CC.008–009.L.2 | Lucinda Meets Magic

CC.008 - Lucinda meets magic

Writing this scene brought me head to head with the concept of “physical space”. When I started describing the tents that Charlotte was cutting through, I drew multiple maps trying to make it work (and in the end still didn’t quite get there). There’s definitely a Central Pillar post in there; James and I talked about the need to get away from the computer and physically move ourselves, just as our characters do. So fun times to come from that.

This also marks the first introduction of Sandy Lane—not exactly the first person you invite to your party. Vilnius may be (Gasp! Spoiler!) a villain, but Sandy is the one you fear. (Think Jack vs Roger in Lord of the Flies.) We also tried an exercise with Sandy: we didn’t gender them. It’s written into Sandy’s backstory why, and from a writer’s standpoint it was to see how to handle not using pronouns (which turned out to be both easier and more difficult than I expected).

Finally, Vilnius enters centre stage with his home made magic device and does something dastardly. It took two attempts to get that scene close enough to right for a first draft (you’ll find both below). I’m really pleased with how the interaction between Vilnius and Lucinda turned out. I struggled over it as I wrote—the dialogue kept not working, and I moved pieces around probably a dozen times; not to mention trying to fit it feasibly between what Charlotte and Raul are doing, but in the end I think it worked really well. (I don’t know where the inspiration to have her help him put on the weird glove came from, but I’m glad it did!)

Oh, and James does some Mountain Math.

Charlotte stepped into the cool evening, the crisp air nipping at her skin; a shock after being inside the hot, muggy tent for so long. She looked up to the mountains far in the distance 1 which obscured the last of the sun’s light, bringing early twilight. As she moved away from the tent a thin, wispy fog curled around her ankles. The noise of the party was just behind her, but outside she could feel the Cottonwood’s silence pressing upon its edges.

All around—leaning on carts, smoking cigarettes, and one group of four actually passing a flask between them as she watched—guards faked attention. One in leafgreen made a production of pulling out her tobacco pouch, loosening the strings, pouring just the right amount onto a thick leaf before rolling it, and sealing both ends with a wet kiss before finally lighting the smoke from a nearby torch. Their presence, apparently, was enough of a deterrent to any potential threat. Looking closer, Charlotte realized the group with the flask were half Fort City, half Cottonwood. Who can we possibly be defending against? Charlotte thought. It’s only ourselves left.2

Another cheer erupted behind her inside the tent. She left her ruminating alone lest it distract her long enough for Raul to finish his match and come find her. Passing the guards with the flask she raised a single eyebrow in question as she marched by. “Should you be drinking on duty?” She asked one of the Fort City guards.

“Don’ say why not? Wha, you afraid o’ the bogey man a the woods?” He grinned.

“I’m more afraid of the composting mentality of the ubiquitous pissant.” The guard scrunched up his face as Charlotte stormed away.3

She strode with purpose, the path to Lucinda’s tent a familiar one, but the appearance and slow creep of the fog along the ground, combined with the flicker of torches and the consuming night, made the camp appear different, almost sinister. Like The Mists of Forlorn Redemption, she thought. It was one of her favourite Suzannah stories. The Barbarian Queen is hunting a murderer through a graveyard, but there’s a thick, dense fog that sits on the land like a giant, mistwraith toad, obscuring the graveyard, transforming the shadows and gravestones alike into grasping monsters hungry for her flesh.4

Charlotte slipped into her barbarian guise5 again, her knees bent ever so slightly, ready to pounce, her muscles flexed, primed, anxious for combat. She stalked across the camp, the carts and structures becoming haunted tombs, the tents shadowy barrows. The sound of giggles became the ghastly hiccup of a revenant, the distant roar of the party the breathing of a vast beast luring her into its gullet. I am the night, I am the hunter, I am the B—

She collided with a pair of guards as they rounded a corner, lost her footing and stumbled backwards. One guard shot out a hand and caught her before she went sprawling into the dirt, righting her balance, a gentle smile on her face. Charlotte stood tall, summoning a dash of haught as cover, and strode off past the pair with her head held high, urgently holding back the creeping blush rising along her neck.

Suzannah never worries about being spotted, Charlotte thought. If she came upon two guards she’d just take their heads in her giant palms, crash their heads together, then pull the bodies under a cart and creep on. No talking, no negotiating. Just the necessary violence needed for a quick, elegant solution. Then on to more adventure.

She sighed.

Across the path, Charlotte saw another set of guards—a pair of Cottonwood troops—huddled together, intense animation between them. For a moment, she felt her curiosity peek, until they started miming moves from what was clearly a wrestling match.6

“Bloody7 screaming goats,” she muttered to herself. “Is that the only entertainment they have in the forest?”

She passed by the pair, mostly ignoring them. From the corner of her eye, though, she could see neither was concerned with her, one firmly in a headlock, the other flailing wildly. Charlotte did notice they wore mismatched sets of Cottonwood garb. And each carried a pair of knives on their belt, firmly sheathed. How long ago would they have reached for their blades to settle dispute? Augusto appeared in Charlotte’s mind and she began to wonder than there wasn’t more to this wrestling business.

As Charlotte reached the edge of the dignitary tents, two more guards passed her—probably on their way to a shift change—fully kitted, their upper arms wrapped in black bands. Their Fort City armour gleamed in the waning light, and Charlotte felt a flash of pride for her home, followed almost as quickly by an ominous moment of tension.

Ominous? Thought Charlotte. That’s a strange feeling to have. She watched the pair weave their way towards the large tent that stood higher than the rest and realized she couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd anymore. The match must be over, which meant Raul and his damn coif of hair would be undistracted. Best to double time it.

