Fiction Friday: Faultless, Part 2

Continuing on from where we left off… wow, was it really a month ago? Bit of a short one, but this feels like a natural break point.

Content Warning: Child abuse/neglect

It wasn’t her first time outdoors, of course. She’d been in the garden many times, to pull oranges and avocados off the trees or smell the flowers or just feel the sun on her skin. It was hot out there, beyond the faint blue glow of the cooling spells at every door and window, and sometimes she just needed to be hot. She would stand out there and hug herself tightly and just let the sun wash over, beating at, imagine it squeezing its way through her skin and deep down inside. Sometimes for hours, if nobody came out–she had a vague notion that she was not supposed to go outside, but fortunately there were a great many doors between garden and house, and she could always get back inside without being seen.

But this wasn’t like going out into the garden. You couldn’t see anything but house from there–you could hear the noises of the city, and sometimes smell its smells, but not see it. Ghost found that these days she very much wanted to. Maybe it was from being in the cellar so long, but she had developed a powerful yearning to actually see the place in which she was, supposedly, growing up.

Of course, she’d watched people coming in and out of the house for years. She knew that you dressed differently for outside than in. She wasn’t entirely clear on why, but she could see what–going out meant shoes, and frills, and hats. Fortunately there was the ragpile in the corner of the laundry, where all the clothes that couldn’t be mended or cleaned went. Ghost had gotten her smock there, and the one before it. Before that she was fairly sure she’d been dressed by the servants, but it was long enough ago and she’d been small enough that it was only a vague, fuzzy notion. A lot of the past seemed to dissolve into those, sometimes very quickly.

From the ragpile she procured her secret treasure, her going-outfit as she thought of it, a broad-brimmed hat that had once been white, with a chunk missing from the brim, a pair of shoes that were only a little too big for her, and which she stuffed with torn and crumpled paper stolen from her father’s study, and a light, loose white dress with a broken strap, but she was able to tie the two halves together. The result was a little lopsided and too big for her, falling well past her knees, plus it was supposed to be belted at the waist and she couldn’t find a belt, but it would do well enough.

She slipped out the servants’ and traders’ entrance when no one was looking, and found herself on a sort of ribbon made of a strange rock, gray and pitted with other rocks–all smooth and rounded and in a variety of colors–sort of half-buried in it. Up the hill and to the left the ribbon split off a side-branch which ran under the house’s main gate–Ghost thrilled to finally see it from the other side–while the main trunk of it continued up the hill. Some ways beyond that, at least ten times as far as Ghost had ever walked in a straight line, was another house.

To the right, the ribbon–which, Ghost realized, could only be a road–descended to the base of of the hill, where it grew suddenly wider. From up here she could see buildings of all descriptions lining it, and dirt ribbons–roads, she corrected herself, or maybe alleys?–running away from it through more buildings, spreading out as far as she could see. And rising up from it came a blurred hubbub of noises, voices, sounds Ghost couldn’t identify, sharp cracks and creaks and a sort of rumbling undercurrent to it all where the sounds just gave up and dissolved together, and smells! Good smells, bad smells, cooking meat and baking bread and garbage and something not unlike what Ghost’s cellar had smelled like by the time she was let out of it. It was enticing and horrifying, inviting and lurking–but within all those things it was exciting, and Ghost was determined to experience it at least once.

She set off down the hill.

Dragons of Industry Minifesto

Warning! Spoilers ahead! No major plot twists, but lots of setting and thematic details.

So, since one or two people have asked about it, here’s an infodump on The Dragons of Industry.

Themes

There are certain themes I want to keep in mind throughout the writing of this series:

  • Diversity: A continent is a big place, with room for lots of different kinds of people. Racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity; gender diversity–not just men and women, but genderfluid, third gender, trans, and agender–diverse sexualities, diverse religions, diverse ages, diverse politics. Most of all, I just want lots of diverse points of view, because fantasy has been historically really bad at that. Which is why each story in the series will use a third person limited perspective with a different point-of-view character, even though they cover overlapping events and characters.
  • Power: It comes in many forms, and each of them will try to bend you to itself. It distorts, disrupts, destroys. To wield it is to be wielded by it. And yet the only thing that can oppose power is power… though not necessarily the same kind of power.
  • Apocalypse and Revolution: This is another reason I want multiple POVs, because of course these are both just words for “massive, rapid change on a large scale.”
  • Defying the “Great Man” Theory: Science fiction and fantasy are rampant with singular heroic men (and, occasionally but not often, women) who alter the course of history by ingenuity, pluck, power, and will. This is bullshit. I don’t want any Chosen Ones; just people, making choices, some of which turn out how they’d hoped and some don’t; it is the aggregate of thousands upon thousands of such choices, not any one heroic individual, that shapes the course of history.
  • No Hegemonic Masculinity: Since I want to talk about power and a multiplicity of perspectives, I decided to imagine what it would be like if no culture had ever associated power with one gender. So, there is no hegemonic masculinity in Dorn; different cultures construct gender differently, but none have a hierarchical notion that men are strong, women weak, or that showing weakness is unmasculine, or that shows of power are inherently masculine.

Magic

The original ideas for this setting involved something more fantasy-with-rivets, which is to say a system of magic that was reliable, dependable, and obeyed clear, precise rules. Meh.

