The Info Dump: My Best Friend, and My Story’s Worst Enemy

In my opinion, beginnings are the hardest things to write. Sure, maybe I can make a first sentence that seems catchy – at least to me – but then I have to write another. And another. And I have to set up all the little things that snowball into that one big thing that becomes a story.

Of course, when an idea pops into my head, it’s usually that middle, snowballed story. So I have to backtrack and figure out how the story becomes a story. And from that, one of two things happens:

1) I don’t think my backstory through enough, so my characters’ reasonings are insubstantial, nonsensical and unbelievable; or

2) I try to pack in the action to make people interested – then relate in a long backstory right at the beginning all the relevant information that will come into play later in the story.

This second thing is, of course, the info dump. We want to make sure everyone knows what we’re talking about, so we tell them absolutely everything. And it’s a tendency particularly among fantasy writers. Because we often set our story in a different world, we have to make sure that our readers understand its rules in addition to all the little plot details.

As a writer, when I info dump, it’s usually there not because, deep down, I think that readers need to know that information right away. It’s because I need to get all those thoughts in order, and figure out how my world works. I need the info dump for myself as both a basis for understanding, and a way to move the story forward. If I waffle along for a couple of pages, I usually think that I can move on to something exciting without ruining the pacing. Oh, if only it really worked that way.

So how do we introduce a world without writing an info dump?

1) Switch points of view: J. K. Rowling used this to great effect in her first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. “The Boy Who Lived” follows the day of Vernon Dursley as he goes about his life. As he meets all these wizards on the streets of London, we get to see from the eyes of an outsider, rather than being told how to see like an insider.

2) Make your main character an outsider, too: Whenever the main character learns something, the readrs do, too. If your main has never been to a big city before, then he’ll have to learn all the rules of the city before he gets arrested or kicked out. Right now, people are getting kind of irritated by the whole outsider thing, because practically every fantasy book is about some naive boy or girl who goes from being an insignificant nothing to the savior of the universe. So maybe don’t make your character too much of an outsider.

3) Be strategic: This is what I like to call the Suzanne Collins approach. That lady explains a whole lot in The Hunger Games, but it works because she explains it all piece by piece. Katniss doesn’t tell us all about the opening ceremony before she’s even picked in the Reaping. So we get info dumps, but they’re little. They’re not too much to take in.

4) Avoid that lengthy, but oh-so-useful prologue: This might be a pet peeve of mine. It’s very easy to give a ‘short history’ of a world or even a universe in order to set up what comes next. A character’s back story is one thing to set up in a prologue. The entire history of the world is quite another. To me, at least, it often feels rushed, forced and rather artificial.

5) Incorporate myths or folktales: Folktales and myths are ways of explaining strange phenomena of the world, or imparting some wisdom about good and bad behaviors. They’re often entertaining to read because of their whimsical style, and since they’re designed to tell something about the world (physically, spiritually, morally etc), they fulfill the role of informant without seeming forced. As long as you can legitimate including the tale in the first place…

So, there are a few ways to avoid that info dump. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but can be avoided with a bit of thought.

In what other ways can you avoid that dreaded info dump? Comments always appreciated.

Maybe This Time…

I try to participate in Nanowrimo every year.

By that I mean, I get at least one hour down the pike before giving up. Sometimes I get a couple thousand words in. And a few times I’ve gone all-in, and finished that novel with hours to spare.

I’m subscribed to the OLL blog and last year I was pretty active in my little writing group here in Copenhagen. During (and after) the Big Event, I kept hearing about these amazing people who had not only managed to write a novel in a month, but had managed to rework it, polish it, edit it, send it off to an agent or publisher, and sell it. Some of the people in my writing group were preparing to self-publish their work.

