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Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread I'm first again this month, but after promising this, I had to get it out there.
So here you have it: "One Rogue, Four Women and Escape on a Bicycle"
Coming in at a trim (for me) 1,485 words

Spoiler for Hiden:
         Jack laughed and spread his arms wide. “I swear, it’s true! Four of them at once!” Catcalls and cries of “Liar!” greeted this declaration. Someone threw a fig. The rogue jumped up on the table, setting the chandelier swinging and flinging hot wax on his audience. “You think this couldn’t handle it?” he shouted, grabbing his codpiece to great laughter and guffaws. “My brave soldier here could find the one virgin in a king’s harem with the lights out and my hands tied.”
   “I think your brave soldier couldn’t find the piss pot with the light on and your fly open!” yelled someone from the balcony.
   “I’ll tell you what really happened,” called a new voice, one with feminine tones and a cultured accent. It was lost in the commotion like a flower in a garbage heap until the speaker raised her voice with a righteous cry. “I’ll tell you what really happened!” And the whole room held its breath.

   I’ll tell you what really happened. I was handing around tea for the Delacroix sisters - delightful cucumber sandwiches and good Darjeeling - and they, good souls, were enlightening me about society in my new city; when one of them, Mary, I think, whispered “And then there’s Jack.” Jack Stinson, a rake if I’d ever heard of one, had arrived some months earlier and begun a circuit of the eligible maidens and even the ineligible matrons. He was a fine shot and an honest card player so the men welcomed him. As for we women, I suspect we are all susceptible to strong shoulders and a talented tongue.
   The bell rang and another recent acquaintance appeared. It was not more than three minutes before the poor thing was in tears and weeping on my shoulder. We had the truth out of her, and a great determination filled my soul. Jack Stinson must get what he deserved, or in this case, reap what he had sown.
   I know a little magic. Not your parlor trick, sleight-of-hand frivolity, but a true thing handed down from a branch of my family that once owned plantations on exotic Jamerica. The first order of business was to discover how widely the rogue had spread his affections. I set the calling cards of all the women with whom I’d had intercourse in a circle around a delicate glass bottle, and pushed it into a lazy spin. The four of us held our breaths as the bottle stopped first at one name and then another to expostulations of “She would!” and “I never!” and even “I didn’t think she had it in her”, which made me laugh but caused our poor betrayed one to dissolve in tears again. When the bottle pointed at the senior Miss Delacroix, her younger sister’s mouth twisted as though she’d eaten an unripe persimmon, and when it next pointed to the younger sister, things threatened to storm and thunder right there in my sitting room. However, it was soon evident that the bottle would stop at every one of the twenty-three lady’s cards and we four subsided into a simmering, amazed silence. Then we set our plans.
   I made it known I would appreciate an invitation to Lady Baldwin’s soiree, and I know she was thrilled for me to attend. Jack was there, and came to me like a bee to the finest orchid in the garden. I have to admit pleasure at being the envy of every female eye in the room. I should not have been surprised that Jack was the finest dancer I had ever partnered, or that his conversation was in decidedly good taste. But I was unprepared for the originality of his ideas or the effect of his flattery upon me. We set an assignation for the next day, Herod’s Hotel, noon.
   He arrived in a sweat-stained suit and straw hat, saying he had been experimenting with a velocipede and offering to take me riding with him. I think he was taking my measure. Had I been at leisure to enjoy his company, I might have risen to the bait.
   We had a private room in the restaurant. Not even for this noble cause could I afford to risk my reputation by taking a suite upstairs. We dined - a delicious rump roast and breasts of the finest fowl. As the dessert was served, I at last turned the conversation to magic, explaining that I had gypsy blood and could bring him into contact with the Other World.
   “That would be most rare”, said he, and we began. I set the empty bottle of Tolkane ’54 on its side, and began to spin it lazily.
   “Jack, I have come for you,” said a bodyless voice. “You have betrayed and dishonored me.” I attest that Mary’s imitation of a spirit was so much like the real thing that even I shrank.
   “Who is it?” cried Jack, his eyes wide.
   “One who loved you when alive,” the elder Miss Delacroix continued. “But Lucifer has set me loose on you, Jack.”
   “No!” he cried, “Whichever you are, I swear your death was not on me.”
   But now a second voice called out, and I summoned a mist to swirl through the room. “Jack!” it screamed. The younger Miss Delacroix could certainly have taken lessons from her sister, for I couldn’t believe her to be a spirit for one moment. But Jack was growing more agitated. “Jack! You deceiver. How could you leave me for her!”
   It was terrible acting, but Jack was up from his chair, and pacing around the chamber like a man possessed.
   Now the third voice sounded, and I swear that the very hair on my neck stood on end, so authentic was it in its pain and loss. “Jack,” it whispered. “I loved you, Jack. But you took from me what can never be returned.”
   Jack sputtered in surprise, stopping his pacing and gripping the back of his chair. “Angelica?” he asked hesitantly. “If you’re looking for the pearls, I can explain that -“
   “NO!” screamed our poor sister, “NO!” A cold wind started to whip through the room. “It’s too late, Jack! I told you I would, and I’ve gone and done it!”
   At this, my companions threw open the doors of the room and stood revealed in white robes, holding flaming torches. “We have come for you!” they cried, and Jack, brave Jack, threw himself on my breast, crying “Save me!” then ran screaming from the room. We hunted him then through the hotel, for the staff - well-paid for this adventure - made certain of the front door.
   Suddenly, our man burst from a maid’s closet, dressed in a woman’s sleeping gown, robe and blond wig, pursued by Angelica as though the hounds of hell were at his heals. He hurled himself wildly against the plate glass window of the hotel, shattering it into a thousand pieces and finally rolling into the gutter. The four of us were hard on him, and we chased the rogue into the street. His two-wheeled contraption was there, and he threw himself upon the seat. Then leaning over the steering bars, he pushed desperately with his feet to build up speed. His robe was flapping in the wind behind him as he cycled away, and we truly thought we’d seen the utter end of Jack Stinson.
   We stood in the street, our clothes in disarray, our chests heaving, and smiles of triumph on our faces. (Though poor Angelica was still looking positively ghostly.) Then I raised my hand to straighten my hair and discovered that the scoundrel had stolen my earrings, my necklace and even a small gold ring I wore on my left pinky.
   This wasn’t the story I told the crowd, of course.

