Discarded Chapter 15
teacherpaul
Mysis hustled towards Sohemus’ room, with her companions and even royalty in her wake. “Why are you in such a hurry?” asked Nithas.
“Once the Strength Through Joy is out of sight, they will curve away to one side or another and land a squad, maybe even led by Lady Emeth herself. Either they will wait for us to leave and cut us off, or they will sneak into the city and find us here. Since we are not staying here, we have to leave as soon as possible.”
“But why do we need to bring Sohemus?”
“Because she might have the magic to cure Cinyui’s soul.” And she might have the answers to all our spiritual ills.
Even as she thought that, Nithas looked at her strangely, feeling but not understanding her new found but still uncertain hope.
They reached Sohemus’ room together, but only Mysis, Apulia, Obadas, and Asamoneus entered the room. “We need you for an adventure.”
Sohemus studied Mysis, then stared at the green gem still hanging openly against Apulia’s chest. She stood, rolled up her bedroll, and nodded. “I am ready.”
“No weapons?”
She took a knife and stuck in her belt. “You never know when you might have to cut a rope, but I will not kill another living being. We are all a part of creation.”
“If your creative god was so morally particular,” said Obadas, “then it wouldn’t have created so many predators.”
“The act of killing interferes with the magic of creation,” quietly insisted Sohemus. “I doubt any of you will complain when I heal your wounds after battle. Have I your leave?”
Obadas looked a little shocked, and then embarrassed, at the phrase, but Asamoneus nodded. “Consider this trial by contest. Can you heal the soul gem? Can you aid Chan?”
“Time will tell,” said Sohemus, and soon Mysis led her expanded and well supplied group of adventurers out the landward gate of Rathmorian. Slightly out in front, Keramos guided them the easiest, and therefore fastest, way towards the next source of freshwater, which she said was two days distance, by the old time reckoning. Beside her walked Nithas, behind them Sohemus and Apulia, then finally Meramix and Barefoot Chan. She heard Sohemus and Apulia whispering about Cinyui, and Meramix questioning Chan about the sensations of carrying a dragon within his soul, but Nithas’ questions pestered at her so she couldn’t concentrate on more important matters. But answer his questions she did, because so much had been learned in his absence that he needed to know.
And she felt his desperate need for knowledge so he could understand the wisdom of turning their backs on Lady Emeth, which felt to him like turning their backs on their people. Only a little while ago, this was simply his humoring her desire to help Chan find his lost love, but the stakes had risen. Chan’s access to his dragon power was growing, perhaps faster than his control over it, Sohemus might have found a spirituality worthy of following, and Apulia had stolen the temptation of too costly victory away from her people. Leading by example, she kept the adventurers hiking at a quick pace to put more distance, and therefore time, between her and their probably pursuers, counting her blessings that the Kazan were more experienced in the dark tunnels. Their peoples may have been underneath for the same span, but her people had preferred to huddle around the light of their city than explore the darkness, especially on this side of the sea, claimed by the Kazan.
“So Lady Emeth planned on …” Nithas couldn’t complete the sentence, unable to find soft enough words for their Lady’s plans. “I cannot believe the Council was cooperating with her.”
She could not have retrieved Cinyui’s soul gem from safe keeping without their consent. But how many consented for the healing of Cinyui, and how many knew of Emeth’s second plan? “One dissented. That was enough.” I hope.
“Apulia and I worried about you. I felt your life, but always in the direction of the Kazan. Just the two of you, facing Rathmorian?”
“And here I am, rushing you on, with no time to rest.”
He took her hand in his, and their long love flowed between them. “Just being with you again gives me the spirit to go on.”
A habitual love, long enduring but never tested, because always assumed.
As her legs automatically followed Keramos with a trust that would have shocked her only days ago, she remembered her union with Nithas. Everyone entered into a union, sooner or later, but the immortality of her people meant that the soul gems were rarely used for rebirths. Mysis had been in her third decade when a hunting mission went foul and the party returned with three less members, but had retrieved their soul gems. One of deceased had been her former lover, and one of the other gems had been used to give birth to Nithas.
Older Enyans thought Mysis’ curiosity about the world above an aberration, but Nithas simply grew up with it as fact. Of the three reborn, he grew to become the most open-minded, most accepting of Mysis’ lonely travels. It simply made sense for them to come together, since he would mind her absences the least.
They came up against a sheer rock face whose top disappeared above the light of Nithas’ staff. “The demi-gods go around this,” explained Keramos, “but that way leads through the fungi jungle. None of the predators there will attack them, or for that matter the fungi, but we would attract their appetites.”
“But I saw Meramix kill that creature,” said Chan.
“That doesn’t mean we want to be ambushed by a pack of them, or anything larger. No, as dangerous as these cliffs look, it is safer than the jungles, especially if we rope ourselves together. Chan, you are the least experienced climber so you stay close to me. I will show you the way.”
And so up they went, Keramos, Chan, Mysis, Nithas, Sohemus, Apulia, and Meramix, a chain of little ants. Nithas had strapped his staff to his back, and the light cast little shadows ahead of Mysis. The climb stressed little muscles rarely used, her shoulders especially ached.