She turned her attention back to the tents nearby and aimed directly for an elegantly ornate, though not gaudy, one that stood out even amongst the others. Lucinda never does shy from the fancy stuff. Her tent was much larger than those around it, taking up the ground space of four in the double row of tents butted up back to back as well as side to side along this stretch, maximizing as much space as possible.8

The sky was getting darker as the last of the day’s sunlight faded away. Light shone out from inside, forming a pool in front of the tent’s opening, and Charlotte could see a ripple of shadows dancing within it.

Charlotte stepped up to the tent but a sudden intuition held her back from entering. Gently she pulled back the flap and peered inside.

There was Lucinda. She’d removed her fox wool over-shaul, exposing her shoulders, the garment crumpled up and thrown carelessly on the plush cot. Lucinda stooped over her open trunk, casually rooting through it, the subtle sound of music from the party lingering in the distance.

Strange, she’s usually so meticulous, especially with her fine things. Charlotte was smiling, but something felt off about her master, 9something different, and it was a full minute before she realized, as Lucinda moved about tent, she was humming along to the distant music.

She never hums.

One of their previous assignments, several years before, involved brokering a deal with a well-organized band of pirates that had taken to cruising Fort City’s coast, plundering any ships that came in or out of the harbour.10 They came in the spring after a fast summer and a particularly harsh winter. With the Cottonwood taking extra interest in their wares on the roads, the City was depending on its sea trade to bolster the previous summer’s meager harvest. The pirates, however, made that near impossible.

It was a hard time for Fort City. The people were hungry, and pressed on both sides by brigands. The population felt like a noose was tightening around their throat. So the King ordered Lucinda and Charlotte out to make peace.

Until the Cottonwood talks, it had been the harshest, most deadly assignment Charlotte had been on. She smiled, remembering it fondly—even though, in the end, it was mostly sitting around tables without11 a single swordfight to its name. The initial meeting had taken days, weeks to set up, and when an agreement to meet had finally been negotiated Charlotte was stunned when Lucinda ordered the Fort City troops to stay out—even forbidding her protege to sneak in a short dagger.

“What would you do with a weapon, Charlie? Poke yourself in the eye? These are combat veterans, they thrill on the sound of steel and the rush of blood. You’d be dead before you could even think of drawing. No, we will bring and use our weapons, those of words, and wit, and iron steel resolve to win this day.”

“They’re pirates!” She had rebuttaled. “If we don’t take precautions, we could die!”

“Every day carries that same threat. Would you take a sword to bed to dream restful thoughts? You’re more likely to end up with red sheets.”

“Well, they’re pirates, they prey on the weak; they only recognize strength. If we walk in without weapons—”

“Will we not be the strongest of all?”12

Charlotte could always remember that smile Lucinda gave her then. At the time, it made Charlotte feel like a child, but later—when she could reflect on their victory—they had not only secured a deal with the pirates, but did so in such a way that the pirates would become so linked to Fort City, dependant upon it for resupply of stores, booze, and taverns, that they might as well have signed up as the Fort City Navy.13 And the pirates didn’t see it! That was when Charlotte realized she was Lucinda’s confidant, that perhaps not even the King knew the plan. He trusted Lucinda without knowing, and Lucinda, in turn, trusted Charlotte.

It was a great victory for Fort City, heralded for months as Lucinda’s finest hour. There had been a party that night, too. Lucinda had made the obligatory round, then retired to her tent. When Charlotte called upon her, she was deep in papers for their next assignment, her customary preparation scowl firmly rooted on her face. Charlotte wasn’t surprised—that’s always what Lucinda did. With today’s work done, she prepared for tomorrow’s.

But she never hummed. Not once, in all the long years Charlotte had served with her, had she ever seen her master hum. Lucinda had stayed at this party much later than she usually did, and spying into the tent Charlotte realized tomorrow’s books and notes were all still packed together in the work trunk while Lucinda rooted in her personal effects.

Lucinda rose from her trunk with a parcel in hand, and glided across the room to her vanity where a large, durable mirror sat. Charlotte couldn’t see Lucinda’s face when she sat, as the mirror was not pointed to face the entrance—not a very barbarian thing to do, Charlotte thought, but then, Lucinda is not a barbarian—but as she glided to the vanity Charlotte caught the smile firmly planted on Lucinda’s face.

Confused, unsure, Charlotte nonetheless smiled too. Her master was happy.

Still, Charlotte felt unsettled. It was Augusto that had directed her to Lucinda here. Had she not been distracted by the buffoon Raul she would have realized Lucinda would retire to her tent. But she would never have expected this. In all the years she’d worked with Lucinda, they had developed a bond. Charlotte was her trusted confidant. But tonight, it seemed, she knew less about her master than their opponent-turned-ally did.

He doesn’t know her, not really, Charlotte thought. But apparently, neither do I.

Charlotte let the flap gently fall closed and stepped back several steps. She counted five heart beats before she opened her mouth to announce her presence, but stopped as the sound of several heavy footsteps approached. She turned to see Count Vilnius storming down the aisle, his midnight cloak billowing out behind him. He was flanked on either side by Fort City guards, and a third, wispy figure flitted back and forth behind them.

Charlotte strode forward to meet him.

“Count, twice in one night. If there’s a third, we’ll have to have an adventure.”

For a moment, it seemed like the Count wouldn’t stop, just keep walking until he plowed right through Charlotte. His attention was preoccupied, or Charlotte thought, to high above her to notice. Finally—the moment before he would barrel into her—he stopped, turning his head back and forth like he was annoyed by a buzzing gnat, but his thin eyes darted back and forth finally settling upon Charlotte.

“The orphan,” the Count said. “Of course.

Charlotte stumbled back a step, her mouth open but unable to speak. The word, the insult, the delivery; everything about Vilnius’ tone conveyed contempt. The three figures trailing him caught up and flanked their master. Up close she could tell they weren’t Fort City soldiers after all, but two monstrous, numb-headed goons from Vilnius’ personal guard. Charlotte was about to verbally cut Vilnius down for his remark when the third figure casually strolled around the trio.

