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Chrispidistra

On the afternoon of the fifth day they were camped by the river, Tash went off looking for a better place to fish. ‘There are more good fish in this river,’ he told Josie. ‘I can tell. But they have learned that I am here, and there is so much water for them to hide in.’

‘Good luck, Tash,’ she called after him, and settled down to listen dozily to the sounds of the river.

The kinds of sounds a river makes, as I am sure you know, are the kinds of sounds that make you more conscious of the fact that your bladder is full, and after she had lain resting awhile this outweighed Josie’s desire to keep laying there doing nothing. ‘Bother,’ she said, and got up and walked a little ways away from the stream. Once Josie was further from the stream she could other sounds. There was the crunching of undergrowth underfoot, branches being pulled back and let go: the sounds of someone approaching. Could Tash be back already? No, he had gone upriver, and the sounds were very clearly coming from downriver.

Josie hastily returned to the camp. There was no way to hide their things before whoever it was came this way- before they came this way, for there were two separate pairs of feet. They sounded to Josie much more like men than beasts. And they were very close, the sounds they had made as they approached muted by the swollen river.

‘Hail!’ called a voice. ‘Is someone there?’ It was the first voice of a man Josie had heard since the death of Yustus. It had the gruff, confident tone of the kind of man who lives his life out of doors doing things that do not need a lot of artful thinking or book-learning, but a great willingness to take risks and an easy sort of halfway-decent competence in all manner of practical things. It was the kind of voice she had heard often when she was growing up, and it instantly made her feel smaller again, more like the girl Josephine Furness and less like Josie, Mistress of Telmar.

‘Hail!’ called Josie back, trying to sound strong and confident.

‘Why, it’s a maiden!’ the voice said with some surprise, drawing nearer. There was some broad male laughter. ‘And a northern lass, if my eyes do not deceive me. What possessed you to journey in these wilds, northern lass?’

The two men had walked up swiftly since Josie had admitted her presence, and now stood with her at the edge of the patch of sandy ground where she had made camp. She could smell the stale breath of men who eat a great deal of meat and are not particular about cleaning their teeth, and their sweat, and an oil rather like the oil they had used back home for oiling saddles.

‘I am travelling through,’ said Josie. ‘My companions- companion and I.’

She felt it would not be a good idea to volunteer too much about who she was and where she was going.

‘Why, that is the very thing we and our company are doing,’ said the man who had spoken. He laughed again. ‘Where are you bound? It might be we could travel together.’

‘I would rather not say,’ said Josie.

‘Is something wrong with your eyes?’ asked the second man. He had a more cunning, thoughtful sort of voice that reminded Josie uncomfortably of the magician Yustus.

‘I am blind,’ said Josie.

‘That is a great pity, lass,’ said the first man. ‘That means you cannot see the handsome face of Arishan here. He is accounted a great beauty back at home.’

‘Tell us of your companion,’ said Arishan. ’Is she a northern maiden, like yourself?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘He is a man. A big, strong man.’

‘There is just one bed made here,’ pointed out the man named Arishan in his unpleasant oily voice.

‘My companion is my husband,’ said Josie.

‘A fortunate man he must be, to have such a courteous and well-formed wife,’ said the first man.

‘I cannot see any man’s clothing among your things here,’ said Arishan. ‘I hope your husband has not deserted you.’

‘No, he will be back very soon,’ said Josie, starting to feel rattled.

‘Well, we can wait for him, then,’ said Arishan. ‘It will be good to make his acquaintance. No doubt he will see we mean no harm, and feel free to tell us where you are bound.’ He sat down heavily on the bed of blankets that Josie had arranged.

‘Sit down a while, lass, and be hospitable,’ said the first man. ‘There is no need for us to stand here as if we were two watchmen questioning a thief.’

With great reluctance Josie sat down on the opposite side of the ashy firepit from Arishan. The first man plunked himself down next to her.

‘Well,’ said Arishan. ‘We can think of something to do to pass the time until your husband returns.’ Josie could hear him getting something that clattered out of his pockets; a cup and dice, from the sound of it. ‘Do you like games?’

‘No,’ said Josie, shaking her head.

‘I have never seen a girl as white as you, lass,’ said the first man. ‘Are you a Narnian?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Just as well,’ said the man. ‘I have heard it said that Narnian girls look fair enough in most of their parts, but are as dark and hairy as an ape in their nethers.’ He laughed again, and Josie furrowed her brows in anger. ‘I expect your husband could tell us the truth of that, eh, lass?’ He slapped a hand like a slab of salt pork down on Josie’s thigh in an insolent and inappropriate way.

‘You should go,’ said Josie, angrily trying to get to her feet, but the man grabbed her roughly and would not let her.

‘Or we could check for ourselves,’ he said, clutching Josie around the middle and chuckling as she kicked futilely. The smell of stale sweat on him was vile.

‘Let me go!’ said Josie, trying to command like the Mistress of Telmar, but sounding shrill and panicked even to herself.

‘Rozek, stop scaring the girl with your rough talk,’ called Arishan. ‘Put her down.’

‘She’s wriggling too much,’ said Rozek.

‘Stop it,’ said the second man in a voice edged with steel. Grumbling, Rozek tossed her to the ground. Josie gathered herself together and sat with her arms and legs curled up protectively, waiting for a chance to make her escape.

‘We have to do this properly,’ said Arishan, in a voice that made Josie’s skin crawl. ‘We cast lots to see who gets first go at the girl. Odd or evens?’

‘Evens,’ growled Rozek. ‘Best out of three.’

Josie heard the cup rattling, and the dice turned out. ‘Six and three,’ said Arishan.

Was that the sound of someone approaching? It was hard to hear noises in the wood over the sounds of the river. Josie strained her ears.

The cup rattled again. ‘Six and one- look upon them and despair,’ said Arishan, with a horrible glee.

‘Bugger,’ said Rozek.

Yes, someone was definitely coming. Josie leapt to hear feet while the brigands were distracted by their dice and charged off towards the noise. ‘Tash!’ she called out. ‘Tash!’

She slipped on an uneven patch of ground and tumbled, scrambled to her feet and ran forward, and then she was suddenly almost trampled by a pony ridden by someone who was not Tash. The pony was as alarmed at nearly trampling her as she was at nearly being trampled. The rider did something vicious to it and it stood still, breathing heavily.

‘Rozek? What’s this?’ called the angry voice of the rider. It was a higher pitch than the voices of Rozek or Arishan, but sounded no less masculine and rough.

‘Found this lass,’ said Rozek, who had given chase and was now catching up. He grabbed hold of Josie’s arm. ‘Says she’s out here with her husband, but won’t say where they’re going.’

‘So you thought you’d chase her all over the wilderness? Orders are to bring any strangers straight to the commander. You know that. ’

‘We were waiting for the fellow to turn up,’ said Arishan, walking up more slowly and somehow sounding reasonable even to Josie’s ears.

‘Yes, and what do you think he’ll do if he comes back to find two louts like you pawing his woman? Whip out his sword first and ask questions later, and he ends up dead and we don’t learn a damned thing from him. Or, more likely, he kills you two and gets clean away, when we’d have him at twelve to one if he had to track you back to the camp. Are you completely stupid? Settle down, you.’ He said this last to Josie, who was struggling to wrench her arm free from Rozek’s grip.

‘I’m fortunate you showed up to deal with things properly, then,’ said Arishan drily. ‘This man may not exist at all. There are only woman’s clothes here.’

‘Shut up,’ said the rider. ‘Get up behind me, lass. Rozek, put her up behind.’

‘She’s blind, Karasp,’ said Rozek, lifting up the struggling Josie like a sack of oats and putting her on the back of the pony.

The rider made a contemptuous noise at the other brigands. ‘Hold on tight,’ he told Josie.

‘Please, can’t you just leave me here?’ she asked, reluctantly putting her arms around the man’s chest. ‘My husband-‘

‘Sorry, lass,’ said Karasp. ‘Orders are to bring any strangers to talk to the commander. Orders these fools seem to have forgotten. Hold on. If you fall off you’ll bash your head in, like as not.’

‘I have ridden before,’ said Josie. Through her fear of what might happen with these coarse men, she felt a pang of melancholy. She had used to ride double with Gerry almost every day.

The pony took off through the woods at a brisk trot for a good twenty minutes, with enough twistings and turnings that Josie was not at all sure which direction they were from the river. Josie could hear the crackling of a fire, and the sound of a good many horses and men – the dozen the rider had mentioned seemed to be about the right number of each. Her arrival had caused quite a stir, from the voices she could hear as she climbed down from the back of the pony. It was obviously completely unexpected to find a girl in the wilderness, with her pale skin adding an additional thrill of exotic detail. Without ado, Karasp hustled her into what seemed to be a large tent. The hubbub outside suddenly dimmed, and she could smell perfume and roast poultry, rather than just wood-smoke and unwashed man and beast.

‘An interesting find, Karasp,’ said a voice. It was probably the least unpleasant voice Josie had heard yet from a man in this new world, a strong resonant voice she could imagine reading from the Bible on Sunday mornings. It sounded friendly enough on the surface, but Josie could tell there was something unyielding and implacable beneath. It was, in a way, an even more frightening voice than Arishan’s. ‘Who is this young lady?’

‘Arishan found her by the river,’ said Karasp. ‘About half a league upstream. Apparently she’s blind. She says she’s travelling with her husband, but hasn’t said where they’re bound. Arishan said there were only woman’s clothes where she was camped.’

‘I see,’ said the commander. Josie could hear him stepping closer to her, and knew she was being scrutinised.

‘Young lady, my name is Ormuz, and my companions and I are bound on a voyage of discovery,’ he said in a friendly tone. ‘To make a long story short, word has come to us in a distant land that the mage of Telmar is dead and his slaves flown, so the treasures of Telmar lie open to be taken by anyone. Such a chance comes only once in a lifetime, if that.’ Ormuz paused, and added in the same friendly voice, as if he was an old friend of the family being introduced to Josie in her mother’s parlour. ‘You see, I am quite open about who I am, and what my business is. If you could do me the honour of replying in kind, in as much as you are able, it would be a fair and courteous act.’

‘I,’ said Josie. ‘I am not able to tell you my business.’

‘That’s too bad,’ said Commander Ormuz. ‘Karasp, fetch a seat for our guest, and something for her to eat. I will get her something to drink myself.’

Karasp found something like a camp-stool for Josie and she reluctantly sat down on it.

‘If you are not free to tell me your business, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me your name?’ Josie could hear the commander getting bottles and cups from a chest, pouring out two drinks.

‘My name is Miss Furness,’ said Josie.

‘Like furnace?’ said the commander. ‘It is a curious name, but not an ill-favoured one. I know of no place in the world where it would be customary to name such a fair lady after such an instrument of smoke and fire, but the world is large. Here.’ He pressed into Josie’s hand a largish tumbler of something that smelled rather like sherry. ‘You must have had a hard time of it. Drink.’

Josie warily took a sip and found that it almost immediately warmed her right through.

‘It must be very difficult travelling in these lands without being able to see,’ said the commander. ‘Your husband must be very brave and resourceful, to bring you on such a journey. Set it down there Karasp, yes.’ The brigand Karasp set a plate with some kind of roast bird on it down next to Josie.

‘He is,’ said Josie.

‘You are a fortunate woman,’ said Ormuz. ‘Though to look at you, you are hardly more than a child. Have you been married long?’

‘A few months,’ said Josie.

‘Arranged, or a love match?’

‘Love,’ said Josie.

‘And your husband takes you away into the very deepest wilderness? I am beginning to sense an elopement.’ The brigand Ormuz chuckled softly and lowered his voice, as if he was letting Josie into a secret. ‘Did your father take unkindly to your attachment to this man? You so young, and he such a reckless adventurer?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘It was not like that.’ The sherry – or whatever it was- made her feel less like a poor captive, and more like the bold Josie, Mistress of Telmar, who she wanted to be. Imprudently, she took another sip.

‘Still, yours must be a fine story,’ said Ormuz. ‘I am looking forward to your husband’s return, so I can see for myself who has won your heart and led you into such dangerous wilds so far from your family and home.’

Josie let this pass. She did not want to be asked any more difficult questions about Tash, and was feeling bold, so she changed the subject. ‘Your men were horrible- that Arishan, and Rozek. They were going to – to rape me. They were rolling dice for me.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz, sounding stern and concerned. ‘Rest assured, they will be punished. Not to excuse them in any way, but I am afraid I had to cast my net rather wide in order to put this expedition together, and a few of my men are unsuited for civilised company. When your husband arrives, I will have them flogged in his presence.’

‘Good,’ said Josie. She took another drink of the almost-sherry, and found to her surprise that the tumbler was empty.

‘You should let me go,’ she said. ‘Back to my camp. Tash- my husband- will be unhappy if he does not find me there.’

‘I am sorry, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘In light of what you have told me about the scoundrels in my employ, I am inclined to keep you here where they cannot cause you any more trouble. I hope you do not mind. May I refill your cup?’