   “Please, for the love of God and the saints, have mercy on a fallen woman!” she cried. “This black villain must do as he promised and marry me, or I shall be ruined!”
   At this, the audience turned a bleak though bleary eye on Jack, and some of the more drunk of the jury began to scale the table to seize him. A cry rose up to bring a rope. The rogue ran the length of the table toward his accuser, dodging glasses and tankards with nimble feet, and he might have reached her had not a drunken crone thrown a beer bottle and knocked him off his aim. He ended up face-first in the bosom of the bar maid, who pushed him off with a practiced hand and sent him sprawling to the ground in front of the woman he’d so deeply wronged.
   “I want my jewels back, Jack,” she hissed.
   Jack smiled wickedly and launched himself back onto the table. “That’s not what really happened!” he yelled over the chaos.

   Friends – Let me tell you what really happened.

March 04, 2015, 03:22:34 PM
1
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread Sorry, Kid. (538 words)

Spoiler for Sorry, Kid.:
“Sorry, kid. I don’t do charity.”

The kid sighed and stared at the floor, a forlorn look on his face.

“Come on, don’t look like that. This life… it’s not one big adventure. It’s not what you’d think. I’m always on the run. Can’t stay in one place too long—it gets messy real fast. No friends, no connections, nothing really. It’s not for everyone.”

The kid scratched at the floor, refusing to meet the man’s eyes.

“Sure, if you can bear the downsides it’s a good life. The thrill of the con. The rush you get when the law is chasing you down. The satisfaction when it all goes to plan.” The man shook his head. “But it’s not something you should wish for. You’re young, free, you can go ahead and take whatever path you want. I’m telling you, kid, you shouldn’t come with me. You shouldn’t choose the life of the outlaw. Not if you can help it.”

The kid glanced up at the man through his eyelashes.

“You should stay here. Live the life of luxury. Sure, it’ll probably kill you some day, but why not enjoy it while it lasts?” The man leaned on the wall and looked around, taking in the scenery.

A vast mountain range rose on the horizon, its majesty half-hidden in the haze of distance. The farmhouse stood on a small hill, a high point near the edge of a plateau. The plain spread out before them, reaching almost as far as the eye could see—a patchwork of farms, forests, and grasslands, punctuated here and there by lakes and the occasional river. The summer breeze made the forests shiver as deer weaved in and out of the tree line. Goats and sheep flocked in the fields, and birds wheeled high above.

“You won’t find another place like this if you walk for a hundred years.” The man sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m almost tempted to settle down here myself. It’s one hell of a view.”

The kid sat down and sighed again.

“I still have to go. It’s not the place for me.” He hesitated. “Don’t feel bad about it, okay kid? It’s not that I don’t like you. I just… can’t take hangers-on. It’s for the best. You’d tire of the road, always being on your guard, never knowing where your next meal would come from. Wondering when you’re gonna slip up and get caught.”

The kid looked up at him, eyes reproachful.

“You’re just not gonna give up, are you?” A wry smile passed across the man’s face. “Look, the biggest problem is that you’d just get in the way. You can’t help. I’d have to train you. And that’d take months. It’d take time, which is a luxury I don’t have enough of as it is.”

The kid moved forwards and took hold of the man’s sleeve.

The man glared and tugged his arm away from the kid. “Fine. I won’t stop you. But don’t go around telling anyone that I’m your pal, or we’re gonna have some problems. Got it?”

He stalked off, shaking his head in disbelief. The goat watched him leave, scratched an itch, and sauntered towards the open gate.

March 05, 2015, 08:24:37 PM
1
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread Don't mind me. "Open and Shut" at 1425 words, not including the title.

Spoiler for Open and Shut:
Open and Shut

The morning was like any other, cold and wet and foggy. You got used to the weather, living in Gwyrdion for who knows how long. But that didn’t really matter. Victor Duthie woke up every sunrise with a creak in his neck and an ache in all his joints. Only remedy was a cup of coffee before he set off and the of course rounds he would make as the gas lamps flickered off.

   Birds were chirping. The cobbles were soaked. People weren’t awake yet, and that was fine by him. He liked it like no other place, even if the city set a creak in his step and a chatter box on his left called Remy. But then, partners were partners. You would’ve thought he’d tune out the noise of his coworkers discoveries, especially before the sun had really woken up, but time does not heal all wounds. One idiot punk could cut your ear off and you’d still hear out of it, damn the Almighty.

   Anyway, the duo’s walk had been unquestioned for most of the early hours. Y’know, the usual affair of two constables shuffling down one well-to-do neighborhood, gossiping about the town and waving at a few smile-stretching owners. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to worry, not until old Miss Mack huffed over to the sidewalk, blouse shaking and hair curled to a dishevel.

   “What seems to be the matt—“

   “I saw a thief!” she shrieked, higher pitch than the robins singing in the trees.

   Victor cocked his head and grabbed her round the shoulders. “You saw what, mam? Calm down please, it’s okay.”

   “A thief,” she said, eyes wide open, staring into his. “Vaulted over Miss Gavin’s wall and into her backyard.” Remy glanced at his partner and followed up the woman with a grin.

   “Miss, where’s your glasses?”

   She shook her head. “My what?”

   Victor shook his, and turned her around. “Go back home, Miss. Everything’s all right.”

