Announcement: “Marloh And The Sprite Queen” is free-to-read at Blog Z!

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Hi friends! Looking for a creepy short story to read? Have a hankering for a story featuring a clever elf girl? “Marloh and the Sprite Queen”, now up at Blog Z, might be right up your alley! Head over and check it out–it’s free-to-read!

And, of course, please feel free to leave comments, pass it around social media, etc, should you get the urge to do so.

-B

Guest Post: How to Build Great Fictional Fantasy Cultures

I am beyond excited to turn my blog over to Kameron Hurley today! Kameron Hurley is the author of The Mirror Empire (which I loved) and Empire Ascendant (out now–which I also loved) and the God’s War Trilogy (which is now in my TBR pile waiting to be loved). Hurley has won the Hugo Award, Kitschy Award, and Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer; she has also been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, Nebula Award, the Locus Award, BFS Award, the Gemmell Morningstar Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Year’s Best SF, The Lowest Heaven, and Meeting Infinity. Her nonfiction has been featured in The Atlantic, Locus Magazine, and the upcoming collection The Geek Feminist Revolution. Now she’s here to tell us about worldbuilding.


If you are tired of seeing the same pseudo-patriarchy, fake-medieval societies in your purported fantasy novels – fantasy! In which anything is possible! – then please raise your hand.

Yes? All right.

So was I. If you’re a writer who wants to build truly new and unique societies, it takes some work, I won’t lie. We’re all raised with certain expectations of how the world is and what it could be. One of the most insidious jobs of many governments is to scrub out anything from history that doesn’t support the idea that this particular government is the most natural, logical form of government and that all of our fits and starts led us here and we have reached the pinnacle of progress. Very rarely do we realize that social history is not progressive; it’s more like the Wheel of Time. Throughout history we’ve had far more progressive ideas about abortion, same-sex relationships, and a multiplicity of genders than we do today in the West. Not to mention radical ways of governing and organizing ourselves that don’t involve a few men decrying their word as law from atop a high mountain.

It’s worth mentioning this because even though we approach the writing of fantasy knowing that we can, in theory, do anything (because it’s fantasy!), we still encounter a lot of mental roadblocks on the way to making something truly unique. The voices bubble up, voices from critics, from peers, from less imaginative teachers – you can’t do that, that’s not OK, that’s not realistic, that’s silly, that’s wish-fulfillment, that’s crazy, that’s bad.

But I, for one, got into writing speculative fiction because I liked being silly, and crazy, and bad and not-OK, and I liked to fulfill wishes. I liked to push at the edges of things and see what happened.

So let’s start building something different.

Organizational Structure
When I’m building a new society I like to start very broadly with how each individual society organizes itself from the top down (if there’s a top at all), because this is going to bleed into the family structure, and then into the culture. If you have a hierarchy, who’s at the top? Priests and kings? Men? Women? Or are genderqueer folks in places of power? In fact, how many genders are there? (some Native American societies had four). In my Worldbreaker Saga, I have one country with three genders, where the relative power and authority of each gender goes: male, ataisa, and female. I have another with five genders where gender means nothing as far as power goes, but can mean something politically and influence how people organize themselves into political factions.

The reality is that humans have been around with brains like we have now for well over 100,000 years. If you think there’s a way we haven’t organized ourselves at some point, you are probably wrong; so it’s not that it’s never existed, just that we rarely see it. So hop to it.

Family Structure
How are your families constructed? Do multiple generations live under one roof? Is there

marriage? If yes, what’s the point of it all – love, cementing family alliances, politics, purely religious custom? What types of genders are allowed to get married? Is there a limit on number of spouses? How are the children raised?

One of the biggest issues I have with the creation of fantasy societies is figuring out what happens to the children in cultures where all the able-bodied folks of whatever gender are working outside the home. This is easily solved with multiple generations living under one roof – it makes sense for young and middle-aged people to go off and work in fields or join the army if there are generations at home to look after children. There is also, of course, the idea of communal childcare, which we definitely don’t see enough in fantasy. The two-parent household is a relatively recent Western invention. If you feel crazy trying to raise a child with just one other co-parent, well, you’re right to feel that way – it’s terribly unnatural and not something humans have typically done. Moving away from extended families in the rise of the industrial era has radically changed how we view what parenting looks like.

