book promotion, Literary Agents, publishing

The Heart of the Matter.

images-2.jpg

A piece on Scribophile asks an important question:

_________________________________

Yesterday, I went to my first ever writer’s conference. It gave me my first exposure to meeting an agent face-to-face in a “speed date” of 10 minutes. I delivered my pitch. She cut me down to a stump with one question:

“Okay, so I get that you have _____, and you have _____, but, like, what’s your one thing that’s going to make me want to read this book?”

I stared at her stupefied for a moment. I wasn’t able to give the agent an answer that made her go, “Oh, wow. Yes! Please send me that book. I have to find out about that.”

She asked a simple, direct question that cut to the quick: this is a woman with not enough time for anyone, and yet she’s contemplating — maybe — adding a person to her client list, if she thinks the burden is worth it. She already puts in intensive hours working for her existing clients and poring over hundreds of other submissions. What makes me the needle in the haystack? Why am I so goddamn special?

_________________________________

This is the question I have for the hoards of books touted on Facebook. There are a thousand paranormal romances out there. There are a thousand of everything. And I already have stacks – hell, mountains – of books waiting to be read. Why should I devote my time to yours?

The answer, as far as my own thing is concerned, would be: for super-imaginative fun delivered with merry wise-ass style.

Were I to encapsulate the many joys of the renowned series of naval adventures by Patrick O’Brian (that currently enthrall me), I would say, A beguiling interplay of complex characterization, adventure with a touch of mystery, and a mind-blowing knowledge of the sea. I am mesmerized!

What about you? What would be your Heart-of-the-Matter response?

 

Advertisements
Standard
Uncategorized

A Poem by Margaret Cavendish, who I adore.

images.jpg

I discovered her by chance at work, in one of the thousands of books I’ve worked on there. That job is a goldmine for me.

You may or may not know that I draw heavily upon Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, called the first female scientist, as a role model for Sly’s scientific writing. She liked to publish her theories on natural philosophy in the form of poems and fantasy fiction. My cat does the same.

I have just stumbled on this light-hearted poem in one of those massive surveys of literature. Wow! Perfect for me. It will make it a preface to my novel, or a dedication, something up front, to set the tone of the story from the get-go.

I’m a fool for this woman, I love her to death. Yeah, I’m digging myself deeper into unreadability, I know it. All right, maybe I’ll keep this my private joke.

But, maybe not.

____________________________________________

Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673)

An Apology for Writing So Much upon This Book*

 

Condemn me not, I make so much ado

About this book; it is my child, you know.

Just like a bird, when her young are in the nest,

Goes in, and out, and hops, and takes no rest:

But when their young are fledg’d, their heads out-peep,

Lord! What a chirping does the old one keep!

So I, for fear my strengthless child should fall

Against a door, or stool, aloud I call;

Bid have a care of such a dangerous place:

Thus write I much, to hinder all disgrace.

____________________________________________

* This poem appeared at the beginning of all three editions of Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies, published during her lifetime in 1652, 1664, and 1668.

____________________________________________

I strongly recommend you read history. The fabulous things you find! (That you can twist to your heart’s content.)

I have another – naughty! – idea, lifted from another great book: The History of Perfume. My husband is horrified, forbids me to use it. I, naturally, think it’s hilarious.

OK, he doesn’t forbid me, he knows that’s useless. I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. This is too sweet not to explore. He felt the same way about the priest and the Virgin-Mary-role-playing whore. I believe he’s on board with that now. Or, he sees he’s fighting a losing battle and has given up.

 

Standard
Uncategorized

Wise words from John Le Carré

51aYJxFzCBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

John Le Carré says: ‘You can’t actually make a character without putting something of yourself into each one. Smiley will always be that bit older and wiser than me.’

And: ‘I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it.’

What an interesting observation! I can use that thought somewhere in my own story. This will trigger something good.

I put a whole lot of myself into my characters, especially my neurotic tendencies. And, my dysfunctional family history. I have to laugh when I read about writers making up charts for their characters, likes and dislikes, hair color, all that. I know my guys as well as I know myself.