When the earth shuddered, throwing them off, Mysis lost her grip, and there she was, in mid air, thinking it would be Lady Emeth who found their soul gems after their broken bodies died at the base of the cliff.
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Tower Chapter 16
teacherpaul
As Arvin hiked back up the stair towards the offices, the number of wounded from the riots shocked him more than the fresh burn marks on the walls. It was as if entire levels had lost their minds. He told himself most of the people had probably been hiding in their homes, but that amount of fear within the Tower disturbed him even more. The Tower had been built to keep its people safe. Dangers within hadn’t been considered.
Or had they, he wondered, as he walked through yet another sturdy set of inner doors, easily barred against intruders fighting their way up.
But was it even possible for invaders to reach this high? The Towers outer defenses had never been breached.
When reaching the upper levels, Arvin tried to stride into the accounting confessional as if he had never been missing and handed in the paperwork from the soup kitchen.
Behind the desk, Father Wither snatched them away without even looking at them. “Where in the Tower have you been? Last night was a riot and you didn’t come out for medical duty!”
“I was at a soup kitchen filling out these forms, and was stuck on the other side of the riots.” It was true, so far as it went.
“The riot started after curfew. You should have been back by then.”
“The riot reached the middle levels after then. It started earlier on the lower ones,” he answered, hoping it was true, but a little ashamed of appealing to his superior’s prejudices. “I’d like to look into that, Father. The riots are a threat to public safety, and the Church staff down below has more connections than we do.”
“You think…” Wither read the form,” Elder Sister Jessi has useful information?”
“She overhears a lot.”
“I’m not sure I want a priest poking around dangerous characters down there.”
“Then send a guard or two with me. We should dress in some different clothes, of course.”
“It sounds like a job for the Shades. For all we know, they are two steps ahead of you already.”
The Shades, spies scattered throughout the Tower, working for their Commander, jointly appointed and responsible to the King and Archbishop. They hunted criminals, but after that night with Jessi, he was convinced this was beyond them.
“Maybe, but still-“
“Leave it to the professionals, Brother Arvin. Get some rest, then go back to your office.”
My office, he thought as he left. That cramped, stuffy, dusty, hole.
Instead he went to the Church library, well lit by one of the great windows, all the bookshelves aligned to allow streams of light to fill the walkways between. An inefficient design, but safer than having candles around all these pages. First he browsed through the Indexes, looking for which books had information on emotion and magic. Finding three likely titles, he retrieved them from the shelves and joined the other readers, mostly novices but some scholars.
He skimmed and read and skimmed again, and became more and more convinced he had suffered from a spell. More than that, he remembered more lustful dreams recently, but the desire had only becomes strong enough to change his behavior on the lower levels. Plus, the riots were happening at the same time as his bouts of lust.
Someone down below is using magic to undermine our entire society, he realized with a flash of logic.
Gathering his notes and staff, he rushed to the offices of the griffon riders. He wanted to go even higher, but lacked the rank to secure an appointment. After throwing his church authority around a little recklessly, he found himself in the tidy office of Colonel Horbright, who offered him a chair.
“Thank you.” He sat down across the desk from Horbright, with his warrior shoulders and weather beaten face, wearing red with a bright gold griffon his chest. He showed the colonel his notes, and how magical theory supported the suspicion of covert mystical attack.
The colonel looked into Arvin’s eyes, and then he sighed. “You have that look of someone who is fanatically certain.”
“I am morally certain of my thesis, Colonel.”
“Well then, I need your oath of secrecy to continue this conversation.” He went to his shelves, looked through the files, and took out a sheet. When Arvin read it, he realized it was the High Oath, which gave the colonel the right to kill him if he told anyone.
Oh, my gods, I’m right, and they know it.
He signed.
“You are right,” admitted the colonel. “This is dark magic, below the lowest levels we live. A troop of solders, including paladins, went to investigate, and were slaughtered by monsters.” Aside from the dropped jaw, the news paralyzed Arvin.
“I know. We’ve looked down the ways in and out of the foundations, and we are preparing a second strike force, larger and with more magic. We could use more priests, and since you already know about it, you could join, if you think you’re up to it.”
He remembered how the magic had pushed him to break his oath and defile Jessi’s spiritual beauty, how it stripped him of his free will, and gripped his staff firmly.
“Yes, I do.”
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Last Book Stop Chapter 16
teacherpaul
More people came into the store that day than normally in a month, checking out references to figure out why their computers refused their posts about books they had, or claimed to have, read. They crawled over the store like ants, and David never had a chance to sit down for all the questions people asked him.
“No, I can’t just look it up. I don’t have a computer. Just look in the general section,” he said again and again, realizing for the first time that he had lost track of how many books he’d saved.
“The Protocols of Zion? I think I stored that in the back bins,” he told a large, hairless blob. “But the trash has already been taken out.”
“No, I don’t have a copy of the Necroconium. It’s not a real book.”
“The astrology books are in the section labeled ‘wishful thinking’.”
He was trying to calm down a shouting match between two women over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother when the impact sounds of punching grabbed his attention. He rushed towards the philosophy section, where three skin heads and two hippies were trying to fight in the narrow confines of his bookshelves. The lack of room quickly turned the struggle into shoving and pulling for position.
“Hey, cut that out!”
