The piece below is the result of some experimentation with the pacing of my work.
A lot of my older pieces are very descriptive, I tend to get carried away trying to get a lot of detail about a scene down on paper when a lot of it isn’t necessary to the audience’s understanding of what’s going on and I frequently get feedback that this causes the pace of the piece to drag. A picture paints a thousand words, so I suppose this is an outcome of my latent desire to be a landscape and character artist – something I’ve not pursued since I was around 16 after realising I was about as good at drawing as I was at flying.
Before starting the piece below I thought about what I’d been reading recently that moved at a very fast pace. Focusing on the Tales of the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding I went back to look at the level of description vs dialogue and action that made up the book, and made an effort to shift the tone of this piece away from the description-heavy style that I normally use and more towards Chris’s style. I deliberately didn’t push it to his extreme, the snippet I had in mind didn’t contain enough action to get away with his frugal use of description, but it was certainly a different experience to write whilst watching the descriptive word-count.
I should say a little about Six Cities. People paying attention may have noticed the tag appended to a number of older posts here without there being much explanation as to what it is. In my head I have two settings bouncing around and swapping ideas between them. Neither has a proper name, but as “Project Two” took over more and more time in my imagination and started spilling out onto paper I thought it needed some form of identity. I doubt it’ll stick in the long run, but for now everything written in the second of my two settings will have this tag. I hope one day to get “Project One” out to the world a little more, but “Project Two” has done the mental equivalent of stealing it’s lunch money and taken a lot of it’s good ideas so there’s more work to be done to get that one ready for prime-time.
This piece was originally written in late November 2014, over a long weekend at my partner’s parents house away from my normal distractions.
A Start in the Six Cities
A thump and sharp crack were the only warning the two diners had that their meal was about to be interrupted. A short moment later the ceiling above their table gave way and a man crashed into the room. He landed, with perfect aim, in the centre of their table, which obligingly gave out from underneath him and slid both him and their meal unceremoniously to the floor. Sunshine followed him through the hole he’d left in the roof, softly illuminating the dust falling into the room after him.
He coughed, breaking the sudden silence that had fallen over the room, and cracked open dancing blue eyes to peer up at his unexpected entrance. From seemingly far above some hoots and jeering floated down to him but closer to hand two heads, silhouetted by the light, craned forwards.
“Are… are you alright?” an accented voice from one of the heads asked.
“Hello, friends,” the man said as he pushed himself upright. He took a moment to remove a hunk of butter that had gotten stuck to his elbow, sighed as he felt something warm and wet sliding down his back, and jumped upright. “My apologies for ruining your meal,” he said, spinning to face them and dropping into a flamboyant bow, a gesture he normally found charming as his long hair flowed to the floor around him but in this instance was somewhat ruined by the warm wet thing running back up his back. A chunk of something slipped off his shoulder and squelched to the floor before he could stand back upright. He glanced around at the otherwise deserted room before bringing his attention round to the speaker.
Four dark brown eyes set in two bronze faces looked back at him. The one on the right spoke again, “Don’t worry,” it paused, “are you hurt?”
The man looked at the two women sat before him. It was almost like looking at two sides of the same coin; the two were near identical but for a few small differences. Whereas the woman on his left was regarding him suspiciously and only now seemed to be relaxing after his unexpected entrance the woman on his right almost radiated concern. She seemed younger and softer, in contrast to her companion’s sharp lines, and was dressed in an airy turquoise shirt as opposed to the other woman’s more utilitarian leather clothing. Even their dark hair was worn similarly long, with the younger woman’s in a plait over her shoulder and the other’s in a loose tail tied at the top and bottom.
“Sir?” the younger woman asked again.
“Nothing broken,” he replied, taking mental note of a number of new aches, “though thank you for your concern, miss…”
“Tamina,” she smiled, then gestured to the other woman “and this is my sister Istal.”
The other woman, Istal, flinched on hearing her name and hissed to her companion in a language the man didn’t recognise, “Why did you tell him our names?”
“He’s just some man,” Tamina replied gently in the same language, “and you taught me it never hurts to be civil.”
“He’s not just one man, look at his clothes, his hair. He is from one of the Named Houses, the ones we don’t want to draw the attention of whilst we are here, remember?”
“You’re worrying too much again” Tamina replied testily, “no one knows we’re here, no one is looking for us,” she paused, noticing the man watching their lilting argument with a look of confusion on his face, “and you’re now drawing more attention to us by making a scene. Let me handle it!” She smiled at the man again.
“Alright…” the man said cautiously, “well, Istal, Tamina, it’s a pleasure to meet you both,” he bowed slightly to each of them again as he spoke, “My name is Ynna Valentis, but you can just call me Val.” He flashed them the most winning smile he could manage given how much food there was still dripping from his blue silks and tried not to notice Istal bristling at him. “Now,” he said, spinning a chair from across the aisle to sit opposite the two sisters across the wreck of their table, “I’m going to make a guess that the two of you aren’t from around here, correct?”
