Development diaries, 1-28-2015: The Pomodoro method

theClaimDevNormal day, the first of its kind in two weeks. Didn’t drop off the kids, but started at 9:00 anyway—took some time to walk around in the cold and plan the chapter in my head. It feels like it worked, but it also feels like something else worked. After nearly an hour bereft of focus, I tried the Pomodoro method, or my own adaptation of it: Write without interruption for 25 minutes, read A Game of Thrones for 5. I averaged over 500 words in each of those 25-minute intervals. I think repeated Pomodoros may be conducive to mental exhaustion, though; after five, I’d written almost 3000 words, but then I took an hour break for lunch and exercise that metastasized into another hour of useless Internet meandering. Two more intervals left me at about 4100 words for the day—which would be below quota, if quota meant anything at this point, but is a decent figure. (This, BTW, is why I have so many bracketed word counts in the day’s words—tracking my efficiency.)

This is the first day I’ve approached my SEPTA rate of 1000 words in 50 minutes; actually, I’m almost precisely there. Which makes me think that I have the determinants of my writing speed exactly wrong. I’ve been assuming that I could write fast on SEPTA because of Pavlovian conditioning: train <> writing. But it may be that the important thing isn’t the association, it’s the fact that there’s an endpoint. When I have the whole day ahead of me, with just lunch and evening to structure my time, it’s hard to write hard and hard to limit my breaks. Writing hard for 25 minutes is pretty easy, and five minutes of reading time is fun enough not to be frustrating, which actually kind of surprised me—AGoT is the kind of book it’s easy to get sucked into. Anyway, maybe it’s all down to novelty—and I’m sure the outlining in my head on the morning walk played an important role as well—but I’m pretty optimistic about using this in more time-limited contexts in the future. If two Pomodoros can reliably bag me 1000 words in an hour before or after work, that’s amazing. Apimac Timer has stopped working on my computer, so I used Timer-Tab, which was great.

I’m headed to London next week for my first week at the new job. I need to start modulating my expectations now. A week without kids feels like it’s going to be all free time, even with eight or more hours a day at work, but (a) I may wish to socialize or explore in the evenings, (b) westbound jet lag is the worst, and ( c ) I should sleep while I can. Remind me of this if you find me posting 2000-word updates at 0300 GMT, please. Also, (d)—and I always forget this—although being free of kids and family is fun and liberating, it is also almost always depressing. This may be yet truer in a strange city where I can’t afford to use my phone.

Words 1-28-2015

theClaim-finalWPThe riot of battle done, Esker’s wound reasserted itself as he skulked along an alley of the claim. It was not bleeding too freely—it was a small wound, and his blood scabbed fast—but it was bleeding, and not a little, and who knew what might have been on the damned bullet? [[54]] He paused to notch the fabric of his trousers with the swordspear, then rip a long strip from it. He would look ludicrous, but there was no help for it. He packed the wound on both sides, then bound it.

He dug around in his satchel until he found the list of words that Ruth had given him. The annotations were better than he had remembered, split by places to look for from the streets and places to look for inside. On the streets, the recommendation was to look for a “hospital” or “school of medicine” or “department of life engineering,” probably in that order; inside, the words grew more finely focused, “acoustics” and “throat” and “force” and so on.

When Esker stood to go looking for them, he nearly fell. [[186]]

That was clear enough, then. He stood still until the black withdrew from the edges of his vision, then turned to make his way toward the nearest building, a four-story stone mansion with a crumbling red roof. Something nagged at the periphery of his vision, though. He turned all the way around to see a trail of drops. “The Nine preserve me,” he muttered, and forced himself farther down the path.

After what felt like an hour, he reached the end of it. The trail of drops was still visible in the [[dusk]] light, at least to his soldier’s eyes.

Something else was there too, farther back. He should not have been able to see it, not at that distance, not lurking so still; but it was etched on his eyes nonetheless, the hulking arms with tiny hands at the end, the lipless face with exposed gums and teeth.

He made his legs move faster. The black was returning to the edge of his sight. His limbs felt like lead, grudging things hanging from his torso, listening only at intervals to his mind; his throat tightened with lack of breath. There was no question of distancing himself any farther from the blood trail; he needed to be out of sight now, before he lost consciousness.

By the time he ascended the stair of yet another four-story stone mansion, he needed to lean on the door and drag a few ragged breaths into his lungs before he pushed the hanging door aside. He could smell the [[bloodbinder]], hear it breathing.

The foyer of the mansion was spacious, interrupted about two-thirds of the way back by a desk before the front stairs began. The walls were graven with the ancient script, discolored in rectangular spots where portraits or tapestries might once have hung; there was more recent sign here as well, old squatters’ fires, the scattered broken bones of birds, a cheap knife bent at the middle of the blade. Esker looked at the stairs, thinking to put some distance between himself and the ground, but they loomed like cliffs, his own blood the breakers lashing fruitlessly against them. He remembered the cliffs at Piko, white like these stairs, the water blood-dark except for where it foamed—and his own blood felt as icy as that striving water, though he knew the tides that kept it flowing were far from eternal. My heart is the moon, he said, and envisioned it exsanguinated, bled moon-white. Feeble moon. Weak tide.

Foyers have coatrooms, he thought, or closets; little spaces, hidden from the main thoroughfare. He stumbled off to the right and found a low wooden door opening on a long, narrow space. There were metal braces in the wall, he saw with satisfaction, though the rods and hangers must have been plundered long ago. He got over the door, then back into the very back of the closet. He thought he might turn around, so he could at least see if someone or something came for him. Then again, he thought after trying it, best to conserve strength. There was no point in seeing his killer, not when he was this weak. Not when he couldn’t see anything at all.


He awoke in a shabbier coatroom—or, not in it; before it. There was a palpable chill in the air, but not, he thought, from sparse blood—it was the chill of ice-kissed air, the fingers of draft that crept through the warmest house (and this was not the warmest house) and gave stealthy caresses at odd intervals. Esker had a sense that the coatroom was not usually unstaffed, and, further, that it was not at present unstaffed; yet there was no one there, only a sense of a presence. [[819]]

The racks were full of coats, though, and it was a right stroke of luck that they were numbered, for they were all the same: Thick wool coats, nearly ankle-length, in the brick-trimmed cerulean of the Jaidari army.

Esker looked around. The building was an odd patchwork of grey stone and wood—some intact, though unvarnished and none too well treated, and some burnt nearly to flinders, leaving gaping holes. Beyond the holes was a colorless, starless void.

He turned to the lobby, which seemed both vast and cramped. There was no one at the reception desk; but if there had been, he had a clear image of who it would be. One of the Salve Rooks, darker and smaller than the Creditors; plain of face, arms short and strong and well acquainted with the big Jaidari pistol and the stained machete that rested under the desk, within their reach. Flor, her name had been. She had dressed like one of the girls, in thin silk or linen, even though she stood her whole shift in the direct line of the cutting cold that roared in whenever the door opened.

He looked toward that door and saw her as she had been the last time he’d seen her, pinned beneath a scorched beam, her hair and half her face burned away.

From behind her slithered a white worm with John Dream’s face.

Esker reached for his swordspear, but it was nowhere to be found. He crouched back in a defensive stance, ready to fight. But the worm only gave him a needle-fanged smile, looking languorously around the lobby as though memorizing it.

“You have an unusual mind, do you know that?” the worm said. “Understand, I don’t mean to say you’re particularly intelligent, still less all that interesting. As intellects go, you’re more than pedestrian. But you’re hard to find.” It had been slithering for some seconds now and Esker could still not see its end, only coils on coils, leaving slime-trails on everything it touched. “Odd rhythms. It’s much easier to tell when you’re asleep—the distortions of the faster oscillations are much subtler. I’ve never spent much time inside a soldier’s mind, especially a sleeping one.” The worm reached its head out and took a nibble of charred flesh from Flor’s cheek. Pain shot through Esker; the whole scene trembled like an aspic. “You’ll remember her that way from now on. What do you think of that?”

“You’re an abomination,” said Esker. “But you didn’t need me to tell you that.”

“A rich charge, that, from a man with this in his mind,” said the worm. “Chilly here. [[1264]] The Tenoc campaign, I suppose. Don’t work so hard to hide it; I can tell when I hit and when I miss. Do you know why I’m here?”