I’ve revised that fairly heavily, so that magic feels more alive, more integrated into the world instead of the video game-like thing it tends to be in fantasy-with-rivets. There are two forms of magic, innate and constructed.

Innate magic is instinctive and physical, an inborn connection with one of the elements, which you can use to sense and manipulate that element; it can be trained to build skill and power, but this training is often quite physical and always more about developing reflex and technique than learning theory. Both element and capacity vary from person to person, with some people having such a low capacity that their element can’t be determined. 
By contrast, constructed magic is symbolic and cerebral; it involves channeling magical energy through runes or symbols representing concepts–both the elements themselves and the “verbs” and “adjectives” describing the intended effects–to create effects. Key here is that te sequence of symbols IS the effect, It just needs magic to being it to life. Still, you can’t just plop down symbols and push magic into them; it takes skill and power both, and since each person’s magic is innately tied to one element, certain symbols will he easier or harder for that person.

The elements are the traditional earth, water, fire, air, plus lightning, darkness/light (there is some scholarly disagreement over which of the two the element actually is, or if there’s even a difference), pattern, form, life, mind, time, and magic itself. Each also has associated concepts and personalities, though it’s not true that people with a particular innate element always have the same personality. 
Dragons and Familiars
Despite the name, dragons are not remotely like the familiar creatures of legend and fantasy. Well, not collectively anyway. Some of them…
Anyway, there are twelve dragons, one for each element. Dragons are the absolute paragons of innate magic, casting no spells, but each able to manipulate their chosen element with near-perfect skill drawing on millennia of experience, and they are also effectively immortal so long as they can bond to a human. The bonding is a process by which the minds and lives of human and dragon are linked; it only works with a human who shares the dragon’s innate element, and the result is that they can both tap into the combined power of both, though it is a rare human indeed that can make any significant difference to a dragon’s power. When a dragon’s human dies, or more rarely when a dragon is “killed,” the dragon reverts to a stone-like dormant state in which it is unconscious, sessile, and effectively indestructible until the next time a human of the appropriate element whom the dragon deems worthy touches it, at which point the dragon revives and bonds to the human.

Dragons are also the only ones capable of creating familiars, also called elementals, lesser spirits that bond to a human similarly. The familiar shares the innate element of its dragon and can only bond to humans of that element, and like dragons shares in the power of the human; the main difference is that elementals are generally in the mid-to-high range of human power, while no human has ever lived who could come close to a dragon’s power in innate magic, and only one or two master mages who, if extremely well-prepared, could do it with constructed magic.

The Setting

The primary setting of the series is the continent of Dorn, a large continent, with diverse biomes and climates. The far south is mostly frozen tundra, while the center of the continent is dominated by tall mountains and dark forests. West of the mountains is a great desert, and beyond that wide rolling fields dotted with the occasional forest. North of that is the Altavari Sea, and west and north of that is the huge, mountainous, volcanic, hot Northern Peninsula. Meanwhile, north of the mountains, southeast of the mouth of the Altavari Sea, are the rain forests of the north-central coast, fading into swamps in the east. South and inland from the swamps, east of the central mountains, are more plains, though less well-watered than the western plains.

North of the continent, forming a sort of blobby chain curving east and north away from the Northern Peninsula, are the Karaian Islands, volcanic and tropical. Beyond that are vast wastes of trackless ocean, growing steadily hotter and more storm-prone as one goes north, until at last one reaches a hot region of constant mist and storm where the wind blows and current flows only south. Those few intrepid explorers who have fought their way still further north tell grim tales of the Boiling Ocean, where sudden gouts of steam, invisible in the thick hot mist, can boil a sailor’s flesh from their bones, and ceaseless storms slash with wind and lightning at the hapless ships toiling forward into the unknown.

History

For most of human history, the most ancient of laws held: one dragon, one nation. To be bonded to a dragon was to be so overwhelmingly powerful that one almost couldn’t help but conquer everything until you hit the next dragon, not to mention being able to supply an army with familiars; as such, while there’s been some fluctuation of who rules what, there have effectively always been twelve nations in Dorn, corresponding to the twelve elements. Citizens of a given nation are no more likely to have a particular innate element than in any other nation, but since dragons and familiars must match their bondlings’ elements, and for most of human history the ruling class was defined by possessing dragons and familiars, their leaders have traditionally possessed a particular element, and this has impacted the culture and character of each nation.

In addition, there have been for centuries twelve international Guilds, each of which specializes in a professional associated with a particular element and with the study and exploration of that element’s magic, such as the Mages’ Guild for magic, the Healers’ Guild for Life, or the Sailors’ Guild for Water. Again, one does not have to possess the element in question to join or work for the guild, but they do tend to be one of the places for someone who has that element to work.

