Nothing But Blue Skies


By Tom Holt

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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.

There are many reasons why British summers are either non-existent or, alternatively, held on a Thursday. Many of these reasons are either scientific, mad, or both-but all of them are wrong, especially the scientific ones. The real reason why it rains perpetually from January 1st to December 31st is, of course, irritable Chinese Water Dragons. Karen is one such legendary creature. Ancient, noble, nearly indestructible and, for a number of wildly improbable reasons, working as a real estate agent, Karen is irritable quite a lot of the time. But now things have changed, and Karen’s no longer irritable. She’s furious.


Four men in dark grey suits and black sunglasses climbed out of a black, fat-wheeled Transit and slammed the doors. The noise woke up the proprietor, who staggered out of the little shed that served him as an office. He blinked at them.
‘Mr Denby?’ said one of the strangers.
The proprietor shook his head. ‘No,’ he added, in case of doubt.
‘But this is Denby’s boatyard, right?’
The four men exchanged glances and nodded. ‘You build boats?’
‘That’s good. We want a boat built.’
If the proprietor was surprised by that, he didn’t show it. (But then again, he never showed surprise at anything. Simple demarcation. If you want emotions registered, go to an actor.) Instead, he carried on looking weather-beaten and authentic.
‘Yeah,’ said another of the strangers. ‘Can you do that for us?’
The proprietor’s shoulders moved about a thirty-second of an inch, which in the boatbuilders’ dialect of body language means something like: Of course I can build you a boat, you fool, assuming that I can be bothered and you don’t mind waiting a year or so, and what would a load of dickheads like you be wanting with a boat, anyway?
‘Cool. Of course, we need it in a hurry.’
This time, the proprietor allowed his lower lip to twitch, somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousandths of an inch.
‘Like, we need it in three weeks, finished and ready to roll. Can you manage that?’
‘Depends.’ The proprietor half-closed his eyes, as if performing miracles of mental quantity-surveying. ‘What kind of boat do you boys want?’
‘Ah.’ For some reason, the strangers seemed uncomfortable with that question. ‘We thought we’d leave that to you, really. Like, you’re the expert here, you don’t keep a dog and bark yourself, all that shit. A boat.’
‘A boat.’
‘You got it.’
‘What kind of boat?’ the proprietor asked again.
To look at the strangers, you’d think they had something to hide. ‘A big boat,’ one of them said. ‘Not that we’re trying to dictate to you in any way, shape or form; I mean, if it’s gotta be a certain size, that’s the size it’s gotta be. Hell, last thing we want to do is come in here telling you how to do your job.’
‘A big boat,’ the proprietor said.
‘Yeah.’ The tallest and grey-suitedest of the strangers nodded assertively. ‘A big boat’s just fine by us. Something in the order of - and this is just me thinking aloud, you understand, there’s nothing carved in tablets of stone or anything - something round about, say, 300 cubits by fifty cubits by thirty. There or thereabouts,’ he added quickly.
‘Sure. Why not cubits?’
This time, the proprietor actually frowned; easily his most demonstrative gesture since 1958. ‘What’s that in metric?’ he asked.
One of the other strangers nudged him in the small of the back. ‘He means, like, French.’
‘Ah, right. OK. Trois cent cubites par cinquante par . . . ’
The proprietor’s eyes snapped wide open, like a searchlight switching on. ‘Are you boys French, then?’ he asked dangerously.
‘Us? Shit, no. No way. We’re—’ From the way the man’s head moved a fraction to the left, you might have been forgiven for imagining he was reading notes scribbled on his shirt-cuff. ‘We’re English, same as you. You know: Buckingham Palace, afternoon tea, Bobby Charlton—’
By now the proprietor was staring at them as if trying to melt holes in their faces. ‘Where did you boys say you were from?’ he asked.
‘England,’ the stranger repeated.
‘Ah. What were you saying about cubits?’
The stranger took a deep breath, as if making himself relax. ‘I was just thinking, three hundred’s a good round number, for length. By, you know, fifty. By thirty. Give or take a cubit.’
‘And,’ the stranger went on, ‘something else that’s just occurred to me, like a real spur-of-the-moment thing, dunno where in hell I got this from, but don’t you think it might be pretty damn’ cute if you built it out of gopher wood?’
‘Gopher wood.’
‘Yeah. Gopher wood rocks, is what I say.’
The proprietor breathed in deeply through his nose. ‘Gopher wood,’ he repeated. ‘And rocks.’
