Writing Practice 12/6/2017

Write about birthdays…

Birthdays are about time. About impermanence, in the face of remembrance. Birthdays are about celebration, yes, celebrating another year older, but, too, these are, in the words of the beloved dirge, “Another year older and closer to death!

Birthdays have no significance other than what we attach to them. Summer and winter solstices mark patterns of being much greater than ourselves. Sunrise and sunset, full moon, new moon, eclipse. These events mark our experience in this world as transitory – temporary – fleeting, for they exist without our experience.

Birthdays, like any other anniversary, require a sentient mind for their existence, their remembrance, their celebration, and thus are dependent on our civilization for their very existence. We are their god. We are their creator, their destroyer, we are their rule-giver, their death-bringer, their resurrection. We are their memory-makers, their legacy takers, their purity definers.

We are their essence of being, so without us they do not exist. Shall a sheep remember that on the seventh full moon after the solstice his mother birthed him from her womb? Shall the shark take the time to recall that it was the fourth new moon and three days since the vernal equinox when she calved, three large, thrashing, vibrant pups into the suddenly blood-filled water?

Shall there be a historical celebration of the turtle at turning fifty, or of the ant to achieve the monumental feat of surviving a whole year? Does the redwood, having stood for three and a half centuries, scoff at the gentle oak reaching skyward for a mere decade?

Shall they all humble themselves in the face of the desert, who has been growing itself for three thousand million years? And what of even that can hold a candle to the Sun, or another Star, having burned twice or thrice as long?

So, what of birthdays? Why bother? Because we cannot comprehend the imaginalities outside of ourselves? Because we cannot imagine the comprehension required to wrap one’s head around the scope of the solar system, much less the galaxy or, Heaven forbid, the Universe? Because we cannot condescend to deign to think of the Planck scale or the Heisenberg atom or the miniscule of miniscules? Because we cannot reconcile the large with the small, the infinitely vast against the infinitely small?

Yes.

And no.

Because all of those things.

And because … cake.

Writing Practice 11/26/2017

Found grey hairs in my beard today…



“This just in… Grey hairs were found in the beard of one Stephan J. Mathys this morning. While not yet being declared a crime, authorities have begun an investigation into the matter.”

“I don’t know what else I can tell you,” Mr. Mathys said in a statement early this morning. “Every year, I grow out my beard. Nothing like this has ever happened before.” He paused, and then began gesturing with his hands. “I mean, I know it happens, but I always thought it would happen to other people…” Mr. Mathys broke down, not completely uncontrolled, but visibly shaken at the thought of growing older.

Experts say this is a natural phenomenon. But still, an event like this can rock the community.

Mr. Mathys’s relationship parter (quote-unquote) spoke on conditions that we do not reveal her or his identity. [Blurred picture, computer-synthesized voice-over]. [sihouette before a brown-speckled screen] “Yes, Stephan I have been dating for a while now. And, no, I never suspected something like this. I mean… He’s always been such a great guy. I kind of love him too much. Do you think maybe I drove him to this?”

Authorities have denied that there are any other persons of interest in this case. They say it will be a matter of time until they can sort out all of the stories. The timeline is especially troubling to Detective Adams, who was called in as an expert to consult.

“Well, I’m quite confused,” Mr. Adams said in his opening remarks. “Mr. Mathys has given clear indication that, for the last month, he has not been shaving. Don’t you think something like a grey hair would have been noticed well before now? It’s quite suspicious to me that he’s only come forward today, with this, rather than when he must have noticed it first, probably about three weeks ago.” Mr. Adams then turns and looks directly at the camera. “What is Mr. Mathys hiding? Or covering up for? I intend to get to the bottom of this.”

Mr. Mathys refused to provide any further statement. His lawyer has said that he will comply fully with all police requests for investigation and that his client has done nothing wrong.

Authorities say this could be a matter of months before this is resolved. They urge the public to remain vigilant and  to report any suspicious behavior in this manner as soon as possible.

***

Commentary: this was fun. The idea of a grey hair in my beard being breaking news was a break from the norm. I decided to write it as if it was a press release, but then I didn’t take the time (because it’s writing practice, you don’t go back and cross out or edit while you do it) to clean it up. So it sort of became a blend of “murder/mystery investigation” and “natural disaster”. I think it would be good practice to try to write one of each, in a more careful, polished way. 

Writing Practice 11/22/2017

This notebook is…

This notebook is a trap. It captures thoughts, desires, fears, imagination. it is like that box with a bright, shining light that the Ghostbusters used to use; you throw it out, it captures all the things which escape from your mind and your fingers, and it traps them inside for all eternity. And at the same time, it is a zoo – it is a display of all those things which have been captured in the wild, and showing them off to the newest generation. Opening times – all day, any time, just open up the cover and go for it.

This notebook is a cuneiform tablet. It is written in an ancient script, a language which almost nobody any longer understands. It is a place for recording history that would have otherwise been forgotten. Yet there are so few who remember how to decipher this text it is as good as forgotten.

This notebook is red-colored. The pages are blue-lined. Each page has another red barrier stripe to the left edge. The middle fold creates a margin between the columns. There is a longer space at the top of each page where the blue horizontal lines are absent, or never were, in the first place.

This notebook has pages which feel waxy. They feel as if they have been coated like playing cards, a smooth, non-paper feel. Paper feels rough to the touch. It makes a ‘shhhh’ noise when I draw my finger over it. This – this wax pretender – is not paper. It has no sound. It has no character. It has no moxie. It is soulless; it is a blank, plain, poor substitute for paper, that beautiful product derived from trees and water and love. Paper has heart. It holds – it comes from something which once lived. It breathed. It metabolized. It fended of pests and predators. It reproduced!

This – this – does not feel good. It does not feel right. It does not feel natural.

But it was cheap. And I have 100 sheets (double-sided) to get used to it.

I hope I don’t.

Writing Practice – Prompted Fiction

From time to time I will find a piece of fiction and use a line within as a starting prompt to write. Usually when this happens I don’t get a whole story, because I’m not intending to. Occasionally this will produce an interesting character, or perhaps a tone or voice that I enjoy, or a phrase that really intrigues me, or even the start of something that I will come back to later.

Today I picked up the book Myths of Origin; Four Short Novels by Catherine M.Valente, and opened to a random page. There were no page numbers, but the title was “Heaven and Earth Stood Still”. The first line is the first line of that page. Everything after is my own writing practice (don’t think, don’t get logical, keep your hand moving, lose control, go for the jugular):


When I was a child and Ayako only, the village had a great number of silkworms, and the women wove with radiance.

They created tapestries of artwork, beautiful to behold, intricate and delicate and precious, and displayed these draped across their own shoulders, or the arms and legs of their husbands or children. The silks were the finest in the land, or so the rumor went, for three generations.

The women prided themselves on their abilities. We children, myself, my playmates Tokira and Sakai, felt that there must be something magical in the air. We would wait at the edge of the village, playing “step-one-two”, our only game, in the dust at the edge of the path leading in and out and to the next location. We would watch as caravans of five, ten, twenty people would drag themselves along the route through the far-away forest and emerge, looking tired, and, somehow, lonely as they walked. Then, as they would look up from their feet and see that they were approaching the village finally, they would begin to transform.

Smiles would form on their faces. Their shoulders straightened, their steps lengthened. They chattered with each other. And they would gesture to one another, and point towards us, towards the huts behind us in the village, and as they approached we could hear their voices become stronger and more excited.

When they would pass us, on their way in to the village to purchase silks made by the women, to trade for other rice or paper or material goods made by the people of their village, they would smile at us and throw tiny candies to us, in appreciation of how blessed we were to live in the village of Kan, where the silks were the finest in the land. We appreciated this and would shout our congratulations back to them, wish them good trades, happy buying, invite them to  the soup brothel that stood at the opposite end of the village, where Sukai’s parents kept the tables clean and the patrons always left satisfied, invited them to stay at Tokina’s guest room, which was always filled with warmth and pleasantly, suggested that they also visit the wishing well in the center of town to toss a coin in for good luck, for happy futures, for much love and success wherever the road would deliver them next.