All this made me take a long, hard look at my previous novels. What I found was – lack.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 1: I seem to recall I started on this one rather late. A young man receives a very rare book from his dead grandfather, along with a note saying he has to protect it at all costs. In finding out what, exactly, the book is, why some people want to destroy it and others want to protect it, he ends up getting into all kinds of trouble.
What it lacked: Substance, really. While my main character did a lot of things, I don’t think I ever clearly explained why it was he had to do them, who was after his book, or what it was all about. It was an entertaining story but I’m not sure I’ll revisit it.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 2: It took me four years to complete a Nano challenge again. I’ll admit I was a little surprised, since I had no idea what I was doing and had absolutely no plan until November 1. My story centered around a vampire protagonist who was the main villain of a gothic novel – only she didn’t want to be the bad guy. The book followed her efforts to become self-aware and change the plot, with the help of some (and hindrance of other) secondary characters.
What it lacked: Although I enjoyed writing it as a humorous piece, I don’t think this will make it to a publishing house in its current incarnation, because it lacks originality. A vampire we can sympathize with? Been there, done that. Characters of a novel becoming self-aware? Likewise. It was fun to write a mock gothic novel, but the angle isn’t enough. I’ve got plans for changing this one, but not this Nanowrimo.

Nanowrimo Novel Number 3: Emboldened by my success the previous year, I decided to try re-writing the second novel I ever completed. When I was 16, I produced an irritating, plotless adventure that even I didn’t really understand. It focused on a young girl who had a singular magical ability, and forged an unlikely and disapproved of friendship with the nearby magician’s son. I then spent the next six years trying to figure out what to do with it. I always liked the characters, but needed something more substantial for them than the wandering adventure that I had. So I made her the subject of an early-teen marriage to an older man, had them placed in a powerful position at some foreign court, and put in some mystery. Oh, and then I killed her.
What it lacked: I liked the way the manuscript started. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do from there. The decision to add in a little murder came towards the end, and then I realized what I really wanted – my novel was supposed to start with the murder. That led to something entirely different that won’t resemble, in any way, the mess I began six years ago. This manuscript lacked certainty. It’s something I hope to bring back to its latest incarnation – and maybe I’ll finish it this time.

This year’s novel: After a little tribulation, I decided to go with what I described in my book blurb # 1. It’s not the most original premise of the ones I posted, but I picked it because it has strong characters. That means they won’t be waffling around while I’m trying to figure out where the plot goes next. I have a clear picture of them all in my mind, so I won’t have to force actions on them or think up a reason or two. The plot doesn’t really have an unsolved mystery, which I’d have to figure out before the end, and it doesn’t have complicated magic, science or world views.

I’ll be blogging daily during Nanowrimo, in an attempt to stick to my word count. I’ll probably vent some frustrations about writers block, the cafe where I’ll do most of my morning writing, balancing Nano and thesis, and so on. I know that there are fellow Nano’ers out there in the blogosphere; maybe we can all put together a support group of some kind.

Anyone interested in Nano support, let’s hear it. Problems in previous years, trends you’ve noticed, suggestions for some kind of group…

Tracks, Chapter Nine: Rain and Mud

Click here to read the previous chapter, or here to read from the beginning.

***

“Who was he?” Phillip said. He looked no better than usual – the circles under his eyes were dark as bruises and the flesh hung loose from his cheeks. His rich velvet collar no longer hugged his neck and beads of sweat could be seen where  his neck met his shoulders. He picked up his cup of wine with trembling hands. Perhaps if they weren’t so weighted down with rings, the Falconer thought, they wouldn’t shake so much.

“He was a man of trivial importance,” the Falconer replied. “Some part of the vaster network, but hardly clever enough to be a ringleader.”

The man had been caught trying to dig his way under the city wall, accessing some of the old sapping tunnels that had been under the city since the Dark wars. He’d acted confused when they first took him, then defiant, as though he could withstand their questioning. Needless to say, he didn’t think so now.

“So? What do you have from him?”

The Falconer pulled a sheet of paper from his coat-pocket. Unfolding it, he handed it over to the king. “A confession,” he began. “And two names. Jeremy Saul – that was the clerk His Majesty attempted to investigate last week – and Hastor Plumm. Our informant claims that Plumm is the man who made the bombs.”

“Mmm.” Phillip took another sip of wine and said over the rim of the glass, “Do you believe him?”

“I do not think we will find a man named Hastor Plumm in the city, whether he ever existed or not. As for Saul, he was very careful to destroy what parts of his office might still be of use to us after his bomb went off. My men have taken the fragments for analysis, but I doubt we’ll have relevant information in good time.”