As said, this was the pattern for most of human history. Three major events have disrupted it, the first about 2200 years ago, when the Great Alliance of eleven nations banded together to destroy the Unnamable Realm, transforming it into the Glass Desert in a single night and annihilating its people. No one remembers any longer what it was called or who lived there, though some believe the scattered nomads who now roam the desert are descendants of its people; other scholars believe they are simply a mix of Tornik and Hologi who wandered into the desert or fled their from justice or persecution, and built lives. Regardless, it is known that once the Nation of Time was there, and as punishment for its crimes–whatever they might have been–it was destroyed and its people and cities annihilated. The Dragon of Time, Melkeledh, has never been seen by reliable witnesses since; legend has transformed him into a sort of dark trickster figure, a tempter who offers power for service, but always ends up demanding more than he gives. He is frequently referred to as the Dark One, as some believe saying his name can attract his attention. In addition, time-innates are now extremely rare–some say as a divine punishment, others as a result of some great magical working by the leaders and dragons of the Alliance, and still others that it was always so–and nascent wielders of its power usually whisked off to their nation’s capital to be trained in prescience and history-reading. They are in particular strictly forbidden to learn any constructed magic, for fear of what they might be able to do–or undo, as the case may be.

The second great disruption began about 1100 years ago, when the Alterian Empire began a campaign of conquest after its mages developed the first complete, workable system of constructed magic. The only realm actually ruled by a dragon, namely Empress, the Dragon of Magic, it expanded for centuries until at last all of Dorn except the Wannet lands of the far east, some of the Karaian Islands, and part of the southern tundra remained free. By 500 years ago, however, enough people in the conquered realms knew enough magic, and the dragons grew restless enough, to tear the Empire apart, so that eventually there were eleven nations once more, though many with quite different borders and ethnic makeup than before the Empire.

The third disruption occurred about 300 years ago, and has yet to settle down, when two events happened quite close to each other in time. First, Pryderys, traditionally the realm of Fire, developed the Firestone, an enchanted stone that released heat, either as a comforting gradual warmth or as an explosive burst, depending on the construction of the spells. Second, the Mage Guild announced the development of the first new rune in centuries, the Combine rune, a simple to learn and use rune which allowed one spell to be woven into another–an act which previously had required a complex spell of the Magic element, one of the hardest to master. The difficulty and power needed for a spell had always grown swiftly with its effectiveness and complexity, but the Combine rune circumvented this, allowing one to build a spell by stacking simpler spells atop one another. The result: clever members of the Guild of Sappers and Pyrotechnics invented the first magical assembly line and began mass-producing Firestones.

Even the most destructive Firestone came nowhere close to the power of a familiar, let alone a dragon, but they could be made in great quantities, wielded by people with neither strong innate talent nor long years of training nor a familiar, and used anywhere and everywhere. Suddenly, even though a dragon-bonded ruler could conquer basically anyone who didn’t have equivalent defense of their own, said ruler couldn’t protect them once conquered. A century of widespread chaos, war, and civil war followed, until eventually the eleven nations reached their modern forms.

Nations and Ethnicities

The twelve realms are:

The Unnameable Realm: Associated with the element and dragon of time, the realm was destroyed over 2,000 years ago, turning it into the great desert in south-central Dorn. It is still pocked here and there with great glass-lined craters where, it is said, the dragons did battle.

Alteria: Once an empire stretching across the continent, this realm still commands a healthy portion of northwest Dorn. Fertile fields and one of the most defensible capitals in the world, which also houses the headquarters of the Mage’s Guild, make Alteria still a military, economic, and cultural force to be reckoned with. The majority of Alterians are ethnic Alterians, generally brown-skinned, with narrow faces and longish noses, usually dark (but occasionally red) curly hair and dark eyes. The Alterian language is the most widely spoken in the world, being still the language of culture, trade, and diplomacy throughout the former Empire, and the Alterian faith is likewise the most widespread, teaching that the Dragons formed from the raw elements themselves at the dawn of the world, and created and shaped mankind to be their partners. However, people of nearly every ethnicity live in the capital and throughout the country, and there is a sizable Keiokarnan minority in the northeast and Tornik minority in the south–indeed, the Ackerbucht region along the border with Toftor is almost all ethnically Tornik. Realm of Magic.

Pryderys: Occupies the southeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, a hilly, volcanic region known for glass, olives, wine, and the mass production of weapons. Ruled by a Tarnic minority who conquered the native Keiokarnan majority (often referred to as “Keo,” because the Tarnic speakers who conquered them could not pronounce the “ei” sound and considered the long name unwieldy; today, many Pryderian Keiokarnans us the term for themselves, though the more rebellious, and any Keiokarnans elsewhere in the world, consider the term a slur) some 400 years ago following a war with Caertarn that went very badly, then declared independence just a decade later. Ironically given it is where Firestones were originally invented and mass produced, it is the only realm still ruled under traditional, post-imperial draconic feudalism, which is to say the member of the royal family selected by the dragon Lazukoazu is the King or Queen, with familiars issued to members of loyal noble houses. All of these families are, of course, strictly Tarnic. Realm of Fire.

Karaia: Occupies the Karaian Archipelago that stretches east and north from Pryderys. It is populated mostly by Keiokarnan people, who tend to be short, broad, and dark, with flat noses, wide faces, dark eyes, and coarse, curly hair black hair. Its people are considered to be unquestionably the greatest navigators and explorers in the world, and are among the wealthiest and happiest thanks to a massive trade empire built mostly on the luxury foodstuffs, textiles, and exotic herbs (both spice and medicinal) they ship around the world. Realm of Water.

