Saturday, 17 June 2017

Rising from the Dead

Has it really been this long, dear reader?  I am told that the only thing nicer than taking a break is returning to normality, and there are hints of some exciting news on the horizon.  Caribou Chronicles is set for a July relaunch with new material and contributors, This Burning Man is approaching a world-ending finale and there's another thing that may be even more exciting than that...but that's all to come.

In the meantime, my fellow Shadows at the Door contributor, Chris Long, has posted a challenge on his blog that consists of ten questions posed to a character from my works. I had everything set up to invite Phoenix, the god-fearin', pill-poppin', hillbilly hero of' 'This Burning Man' to take part, but he had to change out of his cassock and when he got back, Jayci Clemence was here too, tarring her hair.  So, while it might be strictly against the rules to allow both to take part, it might be safer for all concerned just to let the pair of them get on with it.  Chris, over to you...

1)  What do you like to read in your spare time and has it prepared you for living through your own story?

PHOENIX:  Reading?  What, like, books'n'stuff?
JAYCI:  I won't lie to ya, we ain't the greatest readers.  That's more Gregor's territory.  If you can add up all the zeros on a 'Wanted' poster, you're doing better than most in our profession.
P:  I read my Bible.
J:  And you're going to heaven, sweetie.

2)  Do you think a character should be able to choose their own genre or do you think that would lead to chaos across the bookshelves?

 J:  Well...I guess a writer's gotta have a bit of input, right?  Technically, it was their story before it was ours?  Though I do wonder sometimes if the guy who writes us knows what he's doing.
P:  Is there a Bounty Hunter genre?
J:  I mean, what we have isn't quite a buddy story.  There's a bit of western, a bit of sci-fi.  It's so busy being everything that it ain't quite anything, in truth.  Maybe it's a romance.  People are always telling us we'd be great together.
P:  There's a lot of explosions for a romance.
J:  Don't go spoiling the mystique, now.

3)  If you had to write a story yourself, would it be in the same vein as the story you’re currently living through?

J:  Hell no.  There are too many men cluttering up the space, for starters.  If I was writing it, this story'd be full of space demons with giant teeth and with only a handful of hot, heroic, silent studs keeping order while the girls got shit done, you know what I'm saying?
P:  I'd kind of like to write something historical.  Like maybe back when America was still one country and there weren't all this magic and weirdness out in the desert. 
J:  I reckon it was always out there, even back then.  It was just they didn't go out each day and look for it.
P:  Do you reckon Gregor would know about historical stuff like that?
J:  Oh, probably.  His story would be, like, a technical manual or something.  Anything even slightly realistic and he'd be heading for the hills.

4)  Do you think this story is sharing the greatest moment of your life?

P:  I don't know if I'd say greatest.  I mean, meeting my sister and my mother was pretty awesome, but then I died, and now the world is ending.  It's been an eventful few days.
J:  I once spent a weekend socialisin' in Nogales with a Mexican border smuggler.  He was a handsome man, and so were both of his bodyguards.  As greatest moments go, that weekend was up there.
P:  You ain't never mentioned that before.
J:  Didn't I?

5)  If you were allowed to edit your story yourself would you cast yourself in the leading role or keep out of the limelight?

P:  I wouldn't say that I look to be centre stage, but when there ain't nobody else, a man's gotta step up, y'know?
J:  Say what now?
P:  I said I'm stepping up.  Kind of leading by circumstance.
J:  I heard what you said.  I just thought that it's cute that you think you're in charge.
P:  Oh, I ain't going here again.  I died and came back to life.  This is definitely my story.
J:  Sweetie, main characters don't die.
P:  This one did.
J:  I'm just saying.
P:  This one did.
J:  If we were a band, it'd be Gregor on the drums, you on the bass, me lead guitar and singing.
P:  You're an awful singer.
J:  I'm just saying.

6)  Would you ever want to know the full page count of your story?

