Tracks, Chapter Seven: The Return

Click here to read the previous chapter.

***

“I’m fine,” Jonathan said through gritted teeth. His guard was helping him down the stairs of the office, hurrying him toward the coach while trying to aggravate his wounds as little as possible. Eva followed behind, with one guard at her side. Whether he was there to aid her or to keep her from fleeing, she did not know. Nor did she particularly care.

As they exited the office, Eva turned to look at it. It appeared almost entirely unchanged, its brick front standing exactly as it had when they first approached it. The only indication that anything had happened was the gaping hole where the window had been, with a few sticks of wood poking like broken teeth out of the frame. The guard took her arm and drew her over the broken glass towards the coach.

He handed her in, and made to follow her. She held up a hand. “Ride ahead,” she  told him. “And fetch the doctor.” He nodded.

As soon as they were both in the carriage, it set off. The jostling had an immediate effect on Jonathan, who turned pale. He leaned against the window and closed his eyes, trying to breathe deeply.

“Are you – ” Eva began.

I’m – fine – ” he repeated. The coach ran over a pothole and he gasped.

They rattled down the streets as quickly as they could, but in the middle of the day, their progress could not possibly be what they wanted. And though the soldiers shouted and cursed and threatened, few moved aside for them.

Jonathan let out a series of quick exhales that could only be laughter. “I suppose this is where it would have come in handy to travel with a full retinue. They’d have closed off the entire street for me, all day.” He cracked open one eye and glanced at her, as if to gauge her reaction.

She tried to smile. “Perhaps you should not travel so casually, Your Highness,” she replied.

Something he had said caught at the back of her mind. They’d have closed off the entire street for me. She frowned.

Then she stuck her head out of the window. “Driver!” she snapped, in her most authoritative voice.

Almost against his will, he turned round to look at her.

“Take the coach up past the train station.”

“That road has been closed off, my lady,” he said in a politely incredulous voice. “Surely you recall driving past this morning.”

“I do recall,” she replied. “The road was closed, and it was empty. There will be no one on it to hinder you.”

“But the road was closed as a matter of security,” he said.

“Isn’t this a matter of security?”

He looked down and drummed his fingers on the bench. A few moments later he turned back toward the front, flicked the reins and drove the coach off of the crowded detour-route and onto a sidestreet.

Ten minutes later, the coach stopped again. Eva could hear muffled voices, sharp in tone. Their own driver sounded urgent and angry. The man he was arguing with seemed harassed. Their voices rose until finally the driver snarled, “See for yourself!” and the door was flung open, sending a blinding brightness into the carriage. Eva flung up a hand to protect her eyes. Jonathan tried to do the same, but his hand only made it halfway before it drifted back down.

The man with whom the driver had been arguing wore the uniform of one of the Falconer’s men.

He leaned into the carriage and examined her with one raised eyebrow. She returned his look as coldly as she could. Then he turned and looked Jonathan up and down. He noted the livery of his prince and the finery of the coach. Whether he recognized the lady was not certain, but he knew the gentleman. He withdrew his head, and nodded reluctantly to the driver. “Drive slowly,” he warned. “Avoid the workers.”

The coach set off once more. And though Eva had warned Kate off peering through the curtains, she couldn’t resist taking a look at the damage that had been wrought during the night.

Only yesterday it had been the busiest location in Siege City. Now it was silent as a graveyard.

The dome of the train station had once been the largest of its kind on the entire continent. It had been made of red-gold glass that blazed like a sunset. That dome was cracked open now, like a bloody egg. The tracks that had once flowed into the station were no longer visible for the rubble that extended all the way to the road. Crews had been hard at work all morning clearing that road, but as their coach proceeded they hit numerous stones that made Jonathan wince. The front of the train station, which consisted of twelve tall marble arches, was pitted as though it had been the site of some war.

There were no trains in sight.

Every so often the coach passed some of the Falconer’s men, who made their way slowly over the ground. They seemed to be searching for something. A few glanced up to watch the coach pass. Most ignored it. They wore dust masks and protective leather – perhaps they were looking for another bomb.

When they came to the end of the barricade, the driver exchanged a short word with the man on duty. It was, of course, far easier to leave the forbidden zone than to enter it, and he waved them through after a short pause.

“Are we there yet?” Jonathan asked as they squeaked through.

“Nearly.”

And they were there, soon enough. They pulled into the crescent yard of the palace and before the coach had even stopped, the door was opening. The royal doctor, a man whom Eva had spoken to a handful of times, stepped in. “Your Highness?” he said.

“I’m fine,” Jonathan murmured.

