ed robertson on starting up as an indie publisher

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

All worth reading. The “nuclear option” in Part 3 is an intriguing idea—definitely the opposite of my approach. I guess I’m worried about the preoccupation that the SPP started to develop in maybe late 2012 or early 2013—the idea that free used to be useful, but now (due to algorithm changes and miscellaneous jiggerypokery) isn’t worth the risk inherent in training your readers to expect all your work to be free at some point. But the SPP has always been in favor of permanently free books used as low-friction introductions to series, and that is essentially what Ed’s talking about.

I think the insight comes down to: If you’re a new author with just one title, or (if you’re me) a few unrelated titles, you’re not going to make any money anyway. So you might as well do what you can to get readers, and free is one of the more powerful things you can do.

At the moment, I’m not sure I have the cycles to devote to making a book permanently free in any case—honestly, I’m not sure I have the cycles to reformat THE DANDELION KNIGHT for Smashwords, much less execute any price-matching trickery correctly. And I’m not even working on the sequel to TDK right now, so permanent free isn’t going to buy me any follow-on sales for a while (although it could drive sales of BLOOD, WAX, MIRRORS or a subsequent collection). Still, it’s at least good practice to think about all this.

I think I’m on the final 10,000 or so words of THE EIGHTH KING. Two weeks’ work, in theory. We’ll see.

die word beast die


Something gave the Worm pause; Datang shook her head when the words ceased, as though waking from a dream. When it spoke again, the words were mere sound, if puissant enough to loose knuckle-sized chunks of mortar from between the tower’s bricks. It looked down at something on the rim of the Gorge.


“Lin Gyat,” said Datang. And, indeed, the giant capered at the firelight’s edge, and she could hear the bellow of his own voice in a whisper, echoing from the mountains and the Gorge:

“Come, vermin! But beware—we clerics of Uä are tougher bits of gristle than once we were!”

“He is mad,” Kalsang said in awe.

“Of a certainty,” said Datang. “Shoot the Worm before it proves him wrong.”


“Cursed!” Lin Gyat’s reply came back in that same echoed murmur. “And a spicy curse it is, pest! You think yourself a lengthy snake? Behold a lengthy snake!”

“No,” murmured Datang—but, of course, there could be no intervening. Lin Gyat flung his robe wide; his breechclout fell in the dust around his ankles.

“Marvel at the Python of Degyen, beast!” Lin Gyat cried. “Thick enough to choke the Hinge-Gullet Goat of Tanggang, and cursed from tip to tail! I abjure you: Recede into your lair, or it will throw open the diseased gates of your jaws and fill your brain-pan with its pearly venom!”

Silence hung heavy in the unnatural night that veiled Pongyo Gorge.

1300+ words on the train this morning. Pyrotechnic fantasy shoot-em-up denouement with dick jokes == motivation.

a thinner of pests

From The Eighth King:

He motioned her toward the forge, and she came. The Judge took a length of metal resting on the great anvil before the forge; it was a blade without flaw, Jangmu saw, a gleaming silver-white at the tang that faded softly to black at the forked tip. Jangmu took a long look at it and shook her head; but there was no mistaking the appraisal in her eyes, nor the desire. “I cannot do justice to such a weapon,” she said, “even if I were trained in the use of the forked sword.”

“Ah,” said the Judge, “but the blade will avail no one else. It is balanced for you, Unerring, and fashioned to mimic the tongue of the inkwell snake. You see how it complements my snake-head glaive,” he said, using the blade to indicate his own weapon. “My secretary may go armed if she must, but I will not have a servant with an undistinguished blade.”

“The Ratter flirts with blades like a lecher, and like a lecher, each of his fixations is more dubious than the last.”

“The Ratter’s blade is his nature,” said the Judge. “All of these ‘fixations,’ as you so charmingly term them, are merely material extensions of that nature. A blade of quality would wrong-foot the hooligan as surely as two left-footed boots.” He picked up the hilt nearby it, evidently a cousin to the snake-head glaive, though there were no red or yellow scales decorating it, only black and white. The quillions took the shape of fangs, which faded to black toward the tips in the same manner as the blade. “I will join blade to hilt when I am done filing this motion.”

“What motion?”

“A motion to establish a new species.”

