This week, 100 lucky people will be getting an e-ARC of a upcoming charity anthology -The Art of War! The authors featured are-
Mark Lawrence, Ed Greenwood, Brian Scott Staveley, Miles Cameron, John Gwynne, Sebastien De Castell, Mitchell Hogan, Stan Nicholls, Rob Hayes, Charles Phipps, Mazarkis Williams, Ben Galley, Graham Austin-King, Michael R. Fletcher, Nicholas Eames, Anna Smith Spark, Anna Stephens, Ed McDonald, RJ Barker, Sue Tingey, Benedict Patrick, Michael Miller, Dyrk Ashton, Laura M Hughes, Steven Poore, Timandra Whitecastle, Steven Kelliher, J.P. Ashman, Brandon Draga, David T. Palmer, Anne Nicholls, Dominick Murray, RB Watkinson, Charles F Bond, Ulff Lehmann, Tom Gaskin, Zachary Barnes, Nathan Boyce - Foreword by none other than yours truly, Brian D. Anderson
How can I get one, you ask? Simple. I'll be picking 100 people from my mailing list at random. You mean you're not on my mailing list? Then message me your email address and you will be.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places
and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously
and should not be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales,
organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief
quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
swirled the pale brown liquid around in his glass and then placed it on the bar.
Why did he even bother? Nasty stuff. Tasted like vomit. Hell, it didn’t even
get him drunk…it hadn’t been able to for a long time now. The raucous laughter
and inebriated voices at his back made him all too aware of this fact. The
low-life dregs of Vale. No one else would even consider coming to a dive like
this. Still, dregs or not, at least they were capable of having a good time.
Which was more than he could say for himself.
ceiling hung dozens of pairs of boots, all of them ripped off the feet of
unruly patrons who had chosen to take their fun a bit too far, which was really
saying something in a regular rough house like this. These days boots were hard
to come by; good ones, anyway. In truth, they were probably the only things in
the place worth stealing. Not that anyone was stupid enough to try. Mack would
have his shotgun out from beneath the counter before you could touch a single
thrumming music crackling from a speaker on the wall darkened Drake’s mood even
further. It was an old tune from way back in his father’s days. He couldn’t
recall the title, just hearing it playing over and over on the vibraplayer in
his dad’s home office.
drinking or not?” asked Mack, settling his elbow on the other side of the bar.
The scowl on his face said clearly that this was not a friendly enquiry.
place is for paying customers, hawker.”
sniffed. “Sure you did. An hour ago.”
picked up his glass and very deliberately poured the contents onto the floor.
“Okay. So give me another.”
a real piece of work. You know that?” Mack reached back and snatched a bottle
from the shelf. “Why do you come here?”
question. But not one for which Drake had a good answer. He shrugged. “Maybe I
like the atmosphere.”
shoving the replenished glass in front of him, Mack wandered off to the other
end of the bar, muttering insults under his breath as he went. Drake picked up
the whiskey and held it to his nose. For a brief moment, he actually considered
drinking it. But good judgment quickly got the better of him, and he put it
back down again. It might not get him drunk, but it sure as hell could make him
still dwelling on this when the door swung open and a small mouse of a man in a
well-tailored blue pinstripe suit slunk in. The nervous look on his narrow face
as he clutched a leather case tightly under his arm was more than enough to
earn him attention from some of the rougher characters present. After crossing
over to an empty table near the far wall he took a seat, his eyes darting
constantly back and forth.
like that came in from time to time. He was probably on some job that had taken
him outside of Troi; and from the look of things, this was his first time so
far away from the city. Now he was seeking to make the most of it. Out here in
the provinces, secure in the knowledge that their wives couldn’t possibly know
what they were up to, many of them came to places such as this looking to live
out some depraved fantasy they would never dream of being involved with back
home. Mostly they were on the lookout for cheap women or drugs. Whatever it
was, all they usually found was a whole lot of trouble.
beauty with auburn hair and olive skin sidled up beside Drake. Skin-tight black
leather pants and a tank top accentuated her curves nicely. Flashing a
seductive smile, she reached over and picked up Drake’s glass.
not like you were going to drink it, hawker,” she told him in a playful tone.
After downing the whiskey in a single gulp, she motioned for Mack to bring her
her a sideways look. “I’m busy, Allie. What do you want?”
leaned her head on his shoulder. “You, my dear. For the longest time.”
messing around. I don’t have time for your games today.”
sweetie. That’s why I’m here.” She took the glass from Mack and waited until
Drake slid some money across the bar before drinking it. “Your latest client is
a real piece of crap. You know that?”
sat up straight on his bar stool. “What do you mean?”
killed the poor guy you caught for him. Shot him twice in the head, right in
front of the sheriff’s deputy. Didn’t say a damn word. Just shot him and walked
off, as cool as you like.”
shrugged. “So what?”
you’re next. That’s so what.”
spun his stool around and ran his eyes over the bar’s patrons. Regulars,
mostly. A local vash dealer called
Lenny had approached the newcomer and was whispering into his ear. The man
quickly shook his head and gave a timid smile. He wasn’t here for drugs,
returned his attention to Allie. “I’m next? Why would you say that?”
