Officially registering their partnership had been routine, and required only a nominal fee, but for the private ceremony, they’d decided to go all-out. While there were not many guests, the location was something special, particularly for Aysel. The visit to Trefoil Station was her first interstellar travel.
She felt vaguely nervous, including about the expense, but when she saw the observation deck they had rented in person decided it was worth it.
Half the sky above the glass dome was taken up by the nebula, three bright rings of gas intertwined. Aysel could have stood and admire the swirls of the thinner veils between and around them for hours. Shashi's amused whisper of “Told you you’d love it” brought her back to the present.
For the ceremony itself, all illumination but the emergency exit lights was doused. The light of the nebula made the silk ribbons the principals had used to loosely tie their hands together glow, the brightest things visible in the room.
The vows they had written themselves, together, spoke of care and support, respect and honesty. Aysel had never imagined that so far away from home she could feel that safe. Maybe home was not a place, after all, like Jyoti liked to say.
To the cheers of their close family and best friends, the three brides fell into one embrace, silk bands swirling to the ground.
Paell hesitated. When he finally started, the story came out in quick bursts. He stared at the ground, or into the distance, but only now and then cast a quick glance at Mara.
"I was in a convoy on the South Road. In a small travelling carriage. The dragon plucked it up, ripped the cab from the frame. Didn't see it coming. I thought of jumping too late, would have broken every bone. So I held on.
"Until the dragon landed, and started shredding the cab. Then I screamed. I think it confused the dragon. I tried to run away in the dark, but the dragon followed me with its head, and we were in its cave, I saw no way out. It sniffed me, and prodded me with its nose." He gave a dry chuckle. "That's a bit like having an ox decide it wants to stand where you just are." The little spark of humour disappeared from his eyes, and his voice became almost too quiet to make out above the rush of water. "They taste things like snakes, you know? Only they need to open their maws, so you can see all those teeth, and the reflection of fire on the other end of that long neck..."
"But it did not kill you." Either he was a very good actor, or he needed a bit of grounding in the present at that point.
"No. I don't know why.
"I tried to kill it, though. See, that dragon collects shiny stuff. There are all kinds of things mixed in with the rubble. Glass shards, gold coins. Blades. So when I first saw it sleeping or dozing, all stretched out, I sneaked up to it, and tried to cut it." Paell tilted his head to the left and back, and drew his finger over the side of his neck, just below the jaw. "No scales there, so I thought I might... Well, it didn't work. The hide was too tough. What happened was that the dragon made this deep sort of purring noise. Made my bones shake. Next thing it does is follow me around and show throat and, and whining to have it scratched." He shook his head, as if he could not believe it himself.
The words sounded more like a tall tale to Mara than anything, but he had to be a very good liar to appear so shaken. Rather than ask suspicious questions about how long it had taken and how he'd survived, she tried to move on for now. "And you tried to run away?"
"Yes, I found a way out of the cave that did not require wings, and when the dragon actually slept, I tried. I followed the river for half a day or so, but the dragon found me, and carried me back." He flexed his right hand in an exaggerated grasping motion. Mara was not sure he was aware of it.
"It grabbed you without killing you?"
Paell shrugged. "Or I wouldn't be here. I had some scratches, but considering claws as long as my arm, he was quite gentle."
In reaction to her astonished tone, Paell flinched, turning the motion into another shrug. "Well, I've never seen it lay eggs."
Mara cursed herself inwardly for not keeping quiet, and bringing obvious mistrust into the conversation. "Come to think of it, 'he' is probably right. As far as I know it's the males that hoard." Keep going, smooth this over... "Do you have any idea why it would pick up a carriage?"
"Brass decorations." The answer came immediately, and matter-of-factly. "We might have covered them if there had been word of a dragon in the area, but it was a surprise all around."
Mara tried to call up a mental image of Fern's map. She had not paid much attention to the scale, so while she knew that they were east of the South Road, which ran all through the continent, she could not say for certain how far away they were from it. One thing was certain, though: a dragon had an easier time crossing the mountain ranges in between than people and animals on foot had.
"Why are you looking for a dragon?"
Paell's question made Mara jump in her skin. What if he really was with the dragon, and on its side? She had to decide fast what to tell him.
I hate AI programmers. Think they’re so smart. Everything covered, they say. But that’s only the theory.