The skinhead without room to get in on the action beating the hippies spun about fist first and punched David. He spun around as he fell, landing on his hands and the side of his face. A boot slammed into his side, but even as he braced himself for another blow, it didn’t come. He looked up and saw Henry discarding one skinhead, then knocking the other two unconscious with easy efficiency. The hippies lifted their hands in surrender and backed further into the philosophy section.
Austen helped him to his feet. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” But Henry had a wild look in his face, and was breathing hard but slow, and slower. “Is he?”
They watched Henry calm himself, slowly recover his cool. “Yeah, I’ll be okay.” But he turned and walked away.
“Great, he left us to take out the rubbish. You two, what was that fight about?”
The hippie who wasn’t holding his head back as he tried to stop his nose bleeding said, “I was just saying that Nietzsche wouldn’t have approved of the Nazis and they freaked out.”
“Well, help me carry these guys outside. Austen, you have crowd control.”
They started with the biggest one and worked their way down.
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Hotel Murder Chapter 15
teacherpaul
“Well, what the hell happened here?” asked Gasconi as they came in.
“Bancroft isn’t going to run on his own,” said Hood. “He’d have to leave his business. He couldn’t get work anywhere with a police investigation is following him.”
Hood turned around to look at the door and saw a bullet hole in the wall. “Well, I know how tall Bancroft is.”
“What?” asked Gasconi, turning. “Yeah, that would be a head shot. A missed shot, thank God.”
“Fond of him?”
“He’s wasn’t rogue. Hell, he didn’t even carry a gun.”
“That confident of himself?”
“He never let the mark know he was being watched in the first place. We’re detectives and we don’t know how long he was following us.”
“So, someone violent, professional enough a shot to only fire once and well, and can also crack safes.”
“How do you know it wasn’t a two-man job?”
“Because if the shooter was on look out, he would have hit Bancroft. But he missed, which means something was distracting him, and that was mostly likely his opening and going through the safe.”
“Which Bancroft walked in on by accident because we arranged a meeting with him.”
“Right. And around here, only the Four Families could have hired someone this good.” He looked inside the safe and found files. He glanced through them. “Bancroft’s tax records. And the tax records for George Beard.” Who owned three fast food franchises on the East Coast. “And Charles Schlesinger.” Who owned two cafes in Seattle. “All the signatures are the same.” He looked up at Gasconi. “I don’t suppose Bancroft had alternate identities.”
“I caught him once pretending to be a reporter. I think he called himself Churchill. I thought it was funny at the time.”
“Well, he won’t be using one of these. He’d know the gun man would have seen them. I wonder where he’d go to ground.”
“We could ask the Hell Hounds.”
“The who?”
“A biker gang. There’s a rumor in the department that the Four Families pay them to keep out gangs from bigger cities. Anyone driving around in gang colors gets a looking over by Bancroft, then a working over by the Hounds.”
“But what if this intruder was hired by the Families?”
“Then either he won’t go to the Hounds, or he will go to them, unsuspecting that it’s a trap.”
“Then let’s go to the Hounds.”
“Ah, it’s not really that simple,” said Gasconi. “We have to make an appointment.”
“With a biker gang?”
“A biker gang paid to beat up drug dealers, gangsters, mob enforcers, any aspect of the criminal element that might threaten the power of the Four Families. They have three tough guy championship fighters in their group.”
“Okay, okay. How do we make this appointment?”
Gasconi opened his cell phone and scrolled through his list.
“You have their number in their phone?”
“No, but I have the number of the club they hang out in. Ladies for the Tramps.”
“Well, at least they have a sense of humor.”
Gasconi while chatted on the phone, Hood walked around the P.I.’s office. The furniture was twenty years old, but clean. The computer was ten years old. He turned it on, but it had been wiped clean. It didn’t even have icons to click.
“We’ve got a meeting in an hour with Honcho.”
“As in the Head Honcho.”
“Right.”
“This computer is empty. It doesn’t even have a platform.”
“The intruder probably tried to read it. Joe told me once that he had the computer rigged to wipe itself out if someone else tried to use it.”
“He was in the business of secrets.”
They searched the room more thoroughly, then headed out for ‘Ladies for the Tramps’ on the outskirts of town.
“I don’t like working with vigilantes,” said Hood.
“We’re not working with them. We’re interrogating them with extreme delicacy. They like Bancroft and if he’s in trouble, they will want to cooperate.”
Unless they like the Four Families’ money more. “Like him why?”
“He finds the drug dens, they bust them up.”
“I know there are drug dealers in the city. I’ve met guys from Vice.”
“Small timers operating out of their homes, not on the streets hustling product. Selling to adults, not kids. And like I said, no one that might threaten the Four Families.”
Thirty bikes, more or less, were lined up outside the club, with its walls of large, white bricks. Even the windows had been bricked up, but with regular-sized red ones. Both the “L” and the “T” were stylized women in provocative poses.
“Well, I guess I know why my wife never made us a reservation here.”
The bar’s floor was so sticky from long spilled beer that Hood had to use extra force just to pull his feet up while walking. Country rock blared. The dancers were of fertile proportions, but otherwise no particular type, or all of them, depending on how one looked at it. The men looked like they trained for fights by drinking beer and going at it with each other. Even if Hood and Gasconi melded into one person, they would still be one of the smallest men in the bar. Some of them looked like they could carry their bikes easier than their bikes carried them.