I hear things, sweetie. You charge too much. And the word is that your client
has no intention of paying up.”
pay,” Drake assured her. He reached down and touched the handle of his P37
resting in the holster on his belt. “One way or another, he’ll pay.”
be a moron,” she told him. “From what I hear, this guy is hooked up with some
powerful people. Troians. And not the workers, either – the top dwellers. The real
shook her head in wonder at his casual response. “You really must have a death
wish. Anyway, just so you know, I hear that he’s hired someone to take you out.
Someone very special. So just watch your back, okay?”
waved for Mack to bring her another drink. “I’ll do that. Thanks, Allie.”
slender girl in a low-cut red dress and high heels was now sitting in the
newcomer’s lap. But once again he began shaking his head, all the time still
clutching nervously at his case. So, he’s
not here for women either. And if the girl was the wrong gender, the guy
was most definitely in the wrong bar. Even so, he wasn’t showing any
inclination to leave.
gave him a light kiss on his cheek and sauntered off. Drake moved his gaze over
to the door. If Allie was right – and she usually was – then he had come here
for nothing. His client had known full well with whom he was dealing. Drake had
a reputation for ruthless efficiency; that’s why he had been hired in the first
place. Now Allie was telling him someone special had been hired to take him
out. That could only mean one thing: a mage.
like mages. Wielding magic made them unbearably arrogant. He had worked with
them in the past, but found them to be far too dependent on spells and glamour.
Take all that away, and they were usually no better than the scrawny little …
glanced over to the table where the newcomer had been sitting. It was now
empty. Instinctively, his hand shot to his gun. He slowly stood and moved
toward the door, eyes scanning every part of the room. Where the hell was he?
glow near a wooden support off to his left answered the question, and he dove
hard to the floor just in time. A streak of blue fire shot from the assassin’s
hands, striking the side of the bar and exploding with an ear-splitting crack.
Tiny flames rained down on Drake’s back, burning holes in his jacket and
searing his skin. Keeping low, he headed rapidly for the front door.
Elsewhere, customers were screaming and
slamming into one another as they scrambled away from the assassin, most of
them crowding toward the rear exit. The mousy little man was now grinning
viciously, clearly reveling in the fear and panic he was causing.
the move, Drake unholstered his gun. But with his torso facing away and at an
awkward angle, he knew hitting his target would be nothing short of a miracle.
He squeezed the trigger anyway. A ball of white light burst from the barrel to
a mark just to his would-be killer’s left. It was close enough. The light
exploded with a chest-thumping thud, and the sheer force of the blast lifted
the assassin three feet into the air and threw him almost completely across the
room. With glass and broken furniture still slamming into the walls and
ceiling, Drake rose to one knee to see flickers of light dancing around the
assassin’s body. A protection cloak, he thought. Clever…
channeled his power into the P37, the heat in his chest growing more acute as
he did so. But Drake had long since learned to ignore this. The more powerful
the shot, the more pain was required to fire it. Right now the mage was dazed,
but far from out of the fight. As if to confirm this, a thin stream of mana
spewed forth from his opponent’s fingertips, striking Drake in the left leg.
Gritting his teeth against this new source of pain, he pressed his shoulder to
the door and tumbled outside.
more seconds; that was all he needed. His shot was almost ready now. It was
probably strong enough to penetrate the cloak, but it would be better not to
take any chances. The parking lot was rapidly filling up with those bar patrons
who had made it through the back door. Engines coughed into life, sputtering
and popping like fireworks from cheap mana fuel and poor maintenance as the
vehicles labored their way toward the street. Some were so slow, those inside
would have been better off on foot.
pushed himself up and limped toward a row of trashcans near the corner of the
lot. Smoke was already rising from the building. Magical flame didn’t usually
spread very much, but old timbers caught easily.
stepped out of the door, and the man’s posture told him that the assassin had
recovered faster than he had hoped. Drake flicked a switch just above the
trigger and fired. A thin line of blue light streaked out and formed a circular
pattern before striking the mage squarely in the right shoulder. The force sent
him staggering a few steps back inside the bar. But he emerged a second later,
arms outstretched and face twisted with rage.
smiled. This one was powerful…but inexperienced; otherwise, he would have
recognized what had hit him. And he sure as hell would have chosen a different
spell with which to counter. As it was, just as Drake reached the cans, the
assassin let loose a blast of highly focused mana, its blue light dazzling and
radiating pure magic. It was a spell designed to utterly annihilate a foe. Not
that it ever reached its intended target. The beam came to a sudden stop
halfway between the pair before it split in much the same manner that Drake’s
earlier shot had and then headed directly back to the source. This time,
though, the pattern was much more widespread, with the intention of surrounding
and trapping its target rather than actually striking it. As feral screams flew
from the encased assassin’s mouth, Drake gave a tight smile. The mirror spells
the P37 could fire were always useful against mages. Particularly inexperienced
ones who allowed anger to get the better of them.
