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Friday, July 28, 2017

Chapter 23

One week before the events narrated in the previous chapter transpired, Gerion the lawayer was meeting with three of his clients.  The first two were a pair of rabbits, husband and wife, both of whom had made some fortunate investments and, as a consequence, had awaken one day to find themselves rather wealthy. The third person was Jeraddin.
Gerion, a vole, was seated behind his desk, in front of him lied two documents. He took out a monocle from his breast-pocket and looked at his trio of visitors who occupied the three chairs facing his desk. In the corner of the office stood a service wagon, which had come in loaded with refreshments, but was now quite empty.

"Now then", the lawyer said. "You have read the contracts, is there anything you wish to ask before signing them?"
The husband shook his head.
"Everything looks just fine to me." He gazed lovingly at his wife. "What about you, my love?"
The wife, paws resting on a belly heavy with child, imitated the gesture made by her other half.
"No, I quite agree with you. We've seen the property and we think that it'll be the ideal place to raise our children, the old house was beginning to be a bit cramped. Although, I do have a question for you, sir."
She turned to Jeraddin.
"Yes?" The lynx asked.
"I didn't ask before, but why did you decide to sell such a beautiful place?"
Jeraddin shrugged and put on an apologetic smile.
"Financial difficulties", he said. "The upkeep on a place like my ancestral home has really made hole in my bank account."
Naturally, you my most esteemed reader know that this is not the real reason for Jeraddin selling the place, but of course,he could not tell the truth, even if he had wanted to.
"Well", the husband said with a chuckle. "In a moment, your financial troubles will be all but over, old boy."
If only my real problems could be solved so easily, Jeraddin thought.

The three of them rose, walked up to the contracts and read through them one last time. They then took the quills that Gerion handed to them and moments later, the contracts were signed. The deal was sealed by Jeraddin and the couple shaking each other's paws.
"There", Gerion said, patting the contracts. "That's that. I must say, I'm glad that we were able to come to such a quick agreement."
"As am I", said the husband. "You have the deed to the property with you, I assume?" He asked.
Jeraddin nodded and, reaching into the inner pocket of his coat, which was draped over the chair's chest, produced an old rolled-up parchment, tied together with a red ribbon.
"Here it is", he said.
"And here's the money", said the rabbit, producing a signed check. The two objects changed hands.
"Splendid", Gerion said, rubbing his paws together. "I think this calls for a toast. What say you to opening a bottle in celebration?"

*****

As he entered the throne room and began the walk up to the throne itself, Jeraddin looked left and right, observing the people gathered in it: There were the expected guards, standing stiff as statues, the occasional twitch of the facial muscles, being the only indication that they were in fact alive. There were groups of courtiers; richly clad lords and ladies gathered together in little groups. Some of them acknowledged the lynx's presence with a nod, which he politely returned. A few of the younger ladies  tried to flirt with him, fluttering their long eyelashes and giggling coquettishly behind their fans. To no avail, Jeraddin paid them no heed, his mind was elsewhere. Standing around the throne were the members of the royal council and Jeraddin noted with some surprise that Cornelius was not among them. Had the old boy shuffled of the mortal coil? Sad, if that was the case. There was the one-eyed fox, Lorenzo, arms crossed and with a dagger in his belt and a faint smirk on his face. Standing next to the throne, their eyes downcast were some of the Queen's chambermaids, pretty things each and everyone of them. Nasari wasn't among them. This surprised Jeraddin, since he thought that the Queen would keep his wife close-by, to remind Jeraddin what the prize would be for any lack of co-operation.
Finally, sitting on the throne which had once belonged to her father, the royal scepter in her hand, was the Queen herself.

Stepping in front of the throne, his face an impassive mask, concealing the bile rising up in his throat, Jeraddin bent his head and got down on one knee, staring dagger's at the Queen's foot.
Argath looked down at the figure in front of her and smiled contentedly; there was something quite intoxicating having power over people. For a moment, she wondered if her fa...if her predecessor had ever felt the same way. What was she thinking? Of course he had, the old hypocrite . Alas, all fun things must come to an end and so, Argath decided that Jeraddin had humbled himself enough:
"Arise, General" she said. "We thank you for answering our call so swiftly."
"It was my duty, Your Majesty", Jeraddin answered in an even tone. "How can I be of service?"
"It is our wish", the Queen said, twirling the scepter, "that you shall invade the kingdom of Frigonia."
Ah, so that's it, Jeraddin thought.
"Your Majesty, our two kingdom have been at peace for over a century. May I ask the reason why?"
"You are a solider, do you need a reason for carrying out your orders? Especially ones that come directly from your monarch?"
"Nevertheless, Your Majesty, it would ease my conscience if you had the grace to provide me with one."