   “But I know what I saw!”

   “Of course,” the constable patted her along. “Of course.” It might be ravings of a blind old bat, but eh, it was a slow day. “You go round the back,” he whispered to Remy as he led her away. “Just in case.”

   The young man chuckled. “Just in case.”



   Now this was the heist he’d been waiting for. The one to set him free. Set him on a boat and out of here, yes sir. All it would take was a quick window sweep and off from Gwyrdion he’d be. No looking back now, the young man chided as he shimmied over the wall. Time to clear the head and get to work.

   It didn’t take him long to climb up the banister to the second-story balcony, scan the grounds and give up any worry. The house was quiet. Practically deserted. O’Malley had been right; this was the perfect place to wipe away his debt.

   The windows were unlocked, thank the Almighty, because why would they need to be? Crime was a fantasy in these streets, and our little thief Tobie was romanticizing it today with his grand excursion. He slipped inside and waltzed to the jewelry table, wood strung with fine drapery and obnoxious rings. Emeralds and rubies and pearls flaunted the dresser for any time the woman of the house entered, but perhaps that was a bad thing.

   Tobie scooped them up into his coat pockets, crammed all that he could fit, and wondered for a second if he could nab some more. It wouldn’t hurt, not in these halls of illustrious paintings and bronze-encrusted busts. All was silent, too much of a hush, so he pulled out his knife to make room and went out toward the hallway. His veins were on fire with excitement, something no number of jobs makes you get over.

   Still nothing.

   The worth of the place was grotesque, even to him. Draped in muted noises, Tobie tip-toed to the winding staircase and peered over the side. Gawked at rich velvet. Stared down on the Jadiian rugs underneath silk sofas, and muttered curses at the family. He could pull off millions of sweeps, much more than he could count, and never reach this kind of wealth. Not under O’Malley’s thumb at least.

   But it was that urge to knock them down that willed him forward, down, down, down to the bottom rung of that empty mansion. He saw only fruits and a pup sleeping beside the dining room bowl, and felt a fear creep up in his stomach. Maybe best to leave before the dog alerted somebody. Let’s snatch that silver pistol above the fireplace and be gone, hope to hope the world stays still. And as if his dreams had become reality, a knock on the door broke him from his mullings. The dog’s eyes jerked open and out came that yelp, that terrible alert.

   “Miss, are you home? Constabulary here.” The voice was deep and probing. Almost unconcerned if you were looking. “We heard reports of a thief in the backyard.”  Tobie’s heart leapt just as he bounded to the back door; most people would freeze, however, he had learned long ago that was wrong. That’s what got you killed in the back alleys. But he faced an even worse predicament as the exit opened for him.

   Out strode Miss Gavin in her garden attire, brow furrowed in sweat and mouth puckered from work. How he had missed her he knew not, but instinct would not allow him to miss this time.

   Muscle memory is a strange affliction. Spend enough afternoons with your younger cousins, beating them with your punches, and you start to think you’re tough. You get rough holding a knife and think you know what the world expects. But nobody knows how they’re going to react in a crisis, not really. Not without enough practice. Problem was, Tobie had had a little too much. What should’ve been a cut and dry operation turned out to be anything but.

   The knife went for arm’s length and that just happened to be her throat. Blood sprayed the sweet mahogany, and he could only stand there as she reached for his comfort. She fell to the floor. None came. Job didn’t pay that much, and quite frankly, he didn’t know what to do. Hadn’t seen death before, because that wasn’t true. Only in the big bad stories and the prison folk did people fall, and he sure as hell fell that day. Tobie let her lay there, hold the tiles down as he reeled and wished to move.

   Funny how your life can change at the flick of wrist, quite literally. No seventeen year old wants to be a killer, but life laughs at the paths we choose when we’re ignorant children.



   Victor pushed open the unlocked door and saw the youngster standing there, head down, knife on the ground by a puddle of blood. Oh how big it was and growing. The constable drew his pistol and bit his jaw. “Hands in the air, mate.”

   The boy did not listen. Bolted in fact, and Victor missed thank the Almighty. Say what you will, but another murder might’ve been too much for the town. Victor chased him to the edge of the wall, huffing and puffing. Saw him jump into the unsuspecting hands of Remy, or we could pray so. Good job, he thought, but that was fleeting. Sunlight was peeking out as he pocketed his pistol and heard the racket, stared at the poppies getting ready for winter. Too bad they wouldn’t last without a caretaker.

   He went back to the woman, hoping in some vain attempt the pool wasn’t too big. Maybe it was a face wound. Maybe he could still save her. They tended to be pretty gruesome, right? And one summer with a physician had taught him something, surely? He knelt down to make sure. Just double check for the report, he said. Just so he wouldn’t second guess himself tomorrow.

   It wasn’t.

   It never is. Remy entered from the front, our offender handcuffed and cuffed across the head. He had a little dribble of blood on the temple, and Victor made a small mumble about irony to his friend. Some sentence lost to the wind. Made his smile wither pretty quickly, quick as she was dead.

   It was an open and shut case, Victor understood, staring into those wide eyed tears. Burglary gone wrong and all that nonsense. But then, sometimes those’re the worst investigations to get.

March 16, 2015, 10:43:02 PM
1
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread This is a bit grimdark, but I have a character who is a rogue with a big part in my trilogy, so this month's competition gave me a chance to flesh out a passing reference in the third book into a prequel short story.

find me on twitter @TOMunro

1500 words excluding title.


Trust a Thief


Spoiler for Hiden:
   Kaylan missed his pipe but, in the absence of a portion of nagan weed, whittling was the next best thing to settle the mind and steady the hands.  The thin blade of his knife of last resort twisted and turned at his bidding, scoring out flakes of wood with the same precision he once spun the tumblers of the finest locks in Undersalve. He’d been working on the piece on and off for days.  The shape had been buried in the broken branch, but he’d seen it nonetheless. Now his careful knife work had stripped away all extraneous material to expose the crescent within, fashioning an exact copy in wood of the golden symbol his lady wore.