Josie did not actually say she did not want her cup refilled, so in a moment she found that it had been, and she could not help taking another mouthful. She was feeling quite warm through now, and very brave and queenly.

‘He will not be pleased to find me here,’ she said. ‘It would be better for you if you brought me back.’

‘I am sure he will be displeased,’ said the commander apologetically. ‘But I will explain everything to him, and I am sure he will understand.’

‘Oh,’ said Josie, taking another drink. She supposed what the commander was saying made a kind of sense.

‘I am glad you like the wine,’ said Ormuz. ‘I had it from a caravan near Teebeth. I have carried it a very long way, hoping for an appropriate guest to serve it to.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘It is rather sweet.’ She tasted the inside of her mouth. There was some subtle flavour in the wine that she recognised, but could not place exactly, a bitter but not entirely unpleasant undertone.

‘Tell me,’ said commander Ormuz suddenly, in a sharper voice. ‘What do you know of Telmar?’

‘Nothing,’ said Josie. ‘Well, nothing besides that there was an evil magician there who commanded ifrits, who was the last of the men of Telmar who had been turned into beasts by Aslan long ago.’

‘That is the story that the wise tell in my country, as well, Miss Furness,’ said Ormuz. ‘Where did you hear this tale?’

‘A gazelle told me,’ said Josie.

‘A gazelle!’ Ormuz laughed. ‘Tell me, Miss Furness- would you be surprised to hear that the place Telmar lies no great distance from here?’

‘No,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’ She was starting to feel a little lightheaded.

‘No, indeed,’ said Ormuz. ‘Perhaps a week’s journey north of here. Perhaps even less. According to the tales I have heard, we are almost there. We go to seek its treasures. Does your husband, or whoever you are travelling with, perhaps go to seek the same thing?’

‘No,’ said Josie. She set her face in a way that was meant to look proud and defiant. She felt suddenly as if the tent was spinning around her.

‘I feel dizzy,’ said Josie. She set down her tumbler, which was empty again.

‘Perhaps you drank the wine too quickly,’ suggested Ormuz. ‘If you are not used to it, it is easy to do. Just answer my question, and then you can lie down and rest until your head clears. Are you going to Telmar?’

‘No,’ said Josie.

‘Are you certain?’ said the commander. His voice was close now, smooth and unyielding and implacable and not friendly at all.

‘I won’t let you have it,’ snapped Josie unreasonably. Her voice sounded blurry and odd to herself, so she repeated her words. ‘I won’t let you have it.’

‘I am in the habit of having whatever I want,’ said Ormuz, with a chilling calmness. ‘I should not be so confident if I were you.’

‘It is mine,’ said Josie angrily. ‘I am Mistress of Telmar. We defeated the magician, and we can defeat you.’ She went to stand, and found it more of a struggle to get up than she expected.

‘You are mysterious, that is certain,’ said Ormuz. He took her arm and dragged her to her feet. ‘I do not suppose there is one part of truth in twenty of what you have told me. And there is some power to you, I can see that. But enough to hold Telmar against my company? I think not.’

Ormuz was leading her deeper into the tent. She felt something soft beneath her feet, and struggled to keep her balance. ‘Let me go,’ she said angrily, jerking her arm away from him. He let her go, but she found she could not stand alone, and slumped to her knees on what seemed to be a pile of blankets.

‘So you have already reached Telmar?’ said Ormuz. ‘How many are there of your company? Tell me more of this husband of yours.’

‘He is strong and brave,’ said Josie. ‘We will stop you.’ At least, that is what she meant to say, but her voice did not obey her, and she was not sure what she ended up saying.

‘I am still in doubt as to whether you have a husband at all,’ said the brigand leader. He grabbed Josie’s ankle and pulled her leg out so that she fell backwards on the blankets. Feebly, she tried to get up, but she could do no more than raise herself on her elbows. She could feel the warmth of whatever had been in the drink filling her veins, filling her bones, making her slow and soft as before it had made her rash and heedless. ‘Your insolence has made me angry, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz.

‘We will stop you,’ Josie tried to say again, but her mouth would not obey her.

She could smell Ormuz close to her face now, rank animal sweat beneath his perfume. ‘I may have given you too much, too fast,’ he was saying. He made a little noise to chide himself. ‘There is probably no point asking you any more questions tonight, but there is time enough to teach you not to be so insolent, before your wits flee you entirely.’

Josie felt the loathesome touch of the brigand’s hands on her legs, shoving her skirts upward. She wanted to curse the brigand and claw at his eyes, to drive her knee up between his legs and kick him viciously, but could only mumble at him and flail feebly.

‘What lovely white skin you have, Miss Furnace,’ said Ormuz. ‘It is a shame you cannot see yourself, but I suppose that saves you from vanity.’

Tash, Josie tried to call out. Tash, help me! Tash, Tash, Tash! ‘Tash,’ she managed to say, in a strangled whisper.

‘You little Narnian whore,’ Ormuz growled, in quite a different voice than he had used before, with no smoothness in it at all.

Tash and Josie made their camp again on the banks of the big river, where the air was filled with the scent of fresh water and flowers. Josie was exhausted. She was not used to travelling for so many days in a row, even though she had been carried a great deal of the way, and it had been more of a strain than she realised to travel with Blackbriar. The dog had been a constant reminder of how she was shirking the duty laid upon her by the Lion god, and just how anxious this had made her, and how weary being anxious had made her, she had not realised until they had parted ways.

Josie felt good to be on the way back to her home in the Valley of Telmar, grim and dreary though it might be. But at the same time it was nice to be here, in the more open lowland country with its sunshine and strawberry-smelling flowers and raucous songbirds. And it felt very good to be able to talk freely with Tash, and touch Tash whenever she wanted, without worrying about what Blackbriar might think.

Josie and Tash had both decided, without having to say anything, that it would be good to stay by the side of the river for a few days to rest. ‘A holiday,’ Josie said. ‘It will be like a holiday for a few days.’ She felt pleased and comfortable to have seen Blackbriar safely on her way to the human countries. She felt like things were turning out the way she wanted them to, and that she was finding a way around Aslan and the prophecies he had troubled Tash with. It was a good life in this world, since they had gotten rid of the Sorceror: far better than the prospect of being an unwanted burden – practically an orphan – in a strange cruel country and far, far better than the horrible world Tash had come from. So they had made their camp by the side of the big river, and Tash caught fish – the fish were very nice here, Josie thought, even better than the ones Tash caught from the pool in the Vale of Telmar -and they picked shoots of sweet grasses and the sorts of flowers that you can eat to stretch out the supplies they had brought with them. They took a bit of getting used to, but were more like salad things than anything that grew in the Vale of Telmar, and Josie realised how much she had missed fresh greens living in the castle.

The first night they were there Tash gathered rather a lot of fallen wood, and they built a cheerful fire to cook fish on and sit around afterwards.

‘You have not told me any stories of your world for a long time,’ said Tash.

‘I suppose I haven’t,’ said Josie. She felt like you doubtless do when someone asks you of a sudden to tell them a story, and you instantly seem to forget all the stories you have ever known.

‘The ones you told me before seemed to have many useful things in them,’ said Tash. ‘Maybe there are things in the stories that can help us now, since we seem to be tangled up in so many different stories.’

‘Well, I can try,’ said Josie. ‘Well, there were once a group of people by a river, like we are, and one of them was a girl who was younger than me, who was there with her big sister. They had been out on little boats on the river, rowing – do you know what that is, Tash?’

***

‘Yes,’ said Tash, remembering the rafts rowed by slaves that he had seen once, gliding across the broad grey lakes of his own world, and thinking how useless he had been then.

‘And it was a hot afternoon, and rather dull, so this girl was rather bored. Her name was Alice. And she wandered away from her big sister and the other older people who were talking about uninteresting things, and then she saw a rabbit run by. And it would not be very interesting to see a rabbit run by, except for two things: it had a pocket watch – that is a sort of instrument like some of the ones in the castle, which has a little hand that moves around and around and shows what time of day it is – and it was talking. It said: ‘Goodness me, I’m late.’ So Alice got up and ran after it, because this was mysterious, and followed it into the hole it had gone into. It was larger than ordinary rabbits, so Alice could fit in its hole without any trouble. And as she went along, it got steeper and steeper, and then she was falling through the air. She kept falling and falling, and though she was frightened at first, it went on so long that she stopped being frightened, and even fell asleep, and thought that maybe she would keep falling all the way through to the other side of the world.’

Josie went on with the story of Alice as well as she could remember it, and the images that formed in Tash’s mind were as much of Ua as of the world he was in now, since he had never been to Josie’s world and did not know what it was like. He did not like to think of Josie or Nera going off alone and having dangerous adventures, and those were the only two images of human girls he had in his mind, so he imagined Alice as one of his thalarka sisters. A nicer one than any he had in real life, of course. Thalarka did not cry, but the struggling to remain undrowned in the tears cried by the giant Alice was a scene Tash could well imagine from his own world. He was very taken with the idea of ‘unbirthday presents’ – even birthday presents were a strange and wonderful idea, imagining them as if they were a thing that was on Tash’s world. When Josie got up to the bit with the Queen of Hearts it was very easy to imagine the tyrant as one of the High Commanders of the javelin-women of the Overlord, with long spikes on her armour and a voice that commanded obedience.

‘You do her voice very well,’ said Tash, admiringly.

‘Pfah,’ said Josie. ‘I don’t want to command anyone’s head to be chopped off.’ But she still sounded rather pleased.

The water of the river was too cold to stay in long, but was fresh and bracing, and each morning the first thing they did was throw themselves into it to wake themselves up. Then they would splash each other, and Josie would shriek, and afterwards they would lie side by side on a broad rock in the sunlight until they had quite dried off. The third morning they did this, Josie rolled over onto Tash, who was almost dry, and warmed quite through by the sun.

‘This is a better world, Tash,’ she said, using him as a pillow.

‘It is much better than my world,’ Tash agreed. ‘Even if there are sorcerors and people to tell us what to do, they do not just make us do it, like they did on my world. And the food is much nicer.’

‘And we are together,’ said Josie, rubbing her hand over his chest. ‘I miss people from my world – but the ones I miss most were gone before I left. I am glad I found you.’

‘I am glad I found you,’ said Tash. ‘I do not miss anyone.’ The smell of Josie and the closeness of her to him were beginning to work on Tash, like they always did. His hands began to play along Josie’s back, from her feet all the way up to her hair, lingering longest at her neck and the backs of her knees.

Josie kissed his throat. ‘I don’t know if we can stay together forever,’ she said. ‘But nobody knows that, do they? Maybe something will happen to drag us apart, like we were pulled into this world, or maybe it won’t. But I intend to stay here with you as long as I possibly, possibly can.’ She stretched up and kissed Tash’s beak then, boldly running her tongue where Tash could easily have bitten the tip of it off. Tash ran his hands over his wife’s cool skin and inhaled the smell of her, but his thoughts were still disturbed: he could not help thinking of what he had read, or dreamed he had read, in the Books of Tash, and of what he had heard from the Lion Aslan.

Josie seemed to be able to tell that he was distracted. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘Nothing is foretold, dear Tash. Not really. We can make our own lives on this world.’

‘It-‘ said Tash. ‘It is possible.’ But he was not convinced. This Aslan was like the Overlord of this world, after all, and sooner or later, he felt in his bones, the story of Tash would end up with him being sacrificed to the greater glory of someone.

‘I know what the Lion said, Tash. I know what Blackbriar said. But we have not done what he wanted, and nothing horrible has happened, has it?’

‘No,’ said Tash, playing with Josie’s hair. It looked so splendid in the sunlight, so much like the very shiniest of the metals that the men of Telmar made ornaments with. Josie was right. Nothing horrible had happened yet. Maybe it wouldn’t; or maybe it would, but not for a long time.

‘You smell so very nice, Tash,’ she murmured. ‘Oh.’

‘You smell nice too,’ said Tash. It was a strange yet now familiar smell, the smell of Josie, and it made things stir and tumble inside him. She seemed so much like the Mistress of Telmar today, Tash felt: she was a wild and triumphant thing, and she wanted to be touched with a demanding insistence.

‘Tash?’ said Josie, and her voice was more breathless than usual, and very bold, and like she sounded when she was going to tease him, all at once. ‘Husband Tash?’

‘Yes, my Josie?’ said Tash.

‘I am yours forever and ever,’ said Josie.

And there was no doubt that she was really and truly the Bride of Tash.

***

Nothing important happened to Josie and Tash while they were camped by the side of the river, except for the thing that happened at the end of their time there. If that thing had not happened, they would have always remembered that place happily, for they were happy together there. I like to remember Josie and Tash being happy together, and wish I could tell you that they lived happily ever after; or that they lived happily together for a long long time without anything bad happening to them, until the time came for Tash to make a choice between the two Books of Tash, many many years later. But I am afraid I can’t. This last little bit has all been just stalling – which has probably been obvious. I could have just written ‘They went back to Telmar the way they came,’ and then gone on with the next chapter.