J:  That'd probably be more handy for the writer than for us, if you know what I mean.
P:  I already got more pages than I was supposed to.  I guess I can't complain.
J:  I got a lot of pages left.  I'm popular.
P:  Says you.  Don't nobody know that for sure.
J:  The writer would get lynched by my fans if he did anything bad to me.
P:  I happen to know he's the kind of guy who would kill someone in your position just to provoke a reaction.
J:  Says you.
P:  She likes to have the last word.
J:  Damn right.

7)  Have any scenes been cut from your story that you want putting back in place?

P:  You know what?  The original premise of this story was so totally different - like, totally different - that I don't think we could go back to that world.  The world ended in that one too, but there was all sorts of commentary about Old World politics and what it did to people.  There was a kidnapping, an accidental death, an exile.
J:  That all sounds...interesting.
P:  It was a lot more like his first book.  This version is more fun, though.
J:  You spend a lot of time talking to this guy.
P:  I was around for a long while before you were.  Gregor was different then too.  At the beginning, he was an artist and a political agitator.  I had a sidekick called Macklin who was a Irishman who wore a top hat.  He was a duelist and a performance poet.  Parts of him got absorbed into the rest of you.  Obviously not including the accent or the hat.
J:  I refuse to believe that Gregor came before me.
P:  He was a bare-knuckle fistfighter.
J:  Okay, that never happened.
P:  Best believe it.
J:  You're talking out of your ass.
P:  I reckon you only got added in for light relief.
J:  It's only 'cause you ain't funny.

8)  If you could ever meet a reader in person would you ask for their review of your story?

J:  We hear from readers all the time!  Mostly, 'Can you kill off this character, please' type of stuff.  Seriously.  I have a list.
P:  Am I on it?
J:  I'm hardly gonna tell you if you are, am I?
P:  I got a world to save.  I can't worry about stuff like review scores or real-world physics.
J:  I bet Gregor would want to know the scores.
P:  Only because he gets pissy when other people know things that he doesn't.

9)  Would you rather your story be light and entertaining or leave your readers with questions when it’s finished?

J:  I like to think I add the pathos to the story.
P:  And did Gregor tell you what that word means?
J:  You shut your mouth.
P:  The way that it is now, you gotta have a bit of everything.  It's a live story, evolving week to week.  There's a whole world happening in the background - or at least, there is for another few hours.  Sometimes the writer has a chapter all planned out and then an idea wakes him up at 3am and the next day, things get rewritten.  You have to care about the characters - and people seem to - but he has a rule.
J:  An explosion in every episode.
P:  He's working on that.

10)  Are you happy for the problems in your life to be used as catharsis for your readers?

J:  Phoe-Phoe's a reminder to readers that things can always be worse.
P:  Thanks for that.
J:  Hey, at least I didn't tell them that you freak out whenever you hear piano music.
P:  On balance, I'm actually pretty courageous.
J:  Sure you are.  As for me, I'm happy just being an inspiration for all the little Jaycis out there.  Believe in yourself.  Walk unafraid.  Chase down your dreams.
P:  I heard a rumour that you once strangled a man with your hair.
J:  And my next boyfriend will lift the damn toilet seat before he pees.

Aaaaaand for now, we'll be leaving it there.  In the spirit of this arrangement, I would love to pass on the ten-question task to other amazing writers, so Zoe Sumra, Pete Alex Harris and L.B. Scott, here are ten for your own lovable cherubs:

1)  Can you describe yourself in five words or less?
2)  How do you feel about your writer at the start of your story?
3)  How do you feel about them at the end?
4)  Do you feel happy with the story arc that's been laid out for you?
5)  If you could change places with any other character from your writer's work, who would it be?
6)  Would you like to have your writer in the same world as you?
7)  What would you say is your biggest secret?
8)  If you could change one thing about your back story, what would it be? 
9)  What do you think about the readers who enjoy your story?
10)   What events are you hoping will happen in your sequel?

