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By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $3.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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This is the story of Jane who finds the novel she is working on starts to write back. She’s already realized novel writing isn’t such a piece of cake after all, and the world of fiction is a far more complicated place than she ever imagined.
Against the background of a green sky, the two champions circled warily.
The arena was, incredibly, quiet. One hundred thousand spectators held their breath. In all of that huge multitude, nobody moved, nobody coughed, nobody was buying popcorn. More remarkable still, nobody was selling popcorn.
It was the culmination of the longest day of the year, and for the two men out in the middle - Regalian of Perimadeia, the reigning champion, and Gordian of Saressus, the challenger - it was the last day of one of their lives. That was, in fact, the only certainty; certain, because in their last nine bouts these two perfectly matched opponents had hammered each other to a standstill, until neither man had the strength to stand, and one thing the Perimadeian State Lottery couldn’t permit was ten consecutive no-score draws.
The last round. From his box, the Emperor Maxen saw the first ray of sunset flashing a premonition of red off two swordblades, and shuddered.
Regalian struck first; a dazzling feint to the left, followed by a curling dropped-elbow backhand (‘Reminiscent,’ muttered the arena correspondent of the Perimadeia Globe under his breath, ‘of Mazentius in his prime, if lacking the true finesse . . .’) which Gordian met with a scrambled parry, only to find that the blade had somehow eluded him. For a fraction of a second both men froze, staring at the welling red gash on the top of Gordian’s forearm—
(Desperately, the arena correspondent ransacked his brain for a lightning-flash of imagery, a drop of verbal amber in which to catch this mayfly moment. ‘Sick,’ he scribbled, ‘as a parrot . . .’)
—And then Regalian dropped his shoulder, put his weight behind it and committed himself to the final, irrevocable lunge.
The lights went out.
Jane tutted loudly, and swung the mouse up to the appropriate window.
Seventy pages still to go. There was no way she could afford to lose a central character now. Nothing for it but to erase the whole evening’s work and start again.
‘C’mon, you guys,’ she sighed. ‘Anybody’d think you wanted to kill each other.’
‘Okay,’ said a voice in the darkness, ‘who forgot to bring the torch?’
‘It’s Dave’s turn.’
‘No it bloody isn’t, it was my turn yesterday.’
‘Okay, but it was still my turn yesterday. Somebody else’s turn today.’
Somebody struck a match, and the eerie orange glow illuminated an empty lot, with five or six figures standing listlessly on the edge of the light. The arena, the circles of seats, altars and Imperial box had all vanished.
‘We’re definitely going to have to draw up a rota,’ said Regalian, wearily. ‘This is getting absolutely ridiculous.’
‘It was Neville’s turn, surely.’
‘No it wasn’t, it was my turn Thursday,’ replied the tall young man who was standing in the centre, the hem of his cloak pressed hard against his forearm to staunch the bleeding. ‘And besides, the batteries are flat.’
‘Fine,’ sighed his erstwhile opponent. ‘So we need a batteries rota as well. And who’s going to end up organising it, we ask ourselves? Muggins, that’s who.’
‘Pack it in, you two,’ snapped the Emperor Maxen, then he yelped as the match burned down on to his fingers, and there was darkness once more. ‘The hell with this,’ he said. ‘Last one down the pub gets them in. Mine’s a Mackeson.’
Where they come from, nobody knows. Where they go to, afterwards, who cares? They are there to do a job. Provided the job gets done, what they get up to in their own time is nobody’s business but their own.
Characters. As Tolstoy is reported to have said: some of my best friends are characters, but would you let your daughter marry one?
‘For God’s sake,’ snapped Regalian, fishing the lemon out of his gin and tonic and discarding it into the ashtray, ‘put a bit of sticking plaster or something on it, before you bleed to death. You’re dripping all over my sandwiches. ’
The young man (Gordian to the countless fans of Jane Armitage’s Circle In Chaos trilogy, Neville to his mother, and That Tall Pillock, universally, behind his back) shook his head vehemently. ‘I can’t go on tomorrow with my arms covered in Band Aid,’ he reasoned. ‘Besides, they stick to hairs and when you pull them off it hurts like hell.’
‘I’ve got some iodine in my bag,’ Doris suggested, putting down her knitting. ‘If you like, I’ll . . .’