It had rained steadily for the rest of the week, and when it was done the stream below the castle was high and the land was terribly muddy, so it had not seemed the wisest time to travel; and it was some weeks after that Josie finally made up her mind that she had to see the dog Blackbriar safely to the other side of the great river.

Then Josie had to figure out what to take on the journey, which is the sort of business that can be done in great hurry if necessary, but can expand to take up a great deal of time otherwise, especially if the journey is one that does not have a date set for departure, and is one that one is nervous about going on at all. The part of this figuring out that took the greatest amount of time was something that Josie did not speak with Tash about at all: deciding whether or not to take one of the magic apples. She did not want them in case they suddenly decided on the journey to seek to become immortal, but in case of some grievous accident. She knew from what Yustus had said that the apples could heal any hurt or sickness short of death, and there were any number of horrible things that could possibly happen to them on a journey through the unknown wilds. She thought of at least a dozen of them, imagining them all too clearly. At the end Josie decided that she would bring one of the apples, and fetched it up from the secret chamber while Tash was out hunting. She wrapped it up very carefully in a bit of silk and put it in the bag with her clothes.

So one day when spring was well advanced Josie, Tash, and Blackbriar left the castle of Telmar, leaving the parts of it they lived in shut up against the weather as well as they could. Josie had ended up bringing rather a lot of things for the journey, but Tash could easily carry enough for half a dozen travellers.

‘We don’t really now how long we will be,’ said Josie, picking up the bag with the apples. She gave Tash’s legs a hug. ‘It will be alright,’ she said – to Tash, or to herself, she was not sure. Then she patted Blackbriar’s head, as if she were an ordinary dog, and took Tash’s hand for the walk down the hidden path to the stream.

The three travellers followed the stream out of the valley as best they could, skirting the edge of the gorge and picking their way downhill through the rumpled country to the south where Josie and Tash had not been before. Below the gorge Josie realised how grim and dreary the vale of Telmar had been, and how much she had gotten used to living there since the Ifrits had brought her there. It was immediately a more fragrant sort of country beyond the valley, more alive with birds and beasts, and had a less closed-in feel. Besides the cypresses there were other sorts of trees – a good many willows along the streambanks, for example, and poplars in the hollows – and instead of an endless roof of forest and an endless floor of dry needles underfoot there were a good many meadows, where sweet-smelling flowers were growing thickly. There were bulbous things that Josie thought to be a sort of crocus, and drooping bell-shaped flowers that smelled a very little like strawberries, and wild roses whose few flowers had a desperate and intoxicating perfume.

It was difficult at first, but day by day Josie grew stronger. Tash still carried her a good deal of the time, though she walked beside him on the flatter ground, hand in hand. Blackbriar mostly ran off ahead to scout the way, running back to rejoin them every five or ten minutes.

‘I do wish you had stayed a woman a while longer,’ Josie said to Blackbriar as they walked along, in one of the moments while the two of them were walking alongside. ‘It would be so much easier to talk. But I suppose it must have been very horrid for you.’

Blackbriar agreed with a lick: that it would have been easier, or that it had been very horrid, Josie was not sure, and she scampered away again into the undergrowth before Josie could ask.

In the damp spring weather Josie found it a good deal more unpleasant sleeping out of doors than it had been in the desert with the gazelles; at least, she would have found it more unpleasant if it had not been for Tash. He was large enough and feathery enough to fold himself around her in a way that kept her comfortable enough in all but the nastiest weather. It is fair to say that all through this journey Tash and Josie thought mostly about each other. They were travelling through a pleasant country, filled with the sounds and smells of life, and each day brought something new, and their future was an uncertain and frightening thing; but they had both already been through so many uncertain and frightening things, and come through to find each other – so they clung to one another, and did not want to stop touching one another, and drank in the presence of the other like a thirsty man drinks water. If I were to write down what they said to each other it would be very dull. They were in love, and so they were impatient of everything else, and selfish in the selfless way of people in love, and they would have been very irritating to travel with. Perhaps Blackbriar was irritated, but if she was, she never showed it. Dogs are very forgiving.

Each day the travellers heard many dumb beasts, and every morning they woke to a cacophony of birdsong, but they did not meet any men or talking beasts in five days of travelling. They could rarely go in a straight line, for although there were no terribly steep mountains or gorges in the country below the Vale of Telmar the whole of it was rumpled like a blanket, with thick woods on the high parts and streams with boggy edges on the low parts. The river that had stopped Blackbriar on her last journey was still swollen, and the broken boles of trees cast up on its banks showed where it had been higher still, but Tash was large enough and strong enough that they crossed it without difficulty.

Tash and Josie did not discuss what they would do when they were camped on the other side, although this was far as they had agreed to go before they left Telmar. Instead they sat around the fire – they had stopped early and gathered deadwood along the banks – and talked about trivial things while they ate fish that Tash had caught in the river, and did their best to be as cheerful as possible as if their life together would never end.

‘We’ve been very lucky so far,’ said Josie, tempting fate, as she threw the last bony bit of her fish into the bushes. ‘It hasn’t rained, and we haven’t seen any sign of fierce beasts. And certainly not giants,’ These were creatures that Yustus had described to her with great relish, in telling her what might happen to her if she ran away, and Zardeenah had confirmed most of the evil magician’s stories. ‘They are probably only a long way away from here.’

‘I will keep you safe,’ said Tash. They reached out to take each other’s hands.

‘I wish Blackbriar could talk,’ said Josie. ‘I am sure she could tell us all sorts of stories.’

Tash curled up around Josie to keep her warm, and Blackbriar slept at their feet, and the cheerful little fire they had made slowly burned down until it was a tiny ruby of light in the middle of the forest.

The next morning they kept on southward, leaving their camp behind before the sun had cleared the horizon. Beyond the big river was flatter country, and a more open woodland, with a great many deer who took off at their approach. They made good progress through this country for a morning and an afternoon, and were about to make camp in a meadow that smelled of rosemary when Blackbriar became very excited and led them off to a low hill nearby.

‘There is a hole in it, and a little field of torn earth,’ said Tash.

‘Someone’s garden,’ said Josie. She knelt down and crumbled a bit of soil between her fingers, feeling very nervous. Could they have already come to a land of men? She had not thought they could be so close.

‘There’s a bit of curtain hanging down inside the hole. It is too small for me to get through, though you probably could, Josie. Someone is coming out.’

‘Someone certainly is coming out,’ said a surly, prickly kind of voice, and Josie could tell at once that it was the voice of some kind of talking animal. ‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ the newcomer asked suspiciously.

‘I am Tash,’ said Tash, stepping back a few steps as the stranger emerged from his home.

‘I am Josie,’ said Josie. ‘And this is Blackbriar. We were just travelling through, and we thought we would stop and ask if you had any news.’

‘Well, I’ll be,’ said the hedgehog – for that is what he was, a talking hedgehog who stood a bit higher than Josie’s waist walking on his hind legs – ‘Twenty years, whelp and boar, I’ve lived in this place, and you’re the first folk I’ve ever met who said they were ‘just travelling through’.’ After a rather long pause, as of someone who was not at all used to making introductions, he told them who he was. ‘My name is Shoab, son of Amidanab.’

Josie thought the hedgehog smelled rather like pipe tobacco. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.

‘I also am pleased to meet you,’ said Tash.

‘Likewise,’ said Shoab shortly. He sniffed the air dubiously. ‘I know a dog when I see one, and a Daughter of Helen, but what sort of creature are you?’ he asked Tash.

‘I am a thalarka,’ said Tash. This answer seemed to satisfy the hedgehog hermit, for he just said ‘hrm,’ and made no further comment.

‘Has anyone at all been through here?’ asked Josie. ‘A month or so ago?’

‘Funny you should ask that,’ said Shoab, in a slow suspicious kind of voice. ‘Or maybe not so funny. That’s the news you’re asking after, I suppose. Yes, a month or so ago there were some peculiar travellers through here. I was out digging of an evening, and I heard a crashing and a running through the country, of a big creature, no two, no three big creatures who were heedless of who might hear them. I kept quiet and I kept downwind until they were long gone, but when I looked in the morning there were footprints near the water hole where I planted the apricot tree: big pawprints of great cats, and big hoofprints of a deer a good deal larger than the ones who live around here. I’ve never seen cats like those in these parts – at least not for years, since that pair of leopards came up this way during the drought. And travelling together with a deer like that, stands to reason they would be talking animals, and not dumb ones. Would you be on the trail of them?’

‘After a fashion,’ said Josie. ‘I mean, yes.’

‘Then you are on the right path,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. He stood there regarding them, chewing something that had been packed in his cheek before. ‘Three strange travellers then, and then three more this morning,’ he said, talking more to himself than to them, and then belatedly remembering his manners. ‘You look to have enough common sense that you won’t complain at me calling you strange, Miss. We don’t get many – any – of your kind in these parts.’

‘I don’t mind,’ said Josie. ‘Why do you live out here all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?’

‘Not so dangerous if you keep quiet and keep downwind and don’t meddle in other folk’s business,’ said the hedgehog, answering the first question. ‘They’re simple rules, but a lot of folk can’t seem to get the hang of them.’

‘I’ll try to remember them,’ said Josie. ‘Is it far to the lands where men live?’

‘I don’t rightly know,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab. ‘It’s like I said already. I’ve heard the rumour of Sons of Frank around here a few times, but you’re the first Daughter of Helen I’ve seen or heard of in these parts. So if you’ve come far from where you live, you’re probably a long way from any of those lands.’

‘Thank you,’ said Josie. ‘I guess there is still a long way to go.’ She gave Blackbriar a pat. ‘Can you tell us how to get to this water hole?’

The hedgehog nodded. ‘That I can, Miss. Just over that rise there, and then over the next one, and you’ll find the water hole where I planted the apricot tree. You can stay there, if you like.’ He chewed whatever he was keeping in his mouth thoughtfully. Strangest thing is, I thought that apricot tree had upped and died on me over the winter; but that morning when I went down and saw the footprints, there were new buds on it.’

‘Thank you very much,’ said Josie. ‘You’ve been a lot of help.’

‘Good day,’ said Shoab son of Amidanab, with an air of finality.

***

The hedgehog hermit had given them a last suspicious look and vanished back behind his front door curtain. When they had gone a little distance Tash looked back, and saw him peering after them from around the edge of the curtain. It was like how he probably would have looked, thought Tash, at some strange procession passing through his village, when he was a child on Ua.

‘I expect he has quite an interesting story, to have come out here all by himself and lived alone for so long,’ Josie said, when they were well underway again.

‘He did not seem like he would tell it,’ said Tash.

‘That’s true,’ said Josie. She shook her head. ‘Imagine living all alone like that for twenty years.’

‘I would not like it,’ said Tash.

This was true; but Tash had also been favourably impressed by Shoab son of Amidanab the hedgehog. He could not have said exactly what it was, but there was something in the hedgehog’s manner, in his audacity in living all alone, that appealed to Tash. He would hate to be without Josie, of course – it was only when he was with her that he could forget what he was, and the fate that had been foretold for him – but the thought of not being told what to do by anyone, of being able to stop and look at whatever he liked for as long as he liked, to never be sent off by people stronger than him to pick grith in the fields, or be sacrificed to the Overlord, or to do some quest no one would ever thank him for, was an awfully appealing one. To be unimportant and unnoticed and able to do what he liked: that would be splendid. To do it with Josie there as well, that would be the greatest joy he could imagine.

***

They found the waterhole that the hedgehog had spoken of, and touched for themselves the flowers on the little apricot tree. It was probably a coincidence how it had sprung back into life, Josie told herself, just as Aslan had gone by. But she did not believe herself. The waterhole was only a muddy little pool, but it had an air of peace and goodness about it. Probably, the way this world worked, the apricot tree really was a miracle, and Josie could not but help thinking of Bible stories, of Aaron’s staff sprouting almond flowers and Jesus cursing the fig tree.

Blackbriar hung well back at first, as if nervous of this place where Aslan had been, but after a little while she came up to wander around Josie like a tame dog.

Tash waded out into the pool and splashed water over his head, churning up the bottom.

‘We should get some water, first,’ chided Josie. ‘You will make it all muddy.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Tash, and stopped his splashing. ‘It is good here. It is warmer than the river was. You should come in.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Josie, and busied herself pulling out the bedclothes and setting them up next to the apricot tree, where the smell of the flowers was strongest. They smelled sweeter than almost any flowers Josie had smelled before, and had a faint feeling of the same frightening good magic that she always felt in the hidden room of the castle. Or maybe that was her imagination. It was strange to think of the statues that had stood for so long in the hidden garden, like Tash, coming to life and running to this very pool. She wondered what would have happened if she had tried to bring them to life herself, as Tash had once suggested. Maybe she would have been swept out on this journey long ago.

Blackbriar nosed down to the pool’s edge, and Josie heard quieter splashing than Tash had made.

‘It is very nice, Josie,’ said Tash, a little plaintively.