Customs and Extended Culture
This is where I see a lot of folks fall down. It’s all very well and good to create fabulous ways for people to organize, but we then have to follow that down the full length of the rabbit hole. How does the way we organize ourselves bleed out into all the other aspects of our society? I would argue that here in the United States, our emphasis on maintaining one’s position through violent patriarchal oppression carries over into all aspects of our society: gun violence, rape, brawls, abusive relationships, and more are all heavily influenced by the power structures within which they happen.

When I created a polyamorous pacifist society in my Worldbreaker Saga, I needed to explore how that would extend into how people interacted with one another. I created a consent based culture where the age of consent was 12. What that meant was that after the age of 12, it was illegal to touch a person without their consent unless they appeared to be in life-threatening distress or were harming someone else. There was no death penalty or corporeal punishment. If you did something moderately bad, you were shunned. Terribly bad and you were exiled.

These are the sorts of things we need to think about when constructing cultures. Every decision you make will impact another decision. This extends to magic, too.

Magic
I almost didn’t include this one, because to be honest, writers already spend more time constructing their magic systems than their cultures, but these things should be intertwined. How magic users are treated in each of the cultures I build depends heavily on what sort of place they come from.

So in my violent, hierarchical society where different families vie for the throne, all magic users are expected to become government assassins. Those not suited to it are still relegated to some form of government service. In my consent-based culture, they can run off and do as they like, but if they choose to do that and end up harming someone it’s exile for them, so isn’t it just easier to get training in one of the religious temples? Another society rounds up all their magic users and segregates them into camps, ensuring they are controlled in much the same way as the men in their culture are.

The Butterfly Effect
Finally, a note on the butterfly effect. You can’t change one thing about a culture and have everything else be the same as a 1950’s magazine ad. Oh, Ok, you can but it’s lazy and boring. Giving human beings magic, or putting them in a world full of sentient plants, or saying that polyamory is the law of the land, can’t be the only thing you change if you want a fully realized fictional world. If you want to create truly unique and interesting cultures, you have to follow the change throughout the inner workings of a society to its logical (or fantastic!) conclusion. Technology, childrearing, religious practices, work habits, the relationship (or not) between employees and employers – all of these should be considered when you’re building a world, and all of these things should inform and influence one another.

Because this really is what you’re doing: building a world from the ground up. And if it’s meant to be a fantastic world, shouldn’t it be at least as interesting and complex as our own?

Debrief: MATTERS OF SCALE

MATTERS OF SCALE is available for purchase here

Moshel has hidden himself away for years, trying to keep the emotions of others from driving him mad. It’s in mechanics alone that he can find relief, the reliable tick of clockwork his escape. It’s only when he meets his counterpart, Tovah, that he realizes all may not be as it seems in his world, and there may be a way to change it. It’s all a matter of scale.

Publication date: April 13, 2015

Completion date: January 18, 2014

Number of times subbed:
Four–but only out of miscommunication (bear with me). Matters of Scale was, like most of my shorter fiction, written in response to a call, this time a steampunk call put out by Inkstained Succubus press. I immediately had an idea for it, banged out a story, and subbed it. The editors at Inkstained got back to me quickly: good idea, but the story felt cramped. They gave me a Revise & Resubmit with guidance to expand the story. so, I expanded it, subbed it again, and waited.

I confess, between working a day job, parenting, and sleeping I don’t often follow up as thoroughly or in as timely a manner as I should have. February spilled into March, which meandered into…holy shit, it was September and still no word. I assumed the anthology was dead. I subbed the (now novellette) elsewhere. One market rejected me with a letter expressing interest in future stories. Another gave me a form rejection soon after. I decided to table the story, not sure what to do with it. At 10k words, it was a decidedly odd and somewhat unmarketable length.