At times I wished I, too, had something to offer those weary souls. I wished my parents would be the cobblers in the village, perhaps run the animal stable, ensuring that the beasts were as well-cared-for as the people. Or that, perhaps, my mother was one of those celebrated weavers who knew how not only to make cloth but somehow infuse it with the magic that seemed to fill the village with its peace, and happiness, and warmth.

Alas, I could not, for my parents had died, two nights apart, years ago, from a coughing sickness that took hold on the thumb-day and took my mother’s life on the pointer-day, and my father’s life on the next-to-last day. They were buried together on the next thumb-day, once the rest of the villagers were certain that all of the sickness had left their bodies. I had cried, then, but at only four years old I knew not much about life, or death, only that I would wonder where I would find my soups and my bed from then on.

It was then that I started to climb down into the wishing well to scrounge for the coins left there by hopeful travelers. It was then that I began to sleep alone in the hut I had previously slept with my mother and father in. It was then that I began to wake in the middle of the night, shaking and sweating, unable to console myself, unable to sleep, unable to do anything but listen to the crickets outside as they chirped the night into the morning. It was then that I began to dream during the day. It was then that my nightmares became reality.

***

Commentary:

So, what was that? Well, it began with the name “Ayako”, and the image of silkworms. These automatically make me think of China, a rural village, a small, simple place. So I began to draw on what I know of weaving (very little), and of merchant travels (still little), and of children (about as much) and making up stuff (a little bit more). But by the time I had the idea for an orphan (yes, it’s been done much), I was enjoying the tone of the story. A bit nostalgic, a bit like an old woman telling a story to her grandchildren. She is not angry, or bitter. She is simply relating what happened, and with a lifetime of experience afterwards, can see that many of the things that she found difficult while young prepared her for much greater struggles later on.

One thing that stuck out – I was trying, in the moment, to have a time cycle that wasn’t our standard 7 days. Because various cultures develop in different ways. I’ve read of cultures that separate time by the fingers of a hand, so I latched on to that. If I were to write this into a story (which, by now, is kind of intriguing), I woudl develop this more fully. That would be part of world-building: what do each of the days of the cycle mean? What is special or taboo on each day? How would those days intersect with the plot and character? I like the idea of the thumb-day being the most important. So is that the first or last day of the week? Do we use both hands? Do we go right-to-left or left-to-right? One hand cycles (5 days) or two (10)?

All of these could be investigated, thought through, accepted and rejected, and integrated with the story that comes out. If I ever were to come back to this story, I think it would be a fantasy where Ayako must learn to battle the nightmares that come out in the day, and she must fight them with different people throughout her life – her friends at first, then her family (husband and children), and finally at the end of her life the whole village must believe the things that she sees but they do not and she must convince them to fight with her.

Oooh – many demon/monster stories revolve around everyone finally believing the heroine when the monster reveals itself and they see it with their own eyes. But what if – what if she is the ONLY one who can see them? That is, the villagers will see terrible things happening, like death of their animals and destruction of their silkworms, but they suspect her of witchcraft or magic or bending the will of the spirits  because she is claiming that invisible beasts are really the culprit. That would be interesting.

Lose Control

During writing practice for today, I lost control. My prompt was “I smell…”

>>I smell potato soup and antiseptic. The soup was in the now-empty bowl on my table, and is now inside my stomach. I smell its remnants as I belch.>>

Simple enough. Just getting started. Not really invested, or passionate. Nothing to write home about, really. 

>> I smell friendship, in the form of multiple people at multiple tables, sitting and sipping coffee, as they pass a few more inconsequential moments of their lives. Once again they have nothing meaningful to occupy their time, so they while away their hours in this deli, bitching about missed opportunities,a bout poor decisions their children and grandchildren are making, about how their soup is a little too spicy today – “>>

I critique the tables of older patrons near me. I criticize their simplicity, their familiarity, their unwillingness to take risks, and I realize I am projecting those fears I currently hold onto them.

And then I start to let go. To lose control. To feel like I’m not writing about them any longer, but I’m writing about myself. I’ve stopped thinking, I’ve stopped being logical. 

>> I smell jealousy and condemnation and judgment rising from my breast as I impute my own failed life goals onto them, twenty years on. Failed – projecting – that’s what I’m doing. If I am still here in that time, will I consider it failure? How could I not?”

After another page of self-pity, I stop concentrating on staying on the lines or in the margins. 

>> What do I lose by staying? Me.

What do I lose by moving on? Moving forward? Stretching myself? Nothing. Nothing. I lose NOTHING.

AND I GAIN.>>

Here something snaps. Something breaks free, and I loose the bounds controlling my mind, my pen, my heart. And it flows.

>> AND I GAIN
AND I GAIN OPPORTUNITY.


Reading back, I cannot tell what was written there. And that is a good thing. That is losing control. That is going for the jugular. That is intensity. That is passion. That is how the best experiences, the most satisfying writing sessions, develop and complete. This is what continues to bring me back time and again, searching for this release, this high, this uncontrollable flow.


In the end, I was completely powerless over what happened. I wrote, but it was not conscious. I was aware of a drawing force, something inside that I had released. A base, animal instinct to pursue, to hunt down this feeling and capture it, that I tapped into. It drew my hand faster and faster across the page, to the bottom and back to the top, three or four or ten times, I don’t remember.

But when I reached the end, I felt a release, an emission, an eruption of energy from from my body, like a sexual climax, like a void-filling expansion, an explosion of power and quarks and nuclear energy, and I dropped my pen, the electricity resonating through my shoulders, my fingers, inside the cavern of my mind, and I gasped, filling my lungs for the first time in what felt like an hour, recovering in just a moment that control I had so willingly given up, consciousness returning, awareness of my surroundings slowly oozing back into my senses.

I stared at my creation, incomprehensible, unfathomable even to myself, and I thought, That, right there, is why I write.

One Story, Two Versions – Part 2

This is the follow-up to the story posted yesterday. As I mentioned, this was written during the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. Originally, I had done research, plotting, characterization, setting, dialogue, etc. for the story I wrote yesterday. But then, when discussing with the instructor at Odyssey, we came to the conclusion that the story didn’t hold up very well, and we scoped out some differences. So I went back and re-wrote. Completely. And I came up with the following. Which is better? Why?

Discovering Virtue (version 2)

The land of Atlantis, it was once said, was “beautiful, and filled with many kinds of good peoples, and animals, and wine, and commerce.” That the god Poseidon made his home in the temple there, and accepted worship and sacrifice for his just rule. That men, women, horses and sheep, grains and fruits and trees grew strong and vibrant.

 As with all good things, that too must have passed. For times of beauty and times of sadness exchange, in order to understand either. Despite all their knowledge and virtue, their luxury and ease, the kingdoms of Atlantis began to turn on one another. A season, perhaps many seasons, of disorder befell the land. After a century of war the fields lay torn, the animals scattered, and the great library had burned. In retaliation the cliffs broke away from their restraints and threw half the city into the sea, taking with them the records of what happened and the opportunity to restore greatness.

 For thousands of years, then, the land and the people waited, though they did not recognize it. Outside, on the shores of Africa and Europe the legends spread of a mighty empire once stretched from sea’s edge to sea’s edge, now beneath the waves.

 When ships once again appeared at the horizon, then, none could grasp the significance. They had been so burdened with themselves they had forgotten that lands lay beyond the ocean, and the arrival of the New Men brought many changes.

 Not the least of these was that their leader, one called Columbus, stained his sword with the blood of the Queen, stole her seat on the throne, and banished the prince and princess.

#
For nearly a year the resentment at Columbus’s reign grew, manifested in small rebellions scattered throughout the city. It cannot be said with certainty that the chance of success is what drove the New Men off. It should not even be suggested. For though Columbus made news of a departure, he also promised to return with hundreds more men, thousands, many times his current force, and claim the entire land for himself.

 All the same preparations for departure continued. On an overcast afternoon, close after the midday meal, Atlantean workers and New Men loaded crates of grain, salted meats, barrels of wine, and countless other foodstuffs into the ships’ holds. Kelleron Mnestos stood on the top deck of one, translating between the two languages. Kelleron enjoyed the task, for it meant that the New Men would soon be gone.

