Thursday, 30 June 2011

Marzipan 2: I-1

Marzipan 2 Master Post 

Yet again the post I was planning to write this week has been delayed, this time due to a combination of going to operas, getting kept up by my neighbours having mid-week house parties and the ever-relentless grinding nature of work. Rather than yet again post up some pointless bit of meta-blogging, or two lines of notes on an idea I can't even remember enough about to discuss why I even started, let alone stopped pursuing it I thought of a better thing to do for now and in these situations in the future.

Years ago, when I thought that it was an important thing to do, I wrote a novel and tried to get it published. Unsurprisingly, it didn't get picked up, but it was a good thing to have done. It wasn't the first time I'd tried to write a novel, but it was the first time I'd tried to write one that I would now consider even remotely readable, and it was worth doing, just to prove that I could do it and to learn all sorts of things about how to write and how not to write. It was called The Death of the Marzipan Princess, and it was a fantasy novel about people who live in a world that isn't ours.

Having written one novel, and learned all sorts of things about writing, I decided to write another, which would be better than the first. It was sort of a sequel, in that it happened in roughly the same world, many many years after the events of the first. It was better, in many important ways, than The Death of the Marzipan Princess, but in one important way it was worse - because I never finished it.

So, my plan is this. I will post, whenever I don't have anything to post, a chapter of the raw second draft (my process was to write longhand on the first draft and then edit as I typed the second) of this unnamed novel. As we get further in the narrative starts to fracture and splinter and succumb to placeholder text, and all the grand ideas I have about subverting a genre I love come unstuck. At the end, I will write a post discussing why I stopped writing this novel, what it means for me as a writer, and why I'm still planning on writing what is effectively the third book in this series, even though no-one will have read the first two. 

Part 1

Heidegger the Barbarian

And the crowd went wild, dust and heat and sand clearing their minds of the alcoholic fuzz that enveloped them. It was a perfect day for a fight. It was a clear Wednesday afternoon, sunburnt and stretching out into the sweaty, violent summer evening ahead.

The wolf pack had done its very best to take down the great grizzly bear that they had been thrown into the ring against. They harried its heels and lunged in to rake claws and teeth against its back and belly, often only pulling free tufts of fur for their troubles. But still they tried, attacking and then darting back again to circle warily just outside of the bear’s reach.

The wolves had opened many wounds upon its hide, but nowhere near enough to slow the mighty beast down. For, despite their efforts, every time one of those massive paws swung a wolf’s back was broken and the pouncing animal tossed to the floor to lie twitching horribly as it died. That bear was a real class act.

It seemed so unaffected, so lazily superior. The crowd liked that, they could pretend that it was a reflection of their own personalities. Cernunnous, as the bear had been named in the programme, was already building up a fanbase – they’d cheered especially loudly when one of the wolves’ trainers had strayed too close to the action, whether in a misguided attempt to spur her charges on or out of a helpless, desperate loyalty, and had had her guts torn out and her legs shattered into the bargain. That had looked great.

High up in the stands surrounding the action, bottles of lagered beer, brought down from the caves behind the city that morning and kept cool in crates filled with sawdust and hay, were passed around and emptied into dry throats, drying them further still. Heads buzzed and eyes grew untrustworthy in what they saw. Songs were sung. The victorious Cernunnous was beaten down, shackled and led from the stage. The main attraction was yet to come.

In the shade beneath the stands gangs of urchins ran their unspeakable errands and played their meagre games. Some particularly hungry looking specimens ran around hitting hoops with sticks and shouting in high-pitched tones. They were ignored by a serious looking group who haggled with the intensity of race-side bookies, the objects of their trade not money or odds but small, cheaply printed cards with the pictures of famous gladiators upon them. Above, those children with wings flitted just below the precarious scaffolding and peered out through the beams and onto the arena, sometimes shouting down to the others a commentary of what they could see.

