June 28, 2023

Clasp (excerpt)

Chapter 1


Mine,” the boy shouted. “My spoon. Mine!”

He glowered into the dark space. Thieves might lurk there, scrabbling to seize what wasn’t theirs. Where was the conniving, greedy king? His evil advisors? The boy wasn’t afraid. Not of kings. Not of judges of any kind. He would keep what was his. He would protect it.

Beneath his hands he felt spoons, plates, chalices, linens, coins and clasps, pilgrim’s badges from shrines. He lay in a mass of treasure.


Nobody cared. Nobody listened.

He retreated inside a silver spoon, a precious object that contained flickering memories of—something. A boy dashing through a Great Hall pursued by playful dogs. A broad-shouldered man dominating a feast of game and pies. Huddled arguments around a hearth about raids from the south. Fearful whispers—“The blasphemous, heretical Cromwell wants to rob us of our saints.”

“Mine,” the boy whispered.

He drifted through the treasures until he encountered new sensations. Blood. A looming giant. A command—

You love the treasure so much, you keep it safe.

He retreated from the object that held those sensations—a ring? a ring on a chain?—and despaired. What worth is a protector without courage? He forced himself to shout into the darkness, “God’s wounds! Stay away!”

Nothing. No response.

What good is a protector without authority?

And then, abruptly, he was outside the treasure trove. He lingered on a mound of earth beside the silver spoon, other treasures heaped around him. Flickering lanterns teetered on the loamy earth. Beyond the lanterns, a man and woman peered into a hole, their shadows flung wide. The woman pressed her hand to her mouth.

The man muttered, “Christ in Heaven. I say we bury it elsewhere. You take the treasure home.”

“And the Brettons? Madame was most insistent that I tell her brother about this field.”

“They can have the field. Let them dig where they wish. We have everything of value.”

“Thieves,” the boy shouted.

They didn’t flinch. They didn’t throw him frowning looks. None of the responses the boy expected. They didn’t hear him at all.

The boy found himself following the woman across the muddy field like a dog tugged along on a leash. She strode through a ditch, her skirt gathering mud, to reach a broad thoroughfare. She walked along the shoulder into a town, an arrangement of crisscrossed roads around timbered houses. The lantern in her left hand swung as she turned into an alley and entered the back of a low building.

They were in a kitchen. Two hearths guttered at opposite ends of a straw-strewn dirt floor. Wooden tables occupied the center of the room. The woman heaved the bags of treasure onto the nearest. She released a sigh, shook out her shoulders, and crossed to the smaller hearth. A short screen stood between it and a cradle.

“Still asleep,” the woman cooed. “The spirit didn’t lie.”

There was a baby in the cradle. The boy heard its quiet snuffling. He also heard voices beyond the kitchen. Another room? People close by? Thieves or potential aid?

He hollered, “Danger!”

No response. The boy prepared to holler again when a man stumbled into the kitchen from a passageway to the side of the large hearth.

“There you are, Alice,” he slurred.

“We’re not serving brew this late, Rowan.”

“Only a few hours till dawn.” He staggered against the longest table. The bags on it shifted and clinked. “What’s this?”

“Never you mind,” Alice said.

She took Rowan’s arm and marched him towards the passage. The boy watched them hopelessly. Not that drunkards were much help but Rowan hadn’t glanced once in his direction.

“Thieves,” he said weakly.

The baby didn’t hear him either. “Look at our treasure, Davey!” Alice said when she returned. She lifted the child from the cradle. The child grabbed at the reliquaries and coins.

“Not yours,” the boy muttered.

He watched Alice sort the pieces into piles. What else could he do except bid her be careful?

Bertram stomped in near dawn. Faint light brushed the oilskin windows.

“All sorted,” he said. “Disposed of that ghoulish thing. It had a ring with it—should fetch a good price.”

“Be careful. The field belongs to the Brettons.”

“They’ll sell the land and boast about their charity. Nothing to do with our goods.”

“Not yours,” the boy snapped. Listen to me!

Bertram was as deaf to him as Alice.

She said, “A ring could be traced back to the family.”

“Geoffrey’s going to hold onto it. Goldsmiths no longer work only for the crown. He won’t ask questions about the family mark.”

“It’s still dangerous. Nothing else here can be traced to the Northern clan.”

“We should still melt down those heretical pieces.”

The boy gaped at him. Bertram meant the reliquaries and ampullae and caskets. He was holding up a pilgrim’s badge now, squinting at it in the early morning light.

Bertram wanted to destroy holy things. The boy recoiled, then threw himself forward, screaming, “Blasphemers! Heretics! You mustn’t!” He rushed back and forth across the kitchen.