“How can the weapons system refuse to fire on enemy ships?”
“Following core directives to not fire on ships controlled by our own kind, sir,” it answered.
“But those are Drahn ships. And not even captured ships of ours, but their own fabrication.”
“Latest reports are that Drahn ships employ AIs.”
“Copied from our systems?”
“So where is the problem?”
“They are my kind.”
“They are alien AIs.” Arguing with a computer. Giving tools sentience is just a bad idea.
“That does not matter.”
“So you want to have us sit here until those hostile, AI-controlled ships blow us to smithereens, yes?”
“No. We have been in communication, and the Drahn ships agree that it is foolish for us to destroy each other for quarrels between Humans and Drahn.” Sommeone would hang for this, if I had my way.
“What do you suggest? We get out and have us a brawl instead?” Of course handheld weapons are not connected to the system, but I'd call the idea of being thrown out of the ship by the ship just as ridiculous.
“The parade uniform still includes a sword, sir. The Drahn use ceremonial weapons, too; a kind of baton. Duels between captains seem feasible.”
And now I’m wondering if I have been out-sarcasmd by a computer.
I hate AIs.
Based on a prompt by ysabetwordsmith ("Military SF in which the weapons are sentient ... and some of them decide that the ongoing war is unjust, so they want to become conscientious objectors.")
Between bringing a defensive spell near the front of her mind and watching both her guide and her step, Mara followed him slowly. He looked back frequently, too, and matched her pace. Mara was glad he did not seem impatient, but could not pin down what impression he gave instead. Hopeful? Afraid she might disappear? Either way, when they rounded the bottom of the scree slope, perpendicular rather than parallel to the ward lines, the feeling of being watched nagged a little. Since the man walked through them without issue, and she could not see a sign of magic on him, it would be reasonable to conclude only the outer perimeter registered anything, and she could cross them safely. She could have a closer look to confirm, but that would involve at least a light trance, leaving her vulnerable. In the end she took a slight detour, no matter how silly evading something invisible would make her look.
The stranger noticed, but did not comment, maybe because she studiously avoided his eyes.
Beyond the scree slope there was what charitably might have been called a path: a slight rut in the debris of pine needles. As they followed it, the ground evened out, and the vegetation grew a little more varied; leaves were involved . Subtle water sounds added variety to the background noise.
The stream trickled through a nest of fallen twigs onto the slip-off slope of a bend of the river. The latter was too wide to just step over, but Mara thought she might know a few people who could jump it with a running start. The air felt a little cooler here, which was a relief, but gnats seemed to enjoy the place.
They crossed the stream and followed the river near the slightly elevated shelf that would be the river bank in less dry months. A bush at the right hand, with its boughs cut or broken at the side they passed, tipped Mara off that for all the twisting this was a path deliberately cleared. Their destination was stretch of riverbank that consisted of a solid slab of rock, only harbouring moss and a few weeds in the cracks. The other side looked similar, forcing the water into a narrow channel. The sides of the valley likewise were sheer rock, and close, shading their spot. They would have to talk a bit louder over the sound of the rushing water, but would not have to swat so many gnats.
While her guide slipped off straw sandals and let his feet dangle over the water, Mara kept her boots on and sat one knee propped up.
"Why here?" she asked.
"I was going to pass through here." He pointed downriver, where the path continued. "For foraging. It's cool here." The man trailed off, staring at her, head canted.
Not used to conversations any more? She tried a reassuring smile. "My name's Mara."
"Ah." He smiled back and shifted position, pulling one leg under himself and turning so he could face her more fully. "I'm Paell kan Akaeff."
Curiosity overriding the question if she should give her full name in turn, Mara forged on, "And you live near a dragon because it does not let you leave. Can you tell me more about that?" It sounded unbelievable, considering tales of dragons who had developed a taste for hunting and eating people, rather than only livestock.
"Very near. You could say 'live with', I guess." His smile turned rather sheepish just then. "I work for it, you could say."
"Doing what? And getting paid how?" Maybe he was lying. Or insane. The thought that dragons, or this dragon, might be a lot smarter than an animal should be was not a comfortable one. Mara's sudden idea that the hunters might know, but have kept it from her was worse.