Short, cropped hair; broad, solid shoulders. Taught muscles wrapped around a lithe frame. The compact figure stared through Charlotte and she suppressed a shudder.

Sandy sidled up next to Vilnius, a slight sneer creeping across thin red lips. And those unsettling blue eyes… Sandy snorted, like Charlotte’s thoughts had been read.

Addressing Sandy, Vilnius said, “Send them back to central tent. I would speak to her alone.”

Sandy nodded, then looked up at the two hulking thugs hovering over the Count’s shoulders, face completely still but eyes flicking from one to the other. They shifted nervously before backing off with relief and disappearing back the way they’d come.

Charlotte disliked the Count and his arrogance—not to mention his utter contempt for me; for everyone, really—but Sandy was something different. Charlotte felt uncomfortable in that one’s14 presence. Sandy appeared amicable enough, but Charlotte always felt like she was being watched when Sandy was around, visually dissected. Understood. In a way one doesn’t want to be understood.

“What do we have to discuss, Count?” Charlotte asked.

The Count turned his head, his brow furrowed as he considered the question. Though standing directly in front of her, she watched as he looked around. Finding no other source for the question, he finally acknowledged Charlotte’s presence with a scowl.

“Child, I have no time for your inane rambling,” Count Vilnius said as he gestured at Lucinda’s tent. “I am here for your master, not you. Begone!” Vilnius stepped past Charlotte, his hand fluttering in her face like he was swatting away an errant fly. Striding towards the tent he called out, “Ambassador, a word!” He threw the entrance flap aside without waiting for a response and stepped inside.

Charlotte fumed. I’m not a child, Count, to be dismissed with a wave. She moved to cross the distance and join the parlay but suddenly there was Sandy, body poised casually between her and the tent. Sandy’s eyes were open wide, head tilted slightly forward, watching Charlotte; a slow grin coiling at Charlotte. For a fleeting moment Charlotte thought of Raul, but couldn’t understand why.

Sandy took several steps forward, slowly. Charlotte opened her mouth to speak but Sandy’s head shook back and forth, stepping into Charlotte’s personal space. She instinctively took a step back, and another as Sandy continued to advance.15

“Fine,” Charlotte said, and turned, marching away in the opposite direction Vilnius arrived. When she was far enough away to feel comfortable, she glanced over her shoulder to see she was being watched, that thin grin still cracking a line across Sandy’s face. Charlotte—enraged by Vilnius’ ascertation that she’s16 a child and filled with the courage of distance—started to make a face, but before she could put any real emotion into it, Sandy simply turned away, strolling back to the front of Lucinda’s tent and standing there with a bored expression.

I’m not a threat, Charlotte thought.

She headed off down the path, her anger boiling inside her. This wasn’t like earlier, when Raul wouldn’t take a hint; this was an old fury. She had always spoken her mind, ever since she was a kid.17 A willful child, true, but that did not mean her ideas were baseless. She could see a growing canker in Fort City that so many others could not—chose not to. Even Lucinda, who respected and challenged Charlotte, told her to focus on her studies and their tasks rather than try and convince the meritocracy18 something of which they had no desire to be convinced.

She had satiated19 herself on the idea that, one day, she would grow up and they would have to listen. But that day never seemed to come. Again and again they wound down the same old trails as Charlotte saw the cracks widening; long, crooked tendrils stretching out into her society20. To make the matter even more frustrating, this seemed to be the one place her language continuously failed her. She couldn’t find the right words to describe what was happening. It was only a feeling, nothing more. But one so strong she could not ignore it.

Without the words, no one will listen. Charlotte thought. And we’ll walk this same path over and over until we trip on the rut…

Charlotte stared down at her own feet and the dirt beneath them. She had wandered far down the track from Lucinda’s tent, though in the distance she could just see Sandy still standing sentry outside. The wind picked up for a moment and a soft crack of canvas made Charlotte jump. To her left the entrance flap of a minor delegate’s tent had come undone, and was was blowing in the breeze. Charlotte grabbed the flaps and pulled, capturing the loose threads to tie them back together.

Ever the friendly helper, she thought. Just a child to be sent away, definitely not a threat. She’s no Barbarian Queen…

Charlotte stopped. She looked down the row at where Lucinda’s tent stood alone among other gaudier tents. She recalled her earlier wanderings around the yard, picturing the shape of the tents before her, one crammed side to side with those next to it. And she felt the dirt beneath her feet.

I’m no threat, she said to herself.

But I could be.21

Loosely tossing the strings around each other, she casually stepped away from the tent, facing a branch in the path. She took several steps in that direction until she was sure Sandy wouldn’t be able to see her if watching, paused, then spun and bolted across the path and into the unknown.

The room was dark and heavy with the smell of old canvas, cold from disuse all day.22 Charlotte stood there, urging her body to disappear further into the shadows as she tried to slow the pounding of her heart. Her eyes were riveted to the open doorway where a thin, flickering strip of light denoted the line between the world of rules and following orders and the space of the Barbarian Queen.

Beat. Beat. Beat.23

Nothing. No shadowy figure appeared in the doorway to drag her away. Sandy hadn’t seen her jump across the lane. Or did, and is biding time…

Charlotte decided it was her time to smile. Her heart was racing, the thump thump thump24 of her chest so loud she was sure Lucinda and the Count could hear it from six tents away, but here she was shrouded in darkness, a menace upon her heels, and a quest in front of her.