One of them stood in their way. “I’m Gasconi. I called ahead.”
“Yeah, Honcho said you’d be droppin’ by. Head straight to the back office. No detours.”
Hood bit back a reply and followed Gasconi to the office. Along the way, Hood glanced over the place, looking for where he’d hide someone, willing or otherwise. All he saw was an open doorway at the end of the bar, and his glance only saw a room for keeping beers on ice.
In his sloppy office, with swimsuit calendars from a variety of years hung up and left open to apparently favorite months, Honcho was painting a dancer’s toenails bright green. Both of them had too much hair and more muscles than anyone really needed. Hood found himself wondering what sort of woman wanted more muscles than he had, and what sort of biker would do her nails.
“So, Detective Gasconi,” bellowed Honcho, without seeming to actually raise his voice. Hood suspected it was his natural volume, or perhaps the result of too often trying to have conversations on loud motorcycles and in crowded bars. “What do you want in this neck of the corn fields?”
“We’re looking for Joe Bancroft. We think he’s in trouble.” Gasconi gave a very brief description of what had happened, without mentioning their case specifically or the files they’d found.
“I’m not worried about Bancroft. Dig under that tough skin of his and all you find is iron.”
“He’s peaceable enough,” said Gasconi.
“Which is why you don’t know him. I’ve seen him end a fight in one punch. I’ve heard he was punched over a bar once, then crawled back over to finish the fight, back when he said he was dumb enough to let someone land the first punch.”
Hood noted that he said ‘land the first punch,’ not throw it.
“So who would he be running away from?” asked Gasconi.
“Got me. Gasconi only tells funny stories. When he’s worried, he plays it close to the vest.” Honcho smiled. “But don’t tell him I said so. Knowing that’s the only edge I’ve got over him at poker.”
He doesn’t have much of a poker face, that’s for sure, thought Hood. The detective wanted to smack the smug satisfaction off the thug’s face, but knew it would clam up a potential lead so stifled it and let Gasconi handle the interview.
“So who would he run to?”
“You think he’s hiding behind my skirts, Detective? Nah, but if he is on the run, he’s goin’ turn around fast, get behind the guy after him, and gut him that way. He won’t surface until he knows what he’s up against. Then he might ask me for a hand, depending on the opposition.”
Hood took out his card. “If he does, give him this, and tell him not to come skulking around my house again. The ‘again’ is very important.”
“Why should I, copper?”
“Because the guy who is trying to kill him might be the guy who killed the body in our morgue. It will save you guys a lot of trouble if we just toss him in a maximum security hole.”
“We live for trouble,” said Honcho, taking the card, “but Joe always told me to cover the bases.”

Writer's Block: Young and Old
teacherpaul
If you could do so, how would you spend the day with a younger version of yourself -- where would you go and what would you do? Now that you're older and wiser, what advice would you give that younger you?


More Olympic lifting, more foreign language classes, and learn more about computer.

Hotel Murder Chapter Fourteen
teacherpaul
“Rob Mallory and Samantha Cesborn.”
“That’s an interesting combination,” mused Hood. They got into the car and Gasconi started driving Hood back home. “What were they doing?”
“Using her home computer.”
“Now why would they use her computer?”
“To do something they don’t want traced back to their own?”
“Or to do something they do want traced to hers.”
“And Hope Longstreet is just going along with it?”
“What would you do to ensure that your daughter inherited the family fortune?”
“Good point.”
The next morning Hood left home, and as he drove away noticed that the P.I. had moved his car, now watching from an angle that wouldn’t allow him to be seen from the house, but gave him a good view of the driveway. He let Joe follow him back to the station.
He was in his office reading Eric’s financials when he was only briefly surprised by the entrance of Samantha Cesborn. She looked almost tearful and afraid, but had also gone to some lengths to pretty herself up, wearing more make-up around the eyes than at the poker table, and even a tight dress.
“What can I do for you?” asked Hood, standing up with pretended concern, almost certain she was about to try playing him.
“I think I know who killed Eric, or who would know something you need to know.”
He offered her a seat, and she took it with a grateful face. “Who is that, Ms. Cesborn?”
“Joe Bancroft.”
“The private investigator? Why do you think that?”
“Because the night Eric was murdered, I had met him at a bar. When Eric left, I saw Joe follow him.”
“And how do you know Mr. Bancroft?”
She blushed. “After I got out of rehab, my father hired him to follow me around, to make sure I didn’t get back into drugs.”
“And why didn’t you tell us this at the poker night?” asked Gasconi.
She leaned forward just a little, giving Gasconi a better look at her breasts and sad eyes. “Bancroft has done work for all our families, one way or another. Suspecting him would be like suspecting a chauffeur, but then I realized Joe might have seen something, or heard something. You understand.”
“And you don’t think Bancroft would tell us?” asked Hood.
“If Joe had a suspicion about Eric’s killer, he would have told Victor. It’s why we trust him.”
Hood nodded, to show her a belief that he didn’t feel. “Private investigators and the police do seem to operate in parallel.” She looked puzzled. “The same plane of existence but never crossing. Or never wanting to.”
“Oh. So is this helpful?”