He lifted the piece to his lips and blew softly, scattering the last shavings which veiled the perfection of his carving.  A sob from the campsite caught his ear and he looked down from his treetop vantage point at their diminished company.

It had never been a large band, but the remnants, survivors really, sat grim with fatigue around the embers of the fire.   There were too many empty bedrolls, even allowing for those that had fallen in the battle.  The fog which had saved them from utter destruction must also have misled many on the way home. Kaylan threaded the finished crescent on a strip of leather and slung it around his neck.  More like the missing had chosen to get lost, to slip away from the string of patriotic disasters.  The brave were dead.  The wise had fled.  What did that make the rest of them? What did that make him?

He sighed.  He’d died a long time ago, or would have but for the lady’s intervention.  His life before had hardly been honourable, numberless temples denuded of their sacred treasures by his particular talents; the second life she’d granted him he held in trust for her alone.

A movement drew his eye, the waft of a branch, then another disturbed by the careless passage of a dark figure.   Kaylan frowned.  The chief was on the move and someone would soon feel the edge of his tongue.   The thief slipped from his perch, shinning down the rough bark surface with as much alacrity as he had once scaled smooth stone.     

He trod lightly across the forest floor, alert to the other man’s heavy footfall, so that it was the chief who started in surprise when they came face to face at the bend in the path.

“What are you doing, creeping about like that?” He had put his armour back on, the black helm and chainmail vest of a rich lord, not a forest bandit.  Aye, that was the nub of it, a polished warrior ill-suited by training or temperament for the changed military realities, forever picking battles he could not win.  Why did the lady not challenge his strategy?

“I was looking for my lady, chief.”

“She’s sleeping,” he snapped.

Kaylan nodded.  “She has earned it, chief.  She was much drained with healing the wounded while you were resting.”

The implicit rebuke drew a scowl and a snarl.  “I’ve told you before, thief.  I am not your chief.  My name is Albrecht, Lord Albrecht.”

Kaylan smiled.  “Titles have somewhat lost their meaning, chief, save only my Lady Niarmit’s, Princess of Undersalve, heir to Matteus.”

Albrecht leant in breathing heady fumes in Kaylan’s face.  Where had he found the wine? “Matteus was a fool, you are a thief, and Niarmit is my lady, not yours.”     

Kaylan clenched his fists, held his breath and said nothing for a long ten seconds.  Albrecht swayed unsteadily and then stormed away down the path.  The thief exhaled his own anger and hurried along the path to the cave which Albrecht had claimed for himself and the lady. He tried to unremember the sight he had seen beneath the cheek plates of Albrecht’s helm.  The ends of four long scratches gouged by fine finger nails.

“My lady?”

It was dark in the cave.  His boot crunched on broken glass and twisted metal from a lantern.

“Kaylan, is that you?”  Her voice was muffled as though through a mouthful of cotton.

“Yes, my lady.”

“Stop, don’t come any closer.”   There was a shrill edge of panic that became a coughing fit.

“What has he done, my lady?”

“It was my fault,” she said.  “It must have been.  He takes these reverses so hard.”

“It could never have been your fault, my lady.”  Shapes were emerging from the darkness, she was crouched in the corner by the rough bed of furs and cloaks.  Her form was indistinct, but pale stretches of skin showed where there should have been clothing. A length of thigh, white arms folded across her chest.  Her face obscured by unkempt hair or marks of another kind.   “What has he done, my lady?”  The words fell with leaden weight between them.

“My fault, all my fault.”

He stood, head shaking, bruising his palms with his fingertips.  “I’ll get someone,” he said thickly though he could not think who.  Old Meg would have been the obvious choice, but he’d last seen her vomiting blood with an orcish halberd in her belly.  There were few enough women in their band of outlaws.

“No-one, Kaylan.  No-one must know.  I don’t want anyone to know.” 

He didn’t trust himself to speak.  Her stumbling voice filled the darkness.

“Give me a moment.  A moment to rest and then with The Goddess’s grace I can heal …  the marks, they’ll be gone. No-one will know.”

“It can’t be borne, my lady.”

“Kaylan.” She was pleading with him.  “Let me handle this my way, let me handle him.” 

The silence stretched like a taut wineskin.  “Please,” she urged.

“My lady,” he said stiffly ducking out of the cave.

***

She found him walking back from the pool, his shirt over his arm as he let the sun dry his wiry torso.  The dark marks on her pale face had been all but erased by a few hours rest and the grace of The Goddess.  Only the shadow of a bruise remained along her jaw.  The wounds to her spirit were visible still, in her nervous twitch at a flight of birds, in the brittle fragility of her query. “Where have you been, Kaylan?”

“Washing off the stink of battle, my lady.”

“You picked a fine time for a bath, Kaylan.”  Her eyes darted left and right, suspicious of the very trees.   “I need your help.”

“Always, my lady.”

“I need to find him.  Just you and me.  I want to tell him, this thing, it’s not how it’s going to be.  I’m going to make things different, better.  Starting with Lord Albrecht.” 

He nodded and took a firm step towards her.  She flinched at his approach and the anguish must have plain on his face for she gave a hasty apology.  “I’m sorry, this thing… Albrecht.  I’m not myself.”

“You will be, my lady.”

“He told the others he was going orc hunting, on his own.  Can you track him?  I want this done tonight.  He has to understand, he can’t…”

“We’ll find him, my lady.”

***

It had taken less than an hour.  Niarmit leaned against a tree trunk retching.  “By The Goddess,” she said.  “What have they done to him?”

Kaylan surveyed the red ruin of Lord Albrecht with impassive detachment. “They call it the blood eagle, my lady.  Pulling the lungs out while the man still lives.”