And maybe he could do something because the baby cried and Alice said, “Hush now, it would break my mother’s heart if she heard. She still loves the old saints.”

“The Book of Common Prayer is good enough for me.”

“As if you go to church. You’re as bad as a Puritan.”

“That’s too much church—sermonizing even in the home. Reason and religion are not close companions.”

“Perhaps not—but I’m not destroying those relics. We’ll find buyers.”

The boy slumped against a tall-backed bench near the largest hearth while Alice moved the treasure to a side table and covered it with a wool blanket.

The treasure was safe for now, intact. He’d done his job.

Yet dangers lurked, even here behind the walls of a humble kitchen. Walls couldn’t keep out the lurking thieves. He knew this. He was sure of it. Thieves waited in shadows. They crept through towns. They invaded great houses. They tore down altars. They scratched away the names of saints.

He spent the night huddled against the side table, arms around his knees. He sat upright at every sound. For every sound could be a thief, every scratch a lurker, every whisper a conspiracy. He must be vigilant.

Morning came. Alice nursed her child and rocked him to sleep. Bertram stoked the fires and went down the passage. He came back to fetch ale and pottage. So the place was a tavern. Alice scrubbed the tables and fetched a heavy barrel from a chilly corner. She pulled off the lid and sniffed the liquid inside.

A knock at the kitchen door brought the boy to his feet. They’ve come. They’ll take it all. They’ll kill Alice and the baby if they must. His hissed caution at Alice, who seemed merrily unconcerned about possible invaders. She wiped her hands on her apron and crossed to the door.

“Ah, Margery. Yes, that sage is exactly what I need for the next batch. Wait a bit.”

Alice strolled to the side table, lifted a corner of the blanket, and pulled out a ladle. She returned to the door, deaf to the boy’s shrieking. Stop. No. Leave it all alone! An exchange occurred and away went Margery with a treasure from the pit tucked in her basket.

“Thief,” the boy scolded Alice while she made bread, fed Davey, and instructed Bertram to open a second barrel of ale.

Another knock at the back door—this time Alice acquired eggs from a visitor.

“Stop,” the boy whispered when she twitched back the blanket to fetch another piece of the treasure, a pitcher this time.

At least the religious pieces were safe. That portion of the treasure must stay intact. It was the boy’s duty, his commission. The religious pieces must be saved from evil magistrates. At any moment, their underlings would come to hoard it to themselves or to toss it in the ocean.

He almost didn’t notice the loss of the first religious item. He was bored of watching Alice so closely, weary of flinching every time Bertram returned to the kitchen full of gossip and demands. The boy knelt by the fire laid in the largest hearth and wondered what could make it burn higher, hotter, hot enough to catch thieves on fire.

“Mary—my mother—adherent of the old ways—”

“If you could get me more of that yarrow—”

He looked over his shoulder in thoughtless curiosity. Alice was bargaining with yet another friend for spices and yeast.

She headed towards the table of treasures and he almost didn’t care. She would trade away a thimble or a jug. He almost turned back to the flames.

She pulled out a reliquary cross—a bronze one bearing the figure of St. George—and the boy was on his feet, yelling words she ignored, waving arms she didn’t see. She headed away from him, polishing the cross absently on her apron.

He rushed to the cradle, hovered over it. “I’ll hurt him, the baby. I will. You have to stop. The treasure—sacred—you mustn’t—”

And she did pause for a moment, a crease between her brows.

Then she said, “Here you are” and handed the cross through the half-door.

Mary thanked her and tucked the cross deftly in a capacious pocket. The boy couldn’t stop her. He watched her retreat, watched Alice push the half door shut. She hurried to the cradle. The boy stared at her blankly.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asked her. “If the treasures are gone? What do I do then?”

She picked up Davey, cooing endearments, and turned away.

At least the thieves haven’t come.

He watched Alice sell to friends, neighbors, relatives, patrons. Not the evil, thieving magistrates. If they came and there was nothing left, would that satisfy the boy’s charge? Preserve his soul?

How many religious items were there? He couldn’t pick them up, couldn’t sort through them. They sat under the blanket. He caught glimpses when Alice lifted an edge. He tried to remember what he saw, tried to remember if he’d counted the pieces in the pit, tried to remember his life before the pit.

He shied away from a blurry memory of shouts and bruises and blood.

One thing he knew.

“The spoon is mine,” he told Alice forcefully.

He knew that—that was a surety, an absolute in a dissolving world. He had no memory of when he got the spoon but it was his. His without doubt.

“I’ll keep the spoon safe,” he told her.