With the mage waving his arms wildly about,
vainly trying to regain some of his power, Drake took careful aim and squeezed
the trigger. The hiss of the P37 was accompanied by a recoil so powerful it
felt as if it might rip his arm clean off, and the pain in his chest was nearly
unbearable. The impact of the fist-sized projectile completely collapsed the
building, piling fresh kindling onto the now raging fire. When the dust had
settled, the body of the mage was little more than a smoking pile of ash and
dropped to his knees, clutching his chest. After holstering his weapon, he
allowed himself to slump the rest of the way to the ground, then rolled onto
his back. Mack will be furious, he
thought. Assuming he’s still alive.
As for Allie, he had already caught a glimpse of her in the car lot and knew
she had made it out safely. She was a survivor. And in spite of her suggestive
dress and flirtatious manner, she was not one of the prostitutes who
practically lived in the bar.
all of the cars were gone, and the roaring of the flames was the only sound to
be heard. With the pain in Drake’s chest receding, he felt anger rise up. The
client should have just paid him. Now he would have to do something he hated –
kill for free. If the man had been able to seek out and hire a mage to come
after him, he was probably every bit as connected as Allie had suggested. Drake
would need to move fast, before word of this spread and the client learned that
his assassin’s attempt had failed.
crackle of tires on gravel had him reaching for his weapon again. He looked up,
then collapsed back down, grumbling curses. The creak of a car door and the
crunch of boots made him almost willing to risk facing a hangman’s noose and
put a hole straight through the man approaching. Almost...but not quite.
the hell, hawker?” The sheriff’s gravelly voice raked at his ears.
me alone, Barnaby,” he growled. “This isn’t the time.”
to say, his request was ignored. “Have you lost your mind?” the lawman
demanded. “You just burned down Mack’s bar. You think you’re special or
something? I’m taking you in.”
know damn well I didn’t burn it down. Blasted it down, maybe. But it was
already on fire anyway, so who cares?” He rolled up onto his elbow. “I heard
about what happened to my runner. And if you think I’m just gonna let you take
me away so the same thing can happen to me...” He began to chuckle mirthlessly.
sheriff huffed. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
you don’t.” Drake pushed himself fully to his feet.
was a bloated worm of a man, with narrow eyes and a balding head. The uniform
he wore was old, tattered, and roughly patched after having been let out a
dozen or more times. He was holding a revolver in his hand, though up until now
he’d had the good sense not to point it.
nodded at the weapon. “What do you think you’re going to do with that? Piss me
caliber wasn’t nearly powerful enough to do anything more than hurt like hell.
Not that he wanted to put up with that either. Barnaby was one of the few
people in the area who knew about his ‘protection.’ He’d had a report sent from
Troi informing the sheriff of this the very first week Drake had showed up in
the area. Things between the two men had changed from that moment on. These
days Barnaby did all he could to avoid so much as a passing conversation. Which
meant his being here now was almost certainly coerced.
he continued to bluster. “Look here, Drake. You can either come with me until
we can sort this out, or you can start running. And I can promise that the
bounty they’ll put on you will be big enough to call out every damn hawker in
could see that the man was scared. He craned his neck and looked up at the
overcast sky. “You know something, Barnaby? I was really hoping this would be a
nice day. But look – it’s cloudy as all hell.”
going to come without a fuss or not?” The tremor in his tone was obvious.
blew out a hard breath and met the sheriff’s eyes directly. “You’re not getting
my weapon. Is that clear? And I’ll take my own car.”
shifted on his feet. “You know that’s not how this works.”
tell you what I do know, Barnaby. I know you’re about as honest as a starving
vash addict. And you know damn well
who sent that mage after me.”
opened his mouth to speak, but Drake’s hand shot up to silence him. “I don’t
mind that you’re a sorry waste of a man. Hell, I don’t even mind that you’re
corrupt. I mean, who isn’t on the take in some way or another around here? But
I do mind walking into your station unarmed like a sheep to the slaughter. I
mind that a lot. So, here’s your choices. I can get in my car and drive down to
your office with my weapon tucked snug and secure at my side. Or I can simply
blow your head off right now and take my chances that no one will care about a
bloated pig of a man who finally got what was coming to him.”
