It’s Been a While


It’s been about 9 months since I put anything here, but based on the fact that not one comment have been typed on any of the columns, why bother.

You know, I wonder about that. How can someone spend the time to write downs thoughts, notions, dreams and observations and not even get one response. While a few pages over, another blog does pretty much the same thing and has nearly a thousand responses. The reason I can see is that nasty law of probability and the fact that some people are locked in on the downward side of that teeter-totter.

Face it, if you are someone who has never had anything you do succeed in the way you dreamed it would, or should. If you are the sort of person who chooses a sports team, only to have them enter a decades-long slump. If you are the dedicated worker who is always in the wrong place when the promotion comes around, or if you have literally never even won one of the cheap scratcher prizes, I have bad news for you, it will not get better.

You are one of us, the ones who cannot grow plants even with help. We might actually enjoy the fruits of our labor. You can be the best around at what you do, but no one who matters to your career will ever know, whatever is out there pulling the strings will make sure they are looking the other way when your offering comes around. We are the ones weighting down the luck board so others can benefit without having to try. We are the ignored ones, the Harry Potters who never leave the cupboard under the stairs because our Hagrid got lost.

There is very chance that you are good at what you do, very good, but it doesn’t matter. You may even get noticed once in a while and perhaps even promised things that look like your time is actually going to come. Don’t bother packing and certainly do not hold your breath, the other shoe is already dropping, and something is going to happen to screw it up. Perhaps their schedule is full and they have to push things back a bit, or some other excuse.That deal memo you received wasn’t actually a promise, oh, our needs have changed, didn’t somebody tell you? And the list goes on for eternity. It is never your turn. Get used to it. Your tastes don’t match those of the masses and you pay for that in disappointment on a daily basis. Products you like get pulled because “nobody was buying it”. Welcome brother and sister, you are one of us, the vast sea of nobodies. Isn’t life wonderful?

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Spreading the word


Tony Mandolin portrait Probably the toughest thing for an author without a high-powered publicity agency and/or unlimited disposable cash to accomplish is getting recognition. Sometimes it may feel as if the universe is actively working to shield the reading public from your work. This, of course, is silly, but there is certainly an oddity in who gets recognized and who does not. I have personally read stories that should have been best sellers but were as obscure as the dark side of the moon, and I have watched literal junk being praised as a “fresh new voice”. Frankly, a rehash of expletive-laden cliches is neither fresh nor new. So what to do?

In today’s world there are a variety of avenues to put yourself and your efforts out before the public. Social media is one very useful tool, and if you make your pages attractive, easy to navigate, and more than just an advertisement, you have a very good start in doing an end run around those agencies and publisher too stupid to recognize your talent. Remember the all too common story of the several agents and publishers who rejected the first Harry Potter, as well as nearly every other major best seller. They have offices and they have avenues. What they typically do not have is good taste. That seems to be reserved for an unknown number of the reading public.

It used to be, that in order to become published, the aspiring author had to get into print, and that meant printed words on paper bound into an actual book. Not today. In fact, there are more books published for the various reading devices than there are printed onto paper. The Ebook management program, Calibre, is  the best application there is for the creation of a novel into an Ebook. The newer versions of Word will actually create a manuscript complete with chapters that can be navigated in nearly every reader out there.

As for distribution, Amazon is the largest, but not the only bookseller the independent author can make use of. Try typing “ebook seller” into your favorite search engine and see what comes up.

Once you are ready, it is time to build some sort of platform where your readers can be enticed into adding your books into their library. Several online programs help you to create a website. Amazon will even link to your website and give you an author page to boot. Check out my site, http://www.tonymandolin.com. I also created pages off my Tony Mandolin Facebook page for the Milward Chronicles and the Tony Mandolin urban fantasy mysteries. https://www.facebook.com/thewizardmilward  and  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Case-Files-of-Tony-Mandolin-PI/404309059754306

Believe me, there is no more satisfying feeling than being able to tell the literary agent who rejected you to take a hike.

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An open letter to Michael Francis Moore.


Mister Moore, you have gone on the record, yet again attacking a man for doing what you excuse by others. Hypocrisy, in any form is distasteful, but you have managed to turn that particular sin into a disgusting art form.

The man you attacked, the late Chris Kyle, obviously an easy target because he has passed away and can therefore pose no danger to you, was a Navy SEAL. For clarity’s sake, I will admit to having been in the US Navy during the later stages of Vietnam. I wound up being placed for corpsman training; others in my company went to the teams for their training. It takes an entirely different makeup for a man to be able to succeed as a SEAL. The man you labeled a coward had to endure what would have dissolved every one of his detractors.