“What makes you think that, sir?” Tamina asked, folding her hands in her lap to regard him.
“Please, no ‘Sir’, just Val,” he winked at her, “and it’s pretty obvious.” He raised a hand and began checking off items on his fingers, “Ignoring, well, whatever language that was you were just speaking, you’re in Five Towers. Nothing’s in Five Towers that isn’t coming in to or going out of the city, or at least somehow involved in things coming in or going out. Now, and take this as a compliment, neither of you look like ship hands. Slightly less of a compliment, you also clearly don’t have enough money to be a merchant or a trader because you’re eating this slop,” he gestured to the remains of their meal, some form of stew with a tough hunk of bread, “in this dump,” he gestured to the plain wooden room they were sat in. “So, you’re either just in off the boats, or about to be leaving on one and, honestly, if you’re leaving you’re either very early or very late for your ride. Am I right?”
Tamina and Istal sat in stunned silence for a moment before Istal whispered “What did he just say?” to Tamina.
Tamina muttered a quick translation to her sister then coughed self-consciously. “A fair observation, sir- Val,” she said, “I was unaware we stood out quite as much as we do.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied, waving his hand dismissively, “plenty of travellers come through Five Towers, especially since the Gods died. You’re just two more faces in the crowd. Two very lovely faces, though,” he smiled at Tamina. “Actually, given that I’ve ruined your meal, and we’ve established you’re a little short on coin, I need to make this up to you. Allow me to get you some fresh food and take you out to- oh?” He turned to see what Tamina had been nodding at over his shoulder and found himself facing a stern looking woman in the stark uniform of the Five Towers administration, the tavern’s owner wringing his hands behind her.
“Master Ynna,” she said, bobbing her head just enough to remain respectful and tucking her arms behind her back, “you are not supposed to be here. I suggest,” she continued, raising her voice over his protest, “that you leave these people in peace and allow me to escort you as far as the lift to The Step so you can return to the upper city, before I am forced to call the Scales. Damages will be charged to the Ynna estate.”
A bit of the colour on Val’s face ebbed away with the last sentence, “No, it’s ok, I can pay now,” he stammered reaching for a pouch on his belt.
“Damages will be charged to the Ynna estate,” the woman repeated, catching and holding Val’s eye and stopping him as he hurried to count out coins.
He held the woman’s gaze for a few seconds then slumped, slipping the coins back into the pouch. “Fine,” he sighed, “let’s go.”
He shuffled towards the door, the woman falling into step behind him, then brightened and turned again. “Oh,” he called back across the room, “for the food!” He tossed the coin pouch across the room to Tamina but it was snatched from the air by Istal before it reached her, who glared at his as he walked away. Trying to ignore her he called out to Tamina. “Where can I reach you?”
“Pardon?” she called back, cupping a hand to her ear and grinning.
“Where can I reach you, for dinner?” he called, bracing against the door frame as the official tried to shove him outside.
“Nice to meet you too!” she replied, waving as he lost his battle and was pushed through the door, “goodbye!”
Quiet returned to the room as the door clicked shut and Tamina looked down at the mess that had been lunch. “Well,” she said, reverting to her native tongue and smiling to Istal, “that was unexpected.”
Istal looked at her sister wearily. “Why did he talk so much?” she asked, “What was he even saying, and why did he give you this?” She pulled the drawstring open and upended the contents into her hand. “Is this a lot?” she said, showing the coins to Tamina.
“Yes,” she replied, glancing at it quickly then glaring as she caught the owner peering over the bar at them, put it back before someone sees.” She waited for Istal to return of the money to the pouch then took it from her and hid it in a pocket. “His name was Ynna Valentis, he was sorry for ruining our food and wanted to pay for another meal, and also I think to take us out somewhere nicer…” she trailed off, brushing some crumbs from her lap onto the floor. “I did what you’d want and didn’t tell him where to find us, though he seemed nice enough.”
“He seemed overly interested in us if you ask me,” Istal huffed, “Ynna is one of the Named Houses, we don’t want anything to do with him.”
“Yes, well,” Tamina said, “he’s gone now isn’t he.” She smoothed her clothes down then looked apologetically to Istal. “Could you help get this off of me?”
“Oh,” she started, “of course, sorry.” She stood and shoved the remains of the table away from them, stepping around it to drag the remains clear of her sister.
Tamina smiled at her as she grabbed the wheels of her chair and rolled it forwards, crunching over some unfortunate crockery as she went. Moving across the room to another table she called out to the owner, “Good sir, could we have the same again please?”
Istal padded after her and settled into an adjacent chair. “Did you ask for the same thing?”