drops of sweat were beading up on Barnaby’s brow, and his eyes darted to Drake’s
gun. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. But I promise that you’ll regret this,
putting away his gun, he got back in his car. Drake watched him go and then
crossed the lot to the far corner where his own vehicle was parked. At the
brief touch of his hand on a small mana pad, the lock clicked and the door
scent of leather and oil that greeted him as he settled inside brought a smile
to his lips. He placed his index finger briefly on a pad beside the steering
wheel and leaned back in the seat. In response, the engine hummed almost
inaudibly into life. It was a true one of a kind. He took a long breath while
listening to its even rhythm for a few seconds. Perfection. Even the black
paint was custom, sparkling with flakes of mana-infused silver. The car’s sleek
lines and sloped rear end made it look like it could actually take flight. And
with what was under the hood…no one would
ever stand a chance of catching her.
ready, Cal?” he asked, looking at the console. A yellow light blinked rapidly
as if in response; a check of the fuel gauge then drew a groan. He had needed
this payday. Quality mana fuel was rare…and expensive.
glanced over his shoulder to where the sheriff was still waiting. A sinking
feeling dug at the pit of his stomach. This was not going to end well. That
much he could count on.
lowered the car window and shut off the vibraplayer. Right now, he preferred to
listen to the hum of the engine and the roar of the wind. He had been tempted
to put the top down but decided against it. Should things take a bad turn, it
might be safer to have it up. Besides, it wasn’t all that hot today – a benefit
of the overcast sky.
the scenery wasn’t better, though. Mile after mile of crumbling buildings and
shabby houses covered the landscape. Everything was gray and dull; made more
obvious by the mana streams flowing overhead in a seemingly infinite array of
colors. The few shops scattered about were packed with hungry people scrambling
to get what little food was available – though it was never enough. Children either
darted about the streets pushing along carts filled with scrap metal to sell to
the recycling trucks or dug through heaps of stinking refuse hoping desperately
to find something of value that could be traded for food or money.
Aurora was about as poor a province as there was in Vale. Not that the others
were much better; but Aurora was particularly sickly and run-down. Here, even
the newer buildings were covered with a depressing coat of muck and grime,
conveying all too clearly the depth of hopelessness felt by locals. Yet despite
all this hardship and poverty, for a hawker at least, it was the best place to
often hid in the very worst areas, believing that they could blend in more
successfully amongst the filth. But more often than not, it was the exact
opposite. The inhabitants were invariably suspicious of strangers and kept
almost exclusively to themselves. The last thing they wanted was someone with a
bounty on their head bringing trouble to their door. They might not have had
much, but what they did have, they were determined to keep. Half of the time,
all Drake brought back was the runner’s body after he had been killed by the
locals for stealing food or clothes.
though, he’d been thinking it was about time to move on. He was becoming far
too recognizable in Aurora, making it increasingly tricky to get in and out of
places without attracting attention. Which in turn was making his job a damn
sight harder than it needed to be.
slipped out. A former royal guard turned hawker was bound to attract extra
attention anyway, wherever he went. And it wasn’t like he could hide the fact.
The local law enforcement was usually the first to find him out. Anyone new was
automatically checked out with the archives in Troi, and the people there were
not known for keeping such information confidential. Then there was his P37. If
the archives didn’t give him away, his weapon certainly would. Only members of
the royal guard carried a P37. You couldn’t buy one; each was custom made by
its owner, and the secret of its construction was never divulged. He damn sure
wasn’t about to give his up just to blend in with the crowd, not when it had
saved his hide so many times. No. Once he was finished with this latest mess,
he would move on…again.
kept them going at a fast click – showing off the fact that his car also had
some muscle under the hood. Several times he blew by slower vehicles, sounding
his siren as he passed and scaring the hell out of them. The third time he did
this, he very nearly ran an old man completely off the road. Drake decided it
was time to show the pudgy bastard a thing or two about speed.
ready, Cal?” he asked, a wry grin creeping up from the corners of his mouth.
“Let’s do it.” He slammed his foot down on the accelerator and was instantly
pressed hard back against the seat.
Barnaby must have seen him coming because he
sped up and swerved left, attempting to cut him off. But Cal was way too fast.
Drake pushed her to over one hundred and fifty before easing up. By then,
Barnaby was just a tiny dot in the mirror. Drake laughed at the thought of the
sheriff cursing and screaming that his prisoner had decided to run after all.
Just to rub it in even further, he made sure that he was completely out of
sight by taking a few hard turns at a speed he knew was sure to send Barnaby’s
car skidding off the road.
sheriff’s office was near to Vale’s reservoir, an area where virtually all of
what little commerce and infrastructure the town possessed could be found.