“We didn’t part on good terms.”

“That’s true. But you can help me, maybe. I know you’re in your claim, for all the good that claim-deed did you. The old university. What have you found?”

“Buildings, dirt, and The Tungsten Kid,” said Esker.

“What buildings? Can you recall the letters on them?”

“I don’t read the old script,” said Esker. “It all looks the same to me.”

“You’re certain?” said the worm. It took another bite of Flor; again the world blurred and shook, again Esker’s body burned with agony. “It would take me a long time to destroy your mind this way. More time than it’s worth, really. Out there in the real world, do you think you’re screaming?” The worm smiled. “Ah, that does scare you. You are in the claim. You’re worried that they’ll find you.” It examined Flor’s corpse again. “This looks like someone would really look if they were crushed under a beam and burned to death. She’s not why you’re here. Your real reason for being here will look much worse than anything real. Why don’t you show me?”

Esker knew what the worm was doing, and for a moment, he felt his efforts against it begin to work; there was only a silhouette of the apparition in the middle of the lobby, barely visible.

The worm grinned and brushed him with a coil. Burning pain shot out from his wound, where it had touched; pain like a thousand barbs, taking residence in his flesh, promising more pain if anyone ever tried to pull them out. The apparition roared into life—the beautiful face that ended at a cooked-meat stump of neck, the burned skeleton.

“Now that,” said the worm, “is properly horrifying. What was her name? Ximena. And you were her… her john?” Its laugh was putrid with scorn. “But not just any john. You were in love. And you did this to her?” It smiled and licked its teeth with a pointed tongue. “Or might as well have. I’ll allow it. What shall I do to her? What can I do to her? You’ve already done quite a rough job there, old son. But she wasn’t always like this—”

—and there she was. Ximena, naked, whole, shivering in the chill. Shorter and lighter-skinned than Hasina, the Salve tattoo coiled about half of her face; [[1799]] Esker remembered tracing the tattoo with a finger as she rode him. Remembered moving his hands down from her plain face, over her rich, familiar curves, now so small and silly in this hideous dream.

“Esquer?” she said, meeting his eyes, then looking fearfully to the worm. His heart thrilled to the voice; sweet heat climbed up his spine. He was rock-hard.

“She’s dead,” Esker made himself say.

“I know,” said the worm. “But I can make her die a new way, in your mind. That skeleton image of yours is awfully dry—what do you think of remembering her half-eaten? I can leave some of the bigger organs dangling…”

“She’s dead,” Esker said again. “You’ve built her out of images in my mind. It doesn’t matter what you do. The only person you can hurt is me.”

The worm took on a thoughtful expression at that. “Sr. Sepherene,” it said, “as far as you’re concerned, the only person anyone can hurt is you. You’d like to think you can share someone’s pain, but all you’re doing is telling yourself a story about it. And maybe that story hurts you, and maybe it doesn’t. Luckily for me, though, I don’t care about Ximena. The only person I want to hurt is you.” There was a white blur; the air misted with slime, filming Esker’s skin; making him retch; the worm’s face was suddenly in his. “I think I’ll have that nose of yours. It won’t come off your real body, of course, but you won’t know the difference.”

It lunged. Esker ducked, stumbled back. It lunged again. Its white coils formed a fence around him, cutting him off from running farther into the house. He looked behind him; the only way that wasn’t blocked by coils was out. The void had been replaced by the same dead streets he had fled from, waking. Ximena was gone. He ran for the door.

The worm burst through it like a ram, scattering stone and charred wood for dozens of feet. It reared up on its endless body, looking at Esker from the height of a hill. Then it broke eye contact, looking around, as if taking the lay of the land.

Then a sound came, loud enough to split apart the earth and sky; and a shaking came, hard enough to jumble up the pieces past any recognition; and a light came, bright enough to sear it all into nothingness.


He was in the coat closet again—the empty one, in the mansion in the claim. His tongue felt like leather, his eyelids like sandpaper, his limbs like dead animals. Someone was holding his face, sloshing water over his mouth. Someone was mumbling.

“—answer me, dammit, just say something, anything, answer me, come on, answer me, dammit—“

The pale shadow crouching over him came into focus, if only for a moment. “Ruth,” he said.

“Hello, stranger,” she said. “Finally. Now drink.”

He moved a hand up to the waterskin; his arm still felt like something hanging on a hook in a butcher’s shop, but it did the job. He did not spill too much water on the ground.

“Can you shuffle back?” she said. “Just lean your back against the wall. Sit up.”

He did as she said.

“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” she said. “I can’t stay here. There’s food, some dried meat and bread, you can soften the meat up with water, or there’s a little bit of weak wine—“ she showed him another canteen—“and we’ll do our best to get more drops to you in the hospital. The wine is treated with something that will help keep your wound clean, so don’t be shy about drinking it. Do you remember how to find the hospital?”

“I have your list,” he said.

“I saw it on the way here. The fastest way to get there is to go through the Tungsten Kid’s camp. Don’t.”

He actually managed to cough a laugh at this. “It’s all right. I think he and I are really starting to get along.”


“I know.”

“The hospital. [[2351]] On the roof—we’re going to throw the drop across the claim-edge. That’s where the other ones will be. Don’t leave the claim, or they’ll know when you come back in.”

“You came.”

“No one saw you leave.”

He reached a hand up to her hair, brushed a stray lock. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I wanted to make sure I told you before I died.”

She took his hand and moved it away. “I don’t hold the ravings of the mad against them, but you’ve got to get yourself together.”

“How did you find me?”

“The blood.”

“Shit—” He tried to get up, failed, tried again, succeeded. But she blocked his path.

“You’re all right for a bit, I think. When I saw them, they were all gathered up around the Kid’s tent—maybe they’re worried about another attack.”

“Another attack.” Memories returned. “You shot the Epseris. When you realized you weren’t going to beat the Kid, you shot the Epseris.”

“Regrettable accident.”

“I heard you give the order,” he said. “‘Finish the killers.’ What else could you have meant?”

“I don’t have time for this,” she said, but his hand was around her wrist. She looked up at him, her eyes grave. “Let me go.”

“Did you mean just the Epseris, or did you mean Ozier and Kem and Inber too?”

“If I did mean your friends, which I didn’t, I wouldn’t tell you the truth while you had a hand on me,” she said.

He released her. He saw the blood rush back into the pale band his hand had left around her wrist; he’d gripped harder than he meant to.

Ruth took a deep breath. “I was born to the Pity Rooks outside of Ostn. When there were Pity Rooks outside of Ostn. Thanks to your Epseris brothers, there aren’t any more.”

Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives sends his regards, Esker remembered. Ozier had been on that hunt too. Was Ruth not telling him, or did she not know? “I don’t harbor any love for the Epseris,” he said.

“I don’t care. I didn’t do it for you. I have to go.”


Ruth looked up at him, her mouth quirking, though not quite into a smile. “You want me to stay, is that it? Share some tack and jerky with the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

He made as expansive a gesture as he could inside the closet. “What’s mine is yours.”

“Here’s the difference between foreigners and Rooks,” said Ruth. “Foreigners offer to share food they’ve been given and pretend that it’s a favor. Rooks don’t take back what they’ve given, because they gave it for a reason; and they aren’t flattered by offers to tarry, because the best way for a foreigner to trap a Rook is to convince her to slow down and relax. When a Rook chooses to help you, you’ll get actual help, like food and medicine. Or you’ll get good information, like this: I can’t stay in the claim, or in the viejo, because I’ll fucking die. The air in these places is poisoned. If you hang around it, you’ll die soon or you’ll die later, but you’ll die badly. I’ve already been in here an hour longer than I should have.” She pointed to a patch on her shirt; it was almost entirely black, with hints of grey and white showing around the edges, as though it had been pressed into an ink pad. [[2955]] “This was white when I entered the viejo. I’m leaving.”

She took a step back, then turned. Esker carefully centered his weight directly over his heels, placed his fingertips on the wall to steady himself. “I’ve been in here for days without leaving,” he said. “What’s going to happen to me?”

Ruth turned around. There was real regret in her face, he thought, but beneath it there was something hard. “I don’t know,” she said. “Are you a father?”

Esker shook his head.

“Don’t become one,” she said.

