April 24, 2012

A ranking of Carey novels

Well, I'm almost done reading through a series of nine novels written by Jacqueline Carey. The nine are part of the Kushiel series at large and each trilogy is distinct from the other, with the final trilogy taking place centuries after the first two. Since I enjoyed these novels so much and they have such a large influence on me, I thought I would do my own personal ranking along with why I feel that novel falls in that particular position.

So without further ado...* Drum-roll* (And also, probable spoiler warning!)

  1. Kushiel's Scion - Not only is it the most accessible of all her novels, but it introduces my favourite character through the entire series in the protagonist's role. Imriel is heartbreakingly human and Carey's style of writing in the first person point of view really makes you feel how he feels at times. If you think about it, that's a pretty rare thing. It's not that often that writers can make you really care about a character in such a way. Plus, I find that Carey's best work in this series was in Terre D'Ange, where politics and intrigue run hand-in-hand with passion and romance. It's very suiting that half of such a great novel takes place there.
  2. Kushiel's Dart - Enter Phedre, a protagonist who is not only smart and sexy, but has a spy's trained memory and loves pain and sex (which sometimes go hand-in-hand for her). It breaks the norm so much that the very idea of it all stands out boldly. Throw in some of the politics and intrigues into the mix, combine that with some adventure and a love story, and you've got one hell of a novel. The only reason it's lower than Scion on my list is because it's less accessible.
  3. Kushiel's Justice - The first half is concerned with Imriel's romances, feelings, and responsibilities. The second half sees him on a ridiculously long quest for vengeance on a bear-witch who killed his wife and their unborn son. In this novel we really see Imriel grow and by the time he finally does kill Berlik (the aforementioned bear-witch), we can see this growth in the fact that he actually breaks down in tears. You would imagine that Imriel would feel so alone in ways - and he does. The novel reflects this perfectly and since you're put in his shoes, you almost feel as desperate as he does sometimes. The contrived plot and slow build-up make this one a keeper for me.
  4. Kushiel's Avatar - Phedre and her Cassiline lover Joscelin end up on a quest that takes them through the heart of evil and literally to places no one from their country has even dared explore. For me, this novel was the pure adventure one out of all of them and dealt with some pretty heavy themes. The darkness delved into and the healing from it are pitted against varied and appropriate backdrops. I found it both thematically impressive and equally as impressive in depth and purpose of setting.
  5. Namaah's Curse - I was actually surprised that this one came so high up on my list. I was really slow to grow fond of the new characters but absolutely loved the issues touched upon in the novel (out-of-control religious zealots, nomadic tribes, assassin stronghold of fear, etc.). By the end of those experiences and continuous improvements in already great writing by Carey, I really felt that the characters finally grew on me.
  6. Kushiel's Chosen - There's no particular reason that this one comes in sixth on my list. I really enjoyed it and found it to be a great book. I guess my only complaint was that I wanted more at the end. A particular enjoyable part for me was the reintroduction of Melisande Shahrizai as the villain, which was hinted at in the previous novel, of course. She's one of the most perplexing and enjoyable characters in all nine books.
  7. Namaah's Blessing - I've actually not yet finished this book but I've got enough of a flavour to know that I won't like it as much as the second one but more than the first one. The verdict is out and this could change but I doubt it will. All in all, an enjoyable read with some awesome characters.
  8. Kushiel's Mercy -  I loved this book and it was actually the first one I read despite being the last in the Imriel trilogy. I loved how accessible it was but felt that it got a little slow around the parts where Imriel thinks he is Leander Maignard due to a magic spell and must seduce his actual romantic interest in order to break the spells on both of them. That part just seemed a little...laboured to me. I don't mean to say that it was bad by any means but it was a little hard to get behind.
  9. Namaah's Kiss - I really had a hard time getting to like the new characters and thought that it was a touch on the bland side until around midway through. The good news is that once it got to the end, I was pretty into it and invested. Maybe it's just me and I'm a little impatient when it comes to slower development.
Well, that's it. If I've mentioned any faults, it's more or less me nitpicking stuff. I consider these all to be great novels but there are little things that put one above the other for me. If you're looking for around 8,000 pages of good stuff to read then I would suggest all of these. If you want to follow the flavour of my rankings, pick up the Imriel trilogy first and the Phedre one second. You won't ruin much on yourself except a decently large twist in the first novel. However, I find that they are far more accessible that way and by the time you make it to the Phedre trilogy, you won't have cared that you read ahead because you'll be hooked. The Namaah books are really good too but you'll appreciate them more if you've been hooked on the first six first.

April 17, 2012

Short Story Training #2: Memoirs of Moonlight's Kiss

Well, exams are over and what better way to celebrate than by posting a short story I wrote about a month ago. This is part of my ongoing training in efforts to become a better writer through practice and getting more experience. I hope you enjoy reading it!