 He had taken to the Spanish language easily, for it was his task to learn new languages. He was apprentice to the current Speaker for the Queen, who though she had no queen continued to hold the title. The Speaker translated amongst the half-dozen languages on the land, and thus needed others who were good at picking up new tongues. After fifteen years living in the city and studying with the Speaker Kelleron had learned four other tongues Taking Spanish from the New Men had been easy work.

 “Where to put the dried apples?” came a question from an Atlantean. Kelleron asked Paolo, the head New Man on this ship and third in command overall. Paolo was reasonable, but he was not Franco. Franco too was a master of languages, and so Kelleron felt a kinship with him. Franco had taught him Spanish, he had taught Franco the Atlantic tongue, and they moved easily between them. Not so when loading boxes and translating. Kelleron flowed with the crowd as they went up and down the ramps, into and out of the holds, stacking and shoving and arranging and rearranging.

 As he returned to the deck he tripped over something hard and heavy and that clanked as he did. A chain. A chain attached to the wall, with shackles attached. Now what would a trading ship need shackles for? He decided it must be for those times when sailors get out of order and must be kept away from the rest, for fear of hurting any. As he had no plans to be on the ship any more than necessary, he put it out of his mind and moved on.

  He emerged from the hold behind Paolo and two other New Men speaking. The Speaker said that the man who tells you everything, because he thinks you understand nothing, is not to be trusted. Kelleron crouched behind a pile of rope and sail and crept closer. 

 “When do we load the special cargo?” one man asked.

 “Night after tomorrow,” Paulo answered. “We still have need of it until then. Are all the holds ready?”

 “This finished yesterday, the Santa Maria today, and the Pinta tomorrow. Strong chains,” the man said, “good construction.” All three laughed, and Kelleron felt his blood chill. Chains for cargo? Cargo was loaded in crates and barrels. Chains held shackles and men. Men were not cargo. Unless–

 He crept back to the hold door and descended a few steps, then made noise coming out again. He emerged and saw Paolo staring at him. “What else, Paolo? What do we do now?” He hoped he did not sound strange. “Must we load all those today?”

 “About half,” Paolo said. “We get the rest tomorrow.”

 About half took hours, and when they finished the sky had cleared and the sun descended towards the mountains to the west. Kelleron released the Atlanteans and they scattered back to their places within the city’s Living Quarter. Kelleron did not go to his own rooms, but instead hastened for his cousin Sephone.

 The Living Quarter had straight streets and tight buildings, many stories high, with gardens mixed in. A set of rooms would include one waking room, one sleeping room, a cleaning room (for both bath and waste), and perhaps a storage room. They were all small, but comfortable for city residents. If one wanted more space, one changed to the farmsteads outside the city walls, where homes had room to grow as the animals did.

 Kelleron moved through the streets quickly and ably, and yet because of the sameness all around missed Sephone’s building the first time.

 When he found the place he ran up the stairs and knocked. In his impatience he hopped from side to side. He knocked again and heard noise. He knocked a third time, and Sephone appeared.

 “You don’t have to beat the door in,” she said.

 Kelleron pushed by her and paced across the waking room. Oil lamps on the shelves gave twisting shadows, reminding him of the uncertain light inside the ship’s hold.

 “You look worried,” she said. “Has there been trouble?”

 “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.” He told her the things he’d found and heard on the ship. “It looks like they’re planning to take Atlanteans back with them. In chains.”

 She gasped, covering her mouth with a hand. “No, they can’t!”

 “I think they very well can,” Kelleron said. “They have all the power, don’t they? Heaven knows, if anyone stands up against Columbus he’s likely to feel his head roll. Even the New Men are not safe around him.” There had been three deaths of his crew in the last year, two by his own sword.

 He stopped pacing. “Are you still in contact with the guild?”

 She nodded. “They haven’t been able to do anything in the past few months. They seem scared.”

 He took a large breath, held it, and blew across his teeth. “I’m scared, too, but I think we have to do something.”

 “What can you do? What can they do?”

 He opened the door. “We can stop them. I need the guild’s help. Will you show me the way?” A great heaviness settled within Kelleron’s stomach.
#

The Merchant Quarter was not easy to navigate. There streets swerved up hills and around wide boulders. The buildings stood irregular, with mottled stone fronts and crumbling shingled eaves. Sephone issued simple directions, left here, right there. Most who spent their days here had already left, so their steps echoed off the walls. They stopped at a low door in a shadowed alley, and she gave a cryptic knock.

 The door opened, just enough, and they slipped inside. It was a working room, small and efficient, with books piled on shelves and lamps lit all round. A table at the back held stacks of papers and writing quills, ink bottles and straight-edged rulers. Men and women stood talking in a half-circle. It was a few moments before they recognized Sephone and welcomed her into the circle.

 She introduced him. He only caught the name of one, a man named Zander, with a bald head and small white beard, who seemed to be in control. They discussed struggles meeting Columbus’s demands for supplies and the punishments given to the farmsteaders for not providing enough. They rejoiced over ships loaded for a long trip. They questioned whether it was for returning to their world, or for more attempts at conquest along the shores of Atlantis. All wished it were the former.

 “You will be happy and unhappy then.” Kelleron said. “Columbus plans to return to Spain day after tomorrow.” A cheer rippled through the tight space. “I fear he is taking captives along.” They quieted in a moment.

 Zander turned on Sephone. “Do you believe that? Do you confirm what he says?”

 Sephone put a hand on Kellar’s shoulder. “I have not seen what he says he has seen, no. You can take his word, though. Our mothers are sisters. We had neighboring farmsteads growing up. In all that time, I never heard him tell a single lie. Even when he could have, and none would have been the wiser.” Her face was a mask of pride. “He is the model of Atlantean virtue. You can believe him.”

 Zander still looked distrustful. “Not sure I agree with it all, but I’ll listen to your tale.” He turned back to Kelleron. “Lucky your cousin has such standing in this group, or we’d throw you out on your ear for rumoring. Tell me more.”

 Kelleron left nothing out. The conclusion was clear to him. Some in the group, who had more history of feeling double-crossed by Columbus and his crew, did not believe so easily.

 Zander’s forehead tightened. “So what would you have us do?”

 Kelleron had been waiting for this. “I think we need to stop them from taking the captives. Can you tell the men who will be loading the ships tomorrow not to go? They won’t be captured if they don’t show up.”

 Zander’s voice came lower. “No, they will just take men and women off the streets and put them in the chains.” He stroked his beard. “I think there is only one thing to do. We must kill Columbus.” The room fell silent. He looked at Kelleron with the intensity of a wolf on the hunt. “You will have to do it.”

 “Me?” Kelleron shook his head. “I have an oath to my father not to kill another man.” His father had fought in the last battles of the border war, and come home a walking clump of clay. Sephone’s father had not even returned. He had promised he would never make another man’s children go through such pain. He looked at Sephone and saw her of two minds.

 “If you don’t,” she said, “then how many will die at Columbus’s hands? On the ship or in Spain? What might happen to them there?” She took his hand, begging. “I know you want to honor your father, but Zander’s right. You have ways to get close to Columbus none of us could ever have. They have poison–”

 “No,” he said, firmly cutting her off. “I won’t do it. I made that promise and I will keep it. Columbus or not.” He felt a tearing at his own heart, too, that did wish to rid the world of Columbus. “He’ll go,” he said, adding emphasis. “He’ll go and I will not let him take Atlanteans along.” He strode to the door. “Sephone said you too wished Columbus gone. But I guess it means you’re not willing to work to keep your fellow men from the chains.” He threw the handle and stepped into the full dark night.

 “Kelleron!” Sephone called and followed him. “What are you doing?”

 “Whatever I have to,” he said. “Whatever I can live with.”

#

They made their way as quick as they could out of the Merchant Quarter, past the Living Quarter, past the Leisure Quarter, and towards the city’s highest point. There they would find the palaces and halls where the Kings and Queens ruled. When the New Men had first arrived, they thundered along the same streets where Kelleron and Sephone ran. The moon, half-full, hung overhead, adding to the many lamps and torches lining the ways.

 He ducked through an archway and crossed a small garden. “Where are we–” Sephone began, but Kelleron cut her off with a shhhh. The evening had deepened while they were with the guild, and in the getting there and back, but still it was not late enough for the New Men to be asleep. They would probably be enjoying the evening with their captain, their bottles, their women, and their songs. Kelleron expected they would remain occupied, but must not be stupid.