And then, out of the ether, voila! A note came from Inkstained saying that their editor was happy with it but had some line edits. I said I was happy to make them. Just like that, things were back on track.

BUT LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES! Always actually get that a dead end is a dead end in writing before you move on, because it might actually be that those editors are working hard (for months!) in the background, and you just don’t know it.

The story of the story:
Again, this story more or less wrote itself. When I hear steampunk, I think clockworks, and when I think clockworks, I think about the Semadran elves in Aerdh, my secondary fantasy universe. And no Semadran elf is more Seamdran than Moshel Atoosa’Avvah.

It was a particularly natural fit to got with a Moshel-centered story for an Inkstained call because Moshel was first introduced as an important secondary character in my debut novel, Resistance, which the fine folk at Inkstained published. This story works as an odd sort of prequel to some of the events of Resistance–but with clockpunk background.

Placing the story:
Ultimately, the story landed exactly where it should have. I never mind it when a story I write for a specific call winds up elsewhere, but I always feel an extra edge of accomplishment when they do. I wrote Matters of Scale for Inkstained, and Inkstained published it. Simple as that.


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Guest Post over at Inkblots from the Inkstained Succubus!

inkstainedsuccubuslogo

Hi friends!

The fine folks at Inkstained Succubus, who published both my novel Resistance and my novelette Matters of Scale, have published an essay of mine crowing about why Diversity in Secondary World Fantasy is important and some of the ways in which I’ve sought to make that happen in my own works. Stop by and check it out if you’re interested!

-B

Book Review: CAMILLE AND THE BEARS OF BEISA – DRAFNEL

CamilleAndTheBearsOfBeisaDrafnel_SimoneSalmon

Notes on Diversity:
Features a large cast of people of color helmed by agentic, powerful women, yay! Portions of the book are set in Jamaica, so it’s not even entirely USA-centric, also yay!

No queer characters. No characters with identified disabilities.


Review:
FTC disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Drafnel, the first novel in the Camille and the Bears of Beisa series by Simone Salmon, is a major genre-bender. Equal parts paranormal thriller, romance, sweeping sci-fi novel and folkloric fantasy all wrapped together, Salmon manages to weave them all into an absorbing whole. Drafnel is scheduled for release on August 28, 2015; you can learn more about the book here.

Drafnel is composed of several intersecting narratives strung across different universes and timelines, all connected by specific individuals who persist across time and space1. The anchor narrative is driven by Camille Matahari, a young woman in 21st century New York City fresh out of college with her whole life ahead of her. The book follows her as her otherworldly powers begin to unlock, and as she is hunted by a persistent and complicated evil across time and space. To survive, she draws on a community of people both familiar and unfamiliar to her, including her Indian-born Jamaican-raised grandmother, Catharine, her Afro-Latino boyfriend, Chase DeLeon, and the shifter Beisling Bear clan.

Drafnel is Dune-like in the grandiose sweep of its worldbuilding. The sci-fi universe Salmon creates, Narvina, with its eight ruling clans and ornate power structures was intriguing. It was also refreshing to read a great space opera like this where the people in charge are people of color, and where the universe is a matriarchy.

While anchored by Camille and her narrative, the book functions as a series of linked interludes. The POV switches between Camille, her grandmother, Chase, and others. When the POV switches to people in the far-future (far-past? Extra-dimensional?) world of Narvina, the reader is able to grasp what that universe is like from an insider’s perspective. These interludes are able to fill out the scope and reach of Narvina without an over-reliance on info-dumping. I will say that the lingo of Narvina, which required a glossary I found too late in my reading, confused me. But Salmon’s use of folktales and specific stories to build out the structure of this unfamiliar world, and to link it back to Camille’s story, was a brilliant narrative device.