To qualify as a corpsman all one needed to do was display an ability to deal with the human anatomy without throwing up. To qualify as a SEAL you have to display the intelligence required for medical training and the endurance of an Olympic athlete. You, Mister Moore claim to be a writer and a journalist. I have read some of your writing. It appears you did not do well in English class. A SEAL must be able to get his message across in seconds while being thorough. Apparently, to qualify as a journalist all one needs to do is show up occasionally and throw the odd stone.

Now, as to your glaring hypocrisy, Team Member Kyle put up an impressive record of kills. You and Hollywood have attempted to paint this as some form of crime against humanity. My father was a marine sniper in WWII and my brother and I learned much about that skill from him while growing up. A sniper is trained, endlessly to be able to differentiate between viable and unviable targets within a heartbeat. Guaranteed, Mister Moore, every one of Team Member Kyle’s kills was justified and verified as an act that saved American lives. Perhaps it is that saving that upset you.

As a member of the US Navy I had the experience of meeting the occasional SEAL. To a man I respect every one of them, even though there was no doubt we would ever be able to socialize, the personality of a SEAL and a Corpsman are far too different, but you would have no knowledge of that, would you Mister Moore?

A sniper remembers every single kill. They are imprinted upon the brain as images that never dim. That is the price that is paid for doing that duty. Your record shows an entirely different lifestyle, and you blithely attack easily crafted straw men with no thought of what your lies, innuendos and smears do to the families of your victims.

In addition, Team Member Kyle was a hero in a war against an enemy you have yet to denounce for any atrocity. You blamed this country for what happened on 911, tossing aside any thought of compassion for those who were killed by an outrageous act of cowardice by an Islamic lunatic hiding in a cave.

No, Mister Moore, Chris Kyle was something you will never be, an American Hero and a respected family man. He rests in peace. You rest on laurels you never earned.

Robert Lee Beers

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Literary Agents as Idiots


I was running over a several considerations the other day and came to the unshakable conclusion that I have yet to find a single literary agent capable of functioning in polite society, much less competent to do little more than sweep up after hours in a warehouse store.

My reasoning is based on this, most of the new best-selling authors have been mistakes. If their agent had not either been tricked into taking the author on or had decided to try something new on a wild hare one day we would not have the Dresden Files, Harry Potter or several other series picked up because the agent thought they were selling something else but instead managed to stumble on to a treasure.

In other ways, series that are selling now are doing so because they are a sexed up version of what went before. The chief complaints about classics such as the Lord of the Rings, the Pern novels and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books all revolve around them not “being edgy enough”, meaning the books are not R rated. In most cases this means the authors are talented enough to create engaging prose without resorting to overt sex, foul language or graphic blood and gore. In literary agent language this means such writing as that done by the afore-mentioned New York Times Best-selling Authors was not “fresh”. In real world terms this means the literary agents have no taste, and probably no life outside of their cubicle.

The other day I finished reading an eBook copy of a new noir fantasy entitled Strange Magic by the new author James Hunter. It is the debut novel in the Yancy Lazarus series and would fit very nicely on the bookshelf of anyone who likes the writings of Jim Butcher. And therein lies Mister Hunter’s problem, He has written a very good yarn, but it is within the realm of a bestselling author’s work . Rather than capitalize on the growing appetite readers have for such things, I mean, how many books can a writer put out in a year, the agencies cut off the flow of new material because, “the market is crowded”. No, it isn’t crowded. That just means you snapped up a half dozen works by hacks that aren’t selling, so now you won’t even look for anything else.

Like I said, idiots.

Because I am a fantasy author this is centering around that genre, but the truism holds across all genres. Literary agents are lazy, go-for-nothing idiots who give pimps a bad name. I won’t take the allusion any further, thank you. When an author does break through, most often being discovered quite by accident by a publisher, the agents immediately begin rifling through their slush piles hoping to find a close enough copy to the new best seller, but even there they miss the boat. Raise hands all who are sick to death of young vampires in lust stories. The agents call those steaming piles of poo “urban fantasy” and therefore any new story that actually is a fresh look in a contemporary setting is promptly labeled urban fantasy and dumped onto the slush pile. Strange Magic is an example.

The genre most often mislabeled as urban fantasy is noir fantasy such as The Dresden Files, Glen Cook’s Garrett Files, my own Tony Mandolin Mysteries, Simon Greens Drood and Nightside stories and now the Yancy Lazarus yarns. Every one of them written in the same sort of first person prose invented by Rex Stout for his Nero Wolfe mysteries, and about as far from young vampires in lust as you can find. Mister Butcher actually had to sneak in to a literary convention to get noticed. Need we say any more?