“I’m sure you are,” the doctor replied in a brisk voice. “Help me,” he instructed a pair of assistants who lingered outside of the coach. To Eva he said nothing, but he waved her out impatiently. She hitched up her skirts and clambered down, unassisted.

She could only watch as Jonathan was carefully lifted out of the coach and placed on a stretcher. As it sped off into the side entrance, it was followed by his guard, his driver, a handful of servants and the doctor’s entire retinue, bustling through in a cloud of gossiping worry. As the yard cleared her gaze fell on the figure that remained behind.

The Falconer was watching her with something very much like loathing.

He did not bother to disguise it when he saw that she was looking. When she began to walk towards the palace entrance, he fell in just behind her.

“You blame me for this misfortune,” she said over her shoulder.

“It is possible. Why were you there? Why did he leave without retinue? Why did no one know where he was going?”

“Perhaps he thought you would try to stop him.”

“I would have stopped him. It was a singularly stupid idea from a normally responsible man. And you are not supposed to be wandering around the city.”

She turned on the steps to face him, so he could see that the hatred in his eyes was matched by her own. “I was called a guest by your own king. And though I did demand to accompany him, it was his own decision to investigate. If you think it so irresponsible, why not tell him?”

“I shall,” he replied in that soft voice of his. “And I shall certainly ensure that you never leave the palace without a full guard again. His Highness may be convinced of your innocence and ignorance. I certainly am not.” And with a deft push he turned her back around and walked her up the remaining stairs, into her prison.

***

Click here to read Chapter Eight.

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Searching for Reality in an Artificial World

I have returned from my trip to Venice and Florence with a camera full of pictures and a belly full of gelato, just the way such trips ought to go. I didn’t get as much writing done as I would have liked, and I didn’t get to update my blog – in fact, internet was so scarce on the ground that I couldn’t even write to tell my boyfriend I had landed.

I went to Venice to enjoy myself and see an old friend, but I also went there to gather inspiration. I’m working on a story about a city with canals instead of streets, gondolas instead of carts, doges instead of princes. I wanted to walk around Venice and soak up the atmosphere, see how this bizarre city works, and try to inject some of that magic into my writing.

But, to be honest, I don’t feel like I got to see the real Venice. I don’t even know whether there is a real Venice. It’s all mask shops and paper shops and glass shops punctuated by restaurants with overpriced tourist menus. Even when we tried to avoid the more tourist-populated areas and visited places like Cannaregio (where the Jewish Ghetto was built), we couldn’t escape the tourist-trap feeling.

The entire island was sinking under the weight of visitors. Every time I looked at the houses above the shops, or the little side areas that appeared to hold residents, I wondered: Can people actually live here?

I wouldn’t be able to do it.

The Venice I wanted is probably the Venice that everyone thinks of when they set out. Something darkly romantic, full of secrets exchanged in gondolas and hidden behind carnival masks. Whispers in the night. Secrets the day does not quite manage to conceal.

This is no more the real Venice than the city I saw. But I was hoping, in my travel, to find some kind of truth that I could work into my prose.

All I saw was a city so heavily gilded that no one could pass by without stopping. Full of light and sound and colour and shape – the city is full of the appearance of substance, but the meat of it eluded me completely.

So, after traversing the islands on foot for four days, we moved on to Florence.

Maybe living in Venice would give me a different perspective on it – but I wouldn’t really want to move there to find out. I will keep looking for my great metropolitan muse. In the meantime, there’s plenty of other stuff to write.

The Excess of Marketing Meets an Ostracized Reader

So, I’m dashing off this post while I’m supposed to be doing my thesis. Hopefully it’ll be quick. Hopefully it also won’t have a whining tone.

I joined twitter not too long ago (I’m still in the Dark Ages, I know. Don’t even ask about Google+ or Pinterest). Because I am an aspiring writer and want to connect with other aspiring writers, I started looking for – and following – these people.

For the most part, it’s been great. I get to have a brief glimpse into a stranger’s life, rejoice with them at the strangeness of their cats or the deliciousness of sushi, and see links to book reviews or mars landings or articles about writing.

But certain people on my feed only talk about themselves, or their work. The following is going to be the Great Hypocrisy of the Age, since this post is publicized on twitter, but:

This guy spends so much time telling everyone how awesome he is that I kind of want to punch him in the face.

People should definitely advertise their blogs, their books, their articles, photographs, beadwork, knitting, basket weaving or whatever else they want on twitter.  But how much is too much?

For me, the joy of clicking on a twitter link is that I only have the faintest idea of what I’m about to read. The joy is gone when I already know that the end result will be a eulogy of his work, only his work, and how amazing it is.

