Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Toad King, Chapter 16.

The penultimate chapter of the book.

16.) The Toad King’s Last Escape.

The Prince’s pavilion in the corner of the throne room has been taken down, the throne moved to a raised dais. The huge room is full. The wealthy and the nobility of the principality have been summoned, one and all, to witness the final defeat and humiliation of both Quarry and the mythical Toad King.
We are on our knees before the throne.
“I knew who you were the moment you appeared, Toad King,” the Yellow Prince says. “Do you think me an idiot?”
I don’t answer, which infuriates him. With a practiced wave of his fingers, a fist comes from behind and strikes me on the side of the head. I am stunned for a moment, flashes of light and darkness swirling before my eyes.
“Your ugliness alone is a warning,” the Prince continues. “Besides, I haven’t had a visit from a merchant in years.”
“And you never will,” I answer. “If you don’t release me.”
 “Even if I believed your story, your jewelry tells the truth. The earring you wear once belonged to someone I loved.”
I can’t help but laugh at this; both the unlikely coincidence and the thought that Pertem ever loved anyone. He waves his fingers again, but this time I’m prepared for the blow, manage to move my head along with the strike. It hurts, but I remain clear-headed.
The audience is completely silent, unmoving, like statues--all of them afraid to call attention to themselves. The Prince peers down at me, his large head atop his small round body looking as if it will fall off if he leans too far forward.
“What am I to do with you, Toad King?” he muses.
“Let me go,” I say. “I will bother you no more.”
“Is this true?” he demands. “I am told the Toad King cannot lie.”
I don’t answer, for he has asked me directly and the answer I must give is not the one that will free me.
The Prince says, “I cannot do with you as I would any other scoundrel and put you in my cages. You have shown you can escape anywhere. Can you escape death, Toad King?”
“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “I haven’t tried.”
“Well, let’s find out,” he says, sounding agreeable. He nods toward Quarry, but doesn’t look at him. “May as well have your pawn executed at the same time.”
Quarry is as still as stone. The rebel leader bound and gagged. If I didn’t know who he was, I could believe him a statue. His dark eyes glare at the Pertem, as if his willpower alone can topple the Yellow Prince from his throne.
The Prince is more afraid of Quarry than he is of me, this is clear. Quarry is one of his own people, whereas I come from the outside; a legend, a god even. He has captured me, and there isn’t likely to be another legend or god who will come along and challenge him.
But Quarry comes from Pertem’s own principality, and as out-of-touch as the Prince might be, he understands Quarry is the real danger. If one leader can rise, so can another.
Unless an example is made.
“Let’s not delay the inevitable,” Pertem says, sliding down off his throne. He is stunted in every way; his arms, his legs, his trunk…his mind and spirit. Only his head is of normal size, which makes it look larger. Even on the raised dais, he isn’t much taller than Quarry is kneeling. “We shall execute you in the courtyard, so the bloodstains may be easier to clean.”
I shake my head. What he really desires is a bigger audience, not just of nobility, who are already completely intimidated and craven; he wants the townspeople to see, so that they’ll tell their family members in the outlying towns, who will tell those in the farthest reaches of the principality.
This is what happens to those who defy the Prince.
I am strangely at peace. This is a far better death than I expected…or probably deserve. I always thought the end would come during one of my thefts, or perhaps from a jealous husband.
Instead, I am caught trying to do the right thing. I die because I’ve tried to help others.
I can live with that. Or perhaps I should say…I can die with that.