 They entered a hallway beside the garden, which grew behind the main courtyard. From the hallway they could reach many hidden places within the palace, places where the New Men seldom went. They moved through the empty corridors, emerging near the working rooms. In them the Advisors, and their assistants, spent their days. Kelleron suspected Columbus had usurped these, too, to plan the ruin of lives. If so, he might be able to find a way to stop them.

 He told Sephone to wait outside and watch while he entered the first, searching in the near-darkness for something, any sign. This one looked like the place of the Musician. Though there were papers, books, writing tools and instruments all over, there seemed to be nothing related to voyages.

  The next two were for the General, over the army, and the Priest, maintaining order amongst sacrifices within the palace temples. The fourth was for the Merchant, and in this space Kelleron found blessing. End to end and top to bottom maps, schedules, trade agreements, and recording books stuffed the space. He searched the stacks on the table and found, thank the gods, a bundle explaining the items Columbus demanded for the journey. Including the requirements for chains, shackles, and food for the additional cargo. The sheets burned his hand with their wickedness. What to do?

 He couldn’t take it with him to the guild. It was written in Spanish. They would say he was making it up. Why would he make up something so drastic? He needed a way to stop the New Men from acting at all.

 He returned to the doorway where Sephone watched the hall. He reached across and took the small lamp from the wall. “Kell,” she said. He ignored it.

 He returned to the table. “Kell,” Sephone’s voice came again, a little more urgently. He would burn the plans and the sea charts. The New Men would be delayed. There would be time to convince the guild and then they would help. He put one sheet inside his robe.

 He opened the lamp’s door and brought the flame towards a page. “Kelleron!” Sephone smacked his hand, startling him. “Someone’s coming!” She grabbed the lamp and his wrist. They slipped out the back entrance into another corridor.

 Just then Kelleron heard the boots of a New Man enter the room. He came to the back entrance as well, stuck his head out, and peered into the darkness. This hallway had no lamps or torches, and Sephone had put out theirs in a moment. The New Man returned and took up a position within the room. Kelleron’s heart bounced off the bones inside, and it took him minutes to get calm. They snuck through the passageways, fumbling for something familiar, until a convenient turn brought them back to the courtyard garden.

 “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could have gotten you hurt. Or killed.”

 “No harm to me. Did you get what you need?”

 “I saw the orders. I held them and I could have destroyed them.” He hung his head as he held out the single sheet he’d taken. “Just a few minutes more.”

 “I think I should go,” she said. He led her back to the main avenue, and she gave him a hug. “Be well.

#

The morning dawned clear, bright, and terrible. Kelleron had spent the night in his sleeping room but had not slept. How could he when ruin was so close?

 He arrived at the docks midmorning. He forced his face into a calm and comfortable image. If he showed worry he might draw attention.

 The expanse of crates and goods loaded onto the ships slowly shrunk as the day passed. When it looked as if there was only one more hour’s worth of work, Kelleron searched out Franco. If any of the New Men would listen, it might be him.

 He found Franco on the Santa Maria, translating orders and helping to ensure safe stowage of the goods. At a break in the work Kelleron caught his elbow and asked for a moment.

 They entered the captain’s stateroom. The small size surprised him. He could cross it in two paces. Like everything else on the ship, every bit of space held the necessities of sea travel. “What do you want?” Franco asked. The New Men were shorter than the Atlanteans, and yet it seemed Franco loomed over him, with his position and power.

 “I need to know if I can trust you, Franco. I need to know if I can believe you. That you won’t turn me in to Columbus for what I might say now.”

 Franco leaned against the desk and crossed his arms. “Speak, forget your fear. We have become close, no? If you feel you cannot talk to me, then why have you asked?”

 A windstorm crowded his mind, pushing on the things to say or do or hope. “What are the chains for, in the ships? Are they for enslaving men?”

 Franco hesitated, the color draining from his face. “Your job is to translate, not to question the Captain’s orders.” His voice came lower. “I recommend you let this issue drop.”

 Kelleron would not. He pulled the stolen sheet from within his robe. “I found this last night. It says to have food for a hundred and eighty men to cross the sea. There are less than ninety in your crew. What is the rest for?”

 Franco would not meet his eyes. “Do not ask if you are not willing to accept the answers.”

 That was enough for Kelleron. He spoke carefully, for if he did not he felt he would shout. “Do you agree? Do you think it is good to take men from their homes and chain them in bondage?”

 “Good?” Franco looked out the small window. “Nothing is good here. It could have been so much better.” There was a slight hitch as he spoke. “We could have been partners, allies in this new world. Could have done so much more for both our lands.”

 Kelleron sensed an opening. “You would have done better as Captain.” Franco tensed.

 “It is not for me to wonder what I or anyone else would have done,” he said. “It is for me to translate, not to moralize, not to judge. Who can say whether the power would not have turned me as it did him?” He sat in the small chair with a thump.

 “But you do not agree with what he’s done. What he’s going to do. So why do you go along? Why do you not say ‘no’? Are you so struck by money and power that you are blind to their effects?”

 Franco said nothing, staring at his hands.

 “Why is Columbus doing this? Why drag men from their homes and lock them in chains? It would be so much better to become allies, partners across the sea. Both worlds could benefit. All this does is put his foot directly in the viper’s nest.”

 “The same reason anyone does anything. For money, power, or fame.” He looked at Kelleron, and there was an emptiness on his face. “When we return to Spain, the men will be sold and the money will be used to buy new ships, hire new men. Columbus plans to return and take the whole land, not just this city.”

 “All the more reason to stop him!”

 Franco shook his head. “It would take a full crew to mutiny. Columbus still holds the allegiance of most. Only a few look past their own feet to see the truth.”

 Kellar’s spirit fell. “So you won’t help.”

 “I would, but there is nothing to be done.”

 “Coward.”

 “I am a realist. If two or three stand against forty, what power do they have? They waste their life jousting at a wall.” He stood again. He looked a wounded, weak man. “We must wait for better opportunities. I’m sorry.”

 Kelleron turned without acknowledging the apology, left the room, and stalked off the ship, fury blinding his eyes. If Franco wouldn’t help him, he would do it himself.

#

Darkness had fallen by the time he had the things he needed. He had begged Sephone to come again and help. She agreed but with the condition that this was the last help she would give.

 They carried the packets close inside their robes and the lamplighters away from them. It would do no good to have the bursts in the wrong place.

 The bursts would come from colorflames. Many shops within the city sold them. With a spark the balls launched into the night sky and beautified the darkness. It had taken a dozen stops before Kelleron found one that would give him something stronger than normal. The shop keep said it was dangerous, and if anything happened, he knew nothing.

 They made their way back to the docks, hiding in whatever shadows they could find. He and Sephone made their way towards one of the boats. The walkway was up, forcing them to pause and consider. Kelleron handed his colorflame balls to Sephone, and dove into the water. He swam the few feet to the ship, grasped a rope, and climbed up to the deck. His arms and legs burned with the effort. He heaved himself over the rail and found the walkway, extended it back to the dock. Sephone ran to join him.

 He found the cover to the hold. They entered, and waited for their eyes to adjust to the even greater darkness inside. Kelleron said, “We have to find the chains. They’re attached to the outer wall in multiple places. If we can light the colorflames nearby, it should make a big hole. The chains won’t hold, but the ships will still sail. Columbus will have to leave with nothing.”

 Sephone asked, “Where do we go first?”

 They felt around in the darkness for a minute until Sephone stumbled into something hard and metal on the floor. They followed it along, feeling the steel’s intimidating cold. Where the chain ended, attached to a large ring near the front, they stopped. She waited there while he followed the links in the other direction. There was a similar ring over half the boat’s length away. He had counted thirty shackles as he passed. Even one was too many. Those thirty men would be sitting shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, for a month before they arrived, starving and dirty, in a strange land. They should be outside, walking the promenades and taking in the theater and singing songs with their nieces and nephews. Kelleron’s resolve grew stronger.

 He placed three charges around the ring holding the chain to the wall and held them with small pats of putty from the shop keep. “Ready?” he called.

 “Yes, but–” He heard a thunk. “One of these colorflames keeps falling.” She grunted. “There. Ready.”