“You will, of course, still look for this Plumm.”

“Of course,” the Falconer allowed. “And there may yet be names to extract from our dear friend. Perhaps he thought that jotting down one or two would suffice.” Yet he couldn’t know more than four or five of the other participants. No one so low on the ladder would have many names to give up.

“Very well. There is one thing more, Falconer.” Phillip pushed a small piece of paper across the table. It was signed and affixed with his seal. “Lord Enbar is to be the new ambassador to the Darklands. He was scheduled to leave last week. Every day he is delayed is a little more embarrassing to us – so unless he’s involved in this scheme, give this to your guards. They will allow his party past the city gate.”

The Falconer bowed. He recognised a dismissal. And he had much yet to do.

***

Rain and mud. It seemed to be everywhere. The rain trickled down his neck and somehow got between his skin and his shirt, making everything damp and cold even though he was wearing his leather alchemist’s coat. The tips of his boots were not, he had discovered, waterproof, and his toes hadn’t been dry for days now.

He’d gotten rid of his horse after the second day. He probably shouldn’t have stolen it in the first place – but speed was of the essence that close to Siege City. He could’ve gotten twice as much for the horse, he thought as he tugged his coat this way and that in a vain attempt to repel more rain. On the other hand, the man who bought it wasn’t the kind to go to the authorities. Better to cover his tracks than make a little more money.

From then on he’d walked along the road, begging rides from anyone going his direction. Sometimes they let him up, sometimes they pretended they couldn’t see him. Sometimes he had to show a little money first. And he hadn’t slept in a proper bed for nine days, since he’d bolted. Which made the sight of the Red Rose Inn the most welcome thing he’d seen since he’d passed through the gates of Siege City.

It was the only inn along this road for perhaps a day’s ride in either direction, and its size reflected the number of customers it was always sure to have. The long, low buildings were for the poorer ones, who could be sure of a meal, shelter from the elements, and good conversation, even though they’d have no privacy. In other journey’s he’d paid to sleep in those rooms. They provided a fun enough evening, though you always had to keep a hand on your most valuable items.

But not tonight. He skirted the wide buildings and headed for the taller one in the centre, the one for rich men. His privacy would be respected there, and no one would ask questions.

It didn’t hurt that someone else was paying his bill.

When he entered he removed his broad brown hat, shaking water from the brim. Then he approached the high, dark desk, where an apprehensive porter was eyeing him. He didn’t blame the man. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left the city, and his beard had always grown in rather patchy. Mud streaked his thin face and his hair was greasy and needed trimming. He looked more like a vagabond than a functioning member of society.

The porter was trained not to judge by appearances, but he did not seem easy until he’d read over the traveler’s note a good few times. Then he begged his guest’s pardon, but it would be a few moments while he alerted Lord Sand of the man’s arrival.

The porter was evidently hoping that Lord Sand would come down himself, denounce the wretch and have him turned away from the inn. But the servant he sent came back with a note and a purse, and the porter had to allow the scraggly traveler admittance.

“Room fourteen is free for you,” he said with evident disdain, and handed the man a key. The servant who had delivered Lord Sand’s note took his bag and preceded him up the stairs.

The room was likely the smallest the Red Rose Inn had available, but it was more than spacious enough for him. The room was well insulated, with soft rugs all over the floor and a tall bed that would have fit two of him with room to spare. A fire was already lit in the grate. The wide windows were shuttered and the noise of the yard was muffled to a discontent muttering. He felt warmer already.

“I’ll have a bath before my evening meal,” he said. In reply, the servant handed him a note.

Come directly to room 23.

***

“I hope you don’t mind the smell,” he said as he entered a minute later. He had shrugged off his coat and now that the shirt underneath was exposed for the first time in days, it exuded a faint whiff of mildew. Among other things.

The man he faced seemed not to care. He was impeccably dressed and bathed, as though he were about to receive an important guest, or go to the theatre. He wore a tailored waistcoat and silk kerchief, despite the warmth of his room. Currently, he was seated in a fat armchair with his feet up on a little stool. A book rested in one hand. “Help yourself to some wine, Mr Plumm,” he said, and gestured to a bottle of rich red wine sitting next to a plate of game. A half-full glass sat on the table just beside him.