This is just a quick reminder that the latest episode of 'This Burning Man', entitled 'One Shot', is due to be released tomorrow.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Nanowrimo snippet, 2016 - The Magpie's Celestial Sanctum

Hello to readers!  I realise that it's been a while since I posted something on this blog, so I thought I would share the following small scene from my Nanowrimo 2016 project.  Set in the same world that is explored in my earlier blog entries, 'My Travels Through Imaginary Lands', we find ourselves in the city-state of Kassium, which is honouring the most brilliant young engineer from their foremost institute.  Dynamic, talented and forceful, Isabella Crome is expecting to be assigned responsibility for the beating heart of the nation - the furious, inexplicable core that powers their industry - The Engine.  What will happen, and what deceptions she will uncover, will determine not just her future, but the future of a fractured continent.

I hope you enjoy this small snippet - stay tuned for more!

* * * 

The sanctum was everything Isabella had been told to expect and more.  The room was both toplit and bottomlit in ivory white, the former emanating from the vanilla tallow candles in the mandala chandeliers strung from the conically sloping roof.  Beneath the floor, lamps powered by The Engine sat in half-moon lightning-glass prisons that one could walk across like bridges from certainty to certainty.  The effect of the up-and-down lighting was to parse one's face in the quarters of a saltiric cross, forehead and chin prominent, cheeks and ears in shadow.  Five hundred eyes glinted like the teeth of predatory animals.

Below the chandeliers, great corkscrew garlands hung in the shape of dovish birdflocks, echoing the whorl of marble pillars that led down to the central hub of the room, the celestially-inspired mezzanine that was known simply as The Breadth.

At her insistence, Sarasota had already explained the nature of The Breadth to Isabella.  The floor was composed of pressed sheets of black calcite overlaid with hardened obsidian which had been fractured with irregular clots of fired opaline cystals.  These had been fanned and pressed down to form fragmented, discoloured stars against the nightly backdrop.  The passages between the stars were marked out with slender channels of gold paint and powdered cherry garnet; the whole picture that formed was an astrological representation of the titanic, mythical battle between the continent-sized Varkenboor and the Heltenzeer bird that tore the Nebran continent away from the world pangaea so many millennia before.

Many times since then had the sun risen and set.  The Ondian Empire had ascended and then fallen back into decline, just as the Yzyrobians had before them.  The patch of land remaining to their descendants retained the name of the Empire, but like the language employed in formal situations, everything else had been lost, save in the minds of those who came later.  Gods had been cast aside, and production quotas took their place.  Now, the whispered words in the street were of rivets, armour plating, tobacco harvests and munitions.

'The Breadth is tremendously beautiful,' Sarasota had told her.  'There's nothing else quite like it in the world.  The first time I set foot upon it, I felt like I was desecrating something holy.'

'I rather wish I had seen it being constructed,' Isabella had replied.  'I could have learned much from the processes.'

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Institute of Meandering Minds

The wind whistled as the cowled figure stepped out across the timeless stone of the faculty floor.  Soft footsteps brushed over the cinereal surface, moving from corner to corner.  These corners were dominated by heavy candalabras, each constructed from the beams of the inn that had once stood upon this spot - the spot where millennia ago, the settlement of Meander had been formed.

Of course, Meander had come a long way since then.  A simple village, a trading hub, a thriving port, a centre of commerce. 

The figure paused only once, as though considering the time that had passed since Meander had come into being.  In the mind, chronology streamed away relentlessly like vapour into the void.  At the tapered end of that imagined surge, roughened skin cupped around tallow and wick, and fragile light gave birth to shadows.  The wind briefly gained strength, only to die away to frigid whispers.

The city teemed and flowed, and with that flow came ideas.  Meander became a haven of philosophy, a sanctum of knowledge.  Wood yielded to marble, and air to glass.  Small, unbidden embers burned in a hundred grates.  That was when they built the Institute.

Only when all the candles had been lit did the figure approach the upturned steel coil that doubled as a throne at the end of the room.  The figure rested lightly on the edge, testing the surface, and then flipped back her hood to reveal a cataract of auricomous hair.  She glanced upwards, amused, to where the statue of a squid, carved from obsidian, stretched its tentacles into the air.