 They took out their lamplighters. Kelleron made a practice spark. He saw an echo in the darkness. “On three, light the first. We only have one minute on the wick, so you have to be quick.” He counted down and flicked a spark near the string.

 It caught on the first try, fizzing and sparking even more in the dark. The miniature sun burned his dark-adjusted eyes, startling him backwards. He squinted and flicked again, setting the second aflame, and the third. In the flickering lights now, as if they were torches on the wall, he could see the hold stacked to the top. Sephone had two lit and was aiming for the third. One dropped off the wall and she rushed to pick it back up and shove it onto the putty again. Her hands shook and Kelleron stumbled over and around the boxes. “Sephone!” He rounded a corner and heard a burst from behind, and another from the front. “Seph!” Soon the hold was full of light and smoke from additional bursts, and then the light disappeared and the air held a scarring stench. He stumbled in what he thought was the right direction and reached the wall.

 He crawled on hands and knees and found her, still on the cold, wooden deck. He touched first a shoulder, felt her neck, her body, her arms that lay limp when he lifted them. His cousin, dead in his arms, and it was his fault.

 No, he thought. It’s not my fault. It’s his. He cried, holding Sephone’s body close, breathing in the tang of the smoke and her smell underneath it, of dancing and the theater and of running on the promenade. He had ruined it. He had caused her death. All because of some stupid vow. He tried to honor his father, so that a man might not die, even though he deserved to, and with what result? Someone else had. If he’d listened to her, to them, the first time, she would still be alive.

 He knew what he would do. What he must do. What he alone could do. He would kill Columbus.
#

It was difficult to leave her, but Kelleron had no way to do anything else. He knew she would be found in the morning, when the New Men came to inspect their ships, and it would appear as if she had been the only one. As much has he hated leaving, he had to move forward and avenge the loss.

 His feet somehow took him to the guild house, as if she led him. He knocked in the way she had, and it was a time before anyone arrived. When he had chilled in the cool breeze, Zander opened the door, glanced at the cold, wet man, and stepped aside. The room was otherwise empty.

 No use missing the mark. “I’m ready,” he said. “Can you help me kill Columbus?” The older man nodded once, a quick motion. He disappeared into a back room and came out holding a wine bottle.

 Kelleron exploded. “You want to have a drink? Now?” He reached out to choke him, and found himself grasping air.

 “Calm, calm yourself. This is not for you nor I.” He handed it to Kelleron. “Get this to Columbus. Do not drink it.” He also gave over a tiny bottle, which he could put in a pocket. “They will search you, so they need something to find,” he said. After a few other reminders, he hustled Kelleron out, scolding him for taking so much time already. Kelleron ran.

 He found Columbus and the rest of the New Men indeed celebrating within the royal hall. He followed the music and the shouts to a large room filled with people. Bottles and glasses lay on their side, and a few men did too. The feast stood half-eaten.

 A New Man at the entrance stopped him and searched, and did indeed find the small bottle. The guard shouted a triumphant call, and everyone turned to mock him. Columbus, too, and Franco, and Paolo and all the rest, watched. He made a short bow, and said, as gentle as he could, “Ah, you have me. You did well,” and clapped the guard on the shoulder. He looked towards the head of the group and raised the bottle. “A toast? To wish you luck on your voyage.”

 Columbus waved him over. He walked slowly. His gaze caught Franco’s, who stared without speaking. He approached the usurper. A man who pretended to be King over a land he never cared for. A snake who sought money, power, and fame. A worm with the audacity to presume he could enslave a hundred men without cause.

 The room quieted. Kelleron opened the bottle and poured the thick red liquid into a wineglass. He placed it in Columbus’s hand, brushing his fingers as he did. A power tingled through his own flesh, startling him, and he drew back.

 Columbus lifted the glass, nodded, and prepared to take his end. Kelleron held his breath. Father, forgive me, he thought. I am doing what I must. The edge touched Columbus’s lips. The liquid rippled. Suddenly it reversed. Columbus straightened his arm and set the glass on the table.

 “Excuse me.” He addressed the room. “How rude. I have not shared with our guest.” The New Men laughed and Columbus twisted the bottle from Kelleron’s hand. He poured another glass and held it to him. “After you,” he said, with another tilt of his head.

 Kelleron breathed in, sharp, to gather his nerves. He hoped his hand did not shake. He accepted the glass, raised it high. “For good luck,” he said, and the crowd cheered. He opened his lips, filled his mouth, and presented the empty glass to the crowd. They cheered again. Columbus picked up his own and drained it.

 Kelleron turned aside and spat the mouthful of danger onto the floor. His tongue shook and lips burned. If he felt like this–he turned to see Columbus’s eyes wide, a hand at his chest, breath uneven. Darkness clouded Kelleron’s vision, but before it came he saw Columbus sink to the floor. The weight of the ocean reached upward, sucking him deeper into the darkness. He resisted, tried to stand, but could not. He fell.
#

When Kelleron had regained strength enough to ask, Zander told him the story. That the New Men had declared whomever woke first would choose the fate of the other. Columbus had died an hour later, but Kelleron had lain in the faint for a whole day. Paolo and Franco had both stood as replacements for Captain, and the New Men had chosen Franco.

 With his first act, he destroyed the orders to take prisoners in chains. The voyage would be a true partnership, and any who wished could come. Three dozen New Men behind stayed to seek their fortune in the new world. They filled the crew with sixty Atlanteans. Franco offered a position to Kelleron but he refused, choosing to stay, mourn Sephone, and continue as apprentice to the Speaker. There would be a new King and Queen soon, as the prince and princess in exile would return and take their rightful place within the month.

 They sailed ten days after Columbus died, bearing true gifts and true trade. They sailed for opportunity and glory. They sailed for history and for the future. They sailed to bring Atlantis back from the depths of obscurity, and to bring the world to Atlantis. Finally, they sailed in partnership, bridging the space between old and new, wrong and right, legend and truth.
END

One Story, Two Versions – Part 1

The next 2 posts will be 2 different versions (mostly polished) that I wrote at the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2015. They follow the same general plot arc, but have some slightly diferent characters. Give a read… see which one you prefer.
Discovering Virtue (version 1)

Anasha was in her waking room when she heard feet come up the steps and stop on the landing outside. A heavy knock on her door was followed by a terse voice. “Message from King Columbus.”

 She opened the door and found a small New Man waiting, one she did not recognize. He handed her a small scrap of vellum. “Come to the King’s quarters in one hour,” he said. “This is your pass.” He turned abruptly and descended the stairs, leaving her as alone as before. And confused.

 What would Columbus want with her? She was not the Speaker. He had never even spoken to her before. Was she in trouble? Was there a problem with the current Speaker?

 She took the time to dress in her finest red robe and run a comb through her hair. Even if he was a usurper, he was a usurper who held much power and stood on much ceremony. His appearance was always perfect and he expected as much of those in his audience.

 Anasha departed her rooms and walked towards the royal halls. They stood majestic near the highest point of the city, where they could overlook the sea to the east and the plain to the south, and the canal dredged through to the interior. The red, black, and white of the stones of the tightly-packed city buildings blended color as the light faded. Men and women and children went about their business without hurry, but also without wasting time. In and out of the shops, foodhouses, galleries, and theaters of the great city, they moved with purpose. Dark would be upon them all within the hour, and the lamplighters too were at their work. She took cue from them and set her face to task.

 She arrived at the royal hall and presented her pass to the New Man guarding there. He turned and waved for her to follow. They moved through marble hallways where Anasha often spent time, as apprentice to the Speaker, but with the New Man in front. Approaching the one who sat in the Queen’s rightful place, it felt different. Intimidating. Like a stormcloud looming over the mountain.

 The guard opened a door and ushered her in. She made a small bow. The room was perhaps four or five paces across and twice that deep. Various New Men moved in and out, on this errand or that. He sat in a tall, cushioned chair, behind a brightly polished table of dark wood. Various pieces of paper, sometimes stacks, covered the surface. She could not read them, nor did she wish to try.

 He did not look at her as he spoke, but kept writing. His voice was low and powerful. The words of their foreign tongue rolled up and down, like forever ripples within the stream. “I know of the plot to kill me, Anasha. You should go ahead and try it now, get it done.” She inhaled sharply, without meaning to. He looked up and his eyes, deep set like those of the cunning rat, squinted at her discomfort.

