blood, wax, mirrors

Here commences the experiment:

I’ve made a small collection of my short fiction available on Amazon. It’s called BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS and retails at $2.99. The stories are also available as singles for $0.99 each. It is far from inconceivable that some or all will be made free for some duration at some point, but I haven’t hammered out a schedule for that yet (all are enrolled in KDP Select). THE DANDELION KNIGHT will follow (possibly after a final edit), as will more short fiction, probably at a longer latency.

That’s the methods section. What follows is the introduction.

Earlier this year, it became pretty clear that THE DANDELION KNIGHT was not destined to be picked up by an agent. I think this is down to a lot of things, and I think none of them is “it sucks.” In that situation, self-publishing is self-evidently the next step. This is a point it took me a while to come around to, but I’ve come to believe it quite strongly: No matter your view on the relative merits of traditional versus self-publishing, if you wrote a book, and you think it could sell, but you can’t get a publisher’s support, there is no reason not to put it on Kindle. It’s revenue-neutral in the worst case; the best case is improbable, but in it, there’s literally no limit to the upside. The only reason to hold back is if the results of your query rounds make you question the quality of the book. I’m not Gene Wolfe yet, but I have more faith in my work than that. So KDP it was.

But I’m talking about THE DANDELION KNIGHT, which I’ve just said I haven’t released yet. Where did BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS come from?

Well: Although I hadn’t given up on TDK’s prospects for traditional representation until recently, I always knew I might get hosed. In fact, I’ve always been aware that I might never get a traditional deal; most don’t. So I’ve been keeping up, in a highly unsystematic way, with what people are talking about in self-publishing, and one of the commonest of denominators is that the best way to market your book is to write another book. J. A. Konrath has said this more than once; Phil Tucker pointed it out with the example of Cameron Jace’s Grimm Diaries Prequels; the treed Goths over at the Self-Publishing Podcast serve no god but word count.

I don’t have another book. I took the normal path for aspiring writers: I wrote short stories on the regular for three years or so before I started TDK. I sold a couple, but most are still sitting on my hard drive.

Which is, obviously, another way of saying “I do have another book.” Perhaps more importantly, I have other titles. A pretty fair number, actually.

Once I got that in my head, the rest was pretty straightforward: Pick a few short stories, edit them once more into respectability, compile them and release them, singly and collected. I made a cover template that links the collection and the stories, while clearly differentiating the one from the other, and a few days ago I pushed the fateful button. Now I have six “books” on Amazon, and that’s before publishing TDK. A few weeks’ editing and a couple of hours on the GIMP, and I’ll have another six. None is related to TDK, which is suboptimal from a marketing perspective, but again: as with the decision to self-publish in the first place, the question is whether to try to optimize everything ab initio or to do what you can with what you have.

This all said, done, and planned, I’m still aiming for a traditional deal. There’s a reason I decided to devote my post-TDK efforts to my wuxia novel, THE EIGHTH KING, rather than the sequel to TDK: I can’t sell a sequel to a book I couldn’t sell, and I think a lighthearted high-concept fantasy is a lot more likely to grab an agent’s attention than a post-apocalyptic Orwellian science fantasy. But if demand starts pouring in for the sequel, I can pivot. Likewise, if the shorts start selling really well, I can write more.

Not unrelated, I’m still going to aim to publish short fiction in traditional markets; I have a novelette in the tor.com slush pile right now. Having the self-published content actually makes me more motivated to sell short fiction, because it’s like getting paid to advertise: I get a one-time fee for the story, but every reader now represents a potential sale (or, eventually, sales) over and above the story itself. The other difference is in the cycle. Now, instead of ratcheting gradually down in the quality of the venues I submit to (and waiting weeks for every rejection letter), I’ll just submit to a few high-profile venues and self-publish in the event of no joy.

I’m not kidding myself about making a living from this any time soon. If I were, I’d be more serious about marketing. But I am enjoying the control, and the sense of possibility. I have something that people can buy; for the moment, that’ll do.

eye candy

cover9

This is not exactly a declaration of intent. But it’s getting pretty close.