The Queen shrugged.
"Very well; we have received a report that Frigonia's king is currently planning a surprise attack on our territories. Does that reason satisfy you?"
No, Jeraddin thought, it does not. Who sent you this report? Has anyone else seen it? Anyone on the council? Not that it would matter, no doubt many of the council members would be eager to give the Frigonians a bashing, having been fed distrust of our northern neighbor along with their mothers', or more likely nursemaids', milk. 
Naturally, he did not say any of this out-loud. Instead, the words that came out of his mouth were the following ones:
"Perfectly, Your Majesty, I'm grateful for your indulgence."
"We're pleased to hear it. Now, we wish you to leave for the Northern border at your earliest convenience, it would not be good if the Frigonians found out that we have anticipated their little ploy."
With that, the Queen stood up in her full height. As she did, the tiara she wore became slightly askew and when she reached up to adjust it, she dropped the scepter, which hit the floor with a heavy sound.

Letting out an annoyed sigh, Argath pointed to the symbol of her power and ordered one of her chambermaids to pick it up. However, before the maid had the chance to do it, someone else had already snapped it up.
"Once again, general, the promptness with which you come to our assistance do you great credit. Now, hand us our scepter, if you please. Rend unto the Queen what is the Queen's, or however it goes."
She smiled, exposing her sharp teeth and as if on cue, some of the courtiers broke out it in an appreciative laughter. Which, I can assure you, did not sound the least bit forced at all.
Jeraddin weighed the scepter in his paw, it was heavier than he thought it would be. The Queen's physical strength must be stronger than he thought, judging by the ease with which she had twirled it. For a moment, Jeraddin toyed with the idea to bring the thing down upon Argath's head, but he dismissed it almost immediately. Still, it was a beautiful thought. Just then, a voice called him back to reality:
"General", the Queen said, her smile obliterated. "We do not like to repeat ourselves. Our scepter, now."
"Of course, Your Majesty. I was merely admiring it for a moment."

He bowed and presented the scepter to the queen, who took it and put it down on the pillow-clad pedestal, placed next to the throne.
"We shall leave the finer detail of the Frigonia business to your discretion, general. We have every faith in your abilities."
She sat down and made a dismissive gesture, indicating that the audience was over and that Jeraddin could leave, but to her surprise, he did not move an inch.
"Your Majesty, I have a favor to ask you."
Argath's eyes narrowed. A favor? What could he possibly be asking for? Oh, of course!
"The crown sees no reason to refuse a request from such a loyal and diligent subject as yourself, general. Yes. you may see your wife."
She turned to the same maid who she had ordered to pick up the scepter.
"Since you and Nasari are such good friends, I don't suppose you'd have any idea where she is at the moment, Miranda? I gave her the day off you see", she explained to Jeraddin, looking at that moment as the very picture of benevolence.
Moving closer to Jeraddin, Lorenzo put one of his paws on the lynx's shoulder.
"Her Majesty is so generous, isn't she, general?" He whispered. "Truly your wife is fortunate to have been granted the privilege to be in her presence everyday. Don't you think so? Of course you do, the mere thought has rendered you speechless with joy."
At that moment, Jeraddin's head flashed with images of him wresting the dagger from Lorenzo and plunging it in the fox's remaining eye. It was a mental image that was not displeasing and he smiled inwardly at it.

"I saw her head out into the garden, Your Majesty", said Miranda. "Do you wish for me to go and fetch her?"
Before the Queen could answer, Jeraddin spoke up:
"Beg your pardon, Your Majesty; there's no need for this young lady to trouble herself on my account. I shall go to my wife myself."
"Yes", the Queen said in a dry tone, "I have no doubt that you two could use the...privacy." Once again, she stood up and turned to her maid.
"We suddenly have a craving for sweets. Go down to the kitchen and tell them to prepare us a cake, then have it brought up to our chambers."
"As you wish, Your Majesty."