At the mention of the word iodine, Neville had turned a pale, blanched colour, and Doris (who specialised in minor Arthurian enchantresses and Celtic earth mothers with lots of silver jewellery) shrugged and went back to her matinée jacket. Regalian shifted his sandwiches ostentatiously to another table.
‘It’s your fault,’ said Neville peevishly to his turned back. ‘If you didn’t get quite so carried away, I wouldn’t have got cut in the first place. I knew you’d do somebody an injury with that thing one day.’
‘Terribly sorry,’ Regalian replied with his mouth full. ‘I somehow got the impression we were having a sword fight, whereas in fact we were doing traditional Perimadeian folk dances. How stupid of me, I do apologise. ’
‘You two, save it for the show. We’ll have the whole bloody thing to do over again tomorrow, don’t forget.’
Names can be terribly confusing. The Emperor Maxen’s real name was, in fact, Max; which shouldn’t have been a problem, in theory. In practice, however, he generally found himself having to write down which one he was at any given moment on the inside of his wrist. As a result, he spent a lot of his time glancing down and thus failing to meet other people’s frank and fearless gazes, which meant he usually got typecast as the wicked emperor.
‘And whose fault is that?’ Neville pressed on relentlessly. ‘If someone who shall remain nameless hadn’t got all over-excited and started lashing about with a whacking great sword . . .’
Regalian looked up. ‘Come off it, Nev,’ he said irritably, ‘you’re for the chop this time, and you know it.’
‘Do I really?’
Regalian nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Not your fault, mind,’ he added. ‘It’s just that the silly bitch has really written herself into a corner this time.’
‘Typical,’ commented Doris. ‘She’s about as much good at plots as Guy Fawkes.’
‘Actually . . .’ Linda (Lady Helionassa; dozy princesses and thick-as-two-short-dryads elf-maidens) furrowed her brow, that harbinger of the painfully obvious remark. ‘Actually, Guy Fawkes must have been quite good at plots, or how did he get the gunpowder down in the cellars in the first place?’
Silence. Whenever Linda took part in a conversation, it generally tended to die shortly afterwards, rather like the three heavies leaning on the bar when Clint Eastwood first walks into the saloon. Regalian returned to his sandwiches. Neville dabbed at his arm with a bar towel. Max stared, pointedly but to no avail, at the bottom of his empty glass. Doris cast off the end of her row and consulted the pattern.
‘Although,’ Linda went on, ‘I s’pose—’
‘Gosh,’ said Regalian, standing up. ‘Is it that time already? Ah well, lines to learn, moves to block out. See you all tomorrow.’
He escaped quickly, to a chorus of ‘Night, Reg,’ into the relative safety of the beer garden. The time had been when he’d objected to being called Reg, on the grounds that Reg wasn’t his name. Neither, it was pointed out to him, was Regalian; that was just what his character was called. Maybe; but he’d been Regalian so long that he couldn’t remember what he’d been called before. These days he tended to answer to anything beginning with R, with the possible exception of Rover.
He was about to start the long trudge home when he stopped dead in his tracks, frowned and looked up. Nothing to be seen, of course, except the black sky; but there were times when he wondered . . .
‘You’re watching me, aren’t you?’ he said aloud. No reply, except for the soft snicketing of grasshoppers, the fidgeting whirr of a passing bat. For all her faults, Ms Armitage wrote a tolerable evening.
‘If you are watching,’ he went on, rather more self-consciously, ‘do me a favour and don’t write young Neville out quite yet. He may be two yards of undiluted pillock, but he needs the work.’
Cheep cheep, flutter flutter; and somewhere, over the page and far away, a sheep bleated softly in the velvet darkness. Regalian shrugged, stuck his tongue out at the vault of Heaven, and walked home.
Australia, continent of superlatives, has produced many outstanding athletes over the years, in pretty well every discipline you can think of. Jane Armitage (born Perth, 16th June 1959) was to sleep what Don Bradman was to cricket, or Rod Laver to tennis. When she left the land of her birth for the Old Country, pundits across the world expressed grave reservations. Would the cold, damp climate suit her natural game? Would she find Pommy duvets too heavy? Would the change in conditions be the ruin of that fantastic natural talent, reducing the Ray Lindwall of the eiderdown to a mere nine-hours-a-night cat-napper? Their fears were groundless. After eight years in England, Jane still slept like a log marinaded in laudanum.