I am the crowned prince of our kingdom. I have known war and peace, love and grief, and all the things life has to offer. Once, for a brief period of time, I was almost a father as well.
            My own father was distant to me in my life. I saw him as more of a leader than a father. He was the king and I was the prince. That was the structure of the kingdom and I was to abide by it at all times.
            I was taught by the finest tutors and educated in warfare should the need arise for it when I would one day take the throne. I learned of our nation’s own bloody history and those of our neighbours too. I learned some of the finer arts too, such as poetry and prose. I also learned, through tutelage and experience, of the complicated political landscape for a prince and learned just as fully that I did not like it.
            Since as long as I could remember, I hated the role of being a prince. I hated the duty and formality of it. I would far rather have been an unwitting farmer than someone in charge of the well-being of so many.
            I didn’t like the fact that one man could have dominion over so many others. If I was a different man and chose to abuse my power, none would be able to stop me – save for my father – under the guise of divine right. That power was more of a curse than a gift. It was a curse that burdened me with conscience and duty from such a young age. I felt as though I never had a childhood; that my responsibilities loomed over me, casting a pall on what would have otherwise been an enjoyable period in my life.
            Still, as I grew, I eventually decided that I must fit into my role and took my position somewhat more seriously.
            Little did I know that being a prince would be the least of my concern.


I met Catherine when I was sixteen. She was a farmer’s daughter. We had contracted her father to deliver produce to the palace on a monthly basis. Catherine, enamoured by the prospect of seeing royalty and the chance to revel in the splendor of our palace, begged to accompany him. Like the unwilling and conflicted prince I was, she made me feel weak and strong all at once, an all too familiar feeling, but one I had never felt for a woman before.
That summer had been kind to us. The weather was agreeable, yielding just enough rain to ensure good harvests, but supplying us with beautiful sunny days all the same. I loved being outside and taking in the scenery around the palace.
Our palace was large and ornate. Inside, the ceilings were high and everything was made of marble, gleaming in the sunlight during the day or glistening in the moon’s rays at night. Portraits of previous rulers lined the walls at regular intervals and the floors were adorned with royal red carpet, kept clean by our myriad servants. Every main entrance to the palace was supported by pillars, giving way to elegant arches. The outside was equally impressive with large bushes surrounding the property, a handful of trees, and a stunning garden complete with radiant flowers and grand bushes from all over the world.
            On one summer day, I was in those gardens being drilled in swordplay by my keen instructor, Powell. Powell and I were training my ability to parry blows and respond with a counter-blow of my own. I had gotten a little overzealous, over-committing myself to a slicing blow after barely parrying Powell's initial blow. Powell’s counter to my folly sliced my face, sending my heading jerking sideways. It was at that moment that Catherine and her father, accompanied by members of our royal guard, rounded the corner, touring the castle as a precursor to their first of many visits.
            I yelped and staggered sideways, clutching my face as Catherine’s wandering gaze met my eyes. “What in the name of the gods are you doing to him?” she screamed, shifting her gaze onto Powell, fire in her eyes. I later learned that she thought he was trying to kill me and that she was averse to unnecessary violence.
            Catherine was a slight woman with fierce eyes and a fair complexion. Her blonde hair fell straight, hanging at her sides, coming to rest at her shoulders. She had a kind face and the disposition of a tomboy, having been raised on a farm her whole life. Her playful spirit and cleverness accented her keen intellect, though ultimately she was a very peaceful and happy person. She was a person I’d not yet met but had already frightened.
            “Apologies, my lady,” I began, still clutching my face and walking towards her. She looked mad with fury and I sought to calm her. “A training exercise gone somewhat awry, I’m afraid, our pardons for having worried you.”
            She looked both relieved and frustrated at the same time, to the point where I thought she might hit me herself. Later, I would come to love that passion. Not only was Catherine passionate but she was caring and sweet as well. For the moment, however, her mix of emotions was turning into a fiery fury.
            “Training…with steel blades? Are you trying to get someone killed?”
            “Quite the opposite, my lady -” I trailed off, not yet knowing her name.
            “Catherine,” she stammered. “Catherine Fougars, of the Fougars farm just south of the palace.”
            “Well met, my lady Catherine. I assure you we are not trying to kill anyone here. Rather, we are practicing to ensure that none of us do get killed,” I said with some amusement and the smallest hint of contempt.
The truth of the matter was that Catherine was fraying my nerves somewhat. I understood the importance of training. I understood the importance of knowing how to defend oneself and thought that a scratch on the face was a small price to pay for a lesson learned that could one day save my life. Catherine, however, didn’t seem to understand that and it frustrated me.
I could tell she was taken back slightly by my flippant comment. Straightening herself and regaining her composure, she took on a more formal tone, finally discerning my role. “My apologies, prince, I did not mean to speak out of turn.”
Having never been one to stand on ceremony, I said, “Please, call me Claude.”
I could feel that she sensed I wasn’t genuinely angry with her. She smiled and said, “Well met, Claude.”