Here, the mana strings could be seen glistening like a spider’s web in the
morning dew across the sky. For most people, this signified a place where power
was abundant and life was good. But for Drake, it was just a harsh reminder of
approached the sheriff’s office, he saw a long red van parked directly outside.
On the side of the van, the lion sigil of the royal court immediately caught
the hell are they doing here?” Drake
pulled next to the van and waited for Barnaby to catch up. This was no
disgraced noble forced to serve the king as a lowly bureaucrat in some
dilapidated outpost; someone like that would be driving a vehicle that was old
and dented. This van was brand new. Fresh from the factory.
Maybe they’re not here about me, he
thought. Yeah, right. And maybe I’m a
over in his mind what they could possibly want with a disgraced guard who’d
been exiled to the outer provinces. Nothing he would like, that was for sure.
The only other time Troi had been interested in him was when they had wanted
him to kill a civilian activist who’d been causing trouble up north. But Drake
was no assassin. Sure, he killed. Quite often, in fact. But only when he couldn’t
bring a runner back alive.
hawkers didn’t care. They would simply kill the poor bastard and move on rather
than take the extra time and effort needed to capture someone alive. Dead
bodies don’t try to escape. Half the money, but also half the time and
aggravation. That was not Drake’s way. He had never been a cold-blooded
murderer – regardless of what the royal court claimed.
eventually screeched into the lot and parked directly behind Cal, clearly a
tactic to block him in. Drake chuckled at the man’s clumsy attempt to assert
his authority. If he wanted to leave, this sure as hell wouldn’t stop him. Cal
could tear through the sheriff’s car like it was made from wet paper. The mana-infused
silver in the paintwork was more than just decoration. Drake got out and
started toward the office entrance, the chirp of Cal’s auto-lock sounding from
behind after a few steps.
hurried over to join him, puffing and wheezing as he took hold of Drake by the
arm. Drake shot him a warning glance.
want this to get rough, do we?” Barnaby asked. From the nervous expression on
his face it was clear that this was not intended as a threat. “At least do me a
favor and close your coat.”
chuckled and nodded his compliance. “You got it, boss.” He buttoned his coat to
cover his weapon, though the bulge this created would still make it obvious to
almost anyone that he was armed. “Lead on.”
opened the door and stepped inside, pulling Drake along with him, though taking
care to use the very minimum of pressure.
air felt nice, and though the outside of the building was in desperate need of
a good scrubbing, the interior was clean and orderly. Chairs were lined up against
the wall, and soft music was coming from a speaker overhead. The desk clerk, a
thin, pale-faced man with round spectacles, was sitting behind a glass window
at the rear of the lobby. To his right was a door leading to the rest of the
station. He looked up at Drake, frowning.
waiting for that promotion, Milton?” Drake asked with a smile.
clerk ignored his jibe and switched his attention to the sheriff. “He’s waiting
in the interrogation room,” he said. “And he’s getting impatient.”
to tell me what someone from the royal court is doing here?” Drake asked
think they tell me anything?” he replied, opening the door leading to the back.
from overhead buzzed and crackled noisily as they passed along the hallway. The
wall on one side was lined with holopics of past kings and the present ruler –
though at some point these had been taken down and never put back in the
correct order of reign. Whoever the court had sent was sure to have noticed
this and would likely be giving Barnaby a severe reprimand. The black and white
tile floor was clean, but had numerous cracks and blemishes and was badly in
need of repair. In spite of this, overall it wasn’t such a bad place to spend
your working hours when compared to what was usually found in Aurora.
continued down the hall and through a small conference room where three doors
lined the wall to their left. The middle door was slightly ajar, and a waft of
smoke drifted out, accompanied by the scent of tobacco. Tobacco was expensive,
so this meant that whoever was inside was either very rich or very powerful.
Most likely both. Drake hadn’t had a good cigar in years, and the aroma was
making old, almost-forgotten cravings return.
opened the door fully and gestured for Drake to wait. From his present position,
he could see only a pair of boots propped up on a metal table. Military boots. This just keeps getting better and better,
he thought ironically.
go,” said a familiar voice. “I’ll speak to him alone.”
a word, Barnaby turned and started back toward the hallway door. Drake could
see the fear in his eyes. And there was a good reason for it being there. He
could feel his rage building as he continued staring at the boots.
in, Drake. Hasn’t anyone taught you that it is rude to keep old friends
he rolled the letter R and exaggerated each syllable only served to make Drake
even angrier. Pretending to be a top dweller; that’s all it was. Yet the man
inside the interrogation room was as far removed as possible from one of the
elites. More like the very lowest of bottom feeders, in Drake’s eyes.
unbuttoned his jacket and pushed the door fully open. There, dressed in his
finest white uniform complete with medals and ribbons, was Xavier Mortimer,
captain of the royal guard. His black curls were oiled and pushed back in the
fashion of the nobility, though contradicting this he had the angular features
and deep-set brown eyes of the working class, which was why he tended to keep
his collar turned up high. A cigar hung between a set of perfect teeth as he
gave Drake a welcoming smile.
so good to see you again, my old friend,” Xavier said, removing his feet from
the table. “How long has it been? Eight years?”