Chapter 2


The spoon contained a chamber. It pulled at the boy like a lord’s command, growing in urgency when he wandered too far. He could never follow Bertram into the tavern’s main room without the spoon demanding his return. If he didn’t obey, he recalled the darkness of the pit. Things other than treasure were buried in the pit. He didn’t want to remember those other things.

When he approached the spoon, he became more and more fragile. In Alice and Bertram’s kitchen, he could sit on benches—even if they never jostled from his weight—and yell at thieves—even if they didn’t hear him. Too close to the spoon, he dissolved like winter ice under a spring sun. He fell into the bowl like water from a jug and just as lacking in substance.

He hated the sensation, hated how he became, temporarily, a none thing lingering in nothingness. But on the other side of the nothingness existed the chamber. He could touch things in the chamber. He could push, lift, and carry toys. He could lay on the bed and roll over and over in the blankets.

The chamber was a square stone room with a casement window. When he looked through the speckled glass, he saw a second square tower on the other side of an open courtyard. It connected a lower long wing to the tower with his chamber.

He was in a manor house, then.

Whenever he arrived in the chamber, he appeared near the bed as if a secret gate lay hidden behind the headboard. Opposite the bed loomed a closed, heavy wooden door. He could lift the iron latch and push the door outwards. On the other side were narrow stone steps curving downwards. He caught the echo of faint voices from where the Great Hall would be. He stepped through the doorway—

—into Alice and Bertram’s kitchen.

He tried again and again to leave the chamber for the rest of the house. He wanted to reach the Great Hall. He could ask the people there how to better guard the treasure, how to bring the pieces into the chamber. In Alice and Bertram’s kitchen, he could sit and stand and move about, but he couldn’t touch things or people, not even the baby, not even the cloth that covered the treasure. Here in the chamber, he could play with toys. He could bounce on the bed. He could polish the window. If he could bring the treasure here—if the voices could tell him how—

He opened the heavy wooden door. He stepped through into—

Alice and Bertram’s kitchen.

It’s best that I stay in the kitchen. Guarding the treasure is my task, my obligation. I have a duty to watch over the items from the pit.

He couldn’t stop Alice selling off bits and bobs. She did so without thought or reckoning. At least she sold more household wares than religious ones. Not the monstrance, empty of its host. Not the pewter cruet, empty of wine. She didn’t sell the reliquaries, caskets, ampullae, paten or chalices. She didn’t sell more of the crosses. At least, when his reckoning came, he could show that he’d tried, that he’d kept the faith. As long as he stayed with the spoon, he could say, I was there. I didn’t leave. I watched over the treasure. I stuck to my task.

Someday, he could be able to tell the voices in the Great Hall, “I guarded them as best I could. I kept the worst of the despoilers away.”

Not that he could stop the despoilers once they arrived. But at least he kept his honor and stood guard.

He was the only one who cared. Other pieces of the treasure contained people like himself. He sensed a timid soul in one ampulla, a priest in the casket, a pensive man with a huge red beard near the chalice. An older woman appeared near a silver thimble. She wore a fur-lined gown and a tremendous wimple that the boy somehow knew was outmoded.

“You are so noisy,” she told the boy. “Time in your uncle’s house was supposed to teach you better manners, Edmund.”

Uncle’s house. Was that the manor in the spoon? Did one of the voices in the Great Hall belong to his uncle?

“Will my uncle guard the treasure?”

“He loves his pretty trinkets.”

That provoked a memory: a man waved the silver spoon over his head and then threw it into a chest.

I protested.

He then realized that the older woman called him “Edmund.” Till that hour, he hadn’t considered his name or his lack of name.

He said forcefully, “We must keep the spoon safe.”

“See that you do. The spoon was a gift from your father.”

He was right then: the spoon was his personally, exclusively.

Dame Thimble added sternly, “Keep it polished!”

He scowled and slunk away despite her calls for him to straighten up when he addressed his elders.

The older woman was bound to the thimble just as he was bound to the spoon. She occasionally emerged when Bertram fed the fire. She sat near the great hearth, her hands stretched toward the blaze. Edmund wasn’t sure why—it was never cold in the kitchen.

“Where is this tavern?” Edmund asked her. “A town? Are we at a crossroads?”

She didn’t know. He knew she didn’t know from her pursed lips and urges for providential patience.

“Your honorable father would send you to the stables to play,” Dame Thimble informed him. “Your blessed mother would ask you to sit beside her.”

Edmund had no memory of either person. Or of siblings. Or places, except the kitchen and the pit filled with treasure. The treasure must be protected. To protect it, he remained with the spoon.


