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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Chapter 22

Stifling a yawn, Felix the iguana shifted the weight of his body from one leg to the other. He and the other members of the royal council were standing around the large, oval-shaped table which dominated the council's meeting chamber. Felix had enjoyed a moment of relaxation, playing chess with his wife, when a servant had appeared and told him that the queen had called a meeting. Felix had left the chess-table, not entirely without a sense of relief (his wife had always been his superior at the game, perhaps thanks to having more spare-time to practice) and had headed to the meeting chamber. That had been almost an hour ago, and still, there was no sign of the queen herself.
"How long does she mean to make us stand here and wait", a voice muttered, cutting through the silence.

Felix turned his head towards the speaker; a lanky young wolf with a sullen expression on his face. Felix recognized the youth; what was his name again? Br...something. Ah, yes, Brutus. That was it. Next to Brutus stood his father, Julius, who immediately answered his son's question:
"She'll let us wait for as long as it suits her. Making people have to wait for you is a sign of power."
"Still don't understand why I have to be here", his son muttered, while crossing his arms.
"Because", Julius said in a tone that made it clear that his patient with his off-spring was at its limit. "The oldest child of our family has served on the council for generations. When the time comes, I expect you to take my place and serve our country and monarch, just like I have. Now, I want you to stand there and be quiet, if you embarrass me in front of the queen, I'll disinherit you. Do you understand?"
Brutus said nothing, but nodded slowly to show that he had grasped the meaning behind his father's words. Felix could not help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the lad; from what he knew about Julius, being his son could not always be easy.

It was a warm day and the room had become quite hot and stuffy. One of the other councilmen, a ram, wiped his brow with a silk handkerchief.
"Someone ought to open up a window", he complained, but his plea went unheard. His colleagues were all staring intently at the door, waiting for it to open.
At last, their prayers were answered! The door swung open, its hinges creaking. The first person to enter was an elephant dressed in livery and carrying a staff with a jewel at its top. The elephant stopped, tapped the staff three times, trumpeted loudly with his trunk and called out in a strong voice:
"Announcing her Royal Majesty, the Supreme Ruler of Vinoli: Queen Argath I!"

With that, the elephant stepped aside and Argath entered the room. As she did, the councilmen all bowed their heads in her direction, while saying with one mouth:
"Greetings, Your Majesty."
Behind the queen, carrying a large roll under his arm, came Lorenzo, his entrance was greeted with surprised whispers and looks of disapproval from the council, none of them cared much for the fox, whom they regarded as an opportunist and an upstart. It did not seem right to them that a person without any known background, should continue to be so close to the queen.

Paying no heed to the angry looks the councilmen gave him, Lorenzo strode up to the table, put down his burden and unrolled it. The others leaned forward to get a closer look: It was a map, showing Vinoli as well as its closest neighbors.
"Sit down, gentlemen", Argath said, seating herself in the large chair that the servant had pulled out for her.
Thanking the queen, the others sat down, glad to finally be able to rest their feet. However, Lorenzo remained standing, having positioned himself behind the queen's chair.
"Now then", the queen said, her eyes sweeping across the table. "We hereby declare the first council-meeting under our reign, open. No doubt you are all wondering as to why you've been summoned. The reason is quite simple, it has to do with this:"

The councilmen looked at the spot on the map the queen was pointing at. Felix was the first one to speak:
"The kingdom of Frigonia, your majesty?"
"Exactly", said the queen. "We recently received word from one of our agents over there, a person in whom we have the utmost trust. This person has informed us that Frigonia's current king, Salizlav V is planning to revive some of his people's old customs; including that of sending raiding parties across our border."
This revelation was met with general astonishment, everyone started talking over each other, in loud angry voices:
"Has he lost his mind?"
"We've been at peace for over a century!"
"Damn northerners, you just can't trust them!"

