Okay, so I lied. This is actually the first part of the first chapter. Fact is, I went in to do one final draft before pub-date and I had a horrifying realization: this is, aside from the prologue, the first part of my first novel, and I do not like it.
I just don’t.
I know there’s too much dialogue, but I don’t think that’s what’s killing me. Yes, they coldly dispatch some people, but that’s sort of what they do. If you’ve got any suggestions, help me out. Aurian needs you, in the sad puppy-dog sort of way he tends to need people.
Aurian gazed down the length of the blade to the knotty hand grasping it, and beyond there to the dirt-streaked face of the bandit currently holding him up.
“I said,” Aurian repeated patiently, “what money?”
“Don’t get yourself killed, laddie. There’s got to be some money in this shitheap. Couple coppers socked away, antique glassware–whatever you’ve got. If you ain’t got nothing, we’ll just slit your throat and sell your corpus to the necromancers down the road. All the same to us.”
The blade at his throat pressed a little deeper. Aurian swallowed, with some difficulty.
“Look where this inn is situated. We haven’t seen a traveler in months. We’ve got a few pigs in the yard and a few chickens. About half a barrel of ale. That’s it.”
“Don’t lie to me, now!” Spit flecked Aurian’s face, as well as a few droplets of red–the bandit had finally worked up nerve to press the sword deep enough to draw blood. Aurian ignored the pain, took deep measured breaths. The bandit’s two friends, every bit as dusty and mustaschioed as the bandit himself, were beginning to look nervous. Aurian was willing to bet none of them had ever killed a man before–hells, if the weather had been better, they’d probably still be on their farms with their fathers, and the nasty-looking machetes at their sides would still be used for clearing brush.
These times made men desperate, they did.
Which was none of Aurian’s business.
“Look,” he said at last, allowing his voice to quaver slightly. “All right, you’ve got me. My wife keeps a sack of coppers on her–supposed to last us the winter, they were. You’re welcome to ’em. Just leave us in peace.”
“Maybe,” the lead bandit said curtly. “Maybe not. Where’s the lady?”
The pressure on his throat lightened. The bandit resheathed his sword. “Call her.”
“Jin,” Aurian called. “Oh, Jin! We have visitors.”
“Fuck off,” came Jin’s voice from above, thickly. Aurian was willing to bet she had been sound asleep.
The bandits chuckled. “Right proper and obedient, that one,” one of the two lesser bandits snickered. Aurian phrased his request carefully:
“Jin. These gentlemen are interested in some of your coppers.”
“Are they now?” The voice had brightened considerably. A door creaked, followed by a familiar lithe step, joined by a series of creaks as Jin took the stairs down.
Aurian was not facing the right direction to see her, but he could tell from the guffaws of the bandits when she was in view.
“Aithar’s hells, laddie, that’s your wife?” said the lead bandit. “Where’d you find her, hanging in a butcher’s shoppe?”
“Oh, now,” Jin said pleasantly. “You shouldn’t have said that. I was planning on leaving you alive.”
There was the sliding ring of drawn steel, and a few soft rushed footsteps. There was a choking sound. The bandit in front of him went stiff as a red wet rose blossomed in the center of his chest, tipped by the point of a sword. He slumped.
With a vicious kick, Jin Grewler slid him off her sword and onto the bodies of his cohorts. She wiped her sword distractedly on his tunic.
‘Hello, my darling dingleberry,” she said cheerfully. “My precious puking pearl. My salubrious swine. My–”
“Enough!” Aurian grinned. “I truly thought we might be fucked, this time. I thought you’d really gone to sleep up there.”
“I did.” She bent, began to rifle through the purses of the deceased. “What, you don’t think I’d rise to the sound of my hubby-wubby calling?”
Aurian laughed in spite of himself. “Of course you would, my purest puddin’ pumpkin. Of course you would.”
“Augh, don’t do it to me. Makes my skin bloody well crawl, so it does.” She found a purse that jingled, pouring copper coins into her hand. “Good take on these bastards. Fourteen copper.”
“About time somebody beat ’em at their own game. Toss it in with the rest, I guess.”
“Which board is it, again?”
“Third from the welcome mat. Step on it, it’ll sound hollow.”
As she stepped, listened, and cursed, Aurian took the moment to stretch, blot the small wound at his throat with the back of his hand, and look at his wife.
