Excerpt: Balancer

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I’ve been experimenting with storystuff lately, as you’ve probably noticed. Nothing too serious. Just a couple of spring flings.

This might be the one, though. Cue songs about summer love. I need a new fantasy, since I’m getting pretty close to buttoning up Aurian and Jin, and I want to do something out of the norm for me–out, that is, of that comfortable high middle ages ladies n’ lords norm. I need to get better at worldbuilding, honestly–much as I hate even saying that, because it implies worldbuilding is somehow a separate thing from writing a good story, and it’s not. Frankly, the most fabulous thing about this so far is that first line, but I can roll with it. Paying for things with dreams? Yes, awesome. Goats? Always awesome. Paying for goats with dreams? Fucking perfect. Right. Yes.

I’ll be coherent tomorrow, when I’ve gotten some sleep and I’m not feeling quite as sick. Until then, here’s some Balancer for you. What d’you guys think, could this be The One? And if it is–where should I propose? Should there be a moonlit garden, those floating lantern thingies? Or is this just another cheap beginning, and it’s bound to break my heart somewhere along the line with its loose ways and shallow disposition? In which case, I can at least glean a country song from it.

BALANCER

ONE
Stew Before The Week’s Out

It was market-day in the ur-village of Sivit, and Habbi the Balancer bought a goat with his last vial of daydreams.

It was a fabulous price. Habbi had been expecting to spend the vial, two vials of nightmares, and at least one of his hoarded flying dreams, but the goats had produced plentifully last season, and the ur-village was filled with more of them than herders could possibly market.

This goat was old, also. His fur was matted and rank, turned by a season’s foraging into a mass of brown dreadlocks almost as long as Habbi’s own. His horns were yellowed, chipped from rummaging on the mountain peaks for grass. He regarded Habbi now from the stone pen in back where Habbi had put him, his sideways goat-eyes unblinking.

Habbi did not care that the goat was old, was male, that his mating days were long past. He didn’t need to produce more goats or milk. He hadn’t, in fact, really needed a goat at all.

He regarded the goat for a while with both arms crossed.

“All right, Goat,” he said at last. “You’ll be stew before the week’s out. I shan’t get attached.”

The goat bleated mournfully, shaking his bearded chin.

“Nope,” Habbi said. “Not going to happen.”

He stepped back into his wada and tacked the skins that served as a door closed. He laid out his dreamstones and began polishing them with an old hide, buffing the stones until they shone. One of them glowed sullenly, its belly churning as though there were a war inside of it.

It was not a war, of course. Not yet. It was a dream.

Surprised, Habbi held the stone up to the sunlight filtering in from the wada smokehole–had he been so careless, truly? The dream inside the stone pulsed faintly, sensing the touch of its maker. It was deep red, fringed with oranges and livid pinks. Probably an anger dream, judging by the color and the faint sulphur stench of the stone.

Not good for much, unless he wanted to get into the darker aspects of his trade. Dangerous to leave untended.

Outside, the goat bleated again.

“Hold on, Goat,” Habbi murmured. He turned the stone around in his hands. A bad business for a cursed day–leaving dreams trapped for this long was careless. He’d been in too great a hurry to get to market, too focused on the acquisition of the goat. Dreams tended to feed on themselves, and the bigger they got, the more likely they were to break the dreamstone’s wards. This one was hungry and big, and its stony prison shook with the effort of retaining it.

The last runaway dream he’d heard of had been in Starek, on the other side of Sivit. It had been a flying dream–some amateur Balancer had doubtless been trying to save it up and stored it in a stone with inadequate warding. The whole village had floated a foot from the ground for a month, and the Stareki had resorted to tying rocks to their ankles for simple acts such as walking and bathing.

It had been bad business. Yes. But this business could have been much worse. Habbi cursed himself for an idiot as he readied the dreamstone for discharge, readied his bone blade for the kill that would follow: such carelessness was for the elderly, folks whose dreams were weak and almost used up. A young man’s anger dream–especially a Balancer’s anger dream–Onegod, that could start chaos.

No more, Habbi told himself firmly. No more getting so excited about market. You would’ve wrecked the Stone Nations, and for what? For a mangy old goat? For a few moments chatting about the weather with Wolef the Herdsman? For a taste of Mikka Wolef-Daughter’s cinnamon tea?