Seeing the effect the queen's words had had on the councilmen, Lorenzo allowed a mocking smirk to spread across his face. It only lasted for a few seconds and the only person in the room who noticed it, was young Brutus, who glared angrily at the fox. Eventually, the queen picked up the gavel next to her and banged it forcefully in the table, three times. The third time, the councilmen noticed the sound and quieted down.When all was still, Argath cleared her throat and began to speak:
"We understand your concerns and share them, but have no fear; thanks to our spy, we have the opportunity to nip Salizlav's plan in the bud."
"Well", the ram asked. "What do your majesty have in mind?"
"Simple, that we launch a surprise attack on Frigonia."
This idea was met with general approval. After all, if the Frigonians were so treacherous they could hardly expect others to deal fairly with them. Only one of the councilors was of a different opinion:

The person in question, an aged dog with grey whiskers, frowned slightly, removed his pince-nez and began to clean it with a piece of cloth.
"With all respect, your majesty, I believe that we should attempt to negotiate with Frigonia before we send in our troops. Dissuade its king from going down a path which will only bring calamity to his nation in the longer run. Its the action that your father would have taken.
Argath listened to the councilor's brief speech with a detached, weary look on her face, her claws drumming rhythmically against the tables' surface. Finally, she held up a hand, signalling for the speaker to be quiet.

"You are absolutely right, Cornelius" she said, her head bobbing slowly, up and down. "It is what our late predecessor would have done. However, let me ask you this: Why should we follow his example in everything?" She slammed her fist into the table and glared at the assembly with bulging eyes.
"Its about time that all of you learn that the reign of Sharan is gone, gone forever and that it will never return. We rule Vinoli now and we intend to rule it our way. Furthermore, from this day forth, any mention of the late king in our presence will be punished, most severely."
A heavy and uneasy silence spread across the room. The councilmen glanced nervously at one another. Cornelius looked down at the table, his mustache twitched. He could feel the queen's eyes boring into him, the fur on the back of his neck stood up.

Judging that the dissenter had been sufficiently cowed, the queen smacked her hands together, with a satisfied expression on her face.
"Well, gentlemen, let us continue. Any questions? Yes, Julius?"
"Your majesty", the wolf said. "Who is going to lead the attack?"
"Isn't it obvious?" The queen asked, looking surprised. "I can think of only person suitable for this task." She turned to Lorenzo. "Has the message to general Jeraddin been dispatched?"
"Yes, my queen."
"Good". Once again, the queen made use of her gavel. "We hereby declare this meeting adjourned. Gentlemen, let us all head to the throne room. We shall greet the general there, when he arrives."
She stood up and at once, everyone else did the same. Just as the queen was about to leave the room, she stopped and looked disdainfully at Cornelius.
"Except for that person. We do not wish him among us."

Immediately, those members of the council who were standing close to Cornelius moved a bit further away. Then they turned their backs on him and hurried after their monarch.
Only Felix remained, he  looked at Cornelius who had slumped back into his seat with a hangdog look on his face.
The iguana couldn't help but feel sorry for his fellow councilor, he decided to offer a few words of comfort, certain that they would be well received.
"I'm sorry about what happened at the meeting", he said, patting Cornelius on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'm sure that you will be back in the queen's good graces in no time."
Cornelius looked up.
"Thank you", he said, surprised at this expression of sympathy, because the two of them had often crossed swords in the past.
"I know we've had our differences", Felix said, "but this time I agree with you: We should have sent someone to negotiate."
"Well, I'm glad that we're on the same side for once", Cornelius said. "Although it would've been nice if you had let me know that during the meeting."
"I'm sorry. I was about to join my voice to yours, but the queen's reaction to your proposal convinced me that it was best to hold my tongue."
"Yes, I have a feeling that there is going to be a lot of that in the near future."

With a sigh, Cornelius stood up, supporting himself on a cane. He looked with melancholy eyes at the table and the empty chairs around it.
"When Sharan became king, long before any of us were born, he did not know anything about ruling a country. So, he gathered the wisest men and women in his kingdom, so that they would assist him into becoming the sort of ruler he believed worthy to lead this nation. As the years came and went and the king became more and more experienced, the members of the council were on occasion replaced. Some died of old age, or chose to retire to make room for younger minds. Others fell out of favor,  I've seen it happen myself, as have you. However, those who fell into disgrace did so due to they being exposed as corrupt and dishonest, not because they voiced their opinion."
As he continued speaking, a bitter tone crept into Cornelius' voice. He continued:
"The king had the final word in every discussion, but he always took the advice we gave him into consideration. Considering how close they were, I was certain that Argath would continue to rule in the same way as her father. Evidently, I was mistaken."