Tamina glanced at her sister from the corner of her eye. “You should try leaning a bit of the language, it’d make life a lot easier.” When Istal shrugged she continued. “Yes, I asked for the same again. I think we can let him pay for the meal he ruined but I won’t accept more, we will return the money to him if we are able.”
“Tam, I’m serious,” Istal replied, a note of warning entering her voice, “I need you to stay away from him. Don’t trust anyone from the Named Houses, they’re only out for themselves.”
“You don’t trust anyone,” Tam sighed, “that also makes things more difficult than they have to be.”
Istal opened her mouth to reply but lapsed into silence as the tavern owner approached with their new meals. She nodded her thanks to him, and Tamina thanked him as he placed a bowl in front of her. They took a few mouthfuls of the stew in silence before she tried again. “I’m only trying to look after you,” she said sullenly.
Tamina reached across and squeezed her arm. “I know, I do appreciate everything that you do for me.”
“I shouldn’t be dragging you around with me,” Istal said wearily.
“I wouldn’t have let you leave me behind,” Tamina replied, brightening. “Speaking of which, what are we doing now we’re here? Have you heard any more since we arrived?”
Istal shook her head, “No, nothing we stepped off the boat.”
Istal glanced at Tamina then sighed and settled herself back in the chair, closing her eyes. She took a deep breath then began a slow breathing pattern. Tamina watched her for a moment, then took another mouthful of stew whilst she waited.
After a minute Istal opened her eyes again and shook her head. “It’s sleeping,” she said, “maybe we should just wait.”
“Well,” Tamina countered, “Valentis was right about one thing: we’ve not yet set foot off of Five Towers. The lower city is all made up of islands isn’t it? Maybe we could get out and have a look round rather than hole up here?”
Istal shrugged. “Perhaps. I can get an idea of the lay of the land at least whilst we wait.”
“You could always let me help…”
“No, Tam, it’s too dangerous. I don’t want you to go out without me, and you’re, well-”
“Too obvious, yes, I remember,” she snapped, rolling her chair back and forwards so that it bumped into the table and rocked the bowls, “but come oooonnn, you can’t even talk to anyone here, you’ll need my help!”
Istal smiled sadly at her, “I’m sorry, dear one. If this doesn’t work, maybe. I’ll bring you something to do, I promise.”
“Not more books, please, I think my eyes are going to fall out if you make me read any more!”
“It’s good for you to learn, Tam, you’re such a clever girl. I don’t want your talent to go to waste.”
Tamina rolled her eyes and poked dejectedly at the remains of her stew.
“Tam,” Istal said softly, waiting until the girl looked up at her, “this time feels different. Maybe this will be it, we can be finished and go back home.”
Istal locked the door, adjusted her staff across her back and turned to look out over the island of Five Towers. Tamina had complained but eventually conceded to staying in their rented room and Istal had left her sat at the window reading a book about the Old Gods. With the run of the city now before her Istal looked around and pondered where to begin.
Behind her the city wall stretched upwards, some old watch towers which Tamina had told her gave this island it’s name set along it. With Five Towers being outside the old city the walls curved away from her in each direction, the island itself forming a crescent-shaped wedge of land bulging out into the Inner Sea and extended further by a myriad network of piers, docks and other precariously-balanced buildings which almost doubled the island in size. With space on the island limited the buildings up against the wall had begun to climb upwards, though the higher lodgings were far outside their meagre budget.
Tamina, who was generally busy questioning anyone who would talk to her, had told Istal that the city used to be entirely on top of the cliffs that loomed above her to the west, but near the end of the Unseen War some fifty years ago a large section of the cliff had fallen, tearing the city in half. The upper city still sat atop the cliffs pretending, Tamina said, that nothing had happened. Below, the other half of the city had broken into the Inner Sea, shattering into islands. The two were separated by a three hundred foot tall cliff covered in dangling walkways and buildings clinging desperately to the rock called, colloquially, The Wall. At the Southern end of The Wall sat a small neighbourhood, The Step, which had changed its mind about its descent into the ocean and now perched between the upper and lower cities. It was connected to both by a number of large lifts, moving freight and passengers between the docks in the lower city and the merchants and residences up above.
Looking towards the land Istal couldn’t see much other than the cliff extending out from the city, so turned left towards the Inner Sea instead. She trailed a hand along the balcony railing as she walked and looked down to the streets below, wrinkling her nose at the sharp smell of the sea that permeated the island. She missed the warm, dry air of the Keshu Plains, far to the north, where she and Tamina had grown up, but now found she’d been gone so long she could barely remember its touch. The colder south, she’d decided, didn’t suit her one bit. Still, she thought, I made a deal. I will see it through. She took another breath of the tart air and descended the ramps onto the island.