Jangmu allowed herself a small, conspiring smile. “I had wondered how, in eight generations of wandering, I had failed to so much as hear of the inkwell snake.”

“It will be a well-wrought serpent,” said the Judge, “of pleasant length and girth, preying on the plagues of cities—rats, lapdogs, drunks. It will be bright white at birth, with no trace of black; even its eyes will be blind white. It will feed on its mother’s black milk as it grows, and its scales and eyes will gradually turn black, as will the tip of its fangs and tongue. In its prime, its white scales will be the cream-white of paper, and the dark ones cavern-black; in its dotage, the white scales will crack and brown, and the black scales, now faded to dark grey, will predominate, and when it is nothing but faded ink it will die. Its black venom will seize the power of speech from anyone unlucky enough to be bitten.” Reverie dropped from the Judge’s face, revealing a grim satisfaction. “It will prefer the fragrant air of temples and the dry dark of libraries, and while it will meet daylight with supreme equanimity, it will give no quarter to those who penetrate its lairs with lanterns.”

“A noble addition to the serpent kingdom,” said Jangmu, unsure what else could be said.

“A thinner of pests,” replied the Judge.

dendrology, cerevisiation, and gender studies


“The Undersecretary for Social Harmony in the Precincts of the Great South Plain?” said General Gyaltsen. If his face was faintly green at the title, it was no doubt due to the reflection of the yellow mid-afternoon light from the sky-blue of the ceiling of the Crane’s Eye Chamber where he and the very undersecretary had just now, for the first time, encountered one another. Yet, in fairness, it must be said that the same color was not perceptible on the face of that estimable mandarin, wherefore we admit we cannot give the lie to conjectures that Gyaltsen’s own coloration might have been secondary to an emotional response—though an underlying yellow tone in his skin may equally have been to blame.

In any case, the mandarin, outfitted in green and gold with mallard drakes proudly embroidered over every inch, made no direct response to the skepticism in Gyaltsen’s tone, merely making the abasement toward an esteemed colleague and saying, not without perceptible pride, “I have that honor.”

Here—and we apologize for stilting the progress of the dialogue between General and Undersecretary, justifying ourselves only in the observation that the physical context in general enriches understanding of the words exchanged, and in this case, we submit, more than most—it is perhaps worthwhile to note that the Undersecretary for Social Harmony in the Precincts of the Great South Plain partook of a certain arboreal character, by which we mean simply that he possessed many of the features of trees. Among those features were a great girth and height (recapitulated from his body overall in his individual limbs, whose immense musculature bulged out even the loose mandarin’s robe), towering over General Gyaltsen’s admittedly modest stature by some three hands, as well as a rough, deep brown skin tone not often observed in the mandarins of the Orchid Palace, and a texture to his palms and fingers that can only be described as barklike. In addition, like trees, the Undersecretary was missing teeth.

“An honor commensurate to your rank, I see,” said Gyaltsen, noting the ducks, “though you would display it better if your cap were not on backwards.”

“Ah, but worn forward, the cap does not bestow my interlocutors with the opportunity to admire this duck’s fine hindquarters,” said the Undersecretary, pointing to the duck in question. “I find that thus focusing attention on the duck increases respect for my rank—which, though you have observed it, others often ignore, perhaps because I am newly promoted to it.”

“I congratulate you,” said Gyaltsen. “In what fields were your examinations?”

“Do you know,” said the Undersecretary, “you are not the first to ask me that?”

“Well, you need not suffer tedium to indulge my curiosity.”

“No, General, it is no trouble. I attained the ninth rank in dendrology, cerevisiation, and gender studies.”

“You are a married lumberjack and beer-brewer?”

“Married?” laughed the mandarin. “One can hardly cultivate a ninth-rank understanding of the fair sex under such proscriptions.”

“The Red and White,” murmured Gyaltsen, “that is just.”

envied of snakes

From THE EIGHTH KING, my wuxia fantasy novel currently in progress:

Lin Gyat shrugged. “Who knows what goes on between men and women? I thought your reluctance to engage in sport with me might have stemmed from a preëxisting attachment.”

“I am unattached,” said Datang, attempting to make clear with her tone that this was not a welcome vein of conversation.

“Excellent. Well, I recognize that you were taxed last night by your exertions. It is not well to strain oneself in such circumstances.”