Well, we are. I’m closing with this, the term Noir Fantasy is of my coinage. Before I gave it to my publisher the genre did not exist. Here’s hoping a few agents wake up their remaining single brain cell and notice the public wants a lot more of that genre. I’m not holding my breath.

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Ramblings and a Sample


The other day I was sent a copy of a to be published Urban Fantasy by James Hunter entitled Strange Magic. Now I get a lot of offerings and most of them have far more enthusiasm than ability, but James has talent. His voice is engaging, his characters well fleshed out and there is just enough of the old Rex Stout style of PI Grit in the prose to keep the pages turning. I thoroughly enjoyed the read, which perplexes me. Not a single publisher or agent was willing to give him a shot so he is self-publishing.

I will bet serious money and have the contract notarized that not one of those mamby-pamby agents or publishers even bothered opening the file. More than likely they saw the title and the genre and said, “We already have a lot of urban fantasy on our lists now, it isn’t selling all that well so we’ll pass.” That’s laziness, not business and there is no excuse for it. Jim Butchers first Harry Dresden novel was turned down in much the same way. He wound up jumping the line at a literary convention and forced a read. The same woman who turned him down (she never read the original submission either, though she says she did. Liar.) and he rapidly became their top seller. This story is repeated nearly every time an author who is turned down just because they are in a crowd. You would think the publishing industry would learn, but apparently they are incapable of doing so. I do know I have yet to meet one with more than a room temperature warm IQ…

Here is the opening to Strange Magic:

The piano keys bobbed and danced under the pressure of my fingers. Music—low, slow, and soulful—drifted through the club, merging and twirling with wandering clouds of blue-gray smoke. So many places have no-smoking laws these days, it seems like there’s nowhere in the country where a guy can take a drag from a cigarette in peace. Everyone is so worried about their health, they make damn sure you stay healthy by proxy.

Not Nick’s Smoke House, though. Nick’s—like some rare, near extinct animal—is the kind of bar where you can die unmolested by laws or ordinances. You can burn yourself up with cancer, drown yourself into liver failure, or binge on a plate of ribs until a heart attack takes you cold, and no one will say boo. And you can die to music here: the beautiful, lonely, brassy beats, of the like only ever found in New Orleans.

The house band was on a break, so I sat thumping out an old Ray Charles tune in the interim while I watched the man standing off stage in a pool of inky shadow.

I’d never met the guy before, but I instinctively knew he was looking for me, or rather The Fixer—a shitty alias I’ve been trying to ditch for years. It was in the way he stood: chest forward, back straight, arms crossed, chin outthrust. He was a man used to intimidating others, used to being obeyed. In short, he was a thug. A thug sporting an expensive suit, a three-thousand dollar watch, and a pair of loafers that probably cost more than most people paid on rent. At the end of the day though, he was still just a thug—somebody else’s trained pit-bull.

I don’t know why, but thugs are always looking for The Fixer. Either they got something that needs fixing or they’re looking to fix me. I didn’t know whether this guy wanted option A or option B, but I figured he’d get around to it in his own sweet time. So, instead of tipping my hand prematurely, I continued to pound out melodies on the black and whites. My Ray Charles faded out and I started up a gritty, ambling, version of Meade “Lux” Lewis’ famous “Honky Tonk Train Blues.”

My left hand hammered out the thudding, rhythmic, rock-steady pulse of a driving train, pushing its bulk across the rolling open space of some forgotten Midwest wilderness; the bass notes offered a mimicry of the ebb and flow of pumping gears. My right hand flitted across the keys, touching down here and there, sending up a rusty whistle blowing in the night. The dusty clatter of track switches being thrown. The braying of hounds, while bullyboys searched for stowaways. If there was ever a song to make a man dance his way onto the box car of a rolling train it was this funky ol’ honkytonk rhythm.

I let the beat roll on, hoping the thug would hop and jive his way right out of Nick’s Smoke House and out of my life, no harm, no foul. Though a whole helluva lot a people think of me as The Fixer, really I’m just an old rambler trying to get by and enjoy the time I have on this spinning little mud ball. All I wanted was for this overdressed clown to walk away and leave me be.

The book comes out next month. It’s worth a read

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When To Stop Writing


Unless you happen to one of the very rare successful full time authors, there comes a time when you should consider putting down the keyboard and picking up another hobby. Believe me, being able to put down your imaginations into novel form and have other people want to read it in enough numbers to allow you to do it full time is far rarer than a successful artist, musician, actor, or athlete.