The Headmistress was home.

She set a tiny brazier down onto the coal table before her and crushed sandalwood bark and powdered mhiatic into the bowl with her thumb.  When she was done, she touched the surface with the index finger from each hand, and the bowl began to glow.  In a minute or two, the aroma filled the enclosed space and she allowed her shoulders to settle.

The delta surrounding the city was rich, the farmlands fecund.  The granaries filled and the specialists thrived.  In this most golden of ages, The Institute produced the first of the Great Reports.  Four calling birds, four houses.  Four classes of people.

The masses, strong, uncomplicated, infinitely fertile, with shoulders that carried the world.  They encompassed all roles from simple farmhands and fishermen to the rawhide tanners that coloured the markets with their wares, but their first leaders were the buttermakers and the bakers.  They became House ButterTart.

There was a knock at the door.  The Headmistress said, 'Enter.'

The dark-skinned man that came into the chamber was so immense that he had to unfold himself after stepping across the threshold.  His muscles shone beneath a threadbare shirt and loose cotton shorts, and he wore light moccasins upon his feet.  A bright scarf was tied around his stubbled head.

The Headmistress nodded.  'You are welcome, Representative.'

'Zakaria Al-Aymane, of House ButterTart.  I offer you greetings, Headmistress.'

'Your greetings are acknowledged and appreciated, Representative.  What can my humble house offer the people of ButterTart?'

Zakaria opened his hands like a salesman offering wares.  'What can you offer, Headmistress?  Why, you can offer the things that rich men have refused to poor men since society began.  The people want work, they want security, and they want freedom.'

'The people of ButterTart already have the freedoms of association and action.  What more does a citizen in possession of aspiration desire?'

Zakaria counted the freedoms in the palm of his hand.  'Freedom from poverty, and freedom from fear, to name but two.  But you should know that there is more to freedom than an individual's choice for themselves.  There are the choices they would make for their children, and for those generations still to come.'

'I trust that the workers are making ample provision for those future generations.'

Zakaria grinned, showing off a single jewelled tooth.  'We make our sacrifices so that others may better themselves, 'tis true.  But well you should remember, Headmistress, that a leader rules with the permission of the people.  Heed this advice, for we will not long tolerate tyranny.'

The Headmistress raised a single immaculate eyebrow.  'Your warning is heeded, Representative, and the strength of a thousand years of mutual respect and teamwork between our Houses should serve as evidence that you can trust my word.  Rest assured that the well-being of your people is uppermost in my thoughts.'

Zakaria observed the remainder of the formal obligations and left, closing the door softly behind him.  The Headmistress regarded his warning as the posturing it surely was.  Yet, if anyone could marshal the masses, it would be Zakaria.  He was handsome, charismatic, and she had heard rumours that he was father to a dozen children.  Like a dysfunctional family, the members of House ButterTart were wild, furious, uncontrollable.  But if their power could be focused, it could overwhelm the other Houses in a day.

That day had not yet come.

The Headmistress stared into the glowing bowl before her.  The concoction within fizzed and smoked.  The Headmistress' mind swirled, and she was once again within the rainbow flow of time.  Angry shouts echoed into the abyss.  Embers became flames within a thousand brick hearths.  Minds once devoted to the accumulation of wisdom swelled instead with ambition and avarice.

There was another knock at the door.  This time the Headmistress did not look up.  'Enter.'

This figure was well-known to the headmistress.  Melania Wittgenstein of House Bleeding Moon sidled inside and glanced around nervously.  Her pallid demeanour might have been frustrating to some, but the Headmistress had not risen to Head of the Faculty without a natural gift for diplomacy.  Rather than hurry the other woman, she waited as long as was necessary for her to feel comfortable.

The traders and the artisans, creative and shrewd.  The landowners, the lobbyists and the makers of laws.  The explorers that went to the corners of the earth, the wide-eyed wonderers that looked to the heavens.  All were given to House Bleeding Moon.