OK, the down side of this is, an editor told me, ‘Your characters all sound like each other, and they all sound like you.’ I’ve tried to correct that, but, here’s the thing: Almost all my characters are operators, con artists to one degree or another. They’re all up to something. And the ruffians all present a false front. Therefore, aside from the kids, I have some leeway with the kids, they are all well-spoken. I suppose they could lapse into their natural usage in private, but that would be even more confusing. I’m trying to make my voices more distinct. I refuse to resort to accents. Accents, if not well and sparingly done, are hokey as hell.

As for eye color, etc., I give little physical description in my story. I am more interested in who my fools are than in what they look like. I’m trying to add in more physical also. Perhaps describing my bake shop cutie as a moist little muffin isn’t quite enough.

Now, I get that some stories are plot-driven. Spy stories certainly fall into this category. But from Le Carré’s comment, I would guess that he has endowed his hero with more than usual (for a thriller) humanity, and I would also guess (haven’t read him) that this has played a large part in his magnificent success.

I believe in writing a character alive, then turning him loose. My people don’t dance to my tune, I dance to theirs. That gets tricky. It’s not an approach I recommend. But it’s the way I think. Non-linear, to an extreme.

At any rate, to find it difficult to remember happiness. There would be many-many reasons for that. I could build a whole book around that idea.

Maybe I already have.

Standard
Uncategorized

Our August Challenge: Trompe L’oeil.

From Perry Palin:

The canvas was Jean’s largest. It was his best. He had studied the park bench facing away toward the walking path, the gray surface of the path, and the low grassy slope beyond the path. He studied how the trees met the sky, their branches hanging with the weight of their leaves. He painted the bench and the path, and the grass and leaves in their end of summer hues and shapes, the maples dark green, the birches just turning yellow. He painted the sunlight of a summer afternoon. He painted two birds flying, one leading, one following, that soared when seen from changing angles. On the bench he painted two figures, a young man and a young woman, sitting inches apart. His arm rests on the back of the bench, wanting to wrap around the woman. His face is turned toward her. He is leaning toward her, his lips slightly parted. The woman is looking slightly downward and toward the park. Her blond hair is pinned up on her head. She is wearing a blue flowered dress.

An artist without income and without prospects, Jean had not dared to speak to Sophie of his love. The canvas below Sophie‘s window was his first declaration of his love for her. Jean pulled the canvas quietly into place on its wheeled frame, adjusted the left strut for the proper angle, and hid the wheels with their own grassy covers. Jean waited unseen for Sophie to come to her window.

Sophie rose from her table and began to clear her dishes. The sight of two figures on the park bench made her turn. People sat so seldom on the bench. She looked out and stopped in the middle of a breath. It was Jean, on the left, his clear profile, the handsome face, unmoving, in love with the woman on the bench. He was waiting for the woman to speak. The woman, blond and slender, in a blue dress like one of hers, was relaxed and receptive to Jean’s attention. Her shoulders asked him to pull her in. Sophie could not see the woman’s face, but she could see that Jean loved this woman who was more beautiful than Sophie believed herself to be. Sophie turned away from the window and sat at her table. Then she cried.

__________________________________________

Atthys Gage:

Tromp L’oeil

Darius Pomerantz. Dash to his friends. Official title:  the Dream Master.  A weak handshake and an avuncular smile. A thin man. Turn sidewise and he’d disappear. No, not really. Just relax awhile, Mr. Billings. This is the easy part.

He fusses, while you lie back on the cool, squeaky leather chair, fully reclined. You’ll fall asleep. It’s expected. With all the wires—temples, clavicles, pineal gland—you don’t think so, but peace becomes involuntary. Dash hums a soft tune. Schubert, maybe. The tune dances maddeningly on the precipice of memory, but won’t drop.

Any allergies?

No, no. It’s all there on the med form. Sleep is coming, with a shudder, with a gasp. Just over there, behind that shadow, a scrim fills with soft light. Memory, melody, member me. All your dreams and then some, like the blurb said. Dreams Incarnate. Incorporated.

Just let go.

Mr. Billings? Roger? Time to wake up.

