Wow the year is flying, and wow am I behind. I blame my shifting to a very different POV with Repercussions (Third Person Limited, multiple POVs) than I’ve used for most of my other stuff. The result has been an exponentially more complex plotting process. Also, a lot is happening in Book 8. The status quo is getting completely upended in this one, folks, so I’ve got to get it right.
I do have other activities this year, although I’m trying not to let them get in the way of the work. For anyone attending Fyrecon ’19 in Salt Lake City (a writer’s conference), I’ll be there presenting superhero fiction subjects (defining the genre, creating superhero worlds, etc.). I’ll also be at San Diego Comicon, with some of my stuff available for signing at a table shared with Maxwell Alexander Drake.
Nobody’s more impatient for Book 8 than I am. As I said, it’s going to be big. And since I’m way past deadline on this, by way of apology here’s one of the scenes from Chapter One.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Oz . . .
Brian kept his scowl in place without pointing it directly at the object of his anger, the quisling officer in Emerald City greens talking to their host. The Weary Traveler’s common room had been warm and inviting when he’d sat down in the corner by the stairs and propped his pack and staff against the wall. Now that he might need to fight his way out of it, not so much.
Ozma had left him there with their things to attend to “female business” upstairs—female business being the idiot girl up in one of the inn’s guest rooms. She’d been caught on the road by labor pains and stout Master Gwelf, their harried host, had almost wept with relief when Ozma and Brian had arrived and he’d seen her broad-brimmed pointy hat, the headwear that declared her a witch. They were still dusty from the road, but when Ozma heard that the last local witch had departed a year ago, she’d frowned disapprovingly and left Brian with a kiss on the cheek to go upstairs and see to the Quadling girl and her child.
That had left Brian in the common room to down mugs of heather ale and look intimidating for any locals who might carry word to those who might want to know for a few coin. The job wasn’t hard since with his hulking form, gray skin, and fanged mouth, Brian looked like nothing so much as a Quadling troll. Nome-occupied Quadling Country had gotten pretty lawless, but even on the open road Ozma’s pointy hat and his huge iron staff (held in his huge troll fist) were enough to warn away all but the most ambitious bandits. The small but well-armed troop of Ozian soldiers that had just entered the inn might be braver, and with their spears and guns they could probably take down a troll.
Brian was a lot more dangerous than any troll, but he might have to teach them that the hard way. And if I do, our cover’s blown to shit.
Taking care not to change the shape of his ears, he sharpened his hearing and focused on blocking out masking audial frequencies, a skill built up from hours of mind-numbing training. Gotcha.
“What’s he saying?” Shell asked, licking white drops off her whiskers. In Oz the sight of a cat elegantly polishing off a bowl of cream while talking to its tablemate didn’t turn any heads at all.
“Quiet,” he growled softly. And how the hell could an artificial intelligence, living in a secret CPU somewhere, be the soul of an animal that wasn’t wired for quantum-wifi or whatever it was? When he’d made the mistake of asking, Ozma had simply replied “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Hope had fallen out of her chair laughing.
“What’s he saying?”
He put his hand on Shell’s tiny head, rubbing behind her ears with thumb and finger as she reflexively closed her eyes and purred. “He’s asking about new and recent travelers. Finish your cream, we may be running.”
How long did labor take? Hours? A day?
Shell flicked her tongue over her whiskers again, scrubbed with a paw and licked it. “Yeah, like a full stomach will help. . . Uh oh.”
Brian tightened up. “What?” The officer was still talking to their host, and his men hadn’t looked towards them again.
“Not them. Look down.”
He did. “Well, shit.” He’d leaned his tall pack against the wall by their table, one of its many pockets open so he could see her majesty’s storm glass. They always had to be able to see it or feel it, and on the road it sat under the top flap where Shell could feel it under her perch. Looking at it now, he had to force his shoulders down and stop his claws and teeth from growing.
