Friday, June 19, 2015

The First Chapter of the Black Feather

If you keep something long enough you'll always return to it. The first novel I wrote was  a fantasy called The Black Feather. I wrote it when I was an agnostic searching for God. I was also in an extreme state of reaction against the modern world. I was much more right-wing when I wrote this book than I am now! As far as I remember, I never even sent it to any publishers, it seemed so amateurish.

The inspiration of the book was the realization that, in works of fantasy, I tended to find the Dark Lord more attractive than the goodies. I wanted to write a book that tried to see things from the point of view of your typical Dark Lord. The story follows the conflict between a Republic which represents freedom, progress, equality, rationalism-- all the things I hated at this point in my reaction! The Empire of the Spider King represents tradition, hierarchy, authority, deference, unquestioning loyalty-- all that I was panting for, but that are generally stigmatized in imaginary fictional worlds.

It goes without saying (I hope!) that I got past this phase. One of the things that the Catholic faith did for me was to free me from being a reactionary. Reaction is a dead end; simply the flip side of progressivism. Truth is timeless.

I will continue with the story if anyone wants me to.

Chapter One

Beginnings are an afterthought; I remember using that sentence in a history debate when I was fourteen. I was always trying to capture truth in a clever phrase. Perhaps it was not entirely my own fault; if my elders had not marvelled at every glib aphorism that fell from my lips, I would possibly have grown up less arrogant.
    But I was right; beginnings are an afterthought. We only learn about our own   births years after the fact, and ancient monuments lie forgotten for milennia  before being dug up and hailed as venerable. Plagues devastate societies before we have time to wonder where they came from, and the lexicographers go scuttling after new words long after the street urchins have grown tired of  them. But polite fictions must be maintained; and since I must begin somewhere, let it be in my seventeenth year, lying in a bedroom of my Uncle Trentor's mansion, morning sunlight pleasant upon my face and the sound of revelry floating up from downstairs. Last night's party was still in session. The party never ended at Uncle Trentor's.
    I was happy, and I knew I was happy. Even in a life as charmed as mine had been, such instants of unproblematic happiness were rare, and to be savoured. I had achieved what I had been dreaming of all my young life; entry into the world-famous Kosomo, the most prestigious and exclusive college in the world. Back then, of course, I wouldn't have used those terms out loud; I would have talked instead about how fortunate I was to study at the feet of the world's foremost men of learning. I doubt that anyone would have been fooled by my attempts at humility.
    Only a fraction of the candidates who sat the Kosomo's entrance examinations were accepted; about sixty from more than a thousand, every year. Even a boy like me, who was used to correcting his tutors and embarassing my examiners, could not assume I would.
    Most of Aarvla's shining figures-- writers, philosophers, artists, generals, statesmen-- had been to the Kosomo in the century since its foundation, but by no means all. Some of the most glittering names had been rejected, and many of them were filled with bitterness about it in later years.
    Those who failed the Kosomo exam were traditionally consoled by a recitation of celebrated names; Veddersen Angmar hadn't made it, and he became the most famous playwright in Aarvlan history, didn't he? I had been dreading that cold consolation for years, and the relief of never having to hear it was hard to exaggerate.
    In a few short weeks, me and my best friend Tiamin would begin five years in the Kosomo. The fact that I had come a few places higher than her in the examination results shouldn't have added to my pleasure. But it did.
    And there was more; at the age of seventeen, I knew that for all my life I would carry the reputation of a war hero. Less than a year before, I had been present at the storming of the Spider King's palace, the grand climax of our war with the Saardite Empire. The attack had been the master-stroke of my Uncle Trentor-- General Hoff to his adoring countrymen, the leader of the Aarvlan armed forces. The fact that he led it himself was no surprise to anyone, for all that it was a last-chance assault deep in enemy territory.