She puked again, staining the bark with the yellow scum of an empty stomach.  Kaylan turned.  “You shouldn’t see this, my lady.  You don’t need to.”

“I had to, but by Saint Morwena, this is cruel even for orcs.  What is that they shoved in his mouth?”

“Don’t look, my lady.”

Too late. She leaned in and then another paroxysm of heaving shook her at the reality of Albrecht’s brutal humiliation.  “You should go, my lady.  I’ll take care of him.”

She straightened.  “No, we were close.  He cared for me once, in his own way.  I’ll do this.”  She leant, eyes averted and seized a bloody arm to pull at the body.

Kaylan knelt beside her to lend his aid.  “Over there,” she said.  “We’ll build a pile of rocks over him.”

The body slid and squelched from the sodden earth where it had fallen.  “What’s that?” Her gaze, avoiding the bloody catastrophe of the corpse, snagged on a shape that had lain beneath Albrecht. 

They froze a moment, both seeing the carved wooden crescent on its broken lanyard, its intricate relief stained with blood.  Then Kaylan snatched it up and slipped it into its pocket while Niarmit looked at him open mouthed.

“It was orcs did this, my lady,” he told her.   “Albrecht went looking for them, and they found him and now you can move on.”

She nodded slowly, though he was not sure how much of his statement she was agreeing with, nor did he intend ever asking. 

March 17, 2015, 01:15:38 AM
1
Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread Alright, I tried, and pulled this out of my skull today, it's set up in the same world as my main story, except this happens in Europe.

1498 words without a title.

The name of a God

Spoiler for Hiden:
Hades didn't know how he felt about the sight in front of him.
His life had led him to some of the most desolate places on the continent, and he had learnt to appreciate dreariness in a landscape. If you kept morals out, anything could become beautiful.
But the ruin of a city's Plant was something else. The vitreous building, still majestic despite its downfall, was marked by soot. Massive metal beams and towering shards of molten materials stabbed the ground around its broken frame. Fire had killed that Plant.

Nothing spoke of slow and painful death like the carcass of a Plant. It meant no filtered water, no recycled earth. No uncontaminated food.
Despite his twisted tastes, Hades couldn't find it in him to appreciate the view.
Instead he shouldered his bag and went in search of a lookout, internally seething against his employer. It wasn't an assassin they should have sent out here but a recovery crew. The life of his target most certainly wasn't worth more than the smallest piece that could be salvaged from the Plant.
His employer must be ill informed. The town had been doomed years ago in that fire.

He stayed in his lookout for two days before he spotted his first sign of human life. Gray shadow on grayer background. Proof people were still surviving.
He sat in his concrete lair, charging his gun, screwing his silencer on. Maybe after all his target was alive.
When he saw a second human in the distance, he took to the streets.

For several hours he walked in expanding circles, hugging shadows, progressing through debris.
The kid reached him before Hades could sense him. Instant brownie points earned.
This respect was all that saved the child from getting his head blasted, as Hades stood, gripping his pack, grimly staring at the sheepish youth holding on to the other end of it.
Hades shook the straps violently, jolting the kid off against the pile of trash sheltering them. However the kid stood his ground, cooly assessing the older man.

"Are you a Rogue?" the child asked, eyes suddenly sparkling.
"Why? Are you a Rogue killer?" Hades scowled. The kid only groaned, turning his attention back to the pack.
Hades had seen rogue killers younger than this kid. Considering that the ones who could claim the kill had first dibs on the rogue's belongings, people got motivated. In such ruined cities all thieves or scavengers, even simple shady strangers, would fall under the Rogue denomination.
Of course Hades fell into other categories as well.
Spy, thief, murderer. Gun for hire.
Hopelessly for the locals, he would probably prove too hard a kill even if the entire town set after him.
"You've gotta be one though no?" The kid went on, "Not like people come to visit here no more."
"Your English is dreadful." Hades replied. The kid shrugged, unconcerned.

The sound of upset rubble clicked in the air and in an instant the kid fell forward, arms bent, fingers splayed to smoothly catch his weight. He landed soundlessly next to Hades, who had  spontaneously crouched, palming his gun under his coat. He was impressed by the kid's reflexes.
"Smart brat" he whispered.
"Them dumb ones don't grow old."
Hades waited, scanning the ruined street and staying stone-still, even after a scrawny fox dashed away, offering a possible explanation for the noise that had startled them. One didn't survive by being dismissive.
As they finally relaxed, Hades made up his mind.
"What's your name kid?"
"Aki. What's yours?"
"Hades"
Aki frowned, his little dirty nose creasing in concentration. "Heard it before I think but... never met you"
Hades laughed at that. "You probably heard it in old stories."
"Stories about you?"
"No. A very long time ago, some people believed in a God called Hades. They left many stories about their gods."
The kid gaped, his jaw falling open in complete amazement. "You've got a god's name?! Dust me!" he was so enthusiastic that Hades resolved to keep the nature of his namesake's godly business to himself. No need to dampen the mood.
"Aki, sorry to cut the fun but I've been traveling for days to get here. I've got a message for the town's Master Engineer. I didn't know the Plant had died. Is he still alive?" Aki nodded.
"Could you take me to him?" Hades asked.
The child stood up and dusted his thick gloves on his hips.
"Canna do that if you're a Rogue."
"I'm no Rogue."
The kid shrugged again. Obviously the gesture was some local equivalent for "I don't care what you say".
Hades opened his pack with a sigh and made a show of digging through his belongings under the suddenly burning gaze of the youth. He felt bad. Why bother with this kid? Hades had never had to invent a cover story before. Why talk to the rare people who got in his way when he could simply kill them?
But if the kid led him to the Master Engineer, he'd speed Hades' work by days... And betray his Master.
Anyway he wasn't lying was he? He was a traveler. He had a message to deliver.
Bullet message between the eyes.