His voice is a sweet, descending singsong. Your eyes blink open, and he’s smiling that same smile. Mr. Big. The Dream Master. Everything under control.

How long?

About four hours. Right on the tippy top of the bell curve. And…he gestures broadly at nothing…everything went swimmingly.

He holds up a disk, about silver dollar size. Transparent? No, but incredibly thin. When the light catches, it’s a solid thing. Otherwise, it winks in and out of existence, as if Darius Pomerantz is doing sleights and passes like a dinner theater magician.

He holds it still. This is you. Opaque. Non-reflective. A miracle of modern technology. All your dreams and then some.

He laughs. Hardly miraculous, of course but the ad men like to call it that. Really, all we’ve done is accessed your own dream world, your own fantasies, and restructured them into interactive algorithms, a Mendez Agenda we call it in the biz. You can read all the technical details if you want to.

I…while I…I don’t really remember…

Your dreams? Don’t worry. Dream recall for most people is spotty at best. But with this—again he flashes the disk—you will. And…you’ll be able to interract with them in a whole new way. The experience…well, seeing is better than telling, right? Do you want to try it out?

Lights dim. The chair reclines. All the wires are gone from your skin, but something new has been added. A small incision, already sutured. Beneath a delicate touch, a tiny nodule.

The servo. Soon, you won’t even notice it.

You don’t sleep. Or maybe you do. Breath swells the wrinkled membrane, a quivering skinful, in, out. Press your face against the translucence and suddenly, you’re inside. Reality.

Mr. Billings? Roger?

Is it…over?

As soon becomes apparent, you can live a lifetime in one billiable hour. Or, it can vanish like a half-remembered thought. So you go again. As soon as possible. You pay a little more, they let you stay a little longer.  Damn! The first time I was plugged in, I was gone! I never wanted to come out. Food, water—hell, breathing! Nothing mattered but the dream. Once a day, twice a day. Can I stay overnight?

I’m sorry, sir. We close at six.

Well just plug me in and let it run. I don’t care.

But it didn’t work that way. They had the disk. They had control. The technology was theirs. For a while, they toyed with selling a home version, but where was the long term profit in that? Imagine all those plugged-in dream junkies, wasting away, dead to the world. At least until the power gets turned off. Then what? Better to control the source. Keep the revenue flowing.

This is the real world now, Roger. The whole round world.

There is the real and there is the true. Unfortunately, you can no longer tell the difference.

All your dreams. All your dreams. All your dreams.

And then?

__________________________________________

Carl E. Reed:

Road Runner screeched to a vibrating halt in front of the train tunnel’s mouth, then neatly stepped aside.

Hard on the bird’s heels and going about a hundred mph, Wile E. Coyote slammed into the side of the mountain.

“Beep-beep!” quoth Road Runner.

Wile E. Coyote slid down the rock face to the ground, furry body now thin as a pancake.

The gaping black hole of the tunnel’s mouth was an illusion: Tromp l’oeil.

But who painted it there?! No time to think or reflect; new hijinks were scheduled in five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .

Beep-beep!”

Road Runner raced off.

__________________________________________

Mimi Speike:

“Home sweet home,” said Dee as the coach pulled up to the entrance of a low, sprawling structure.

“Impressive!” pronounced his traveling companion. “The cunning juxtaposition of diverse architectural styles, artistry itself.”

“You are kind. Most say ramshackle.”

A man rushed forth to collect baggage dropped from the roof rack of the carriage with a thud.

“More books, Dr. Dee?” asked Seth Sutcliffe, Dee’s butler, grounds-keeper, and general handyman. He was one half of a caretaker couple, Seth’s wife being cook and maid of all work.

“I can’t wait to see your library!” whispered Sly.

“In good time, dear boy, in good time. First, some refreshment. Seth,” he called over his shoulder, “does Beth have something tasty for us?”

The retainer and the coachman, a few steps behind, were lugging four heavy grips down the walk.

“As always, sir, as always.”

“We’ll settle ourselves in the Green Room. Put the books in the hall. I’ll unpack them presently.”

“What treasures have you snatched up this trip, sir?”