‘Nope, just gopher wood. And while you’re at it,’ another stranger put in, with an air of almost reckless cheerfulness, ‘wouldn’t it be just swell if you pitched it, inside and out. Like, with pitch?’
‘Hey!’ His colleague’s face instantly became a study in wonder. ‘That’s brilliant, man. Definitely, we want to go with that. Will that be OK?’ he asked the proprietor. ‘Pitch?’
‘And,’ the other stranger ground on, ‘what say we have like a window, say one cubit square? And a door in the side? And - get a load of this, guys - lower, second and third storeys—’
The proprietor let go the deep breath. ‘You mean like Noah’s ark,’ he said.
The strangers looked at each other.
‘Who?’ they said, all at once.
‘Noah. Like in the Bible.’
‘Sorry,’ said the tall stranger, ‘we don’t know anything about any Noah. We’re just, you know, sparking ideas off each other here, brainstorming . . .’
The proprietor’s head moved from side to side, a whole four degrees each way. ‘You want Noah’s ark,’ he said, ‘and you want it in three weeks.’
‘At the most. We’re kinda on a schedule here.’
Lunatics, the proprietor thought. Mad as a barrelful of ferrets . Then he looked them up and down: the suits, the Ray-Bans, the thousand-dollar shoes, the brand-new custom Transit. Still, he thought, it takes all sorts.
‘All right,’ he said.
If the strangers were trying to conceal their relief, they weren’t very good at it. ‘Hey,’ one of them said, ‘that’s great.’
‘Awesome,’ said another.
‘But it’s going to cost you,’ the proprietor said.
The tall stranger nodded. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘We guessed it would.’ He nodded to one of his colleagues, who was holding a big aluminium case, the sort you transport expensive cameras in.
‘Do you reckon five million dollars’d cover it?’ he asked earnestly. ‘In cash,’ he added, ‘half now and half on delivery?’
‘In three weeks,’ another of them pointed out.
It’s very hard to stay looking weather-beaten, authentic and taciturn when, inside, every fibre of your being is shouting YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! But the proprietor managed to make a pretty decent job of it.
‘All right,’ he said.
The dragon glowed in the silk like daybreak, wild in symmetry, exuberant in formality, a flash of two-dimensional lightning, storm and thunder frozen in amber. As they stared at it, even the schoolchildren were quiet for a while, as if they were grateful for the sheet of stout plate glass that separated them from it. Only the guide seemed not to notice that the dragon was looking straight at her, amused and affronted—
‘In Chinese mythology,’ the silly woman was saying, ‘the dragon symbolises the element of water, and it was believed that dragons were responsible for bringing rain. In its aspect as the source of all fertility and increase, the dragon was adopted by the Chinese emperors as a royal emblem; in particular the dragon with five toes or claws on each foot, as in this example, painted on silk during the Ming dynasty, depicting the Dragon King of the Yellow River teaching the first Emperor the Chinese written language. Notice the distinctive colour tones, typical of the period . . .’
At the back of the group, Karen yawned, trying without much success to be discreet about it. She knew that yawning was likely to distract the rest of the group and spoil their pleasure, and she felt bad about that. But she couldn’t help it. The reaction was entirely automatic, being the result of too many deathly boring teatimes spent gawping at interminable collections of family albums - here’s one of us outside the temple, now here’s your uncle standing in front of the main gate, and here we both are looking up at the gate, and this is just inside the gate, though really it’s a bit too dark to see anything. Ordeals like that leave an indelible mark on a child’s mind, triggering involuntary reactions; so, even now, the very sight of a picture of a dragon made her yawn.
And besides, she told herself, if that’s supposed to be Uncle Biff, they’ve drawn his eyes far too close together. Makes him look like an Airedale terrier.
She smiled. Uncle Biff wouldn’t like that; not one bit. In fact, it was probably just as well for everyone living within convenient flooding distance of the Yellow River that this particular gem of Chinese cultural heritage had been looted by flint-hearted Western imperialists and carried off to a far land where Uncle Biff wasn’t likely to see it; because when he got upset, did it ever rain . . .
‘According to traditional Chinese beliefs,’ the silly woman continued, ‘each quarter of the compass is ruled by a Dragon King, who in turn is owed fealty by a complicated hierarchy of lesser dragons - thereby mirroring contemporary Chinese society - down to the smallest lake, stream and well, each of which is governed by its own resident dragon. It was believed that dragons were able to manifest themselves as fish, and also to take human form when circumstances required, so that recurring themes in folklore include the fisherman who takes pity on a fish and throws it back, only to discover that he’s spared the life of an important dragon who is thereby permanently obligated to him—’
Karen couldn’t help clicking her tongue. Recurring theme in folklore - once it had happened, just once. But what else can you expect when the media get hold of a story and start playing with it? As for ‘obligated’: do a mortal a favour and they think they own you. She played back that last thought and frowned at it; sometimes, when she wasn’t careful, she sounded just like her father. Yetch.