“You weren’t ever going to tell me,” he said. “You don’t tell anyone. You just let people come and scratch for grubs in your cities and spend their money in your stores. What kind of life is that?”

“You don’t listen when I talk,” said Ruth. “Every time I see you, Esker Sepherene, I say ‘Hello, stranger.’ What exactly is it you think you mean when I say that?”

Esker had no answer. Ruth shrugged, turned, and left the closet.

He stood a moment, breathing, thinking.

“Shit!” Ruth cried from the lobby. Esker lurched to the front of the closet to see her hurtling past, pursued by a roil of flame. For a crystalline moment he was nearly offended: Why hadn’t she told him to get out? But, of course, that would have told the enemy that someone was there. A considerate little gesture, really. Maybe. Esker grabbed his swordspear and lazily clotheslined the runeslinger running down the hallway after Ruth. The hit didn’t do much damage, but it did put him on the ground, and even a wounded soldier could put a blade into the base of a downed man’s skull without much effort. He felt the slight chill of a ket attack roll over him; irritated, he threw the swordspear. It missed wildly, clanging against the stone of the hallway. The remaining ’slinger swore and ran.

Esker looked down at the dead runeslinger. “I’m afraid I can’t stay,” he said. He collected the food and drink that Ruth had brought him, then left the building by a back entrance into a yard that might once have held a garden; now it was dirt and dust and a few flower boxes on a fence. He got his bearings, then trudged away from the Tungsten Kid’s camp, hoping that a bit more distance might give him some safety. The prospects seemed rather slim, but he could not think of better.


After several blocks’ worth of stalking, waiting, and backtracking, Esker began to conceive of the claim as a band of relatively low danger in between a ring of elevated danger, on the claim-edge where patrols waited, and a center of maximal danger, where the Tungsten Kid resided and his followers concentrated. In a healthier state, he thought, it might be amusing to proceed along the claim-edge, murdering patrols where he found them. Then he thought that, in a healthier state, he wouldn’t think of things in terms of maximizing kills. In any case, he could only rely on his soldier’s protection for so long; his flesh yielded to steel and bullets like any ordinary man’s, and the Tungsten Kid would twig to that soon if he hadn’t already. Best to send the message that he wouldn’t bother anyone who didn’t bother him. It wasn’t a message the Kid was likely to hear, but it was a better survival prospect than declaring war.

Staying in that band of reduced danger, and waiting long and patiently for the streets to clear whenever he saw so much as one of the Tungsten Kid’s gang, Esker whiled away a not altogether unpleasant day picking his way to the claim on the other side of the camp. Soon he saw the ancient script for the hospital, and he dutifully found his way inside and climbed up to the roof. It was a large roof, but he checked the whole thing and double-checked the part closest to the claim-edge, and there was nothing.

At this point sleep was plucking at his sleeve again, as it did when his body was knitting itself back up. [[3646]] He left the roof and made himself find a little room several doors down a small, crooked hallway rather than falling asleep in the main corridor.

No sooner had his eyes closed than the white worm waited for him.

He dodged its lunge, then darted down the hall, taking every turn he could. After a few, he slowed down, listening. He didn’t lay eyes on it, but it felt close; he could hear the sucking of its slime-trail on the floor.

Voices outside Esker’s hiding place woke him. He refused to wait as they closed in; two slashes of the swordspear connected, leaving two of the three men in confusion, and the last one missed his shot. Esker hurtled down the hall in a wake of blood and oaths; when all opposition was out of sight, he wiped the swordspear to make sure it would not leave a trail of another man’s blood, as his wound had done of his own. He ran on, not knowing where to go or what he might do when he got there. Eventually he found a dead end at a bank of huge doors with no handles, nearly flush with the wall. One pair was wedged open, barely wide enough to let his body through. It opened on a dark, square hole—but there was a ladder running down one side, and the barest sliver of light at the bottom. He went down as far as he could go, until he reached a panel that was not quite flush with the wall—perhaps the top of a box of some kind, constructed to be almost exactly the size of the shaft. There was a panel in it. He imagined he could kick it in, or through it, and perhaps he would be on the ground floor of the hospital.

Instead, he waited there a very long time. Only when sleep threatened him again, in the quiet dark, did he move. The panel did, indeed, put him in a box, brushed metal studded with a panel of round buttons. The doors were closed, but with the swordspear as lever, he forced them open and found himself in the hospital again. There were still voices there, roving a bit near stairwells, but he had no wish to go up. He searched until he found an office with a window and none of the Tungsten Kid’s men outside; then he broke the glass and fled.

He wondered how long they would surround the hospital—how long it would be safe to look for the food drop. He wondered when he would sleep again. He wondered when his body would succumb to the poisoned air. He wondered, and he walked.


By the next sleep, it was a game. Within the band of reduced danger, he had put some distance between himself and the hospital, and found himself a room on the second story of a building with several identical rooms, each with a green slate board on one wall. Again, the worm waited in his dream; again it attacked, and again he evaded it. But now, as soon as he had evaded it, he did his best to wake, and managed to shake himself out of the dream on purpose.

The War of Songs

I had a process post lined up for this spot, but it occurred to me that it might help—in the interests of science—to know what these books are actually meant to be about. I was thinking that would be clear from the beats and synopses, but I’m actually not sure that’s the case; those are outgrowths of things that have been composting in my head for years, and references that are clear to me might not be clear to you. In case this hasn’t made it absolutely clear, this post contains serious spoilers, particularly for The Claim. (Though, of course, all spoilers are provisional—the book isn’t finished yet!)

The first three books in this series, anyway, follow an ex-soldier named Esker Sepherene, who hails from a small desert village called Metu in the territory of Heru, which will soon receive province status. We first see him, in The Claim, returning from a long campaign; he was recruited as a teenager along with the other boys his age, all but one of whom have survived to return. The Claim follows him in two parallel stories: Right after his return, and some unspecified amount of time later, where he and his friends have joined a group of runeslingers to go prospecting in the ruined desert city of Jagaag. The driving question early in The Claim is: What brought Esker from the return to his village, which seemed peaceful and happy, to risk his life as a prospector?

The answer emerges gradually, though it only raises more questions. Esker’s wife, Hasina, can’t speak. Esker is looking for a piece of technology to help her. Hasina can’t speak because no women in Heru can speak: They are mutilated at birth, their tongues cut out. (As with all social generalities, there are exceptions to “no women in Heru can speak”: a religious minority called the Chanters does not Hush their women, nor do the Rooks, who are native to Jaidar and live in and around the dead cities.) The Hush prevents women from using magic; they are used as batteries by Heru’s climate sorcerers, who calibrate the desert climate to grow a plant that produces a magical substance called black silver. This is all part of normal life in Heru and the other Hushed territories of Jaidar, so it’s going to emerge as background over the course of the books. Esker has, of course, had some particular experiences that sensitize him to the horror and wrongness of forced female silence, and those will come out over the course of The Claim and The Candidate.

Back in the ruins of Jagaag, Esker and his group find that their claim has been jumped by the Tungsten Kid, an outlaw feared across all the deserts of Jaidar. They ultimately have to strike a deal with the city’s Rook indigenes to take it back. With their help, Esker prevails, and succeeds in finding the technology he’s looking for. And now the stage is set for a major social upheaval, as we learn that Esker doesn’t just intend to give the tech to his wife—he intends to fabricate it and distribute it across Jaidar, so anyone who’s silent and wants a voice can have one. The Candidate will deal with Esker’s return to Metu and Hasina, and how the village is dealing with the social questions that arise as Heru territory prepares to become a province of Jaidar—in particular, the question of whether the Hush will continue to be legal there, or whether it will be outlawed as it is in the Voiced provinces to the east.

There are a lot of questions here, and I’m not going to answer them all, in part because the process of outlining has been the process of answering. The above is more or less the level of detail that I get to from woolgathering and contemplation. There are a lot more characters and a lot more ideas than I’ve mentioned here, but this is the core of the thing: A social organization that’s awful but at least slightly rational, a “hero” who’s out to disrupt it in some way, out of something like love; and consequences. Presumably the previous paragraph makes the series title at least a little bit clear: How a war might come about, why it might have something to do with songs. As to how we get from a high concept draped over a skeleton of plot to a proper story, we’ll get to that in my next post, on outlining.