 “You are afraid to try? Or have you not been prepared?”

 “I am sorry, sir, I do not know what you mean.” He would hear the thunder in her chest, she was certain. He would see the pulsing of her veins and it would betray her so soon. How could he know? Franco.

 He relaxed into the chair, resting his face on his hand. “So it was not you. Very well.” His voice slowed, became less accusing. “You will need to pack some things. You are going on a voyage. You should be excited.”

 “Again, sir, I do not know what you mean. The Advisors, the Speaker, have told me nothing of this.”

 He waved his free hand. “I do not care for Advisors.” He leaned forward, elbows on the desk. Prowling. “Your queens and kings give them too much power. They really should be more careful who they ascend to positions of confidence.”

 Another New Man entered, handed a sheaf of pages to Columbus, who glanced at them and signed with a flourish. “Ah, so much to do, so little time.” He spoke without looking at her again. “I am leaving the day after tomorrow. You will come with me and be my Speaker, to help with the transition.”

 Speaker? Transition? “I am sorry, sir, I do not understand. Where are you going?”

 “Back to Spain, of course. My time is almost finished here. Besides, the Princess is scheduled to arrive and take over the throne in just a few more days. I would not want to be in her way.”

 “And what do you want with me?”

 It was as if she’d said two and two make purple. “I cannot be expected to control five score of Atlanteans without knowing their language, can I? You will be Speaker for them on our journey and in the land. Franco has prepared you well, no? Your speech is much improved from even a few months ago, he tells me.”

 Her throat betrayed her, would not let her speak. It held back her fear, her frustration, her anger.

 “Though you might refuse, of course. You are not my slave,” and he lifted the corner of his scowl. “I just wonder how it would look if your waking room were found to have a bottle of the poison used to kill the Speaker.”

 Her throat released its hold. “But she’s not–” she said, and fell silent.

 He returned to his papers, showing the top of his head. “I will expect you tomorrow evening, at the same time, for your decision.” He waved a hand.

 She made her slight bow and left, collecting a pass for the next evening from the guard. Once out upon the flagstones of the broad walkway leading up to the royal hall, she stood unconvinced that what had happened was real. She inhaled deep, held it for a pause, and then began to run.

 While she was with Columbus the sun had set behind the mountains to the west, the light had faded, and the streets were lit with only the lamps. They were bright enough, but still the effect, coming on top of the perilous offer, frightened Anasha. She hurried along the various stone-lined streets towards the Merchants’ Quarter, the place where men and women worked at trade. They would send sheep’s meat and the clothing made from the wool to the west, and receive wood and stone from the forests and quarries there, among other things. The businesses were transacted within the old buildings of the Merchants’ Quarter. And since business, like everything else, had been on the decline for the past thousand years, the Merchants’ Quarter was only half-full at any time.

 The perfect place for the Guild to hide.

 She passed through the old stone archway indicating the barrier between the Living Quarter and the Merchant Quarter, and felt the air cool immediately. The darkness increased as there were fewer and fewer lamps lighting the ways, on occasional corners or flowing out a window. She slid through alleys and around empty buildings, finally coming to a stop in front of an unmarked door.

 She knocked lightly. Tap-tap-tap, pause, tap-tap, pause, tap. She waited for a minute, counting slowly under her breath, then knocked again, in the same pattern. A breeze blew and brought a chill to her bones.

 The door opened slightly and she squeezed herself inside. Lamps lit the room, but just barely. Seated on stools all around the space were a handful of men and women, faces she recognized and one she did not. She saw Pensione, Demos, a young man whom she did not know, Bonia, and Zander, the leader of the Guild.

 “Is it safe to speak?” she asked, pointing at the strange boy. “Or will he go running to the New Men again, telling them more of our secrets?”

 He started to stand, and Demos put a hand on his shoulder to settle him. “He is with me,” Demos said. “This is my grandson, Kellar.” He stared at Anasha. “You have nerve, girl, accusing him, when there might be just as much thrown upon yourself.”

 “Of what? I have done everything you asked.”

 “Perhaps more,” came the reply, and the old man fell silent.

 Anasha felt her face flush, and turned to Zander instead. “I came to warn you,” she said. “Columbus knows about–”

 “Of course he does,” Zander interrupted. “Don’t you see?” He waved a hand around, indicating the mess within the room. Log books covered the floor. Cabinets lay overturned, their contents flowing across the space. The ink had been thrown across the room, shattering the bottles. A large stain that looked so much like blood covered one wall.

 “The New Men came earlier today,” he said. “They took everything.”

 Anasha gasped. “Then the plan–”

 “May still go on,” said Pensione. She was calm and collected. Anasha wondered how the woman could maintain such a statuesque figure.

 “We’ll have to hurry,” Anasha said. “Columbus leaves in two days’ time.”

 Pensione stood. “Good. We can just let him go.”

 “It is not that easy,” Anasha said. She told them of his offer, and his reasoning that she would accept.

 “That’s no bargain,” said Zander. “You can’t do that. Put fellow citizens into bondage. Ridiculous.”

 “We don’t know that it would be bondage,” she said, and immediately knew it was wrong. “Well, we can hope that it would not be.”

 “Hope,” Demos said, “is simply not believing what you know to be true. We have seen how the New Men treat us while they are here. Why should we expect anything different on a ship? Or when in their lands? You should not go.”

 “But what else can I do?”

 “Stay,” Zander said. “We’ll fight them. There’s not so many of them. We’ll call up the army and have them protect us.”

 “It won’t work,” Anasha said. “I hear the General and the other Advisors talking all the time. They cannot afford to make Columbus mad, for if he returns with half as many New Men as he has promised, Atlantis would be overrun and destroyed in two months.”

 “So you’ve given up,” Demos said. “Ah, well, perhaps we all should.” Her voice was a morning bloom wilting in the midday sun. “What’s the use?”

 Anasha pounded a fist on her thigh. “No. I love these people, and this way of life, too much to just give up.” A surge lifted her to her feet. “I can still do something. We can still do something.” She searched the shelves, pulled out drawers, opened cabinets. “The poison I was to give to the Speaker, for Columbus’s food. Is there any more? I can try tomorrow night. I still have audience with him, even if the Speaker doesn’t.”

 A firm hand stopped her. Zander’s eyes dug into her soul. She felt the pull she had the first time she’d heard him speak, sucked in and attracted to his desires for a better life away from the New Men. He might be young, he might be inexperienced, but she was those things, too. And he wanted something more. So she wanted something more. Because of him, she was willing to take the risk.

 The plan had been for her to pass the bottle of poison to the Speaker, and when the time came for the next ceremonial dinner, the Speaker could then eliminate their problem. But with her now succumbed to the same fate, or slated to be, as Columbus hinted, the plan would need to change. They talked into the night, considering this and that, and the other. Eventually, they settled on a new plan. One that would have to be done quickly, and with much risk.

 Anasha accepted her role and the two capsules Pensione produced as if by magic. She left near midnight for her next task.

 Franco’s room was close to the royal halls, down a walkway and off to a side way. The New Men had taken over a whole building, and she would find Franco there. Along the walkway she passed marble sculptures of the gods, carvings of history, and painted columns demonstrating the pride of the city. They all showed the wear and loss from many centuries of neglect, but Anasha ignored them in her haste.

 She reached the building, a three story wood and stone structure that had been maintained better than the decorations on the walkway. She leaped up the steps to the second floor and pounded on the door. “Franco!” She pounded again, and again. “You snake! Open up!” Others in the building, in their sleeping rooms, would hear her. Good. Let them hear. Let them judge.

 The door swung open and he stood blank-faced, unwilling to meet her eyes. “What do you want?”

 She pushed past him into his waking room. The small space was overflowing with his scattered clothing articles and books, covering the small table and the bench at the wall. Two small lamps upon the shelves threw dim light across the place. She turned and shoved a finger in his face, startling him backwards. “How dare you! You pretend friendship, acquaintance, and a desire to help my people. And then you turn around and give us over to Columbus so he can enslave us! What right do you have?”