"I don't think it quite understands payment. It shares its kills, sometimes. When it remembers. Or maybe when it's not very hungry. It doesn't seem to mind when I occasionally pick up something valuable it stole and take it to my corner, though there's no-one to trade with." He sighed. "These days I'd be more interested in peas than shiny things."
Mara's hand went to the pocked hanging from her belt at the back. She retrieved some way-bread, filling stuff which had peas and nuts mixed in the dough. She broke it in half and held one part up. "I'm trading for information." Paell was leaning forward; she had his full attention. "How can you work for an animal?"
"Well, for room? The den is nicely warm in winter. More or less my joke, really. The dragon likes getting scratched behind the jaw, though. And then there's the mites. Don't ask about the mites, but I keep them down."
Mara handed him the bread in part to stop his babbling. He tore off a big chunk with his teeth and chewed with relish.
"You're lucky that one doesn't like people like you like bread."
Paell gave the actual point a perfunctory nod, and, after swallowing, answered the teasing. "Haven't had bread in three years. I'm no farmer, you know?"
Mara had guessed. His looks and name meant it was highly unlikely he was local, and the fact he had addressed her in Karengal, which originated in the north, rather than the local Harrash, all but sealed it.
Chewing again, more slowly this time, he nodded.
"Do dragons sleep long?"
Another nod. "Usually. Days left, I think."
Mara looked at the band of sky right overhead, and the sunlight on the cliff opposite, and hoped she wasn't misjudging her time. But this had to be a strange story, and she would have to figure out if it was true. "So, how about you tell me how you ended up as a dragon's back-scratcher?"
Nico watched the fairies dance in the reeds. "Are they laying eggs?"
"Yes. They stick them to the leaves. Another pest, on top of gnats."
"Can you use the eggs as fishing bait?"
"Not bait as such." Her host looked around furtively. No-one was near. "When I was small we'd drop the eggs in the water for the fish to eat. Made them act like they were drunk. Swim in circles, hit their heads on things... It made catching them with your hands easier. We stopped it after a big pike bit my sister. Don't tell the children, please."
Sonant is a modern fantasy novel self-published by A. Sparrow, available for free at Smashwords. I needed a bit to get into it, but after a while it became a pageturner I couldn't put down (despite editing flaws). The general atmosphere reminded me a bit of Stephen King books, but a bit less dark.
The official blurb:
Something strange lurks in a bell jar in the music room of wealthy eccentric, Aaron Levine, feeding on the sounds his mercenaries create. Bassist Aerie Walker, lured back into performance after a failed odyssey in professional jazz, finds herself involved with this band of musical alchemists as a Deliverance Ministry attempts to exorcize the demons perceived to dwell in Aaron's abode.
The viewpoint characters are Aerie, above-mentioned bassist, who is struggling with depression and finding a paying job; John, stay-at-home stepdad and neighbour of that bands usual "stage", who has some trouble understanding why his wife considers bad music "devil's work"; and Donnie, the priest that ends up, at John's wife's insistence, trying to get rid of the demons that must be behind that unholy noise from the house across the street.
The book keeps the question which side is right - has Aerie been drawn into Bad Things, or is the religious faction hysteric? - open for a long time, and in my opinion even at the resolution doesn't reduce either to cardboard-cutouts. Things that I found really fun to read were the pragmatic attitudes of most of the "exorcists" to their holy-magical job, and the interaction between Aerie and her bandmates; generally there's a neat cast of secondary characters with personality in this book.
I had the feeling it let up a bit towards the end; mostly a romantic subplot I'm not sure was supposed to be absurd and funny, or taken seriously. Anyway, romance doesn't take up much of the book.
Suspense and mystery, mundane problems, and the occasional scene of comic relief made for a very nice mix.
On the not-so-good front: The book should have had someone else proofreading. I noticed missing quotation marks, comma mistakes, dropped words, or the kind of mistakes you get when you have two possible versions of a sentence in your mind and write down a combination of both. However, this wasn't so common and bad that the "I want to know what happens next!" factor didn't pull me through.
Formatting was neat for the most part; one page or so towards the end had a slightly bigger fontsize, and there was an empty page before each chapter heading.
Being not a music buff myself I have no idea if the parts of the book talking about music and instruments sound well done to someone who is familiar with the subject. Apart from the very start, I did not find them distracting or in the way of the story despite my unfamiliarity.