For his own part, the Grand Emperor of the Eastern Isles watched contentedly from his private shaded bier. Concubines and other attendants fanned him to keep him cool and fed him grapes and other exotic fruits too numerous to list. He eschewed the beer that he had distributed with such largesse today amongst his subjects and drank instead the finest wines from far inland. But even that did not engender great jealousy amongst those in the stands around him, for when they looked up they saw not so much a person as an object, the idea that had stolen the man away.

The Emperor laughed lightly at the destruction that had been raged before him. All here was as it should be.

At last,’ the announcer called, ‘the grudge match, the death match, the one that you’ve all been waiting for.’ The stadium had been very cleverly designed, it was an architectural wonder and a testament to culture that had designed it. It would go down in history, when history finally happened. There was a point near the bottom of the stands where the acoustics were just right and from where, with only the minimum of amplification, a calling voice could be heard by all who were seated in the stands. It was a marvel and a triumph. It was also a place of unremitting death.

Defending his place as the mightiest of the Gladiators, the King of the Thieves, the Terror of the High Seas. A man without remorse, who fights only for the love of pain. He may have been captured but his spirit rages on, bursting with hatred. Here he comes! The Dread Pirate Hume!’

The crowed erupted with a spirited chorus of boos and catcalls as well as the odd, localised cheer. It was spirited sort of jeering, however, filled with something that was almost affection, for everyone loves a villain, and especially so one who is no longer in a position to harm them. Amid the hollering and the screaming a cage on a wagon was wheeled on by four cringing orderlies. The wagon was of the high-wheeled kind and the cage looked like the kind that might ordinarily hold a circus exhibit, and inside that cage a foul beast prowled and roared and shook at the bars. But it was no beast.

As the orderlies ran from the dust pit the Pirate Hume tore apart the cage that held him and growled his defiance at the crowd from beneath a grizzled beard. He held aloft his weapons as he stalked the wagon top: the trident and the net that were the mark of the sea’s gods, but Hume was all man.

And the contender,’ the announcer started up again with a great, rousing cry. ‘All the way from the Gothenwald, his parents were slain by raiders and he fights for their honour, and his own freedom of course, let’s welcome the barbarian warrior, Heidegger!’

A youngish man, in his thirties but with an oiled and pampered body that gave the impression of a man ten years younger, strolled directly if a little vacantly into the arena. The crowd cheered his name. It was the enthusiasm shown for someone you didn’t expect to see alive for much longer, but whose last moments should provide you with a story well worth retelling.

Beer and sweat and heat and dust and the spark of a new world. The light that glints off a weapon and seems to shine the way forward toward freedom and change. These and other illusions crowded the air.

The barbarian swung his sword in a mighty arc and it crashed into the wheel of the wagon, shattering it. The pirate, who had been laughing and cavorting and taunting Heidegger from his elevated position, was suddenly pitched forward as the wagon’s axle buckled and was forced to throw himself into the dirt. He used the momentum of the fall to roll some way out of range but he still jarred his shoulder as he did so.

Heidegger’s swing had unbalanced him too, so as he brought his weapon back into his reach and control Hume was able to push himself to his feet. There was now no longer any scope for outlandish attacks or other showboating techniques. The two circled each other instead, placing their feet lightly and precisely, preparing to move quickly and suddenly as needed.

The crowd had gone quiet, tense and on the edge of exploding. These two were wary and focused, killers not fighters, and neither had any intention of dying. The crowd understood this, leaning in with a sense of anxiousness that they would not normally have displayed at the games. Against a lesser opponent the pirate might have continued his showmanship but right now there was no space for crowd-baiting. The spectators would not be in for the usual easy ride of staged ebb and flow, near misses and caught-breath upsets that would gave drama to the proceedings before leading up to the ending that they would all have been expecting. There would still be spectacle, but it would be sudden and brutal and when it was over then everything would be different.