Development diaries, 1-26-2015: Moar murder ballads

theClaimDevEarly school closing today. Managed 1561 words in about three hours, which isn’t bad when you consider there were two old guys cussing each other out and threatening violence over whether you’re allowed to talk in a library.

I’ve been teaching myself to play “Far From Any Road” on the guitar. I need to learn more murder ballads. I think murder ballads will help me tell this story. That and possibly Drew Faust’s THIS REPUBLIC OF SUFFERING, which is a book about how America dealt with the horrible death toll of the Civil War. I’ve also started rereading A Song of Ice and Fire, mostly so I can get another read of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS under my belt before the next season of GAME OF THRONES begins. In terms of inputs, this may be a mistake. Writing fantasy patterned after George R. R. Martin comes too naturally to me already. Whereas THE PLACE OF DEAD ROADS was supposed to make more of an impression, but feels like it hasn’t. I don’t know if I have enough Burroughs in me to make that sort of hallucinatory storytelling work. (“You look like you have a little Burroughs in you. No? Well, would you like some?”)

I’ve just realized that various disruptions have made me seriously delinquent on posting the essays. So: “The War of Songs,” next, says a bit about the setting that I’m writing in.

Words 1-26-2015

theClaim-finalWPAzmera Berta, off balance at the tense interaction between the Amen-Enkhs, swiftly and awkwardly adorned Hasina with his token, a silver barrette subtly styled in the shape of a violin’s bow. That left Ozier.

The giant’s hand plunged into a pocket big enough to hide a loaf of bread, and emerged dripping, or so it appeared, with tears of bronze.

On each teardrop shape, Esker could discern a rune, one of two; hair-fine rectilinear patterns could also be seen, though likely only by a soldier’s eyes, and only from up close. Ozier brought his other hand up and the tangle of tears somehow became a chain, draped over the his hands with an aperture easily wide enough to admit her head. She did not have to tilt her head for him to adorn her, and so, after a moment to present the gift, he did.

Immediately a hum of sorts filled the tent—not a steady tone but an evolving harmony, moving apprehensively through a progression of tense chords like darting eyes. Fluid steel-grey stars the size of knucklebones sprang into being around Hasina’s head and shoulders, reflecting the soft light under the tent, moving like blowflies. As her eyes widened in comprehension, the stars lost their sharp geometry and gained colors, gold and green, and the sound slowed into a series of contemplative glissandi.

“The draugen Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives sends his regards,” Ozier said, not shouting but nonetheless, Esker could tell, loud enough to be heard at the very rear of the tent, and made rich by glamer.

The hum grew tense again; the stars dulled in color and sharpened in shape. “Fear not, dear bride,” Ozier said, the glamer no less dense in his voice. “I would not disburse his hoard if there were any possibility that he might pursue it. Alas for him, he is permanently indisposed.”

The grey stars turned into red motes, the hum into a steady questioning chord.

“But I’ve interrupted your wedding too much already,” said Ozier. “Please, proceed with the ceremony; we can talk more at the festivities.” With that, he sketched a deep bow, accentuated with the slouch in his hand, and withdrew to his seat, where he had left the alder limb and the woman who, Esker was becoming surer by the minute, must be the Chorister.

“And glad we all are to see Ozier Amen-Enkh back among us,” said the chorister, “though he might have chosen a better venue to announce his return. Interruptions or no, though, the time has come for the final adornment and the adjournment of these happy proceedings. Esker?”

From his own pocket, Esker took a fine silver chain, then looped it around Hasina’s neck. He failed and failed to connect the tiny clasp, his hands shaking—this was an informal ritual of every Jaidari wedding he’d attended, he reminded himself, the groom’s nervous fumbling—and he could see the stars around her head and shoulders go round, pulsing gently in shades of red and yellow, while the hum began to sound like laughter. But he closed his eyes and forced his hands to move slowly, and ultimately the clasp’s hook went through its loop, and when he stepped back, Hasina was marked as his wife.

He did not hear anything else the chorister said, only held her hands in his and kept his mouth firmly bent into a smile.


After the ceremony, the tent quickly transformed into a space for eating and dancing, and there was much of both—though Esker sat out much of the latter, having been absent at the age when he would have learned the traditional forms. Hasina, for her part, was pleased enough to dance with all comers, and her joy could be seen in the lights around her head and shoulders and heard in the hum that surrounded her. Esker was seated before the remnants of his dinner, absorbed in watching her dance with Reshef the grocer—but not so absorbed that his soldier’s eyes failed to notice Ozier moving up behind him.

“Been a while,” he said as Ozier sat down in Hasina’s seat.

“Not so long,” said Ozier, “in the scheme.”

They were silent for a bit. “I suppose you want me to ask you a question,” said Esker. “How you heard about the wedding, what it was like to slay a draugen, why you’ve brought the Chorister with you. Something like that?”

“So you recognized her,” Ozier chuckled. “Well, I suppose that explains how you heard. She keeps an eye on Metu ever since she met you. Hasn’t come around here to leave the place nothing but corpses and burnt timber, though, has she?”

“I suppose you persuaded her to do differently.”

“I couldn’t persuade her to put her left boot on before her right, if she felt she had a reason not to. But she spared Metu for just the reason I told you. She was bluffing. I suppose she’s enough strength to do for the town, at least if she caught it without us and Inber around, but no posse poking around her territory is enough to justify the enmity unto death of the Jaidari marshals, which is what she’d get for firing Metu.”

Esker nodded. “That’s good to hear. Anything else you want to tell me?”

“Anything you want to know.”

Esker gave Ozier a cool, measured look. “Fuck that, brother. You ran away, you came back. I don’t know the why of anything you do; you haven’t given me a place to start. And I’m not disposed to be a pretext for you to tell your big damn story—if you have a big damn story to tell, you can just tell it, and we’ll decide whether we want to keep listening. So why don’t you just say what you’re trying to get me to get you to say?”

“I think you’re going to be good at marriage,” Ozier said. “You’re starting to get that ring of authority. All right, you want to know what I want to tell you? I ran with the Chorister’s gang and learned the rudiments of slinging the [[ket]] rune, which is [[lightning]], since I know you don’t know. While I did that, I started a joint-venture with the Epseris gang, and we all bundled up and raided the lair of Pity-the-sorrowing-daughters-and-wives under the ice in Ostn. In consequence of which success, I’ve got a store of eld Art that makes me fuck-you rich, a tiny fraction of which I’ve gifted your wife on the occasion of your nuptials. I figure, you’re such a damn clod with women, you need all the help you can get.” He paused a moment, weighing his next words. “Clod actually is what I’d call an understatement, only I’m trying to take this marriage of yours at face value. You really want to go with a woman?”

Esker closed his eyes and sank his head into one hand. “I don’t know, Ozier,” he said. “What does your friend Madeleine tell you?”

“Well, this is what I don’t get. She says the girls like my friend Mehur well enough—she knows exactly what happens when he comes, since they seem to run their mouth off about the whole proceedings whenever he visits. You want to know what that makes me think?”

“No,” said Esker, “only it beats guessing.”

“I think you’re trying to trick yourself into thinking women are men. I think that’s why you didn’t go to the clean girls two stops up the line—”

“Forget it, Ozier,” said Esker. “I was wrong. I wish you’d kept me guessing.”

“This is a real thing, then?” said Ozier. “You’re marrying this girl out of pure love and sex? You plan on plying your husband’s privilege, perhaps more often than you need to whelp?”

“I plan on not taking any more questions on the reality of my marriage,” said Esker. “The Eight and the whole of Metu village saw me take my wife. Three hours into the marriage, that’s all you need to know.”


There was more talk, and more dancing, and more wine, and at last, footsore and throatsore and more than a little unsteady on their feet, they fumbled with the key to the little house behind the sheriff’s office until it slipped in at last with a satisfying rasp. The motes around Hasina were gold and fluid, clustered in pairs and triads, every so often merging, splitting, de- and recoupling. The hum of the eld Art chain was expectant, impatient.

And then they were in the doorways. The house was small, a common room with a few chairs, a table and a stove, and a single bedroom beyond it, where both of them stumbled like pebbles rolling down a hill. It was dark, but the streetlight outside cast a dim light on the bed, scattered with wildflowers and sage, which filled the room with a sweet and earthy scent. [[5129]] He looked toward the bed, then toward her, uncertain; but she moved inside his arms, all the gracelessness of drink burned away, and her hands found the gaps in his clothing as swiftly as if she’d spotted and memorized them long before.