There were also long sections that explored Camille’s grandmother’s childhood in Jamaica, and her grandmother’s awakening powers. These sections were wonderful—they created an additional counterpoint of paranormal weirdness (Camille experiencing these disruptions in our current time, her grandmother experiencing them in the 1950s in Jamaica) and provided another compelling narrative voice. Honestly, Catherine Matahari, Camille’s grandmother, stole the book for me. I loved her in all her incarnations. She was wonderfully drawn, and her sections held so much fine detail and description that I wanted the whole book to be about her. I felt her voice was stronger than Camille’s, ultimately.

The book is complicated, and thematically messy. It’s a surprisingly quick, short read, which is both good and bad: good, because it’s quick-paced and satisfying, bad because I wish Salmon had taken the time to dig into some of her themes and explore them with more nuance and depth. There was more to mine in this book, I think. There were some characters left unformed and half-developed, including Camille who never quite stands out from the cast of more sharply drawn characters around her. There were some ideas waiting to be clarified in the text that didn’t quite come together. But on the whole, Drafnel is a hugely ambitious book, and deeply felt, and it works.

4 stars

1The structure and some of the themes of the book reminded me of the movie The Fountain, which I adored. This idea of the same person persisting in different forms across time and space, mostly through the power of deep emotional connection to other people, really connected the two pieces in my mind.



 

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Thanks for the ships, Melville!

click through for source

click through for source

Despite my landlubber life, I’ve always had a fascination with books about the sea. Maybe that’s part of why I love Melville so much.

It’s not surprising, then, that one of the earliest inventions of the world of Aerdh were the pirates. I’m certainly not the first person to write about a spec fic pirate  society, and I won’t be the last. The pirates of Aerdh figure heavily in the plot of The Search, the follow-up to Ariah that I’m currently writing.

For someone who loves worldbuilding, pirates are inherently fascinating. What does it mean to create a society that is inherently a society of outcasts? What sort of mores do they hold? For a society to survive, it has to last more than a generation, which means that children must be born and raised into it. What are the people indigenous to that way of life like? How do they see the world? How do they justify that their culture is, by definition, parasitic–for them to prosper, they must prey on other cultures. And what about the economies that spring up in the pirates’ wake? What are the moral grey zones there?

I’ve written about the pirates before, most notably in Cargo. One of the major secondary characters in The Search is a pirate king–defining the scope of his influence and how he wields it is enlightening. The Search is building out pirate culture above and beyond what was seen in Cargo, and I’m having a wonderful time exploring it.

Beyond the idea of the pirates themselves, with their potential for outlaw justice and redemptive arcs and sanctuary for marginalized individuals, there are the ships. Melville, in his books, used the microcosm that is life on a ship to great effect. I think I was always taken with that, with the way that ship life pens you in with a very limited number of people in a very proscribed amount of space. Ships are truly tiny little worlds of their own drifting through the maw of pure natural force.

Such a strange thing, and such a raw thing, and how could you not then forge such deep relationships with your crew? How could they not become your family? No one ever has neutral feelings about family. You only ever love them dearly or hate the sight of your family. Imagine spending all that time working a ship with someone you can’t stand, who annoys the shit out of you, but you know your life is basically in their hands. It’s maddening. The psychology of ships is insane. So, I keep coming back to them in my writing.

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Roundup: June 15-June 21, 2015

Writing Update:
The Search went from 57k words to 64k. Shayat might have a trans woman love interest, and Sorcha has a crush on a pirate captain.

ARIAH Release day!

click through to order!

click through to order!

It’s here! It’s happened! It’s release day!!!!!!

It’s just really exciting!

Hey, and if you maybe want a free copy of Ariah, well, shoot, why not enter this giveaway? It’s open until midnight this Saturday!

I don’t have much else to say except:

iwroteabook

ARIAH Countdown: Excerpt & Giveaway!

click through to pre-order!

click through to pre-order!

We’re a mere two days out from release day! If you’d like a sneak peak of Ariah, I’ve posted the first chapter here for free! If you like what you read, enter the giveaway! Two lucky entrants will win a free ebook of Ariah! The giveaway closes midnight, Saturday 6/30, so enter now for your chance to win!