    The palace had fallen with virtually no fighting, since most of the defenders had been lulled out by some masterful feints on my Uncle's part. With the Spider King's armies closing in on Aarvla itself, nobody expected an assault on the palace. But with the death of the Spider King, his armies fell apart, along with the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Aarvla went from being a country on the brink of annihilation, to the strongest power in the world. And I had been there when history had been turned on its head.
    Saying I had been there was saying almost everything. Yes, I had parried some attacks from the Spider King's guards (the most elite soldiers of the Saardite Empire, I liked to remind myself), but that was the extent of my heroism. But who cared about details like that? Could anyone blame me if I lay basking in self-congratulation as well as sunlight, that winter morning of my youth?
       But I was not alone in my jubiliation; the entire Aarvlan Republic had been glowing with our unlikely triumph, ever since the Empire had fallen. Oh, we spoke of caution, and humility before God, and magnanimity towards a conquered enemy. But underneath the pious words, we savoured our triumph, our certainty that providence had chosen Aarvla as its instrument. We were more than a people; we were the sacred rod of freedom.
    For that was the very principle upon which Aarvla had been built; freedom. The Republic had been founded moslty by slaves fleeing bondage, three centuries before my birth. Its population was built from dozens of races, and almost as many religions. Our ancestors were for the most part refugees, escaped convicts, heretics who had fled burning in the name of one god or another. Other nations sneered at our origins; we took a defiant pride in them.
    Aarvla was the only democracy in the world. It was, as our ballads proclaimed, a land that abhorred kingship, nobility, servility, and--more than anything else--slavery. The Spider King had attacked us for the very reason that we harboured the Empire's runaway slaves. Or at least, that was the motive he claimed. Doubtless, the war had been a simple case of an established power attempting to crush a perceived threat. But we happily took him at his word; we were quite satisfied with the role of slavery's scourge.
    I could still hear music floating up from downstairs, along with voices attempting to sing. They had moved on from the lusty war-ballads of hours previously and were now singing nostalgic love-songs. I could just imagine my Uncle Trentor sitting in some corner, unregarded, smiling with gentle amusement at the revelry.
    Uncle Trentor-- General Hoff-- didn't get drunk. I had never seen him intoxicated with any emotion, either. There were depths and fires in those brown eyes-- so gentle and yet so searching-- but they remained sealed up inside his soul. Some generals drank and swore with their soldiers, angling for their devotion. Uncle Trentor kept his own counsel, walking aloof even from his own lieutenants, and every sword-bearer in the Republic was willing to die for him.
    For all my five months' service in the Falcon legions, fellow soldiers had been trying to prise from me some family secrets, some insight into the character of my legendary uncle. They gave up feeling aggrieved at my taciturnity. How could they believe I knew almost as little of the great man's past as they did?
    Yes, he had sat me on his knee, and carried me on his shoulder, and given me fencing instruction from the time I could hold a wooden sword. But through it all, his face had remained a mask of nobility, like the marble busts of it that had appeared all over Aarvla after the fall of the Spider King. He asked me about myself, always; about my mother. She told me he had never cried once as a baby. He asked me about school. He seemed especially interested in my schooling, and would solemnly urge me to work hard at my studies. That was his rather grand term for the lessons of a boy, but he always spoke about me as if I was an adult. He always spoke to me as to another adult. It was for that, and a thousand other reasons, that I loved him.
    When I began to excel academically, Uncle Trentor's eyes would flicker with a hint of pride at news of my prizes and awards. He visited us often, when I was a boy. His visits became much rarer during the darkest years of the Saardite War. But even in the bleakest days, when the future seemed a vision of slave-camps and torched streets, he never showed a hint of anxiety in his face. It was seldom touched by emotion, and never by fear.
    I had some vague understanding that his respect for scholarship was a legacy of his boyhood. My mother had hinted of truancy, and of his falling in with some unsavoury company. But hinting was all she would, or-- I suspected-- could do. She worshipped him-- the entire Republic worshipped him-- but he seemed to have kept his deepest thoughts to himself from his cradle days.