Unfortunately, at the moment I can’t use this particular cover commercially—both the texture and the dandelion require permission from different sources for commercial use, and the dandelion in particular requires a paid license that costs about $15. It’s not clear whether I could work something out for the texture, but luckily that’s a bit less important. The fonts are Igino Marini’s Fell Types and Schoon, both—amazingly—free.

Astute readers will note that the image is called “cover9”; revelation of the previous eight would constitute the sort of public self-flagellation that’s really best left for the million-dollar stretch goal of a Kickstarter. But the below is, at least in my mind, a pretty respectable runner-up, although the feel it’s going for is (purposely) much more “70’s paperback” than… well, whatever the thing above is. The one great deficiency of the cover below is my lack of courage—there’s an early version with an appropriately retro font (Futura) for the byline, but it felt too chunky for the application and I switched to Helvetica Neue Anorexliche instead. Despite my affection for it, I never actually made a proper version of the runner-up in the GIMP; this is literally a screenshot of a PowerPoint mockup.

dkppt

nights and weekends

http://www.theonion.com/articles/find-the-thing-youre-most-passionate-about-then-do,31742/

I’ve seen the above-linked article posted on Facebook a few times, mostly with accompanying lamentations like “Thanks for the reality check” or “sigh.” I respectfully submit that the lamenters have misread the piece as satire when it is, in fact, a straightforward work of inspirational prose. Seriously, look at this stuff.

Because when you get right down to it, everyone has dreams, and you deserve the chance—hell, you owe it to yourself—to pursue those dreams when you only have enough energy to change out of your work clothes and make yourself a half-assed dinner before passing out.

And I’ll tell you this much: You don’t want to wake up in 10 years and think to yourself, “What if I had just gone after my dreams during those brief 30-minute lunch breaks when I was younger?” Because even if it doesn’t work out, don’t you owe it to yourself to look in the mirror and confidently say, “You know what, I gave it my best half-hearted shot”?

You think this is sarcastic? Does this sound wrong to you? 85% of the writing I’ve done in the past four years has been on the R7 between Trenton Transit Center and 30th Street Station. I haven’t sold any of it. I may never sell any of it. I have, more than once, “beg[u]n to question whether this was all a giant waste of time, whether you even want to [write] anymore, and whether this was just some sort of immature little fantasy you had as a kid and that maybe it’s finally time to grow the fuck up, let [writing] go, and join the real world because, let’s face it, not everyone gets to live out their dreams.”

But never for very long.

I live a charmed life, gentle readers, because I am privileged enough to carve any time for writing out of it. And I am not alone. Thank you, The Onion, for reminding me.

thornwatch

I read Penny Arcade for the comics; when I do venture into the commentary, I’m often impressed by Tycho’s writing, but I only rarely have any idea what he’s talking about. Which is to say I’m not anything resembling a hardcore gamer—but I’m following Gabe and Tycho’s development of Thornwatch with a lot of interest. At first it was the idea of a deck-based RPG that caught my attention; again, I’m not a serious gamer, so maybe this isn’t a new idea, but there’s something appealing about having a hand of semi-randomly-selected options that’s reduced as you take wounds. It seems to capture something about the pressures of the moment that you’d expect when you’re in combat—one of the appallingly annoying things about combat in high-level D&D, and sometimes even mid-level D&D, is the inevitable gridlock when a player takes minutes and minutes to decide on an action that, in-game, has to be decided and executed in seconds. So there’s something organic in the idea that your options change from moment to moment as combat ebbs and flows, and insight strikes.

But I’ve also enjoyed Tycho’s development of the mythology of the whole thing. There’s something wonderfully creepy about the idea that anyone could go into the forest and summon a hero at some unknown but probably dire cost. You almost want to play the summoner rather than the hero, really.

The cards look great, and Gabe’s art in the three recent Thornwatch strips is amazing as well. Plus, you know, wolfbat. Wait, they have t-shirts? SQUIRRELAnyway, I’m thinking seriously about whether I want to pay $60 for prints. We’re already so behind on framing the art we already have, though, and doubly behind about hanging the art that is framed, and possibly triply behind on even having enough wall space to hang all of it.