In the light, watching her hands flit through the forms of words, it was easy to forget the silence; in the dark, her hands otherwise occupied, it stifled him like a soaked blanket—even as more of his skin was touched by the open air, or by Hasina’s, his hands moving automatically to undress her, to communicate that all was well, to buy time. She was intent, which lent her movements the smoothness of confidence, but it was clear enough that this was not something she had done often or at all; there was a level of strangeness she would tolerate. But, inexperienced or not, she would have seen a steer and a bull, or a dog and a bitch; she would know he could not complete the act unless he were hard. And he was not. She was too small, too smooth, to be Ras, too sweet-smelling and soft-limbed to be one of Madeleine’s girls, and when she drew his head down and put her mouth awkwardly on his, his tongue reached for hers and found nothing.

She pulled her head back and looked at him with what his soldier’s eyes told him was concern. She was naked, now, but for Esker’s gift and Ozier’s; the shapes about her head were orchid-like, rose streaked with red or vice versa, the chord emanating from the chain exultant. Her moon-painted body was as perfect as only the reductions of art can be—flaws in proportion and blemishes of complexion hidden by the light and dark. As beautiful as a statue, as erotic as silent stone.

He lunged for her mouth and picked her up, grinding lips and penis against her as he bore her to the bed, hoping to kindle with velocity what he could not with contemplation, to make true lust from feigned. The stimulation made him half-erect, but the weight of her silence soon crushed even that half-response. He thought of what she might say, but he had no voice for her. She would not use the words of a Rook whore, nor the manner of speech; she could certainly not take Ras’ voice. He even tried the Chorister’s unnatural voice, but to no avail.

When she pulled away from him next, he saw that the pink-and-red orchids had turned to leaf-like shapes, green and blue. In their light, she signed. Too much to drink?

“I fear so,” Esker said.

In the morning, then, Hasina signed. Or tomorrow night. No need to exhaust ourselves now. We have our whole lives together, after all.

“Of course,” said Esker, a knot of something hard and black forming in his stomach.


Esker heard the thump on the door that night but paid it no mind. In the morning, though, the door was strangely heavy when he opened it. He went outside to see what had happened. Sunk into the door at about his stomach’s height was his old swordspear, runes winking at him from the blade and haft.

Development diaries, 1-23-2015: Snow and plague


R. still has the Lovecraftian shits. Hence radio silence—I’ve gotten basically no writing done this week. I’ve posted the last seven weekdays’ effort as one update to THE CLAIM.

At the moment, I’m sort of psychologically banking on something that ought to happen but isn’t guaranteed, namely the normalization of R.’s digestion once he’s out of the grip of the meds. If I can write 15,000 words or so next week, I can at least finish THE CLAIM. It’ll be a better product than any NaNo novel I’ve created so far, and I’ll still have the next two books planned out… so, after a few weeks or months, I’ll be prepared not to look at this as a failure.

The wedding feels like it’s dragging on. This is probably a bit true and probably not as true as it feels—I’ve been stuck on it for days, and I’ve only just gotten to the high-tension bits. The rest has been slow, a lot of figuring out what the ceremony ought to look like, how familiar to make it and how strange.

I’ve bought a few pocket-size notebooks and a not-quite-dirt-cheap pen to try to make ubiquitous writing a reality. One thing I knew intellectually but have only recently realized in my bones is that I got a lot of Pavlovian juice from my commute—I’d trained myself really well to write on the train, abetted by the lack of wifi. I’m not so much hoping that interstitial writing will boost my word count during those interstitial times; it’s more about trying to train the habit of sinking deeply and immediately into the story, rather than having this laborious mental spin-up. I did get a couple of hundred good words into the notebook during one of R.’s naps yesterday; maybe I can actually make this a thing. (Maybe I should transition to notebooks completely, honestly. The question is whether the waste of time entailed by transcription is worse than the waste of time brought on by distraction.)

I’ve just listened to the Nick Stephenson interview on The Creative Penn and I’m now in the middle of the Nick Stephenson interview on the Self-Publishing Podcast. The emphasis of both is email marketing—how do you get a bunch of subscribers? And one of the amazing things he suggested is to promote other authors. The analogy was: Nonfiction marketing is easy because you know your readers have a problem they’re looking to fix; that’s why they came to you. In fiction, the problem is getting entertained. People came to you because they like your work; if you don’t have new work for them, give them value by pointing them to work they might not already know. (He also discusses stuff that’s a bit more standard in the indie author space, namely the use of permanently free books as traffic drivers and sign-up incentives; I need to get on that with my own list.)

These notes are dated “1/23” but as of this sentence I’m writing on 1/25, which is how I know that there’s a king-hell snowstorm scheduled for tomorrow and Tuesday, in which case I may be housebound with the kids. So much for my earlier thought, that there was no way I could fail to finish THE CLAIM in January. This feels like God punishing me, except that last January was exactly the same—between snow and plague, I missed teaching at least three classes, maybe four. So I guess it was just a poor choice of month to try to write.

This was meant to be an eyeroll at fate, but the words are starting to stick in my throat. At some point I described myself to my wife as “grief-stricken” by the loss of so much time I’d set aside for writing. I said it in more or less a deadpan; obviously it’s hyperbole. But the grain of truth is starting to feel more like a pebble. Maybe a full-sized rock.

Anyway, if you don’t hear anything from me on Monday and Tuesday, that’s why.

Words 1-23-2015


To quell it, he answered the easier question. “Your man Taho,” he said. “He killed her father.”

“Shame you didn’t just ask for him,” said the Tungsten Kid. “I might have thrown him in. Not sure he’s worth the food he eats, to be honest; he can’t fight much, and he wouldn’t know eld Art from a painting of his own asshole. I think I might enjoy seeing him killed by a little girl.” His face grew mournful. “Oh, Sepherene, we were nearly there. I don’t plan on ever seeing you where you’re about to go; but if I do meet you in the west, some years from now, I hope I hear that you’ve repented of letting women make you lie for them.”

The Tungsten Kid sang tem. The tent went wild with light; and, from within the light, a jet of fire reached out to cover Esker.

He had never been attacked with tem out on the high ice; the Salve Rooks used the light rune to distract and misdirect, but there were not many sorcerers among them with enough juice to blind. He felt faintly cheated that it affected him. But it did not much matter; he did not need to see. As soon as he felt the gentle warmth of his shirt falling to flinders against his skin, he took two swift steps forward to the Tungsten Kid, wrenched the staff out of his hands, and swept it up like a sword in a two-handed arc.

The Kid went down, but the light remained. Esker swung the staff down like a mallet where he thought the Kid’s head was, but he did not connect.

He felt the touch of the runic simples: fire, cold, lightning, force. The guards in red and black must have stepped in. They would cotton onto the problem soon, and then knives or guns would come out, and it would be over. He darted in the general direction of the door and smashed into a body, which toppled at the impact. Then he was out in the mid-morning light, which looked like deep dusk to his exhausted eyes, and the bullets began flying. He heard a voice roar “Kill that runner!” but his luck, it seemed, held; the gang was not as big as it seemed, spread out over the dirt park as it was, and there were lots of ways to run.

He took the chase to the same street where Mayet and her traveling companions had run out the night before—forcing himself to go slow, make sure the Kid’s gang didn’t lose him and give up on the chase. That had its risks, of course, and risk took its due; he felt a lance of fire hit his right side, staggered and fell, but he made the fall into a roll and pushed his body back up into the run before it knew to scream. When the pain hit, it hit into a stride whose rhythm had already been restored, and he could move through it.

He was approaching the claim-edge. He caught the gleam of rifles from the higher windows, a few doors down; he saw the shadows of figures with staves in the alleyways. Something sailed through the air above him, to land behind him, and he heard the air expand with a fwump and felt the heat of a furnace—no runic fire, this, his skin knew—rising behind him like a snake. He used the distraction of the flame to dodge inside what had been a restaurant of some kind, a small bare storefront and then a gnarl of machines, some evidently ovens or cabinets, some more obscure. He turned, verified that he was not pursued, and watched the proceedings through the window.