‘All right,’ said Josie at last. She did feel dreadfully sticky with dried sweat after the day’s walking. ‘I guess there is no hope for it not being muddy now.’ She stripped off her clothes and joined her husband and the dog in the pool. Her feet squelched deeply into the mud

‘It is warmer than the river,’ admitted Josie. ‘I don’t think I am likely to be any cleaner when I come out than before I went in, though.’ She washed the sweat from her face, and did her best to do something with her hair, which had grown very disorderly on the journey.

‘I wonder about the leopard and the deer,’ said Josie. ‘What they are like. What their story was. They must have been more or less nice, or the lion wouldn’t have bothered to turn them back from stone. I wonder how they came to Telmar, and what they did to get turned to stone, and what they are doing going off with the lion – Aslan – now.’

‘That is a lot of wondering,’ said Tash. ‘I know what it is like. There are so many things to wonder about.’

‘I guess there are things we just have to accept we will never know,’ said Josie. ‘God knows there seem to have been a tremendous number of them since I came here.’ She sighed, and ducked her head under the water again.

Josie’s thoughts shied away from the quest that had been described to her. The quest still hung in midair, neither abandoned nor accepted. They had travelled further than they had meant to travel with Blackbriar; maybe they would just keep travelling, without ever making a decision, and would end up doing what the Lion wanted, travelling with Blackbriar all the way to the lands of men. Or maybe they would decide to turn back: now, or tomorrow, or the day after, or at the border of the land of men, however many weeks from now that might be. Josie really did not know what she would do. She thought of the apricot tree, and she thought of the fig tree that had been cursed in her own world, and she thought about what might happen to Tash in the lands of men – the men whose ways were not so unlike those of the gazelles, the men who bought ifrit girls as wives.

Josie felt one of Tash’s hands on her leg, underneath the water, and a current of exaltation that was by now familiar ran through her body.

‘Blackbriar, why don’t you scout about?’ she said. ‘There may be interesting things around here.’

Obediently, Blackbriar paddled out of the pool and shook herself dry, then darted away into the undergrowth.

 

A morning’s walk beyond the pool brought the three travellers by way of a long gentle slope to the top of a hill where Tash set Josie down. The wind blew strong in their faces as they stood side by side, bringing the scent of distant places, fine dust and leaves that reminded Josie of the gum trees of home.

‘It is all empty and blue beyond,’ said Tash.

‘Empty and blue?’ asked Josie. She could not smell anything like the sea, and the air was dry.

‘There are no more trees, and it is very flat, and goes on and on until it is all blurry and fades into the clouds. There are beasts moving out there, very small and far away.’ Tash sounded impressed.

Josie thought of Moses looking out from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land. This was different, though; this was not the place they had longed to go all their lives and were now forbidden to enter, but somewhere quite different.

‘It sounds like it will be an easy enough country to travel on in,’ said Josie.

The dog was already eagerly pressing to move on, running forward and then back to make hopeful sounds back at Josie.

‘There is something that could be a tower, a long way off in the direction the sun rises,’ said Tash.

‘This is as far as we go,’ said Josie, not knowing until she had said the words that she would say them.

‘I’m not sure,’ admitted Tash. ‘It might not be a tower.’

‘Dear Blackbriar,’ Josie called to the dog, who came up and nuzzled at her ankles. ‘We will leave you to seek Aslan from here. It looks like a nice flat country to travel in, without any rivers.’

Blackbriar wagged her tail as if she were a tame dog, but only for a moment, and then stood there panting uncertainly at Josie.

‘We must part here,’ said Josie sadly. ‘I am not ready to go to the lands of men.’

Blackbriar bowed her head, and but did not leave. She nosed about Josie’s legs hopefully.

‘No, this is far enough,’ said Josie, squatting down to pet the dog. ‘Good luck on your journey, dear Blackbriar. I hope you will find what you seek, and restore your people. I hope we will meet again. I expect everything will work out, and we will meet again as well.’

Blackbriar licked Josie’s hand, then padded over to Tash with a pretended carelessness. He put down a hand, and she licked it as well.

‘I hope everything will be good,’ said Tash awkwardly. ‘Goodbye.’

‘Maybe one day we will meet again,’ said Josie.’Goodbye, Blackbriar.’

‘Arf,’ said Blackbriar. She did not leave at once, but after a few more moments of hopeful waiting trotted off down the stony hillside to the south. Josie listened to the clicks of her claws on the stones until she could hear her no more. She felt an enormous sense of relief.

‘Goodbye’ said Josie softly. She took one of Tash’s handa.

‘What are you thinking of, Tash?’

‘Those places. All the other places,’ said Tash. ‘The worlds are so very large and interesting.’

‘The smell of the new country makes me want to go there, too,’ said Josie.

‘There must be a way,’ said Tash.

‘We will visit many places,’ said Josie, kissing Tash’s hand. ‘Together.’ She kissed it again. ‘One day.’ They stood there for a long moment feeling the dusty gum tree wind on their faces.

‘Home?’ suggested Josie.

‘Yes,’ said Tash warmly. ‘Let us go home.’

***

As Tash turned his back on the blue vastness, he saw in a small patch of sandy ground nearby great footprints, like the ones he had seen in the walled garden after the earthquake. The footprints of a lion, leading south. And a fear and a sadness and a horror hid all his happiness from him, like a cloud passing over the sun.

Blackbriar sniffed. ‘I can’t smell anything,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’m pleased to meet you, Blackbriar’ said Josie. ‘Well, I have met you, but I’m pleased to meet you in this shape and learn your name. You will catch your death of cold sitting on the floor like that – can you come with us to the rooms we were in before?’

Blackbriar sniffed again. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said.

Tash stepped towards Blackbriar to help her off the floor, and she shuffled away from him in alarm. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Josie. ‘Tash can help you.’

‘I can,’ said Tash, helpfully.

‘Do you think you can you get up and walk?’ asked Josie.

‘I will try,’ said Blackbriar, and before Josie could get close enough to be of any help Blackbriar had thrust herself up to her feet and was teetering precariously.

‘Hard,’ she said, in what was almost a bark, keeping her balance with a great deal of effort.

‘Here, let me help,’ said Josie, taking the woman’s arm. Tash in turn hovered at her side, anxious to catch Josie if Blackbriar fell and pulled her down.

‘Tricky,’ said Blackbriar, taking her first tentative steps. By the time they had covered the short distance to the magician’s old rooms she was walking about as well as a newly-weaned thalarka. They sat her down on some cushions in a more or less human manner, where she sat with her mouth open staring at everything curiously with her new human eyes. Josie fetched her a dress, which she managed to put on with considerable difficulty.

‘This is very strange,’ said Blackbriar.

‘We are starting to get used to things that are very strange,’ said Josie. ‘Tash is trying to hand you a cup of water; you should take it.’

Blackbriar took the cup warily and awkwardly, not used to having hands, and Tash backed away to crouch by where Josie was sitting.

‘We have done this magic so I can tell you my story,’ said Blackbriar. ‘So I should do that.’ She shook her head like she was trying to get something out of her ear. ‘I sound so very strange.’

‘Please,’ said Josie.

‘Well,’ said Blackbriar, rearranging herself on the cushion so she was curled-up on top of it in a more doglike fashion. ‘My ancestors were wicked, so they were cursed by the Lion and turned into dogs and pigs. This was in my mother’s mother’s mother’s time. They deserved their punishment, because they were wicked, but now we are not wicked, I don’t think. We dogs don’t have much to do with the pigs. We have always lived in this valley where we were first made, both us dogs and the pigs. The wicked magician and his ifrits have always been cruel to us, for as long as we can remember. Maybe he hated our ancestors who were like him. Most of us are stupid because our ancestors bred with dumb animals, but enough of us are clever enough that we still remember where we came from. I always knew I was cleverer than the others – I could think more clearly and connect things that the others could not connect. But I did not know how different I was until you came here. You human girl and you creature were things that were different from anything I had smelled before. Even as we ate the flesh of the wicked magician who had been our enemy for so many years, I was thinking of you. For I remembered a story that everyone else has forgotten, a story told by one of the oldest who is dead now, an oldest who was clever like me. This one told me that we stay in this valley, even though there is little food and the wicked magician is cruel to us- was cruel to us- because one day the Lion will have pity on us and make us talking beasts, if we stay in this place where he can find us. And this one told me that even as when we were turned into beasts, there were two humans from far away who came with the Lion, there will be two humans from far away who will come here when the Lion comes, or maybe before, and their coming will be the sign that we will be delivered. So I went to the leader of the pack, and said to him, even though one of these ones who has come is a creature, it seems like he might be a kind of human, so might it be that these two are the ones who are foretold? But he said no, we are not meant to be talking beasts, that is just a tale for pups. And I would not have quarrelled with my pack, but accepted all that the leader of the pack said, except that I met a wild cat in the forest. It was in a tree when I came by it in the easternmost part of the valley, and it spoke to me, not like a talking beast, but in the way of speaking without words that we dogs have with each other, as if it were a dog rather than a cat. It said, you are right, Blackbriar, the Lion is coming to deliver your people and make new what he made before, and these two are the ones who were foretold, and they can help you to speak and walk among the talking animals of the world and not slink in the shadows. And I said, how do you know these things? But it would not tell me. And I said, how do you know my name, and what is your name? And it said, I know everyone’s name, and you already know my name, and then I was sure that it was the Lion in the guise of a cat. But it went away before I could ask any more questions. Then I did quarrel with the others of my pack, because then it was not just my thinking that you two were the ones foretold, but the words of the cat who was actually the Lion saying you were the ones foretold. So I drew nearer to you when I could, Josie, and tried to tell you of my trouble.’

Blackbriar’s story did not come across in quite the same way as it is written here as it was told by Blackbriar, for she had an itchy spot, and having been a dog very recently she tried from time to time to chew at it, but she could not reach, so instead would twist about so as to rub it against the cushion.

Blackbriar went on. ‘Now I have listened to all that you have said near me, and I do not understand. Is the Lion coming back to make us into talking animals? What am I meant to do, and what are you human girl – Josie – and you creature – Tash – meant to do?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Josie. Truthfully, but not entirely so. ‘His plans are hidden from us.’

‘I know he has been here again,’ said Blackbriar, in her mournful doggy way. ‘But he did not stay. After the earth shook I followed him and the beasts who were with him across the land for four days, but he did not stop. I gave up when I came to a river that I could not cross. With your help, I could cross it.’

‘We thought this food would help you,’ said Tash. ‘We could feed the magic food to the rest of your people, and then they would be changed into men, too.’

‘I do not mean to sound ungrateful,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But I would much rather be a talking dog. This is a very awkward shape. I am sure my people would not like to be men. The story I was told was that we were to be talking animals.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Josie. ‘I do not think it such a bad shape; but then I guess I wouldn’t. You will quite like it when you have figured out how to use your hands properly, and walk properly.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, lowering her head as a dog would do to show Josie was the boss.

‘Which way is this river?’ asked Josie.

‘It is to the south,’ said Blackbriar. ‘The stream that flows through this valley joins a greater water, then a greater, then reaches it. I went back and forth it for a day but it was big with snowmelt and I could find no place to cross. But the Lion and the great creatures who were with him crossed it easily. Why did he not stop to talk with me again? Why did he not make my people new, like he said he would? Do you think we should be punished longer?’

‘I don’t think you should be punished at all for what your ancestors did,’ said Josie. ‘I know- I know Aslan wants us to go to the lands of the men that lie to the south, and take you with us. I expect there is something that we are supposed to do there, before your people can be changed into talking animals.’

‘That is what I thought,’ said Blackbriar. ‘But that is what I do not understand from listening to your talk. Why did you not take me and go after the Lion?’

This is the question that is the problem at the heart of Josie’s story, and is one form of a question that is as old as God and created beings. I will explain as well as I can here what Josie could have said, even though she did not say it. Why did she set out so readily at the say so of the gazelles on a quest to meet Prince Margis, and not return to this same quest once she was free of the magician Yustus? The first reason was just that it was much more difficult to do so. She would be travelling no longer with four companions through a friendly country that they knew well, following their directions, but would have to find her own way through a wild and unknown land with companions little less ignorant than herself. The second was that she had become more fearful of what the men of this world might be like, both on her own account and on that of Tash, since she had spoken with Yustus and Zardeenah, and lived so long at the whims of the evil magician. The third, and a very great reason, was that she had fallen into a strange love with Tash, and that she knew very well without having to have it prophesied that if she left this place and went to the human lands this love would be impossible and they would be separated. And the fourth was what Miss Miles had muttered as she closed the door at the very beginning of this story, which was that she was a wilful girl, and having found her feet in this new world was overproud and no longer content to be ordered about. But Josie could not very well say any of these things to Blackbriar.

‘We need to keep the secrets of this place out of the hands of wicked men,’ said Josie. To her own ears she did not sound as if she really believed it.

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar, bowing her head.

‘We will still do what we can to help you,’ Josie promised.

They showed Blackbriar how to pick up food with her hands and eat it, and she admitted that hands would be very useful once she got the hang of them. ‘These are a very poor sort of teeth, though,’ she said. Josie helped Blackbriar to bathe, and to comb her hair after a fashion. ‘It is a mess, I am afraid,’ said Josie. ‘You may have to cut it short and start again.’