Drake took a chair on the opposite side. “Why are you here?”
sighed. “I see that life amongst the rabble has robbed you of your courtesy.”
see that you are still trying to forget that your father was a cook.”
Xavier’s expression didn’t change, Drake noticed a tiny twitch in the corner of
his eye that made him suppress a satisfied grin.
yes. Dear old Dad. He still asks about you when I visit. It broke his heart
when you were convicted. He still thinks you were falsely accused, poor fellow.
He just can’t imagine the great Drake Sharazi could ever have become
losing patience, Xavier. Get to the point.”
clicked his tongue. “Mind your temper. We don’t want this to become unpleasant,
sneered. “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
an invitation Drake knew for certain would be accepted. Both men reached to
their side simultaneously. In a blur of motion, two P37’s were drawn, each
trained and ready to fire.
smile never faltered. “You’ve lost your touch, old friend. I think this harsh
environment is definitely starting to take its toll.”
still fast enough to blow your damn head off.”
he spoke, Drake knew this to be a false claim. They had drawn their weapons
virtually in chorus. Had they pulled their triggers, both of them would now be
dead. But it had not always been like that. Had he really gotten slower? Or had
Xavier gotten faster? Probably a little bit of both, he suspected.
holstered his weapon, then waited for Drake to do the same before continuing.
“I have a message for you, one that I think you will want to hear. So perhaps
you should stop acting like a child for a moment.”
doing any of your damn dirty work,” Drake snapped back. “So unless you’ve come
with a royal apology, you have nothing to say that I want to hear.”
apology?” Xavier chuckled softly. “Now that would
be a cause for celebration, I imagine. But alas, no. Still, you might be
pleased to know that King Nedar still thinks of you fondly. So fondly, in fact,
that he has sent me to deliver a personal message.”
on the back of Drake’s neck prickled and his heartbeat increased significantly.
A message from the king. Though he
had long since learned to accept what had happened to him, in reflective
moments he still dreamed about returning home. Not that it did any good. As the
years passed, any hope of actually achieving this had all but disappeared. Home
had become nothing more than a memory. And yet now, was it possible that this
message was about to rekindle his long-abandoned dream?
need a moment,” said Xavier, obviously amused by the effect his words were
having. “I can only imagine what life must have been like for you, living in
filth for all these years. And then here I come, bringing a glimmer of hope
into your tragic tale.”
smug expression quickly had Drake regaining his composure. “I’m fine,” he
responded. “I was just amazed that the captain of the royal guard would be
reduced to the status of messenger boy. When I held the position, the king would never have thought to send me
on such a mundane task.”
Royal Majesty wanted to be sure you understood the importance of the matter,”
Xavier explained, though a bit too eagerly.
why don’t you get on with it?”
wants me to convey his deepest regret over how events transpired. And that he
truly wishes circumstances had been different.” He rolled the cigar between his
fingers absently, watching the smoke rise from the tip.
course not. He also commands you to come to Troi and report to the magistrate.”
Xavier did not continue, Drake leaned in, forcing him to make eye contact.
did you expect? A full pardon and a welcome home parade? Or perhaps
reinstatement as captain of the royal guard? Feel fortunate that the king
thinks of you at all. Your sovereign has a duty for you to perform. That should
faint hope that had been rising inside Drake began to collapse, leaving behind
only fury and resentment. Straightening his back, he forced himself to keep his
expression impassive. “Please thank His Royal Majesty for his considerate
message and kind words. Tell him I’m afraid I am otherwise occupied at the
rubbed his cheek and groaned. “I thought you might be difficult. I even told
the king as much. But he assured me that you would come.”
rose from his chair. “Then he was mistaken. And for once, you were right.” He
began to leave.
taken Prince Salazar,” Xavier said quickly. “I wasn’t supposed to tell you that
until you reached Troi. And you can’t say a word to anyone. But that’s why you’ve
halted, his hand resting on the doorknob. “Who
has taken him?”
know. But we think they’re from the outer provinces. That’s why we need you.”