He’d helped Ozma make the damn thing before they left. She’d filled the crystal sphere with a pinch of water from Lake Michigan, rain runoff from the Dome, and cloud vapor she’d had Hope collect, all mixed in with a breeze from a bright summer day. Crazy Oz magic, it didn’t predict the weather like a real storm glass was supposed to do. It predicted danger, danger back home in Chicago. If the blue of its sky darkened and clouded, danger loomed. What the hell does a red sky full of lightning mean? He could practically feel the static charge coming off the thing. “Get Ozma. Now.”
Shell nonchalantly jumped down from the table and sauntered up the stairs to the inn’s guest rooms while Brian kept his eye on the soldiers. None of them looked his way, but the officer, a young lieutenant, finished his questions and crossed the crowded room to their table. Silence followed him like an invisible shroud as the inn’s patrons bent their ears or tried to be invisible.
“Good day, Master . . .”
“Good day, Master Benagain.” He emphasized the Ben properly, obviously working to attach such a proper Emeril name to a Quadling troll (Ozma had told Brian it was like naming a Black kid Aethelred). At least the name and the embroidered patterns of Brian’s vest and tunic sleeves—the princess had been quite firm about the fancy stuff—marked him as a civilized troll. “Lieutenant Borgan, at your service.” He touched the brim of his polished helmet. “Master Berimore tells me you’re traveling south?”
“My wife and I, yes.” He kept his hands below the table and away from his iron staff. Whatever his fancified clothes said, his oiled dreadlocks marked him as a troll proud of his strength and ready to defend his honor.
“Travel is getting dangerous, especially away from the high road.”
“The yellow brick one is risky, too.”
The man nodded reluctantly. “The Royal Army is spread thin. Since measures taken after the attack on the Tick-Tock Works, desperate people haunt the hills.”
Brian scowled. “And not a local tinker or hedge-witch to be found from the Cascades to the Great Sandy Waste.” His ears twitched as the high wail of a healthy new pair of lungs echoed down the stairs. The lieutenant looked past him and swallowed as Brian chuckled.
He couldn’t get over the average Ozian’s fear of babies. But fair was fair, he still had a hard time wrapping his head around the way reproduction worked in Ozma’s fairyland where almost nobody died of old age. Elders could live for centuries, until they eventually either heard a call to wander or just got tired of life and slept a lot until they didn’t wake up. And if the population level was where it should be (and who knew how the Land of Oz knew where that balance was) parents didn’t mature beyond a healthy young middle-age and kids just didn’t grow up either. Some of them didn’t leave their teen years for centuries, some of them never hit puberty, and childbirths only matched the incredibly low death and maturation rates.
It was just one more crazy thing about Oz, but Mombi and the Nome King’s conquest had killed a lot of people and Quadling Country’s low-boil resistance was killing more. Which meant suddenly lots of kids were growing up and lots of women were having babies in a society that didn’t normally see that many of them at a time.
And the paranoid co-rulers of Oz were imprisoning all the witches or chasing them into hiding. Also all the wizards, tinkers, mechanics, anyone with knowledge and powers that could threaten them and whose loyalties were the least bit questioned, but the witches with their magic and midwifery skills were especially missed.
Lieutenant Borgan brought his gaze back to Brian. “Your wife, Mistress . . . Pennigal? Is upstairs?”
Brian put his hands on the table. Big, clawed, troll hands. “And from the sounds, will soon be down.”
The man hooked a finger in the strap of his brimmed and peaked helmet—the thing looked like a shiny steel hat to Brian, something old Spanish conquistadors would wear. “Good. That is very good. And where are you—”
Footsteps on the stairs turned Brian’s head and his fists clenched, nails tips digging curls of wood from the table. Shit.