What he did not see for himself, his mind filled in. When Inber’s fire blocked the road behind, the Epseris brothers and Ozier were to have emerged ahead. They were outnumbered between two and three to one, Esker guessed, and the Tungsten Kid’s gang would surely not hesitate to attempt a punch-through—knowing, as they must, that the roadblock was a set-up; knowing, as they must, that some secret knife was about to fall from some sleeve into some waiting hand. The gang had run the numbers no slower than Esker, and bullets and simples poured forth. Teos Epseris had ush for that, though he could not hold it for long; but bolstering it was a Rook runeslinger skulking in the dusty hole just to his side, whose gaping shelves named it a library of some kind. The second note of ush must surely be lost in the cacophony, Esker surmised—though, then, his soldier’s ears could hear it, and who was to say there were not soldiers among the Tungsten kid’s gang?

Now came the reports of rifles from above, where Teos’ role became clear: He was not there to defend himself and his brothers against the attacks of the Tungsten Kid’s gang, he was a second roadblock, pinching the gang in for easier shooting. A runeslinger’s head burst into mist before Esker’s eyes; a rifleman seemed to leap from the street, glowing from within, his limbs twisting in wrong directions with bone-grinding noises. A new note of ush came from the gang, then two; Esker began to hear the spang of bullets leaping from up-directed shields. No more Tungsten men fell. “Lift us, Teos!” he heard Epaphos cry, and he saw tongues of fire and lightning join the bullets in raining on the Tungsten gang’s shields; but the two ush ’slingers were strong, or well-coordinated, or whatever it was that made an ush rune fail to give, and all the Tungsten men stood. Esker could not feel the fire begin to die behind them, but he could see their eyes cast back and knew the roadblock could not last long.

In the moment, he must certainly have picked Ruth’s voice out of the roar of chaos, but in his memory, later, it would hang in perfect isolation, like a single raindrop suspended on a spider’s web.

“We’re done here,” she called, just barely audible even to his soldier’s ears. “Finish the killers and get out.”

Three shots barked out from above. One spanged from a shield of force, but not over the Tungsten gang—rather, behind the claim-edge, behind the ush shield maintained by Teos and the Rook. One was followed by a roar of pain. One made a spock in flesh, and that was all. Two men howled in deep ragged voices, and there was a great soft heavy noise like the dropping of a mattress.

The Tungsten gang’s eyes swung forward, and a hail of lead and a hungry cloud of fire and frost boiled toward Ozier and the Epseris. The gang charged forward as one, no longer harried by fire from above, and disappeared from Esker’s view.

The silence in the street was unreal. He made himself leave hiding, made himself walk out into it and look. The battle had been taken elsewhere; he could see the flashes, hear the screams and impacts, from a nearby street. He looked at the bodies of Tungsten men, each deformed in unsound ways that tortured the eye; and at the body of Sethos Epseris. He lay face down, the crown of his head facing Esker, showing him the wound. He knew he should follow Ozier and the living Epseris, bring reinforcements from the rear, but he examined Sethos instead. The bullet had entered the crown of his head from directly above; it had exited the base of his skull. Esker could see it buried in the ground right near the body. The shot had come from above.

The flashes and noise had dissipated. Esker looked over toward where they had come from, calculating, estimating. He swallowed what felt like a mouse. Then he turned his back on the red-red-yellow-achrom line, the border of two territories of his existence, and walked deeper into the claim.


Small villages on the salt are not known for their grandiose displays of fellow-feeling; but it had been a hard year, made no easier by the loss of Ras Melaku, and perhaps there was something about the couple that aroused the villagers’ affections—for, though they were physically rather mismatched, the gangling, darker-skinned Esker an almost ogreish presence next to the compact Hasina, they shared a certain elusive quality, an inscrutability, that lent a certain rightness to the union.

With the engagement came certain freedoms. Mme Twilight was much more indulgent of Esker’s presence near her boarding house, though curfew was applied no less strictly, only more courteously. They could touch one another in public, though they rarely did—nor in private either; to Esker, it seemed like tempting fate. And there were positive privileges as well, at least for Esker. [[144]] Sheriff Poorem had long since become a familiar shadow on the Sepherene house’s doorstep, half welcomed and half dreaded—for neither Qeb nor Iseret had quite reconciled their sedate, steady lives to the wild swings of leisure and deadly work that formed the rhythm of Esker’s days. In respect for them, Poorem had begun relating to Esker any information he heard from passersby, whether they be the odd Jaidari marshal, new migrants headed to the Amen-Enkh plantation, or passengers bearing business from the Heru City line; it wasn’t a perfect system, but it gave them a few days’ warning of a coming manhunt more often than not. Which meant that Sheriff Poorem’s unforeshadowed presence at breakfast still came as something of a surprise, and not a wholly welcome one.

“Sheriff,” said Qeb, motioning to the table as he always did. “There’s food and coffee if you’d care for it. What ill plagues the salt this day?”

Qeb always offered food and drink to Poorem, and Poorem always declined, but that day he sat. “I’ll take coffee, Sra. Sepherene, and thank you,” he said to Iseret. “I’m delinquent in congratulating you on your good news, Señor. I can’t say I know the girl in question, but she’s a beauty, and I’m confident in your son’s good judgment.”

“Iseret and I are both overjoyed to welcome Hasina to our family,” said Qeb, “and we appreciate the sentiment.” Iseret set a steaming mug of coffee before the sheriff. “Is there something else we can do for you?”

“Well, I’m here for Esker, as usual,” said the sheriff. “Though not as usual, I suppose. Son, you’re aware that the need for law has grown a bit since you grew up here, are you not?”

“I am,” said Esker.

“Young men are wandrous things, you know, especially them as’ve seen the world. And Metu village ain’t—I mean, you’ve seen more of Jaidar in the Rook ruins out on the ice than you see in Metu. I know that. That’s why your friend Ozier can’t keep still, or so I reckon. But a man takes a wife, that says something to me. That speaks of a solidity, a loyalty. I ain’t trying to be cryptic, son, I just want you to understand what I’m about to say. All right?”

“I think so,” said Esker, “but I’ll tell you when it’s said.”

“A lot of law, we need out on the salt these years. I know it, you know it, and the territory authority knows it. And everyone’s getting fed up with these requisitions for posses. We need a few good police up and down the line, that we can rely on whenever we call them. I’ve spoken to the territory authority about it, and they tell me: Look, these kids—their word, son, not mine—these kids who come back from the ice, they’re beautiful fighters, but they ain’t had time to get right with their own history, and they can’t be relied on until they do. You’ve seen that yourself. Too many of the men we bring back are your colleagues gone sour, I know you know it better than me.”

Esker nodded.

“But the authority also says: If you can show us a man is solid, we’ll pay him and thank you for it. Because, like I say, we need police we can rely on when we call them.” He took a sip of his coffee, then a breath. “So what I’m saying, son, is that if you’re as solid as I think you are, there’s a salary and a house waiting for you as my deputy.”

It was hardly a surprise, after the rambling lead-up, but when the ask came, Esker felt his parents’ emotions double in intensity. Qeb fairly crackled with relief and pride, it seemed; but Iseret, who had been tense as though she’d been waiting for an ambush she knew was coming, now nearly slumped, as though she’d been hit in the heart.

“It ain’t the safest work,” said the sheriff, “nor does it pay the best, but the pay comes regular and a man with your advantages is safer than most. And, well, it’s conceivable that I won’t wear the star forever. In which case, I’d be pleased to turn it over to an experienced and trusted colleague.”

There was, of course, no hope of turning it down; nor did he. I will talk to Ma about it when the wedding is done, he told himself. When everyone has had a chance to settle down into the new way of things.


The salary began before the wedding, but the duties did not; Poorem excused Esker from the one posse that went to ferret out a pair of horse-thieves hiding in the strip mine. Esker nearly insisted, but on hearing of the strip mine, thought against it; the prospect of antagonizing the Chorister’s gang once more, nearly married, was too worrying for him to countenance—though he allowed, in his head, that he would have to confront the problem at some point, and likely on the sooner side.