‘If you say so,’ said Blackbriar.

Blackbriar did not want to sleep in the magician’s rooms, so they made her a bed in the empty chamber where she had slept the night before as a dog.

***

‘I don’t see how we can keep eating the pigs here anymore, if they used to be people,’ said Josie to Tash, when they were curled up together that night. ‘Ugh’.

‘If you say so,’ said Tash mournfully.

‘You sound like Blackbriar,’ said Josie. ‘Of course we can’t eat them, if they are descended from people. We will just have to find something else to eat.’

‘There are not so many deer, and they are harder to catch,’ said Tash.

‘We will just have to get by,’ said Josie firmly. ‘It makes me feel sick, thinking I have been eating pigs whose great-great-grandmothers were people.’

Tash said something like ‘if you say so’ in a small muttering voice.

Josie decided to change the subject. ‘I never imagined that the magic food would turn Blackbriar into a woman like that. I have never known such magic – well, not since you were turned back from stone.’

‘I am so glad that you turned me back from stone, and I did not stay stone another thousand years, and miss you,’ said Tash.

Josie snuggled up against him and kissed the soft skin at his throat. ‘Me too, dear Tash, me too.’

‘What are we to do with Blackbriar?’ she mused, after a moment. She shifted, rearranging herself against Tash’s chest. ‘I don’t see how we can’t help her. But we don’t have to go all the way to the human lands; we can see that she is kitted out properly, and help her across the river, and stop before we get to the places where men are.’

‘She can go herself now that she is a woman,’ said Tash. He sounded nervous to Josie. She was nervous herself. It was not just a matter of deciding one way or another, once and for all: there would be one decision, and then another, and then another, and maybe they would all be like they seemed to be in recent days, complicated decisions with no easy or comfortable answers.

‘But she doesn’t know anything about being a human,’ said Josie. ‘She will need help. At least at the beginning. And maybe, maybe that will be enough.’

‘Maybe,’ said Tash. But Josie did not think he believed it. She thought he did not believe there was anything he could do to escape the words of Aslan, telling him that they were destined to be separated.

‘We don’t know that there is really destiny,’ said Josie. ‘It seems to me it is just the Lion deciding one way or another, and if you do something different, he can always decide a different way again.’

‘That’s not what he said,’ Tash said gruffly.

Josie decided to change the subject again. She ran her hand over Tash’s chest. ‘You feel dry,’ she said. ‘Does it itch?’

‘Not as much as it used to,’ he said. ‘It is better now that the weather is warmer and I do not spend so much time by the fire. But I did not have a bath today.’

‘We could go and have a bath now,’ said Josie, turning so that her body was pressed against Tash’s side and throwing one leg over him.

‘That would be good,’ said Tash.

‘Or, in a few minutes,’ said Josie, kissing his neck again. She slid her foot back and forth, and Tash began to hiss softly and hold her tightly to his chest, and she gave herself up to being a female creature.

***

When they awoke Blackbriar had turned back into a dog, and when Josie put another piece of pickled turnip in front of her she only turned her head aside.

‘I suppose she said all she wanted to say,’ said Josie. ‘And she really did not like being a woman.’ She petted Blackbriar. ‘And I suppose too, this means it is more complicated to turn them back than we thought.’ She found that she was crying.

‘Don’t cry, Josie,’ said Tash, picking up the unresisting girl. ‘You will figure out what to do.’ He held his hand against her tears, and once again felt that strange tingle through the whole of his body.

‘We will figure out what to do,’ said Josie, and kissed him. ‘Together.’

‘Yes,’ said Tash. ‘Together.’

A Cautionary Tale

 

Brother Norbert’s rain gauge was full of fish again. He sighed, and tipped them out. This was the worst weather he had seen in fifty years at the monastery. There had never been fish when he was junior under-gardener under the forbidding Brother Theophrastus, meekly listening to another tirade about how much worse things had been in the old days. He had always suspected Brother Theophrastus of exaggerating the tempests of his youth, but these recent events were making him reconsider; maybe there was a great cycle of weather, going from bad to worse and back to bad again.

At any rate, the garden once again looked a sight. His carefully tended Himalayan Tea Roses – spread with that expensive imported fertiliser just before the inclement weather began – had been beaten into a shapeless mass. The new beds of annuals were unrecognisable, the young plants lost beneath a carpet of silvery scales that still feebly flipped and twitched in places. Something unpleasant and spiky fell from the fish laden branches of one of the young trees and nearly landed on Brother Norbert’s bare feet, dead eyes staring up reproachfully. Poisonous, no doubt. Another morning of raking fish; well, he had better get underway before they started to stink. Feeling more cheerful than he thought he might, Brother Norbert fetched his rake and began to clear the stiffening piscine corpses from the gravelled paths. The new acolyte was late, as usual. Brother Norbert had seen many acolytes come and go, and the ephemeral inconveniences attendant on to individuals of their species no longer had power to move him. It was quieter, at any rate, without Brother Wayne’s constant stream of babble, and in the Junior Under-Gardener’s absence Brother Norbert’s thoughts were free to amble along their familiar paths. He had much the same thoughts as the previous morning, and the morning before, and the morning before.

As he worked, he repeated to himself the Four Foundation Axioms of the Discalced Brethren, then the Nine Sacred Institutions. The Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan were a small order, their outlying hilltop sequestery forgotten by most of the Monastery, but they had a proud history, and regularly placed in the top 10% of finishers at the Intermonastic Piety Challenge. It was a good life in the monastery, and Brother Norbert had never regretted his decision to come here, nor his choice of the Discalced Brethren. There was a sense of certainty about life here, a quiet predictability to each day that gave him the strength to handle the occasional rain of fish.

Though this was twenty-first day in a row.

Brother Norbert felt the first stirrings of disquiet, as though hearing the first rumbles of a distant storm. The rains had been getting more severe, and this was the worst one yet; what would he do if it continued to rain fish? The garden would have to be abandoned –

As he always did at such times, Brother Norbert consoled himself with the thought that even the Blessed Yusuf bin-Yohanan had experienced setbacks in his life. Had not his Foundation Axioms been stolen, not once but many times, to bolster the shaky intellectual edifices of other monastic orders? Had he not been struck from the ranks of his original order, sent into the wilderness with the words “you’re out!” ringing in his saintly ears? Had not his original line-up of monks been struck from competing in the Intermonastic Piety Challenge for supposedly throwing the final? Yet he had surmounted all of these obstacles, living to see his order prosperous and his axioms granted a grudging respect in all corners of the monastery.

 

Today Brother Norbert’s meditations did not seem to help. After an hour of steady raking, he still felt uneasy, and was tired and thirsty, with half the garden still to go. He left his rake and basket under a tree and went to get a drink of water from the fountain. When he returned, Brother Wayne had finally arrived. With his back to Brother Norbert, he seemed to be taking fish out of the basket and handing them to another monk, who was measuring them with a ruler and then tossing them casually in a pile at his feet. Brother Norbert harumphed. “What are you doing?” he asked sharply.

Brother Wayne started, like he had been caught with the key to the cabinet of forbidden books, and turned around to look sheepishly upward at the senior gardener. But before Brother Norbert could continue, the second monk darted forward, fish in hand, and thrust himself between them. “Aah, Brother Norbert,” he said, with the serious smile of a polite man engaged in a difficult and important task. “The fish in the basket, the ones in the garden, and the ones in the pile by the dust heap; those are all that fell this morning?”

“I – there may be some in the gutters; I haven’t yet checked.”

“The gutters.” The monk nodded gravely. He was a pale, gaunt man with freckles, perhaps a decade older than the junior gardener, and his face was well suited to nodding gravely. “Brother Wayne, best to go up and clear the fish out the gutters before the birds get to them. We don’t want to bias the sample.”

“Er – what is this about, Brother Broderick?” asked Brother Norbert. “It is Brother Broderick, isn’t it?” Norbert thought he recognised the pale monk as one of the ones who could usually be found in the basement, assisting Brother Stephen with his ceaseless compilation of statistics on departed brethren and current competitors in the Intermonastic Piety Challenge. Most axioms disproved in a debating season, best ratio of dogmas conceded to accepted, lifetime conversion averages, etc. This was the sort of thing Brother Broderick should be doing, not frustrating his efforts to clean up the garden.

“Yes, Senior Gardener. Brother Broderick, Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper,” replied the younger man, with earnest courtesy. “Brother Wayne has been helping me quantify some interesting trends in the recent ichthyometeorological phenomena, Senior Gardener. I apologise for the disruption to your routine, but this work is of the greatest importance to the future of the entire Order, if not the Monastery itself.”

“You seem to be measuring the fish.” Brother Norbert did his best to look stern at Brother Wayne, who had stood up and was looking uncertainly between the Senior Gardener and the Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper.

“Yes, we are.” Brother Broderick placed his arm familiarly on Brother Norbert’s shoulder and spoke earnestly. “Measuring their length, their weight, counting the number of fish and the number of species of fish. Senior Gardener,” here the pale monk’s voice fell to a stage whisper “are you aware that each of these trends can be described by an exponential function?” His eyes glittered intensely as he stared at Brother Norbert. There was a pause.

“You will throw them away when you are finished?” asked Brother Norbert.

“Yes, of course.” Brother Broderick smiled his taut, polite smile again. “We will dispose of them when we have finished our measurements. For as long as we are able.”

“Well, you can measure, and Brother Wayne can clear the gutters. I’ll keep raking them out of these flowerbeds, and put them here under the quince tree, and you can count them as long as you clean them up afterwards. Is that alright?” Brother Norbert did not raise his voice, but only just.

“Certainly, Senior Gardener,” replied Brother Broderick, giving a little bow. Brother Wayne clambered up a downpipe, and only the scrape of the rake, the sound of descending fish, and the scritching of pen on paper disturbed the quiet of the morning.

 

What a curious morning it had been, Brother Norbert thought. Fish and Assistant Chief Statistics Keepers, all in the one day. That must have been why the dust heap was always such a mess, with the previous day’s fall of fish hastily stashed in shallow pits in the rubbish, or missing entirely. Brother Broderick must have been ferreting through it for a couple of weeks now, making his ridiculous measurements.

Brother Norbert had washed his hands and now sat in his cell, leafing through his weathered seed catalogues. Perhaps there was a variety of sturdy, fish-proof rosebush they could order in. He felt he had handled the morning in entirely the wrong way. What would Brother Theophrastus have done? Something entirely more effective, he was sure. In Brother Theophrastus’ time, life in the monastery had been simpler. Senior monks told junior monks what things to do, and junior monks did them. Brother Theophrastus had told the junior gardeners of the days when things were simpler yet, when there was only one rule, and one order of monks, and even if they had been wrong about some things – about nearly everything, according to the high and mighty philosopher monks – at least they had been just carried on and done the things they were told, instead of squabbling about the balk rule and deciding to take the morning off and measuring fish instead of doing their proper job and using words like “exponential” that they had made up. Brother Norbert sometimes felt jealous of the monks of that earlier, simpler time. This jealousy was a dangerous thing, he reflected, for when smart-aleck young monks like Brother Spiro told him there never was such a time, and such happy, simple monks had never existed, his first reaction was always the exultant thought “serves them right, for being so much better than us.”

There was an unmonastic lack of silence outside Brother Norbert’s door. Little knots of monks were passing by, talking among themselves, sometimes loud enough for Brother Norbert to make out their words. They were mostly voices of the younger monks, though with enough of the older ones mixed in to make it obvious that the excitement could not be about one of the ephemeral pursuits of the young, kite-flying or circle-squaring or some such nonsense. He poked his head out the doorway to watch the back of one of these knots of earnestly talking monks and clearly heard the word “exponential”. That was enough. It was the third inning[i]; time for a cup of tea.

 

After his cup of tea, Brother Norbert wandered down to the scriptorium. He was not partial to fish himself – especially lately – but he knew that Brother Felipe was, and reasoned that perhaps he had some knowledge of why they should take to the air. Brother Felipe was a visitor from one of the other Orders, one of the smaller sects of Illuminated Eremites. He had come to the Discalced Brethren to consult their annotated copy of the Codex con Carne, bearing a letter of authorisation signed by the undersecretary to the Abbot himself, and had spent most of the last year buried in that vast and intricate frijole-stained work. Brother Norbert had found him to be a very pleasant fellow, for one of the Calced. He valued his friendship for the opportunity to hear his stories, for with a glass of red wine in his hand Brother Felipe was an indefatigable talker, full of exciting tales of life in distant parts of the monastery. The chapel belonging to his sect lay in the oldest and greatest region of the monastery, almost beneath the shadow of the Abbot’s tower – that ancient miracle of monastic architecture, within whose walls holy silence reigned supreme and the designated sages of seventy and seven divergent orders ceaselessly debated in flawless mime. Perhaps one day Brother Norbert might see for himself the wonders of those distant places – the Great Brass Head of Berzelius, kept in its crystal reliquary far below the Abbot’s wine cellars; the Automata of Van Trapp; the labyrinthine Psaltery of the Mahayana Prosodists, where the life’s words of ten-thousand Bodhisattvas were set to music and inscribed on the walls of interminable passages. Half legend, half dream, half sober truth – such, in these latter days, when mathematics is little regarded in the outer reaches, were the tales Brother Felipe brought from the heart of the Monastery. Perhaps one day he would see such things, sighed Brother Norbert.