There were a few feints, testings of reaction times, of favoured feet and favoured stance, but nothing that could be called an exchange of blows. Their weapons were mismatched anyway to the sort of good-natured sparring that might be undertaken before the real business of gutting one another was addressed. As they faced off Hume’s eyes narrowed and all trace of levity left his face. Heidegger had always been serious. The atmosphere in the pit actually seemed to chill, as if the concentration of this man could slow even the dance of particles in the air that surrounded them. Except that it was not his doing.

As he watched everything around Heidegger seemed to halt. First Hume and then outwards to the dust and the silent crowd and at last the city beyond until everything was still. He himself had become frozen, he realised, and only his mind continued, looking out from a statue of a body at a reality that was quickly slipping away.

It was in the eyes of Hume, who must have been in the same situation as he was, that he saw the terror. The still air washed itself out, drained away, and was replaced by a whispering void – a nothing that could not be seen or sensed but that nevertheless was there. The nothing encroached on Hume and as Heidegger watched it stole the soul, the essence, the very idea of him and then it whisked it away for its own purposes. At the last even the terror was gone.

Time snapped back. Heidegger was unconstrained and, released, he did what his entire being had been willing him to do during the whole of the strange interlude, for he hated and feared sorcery above all else in the world. He swung out his sword with all his might in an effort to destroy the abomination, yet all that he hit was all that was left of Hume. The great blade cleaved into flesh and tore it apart in bloody fury, stroke following stroke as Heidegger regained control of his limbs and smashed what remained of Hume into a mess of dirt and gore.

The crowd, who had not been aware of this strange, demonic intrusion, saw only Hume so overwhelmed by the sheer presence of his opponent that he could not even lift a hand in his own defence. As the pirate crumpled to the dust after the first massive blow they suddenly rose as one and punched their fists into the air. They cheered the newcomer as he hacked and they cheered him further as he came to his senses and turned to face them with victory in his stance and cheered again and again until their throats became sore and their voices hoarse with it all. And with all the heat, the muck and the drink that fuzzed their minds no-one noticed the piss that had run down the inside of the barbarian’s leg and collected in his leather and fur boot.

The nubile young ladies wore very little for the most part, except for one whose long black sleeves covered all of her arms. They danced suggestively as they passed around bowls filled with ripe fruit, plates of layered, pungent meats and cups of rich dark wine. A small knot of these consorts had formed behind the barbarian and were pouring scented oils over his shoulders and collectively massaging it into his chest and back. The barbarian’s owner was a thin and sun-crusted man named Pohl who had earned riches and health by taking charge of his slave caravans himself – personally beating those who he felt were deserving, be they slave or accountant alike.

Pohl looked around at the riches, those perks that only imperial favour could bestow, and the prestige that his warrior’s victory had earned him this day and he was obviously pleased. This was the pinnacle of his career so far and he blessed again the deal that had let this barbarian fairly fall into his hands – the backward savagery of the mainland, and especially the tribes of the north, was a godsend to a man like Pohl, and Pohl had based his business on their networks of ancient grievance.

Around him, Pohl’s entourage enjoyed the riches too, tearing meat from the bone with their teeth and laughing aloud at their own jokes, at retellings of the afternoon’s fighting and at the twisting bodies of the girls who surrounded them. They brushed hips with their greasy hands and prepared themselves for further intrusions as the beer continued its course through their brains. Pohl smiled to himself, as if anticipating a private joke and asked aloud of his companions, ‘Lem, tell me,’ for Lem was the name of his most trusted, and brutal, caravan leaders, ‘tell us all. What is best in life?’

Lem spread his arms wide to encompass the food, the girls and the company. ‘This,’ he said. ‘This is best. To have wine and women and the company of strong men.’

Pohl laughed heartily at this witless sycophancy, at the many long nights they had spent together on the caravan trails. The entire of his crew followed suit in this laughter, which gave him further cause for merriment, but for the barbarian slave, who remained impassive, even as the oil was massaged into his nipples.

