a junior officer in the Three Rivers War…the third and presumably final round of gambling in Varna, in which he’d only just kept his hands attached at the wrists. And now Maedoc was on a train to Sakurdrilen for yet another attempt at pushing his life into some sort of recognizable shape.

The coach was noisy, but it was far better than steerage. Maedoc was grateful his accent and a few choice words had won him free of that smell. Here amongst the petit-bourgeois, he was instead intensely conscious of his jacket’s threadbare elbows and his boots’ eroded heels. The services of a barber would not have gone amiss either. Still, he put on his best smile, nodded politely at the few other passengers who made eye contact, and tried to get some sense of the place he might someday manage to call home.

Maedoc had never been this far north. He’d seen Shehru territory during the war, of course, but that had been in the hill country. Technically, this broken valley was part of the Republic now, but it still seemed…foreign. The farmsteads were low and stone-walled; the small villages the train sped by seemed too quiet and dark. The fields were small and, though green, did not sing lush songs. Aside from the painted doors, the buildings were as dark as the expanses of bare stone visible here and there. The Heron sometimes disappeared into crevasses, emerging a few furlongs away in angry waterfalls as it leapt and plunged toward the distant bay. Perhaps in the sun, Maedoc thought, it will look less dreary.

Here and there—and more often as the train approached Sakurdrilen—Maedoc spotted newer farmholds. Parukhi farmholds with wooden fences and long-haired sheep in the yards. Children in loose trousers and jackets watched the sheep. Their fathers watched from porches, unsmiling. How many are veterans given a piece of Shehru as a discharge payment? Land was a powerful incentive for soldiers, he knew, but he also guessed that ‘retirement’ was not always as pleasant as it sounded when the enemy was shooting at you. There would be more former soldiers in Sakurdilen. Active duty ones, too. Six years was not all that long for a war to be over.