Brother Felipe was not in the scriptorium, and when Brother Norbert asked after him he was told he had gone to the cool room, a part of the cellars beneath the pantry. He had gone with Brother Broderick, said Brother Andrew, but he had not heard what they said, for he had been busy with his own work, transcribing the history of the monastery from crumbling old pages before they turned to dust. “If you are going to see him, Brother Norbert, could you ask him where he put my pencil sharpener? He borrowed it this morning and I can’t find it in his desk.”

Brother Norbert agreed, and then he realised this meant he had to go to the cool room now, running a good chance of bumping into Brother Broderick again. Oh well. He knew his current peevishness was unworthy of one of the Discalced Brethren, and muttered a brief prayer that it would pass.

 

A few minutes later, Brother Norbert was at the cool room. The cavernous hall, a relic from the days when the monks had strict dietary requirements restricting them to semi-soft cheeses four days of the week[ii], was nearly empty, except for a table at the far end, where the glow of a candle illuminated a seated figure that appeared to be Brother Felipe – alone, Brother Norbert was happy to see. The Calced monk was alternately writing rapidly in a large book and examining small objects he removed from a basket alongside. Seeing Brother Norbert enter, he nodded, and continued his labours.

As Brother Norbert crossed the room, he began to feel faint. For some reason, he had stopped breathing. Strange, he thought, forcing himself to concentrate. After taking a few deep breaths, he realised that he had been holding his breath to avoid the nauseating stench of rotting fish. What in the world was going on?

Brother Felipe raised his head, noticing Brother Norbert’s discomfort. “I beg your pardon, my dear Brother Norbert. These are the day before yesterday’s.” He waved an ink-stained hand vaguely at the basket by his side, filled with fish. “Brother Broderick has asked me to classify these fish according to their species, and I fear that they are rather malodourous. I thought this-” he gave a more expansive wave to indicate the cool room in general, its shelves nearly empty except for the great wheels of the midsummer cheeses. “-would save others from suffering to attain the knowledge that I seek. If you require the room for a more salubrious purpose, I am only too happy to remove these impedimenta.” Brother Felipe half rose to go, but Brother Norbert shook his head. Fish! It seemed that everyone had become obsessed with the commonplace creatures, just because they happened to fall out of the sky. Perhaps this was a bad time, and he should try to catch Brother Felipe later.

“If you see Brother Broderick, Brother Andrew would like to know if he still has his pencil sharpener.’”

“Thank you,” Brother Felipe nodded gravely. “I will be sure to let him know. I expect him back in about half an hour.” Bending back over the cloth-bound codex before him, he made a mark on the page. He picked up another fish from the basket, looked at it briefly, then crisply and rapidly wrote “Macrochiron Gadarensis, common hash-mackerel”. What fine handwriting, Brother Norbert thought. His gardener’s hands were clumsy with a pen, and would have taken all morning to write as much as Brother Felipe had clearly written in the last few minutes. While Brother Felipe’s letters marched across the page as a disciplined legion of clean-cut figures, his own painstakingly scribed pages always bore more resemblance to a panic-stricken mob.

“Was there anything else you wanted, Brother Norbert?” Brother Felipe straightened to look up at his visitor, his solemnity softening to a self-conscious half smile. Brother Norbert shifted uneasily on his feet. “No – I mean, yes, Brother Felipe.” A small pause. “Do you mind telling me what this is all about? With Brother Broderick and the fish? I thought you might know something, since you are fond of fish.”

“Unfortunately, I am not an expert in Brother Broderick’s field,” said Brother Felipe, putting down his pen. “I am only a humble visitor to your halls. Have you asked Brother Broderick himself?”

“He seems very busy,” said Brother Norbert evasively.

“Yes, that he does. I suppose your Brother Broderick is a Pythagorean at heart, forever seeking the mathematical order underlying all things. For the past few days he has been seeking particularly the mathematical order underlying the rains of fish on this part of the monastery. What we have measured, we can understand; that is his credo. So, he has been busy counting, measuring, classifying. He thinks – this is only his hypothesis, you understand; it may not be true – that the severity of the falls, whether measured by the number of fish or their size, has been increasing exponentially.”

“They have been much the same, I thought, except for the last day or two,” said Brother Norbert.

“Exactly so. That is what exponential is like. The same, almost the same, almost the same, and then, whoosh!” Brother Felipe had picked up his pen again, and at ‘whoosh!’ he lifted it into the air, drawing Brother Norbert’s eyes upwards. They remained focussed on the pen as it slowly descended. Strange people, statistics keepers. He hoped Pythagothingummy was not on Elder Brother’s Leo’s List of Forbidden Dogmas; it was hard to imagine the guileless Brother Broderick as a heretic.

“It is like flies, you understand. A pair of flies, breeding without any predators to check them, will have progeny enough in a year to cover the whole world in a living carpet of insects. But until St. Gustav’s Day[iii], say, if they began on New Year’s Day, no one would know; you might as well keep them all in a basket.” Brother Felipe smiled, the corner of his mouth twitching slightly.

“So that means it will get worse?”

“If Brother Broderick’s hypothesis is true…”

“Much worse?”

Brother Felipe shrugged. “Mas o menos. Remember, Brother Norbert, it is only a hypothesis. Monks have been wrong before.” As Brother Theophrastus had always been only too happy to point out, thought Brother Norbert, giving an inaudible sigh of relief. “However, Brother Broderick is a very accomplished statistician.”

“I see,” said Brother Norbert. “Thank you very much, Brother Felipe.”

De nada,” replied the other, returning to his labours.

Lacrimus Zechariahii, the friar’s sole…

 

Brother Wayne was late for the afternoon weeding. By the time he finally arrived, Brother Norbert had worked his way through a third of the garden. He really feared that many of the plants would not recover from this most recent battering. Saddest were the hippocanthus bushes, planted in honour of the late Manager Elder Brother Peter; broken, nigh-on leafless – he was glad that most of the Elder Brethren who had stood by so proudly at its planting were now dead and buried. If they were still alive, they would no doubt be sternly demanding immediate action from him.

“I am glad to see you have finally remembered some of your responsibilities, Brother Wayne,” Brother Norbert said harshly. “There will be no repeat of this morning’s performance, I trust?”

Brother Wayne nodded. He seemed crestfallen, drained of his usual ebullience. “No, Senior Gardener,” he said. Had the lad been crying? His face was red and puffy. Perhaps he had come out on time, after all, and been stung by a wasp.

“What’s the matter, boy?” asked Brother Norbert impatiently. “Stung by a wasp?”

“No, Master Gardener.”

“Your kite string broken?”

“No, Master Gardener,” Brother Wayne replied, weaker then before. “It’s just, I just-” his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and his eyes brimmed with tears.

“Well? What is it, boy?” snapped Brother Norbert. Acolytes nowadays! He was very close to losing his temper with the young monk, and forced himself to take a deep breath in anticipation of his response.

“It’s just, I wanted to say, Master Gardener, that I’ve really liked working in the garden with you. You’ve been very kind to me, and I’ve learned a lot.”

Brother Norbert felt a sudden emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Had Brother Wayne heard something? Was the garden about to be shut down, because of the fish? Elder Brother Leo had always said it was too costly to maintain, and at one time there had been strong pressure to convert it to a lawn for communal ball games. Or was Brother Broderick putting pressure on the lad to work in the statistics cellar?

“You’re not thinking of leaving, are you? Has Brother B-”

“No, no,’ said Brother Wayne miserably. “It’s just, we don’t have very long, and-”

“What do you mean, we don’t have very long? Are they closing down the garden?”

“N-n-no,” blubbered Brother Wayne. “It’s the Pike, Brother Norbert.”

“The what?’

“The giant fish.” Great tears rolled down the Novice’s dimpled cheeks. “Brother Broderick says giant fish will rain down on us tonight and smash us all. It’s ex-ex-exponential.”

Brother Norbert was not used to such displays of emotion, and felt distinctly ill at ease.

“We’ve never been smashed by giant fish before. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“Do you really think so?”

“Yes. Yes,” lied Brother Norbert. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll all have a good laugh about this tomorrow, ha ha ha.”

Brother Wayne nodded, and sniffed.

“Just keep the four foundation axioms of our Blessed Founder in mind, and everything will be fine. Pass me those secateurs, please.”

 

Novice Archibald came to fetch Brother Norbert and Brother Wayne as they were putting away the gardening things. An extraordinary meeting of the Discalced Brethren had been called for the Eighth Inning, he said, and the Manager wanted everyone to be there.

Even hurrying as fast as monkish custom allowed, stopping only to wash their hands and feet, the two gardener monks were among the last to arrive. The refectory was full. Monks Brother Norbert had not seen for years were there, blinking in the candlelight after their long meditations in the basements and cabinets of the monastery. Word of the difficulties had obviously spread beyond the Discalced Brethren, for Brother Norbert saw at least a dozen monks from neighbouring orders, burgundy-robed Jains from down the hill and taciturn followers of St. Aloysius in white ruffs and knickerbockers.

The Manager of the Discalced Brethren, Elder Brother Stentor, rose to the lectern and cleared his throat. He waited a moment for the sound of foot-shuffling and mumbling to die away, then peered over his pince-nez at the assembly with piercing blue eyes. As always, his thick eyebrow and billowing dark grey hair gave him the forbidding aspect of a bird of prey.

“As you all know,” Elder Brother Stentor began, “recently this section of the monastery has been the scene of several rains of fish. While somewhat unusual, I would like to stress that such occurrences are in no way – er – unusual. There is absolutely no call for the irresponsible scaremongering that has engendered a sense of, dare I say it, panic, among some of the younger and more impressionable novices.” He paused to glower at a group of the selfsame younger novices at the back of the room, men whose contributions to the day’s debate had been particularly shrill. Clearing his throat, he went on, reading a prepared speech from a single sheet of paper.

“There have been documented rains of fish on successive days at Al-Zumeidah in the Yemen during the Abbasid Caliphate; in the Black Forest village of Alpirsbach in the 1930’s; near Springfield, Massachusetts, throughout the eighteenth century; at this monastery, of course, in the seventeenth century, and Alpirsbach again in the sixteenth. Fish rained from the sky on three successive days at West Palm Beach, Florida, during the Republican National Convention of 1972 – during which time a three-headed calf was born to a member of the administrative typing pool at Tulane University, and melons bearing the legend ‘beware, for the end is nigh’ in Aramaic were harvested at several places in the Midwest. There have been further rains of fish in the French Cameroons, in France itself, in Australia, Brazil, Matabeleland, Tannu-Tuva, South Dakota, North Dakota, Northern Rhodesia, the Maldives, Kashmir, Turkmenistan, Sumatra and Pomerania. Not once has a single building been destroyed by fish raining from the sky, nor a single person killed or seriously injured by falling fish. (With the trivial exception of Luigi Garibaldi, one of the Flying Garibaldi Brothers, during the Lyons World Fair of 1911). Otherwise, all of these events have passed by without any consequence whatsoever.”

“I repeat, there is no need for the unseemly panic that we have seen today. I have asked Brother Broderick, whose researches have inadvertently touched off this disturbance, to address you. He will lay out his findings clearly and calmly, once and for all, to lay to rest the ridiculous rumours I have been hearing in the corridors. I am sure you will find that these are based on a willful misunderstanding of his work, and that we all have absolutely nothing to worry about. Brother Broderick, please.”

There was polite applause, and Elder Brother Stentor took a seat. Brother Broderick rose to the lectern, his face grim. He stood silently while Brother Stenos and Brother Darren carried in a folding whiteboard and assembled it behind him.

“Fellow monks,” he began, his voice serious. Brother Norbert, who was standing at the back, could see that his hands were shaking. “I would like to thank our Manager, Elder Brother Stentor, and the other Elder Brothers, for this opportunity to speak with you, and all of you for your attention. I would like to begin my presentation today by relating an example from the ancient history of the monastery – the history of the efforts of the Self-Referential Brotherhood to create artificial intelligence.

In their quest to develop thinking automata, for centuries the Self-Referential Brotherhood progressed no further than crude clockwork instruments that could keep count of the hours; then, a few decades after devising machines that could add 1 and 1, they had automata that could mimic human speech. Another year or two, they had devised true thinking devices, and within a week they were no more, supplanted by their own creations, a hundred times more intelligent than themselves.

The more intelligent their machines became, the greater the rate at which their intelligence increased. The growth in machine intelligence was exponential; just as the growth of a population of two flies is exponential – unchecked, within a year their offspring could cover the earth.”