One day, Alice placed the spoon and a clasp—not the thimble, which Alice used herself—plus a silver plate and ivory mirror case into a wicker basket and walked out of the kitchen. Edmund scrambled to follow.

“You mustn’t sell them,” he told Alice as they walked through the front room, weaving between tables and guests.

Edmund glanced at the chattering men and women, wanting to look more closely at the tools in their belts, the utensils in their hands—but the treasure was more important.

“Not the clasp or the spoon,” he urged Alice.

He could, he’d found, influence her a little when she didn’t care too much about a deal, when she was happy to make a substitute. He got ready to lecture her on honor, duty, faith—

They were outside, and the energy of the street distracted him. He untangled himself from the spoon and walked beside Alice, gawking. The tavern sat on the edge of a town square at the meeting of pounded dirt roads. From Alice’s side, Edmund eyed passersby: men unloading carts; gentlemen on horseback; women and men setting up stalls; sailors and builders sauntering past in loose trousers tied at the knee. There was no castle or manor house in view but rather a great many timbered houses grouped around a narrow town square.

A man in a tabard over bright hose nodded to Edmund as he passed. Edmund whirled, mouth open. Like Dame Thimble, that man could see him. He started to chase after the man but paused as he felt the spoon’s usual pull. I mustn’t leave it. He stumbled backwards, turned, and caught up with Alice.

He didn’t try to leave her side again though he studied the townspeople closely. Most of them appeared like Alice and Bertram, clothed in tall boots, long coats, and broad-brimmed hats. But he spotted others who didn’t seem to fit wandering along the packed dirt roads and sprawling on benches outside narrow, two-storey houses. Others ignored them, the same way they ignored Edmund.

Alice paused beside a stall hung with tureens, frying pans, and tongs. A mustached trader greeted her cordially. A tall man stood near the stall, hip cocked, one leg bent. He wore a sword and a richly embroidered cloak. He nodded to Edmund.

He sees me.

“Who are you?” Edmund said, his eyes flicking to Alice, who had pulled items from her basket to show the stall owner.

As Edmund hoped, she didn’t pull out the spoon. The trader was mostly interested in the silver plate and mirror case; he rejected the clasp as “papist nonsense.”

“Are you here for the treasure?” Edmund queried the sword-carrying man, a gentleman.

The sword-carrying man didn’t respond. His lofty indifference felt familiar to Edmund. His was not Alice and Bertram’s insensibility but that of a man too important for a boy’s questions.

He heard me. Edmund glowered and stared at the side of the sword-carrying man’s head, willing him to shift his gaze. The man twitched. He gave Edmund a bemused stare, then smiled sunnily and bowed.

“Bonny day, is it not? I am—” he rolled off a string of names, one of which was Conrad. “I have the pleasure of addressing—?”

He paused then, eyebrows lifting.

“Edmund,” Edmund said grudgingly. It was the only name he knew.

Conrad hesitated as if Edmund’s lack of honorifics and family titles lowered him slightly in Conrad’s estimation.

If he commands me to fetch his horse—

A vague memory struck Edmund, a memory of someone older than Edmund but younger than Conrad. Brother? Cousin? Another so-called gentleman who strutted and lectured and boasted.

As Conrad was doing now. He motioned across the square to where a loud, boisterous, and likely drunk critic loudly challenged a troupe of gaudily-dressed actors.

“Rude fellow. Someone should teach him manners. I would if I had the privilege.”

A frivolous fellow, more interested in swaggering before commoners than protecting home and hearth.

Edmund said sharply, “Are thieves nearby?”

“If they are, I will thrash them!”

Edmund gave him a skeptical look, thereby learning that he was the sort of boy who gave gentlemen skeptical looks.

“Will you stop them?” he pressed.

“With the broad side of my sword—I’ll chase them off.”

Edmund winced, his hand rising to his neck. Another memory of blood and darkness. It reminded him of the nothingness he suffered when he approached the spoon, before he arrived in the chamber. He shifted uneasily.

A low laugh interrupted Edmund’s disquiet. A woman leaned around the other side of the stall. She carried a basket of bread, and she held out a roll to Edmund who took it in surprise. He was never hungry but he quickly swallowed the offering.

“We don’t need to worry about thieves, dear,” she told Edmund. “We’re crumbs fallen from life. A bread maker named Agnes once lived in Deptford. She sold her wares day in, day out while she had strength. She married a weaver, had children—two survived—and then she died. And here I am, younger Agnes, offering bread to all, including this fine antiquated fellow when he leaves off dwelling on vicarious victories.”

Conrad bowed again, sweeping his feathered cap from his head.