“We’ll find out. Thank you for the lead, Ms. Cesborn.”
After she left, Hood and Gasconi shared an unconvinced look. “Do you think it’s a coincidence that she came into our office the morning after I saw on her the computer at Hope’s?”
Hood crossed his arms. “I don’t know, but I know she’s lying about something. Maybe she wants to discredit Bancroft, or maybe frame him.”
“Joe Bancroft’s a P.I., not an assassin. He doesn’t even strong arm people, just fingers guys. Collects evidence. On slow months he repossesses cars.”
“And now someone is trying to finger him. Let’s go find out what he thinks of that.” He took Joe Bancroft’s number for Victor’s file on Eric and called the investigator on his cell phone. He imagined the P.I. on out the street nearby sitting in his car watching the station garage.
“Yes?” answered a bored, gravelly voice.
“This is Detective Hood. I’d like to ask you a few questions. Your office or mine?”
He heard the car engine start over the cell phone. “My office would be better.”
“I will be there shortly. Thank you.” He hung up and enjoyed the image in his mind of Bancroft suddenly turning his car around and racing back to beat them there.
But when Hood and Gasconi found Bancroft’s office in the cheap rent district, between a bar and a pawnshop, they found the door left open, the office safe wide open, and no sign of Bancroft at all.

The Last Bookstop Chapter 15
teacherpaul
Henry was sitting on a stool reading The Return of the King after dusting off the fantasy section when he heard a cheerful, unwelcome voice calling for him.
Big Bling. Why did he have to find me?
But the books he’d read recently suggested that ‘have’ was only the appropriate verb if he was referring to Big Bling’s desire to make money off top earners, whereas, in the larger scheme of life, there was no ‘have,’ but rather chaotic systems that channeled the flow of history in certain generalized directions while a person’s life was left more to chance than people liked to think, while in the largest scheme of things, the galaxies circled around with the elegance of dance mindlessly following the dictates of natural laws.
Closing his book around his finger to keep his place, he walked around a couple of corners and down some stairs to the front. David was staring at Big Bling as if he was some sort of alien, and Big Bling wasn’t even pimped out. He was a big Irishman in a black suit, long red hair tied back, and five gold chains, one for each championship victory before he retired for management. He’d won them in a year, before knee was busted in his last fight by a guy who was disqualified. Now Bling was making more money than ever and the other guy was, last heard, a ranch hand in Alberta.
Bling was bigger than Henry, after years of weight lifting only in part as therapy for his knee. “Hey, there Henry. Bored yet?” His big ass grin charmed. It was why he didn’t like email. The personal touch had always worked better for him.
“I can’t fight, BB. You know what the HH was doing to me.”
“You don’t have to use it. I’ve twisted enough arms in the House to get my big bill passed. Drug testing for every fighter on the Net. HH free fights starting in six weeks, enough time for people to detox, retrain, and get back in the ring.”
Six weeks didn’t seem like enough time to detox, never mind retrain, to Henry, but the fighters had to pay rent and the promoters had to pay mistresses.
“There’s a lot of money in the fight lobby. How’d you do it?”
“Hey, Henry, fight promoters might be blood suckers, but we don’t hate our fighters. As long as one promoter’s fighters was using HH, all the others had to, but back stage we all knew HH was burning up our fighters.”
“And who’d become a fighter if the medical bills wiped out the earnings?”
“Right,” said Bling, without missing a beat. “But now that it’s a law, all of us are back on a level playing field.”
“Except the cheaters.”
“This isn’t random screening. Everyone who wants to fight is tested.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Okay, but the sooner to get back to me, the better the match up you might get.”
Might, thought Henry. One of every promoters favorite weasel words.
After a quick good-bye, Big Bling left. David glanced at Henry. “So, you want to get back in the ring?”
“Got me. Probably shouldn’t.” I can barely dance with Austen without my heart getting wacky. He stared at The Return of the King, envying the moral certainty of Aragorn. Fighting orcs was a moral no-brainer, requiring courage and strength, yes, but it wasn’t as if anyone would mistake serving Sauron for a right decision. Even his orcs served him as much from fear as viciousness. Saruman was a sort of Heidegger; it took a world class intellect to justify ape-like stupidity to itself. But even Saruman’s decision wasn’t as bad as Heidegger; the wizard would wait in the wings to stab the Big Bad in the back, while the philosopher lived to serve.
But once Henry started thinking about life, having little else to do in prison besides lift weights, he started to wonder, was the money really worth pumping drugs into his body and beating up other bodies? What sort of questions did mob lawyers ask, or avoid asking, themselves? Corporate raiders? Embezzlers?
What did their moles ask themselves? What did strippers, secretaries, and soldiers ask themselves?
Thanks to skimpy budgets, the prison library was hit and miss, but once he started working at “The Last Bookstop” reading displaced staring at the concrete ceiling as his mode of thought, but he still hadn’t figured out how people convince themselves to be evil.
“It’s how people convince themselves to be good that you should wonder about,” had said David, when asked over a bottle of wine. “Being bad just has so many bloody advantages. More power. More sex. More money. Especially more money, which buys everything else. You want to travel? Money. You want an education? Money.”
“If you want a degree, you need money. If you just want an education, there’s always libraries.”