Still, though. Wolfbat.

Christ, I’m tired.

“why does it matter if the best books have white protagonists?”

“When A Popular List Of 100 ‘Best-Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever'”

Read the article and the comments. I’ll wait.

In place of what I actually want to write next, just imagine a big guy with a red face yelling a lot.

#

Let me explain myself in a more measured way.

I have this daughter. She’s real cute. I don’t hang out with her as much as I’d like, but enough that I can’t really tell whether she can pass for white. I think maybe she can’t — though she’s changing every day, so in the long term, who knows? But even if you don’t know her mama, she does, and she’ll figure the genetics out, like you do.

It’s going to be some time before she can read at all, and some more before she can read with any sophistication. So there’ll be a period in there where she doesn’t have any idea whether “race/skin color [is] important to the context of the stories being told,” or whether a story is “ABOUT being black or Indian or Asian-American and how tough it is.” But she will have some idea whether there’s anyone who looks like her, or like her mama, in the book. And if there isn’t, and there isn’t in the next book, and there isn’t in the book after that or the book after that, she’s going to notice.

Beyond that? I’ve probably spoken too much for her already. But I’m guessing she’s going to wonder why. And I’m guessing she’s going to wonder if there might not be something weird, or off, or not quite right, about being the way she is, since no one seems to want to write about those sorts of people.

I’m white. I’m not going to pretend I know how that feels. Maybe it’s not that bad. But I’m also not going to pretend that “I’m so special that no one will write about me!” is a likely outcome.

The brain is a statistical engine. Our conscious minds are shit at probability, but unconsciously, we soak it up. We automatically notice what’s amiss.

The brain is a social engine. What’s talked about — what’s in other people’s brains — is attractive and valuable. What’s ignored and hidden is shameful and worthless.

Is this difficult? Have I said anything anybody doesn’t know?

#

And, by the way, what is with all this speculation that maybe a huge chunk of kid’s books contain racially ambiguous protagonists? Did you ever notice that characters have a weird way of having names? My daughter, for example, one of my own movie’s main characters. Shin-Yi and I agreed (and here, by the way, I refer not to Shin-Yi O’Shaughnessy of Cork County, Ireland, nor to Shin-Yi Kvaratskhelia of the Republic of Georgia, but to my wife, Shin-Yi Lin, whose ancestry, it may shock you to learn, is mostly Han Chinese) way before she was born that, whatever her name was, it’d be part Chinese and part Western. And we loved Una for a first name, so her last name is Lin. So, go ahead, speak to me about how Hermione Hussein Granger was really Kenyan all along.

While we’re in Q&A time, I’d also like to understand how “Making such a big deal out of things like this keeps racism alive and well.” I’d like that explained to me in meticulous detail. Is the KKK marching in the streets outside the publishers’ offices in New York, burning crosses for greater racial diversity in YA literature? I did not receive that telegram. Perhaps there was a paper jam in my fax machine.

#

I couldn’t give a shit about basketball, truly I couldn’t, but I gave a shit about Jeremy Lin. (No relation.)

Look, I don’t get to pick who my daughter is. She gets more of a say, but she, too, is not without constraints. When I hear people being too cool for school about Jeremy Lin my fucking brain-pan overheats, because it matters if my daughter has a pro athlete for a role model. Not in my ideal world, maybe not in the world that will be, but in the world of weird wobbly possibility that obtains when your little girl is 11 months old and might, just might, find herself able and hungry to do literally any given thing at all, IT MATTERS.

I would have blown off Linsanity a year ago as well. Being a dad has made me hella more political, in the “identity politics” sense. I have probably jumped at shadows once or twice. I’m not sorry. Protip: Do not get me started on sexism.