Now things were different. Drake could hear the sincerity
bleeding into Xavier’s haughty tone. He drew several deep breaths before
finally speaking. “Very well. Tell the king I’ll be there.”
opened the door and strode out.
you want to ask?” Xavier called after him. “I know you do. Are you not even the
least bit curious about her?”
continued walking, pretending not to hear him. Barnaby was waiting just outside
in the hallway, sniffing a cigar obviously given to him by Xavier – no doubt
the bribe for bringing him in. He snatched the cigar from the man’s hand as he
passed by and shoved it into his pocket.
that’s mine,” Barnaby shouted.
over his shoulder, “Not anymore it isn’t. Now move your ass and get that heap
of a car out of my way before I ram it.”
open the lobby door, he quit the station. Barnaby followed close behind,
hurrying as fast as his ample girth would allow. When the way was clear, Drake
fired his engine and pulled back, stopping for a moment when he was parallel to
the guy who sent the mage after me that I’ll be seeing him real soon.”
shot him a hate-filled look but said nothing.
pulled out onto the road, he tried to calm himself. The thought of returning
home was exciting, but also terrifying. He was an exile. Everyone in Troi knew
his name, and unless the king proclaimed him innocent, he was still a criminal
in their eyes: a murderer. He would always be thought of as one. And something
told him that a royal pardon wasn’t forthcoming. They needed him; that was the
beginning and the end of it. Once he had served his purpose, he would be cast
out again. Even so, it was impossible to extinguish the tiny flame of hope that
had been rekindled.
the accelerator to the floor, he focused his thoughts on Salazar. How could
anyone have kidnapped the prince? For sure, whoever had been able to accomplish
such a feat was not a foe to be taken lightly. Only the king himself had more
protection. To overcome the numerous security measures preventing such an
abduction would have taken large measures of skill and daring, not to mention
considerable resources. On the plus side, those same resources would be very
difficult for the kidnappers to conceal. In a land starved for the basic
necessities, to a trained eye they would stand out like a beacon in the dark.
easy to understand why the king would send for him. Who better for the task
than a hawker possessing the power of the royal guard? And one with a personal interest
in the prince’s safe return. He pushed Cal past one hundred and sixty, turning
the landscape into a wretched blur. Frames of a picture he hated to see. But it
had been his life for nine long years.
Are you not even the least bit curious about her? Xavier’s
words plagued him. Of course he was. How could he not be? But it didn’t matter.
By now he was nothing but a long-forgotten memory to her. He had to accept
that. There were some hopes he could never allow to surface.
feelings would tear him apart, no matter how much time had passed.
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Back in 2010-2012 indie publishing was in its infancy.
Kindles were the hot new thing and traditional publishing was still trying to
get a handle on the rapid changes occurring in the industry. But indie authors:
we could adapt quickly. With lower production costs we could charge less, and
through KDP retain a large portion of our royalties.
Many old school readers simply did not like the new
wave of technology. They preferred the feel of a book in their hands as they
enjoyed their favorite authors. But over time many of them succumbed to the
allure of the kindle. With it, they could pack away hundreds of their favorite
books and take them anywhere they wanted.
As its popularity increased, so did the resistance of
traditional publishing. Indies were stealing away more and more market share
and calling into question why they were charging so much for digital copies?
This sparked outright war between traditional and indie publishing. You should
have seen the scathing articles denouncing indies as hacks who were destroying
literature. But we fought back…with sales and fans. Digital was where the indie
lived. This was the one thing the Big Five never understood. We knew we
couldn’t get into book stores. We didn’t have the distribution. But so what? We
understood the new technology and could see its potential. The enemy was trying
to beat us up in our own yard. Well…that didn’t work out for them.
Today, traditional publishing regards indie as an
accepted part of the literary world. Okay, maybe not accepted. But tolerated. I
mean, they can’t do anything about us, after all. There are still some of those
jerks around who shout at the sky about how we’re ruining everything. But
they’re few and far between. For the most part, we have earned our place at the
table and go about our business relatively unharassed.
But just when things started to calm down, a new beast
emerged from the fog. Audio Books! Sure, they’ve been around a while. But
recently people have discovered how enjoyable they can be. And with new
downloading technology and mobile devices, it was just what the hungry reader
on the go was looking for. Even the most old-fashioned of souls had to admit it
was a great way to read a book when their time was limited by the rigors of day
to day life.
I remember years ago when I was doing a lot of cross
country traveling; I would stop at the Cracker Barrel and pick up a book on CD
for the trip. You could rent it, then return it to any location so long as you
saved the receipt. But they were bulky and it took several cd’s for one book. Not
very practical from the point of view of the new age technological world. But
the narrations were great and I very much enjoyed the listen. Not to mention it
made the trip pass by more quickly.
I remember clearly the first time I heard one of my
books in audio. Derek Perkins was the narrator and did such a fantastic job, he
made a book I knew better than any other new again. I had never considered an
audio version. At the time, it was the territory of the Big Five. Indies barely
had a presence in the market. But you know indies. We’re a bunch of rowdy
disruptors if nothing else.