Ozma descended the stairs in all her glory, Shell at her heels. Though she still wore her Quadling outfit—red vest, embroidered white tunic, and matching short bloomers Brian liked to make fun of—she’d changed her willow wand back into her royal scepter and her flame-red hair back to its golden locks. Her golden wire crown wasn’t needed at all; any Ozian would recognize the perfect face minted in profile on their pre-conquest coins. She ignored the lieutenant to look to their host, frozen like the rest of the room.
“Mistress Pansy is resting,” she informed him, her perfectly modulated voice commanding attention without volume. “And young Mistress Delia as well. If your good wife would attend to them, I must be on my way.”
Brian had to give the lieutenant points, he didn’t stay frozen.
“Your—your majesty. You are to be arrested.”
She turned lambent blue eyes his way and smiled an even more perfect smile. “And will you arrest me?”
Brian gave the officer more points for not flinching. Instead, whatever he was thinking, he dropped to a knee—an act followed quickly by the whole room. “Lieutenant Borgan, your majesty, at your service. But . . .” His eyes left hers to dart to his own men and then sweep the now deathly-silent common room.
Ozma’s gaze changed from regal to sympathetic. “I understand, lieutenant. And everyone.” She raised her voice to be heard from the stairs to the kitchen door. “Oz is conquered. The blood of the fairy Lurline no longer sits on the Emerald Throne. I know that you are loyal, but I am not yet ready to return. Since I am not, I cannot be seen. That would ignite an open rebellion that we cannot yet win, and the cost would be truly terrible. Brian.”
Handing Brian her scepter, she drew a crystal vial from the pouch she’d taken upstairs with her, holding it out to the lieutenant as all eyes watched. “This is crystalized Water of Oblivion. One grain in each cup will be enough and all here will forget that you have seen me here today. Master Berimore, will you serve yourself and your guests?”
Their host shook off his paralysis and bustled about, bringing fresh mugs, glasses, and goblets to everyone. The lieutenant walked behind him to infuse each drink with a grain of Ozma’s magic, an especially sharp eye turned to his own huddled soldiers. Brian picked up their pack, scooping Shell up and dropping her on top of it as Ozma accepted her scepter back, whispering “Lim tin tak!” Her hair returned to red, her alabaster skin tanned, her crown and magic belt disappeared, and her scepter shrank back into a willow wand. She looked around, satisfied. Nobody had refused a cup, and her soft smile took in the room. “Will you all toast my health?”
Lieutenant Borgan stood at attention. “Masters and mistresses, her majesty’s health!” Brian and Ozma crossed the room and slipped out the door as toasts echoed around them. In the courtyard, she turned them towards the stables.
“You just asked a roomful of people to drug themselves,” Brian growled, “and they did it?”
“They are my loyal subjects,” Ozma returned cheekily.
“All of them? And that was nice timing, upstairs.”
“She turned the baby into a rattle!” Shell enthused.
His princess laughed, a sound like chimes. “There was no time, Brian, and Mistress Delia’s mother had hours to go yet to bring her into the world. As a little rattle, she came out very quickly. And I didn’t leave her that way for long.”
“Yeah, well that still can’t be good.”
“She might show a talent for turning herself into small knickknacks and oddments as she grows. I imagine she’ll excel at hide-and-seek. But we couldn’t stay. The storm glass—” She fished it from the pack as they reached the stable doors, took one look at the sparking thing and dug around some more to pull out a pair of silver filigreed slippers.
Brian stepped away as she bent down. “Oh, no. Not those.”
The Princess of Oz rolled her eyes, elegantly of course. “Don’t be a gooch, Brian. We need to go now and we’re not going straight home. We need to get to the team.”
“Fine.” He tried to ignore her laugh as she pulled both his boots off and slipped on the silver shoes that magically became just his size. Patting his leg, she stood up and then gave a little hop, forcing him to reflexively catch her. “I hate you,” he growled. Tapping his heels three times, he chanted “There’s no place like Hope!”
Wind roared through the stables, catching them up and whirling them invisibly through the air, out the back, and into the sky.
Hope you enjoyed it.