#

I am actually not fussed at NPR’s response, by the way. I think the article was badly titled, the solution of flagging the popularity-contest nature of the thing with a better title is easy and obvious, and the matter can more or less rest there. No need for NPR to distort reality, as long as they call it what it is. The top sf & fantasy list was called “Your Picks.” I wasn’t happy that NPR’s audience couldn’t bring themselves to upvote a single author of color, or that NPR was too oblivious to notice that fact, but that’s what it is. NPR listeners’ picks, which elevated a piece of STAR WARS companion merch over Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, but there you go.

It’s the self-satisfied complacency of the commentariat that’s nasty. Race is done, am I right? If you didn’t hear about it before it was cool, then it’s lamestream. (That’s right, you fuckers, I just called every one of you a hipster Sarah Palin.)

I don’t like the concept of “derailing.” I don’t like sniping over “privilege.” But I am starting to get where all this anger is coming from.

fantasy, complexity, myth-building, and ground truth

I wrote most of this a while ago and then, for reasons I don’t really understand, left it in the Dustbin of Not-Quite-Finished Drafts. But a post from Phil Tucker knocked some of these thoughts loose again. So here we go.

The first thing I did with my Christmas Kindle was download Steven Erikson‘s book, GARDENS OF THE MOON. I did this because I was in the mood for a big epic fantasy series, but I hadn’t gotten into one for a while, in part because of physical constraints on what I can carry on the train; and because I’d been hearing good things about Erikson, starting a long time ago with this SALON article by Andrew Leonard. I’m into THE BONEHUNTERS now, and my experience is more or less the opposite of Leonard’s; I think GARDENS OF THE MOON is a really excellent book, but instead of finding myself “more and more willing to trust Erikson,” I’m finding myself a little bit frustrated with the fusillade of new characters, new history, new continents, and so on — and then, when the old ones come back, I’m frustrated again because I don’t really remember what Quick Ben and Kalam were up to, what I’m supposed to know about Fiddler, &c. I say this only because some kind of reviewing sentence seems apropos here; what I’m really interested in isn’t Erikson, but Leonard.

“Successful fantasy does not require magic swords, or the triumphant overthrow of whatever Evil Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk is currently torturing the poor denizens of Happiland. It doesn’t even require a subplot involving a teenage boy (or increasingly often, girl) who becomes a Man (or Woman) while on a dire quest to find (or destroy) the Holy Trinket.

“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”

“Readers of “Gardens of the Moon” are confronted with a world where very little is explained as it happens — like the characters in the story, we have to piece together what is going on from cryptic utterances by gods and warlocks and seers and the fragmentary record left behind by the detritus of previous empires. To leapfrog this process by making sense of it would defeat the purpose of the author.”

First, as Leonard acknowledges, there are magic swords (and at least one anti-magic sword), quests, and dragons; he does not acknowledge, although it is the case, that there is at least one Dark Lord of Black Shadow Midnight Murk, and although he observes that there aren’t many teenagers, two of them are main characters who are definitely discovering themselves and growing up. I observe this by way of suggesting, not that Erikson’s fantasy is in fact derivative or lazy, but that it isn’t the tropes per se that are the problem with the fantasy that Leonard doesn’t like.

(As an aside: Both Leonard and Stephen King tar Robert Jordan with the “peddler of derivative mass-market dreck” brush, with an explicit accusation of hobbit-baiting from King, and I just don’t buy it. Jordan has a reasonably well delineated set of Good and Evil characters, which can be tiresome, but his heroes face the kind of Sophie’s choices, realpolitik issues, and intermittently victorious inner demons that Leonard praises Erikson for evoking, and his world and cosmology are, if not his own, certainly not all that derivative of Tolkien’s. Jordan has serious problems — with women, most notably, and organization, and a certain flaccidity of prose — but, again, it’s not the tropes. And, by the way, whatever his flaws, it’s not as though David Eddings is obsessed with elves and dragons either; there’s a fair amount that’s original in his work as well. It’s tempting to use tropiness as a shorthand for poor quality because [a] it’s easier to score points on that than, say, prose style or deftness of character, and [b] everyone except nerds will believe you. But it really is beside the point. George R. R. Martin has fucking JOUSTS in his books; Pat Rothfuss’ child-prodigy street urchin has leveled up to sex with ninjas. It doesn’t have to be your thing. But it WORKS.)