"Here, that's from Beiry. A shell, the home of a creature that lives in the sea. That's dried fruit paste. They make it in Sakarof, ten days walk West of here. It's sweet. And that's my old mister, you could plug it on your mask. It vibrates when the levels get too high. You pick. I give you the one you want to bring me to your Master Engineer."
It was an easy bargain. The kid was quick in making decisions and wisely chose the mister over the rest.
Aki might look twelve, but Hades suspected him to be older. The scraggy body poking under the layers of protective clothing spoke of years with too little food.
He glanced down at his own chest, peeking under his combi at jutting ribs. He looked almost as malnourished as the child. That's what you got for spending weeks walking through the zone on stupid contracts.

Aki proved to be intense company. He needed frequent breaks and paced their movements in order to always rest in a shelter he was familiar with. He would then indulge in a stream of breathless chatter.
He explained how the ruins of the town were mapped, took them to the water works, pointed at shelters, led the way to the cemetery field and cross-questioned Hades about the ways of other town-people, and if any around had pretty girls. He told him everything he remembered about the day their own Plant burnt.
He was all around the single most bubbly, optimistic, good humored zone dweller Hades had ever met. It baffled him.
"You're a very trustful brat to tell a stranger all this."
"It's my mom's doin' you know? It's how she saved the town too, when the Plant died on us."
"What do you mean?"
"You know of Master no? She's no leader, weird specialty too. Old tech, she used to study. When the Plant died, everyone was just feeling like it should be someone's fault, so they got after her."
"Your Master Engineer is a woman?" Aki nodded. Hades was surprised, but waved at Aki to continue.
"Like I said, my mom always went 'Aki, there is no trustin' no one these days, so you'll have to make a choice each time, and start trusting. Better live with treason than never trustin' no one'. That's what she went yelling at people who were after the Master, too. And she did good on that. None of us would be living but for the Master." Hades' curiosity was definitely piqued.

Aki had led them towards the edge of the town, walking along the hazy border between concrete and wilderness. He finally went up a slope, creeping to the top and hid behind a boulder, pointing down around it.

For the second time that week, Hades didn't know how to feel about the sight in front of him.
Aki sniggered. Underground buildings poked out of the earth, next to three long, half buried glasshouses, complete with lead sheeting. A century old model. People where going around, caring for plants grown on aeroponic beds.
"Dust me to Hell" Hades muttered, "your Master specialized in 21st century tech?"
Aki nodded vigorously. "We're still twenty-two people, eight years after. She's teaching us good."

The Master, easily identifiable by her combi, appeared by a glasshouse, patiently showing another woman how to coil a water cable.
And here he had come, to this impossible, hidden little village of hope, the god of Death he was, to put a bullet in that woman's head, crop it off and carry it to a ruthless employer.
One bullet, twenty-two deaths.
Hades felt sick. Dust it all! He turned to Aki, yanking him close.
"Kid, in that cemetery, didn't you say you buried someone recently?"

March 17, 2015, 09:56:19 AM
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Re: The best female science fiction and fantasy writers you should read now It's better than it used to be, although it is still an issue. Rowlings was advised to use her initials rather than her name, because there was a fear that boys wouldn't read a book if they knew it was written by a female author. Lester Del Rey was the one who advised the Eddings' (David and Leigh) to only use David's name on the books initially. His reasoning was that he felt people would shy away from co-authored works, although it's odd how David's name was the one they used, when Leigh did as much, if not more, of the heavy lifting in the books. One thing I find really odd here is how they choose to shelve some of the books. We only have one bricks and mortar chain (Dymocks) and they're fairly good for SFF work, however I find that female UF authors tend to find their works in amongst the paranormal fiction, whether that's what they are or not, whereas male UF authors like Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne get shelved amongst the other SFF work. I'm aware of it so I always check both sections, but I wonder how many female UF authors have been missed because of that particular policy?
March 17, 2015, 11:40:05 PM
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Re: Delayed Reading: joys and disappointments If I counted all the books I own physically and electronically which I have not read, it would be embarrassing.  ;D

But here's a delayed reading: My wife gave me Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell for Christmas, since it was on my list. She then commented for a few years that she'd spent that money, but had never seen me with book in hand. One day, I saw the recorded version at the library and started to listen to it in the car; I was immediately hooked. (I've commented before that I find recorded books excellent for dense, slow-moving things.) I ended up reading the physical copy half-way through because I couldn't get enough of the way just in the car.

Verdict? Wonderful book. Glad I didn't keep delaying!

March 19, 2015, 06:44:03 PM
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Re: Delayed Reading: joys and disappointments I have one memorable one that is pretty embarrasing really.

I was always given loads of books by my family for birthdays and christmas, because I was always reading. There's one particular book, given a book on my birthday by an aunt when I was 9 or 10, which I took one look at and dismissed as crap because the cover was so horrendous. I distinctly remember thinking my aunt was clearly an idiot for thinking I'd be interested in reading it, because I disliked the cover that much. It then sat on my shelf for a long time - at the very least half a year, but I'm pretty sure it was a couple of years. I usually read any new book I was given within a couple of weeks, this was literally the only book I had never bothered to open.

One holiday I was bored as hell. I tried re-reading some of my books but couldn't get interested, and couldn't really be bothered doing anything more active than reading. I sighed and picked up the book I had pointedly ignored for all that time, and started reading.

This was the cover:
Spoiler for Hiden:

Naturally, I was then really pissed off with myself for a long time for judging the book by its cover...  :-[

March 19, 2015, 07:27:26 PM
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Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread Possibly not as rogue-heavy as some of the other entries, but here's mine. "Night Hide My Face" at 968 words.