    And now, for all that statues had been erected to him, and babies given his name, he would be sitting forgotten in a nook of his own banqueting hall, while the party pulsed around him. He was a statue himself, and eyes turn from even the most celebrated statue to the world moving around it. I never understood why a man so framed for seclusion would open his doors to society. I wondered if the lavish pension the Republic had voted him was the reason. Uncle Trentor was at home in the camp, and a stranger everywhere else. He had doubtless had no idea what to do with his new-found wealth, except to offer it back to the people.
He never seemed to sleep; a strange trait in a solider, as the ability to snatch slumber in any circumstances was drilled into every trooper.
    I had no trouble sleeping; I had just emerged from eleven hours of deep rest, the taste of wine still in my mouth. Only months before, all of our dreams had been populated by leather-clad invaders, slender blades against the throat, gallows standing in Man Square. Those dreams still came, but morning light banished them, now.
    I was gazing into the limitless, brilliant blue of the morning sky when I heard someone try the door, which I had left unlocked, and step inside.
It was a Saardite. Those wide brown eyes and thick chestnut tresses were unmistakeable.
    Deep within me, the reflex of fear sprung up-- so many years of nightmares were not easily forgotten. Saardites were not an uncommon sight in Aarvla now-- indeed, some of them had fought on our side during the war. Disaffected nobles mostly, who the Spider King had angered or passed over. But this youth did not seem like one of those.
    He was dressed in a simple blue robe and sandals, not the brown leather and chain-mail of a Saardite warrior. But it was his eyes; there was such smouldering intensity in the brown eyes locked on mine that I leapt from the bed and prepared myself for an attack.
    We looked at each other for a few moments. He was smaller than me, but well-built and of an erect and proud bearing. With a smooth motion he reached inside his robe and drew out slim, curved blade. Even in the moment between two beats of my racing heart, I could see it was a murder blade, fashioned to be used once only.
    I lunged for the hand that held the knife. I was the best hand-to-hand fighter in my school-- I was the best at almost everything in my school-- but he dodged me and in a moment quicker than thought, he was holding me face down on the thick wine-coloured carpet, immobilizing me and crushing my wind-pipe. I couldn't breathe, let alone cry out for help.
    Disbelief filled every crevice of my thought. Life had become a medley of joy, after years of fear, and now it was about to end in the most ridiculous fashion. I had been prepared for death on the battle-field, but this; this was absurd. It was all wrong; my soul protested to the world, as it prepared to leave it forever.
    Suddenly the pressure on my throat lifted, and deep intoxicating draughts of air filled my lungs. Colours danced before my eyes, and my mind reeled for some moments. When coherent thought returned, the murder blade was lying on the carpet and I was kneeling on all fours, my chest heaving.
    I looked up as soon as I could manage. The Saardite was kneeling by the window, his hands crossed on his heart in the manner of his people praying. He was murmuring something. I picked up the knife and stepped behind him, but he didn't turn around.
    We were on the fourth floor of the mansion, and there was no way to climb down the steep walls. I should have locked him in and looked for help. Maybe a candidate for the Kosomo develops a deep distrust of the obvious, from years of concocting ingenious theories in debates and examinations. Or maybe I was always reluctant to do the easy thing.
    We stood there for a few minutes, me silently, my assailant murmuring prayers in classical Saardite. Eventually he fell quiet.
    "Why don't you kill me?", he asked after some minutes, in the Aarvlan lingua franca of Kvor. His pronunication was awkward; he was evidently unused to using the language. He did not look around.
    "I don't want to hurt you", I replied in Saardite.
    With unhurried agility, he rose from his knees and turned to face me. He seemed torn between a strange shyness and an urge to explain, to communicate. His eyes kept flinching from my own, but when they met, I felt overwhelmed by the raw passion of his gaze.
    He looked at the murder knife in my hand. "You can put that away", he said, "I could take it from you even now." His flat tone told me he was not boasting. I would have believed him anyway. But I continued to brandish it.
    "Why did you attack me?", I asked.