****

Jeraddin left the throne room with a feeling of relief. As he walked through the hallways of the palace, he wiped his lips, which had touched the Queen's ring in a farewell greeting, with his left paw. What he really wanted to do was spit, but he couldn't find no place to do it. At least being summoned to the palace meant that he would be reunited with his wife, if only for a brief moment. Jeraddin could hardly wait to see Nasari again, it felt as if forever since he had last looked upon her. He wanted to take her in his arms, to hear her voice. The thought of it caused a smile to appear on his hitherto solemn features. 
"General, a moment of your time?"
Startled, Jeraddin turned around and found himself face to face with Felix.
"What can I do for you, councilor?" He asked, hoping that the conversation wouldn't take too long. Then, he remembered something that had puzzled him.
"How is old Cornelius?" He asked. "I couldn't help but notice his absence."
Felix sighed.
"Cornelius has been...banished from court", he said.
"For what reason?" 
"It has to do with this war against Frigonia. Cornelius spoke out against it, said that we should try to negotiate, Her Majesty was furious."
Knowing the history between the two councilors, the lynx studied the lizard's face, trying to discover any sign of satisfaction on it, but found none.

"I can guess what you're thinking", Felix said, "but in this case I'm in complete agreement with Cornelius. I was about to back him up, but when I saw the Queen's reaction... I'm ashamed to say it, but my courage failed me. Besides, I thought I would speak to the Queen, convincing her to let Cornelius back on the council in due time."
"I see. Well, I wish you good luck with that.
"Thank you. However, that is not really the reason why I approached you. There's something I think you should know."
"What is it?"
Felix looked around, then motioned for Jeraddin to come closer.
"Well", he began, lowering his voice. "Cornelius and I suspect that this whole thing about Frigonia planning to attack us is merely a falsehood, cooked up by the Queen. Probably with the help of that blasted fox of hers."
"I wouldn't put it past her", Jeraddin commented dryly.
Felix, who had hoped that this revelation would come as something of a surprise, found himself somewhat disappointed.
"In that case, general, you know the Queen better than either of us."
Jeraddin shrugged.
"Perhaps, but why tell me all this?"
"Because your word carries weight. If you were to publicly express your doubts regarding the justification for this war, many people would take them seriously. If public opinion turned against this war, I am positive that we could pressure the Queen into opening negotiations with Frigonia, thus clearing up any misunderstandings and hopefully avoid unnecessary bloodshed."

Having said all this, Felix waited for Jeraddin's answer with his arms folded. He was confident that the lynx would see the logic in his proposition and agree with it.
"I am sorry", Jeraddin said, turning his head so as to avoid the councilor's eyes. "I can not go against the Queen."
The general's words hit Felix like a slap to the face. He stood there, mouth open and eyes blinking in surprise, as if he could not believe the witness of his own ears.
"Why?" He asked, when he had mastered his feelings.
Jeraddin sighed. He felt bad having to turn Felix down, but what other choice did he have?
"Its not for my own sake that I refuse" he said, "but to protect those I care about. Forgive me, but I can not offer another explanation. Farewell, councilor, give my regards to Cornelius when you see him."

With those words, Jeraddin turned around and walked out the door that lead to the garden. As he
watched him leave, Felix thought about what he had just said: Protect those I care about. What had he meant by that? Going through his memories, Felix recalled that the general was married and had two children and that the entire family had been present at the  feast which had ended with the death of the king. Felix himself had not been able to attend the feast, having been confided to bed with the flu. Because of that, he had only learnt about the events that had occurred through second-hand sources and so, he had originally resumed that the family had returned afterwards.
That is, until he had learnt that not too long after the feast, the wife had moved into the palace, as one of the Queen's chambermaids.
Felix had seen her briefly a few times, a feline with black fur. Attractive, but with something sad about her, which he could not really define. Why was this woman living here in the palace? Felix had never really thought about this before, having had other things on his mind, but now he was beginning to wonder. Jeraddin's words had hinted that his wife was actually a hostage, but it seemed incredible. The general had always been a loyal servant to the crown, why should the Queen require a hostage to guarantee his continued loyalty?
Felix pondered these questions while walking back to his quarters in the palace. As he rounded a corner, an idea suddenly popped into his head. It was an idea so terrible that it caused the iguana's head to spin.
No she couldn't have..he thought, before his legs gave way under him and the floor came closer and closer.