Hah,’ Pohl barked. ‘It does not seem as if our guest agrees.’ Pohl slapped Lem hard on his back. ‘Tell us, Heidegger,’ he continued. ‘What is best?’

To know,’ the barbarian began in a heavy monotone, but he was cut short as Nina decided that this was the correct time to act.

Nina was the dancing girl who was wearing the long sleeves that were mentioned earlier, although on closer inspection she was wiry more than she was willowy and she had a hint of steel and an intensity that the others lacked. At any rate, before the barbarian could make his pronouncement she had stuck a knife into his neck and he had slumped forward heavily across the table, gurgling his last.

A sudden, stunned silence occurred, but it was only for a single, perfect moment. Then there was the scramble to attack. Pohl lunged sideways, but Heidegger’s body got in his way and Nina danced away from his grip and jumped up onto the table. Once up, Nina kicked a tankard of beer into Vonnegut’s face and the bearded tax expert fell backwards in surprise, and possibly relief that he might get away without actually having to fight the kind of maniac who could kill a man like Heidegger so easily, so it goes. Lem was faster and braver and grabbed hold of Nina’s ankle, but before he could pull her down she had pirouetted, kicked his face, broken his jaw and used the momentum to carry herself over his head and away from the table.

She hit the ground running, pursued by angry shouts and startled screams. But she was fast and had surprise on her side, it was still less than ten seconds since she had stabbed the giant Gothenwalder and set his life draining over the victory feast. She was out of the door and into the darkness of the imperial compound before anyone could properly get after her.

Nina den Wolfstar. Nina of the clan Wolfstar. Nina, warrior and exile, running through the palace of an tyrant at the centre of an empire hundreds of miles from her homeland and desperate to find a way out. She was not sure if the guards had been alerted yet, but she kept quiet and low all the same. Keep moving, she said to herself, keep moving. It repeated in her mind over and over as she crept along empty, opulent corridors and ducked, breathing hard, behind the statuary hoping that she wouldn’t be seen. Keep moving, or you’ll never move again; it was an old, old mantra to her. She forced herself up, away from the lure of cowering underneath the marble perfection of old heroes and crept around and along and onto the next point of relative safety and never even let herself think of staying still.

The palace was high and stone, encompassing unneeded space in a vulgar display of power. The corridors that Nina had found herself in following her initial unthinking flight from the barbaric chic of the gladiatorial wing were the epitome of this showy style of architecture. They were pointlessly high and open, and their length was interspersed with those massive statues that Nina could not afford to hide behind as if to protest that this excessive volume that they had enclosed did indeed have a function. Nina just kept her eyes moving, aware that high walls could mean large shadows if she wasn’t careful about the position of the torches behind and in front of her.

The Emperor by birth of the great mass of islands that spread across the eastern sea paraded his room in full regal attire. He had sent his guard away, it was that kind of a night and he didn’t really feel there was anything much to fear within the palace walls anyway, and now awaited the arrival of the concubine he had sent for. As he waited he paced and he thought. The celebrations of the day had been well worthwhile and what the final battle may have lacked in drama it had made up for with emotional punch. The people had a champion and a story that would be repeated for weeks, if not longer, which as a ruler was what he really wanted for them to have. He decided that it had been a fitting tribute to his birthday and so he was pleased.

At the far end of the hallway Nina saw an unguarded doorway, a definite statement of a thing, with the promise of leading somewhere, anywhere, out of the warren of corridors. She decided that it had to be worth a try and edged gently towards it, back flat against the wall and glancing about all the while. A cool night breeze drifted down the passage from the doorway bringing with it the smell of the surrounding sea. Despite the confirmation of an exit, or perhaps because of it, Nina suddenly felt very lost as she remembered quite how far away from home she was. It was a strange feeling, letting something lie that get through her defences and she really didn’t want to dwell on why that was so. She kept moving though.