A few of the signs that this may be the time is the very conspicuous zero on the comment indicator on your blog postings. With an average potential readership of over one hundred million at any given time, a zero is a good indicator that either what you are writing is crap, or someone up there has no interest at all in seeing you succeed. Another one is the cooling of the honeymoon with your publisher, if you have one. Sure, those early days were fine and you were inspired by the replies to your questions or suggestions, but now…the only answer you get is the sound of the lone cricket in the corner. You can’t blame them, you aren’t making them any money, more than likely. The sure sign is the one where you can’t even give the books away. Most ebook markets allow you to offer your writing for free, most for a limited time, but fee is free. If no one even wants to turn a page for free, I’d say that’s a pretty decent sign of time to move on.

“But, but maybe I’m not giving them enough time!”

(Sound of the error buzzer) Wrong! If Amazon can take an order and get it on to your doorstep the next day, even if you are in remote Alaska, anyone, including someone working 16 hours a day can take the 30 seconds needed to reply to an email. Face it friend, you are no longer a priority.

“But, I want to write!”

Then do so, just don’t frustrate yourself by attempting to continue to sell what people do not want or bother posting what no one will read. Some hobbies ae just for your own pleasure and it is very liberating to drop the weight of impotent desire.

“When?”

A good question. The best way is to give yourself a deadline. For myself, it is the end of this year. This blog will go away on January 1, 2015 unless a comment, or two or three is seen. I figure several years is more than enough. We will see. And by the way, having to pay for exposure on the internet is just insulting, if not downright unethical.

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Galtru The Dwarf


The title of this is the working title for a new series I have in mind. In looking around I can only find one series of books that have dwarves as the central characters, and that series is from Germany. Even though well-written there is much in the books that is old news, dwarves are courageous and somewhat bloodthirsty. Yes, and Tolkien established that back in the 1930’s. There must be another way to look at that race.

Because this is the age of plagiarism, I am declaring my intentions here and if someone else comes out with the book before I am published we will know who had the idea first.

Imagine a book that begins with village life in a dwarf settlement where the work a day existence of the race is explored in detail. The reader learns of their art, their jokes, their culture, why certain things are done and others are not done, at least not by any decent dwarf. What makes a dwarf warrior, a merchant, is there a difference? How doe a dwarf artisan do what they do and why? And most of all, what is their relationship with the other races and why?

I believe this can be written in such a way that it not only comes across as a cracking good story, but also as a treatise on an imagined race that nearly every other fantasy author has skimmed over.

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Dealing with diety in fantasy


Fans of the show Supernatural will be the first to tell you the writers of the show don’t do much with God outside of allusions to the fact that the creator may still be “out there somewhere”. As a writer I find that approach to be both self-serving and rather cowardly. In a series ostensibly based on Judeo Christian mythology, to leave out the two most powerful personages, God the Father and Jesus from the narrative is like leaving the cumin out of a batch of chili. All you have then is ruined spaghetti sauce.

Well, one of the nice things about being a writer is being able to see the mistakes of others and do something about them in your work. Book 5 in the Tony Mandolin Mysteries, Luck Stiff has a very definite appearance by Jesus himself, also the Devil, and angel or two plus a few other personages from myth and folklore. As to how they are dealt with in the narrative is for you to find out. I’ll just put one clue down here, if you are an atheist activist, you will be outraged and highly insulted—intentionally.

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Making You Magic Logical


Check out any fantasy story, whether it be a multi-volume epic or a three-page short, somewhere in its prose is the use of magic. What makes or breaks the fantasy from that angle is the logic of the magic.

Now that may seem to be an illogical turn of phrase in and of itself, but in order to work in a story, magic, if used must be logical. Human beings, even the writers of fantasy are at their core logical. Not in the Mister Spock sense, but more in the Doctor McCoy sense. We don’t mind a little illogic as long as it makes sense.

In order to fill that need, the system of magic you build must have its own laws. Certain actions must have results that make sense. The use of power has to have some sort of consequence, and sometimes, the greater the consequence the better the story.

One very good way to develop this is to consider your magic user, be they a being of power, wizard, sorcerer or witch, to be a type of athlete. As with any sport or athletic contest some will be better or stronger than another. In many sports it is not the power but the skill that prevails, and the skill is based on practice.

Consider that when you next write.

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Wrapping up an epic fantasy


Epic fantasy is enveloping, enjoyable and hair-pullingly frustrating to write. In order to do it well you need to be able to draw the reader in without losing them into whatever web you are weaving. This means being able to maintain your characterizations, keep the narrative consistent with regard to your story as well as the logic of whatever world and the physics of the magic system you have created. The longer the word count the more difficult continuity becomes. Writers such as Robert Jordon, JK Rowling, Ann McCaffrey, and George R. R. Martin, are proven masters of the genre. I have left J. R. R. Tolkein out of that list because the Lord of the Rings stands alone as the genesis of the form.