“Do not patronize me, Envied of Snakes,” said Datang. “I was barely warm when you begged to make camp. When I am disposed to sport with men, no little march will sap my will to do it.”

“And yet you refused me.” Lin Gyat frowned in cogitation. “I do not understand.”

“The Lotus, Envied of Snakes, is any other woman so readily swayed by your brutish proposals? I do not wish to share your bed.”

“Oh, to be sure, you may take your own bed after we cease our game; I cannot sleep in company. Ape’s Left Hand, I think you and I will get along excellently.”

“We may yet,” said Datang, “but not as lovers.”

“I, too, eschew the softer emotions,” said Lin Gyat. “They interfere with the correct execution of a man’s martial technique, in both the plain and euphemistic senses. I imagine it is the same for women. Do you know,” he said, “I do not think I have ever encountered a woman fencer.”

“Perhaps you let them see you coming,” said Datang.

“No,” Lin Gyat said thoughtfully, “for in that event, they would have attempted to attract my attention. I think you said last night you understood the origin of my style?”

“Yes, yes,” said Datang, “you are remarkably swift, as I am sure all your ‘comrades-in-arms’ inform you.”

Lin Gyat gave her a puzzled look. “No, they have not been especially appreciative of my speed on the draw.”

Datang chortled. Lin Gyat redoubled his look of puzzlement. “Indeed, Envied of Snakes,” said Datang, “it is my experience that this quality is seldom valued by women.”

“As you say. But—ah, I think I understand the confusion.” Lin Gyat was staring into the distance by this point, so Datang felt safe giving vent to the urge to roll her eyes. “In these inner provinces, and those to the east, bordering the Garden, snakes are famed for their agility—for example, I have heard tell of the furred rocksnake of Gyachun, whose poison works so quickly that its victims fall dead before they are bitten, which greatly simplifies the hunt. And, of course, the bat-eating winged asp, which moves faster than the sound waves its prey might otherwise use to detect it.” Datang had never heard of these creatures, but she nodded soberly in indication that Lin Gyat should continue. “But in Degyen from which I hail, there are no snakes of such prodigious celerity. Our snakes spend the majority of their existences torpid, rousting themselves only long enough to eat.”

“And what is their prey?” asked Datang.

“Oh, nothing exotic. Men, tapirs, sometimes tigers.”

“The Lotus,” said Datang, “the snakes of Degyen must be enormous!”

“And now,” said Lin Gyat, “you understand why women flock to a man styled Envied of Snakes.”

Datang momentarily covered her face with her hands. “My father has an expression for a certain type of torment,” she said. “’Pressing wine from stone grapes.’ I feel I now understand the idiom.”

“I am no vintner,” Lin Gyat said cheerfully, “but my brother Dargey was styled Two Stone Grapes, due to an intriguing feature of his—”

“Envied of Snakes,” Datang interrupted, noticing a certain foul taste on her tongue on saying his style, “I fear I cannot continue this conversation. The moon tugs my blood. This renders my temper unpredictable and degrades my mental faculties, as no doubt you know.”

Lin Gyat nodded vigorously in assent. “I am well versed in female physiology,” he said. “We need converse no further. And I now understand why you have reacted so oddly to my invitations. I shall patiently await the return of your ardor, contenting myself meanwhile with—”

“Oh,” said Datang, “you need not itemize your substitutions. It is well for comrades-in-arms to be separated by a comfortable span of mutual ignorance.”

Lin Gyat gave Datang a smile that seemed, somehow, as pure and sincere as a child’s. “Ape’s Left Hand,” he said, “I do not think I could dream of a finer woman than you.”

I think all I can say here is “I’m not sorry.” But, really, I might be.

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.


It was a peculiar discipline they struggled with as the Dawn Courtyard’s beauty began to fade with the sun’s ascent, a discipline of no evident application in combat—but Tenshing had once thought the same of other exercises in the progression, only to find them refining his strategy in subtle ways that defied easy summary. Here the conceit of \textit{reflection} was taken as literally as it could be; for each man’s goal was to project back what he saw in the other’s eyes, adding no complication, simplification, or distortion. Small errors multiplied quickly in this exercise, and more than once Tenshing had found himself staring, or so it had felt for that searing fraction of a moment before his concentration broke, into his own face. This was at least easy to understand; it was when the Master of the Reflecting Pool Mind’s face transmuted in its awful combination of slowly and all-at-once into Mother-of-Daughters’ face, or his father’s, that the king was truly shaken. Only once or twice had the master’s face transformed into the face of someone he knew but had not met, such as his great-grandfather Tenshing Panchama or his unborn eighth son. At that point the exercise was unsalvageable. The king wished he had dismissed his daughter and Lin Tong, and ripples of those regrets undulated through time on the master’s face. It was a bad error, but not unrecoverable, and the king made his eyes a mirror and let it fade away.