Brother Broderick paused, leaving the Monks to wonder what the point of this discursion could possibly be. He now gripped the lectern tightly to keep his hands from shaking, and there was more strength and confidence in his voice.

“Brother Darren, please.”

The gangly novice, with the aid of Brother Stenos, hung a chart on the whiteboard. It was labelled ‘Fig.1: No. of Fish’ and showed a curve, clinging closely to the bottom of the graph almost all of the way across and then rising vertiginously to the top at the extreme right. Most of this portion of the line was dotted.

“As you can see, the number of fish falling in the monastery garden and surrounds has been rising slowly over the last month or so. This rise can be described by an exponential function, which I have projected forward to tomorrow morning. As you can see, my analysis predicts in excess of a million fish will fall.” Ripples of murmured discussion propagated through the crowd. Not loud or disruptive, but still almost unheard of within the confines of the Monastery. Elder Brother Stentor rose from his seat to glower at a few of the more conspicuous offenders. “Brother Broderick,” he began with a smile. “There are – er- a number of important points you have overlooked.”

“Elder Brother Stentor,” said Brother Broderick. “Might I have leave to finish my presentation, before the matter is thrown open to discussion?”

“Such has always been the custom of the Discalced Brethren,” wheezed the aged Elder Brother Leo. “Sit down, Stentor, and let the boy finish what he was saying. Something about fish, wasn’t it?”

“Alright,” said Elder Brother Stentor gracelessly, sitting down again.

“Thank you, Elder Brother Stentor. Brother Darren.”

The novice hung another chart next to the first one – this was labelled ‘Fig. 2: Avge. Lngth. of Fish’ and seemed in all other respects identical to the first one. A third, which bore the arcane title ‘Fig. 3: Avge. Stat. Dev. Lngth. of Fish’, took its place alongside.

“As you can see, after hovering for several weeks at about two inches, the average length of the fish falling in the monastery garden increased to three inches the day before yesterday, then to nearly six inches today. In addition, the variation between the average size of the fish and the maximum fish size has increased from about one inch to nearly eight,” as Brother Broderick spoke, the helpful Brother Darren pointed to the appropriate places on the two charts.

“Extrapolated to tomorrow morning, these trends suggest that at least one of the fish striking the monastery will be more than 72 feet long.”

There were gasps of disbelief, then a mumble of discussion, which continued on as an increasingly disruptive competitor to Brother Broderick’s words. “Bollocks!” called out one young monk. Undaunted, Brother Broderick raised his voice and continued, while Brother Spiro replaced Figures 3 and 4 with the final chart, marked ‘Fig. 5: No. Spcies. Fish.’ It too appeared identical to the first chart.

“Extrapolating from current trends, tomorrow’s rain will contain 105% of all known species of fish. This means there is a very good chance that a large proportion of the deluge will consist of such fish as the piranha, electric catfish, stonefish and Mesopotamian rat-fish – the last two of which, I must point out, possess an excruciatingly painful and invariably fatal poison. As for the additional 2000 species unknown to science, their possible consequences cannot even be guessed at.”

“I stress,” said Brother Broderick, against the growing roar. “I stress, this is not based on imagination, but on a rigorous statistical analysis of all the data I have been able to review. This is a careful extrapolation from known facts. The evidence is before your eyes. The age of mankind, typified by greed, corruption, violence, lascivious immorality, and scorn of the foundation axioms of our Blessed Founder, is drawing to a close. We stand at the dawn of a new age. The Age of Fish.”

Elder Brother Stentor opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Brother Broderick stood blinking at the crowd of monks, like a marmot facing a Range Rover.

“Hear, hear,” said Elder Brother Leo. Brother Norbert supposed he had only heard the bit about the end of immorality, and was applauding that. The sound of one man clapping galvanised Brother Stentor, and he rose to his feet, looking murderously at Brother Broderick until the younger monk moved well away from the lectern.

“Thank you, Brother Broderick.” said Elder Brother Stentor, his voice flat. “Listen up, down the back,” he shouted, struggling to be heard above the noise of a hundred muttering monks. “I would like to ask Brother Broderick a question. The question is, how can you logically extrapolate from a purely empirical model fitting a number of sets of subjectively selected data to a general theory of catastrophe? Logic-”

“The question is,” shouted a wild-eyed monk in the last row. “What are you going to do about all these bloody fish?”

The refectory erupted. Monks applauded, shouted “hear, hear”, or “logic, shmogic” and banged their wooden bowls on the table. A few climbed on to the benches and cheered, while a number of the smaller and meeker ones began to make their way to the door. Never, in all his years with the Discalced Brethren, had Brother Norbert seen such an uproar.

“Silence!” boomed Elder Brother Stentor. “Silence! Are you Monks, or monkeys?” Elder Brother Leo hobbled up to the dais, adding his shrill wheeze to Stentor’s thunder and the feeble gesticulations of Brother Broderick. Stools were overturned, robes were stepped on, the Jains quietly left the room – it was not their section of the Monastery at risk, after all, and they had no wish to be crushed in the scrum.

Brother Norbert saw Brother Sylvestris – a tall, intellectual monk he had always found rather forbidding – shout something in the ear of Novice Archibald, who weaved his way through the crowd and darted after the departing ruffs of the Aloysians. Meanwhile, Brother Sylvestris himself began forging towards the dais. Brother Norbert had been stunned into silence, as much by the monks’ response to Brother Broderick’s speech as by the words themselves. Might Brother Broderick be right? Were the days of the Discalced Brethren numbered? Should they adjust their lives as best they could to somehow survive in this new age, this age of giant poisonous fish that fell from the heavens? Brother Wayne, he noticed, had gone into a manic phase, jumping up and down and waving a spoon, shouting something that he couldn’t hear. He realised with a jolt that he was shouting too. ‘Stop it! Stop it!’

There was a noise. A big noise, which swallowed up all the other noises. A vast, unearthly boom that sent every ear ringing and shook the very rafters of the refectory. It was impossible to hear yourself think, thought Brother Norbert, wondering what he was thinking.

It was the Great Gong, unheard now for forty years, once used to summon the Discalced Brethren to morning prayers. Brother Norbert had never thought to hear it again, not since that morning when he was a novice when monks from six orders in adjoining parts of the monastery had invaded the precincts of the Discalced Brethren and thrown poor old Brother Ronaldo from the Gong Tower, breaking both his legs.

Brother Wayne dropped his spoon. The trio at the dais fell silent. All activity dissolved in the one interminable ear-splitting bong, and as its echoes died away the refectory was silent. Except for the ringing in everyone’s ears.

Elder Brother Stentor glared down from the lectern. He spoke, barking each word distinctly at the assembled monks. “We are an order, not a rabble. We are monks of the Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan, and we will behave appropriately. Brother Broderick, put those things away.”

Chastened by his reception, the Assistant Chief Statistics Keeper nodded, and put his visual aids in a pile in the corner.

“Now,” continued Elder Brother Stentor. “If anyone wishes to speak, let him do so according to the accepted protocols of the Monastery. Brother Sylvestris?” For Brother Sylvestris had by now reached the front of the room, and was holding one finger up in the time honoured gesture of the Discalced Brethren.

“Thank you, Elder Brother Stentor.” Brother Sylvestris clambered up to the lectern. “As I believe you are all aware, Brother Broderick’s exponential equations are only a model for certain observations.” Brother Sylvestris spoke in a good-natured, slightly condescending tone, as though he was giving private instruction to a favorite pupil who happened to be as thick as two bricks. “Just because the model fits the data, it doesn’t mean the model is true. For example: it is possible to model the observed motions of the planets by saying that they all go around the sun in elliptical orbits, sweeping out equal areas in equal times, with the sun at one focal point of the ellipse. Of course, one then has to assume that the earth does too, and that the earth is about the same size as the planets, and that instead of being sensibly enclosed in an interlocking system of perfect crystalline spheres each planet is borne on the back of an enormous invisible space dugong.” Brother Sylvestris chuckled self-indulgently at the notion. “Ridiculous, obviously!”

Brother Norbert agreed, it was a perfectly ridiculous notion. But mightn’t it still be possible that the Discalced Brethren were really about to be crushed beneath a rain of fish? Inherently, the idea seemed a great deal more plausible than giant invisible space dugongs.

“So there are any number of models that could fit the observed trends; a simple parabolic one, for instance, in which the quantity of fish goes up, and then down again. Please be calm, my fellow monks, and wait to see what tomorrow will bring.” Brother Sylvestris nodded politely to assembly, and stepped away from the lectern. The speech had a calming effect on the gathering, and as he finished there was a smattering of polite applause. Brother Stentor scowled down at the assembled monks, silently reminding them that Monks Do Not Applaud.

“Anyone else?” a dozen forefingers stabbed the air. “Brother Clarence?”

A timid, portly brother made his way to the front. Like Brother Wayne, he had evidently been greatly upset by the projected fate of the Monastery, and his face was flushed and bleary. Brother Sylvestris gave him a hand up onto the dais, and he moved uncertainly to the lectern.

“Brother Sylvestris, you say that we can’t be sure Brother Broderick’s predictions are true. But at the same time, how can be certain that they aren’t true? Remember Pascal’s Wager?” Brother Clarence paused to catch his breath, and the assembled monks nodded. They all remembered Brother Pascal, and his proverbial gamble on the outcome of the 311th Intermonastic Piety Challenge, supposedly based on an anonymous tip.

“I mean, suppose it had worked out, and the Phrenologic Coenobites had actually won? At odds of twentyseven hundred to one, Brother Pascal would have been the greatest hero in the history of the Discalced Brethren, setting us up for dominance of the entire Monastery.” Instead of being the greatest fool, hung in the air unspoken, expelled from the order for embezzling its entire savings.

“So, we should be thinking, I guess – if, Brother Broderick is right, what will we do?” Brother Clarence stood uneasily at the lectern.

“That’s all I have to say.”

There was another burst of applause, louder this time. Elder Brother Stentor’s scowl took longer to take effect.

“Is there anyone else?’ Elder Brother Stentor ignored the waving fingers. “No? Good. I will see you all for dinner at the bottom of the ninth inning.”

“Yes, Assistant Statistics Keeper?”

“I just wanted to say that I have a number of ideas as to how we can adapt and make the most of the new situation-”

The assembled Elder Brothers looked darkly on Brother Broderick.

“I believe your ideas have caused us enough trouble already, Brother Broderick,” said Elder Brother Stentor. ‘This discussion is now closed.”

Superficially calm, the monks now began to file out of the refectory. Soon the sound of heated discussion began to drift in from outside, once enough monks were beyond the glare of Elder Brother Stentor. “How can you trust a monk who believes in invisible space dugongs?” came a scornful voice from somewhere ahead of Brother Norbert.

 

 

Brother Norbert heard a bang from above, as of something large and fish-like hitting the roof. Instantly, he was fully awake. Was this the end? Was the destruction of the Discalced Brethren imminent? There was another bang, and another. Rapidly, Brother Norbert rose and gathered his most precious possessions- the Compleat Herbal of Brother Polydendros, the latest seed catalogue, the faded picture of his mother and the shoes he had worn before he joined the order.

There were others in the hallway. No one dared speak what they all thought, standing there in the darkness in their nightclothes, while sporadic banging sounds continued above their heads. Fear and tension showed on the faces of the monks as they glanced at one another, seeking some direction at this critical moment. It would only take one word – one word to push them over into panic, or send them peacefully back to their beds to await the morning.

“The Pike! The Pike!” Brother Clarence’s terrified screams echoed down the hall, shortly followed by the monk himself, legs furiously pumping. Shouting, shoving, rushing to escape the coming catastrophe, the Discalced Brethren poured after him, no longer an order, but disorder incarnate. Brother Norbert saw Brother Sylvestris himself in the crush, powerless to go against it. There was Brother Stephen, his beard flapping around him, clutching to his chest a heavy tome of statistics. Brother Broderick, his face ashen, shoved up against one wall watching the crowd surge by. Brother Wayne, who had somehow found another spoon to wave. Intoxicated by the fear-laden air, Brother Norbert clawed his way through the crowd with the rest of them, his mind dominated by one thought only: get away, get away, get away!

 

 

“You were right,” the tall monk said, scraping a single fish out of his way with a booted foot. The morning sun shone clear and bright on the gravel paths and tattered bushes of the garden. “All we had to do was feed them the data, and their own weakness for statistics did the rest.”

“It was your idea to combine the first full scale tests of our fish translocator with our effort to find more salubrious quarters, Piscator Ricardo,” said the shorter, darker monk.

Piscator Ricardo smiled and nodded. “But it was your seminal insight that led to our victory. I congratulate you. The order congratulates you.” Behind the two men, other monks were at work. A locksmith monk hurried past, tools jangling from his belt as his robes billowed out behind him. Two others walked more slowly, carrying a mounted marlin between them.

“I was lucky to find a target as imaginative as Brother Broderick. All it took was a few carefully placed suggestions.” The shorter monk shook his head. ‘Still, I cannot help feeling a little sorry for them.”