Am I being too sour? He seems to have managed to make a living for himself off of writing, which is, of course, what I am striving to do. But in the land of twitter, where everyone is always talking about him or herself – throwing opinions and entreaties into a void from which no reply may ever come – he is the only one who comes across as entirely self-involved.

I hope this is a legitimate question and doesn’t come across as a whiny rant. I’ve heard many debates on statistics and the rules for publicizing your work. How many people are put off by excessive publicity vs. how many are brought in by it?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions. Answers of opinion are considered amazing and awesome, as are the people who provide them.

Tracks, Chapter Two: The Departure

Click here to start from the beginning. 

***

Somewhere far, far away from the feverish activity surrounding the train station, a man sat in the study of his grand house. He was bent over a large book with a pen, and with one hand traced the lines already written on the paper, while occasionally making notes with the other.

He was not a young man, and he squinted in the lantern light. His brown hair was streaked with grey and his forehead was deeply lined. His face was lean and strong, though, with a clean-shaven chin and bright blue eyes, a proud nose and a mouth that constantly twisted in reaction to one thought or another. Every so often he paused while reading, looked a moment to the side, then moved the pen furiously as he muttered a note.

A little bell strung at the door of his study rang sweetly. Daniel Gallow looked up from the massive volume. Despite the lateness of the hour, he did not seem surprised by a visitor’s arrival. He instead pushed back his chair and proceeded with some haste out of his rich, dark study and down the hall.

His manservant bowed as he approached, and opened the front door of the manor. A messenger stood without, clothed in a plain brown coat and trousers and shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. He was breathing deeply and evenly, as though he had hurried to the front door and now wished to pretend he was in no great rush. A creamy white envelope was clutched in one hand. “From Lord Shroud, sir,” he said as soon as he saw Daniel, and he shoved the envelope toward the man. He did not even stop to bow.

“Thank you,” Daniel replied neutrally as he took it. His duty safely discharged, the messenger wasted no time but briskly walked back down the stone path that led to the manor. His horse waited at the end, just as impatient as its master. Its flanks were steaming despite the summer night.

The whole thing gave Daniel a bad feeling.

He turned away from the door and it was closed behind him. His fingers worked at the seal on the envelope, checking for signs of tampering before prying the wax loose. All seemed in order. The only thing that gave him pause was the hasty scrawl that spelled out his name, and the little ink spots that surrounded it on the envelope. There was a small streak, as well, where the ink had not been allowed to dry thoroughly before some hand had come into contact with it. It was not, therefore, the carefully composed missive he had been hoping for.

A rustle of cloth caused him to look up and twitch the letter, unopened though it was, to his chest.

His wife, Eva, stood in the door of the sitting room. She still wore a fine purple evening gown with a square neck and silver trim, long dagged sleeves, a fitted bodice and a skirt that brushed the floor. “Who’s calling at such an hour?” she asked. Her voice was lower than that of most Lanthian women, and spiced with the eastern accent she had never quite eradicated. He loved listening to that voice. Even after seventeen years its cadence made his stomach jolt. But tonight, he had no time for such emotions.

Daniel forced his thin lips upward into a smile. “Lord Shroud,” he replied. “Where is Kate?”

“She is readying herself for bed, I believe,” Eva replied.

“Go and ensure it.”

If she was offended by the dismissal, she didn’t show it. She merely inclined her head and turned away. Daniel went into the sitting room and shut the door behind him. After a moment’s pause to collect his scattered thoughts, he pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope, unfolded it and studied its contents.

The message was short, and to the point. He read it over three times, just to make sure. His face seemed to age another twenty years in just a few minutes. When Eva opened the door to the sitting room again she saw him standing rigid, the note crumpled in one hand. His face was a mask of composure; only his hands, trembling slightly, indicated that all was not well.

“Are you all right?” she asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. Her touch seemed to jerk him out of his reverie.

“No,” he said almost reflexively. Then he took a deep breath, looked around, and said, “No,” again. He took his wife’s hands in his own. “I have to leave immediately. There has been an emergency. I can’t waste any time.”

Her grip tightened on his and they stared at one another for a long moment. In that moment a kind of understanding passed between them. Fear crept into her dark eyes. “When will you be back?” she asked quietly. She already knew the answer.

“Not for some time, at least.” He tried again to smile, but the effort was a useless one and they both knew it.

She nodded. “Retrieve what you need. I’ll make things ready for you.” He inclined his own head in reply, then hastened back to his study to ensure that everything was in its proper place.