    He stood against the large arched window, with that uniquely Saardite stance of apparent listlessness. A Saardite warrior was poised for action every waking moment, but looked as listless as a dandy at a party.
    "I didn't attack you. I was offering my knife to you. I wanted you to use it on me."
    It seemed plain to me that he had failed in some mission; his people were solemn observers of oaths, and if he had taken an oath to kill, failure to do so would be all but intolerable to him. But Saardites did not practice suicide. If he was here in my uncle's mansion, he could have had only one target.
    "You were trying to kill General Hoff", I said.
    A pained expression crossed his face, hardly long enough to be seen. "I was".
    "I am astonished you are still alive".
    He looked deep into my eyes, with a strange pleading light in his own. "I never even tried. My heart failed me. My courage failed me".
    I understood him at once. I thought of those brown eyes, of the measureless nobility of my uncle's manner; of how men who had exchanged half a dozen words with him would cut their way through armies at his word.
    "It needs no courage to do evil. The brave and the good are one".
    I saw the light of recognition in his eyes. "Harmedda", he said, "The Armour of Truth". Again he gazed at the floor, as if meditating on the swirls of colour in the carpet. "Harmedda would have planted this knife deep in an enemy's heart".
    Terror was beginning to seep into me, now the shock of this sudden encounter was fading. I was sitting alone with a dimma, a highly trained Saardite assassin. He could kill me at any moment; I could see a struggle going on in those piercing eyes, and its outcome could mean life or death for me.
    Suddenly I thought of the many spoken examinations that I had suffered
through, to qualify for the Kosomo; striving to capture the mercury of the examiner's thoughts, to look at a subject from ten points of view at once, to drum up a watertight argument in a heartbeat. It felt like a matter of life or death at the time. Now it really was.
    A dozen arguments from Saardite philosophy and religion occured to me; I rejected them all. If he felt I was manipulating him, he would make an end of me. I was convinced of it.
    "He is my mother's brother", I told him. Saardite had no word for "uncle"; even parents were a relatively unimportant concept, except in the case of royalty. "He has never killed when he could avoid it. The war is over. The time for killing is gone". I had a hard time keeping the quaver from my voice; this was dangerous territory indeed. "The Amraan has declared an end to it". The Amraan was the regent of the Saar, the Empire's central territory, in the absence of a Spider King.
    "A false Amraan, a puppet of your people", he countered, but not heatedly. "The commands of the Spider King can be revoked only by his successor; a true successor".
    "The Spider King died months ago. He gave you this command himself?"
    He didn't answer me, but said: "I despise you for refusing to kill me. It is not virtue, but weakness. Quoting Harmedda proves nothing".
    "How many people have you killed?".
    "None”, and there was a sort of shock in his voice; a curious thing to hear from a trained killer. I suddenly, desperately, began to hope I might survive this encounter. “We do not kill without good cause, either, and we kill only warriors. But the commands of the Spider King are sacred, as are the commands of those he has authorised. If you do not kill me, another dimma will do the job".
    "They will surely presume you died at our hands, when they hear General Hoff is still alive".
    He said nothing. He only looked at me. Fear still penetrated my ever pore, but I felt he was beginning to listen to me. In those eyes I could see a soul in flux.
    "They sent you on a suicide mission", I said, "a revenge assassination for a lost war. I have never heard of such a thing, in all the annals of Saardite warfare".
    "It seemed strange to me", he conceded. I noticed he was roughly of an age with me; younger, if anything. This was probably his first mission. The anger flared in his eyes, "All of our nobles have been slaughtered, and nobody is left to command properly ."
    This was not a time to be unctuous; the safest way to meet his anger was with anger of my own. "Your nobles ride at the head of your armies", I snarled back. "Of course they died!"
    "We fight in the open", he said. "You fight with whispers and seduction!"
    This had been the Spider King's justification for attacking us, and maybe even his true reason; the claim that we lured the Empire's slaves away from it. The accusation was absurd. The flight of slaves from the Empire into Aarvla had been a hideous embarrassment to the Republic. There had even been a proposal in the College of Voices to deny them entry. For all this would have been a blatant contradiction of the Founding Fathers' words, the resolution had almost been carried. I expected that any future histories of Aarvla would not linger over that detail.