Now that we’re back on the right side of the parentheses: The point of the extensive blockquoting above was to flag what Leonard likes about Erikson. He likes trope-avoidance, although again, the tropes are not all that assiduously avoided, and it’s not clear that they should be. (To be fair, Erikson also has lots of nonstandard characters, like military sappers, a fence, a sort of twisted Virgin Mary, a philosophical zombie, etc.; and his tropey characters often subvert expectations. But it’s plausibly argued that this latter treatment is more the rule for tropes than the exception.) He likes the complexity of history and society deftly suggested rather than presented as lecture or timeline; he likes the complexity of personality and moral judgment well and thoroughly explored.

Which brings me, finally, to my point — what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?

I have a perspective here, and by now it’s pretty obvious, so let me try to defuse accusations of bias: I know I pick books a certain way. Broadly, I go for things that Michael Moorcock praises in WIZARDRY & WILD ROMANCE and don’t go for things he pans. Moorcock introduced me to Gene Wolfe, K. J. Bishop, and Jeff VanderMeer; he speaks well of Fritz Leiber and China Mieville, and has an entire chapter on Tolkien titled “Epic Pooh,” in which I think he also lumps Narnia and WATERSHIP DOWN. The principle generalizes fairly well to, “I read what writers I like, like.” Wolfe alerted me to Jack Vance, Samuel Delany to Joanna Russ; Neil Gaiman bounced me over to Nalo Hopkinson; Pat Rothfuss has raised Peter Brett to my awareness, although I have yet to read THE WARDED MAN; another reason I picked up Steven Erikson was that he’s engaged in mutual blurbsturbation with Glen Cook. I guess the point is, I am mostly not going to the fantasy shelves and picking based on covers or blurbs or whatever; I have a reasonably-sized backlog and a relatively sophisticated scheme for adding to it, which amounts to a biased sample. And I’m aware that this is true, not because I am a superior human being, but because I am a bit of a genre whore. So when I say “what fantasy is Andrew Leonard reading?”, it’s not meant to be read with some silent pejorative (“that cotton-pickin’ muggle”) prepended to his name. But it is meant to be a gentle suggestion that, if he can’t come up with even a handful of writers who break the strictures of genre fantasy he finds so tiresome, it may not be because they don’t exist.

And it’s meant to point out that these things he’s praised in Erikson as exceptions to the rule are actually kind of viewed as best practices. And it’s meant to point out that, if I went to the “literature” shelf in the bookstore and made a bunch of generalizations about the “genre” based on random selections, a reasonable person would respond to those generalizations, not by disputing that my sample approximates the mean, but by opening up the world of possibilities — by pointing me toward the good stuff. And, along the way, that person might point out that my call of “Give me psychological depth! Give me beautiful language! Give me the human heart in conflict with itself!” is in fact amply, if not on average, answered by the body of work I thought deaf to it.

The tor.com blog hosts a fair amount of vitriol about genre these days (or did back in late 2009/early 2010). I’m not super-comfortable with the politics of the idea that sf readers have a particular skill set that non-sf readers don’t — it may be true, it just doesn’t sit well with me, especially given that sentiments of similar condescension seem to undergird the occasional spurts of intolerance from the community. And it’s not apparent to me that “mainstream” readers and viewers especially need crutches to deal with mainstream literature’s borrowing from the sf toolbox — THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION did just fine among non-sf readers, as did THE WEST WING (which is an alternate history, with the facts of its uchronia revealed subtly and at necessity as in the best sf). As did THE HANDMAID’S TALE, as did NEVER LET ME GO, &c &c &c. And let’s not even speak of YA, which is pretty much 100% post-apocalypse and paranormal romance these days. If your common-or-garden teenage Barnes & Noble customer can read sf by the boxload, I don’t think we have much to congratulate ourselves about.