CHAPTER 1
There are times I still have nightmares about that first day in Rabatha. I’d come from Ardijan, which is a small place built around the river and the factories. It’s a town that is mostly inhabited by the elves who work the factories with a smattering of Qin foremen and administrators. We outnumber them there. We’re still poor and overworked, we still get hassled, but there is a comfort in numbers. It was a comfort so deeply bred in me that stepping off the train in Rabatha was a harrowing experience. The train, a loud, violent thing that cloaked half the city in steam, plowed right into the center of the city and dropped me off only three streets away from the palace. Even with all the steam, I could see its spires and domes. Even with all the commotion, I could hear the barked orders and vicious slurs of the Qin enforcement agents.

I was searched. My single bag of clothes and books was searched. Everything I had brought with me except my citizenship papers was confiscated, including what little money I had. I was one of exactly seven elves on that train, and all of us were detained, and all of us were robbed. On the train, the seven of us had shared a single compartment. I knew, intellectually, that the train was full of Qin people, but I was with my own, like I had always been, and the nearness of that truth was lost on me. The train station was a sea of brown skin and fangs. I came to Rabatha for training, and as is traditional I came to my mentor on my thirtieth birthday. Thirty is when we consider a child to be grown. Before I got on that train, I felt grown. I felt adult. I felt ready. But when I looked around and saw no one who looked like me, it scared the thoughts right out of my mind. I was thirty, but I felt like a child.

So it was that I arrived alone in Rabatha, penniless and empty-handed. I arrived and had the securities of my youth brutally ripped away. I also arrived in the mid-afternoon, with only a few hours before curfew to find the man who would be my mentor. My parents had made me commit his address to memory, which had been good foresight, but the shock of the train station drowned the memory of it. All I knew was that he lived in the Semadran borough, and the Semadran boroughs inevitably sprang up on west side of town. That’s where the Qin like us to be. They know that magic in the westlands is stronger than in the east, and so they prefer to live east of anything and everything. I went west. I got to the borough without incident, though the walk took three hours. I was born in the summer, so it was a miserably hot day. I thought I’d die of thirst, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask anyone for water, not even other elves.

I never found his place. No matter how hard I wracked my brain, I couldn’t remember the address. He found me. The borough in Rabatha is cramped—it houses twice as many elves as Ardijan, in half the space—but Semadran boroughs are alike all over. The center had a schoolhouse. Elvish homes were planted around it in ever-widening circles, all facing outward, like sentries. When you are Semadran and you are lost, or hurt, or in need, you find the schoolhouse, and eventually what you need finds you there.

I made it to the schoolhouse a little before dusk fell, just when the streets were beginning to empty. I sat on the steps, cowering in the schoolhouse’s shadow. It was a stately building, two floors tall with real glass windowpanes. I don’t know how long I sat there. My mind was numb, my body was sore; I was tired inside and out. I hated everything about everyone. I was well-entrenched in these thoughts, the arrogant and bitter thoughts very young men think, when my mentor found me. “Are you Ariah?” he asked.

I looked up. I didn’t know whether or not to answer him. I didn’t know before then that Dirva was not fully Semadran. I am certain my parents didn’t know. My father likely would not have cared, but it would have been a deal breaker for my mother. It would have been hypocritical of her, but she had her standards, and she stuck to them.

I have always felt conspicuous. I have always been conspicuous. There is red blood in my family, and red blood rises to the surface. Both my mother and I have her mother’s green eyes. My mother even has freckles. I just have the green eyes; everything else about me is appropriately silver. My green eyes had always been an ambivalent thing for me. My father loves them, loves difference. My mother thinks them a curse. It is true that she and I got strange looks, that there were children growing up who were encouraged to play with boys other than me. And it’s true that some sought me out, curious and fascinated. As I said, I was very young then, and I had not yet lived enough or grown enough to know really how I felt about my diluted blood.