He had not thought on the Chorister for some time, and it seemed strange that he had not; for she seemed like a formidable presence, the likes of which would draw the baleful attentions of the territory authority. Perhaps she was behind some of the crime he’d seen and pursued, but managed to conceal her association? Or perhaps she simply chose her victims well, erasing them completely from the salt. Or—and, he allowed, it might be the most likely—perhaps she was simply a woman with a solitary friend and a strange voice, roaming the salt and the mine for her own purposes, without any mind for marauding at all.

Preparations for the wedding mounted. Qeb put a hand to his specialty, writing verses of the Music on banners and streamers and flags; Iseret, for her part, marshaled the powers of the wives of Metu, and the Sepherene kitchen was intermittently overwhelmed by cooks and cooking, all of which then disappeared, only to return a day or two later. [[1167]] Kem and Inber were not much seen, each begging off drinks evening after evening. Esker assumed Kem was at work on some bit of oratory, and Inber on some project knowable only to Inber’s particular, involuted mind.

He and Hasina did not talk as much as they once had. They were busy, of course, and that busyness demanded both their individual and collective attention, but more and more, the time they spent together passed in a kind of bright, calm silence. At first, he broke it often, wondering what had made her smile, or simply making some comment to show he was interested in talking; but the interruptions never seemed quite as welcome as he hoped, and she smiled more when he let the silence rest.

Esker visited Akmem only once, to see the tailor.


The wedding moved from milestone to milestone slow and stately as a waltz. The night before, the men of the village came to the Sepherene house and played the festival songs, and Kem shaved Esker’s face, the closest their lips had come since they were very young. Up so close, there was no mistaking the pain on Kem’s face, but he could not ask about it—not in the roistering crowd. The festivities in Mme Twilight’s lasted much later; Iseret did not return until nearly dawn.

In the morning were the legalities. Qeb, Iseret, Esker, Hasina, and her paternal grandmother met, each with their lawyers, to finalize the contract between families (drawn up, in this case, by one of Kem’s hated competitors in Marsamat, due to a conflict of interest). Although Qeb and Esker understood women’s speech, Hasina had asked them to allow the lawyers to translate in any case, to which they (somewhat in puzzlement) assented. Hasina’s grandmother was austerely magnificent, a slim, wrinkled matron with white hair bright against the blackest skin Esker had ever seen, dressed in an iron-grey dress with hoopskirt and corset threaded through with bone, and a flat-brimmed hat and parasol to match. She made a point (through the lawyers) of emphasizing the equal division of assets in case of divorce where Esker was at fault, and the full transfer of assets in case of his death, throwing steely gazes about like darts—but Esker could see the shame and apprehension in her face. Hasina had told her that her own checkered lineage remained a secret; her mother had died in childbirth, her father had fled the responsibility. Qeb and Iseret knew the truth, but Hasina had worried about what her grandmother would think of them, if she knew they knew. What desperation must they labor under? she had said, her hands moving with the exaggerated rhythm of quotation. What secrets must they be hiding? Esker looked at Hasina’s grandmother and tried to seem reassuring, kind—but he did not know how.

After the contracts, Esker and Hasina came to visit the climate sorcerer to determine her allocation. Old Psammis Harkhem greeted them gravely in the runehouse—he rarely left it, these days, and it was widely put about that he would retire within a year, leaving the weather-tending to a younger and more vital soul. He offered them cold tea and dry crackers, then took Hasina’s pulse and temperature, calculated ratios of the lengths of various body parts, and collected a drop of her blood, which he dropped in a liquid where it turned into two plumes, a rising yellow one and a sinking blue one. To their surprise, he repeated this last measurement with Esker. When he asked why, he gave them a piercing look.

“We adjust your allocation because children tax the ka,” he said. “The child is a mix of mother and father, and draws ka according to a combination of their dispositions.”

With that, he turned back to the two paired plumes, muttering to himself, consulting tables, and marking dates off on a calendar. “Your ba is greedy,” he said to Esker. “I use softer words for most men, but you’ve served and you’re the law, and I know you want it straight. Your ba is greedy and hers is thirsty, and together that means the child will draw off a stiff tax. I’ve reduced her allocation in proportion, but you understand what that means—it will build up in her quickly, son. Fog the mind, then poison the blood. Wait two weeks; after that, you want to get a child on her in three months. I’ve marked a few days where your ba or hers will be at a low ebb; conceive then if you can.” He waved the calendar at Esker. “If nothing happens in three months, send her to me and we’ll drain off the excess. When you’re done having children, send her one more time and we’ll adjust her allocation back up.”

With that, he turned away. When they lingered, unsure as to what came next, he turned around, mock-irritable, and said “What are you waiting for? Go marry her.”


The ceremony itself was nothing out of the ordinary, save that the town gathered in their best clothes under a great tent in the square rather than in the shrine, and that Hasina’s grandmother and a few of Qeb and Iseret’s relatives were in attendance. Four cousins and five game children played out the Overture, [[2087]] which Kem narrated to the young woman next to him, not nearly as quietly as he thought (or represented that he thought):

“That one scattering the dirt behind him is Tem—he’s just decided to bestir himself from the mound that he was sitting on and create himself some company. See how he spits through the hollow of his hand—that gesture is symbolic—it looks like he’s gripping a stick or a rod, right? That’s evocative of the adult version of the story, creation as self-gratification… From that little outburst we get Shu and Tefenet, air and moisture… and there they are, the boy in white and the girl in blue…. Now, gods are always allowed to bed their sisters, so they have a little hug, and here comes Gebeb, the earth, the boy with snakes wound around his arms, and Newet, the sky, the girl in black with a pot on her head… they have a longer hug… do you know, I once asked the chorister how it was that, if Gebeb and Newet were copulating, she was above him? They don’t teach you about the female superior position at that age… or ever, I suppose. Ha, watch them spin! They almost fell! Finally Shu pulls them apart, and all that vigorous action begets Usir, in green; Set, the one with the fake head that looks like a donkey with a stork’s beak; Iset, with the throne on her head; and Nebthet, with the house and basket. They won’t get into the bit about Set chopping up Usir and feeding his member to the catfish today, I think…”

That done, the homily began, with the usual warmed-over hermeneutics of the Overture—“From air, which we may think of as speech, a world can be created… but not from air alone, for that speech must have a, er, moist… substance… in which to ferment and grow. And the world created thereby, well, one must—or, rather, the couple must, the union must—must take care to keep its parts well, er, organized… that is, to make space for new life, the couple cannot spend every moment cleaved—cloven—to one another, but rather find a balance between closeness and, er… distance.” [[2432]]

It was no font of inspiration, to be sure, but Esker remained focused on the chorister all the same—wherefore, until a coming sneeze caused him to cast his eyes down and to the side, he missed the entrance of Ozier Amen-Enkh.

If not for Ozier’s size, Esker’s eyes would have passed right over him, soldier’s sharpness or no; the giant was dressed caballero fashion, with a wide-brimmed slouch in one hand and a half-worked alder limb leaning on the opposite shoulder. He saw Esker see him, and a great red-and-white grin split his huge, ugly face. By instinct, Esker scanned the crowd for Ozier’s parents—but his mother was not there, and Amam Amen-Enkh was on the other side of the tent, several rows in front of Ozier, uncognizant of his son’s return.

“Without silence,” said the chorister, “there can be no sound; a chord of all notes is not harmony but cacophony. Family and friends, neighbors and strangers, we have assembled here to join sound and silence according to the principles that govern the music of the spheres, that these souls may take a proper place in the brickwork of the heavens. Their families and their church have agreed that their union respects these principles. Is there anyone here who would gainsay them?”

By tradition, the chorister here allowed a long hush, even an uncomfortable one. It was done differently in the Tintamarre, Esker had heard; the window for dissent was short, with approval assumed, rather than tested. But weddings in the Tacet let the silence stretch until even the closest friends of the couple were tempted to voice even the smallest misgivings, simply as something to hear.