“So you’re telling me professors are worthless? They serve no purpose? They don’t guide you, save you time by steering you away from poppycock?”
“You’ve done that without charging me.” When David just groused, Henry charged on. “After they taught me my letters and sums, everything else teachers taught me, I could have learned on my own just by reading books. If I go back to school, I’d want to learn a trade. I can do my own philosophy.”
“So you’d just throw most of the humanities professors out onto the streets?”
“Not the language professors.” Learning Chinese or Japanese from the dockworkers was a slow, painful process, and he couldn’t read either at all.
“I can just imagine all those academics living on the dole.”
“It might force them to become better writers. Clear writing would let people know why they matter.”
David dismissed the idea with a sneer. “Most people don’t come home from work and kick back with glass of wine and read a good book. They kick back with a mass marketed beer and watch the telly.”
It was always hard to work past David’s philosophical resignation, as if Gandalf had looked into the palantir, the stone of seeing, saw the forces of evil, and decided to get, and stay, drunk while evil crept up all around him.
So when he and Austen were unloading a box of previously similar ownership to put the books in other boxes of presently similar subject matter, he asked Austen why people did bad things.
“Just leftovers from evolution, I guess. Once upon a time, we were apes, not princes and princesses. But bigger and bigger civilizations need broader, more inclusive moralities to keep trade thriving and peace within the kingdom. As a street gang gets bigger, it behaves better, to keep the gang from tearing itself apart. Sex used to be pretty indiscriminate, but eventually people realized marriage was a way to cement agreements between families and tribes. It never worked all that well, but neither do treaties. Why, are you thinking about doing a bad thing?”
“Sort of. I’ve had an offer to fight again, in a drug free competition, but it wasn’t …good for people. Good money for the winners, lots of injuries for the losers.”
He avoided looking at her directly, trying to figure out how to ask her to dance with him again. The real reason, that he wanted to see if he could control the excitement, would probably weird her out.
“You know, I always wanted to learn how to dance.”
“Why?”
“It just… well … it would be nice to have a way to romance a girl … besides beating up her ex-boyfriend.”
“Beating up ex-boyfriends has worked for you?”
“Ah, yes, but it requires … a particular context. She has to think he deserves it, he has to think he can win, or he won’t fight, but I still have to win, and she has to be watching for maximum effectiveness.”
“I can see how that would limit your opportunities to use it.”
“A random jerk can do, but not quite as well. If he backs down instead of fighting, it can work, too. The most important part is that he picks the fight.”
“I imagine not too many people pick fights with you.”
“No, not really. Fighting in the ring works okay.”
“So you want to romance Sharly?”
Huh? “Sharly?” He had trouble thinking of anything to say that wouldn’t make him sound like an idiot. Downplaying Sharly’s attractiveness would make him look like a liar, and admitting the attraction wouldn’t help him with Austen, and then saying that Sharly was probably after a higher class guy would make him look weak.
No good talking too much about feelings around women, he’d found. They find a way to twist them back against you.
“Well, you did suddenly want to learn after dancing with her.”
Think, damn it, think of what to say.
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Tower Chapter 15
teacherpaul
Despite the stink of rot inside, Tomas followed the companions and the hooded Queen into the oval hallways of webs walking single file. Tomas’ awareness kept waiting to be attacked from behind, jumped by some dog-sized spider. But he hear nothing but their own breathes and squeaks from unseen bats. The floor tugged against his boots, but only slowed his stride a little. As he legs grew sore, he tried to imagine running on these densely packed strings and realized he’d wear out, perhaps be tripped up, before escaping.
She ignored halls that branched away. Sacks of webbing dangled with globes of light at intersections. The hallway opened up into a white cathedral with dozens of the light globes hanging from a high, arched ceiling. A spider that probably weighed as much as he did despite the spindly legs finished up the last of several hammocks.
“For you to sleep,” explained the Queen, “while the magic works upon you.”
The Travelers glanced at each other, doubt of sleep on all their faces. She waved a casual hand and the spider scurried off down a side hallway. Besides a hammock for each of them, the Avatar had several trunks and piles of weapons, armor, and other gear, all Tower made, much of it blood stained.
“If you wish for anything among it, take it.”
“What’s in the trunks?” asked Woris.
“Those belong to me,” she said, pointing towards two trunks by a throne at the other end of the room. “The rest is scavenged.”
She opened the others, one at a time, with a heavy iron key. Inside was climbing gear, coins, toys, rings, and bits of jewelry, anything people might lose down a drain or sewer but glittered enough to catch an eye. Some of them had been repaired with webbing.
“What’s with the toys?” asked Evanus.
“I like to fix things. It passes the time down here.”
“Everyone needs a hobby,” said Romis with a purposely cheerful voice still edged with nerves.
They bagged the local currency and jewelry for pawning before settling down in their hammocks. The Avatar relaxed on her throne, her head dropping so the hood covered the rest of her face. The hammock stuck to Tomas’ shirt, and he used his pack as a pillow to keep his hair off the sticky threads.
He stared up at the milky white arched ceilings, wondering where the rotting smell came from. Perhaps the shit of the living arachnids, or the corpses of dead ones? Perhaps it was just from the sewers of the city above, or the half-eaten corpses of soldiers who used to wear the armor?