When you’re very young and you’re different, you begin to believe that no one has ever been as different as you and that no one has ever felt that difference as keenly as you. But there was Dirva. He was a tall man and broad-shouldered, a big man. He was a dark man, with skin a deep, deep gray, nearly black. And his hair was the same color—inky black. His eyes were green, like mine, but they were green in a vibrant and forceful way, the pupils a hair too small and the irises a hair too wide. He had whites in the corners of his eyes. He was a man with blood a far sight more muddled than my own, a man who looked like he had at least a dash of mundanity in him. His blood was so muddled that my mother’s suspicions took root. I didn’t answer. It was the strangest thing, but I felt when I saw him that I’d seen him before. I knew I hadn’t, but I felt it anyway. It made me trust him less.

He frowned and glanced out at the street. The shaper in him had cut its teeth on noticing the fear and disgust of those around him. He held out a hand to me anyway. “I am sure you are Ariah. I am Dirva. We have corresponded.”

There was nothing to do but take his hand. I was there in that unknown city, alone, with no money. I could not have gotten back to Ardijan. I knew no one else in Rabatha. All I had was him. “I am glad to meet you,” I said.

He laughed. Like most people, he has many laughs. This one was sharp and cold. He looked me over and sighed. “Oh, you came on the train.”

“Yes.”

“You have had a long day.”

Suddenly the weight of it all bore down on me. I felt tears well up. Oh, it was awful; the shame of it was a force to drown in. I wrapped my arms around myself and stared at the ground. I nodded and somehow managed not to cry. I felt I would die if he saw me cry, if that was the first thing about me he saw.

He took me gently by the elbow and led me down the street. “I have had long days, too,” he said.
“Tomorrow will be kinder.”

* * * * *The next morning, I woke facing The Reader. The actual painting, the original. At first I thought it was a dream. When he is not working the assembly line, my father is an artist who specializes in portraits. He is something of an expert on the Nahsiyya Movement. He has copied The Reader himself for at least a dozen dignitaries. He invented a press to print paintings with a high level of fidelity. He prints books of art, and his books end up in Qin libraries all over. Every one of those books has a print of The Reader in it. In short, I was extremely familiar with this particular painting, this monstrously famous painting, which inexplicably hung on the wall in a cramped set of rooms in an elvish ghetto.

Food sizzled in the kitchen, and it smelled slightly strange. I crept out of bed, barefoot and timid, and studied the painting, which my father himself had seen only once. It had hung in a gallery in Tarquintia for a fortnight many years ago, and my father spent all of his money to get there and see it. He wanted to drink it in, absorb it, let it burn into his mind so he could replicate it again and again. No one was entirely sure what had happened to it after that. No one besides me, Dirva, and the artist.

My father’s copies are excellent copies, but they are still copies. The copies couldn’t quite show the way the bold lines captured movement and obscured it at the same time. The palette was brighter than in the copies—the blues and the greens burned bright and ice-cold at once. I think it might have been a matter of the medium, of his use of ink instead of oil paints. The paint gave it a dimensionality lacking in the prints. The artist slapped it on thick, in ridges that cast subtle, shifting shadows. The shadows made the subject look like he was breathing, like he was just about to turn the page. I studied the figure: a black-skinned boy with black hair and green eyes. He wore a subtle smirk. He had broad shoulders and long, graceful fingers. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times before, and it dawned on me as I stood there that it was a face I had seen the day before.

Curiosity got the better of me. I crept around the corner and peered into the kitchen. Dirva was at the stove. I watched him for some time, star-struck, before he noticed me there. “You survived the night,” he said. “Are you hungry?”

“I…yes?” I said, though it came out closer to a question. He glanced at me quickly. His eyes were overly expressive; you could tell precisely where he looked. He is a reserved man, but his eyes give him an air of penetrating intensity.

“Did you sleep well? Will the cot suffice?”

“Yes?” Again it came out like a question.

He turned towards me. It was then I learned he is not a patient man, that he has a brusqueness rooted to the core of him. “You seem to have some question for me. It would make sense for you to have questions, considering the circumstances. You should ask it.”