Wittgenstein introduced herself and her house in clipped tones.  She had dark, perfectly-straight hair and tended towards consumptive, with the narrow bones in her wrists particularly prominent.  A network of blue veins ran across her pale skin, spiderwebbing in her temples and the backs of her hands.  Her eyes searched constantly in all directions.  Despite this, the Headmistress knew that her brain was needle-sharp, and afforded her respect accordingly.

'It is a pleasure to see you again, Representative.'

Melania glanced around.  'Headmistress, I am concerned that we are not alone.'

The Headmistress flicked the edge of the glowing bowl that was sat between them, letting out a dull tone that reverberated around for a few seconds.  She tipped her head and listened.  When she was satisfied, she met the other woman's eye.

'You need not be concerned, Representative.  Now tell me - what does House Bleeding Moon require?'

'Guarantees, Headmistress, such as only you can give.  If the city is to truly thrive, we must be sure that our pioneering spirits are rewarded for their investments.  Corporate power is waning, and in its stead, there will be a vacuum that is unhealthy for all parties.  We need to be able to market our goods and services, and to create the demand where it does not already exist.'

'The lobbyists within your ranks are already champions at exploiting opportunity.'  The Headmistress studied her nails.  'Surely you agree that rewards are to be earned, not provided?'

'Stability cannot be taken for granted,' Melania advised.  'Tariffs from abroad already threaten our prosperity and to make matters worse, we are concerned that the workers become too bold.'

'I don't know what you mean.'

The Headmistress had never truly seen another person splutter until that moment.  Despite her distaste for intervention in inter-House affairs, she had to admire Melania's horrified protestations.

'It is Zakaria, Headmistress!  He fills the workers' heads with nonsense.  Tells them that they can be kings...he has no respect for the natural order of things!'

The Headmistress smirked.  She was remembering Zakaria's vast frame, his absolute confidence as he warned the ruler of the consequences of not following his advice.  And those muscles...

She sighed and came back to the present.  'What would you have me do?'

'Rein him in,' Melania hissed.  'Surely you must appreciate the potential problems of allowing any House to dictate to the others.'

The Headmistress was aware of this, of course, but she wondered if House Bleeding Moon was aware of the ironic nature of its own stance.  'I will deal with Zakaria.  Think no more upon it.  And now, if there is nothing else?'

'If the Headmistress would consider it, House Bleeding Moon would appreciate guarantees of minimum prices for our goods...'

Affairs risked becoming bogged down in trivial detail, and the meeting was quickly adjourned.  Melania fussed as she withdrew, and she stopped once again in the doorway to look around, before seeming to feel that any potential danger was lessened by leaving. 

The Headmistress ran a finger around the steaming bowl, feeling the heat surge up her arm and the raised skin forming a welt on the tip of the digit.  Then out of nowhere, she snapped her fingers, causing the light to briefly flare.  A figure, dressed all in grey, was standing just a few feet from her desk.

Wherever there is light, there is shadow.  The two are like lovers, walking hand-in-hand.  And wherever there are shadows, there are those willing to hide in them.  As progress determined, the city grew and developed, but there had always been those that fate left behind.

House JaBooty was home to the beggars and the nightwalkers, those who were light on their feet, and desired to lighten the purses of others.  Those who caused pain, and those who treated it.  Those who lived by swords and cudgels, broken souls that yearned for war.

Those who were victims of a terrible genetic plague that destroyed their bodies, survivors who prospered only thanks to their unique skills and steely determination.

'Your presence is appreciated, Representative, but decorum strongly suggests that you should enter the sanctum only after the others have left.'

The laugh that answered her could best be described as gravelly, vocal pressure forcing itself out of the tortured tubes that made up the throat of the figure before her.  'If we agreed to that, how would we know what was being discussed?'