‘Another such theme,’ said the silly woman, ‘concerns the son or daughter of a dragon king who falls in love with a mortal—’ She stopped and looked round to see what had made that peculiar noise. ‘Falls in love with a mortal,’ she continued, ‘and takes human form in an attempt to pursue the ill-fated relationship. Invariably, of course, these episodes always end tragically, since such a pairing would represent an imbalance of the Elements, thereby violating the fundamental foundations of Chinese philosophy—’
Bullshit! screamed Karen’s voice inside her head. And ‘fundamental foundations’ is tautology. Scowling furiously, she turned on her heel and marched out of the gallery before she said something out loud that might land her in court - though by rights it was the damned silly woman who should be in the dock, charged with and convicted of Contempt of Dragons—
Except that all dragons everywhere would agree with her (except one) and really, Karen had come here to get away from that particular thought. By now, true enough, she was used to the idea that her own kind didn’t have the imagination to see past their silly old traditions and rubbish, which was why she was here, dressed in the monkey suit, instead of back home, where they claimed she belonged. Hearing the same old nonsense trotted out by a human, however, disturbed her considerably. Surely they ought to know better; after all, she told herself, sweeping out of the museum gates into the street, they weren’t all a load of blinkered, scalebound old stick-in-the-muds who reckoned something was true just because they all believed it was true—
She shuddered and squirmed as the first big, fat raindrops slapped her face. Wet! Nasty!
Fumbling in her haste, she yanked the small folding umbrella out of her pocket and tried to get it to work. It refused, of course; she had an idea that the wretched thing had somehow recognised her, and was grimly carrying on the age-old umbrella/dragon war by means of sabotage and mechanical terrorism. By the time she managed to get its idiotic squashed-cranefly legs into place, she was pink with rage and frustration, and the rain was bucketing down—
Well, of course. Cause and effect.
Looked at one way, it was just plain silly . . . Because she’d only been a human for a few weeks, she hadn’t even begun to come to terms with rain (its feel, its sudden onslaught, how squishy and cold and uncomfortable it felt as it trickled down between collar and neck), so that every time the stuff hit her she couldn’t help an involuntary spasm of panic, laced with more than a dash of irrational anger. Since she was a dragon - the hell with false modesty; since she was the daughter of the adjutant-general to the Dragon King of the North-West, no less, with the hereditary title of Dragon Marshal of Bank Holidays and a maximum capacity of 2,000,000,000,000 litres/second/ km2 when she got angry or upset, it rained.
She happened to glance down, and saw that already the paving stones beneath her feet were awash with eddying, dancing rainwater, while overhead the sky began to resonate with basso-profundo flatulence. Any moment now, there’d be lightning, and probably gale-force winds and armour-piercing hailstones to follow, and all because she couldn’t make sense of this stupid goddamned umbrella . . .
She stopped trying, and slowly lowered the thing until it was resting upside-down on the pavement, its flabby fabric drinking up the rainwater. Calm down, she told herself. It’s all right. A little rain never hurt anybody.
(Please, she prayed silently, please don’t let any of my friends from Home see me like this; especially not that cow S’ssssn, because if she were to find out I’ll never hear the end of it if I live to be a million - which I already have, of course, and that doesn’t make it any easier . . .)
People, humans, were staring at her - girl with lowered umbrella standing perfectly still in the rain, of course they were staring, and as the embarrassment began to bite, so the rain thickened. (They’d scrambled the B-92s now, the big, fast saturation-grade raindrops with the enormous payload and the smart guidance system, the latest in launch-and-forget technology; humans assumed they were imagining things when they got the impression that modern rain was somehow colder and wetter than it had been when they were young, but that was mortals for you.) The frustration of knowing that she was making things even worse made her angrier still, at which point the first lightning bolt split the sky, like God arc-welding . . .