Spoiler for Hiden:
Mina was a vision in gold and lace, in satin and pearls. Her body seemed to glow in the candlelight, and as she turned before her silver mirror, she thought that almost anyone would fall in love simply by looking at her. She had achieved what every girl would dream of, and that was why she had to leave.
   
She had meant to leave months ago, to slip out the window and vanish into the night when no one would notice. She would disguise herself as a man and become some renowned hero, or perhaps a thief known for slinking through the shadows. The only reason she had allowed herself to linger in her father’s palace as time went on was Prince Tristan.
   
Prince Tristan of some northern kingdom so small her father would never have allowed him to woo her if he hadn’t been desperate. Prince Tristan of the crooked smile and the red hair and the freckled nose that burned too easily in their hot sun. Prince Tristan who was so small and slight the ladies at court all assumed he had been sickly as a child, or that he was half-shadow and didn’t belong in their mortal world. Mina hadn’t thought he was anything special, but something about him had tempted her to stay, first another few days, then another few weeks, and then before she knew it the wedding had been planned and there was no chance for her to escape, not without practice slipping through shadows.
   
She had already sent her maids away, so there was no one to see her sink onto her bed and bury her face in her hands. She couldn’t marry Tristan. He was gentle, and sweet, and the sort of good that made her almost wish the stolen kisses she’d had with other men could make her feel anything. He didn’t deserve to be trapped in a marriage with her, and she certainly didn’t deserve to be trapped in a marriage with anyone she didn’t love.
   
The door to her room opened, and she sprang to her feet, ready to berate whoever was interrupting her, but it was only Tristan, slipping in with that nervous, crooked smile on his face.
   
“You shouldn’t be up here,” she said, looking away. “It’s bad luck to see me before the wedding.”
   
“There’s something I have to tell you,” he said, and his voice was so serious that Mina couldn’t help turning to look into his eyes. “I hope you won’t think too differently of me – but I’d understand if you did – and I want you to know that I love you, truly, but I can’t marry you.”
   
He spoke so quickly and anxiously, so unlike his normal unflappable calm, that Mina didn’t have a chance to open her mouth and reply.
   
“When I came here, I planned on marrying you, but only for your money. After all, who hasn’t heard of Princess Mina and her vast store of wealth? I wanted to inherit all of it and live a life of luxury while you ruled. You’re clever enough to, and I would just have to look official. I thought it would be fair for both of us. I didn’t realize I would fall in love with you, and now I can’t lie to you any longer.
   
“Because I have lied to you. I’m from the north, but I’m no prince. I’m a thief. A rather renowned thief, actually, and this would have been the perfect crime. I never would have had to steal again, except for the fun of it.”
   
Mina felt her cheeks growing hot with anger, and when Tristan paused for breath, she decided she couldn’t stay silent any longer. “How dare you?” she whispered, and Tristan flinched as though she had struck him. “Did you really think you would be able to get away with this? Don’t bother answering; you obviously did. Why shouldn’t I have you thrown in prison right now?”
   
Tristan swallowed nervously and undid the first button on his shirt. “Because there’s one other lie I told you.”
   
He unbuttoned his shirt, and as Mina’s eyes followed his fingers, her cheeks grew warmer, but for a very different reason. When the shirt was completely undone and Tristan’s chest was bared, Mina returned her gaze to the thief’s eyes.
   
“I understand if you think of me differently,” Tristan said, the crooked smile returning to her face, “but I hope you know that my love for you was as pure and true as any man’s could have been.”
   
Still blushing, Mina asked, “What will you do now?”
   
“I suppose I’ll leave,” Tristan said, buttoning her shirt again. “I know the guards’ rotations, so I can slip out to the docks, and there’s a barge carrying spices that’s due to leave. I can smuggle myself in and be safely away by dawn.” She sighed and looked over Mina slowly, as though trying to hold on to every detail. “I hope you have better luck than I have.”
   
Just as Tristan was starting to leave, Mina ran to her side, grabbed her hand, and kissed her. “Take me with you,” she said as Tristan stared in wonder. “Disguise me as a boy and let me travel with you.”
   
“It will be dangerous,” Tristan said. “The life of a rogue isn’t always easy.”

“I don’t care,” Mina insisted. “As long as I’m with you, I’ll face whatever dangers I must.” She was exaggerating, but at that moment, she truly meant it, with the sort of heartfelt passion she had always dreamed of knowing.

Tristan laughed aloud then and kissed the corner of her mouth. “It seems I’m a more successful thief than I thought,” she said. “I came for the princess’s wealth, but I was able to steal her heart.”

March 20, 2015, 01:25:21 AM
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Re: [Mar 2015] - Rogues - Submission Thread Here we are then. First time I've done something like this. I found it kinda hard to stay in the limit (but it came out at 1483 words)

Going Down
@badDayHappenin

Spoiler for Hiden:
His knees were killing him. Not that he had asked for much more than a spirited hobble from them, but it seemed any request was a demand too far for his failing joints. He wheezed away, looking around the concourse for a hiding place. There were plenty of people about, but the way they parted around him left little chance of using them as cover. To his left was a glass fronted shop, the latest styles flickering across mannequins that posed in aspirational scenes. One moment they laughed heartily, back slapping paragons of sporting bonhomme. The next they sat swaddled in chunky exploring gear, eyes narrowed in an attempt to convey the brooding depths of their non-existent souls. Arty slipped past the shifting diorama and looked for where the forest of clothes racks was thickest.
 
A young man, almost a mannequin made flesh, was turning about in a suit as his equally attractive girlfriend pronounced judgement on it. The pair noticed Arty at the same time and their smiles fell. He was used to the reaction now; sometimes it even gave him a perverse pleasure. Today though he felt like hissing at them, but there was no need to scare them off. The couple feigned interest in another area of the shop and wandered away, suit tags dangling from the boy.
 