Trying to ignore her heart, she strained to listen. Through so many layers of material, however, she couldn’t hear a thing. She couldn’t risk going back out the entrance because Sandy might still be lurking around. If she had any hope of eavesdropping on Lucinda’s conversation, she’d have to act fast, but sneaky. Which meant only one thing…

Unlike Lucinda, most delegates, despite enjoying their creature comforts, rarely dragged as much pomp and fair as she did deep into the forest.25This tent was fairly sparse, even for an army camp, but there was a short, narrow table setup at the foot of a rope cot, acting as a desk. Keeping her eyes on the front flap, Charlotte approached the desk.

On it sat a short stack of papers, closed and unused envelopes, and a full ink well that, in the darkness, was a void of space. A surprising array of ink tips lay next to set of pen shafts—who are you writing to in the forest, Charlotte wondered—but quickly thanked the unnamed delegate for their letter writing passion for, next to the set of pens, lay a letter opener.

She picked up the opener and felt its heft in her hand. Even in the dark she could see the handle was gilded in gold,26 and the weight was lopsided, completely ineffective as a weapon. Charlotte gently rubbed her thumb across the blade, checking the thing’s edge. It’s sharp. Perfect.

Charlotte stood quietly in the centre of the tent, giving one more moment to listening. There was no sound of movement from outside. Taking a long, deep breath she scurried to the tent’s left wall, placing herself next to one of the braces holding the canvas up. Taking a bunch of the material and pulling it taught in her left hand, she slide the letter opener into the grey material. Using the wooden beam as a guide she cut a straight line from hip level all the way to the ground, the material giving way with a scratchy rip.

Charlotte wasted no time sticking her arm through and repeating her act of vandalism on the back of the next tent, which butted up against its neighbour. As the blade reached the ground she gave one last look at the tent flap before tossing the letter opener far into the new room, gathering her skirt about her and crawling into the freshly made slit, the ragged, fraying edges miniscule tendrils failing to grip her27 as she struggled through.

Charlotte twisted and squirmed until she was birthed into the new tent.28 On the other side a large trunk sat awkwardly in her way, catching her dress, causing her to lose balance and collapse to the ground. She was dirty, bowled over, and happy as a pig because she just cut her way into a tent. The smile on her face threatened to light up she was so excited. But she still had a mission to complete.

She reached out for the letter opener she’d tossed through and rose, contemplating the next wall she would cut. Comparing it to her first stroke, she realized that the tents were different and where she cut through in this structure was the middle of the canvas wall, not cleverly hidden at all.

“Goats,”29 she muttered quietly to herself. Her original plan to cut her way clean through to Lucinda’s tent was flawed. She was leaving a trail as clear as a road behind her, and for a moment she worried she’d be discovered right then. But as a cheer crescendoed and died in the distance, she thought, no one is going to notice tonight.

She had little time to think, however, as she realized that Lucinda was unlikely to humour Vilnius for long, and minutes had already passed. If she was going to hear what he had to say she had to get to the tent now.30

Abandoning her original plan, she strode through the dark tent and paused at the entrance flap. Dirty, panting from exertion, holding a stolen letter opener in her hand, Charlotte carefully unfastened it from the inside. She peered out into the night, watching for the movement of people, specifically roaming guards or Sandy. The stretch in front of her, thankfully, was empty. Charlotte stepped out as if leaving her own tent—the letter opener held loosely in her hand, the blade resting along her forearm—her head held high just in case someone she couldn’t see was watching. Look left. Look right. Nothing. Acting like the dirt covering her dress was normal she turned left31down the row back towards Lucinda’s tent. As she passed the second tent, she hitched up her skirt and ran.

The ambassador’s life was never one for bursts of strength or speed, and though King Theodore spoke highly of the benefits of a regular fitness regime, Lucinda had never bothered to enforce a strict routine with Charlotte. She was huffing and puffing as she bolted down the line. Counting in her head, she rifled off the tents as she passed them.32

When the path ahead turned to the right, Charlotte continued straight ahead, barrelling into the tent in front of her without bothering to untie the straps. She threw up her hand before her, letter opener at ready, and sliced through the tassel.33

In the dark she stood there huffing and puffing, hunched over, catching her breathe. Time… to start… Theodore’s exercise regime… she thought. It didn’t befit a Barbarian Queen to keel over after a brief run. Still, Charlotte thought, all things being relative, for her this experience was akin to Susannah crushing an army of moving skeletons. Even Barbarian Queens must sweat, right?

Hefting the letter opener, Charlotte cut one last line through the back of the tent—taking a brief moment to worry and revel in the destructive path she’d made—and crawled through. Behind the tent was a space just large enough for a body to lie down in; Charlotte rose to a crouch. The tent before her was the back of Lucinda’s. Being still, frozen, Charlotte could just recognize through the canvas wall the deep alto of her teacher, and the soft, delicate tenor of Vilnius.

“Count, we have been over this matter before—dozens of times—and I assure you my opinions have not changed. One should be able to see that by the very signing of the treaty itself.”

“Indeed. I had hoped sense would return to you before, as it were, blood was spilt.”

Charlotte smiled. She hadn’t missed the conversation, arriving just as it picked up. Despite the canvas wall before her, she could see clearly Lucinda’s left foot tapping, the precursor tell that Lucinda was getting frustrated with Vilnius and was about to start pacing. But what was this argument from Vilnius? It sounded like he opposed the accord, and had for quite some time. Of course, he’d always spoken out against the Cottonwood people, claiming they were no more than ignorant savages incapable of advanced diplomacy, but he had to see he was wrong now, didn’t he? Augusto’s actions, though barbarous on the surface, belied a level of guile and cunning Charlotte thought Vilnius would appreciate. Not to mention the freedom his holdings now had to act beyond the extreme borders of Fort City. He, of all the meritocracy, stood primed to take full advantage of the development. Charlotte cursed herself for taking so long to get here; more context would have been helpful to unravel this knot. Perhaps she could tease it out of Lucinda later.