Karen closed her eyes and concentrated. It should have been easy, because all she had to do was think STOP
(But that was when she was in her own body, not this cramped, largely unfamiliar right-hand-drive contraption; somehow it worked so that her instincts interfaced with the controls just fine, whereas her conscious thoughts had to stop and grind their way through the Owner’s Handbook and the Help files in order to get the simplest thing done—)
—Which raised the questions, ‘How do you think?’ and ‘What’s the proper Think command for Stop?’ and ‘Which of these is the Send button, anyway?’; and struggling with all that nonsense made her feel so uptight and irritable—
At which point, someone grabbed her by the arm and dragged her, quickly and with humiliating efficiency, back into the shelter of the museum doorway. ‘You’re soaked,’ said a familiar voice.
Sheet lightning filled the sky, thunder rattled the window-panes, drains and soakaways within a five-mile radius gave up and went into denial - indications that Karen wasn’t entirely pleased to see the person who’d just pulled her in out of the rain. ‘Yes,’ Karen muttered, ‘I am, rather.’
‘You were just standing there, getting wet.’
‘Oh. Any particular reason?’
‘I like getting wet.’
Her rescuer - imagine the Botticelli Venus dressed in a sensible waterproof jacket, of the kind they sell in camping shops - curved her lips slightly in a small, bewildered-contemptuous smile. ‘Fair enough,’ she said. ‘Next time you might want to try swimming, though. Same net effect but your clothes stay dry.’
Karen tightened her scowl up by a click or so. ‘Actually,’ she said truthfully, ‘I can’t swim.’ (Now why on earth had she gone and told her that? No idea; it had just slipped out, like a coin falling out of her pocket when she pulled out her handkerchief.)
‘Really,’ Karen replied. Not in this body, anyway, she didn’t explain.
‘Well, well. I’ll have to teach you one of these days. I learned to swim when I was two.’
Too what? Karen didn’t say. Another odd thing; it had nearly stopped raining, even though Karen was so livid she could cheerfully have sunk all twenty claws into the bloody woman’s face.
Hard to understand, that. She could only assume it was something to do with the crushing weight of inferiority she always felt whenever she was in Ms Ackroyd’s company. ‘I bet,’ she muttered. ‘Came naturally to you, I suppose.’
‘Yes, as it happens. Of course, it’s always easier to learn something if you start young.’ Not a drop, not a single molecule of water appeared to have lodged anywhere on Susan Ackroyd’s super-polymer-monofilament-this-that-and-the-other-upholstered person. Dry as a yak bone in the Gobi Desert, she was. Typical. ‘How come you never learned to swim, then?’
‘Never got round to it.’
‘Ah. Look, it’s stopped raining. A bit late as far as you’re concerned,’ Ms Ackroyd added. ‘See you tomorrow, then.’
Karen watched her walk away without saying a word, mostly because the things she really wanted to say couldn’t readily be expressed in the effete languages humans used. If, as she asserted, she’d never really understood what love meant until she’d turned her back on the cloud-capped battlements of Home and come down to live among the humans, the same also went for hate, redoubled in spades. Oh sure, she’d felt the odd negative emotion or two in her time - she’d disapproved of evil and disliked the dragon senators who’d criticised her father’s handling of various issues and taken against some of her more obnoxiodus relatives and been annoyed by several of her contemporaries at school - but hate, the real hundred per cent proof matured-in-oak-vats stuff, had taken her completely by surprise. She hated Susan Ackroyd with a pure, distilled ferocity she hadn’t believed possible a few months ago. She hated her for her straight blonde hair, her unflappable calm, her brilliantly incisive mind, her knack of being abominably insulting while not actually saying anything rude, her ability to wear a potato sack and still look like a refugee from a Paris catwalk, the shape of her ears, her unshakeable common sense, her dry, understated sense of humour, her weakness for fresh vanilla slices, her skill at mental arithmetic, her hand/eye coordination, her rare and beautiful smile, the way she could open difficult bottles and jars with a bare flick of the wrist, her taste in shoes, the easy way she could admit it when she came up against something she couldn’t do, the evenness of her teeth, her excellent memory for telephone numbers, the fact that she could swim.
Because she was the Competition.
For the sake of the unharvested crops and the water table and the already over-abused sewage systems of three counties, Karen made a mental effort not to think about that. It was, after all, her day off, when she should be happy and relaxed and at ease; nothing but blue skies. It was her day off, when she shouldn’t be here at all, or anywhere, on her own . . . or where the hell was the point in having run away from Home and come here in the first place?
Humans, she decided, were much, much better at unhappiness than dragons could ever be; it came naturally to them, like swimming did to Susan Ackroyd. But, since they still retained the vestiges of a survival instinct, they’d found ways of coping with it; none of them so unfailingly effective, so elegantly simple, as the cream doughnut. Dragons had nothing like that. Thinking about it, she almost felt sorry for her tediously contented species.