The other danger of the exercise, although it was not as disturbing as the transmutation, was to react to the errors one saw reflected in the opponent’s eyes, setting up an oscillatory pattern. This could be sustained for a surprisingly long time, and if recognition of that pattern itself did not end the game immediately it could be iterated to higher levels, adding complexity at gradually slower time scales—but the Master of the Reflecting Pool Mind had little patience for such play, and so Tenshing responded in the prescribed way to his own intrusions, damping them down rather than amplifying their ebb and flow. The game settled slowly toward that fragile, brilliant state that was its goal, and King Tenshing carefully neither exulted nor resisted exultation.

Total word count: 16,734.


At this point it is impossible to overlook the fact that we have not described Tenshing’s attacker, who was none other than the Master of the Eight Weapon Hand, the foremost among those monks who had devoted their entire existence to achieving virtuosity in that esoteric skill. He was not a young man, though younger than Tenshing’s lucent father would have been had he been living, nor was he old; it could not be said with justice that he was thin, yet to say that he was fat could not be farther from the truth; and as to his height, well, he was short, for men have grown taller in the hundred years since Tenshing Astama sat the Orchid Throne — but, for a man of his era, he was far from short, and surely the reader can guess whether, in addition to this distinct lack of shortness, he would have been called tall. He maintained a cropped beard that sometimes seemed more like stubble, and his hair was moderately long, though when it was plastered back with sweat, as it was by now, it seemed rather shorter, unless one focused on its wildly curling ends, in which case it gained (or so it seemed) a modicum of length. If it seems needless to enter into this litany of negation when one could simply describe him as average in all things, well, there are at least two relevant considerations: first, that the nearer truth was that the Master of the Eight Weapon Hand had less the aspect of an average man than of one who violently avoided any given extreme, recoiling farther from it than would seem possible without drawing perilously near the other; and second, that it would be impossible to describe a fighter of such consummate skill as “average” in any respect at all. In any case, in addition to his talent, which knew no moderation, he always dressed in immaculate dandelion yellow and maintained the hygiene of his hands meticulously.

Word count: 13,469. Just about on schedule.


“He has named this rigor correctly, at least,” said Tenshing. “But he cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate that I would use it in concert with the Silken Palace Touch. Not many men can master both. It is infuriatingly rare to find tactical theory that integrates the advanced techniques.” Now that the assassin had deduced the consequences of delay, Tenshing’s voice had become rather conversational, even casual. He allowed his ring finger to join the other two on the assassin’s shoulder. “But one experiments.”

“This experiment is an unqualified success,” said the assassin, who had just caught a trace of the smoke curling up from his wound and determined beyond any filament of a doubt that it had not originated from his shirt. “But, though I regret to express it, I must hope it is not carried to its conclusion.”

King Tenshing allowed his little finger to join his middle three. His palm, which burned no less hotly than his fingertips, was now quite close to the left side of the assassin’s breast, below which his heart beat out its ever more apprehensive rhythm. The king stared at the spot where his palm would touch if he but stepped forward an inch, as though appraising what was hidden there.

“Perhaps it would endear me to you if I said I was not the only man sent tonight for you and yours,” the assassin said.

“I fear that nothing can endear you to me,” said the king. “We are irreconcilable. As for me and mine, well, you perceive that I am in excellent condition, and unworried about my family. You surely know that I have no eighth son, and the only murder you could do to prevent the arrival of such a one would be to kill all the women of Uä, or else me. You have taken the more direct option, which is commendable, for I do not think your general would wish to rule over a kingdom of men. Morale and hygiene would deteriorate quickly.” Tenshing frowned. “I seem to have lost the thread of this digression.”

“I cannot recover it for you,” said the assassin, “but I would be greatly interested in any resolution to our quarrel that allows me to avoid the no doubt extremely interesting fate subsequent to the descent of your palm onto my chest.”