(Or, he reflected, for a sight of Mikka Wolef-Daughter? Her hair had been braided and the braids had looked new. There were red clay beads in them, clever clay beads. Her kirtle had been perfectly clean, the skins fragrant and rubbed with fresh oil, gleaming the same rich brown as her almond eyes. And there had been something in the way she had delivered the ritual greeting. She had almost met his eyes. It had been bold and familiar. It had thrilled him, a little–)

“No,” Habbi said, shaking his head. Even this–even Mikka Wolef-Daughter, with her bold eyes–was not worth the forgetting of a dream. He wiped down the blade of his bone knife one last time and dropped the stone onto the ground he crouched over.

“Come out,” he snapped, forgoing the singsong tone proper to the ritual for expediency. “Come out, dream thing. Your maker is calling.”

In the oval belly of the stone, the dream trembled. Habbi glanced down, ascertaining its condition with practiced ease: the dream boiled and flexed, making the stone shake and the entire sleeping section of his wada smell like a rotten egg. He raised his knife.

The stone was listing to the left. Its dream was nearly full-grown. It would move left when it escaped the stone, and quickly. His knife arm might not be fast enough on its own.

He would need to be Balanced. He would need to be prepared.

He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to blossom, to expand in the familiar spiral of the Balancing. He let the cold of the mountain air wash over him, the faint peaty smell of the bog some four hundred feet below. He filed these things, along with the rotten-egg smell of the dream and the faint warmth of his cookfire, into their proper places across from each other in his consciousness.

Outside, the goat was bleating.

He Balanced it with a soft hum.

The fire cracked and popped.

He Balanced it with the back and forth scraping of his boot against the ground.

When it was all Balanced–when each thing had its opposite, when, as his old teacher would have said, each hand had its foot, he spoke the final words of the ceremony, soft and low so as not to disturb the world he had righted.

“I release you, dream thing.”

And it was fast, as he knew it would be. As he knew it would, it moved left. It blurred for a few seconds, red and orange and plasmic and formless, before it took on a form he’d seen them take too often: a humanoid fetus, limbs still echoing the curve of the womb, lashless and hairless, huge head crowned in blood and afterbirth.

“Mama,” the thing burbled. “Mamama. Ma. Mama.”

They tried to appeal to their makers, did the dreams.

A less powerful Balancer might have even hesitated.

Habbi’s knife flew true, and his arm was strong. The thing cried out once, disappeared in a flash of red light.

Its blood on his knife did not.

He wiped it off with his polishing cloth, keeping his movements slow and calm as the world around him returned to its usual state of Unbalance. This was the part he hated–the blood on the blade. He had made the thing, in a way–it had been his dream. A part of him.

No more Mikka, he told himself firmly. No more goats. It was getting foolish, these market trips.

Outside, the goat bleated mournfully. Habbi ripped the skins from the doorway and shouted at it:

“BE QUIET, GOAT!”

And the goat, he saw, had escaped its pen, as goats were wont to do. It was standing right outside the wada, chewing patiently on a handful of Habbi’s hard-grown cooking herbs. Its sideways eyes regarded him clinically.

“Gah,” said Habbi. “Goat! I’ll turn you into stew!”

He snatched the axe from its hook by the wada door and advanced a few threatening steps, hefting it above his head and scowling.

The goat continued to chew. With a liquid hrrukhkk, it spat up its herbs.

Habbi shook the axe.

The goat began to eat what it had regurgitated.

Sighing, Habbi returned the axe to its hook. “Onegod,” he groaned. “Even you can see I’m hopeless. How can I just sit up here on this peak all day? What do they expect me to do, commune with the wind? I need company, Goat. I’ll go mad without it. But when I get it, I can’t concentrate.”

“Baaa,” said the goat.

“Fine,” said Habbi. “If that’s how you want it to be, I suppose I’ll have to keep you. Your name is Stew. And stew, mind you, is precisely what you’ll become if you prove too much trouble.”

“Baaa,” Stew said, and headbutted him gently.

“None of that,” said Habbi. “Not until we get you cleaned up.”

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