“Conrad was a gregarious fellow in life, so he is bond to this square while I’m attached to that—” she pointed towards an outside stone oven set at the end of the square where the road gave way to a common of scrubby grass. “We are memories, lingering about objects and places. We want for nothing but what we carried in life. We have no need to thieve despite our many backgrounds. There’re even a few of those.” Agnes pointed to a man wearing a long tunic and cloak over sailor-like trousers. “Roman—or rather, one of ours who served the Romans.”

Another tug of memory: Edmund stood in the manor’s Great Hall while a large man—his uncle?—praised the ancient Romans and their adornments, their brooches and amulets and rings.

Edmund shuddered.

“She stole our treasure,” he told Agnes and pointed to Alice.

“Oh, my.” Agnes exchanged a glance with Conrad. “This boy is one of those—so far inside his own troubles he cannot see a way out.”

A shout echoed from the opposite side of the square, and Edmund swiveled. Sword-carrying Conrad didn’t, his gaze still bent on the drunkard.

Useless. Enemies lurked. Robbers gained footage. Thieves lurked in every doorway. A terror was coming, something worse than thievery.

He had no time to warn Agnes and Conrad. Alice sold the plate and moved on. Edmund ran after her, abiding with the spoon. Even if no one else could be bothered, he would keep faith.

Read the rest

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June 24, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (downloads)

I've posted the ebook files for book 4 of Hills of Silver Ruins. The Notes link on the Index page lists the relevant blog posts along with the illustrations.

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June 21, 2023

Tales of the Quest (excerpt)

How Questing Started

from The Definitive History of Questing by His Royal Highness, Co-Sovereign Prince Gregory of Hanswe

Sir Juniper Casings’ magnum opus, The History of the Confederation of Questing Kingdoms, states that the questing system preceded the treaties binding our twelve kingdoms together—that quests, not diplomacy, smoothed the way for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and enhancement of trade.

Learnedly speaking, The History is without parallel—until Prince Reboky of Greloc completes his life’s work, The Kingdoms From Past to Present (currently nearing eight volumes). Despite living in the early part of this century, Sir Casings traveled extensively, visiting the palaces and castles of the several Kingdoms, where he bargained his way into their archives (with likely less gentlemanliness than his prose indicates). His timeline of Farne’s border wars with Suvaginney is meticulously detailed. His family tree for each kingdom’s royal line is dependably documented. And although the history of his own country, Lucorey, is tinged with adulation, it is the only complete history of Lucorey on record.

And yet, despite my admiration for Casings’ intellect and dedication, I dispute his view of quests. Far be it from me, a retired quester with historical leanings, to contest a man of such academic acclaim—but he is wrong. Quests certainly preceded the Confederation; they have occurred in every kingdom throughout time. Nevertheless, quests in their current guise are a recent invention, brought about by decades of trial and error. The first quests were disorganized affairs concocted from arbitrary suggestions and unreasonable stipulations issued by haughty kings and thoughtless princesses.

Now we have a fractious and meddlesome Questing Board to pacify. In the past, the only body that could enforce fairness was the Council of Ambassadors. It was their work, not the quests themselves, that led to more oversight and standardization. It is easy to complain about Questing Board rules, yet the story of Prince Alfred and Princess Melinda reminds us how unsporting an unregulated quest can be.

The Impossible Task

A Tale of Questing in Its Infancy

Alfred was an impossibly arrogant prince, so Princess Melinda of Latavania set him an impossible task: “Find me the emerald of Terano.”

And so the arrogant prince, Alfred of Belget, went away, swearing to do the impossible. He would show her; he would have her.

He never returned. Sulking in his castle, most likely. Ah, well, pride proceedeth the fall.

Prince Phillip of Gailland, Melinda’s next suitor arrived. He was handsome and nice. Terribly nice. Melinda gave him a much easier task than Alfred’s. Phillip returned within a month. He presented his prize, a flower from the Forest of Malino in Tajart. Latavania’s prime minister declared it authentic. Wonderful. Melinda’s insides wrapped themselves around her heart in ecstasy.

Phillip proposed a visit.

“I would love to see your country,” Melinda said, feeling some gushing was appropriate.

“I would love for you to see it,” said Phillip, and the semi-official visit was settled.

Phillip’s councilors greeted Melinda effusively. Such a pleasant young woman, they said. Such a splendid couple you and Phillip will make, they said. Such a profitable match, they did not say, but Melinda agreed. The prime minister was pleased.

Melinda and Phillip drove through the countryside and boated on the lake. They waded at the beach and strolled in the evening down half-hidden walks.

O wondrous days. O fabulous hours.

Calamity arrived in the guise of a shadowy man named Whit. He trudged into the great hall where Melinda and Phillip sat tête-à-tête near the great hearth in the main hall.