“Another reason I am unworried about my family,” said Tenshing, “is that I noticed the new face among the steward’s men late this afternoon. Early this evening I received a report from an associate indicating a number of suspicious movements on the part of this unfamiliar character, concerned principally with the gate house and the windows in the nursery. Your colleagues will have found the balance of the sleeping arrangements altered, and the small and vulnerable targets they expected replaced by slightly more formidable opponents. Here is another kōan for you, assassin: What have I demonstrated for you with this story?”

“The new face,” said the assassin, whose own face was paling rapidly, although little enough of it was exposed by his black mask. “My general had warned me of your Eye of Ten Thousand Apprehensions.”

“Excellent,” said Tenshing.

“It was not a very good kōan, Your Holiness,” said the assassin, with great deference and some regret.

“Even the great masters had failures of improvisation,” said King Tenshing. “Place your hand on my chest while I continue.” Now thoroughly terrified, the assassin did so. “Now observe my left hand.” A rod of pure white light the length of a man’s forearm sprang from it, roiling and sparking like molten metal and pouring off a bright smoke, which the assassin cringed as it touched him, though it did him no ill save a faintly electric tingling. “Three aspects. Rigid and flexible.” Here the light tapered and grew almost gelatinous, and a flick of Tenshing’s wrist caused it to lash the wall, where it left a thin whipstroke of glowing stone. “Short and long range.” Now the light flowed into a glowing nimbus around Tenshing’s left hand, a piece of which detached and, with another flick of the king’s wrist, flew like heaven’s own mortar to hit the very center of his whipstroke, which was now bisected by a circular blotch. “Blunt and sharp.” And the light became a column again, then flattened out as Tenshing flattened his own hand into a blade. He brought the edge of the light just short of the assassin’s wrist — or, in truth, not quite short, for the fabric of the assassin’s black glove parted and a bright line of blood appeared in the gap. “Two times two times two, assassin.”

“Eight. The Eight Weapon Hand.”

“Think on your palm: Have I drawn breath since this demonstration began?”

“The Infinitesimal Breath,” the assassin moaned.

“How many of the rigors have I shown you?” asked the king, brushing the assassin’s hand from his chest as he might a bird’s ill-targeted excreta from his shoulder (although it must be said that the perceptions of King Tenshing Astama were too highly developed for this to happen outside a state of extreme distraction). “Think well and quickly. I will have no patience if you get it wrong.”

The assassin’s eyes were wide and wet now, but he reined in his shying mind and performed the calculation. “Five! It has been five.”

Remember it well, the king said, and with a flash that short phrase seared itself into the assassin’s mind. Your general must know.

“The Diamond Word!” the assassin exclaimed, and a moment later brightened in posture and physiognomy both even as the king’s four fingers burned into the flesh above his heart, for he realized that he must live to bring this message. In this judgment he was of course correct, although hindsight suggests his joy may have been marred by a certain prematurity. “What man has mastered seven of the eight rigors who was not King of Uä?” said Tenshing.

“None,” said the assassin. “But, Your Holiness — it is impertinent of me to say it, but there is no help for it — ” Here the assassin drew a deep breath through his nose and reconciled himself to the same horrific fate he had just dreamed he might avoid; but, having been offered his life with such grand generosity by a man whose depth of honor he had only just now come to sound, he could not allow error to blemish his report. “You have only shown me six.”

At this King Tenshing’s face lost all the intensity of the penetrating stare to which he had subjected the assassin and relaxed into a strange, serene benevolence. “It is not impertinent at all, my subject,” he said. “Your only impertinence is to doubt the foresight of your king; and in this, although it is an affront, I must forgive you. As I hope you, and the spirits who protect the Orchid Palace, will forgive me.”

And here the king’s right hand closed, its fire snuffed, around the assassin’s night-black shirt; and the light around his left hand coalesced into a blinding sphere the size of a cannonball, then flew forth to shatter the chamber’s narrow window, sending shards of glass and gobs of melted steel in a fountain onto the courtyard below; and the powerful muscles of the king’s legs bunched and then released like coiled springs, and the two of them, king and kingslayer, soared through the hole of the window to hang for just a moment in the heavens above that flagstoned courtyard, where King Tenshing Astama released the first man who had ever tried to kill him into the waiting boughs of a century-old cherry tree just coming into bloom.