“Who’s he?”34

Charlotte’s hands flew to her face to hold in the scream that came barrelling up her throat, and she collapsed face first into the dirt. The voice had come from over her shoulder, practically a whisper in her ear. Rolling away from the tent wall, cursing quietly and madly, she stared up into a doofish, grinning face beneath an impossible quaff of hair.

“Raul!?” Charlotte hissed through closed teeth. “What the screaming goats are you doing here?”

“Why are you in the dirt?” he asked, almost pleasantly, like he hadn’t just startled Charlotte so bad and blown her cover.

“Quiet!” she hissed, grabbing his tunic and pulling him to the ground. “What are you doing here don’t answer!” With an exasperated sigh, she leapt from her hiding spot and dragged the still grinning fool after her through the hole in the neighbouring tent.

“You know,” Raul started once they were alone in the darkness, “I once stalked a waterback beast for six days through the mud before—” Charlotte’s finger, rigid, hovering millimetres from his nose, cut his words short.35

“What are you doing here?”

“Talking to you.” That grin. I’m going to hurt that grin. 36

“Why did you follow me?”

“It’s a gentleman’s requirement—as Augusto has told me—to escort a lady into the woods when the evening hits and nightly rituals are a must.”

Charlotte started at him, baffled. Did he really…

He just kept grinning.

“You followed me to the latrine!

“Of course! We were in the middle of such an invigorating talk when you ran off. There is nothing shameful in it! Why, I once—”
“No,” Charlotte cut him off. “No stories about your bowels. Now shut up, and get out of here.”

“Shall we return to the party, then?”

“What? No! You leave—I stay.”

“But the festivities are over yonder in the warmth of the main tent. And, if I may be a tad boastful, I do believe I can convince Augusto to another bout, and I am feeling particularly sturdy!” He looked around the room.37“I also have the distinct feeling this is not your tent.”

Charlotte stared at the young man, completely stuck. She had just pushed him back through a slit in someone else’s tent that should not be there, after he stumbled upon her spying on her master and another of the ranking members of Fort City’s meritocracy. 38Buffoon though he may be, he could potentially cause a real uncomfortable situation for her. She would have to use all her wit to maneuver him.

“Listen,” she whispered, “I was just…”

“Eavesdropping, yes,” he whispered back. “You made quite good work with the dainty knife—and believe me, I know knives!—impressive work. But don’t we miss the opportunity to listen by being in here?”  

“Are you suggesting…” But she never finished her thought as Raul quietly slipped back through the hole in the tent. Charlotte, baffled, followed.

Raul was poised in a crouch at the edge of the tent, his head cocked, listening. As Charlotte appeared he raised a finger to his lips to shush her. Are you kidding me?39 Charlotte thought, but planted herself next to him regardless. Inside, the conversation continued.

“Vilnius, no! I’m not having this debate again! It’s over—go back to the party. The Accord is done, the sword is signed. Your argument is not only ineffective, but incredibly moot. Have a drink with Augusto. Let the future be.”

“My dear Lucinda, it is the future I worry for! This Accord stands to block the growth of power in this country.”

Raul waved his hand to get Charlotte’s attention, then pointed to the letter opener in the dirt beside her, gesturing for her to pass it to him. She shook her head, mouthing the words “Too risky.” Raul ignored her and held out his hand, leaving it to float in the air with no question that she would grant his request. Grudgingly, she handed it over.

“There are two of Fort City’s three most observant leaders in that tent. If you cut in the wall,” Charlotte whispered, “they’re going to see it.”

“Then it’s best we…knot…let them see us.”

It was only afterwards that Charlotte realized he was making a pun.40 Taking the letter opener he gently ran it over the canvas until he found a beam, then with a swift, complicated gesture slid the tool between two flaps Charlotte hadn’t seen, creating just enough space for him to slide his hand in. Charlotte’s own hands hovered by the sides of her head, squeezed tightly into fists, her face fighting to display rage or fear while Raul reached into the tent.

“Luckily, I’m a master of knots as well as the knotted limb twist.” His wrist made a series of quick moves and he extracted his hand, the canvas trailing ever so gently after him, exposing a tiny viewing hole into the tent itself.

Charlotte had no words, but probably would have looked for a spear had they been anywhere else. As it were, her curiosity got the best of of her and she peered inside.

Count Vilnius stood stationary in the middle of the room, fiddling with a piece of jewelry on his left hand, while Lucinda paced back and forth in front of him. Neither of them gave any indication they had seen a disembodied hand fiddle with the tent flaps. Begrudgingly, Charlotte would have to thank Raul later; provided he kept his mouth shut.

Inside, Lucinda stopped pacing. Despite their height difference—Lucinda was a full foot shorter than the Count—she nonetheless was able to stare him down as if they were eye to eye. Charlotte smiled. It was a classic Lucinda trick. I’ll have to get her to teach it to me.

“Count, you are no fool, which begs the question why are you acting foolish. You know,” Lucinda said, stretching out the emphasis on know,41“that Fort City is in trouble. This accord—it is a formidable move and, ultimately, our only move left.”

The Count waved his free hand to dismiss the thought, just as he had dismissed Charlotte. “There are always other moves, Ambassador. This is not the only path to success for Fort City.” He continued to poke at the jewelry. He had laid it over the back of his left hand and was making great efforts to link a chain and clasp around his wrist.

“It is if we want success! Autonomy and allyship in the Cottonwood forces Fort City’s hand. Only through—damn you, Count, I told you I was not having this debate again!” Lucinda stepped over to Vilnius and grabbed his wrist, taking the clasp from his other hand and fastening it tightly. A grim smirk curled on his face and he nodded once in thanks.