“Some real finds, I assure you.”

Sly tugged at Dee’s pants leg and hissed, “your library! I must poke my nose in, just a brief snoop. Please, don’t make me wait. Here I be, within steps of the largest private library in England, and you want me to eat? This is torture.”

“Seth! What’s Beth got for us?”

“A lovely plate of cold mutton, sir.”

The cat made a face. “I ate mutton for ten years, till it came out my ears. You got nothing else?”

“How about eggs? You eat eggs, don’t you?”

“In a pinch,” sighed Sly.

“Seth, ask Beth to rustle up a platter of her special Eggs Savannah.”*

“The library,” pleaded the cat.

Dee bent down. “Patience, son, patience. First, I’ll explain a few things. Your admiration of me is misguided. I am not the man you believe me to be.

“When I won the post of Royal Astrologer, I sold off inherited land and spent with abandon. I thought the celebrity would result in the world beating a path to my door. I went all out, on furnishings, expansions. The crowds never came. I have a trickle of trade. I claw just enough out of them to make do.

“Séances are my bread and butter. You will be an asset to me in the endeavor, listening in on hushed conversations, then passing me prompts, in the form of notes. My undeniable clairvoyance will finally lure the high and well-heeled to my doorstep.

“I have not funds to maintain this property. I exploit the shabbiness as part of my marketing effort. I excuse my threadbare rugs by bragging on my library. New carpet? Faugh! Every cent I lay my hands on goes for rare books.”

“Absolutely! I share the impulse, believe me. I must see them. Now! Please!”

“I am hanging on by my fingernails. I have my Spirit Room, I call it, in the east wing. I shoo my guests past the cracked door of my library, they get to snatch the merest peek. Seth stands the door, no one is let in. Just inside, I have tables piled high with volumes, along with cunning busts and vases. The fools ooh and aah over the staged magnificence and beg a closer look. Now, now, I chide them. You are here for a consultation, are you not? I will open my reading room another time.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” asked Sly.

“See for yourself,” sighed Dee. He led the way to his legendary librarium. Near the threshold were conventionally disposed shelves. The far wall, floor to ceiling, was fitted with shallow ledges, sufficient depth to display trinkets for added realism, behind which displayed a mural of books, thousands of books painstakingly depicted, highly decorative, but a cruel ruse to break a book-lover’s heart.

/////////////////////

Sly has discovered the truth. He’s crestfallen. He’s struggling to wrap his wits around the situation. If he could cry he’d be bawling his head off.

“What is this?” he shrieks. “You buy books right and left. It’s known all over Europe. The satchels we lately transported, full of books, so you announced to everyone from Grayson Manor to here.”

Dee snorts. “Wrack and Ruin, those malicious devils, are forever stalking me. I do what I may to keep the bastards at bay.” He unlocks one of the secured satchels sitting just outside the door and opens it wide. It is packed, not with books, but with rocks. “Part of my myth-making, I’m afraid. I am desperate to maintain a façade. I am the book-obsessed genius pronosticator oblivious to run-down surroundings; my priorities lie elsewhere.”

“When,” asked the cat, “when did you have time to paint this massive artwork? I observe astounding attention to detail, mottled spines, precise lettering. It was a Herculean task.”

“The mural,” replied Dee, “is, in fact, a bas relief, slabs of wood adhered to paneling. I tote brushes, pens, and paint with me on my frequent business trips. I travel extensively, as you know. When I encounter a book shop, I explore, take notes, and make sketches of my objects of desire, and create my facsimiles as a pleasant – and inexpensive – evening’s entertainment. And it keeps me out of the taprooms, a boon to my health.”

“You are,” squealed Sly, “as much an oddment as I am. We have a true rapport, I see it already. May it prove advantageous for the both of us.”

“Yes, you and I will get along well, I have no doubt of it. I only hope you get along with Hugin and Mugin.”

Who are Hugin and Mugin?”

“No, the question should rather be, will Hugin and Mugin get along with you?”

“Dr. Dee! Who are Hugin and Mugin?”

TO BE CONTINUED.