The door creaked open hesitantly and the Emperor looked up. His concubine had arrived at last, he saw, and he began to ease off his robe. Gold brocade fell to the floor as the woman, who had only half entered the room, stopped suddenly, transfixed. She was, The Emperor noticed with irritation, wearing a lot more clothing than he would have normally preferred. The gauzy fabric that his harem usually dressed in had been layered up and tied into opaque sleeves and a loose shift that nonetheless obscured almost all of her chest. It was, in the emperor’s mind, quite uncalled for.

But at least she was here.

Come in,’ the Emperor commanded. ‘There is no need to be afraid.’

Nina edged forward and let the door draw itself to behind her. There was nowhere else that she could run too now and besides, she could not stop staring at the man standing before her. At one aspect of his anatomy in particular.

You’re a f–’ she began.

Yes, I am,’ the Emperor snapped, irritated. ‘But I shan’t hurt you, I am not of that persuasion. You are obviously new, but I would have thought that the other girls would have let you know about me before now. I do not enjoy explaining myself to my own servants, now, come here. I grow tired. I grow–’

Yes,’ Nina snapped back. ‘I can tell that. But other girls? What other girls? What is it that you take me for?’

As she came closer the Emperor noticed the delicate lines that had begun to creep into the skin at this woman’s eyes and mouth. He noticed too the first few streak of grey that laced her tied back hair. He began to get annoyed. Uncouth, un-briefed, covered up and now old? Did his slavers have no understanding of orders? He seethed to himself, staring at this woman before him and became further incensed as she stared right back at him, regarding him as if he was some sort of curiosity. The tension between them mounted and mounted and just then there came a polite little knock at the door.

They both froze.

The door opened slowly and respectfully and a young woman, not wearing a great many clothes, entered the room. ‘My lord,’ she said. ‘Oh great Emperor of all the islands, you require my services?’

The Emperor and Nina both turned to look at the newcomer and then turned back to stare at each other. They both spoke at once.

You’re in charge here?’ Nina asked.

You’re not a concubine?’ The Emperor queried.

Am I interrupting something?’ the young lady asked in a small voice that would rather be somewhere else entirely. She too had noticed a certain aspect of the Emperor’s current state and she had thought that this was her remit, and no real business of this other woman’s at all. Not that she would have complained had it turned out that she was being supplanted on this particular duty.

No, no.’ the Emperor said, and she stilled any hope that she might have felt for a night off. ‘We’re almost finished. You just wait there.’ As he said this his eyes slid over the wall to where a air of ornamental cutlasses were mounted, almost exactly equidistant from both him and Nina. Nina’s eyes followed his. She should have just nailed him there and then with the knife that she always carried, but she didn’t. She couldn’t lose it, which brought her right back to her starting point. She had to find a way to keep herself moving.

Nina launched herself at the swords but the Emperor was faster. The wings that had fascinated her, butterfly patterned and so thin as to almost not be there, gave him an extra burst of speed, and the engorgement that he sported did not seem to hinder him much either. He grabbed both swords from the wall and scissored them out at Nina’s charge but she had just enough time to duck underneath and bounce off the wall in a way that took her past the place he now stood.

Both combatants paused to take stock of the situation as it now stood, turning to face each other and prepare their next move. The Emperor brandished the swords dramatically but Nina realised that her back was now to the window and a great imperial desk was near to her side. She edged toward the desk, which was littered with the toys of those who make war and statecraft their game. ‘You’re enjoying this rather too much,’ Nina observed. ‘So I might as well leave you with something to remember me by.’

The Emperor at least had the good grace to look puzzled as he brought one sword up high to prepare for a killing rush. In a single movement Nina grabbed an ornamental letter opener from the surface of the desk and sent it spinning towards her opponent. It whistled past his face and stuck fast in the wall behind him, drawing a deep gouge from his cheek that instantly filled with blood. Then Nina laughed, turned and dashed through the open French windows into the dark smell of the sea beyond to leap from the balcony and suddenly disappear from sight.

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