 “I have the same rights as you.” He carried an empty wine glass. His voice was high, and soft, and smoothed by the wine so that the rounded edges of his language were even rounder, making the him hard to understand. “More, even. We came here and we won. So we get to make the rules.” He lifted his glass. “To the victor go the spoils.”

 She fingered the capsules within the pockets of her robe. If only she had one more.

 The books drew her attention. She stepped close and picked one from the floor. “Do you read that in here? Do you justify yourself by whatever this says?”

 He laughed. “That? That is a book describing the edible flowers of Africa.” He filled his wine glass from a bottle on the floor. “What could it have anything to do with us? I brought that in case we found strange plants. Instead, we found a whole forgotten world.”

 “And stayed a year,” she spat. A year too long. “You should have turned your boats around and left Atlantis the minute you saw the green edge of our shores.”

 “Come, now,” he said, “it hasn’t been all bad. We’ve brought you new things, told your people of another place.”

 “We were fine without you.”

 “You were dying. Your city is only half full. Your fields grow weak, your sheep, goats, your horses aren’t as strong as they used to be. Atlantis needs the knowledge within our cities, our culture. Our civilization.”

 “Oh, so you’re doing this for our benefit? You get nothing out of it?” He remained silent, avoiding her eyes. “Come, Franco, tell me. What exactly do you get out of sending me back in your place? I suspect it was you who put Columbus up to that. Admit it. Be honest. We Atlanteans pride ourselves on our virtue.”

 She stepped closer, felt his trembling as she put a hand on his arm. He jerked, splashing wine to his trousers.

 “I can not go back,” he said, and drained the wine. He wobbled to the chair beside the table and landed with a thump. She could almost pity him. Almost. “I can not.”

 “Why not? What is so terrible there that you must avoid it? You yourself say that it is the pinnacle of civilization. That it is so much better than here, that we must go there and learn. If it so good, so excellent, why not go back yourself?” She sat across the table. His eyes held fear, and longing.

 “Rosalina de Ignatio.” He tilted his empty glass and scowled, then tossed it to the floor where it landed on a rumpled cloak. “And her bastard child. She says it is mine, and I should help pay for its upkeep.” He let out a string of violent words he had not yet taught her the meanings of. “She thinks we’ll all be rich when we return, that we’ll have more gold than we know what to do with.” He waved an arm at the room, and laughed without glee. “Does that look like I’ve got more than two pesetas to rub together? My father will agree with her father that I should take a position in the mercantile and work there until I die.” He slumped, put his head on the table in the crook of his elbow. “I’d rather die here, free, having seen something of the world, than to return to that prison.”

 And Anasha, full of hatred and invective when she arrived, found that she knew his desire to avoid a burden forced upon you. Had she not done the same by accepting the position as apprentice, so long ago? Was that why she had pushed for her mother’s approval, when the Seekers came round? Why she hardly wrote anymore, why she hadn’t seen her sister in three years?

 “What you did was wrong,” she said. “I understand it, but it was wrong. I will never forgive you, no matter how you beg. Because now I must clean up your mess. When I was a child I promised my father I would never kill another person, and I am a heartbeat away from breaking that promise for you. But you are not worth it.” She left him, alone and lonely, within his waking room, and hurried back to her own.

 She arrived well into the early hours of the morning, stumbling through the door and falling onto the bed immediately. She slept for hours until a knock awoke her. A knock, then a voice, a woman’s voice, then a knock again.

 “Anasha?” Knock. The voice hurried. “Come, wake up, it’s your mother. We have to hurry.”

 The morning sunlight streamed through the window opening, lighting the place. She supposed it was nearly noon. She had her audience with Columbus in a few hours, and he would expect her decision. She hoped she could do what the Guild expected, what they had prepared her for. She hoped that it would be quick and easy. But her mother, here, made things more difficult. She would have to get rid of her quickly, so she could have time to ready her spirit for the task.

  She opened the door. Her mother strode in, sweating and dirty, smelling of the field and the horse. Her face was drawn tight, a worry she had not seen since her father lay prone after his return from battle. They hugged, and her mother pushed for inspection. “Oh,” she said. “You are doing very well.”

 “I have to meet–” she cut herself off before opening too terrible a door, “–the Speaker soon. For a lesson. I’m sorry I don’t have time. Tomorrow? Or the day after? Can you come back?”

 Mother shook her head. “It’s your sister, Anasha. She wants to see you.”

 “Where is she?” And then she knew. Knew from the sweat, from the look, from the way Mother held herself back. “Now,” she said, and they ran.

 The horses galloped for an hour, pushed to their limits and further. Anasha prayed silent and loud prayers for more speed, more time, more hope. Her mother said nothing.

 When they arrived at the family’s stead, the smells and sights transported her instantly back fifteen years to when she’d left. Playing with Phoebe in the springs along the hillside, running with father through the stalks of wheat before they were cut down. Cooing softly to keep the hens calm while they gathered eggs in the morning.

 Phoebe lay on a mat at the back of the family’s small, simple hut. The large single room had space for everyone, the thatch roof kept out the rain and the sun, and the open doors allowed the animals and people to mingle freely throughout. It was like all the other spaces in the farming village, plain but not poor. They had enough. Not too much, and not too little, but enough. She had a blanket pulled up under her chin, though the warmth of the day had made both of the riders burn. A glow spread across her sister’s face.

 “You came,” she said, slowly and as if her mouth were filled with clouds.

 “I could never ignore your call,” Anasha replied. She took Phoebe’s hand. She sensed her mother was moving around behind, perhaps putting a pot over the small fire or arranging spices on the table. She was always good for things like that. “How do you feel?”

 Phoebe blinked, slow, and her eyes rolled when she did. “I feel fine. Doctor won’t believe me though. He tells me to lie down and Mama listens to him.”

 Mother oh shushed from across the room. Anasha lifted the corner of the blanket and saw the twisted leg, dark purple and swollen at the knee, with ugly red lines tracing upwards and down. Scabs oozed dark fluids that dripped and stank like a bog.

 “I had a accident,” Phoebe said, shrugging. “You should have seen the other rock.”

 Anasha smoothed her hair back from her face. “You’re going to be fine. You just rest.”

 “Will you tell me a story? You were always so good at telling Papa stories.” And she was. She had told Papa stories every day when he came back from the battle, unable to speak, unable to help in the fields. She had told him stories every day, first what she remembered from the book he had read to the sisters nightly, before he went away. When those ran out she started making new ones. Hearing stories had calmed him, help him sleep. Helped him forget the battle, forget his uselessness. Or so she thought.

 She told Phoebe a tale of the days of before, when Atlantis was great and beautiful and powerful, when there were kings in the land and ships in the sea. She told of adventuresome women and faithful men and sneaky animals. She told of the gods and their passions, of the mortals and their trials. And when she stopped, Phoebe was sleeping.

 She rose and turned to her mother, who had seated herself on a stool beside the fire. There were tears in her eyes, and Anasha found herself wiping sadness also.

 “Why did’t you send word earlier? Maybe someone in the city could have helped.”

 “The doctor said it might get better by itself.” She stared into a mug of tea, sipping slowly. “I never thought I would lose her, too.”

 “You still have me.”

 “You’re gone to the royal halls. Not much good to me here, are you?”

 Anasha did not wish to leave on a bitter note, but knew she must go soon to be able to meet Columbus. And, hopefully, end this madness. “I’ll do better,” she said. “I will come for a visit. I can–”

 “Oh, of course you will.” She waved a hand. “Just like you always did. Always promising better, always promising more.” She stared at her tea. Anasha burned at the accusation she had not tried, had not done enough. She had done enough! She would not let her mother make her feel guilty for all she’d done to survive, for all she’d done to make this a better place for all of them.

 “You’ll see, Mother,” she said. “You can’t control me like a child any longer.” She had a hand on the edge of the hut when she heard Phoebe give a small cry from behind her. She turned and saw her awake again.

 She knelt beside the mat, taking Phoebe’s hand. “It hurts.” “Shh,” she said, “I have something that will take away the pain. A very good doctor in the city gave me this when I told him about you.” Anasha reached into the pocket of her robe, her robe she had been wearing since the night before, and took out a small red pill, soft as butter. She held it out to Phoebe, who opened her mouth. Anasha put it on her tongue, and she closed her eyes and relaxed again.