“I don’t need to remind you,” Lucinda went on as Vilnius, digit by digit, dropped rings attached by smaller chains onto his fingers, “that you of all members of the meritocracy, the king included, stand to benefit from this arrangement. Your experience dealing with the Cottonwood people makes you a prime candidate to initiate many points of contact with the City.”

Charlotte’s interest was peaked. She hadn’t know that Vilnius had dealings with the Cottonwood.42 She turned to Raul, question in her eyes, but he just shrugged—the dumb grin still on his face—and gestured back to the tent with this chin.

“Very true, my dear ambassador. There is none more poised than myself to admit the inadequacy of the Cottonwood people. Alas, true wisdom is so rarely known, let alone listened to. Believe me, the signing of the accord is a rather…unfortunate, turn of events. I truly hoped you would see my arguments for the superior claims they are and prevent tragedy.”43Vilnius finished with his rings. He flexed his hand, letting the complicated jewelry settle into place, before shaking his hand and letting the series of chains jangle.

“Count Vilnius, I must insist, if you have nothing new to add to an argument that is already futile, please leave me be. I have matters to attend to.”

Charlotte hunkered down, and peered intently through the gap in the tent. The smile on her face threatened to spin right off. This was the moment she was waiting for, when her teacher would shut Vilnius down completely. I shouldn’t take pleasure in this, she thought. But I will.

“But my dear Ms Brubaker, the argument is not, as you say, futile.”

“Vilnius—the accord is signed. The sword forged. The matter is closed.”

From her vantage, Charlotte could see Vilnius smile, cool and crooked. “Not quite yet. The king, trusting as he is, hopeful as he is, knows the value and substance of presence over hope. The matter is not closed until the sword returns to Fort City.  Anything less, well, might mean treachery upon the Cottonwood’s side. And would force his hand to war.”

“What are you getting at, Count?” Lucinda’s back was to Charlotte, but she saw in her mind’s eye her master’s eyes narrow, her mind already calculating what information she did and did not have on the matter. “Do you have knowledge of the Cottonwood’s treachery?”

Vilnius, with his thumb, began rubbing the jewel on the back of his hand. The small gem started to glow, a dull, green44 light that bled into tiny, interlocking pieces of metal that made up the glove portion. He stepped back a pace and held his hand palm up.45

“Not the Cottonwood’s, no…”

As Charlotte watched, Vilnius flipped his open hand around, palm towards Lucinda. The sensation of heat around Charlotte was suddenly pulled into the room, an invisible wave that nearly knocked her over. He splayed his fingers and a beam of harsh green light arced from his hand straight into Lucinda’s chest. The air cracked, followed by the sound of sizzling. The green light consumed Lucinda from the point of contact, spreading over her flesh. As it passed, only ashes were left, like dirty snow slowly drifting to the ground.46


It all happened in the immensity of time between one second and the next. There wasn’t even a chance for Lucinda to scream.48


So, dear reader, after James and my notes conversation on the nature of magic, Vilnius’ device, and the ending of this section, I couldn’t get it out of my head—so I went back and wrote a redraft of this scene. The following is that redraft…

…“Do you have knowledge of the Cottonwood’s treachery?”

Beside her, Charlotte felt Raul stiffen. As Lucinda spoke, Vilnius wandered over to one of the small torches that lit the tent. He held his left hand up, the tiny chains jingling as he caressed the flickering fire, his fingers hovering millimeters from being burned. His hand moved back and forth like he was searching for a particular piece, to do what with Charlotte couldn’t guess. His movements were gentle and concise, yet unnerving. He smiled, staring deep into the flame.

“Not the Cottonwood’s, no…”

As Charlotte watched, Vilnius plunged his jeweled hand into the flame. For a brief moment, there was nothing, as if time and place forgot about this section of the world and left them all in a strange tableau. Later, Charlotte would long for this moment, stretch it out in her mind, cradle it like a small child,49 but sadly, here and now, it passed all too soon. As movement50 came back to them Charlotte felt the sensation of heat being pulled into the tent from all around her, the tingle of scorching that travelled across her skin, like a moving sunburn. Inside, Vilnius had removed his hand from the flame, and now it glowed impossibly with a sickening green, unlike any echo of magic she had seen before. The fire—all the flames in the room, including the candle on the desk—rose tall, bright, and hot. Shadows thickened, stretched. The smell of burning tin pervaded.

Vilnius turned his glowing hand slowly, the light flickering off his face. His hair, always dark, sucked in light like black ink. His palm was raised, fingers splayed wide; hand shaking, as if straining to hold up a great weight. Charlotte didn’t see when, but his eyes had closed. Suddenly, his hand closed into a fist, the green invigorated as the torches sucked into themselves. His eyes opened, staring directly at Lucinda. He opened his fist.

The air cracked, followed by the sound of sizzling. The green faded around Vilnius’ hand, and the smell of tin was overpowered by that of fat burning. Charlotte had to focus to keep her dinner down. In the centre of the tent, Lucinda stood frozen, locked in place, as from inside her green light spread outwards across her skin, the edge of its passing leaving behind only ash, like dirty snow slowly drifting to the ground.

It all happened in the immensity of time between one second and the next. There wasn’t even a chance for Lucinda to scream.

  1. James: Can she see them? A) they’re in a river valley B) they’re in a forest with lots of leafy trees C) how far away are they, really? Lets do the math! Average human walking distance of 5kph. Say Charlotte and Raul need a week to get back to Fort City from the lip of the valley. Take an average of eight hours of walking a day (probably be more, but ehhh, lets be conservative.) 5x8x7 = 280 km (roughly). The horizon is about 5km away from an observer, but that assumes no change in elevation between the two points. Charlotte is below the horizon, the actual distance would be from her to the river valley’s edge, BUT you can see tall objects past the horizon.

    I’ve done some google research (because this is interesting and important!)