Felix nodded in agreement. At that moment, a thought came into his head. He looked around to make absolutely certain that no-one else was around, then motioned to Cornelius to come closer.
"What is it?" The elder councilor asked.
"I just had this notion", Felix said, lowering his voice to a confidential whisper. "You don't suppose that the queen could be lying about the Frigonians planning to attack us?"
Cornelius frowned and began to stroke his mustache.
"The thought had occurred to me, though I can't help but hope that we shall both be proved wrong in the end. No matter what I personally think of the queen's decision in this matter, I do not want to believe that she is willfully deceiving her own advisers."
"I know what you mean. Still, we must take the possibility into account."
Just then, a servant appeared in the doorway.
"Excuse me, sir" he said, addressing Felix. "The queen told me to send for you. She wonders why you are not present in the throne room yet?"

A noise could be heard as Felix smacked his forehead. During the conversation with Cornelius he had completely forgotten that he was supposed to be somewhere.
"Has the general arrived yet?" He asked the servant.
"He was seen entering the outer gate, he should be in the throne-room soon."
"I better go and present my most humble excuses for my tardiness, before I too incur the queen's wrath", Felix said to Cornelius. "Don't worry, your 'banishment' won't be long, I'll see to that: I shall plead your case for the queen."
"I appreciate the gesture, but you need not trouble yourself on my account."
"If you find it embarrassing to be indebted to me..." Felix began.
"That is not the case. No, I have a feeling that the queen won't be persuaded to take me back. For all we know, she had already begun to consider who should take my place on the council when she left the council hall."
"I shall try anyway. Farewell, Cornelius and don't loose hope."

Escorted by the servant, Felix left the room. Shortly thereafter, Cornelius did the same. As he stood in the doorway, the aged councilor cast one last look at the room from which he, for many years, had helped shape Vinoli as a nation. He doubted that he would ever set foot in it again. A tear appeared in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away and then began to walk down the palace hallways.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Ingenious Pain

One of the best books I read recently was a novel simply titled Pure,  a historical fiction novel about a young engineer who is given the daunting task of clearing the Les Innocents Cemetery.
As I read it, I gradually fell in love with its story, characters and vivid depiction of France, a few years before the revolution. I vowed to seek out more novels by the author, Andrew Miller and eventually, I decided to go back to the beginning and make my next Miller-novel; the first one that the author got published, way back in 1997: Ingenious Pain.

Set primarily in England during the 18th century, Ingenious Pain is the story of James Dyer, who is born without the ability to feel any physical pain: Break his kneecap, tear his nails out, whatever you do, James won't feel it. In addition, he's also been blessed with a rather remarkable healing-factor. The down-side to all this is that James Dyer is also completely lacking in any sort of empathy for others. As such, he's not exactly overcome with grief when he looses his entire family to smallpox at a young age. Thus, young Dyer sets out into the World, the first step on his journey sees him becoming the assistant to the fraud Mr. Gummer, who uses the boy to demonstrate the efficiency of his healing tonics. Soon, James is 'rescued' from Gummer by Mr. Canning, a wealthy eccentric who collects so-called human oddities. In Canning's home, James acquires knowledge by reading the books in his host's library and is acquainted with some of the other 'items' in Canning's collection; a pair of Siamese twins and a real-life mermaid.

Eventually, James is re-united with Gummer and leaves Canning. From there on, the two soon find themselves aboard a man-of-war, where James becomes the assistant to the ship's surgeon and discovers that he possesses a genius for surgery; his utter lack of compassion for his patients actually being an asset in this case, allowing him to perform complex operations without the fear of failure. James Dyer's journey eventually sees him as the participant in a race among doctors, all the way to Russia. Catherine the Great wishes to be inoculated against smallpox by an English doctor and whoever reaches St. Petersburg first, gets the honor and of course, James is determined that it shall be his.

I came into Ingenious Pain with some expectations, and all I can say is that those expectations were more than fulfilled. Considering that this was Miller's first published novel, one would perhaps think that his prose would not be on par with that of Pure, one of his later works. Well, one would be mistaken. In fact, if I hadn't been aware going in that this was his debut, I doubt I would've been able to tell: As with Pure, the prose in Ingenious Pain is incredibly evocative. Miller truly has a gift for bringing the 18th century to life, both the filth and superstition, as well as the forward-thinking and progress that characterized this time-period. There are some notable differences between Ingenious Pain and Pure though, and I'm not just talking about the respective country each novel is (mostly) set in, or the nature of its protagonists, but other stuff as well:

First of all, Ingenious Pain covers a much larger time-period, chronicling its protagonist's life from birth to death. Secondly, it begins at the very end, with James already lying dead while his friend, rev. Lestrade watches as his corpse is being dissected. The narrative than jumps back to one year before Dyer's death, before finally taking a gigantic leap backwards in time, to the time and place of his conception (we learn here that he's the unfortunate by-product of his mother being raped while ice-skating).
As such, the reader already knows how James' story concludes, but as it is with a lot of things, its the journey that's the interesting part not the destination and this is a journey that's well worth embarking on. As a travelling companion, James Dyer is not the most sympathetic fellow, but he is always interesting.