    "Aarvla was dedicated to the refuge of slaves long before our grandfathers were born", I said, already knowing how we would respond to me. These arguments had been repeated over and over again, like the lines of a popular ballad. One of those comic ballads where a drunkard and his shrewish wife are arguing.
    "We have no slaves.”, said the dimma. “We have bondsmen". It was a plausible enough argument, and one that had been made by Aarvlans keen to avert hostilities. Saardite bondsmen were prisoners of war, who had sworn an oath to serve their conquerors. At the edge of a blade, usually, but an oath was an oath to a Saardite. They were treated more humanely than many free men in other parts of the world; the Saardite Empire was a strange hodge-podge of privileges and tyrannies. A peasant could be beheaded for stealing a jug of milk, but sue a noble for an angry word. But the Founding Fathers had won the day; the world, we had reluctantly decided, was divided into the free and the unfree.
    This was getting me nowhere. I handed the murder knife back to the boy. He looked at it inscrutably for a moment, then said, "I have done with that now. It belongs to you. It will never fulfill the purpose for which it was made."
    I went down on my haunches, and slid a canvas overnight bag from under my bed. I wrapped the knife in a silk banner that was folded up in it; the banner I had carried into the Spider Palace, when it captors had returned some weeks later to ceremonially claim it for the Saardite people. And for freedom, of course. I had little doubt but that the assassin would despatch me without thinking, if he knew I had personally assisted in the last Spider King's overthrow.
    "We have been enemies", I said, straightening, "But the war is over. I will never tell anyone of your mission here."
    "I will always aid you, if you request it", he replied. His tone was automatic and none-too-warm, to my momentary confusion. But then I remembered that, by Saardite tradition, a promise was always met by a promise, a threat by a threat.     "My name is Famm Hartai".
    "Solerre Ve Tori", I responded.
    We stood staring at each other, and suddenly I saw a different figure in front of me-- not a master assassin whose life was dedicated to the ending of other lives, but a boy who had lost his world and had nothing to replace it. More; he had spared my uncle's life. I dived down to my ovenight bag again, and produced a rusty green key.
    I was a precocious lad, popular, succesful, privileged. In truth, I was a spoiled brat. I had never truly suffered, except for the suffering that is intrinsic to all human life. Even the privations of the Saardite war had passed me by; all I had known was dire prospects, not the dire realities that others had undergone. And so I lacked that deep sympathy with others that only pain instils. But I also retained a kind of spontaneous, childish benevolence that, for most of my contemporaries, would already have been crushed by the battle of life. And I was used to telling people what to do.
    "My mother owns a cabin in the Dormon forest", I said, "I was headed there in a few weeks, to rest and be alone. You can hole out in it for a while." I threw the key at him, and he caught it deftly, looking down at it clasped in his hand as thoughtfully as if he had never seen a key before.
    I realised that tiresome Saardite sense of honour was troubling him; he was accepting charity, and from an enemy, too. Impatience won out over my fear.
"What kind of gratitude is it", I asked with unfeigned warmth, "to hesitate over an offer hospitably made? Do you value your pride over everything on earth?"
    "You people will never understood pride", he said, but without anger. It hardly sounded like he was talking to me at all, merely stating an inarguable fact.
    "Well, don't be so worried. I can think of many uses for a person of your skills. You will be given plenty of opportunity to repay the debt. Remember what shrewd traders we Aarvlans are". In truth I could think of nothing, and the only thing I knew about trade was hanging around bookstalls, but it infuriated me to think he would refuse my help.
    He stared at me with a strange light of wonder in his eyes. "You cannot truly believe I would serve your Republic?"
    "I'm not asking you to serve anything, except my purse. And your own".