I’m kicked from behind, and I stagger to my feet. Quarry rises beside me, a smooth still motion, as if he went from kneeling to standing without anything in-between. The closest bystanders back away when he looks at them. With a dignity that seems appropriate to a royal chamber, he starts across the throne room to his fate.
I follow, looking and feeling much less inspiring. My arms are bound behind me, and even in my human form, it’s an ungainly posture. If I were to transform, my arms might be torn from my body.
Quarry turns his head to look at me, and I can read what’s in his eyes.
Escape, his expression seem to be saying. You’ve done all you can do.
I smile. Even Quarry has bought into my myth. It gives me faith, somehow. I test the bonds, so see if I can loosen them. My legs are unbound.
If I transform, will I be able to jump? My arms might be mangled, but at least I’ll be alive. I look to either side, and count more crossbows cocked and ready than I can count on my human fingers and toes.
Not much of a chance, but what does it matter whether a bolt finds me trying to escape or standing helplessly awaiting my fate?
I blink in the daylight. I’d thought we’d emerge into the giant courtyard, but in my daze, it feels as if we are in close quarters.
Then I see it. The entire population of the city has filled the courtyard. The soldiers have to push aside the onlookers, who are unmoving. It is strange to see so many people, so silent.
The soldiers lead us to the huge statue of Prince Pertem’s grandfather, the first of the royal line. A brick wall that appears more recent has been constructed around the statue, no doubt to save it from defacement. Instead, the bricks show signs graffiti being painted over many times.
Quarry and I are placed against the wall. The guards move back, and a line of crossbows faces us.
Well, so it ends. Without me ever knowing why I ever came here in the first place. If I meet the Mirror God in the afterlife, I’m going to demand an answer.
I close my eyes, wait for the click of the crossbow triggers, the whoosh of the arrows.
“My loyal subjects!” Pertem’s oddly deep voice carries far.
The soldiers have carried out a large table, upon which the Prince stands.
“Today the rebellion ends, with the death of its leaders. Here stands meekly the so-called Toad King, the Trickster God. But it appears he is mortal after all, or soon will be.
“And here stands Quarry, who pretended to be a man of the people, but has proven to be no more than a thief. This is the end of all thieves.”
And then, Prince Pertem makes his first mistake. He pauses, as if expecting cheers and applause. Instead, he is greeted by a deep silence. Then, from somewhere in that vast crowd a lone voice shouts, “Quarry!”
The shock that slams over Pertem’s face is clear to all those near. From afar, his body language is equally clear. Prince Pertem shows a moment of fear, a moment of uncertainty.
And that is all it takes. Instantly other voices take up the call. “Quarry! Quarry! Quarry!” Gratifyingly mixed among the chants, I fancy I hear the occasional, “Toad King!” as well.
Pertem wastes no time. He turns to the firing squad and frantically waves his tiny arms.
Quarry and I stare back at our executioners, neither of us showing fear, and it is that contrast that finally breaks the soldiers. One by one, they lower their crossbows.
The crowd surges forward, the table upon which the Yellow Prince stands is buried under a wave of bodies, and I hear one loud “No!” in Pertem’s deep voice and then can hear nothing but the celebration of the crowd.
One of the soldiers comes forward, dropping his crossbow as if it is a poisonous snake. He pulls a knife, hesitates…and then he cuts out bonds.
I’m lifted up by the crowd, carried to the steps of the temple, and deposited there next to Quarry.
The big man is naked and filthy, and yet everyone can see…here stands a true Prince of the Thirteen Principalities.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Toad King, Chapter 15.