Word count: 8742. TGIF.


Conversation that nourishes and uplifts can be had at any hour of the day, but for some reason the hours that actually host such conversations seem to occur after sunset and before sunrise. These are, of course, the times when food and spirits can be savored without unduly abbreviating or degrading the day’s work, but that does not entirely explain the conduciveness of evenings to good conversation in any number of other settings devoid of comestibles—in one’s bedroom, for example, or watching the sun set over water. Possibly it is the drawing-in of vision with the dark, which induces a sense of introspection, or perhaps simply a need to introspect so as to balance out the deficit of sensation in the mind. Certainly the matchless Rinzen Lama has much to say about the salutary impact of sensory deprivation on fine thought, adducing from the meditative experience a great volume of most elegant theory linking complexity and simplicity in contexts culinary, military, and horticultural; and King Tenshing Astama, a great scholar much in the habit of quiet contemplation, agreed with Rinzen in almost all particulars. Having said this, it would be careless to suggest that the conversation between the king and the uninvited guest in his chambers was as enriching as, for example, the conversation one might imagine having with an intimate friend while watching the sun set over water. Indeed, the outset of the conversation was nothing less banal than a restatement of an obvious temporal fact; for Tenshing had applied the Silken Palace Palm to the shoulder of his uninvited guest, and now the latter could not rid himself of the king’s index and middle fingertips no matter what he did (or, we should say, tried to do, for many seemingly useful motions were now outside his powers). To which King Tenshing responded, perhaps unavoidably but surely with no surfeit of originality, “You cannot shake me, assassin.” (Lest the reader new to the Thousand Arm Testament surmise that Tenshing’s epithet represented the result of insight or conjecture, we must emphasize that it was neither, for the assassin had initially attacked the king’s recumbent form with a garrotte of fine steel wire and, when this had failed, proceeded to employ an astonishing variety of exotic throwing knives, all of which were badly misdirected or else dodged handily.)

“I cannot,” said the assassin, after attempting once again to sweep Tenshing’s arm away. “This must be the Spider Silk Palm of which my general has warned me.”

“Silken Palace Palm,” said Tenshing. “The Spider has no representative among the boxing arts. Your general is uncouth.”

“Unlettered, perhaps,” said the assassin. “I must admit, King Tenshing, though my respect for your skill has grown immensely, I fail to see the expediency in this situation. You have got the better of me, but to what end? Once you separate from me, I shall try to kill you again.”

“Well, assassin,” said the king, “to that I respond in kōan, so that your mind may improve if you survive this night.”

“I am accomplished at kōan,” said the assassin. “Tell me yours.”

“Is there a candle in the room?”

On this the assassin thought for some moments. “There is a candle in the room,” he said slowly, “but it is not lit.”

“And why — ” began the king; but the assassin interrupted him. “Please,” he said, “allow me to continue my line of reasoning, as it may be my last act beneath this sky. There is a candle, and I have evidence of that with my own eyes. But the light reflected from the candle does not emanate from it, for as we have agreed, it is not lit. Nor is any other candle lit. One sees vividly in dreams and the imagination, to be sure, but it seems nearly certain that this is not a dream. It is widely supposed that the eye cannot function unless it is agitated by light. So I must conclude that the sun has risen, or else some other source of light illuminates the stub of the candle. Yet the sun cannot have risen, and I have it on good authority that the Orchid Palace is not fitted with electric lights. This seeming impossibility draws my eye about the room in search of resolution.” Indeed, the assassin’s eyes followed this very trajectory, eventually alighting on the point at which King Tenshing’s index and middle fingers clung resolutely to his shoulder. The fingers, and indeed the hand of which they were constituents, coruscated with a clean white flame whose description will be familiar to the attentive reader — although this particular flame burned steadily, without guttering and without any suggestion that it might die in the near term. The assassin’s black shirt had burned away, leaving a clean-edged hole, and the flesh underneath had grown very red. Smoke rose from the area, though neither Tenshing nor the assassin gave much thought to whether its provenance was shirt or flesh; it was clear enough, regardless, what would happen if the situation endured much longer.

“This must be the Four Conflagration Touch of which my general has warned me,” the assassin said.

Word count: 6718.