So I’m not much interested in the critique of the sf and fantasy genres from the literary side, and I’m not much interested in the critique of literary fiction from the genre side. Controversial, I know. And if I can attempt to induce a little bit of wisdom about it, I think both critiques come from a sophisticated reading of one’s own side and a nonselective or indiscriminate reading of the other.

To which, happily, the only possible remedy is more reading. Because there really is no shortage of top-shelf books out there. Not even close.

kindle dx screen savers

In the grand tradition of making minimal modifications to other people’s hard work and then taking all the credit, I have transmogrified Sean Hartter’s Dark Tower movie posters and M. S. Corley’s retro Harry Potter covers into black-and-white screen savers for the Kindle DX, which you can grab below. I realize that most Kindle owners don’t have DXs, but I also realize that most Kindle owners don’t read this blog; if enough people request them in a standard Kindle size, I’ll do them. (If I have time. I do have a baby on the way.)

If you don’t know how to jailbreak your Kindle, you can learn here (and download 66 Wonder Woman screen savers, if that’s your bag). If you want your screen savers to show up in random order, though, make sure you follow the directions for randomization in the comments — the original post is wrong. For the links to the original images, I’m indebted to John Struan of Super Punch.

on the appeal of paired villains

A seriocomic dialogue. To be prepended to THE EIGHTH KING, if I ever work on THE EIGHTH KING again. Apologies for any lingering LaTeX markup. I try.

“Did you ever notice,” said the swordsman with the cat’s step, “that all the best villains come in twos?”

It took the woman with the quill a moment to respond; she was making a note of something in a script too perfect to be handwriting, yet too expressive to be print. “You know I don’t read that sort of trash,” she said, putting no particular inflection on the word “trash” but rather uttering it as she might a perfectly inoffensive noun, like “bowl” or “pagoda.”

“You should. You really should.” The cat-walking swordsman stretched both arms out wide and arched his back, and though his yawn was not needle-fanged it gave the impression that perhaps it might once have been, or one day be so. “It gives you a sense of your place in things. There’s nothing new, you know. It behooves you to learn from your forebears.”

“I never seem to grasp the thrust of these discussions,” said the perfect-script woman. “My duties are clear enough without literary referents.”

The crossroads nudged up over the horizon, a rare enough sight in this land of mountains. The sun was sinking in the west; a late-spring dusk was gathering, pleasant enough but beginning to ripen with heavy summer night-heat. It perhaps need not be mentioned that neither the cat-walking swordsman nor the perfect-script woman was so much as misted with sweat.

“I’m not sure I much like being called a villain, though,” the perfect-script woman said at last.

“Heroes don’t scheme,” said the cat-walking swordsman.

“We are agents of law.”

“We’re agents of the Judge.”

“Don’t split hairs,” murmured the perfect-script woman, touching the tip of the quill’s plume to the corner of her mouth.

“Don’t make spurious elisions.”

The perfect-script woman looked up from her note-taking at that. Her gaze met the swordsman’s in an old dance, amusement wrapped in skepticism intertwined with waggishness concealing eagerness to please. They had the good sense to cut that dance off after a few bars, as they always did.

“I will always regret schooling you in letters,” said the perfect-script woman, returning to her work. “You have no sense for the turn of phrase. It’s like a village fireworks show–so ill-sequenced that even the flashes of brilliance seem awkward.”

“Consistency is a virtue in writing, Secretary, but not in all things.” The cat-walking swordsman made no special flourish to provoke his companion, as he might; but here a mortal observer would have found his gaze drawn to the hilt of the swordsman’s straight blade, which was filigreed with the stylized body of a rat; the weapon’s blade met the hilt where the rat’s head would have begun. (I use the male pronoun non-generically, for no woman would have wasted her time watching these two when she could have been running. Or few women in any case. I suppose I am aware of exceptions.) “Some of us rely on volatility. Another example of what makes us a good pair. Your power lies in complementarity and suasion, mine in opposition and brute force.”

“In my records,” said the perfect-script woman, “I have summaries of at least three but no more than seven philosophies of the fence, issued by you in various altered states of mind, to which you have been adherent for intervals ranging from three weeks to the better part of a century. All espouse notions of redirection, suasion, and deception, specifically highlighting their superiority to the tactics of opposition and brute force to which you claim to subscribe.”