It wasn’t a picture many men would feel lucky looking at, he knew–especially considering she was his wife in name only. Jin Koch, neé Grewler, was nearly six feet tall, thin as a rail, and possessed the pale blanched-looking skin and sharp profile common to the Imperial south. In addition to her sharp profile, she had a braided mat of ivory hair that hung unbrushed and unloved to the small of her back–the sort of hair that, with about a year’s proper maintenance and a good shearing, might have curled in attractive ringlets around her face.
But her face was the problem, really. For, in place of one pale grey eye, Jin wore a patch–a big patch. Even so, the patch was not large enough to cover the scars that extended like mountain ridges from her empty socket, or the healed-over shiny burns that clustered around it.
She had come to him because no one in the town down the road would have her: a disfigured woman in her late thirties looking for a change of name and a quieter life didn’t have many takers in an organized sleepy municipality. Aurian, unlike the townsfolk, had recognized a war wound when he saw one–and the boundless opportunities it implied.
He was not an opportunist–not in any conventional sense, at least. He had been starving at this gods-forsaken inn on the side of this gods-forsaken minor road for long enough to know that. But when he saw a chance to get back–at the bandits who robbed him at least once a fortnight, and the townsfolk who told him he’d never amount to much–well, he’d have been a fool not to take it. She may have been ugly, and crass, and a drunk, but this strange Imperial swordswoman had made him in six months about double what he’d made in the past ten years.
And all for the price of his hand, and free beer.
Jin found the hollow board, and kicked it up and over. The eerie light of all their stashed copper shone on her face, making it beautiful, a sculpture in reds and oranges. Aurian smiled at her affectionately.
“How much, d’you think?”
“Don’t know. Four hundred–five hundred, maybe. A little sack of it’s in gold.” She scowled, fingering the offending sack. “We could afford a place in the city with this, you know. ”
“Aye, but then we couldn’t do our civic duty.” He gestured to the fallen bandits. “We keep it up, dear heart, and Sohoban’s Way won’t have any more bandits on it at all. We’ll be heroes. They might even make me mayor.”
Jin snorted. “Faugh. Mayor of the midden heap, maybe. Need I remind you that these people hate you?”
“They do now. When they find out we’re rich…” he left his thought unfinished.
Money could do so much.
In one easy motion, Jin grabbed a dead bandit and slung him over her shoulder. “Speaking of midden heap, what should I do with these scumbags?”
“We’ll burn them tonight. Say a few words over them.” Seeing her face, he added: “Come on, Jin. They’ve suffered enough for their crimes. Don’t feed them to the pigs.”
“‘Would save us a bundle on pig feed.”
“We don’t need to save a bundle. Remember the pile of copper under that floorboard?”
“They’re dead. They don’t care if they’re pig feed or in a crypt. Might as well use what you have, says I.”
And that was Jin: practical, no-nonsense Jin. Aurian, who had been born and raised in this area and had never seen adventure so much as shake a stick at him, couldn’t help but admire her attitude. He would never feed a dead man to pigs–whether or not he believed in an afterlife didn’t even enter into it. It just wasn’t the done thing.
But he could see how it made sense.
“No pigs,” he said at last. “Have some respect, dearest. Just pile ’em out back–I’ll get around to the fire presently.”
“Pile ’em yourself,” Jin shot back. “And think about your priorities, while you’re at it. You want to stay in an inn with no traffic and drink your days away, that’s just fine. I’ll do it with you. But you can’t go taking things for granted like you do. Someday you’ll be sitting here with no fodder for the pigs, thinking ‘oh, if only I still had those bloody bandit corpses…'”
“Taking things for granted like I do, eh? You’re the one who sits day in and day out. At least I sweep. Hells, your arm gets more muscle moving tankard to mouth than it does swinging that sword of yours.”
“Aye,” Jin spat, tossing the bandit back down on the floor. “Perhaps it does. But I know something of the suddenness off loss, laddie. You’d do well to listen to me.”
She stalked off. Aurian counted to ten.
Before he hit seven she came back in, grabbed a tankard from under the bar, filled it at the barrel, and walked back out again.
“Think on it!” she called.
Aurian sighed, bent down, and heaved one of the dead bandits over his own shoulder. There would be no talking to her for the rest of the day.
Around four in the afternoon, just after he finished scouring the spilt blood off his floor, the necromancer entered. Aurian put his bottle of lye back behind the bar and raised a hand.
“Horis,” he said. “Welcome back.”