To be fair to anyone who's gotten this far, I'll publish the last three chapters of the book and leave them up for a few days at least. Thanks for reading.

15.) Game of Bones.

The guards on the upper floors are distracted by a game of bones. On the landing below the roof, safely out of the wind, the guards are clustered, shouting and jostling. I creep as close as I can, and then leap over their heads, landing on the far side near the corner. Only one of the soldiers seems to notice anything, looking upward only after I’ve already passed. He shakes his head and turns back.
If only we’d known security was so lax in this castle!
I reach the roof, which is strewn with chips of battlement that have broken off from age and weather but otherwise bare.  The wind is fierce, and I’m thankful how low to the roof I am, for if I’d been human I would have had a difficult time standing against it.
The three Casperi Cages are blowing violently in the gusts, slamming against each other. In the first cage, there are nothing but bones. In the far cage, I see bones and rotting flesh. In the middle cage, Quarry stands with his hands grasping the bars, as if defying nature itself. He doesn’t see me.
The cages are much larger than I expected. Each once held dozens of prisoners at a time. Time and rot have reduced them to empty shells, but for the few scattered bones wedged against the bars.
I’m thankful for the winds. The first cage is beyond my leaping ability, but I judge it to be swinging close enough at the extremes to make it across…if I time my jump to the second.
Doubt, as always, claws at the back of my mind. I wonder why I care about this human when the task that the Mirror God sent me on is incomplete. But if the Mirror God created me, or endowed my self-awareness, he made a small mistake.
He gave me a conscience.
If I fail, it’s the Mirror God’s fault. If I had been ruthless from the start, I would have taken the Mirror God mobile from Prince Gaarl without hesitation, and I would never have been victim to the Blue Pilgrim’s treachery. Instead, I have wandered these human lands for more years than I can count, my mission incomplete, sometimes almost forgotten.
I perch on the edge of the battlement, gauging the wind, realizing that I feel the stronger squalls a few moments before the cages begin to swing. Like waves on the beach, the swinging cages are unpredictable in their effect on each other, but as I watch, I begin to see a pattern. Sometime the strongest of gusts pushes all three cages at the same moment, before they crash careening in capricious directions.
The more I wait, the more my doubts grow.
A blast of air strikes me so forcefully I almost lose my footing. I grip my toes against the stone and push off, more powerfully than I have ever jumped before.
At first I’m afraid I will fly over the cage, into the empty air beyond, to be tossed like a leaf against the walls of the castle and tumbling to the roofs below. But a second flurry catches me in mid-air, and I abruptly drop. I spread my arms and legs, hoping my broad body will catch the wind and carry me farther.
I slam midway against the top of the cage, and slide most of the rest of the way. My hind legs catch against something, halting me with my head over the side, my arms flailing as if trying to fly. I pull myself backward, and close my eyes, taking deep breaths, waiting for my heart to subside.
“My dear Toad King,” I hear Quarry’s voice, as calm as ever. “How nice of you to visit.”
When I open my eyes, I realize I’m directly above Quarry, who is looking up at me with a calm gaze.
He’s naked and emaciated. Even his thick body hair is gone, as if blown off by the winds. His dark eyes are set recessed behind dark circles; his lips are cracked and bleeding. His huge hands and feet are gnarled knots.
“Marna insisted,” I say. “I must admit…I’ve missed you too.”
Quarry’s shoulders slump, his chin sinks, and I realize with a shock that he is crying. “It is my punishment. I should never have agreed to your tricks, Toad King. I should have attacked.”
“With all twelve of your men?” I say. “You did the right thing, Quarry…even if neither of us get off this cage alive. You have become a martyr. Your rabble of rebels has grown into a real army. And the Toad King? He’s become a God to the people of the Eighth Principality, the Trickster who outwits the Prince at every turn. The worship is almost embarrassing.”
“Almost?” Quarry says. “Oh, I’m sure you pay no attention to it.”
I examine the cage. It is suspended between two tall spires of the castle by a thick chain. A complicated set of pulleys and wheels are in place to draw the cages to the battlements, but there is no way in the short time I have to figure them out.
I’d hope the entrance would be from the top, but the door is on the side of the cage, facing the wind. Before I have time to doubt, I start to crawl over the side, face downward. I clutch the bars with all my strength until I reach the lock.
I examine it, my eyes watering from the winds. The Toad King has no way of opening the lock, but the master thief Horense would have little trouble.
I transform, the three toes become five fingers, clasping desperately to the bars. The wind is freezing and my human strength is barely enough to hold on. As I wrap my arms around the bars, I feel moisture strike my back.
It’s raining. There is no chance to change back into my toad form even if I wanted.
“I need a sharp object, the size of a pin,” I gasp. I close my eyes, concentrating on holding on.  I can hear Quarry rustling among the bones. I feel a pinprick on the back of my hand and I cry out, almost letting go.
“Sorry,” Quarry mutters. “Will this do?”
He holds a broach in his twisted fingers, with a long thick pin.
“Bend the end,” I manage to say, already wondering how I’m going to pick the lock while holding on. The answer comes when Quarry hands me the pin, for his arms loop through the bars, holding me close. Emaciated he might be, but he is still as strong as any man I’d ever met.
Feeling secure in his grasp, I make short work of the lock. It clicks open. I pull it off, and let it drop. I scoot to one side, and Quarry reaches through and unlatches the door, which swings open, catching in the wind and slamming against the cage so violently I almost lose my grip.
I climb back to the top of the cage, and Quarry quickly joins me. To my surprise, he gives me a fierce hug.
“What now, Trickster God?” he said, pushing me away gruffly.
We both stare at the links of the chain extending far above us. It appears to be an impossible climb, but we’ve made it this far. The rain continues to lash down on us, so even if I should want to jump clear, I can’t.
“You go first,” Quarry says. “If I fall, I won’t take you with me.”
“I’m more likely to fall first,” I say, but I don’t argue further. I realize immediately that my human feet fit into the links of the change. It’s painful, but feasible. Before I know it, I’m suspended in space, with the Casperi Cage as far below me as the spires are above me.
I concentrate on each step, for my strength is quickly giving out, and each link is like climbing a mountain. I’m surprised when I reach for the next link and my hand strikes wood instead of metal.
A long platform stretches between the two spires. I hoist myself over the edge with the last of my strength and lay there, gasping. My arms and legs feel like liquid, mingling with the rain, draining off the platform and falling to the earth below. The platform sways as Quarry pulls himself over the top and collapses beside me.
We lay there a long time, neither of us speaking. I rise first, and crawl my way to the top of the spire, where there is a small trapdoor. I fling it open.
The tip of a spear greets me, thrusting toward my eyes, and I fall backward, almost rolling off the platform.
The Yellow Prince’s voice floats out of the opening.
“Surrender, Toad King.”