Toftor: Occupies the southwestern portion of Dorn, the most fertile land in the world and largest nation in area. Toftor is inhabited mostly by Tornic people [I may change this or Tarnik, as they’re a bit too similar], who tend to be a similar brown to Alterians, but taller and with straight hair, ranging from brown to black (never red, unless there is Alterian ancestry somewhere in the line). There is also a small Holodni minority in the southeast of the nation. Toftor is ruled by a series of hierarchically arranged council; the landowners of each village form a council, which selects one of their number to serve on a county council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on a regional council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on the Grand Council. These councils act as both legislature and judiciary, while the executive function (which is mostly law enforcement, military, and tax collection) is handled by a professional, career civil service/military–each member has both a civilian peacetime role and a military wartime role. Nation of Earth.

Avaris: Occupies the western part of the Northern Peninsula, down to the isthmus where it borders with Alteria. The last part of the Empire to break away from Alteria, the Tarnic majority are still ruled over by a militaristic faction of Alterians. One of the poorest and most brutal nations, a place of sharp peaks and narrow valleys. Home base for the Guild of Airmen, the newest guild, which is still working on expanding its airship routes across the continent. Realm of Air.

Caertarn: The northeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, similar in climate to Pryderys but less fertile and more mineral-rich. A place of mines and machineries, which has taken to industrializing like no other nation. Caertarn is the original homeland of the Tarnic people, and still inhabited almost exclusively by them, although there are Alterian and Keiokarnan minorities scattered about; Tarnic people tend to be dark-skinned, tall, and lean, with dark eyes and straight dark hair. Realm of Lightning.

Tamryl: A quiet, neutral realm on the southern slopes and foothills of the Central Mountains, shrouded in dark forests. The Tamri people tend to be small, slender, very dark, and straight-haired; the beauty of their art is renowned throughout Dorn, especially their fashion and jewelry. Since they keep mostly to themselves, there is a tendency for other cultures to view them as “exotic,” “mysterious,” “alluring,” in ways that can be quite problematic. They worship the celestial bodies of Sun, Moon, and Stars. Realm of Darkness/Light.

Holog: The isolated and isolationist “barbarian” tribes of the far southern tundra, mountains, and highlands. Though the Holodni have no coherent nation, their realm is held together by a shared language, culture, and faith, the last of which is maintained by The Order of the Divine Crystal, who believe that in the beginning of things the universe existed in a state of near-perfect order, but one tiny bit of discord grew and grew until it shattered everything into chaos; the purpose of humans and dragons alike is to reorder the universe so that this time there is no disharmony at all. The Holodni are tall and pale, with hair ranging from white through yellow to light brown, straight or wavy, and blue or light brown eyes. Realm of Pattern.

Wannet: The great realm of the east, second-largest in the continent. The Wannet have possibly the most different culture in Dorn, mostly due to having never been part of the Empire. For example, they regard gender as a verb, and consider anyone who stays the same gender their whole life to be a bit eccentric, rather like deciding you love a certain outfit so much you’ll just buy five identical outfits and never wear anything else again. They also have a unique religion, not entirely dissimilar from the Holodni faith, but pantheistic, teaching that all things are part of All, and in particular humans are the Hands of All, tasked with the never-ending, always-in-progress task of endlessly shaping and reshaping the universe into more pleasing forms. Their storytellers, known as Shapers, are highly trained and highly respected. Like Holog, Wannet has no central government, but exists as scattered, independent settlements linked by wandering Shapers. Nonetheless, as the occasional Holodni or Tamri raiding party has found, when threatened the Wannet are capable of banding together and fielding a formidable fighting force with surprising speed and organization. Realm of Form.

Keioloaia: Located along the north-central shores of Dorn, south of Karaia, with which it has strong cultural, ethnic, and political ties. Keioloaia is a rather harsher environment that Karaia, being a little less hot but a lot less fertile, being mostly full of either rainforest or swamp. However, those forests and swamps contain many of the exotic herbs and spices which Karaia sells to the world, and the rough terrain make the country near-impossible to invade; even the Empire never conquered Keioloaia by force of arms, but instead by egging them on in a series of disastrous wars against their neighbors over the course of which they progressed from ally, to protectorate, to vassal. The country is mostly Keiokarnan, with small but significant Chennelish and Tamri minorities in the south. Realm of Life.

Chennelea: Located in more or less the center of the continent, in the high pine forests and mountains of the center part of the Central Mountains, with Keioloaia to the north, Tamryl to the south, Toftor and Alteria to the wast and Wannet to the east. A study in contrasts, it is metal rich and full of mines, nearly as industrialized as Caertarn, but also renowned for producing far more than its share of scholars, mystics, and teachers. The University of Chenm is considered the greatest institution of learning in the world, except possibly for magical theory, where it is at least rivaled by the school of the Mage’s Guild headquarters in Alteria. Chennelea is traditionally neutral in all conflicts involving its neighbors. Its people tend to be olive-skinned, with pale or brown, loosely curly hair and prominent noses. Realm of Mind.

Fiction Friday: Faultless, Part 1

Still running that Patreon! The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is still more than three months away, but Patreon backers can start reading it today!

I’m taking a break from Felda’s story for a while, because I find I keep thinking about Ghost’s instead. So I’m taking a crack at writing it. This is set quite a ways to the north of Toftor, in a culture with rather different structures and issues.

Trigger Warning: Child abuse and neglect, internalized racism, body image issues

Caer Wyndle, Pryderys
Twelve years, four months, and seven days until the end.

It wasn’t Ghost’s fault. Not really.