    The tallest mountain in Canada is Mt. Logan at 5959M, or about 19,500 ft. If we’re making the western razorbacks a rocky mountain analogue, I’d say this is a fitting max peak height for our mountains. The data is a little funky and anecdotal, but I found a dude that claims he can see mt. Denali from Anchorage, Alaska, with a distance of about 160 miles, or 256 km. The mountain has an elevation of over 20,000 ft (close to our max), so there is a chance that on a good, clear day Charlotte might be able to see a mountain peak or two.

    Further research shows that because she’s at such a low elevation, even if she had a clear line of sight with good light, the curvature of the earth would still probably get in the way.

    So I’m going to say no, this taxes credulity. Look, two sentences in and I’m already making massive comments telling you you’re wrong! I’m the Story Jerk as much as I am the Fish Jerk.

  2. James: good… gooooood

  3. James: not fond of this exchange. The guard was massive rude to an important person, and charlotte’s reply was too precious.

  4. James: bruh – tense. (not again, nooo, nooo, NOOOOOOO!)

    Luke: I actually don’t see the tense misstep. You’re going to have to point it out to me.

  5. James: Word choice.

    Luke: guise
    an external form, appearance, or manner of presentation, typically concealing the true nature of something.

    She’s not a barbarian yet 😛

  6. James: lol

  7. James: I’m becoming more and more fond of just ‘screaming goats’ without any other modifiers. Just for the record.

    Luke: Very well. Then we shall have to discuss how each of the characters feels about it. I’m down with added modifiers making it more aggressive / crude, in which case, Old Man Blue would totally use it (and Charlotte, for example, likely wouldn’t).

  8. James: get what you’re saying, but we can say it better

  9. James: word choice – maybe?

    Luke: Yeah, never really felt right to me either. But I didn’t like teacher, either (i.e. I don’t feel Charlotte would say “Teacher, where are we going?”), and never came up with anything else.

    Master (technical term; an apprentice has a master, Google tells me).

    Ooh, I can get behind mentor.

  10. James: whoa whoa whoa… the ocean is on the other side of the mountains. Does fort city have any dominion over that land? (maybe it does – I’m asking non-rhetorically) Either way, we should distance the pirates from the city itself, since it most definitely doesn’t have a harbour (maybe a river, though, which means boats. Pirates on the Steppe? Bandits in boats? THE LAST SASKATCHEWAN PIRATE!?! Lets think about it!)

    Luke: We’ve drawn maps, but… can we draw a picture of Fort City? I think we see different visuals.

  11. James: can we change this to “with only”?

    Luke:Maybe… Kind of goes against what I was trying to establish, i.e. the Ambassador’s life.

    Maybe Charlotte slept in that day and missed it, or something. That’d work.

    “…with only a single sword fight to its name—_And I missed it because I was sent on an errand!_ Charlotte fumed.”

    _ _ = italics

  12. James: fantastic exchange here.

    Luke: Thanks. I felt rather proud of it.

  13. James: I like this for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one being that is shows Fort City as less than ideal – associating with Pirates? That isn’t something a capital G Good nation does.

    Luke: The more I think about it, the Last Saskatchewan Pirate feels kind of right (well, not in the singular, and not “the Last”…) But Prairie Pirates. Yeah, there’s something in that. Maybe they become special corps, or … Fort City gives them wealth to be an actual Navy? I dunno, let’s gab it out.

  14. James: nice. Not odious… actually, it works really well for the scene.

  15. James: The silence is working so well here.

  16. James: lets not use the contraction

  17. James: I’d say “child,” especially given the immediate repetition and modification

  18. James: its the form of government, sure but is this the right word here?

    Luke: Depends—what do the leaders of Fort City call themselves? Meritocrats (like aristocrats)?

  19. James: or “sated”? which is more appropriate? All my research drive is gone after that mountain thing.

    Luke: Upon Googling, I don’t think we want either. They’re all about being full, or thoroughly satisfied, which doesn’t speak to Charlotte’s mental state over this.

    Contented, perhaps.

  20. James: I love the ownership implied here

  21. James: this shouldn’t be a new paragraph.

    Luke: Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a figment of your imagination. Maybe it’s a ghost Pokemon haunting your daydreams. Maybe I slipped on the keyboard. May BE, I thought it’d have an effect. Maybe you should get off my back and go back up your mountain, oh wait, you can’t, you made them not exist!

    …actually, I toyed back and forth on new line or not and finally just hit enter and moved on. ;-}

  22. James: ehh, you ever been in a canvas tent? I live in one for two summers. Let me tell you, “cold” is not a word I’d ever use to describe them after they’ve been in the sun all day.

    Luke: Interesting! I didn’t know that. But makes sense, and doesn’t hurt the narrative to be flipped. We’ll get it on the rewrite; stale and muggy. (I assume.)

  23. James: in the word of my nephew, “don’t yike it”

    Luke: Tell Hunter he’s a Transformer, and should transform into a helicopter and fly around because that would be really cool and can I come to?

  24. James: especially given this, right here, that works so much better.

    Luke: whup-whup-whup
    The total badass Transformer, Huntertron, climbs steadily up the invisible mountain in his helicopter form in search of Decepticon strongholds. Stay frosty, Huntertron!

  25. James: this sentence is messy.

    Luke: Yes, yes it is.

  26. James: gilded literally means “covered in gold,” so it kinda goes without saying there

    Luke: Huh. I thought you could gild something in anything, just most often it was gold. Goes to show the quality of my formal education.

  27. James: neat, but edging into that mauve territory

    Luke: Yeah, I agree. Cut! (/ change.)