My own epic, The Milward Chronicles has received very good reviews, but very little in the way of exposure. Back when I was still writing the second volume, book one, Birthright managed to make it all the way to the number one slot on the Barnes and Noble Fictionwise ebook store fantasy page, and the Fictionwise site lost market. Royalties trickled away.

Good old Amazon to the rescue; seeing how the market was changing, they began putting in place tools for authors to market their works. The latest one is what I wrote about in the previous column, Author Central. And so it begins.

This past summer I finally completed the Milward Chronicles, an epic of five thick volumes with a total word count approaching one million. The last book is entitled, The Witch of Angbar, and here is the first chapter for your reading pleasure:

                                                   Chapter 1

In the land of the Maraggar, Dral-ne’talnisan, the Suldakhar holds power just below that of Tettuwain, his peoples’ deity; the Pfaldam, the living reach of his words, and the Suldam, the living reach of his hands. From the day of his birth, he was raised to rule and to expect his every word to be obeyed as if it came directly from the mouth of Tettuwain.

Dral-ne’talnisan’s mother was, on the day of her marriage to Dral’s father, the Suldakhar-tet, the greatest beauty the Pfaldam could find. The Suldakhar-tet resembled the best of the Suldam lineage and it was a near certainty that their progeny would exemplify those traits.

A dark-skinned people with silver hair, the Maraggar hold a deep love of orderliness. Their society reflected that love to the point where two different body types developed over the centuries to fit the niche into which they were born. The Pfaldam or Administrators, were typically fat to the point of obesity, their sedentary lifestyle lending much to this physique. The Suldam were the Maraggar military. Towering statues of ebony perfection, each Suldam resembled the other as each pea does its neighbor.

Maraggar architecture reflected its people’s culture in its massive size, clean blocky lines, thick walls, and meticulously maintained streets. The primary building material was white granite quarried from the central plateau. The huge buildings crouched next to the streets in ranks, as if they were an occupying force.

Melanchthon, the capital city overlooked the eastern escarpment. From the palace one could see the Channel Islands, and beyond them, the distant peak of Angbar as it jutted through the ever-present clouds of the eastern sea. Nine tiers, the holy number of Tettuwain, comprised the city proper, giving it the look of a truncated pyramid. The first tier connected to an umbilicus of sorts that ran south along the escarpment to a series of switchbacks that led down to the harbor at the escarpments base. Tall ships covered in jewels called the Eyes of Tettuwain lined the harbor. The top tier contained the palace and the Suldakhar’s living quarters. In obedience to tradition, the first tier contained the temple and all other religious offices, placing the people of the city rightfully between their deity and their Emperor.

Dral-ne’talnisan stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he looked out toward the east. Thoughts moved through his mind like Suldam on parade. The new temple in that barbarian city called Southpointe should be nearing completion. It always amazed him how little wealth it took to convince the pales to work against their own interests. A smile crossed his face as to the chagrin they would experience when the gold stopped flowing and the whips came out. The timing of the war seemed almost supernatural and that part disturbed him. He distrusted magik and those who used it. The Pfaldam and Suldam were more to his liking, efficient tools, easily controlled and understandable.

He dropped his gaze to the harbor below. The new ships were ready to sail. They lined the docks by the hundreds, their masts like reeds along a watercourse. Soon the command would be given and the age of Maraggar dominion over all the peoples of the world would begin. He smiled to himself. Even she would not be able to refuse him then.

¨         ¨         ¨

“How dare you? Oh, it’s you,” Baxtr-Kin sat back into his desk chair and, with an effort, set his features into a look of relaxed indifference. It was a bit more difficult this time. The start he had been given by the sudden appearance of a cloaked figure in his supposedly locked and guarded study had caused him to spill a few drops of an extremely rare vintage. He groused, “What do you want, Mallien?”

The cause of the start smiled broadly in an expression that would have horrified children and pushed back the deep hood of his robe. Magister Mallien pulled over one of the chairs that bracketed the window in Baxtr-Kin’s study and sat down. Mallien stared at the Ortian Councilman from behind steepled fingers. Sweat began forming on the council member’s brow. The smiled broadened. “So sorry to not knock, Baxtr,” Mallien purposely left off the honorific Kin, “but apparition was necessary to ensure privacy.”

Baxtr-Kin scowled as he glanced briefly at the golden bell on his desk. One ring would bring the guardsmen stationed outside his door, but he doubted their ability to deal with one such as the Magister.

Mallien’s grin flashed once, briefly, “Very good Baxtr, it appears you do have the ability to develop wisdom after all. I suppose you have heard something of the news from the north?”