“Please,” sneered the man as he picked up the bottle. “You know my name, just as I know yours.”

“I would not think you would wish to advertise your real name.” Daniel Gallow shut the book and set it down next to his wine glass.

“No one’s looking for John Bevy,” he said. “Not like you.”

“That is true,” Daniel allowed. “But you never know who might be listening.” He looked around the room as if to illustrate his point. It was a private dining parlour, set for two. Bevy took the hint and seated himself in front of a plate. “You can assure me that you came here quite alone?”

“Three days I’ve gone without seeing another soul.” He took a large bite of quail and washed it down with a gulp of wine. On the latter he coughed, and looked on the verge of spitting it out – then he seemed to remember where he was, and made an effort to swallow it instead. “Strong wine,” he commented.

“In the evening I prefer to have one glass of strong wine to three of a less potent variety,” Daniel said. “It helps me sleep.” He stood, and crossed to the table. “What will you do now?” he asked as he sat again, this time across from Bevy.

“Collect my money.” Bevy’s eyes flashed. “Disappear. I have a letter of apprenticeship from Daskill Lant that will get me work in Queensborough or some similar town.”

Daniel steepled his fingers. “I know Daskill Lant,” he said. “We paid him to acquire your materials.” He was frowning.

Bevy in his turn began to feel uneasy. He quashed the feeling with another bite of quail. “So?” he said, and took a sip of wine. It really was good when strong. He could see why a rich man might prefer to have it without water. But a poor man had to stretch a good thing, make it last. He had no doubt that Daniel Gallow had ordered the best wine the inn had to offer.

“So, when the Falconer finds him, the trail will inevitably lead to you. You, who left the city at such a perfect moment, with no apparent reason, just to look for work in a smaller city where you had no contacts and no hope to rise in rank. What was the point of calling yourself Hastor Plumm if your real name will soon be sought out in every alchemical den in the country?”

“Who says the Falconer will find Lant?” croaked Bevy. His throat was suddenly dry. More wine.

“The Falconer finds everyone, eventually. It’s only a matter of time.

“Well, if I can’t make my way, I’ll need something to live off.” Bevy glanced pointedly towards Daniel’s belt, where a fat purse sat attached by the strings.

The older man drew his thin lips back in what might have been a smile, but seemed more like a threat, a baring of teeth. He untied the purse and set it down on the table. Bevy paused in his eating to pick it up and appreciate the weight. “It’s good,” he said finally.

“It’s everything we agreed on.”

“Good, good,” he said again. “But that was before you put me out of work. How am I supposed to subsist without my endorsement from Lant?” He picked up the purse again. “Some secrets are heavy weights to carry,” he said ominously.

Daniel seemed unphased by his demand. He reached into his pocket and pulled out another purse. This was substantially smaller, but when he placed it into Bevy’s hand the man widened his eyes. “Gold,” he said simply. “Pure. It should help you on your new road.”

Bevy smiled, revealing browning, cracked teeth. “To your health,” he said, raising the glass. Daniel obliged, and they drank. The alchemist drained his cup to the dregs, and picked up the bottle. But it slipped from his grasp and clunked on the table. He stared at his hand. It had begun to tremble, and had turned deathly pale.

“I would drink to yours, but I am afraid it would do you no good,” Daniel said in a melancholy voice. Bevy turned wide, wild eyes on him. “It was in the glass,” he clarified. Bevy’s hands clenched convulsively. He opened his mouth, perhaps to shout, but the only noise that came out was a thin whistling as his throat began to close up.

“You were never as careful as we wished, you see.” He seemed to be apologizing. “Lant knew where you were going and who you were. Several of my agents saw you on the road. And…money.” He picked up both purses and swung the smaller one like a pendulum in front of Bevy’s rapidly discolouring face. “We knew you’d ask for more. And you’d bargain for our names. My colleague and I have risked it all for the sake of this one ideal. We can’t let you just sell it.”