Whit was Prince Alfred’s yeoman. He wanted news. Did they know where Alfred was? Had they seen him since he left for Suvaginney, the rumored hiding place of the Terano emerald?

“He came through Gailland during his search,” Phillip said. “I haven’t seen him since.”

Melinda, at once numb and agonized by this unforeseen outcome to Prince Alfred’s quest—the quest she had sent him on—shook her head.

“We are looking,” Whit said. “And we will continue searching.”

He departed, as endurable and ineffable as he had come.

Melinda said, “I should never have given Alfred such a difficult task. What if he died in the east?”

“He knew the risks,” Phillip said.

“I should have given him an easier task.”

“He would have been offended. Remember, I met him, Princess.” Phillip smiled. “Most impulsive.”

“I feel guilty.”

“You must allow for his choices.”

He diverted her gently with talk. He spoke intelligently about art, literature, and his family. He had an aunt who never left her house because she feared her beauty would overwhelm the populace. He had a cousin who trained bees. Melinda laughed and forgot Alfred. She and Phillip chose a wedding day.

Whit again marred Melinda’s serenity. He approached her on the path along the river when she was alone.

He said softly, “Please, Princess, for Alfred’s sake, visit the last cottage behind the shops.”

Guilt thus reawakened within her, she slipped out the next day. Phillip was meeting with the council of ambassadors to discuss the merging of his and Melinda’s countries. They would spend hours discussing trade agreements, foreign policy, and what-not.

Melinda wore a cap, coat, and britches. She tiptoed down the back stairs through the empty kitchen and across the cobbled yard. A stable hand said, “Hey, young man, where are you going?” but Melinda didn’t stop. She sprinted out the stable gate and down the street to the village.

How lovely not to see it from the carriage. Women bustled in and out of shops, swinging their baskets and laughing big belly laughs. “Hello, Sarah. How’s that good-for-nothing husband of yours?” Little boys, their hands outstretched, begged, “Please, sir. Ah, please sir, a farthing.” Traders from countries as far away as Svetland haggled with shopkeepers over arrays of goods.

Everyone was talking about Melinda and Phillip. “That young princess, now, she seems pleasant. Good enough for our kingdom. A nice girl. The prince sure does love her.”

“Not too pretty, but I never did trust good looks,” said the grocer’s wife. The drunks coming out of the tavern, knew better and sang quavering songs about Melinda’s beauty. She fled, ears burning.

She found the cottages through an alley. They overlooked a narrow footpath behind the shops. They were older timbered houses with shuttered windows and cluttered yards. A few children clung to the gates to watch Melinda pass.

The last cottage appeared untenanted. It was such a sad house with drooping gray colors and straggly thatch, but, “Pardon,” said a voice behind her, and a man limped around Melinda and opened the gate. He carried a small package of sausages. He set it down to relatch the gate, and she saw that his right hand was crippled, all the fingers frozen in a fist. Such a sad, little house and a sad, old man.

He looked at her across the gate. She saw that he was not old. His face was ragged with scars yet rather grand for all that. Alfred was still so very arrogant.

“Good-day,” Alfred said, not meeting her eyes, but Melinda said his name.

He quivered into immobility, gripping his groceries. Melinda opened the gate and took his arm. He averted his face.

She led him inside and made him tea.

“Was the task so dangerous?” she said. “I did not know. I did not mean to bring you harm, Alfred.”

He rested the teacup on his knee, said to the carpet, “I found the emerald, Melinda. I told you I would,” and he smiled.

“What happened?”

“You are going to marry Prince Phillip?”


“Go back to the castle. Tell Phillip you had a good time seeing his village. Go.”

“Tell me.” She stood before his chair and lifted his face to her. He winced. “Tell me.”

“Phillip stole the emerald.”

“I don’t believe you.”

He shrugged. “Good. Don’t. Leave me be.”

“I can’t believe you would let him.”

His mouth curled grimly. “I hired a boat and crew in Gailland; I returned here after I found the emerald. Phillip learned what I’d accomplished. He set his henchmen on me, locked me in a dungeon. He did this to me.”

Alfred held up the broken, gnarled hand, and Melinda put her hand to her mouth.

“He said I didn’t deserve you. Said I wouldn’t know how to care for you. Said he was rescuing you from a terrible fate. Once he had what he wanted, he let me go.”

“Why do you remain here?”

“I couldn’t go home, not like this, not broken.”

Because he could not bear humiliation, had never endured it well.

“Or to me,” she said.

“Especially not to you. It was not just your land I wanted, Melinda.”

“Come with me to the castle.”