All in all, Ingenious Pain is an outstanding novel that continues to establish Andrew Miller as one of my favorite living authors. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Chapter 21

The next day, after breakfast, Risha and Merees left the doctor's house and walked down the stone-steps, which led to the village. Merees was not wearing her cloak and Risha was just about to point it out, wondering with some worry if she had lost it in the ocean, but before she could ask the question,her friend anticipated her:
"If you wonder about my cloak, during your convalescence, I took it to the local tailor to get it repaired. Besides, I have no need for it on this island."
Upon entering the village, the duo found it bustling with activity. Shopkeepers were busy sweeping outside their doors. In the square, vendors were setting up their stalls and  in the shade of an oak, a small group of people had set up a game of boules. On the sidewalk, a group of children, temporarily relieved from school and the burdens of homework, played. As Risha and Merees, passed by,several villagers stopped what they were doing and stared quite openly at the couple.
"We seem to draw quite some attention", Risha observed. "Can't blame them I suppose, we are pretty good-looking."
"That's true. Though, I think their gawking has more to do with us still being strangers in these parts. We are simply an exciting novelty, that's all."
"You are probably right, but I liked my version better."
"So did I."

The lynx and the dragon kept strolling through the streets of the village, until they reached the outskirts and a road which led into a deep forest.
"We're heading into the woods?" Risha asked.
Merees nodded.
"There's a place in there that I wish to show you. Its pretty far though, so if you don't feel up to it, we can stay in the village."
There was genuine concern in Merees' voice as she made the offer and her eyes kept drifting upward, to the tiny scar located just below Risha's ear.
"I'm fine", the lynx answered, smiling reassuringly. "Besides, it will do me good to stretch my legs after spending so much time vegetating."
"Well then, let us go."
"Lead the way, princess."

As she followed her friend through the lush forest, Risha looked at the trees.
They were the tallest trees she had ever seen, their crowns located so high up that she had to tilt her neck backward in order to get a glimpse at them. Suddenly, the let out a small gasp of surprise, causing Merees, who was walking a few steps ahead, to stop and turn around.
"What's the matter?"
"I saw something in the tree", Risha said.
"Oh? Did you see what it was?" Merees asked, looking in the direction Risha was pointing.
The lynx shook her head.
"No, it was too quick. There's nothing dangerous in this forest, right?"
"Well, whatever you saw is probably more afraid of you than you are of it."
Risha frowned.
"Who said anything about being afraid? I'm not afraid."
Nonetheless, Risha decided to stay closer to her friend, while occasionally throwing a worried glance up at the tree-tops.


"Well, here we are."
Risha stared with incredulity at the large, green bush in front of her. This was what they had trekked through the woods for more than an hour to see? Her feet felt as if they were made of lead, not to mention that she had tripped over a root and scraped her chin on the way here. The lynx-girl had a sharp comment on the tip of her tongue, but it died, when she saw the look of excitement on Merees' face.
"Its a...great bush", she said, weakly. "I wasn't aware that you were so interested in bushes. Well, actual bushes, not you know..." Her voice trailed off.
Merees shook her head. To Risha's relief, she had apparently paid no attention to that last part.
"No, no. Its not the bush that I wanted to show you, but what's behind it. Observe!"
With that she parted the branches of the bush, revealing the entrance to a tunnel.
"I know that normally its ladies first, but since we're both ladies and I know the way, I'll take the lead. Oh, by the way, mind the ceiling."
"Yeah, yeah."
Taking care not to bump her head, Risha followed her friend inside. The tunnel was quite small and the girls had to crawl through it on their hands and knees. After awhile, however, it got wider, so that they could almost walk upright. Finally, they reached the end of the tunnel and emerged into a large cavern, complete with an underground lake and a small waterfall; all of it, bathed in the light of glowing rocks.