“The Lotus,” said the swordsman, “it is impossible to converse when one’s interlocutor exhumes every lapse in inference or judgment in a lifetime’s catalogue. Do I hector you so?”

“You have not the prehensility of recall that I have cultivated.”

“Which accounts for my ability to take my pleasure out of life. In any case, have I not just given short shrift to consistency?”

“You have,” said the perfect-script woman, “but, given a few minutes, you are likely to retract it.”

The cat-walking swordsman thought on his rejoinder until the moment for rejoinders had passed, then shrugged in acknowledgement of its passing. They walked in a companionable silence, a pace apart, and although their strides seemed neither stretched nor rushed, they drew up on the crossroads rather faster than a trotting horse might have managed.

“Complementarity is key, of course,” said the cat-walking swordsman. “I refer here not to your powers, but rather our own complementarity to one another, and its efficacy in promoting our collective villainy, which I have already described. But I think what I will miss most is the dread that an appropriately menacing dialogue can inspire. There is something sinister in the first and third person that vanishes with direct apostrophe. How many good men have we brought to their knees merely by discussing veiled hypotheticals?”

“If by `good men’ you refer to scofflaws and other undesirables,” said the perfect-script woman, “thirty have kneeled to beg clemency after such discussions, and seven have gone past their knees to abase themselves entirely. Of the seventeen who have fainted, six fell forward, bringing their knees in contact with the ground by physiological and kinematic necessity–”

“This grandstanding ill suits you, Secretary.”

“I have not yet spoken of the two legless men,” said the perfect-script woman, “or the dragon.”

“These incidents are graven in my mind and do not require rehearsal,” said the cat-walking swordsman.

“In answer to your question, though: The three good men who knelt before us were laboring under a misapprehension.”

The swordsman made a noise of disgust or disbelief. “You forget, Secretary! We had the entire village of G___ worshipping us as gods!”

“That was a misapprehension,” said the perfect-script woman, “and G___ was not rich with men of quality.”

The cat-walking swordsman sighed with considerable pathos. “I would say your standards are too high,” he said, “but I fear to invite the obvious riposte.”

“Riposte?” said the perfect-script woman. “Is it not timid, Retainer, to apply such terrifying metaphors to an innocuous conversation?”

The swordsman grinned as men do to stanch the pain of wounds. “And you, Secretary,” said the swordsman, “rarely do the obvious. Which I should have remembered.”

The perfect-script woman nodded in acknowledgement of her due. (I will not say “as if.” Why should I?)

At last, the pair set foot where the roads met. Signs indicated the direction from which they had come: Pongyo Gorge, and where, had they continued, they would have gone: Rassha. A man slept at the south corner under a cabbage-cart. The swordsman made a noise of disgust at this. “Sleeping at a crossroads,” he said with great scorn. “At dusk, no less? He begs to be menaced.”

“This is a secular age,” said the perfect-script woman, “and not everyone has time to read ghost stories at their leisure. In any case, we are not ghosts.”

“Well, I know a few.”

“Your necromancies are inapposite and of questionable efficacy,” said the perfect-script woman. “You must learn to discipline yourself in the weeks to come, Retainer. I cannot do it for you.”

“She says `weeks’ and thinks she does a mercy,” said the cat-walking swordsman. “But the cat knows better. It will be more than weeks, my dear. The Judge spoke bravely, as great men know they must–but he is not ready.” His body undulated with a supple shrug. “And neither are we. This king was well loved, and the mice whisper that he mastered the Reflecting Pool Mind before his death.”

“He is dead, though,” said the perfect-script woman, “which hampers its application.”

“Its application is immaterial.”

“I know.”

The cat-walking swordsman gave her an annoyed glare. “Your japes are harelipped and incongruous. I mean to say it is irrelevant. It is the whispers that are of concern. They only strengthen his grip on the people’s fancy.”

The perfect-script woman looked long and level at the cat-walking swordsman. “You forget, Retainer. We had the entire village of G___ worshipping us as gods.”