////////////////////

* The joke behind Eggs Savannah will be explained in the comments. This runs too long already.

__________________________________________

Curtis Basse:

A few minutes later, another woman came in and sat down. Janet nodded hello and went back to her notes. What was it now she’d just thought of? Something about –

‘Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?’

Janet studied her. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Do you live in Cheltenham by any chance?’

‘Why, yes. You too?’ Janet still couldn’t place her. ‘What part?’

‘Lynworth.’ The woman smiled. ‘The school run, perhaps. Your daughter goes to Oakwood?’

Janet thought she knew all the parents, at least by sight. A vague unease began to trouble her. Who was this woman? Was it pure coincidence that they’d met here? Or something more sinister?

No, not coincidence. She’d never seen the woman before, so how could it be?

‘I’m sorry, I just… I’m usually quite good with faces but I… You’re saying you’ve seen me with my daughter at Oakwood?’

‘You and Amelia, yes. She’s in Year 4’

The woman sat with perfect poise, her presence filling the room, while Janet, muddled and upset, shrank into her chair. She made an attempt to reassert herself. ‘I’m sorry, what’s your name?’

Just at that moment, the door opened and a secretary announced, ‘Mrs. Bowman? The arbitrator will see you now.’

Janet hurriedly put her pen and notebook into her bag and stood up.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the secretary ‘Mrs. Bowman’s appointment was first.’

Janet opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came.

‘It was nice to get a chance to speak. I do hope we meet again.’ And addressing Janet a cursory nod, the woman strode through the door.

Standard
Uncategorized

The Five Stages of (Review) Grief.

Charles_Reade.jpg

Our goal here is to discuss, not to review, but reviews are on my mind. I’m going to tell you where to read my novella. I don’t have to know if you read it. (No pressure of any kind.) Anyone who is curious, it’s up. I am going to take another look at the first few chapters, but the rest is pretty well set. The plot dissolves into speculation at the end; this is a teaser for Book One.

I had many reviews on Book Country that knocked me for a loop, for a good long while. From then to now, I have not changed my approach, except to get more extreme. Oh, and I added more activity. I saw the light in that area.

How do I, how do we all, deal with criticism? We go through a process very similar to the so-called Five Stages of Grief.

ONE. Stage one is denial: These remarks are wrong-wrong-wrong.

Denial helps us to survive the blow. We are in a state of shock. We go numb. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. Denial and shock help us to cope. Denial is a way of letting in only as much as we can handle. But flat denial breaks down fast. Any reasonable person has to admit fairly quickly that there must be a spot of truth to any criticism.

TWO. Anger, or at least annoyance, is inevitable.

The more you examine it, the more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate. There are many other emotions in conjunction with anger, notably pain. Anger is a motivator.

THREE. We move on to bargaining.

We try to appreciate another point of view. If we’re wise, we look for any ideas we can use.

FOUR. We may feel depression.

We wonder, perhaps, if there is any point in continuing a project with, apparently, so many flaws. Hence my long periods of inactivity on my novel.

FIVE. Acceptance.

Our perspective has been forever changed and we must readjust; we move, we grow, we evolve.

We here all have the tools of the trade in hand. Everyone’s first reaction is to defend his/her child. I am still struggling to see other points of view from years ago. (I have saved all my reviews, and I study them.) It’s not that I don’t believe the objections, it’s rather that I don’t see them myself, for this particular piece. Or maybe it’s that I conceive of my thing as an entirely different kind of story than you do. And that is my right, that is our right, to choose what kind of story we tell. Action, characterization, description, how much emphasis do we give to each? My style is a throwback to nineteenth century fiction, and I feel it is in keeping with the subject matter. I love flavorful description for its own sake, and I am more interested in what my characters think of events than the events themselves. I know this is not a formula for a popular success.

I set my heart on eventually gaining a cult following, like Amanda McKittrick-Ros. I will not have an immediate success, like she did. In the nineteen twenties, London high society gave McKittrick-Ros parties, in which one was asked to dress as one of her people and to speak in character. She was quite the rage, thanks to the captivating awfulness of her prose. My success will come years hence, after I’m six feet under, or blowing in the wind. My heart will not be broken by my thing falling into the bottomless pit that is Amazon, never to be heard of again.