Friday, February 24, 2017

Finished "The Toad King" and I like it.

29363 words, versus 29298 words for "Said the Joker, To the Thief." Just under the wire. I doubt I'll submit it to Kindle Singles, though why not? Maybe I will. Once I've heard back on the first submission. It is a little odd that I haven't heard back. Mostly likely, it is lost in the system. I still think the odds are astronomical of it being taken on.

I'd hoped to start writing "Takeover" on the 1st, but Cameron is going to a comic con in Seattle for five days, so that means I have to wait until the 6th, and/or get started earlier. Dylan is too new to throw into the maw yet. I may see how he does on Saturday, since that is a day I'd rather avoid.

I'll see if I'm inspired over the next few days, stare at the screen and see if anything comes to me.

Was able to do my usual 4 mile walk yesterday for the first time in 2 1/2 months. Last winter I was waylaid only a couple of days, same with the year before.

It felt good, was more tired than usual, which makes sense. Heartrate got up to 120, when it usually peaks at 100. I'll have to see how long it takes to go back to normal.

But the great thing was, the ideas for the final chapter of "The Toad King" just started flowing. I sat down on one of the writing stumps and wrote some,  but it felt really clunky. Stopped writing and just gathered glimmers, went home and threw out what I'd written and started over.

Came spilling out and it was a satisfying climax.  Heh.

I like this world and the characters. I'm planning to write more of these novellas. Next up, I think, is the character of "Mother Sali" who is another favorite character.

But first up, the THRILLER.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

No word from my editor on which thriller plot he might like.

No big surprise, there. Our last interaction started off the same way. Apparent interest, then complete ignoring, then me delivering a finished book and him liking it. Took over a year.  I'm hoping the same thing will happen again.  The bigger publishers just operate on a different timeframe.

Meanwhile, it has now been more than 12 weeks since I sent "Said the Joker, To the Thief" to Kindle Singles. I'd love to believe it means something, but it probably doesn't mean anything.

Cohesion Press, the publisher of "Snaked," seems to be making huge strides in the publishing world, with some incipient bestsellers under his belt, so I figure that's all good. Hopefully, by the time "Snaked" comes out (scheduled for October) he'll will have all the publishing kinks with IPG sorted out.

I'm going to be excited to write "Takeover." It has the potential to be a good book. But I'm trying not to put too high expectations on myself, for fear of blocking myself.

I'm just going to write the book.

I wouldn't hurt to put some thought into it first, though. I've learned that. How many characters, what format, the theme, the overall arch of the story and so on. I've been filling that in a little just by osmosis.

I'm really hoping I can start going on long walks again around the same time. I think that would be really helpful to the creative process.

One last chapter to "The Toad King" is going to be written today. I've just been sitting down and writing these last few chapters without further ado. I know what I want from them so I'm going straight there. Probably end up with 1000 to 1500 words to spare, so I have a little wiggle room in the rewrite, which this will need.

Still, having two "Tales of the Thirteen Principalities" under my belt makes that world feel real to me.  I'd eventually like to write a couple more, but first I need to write "Takeover."

I need to channel my inner Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, John Sandford, and John Connelly. Heh.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Final Answer.

I'm going to do the book about the takeover at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

In fact, the title will be "Takeover."

I think I've figured out a way to neutralize the political part, in fact use it to my benefit.