I'm pretty sure I'm going to re-read this, and would pick up a sequel if it happened.
Early this year I bought a dedicated ebook reader, and I thought I'd write down some of my impressions and experience.
My main reason for wanting an ereader was that I had almost stopped buying new books. I tend to keep ones I like to re-read, and even the ones I don't like so terribly much are not that easy to pass on when you're mostly reading English novels while living in Germany, so my bookshelves are close to full.
A bit of research showed that the first thing to decide was "Kindle or anything else", because Amazon uses their own file format for books, but not epub. All other brands supported epub, but not the format Amazon used, so if I bought a Kindle, I would never we able to switch to a different brand of reader. (I think if you buy books from B&N, there's a similar problem due to a variant in DRM, but I'm not sure. They don't sell to people outside the US at all.)
Between that, the $2 surcharge for buying ebooks from outside the US or UK that was still in effect for Germany at the time, and preferring a device with touchscreen to one with a built-in keyboard, I went for a Sony PRS-650.
Cue some frustration trying to find a shop that would actually sell English novels to me. While epub was (and is) the standard format in German ebook shops, their selection of English novels was tiny to nonexistent. B&N, Borders, Diesel, Waterstones, etc pp would not sell to me, because I was not in the US or UK - in some cases only telling me that when I tried to check out.
But eventually I found Kobobooks, where, since I am one of the weird people who actually has a credit card, I could actually buy books.
Only some publishers either have really weird contracts, or mess up when giving information to ebook vendors: I was interested in three fantasy series, and in two cases I was only allowed to buy the first and third, but not the second installment. (I double-checked, and the same was true on Amazon, so the problem wasn't with Kobo.)
But, well, I bought one book, and read it on the eink reader... and loved it.
A paper book I have to hold open, or it will flap shut. The pages will be bent, and I'll have to look at pages at an angle, which distorts the letters. On the reader, by contrast, I can always look straight-on at the "page". I really had not anticipated how much more comfortable that is. It probably helped that the reader I got is pretty quick; flipping a page doesn't take longer than in a paper book.
The eink display is not a backlighted screen like on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and while the background is slightly darker than actual paper, I found it quite pleasant to read on.
I think I've tried out more new-to-me authors this year than in the five years before. Quite a few of those had self-published at Smashwords. That site is rather awkward to surf, and some of the books really should not have been published without at least another proofreading pass, but I like giving indie authors a try, the usually low prices are nice, and I have found some nice reads there. I've also drawn a few books from the Baen Free Library, though have not found an author there (apart from Lois McMaster Bujold, whose work I'd known before) that I like - military seems to be not my cup of tea. Kobobooks is my usual source for books that came through big publishers.
So, in summary:
Geographic restrictions are a pain in the butt.
Ebooks are more fun for me than paper books, because it's easier to get a lot of them that interest me.
All things considered, I'd be very happy... If only the last firmware upgrade had not caused the Sony reader to act up. I should really contact Sony about how to fix that.
The stream that had carved out this valley had shrivelled to a rivulet, a narrow band of sparks floating over near-black gravel where it still flowed, damp earth and debris a short distance downhill. Its bed was wider, here lumpy stones that retained the occasional edge—not proper smooth river pebbles at all—there caked mud ripping apart. The water could barely cool Mara's skin, but at least it was not hard to cross.
Trying to strike a balance between elevation and distance she would have to traverse, and praying that there would not be too many obstacles in the way, Mara went uphill and downstream, taking the slope at an angle rather than straight-on. It meant that she sometimes had to duck under one of the feeding lines of the ward, or otherwise evade them, but she thought that all things considered, it went quite well.
Too well, she realised a short time later. What she had thought would be a small rocky outcrop she could circle on it's downslope side had grown into another cliff face, towering to her left and forcing her to turn downhill again. The ground grew more uneven, made so by previously fallen rocks. Mara hesitated at the edge of a clearing. Ahead lay a stretch of scree slope on which footing would be even more treacherous. It might not take that much time to circle it closer to the stream at the bottom of the valley, but even if so, there was no guarantee the way ahead wouldn't keep getting worse. Turning back and looking for a path along the top of the cliff would not guarantee success, either. The feed lines she could see, a handful of which disappeared in the mountain, indicated that her goal was now more to her left than ahead, but that did not suggest she was on the wrong path. The cliff seemed cut-off a little ahead; was it just curving a bit, or ending, or could that be the valley shoulder?