“What?”

“You should ask your question.”

I blinked. I likely blushed. “I don’t have any questions.”

Dirva stirred the food, but kept his gaze pinned on me. “If you have no questions then there is little I can do for you as a mentor. Curiosity is a virtue, so say the wise.”

“The wise say curiosity, in moderation and used with tact, is a virtue.”

He frowned slightly. “Just ask it. Whatever it is, just ask it.”

“There’s nothing to…” He looked at me again. I laughed erratically, nervously, and he frowned a little more. “I have…I have just a little question for you. I guess. You don’t have to answer it. I didn’t ask because…I don’t know…it struck me that the answer might be personal? I didn’t want to pry. There’s no reason for me to even know the answer, whatever it is, and…”

“Ariah. Please, just ask it,” he said, turning his attention back to the stove.

So I asked it. “Is that…is that the actual Reader? The original?”

“Yes.”

My mouth fell open. “How?”

“How what?”

“How is it here?”

“Where there are borders and guards, there are also smugglers, Ariah,” said Dirva. “It was smuggled to me.”

“It must have cost a fortune.”

“I am sure it cost quite a lot to smuggle it, yes, but it cost me nothing. It was a gift.” He turned away from me. He opened his mouth to change the topic.

And I couldn’t let him do it. My heart thudded against my ribs. I had to know. “Is that you? Are you The Reader?”

He froze. His eyebrows knit together, then he sighed and looked over. “Your father is an artist. He mentioned that. You know about art. Yes. It’s me.” He pulled the skillet off the stove and emptied the contents into a bowl. He gestured at the table and laid out flatbread for each of us. I sat across from him and scooped up some of the potatoes and peppers in a bit of flatbread. They had been spiced with something uncommon in the Empire, which was not bad, but was unfamiliar. I couldn’t help but stare at him. It was him, undeniably him, but he had none of the magnetism or quiet enthusiasm of the figure in the painting. The sharpness was there, the quickness, but in the painting, as a boy not much older than myself, he looked happy. Across the table, as a man approaching middle age, he seemed mostly irritable. How did one grow into the other?

“Please don’t stare,” he said. His eyes flicked up at me when he said it. I tried to stop, but I couldn’t quite do it. I resorted to staring at him from the corner of my eye while pretending to be very much interested in the floor. He let out a short, impatient noise. “It is me. Yes, I know the painter. I trained in the City of Mages, and I knew Liro when I was young. He sent me this painting some years ago. Please don’t ask me why he did such a fool thing. He was always prone to grand gestures. I do not follow art closely, but I know enough to know that, if word got out it was here, I would be very quickly robbed. Please don’t say anything to anyone about it. Do not write of it in your letters to your father, for example. I do not want to be robbed. Do you have any other questions?”

I stopped chewing. I swallowed. I felt vaguely sheepish. I cut a quick glance at the painting, just visible through the doorway, then back at him. “Just one.”

He flicked one hand at me, dismissively, irritably, and rested his forehead in the palm of his other hand. “Ask.”

“I’ve always wondered. What are you reading? In the painting, what book is it that you’re reading?”
Dirva looked up at me. “That’s your question?”

“Yes?”

“That is an odd question.”

“Well, it’s, uh . . . it’s my question.”

Dirva smiled. He stood up from the table and went into the other room. I followed closely at his heels. He studied the painting and began to laugh. “I’ve never looked. You know in all these years, I never looked. It could have been anything. It’s not really a book.” He covered his mouth with his hand and looked over at me. His eyes were bright; they crinkled happily at the edges. It brought out a warmth in him that I had not thought he had. When he looked at me like that, conspiratorial, surprised, that was when I began to trust him. That’s when he became my mentor, and I became his student. He laughed again. “I am not proud of this. I can’t believe he painted me like this. That’s not a book. That’s my brother’s diary. I’d stolen it. I used everything I read in there to get under his skin. He never knew I read it.”