Daniel Gallow’s study was orderly and well arranged. This meant that he wasted as little time as possible in collecting a few necessary papers. He then went over to a cabinet on the right hand side of the study. Taking a large iron key from his pocket, he unlocked the cabinet and removed from within a long flintlock pistol. He attached it to his belt, then picked up a bag with the necessary accessories. After a brief last look around the room, he nodded. He had all he needed here. He shut the volume on his desk with a precise finality. He did not know when – or whether – he would get a chance to resume his work.

***

Eva had dismissed the stablehands, and she waited alone. The horses seemed to have detected her mood and they shifted uneasily in their stalls. She had cleared away some of the straw stacked in the corner, and now the edge of a trapdoor poked out. She stood next to this trap door now, her hands clasped tightly together. At her feet lay an unlit torch and a saddlebag.

She started as her husband opened the door of the stables, then heaved a deep sigh. She rubbed at the back of her neck, as she always did when she was nervous or upset. Ordinarily Daniel would try to comfort her – but tonight, time was of the essence. He crossed to the trapdoor, knelt down and pulled it open, all without saying a word to his wife. A dank, damp smell emanated from beneath. The passage would likely be muddy and moldy. He was in for a few uncomfortable nights. Swinging his feet into the opening, he found with his boots the strong hemp ladder that was secured by two iron rungs hammered into a floorboard. It extended some ten feet and ended just above the floor of the passage. He turned and placed his hands on the ground.

Eva knelt in front of him, and handed him the torch and saddlebag. Several times she drew in a breath, only to exhale again after a moment or two. She seemed to be casting about for something to say. He brought one hand up to cup her cheek. “I love you,” he promised.

She kissed him desperately, wrapping her thin arms around his shoulders and clutching him as though she never intended to let go. She smelled of sweat and rain and the tears she would shed later. “I love you,” she replied when they broke apart.

She watched as he descended the ladder into the gloom. When he dropped to the tunnel floor he looked up once, lifted his hand in farewell, then disappeared. Eva took a long, sharp knife from her dress and with a few able saws severed the rope from its holding and sent it thumping to the floor of the passage. She set the trapdoor back in place, then stood. She brushed a few spare pieces of straw from her dress. Then she set to work shoveling the straw back over the door, until its outline was completely obscured.

***

Click here to read Chapter Three.

Tracks, Chapter One: Fire and Glass

They spun through the air like snowflakes, glinting in the light and turning over and over as they fell. All around them the fire sent ripples of light over their sharp edges and turned the glass fragments into prisms.

The blaze had become instantly uncontrollable. Whoever had planted the explosives arranged everything perfectly and when the station had erupted it bloomed like a flower – a flower with petals of glass and flame, with leaves of charcoal and a stem of twisted iron shards.

Within minutes the royal Falconer was on the scene, with a swarm of city watchmen crawling over the wrecked shell of the building with water buckets and fire charms. More watchmen had been posted outside the royal residence and still more had begun to conduct a search of the city. Another round of explosives could be anywhere.

Though it was cool for summer, the blast of fire had baked the air and the Falconer was sweating in his uniform. One thing they could thank the interminable rains for – the fire hadn’t caught on to the buildings in the area. They were too wet.

A watchman came up to him and smartly saluted. He nodded once, a sharp motion, and the man said, “We’ve checked inside, sir.” His face was red and streaked with soot.

“What did you find?” the Falconer asked in his cold, crisp tones.

“No one was inside. But…the tracks are destroyed, sir. And no one knows how to repair them.”

The Falconer rubbed his smooth chin. Destroyed. Everyone knew the trains were a relic, an unsolvable puzzle. There was no way of knowing whether they would ever be repaired. Surely the arsonist had known this. But was it his goal, or a means to an end?

“Return to the barracks. Any watchman not previously on duty is instated as of now. I consider the city in an emergency situation until the arsonist has been found. Send word to Solldyr – he is to raise the city walls immediately.” The man saluted again and departed.

They would find the arsonist. The Falconer had no doubt. But if he had any associates that might be in the city, they couldn’t be allowed to escape.

Glass powder and ash settled onto his coat. He stood with his arms folded, watching. All around his watchmen scurried, pushing gaping citizens out of the way as they smothered the remnants of the fire. At last a lackey scurried up to him and murmured something in his ear. He smiled at the news, his chilling smile that stopped men in their tracks and gave children nightmares. Then he followed the man away from the wreckage and towards the palace.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2: The Departure.

The Purgatory Blues, Chapter 2

 Click here to read from the beginning.