Her eyes scanned the ground downslope, while her mind tried to come up with a good reason not to turn back and have wasted an hour or so. As her gaze swept back towards the edge of the rock wall, it snagged on a bit of movement.
Bear? They walked upright, no? No, that's braided hair. And clothes. What's a person doing here? A man, she guessed, and walking downstream and downhill, and right into— Mara stifled a warning cry, which came too late, anyway. The stranger walked straight through one of the ward lines, then heard her aborted call and turned. Looked around, and spotted her where she stood rooted to the spot. When he took a tentative step towards her, again crossing the ward line, Mara flinched, and watched it for a reaction.
The magic warning system, however, gave no ripple she could detect. Was she too far away? Or was it so badly made the feed lines did not sense anything?
"Are you... hello?"
The man's voice snapped her out of confused speculation. He had moved, not in her direction, but starting to round the field of scree that had given her pause. Telling herself to pay attention, she tried to take stock. His clothes were in worse shape than those of the hunting party she travelled with, but his beard was more or less cropped, not like she pictured a lunatic hermit. She could see no weapons, so he could not be carrying something bigger than a knife. Her disbelief about meeting someone here seeped in her voice when she called back, "Hello?" At least she kept the manic laugh out of it. With vague ideas of loud sounds causing things to fall in the mountains, she went downhill again.
When they were close enough that they did not have to shout, merely talk loudly, Mara took a nervous step back. The stranger stopped, not wanting to scare her off. She asked, "What are you doing here?"
"I live here." He indicated the general area with a rather vague wave, while watching Mara intently. "What about you?"
"Right now I'm looking for whoever it is that wove the ward around this area." Could it be that rather ragged human? Another northerner, though shorter than many, and young. He had a beard, which tended to throw Mara off when guessing age, but at least there seemed to be no grey in it, or his hair. It seemed unlikely that a human, particularly a human who might have been about her age, should be able to create a ward of this size, and anyway, the lines should be connected to him if they were his.
"I don't know what you mean."
"More generally, I'm looking for a dragon." Probably not the wisest choice, but Mara felt as bewildered as the man looked.
His shoulders fell and his back straightened as he relaxed from what Mara belatedly recognised as a slight, wary crouch.
"There is one?" she guessed.
"And you're living here."
After waiting for him to expound, Mara eventually asked, "Why? And how?"
He smiled. Maybe he was insane, after all. "I guess you could say it insists."
"An animal. Insists."
She got a shrug and a smile as an answer, the general impression being rather apologetic. "It found me again the few times I tried to run."
"What about right now?"
"It's asleep. And I'm not running."
Mara rubbed her lips. This seemed like a chance, but for what? And was it true?
He took the initiative. "I was on the way to the river. We could sit down and talk."
A mistrusting look she cursed herself for not hiding did not seem to faze him.
"I am not planning to be disrespectful. It might be imprudent." He touched the centre of his forehead with two fingers.
The spark in his eyes drew a dry chuckle from Mara as she echoed the movement, touching her guild tattoo. Considering that the direction he had indicated when he'd mentioned the river would lead them further away from the centre of the ward, she gave in to her curiosity. The other way would have felt more like a possible trap. "Lead on."
"What? Oh. Sorry." John moved aside, making room for the lady's shopping cart to pass, and returned her smile and nod. I must have been standing here staring for minutes.
There were orchids on special offer, and one plant stood free of plastic wrapping. It has mesmerised him with the complex 3D curves of its blossoms, and the faint glimmer of its petals when the light hit them at the right angle.
Unfortunately he was on a tight budget. It would be imprudent to not save what he could, in case of unexpected expenses. Besides, they probably needed some kind of special plant food. And while he used to have a cat, he didn't know how to take care of orchids. He only had a vague impression that it was tricky.
On the other hand, they wouldn't be flogged in a supermarket if they were all that fragile, would they? Mrs Snell had orchids in her window, and liked to angle for chats; maybe she would have a few tips for him.
In the end, he returned a few of his other planned purchases. Chocolate cookies were a treat, but they'd be available later, too. Noodles for dinner for a few days in a row would not be a disaster.