Risha gazed at the scenery in front of her, having never seen anything like it. A soft curse escaped her lips.
"I take it that our trip here was worth it, after all?"
The female lynx nodded. She then sat down on the ground to rest her feet.
"Its amazing. How did you..."
She stopped mid-sentence, a sound had just reached her ears; the soft rustle of clothes dropping to the floor..
"I'm going for a swim in the lake", Merees said. "Care to join me?"
She received no answer, the sight of her friend's curves, freed from their garments, had temporarily reduced Risha to stunned silence.
Someone likes what she sees, Merees thought, a wry smile playing on her lips. Then, she got an idea:

Many years ago, a famous dancer had come to the court to perform her art for the king. Merees had not been allowed to watch, since the dancer's act had earned a reputation for a certain lasciviousness, the king had thought it best not to expose his youngest daughter to it. Curiosity knows no master though and the young princess had managed to sneak into the throne-room and watched the performance, hidden in a dark corner. The sight of the vixen contorting her body to the music had awakened feelings in Merees, that she had not been aware of before, and she had been forced to bite down on her lip until it bled, in order not to cry out and be discovered. That night, while lying in bed, Merees had reached down between her legs for the first time, her head filled with visions of what she had witnessed. As for the dancer, she left the palace the next morning, having received many gifts, not just from king Sharan, but also from his older daughter.
In the cavern there was, of course, no music, but Merees was not deterred. She began to move her body the way she remembered the dancer had all those years ago; albeit less gracefully, since she wasn't a trained professional.
Not that Risha noticed any imperfections in the performance. She stared at those gyrating hips, the look on her face gradually changing, from one of surprise, to that of a starving man outside an all-you-can-eat buffet.

The hungry look in her friend's eyes, spurred Merees on and as she kept dancing, her movements gradually lost their initial awkwardness and grew more confident.
She turned around and with a mischievous grin leaned forward, her spiked tail swaying back and forth seductively.
During the impromptu show, Risha had grown more and more aroused. This was the kind of stuff a not insignificant portion of her dreams were made of, and at the sight of that lovely full-moon that was her friend's rear-end, she could not bare to be just a spectator any longer.
"Stop!" She gasped and standing up, limbs trembling with excitement, she began to fumble with the buttons on her shirt.
"Let me help you with that", Merees said. With experienced fingers, she proceeded undo the buttons, one by one, until the shirt could be removed.
"I've never done this before", Risha confessed, looking down at Merees, who was crouching on the floor in front of her.
"Than I shall do my best to make your first time as enjoyable as possible".
Smiling alluringly, Merees pulled down Risha's underwear and tenderly kissed the spot between her legs. She then grabbed the lynx's paw and pulled her down on top of her. Soon, their two bodies became as one, while their tongues wrestled in their mouths. They feasted on each other, until they were no longer able to contain the pleasure which had been building up inside them. It erupted, sending shock-waves of ecstasy through their bodies, their moans resounding throughout the cavern.

Later, after they had cleaned themselves up in the pool, the two lovers laid on the cavern floor, looking silently into each other's eyes as they waited to become dry. Risha was the first one to break the silence:
"This is a great place, isn't it?" She asked.
"Its a great cavern", Merees agreed. "Floor could be a bit warmer though, but you can't have everything."
"Actually, I was thinking about the island in general. We were really lucky to get shipwrecked here and the doctor has been so good to us, he and Amelia are really great people..." She paused, letting the sentence remain unfinished.
"I sense a 'but' in there somewhere", Merees said, propping herself up on her elbow.
"You're right", Risha turned and looked up at the ceiling. "The island is lovely, but if we can't go back home, I want to see the rest of the world. There's so many places I want to go to and I want to visit them with you."
"You shall. We'll all go together: You, me and Leorin."
"What about Luke?"
Merees shrugged.
"Luke isn't really my responsibility, but he can come along if he wants to. Oh, and don't worry, sweetie, I'll find a way to get us back to Vinoli, eventually." After all, she thought, there's justice I need to mete out.
She turned, so that Risha wouldn't see the cold hatred that suddenly appeared in her eyes.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Favorite Comic Villains

Being an avid reader of comics, as well as a person who tends to find villains among the most interesting characters in any work of fiction, I thought I'd combine the two. After all, the ninth art-form has given us plenty of memorable evil-doers. Below are some of my favorites (in no particular order).