The five stages of review grief should bring you to a place in which you are at peace with your choices, where criticism does not upend you, and where you are not defensive, but eager to hear opposing views, they may help you make your piece even better.

If you are of a mind to, read my novella at: myguysly.wordpress.com

The display will change. For one thing, I want a format with sidebars. I want to be able to have pull-quotes. And more graphics, of different configurations. And I will give each chapter its own page; for now it runs together.

If you feel you must, email me at mimispeike@att.net

I am not looking for a response. I mean that. For better or worse, for richer or poorer (probably poorer), I am happy with what I’ve got.

The graphic is of Charles Reade, who has a following one-hundred-fifty years on, despite being called (with good reason, make no mistake) a second-rate author. I am one of his ardent supporters.

 

 

 

 

Standard
Uncategorized

On websites and social media.

I believe we need to have a strong on-line presence in the form of, not a general blog, but a site dedicated to a product. But here are comments from some who disagree with me:

This question was posed on Scribophile:  

At what point does engaging in yet another platform actually sell any books?

Scribophile > “Depends what you use the platform for. DeviantArt has a lot of webcomic artists on there, and they gain a huge number of fans by posting serious artwork and drawings and funny mini-comics and the like for a few years first. They build up interest to the work before the work ever gets posted, so there’s already an audience waiting to suck up the actual story.”

(This is what I had in mind for my Wix site. But my conception got way too complicated, it got away from me. I am going to use a template-based WordPress site as my intro site, and continue to work on the Wix one.)

Scribophile > “I don’t think that your social media presence is really going to result in selling more books. I think it improves your chances for getting represented or published. I use Instagram to promote my art and writing. I participate in month-long writing and drawing challenges.

“Engaging on Facebook and Twitter drives some blog traffic for me. I have a books page on my blog, so people who have come to look at my article/interview or whatever link they clicked on can then see what I write. But it’s more a case of raising my profile out of obscurity than selling loads of books.

“Imagine selling your book is like having a storefront. You can wait for people to walk by, walk in and buy something. It happens. But what if you also participated in community events, fairs, and neighborhood parties? That’s what social media is. A means to get even a little bit more attention in an overcrowded marketplace.

“The key is to find the outlet where your readers/buyers are most likely to be hanging out and then give them a good reason to go to your store.”

Scribophile > Someone here somewhere agrees with me. He/she is strongly opposed to a marketing site being primarily a personal blog, but I can’t find that comment at the moment.

Yes, you can talk about a range of topics, but let them relate to your story. (Anyone who reads my footnotes in Sly will see that I am able to relate almost anything to my story.)

______________________________________________

So, there are two schools of thought here.

One > Display your general style and sensibility, seduce readers into trying your book.

Two > Subtlety be damned, the focus should be on the book, not your rambling thoughts.

There’s a third approach. One guy wants you to be his writing coach: “Based on my experience as a long time reader, never. It’s like some myth. I go to author’s blogs for writing tips, not to buy their books.”

Here’s my opinion:

> Engage on a variety of social sites, if you have the energy, to (try to) get attention.

> Have a website that features your product(s). Chat also, but don’t have that be the focus of your message. Soft sell by the grace of prose pulled from your novel(s). Be spontaneous in introductions/ sidebars/wrap-up comments.

> Here’s the advantage to this: Updates are easy. Change a paragraph, add a graphic. No pressure to freshen your page top to bottom. Your book is your book is your book.

The bad thing about that is, if a reader looks at your presentation and dismisses it, he will not return to find a second book, or a third. So be entertaining as hell in your supplemental material. Be surprising, be insightful, be outrageous. Give a browser reason to think you might eventually have something for him.

 

 

 

Standard
Uncategorized

Monday, Monday.

It’s Monday, and nothing’s up. Problem solv-ed!

Here’s chapter one of The Rogue Decamps. 

ONE: A FINE KETTLE OF FISH.