Bevy’s clenched hands pushed down on the table and slowly he came away from his chair. His lips pulled back in one last sneer, and one leg moved forward. But his legs could no longer take his weight, and he sprawled on the floor, sputtering his last. Perhaps it was a curse, perhaps a prayer.

Daniel didn’t care, either way.

He had instructed the staff not to disturb him for the remainder of the evening. They would find the body mid morning, most likely, unless someone complained of the smell before then. And by that time, he would be deep into the tangled woods to the north, on his way to the next safe house.

***

Nanowrimo Book Blurb # 3: Predestination

Samantha Goodwin has always known the shape of her life. That’s what you get when you grow up in the most powerful witch clan in the entire country. She knows when she’ll be sick, she knows when the frosts will kill the harvest – she even knows the day she’ll die. Everyone in her family knows it. It doesn’t make life terribly exciting, but then, what can you do? Everyone is content with (or at least resigned to) their lot in life.

At least, until he shows up.

A scruffy, scrawny boy on the run in a parallel universe somehow breaks the barrier between worlds and ends up in Samantha’s lap. Literally. The witch clans of his world insist that he must be executed. He is predestined to, after all. But Samantha finds herself helping him cheat fate and forge a new destiny, one that defies the power at the heart of her clan.

And if he can make his own choices, why can’t she?

***
I scribbled this one out on a late night train to the little town north of London where I’m staying. I just spent a full day at the British Library so my mind was in need of a thesis break and some creative output.
The idea didn’t spend long months fermenting in the back of my mind. It just rushed out. It came out of nowhere and will probably go nowhere.
Because I basically opened my brain and this story fell out, it’s not big on crazy metaphors or complicated, slightly creepy relationships. In my mind it’s a simple action/adventure/urban fantasy/parallel universe kind of story. No confusing, swirling narrative technique – just a straightforward, linear story line about a girl and a boy and the fabric of the universe.
That makes this much better nanoing material than the last book blurb, or the last novel I tried to actually write for Nanowrimo. Nothing needs a lot of deep thought, not at first. Things just have to happen. They don’t have to be terribly complicated.
I’m considering a love triangle aspect. Considering it. Love triangles are tending towards the overrated these days in terms of subplots, and so many stories have them. It would probably depend on what happens when I start writing, whether I can keep the excitement going or find myself flagging.
Is there enough material here to keep me going for 50,000 words and 30 days? What else does it need?

Nanowrimo Book Blurb #2

Earth of the near future isn’t as apocalyptic as some might have feared. Flooding has changed the face of the coastal cities – but most have been reclaimed or somehow preserved. Among them is Copenhagen, known for its canal architecture, its culinary movement and its tourism.

At the top of the tourism pyramid stands Henry Salt, the American owner of a hotel chain and one of the richest men on earth. At his right hand stands the controversial artist and misogynist Janus Van der Vindt, whose preservation of women as living statues has sparked debate around the world. Van der Vindt’s art is a mystery and a scientific impossibility, and many are eager to see it fail. So when his living statues begin to disappear from Salt’s hotel lobbies around the world, they’re eager to solve the mystery before anyone else catches wind of it.

Neither of them realizes that the journey will take them into the realms of the spiritual and the impossible. The answers lie not in the hands of normal thieves, but at the heart of the changing world, the nature of art and life, and the mind of Henry Salt’s brilliant daughter, whose fascination with the powerful men around her has a profound effect on their destiny.