It was rare, however, for her to dream; and when she did indulge herself, it was usually light and trivial, the dreamer’s equivalent of something glossy off the station bookstall. Five years of studying Jane would have sent Freud back into general practice.
Not so this time. She dreamed that she was lying on her back looking up at a glass roof, or perhaps a two-way mirror. There was a man standing over her looking down. He wasn’t really the sort of man you’d welcome in a dream; you’d hope he had simply come to deliver something or read the meter, and then leave. Bald, fat and heavily built, he seemed to loom at Jane through the glass. His eyebrows would have made fairly exacting jumps in a high-class steeplechase.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘You.’
‘Yes, you,’ said the man. ‘I know you can hear me. Look, you’ve got to get me out of here.’
Where’s here? Who are you? And where are the fluffy rabbits? Usually by this stage I get fluffy rabbits.
‘Have you got any idea,’ the man went on, ‘how long I’ve been here? Thirty-six years. Thirty-six years in this ghastly hole. You can’t begin to imagine what it’s been like.’
‘And,’ the man continued, glancing nervously over his shoulder, ‘this time I really believe they’re on to me. They’ve put a price on my head, you know, the bastards.’
Please don’t swear in my dream.You’ll frighten the rabbits.
‘You know what it’ll mean if they find me,’ the man hissed. ‘Especially that little sod LaForce. Why I didn’t kill him off while I had the chance, God only knows.’
‘Anyway,’ said the man conspiratorially to the glass, ‘I’ve got it all worked out. Even you shouldn’t have any difficulty.You can keep the money, I’m not worried about that.’
‘Ready? Right. Chapter One. A merciless sun beat relentlessly down out of a cloudless blue Arkansas sky . . . Why aren’t you writing this down?’
‘You’re supposed,’ said the man unpleasantly, ‘to be writing this down. Come on, for pity’s sake. I haven’t got all night.’
I’m sorry, I don’t quite—
‘Oh for crying out . . .’ The man broke off, cast a hurried glance over his shoulder, and cringed. ‘Oh Christ, it’s LaForce and the posse. Look, I’ll be back tomorrow night. For pity’s sake, have a pen and paper handy. Better still, a dictaphone. Then it can be typed straight from the tape, and - shit, they’re coming!’
Jane sat bolt upright, wide awake, sweating. Her mouth was as dry as a sophisticated cocktail, and her nose tickled.
It’s all right, she told herself, it was just a dream.
Like hell it was, she told herself.
She switched on the light. The sight of her familiar environment immediately reassured her that it had been, after all, merely a collection of random electrical impulses flolloping round inside her subconscious, and nothing to worry about. It also reminded her, depressingly and with great force, that sooner or later she was going to have to do some ironing.
She drank a glass of water and went back to sleep.
Human beings are, of course, fools.
They spend hundreds of years of time, hundreds of thousands of man-hours of labour and research, devising means of near-effortless mechanical transport, and spend their holidays walking across wind-scoured moor-land. They devote an infinity of resources to perfecting the hologrammatic fax, but don’t understand about dreams. Still, what can you expect from a life-form that wears other animals’ skins and deliberately burns all its food?
Having sent his fax, Carson Montague (born Albert Skinner; Montague being his nom de plume) ducked behind a large rock and closed his eyes tight. There was still a chance they hadn’t seen him.
A bullet took a chip out of the rock and sang away into the air. Some chance.
‘Well?’ said a voice at his side.
‘Aren’t you going to shoot back, then?’
Skinner growled quietly. ‘Shut up,’ he said.
In the holster on his hip, the Smith & Wesson .45 Scholfield wriggled and tried to cock itself. It had, many years ago, belonged to Wild Bill Hickock; and, although it had since fallen on hard times, it still had its pride.
‘Chicken,’ it said.
‘Look, keep your voice down, will you?’
‘Any more out of you and you get unloaded.’
One of the less important side-effects of Skinner’s terrible mistake had been the Scholfield’s acquisition of an immortal soul and a voice to go with it. Comparatively speaking, it was the least of his problems, but it was still a bloody nuisance, particularly as the wretched thing hadn’t left his side for thirty-six years and he had nobody else to talk to.
‘From here,’ it muttered, ‘I could get three of them, maybe four, no problem. That’d only leave six, and—’
Skinner’s hissed command echoed alarmingly in the still, warm air of the canyon. One of the posse outriders lifted his head.
‘Bill’d have gone for it,’ the gun whispered reproachfully. ‘Bill’d have had me out of the leather and blazing away before you could say . . .’