Sir William Gull (From Hell)

Although V for Vendetta and Watchmen are doubtlessly more well known, From Hell is what I consider to be Alan Moore's magnum opus. Its a dense, grandiose work about the Whitechapel Murders and the birth of the 20th century. At the core of this dark tale we find Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria's royal physician, who Moore puts into the role of Jack the Ripper. Moore's Sir Willaim is an amazing creation; a larger than life character who dominates the narrative of From Hell, even when he doesn't appear on page. The 30+ page long monologue in which Gull gets to lay out his beliefs and thoughts on history, religion men and women, is truly powerful stuff and establishes the good doctor as Moore's greatest and most terrifying creation. I can't think of any better villain to kick this list off with.

Johan Liebert (Monster)

Naoki Urasawa has a knack for creating memorable villains and his best example in that category has to be Johan, the titular character in his excellent thriller-manga, Monster. If I had to pick the most sinister villain in a manga, this guy would be it. Incredibly handsome and charismatic, Johan's polite, soft-spoken demeanor and angelical good looks only serve to make him scarier than he would be if his appearance and behavior was closer to that of what one would normally expect from a villain. Whether he manipulates an entire orphanage into killing each other, or driving someone to suicide, Johan more than lives up to his moniker.

Lucifer Morningstar (The Sandman)

I've found that a lot of the times, the line between an anti-hero and a villain-protagonist tend to get blurred (most of the time, its all a matter of perspective) and who better to illustrate this point than the devil himself? Lucifer is not pure evil and he helps save creation a few times, but at the same time he also has no qualms screwing people over in order to achieve his goals. Easily my favorite depiction of the devil in modern media. Well done, Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey.

Simeon Nevzorov (Ibicus)

Another anti-hero and although operating on a much smaller scale than the guy above him, just as compelling. I always have a great time following Simeon on his many misadventures throughout a Russia thorn apart by civil war, and later Turkey.

Krapal (District 14)

Among its gallery of interesting characters, District 14 sports quite a few memorable villains, such as Tiger-Man and Bollart the Stag. My favorite member of the comic's rouges-gallery, however, is Krapal the Toad. Not only is he easily the smartest villain (and perhaps character) in the comic, he also goes about his criminal activities with a certain sense of style, which makes it hard for me not to root for him on occasion, especially in the second season. In addition, his henchmen are all fun and likable as well. Whenever season 3 comes out, I look forward to see more of this guy and whatever nefarious scheme he will come up with next.

Askeladd (Vinland Saga)

If Johan is the scariest manga-villain I can think of, than Askeladd is arguably the coolest. Machiavellian, mysterious (he has a great backstory) and with an interesting relationship with the main character, Askeladd remains one of Vinland Saga's most memorable and intriguing characters.

The Phantom Blot (Disney Comics)

The very first moment I encountered The Phantom Blot, I was intrigued. This guy just had an aura of mystery and a sense of genuine menace to him that was lacking in the other Disney comic villains I had known up until that point. Needless to say he made a huge impression on me, which was further helped by him having a very simple, yet striking design. Since then I've read hundreds of comics featuring The Blot and while not all of them do the character justice (then again, the same thing can be said about any re-occurring villain written by many different writers during the course of several decades), he will always remain one of my favorite villains and Mickey's greatest arch-enemy.

Lincoln Red Crow (Scalped)

In an interview I read with him, Jason Aaron said that Chief Red Crow came about from his wish to create his own Al Swearengen and there are definitely similarities between the two men: Both of them starting out as fairly typical (albeit very well-written and, in one case, well-acted) villains; powerful men who run their little kingdoms with corruption and violence and eventually becoming the most nuanced characters in their respective works, far outshining the ostensible main character. I have not yet finished Scalped, but I've seen enough of Red Crow to know that he's a fantastic character and am interested to see how his story ends.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chapter 20

Like all the great cities that is and eventually will be, the capital of Vinoli never truly slept. When the sun had relinquished its duties to the moon, the night-watchmen put on their boots and uniform and went on patrol, hard-working burglars kissed their spouses on the cheek and crept out into the night and special taverns that catered to a more nocturnal clientele opened their doors. In the palace, with the exception of those guards who had been assigned the night-shift,  most of the inhabitants were already asleep; from the most exalted courtier, to the lowliest scullion, they all laid in their beds dreaming dreams of love, of wealth, of power and whatever else that they longed for. After a long day of governing the country, the queen of Vinoli had decided to retire for the night. Having slipped out of the ornate dress she had been wearing all day, Argath was currently admiring her reflection in a mirror, while one of her maids put a silk dressing gown around her shoulders.