And all the time he listened and watched for ambush, still unable to believe in his self-proclaimed allies, even while believing the Avatar’s explanation, even knowing the rulers of the Tower included murderers and rapists, arguably worse sins than spiders eating the flesh of humans invading their realm.
When the quake hit, his hammock waved side to side, but the glue held him firmly. He tried to sit up, but couldn’t, but a momentary panic drowned under the lust and anger flooding upwards from the trapped dragon, the desire to kill every priest and noble possible. He watched himself doing it, killing with orgasmic thrill rushing in his body.
The Avatar loomed over him, shadowed by a back light grown stronger as the dragon magic filled him. Now you know what fills my dreams, what shapes my faith. There is more still, below the pillars.”
She pulled back her hood, and he stared at a multitude of reflections of himself in her hexagonal pupils. A stinger extended out from below her left wrist, and she stabbed his belly. As he cried out, the juices gushed into his belly. Then she yanked it back out and went to the next hammock. The magic swirled around under his skin, pushing aside his own bodily fluids and organs to make room. As it changed his body, he felt twisted inside, and screamed on, soon joined by his compatriots, until he passed out.
When he woke, he stood so easily and quickly that he almost lost his balance. He felt warm, and sore all over, and as he looked at his hands he saw new muscles. Flexing and making fists, he stretched out their stiffness. Romis and Evanus joined him, also shaking their bodies, with new strength straining their clothes. All had normal looking enough eyes, but the smell of rot had grown acute.
“What have you done to us?” he asked the Avatar watching them from her throne.
“I cannot explain it in terms you would understand, but the seeds of all life exist in every other life. You have been, in some ways, reverted to an earlier humanity, stronger and faster than any human alive now.”
Tomas looked at Woris, still sleeping in his hammock. “And him?”
“The dragon believes he can absorb even greater transformation, as I did. His spirit was the most willing, so accepted the magic best.” She smiled, revealing fangs. “The dragon does not take slaves, at least not of creatures capable of feeling enslaved. Now collect your things and go. Woris will join you when he’s ready.”
So they did, but Tomas took one last look back at Woris, and wondered if they would still be friends after they lost their humanity.
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Discarded Chapter 14
teacherpaul
Chan stared at his first good look at the spirit gems these people wore under their clothes. One glowed bright white, the other soft green, both had a radiance surpassing their hard edged surfaces. He thought them more beautiful than anything he had imagined on the Emperor’s crown.
Mysis stared at them with dawning horror.
“I don’t understand,” whispered Chan. “What’s going on?”
“Excellent question,” said Obadas, staring at Emeth. “There are only two spirit gems in the underworld unused, one is a villain among my people, the other of a victim among theirs. But no gem should be green.” He pulled his own out from under his shirt. The color within warned off Chan with fiery anger, anger against gods and dragons.
Red or white, thought Chan. “So what does green mean?”
“Infection,” mourned Apulia. “This is the spirit of the Enyan who attempted spiritual communion with a Hive people. Their Queen’s mind was taking over Cinyui’s. We broke the connection, but too late. Any child born with Cinyui’s spirit will be drawn to the Hive.” He stared at Lady Emeth accusingly. “You said you would purify her soul. You said her spirit could live again.”
Emeth stood proud, unashamed. “That was my original intention, but I failed.”
“And then you decided to turn loss into victory,” said Asamoneus with cold judgment. “You began to study the magic that controlled minds. Do not bother to deny it. Why else would Lord Apulia have stolen the gem from you? My only question is, were you going to use it against our people or your own first?”
Emeth stared at no one, but Apulia turn upon Asamoneus. “My people?”
Obadas nodded. “Once she used that sort of magic to defeat us, how long would it be before she turned it against those among you who disagreed with her?”
Mysis backed away from her people, bumping into Chan. His hands rose to hold her arms, to comfort her as she faced horror from her own home. Her warmth in his hands comforted him, and he hoped she took comfort from him. “And the more of my people she controlled, the more of them would rebel, and soon she would have all of us under her sway.”
Her Lady Emeth glared at her. “I am doing this for our people, to earn us the favor of the gods once more. To show them that we are still worthy. More worthy than those mortals.”
“But you have made a mistake worthy of the mortals,” said Mysis. “Among them are also people of ambition who cracked the steps they trod upon for power, and by the time they reached the top, the structure could not sustain them.”
Apulia took a step towards Emeth. “Obeying the gods is only a worthy act if done freely. This means would deprive obedience of honor.”
Chan imagined all the soldiers who fought for the emperor, knowing some of them joined for adventure, while in times of war others would be dragged off their farms and thrown into the teeth of battle. Deep down, he felt that men of peace forced into war had more honor than those who sought violence.
“This is all ridiculous,” snapped Emeth. “If the gods command our people, why give the same commands to us separately?”
“We have a Council that hears the gods.”
She glared back at him. “Some of us do. Other members dissent.”
“So anyone who disagrees with you on the Council is deaf to the gods, is that what you claim?”
“Yes, and I have tired of listening to heretics. Return the gem, if you ever wish to return to your people.”
“Then my exile is my gift to my people.”