The stair was steep, without a comfortable footing for a man with long dogs. There had once been a wooden railing hooked into the wall but, this egress largely forgotten, unmaintained, it had years back fallen away. It was lit by three slits of grille from above, but the lowered sun failed to illuminate the stairwell to any useful degree. Sly, with his better vision, had begged to precede, to coach the escape – broken step here, sir – but the old man had charged ahead.

Sly had followed his embattled superior down to a door providing easy access to serene formal gardens. They’d spent the best part of the afternoon in a close chamber with a panel of officials, until the embattled recipient of earnest counsels and irritated exhortations had leapt up exclaiming Umeak! Isilik oiloak pixa egin arte! (Children! Be quiet until the chickens pee!)1 He’d turned and bolted without any hint of intention to his stunned assistant. Sly had rushed after him, trailing the fugitive down a long corridor to a cul-de-sac harboring a hidden door. Before a search party reached them the two had vanished, leaving pursuers scratching their heads.

They’d negotiated the descent quietly, and slipped out into a jewel-like landscape, bursts of early blooms everywhere. The recently woken garden was normally a source of delight for both of them but they were too agitated to pay it heed. Sly knew well – too well – what to expect. Lately, any unpleasantness kicked up the same well-litigated dispute.

Batten the hatches, boy, he told himself. You’re in for a real blow this time. Keep your trap shut. Smile. Nod. Get through it.

“Lord On High,”2 he groaned. “Enough upset for one day. No more, please.” He tried a diversionary tactic, a string of acidic quips assessing the intellects of those they’d been sparring with. In response, he got a variety of mirthless snorts.

In his best nothing-fazes-me voice he exclaimed, “Sir! This is a bad business. We must ponder a response, certainly, but I’m not up to it just now. Let’s shrug off this sour mood and enjoy what’s left of a beautiful day. We’ll go at it tomorrow. What do you say?”

The old man tramped sullenly along the brickwork path. Behind a dense hedge the graybeard bent low, one hand cupped on one knee to steady himself nose to nose with his diminutive associate, the other clutching his cloak tight at his throat. His thin lips were contorted in a deep frown. “Look here,” he spat. “You would abandon me to those fat-heads? I refuse to believe it.”

Poorly braced, the hunched form tettered, but his underling did not back off. Although small of stature, nowhere near the other’s heft, he disdained to act on a very reasonable anticipation of personal injury. He was focused on making his point.

“Let me slip away,” he hissed. “It’s all my fault. Those fools are in revolt against me, not you. The most of them are good men. I am willing to assign them the least foul of motives; they are fearful. You and I have been too flagrant in our unnatural association. The sudden accord of ones normally at each others’ throats is the closest they dare come to a bald rebuke. Once I’m out of the picture they’ll revert to their fractious ways, for this proposal is, unquestionably, indecent.”

“Don’t leave me!” begged the anguished ancient. He lurched toward a stone bench, collapsed onto it, and buried his face in his hands. “Holy Mother,” he moaned, “steel my spine, as you did that of my distant relation, the Friar of Carcassonne.”3

Sly dipped his head in a halfhearted show of respect. “A fine kettle of fish,” he muttered. “The spark,” he growled, “emboldened by some exchange with your silly son, feels he has an ally there.”

“Impossible! Bittor despises him.”

“Be that as it may, the rascal sees his star rising. This stunt is a declaration of newfound sway. Why else would he tip his hand? Stealth would seem to be essential.

“Now, part of me says he was trying to get your goat. He loves to bait you, we know that. Take his threat seriously and he’ll be delighted. Confound him. Laugh it off. Look the other way.“

Part of you says! What does the rest of you say?”

“Please, don’t blow your top over an observation. It’s a damn ingenious idea. There’s big money to be made, if he can pull it off. We would do well to assume the worst. I’ll poke around, see what I can dig up.”

“I must talk to Bittor about it.”

“Do no such thing. It was a jest, that’s your stance. You have better things to worry about. Haven’t you longed to be rid of M. d’Ollot for years? Give the idiot his free rein. I’ll keep an eye on him and intervene as necessary. I have my own nasty ways and you know it.”