Sure, she was the immediate cause, but she had no idea what she was doing, and more importantly no way of knowing what she was doing. There had simply never been a chance for her to learn what she needed to know–if there had been, she likely would have learned it gladly.

That’s what she was doing in the library, after all; learning. She spent a great deal of time there, there being little else to do. She got yelled at if her parents or Parry caught her doing servant work, and of course she couldn’t go outside because someone might see how ugly she was.

Every once in a while Mother would send her maid, Kina–though mother always called her Kiah for some reason–to fetch Ghost. Kina would drag her to the baths to be washed and scrubbed and shoved into a frilly blouse and short pants, and then she would be presented to Mother. That was the only time Ghost was called Emlyn, which was her name in the big red book of family trees on the shelf by the mantle in the library: Emlyn Glenys Dyvis, daughter of Gwenfer Dylan and Caradoc Dyvis (nee Gruffyd). Mother was the only person who called her that, when she called her at all.

Every time started the same: Mother would grunt, say, “You seem in good health, Emlyn,” and Ghost would agree. Then Mother would sigh and say, “Really, we must get you a governess or a tutor one of these days. It isn’t right, a Dyvis child growing up wild.”

Then Mother would brush her hair, or play a game with her, or teach her something, until eventually Ghost did something wrong and the screaming started. She stopped being Emlyn once mother started screaming; she was just that child, as in “Take that child out of my sight!” It was hard to tell what would be wrong, but there was always something.

Once, a few years ago, Mother taught Ghost her letters, and the sounds they made. After that Ghost would practice in the library, sounding out the words one by one. As time went on she got better at it, and learned more words. No one particularly cared if she sat for hours in the library–not like the kitchen, where sooner or later she’d be in someone’s way, or the halls and rooms where Mother and Father lived and entertained guests, where Ghost wasn’t permitted except when Mother sent for her.

No, in the library she was left in peace, except if Father or Mother or a guest wanted to use it. Then she had to disappear before they entered, so they wouldn’t see her. She was very good at leaving a room just before someone else entered, which was why everyone called her Ghost. Well, at least, all the servants called her Ghost, and she herself did too, so that made Ghost her real name, whatever the family record-book might say.

So her education consisted of whatever books she pulled randomly from the library shelves, which meant a great deal of history, mostly in the form of “and then General so-and-so led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy,” books of advice on business, and literature, mostly in the form of “and then General So-and-So led the charge on Wherever and won the Battle of Thingy, as well as the hand of Princess Whatsername.”

There was very little in there about magic, and none at all about the proper order in which things ought to be attempted when learning magic. And she was eleven, that age when such gifts begin to manifest. Not that her gift was that great–middling, really. But it was a Fire rune she looked at in the book, tracing her fingers over it while she read the instructions about focusing on it, letting herself flow into it. And the library was full of wooden shelves stacked with paper books. And they did put the fire out without too much damage. Eventually.

Honestly, she probably could have just faded away, stayed out of sight until the whole thing was forgotten, if not for the fact that she panicked as the first flickers of flame danced across the book, and ran screaming from the library straight into Mother, Father, and the Thain of Caer Wyndle.

On the other hand, six months in a dark cellar did give her both time and motivation to practice the fire rune. She had it quite under control by the time they let her back out.

Eleven years, nine months, and thirteen days until the end

Ghost sat under a table in the kitchen, nibbling at a twirlbread that had been dropped on the floor and trod on. Normally she wouldn’t eat food that had had feet in it, since Alamea always made sure that every meal she prepared for Mother and Father had more leftovers than all the servants together could eat, but she very much liked twirlbread, with its cinnamon-sweetness and chopped nuts. Unfortunately she couldn’t have the fun of unwinding it into a long thin strip of fluffy baked dough, because it had gotten all smashed, but it was still quite tasty after she scraped off the footprint.

Speaking of her, Alamea walked into the kitchen at just that moment, trailed by the new scullery lad. Ghost didn’t know his name yet, since he’d started while she was in the cellar. Ghost quite liked Alamea; she was kind as long as you stayed out of her way and obeyed her iron-fisted rule of the kitchen, and she had a big, round, lilting voice that was somehow exactly right for a woman barely taller than Ghost and seven times wider, with a broad face and thick black calluses on her big, strong hands. The scullery lad was a bit taller and a lot thinner, but his face was close enough that he might be her cousin–and probably was, for all Ghost knew.

Alamea strode over to the bubbling pot of soup, and her apprentice, a shy and anxious girl named Luana, only a few years older than Ghost herself, stepped back. Alamea lifted a ladle and tasted the soup, while Luana clutched her slender hands together and watched in worried silence. “Hrm,” said Alamea, and Luana visibly relaxed. That meant, Ghost knew, that the cook had no complaints about Luana’s work.

Alamea turned to the counter, inspecting the vegetables and spices Ghost had watched Luana chopping and grinding for the last hour. “Hrm,” she said again, and laid a saucepan on the stove next to the soup. Soon she was tossing and flipping vegetables, adding them and the spices to the pan in some arcane order Ghost couldn’t figure out.

“Hi, Mele,” Luana whispered to the scullery lad. Aha! So that was his name!

“Hi,” he said.