Emeth made a single step towards Apulia, and a dozen Kazan rested their hands on the hilts of their weapons, ready to defend him, including their king and queen. Disgusted, she held her hands away from her weapons. “I know you by your friends, Apulia the Traitor. Know the stories I will tell our people of your betrayal.”
“I thought your people couldn’t lie,” whispered Chan.
Emeth’s face jerked towards him with shock, but then she marched towards the Strength Through Joy.
“We cannot,” said Mysis, “knowingly lie. We can be wrong.”
At the beachhead, Emeth turned around. “Mysis, Nithas, are you coming?”
Nithas stared at Mysis, and she took a step away from Chan, just far enough that he let go of her arms with regret. “Our quest is not ended.”
“But it is tainted,” said Emeth. “You will always be suspect, as long as you keep company with him.” Emeth waited a moment, with Nithas glancing back and forth between the two women, but when Mysis didn’t move, Emeth shrugged them off and skirted over the water to her ship.
Once the ship was out of the harbor, the Enyans gathered, as did the Kazan they knew most.
“We will never be safe outside the walls of Rathmorian,” said Apulia. “Lady Emeth has too much invested in this gem. Her hopes, most of all.”
“We honor you for your sacrifice,” said Asamoneus. “It would be all the harder for one of you than one of us.”
Apulia shook his head. “Once upon a time, I would have taken the latter as a compliment and the former as an insult. How did they become reversed?”
“And what is your intention with that gem?” asked Obadas.
“I had not planned so far ahead,” said Apulia. “I only knew I had to remove it from Lady Emeth’s plans. I would prefer to purify it, but if not, destroy it, but failing that, carry it forever, further out of her grasp.”
“Sohemus,” said Chan, and everyone stared at him.
“What about her?” asked Asamoneus, warily, and warning him to be wary.
“Sohemus claims her new god is the source of creation. If anyone could purify the soul gem, it would be her, would it not?”
“Sohemus?” asked Apulia. “One of your people has a god?”
“It is a long story,” said Mysis. Everyone glanced at everyone else in turn, judging each other’s reactions, until finally it seemed settled. “And I will explain it on the way to her cell.”
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Tower Chapter 14
teacherpaul
Kayle woke entangled with Alicia, amazed and a little frightened by last nights events. She’d always admired women’s beauty, enjoyed their touch, but always assumed she’d love a man. Tomas came to mind, despite his politely distant demeanor and awkwardly inferior social background.
Knowing she should pull away, she didn’t, telling herself she didn’t want to wake Alicia, but guiltily enjoying herself. Her hand longed to move along the skin, to feel Alicia’s softest parts again, but that too would wake her.
Is this what Mother feared?
Why don’t I feel dirty?
She’d hear whispers among servants about people who loved their own, calling the men plumbers and the women riders, supposedly because they all wished they were. It was supposed to be a low class thing, for men who couldn’t afford women or women too ugly to get a man.
But we’re not ugly. And I love Tomas, don’t I? Am I with Alicia because she looks a little like the man I can’t have?
Examining Alicia, she considered the other woman’s oddly well defined back muscles, more like an acrobat’s than a dancer’s. Then Alicia rolled towards her, displacing her masculine strength with feminine beauty and a sensual smile no man could master. Kayle kissed Alicia and they love until someone knocked on the door and they jerked apart.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” said the steward. “And your bathing water has arrived.”
Kayle was glad the house was taking their time with it this morning.
“Thank you,” said Alicia, getting out of bed and unfortunately putting on a robe. She went to the door and opened it enough to accept the water basin but not so as to grant the steward a look inside. They washed quickly and helped each other dress, hardly saying an unnecessary word.
Kayle followed Alicia down the hallway, wondering if people could see a change between them, see last night’s lust on their faes. Even walking seemed different now, trying to keep close but not too close, trying to hold her head up with love and pride, and hang it with shame and disdain.
But at the breakfast table they joined her father among some lesser nobility and richer merchants, precisely the sort of people her father had hoped to meet, and who might admire her daughter. The merchants had bought their way this high with flattery and discounts, and could help her father, too. They men complimented them on their performances, and then went back to talking business, including her happy father.
The talbe had been set with steaming buns with mysterious fillings. Hungry, she ate several, never knowing until she bit into them if her palate would find fruit or vegetable, meat or mushrooms. A maid kept the tea cups almost brimming.
When her father recommended Tomas as a locksmith to a baronet, both women glanced over, and saw each other glance. Both blushed and returned to eating.
How does she know Tomas? Is it because they both come from Travelers stock? Is because they are both wild and beautiful and would naturally tumble into bed together? Or among the wildflowers?
Kayle had never seen a field of flowers, just fields of grain from their high window. Flowers were for pots, but she’d reach about the wild places in romances.
Jealousy stirred in her breast, but she didn’t know who to be jealous of. Just yesterday, if she had seen that blush over Tomas on Alicia’s face, she would have been jealous over Tomas, but now she had feelings for both and wondered if they would both leave the Tower without her instead of staying for her.
After breakfast, her father kissed Alicia’s hand like a gentleman would any lady, even if neither were either. After a second’s hesitation, Alicia and Kayle kissed each other’s cheeks, and the Traveler woman held her close just long enough to whisper into her ear.
“Tomas is a good man, but not a place to make you promises.”
And then they were apart.
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