The Headmistress knew the greyshirted figure only as Ken-Ken, though her sources advised that he also answered to the name 'Null'.  It was a tradition within House JaBooty for the members to take new names, ones that played down their former personalities and reduced them to nothing.  Beneath the bandages that covered Ken-Ken's face, the Headmistress could see sores and rapidly-decomposing skin.

Even though she had known Ken-Ken was there all along, the Headmistress was surprised to find him so close to her desk.  It was a rare and delicious feeling, not knowing everything.  Realising that she could still be discomfited was a reminder that she had not ascended, and was still every bit a living human being as those she greeted.

Though were they human, the JaBooty?  The silence was lengthening, and their representative had not moved so much as an inch.

'Tell me,' she said, 'what does House JaBooty want?'

'Power,' the figure said, in a voice like the rustling of dead leaves.

The Headmistress stared into the darkness.  'And how do you propose to achieve that, Representative?'

'However the opportunity presents.  Whenever there is darkness, we shall rest within it.  Wherever another House shows weakness, we will exploit it.'

A thousand hearths became a million communal smokeshafts, and the shadows that grew from them became large indeed.  Shape us, they called.  Lead us, for we are many, and our hunger is great.

'I rather like House JaBooty,' the Headmistress whispered, 'if only because your goals are so transparent and single-mindedly pursued.'

Ken-Ken said, 'I couldn't help but hear that you are having some trouble with a man called Zakaria.  If you wish it, House JaBooty could see to it that this problem is appropriately resolved.'

'Rest assured,' the Headmistress snapped, 'that if I decide to take that course of action, you will be the first to know.'

Even as she finished speaking, the Headmistress admonished herself for betraying an emotion.  It was unbecoming of a woman in her position, and that only magnified her irritation to a further degree.

After an appropriate time had passed, she said, 'Do not let me detain you, Representative.'  The shadows licked at the walls, and laughed like hyenas.  The next sound that she heard was hissing, and the gaseous form of Representative Ken-Ken disappeared through the keyhole at the other end of the room.  The Headmistress let out the breath she had been holding.

Above the now-empty space, past the obsidian squid, the heraldic shield of the city had pride of place above the door.  Next to the horseman archer, the trumpeteer and the curved-blade-and-star that represented the other Houses, the image of the feline was that of her own House, TacoCat.

They were the leaders, the rulers, those marked by divine right.  Those that planned for the day when a million smokestacks would become a ship to the stars.

TacoCats were the only ones who really understood the responsibility, and for that realisation, they became as Gods.

'Are you ready?' she whispered to the smouldering bowl.

'Yes,' the fire replied.

Eudaimonia awaited, and the Headmistress was impatient.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

General Update - May '16

Hello!  Time for one of those regular quarterly updates that you've all been waiting for.

What Comes from the Earth

My first novel, a political thriller set against the backdrop of the mining communities near Johannesburg, is now available on Kindle worldwide for the princely sum of £2.81 (and Kindle Unlimited readers can get it for free!)  The link to buy in the UK is here.  Cheaper than a Starbucks coffee, and better for the soul.  Why not buy a copy?

Shadows at the Door

After a successful Kickstarter, the first 'Shadows at the Door' anthology is in production!  A huge thank you to all fans who are contributing to making this a reality.  I'll be providing further updates from Mark Nixon as particular milestones are reached - but with the horrorific nature of the content, I'm expecting that copies of the book will be winging their ways to contributors sometime around the end of October... 

Caribou Chronicles

Hot on the heels of the anthology, I'm shortly going to be working on a new project with one of my co-contributors.  Fresh from her triumphant writing workshop at Kcon just a few days ago, I'm pleased to announce a new collaboration with Caitlin Marceau.  Over the next few weeks, Caitlin and I will be preparing material for a new venture that we're calling 'The Caribou Chronicles'.  Set in Canada and full to the brim with all manner of fun fantastic creatures, this will be a new rural fantasy work sure to thrill fans of the genre!