“How is, uh, everything?” Luana asked. When he shrugged, she continued on, “Um, if there’s anything that you need help with, or want to know… I mean, since I know you’re new–I mean, of course you know that you’re new, but–“

“Oh, just go fuck already,” Alamea interrupted. “After work. Luana, I need you to start cleaning the fish. Mele, run to the pantry and get me more flour and two onions.”

Luana blushed like two inkblots spreading across her cheeks, but Ghost caught the hint of a smile on the older girl’s face as she turned to her work. Ghost watched in fascination; this was a part of life she’d only seen glimpses of before.

A couple of minutes later Mele returned and laid down the supplies Alamea had requested. “There actually is something I’ve been wondering,” he murmured to Luana. “Who’s that little girl I sometimes see? The one with the filthy face and the torn smock? Is she the maid’s daughter or something?”

“Little girl?” asked Luana. “Oh, you mean Ghost! No, no, she’s their daughter.”

“Them?” he asked. “You mean–she’s a nob? But then why do they let her just… wander like that? It’s not right!”

Ghost perked up, suddenly interested. Wasn’t it?

“You’ve answered your own question, boy,” said Alamea. “You said she looked like a servant’s girl. Oh, she’s got the same lovely dark skin and eyes as her mother, all the Dyvis women do, but she looks more than half Keo, doesn’t she?”

Ghost stifled a sigh, since that was likely to get her noticed and probably walloped for eavesdropping. That was always what it came down to, her ugliness. Fat and short and toadlike, flat nose in a broad face, and a tangle of curls that grew denser and bigger rather than longer–not like Mother’s hair that hung down shining and dark and straight, tall, slender, long-limbed, beautiful Mother, or the tall, slender, long-limbed, straight-haired, beautiful ladies that sometimes visited her.

“Hard to believe she’s their child,” Mele agreed.

“Exactly,” said Luana, voice dropping to an excited whisper. “Rumor is, His Lordship thinks she’s not. He thinks Her Ladyship had a Keo lover and forgot to take her draft.”

“Rumor,” said Alamea, disgusted.

“Well, that’s what Kina told me!” Luana protested.

“Yes, and she told me Her Ladyship thinks the child’s a throwback, that the Gruffyds aren’t quite as pure Tarnic as their family tree says,” Alamea countered. “She repeats everything she hears, that girl.” Alamea passed the vegetables in their pan to Luana and took the cleaned, boned fish from her.

“Well, if either one is true, why do they stay together?” asked Mele.

“Here, make yourself useful, boy, and peel this garlic.” Alamea cracked a couple of eggs in a bowl and whipped them swiftly, then poured out the flour onto the counter. Soon she was at work coating the fish in first egg, then flour. “Because the Gruffyds might be rich and Tarnic, but they’re as common as we are,” she said. “And Lady Gwenfer might be a lady, but this manor was half in ruins and all her old father had left before young Mr. Gruffyd, as he was then, proposed. They may hate each other, and they do, almost as much as they hate her, poor little thing! But they need each other, Ghost or no.”

Ghost clutched her scabby knees to her chest, hardly daring to breathe for fear they might catch her. She’d never heard anything like this before. Mother and Father hated each other? Hated her? She rolled the word around in her head. Yes. Yes, that was the right word. They hated her. And, she was vaguely surprised to notice, she hated them.

The next day she snuck out of the house for the first time.

The creation myth of the Wannet Shapers

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A sacred story for one of the religions in the Dragons of Industry world. No idea if this will ever come up in the story itself–the only character I have so far who’s likely to know it is Twill, and they’re unlikely to tell it for reasons of their own.

Once there was All. All was everywhere and everything and the only thing, because All was all, and All was alone because there was nowhere and nothing else to be.

All had eyes and nothing to see, and a mouth and no one to speak to. All had a heart but nothing to think about, hands and nothing to Shape.

So All began to Shape themselves. They plucked out their eyes first, and made the Sun and the Moon and light to see by. Then they plucked out their lips and their tongue, and made the sky and the wind and the breath to speak with. They Shaped their bones into mountains and their blood into rivers, wove their hair into forests and stretched their skin as fields. The flesh All’s hands pulled apart and Shaped and molded into the twelve thousand and twelve animals of sky and sea and soil.

At last All had made everything, and there was nothing left of All but hands. Now there were things to see but All had no more eyes, and things to feel, but All had no more heart, and things to talk about, but All had no more voice. All that was left of All were two great hands hanging over the world, stretching from end to end of the sky.

So All brought their hands together, and the two hands Shaped each other, pinching off pieces like clay, shaping them into little tiny Alls with eyes and voices and hearts and hands of their own. They could see the world and each other, speak to each other, think and Shape and dance and a thousand other things.

We are the Hands of All, the Shapers of the World and of each other. We are each All and each tiny.

Do not forget.

Do not fail to tell the mirror-story. There are many roads, but there is only one beginning and one end.*

*Note: It is traditional for Wannet stories to end with “Do not forget. Do not fail to tell the mirror-story.” This and one other story are the only traditional tales which add the next sentence.

Just FYI, in my head he speaks with the voice of Ricardo Montalban

“Um… hello,” said Felda, cautiously.

“This morning, I am walking,” the cat-headed man said conversationally, “and seeing something interesting. Do you know what it is I am seeing?”

“Um… no?” said Felda.

“No,” he said. “And why should you?” He dropped lithely to the ground beside her, then bowed. “I am forgetting to introduce myself. I am called Twill.”