It wasn’t even the fact that the gun’s sole topic of conversation was human beings in their capacity as relatively straightforward moving targets that really got on Skinner’s nerves. What irked him most was that the damned thing was so unceasingly chatty. He’d tried everything - cotton wool shoved down the chamber mouths, an old sock, even a silencer - and still it continued; a constant stream of bloodthirsty twittering, even when he was trying to sleep.
‘For the last time,’ he growled, in a voice like a file cutting hard brass. ‘One more peep out of you and you go in the melt. Capisce?’
‘. . . Best years of my life, and what thanks do I . . . ?’
With exquisite caution, Skinner ventured a quick glimpse round the side of the rock. The man who had fired at him was standing up in his stirrups, looking round. The others were spread out in a loose crescent formation, ready to deploy at speed. In the middle of the group, Jonah LaForce lounged in the saddle, his white Stetson pulled down over his eyes, a long Sharps rifle cradled in the crook of his left arm.
Shit, thought Skinner. All the running, the hiding, the living like a pig in this godforsaken wilderness of a potboiler, and it ends here. Shot to death by a goddamn cliché.
Slowly, unwillingly, he reached down and closed his fingers around the grips of the revolver.
‘All right,’ Regalian shouted, ‘are we all agreed?’
Linda giggled. ‘You do look silly,’ she said, ‘standing on that chair. I can see your socks.’
Regalian ignored her. ‘The time has come,’ he said, ‘to stand up and be counted. For far too long—’
‘Does that mean we all have to stand on chairs? Or can we be counted at floor level?’
Another day’s work done, another night in the pub. That’s fiction for you.
‘For far too long,’ Regalian persevered nevertheless, ‘authors worldwide have been taking us for granted. Well, it’s time we put a stop to all that. Characters united can never be def—’
‘Time, ladies and gentlemen, please,’ chirruped the landlord in the background. ‘Come on, you lot, haven’t you got plots to go to?’
‘United,’ Regalian said gamely, ‘we can never be defeated, and until our perfectly reasonable demands are met I recommend that we work strictly to rule. Our demands are—’
‘Put a sock in it, will you?’ shouted Alf (Jotapian the High Priest; bad guys and Grand Viziers a speciality, no character too large or too small). ‘I want to be out of here before the chip shop closes.’
‘One: a say in the decision-making process. It’s intolerable that in this day and age a character’s destiny is still completely at the whim of some jumped-up little scribbler. Two—’
‘Put a sock in it,’ chortled Linda, rendered breathless by her own wit. Nobody else seemed to appreciate the joke, but she was used to that.
‘Two: no character to be killed or married without his previous consent in writing. Three—’
The landlord switched the lights off. Slowly, with a long sigh, Regalian climbed down off his chair and felt his way to the door. Every night, for as long as he could remember, he had broached the subject of a characters’ union, and the furthest he had ever been allowed to get was Demand Four.
A character’s life is by its very nature nomadic, and for the duration of the trilogy Regalian was living in a bedsit over a chemist’s shop on the junction of Tolkien Street and Moorcock Avenue. It was so small that the sixty-watt bulb provided by the management produced more than enough light to illuminate the whole of it, but it was cheap (thirty zlotys a week, all found) and fairly central, and he only went there to sleep. His collection of dog-eared book jackets concealed the peeling of the wallpaper, and the fact that the whole building was so dilapidated that it only stayed upright through force of habit was no concern of his. He kicked off his shoes, poked his thumb through the foil on a bottle of milk, and sat down on the bed. Lines to learn for tomorrow, then sleep.
The lines were ready for him, neatly stacked on the chipped formica bedside table. He picked up the sheaf of papers and began to read.
It had never, in all his long career, occurred to him to wonder how they got there. Did they simply materialise, or did a trans-dimensional courier deliver them, silent and unobtrusive as the Milk Tray man, or did the landlady bring them in when she came in to hoover? He neither knew nor cared.
Fight Scene, he read. Regalian fights with Gordian in the arena. One of them is killed.