A few hours later, with the sun descending behind the cliffs to the northwest, she slumped back up the ramp. All things considered, she thought, that went about as well as Tam predicted. She didn’t particularly look forward to explaining her failures when she returned, how she’d not been able to understand anything she’d tried to read and that she had once got so annoyed with people jabbering in their strange language at her, she’d guessed trying to sell her things, that she’d knocked a vendor over trying to push free from the crowd. For someone who was trying not to stand out, she mused, I didn’t do a very good job.
As she approached her door though her thoughts were interrupted by a piercing screech coming from within, followed by a man’s laughter. Suddenly gripped by fear she grabbed the door’s handle and threw her shoulder against it, stumbling over herself as the door swung open easily and deposited her unceremoniously inside. She looked up as the laughter stopped to find Tamina and Valentis, sat together near the window, staring back at her.
Valentis placed the pipe he was holding on the desk and stood, saying something. “He said ‘Welcome home’,” Tamina proffered as Istal straightened up.
Anger coursed through her and she surged across the room at him. They collided and crashed backwards, sending his chair flying as she slammed him up against the wall, shaking the flimsy room. “What are you doing here?” she snarled, pinning him in place as she glared up at him. “What are you doing here?!” she repeated, shaking him when he didn’t respond. She vaguely registered Tamina saying something behind her as Valentis held his hands up, looking past her to Tamina and talking rapidly to her.
She adjusted her grip, pulling his collar and turned, throwing him across the room towards the open doorway. “Get out!” she shouted, pushing at him as he tried to keep his feet. Valentis fell backwards, holding out a hand to defend himself and continuing to speak to Tamina in a quick, scared tone.
“Mother!” the angry voice cut through her fury. “Mother! Stop it!” Suddenly Tamina was between them, one hand steadying the wheel of her chair and the other held out to push back Istal. She glared up at the advancing woman. “He’s not done anything wrong, you’re being unreasonable.”
Istal caught her stride before she collided with the girl. “What is he doing here?” she demanded, “How did he find us?” She saw Valentis picking himself up behind Tamina’s chair and made to move towards him again but a warning look from Tam stopped her.
“I don’t know how he found us,” the girl said, icily, “but he’s here now, throwing him out won’t help anything.”
“Is… is she ok?” Valentis whispered from behind her, looking up at Istal.
“Val, now would be a very good time for you to sit in the corner and be quiet for a moment,” she replied, still looking at her mother, “let me talk with her.”
“Sure, good idea,” he said, scurrying backwards. “Your sister’s crazy.”
Tamina bit off a retort and concentrated on Istal. “Leave him,” she demanded as the other woman’s eyes tracked Valentis across the room, “talk to me.”
Istal’s glared back at her. “I told you to stay away!” she snapped, “He’s dangerous!”
“Dangerous? Do you see how scared he is of you?” Tam answered. “Look,” she gestured to the generous array of fresh food scattered around their small kitchen, “he came with food for us! And look!” she picked up a pipe from her lap that matched the one Valentis had been holding, “When he found me here by myself he bought these instruments and was teaching me how to play! How is any of that dangerous?!”
Istal deflated a little as she looked around and took stock of the situation. “I don’t- that’s- that’s not the point. He shouldn’t be here.” She glanced around at the room again, taking the time to glare at the man trying to be inconspicuous in the corner. “Oh Tam,” she finally said, softly, “I was just scared for you.” She knelt down next to Tamina and found herself pulled into an embrace.
“I know mother, I know,” the girl said, running a hand through her hair. “It’s happened now though; for whatever reason he’s here. Can we be a little normal, just for one evening?”
Istal pulled back and looked at her.
“Please. Please!” she continued, “He lives in the upper city, he may know things that can help you.” She held her mother’s gaze, silently imploring her to agree.
Istal took a deep breath, then slowly let it out. “I don’t like this,” she said as she pulled away, “but he can stay. For now.”
“Thank you mother, thank you.” Tamina smiled and clapped as Istal stood up and began pacing across the room.
“It’d better be worth it,” she called over her shoulder, stalking past Valentis, who was trying not to fidget under her gaze.
As Istal slipped through the door into the back room he stood and straightened his clothes, patting some dust from the white silk. “I… take it I’m staying then?” he asked.
“I’m sorry about her,” Tamina answered, spinning her chair to face him, “she’s very protective of me.” She grinned at Valentis, “You can see how she may have gotten the wrong impression finding you in here.”
Valentis flashed her a smile and flicked his hair back over his shoulder. “I do sometimes have that effect on people,” he mused, bringing a thoughtful hand to his chin, “though normally only on dour matrons and fathers. Sisters are normally as pleased to see me as whoever it is I’m visiting! Still, no accounting for taste and all that.” He sidled across the room and gently took the pipe from Tamina’s lap, placing it back into her hands. “Now,” he said, moving towards the kitchen, “you pick up where we left off, entertain me whilst I work.”