***
So, this one’s a bit wordy. The idea has been floating around in my head for years – the living statues were first murder victims turned art, then art turned murder victims. Now they’re something else.
I feel like the last Nanowrimo book blurb was really based around this concept, of a normal storyline turned upside-down. The characters in it were people I tried to make interesting, but they were also tropes, easy to find once I’d picked out a setting.
This blurb is the other way around. I had the characters long before I had any kind of story for them. In fact, I don’t know what kind of story I have for them even now. After all, this is just for Nanowrimo. I haven’t made a big plan yet. But the characters were people I had fun playing around with. And when I moved to Copenhagen, I found a setting into which they fit.
First, you have Henry Salt. He’s a rich man, and a callous man. He likes to work and spend time with Janus Van der Vindt, his artist, primarily because Van der Vindt is controversial. Every time he makes a new piece of art, it’s in the papers. And if Salt commissions that art for his hotel, then his hotel is also in the papers. He doesn’t really care that Van der Vindt has been called a misogynist, a murderer, the antichrist, or a bad human being in general. He’s happy because it helps him make money.
Henry Salt’s most prized possession is his daughter, Medea. Though unattractive at 14, she’s a genius. She’s also attracted in an intellectual way to the 40-something Van der Vindt, who returns the attraction. The idea behind this relationship is not to portray pedophilia, but to make the reader feel slightly uncomfortable, as though their actions aren’t quite appropriate, but cannot be condemned with certainty. This is of course underlined by Van der Vindt’s disregard for other women.
One of the reasons that this book blurb was hard to write was because it’s not really a mystery, nor a fantasy, nor post-apocalyptic literature or action/adventure. I’d like it to have all of those – but not to be any one of them more than the others.
Anyway. That’s another Nanowrimo idea. I’d love to have time enough to write all these novels I’ve been thinking of over the years. Isn’t that how it is with all writers?

Nanowrimo book blurb #1

What do a prince, a magician and a cook’s assistant all have in common? Nothing – until their collective home is destroyed and they find themselves on the run. 

The low-born Marianna thinks herself fortunate to get a position as a cook’s assistant at the most prestigious finishing school in the country. Serving up the country’s future leader’s and magicians isn’t as glamorous as she thought it would be, but she can handle the scathing comments of her “betters.”

Things only become really difficult when an unknown force attacks the school, intent on abducting a prince in attendance there. In the chaos Marianna escapes – and somehow finds herself the protector of both the school’s most arrogant magical student and the prince, disguised by enchantment.

In their bid to reach safety they’ll have to work together, come to terms with who is better than whom and, most importantly, reach a consensus on breakfast.

***

So. Nanowrimo isn’t for another couple of months, thank God. I never know what I’m going to actually write for Nanowrimo until I sit down to write on November first. Or second. Or third.

But book blurbs are things I have always loved to read and write. The perfect book blurb makes you want to open the book instantly and immerse yourself in the world you have been promised – and for me, writing a book blurb for a novel I have yet to start makes me excited to actually get writing.

So tonight, I decided to put up a possible book blurb for a possible Nanowrimo novel. I hope to do it a few more times before the actual novel writing starts, as a way of putting ideas out there/asking for suggestions.

I came across this idea as a sort of take on the quest theme. The main character, instead of being some kind of chosen one or having some kind of unique talent, is possessed only of her brains, wit, and quick ability to chop onions in a crisis. For once, an ‘ordinary’ character has to take care of ‘extra-ordinary’ ones.

I like this role-reversal because it means the characters themselves will have to   come to terms with it. To the prince and the magician, this girl’s only function in their previous life was to serve up lunch. Now she is their caretaker. They have to look up to her.

While thinking this story over, I decided that the prince was probably a nice enough guy. It’s part of that chivalry business. So he would have a much less difficult time adapting to Marianna’s sudden relative power. But the magician – he’s a problem. He can’t face the idea that a common kitchen wench might be better at something than he is. So when his magic fails (which it inevitably does – we’ve got to level the playing field somehow) he has a lot of thinking to do.

In my brain, this is a comedic turn on the classic quest, a young adult type novel. Who knows whether it will ever be written, for Nanowrimo or otherwise?

What do you think? Is it fun for anyone else to write a book blurb? And if you could give this book a title, what would it be?

Tracks, Chapter Eight: The Midsummer Festival

Click here to read from the beginning, or here to read the previous chapter.
***

A few days had passed before Jonathan and Eva saw one another again. Each morning the king sent a note with his deepest regrets, stating that he had urgent business to attend to. She was happier to take breakfast in her room with Kate. The Falconer was at the palace whenever his duties spared him, and she had no wish to break her fast in his company.

Jonathan’s wounds had hardly been serious. Although quite a fuss was made over him as he was carried into the palace, it was soon deemed that his state of near-catatonia was more attributable to shock than loss of blood, and aside from wincing when he stretched his back, he was quickly back to normal. None of this made the Falconer feel well-disposed towards Eva, though, and this was reflected in the manner of her captivity – a guard stood at her door day and night now, and she was never alone except in her own chambers. She didn’t bother trying to dismiss him. She recognized the Falconer’s hand in all of this. His guard was loyal, and would be until the very end.