His heart, already pounding in his sparrow chest, jolted when someone behind spoke to him. He jerked round, but it was just a shop assistant, her arms folded defensively in front of her.
"Can I help you with something, sir?" The way she pronounced the sir made it clear that she meant anything but respect.
She was a beautiful girl, Arty decided. Not the indetikit beauty so sickeningly common up in the spires, but a carefully crafted one. Her features had been laid out by someone with excellent taste. Her mouth was a little too wide, her cheekbones higher than was fashionable. Whoever her parents were they had known their stuff. He flashed his smile at her on reflex.
"Oh, you could help me with so many things."
Her long nose wrinkled in distaste. He caught a glimpse of his weathered face in the mirror behind her, saw that his once roguish grin was now just thin lips stretched back across yellow teeth. It made him wrinkle his nose as well then frown. He held up his liver spotted hands.
"No. Nothing. I'm fine, thank you."
The assistant looked doubtful but beyond her Arty saw something else in the mirror. Two cops jogged past the front of store, one hand on their sticks to steady them. They had not even glanced into the shop. His eye flicked back to the girl.
"In fact. I was just leaving."
She nodded, but did not move. Probably thinks I'm going to steal some of this multimart rubbish, Arty thought, she hasn't even noticed I'm wearing thousand dollar shoes, the pretty little philistine.
He turned away, his heart still trying to find its resting rate, and shuffled back out of the shop. He went the direction the two cops had come from, turning the corner he had fled around when they had spotted him. The nearest D-train terminal was only a few hundred yards up the next concourse, which is why he had been coming this way in the first place. It seemed to take an age for him to reach the doors. When he did so without shouts of accusation from behind, he felt a surge of familiar excitement. He might actually get away with this.
 
He reached out with a shaking hand to hit the down button, the same shaking hand that had failed him not an hour ago. The same shaking hand that had set off an alarm which would never have been a danger before. A precision tool which had become a feeble, loose cudgel. He cursed its quivers and his frustration turned to delight when the capsule appeared almost at once. At last, he thought, some good fortune.
 
He stepped inside, the only occupant of the diamond fronted elevator. There had been others waiting, but this was the express unit to the base. The locals liked to call it "The Drain". Until recently Arty had too. Now he found himself waiting for the doors to close, keen to find his way back to ground level. He turned his back on the view and looked down the concourse, willing the doors to shut.
"C'mon. C'mon.” He muttered. The gleaming metal was not to be rushed however, waiting in case some other rubbish needed flushing from the affluent shopping arcade. Ahead, rising on their toes to survey the crowd, Arty saw the two cops come back onto his thoroughfare.
"Close, you bastards. Close." He swore at the doors. As if they had heard him they began to hiss together. At the last second Arty thought one of the men might have looked his way, but his eyes, like everything else, were not what they were and he could not be certain.
 
The elevator began to drop smoothly away and he turned to gaze out of the window. The underside of the bottom tier, all pipes and blocks, shaded the D-train from the weak sunlight. In the distance the spindly mushrooms of the other three towers rose out of the ramshackle sprawl. Appropriate shapes really, Arty considered, mushrooms do well growing out of shit too.

Under their transparent domes he could make out tiered gardens like the ones rising above him. Their colours were diffused by distance and the thin atmosphere, but he knew there was every hue of bright flower amongst verdant greens. He could almost taste the clean, thick air of his old hunting grounds. He lifted his satchel free over his head, his shoulders complaining, and flipped it open. Inside was his ticket back. He lifted the cylinder of metal slats out and smiled at its ancient grooved surface. He would return to defraud, debauch and deflower the brainless rich again. He was certain of it. This was not the end for him. The elevator jerked to a halt. The doors began to open without warning. Shit, he thought, this is the end for me.
 
A female cop stood waiting in a residential corridor outside, one hand up at her ear.
"Yep, got him now, thanks. I'll check it out and get back to you."
She stepped in to the elevator, her eyes immediately on Arty's prize. She took the artefact without resistance and jabbed a probe id stick into his neck. He felt the tell-tale burn of his skin cells being scraped away and the machine bleeped. She looked at the display.
"Arthur Schivare." His name was a statement, not a question. She examined his other details. "26?" His age at least got a reaction from her. "Two counts theft, one count embezzlement. They stuck 15 years on your clock for each one."
She looked him up and down, shaking her head. Arty looked around her and thought about running. The thought was enough to make his knees hurt again.
"Why the hell would you keep at it?" She asked. He was surprised to look into her face and find her in earnest.
"You try looking like this. Nobody hires an ex-con. Even in the geri-clubs I have to sit down, the real old timers can tell from how I move otherwise and they steer clear too. That was my only way out." He pointed at what she held. "It's a wheel from the Sojourner rover."
"I know that." She hefted it in her hand. "The museum on the top deck is going ape shit."
He started to become acutely aware that she had not gone straight back to her com-link.
"I've got a bunch of neo-earth nutjobs lined up to pay me a small fortune. Enough to get me back to how I should be." He gestured with one crook knuckled finger at the id stick's screen.
The cop looked at his grinning, aquiline face on the screen then back to the decrepit one before her. She sucked in one cheek.
"How much is a small fortune then?"
The old squirming excitement began to twist Arty's mouth into a smile.
"More than I could spend on my own." He waggled his unruly eyebrows.
The cop stared at the wheel for another few seconds, biting her lip. Then she sighed and reached for her earpiece. Arty's mouth fell.
"Base. Two seventeen here. I checked your man in the drain. Nothing doing, just some geri from the ground on a sightseeing tour.... sure... will do. Good luck anyway."
Her hand dropped down and her smile mirrored Arty's as she hit the elevator button without looking.
"Going down?" She held the wheel back out to him.
"Not on these knees." Arty smirked and turned back to enjoy their descent, physical and moral.

March 20, 2015, 07:51:55 PM
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