In no time, audio went from less than 10% of my income
to a full 1/3. By the time Dragonvein came along I was convinced audio was the
future. During this period, Big Five publishers were shouting that the kindle
was on the decline. People were returning to hard copies, just as they had predicted.
And I admit, kindle sales dropped off. But not because readers were going all
retro. The drop-off rate match almost identically with the rate of the increase
of audio book sales.
The traditional publishers still did not understand
the kindle reader. We’re talking about a reader who is unafraid of technology;
welcoming of change. Audio books are just another way for them to consume the
stories they want and love. And you can read them here and there, you can read
them anywhere, Sam I Am.
But some companies could see the writing on the wall
and took swift action. Audible.com noticed how well indie writers were doing in
the emerging format. They noticed the rise of other audio publishers that were
formally below their radar. They checked the numbers and were highly impressed.
And being that they are owned by Amazon, they had the financial resources to
This spawned a rights war that is still being waged.
The Big Five were not about to simply let go of this newfound income. It was
either you sign over audio, or no deal. Years ago, that would have been the end
of it – game, set, match. But that was then and this is now. Audible fought
back. How? With cold hard cash, of course.
Out of nowhere, advances of a few thousand dollars
turned into a few hundred thousand. Now an author could sell their audio
rights, retain their digital and print rights, and receive a larger advance
than the Big Five offered for all of their rights combined. This has gone far
to empower the author. You want all of my rights? Fine. Pay me as much as
Audible, then double it. You think I care if my earnings come from paperback
sales or from audio? Why should I? Indies don’t care about the pedigree that
comes from being traditionally published. But now, it’s not only indies who are
getting wise to this. Already several authors are fighting back and demanding
either more money, or to retain their audio rights.
Where this will all end up is anyone’s guess. But once
again, indies are slap-dab in the middle of it. It makes me wonder what’s next?
What new format will come along that has the industry in an uproar? Whatever it
is, you can bet indie writers will be jumping on it like a starving man on a
loaf of bread.
In due course, every book
that sells more than a handful of copies receives a bad review. Hell, they
usually receive quite a few, regardless of how good you might think it is. I
can’t think of one that hasn’t. And for the author, this can be painful to deal
with, particularly in the beginning.
I remember the first bad
review I read about The Godling Chronicles. It felt like someone had punched me
in the stomach. I didn’t want to speak to anyone for two days. How could this
have happened? Why were they not entertained by my work? And the mean things
they said were just…well…mean. What had I done to deserve that? After all, I’m
a nice guy. And I worked so hard! Besides, everyone else liked it. Or at least,
they said they did. Were they lying to make me feel good? The possibility
actually entered my mind…more than once.
It wasn’t until I peeled
myself off the couch and dared to click on the Amazon site that I began to feel
better. Afraid to look at my own book, lest there be more hurtful criticisms, I
found myself looking at the Fellowship of the Ring page. It was then I noticed
that it had quite a few one-star reviews. After reading a dozen or so, I felt
as if a great weight had been lifted. If a literary mind such as Tolkien can be
raked over the coals, who am I to think I won’t ever be? I still was a bit
irritated, but I was able to move forward. In time, they bothered me less and
less, until I learned to put them into the proper perspective.
Obviously, not all books
will appeal to all readers. I mean, duh! And two plus two is four. But it’s
easier to know this intellectually than to experience it. As writers, we pour
ourselves into our work. We use every ounce of skill and talent at our disposal
to create something worthy of praise. This leaves us extremely vulnerable and
exposed. I’ve shown the world my best, or at least the best I had at the time.
I then asked the reader to judge my abilities. And believe me, they do.
Occasionally in a…spirited way. But that’s what I signed up for. So I grew
thicker skin and gained a better perspective on my own strengths and
shortcomings. Not all negative reviews are useful, but many are. They can help
in ways you might not realize at first.
Through my reviews – the
good, the bad, and the ugly – I have refined my approach and honed my skills. I
have learned who my audience is and what they expect from me. Through the
readers, I have found my place in the literary world. I know where I fit in. I
know how good I am and how good I am not. I have learned to play to my
strengths and work through my weaknesses.
In the end, it boils down to
the fact that when you write a book and do anything other than shove it in a
drawer, you are opening yourself up to criticism. And though there are reviews
that are genuinely mean-spirited, most are accurate. If a reader says that your
character is flat, it is--at least, from their point of view. Arguing about it
is pointless. You will never convince someone they are wrong about your book.
For good reason. If they didn’t enjoy it, they didn’t enjoy it. You can’t talk
them into remembering that they liked it when they didn’t. This is why it is
NEVER a good idea to respond to a review. Nine times out of ten you come off as
a defensive china doll who can’t handle criticism. You cannot win these
battles, so don’t fight them.