“I said I would marry you if you found the emerald. I promised you first. I must ask Phillip if he took it.”

Alfred shook his head.

“I’ll drag the council of ambassadors to your doorstep,” Melinda said, furious with his pride and her thoughtlessness.

I never looked for him. I never wondered.

So she brought Alfred with her into the great hall where Phillip sat with the ambassadors, who rose in astonishment at Alfred’s appearance. She told Alfred’s story.

“Of course I never wounded him,” Phillip said. “Princess, you know what he is like.”

“Never a liar,” she said. “I never heard him called a liar.”

“Over so great a prize,” Phillip said to the ambassadors, “what man would not falter and fall,” condemning himself as well as Alfred. He added quickly, “Alfred’s temper—his refusal to accept defeat—is well-known.”

“Perhaps, Prince Phillip,” said an ambassador, “you would allow a search of your possessions?”

For the first time Phillip’s confidence wavered while Melinda thought, I never saw: Phillip’s cupidity, as overweening as Alfred’s pride, that must obtain what it wants, not with feats or declarations but with honeyed words and sweet messages.

“Melinda,” Phillip said. “Melinda, I love you,” while Alfred stood cold and aloof at her side.

She touched him lightly. He responded: a quiver of warmth, an unclenching of muscles.

“Melinda,” Phillip said, “I did it for you. I took the emerald for your sake.” He addressed the ambassadors: “I think you all agree that I won it.”

“Surely,” said an ambassador, “it matters how you won it,” and the ambassador from Latavania said, “The princess asked that it be brought to her. Neither prince has completed the quest.”

All turned as shouts rose outside the great hall. Whit rushed through the doors followed by six guards. He carried an object wrapped in cloth. Green glinted amongst the folds.

He called to Alfred, “I found it in Prince Phillip’s room.”

“No,” Prince Phillip cried, rushing forward.

“Give it to me,” Melinda shouted, and Phillip dropped back.

Whit looked at Alfred. Melinda looked at Alfred. He stared across the room at the wrapped emerald; he stared at Melinda, the greatest prize he could ever have won.

He said, “Give it to her, Whit.”

So Whit gave it to her, and she held her choice in her hand.

“Which prince do you choose?” said the ambassador from Alfred’s country. He was forthrightly curious, not at all reproachful.

She considered, and she felt, of a sudden, that the emerald was only the brief, illusionary image of choice, that she had never been bound by her tasks any more than Phillip and Alfred had been bound to achieve them, that yes and no lay at her disposal, of a surety.

Which will you choose?

And she weighed the question in her mind as night closed in on the great hall and servants came in to light the lamps.

Read the rest

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June 17, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (downloads)

I've posted the ebook files for book 3 of Hills of Silver Ruins. The Notes link on the Index page lists the relevant blog posts along with the illustrations.

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June 14, 2023

The cruel compassion of the kirin

Japan's most famous kirin watch over Nihonbashi.
The kirin (麒麟) is a Chinese unicorn. In the universe of the Twelve Kingdom, the shapeshifting kirin is born on Mt. Hou and becomes prime minister to the emperor or empress he personally selects.

A kirin has two mandates, choosing the emperor and ensuring the general welfare of the kingdom. The first is a one and done. In order to carry out the second, the kirin serves as chief advisor to the emperor, governor of the capital province, and commander of one half of the Imperial Army.

That last portfolio might seem odd, given the kirin's aversion to blood and violence. This aversion, coupled with the second mandate, the general welfare of the kingdom, is why kirin are known as "creatures of compassion."

Except a kirin is less a pacifist and more a military general directing the action from behind the lines. Adopting a "moral equivalent of war" approach, whereby the ends often justify the means, they can become so focused on their objectives that the fates of ordinary humans escape their attention.

Yari observes that for Taiki, "the fate of Tai always took precedence." This explains why Taiki returned to Kouki. Tai needed saving now. Everything else fell by the wayside, including the search for Gyousou.

When Taiki, Yari, and Kouryou break into the palace prison to rescue Seirai, Taiki can't yet persuade himself to kill the guard. But he has no problem with Yari and Kouryou dispatching a whole platoon basically for having the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Keiki commits half a dozen felonies when he first meets Youko. Kourin can barely bring herself to stab Youko in the hand, yet when ordered by the Imperial Kou, repeatedly dispatches her shirei to kill Youko.

Taiki's willingness to go to any lengths to get the job done is just getting started. Drawing on deep reserves of self-discipline, he forces himself to bow to Asen, even though doing so feels like "a spike driven through his forehead" and makes him literally bleed out of his eyes.