"The wine and the fruit is on the table over there", the maid said, her eyes downcast. "Um...", she hesitated, biting her lip. "Is there anything more that Your Majesty require of me tonight?"
Argath shook her head.
"No", "I wish to be alone. You may go."
The maid bowed.
"As you wish. Goodnight, Your Majesty."
Argath did not answer, having already dismissed the maid from her mind. As far as she was concerned, she was already alone in the room.
Hanging on one of the walls was a picture painted many years ago, depicting the queen when she was a child, together with her late brother Argeron. If a person were to study that portrait, they would find only a vague resemblance between the cheerfully smiling, bright-eyed girl in it and the queen as she now appeared.

Back when Argeron was alive, the painting had hung in the palace's gallery. After his unfortunate demise, however, his sister had it taken down and put up in her own room. When she relocated to the royal suite, she took the picture with her. In the past, whenever she felt her resolve falter and long dormant feelings of tenderness towards her father and other siblings would begin to awaken within her, Argath would look at that picture and she'd remember: Remember her brother's demise and the people who, in her mind, were truly responsible for it. Then, her heart would harden and her mind would become polluted by murderous thoughts. Now that her vengeance had been carried out, however, all the queen felt as she looked at it, was a sense of deep loss. This bothered her and so, she turned away from the painting, annoyed with herself. There was no longer any point in dwelling on the past, she needed to focus on the future. Yes, the future of her kingdom. No, not kingdom: Empire.
Tomorrow, I'm having that painting taken down, the queen thought to herself. Sorry, brother, do not think less of me for doing so, wherever you are.

Having made that decision, the queen went over to the table and poured herself some wine. She raised the jewel-encrusted goblet to her nose and after a sniff and a nod of approval, drank a mouthful, then put it down again. Noticing that it had gotten a bit chilly in the room, she decided to light a fire. Crouching down by the fireplace, she breathed on the logs and soon, the room was filled with the warmth of an open fire. She then helped herself to more of the contents of the bottle.
Eventually, the combined heat from the fire and the wine she had been drinking, overwhelmed the queen's senses and she fell asleep in her chair, a string of saliva forming in the corner of her mouth.

The queen had not slept long before she sat up straight, eyes open. She had felt something brush against her face.
She looked around the room and saw someone standing in a corner: A tall, diffuse figure, wearing a cloak the color of smoke.
"Who are you?" She said, summoning all the authority she could muster. "How dare you enter my chamber? Answer, before I call the guards."
The figure did not reply. Instead, it reached up and lowered the hood that had obscured its features. Upon seeing her unbidden visitor's face, Argath involuntarily took a few steps backwards and tripped on her tail.

As she got up from the floor, the queen stared at the person in front of her, hardly able to believe her own eyes.
"No", she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "This isn't possible. You are dead. Dead!"
"True and yet, here I am.
Hearing that voice, which she thought she had silenced forever, caused a shiver to run down Argath's spine.
"I do not believe in ghosts", she said, barely managing to keep her voice steady.
"Who's to say I'm a ghost? For all you know, I could simply be a product of your imagination."
Argath's wandered to the wine-bottle and seeing that there was still some left, she re-filled the goblet and raised it to her lips.
"Is that why you have appeared before me, father?" She asked, feeling emboldened by the alcohol. "To make me question my grip on reality?"
"I have a question for you, my daughter. It concerns your brother."
"If I answer the question, will you leave me in peace? No matter what you are?"
King Sharan nodded.
"Very well", the queen said with a resigned sigh. "Let us get this over with, I want to go back to sleep."
At that moment, she was struck by a thought: What if she already was asleep and she had merely dreamed that she woke up? She didn't have time to ponder this theory further though, because the next second, her spire spoke to her again.

"Here is my question: What do you think would have happened, had things turned out different?"
"Different in what way? You mean with my brother?"
"Exactly. What if he had lived and inherited my crown, as I had intended. What role would you have served in his kingdom?"
Argath's heart began to beat faster, this was a question she had pondered from time to time and she had always ended up with the same answer.
"Simple", she said. "I would have been his most trusted confidant, his right hand. Together, we would have made Vinoli into the first nation in the world."
King Sharan looked at his daughter skeptically.
"Is that so? I must confess, I have a hard time seeing it. After all, Argeron possessed many fine qualities, but I can't say that ambition was one of them."
"Mine would have been enough for us both, he would have followed my advice."
The King shook his head.
"Most of it, yes, but deep down you know that any plans for conquest you'd have proposed, would have been vetoed. Argeron might have been the kindest member of our family, but he was not weak-willed."
Though she did it with reluctance, Argath had to admit that her father had a point.