“Do I not!” moaned the grizzard.4

“I can’t predict the exact nature of my disruption but whatever happens, you need not fear retaliation, neither from rat-face nor from your lady-fair. No blame will be laid at your door. I’ll see to that.”

“No blame? What do I say to Saint Peter, standing sentry on the door to Joy Eternal, when the inevitable hour overtakes me?”

“Let’s not dig into that bucket of worms, please. I’ve had my fill of nonsense for one day.”

“Your fill? Of nonsense? That’s rich! You, with your ideas! That I always listen to respectfully, do you dare deny it?”

Sly did dare deny it, but he thought best to keep mum.

“By the way, thanks so much for your intervention earlier! What would I have done without it?”

Sly had sat side-by-side with Jakome, fixing each speaker in turn with a single wide accusatory eye. That and a sneering twist to the corner of his mouth had unsettled them quite spectacularly. His friend had not understood the reason for the frozen faces for a good while. He’d thought it due to a masterful counterpoint, and had congratulated himself on his lithe rebuttal.

“Belief shared by millions, nonsense? Simon Peter, nonsense?” The old man was turned red in the face. “I’ll tell you what the Cephas will say!” he screamed. “He’s not called Rock for nothing. Play dumb, you say, while d’Ollot is merry inciting a crime beyond contemplation. Peter will condemn me on the spot. You saw to your own interests? You looked the other way while faith was mocked? Worse, you failed to hinder the corruption of the innocents? Begone, scoundrel. No, my oh-so-clever friend. No! I will not tolerate the deviltry. Never!”

The wailed remonstrance brought attendants running. Sly lay low in a swath of greenery as his companion raged and shook a fist at the cloud-strewn expanse of blue, the perhaps observant, possibly occasionally responsive celestial space widely rumored to be the safe harbor, after the storm-tossed sea of life, commonly known as heaven. 5

_____________________________________________________________________

Attendants! Is the wobble an inmate of an asylum? You will think so when I tell you that he’s been talking to a cat. But Jakome is no ordinary sad-sack. He’s a king, I’m afraid, a not terribly effective one. He’s a gentle soul. He hasn’t a ruthless bone in his body. That’s not good when you’re king, not good at all.

Jak was not the monarch he’d been, and what he’d been had never been impressive. Always timid, he had become alarmingly withdrawn. His new habit was to brush long bangs into his eyes, using the heavy crown to hold the fringe in place, to conceal the panic that pinched his brow whenever he was forced to speak officially.6

The man feared to give his opinion on any matter of importance until the cat hopped onto his lap, whereupon the two would seem to confer. His adherents held that a beleaguered old wreck took comfort from the presence of a beloved pet and played at confiding in it. Others insisted it was a way to humiliate favor-seekers and annoy adversaries. A few attempted to call it circumspection. His enemies used the term dotty freely, but privately, among themselves.

If the conduct were a strategy, it demonstrated no unifying principle. It could not realistically be branded judicious temporizing, nor cunning dissimulation, nor, as much as one wished to believe it, an unremarkable royal fatuity. (Royal fatuity, in those days, encompassed some outrageous behavior.)

His advisors concurred that he was unfit to rule, but they propped him on the throne. The son would, by all indications, be far harder to manage.

Chapter Notes

  1. A Basque proverb, meaning shut up, and stay shut up. Chickens, birds in general, do not pee and poop separately. They plop, as we can readily see on our windshields.
  2. A figure of speech. Do not take it as a statement of belief.
  3. Bernard Délicieux, aka the Friar of Carcassonne, battled the corruption of the twelfth century church, in a region not far from my imaginary Haute-Navarre.
  4. He’s a grizzled old man with a long, scrawny neck, a bit buzzard-like. He’s a grizzard, for my money.
  5. Sly’s view, and a source of considerable contention between the two. He is a staunch humanist, in other words, an atheist. An adorable atheist, I promise.
  6. I have extracted phrases from here and there for decades, adding them to my word file. I never jotted attributions. (I never thought my story publishable.) I am cobbling credits as best I can. Using the heavy crown is one of my snatches, I couldn’t tell you where it’s from if my life depended on it.
Standard