“Hah! The shoeless ones had occupied this prime location for far too long, Piscator Felipe. There is no way the Illuminated Brethren of the Hunter King can fulfill their goals with the Abbot breathing over our shoulder all the time. We need space! And now all this is ours.”

“I expect they will return in time,” said Piscator Felipe glumly.

“We have possession – nine-tenths of the law. You should not concern yourself with such things,” the taller monk clapped Piscator Felipe on the back. “You should be relaxing, after a job well done. I expect you are looking forward to a trip home, after all this excitement.”

“Yes, Piscator Ricardo. I have had enough of this-” one sweeping gesture took in the garden, the gong tower, the hulking complex that housed the refectory- “to last me a lifetime. Codex con Carne, bah! I hope I never read another chili recipe as long as I live. What I would give anything for right now is a good swordfish steak.”

“I am sure the head of the order would only be too grateful to fly one in for you from the Gulf of California, Piscator Felipe. After all, you have been the prime instrument of our triumph. Rex Venator Domat Omnia, Piscator Felipe.”

Rex Venator Domat Omnia, Piscator Ricardo.”

 

fin

 

 

[i] For reasons that are probably obvious, the Monks of the Discalced Brethren of Yusuf-ben-Yohanan divide the hours between Prime and Vespers into nine innings.

 

[ii] The sources which have come down to us suggest that they ate wheat bran on the remaining three days of the week.

 

[iii] December 27th, the anniversary of St. Gustav’s martyrdom by the Samogitians. There are many sources for the story of St. Gustav, and for the profound influence his example has had on many orders within the Monastery; perhaps the best can be found in Kaminsky’s De Rerum Monasteribus.

Last year Am&a asked me to draw a map of Kibashi. There were quite a few bits about it in the story-thus-far. For instance: “The needle-slender minarets that rose into the crisp sky, silhouetted against the brightening peach and lavender horizon, the great dark bulk of the temples lurking down by the river, and the patchwork quilt of houses, large and small, with flower beds, vegetable patches, and rock gardens.” And: “…the Pillars of Glass, the great double avenue along which the parade passed on its way to the palace to greet the Emperor on the occasion of his birthday.” And: “…encased in the stocks in the Plaza of Disobedience and had smelt the stench of the bodies that wafted from the cages that swung by the Rattan Gate.” So there were a fair few things that I knew had to be in at the end.

But the way to draw a city that looks properly organic at the end is to start drawing it at the beginning, and grow it. This is how I almost always used to draw cities on paper for my own amusement, and photoshop now gives the added fun of being able to save each step as you go along separately.

So I started out with this:

Most Ancient City of Kibashi

Most Ancient City of Kibashi

The pale line is the walls of the most ancient city, and the diamond, crescent, and circle are respectively the Palace of the Floodlord, Temple of the Moon, and Fortress of Kaab Ashai. Those things really don’t have anything to do with the story, and I don’t particularly know what they mean, either, I just felt like putting them in. North is at the right, south at the left.

Ancient City of Korumu

Ancient City of Korumu

I don’t know who Korumu is, either; but the asterisk is their palace. I had the idea, I guess, that the city which was initially of little importance was taken over by this Korumu person and made their capital.

Kibashi Gezem Rau

Ancient City of Gezem Rau

In the time of Gezem Rau – whoever they were – it has become dangerous enough again in the neighbourhood that the city needs a wall. But there are baths now (the double rectangle) and a new Temple of the Hunter King (near the Crocodile Gate) and Temple of the Batrachian Harlots (the star by the river). These are all ancient history and don’t appear in the story at all, of course.

Kibashi Gezem Rau 2

City of the Heirs of Gezem Rau

This is called the “Ancient City of Gezem Rau (Late)” in my file, but I expect it is a couple of rulers later. Things have obviously calmed down in the neighbourhood, since there is a lot of development outside the wall, and some reclamation of land as the river shifts. See, the baths have moved, and there is a shiny new Winter Palace off to the north.

Early Modern Kibashi

Early Modern City

I had the idea that these heirs of Gezem Rau were next conquered by some other entirely different sort of people who swanned in from somewhere. They have put in a more regular ‘New City’ to the north of the old city and torn down a lot of the walls and monuments of the old people. The names appearing on this map were put in later, working backwards from the names on the final version of the city.

Walled Modern City, #1

Walled Modern City, #1

Of course, it soon would have become necessary to put a wall around this new expanded city. Some of the names of the old gates have been resurrected, while some new ones have been introduced. The line of temples along the river has pretty much shaped up now, and you can where the Pillars of Glass has been driven through the centre of the city.

Modern Walled City, #2

Modern Walled City, #2

Just bloating out again, as things grow peaceful once more; and the city in the story has no walls, so it is about time for them to come down.

Kibashi

Kibashi at the time of the Work-in-Progress

And here it is, the city I was actually asked to make!

 

 

 

 

After a while, though, I felt like drawing cities again. And I thought, why not, I will take this fantasy city forward into the industrial age. But first, I needed a larger canvas.

Kibashi and Environs

Kibashi and Environs

Now, to put through some railways and new suburbs.

Industrial Age Kibashi, #1

Industrial Age Kibashi, #1

More railways, and more suburbs, and some industrial zones…

Industrial Age Kibashi, #2

Industrial Age Kibashi, #2

And more!

Kibashi 3

Industrial Age Kibashi, #3

By this time they have had a revolution, and the Palace belongs to the people, and I have inflicted some local government areas on them. These three versions were all in a photoshop file called ‘Future Kibashi’, which was becoming too large to open properly, especially as I wanted to make the map larger again. So I kicked off ‘Even More Future Kibashi’ with an expanded version of the map above.

 

Industrial Age Kibashi #3, AND environs

Industrial Age Kibashi #3, AND environs

Then made it a bit bigger.

Industrial Age Kibashi, #4

Industrial Age Kibashi, #4

And bigger.

Industrial Age Kibashi, #5

Industrial Age Kibashi, #5

This was in a new file called ‘Last Kibashi Honest’.

 

 

A few months passed.

 

 

 

Okay, maybe just one more Kibashi

Okay, maybe just one more Kibashi

I thought it would be neat if the Empire was restored and the new Emperor built a palace exactly like the old one, but twice the size. Anyhow, that’s it. Big enough. Though this is pre-air travel, and only has a rudimentary highway system. It is meant to be approaching c.1900 London or Berlin or Paris. Anyhow.

 

But that’s not the obsessive project I spent my summer holiday doing.

 

This is:

A really useful city map has to have names for all the streets.

A really useful city map has to have names for all the streets.

 

This is not a submission for this upcoming anthology, but instead its first-ever (so far as I know) piece of fan-fiction. You should read the Prologue Story for ‘The Lane of Unusual Traders’ first.

 

“We don’t have any fruit anymore,” said Len. “Sorry.”

Len wasn’t short for Leonard, but for Lenrek, or Lonroo, or Lanjavian – some first name that I had never heard of anyone else having. He could have been from anywhere in Southern Europe or the Middle East, and looked to be in his early forties, with an unruly mustache and black hair shot through with streaks of silver. His shop was in the sort of suburban shopping centre that used to be everywhere in the seventies, just a row of shops with a parking lot in front, in a sort of backwater a few blocks back from the roar of Woodville Road.

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Alex is leaning forward on one elbow, Kindle held like a hand of cards close to the chest, looking concerned. Looking at you with concerned eyes: but for a moment Alex’s eyes are only globes of protein and water, glittering without meaning like stones in a river. Half-buried white stones with patches of greyish-blue.

‘You alright?’

You had just been jerked awake, arms and legs suddenly twitching in unison as some random firing of neurons dragged you from sleep. That was all. It happened often enough. But you had the feeling – you have the feeling, though it is fading fast – that you had stepped back from an abyss. Or been pulled back by an unseen hand from an abyss that you were powerless to stop yourself from stepping into.

‘I’m fine,’ you say. ‘Just jerked awake.’

A hand squeezes your arm – more protein and water, warm and only a little alien now, as meaning flows back into a world that had been drained of it when you awoke.

Alex rolls over and goes on reading, and you close your eyes, listening to the reassuring click of pages turning. You will turn over yourself in a minute – you don’t like to sleep on your back, and if you do, Alex will usually prod you awake, saying that you are snoring. Falling asleep is a strange thing. You are there, and then you aren’t. You do this every night; but you can never remember exactly what you’ve done. What do you do? Is there a you to do anything? A minute passes as you repeat these thoughts to yourself until they no longer make sense.

 

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Andrea Höst, dominant force in the psychic space ninja subgenre, whose tiny room at Monash Uni we spent part of our honeymoon in, tagged us for this “Next Big Thing” meme. So here tis!

 

What is the working title of your next book?

 

Misconception.

 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

 

It will be self-published. For some time we have been enthusiastically saying self-publishing was the way of the future and last year we finally decided to stick our necks out and have a go.

 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

 

It is the second in the Rainier Fields series (after Misfortune), which had its genesis in a role-playing game. The role-playing game started with one of us writing a five page short story introducing a character and a lot of mysterious unexplained plot hooks, which the other of us then took off in completely unexpected directions.

 

What genre does your book fall under?

 

We think of it as Science Fantasy. It is not quite on a grand enough scale to be Space Opera, so maybe Space Operetta would be a good name for it.

 

How long does it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

 

It depends how many other things distract us on the way. Our three published works each took between three weeks and three months to write the first draft. We have other books that have been going for twenty years, dribbling along at ten thousand words a year or so.

 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

 

This is a really hard question since we can’t remember having read anything remotely like it, but we’re not going to pike out… It is driven by characters, rather than plot or grand ideas, so it is more like the Vorkosigan books than a lot of other things that could fall under the ‘Science Fantasy’ umbrella.

 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

 

We think it would be most fun to play them ourselves as ultra-high budget CGI characters, with high-budget electronic tweaking to make our voices sound right.

 

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

 

We inspired each other. It was a very small project that got wildly out of hand. The original germ of the Rainier Fields series was very much inspired by Diana Wynne Jones, though I am sure she would have been alarmed at how it turned out.

 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

 

Mercery behaves very badly.

 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

 

Having escaped from the mysterious Project that gave him his technomantic powers, Rainier Fields is trying to lead a normal life on another continent when he unexpectedly appears on the Emperor’s Birthday “Most Wanted” list.

 

We would like to tag David Versace, whose short story “Imported Goods – Aisle Nine” is appearing the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild’s “Next” anthology real soon now.  Long ago we were kayaking with David Versace in the Northwest Territories when a strange green meteorite crashed nearby, giving us superpowers and animating the corpses from an ancient Native American graveyard. After we defeated the zombies, we became active in student politics, wrote songs about Australian television news personalities, ran several play-by-mail games about alien pirates, and stuff.

 

 

 

Robert Prescott has dined with Princes of Hell and gone whoring along the Grand Canal with fallen Archangels, and no longer feels the slightest apprehension on introduction to a daemon whose name had been a word of power to the infant-strangling priests of Melkart; but the first sight of the Jesuit gives him a peculiar frisson of horror.  Boyhood tales of Popish plots broach dark waters in Prescott’s mind, vast and almost-formless, and the unimposing black figure seems a thing of menace beyond any glamour-dewed Throne or Power. He has a nose like a beak and the flat face and staring black eyes of a native of the Indies, and in his black robes bears a strong resemblance to a raven, blown by some mischance into Prescott’s study. He looks as out of place and wears the same expression of wary startlement. The man’s name is Alvarez, or Alvaro, something like that.  A drab and dark thing he is, with weathered features like a hammered plate attesting to a life spent under a tropical sun, the only shabby object in a room otherwise filled to bursting with the luxurious impedimenta of power.  The elegantly-bound volumes standing in the glass-fronted bookcase, as staid and sober as a morning parade of kitchen staff, had been sourced at great expense from every corner of the Continent, and any one hides secrets that it is death for any less well-connected man to know. The lead crystal decanter is one of few remaining works of a Bohemian master whose life and legacy had been consumed in the holocaust of the Twelve Years War; the topaz-coloured sweet wine it holds is from one of the last vineyards the Most Serene Republic held in the Aegean Sea, a personal estate of the house of Ruzzini, who reserve its output for bribes to high-ranking Imperial officials. Of the paintings on the wall, the one depicting Danaë and Zeus is curiously more chaste than the landscape: Prescott sees with an inward smile that even the priest’s eye has been caught by the lubricious roundness of the hills, the rubenesque creases converging into shadow where they come together, the obscene exuberance of the musky thicket in the foreground, with its plenitude of curving branches. The slim book next to Prescott’s right hand is Baron Spencer’s celebrated  treatise ‘On Sodomy’; the silver reliquary on his right, originally from a bankrupt monastery in the Levant, now contains the black flesh of a certain aquatic centipede preserved in honey and opium. The carpet is from Kachan; the writing desk is of a peculiar Brasilian wood of which only one shipment has ever crossed the Atlantic; and Prescott himself is dressed with costly efficiency, eschewing the ornament of a Venetian dandy for the severe elegance of an English diplomat.

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