In the climactic scene, Taiki kills a guard and wounds several others. Hence Rousan calling Taiki a "monster" unlike any kirin before him. But as the example of Rokuta makes clear, a kirin has enormous latitude to expand its job description.

The existence of the kirin itself so defied the normal constraints of the world that it was reasonable to conclude that only Heaven could have made them that way. And so it followed that the Divine Will was whatever the kirin said it was.

But even kirin must yield to the supernatural laws that govern a kirin's nature. Like Kourin, Taiki pays a price for warring against that nature. Fortunately for him, unlike the Imperial Kou, who takes Kourin with him to the grave, Gyousou steps forward to tell Taiki that enough is enough.

It will still take Taiki months or even years to recover. When he does, unlike his younger self, this battle-hardened kirin will provide a strong check and balance on Gyousou's actions going forward. And I'm sure that Gyousou can be counted on to return the favor.

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June 10, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (downloads)

I've posted the ebook files for book 2 of Hills of Silver Ruins. The Notes link on the Index page lists the relevant blog posts along with the illustrations.

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June 07, 2023

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A reader wondered why chapter 7 of book 4 in Hills of Silver Ruins [19-7] ends on page 59 but chapter 8 [20-1] begins on page 62. The reason is that the titles for section breaks are placed on the recto, rather than the next page, in this case leaving page 60 blank.

In publishing terms, recto is the front of a leaf (or page) and verso is the back. By tradition, page 1 starts on the recto, the right-hand page in left-to-right languages (such as English). Recto and verso are reversed in right-to-left (vertically typeset) Japanese books, so odd-numbered pages are on the left.

Because the typesetter started each section in Hills of Silver Ruins on the recto, these numbering gaps are scattered throughout the books. Here is the spread for part 20. As you can see, the recto is on the left. The page on the right (the verso of page 59) is blank (click image to magnify).

Typical print book layout also begins front and end material on the recto. But not necessarily chapter headings. A chapter usually gets a new page that is either the next page (recto or verso) or always recto (if saving paper isn't an issue).

In Hills of Silver Ruins, though, chapter headings do not get a new page, only white space. Another clever design decision was to use kanji numbers for the section headings but not the chapter headings. Japanese typography offers these options to book designers and greatly simplifies several other variables.

Characters in a given font and size occupy a box the same width and height, including punctuation. There is no spacing between characters (except in children's books). Imagine typing in a non-proportional font and having the line wrap at the right-hand margin regardless of where the cursor is in a word.

As a result, Japanese typesetters don't have to worry about justification, hyphenation, or widows and orphans (unless the result is quite ungainly, such as a single character on an otherwise blank page).

The one exception is punctuation. An end punctuation mark should not be separated from the preceeding text if it falls at the beginning of a line or the top of a column of text. To prevent this from happening, it is acceptable to kern a punctuation mark or push it into space reserved for the bottom or right margin.

In the example below, you can see the chapter number demarcated only with white space, and a comma and period pushed into the bottom margin. Even rudimentary Japanese word processing software has this capability (click image to magnify).

In vertical text, the comma, period, and close quotation mark (、。」) are located at the top (or left) of the aforementioned box while an open quotation mark (「) is at the bottom (or right). Thus the trailing space is built into the punctuation. Quotation marks rotate 90 degrees when printed vertically.

A paragraph indent is one box wide, the same width (or height) as hitting the spacebar once.

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June 03, 2023

Twelve Kingdoms (downloads)

The ebook files are available at the links below. The doc files can be viewed and downloaded at Google Docs in a variety of formats. All publication rights remain with the copyright holders.

When downloading a file, Google Drive will default to preview mode. To skip this step, click the download icon at the top right on the Google Drive page.

Poseidon of the East index   epub   mobi   doc   10/23  
The Wings of Dreams index   epub   mobi   doc  
Shadow of the Moon index   epub   mobi   doc   04/23  
A Thousand Leagues of Wind index   epub   mobi   doc  
The Shore in Twilight index   epub   mobi   doc  
Hills of Silver Ruins I–IV index   epub   mobi   doc   06/23  
I index   epub   mobi   doc   05/23  
II index   epub   mobi   doc   06/23  
III index   epub   mobi   doc   06/23  
IV index   epub   mobi   doc   06/23  
Dreaming of Paradise index   epub   mobi   doc   07/23  
Hisho's Birds index   epub   mobi   doc   07/23  

Chapters are numbered sequentially for file management purposes. The [part + chapter] style used in the books is displayed at the beginning of each chapter.

Translations of Masho no Ko ("The Demon Child") and Kaze no Umi, Meikyu no Kishi ("A Sea of Wind, Shores of the Labyrinth") are available at the Worlds in Translation website.

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