Baxtr-Kin scowled, “Must you be so insulting?”

“Must you be such an easy target?” Mallien scowled back. “Now answer my question.” The fingers of his left hand tapped the arm of the chair.

“What news are you talking about?”

“Don’t be thick, Baxtr-Kin,” Mallien chided, “You know exactly the news I’m speaking of. You were deeply involved in our plans as far as the south was concerned.”

Baxtr-Kin’s mouth twitched in a grimace, “Oh, that.” He moved in his chair uncomfortably. “Yes, I heard. It seems your plans worked out just about as well as mine did.” He lifted the snifter to his lips. “That young fool Gerold-Lyrd and his meddling wizard ruined several of mine. Cost me several thousand golds as well,” he finished in a mutter.

“Perhaps you would be interested in satisfying your thirst for revenge, hmm?” Mallien rubbed his chin.

Baxtr-kin tossed back the rest of his brandy. He did not even consider offering any to the Magister. “Of course I’m interested. What do you suggest?”

Mallien re-steepled his fingers and sighed, “Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that. You are I am sure, aware of the upcoming trial of the deposed Duke of Grisham?”

“Who isn’t? There has been nothing else as far as gossip is concerned since the day they brought that raving manic into the capital.” Baxtr-Kin chuckled, “The trial should be fun to watch from what I hear.”

“Yes,” Mallien answered dryly, “it should.” He stood and began pacing. “I propose to add some additional spice to the entertainment. In addition to the fun of listening to a madman, what would you say to the possibility of watching your young tormentor being led from the council chamber in chains after being accused of the assassination of the emperor?”

Baxtr-Kin leaned forward, an evil glint blossoming in his eyes. “Say on,” he murmured.

Mallien nodded, “First, tell me if you have any of your counterfeit gold marks left.”

“That was an outrageous lie!” Baxtr-Kin blustered. “Counterfeiting is a capital offense and only a total fool would…”

Mallien held up a hand. “Please, do not bore me with false protests of innocence, Councilmember. I am not concerned with your little…extracurricular enterprises. I am, however very interested as to whether or not you have any of those sham marks for our use.”

Baxtr-Kin’s eyebrows rose, “Our use?”

Mallien approached the desk and placed both hands onto the polished wood. He leaned forward and hissed, “What would the authorities say if they discovered several thousand marks worth of counterfeit gold in your nemesis’ vault? How would they react to also finding proof that those marks were payment for slipping a very deadly, but tasteless poison into the Emperor’s symbolic flagon of water at the Duke’s trial?”

Baxtr-Kin’s mouth worked as he ran this scene through his mind. His eyebrows narrowed and he slammed a fist onto the top of his desk. “Yes! Scrood the bastard for a pullet, I’ll do it!”

Mallien glanced at the door leading to the study. Apparently, the guards were used to outbursts from the fat councilmember; the door remained securely shut. “Very good, Councilmember, now this is what we shall do…”

¨         ¨         ¨

“Alford the twenty-third, Emperor of the Southern lands, scion of the house of Galtihedrion,” Duke Bilardi breathed the words out as if they formed the foulest curse he could imagine. “What ill fortune brings you to my humble office?” He giggled on the word, office. The brittle edge of madness lay in the sound.

“Please leave us Cremer,” Alford said quietly.

The Emperor’s aide balked. “…Sire, I…”

“I will be quite safe, Sobret,” Alford interrupted, using his aide’s informal name, “the bars are protection enough.”

Cremer bowed and, casting a look of distaste toward the prisoner, left the cells.

Duke Bilardi called after the departing Cremer, “Yes, leave us Sobret. You don’t want to be found in the presence of fools and madmen now, do you?” He giggled again, grasping the bars of his cell tightly enough to whiten the knuckles on his hands.

Alford looked at the Duke. In spite of efforts to allow the man every amenity, including a bath, soap and clean clothes, Bilardi refused to make use of any of them. The guards said he even refused to sleep on the mattress he had been given, choosing rather the stones of the floor. Alford’s glance passed over the rumpled blanket lying next to the bed, the pillow off to the side against the wall.

Duke Bilardi was filthy and his beard had begun to mat. Only his nose and the skin around his eyes showed from behind the wild black thatch of his hair. The eyes gleamed too brightly and the teeth, white when the Duke was delivered to the prison, were nearly buried beneath a thick layer of brownish tarter. His odor was less than pleasing.

Bilardi grinned at the Emperor through the bars. “Does my beauty please His Excellency?”

Alford ignored the taunt. “I am here on a duty, Your Grace,” he said. “I bring news of your son.”

“I have no son!” Spittle sprayed with the force of the Duke’s scream.