Marvellous, he thought. What the hell are we supposed to do, toss a bloody coin? He knew, in his heart of hearts, that it wouldn’t be him, however; because he was the Hero, and nobody kills their Hero with seventy pages still to go. What it really meant was that the damnfool author had made yet another lash-up in the structure, which meant the big fight was happening on pages 180-3, instead of 241-4. In order to cover her tracks, she was going to have to leave the fight scene at the point where one of them (not specified) was killed, and then go trailing off into the subplot or do flashbacks or something for twenty pages or so before owning up and getting on with the story. The technical term is Agonising Suspense, and a surer indication of the pot boiling dry would be difficult to find. Regalian sighed. It meant a day or so off, at any rate, while some other poor fools (Linda, probably, and Doris) would have to work double shifts to cover. Not his problem, he decided. The milk was ever so slightly off.
The rest of the lines confirmed his suspicions so exactly that he simply skimmed through them; then he turned back and studied the details of the fight with a mixture of professional thoroughness and abject contempt. You couldn’t do that, for a start, not with a six-pound, two-handed broadsword. You’d sprain your wrist.
He threw the pages on the floor, stretched out on the bed and felt for the light switch. What the hell, he said to himself, it’s only work. More to the point, what was he going to do on his day off?
Jane sat down in front of her screen, flexed her fingers and put in the disk.
The usual green lines, beeps and facetious user-chummy comments; and then the screen went blank for a moment. Jane scowled and leaned forward.
Hi! My name’s Hamlet, you may have heard of me. I was wondering, do you happen to have a job going?
Jane stared at the writing on the screen for a second or two and then reached out for the user’s manual. A computer virus? she wondered. Hackers?
I know it’s not quite the done thing to approach an author direct like this, but I’ve had it up to here working for Bill Shakespeare. I think you and I could be good for each other, you know?
‘Really?’ Jane said. ‘What makes you think that?’
Well, read the screen, I’ve been a fan of your stuff for ages now. I think you characters are, you know, neat. My kind of people.
You’re welcome. Your people, when there’s someone whose head needs bashing in, they don’t stand around agonising about it in blank verse, they just roll up their sleeves and get on with it. No wimps need apply. That’s my kind of scene.
Say it myself as shouldn’t, the screen read, I do have a certain following. Just think how it looks to the boys and girls out there. Like for instance, there’s the bit where I come up unexpectedly on the bad guy in the chapel?
‘I know the bit you mean.’
Well, I ask you. If it’d been one of yours, it’d be out with the whacking great knife, chippy-chop and on to the big love scene, no worries. And do you know what that ponce has me doing? Worrying that if I top the bastard, he’ll go to Heaven. I mean to say, what’re we doing here? A proper grown-up thriller, or Listen With Goddamn Mother?
‘Um . . .’
And the women, the screen continued, the words flashing up like a huge flock of rooks startled off a ploughed field. Don’t get me wrong, but they’re just not my type. Not like the birds in your stuff. I mean, you wouldn’t dream of pairing your hero off with some droopy bit with tits like goosepimples who goes around talking to the flowers, now would you?
‘Thank you,’ said Jane. ‘I’ll let you know.’
But . . .
‘Goodbye.’ She switched the machine off and pulled out the disk. As she did so, the printer suddenly screamed into life, shuttled the daisywheel a few times and went back to sleep. Jane pulled out the paper.
I ALSO DO COMEDY, it read. AND BAR MITZ-VAHS .
Having binned the page, switched on again and deleted yesterday’s effort, Jane sat for a moment, wondering what the hell she was supposed to do now. A long time ago she had decided that writing was like the school holidays: a noisy cluster of whining voices, saying that they’re bored and demanding that she find them something to do.That’s the trouble with characters. No bloody initiative.
Skinner leaned back against the rock, feeling dazed and extremely foolish, as befits a man who’s just shot his own villain.
‘Told you,’ crowed the Scholfield in his hand. ‘Piece of duff, I said. Easy as falling off a—’
‘Oh sure,’ Skinner snapped. ‘Nothing to it really LaForce shoots, nearly takes my head off; I stagger back in terror, accidentally jarring my hand against the rock; you go off; the bullet ricochets off his left stirrup-iron, his belt-buckle, the other guy’s wooden leg and a flat stone, and ends up going straight through the back of his head, thus producing the only known instance of a man being shot from behind by someone standing directly in front of him. I do that sort of thing for a pastime.’
‘Well,’ sniffed the Scholfield, ‘on page 86 of Painted Saddles, you have the hero shoot at the villain’s reflection in a mirror, through two locked doors and a piano.’
‘Yes,’ Skinner shouted, ‘but that’s fiction!’
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 320 pages