This Burning Man

My sci-fi serial about bounty hunters in future Arizona goes from strength to strength, with over 1,500 readers to date!  I'm in discussions with a cover artist about a cover for a Kindle version, with the aim of releasing the finished story in Fall 2016.  The blog will continue to be updated fortnightly, and readers will be able to read it all

So far, our protagonist Phoenix has met a whole lot of crazy folk wandering the Sands - which one can point him in the right direction to find his missing family?  Get caught up now so you're ahead of the game when Chapter 11 is released tomorrow!

My Travels in Imaginary Lands

Likewise, 'My Travels in Imaginary Lands' continues to build an audience (on this very blog!) and I have all sorts of fun and games planned for it.  Unlike TBM, I don't have a schedule in mind for a Kindle release or anything similar, but I'm looking to build a catalogue of back work, so it will inevitably find a home at some point.  In the meantime, I'm loving writing it, and I hope you're enjoying reading.

Escalator Fiction

Sadly, this wasn't to be my year in Escalator Fiction, but simply to get longlisted given some of the up-and-coming literary talent in East Anglia is a fantastic achievement *quickly adds line to CV*

Other Stuff

I have all sorts of fun plans for story submissions, horror work, new serials, etc. but there are only so many hours in the day!  One of my goals for the year is to migrate this blog to a dedicated website, but until then, watch this space!

Monday, 2 May 2016

My Travels Through Imaginary Lands, Pt. 9

The hiss of the rainfall was quickly followed by the rumble of thunder, and as the skies turned in seconds from yellow to black, by the anxious cries of men.  The forewoman had not stopped looking at me and now as an immense crowd of drenched labourers began to fill the space behind me, she beckoned me through the door where she stood and closed it after me.

So sudden had been the flow of events that I hadn't really taken the time to think through what I was doing, or what motive my new companion might have for inviting me in.  When I stood awkwardly there, she gave me a sharp look, like she was waiting for something.  All I had in my repertoire at that moment was the wherewithal to place my bag down at my feet, so I did that and then waited for further instruction.

The room was sparse and functional as you might expect, but it had the odd touch that hinted at the predilections of its occupier.  The bed in the corner was wide and the sheets were of far higher quality than anything else here.  The bed was made but a single corner was folded back, as if to invite the weary labourer to rest.  A small upright mirror, the kind a man might use for shaving, stood on a nightstand immediately next to the bed. Close to me, a sand-coloured set of drawers was topped by a single red rose in a quartz vase.

The forewoman was gazing into the mirror.  I watched her press a calloused fingertip to the loose skin below her eye and then reach towards her hair.  A peppering of unselfconscious grey lurked there among the darker strands.  For a moment she was still as she pulled at the bandanna, and with an artist's eye, I committed that moment above others to memory.  It seemed important somehow, though for what reason I could not hope to articulate.  Not a second later, her hair was loose and fell away.  It didn't tumble exactly, but there was a joyous flourish to the movement; a storyteller's embellishment it might seem and somewhat trite to boot, but it was as if in that second she sprang off a canvas and came to life.

For the first time, her eyes met mine in the mirror.

'We don't get many tourists this far out,' she said.  'I felt I had to save you.  If I'd left you in there, you'd have some damp, sweaty farmer sitting in your lap right now.  You're not in a place for the faint-hearted.'

I smiled, despite myself.  The air in here was cooler, and I was quickly beginning to feel better.  At some point I would have to take stock of the shame I would feel for my earlier grumpiness, but that was something for the future.

'The train journey here was pretty much like that.  It was okay, once you got used to it.'

She said, 'Ha!  If I'd have been you, I'd have stayed on the train.'

'The train already took me where I wanted to go,' I said.

She tugged underneath her blouse, shifted the strap of a linen undergarment that seemed rather distressed by her dimensions.  'Well, if you came looking for profundity, we have that in spades.  That, and sorgha.  Lots and lots of sorgha.'

'I shall have to take some with me as a memory of my journey.'

She turned towards me, shook the bottom of her skirt and grains disentangled themselves from the wool, pooling around her bare feet.  'When the rain stops, go and take a walk outside.  I guarantee you you'll still be finding it in your pockets weeks from now.'