“Aurian!” the necromancer answered, taking his usual seat at the bar. “Good to see you still about. Bunch of blokes through the coven yesterday, telling us they would bring us an innkeeper’s corpus in return for a sheaf of hexes. I take it your woman took care of them.”
“With her usual speed and skill,” Aurian said, grinning. “How goes the gathering of knowledge?”
“Fair, fair. I’m close to reanimating mammals. Found a chipmunk skeleton in the woods, got it to stay alive for a full thirty minutes this time.” The necromancer rolled back his black sleeves, revealing forearms covered in the snaky blue tattoos of his profession. “Augar and Denis might be by tonight. They’ve been in the trials all week and they’re starved for your beer and a friendly game of cards.”
“How’d they do?”
“They’re full-fledged now, aye.” The necromancer smiled widely, even white teeth splitting his cadaverous face in two. “Reanimated a dead salamander each. I’m very proud.”
“You should be. This round’s on me.” Aurian poured two tankards, and the two of them clinked them together. “Ah, Horis. What’d you do to deserve such talented students?”
“Not a damned thing, Aurian–not a damned thing.”
The two men sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the breeze shake leaves loose from the trees outside.
“Horis,” Aurian said, after a while. “D’you ever wonder what it’s like to live in the town? Not a care in your day save making money, neighbors on all sides, pretty little vegetable garden on your roof. Town guard to protect you. Everything right there.”
Horis sighed. “Oh, laddie. I know it must seem tempting to you, but trust me–our kind isn’t any happier there than their kind would be here, on the edge of the Grieving Wood. I’ve lived in a city or two in my time, and it’s more annoyance than pleasure. Your neighbors always want to know what you’re up to, see. A single bad spell, a single infestation of undead woodchucks, and they’re all against you until death do you part. What you do here, fair though it may seem to you–they’d arrest you for it, in the town.”
“Well, because you’re killing people.”
“But they’re bad people. People who’re trying to kill us. It’s self defense.”
“I know, lad. I know that perfectly well, and I understand it too. But see, that’s why we live out here, and not in there. Out here, we can seek our own justice. In there, why, it would be the job of the Town Guard to fight for us. And whatever sort of job they did–well, that would be that. You might not ever see the people who robbed you put to justice. You certainly wouldn’t get to pick their pockets afterwards. And you’d just have to like it or lump it.” The necromancer took a swig from his tankard and grimaced. “By the way, boy, your beer’s getting sour.”
“I know, I know. But I want to drink up what’s left before we put in the new barrel.”
“Any of the good stuff left?”
Aurian grinned. “And there I was thinking you were too drunk to remember it. Aye, there’s a bottle left.”
He rummaged under the bar, coming up with a rounded glass bottle and two dusty shot glasses. He poured them both a shot.
“You know,” he said, swirling the cloudy liquid about, “I never understood how my father got stuck out here.”
“Stuck? Stuck! He chose to live out here, lad.” The necromancer raised his glass. “Sun’s rising, moon’s waning.”
“Sun’s setting,” Aurian replied automatically, raising his glass as well. “Moon’s waxing.”
They both drank. The berry liquor left a warm glowing flame in Aurian’s belly. He leaned against the bar, looking out the windows to the leafy green depths of the forest beyond them.
“But why here?” he asked at last. “On this out-of-the-way road, near this out-of-the-way town. ”
“I couldn’t say–never knew him as well as I know you. I suspect he was born hereabouts. When you’re older, you’ll understand the power your birthplace holds over you. Or perhaps he just wanted a decent quiet life for you.”
“I’ve got a decent quiet life,” Aurian said, a little bitterly. “It’s boring the shit out of me.”
The necromancer chuckled. “Oh, my boy. If you told anyone in town what happened here–or what you have piled out back, for that matter–they would call your life anything but decent and quiet. Certainly not boring.” He reached over, patted Aurian’s shoulder with one of his tattooed hands. “Where’s that harpy you live with, anyhow?”
“Out,” Aurian muttered. “I pissed her off this morning, I think. She’ll be back before sundown. She always is.”
“Like a bad copper,” the necromancer agreed amiably. “You’d do well to listen to that woman more than you do. She’s far wiser than you. Seen more, too–still no idea where she’s from?”
“None. Nor do I care. Somewhere Southern, obviously–and coming into town wanting a name change? I thought it was better not to ask. She’s a good woman, she couldn’t have done anything too awful.”
“A sensible attitude to take.” The necromancer handed Aurian his tankard. Aurian filled it again, and topped off his own.
“To Jin,” the necromancer intoned.