The woman in the cream-cake shop recognised Karen at once, which was hardly surprising, but at least she had the tact not to make an issue out of it; she simply looked blank, as if drowned rats who asked for three cream doughnuts were something that happened every day. Once Karen was out of the shop and comfortably relaxed on the warm steps of the square - just the sight of the exuberant cream bubbling up out of the fissured doughnut had been enough to haul the sun out from behind the clouds - she felt like a completely different person. Like, to take an example entirely at random, a red-lacquer-and-gold dragon bursting through the clouds into the pure blue above, the exact opposite and equivalent of a diver plunging into deep blue water.
Homesick? After all the trouble she’d been to, getting away from there in the first place? Not likely.
Perhaps it was the doughnut; possibly it was pure logic, quietly working away at the problem like penetrating oil gradually seeping into a rusted joint. Possibly it was a flash of insight, the mental equivalent of a double six and a quick trip up a ladder; most likely that, because the conclusion arrived complete and ready to wear, batteries included. If Susan Ackroyd was here just a moment ago, it followed that she was not with Paul. If she wasn’t with Paul on the morning of the Spring Bank Holiday, didn’t that suggest that the two of them weren’t the stone-cold definite Item she’d been assuming they were? Maybe they were nothing more than Just Good Friends. In which case (she mused excitedly, biting vigorously into the second doughnut) the game wasn’t over and she was still in with a sporting chance, straight blonde hair or no straight blonde hair. The more she thought about it, the more obvious it became. If she was a man-eating vampire blonde (and amphibious into the bargain) with her hooks into some poor unsuspecting male right up to the knuckles, would she let him out of her sight on a sunny Bank Holiday morning? Would she hell as like. She’d have had their day together mapped out and precisely scheduled well in advance, with back-ups and fail-safe options in the event of unexpected obstacles and complications, all drawn tightly together into a unified game plan designed to advance the relationship to the next level of the overall strategy - she’d have drawn it all up on graph paper, neatly plotted on the X and Y axes, with each variable charted in a different colour of felt-tip pen. Wouldn’t anybody, if they were truly serious about a relationship? Surely it stood to reason.
As she licked cream and sugar residues off her fingertips, the sun flipped open the lid of its paintbox and started filling in the numbered spaces with rich, glowing shades of yellow and gold. It was all fearfully symbolic, as the warmth of insight evaporated the damp residues of anger; and it had never been like this, at Home, where there simply weren’t any such extremes. Maybe it was a terrestrial thing, something to do with being limited to three dimensions, one shape, one set of senses and one perspective. If they could fly like birds or swim like fish, would mortal humans still retain the ability to feel things so intensely, to concentrate so ferociously on a single issue, to love or hate a single person so passionately? Highly improbable, to say the least. Oh, but if only Daddy and all the rest of them could just have a taste of what they were missing, love and hate and cream doughnuts too, wouldn’t they all be down here, on the other end of the rain, instead of up there in the monotonous, unending blue?
She’d closed her eyes at some stage. Now she opened them again, and immediately saw two very familiar faces, no more than twenty yards away. It was as if someone with a nasty sense of humour had done it on purpose.
The female - well, she was just as blonde as she had been when Karen last saw her, all of twenty minutes ago, if not blonder. And he - oddly enough, he seemed a bit shorter and somehow more meagre than he was in her mind’s eye, but even so she felt the same lurching shock as always, a feeling that you get only when you see your beloved or unexpectedly bite hard on tinfoil. There they were, together - didn’t they make a lovely couple, as natural a pairing as knife and fork or cod and chips, perfectly matched as if they’d been cut from the same blank. Suddenly, Karen regretted the idiotic limitations of a human body, with no proper teeth to bare or claws to spread. They were walking together towards the museum, side by side and in step like a very small column of soldiers, both of them eyes front, chins up, hands level at their sides (as if butter wouldn’t melt; who were they trying to fool?) He was holding a Tesco’s bag; she’d taken off her sensible coat and was carrying it folded under one arm. She said something. He laughed.
All right, Karen thought, so I’m not really human; I am what I am, and if that’s not good enough for some people, that’s their hard luck. Then it occurred to her that being what she was did have a few useful fringe benefits, and that it was the end of May, and she was by right of birth and appointment the Dragon Marshal of Bank Holidays.
What was it the humans said? When things go wrong in your private life, sometimes it helps to throw yourself body and soul into your work.


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
336 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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