***

The last time I had been in a hospital, I was four. I was visiting my mom. When she told me she was going up to Heaven soon, I asked her where it was and when I could go see her.

“It’s a beautiful place,” she’d replied. “It’s like having everything you want, but better. And when you get there, a long time from now, I’ll be waiting to greet you and hear about all the things you did while I was gone.”

From this description, my idea of Heaven was filled with fluffy pink pillows and soft, wide eyed animals that were my eternal playmates. What else do you expect from a four year-old?

Even when I got older and one conception of Heaven was replaced with another, I never shook the feeling that there was something soft about it. In my mind, the pearly gates were smooth and silky. The clouds were made of down. I knew the whole St. Peter thing was just a metaphor. For most of my life I went back and forth on the issue of God and life after death. But when it came down to those last moments, I still half-expected to be transported to the clouds, with a toga and a harp miraculously in my hands.

In some ways it’s hard to describe where I actually began my afterlife existence. With my body gone, I didn’t perceive things through my senses. But my first impression of my new bearings was – flat. Everything seemed flat. There was no vibrancy. The world was suddenly cool and drab and quiet, or as close as you can get to those things in another plane of existence.

The guy who brought me said, “Welcome to Purgatory.” He didn’t speak, as such. He just…decided which thoughts to share with me, and they appeared in my head.

“Purgatory?” I echoed.

“Also known as Limbo, the Waiting World, or any other host of names.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“My name is Conner,” he replied. “It’s my job to help you adjust to the loss of your body, your post-mortem existence here in Purgatory, and any next steps you want to take.”

“I don’t mean to be self-righteous, but I kind of always thought I’d either go straight to Heaven or Hell,” I said.

Conner laughed. “A lot of people say that. But most of us start out in Purgatory. Anyone who has unfinished business in the physical world stays here until it’s resolved.”

Then they go to Heaven or Hell?” I asked.

Conner did the spiritual equivalent of a shrug. “They go somewhere.”

I tried to consider the life I’d left behind. But I couldn’t really think of anything that might tether me to it. I’d been ready to go for months and I’d made my peace with anything and anyone I cared about. Maybe there had been some mistake.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t want to think about my old life anymore. I’m ready to move on and I’d like to see what’s next.” Anything, I thought, would be better than what I had. “So whatever papers or equivalent stuff I have to file here, I’d rather just do it now and get going.”

“It doesn’t work like that, Rachel,” he informed me. From the warmth of his tone I gathered he’d been down this road before. “You don’t just leave Purgatory because you want to. Whatever is holding you back…you have to find it. And fix it.”

The Purgatory Blues: Chapter 1

I was ready to die when it happened. I’d been ready for months. And as I lay in that hospital room, as they pumped serums into me and pick out all the splinters of skull, I knew the moment had come. And I was not afraid.

I was relieved.

There was no pain. I think I was beyond it then. But I could hear everything – the shouts of the nurses as they ran down the corridor, the murmur of the surgeon as he concentrated, the rustle of his sleeves. I heard the monitor flatline. My surgeon started cursing as the crash cart rumbled in. I don’t know how many times they tried to resuscitate me. But eventually they had to call it.

That was when I opened my eyes. Not my physical eyes, but the eyes – or perhaps awareness – of whatever was left of me once my physical body was gone. My body lay next to me, cold and motionless. Pale. Red matted the side of my head and my face was a mass of bruises. I looked away from my former shell. I didn’t need to see the damage. I’d lived it.

The surgeon pulled down his mask, revealing a thin, downturned mouth in the middle of an aging face. A nurse came around the side of the bed, walking right through my non-corporeal self to fold my body’s arms. She didn’t seem to notice a thing. When she was finished, she went over to the surgeon and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Do you think they’ll catch the guy who did it?” he asked. He sounded weary and frustrated. I reached out for him almost instinctively, touched that he cared. No one else in my life had.

She just patted his shoulder. “Come on,” she said, and turned him toward the door.

When they shut that door, I saw him. He stood behind it, barely more than a shadow. But when all the people were gone, he stepped into the light.

I knew he was like me, because he was staring straight at me. He was tall and thin – almost skeletally so – with jutting cheekbones and a sharp chin. His eyes were large and lilac-colored, and black hair hung to just above his shoulders in greasy strings. With his wide eyes and pale face he looked like a rag doll.

“Are you ready to go to the afterlife, Rachel?” he said. He extended his arm.

I nodded and placed my own, translucent ghost-hand in his. I’d always wondered what kind of a place Heaven was.

Unfortunately, Heaven wasn’t where we were going.

***

Click here to read Chapter 2.