After perhaps a minute, some kind of sound began to scratch at Esker’s ears. Neither Hasina nor the chorister seemed to notice. Esker’s eyes moved immediately to Ozier. Now the sound was louder, some kind of metronomic syllable whose contours suggested a voice, but not a human one—inhumanly pure, smooth, uniform. Ozier’s eyes were fixed on Esker, but he saw the giant’s arm move to jostle the woman by his side—a woman of medium height and unremarkable build, perhaps even on the generous side for a woman of the salt; short-haired, broad-nosed and plain of feature. But her hands were scratched, grooved and hard, Esker saw, and although her worn dress was nearly as modest as Ozier’s gear, her neck was adorned with a silver-etched crystal on a tin mount, tied to a plain leather thong. Ozier jostled her once more, and the sound mounted with the contact, until all gathered noticed it: ha ha ha, like clockwork. And just as the crowd began to rustle and mumble and the chorister began to gird his loins to reprimand the still anonymous, still unseen speaker, the voice rose again, filling the tent with words made stinging by its purity:

Every voiceless throat in this tent could gainsay them and you wouldn’t hear a whisper!

The silence thereafter was absolute.

Into it, the chorister cleared his throat, shrugging on an aspect of command that seemed well-fitted but little-worn. “An interesting point in the abstract, but is it an actual objection?”

Esker could feel every pair of shoulders in the tent brace for the impact. Ozier’s hand was resting heavily on the shoulder of the woman standing next to him.

In control again, the chorister let the silence stretch.

Esker saw Hasina look up at him. She gave him a small smile; he returned it, although the expression felt tight, constricted.

The silence continued, and the urge to speak grew deeper. I’m not interested in women, it said.

“But you’ll take Rooks,” he replied to himself, silently.

I’m not interested in Jaidari women.

“You almost split your pants when the Chorister cold-cocked you.”

She’s an outlaw. She’s not really a Jaidari woman.

“Stop it,” he said. “What you mean is that you’re not interested in women who can’t speak. But you can’t say that, because everything you have depends on being interested in women who can’t speak. That’s why you’re here, and it’s why you’re not going to ruin it at the last second with some lie about how you don’t like women.”

But everyone would believe it. Even she would. Why else would she have said that about not passing being “a boon you can return—”

“I thought as much,” the chorister said with a benevolent smile. “Then we haven’t much longer to go. And now, the happy question: Before this man adorns this woman with the mark of their joining, is there anyone else who wishes to witness their union with a token?”

[[X]] stood. Qeb, Iseret, and Hasina’s grandmother would give the traditional tokens from the parents of the married man and woman, a gold bangle for the right wrist and a silver for the left; Esker had anticipated this. A couple of distant cousins had also told him they would present tokens—a pair of turquoise earrings; a broken piece of eld Art, silver wire over green metal, mounted on a chain—and they stood too, deferring to the parents. Amam Amen-Enkh stood too, as he did at every wedding in Metu, to offer an enameled black-and-silver brooch to the bride; this had not been rehearsed, as the family’s offers had, but it was expected nonetheless. Azmera Berta stood, and Esker could tell from Hasina’s sharp breath that she had not expected him to to do so.

Only when the queue was formed and settled did Ozier move to join it.

Hasina looked up at Esker, worry in her eyes. Esker shrugged, not knowing what else he could do.

Qeb and Iseret placed the gold bangle on Hasina’s right wrist, her grandmother the silver on her left. She had left her ears bare for the earrings, bowed her head for the Art pendant, and looked up at Amam Amen-Enkh with an expression that was clearly, Esker saw with a slight sinking of his gut, one of amusement. “As thanks for all that the wives of Metu do for the House of Amen-Enkh,” he said as he always did, placing a hand on Hasina’s arm—and, though Esker had always caught the faintest splash of the man’s charisma at the other weddings he had attended, it was another thing again to be caught in its path, even for a glancing hit. He could see Amam Amen-Enkh’s hand tighten around Hasina’s bicep, just enough to keep her from taking a reeling step back. He gave Esker a nod, then gave both of them a smug smile, then turned to see his hulking son behind him.

Their eyes met instantly, and Esker could nearly feel their glamers clash.

Development diaries, 1-19-2015: Thin green sewage


I have written 2300 words in the last three working days, due to R.’s sickness and my wife’s coming down with what I can only assume is Chagas disease; even when it’s just the two of us and R., she is usually asleep, and thus no words can be written. This puts me behind by more or less 15,000 words, and has mired me in a vicious black funk that’s making me a bad husband and father. R. is, as I’ve written, 15 months old, and his brain is just starting to come online in big, amazing new ways—he sasses me, he understands complex commands, he adores and imitates his big sister. But he’s not complicated the way she is—not because he’s a boy, just because he’s younger and hasn’t learned how to get emo about shit. In consequence, when he’s not about to dive into the garbage or drink bleach, he’s the single most fun thing within 50 miles.

This all segues into a long reel of half-baked new-dad philosophy where I worry that I’m pushing U. to grow up too fast and R. to stay a baby too long, because the experience of the first kid is all about development and pushing boundaries and the experience of the second kid is about re-experiencing the littleness of the first kid, which should give you an idea of the levels of bougie white angst I’m capable of generating with a few spare cycles—I could power starships—but the point today is that I take a Monday afternoon to play with the single most fun thing within 50 miles and I do it grudgingly. Because, after the biggest bender I’ve endured in my lifetime, I’ve written 2300 words in five days and I’m getting the fucking shakes. I’m resentful of my wife doing exactly what she needs to do to get well. I’m resentful of my three-year-old daughter being three. I’m resentful of the fact that R. has to stay out of school at least another day, because the rule is you can’t go to school until you’re symptom-free for 24 hours, and he’s still shitting thin green sewage. Because the medicine gives him GI issues.

Oh yes. The medicine that is supposedly (and, I imagine, actually) getting my son well is keeping him out of school.

He has to be on it through Sunday morning.

My wife reported a “solid” poop this morning, but we were back to form by the next diaper.

The solitary thing—the solitary thing—standing between me and finishing a novel in January is the quality of my son’s shit.

I’ll laugh about this in a month, I don’t doubt.


A year, anyway.



Here’s my beautiful boy. I love him and his sister more than anything, and if I have to lose seven days of writing time so the family can get well, then that’s what I have to do. But it’s hard, at least for someone unaccustomed to real hardship, and I’m not a good enough person to deal with it gracefully.

I could write more tonight, of course. But I need to sleep.

Development diaries, 1-15-2015: ALL THE DISEASES

R. is sick. The symptoms appear to be a frothy mix of stomach bug, pinkeye, and ear infection; the Internet would suggest these can all arise from a viral ear infection, which would make the antibiotics the doctor prescribed yesterday possibly worse than useless.

I learned of this at about noon on the 15th, so I’m stalled at 1300 for 1/15 and have yet to write on 1/16. I probably won’t post yesterday’s words for a bit. My wife and I are both home with R., so I may be able to work a bit, but definitely not to quota. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Development diaries, 1-14-2015: Out of the Tungsten Kid’s camp alive


I wrote 500 words yesterday. Combined with the 800 I still owe from last week, that put me 4900 words behind. 4900 words divided among the 13 writing days remaining in January is 374 per day; round it up, and I’m at +400, or 5100 for today. A quota I did manage to hit today, albeit around 11:30 pm. We’ll see if I can continue to do this.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a marriage proposal before. It makes me feel a lot worse about what Esker and Hasina are going to go through. Actually, I’ll have to get through most of that tomorrow… once I figure out how to get Esker out of the Tungsten Kid’s camp alive.

Speaking of which, Chapter 5 has burst the confines of the beats like a Scott/Giger alien out of its host. I’d never planned a meeting with the Kid, never planned any of Esker’s doomed subterfuge—never planned that he might actually abandon his friends (forget the Epseris brothers) if he could just get the Kid’s permission to search for the voice-crystal and nothing else. It all makes so much sense, and the fact that it’s shoehorning in Mayet’s revenge plan that collapses the whole lie—or, rather, that makes it a lie; the rest of it is pure truth—seems to fit in a way I can’t quite get my head around yet. I like this a lot better than what I had planned. But I need to figure out what I’m going to get back to. There has to be some kind of showdown moment in Chapter 7. And, actually, since Esker’s trick has failed, it could be rather similar to the one in the beats. I guess we’ll see.

I think there are spots where I forget that Jaidari women (well, not all Jaidari women) are mute but not deaf, and Esker uses sign for no particular reason. At some point I should think about what it might mean, when he does and when he doesn’t. I think of using it as a little more intimate, extending himself into Iseret or Hasina or Mayet’s world; using vocal speech is a little more retrograde, a conventional mode of male-female interaction in this society, and one that highlights the asymmetries of the relationship.

Need sleep. No more.