“Ah,” said Felda. She took a step back and laid a hand on Brom’s flank. The man didn’t seem dangerous, but…

He looked up at her–he was very slightly shorter than she. “I see I am confusing you. I know; it is the first thing everyone always asks: ‘Like the fabric?’ The answer is yes. My parent hears the word long-ago and thinks it is sounding, errmm…” He searched for words. “Romantic. Exotic? From the faraway west.”

“Is that really the first thing everyone asks?” asked Felda.

“No,” he admitted. “Sometimes, I am saying it before they can ask, so instead they are asking something else.”

“Why are you a cat?” Felda blurted.

“Yes, that is what they are asking.”

“Sorry,” said Felda.

“No-no,” Twill answered, shaking his head. “Men having the heads of cats is not common. It is natural to be curious.”

“Oh, okay,” said Felda. “So… why do you have the head of a cat?”

He smiled, showing sharp-looking fangs, and said nothing.

“Um,” said Felda. “So. Yes. Uh, I think I had best be on my way. Gotta keep moving, you know?”

She backed away from him slowly. Despite how small and slim he was, that sword and the whipcord muscles of his arms were more than enough to worry her, even before fangs came into the equation.

“Please, at least wait until I am telling you what it is I am seeing, no?” he protested.

Felda paused. She was out of reach of his sword, and the dirt underfoot was fairly loose. She felt into the threads–yes, she would be able to throw a cloud of it in his face the moment he reached for his sword. “What did you see?”

“I am seeing a strange rock in the middle of a field. A person and a bull is coming out, and it collapses. It is strange to me. Who is this person? Why are they with a bull that does not act like a bull? What sort of bull neither eats nor drinks? And why does the person have the face of one who is trying not to be sad and afraid? And I am thinking I am knowing the answers to these questions.”

Felda took a long step back, Brom moving with her. She had never attacked someone with magic before, but it was starting to look like she had no choice.

Twill stepped forward, his white-gloved hands in front of him, palms spread and facing her. “I am not being an enemy, child,” he said. “You and your dragonchild are belonging to you. Who you run from, why, these do not matter to me. What sort of person am I being, if I am seeing a child running and not helping?”

Felda paused. “Who are you, really?” she asked.

“I am telling you the truth,” he answered. “My parent is naming me Twill. Many years ago I am deciding to walk to other side of world. In a year, two, I am finishing, and then maybe going back or doing something new.”

“Why?” asked Felda. “Who are you running from?”

“The same reason everyone is doing everything. It is seeming like a good idea at the time.” He looked contemplative for a moment. “I am thinking, but I do not think I am running from anyone today. Most who are chasing me do not like walking as far as I am walking.”

Felda looked him over again. No pack, no belt pouches, no pockets–maybe money hidden in his boots? But most likely, no money and no supplies, so how did he eat?

“What do you do?” she asked. “Other than walking?”

“If I see someone and am wishing to help, I am helping. Mostly I am finding those with power, and teaching them what power is for.”

What it’s for? Felda mouthed the phrase silently. Does he mean… is there some purpose my teachers never taught? “Can–” she paused. “I’m not saying I trust you or that you can come closer. I’m just asking, can you teach me?”

It was Twill’s turn to pause. “No one is ever asking for lesson before.” He considered, then brightened. “Yes, I think I can!”

Almost faster than she could see, and definitely far faster than she could react, his bright, needle-thin sword was in his hand. That same swift smooth motion somehow became a lunge, and then his sword was in her chest.

It hurt.

Then it was dark.

Skipping ahead…

I am still very much stuck on how to make Felda’s training and family life non-boring. So I’m going to jump ahead a bit. In this scene, Felda has just left home, with no idea when or if she will ever return. She is in breach of contract and on the run from the Guild, who intend to repossess Brom. 


The first new thing Felda learned about being an outlaw was that it was vastly less interesting than the books made it out to be. There was a great deal more walking across stubbly wheat fields and a great deal less cutting through dense bracken in dark forests, for starters. At one point in the afternoon, she saw a man a couple of hundred yards away and froze in panic. He waved, then went back to loading his wagon with bales of hay. Most likely not a steely-eyed, stone-hearted Peacekeeper who would, together with his cruel hawk bondling, pursue her relentlessly across the countryside for years, never listening to or caring about her explanations of innocence and extenuating circumstance, then. 
Come dark, she found herself in a fallow field on some strange farm. “I’d better makes us some shelter,” she told Brom. She closed her eyes, concentrated, felt the threads of Earth beneath her. She  felt Brom’s strength flow into her and down into the soil. She knelt, laid a hand on it, gathering threads together, then slowly stood, pulling them upwards. A mound of soil rose, hollow and open at one end, about eight feet long and tall as Felda. 
“Hold it there, Brom,” she said, and he snorted in response. 
Now came the hard part. She reached into the weave of the soil, and bit by bit, carefully, unravelled the threads and spun them together into thicker, courser cords. After about a half hour of work, she opened her eyes. The mound was now a dome of thin but solid gray stone, big enough for the two of them to shelter in. 
“Thanks, Brom,” she said, and gave him a scratch between the ears. Then, exhausted by walking and magic both, she ducked through the dome’s opening, Brom close beside her. She lay back against him, closed her eyes, and was asleep immediately. 
The next day was rather more interesting. 
It began more or less predictably. Felda woke and stepped out into a bright, clear morning. The sun was warm, but a breeze out of the south held just a hint of autumn chill working its way inexorably north. She stretched, then opened one of the packs she’d loaded on Brom’s back. Breakfast was cold meat pie and water, hardly the big, varied, hearty breakfast her father used to–
No. 
Breakfast was adequate. It was time to start walking. 
Ignoring the hot, dense feeling behind her eyes, Felda laid a hand on the dome. Destruction is always easier than creation; in a matter of minutes, the rock collapsed into soil once more. 
“What do you think, Brom?” Felda asked. “Should I enrich the soil as payment?”
Brom said nothing. 
“Yeah, you’re right. Have to keep moving. Let’s go!”
She walked off, Brom trailing her. The hills ahead looked no closer than yesterday, let alone the mountains that loomed above them, but she could make out trees between her and them, scattered at first and then growing denser the farther away she looked, until they blended bluely up into the hills. 
“Maybe we’ll get those dark forests after all,” she remarked to Brom as they walked. By late afternoon they were on the fringes of a wood that extended out from the hills like a long finger pointing home. 
“No such place,” muttered Felda, and skirted the forest, walking gloomily under the eaves of its branches with her head down. 
“Hello,” said a calm, friendly, heavily accented voice from above her.