The idea of returning to the Ministry with my expanded mind full of dangerous ideas and my pockets full of sorgha amused me greatly and I hid my expression behind the pretense of scratching my nose.  She continued to loosen and rearrange her clothing, and when she finally reached a level of comfort that she was happy with, she let out a short sigh.  I stood politely, feeling myself slip into a conversational rhythm.

'I'm Petra,' she said, lighting an oil lamp and placing it on the nightstand.  'I take it I can trust you to be a gentleman while I change?'

'Patrick.  And of course.'  I turned to face the wall, though I'll admit to studying the intriguing, blurred shadow that leaned over my shoulders.  In a few seconds, she indicated that I could turn round.  She was now wearing a maroon blouse that left very little to the imagination.  A small heart-shaped stone hung from a chain between her breasts.

'So, Patrick,' she said.  'You're an artist, or a writer.  Which is it?'

'I'm a diplomat,' I replied.  She tensed a little at this.  One of the things you learned early when the Corps posted you to Rhigo was that the local language did not distinguish between diplomats and spies.  'Please don't be alarmed.  I'm just a man on holiday, nothing more.'

'Just as well,' she said, carefully clipping tiny jewelled earrings onto her lobes.  'There's not much to see here that you haven't already seen.'

'I had this idea that I could walk west from here until I got to Camir, but it's pretty clear that if I try, the local weather is going to broil me and then drown me.'

She laughed.  'That, like everything else you've seen, is something you'll have to get used to.'

'Have you worked here long?'

It was a ridiculous question, given her tanned skin and absolute dominion.  Nevertheless, she bore it with good grace.  'Only my entire life.  Fifty years and more in the Sholl.  It's all I've ever known.'

'You've never wanted to travel yourself?'

'There was a time when I thought about it.  One of the men that worked here with me wanted me to give up my role and travel round the world with him.  I told him that he'd have to marry me before I did that.  He said to me, "I don't think I'd be a good husband.  I'm a great lover, a good friend, but I don't think I'll make a good husband."  And I laughed, because it was impossible not to, and I replied, "My sweet, you are a very good friend, but you are not such a great lover."  He agreed to marry me the next day.'

'And yet, you still didn't go travelling?'

She rubbed a pink powder onto her lips with a forefinger.  'He was every bit as bad a husband as he said he would be.  I should have listened to him, but if I listened to everything men said...'  She tailed off.

'Careful,' I said with a grin.  'I am a man, you know.'

'As if the beard didn't give it away.  No, I haven't travelled.  And in recognition of my hard work, I now own this little plot of land in the centre of the world.  Everything for a hundred miles around is my garden.'

There was a knock at the door and she flashed me an ugly, devilish grin.  'Best of all, forewomen privileges mean that I get my pick of the younger men, whenever and however I want.'  It immediately became clear why she had been preparing herself.

'Get the door, please.'  I did so, to be greeted by a stocky young man in his late teens with a bashful expression on his face.  He seemed surprised to see me, but averted his eyes respectfully.  Petra said, 'Come in, Ioan.'

The young man followed orders.  She took him by the hand and led him over towards the bed.  I hadn't been sure how Ioan might feel about being hand-picked for this purpose, but he seemed to be quite excited - even honoured - by the prospect.  Certainly he had no qualms about peeling off his clothes in double quick time and sliding beneath the sheets.

Petra looked over her shoulder at me.  'I know what you're thinking.  But I make it very much worth their while.  Stay if you like.  Watch - or join in.  I haven't been with an Ondian before.'

Some part of me was revolted by the thought, but another quite separate part of me was massively intrigued.  I retrieved my bag, offered my goodbyes and made my way outside before that part of me could gain some purchase.  When I stepped through the door, I found myself face-to-face with a group of young Rhigan farmers.  At first they seemed astonished, and then as one they grinned and each one patted me as I passed through the group.

As I made my escape back in the direction of the railway station, one called in Ondian, 'Best trip ever, right?'