First thing I need to do is have alternate chapters between occupiers and occupied, so that both views are presented. (The views of the characters, not pushed, but explaining motivations.)

Then, a major plot development -- much more radical, violent extremists come in and takeover, and now the original guys have to band together with the hostages to save the situation. I figure no one is going to be on the side of murderous radicals, no matter what side.

It may be a mistake, but ultimately, this is the story that interests me the most, that is the most unique, and which has plenty of ideas to play with.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A guest post, from Shawn Hoge Remfrey.

Gratifying to know I'm infesting my friend's minds.

The Toad King is Stalking Me.

“Mom!  There’s a frog in the pool!”

It all started off so innocently.  The ice over the pool had melted, but the odds of it being an actual frog instead of a leaf or something else innocuous were pretty good.  I trudged outside and looked all over.  No frog.  I was in the clear.

Then the pointing began.  Then I SAW it!  It wasn’t just a frog.  This thing was massive!  It was easily the size of both of my chubby toddler hands!  And it was dead! D.E.A.D.  How did I know?  I looked at it.  It was an odd grey and slimy and looked like it was one of those foam grow animals that you plunge into water.  Oh the horror!

Of course, I pretended I still couldn’t see it.  Admitting I saw it meant that I’d have to do something about it.  Nope.

An hour later, I went back out to look at it.  Just to see if it would still stare at me with it’s cold, beady little eyes.  It was gone!!  

At that moment, I realized The Toad King was out to get me.  I blame McGeary for this.  I’ve been following his progress on The  Toad King so it was already in the back of my mind.

Everywhere I’ve gone, all day, at the slightest hint of movement, I’ve jumped back, sure that he was about to strike.  Air current in the curtains?  It’s The Toad King!  A  fluttering piece of paper?  It’s The Toad King!  I’m even scared of my own feet at the moment!  They’re under the desk and every time I feel a tickle, I’m sure it’s The Toad King, coming to suck my soul!!!

Monday, February 20, 2017

I have the opportunity I wanted, now it's up to me to write a good book.

Not just a book good enough to win over a publisher, but one which will have a broad appeal to readers. I do believe that my writing is somehow attractive to editors, though I'm not sure it always  works the same with agents or readers who apparently have different requirements.

Why the difference?

I think that the agent's main focus is looking for a "money-maker" while the publishers' main focus is looking for a good book.

They aren't necessarily the same thing. Of course, there is a lot of grey between those two goals, and of course there are agents who support authors who they think are good writers regardless of saleability and there are publishers who pass on authors they think are good because of the lack of commercial possibilities.

But I think it holds up as a general observation.

The readers want yet other things. Either a rip-roaring fun read or a thought-provoking read or one that takes them someplace they've never been. Again, most books are a blend of those things.

The question of quality is an interesting one. I believe every writer is trying his best, however there are choices about how much revision a writer is willing to do, how much time they spend.

Mostly it comes down to intent. Do I want a quick book or a more thought out book?

Even that isn't always true though. A more drawn out process doesn't necessarily result in a better book. I personally believe that there is a qualitative "zone" that a writer inhabits, where most of their books will reside, though I also believe it is possible to occasionally break out of that zone through a fortuitous string of circumstances--or fall well below.

At this point in my career, I don't have as much doubt in the competence of my writing as I do in what to write.

In the end, I'll write the book I want to write, regardless. But a little rumination isn't a bad thing, though it probably seems pretty wish-washy to everyone else (especially the editor to whom I keep throwing half-baked ideas.)

A big discovery has been that the writing isn't what people notice--it's the underlying premise. That seems to be the most important thing. Of course, as a writer, I can't take that too seriously because I believe the quality of the writing sells the premise or doesn't. But it's interesting to me that the criticism is more about the content than about the way the content is presented.

I'm going to start my thriller on March 1. But I'm still undecided about which idea to pursue. I was leaning toward my "takeover" book, but now I'm leaning toward my "outdoor journalist on the run from city slickers" idea.

I'm thinking it might be wise to avoid the politics on my first book because it is an unnecessary complication. So the straight-ahead chase book is both easier and less problematic. It also has plenty of reader-pleasing possibilities, which is what I'm after the most.

Like I said, making the choice is the hard part. The actual writing will be a relief.