“Nevertheless,” Alford replied calmly, “the duty must be fulfilled.” Bilardi began screaming inarticulately as he danced around his cell, overriding the Emperor’s words. Alford carried on and passed on the information regarding the Duke’s son, Bilardi and the coming betrothal to the Lady Charity.

When he finished, Alford left the raving Duke and walked tiredly back up the stairs to where his aide waited.

Cremer held his Emperor’s cloak outward with both hands and placed it across Alford’s shoulders and said, “A distasteful duty, My Lord.”

Alford sighed, “Yes, but one that had to be done. Now all that remains is his trial”

“One doubts the Duke will ever regain his sanity in time, my Lord,” Cremer murmured.

“An opinion, Cremer?” Alford looked at his aide in surprise.

“An observation, my Lord,” Cremer demurred. “General Jarl-Tysyn awaits, my Lord.”

“Ah yes,” Alford replied, “matters of state.” He smiled, “I’m not sure which duty is the more distasteful.”

Cremer followed Alford as the Emperor made his way up the several flights of stairs from the dungeon to the Royal offices. Jarl-Tysyn stood before the Emperor’s desk as stiffly erect as if a rod had been affixed to his back. The white bristle of his hair gleamed with fresh oil. The nickel and bronze of his breastplate had been polished to a mirror-like sheen.

The Emperor shook his head and then composed his expression into one of seriousness as he rounded the desk and sat down. “Sire General, so good of you to come by. I expect you have your report ready to deliver?”

“I do, Your Majesty,” Jarl-Tysyn replied as stiffly as he stood.

Alford had been rifling through papers as he asked the last question. The tone in his General’s voice caused him to look up. “What’s going on?” He asked.

The twitches of Jarl-Tyson’s face attempting to maintain composure told Alford most of what he wanted to know. He held up the sheaf of papers in his left hand as he gestured with his right toward the armchair positioned before the desk. “Sit General, that is a royal command by the way, and tell me what is eating at you before you explode all over my palace.”

Jarl-Tysyn hesitated only for the briefest moment before sitting into the chair. He managed to give the impression of still being at attention while seated. “It’s…about that lad up north, Your Majesty,” the words came out slowly, as if they were forced.

Alford sat back in his chair and asked, “Lad? Which lad? From what I understand, a few million people live up north. Which one of them concerns you?”

“This one carries a certain sword, Your Majesty.”

Alford smiled. “Well that narrows it down a bit. Can you add a few more specifics?”

Jarl-Tysyn glared as he ground out, “I saw the skrudding thing, Majesty. It was Labad’s and it was strapped to the hip of the boy who opened a bloody great skrudding pit with a wave of his hand. Later on, he closed it with the help of that bloody Wizard. That’s the lad I’m talking about…Your Majesty,” he finished in a more subdued tone.

Alford nodded. “Ah, I see. And the fact that this…lad is wearing a sword you identified as being the sword of Labad and that he is also capable of magik, such as that self same Ortian Emperor, leads you to the conclusion that he is a danger to my throne.”

Jarl-Tysyn shrugged, “It has been preying on my mind a bit, Your Majesty.”

“You spoke with this…lad?” Alford asked.

“Yes Your Majesty.”

“He has a name, I suppose?”

“Adam.”

“That’s all, just…Adam? You heard no surname, no hint of family lineage? Alford shook his head. “For a potential threat to my throne that sounds like very little to base a case upon. Swords can be made and the Wizard Milward has proven the existence of magik beyond all doubt.”

Jarl-Tysyn surged to his feet and slammed his fist against his breastplate. “I saw the skrudding thing! I know the difference between a flicking copy and the real thing. I saw what this boy can do and I saw his effect on the people around him. If he isn’t Labad’s heir, I’m a Maraggar doxie. Besides that, he has the Dragons at his beck and call.”

“Dragons,” Alford mused, “I would have loved to see that.” He looked at Jarl-Tysyn through lidded eyes, “What do you propose I do with this news General?” He asked quietly.

Jarl-Tysyn had no answer. He looked at Alford helplessly. After a long uncomfortable silence, he spread his hands. “I…I don’t know. I like the boy…when it comes down to it. I’d even trust my granddaughter to his care with no reservations. You should have seen it, Your Majesty. He’s as humble as a monk but somehow manages to shape the people around him into…I don’t know, believing in him, I guess. Folks just want to please him and because of that, they try harder.” The General’s voice became more animated as he spoke.

Alford’s smile grew. “Perhaps I should abdicate.”

“Majesty!”

“What about going to war then? He is a threat, as you say…after all.”

“We just fought a skrudding war! You signed onto the flicking accord!”