  28. James: lol, this metaphor is hilarious

  29. James: actually, just “goats” is pretty damn hilarious, too. Much better than “bloody screaming goats”

    Luke: I like all of them, used for different reasons at different times. ;-}

  30. Luke: Probably have to work on the urgency of this whole scene. Does it come across to the audience? Do we feel the need for speed?

    James: not exactly. Although it’d mean killing the interaction you had between Charlotte and Vilnius, perhaps we could just have the thugs presage his arrival? “Why would Vilnius be coming to talk to Lucinda? The talks were over, and here are his thugs, just waiting to keep here around until he can arrive. I have to know what is so important to him[but his thugs have still sent me away]”

    Luke: Okay. Okay. Okay. (I know you love one word used three times in a row with periods in between.)

    Vilnius isn’t there. We’ll take that moment where he dismisses Charlotte, and move it up to when she and him are talking at the party. After she’s failed his test, he just brushes her off, as nothing to him.

  31. James:  my brain says it should have been right. That might just be mental mapping (something I was thinking about earlier today). We can talk about it, but generally its best not to indicate direction unless it is important to do so. If we just say “Turned down the row” we’ll never pull a reader out of the narrative like I was just pulled because I was imagining it the other way around.

    Luke: Fair point. Change approved! (Not inputted.)

  32. James: This conflicts with some stuff I’ve said about her being a chimney climbing champion. Her lust for adventure would lead her, I believe, to some physical activity, especially when she was a bit younger

    Luke: True, however, she’s been working with Lucinda for quite some time now…actually, you know what? I have no heart in me to defend this, which probably means I don’t care. And it can all be lifted with no harm whatsoever. Also means we don’t have to wind her every time they get up to hi-jinx in the forest, or on the plain. So yeah. There you have it.

  33. James: Another note on verisimilitude! If there was only one tassel, she could duck under it easily enough, AND her momentum would have probably ripped it long before a letter opener cut through it

    Luke: You, sir, have noted a very point I was worried about. Didn’t make much sense to me that she could cut it at speed like that, but I didn’t have a better option at the time, so I just plowed through regardless. That’s what rewrites are for, after all. It’s so much better to fix something that exists than lose rhythm while creating from scratch.

  34. James: perfect timing

  35. James: just like Han Solo!

    Luke: Really? When? Who’s finger? Chewbacca? I feel he’d just growl louder.

  36. James: not fond of this.

    Luke: That’s fair. I’m not particularly attached to it.

  37. James: space might be a better word. Rooms imply buildings, generally

    Luke:  This is getting freaky. All the points I was like, “Is this really the right way to say this?” but pressed on anyways, are points you’re bringing up. But then, I’ve known you a long time, so maybe I’m just anticipating the things that will irk you.

    The really weird thing will be when I start putting them in there on purpose to mess with you…

  38. James: Again, perhaps not the right time to use the word. Just “government” maybe?

  39. James: chuckles

  40. James: it might be too clever for Raul. Also, I’m not sure it works. Which, actually, might mean its perfect for Raul after all.

  41. James: I got that, given the italics and all.

    Luke:  Well, ain’t you just a funny one. (I wanted to have a long, involved, italics based bit here, but if its possible to use them in G-notes, I haven’t figured it out. Count yourself lucky.)

    Also, you just sassed a “tell” moment in favour of a “show” moment. Just saying.

  42. James: Really? That’s why he’s part of the delegation. I feel like she would.

  43. James: awk.

    Luke: Fair. When it gets rewritten, I’d love if we can keep “tragedy” in there.

  44. James: Either neat because it isn’t blue, which suggests a perversion of magic, or no good because it isn’t blue, which all magic is.

    Luke: I like the idea it’s a perversion.

  45. Luke: See note below…

  46. Luke: See note below as well…

  47. Luke: James, I’m pretty sure you’ll have words regarding this, as I think you had a fairly clear vision about how the tech worked?

    James: I had no clue. see above re: green, but this seems reasonable. I think it’d be scarier if it was an invisible force, but that could lead to being too subtle.

    thinking about it, the whole apparatus is interesting in that Vilnius is toying with it the whole time (Lucinda even helps him with it!), but we’re missing an opportunity to inject some mystery into our villain here. Lets get that smell of tin in here, and make reference to the faint blue glow-that-isn’t-there of magic (calling the green a perversion of that, maybe?) The apparatus could stay or go, but lets make it look like Vilnius is doing magic, which our heroes can debate is/isn’t possible. Actually, it gives us the perfect opportunity to have a ron and don on the limits of magic in our world. Anyway, the question “is vilnius a magician” can hang over the whole thing, and that’d be good.

    I thought more, and I think there could be some value in having some of the magic spill over a bit, too. What is Vilnius amplifying or focusing here, and what are the side effects of that? He’s managed to harness magic, sure, but it isn’t precise nor is it exact. He’s doing this in person for what reason? Vanity? I’d say so. Can we draw that out? Like, have his evil mustache curl more or something?

  48. James: ENG NOTES on Vilnius and use of magic

    1. what does he ampify? Fire, the heat thereof. He can play with a candle to and to the whole buildup and tension
    2. lose the beam

    Luke: Take out the moment where Vilnius “pushes the button” to activate his magic device. Leave more of the mystery.

    Done and done. Now I’m thinking, on rewrite, we should play up this “mysterious, magician” side (whatever that means) during the party scene. I’m not talking actual magic, but maybe he talks a bit more about magic, or it pervades the way he talks. Like… I actually don’t have an example, and really need to get ready for work now. We can chat about that later.

  49. Luke: So, yeah. I don’t think either of us have allowed the omniscient narrator to have this kind of future knowledge up to this point, so I’m not sure we want to allow it now…. Except, holy crap, Vilnius’ magic, right? It amplifies what’s already there…

  50. Luke: Not movement, but I don’t want to say “time and place” again. Agency? Action? “As they rejoined the flow of the world…”

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