“It is easier to be worshipped for an hour than believed for a day,” said the swordsman. “And in any case, G___ was not rich with men of quality.”

“And these provinces are?” said the perfect-script woman. “Not a moment ago you pronounced them full of mice.”

“I do grow bored with all this talk of consistency,” said the swordsman, “though doubtless it will amuse me again in moments.”

“I will not wait for those moments to elapse,” said the perfect-script woman. “We must part.”

The swordsman grinned a familiar grin. “You go,” he said. “I shall conjure a balm for your departure by terrifying this cabbage-monger until his hair goes white.”

“No,” said the perfect-script woman. “I have said you must learn to do without this nonsense. You will leave the crossroads first, and I will protect this worthy peasant from your depredations.”

“Bah,” said the swordsman. “He is of no account.”

“And we no longer have the leisure of sporting with men of no account. Our lazy centuries are done, Retainer. We can no longer be spendthrift of decades; we must attune ourselves to the rhythms of men’s lives again.”

“To call them `rhythms’ is a surfeit of euphemism,” said the swordsman, with a gesticulation that wrapped the entire plain in scorn; prey-rodents hid in their holes, and two starving vultures took to the air, heckling, from some bear’s abandoned kill. “Men’s lives are sordid, frantic things, no more rhythmic than the thrashings of rats scrabbling at the walls of a marble basin–”

“Enough,” said the perfect-script woman, allowing into her voice a minim of reverberation that silenced the swordsman most effectually. “Such gassy metaphor ill becomes the Judge’s right-hand man, and it is always gratuitous to terrorize animals. Will you force me to record yet more of this bootless prolixity and display?”

“Of course not,” said the swordsman; and, with no more apparent effort than it took to raise himself on tiptoe, he leapt perhaps a quarter-mile into the air. The perfect-script woman watched him trace an elegant arc through the darkening sky, then land a tiny, perfect silhouette before the descending sun. Her eyes were good enough to see his sword flash red in a far-off salute, and to see him turn and strut down that branching dirt road for a moment before it turned behind a hill.

She was put off balance for a moment by the suddenness of the cat-walking swordsman’s exit. When she had regained her composure, which did not take long, she spent a few minutes composing a report of the evening’s events; in this, as usual, she was entirely accurate in her portrayal of the cat-walking swordsman but lavished no especial detail on his more egregious trespasses. That accomplished, she arranged her quill and ink, her papers, and the good wood slate on which she flattened those papers when she wrote, placing them all in a pocketed strip of leather which she had fashioned for that purpose. She folded it closed and tied it with a thong, as she often did–but this time she bound it tight and tied a good, strong knot that would not fall open at a pull. She looked once more down the road that the swordsman had taken, waiting patiently for a minute to make sure he would not return. When she was confident that he had truly left, she dug in a pocket of her dress and drew out two small, bright things, rather smaller than her smallest finger’s tip, which she quickly secured, one each, to the trailing ends of the thong that constricted her writing implements.

With all in order, she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath through her nose, and opened her eyes again. She then walked over to the cart and kicked it over, opening a great ragged hole in its floor as though some great beast had bitten it and filling the sky with a geyser of splinters and shredded cabbage. Needless to say, the perfect-script woman’s swift violence resulted in a fearsome rending sound, and the cabbage-monger sat bolt upright for a few terrified moments before the plummeting rear axle of his wagon robbed him of all consciousness. When he awoke, he would remember seeing a woman of considerable symmetry and polish, dressed in an elegant but faintly unfashionable qipao, although the details of her aspect would never return to his memory, not even in his deathbed-dreams; even the color of her silks would evade him. But never, for some reason, would that cabbage-monger forget the glinting ornaments that tipped the thong around the leather satchel that she held in her arms, ornaments whose style was typical of cheap brass baubles but whose weight and luster belied the true gold of their substance: a mouse, whose carved face held terror admixed with a dissonant trace of exultation, and on the other end of the thong, with exultation and terror in opposite proportions, a cat.