“Yes, there is that.” Alford stood and moved out from behind his desk. He walked over to where he looked into the General’s pale blue eyes. “I signed onto the accord. I wasn’t there, but you were, as my extension. My signing it after the fact is no less binding under Ortian law than if I had been there and witnessed the marvels you had the good fortune to see for yourself. I will not break our law, General. Will you council me to do so? This Adam, from what you tell me seems a good sort. Someday I might even have the ability to meet him. If, as you say he is associated with the Wizard Milward, I probably will. Perhaps we could even become friends.”

Jarl-Tysyn nodded, remaining silent.

Alford went on, “Now, enough of that. Let’s move on to these accords I mentioned. I signed them, but I wasn’t there. What hidden concessions did I agree to without knowing it?”

Back in more familiar territory, the General relaxed, muttering, “None, your Majesty.”

“What? I find that hard to believe. You were there, Jarl-Tysyn. What did you hear?”

Jarl-Tysyn related with impeccable accuracy the context of the meeting between himself, Derric-Hess, the current Duke Bilardi and Adam. He ran through the text of the accord verbatim, including the punctuation marks. When he was done, Alford shook his head. “Unbelievable. You do realize, General that this is the first time in recorded history that neither we nor our treaty partner has not tried to pull a fast one?”

Jarl-Tysyn’s face settled into mask-like stiffness. “I would not presume to say so Your Majesty.”

“No, I suppose not,” Alford said, and then broke into a grin. “I can just imagine the look on Gephard-Pries’ face when he was excluded from being a signatory on the accord.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the mask relaxed into the briefest of smiles.

“Yes…” Alford moved back to his chair. “Now,” he said, resting his forearms onto the desk, “on to future matters, the upcoming trial of our mad Duke.”

“Ortian law requires that the accused be present during the proceedings, Sire, even if he is not competent to be a participant.” Jarl-Tysyn added.

“Not competent,” Alford repeated. “Now there is an understatement of vast proportions.”

“The guards have made preparations to prevent disruption, Your Majesty.”

“He cannot be bound or gagged General. The law doesn’t allow that, not during a trial.”

Jarl-Tysyn shook his head. “This is going to be a flicking circus.”

“Not if we can help it, General. Cremer!”

Cremer appeared in the foyer leading to the Emperor’s rooms and asked, “Sire?”

Alford pointed a finger at his aide. “Have the legal staff search the regulations, rights, policies and statutes in regard to the treatment of the accused on trial. I want to know if there is anything we can do to curtail the ability of Duke Bilardi to disrupt his trial.”

Cremer bowed, “At once sire,” and left the room.

“By Bardoc I hope this works,” Jarl-Tysyn said under his breath.

“So do I General,” replied Alford, surprising Jarl –Tysyn with the acuity of his hearing. Now, what can you tell me about the situation in Southpointe?”

Jarl-Tysyn looked quizzical. “Situation, Your Majesty?”

“Ah, it appears word hasn’t reached you.” He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers sealed with a burgundy ribbon. “While you were enjoying yourself up north, an old acquaintance of mine paid me a visit. Do you know a ship’s Captain by the name of Larl-Brin?”

Jarl-Tysyn had said the last syllable of the captain’s name along with his Emperor, but he said it with considerably less aplomb. “Yes, Your Majesty, I know the man.”

Alford smiled. “I see you do,” he said, tapping the papers against the desk. “The good captain has done a few favors for me over the years. While you were up north, he brought a couple from Southpointe to me. The tale they related was quite disturbing. If their story was to be taken at face value we are being invaded.”

“Invaded?” Jarl-Tysyn’s voice rose in pitch, “By whom? Where? When?”

“Yes, we don’t know yet, Southpointe and apparently it started right about the time the bulk of our armed forces were camped outside of Grisham,” Alford replied matter-of-factly.

“Well…” Jarl-Tysyn ground out, “We have to do something. The army must be re-mustered. The navy refitted and sent on the next tide. This invasion has to be driven out at once!”

“Or,” Alford said, sliding the papers across the desk toward the General, “We can let our spies do their work and find out what sort of force we are going to be dealing with and then plan accordingly. Read these. Some of the descriptions seem familiar to me, but so far I haven’t found out why.”

Jarl-Tysyn ran his eyes over the top page, lifting the ribbon with a forefinger. “I’ll want to talk to this couple, Bal and Doreen,” he murmured, “Are they still in the city?”

“They are being put up in one of the inns in the first ring, near the wharf. I offered them a room in the palace but they said they would prefer more humble surroundings.”

“Sounds like a nice couple,” Jarl-Tysyn murmured.

Alford nodded.

¨         ¨         ¨

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