Wonder was replaced by disdain, but I could see him reluctantly accepting the idea. What else had he to do? For all the Saardite talk of despising death, I knew that only the most wretched souls were truly prepared to embrace exctinction. His eyes showed guilt, and the near-despair of a life whose very goal had disappeared, but under it all was a boy's hunger for existence; for the bounty of the next moment, and the moment after that.
    "I will never kill", he said, warily. "I have discovered a distaste for it." There was a sardonic bitterness in his voice.
    "There are a surprising number of vocations that do not require killing", I said, matching his irony with my own. "I presume it is only human life you object to taking?", I asked. I had been struck by a happy thought. "Skilled hunters can become very wealthy in the Dormon forest."
    He seemed just as struck by the idea, I could see, though reluctance still pressed down on him like a laundress's load. He stood there, consulting with himself, while the singing from downstairs continued to echo distantly around us.
    "Let it be so" he said eventually, once again as if he was speaking to himself more than me. "There may be some higher design in this meeting". And, then to me, "I have no master but the King and the Great Harmony, but I will do all I can to repay my debt to you".
    "Wait till you see the cabin before you decide how big the debt is", I said. As a matter of fact the cabin was large and well-furnished, for its kind. I had never slept on a hard bed until I began studying for the Kosomo exams, in the cold and pokey cramming school where physical discomfort was the least of our trials. "I'll give you money, to tide you over till I have time to come and see you." I bent back down to my bag, and began rummaging in it, seeing how much I could muster. "The social season is almost over here. I have to attend some very dull parties, for my mother's sake, but I will come to see you as soon as I can. And then you can start making money for me. Until then, take this".
    I handed him a leather pouch, which usually held my tattered edition of The Words of Armanua, but were full now with the contents of my purse and all the other coins I could find in my spartan kit. "It's not much but it should keep you going awhile. You won't live like a prince, though".
    "But I will live, and what could be more important than that?", he asked sardonically. Bitter irony seemed to be the sole form of Saardite humour. Laughter and anger tended to go together with them. "The social season is over some thirty nights from now, is it not? I could easily survive on this many rotts till then".
    Exactly how much did he know of Aarvla, I wondered? Had his trainers given him thorough instruction in our society, all dedicated to the taking of our citizens' lives? Was every dimma given this much training? I gave him directions to the cabin, and was again taken aback at his detailed knowledge of Aarvlan geography.
    He nodded when I had finished, as a mark that our strange exchange had come to an end. Then he plucked the key from my hand as if it belonged to him.     At the same moment, two light raps came on the door; somehow meek and masterful at once. I recognised the knock as surely as a familiar voice.
    I gazed at the Saardite, and he gazed back, and somehow there was an agreement in our looks; he would not hide himself away. "Come in", I called, and the looming figure of my uncle Trentor filled the doorframe.
    "Aswada", he said awkwardly, greeting his would-be assassin in his own language. My uncle had fought dozens of races but never developed a facility for languages. There was only the merest flicker of surprise in his deep voice. "You know my nephew?".
    The Saardite's eyes were as inscrutable as my uncle's. "I have made his acquaintance", he said. Then he smiled, and I saw a face quite unsuspected until now. Honest, open and loyal. It as as if his nature was so alien to that of his recent trade, it had needed the most forceful curbing. And written in his eyes was a near-love for his intended victim, almost as if he had known him from childhood. He bowed, slightly, but with as much deference as if he had doubled over. And then he turned on his heel and was gone, without one look back at me.
    We did not hear his footsteps moving down the corridor, but I felt no fear he was listening outside. A dimma would never do that, though he killed by stealth. It was simply that he moved from place to place without a sound.
    My uncle closed the door. It creaked loudly-- servants in his mansion were doubtless devoted to him, but they evidently exploited his good nature. I doubt a shabbier mansion existed in the entire world.
    A gentle smile touched the august General Hoff's face, and he said, "A very charming fellow, for an assassin. I hope he gives the trade up".
    I was only surprised for an instant. "He has".
    "Come with me", my uncle said. “We have more important things to discuss”.

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