Three days after the catastrophe at the clerk’s office, she was invited to sit at the high table, during the Midsummer Festival.

By this time, Lord Gallow had been officially declared missing.

There were no bounties on him yet, and no criminal accusations levelled against him. Far from giving Eva hope, it only served to convince her that the Falconer looked for more evidence before he could make a formal statement.

It would be her first public appearance since the humiliating arrest. No doubt some had noticed the change of activity surrounding the Gallow mansion – the servants and masters no longer came and went, and the front yard was full of soldiers. Those same people would be watching her tonight, gauging her demeanor.

When the time came, she was dressed in a deep blue adorned with golden thread. Her skirt belled at the waist and her long sleeves draped nearly to the floor. Her bodice was cut high and her hair had been pulled up to match.

Her daughter had been dressed in a lighter blue with a softer silhouette, more fitting to her age. Her hair was curled and fell around her face in soft brown waves. Though the family jewelry was still at the Gallow home, the king had generously offered them the loan of any royal adornment they might wish. Kate wore a silver necklace and sapphires in her ears; Eva had placed golden bracelets on her wrists and a shining dark opal pin tucked into her hair.

The Falconer noticed their gems as they joined the retinue that would enter behind the king. His thin mouth tightened and when she approached he inclined his head in the barest acknowledgement of her presence.

The Midsummer Festival was supposed to be one of the grandest affairs of the year. This festival had been planned long before the attack on the station, but the excitement had been dampened by the increased security. In addition to the king’s personal guard, a company of the Falconer’s men stood outside of the palace. Their stoic expressions and tall rifles did nothing to reassure the wedding guests. And for the past three days, the magician’s wall had blazed all around the city, filling the night with an eerie green fire that kept anyone from coming or going. It made for a rather more subdued party than previous years.

As she and Kate joined the retinue they curtsied to the king. He was deep in conversation with one of his advisors and spared them no more than a brief greeting.

Eva stepped back and turned instead to Jonathan, who was speaking politely (though not very comfortably) with a young woman a year or two older than Kate. She was a stunning girl, with auburn hair and deep blue eyes, dressed all in white and gold. Her delicate features reminded Eva of Lady Hartwin, who stood a few feet away in conversation with Aldor, the doctor. Every few seconds her eyes flickered to the girl.

Eva had to stifle a laugh as Jonathan gratefully turned away from his too-charming companion and addressed her. “Good evening, my lady. I trust you have been well? Good evening, Miss Gallow,” he said to Kate, who curtsied. Eva just caught the venomous glare of Miss Hartwin before she slid away.

“Quite well, thank you,” she replied. “But it was you we had reason to fear for, Your Majesty.”

“Not at all. And I am fully recovered now – with the exception of my pride, of course. I have not been so scolded by my elder brother since I flung mud on his best shirt when we were children.”

She stepped closer. “Word from Daniel?” she asked softly.

He shook his head. “No word, no sight. I know he would have written, if he could. That paper you gave me…” He stopped and glanced around. “Perhaps this is neither the time nor place.”

Eva could not help smiling this time. “Indeed. We seem to have driven away your charming companion.”

“Miss Hartwin?” To his credit, he managed not to blush, though he could not look Eva in the face. “She made her debut two days ago. Of course, Aldor wouldn’t let me leave the palace so my congratulations had to wait.”

“I see,” said Eva archly.

It was a poorly-kept secret that every woman of wealth or name in Siege City hoped that her daughter would marry the king’s brother. Ever since breaking off his first (and only) engagement seventeen years before, Jonathan had shown little inclination to marry. Rumours of an illigitimate child had circulated for a while, but had come to nothing. And Jonathan had managed to stave off the advances of every mother-in-law ever since.

“But what of you?” Jonathan turned to Kate. “Your mother was married by the time she was your age.”

Kate lifted one eyebrow and gave him the well-practiced look so common to girls her age. Her large eyes seemed to ridicule him for even thinking her fit to marry one of the idiots in her social circle.