 She left without saying goodbye to her mother. In her heart it was wrong, but her heart did not control her actions today. Her head had the final say, and her head said it was time to get back. She had more important things to do, and she could repair these bridges later.

 She rode back less swiftly, yet with no less a dread of the things about to happen. The plan was ruined. She only had the poison, not the antidote, so she would have to be that much more careful about how she administered it. Her risk would be that much greater. And there was no time to meet with the Guild and form a new one. 

 She arrived in Atlantis late, later than she was supposed to be meeting Columbus, and hurried the mare along to the stable. She knew she should go back to her rooms and make herself presentable, but that would be more time, would keep Columbus even longer, and she feared what he would do if she displeased him further.

 She presented herself to the New Man guard. Again he led her through passages and hallways. They went to the same room as before, but this time it was empty. The guard learned that Columbus had gone to the docks to inspect the ships and led her that way.

 As if she needed him to tell her how to find the docks. She was a resident of the country, him one of the interlopers. One of the usurpers. She would be glad when they were rid of the New Men, when they had Atlantis back to themselves.

 They found Columbus and his second, and others of the crew, at the Santa Maria. She did not see Franco. They were inspecting the holds, the provisions, the “gifts” that had been made from the kingdom of Atlantis. Her guard left and she followed the men as they meandered around, in and out of the crates and barrels filling the dark space. It took time for Columbus to acknowledge her. And when he did it was dismissive.

 “You are late,” he said. Even in the foreign tongue she could hear the distaste in his voice, how the words came faster than usual, ends clipped, tone lower. “Well? What say you?”

 She had to have more time, more time to think, to adjust. Stall. “I need to know who would be going along,” she said. “Who you are enslaving. Can you take me to meet them?”

 “What does it matter?” He waved a dismissive hand. “We will go there next.” Again he pretended she was not there while he discussed rations, extras, trade goods, salt and spices with the men. She waited patiently, and when all eyes were off her, gently slipped the blue capsule into her mouth.

 It was a special type, the Guild had told her. Simply put it between your teeth and squeeze. Designed to be held in the mouth for long periods to avoid searches of pockets and bags, it would release the poison only when she intended it to. And it was supposed to be used with the antidote pill at the ready. Squeeze the poison, empty into a glass. If some gets on the tongue, or lips, or teeth, then simply do the same with the antidote.

 But she had given the red pill to Phoebe, leaving her with nothing to protect her if things went poorly. She felt the small lump between her cheek and gums with her tongue, hoping that it did not make her speech strange.

 They moved to the Nina, where they again inspected the holds. Only this time instead of flour and spice and sugar and meats, there were also Atlanteans belowdecks. Fifty of them, sitting huddled in the space, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, men and women healthy and strong who should be outside, walking the promenades and taking in the theater and singing songs with their nieces and nephews.

 The final ship was even worse. Another fifty Atlanteans. Another hundred eyes staring at her, boring into her soul. Begging her for mercy, for freedom. Among them a friendly pair.

 “Zander,” she whispered.

 “Fancy meeting you here,” he returned.

 “Are you okay?”

 “I could be better.” He tugged at the cuffs on his wrist. “I think I need a size smaller, this one is a little loose.” He pulled his lips back in a wicked interpretation of a laugh that scared her. “What’s the plan?”

 “Same as always,” she said. “Kill the monster, steal the treasure, live happily ever after.”

 He rattled the chain. “May the gods be with you.”

 She stood and rejoined the crew as they were leaving the ship. They made their way back to the royal halls and to a dining room set with a lavish spread. Tables overflowed with the bounty of the land, fruits and nuts from the interior, breads and rolls from the wheat of the coast, flanks of sheep and cattle prepared hot and cold, with sauces and gravies. Dozens of wine bottles lined the wall.

 Columbus seated himself at the head of the table, beginning immediately to rip hunks of flesh and fruit. The New Men with him filled the table around, smacking lips and grinding their teeth on the bones, slurping the wine and telling jokes she did not understand. The laughter came easily. None offered her a place at the table, and it was half an hour of revelry before Columbus noticed her standing at the edge of the room.

 “Come,” he said, and waved a hand. She felt something turn inside her stomach. Above the din she somehow heard her steps echo as she approached. It seemed to take long, too long, to make the short crossing. She stood close enough to feel the heat rising from him, pride in a job well done and satisfaction at the opportunity awaiting.

 “Tell me,” he said. “Do the provisions meet your standard?” He laughed then, a soulless laugh that sounded throughout the room and silenced the rest of the conversation. All turned to watch them. She suddenly felt as if she were naked, exposed. How could she do anything without them noticing now? The thing rolled again within her.

 “They are acceptable,” she said. “Though I would prefer that your men wore the chains and Atlanteans sat at the table.” The crowed aaahed their approval at her audacity. Even Columbus gave her a smirk and a nod.

 “Are you trying to negotiate? Or simply showing off your stupidity?”

 “I have nothing to bargain with. You hold all the power, sir. I am at your mercy, sir. You seem to do whatever it is you wish, sir. We are simply your puppets, your toys to be played with and thrown out after.”

 His eyes narrowed, his grip tightened. “Be careful, girl, not to bite the hand that feeds you.”

 She took the glass in front of him and raised it above her head. “To Spain!” The men took theirs as well, and she raised it to her lips. They cheered and drank. She moved the pill between her teeth. She would swirl the wine inside within her mouth and back to the cup with the poison inside. She had only a moment. As the cup approached she could see the inside, the dry inside, the empty inside. Her teeth beginning to squeeze, her lips on the rim of the cup, the corner of her eye catching a glimpse of Columbus sitting and smirking as if the Queen herself had just promised him her hand. The empty inside. The dry inside.

 She started and shook, setting the cup down with a bang that drew their attention and stopped the chatter again.

 “We leave at midday,” Columbus said. “Have you packed a bag?” The audience laughed, and he joined in, a real laugh that touched his eyes and made him lean into the chair.

 “I will be ready,” she said. “It is customary within our society to send off a voyage with a kiss, for luck. May I?” She had one more chance. She took his chin in her hand and pulled the arrogant, stinking, enslaving face towards her own. She pressed her lips to his, squeezed the pill and felt it burst within her mouth. She spat its juice onto his tongue. He twitched and tried to pull away, but she wrapped her other hand behind his head and held him close, held him tight. His eyes opened wide at the sensation and she pulled back, wiping her lips.

 The New Men around the table hooted and cheered, raising their fists and wineglasses and shouting to the heavens. Columbus stared and tried to stand, but fell heavily back onto the seat. Anasha felt a heaviness in her head, and as she sank down beneath waves flowing over, she heard much commotion and running feet, hands pushing her this way and that, she felt herself hit the floor and then she was under.
#
She woke to Zander’s face above her. They were in a small sleeping room of the apartments near the docks. She could see the three ships from the window. New Men and Atlanteans moved in and out, checking on her, talking with Zander and Franco and trying to talk to her, asking her questions, Zander pushing them back and telling them they had to wait for her to recover. At one point she thought she saw her mother in the room, but certainly that was just a dream. Zander pressed something to her mouth, to her lips, and she drank a warm broth, and it felt good, and she was under the waves again and she was fine, she was beautiful, she was sleeping.
#
When she had the strength to ask, and stay awake long enough to understand, Zander told her the story. That the New Men had decided that whomever woke first of the two would be the new captain. That Columbus had died an hour after they had both fainted, that she had lain without waking for two more days. That she had revived and gone under again for two more days. And that as she was restored now, she had command of the crew and the ships.

 “It was only right,” he said, “as Columbus had displaced the Queen and taken her place, that you do the same for him. And the men never really liked him either.”

 The Atlanteans had been freed from their bondage by order from Franco, and some had asked to stay on and join the crew. That had been agreeable, and now all were simply waiting for her orders. What did she wish them to do?

 They sailed a week later, leaving behind some of the New Men who wished to stay, and Franco, who had been offered the position of Ambassador. They took true gifts, and true trade, and they took Anasha’s mother who asked to see the world. They sailed for opportunity and for glory. They sailed for history and for the future. They sailed to bring Atlantis back from the depths of obscurity, and to bring the world to Atlantis. But mostly they sailed in partnership, bridging the voids between old and new, wrong and right, legend and truth. 

END