For a brief period of time, neither of them said a word. They just stood there, looking at each other: Parent and child. Living and dead. Murderer and victim. King Sharan was the first to speak:
"Ultimately, your brother would have had the last word in all affairs of state. How long before your affection for him would have turned to frustration and resentment, I wonder?"
"How dare you?" Argath hissed. "That would never have happened. I loved my brother more than any other member of this family. When I heard off his death, I felt as if a part of me had died with him."
"I know very well that your grief was real. No-one, including me, felt the loss of the crown prince, more deeply than you. However, underneath all the grief, there was another feeling, wasn't there?"
"Oh? And what feeling could that be? Enlighten me, father, since you've obviously gained the ability to gaze into the depths of my very soul."
During their conversation, king Sharan's face had been impassive. Now, something resembling a smile spread across it. He said one word:

Argath felt the blood rush to her head. She grabbed the nearest available object, the wine-bottle and with a roar, hurled it at the king. It smashed against the wall, breaking into a million pieces, the remainder of its content staining the wall.
The queen looked around, she was all alone in the room. Had it all been a dream, after all? She pinched herself hard in the arm and winced. The pain was real enough. Then she heard a voice inside her head, faint like a whisper.
"Farewell, daughter. We shall meet again, in your dreams."
There was a knock on the door and then, a male voice called out:
"Your majesty,is everything alright? We heard screams."
Argath, who had been staring at the broken glass, tore her eyes from the sight and went and opened the door, two guards stood outside.
"Fetch me the royal physician", she ordered, "and a servant to clean up this mess. Now!"
As the guards hurried away on their tasks, Argath raised her hand and clenched it into a fist
Just you wait old man, she thought. Ghost or not; I buried you before and I shall bury you again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Thoughts on An American Tragedy

Four-hundred pages into Theodore Dreiser's novel, An American Tragedy, I realized with a sort of dread that I wasn't even half-way through the damn thing yet.

Look, I'm an avid reader and I certainly have nothing against a so-called "door-stopper" every now and then. However, the difference between An American Tragedy and, say, Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy's novel never felt long. I think a big reason why An American Tragedy does is the fact that Dreiser's prose frankly, isn't very good. In fact, I'd even daresay that my own prose is better (and that's not something you'll hear me say often in regards to professionally published authors) and its become more and more noticeable the further into the book I've progressed

"Wait", you protest. "There must be something worthwhile about this book? Otherwise, why would you have read so many pages of it already?"
You're absolutely correct, dear reader. I can, in fact, point to two positive things about this book: First of all, the main character, Clyde Griffiths, with his flaws and weaknesses, is portrayed well. Secondly, the central premise of the novel isn't bad, someone like Flannery O'Connor would have made a great novella out of it.
That said, its not really a story that needed over 800 pages to be told and quite frankly, there are other books more worthy of my time (and yours).

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Brief Rant Concerning The Gem Show

Its never pleasant having to write something negative about a thing that you enjoy, but nevertheless, there are times when it must be done.
Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is a show that I have a deep fondness for, and is there any wonder why? In addition to being creative and imaginative, the show also boasts engaging characters, fascinating lore and some really excellent songs. However, recently, I must confess that I've started to be a tad frustrated by the show. More precisely, what frustrates me is the rather staggering amount of so-called filler; that is, episodes that are mostly inconsequential and do not further the plot in any way.

The latest episode, Room For Ruby is a good (or not) example of what I mean. Yes, I enjoyed the character of Navy and how devious she turned out to be, but in the end, I can't help but wonder what this episode accomplished in the grand scheme of things. Is the fact that the characters no longer have access to a spaceship going to be important down the line? One should hope so, otherwise, I can't help but wonder what the purpose behind the episode was.

Do not get the wrong idea, I have nothing against the more small-scale, character-focused episodes per se, but at this point, we already know the characters well enough. I want to find out more about Homeworld, about the diamonds, about the circumstances that led up to Rose Quartz's rebellion. How Pearl joined up with Rose and so forth. The show is at its fourth season; its high time that it gained some momentum and started to give us answers to some of these questions, instead of meandering about. Otherwise, I fear that the show may end up like Adventure Time and that is not something I wish to happen.