Monday, June 26, 2017

Ashenden

As we all know, popularity does not always equal quality.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not some contrarian who looks down his nose on mainstream shows (most of the time anyway). There are plenty of popular shows that I have a deep fondness for. At the same time, there's no denying that TV as a whole, is filled with shows that does not deserve half the praise and adoration showered upon them. On the other side, there are plenty of shows that, in spite of being of extremely high quality, languishes in undeserved obscurity. The Bristish mini-series Ashenden is one such show.

Based on a collection of stories by W. Somerset Maugham (confession time: I haven't read any of Maugham's work), which in turn were based on the author's own experiences, Ashenden tells the story of John Ashenden, a playwright who is enlisted as an agent for British Intelligence during World War I. Each of the four episodes deals with Ashenden on one of his missions, whether its inducing a dancer into betraying her lover who is a German agent, or travelling to Russia during the 1917 revolution to convince that nation to remain in conflict with Germany. Each episode opens with an aging Ashenden, living in France, listening to the opening tunes of a pop song on the radio, before angrily pushing the radio off the table.

As a show, Ashenden is a prime example of quality over quantity. Despite there being only four episodes, each episode is a well-crafted gem, featuring interesting characters and gripping plots. 
Alex Jennings plays Ashenden and while the character does not perhaps enter into my pantheon of favorite TV protagonist (though he's a close runner-up), Jennings does a fine job making the character engaging and likable. Its also interesting to see Ashenden grow more and more disillusioned with the nature of his job and the ruthlessness of his superior officer Colonel "R" as the series progresses. Due to the limited number of episodes, the supporting cast is relatively small; aside from the titular character, the only other recurring characters are Ashenden's friend, the homosexual pacifist Andrew Lehman (Jason Isaacs), the aforementioned "R" (Ian Bannen) and the real-life head of MI6, Sir George Mansfield Cumming (Joss Ackland). That said, the one-off characters all very memorable as well, with Alan Benett and Alfred Molina being particularly good in their roles as a British traitor and a Mexican assassin respectively.

I learned about the existence of Ashenden quite by chance and I'm glad that I did. I was fortunate enough to find all the episodes on YouTube and you can find the first episode inserted into this post. I strongly recommend watching it, this a show that deserves to be more well-known and getting an official re-release and if my post can, in some small way contribute to that happening, I'd consider my job done.


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.


Pompeii (Duncan the Wonder-Dog)



Duncan the Wonder-Dog by Adam Hines is a comic that takes place in a world that's pretty much our own, with the exception that animals can speak human languages. One of its central characters is Pompeii, a female macaque who also happens to be the current leader of the terrorist group ORAPOST. As a character, Pompeii does not bring to mind any other female villain I can think of, as much as Tommy DeVito. Much like Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas, Pompeii is prone to sudden outbursts of savage and explosive violence, making her an intense and frightening villain. In addition, her rants and monologues are among the best I've read in a comic.
 As the years go by, it seems more and more unlikely that we'll ever get another volume of Duncan. Hopefully, Hines will prove me wrong, because I really want to see more of his characters and especially of Pompeii.


Rasputin (Corto Maltese)



Some of my favorite type of villains are those that serves as a dark reflection of the hero and Rasputin is one of my favorite examples of this trope: Like his best friend/archenemy, Corto Maltese, Rasputin is a globe-trotter and adventurer, but that's where the similarities end. Whereas Corto is, at his core, a romantic, Rasputin is a cynic who cares only about filling his belly and lining his pockets. He also has no qualms about murder; killing with worrying ease (again unlike Corto, who only kills in self-defense). The relationship between these two are among the most interesting aspects of the comic. In addition, Rasputin is also the funniest villain on this list, with many of Corto Maltese's more comedic moments involving him in some capacity.


Zelie (Beautiful Darkness)


If there's any character on this lists that truly embodies the phrase "love to hate", its Zelie. She made me hate her in the best possible way and her comeuppance at the end was both richly deserved and oh-so satisfying.