“Of course, we won’t discuss Kate’s debut without her father present,” Eva said hastily.

“Of course,” he acquiesced. He pressed his lips together to suppress amusement.

At last the doors were opened to the hall, and the king and his retinue entered.

The guests in the hall sank to their knees at once, and bowed their heads as the king passed. They were not obliged to keep them downcast once he moved on, of course, and so they were able to peek at the rest of the retinue. Not a few of them were casting glances at Eva and Kate – so they had  noticed the change of pace at the Gallow mansion.

The king’s hall was high-domed and grandly adorned and gilded. The black and white marble floor had space for a thousand guests, and a small stage in the back allowed enough room for the royal orchestra to fit in. The ceiling had been painted by some unnamed master centuries ago, and the once bright colors had faded to the barest outline of angels and saints. At the front of the hall, where the king’s table was laid, five enormous glass windows looked out over the city.

The king’s table had been set with the first course. When he at last took his seat, the rest of his retinue did the same, and the guests below stood. They had their own dining area as well, and the servants had begun to bring out bowls and platters of food for their consumption.

Though Miss Hartwin’s mother did her absolute best to place her daughter at the side of the prince, Jonathan managed to seat himself between Eva and his brother, and across from Doctor Aldor. Aldor took every opportunity to shoot Eva a suspicious glance, as though he, too, felt her responsible for Jonathan’s injury at the clerk’s office.

The festival was a strange thing. There was little dancing and more than a few glanced toward the windows with some apprehension.

Outside, the evening air took on a green caste, like the gates of some hell. Eva tried to ignore it but she saw Kate’s glance drawn more than once out the window and away from the table’s conversation.

The king ate slowly and took the time to discuss many different things with those around him. He seemed in pain whenever he swallowed, and reached often for his wine.

At last he pushed his plate aside and asked Lady Hartwin to accompany him to the floor. As they saw him stand, the orchestra began a slow waltz.

Eva found herself presented with the Falconer’s hand.

She couldn’t refuse. She took it and he pulled her out of her chair and onto the floor. With one arm around her waist he guided her between the other couples.

“I didn’t realize you danced,” she remarked.

“It is not the talent for which I am most known. But I am capable.”

“Why dance with me? You can’t possibly enjoy it.”

“You’re rather hard on yourself, my lady,” he said with a brief, sardonic smile. “But essentially correct. However, I felt this the easiest way to speak with you under the circumstances.”

“What circumstances? And what could you possibly have to say to me?” she asked.

The Falconer leaned forward until his mouth was nearly against her ear. He spoke with all the appearance of a lover to his mistress: “Jonathan’s love for his friend has made him blind to some of the possibilities before him,” he murmured. “He would ride into fire to save your lord. am still watching you – and your lovely daughter. And if you have betrayed us-”

She jerked back and her feet stilled by themselves. Two red blotches had appeared on her cheeks, both the shock of his intimacy and outrage at his intimation. She felt the furtive glances that other dancers and watchers were casting them, and kept her voice appropriately low. “You forget that you are servant and not master,” she hissed. “If the king believes the truth of my claims, then what you think means nothing.”

“The king is not hindered by his emotions,” the Falconer replied. They began to dance again. “He understands the necessity of remaining-”

Before he could finish, the sky outside flared bright green. Many gasped; the orchestra faltered and the waltz fell out of time. Every guest turned towards the windows. Green tendrils shot like flames through the sky, turning every face ghostly pale.

They seemed to be coming from one place in particular, a section of wall far off to the left. Without wishing it, Eva found herself turning towards the Falconer, a question in her eyes.

He caught her look and that thin mouth twitched. “Someone has tried to get in – or out,” he said. “I hope you will forgive the intolerable rudeness, but I’m afraid business calls me away.” He dropped her hands and strode from the hall, but no one noticed him leave.

After a few moments the king signaled to the orchestra, and they struck up again. Rather grudgingly many couples returned to the dance, but conversation was scattered and worried, and all eyes were turned inexorably towards the great windows and the green beacon of light.

***

Click here to read Chapter Nine.