Felda leaped straight up, then again sideways as soon as she touched the ground. She spun toward the trees and looked up.

The man sitting in a branch was decidedly unusual. He wore a sleeveless belted tunic, leggings, boots, and a hooded cloak, though the hood was thrown back. This was not particularly unusual; they were quite fine, but very travel-stained and had been frequently patched, but that was not in itself hugely odd. The sword hanging from his belt was a little unusual, quite a bit thinner than most swords Felda had seen, but then she’d not seen particularly many swords and from her reading knew there were quite a few types.

His accent was odd–it was both very heavy and not at all one that Felda had heard before–but that merely meant he was from far away, which fit with his clothes. Same with his red-brown complexion–not something she’d seen before, but it fit with the accent and the clothes–he was simply foreign, not unusual.

No, the unusual part was that he had the head of a cat.

Pulling a thread

Onwards with Felda!

Dinner that night was a quiet affair, at least for Felda. She sat in the eye of a cyclone of noise and activity, picking at her food while her mind flowed down the threads connecting her to Brom. Felda supposed it should have been disorienting, seeing and feeling through two minds at once, but she found it surprisingly easy. So while Lal told off the twins–fifteen and full of what Felda’s mother called “barley” and Felda called “being obnoxious little brothers”–for slipping some of their greens onto her plate, and Felda’s sisters Lem and Hanni (eleven and eight, clever and ever-conspiring) chattered rapidly and loudly to one another, Felda slipped away to relax with Brom, even while her body remained at the table.

She could see the stars through his eyes, tiny points of light and color just starting to come out on the east side of the sky. Below them were the mountains, small and dark purple against the darker-purple sky. Somewhere between here and there, Felda knew, were the Blightlands, where the realms of the Dark One had been before the Great War. She liked that they were there–anywhere associated with that many capital letters had to be an interesting neighbor. But they were too flat and low to be visible over the gently rolling hills of southeastern Toftor, and perhaps that was for the best, given the stories.

When she was younger, Felda had tried to imagine it. From her books she had an idea of what war was like back in the olden-times. She could picture the long lines of sword and archer crashing into each other while bondlings tore through them like puppies scattering beetles. She could envision great spells lashing through the air above the armies, fire and lightning exploding. Where her imagination failed, however, was the end of the war. All twelve dragons on the field at once, eleven against one, all the energies of creation imploding against an entire kingdom. A people, a language, a realm, snuffed out in a moment.

The said the Dark One survived, or came back, and lurked around the edges of the world, scheming still. Felda believed it. Everyone knew you couldn’t kill a dragon for very long. Even eleven other dragons probably couldn’t do it for all the centuries since. She was less sure about the stories of his bargains, that he could appear to humans and offer them contracts, his power for their servitude. That made for too good a story to be real.

She finished her food, then asked to be excused. Her mother grunted a reply, then returned to arguing with the twins, while her father attempted to deal with a sudden barrage of questions about whatever it was the girls had gotten in their heads. 
Felda walked outside into the cloudless, moonless night. The last of the sky was fading into darkness now. She looked up at the stars and felt the earth extending just as far beneath her feet. 
She would, she realized, never be able to explain, to anyone in her family, any of what she experienced that day. 
She looked at herself with Brom’s eyes. She had the same straight, thick dark hair as her mother, the same dark eyes with little flecks of lighter brown as her father. Everyone in the family–practically everyone she knew, except Lal and Laal–had the same red-brown skin and oval faces, and like the rest of her family she was tall and wiry. To look at, she was one of them, sister to her brothers and sisters, daughter to her parents. She could walk down to the village and talk to countless cousins and old friends of her parents and children of those old friends. 
But none of them would ever understand what she felt when she felt down into the earth and looked up into the sky. 
She felt something wet and cool in her palm, and a rush of hot air over her fingers. Brom nuzzled her hand, and without looking she ruffled his fur. 
Well, almost none of them. It was getting late. She went back into the house to go to sleep.