Several months after first meeting Catherine we began seeing each other. The romance evolved naturally over many small visits. We found that we had a certain chemistry; that her nascent passion mixed freely with my bottled potential. Simply put, the two of us were compliments, covering for each other’s faults. We revelled in our time together.
            We were passionate in all the ways of life, including the bed chamber.
            One night, after Catherine and I had gotten closer, I had invited her to a ball to be held in the palace celebrating the zenith of the moon’s cycle in summer. It was the most popular event of the summer and I wanted to share it with her. I had so many fond memories of the event as a child, both for the pleasure derived from the event itself and the mischief I frequently got into whilst attending it.
            The palace was decorated in its usual splendor but with a few special touches. Draped from the ceilings were streamers of white and blue color, to signify the moon’s rays and how they light our life even in darkness. The lights inside were kept dim and special lamps were imported that shone a blue hue of light through crescent moon shades. All said, the decorations provided the perfect atmosphere and mood for fun.
            Feeling particularly sly, I felt wittier than usual and Catherine seemed impressed by it. I wasn’t sure if it was due to my wit or the fact that I was happier than I normally would have been, excited for one of my favorite days of the year. Either way, Catherine seemed particularly amenable to my affections.
            Between dances I took her into a dimly lit corner of the hall.
            “Come here, I want to show you something,” I said. It was the place which I’d launched many mischievous schemes from as a child; one such scheme involving pelting one of our most beloved dukes with stink balls launched from that very same dark corner by slingshot. My father was furious when he found out it was my doing and restricted my activities for two weeks. Still, the novelty of it was more than worth it in the end.
            “A dark corner?” she asked curiously.
            “Very astute,” I teased, putting one hand on the small of her back and pushing her up against a pillar. I drew close to her and could feel her breath quickening, small bursts blowing on my lips. “Actually, I just couldn’t wait to get you alone.”
            I kissed her lips gently, teasing her with half-kisses and finally moving to her neck where I began to kiss her more passionately as I moved to undo her bodice.
            “Claude,” she gasped, seemingly both surprised and aroused. “Claude! Not here. Let’s go somewhere else.”
            I smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”
            That night found us in my bedchambers.
            Catherine and I had shared some romantic nights prior but we had never consummated our relationship. I remember thinking on how that was going to change and about how excited I was. Nevertheless, I was quite nervous too.
            It wasn’t nervousness for lack of experience. I’d had my fair share of dalliances in the past. But I’d never made love to someone that I truly cared about and was somewhat surprised to find out how deeply my affections ran for Catherine. If all my other relationships were pools of water, this one was a deep, vast lake, just waiting to be explored, filled with wonders and secrets in its depths.
            We hurried into the room where I abruptly kicked the door shut, startling a maid down the hall with the loud noise. She let out a small shriek. I didn’t care to apologize.
Catherine and I set about undressing each other with furious pace. She undid the buttons of my shirt, planting light kisses down my neck and chest while doing so. I undid her bodice and slipped off her dress, my hands moving to firmly clutch her waist as I slid downwards and kissed her thighs. She pulled me back up towards her and I was surprised by the force of it. Soon thereafter, she set about undoing by breeches and finally we were both naked and all too ready for what was to follow.
            And what was to follow did not disappoint.
            It was furious and it was carnage. It was a hurricane of passion and an unleashing of pent up emotion. Near the beginning of it she took my phallus into her mouth, moaning as it entered.
It was beautiful. She was beautiful.
She kept at it for some time until I was sure that my seed was ready to burst, at which point she stopped. It was my turn to return the favour.
I slid backwards on the bed, parting her legs with my arms when I reached the proper position. I began by licking her thighs and teasing her entire nether region with heavy, warm breaths.
“Claude, please,” she begged, unable to contain herself any longer.
I obliged and set about licking her opening. She moaned and moaned as her back arched, screaming out when she reached the first of many climaxes.
Finally – Finally, I pulled our bodies together and slid my phallus into her, accepting her long open invitation, smiling and then laughing a little as she gasped.
“Something funny?” she asked, half out of nervousness and half out of amusement, I supposed.
“You’re just so cute,” I replied. “I’m laughing because it amuses me to make you happy.”
She placed two hands on my buttocks, licked her lips, and said, “I know how you can keep me happy.”
“Oh, do you now?” I replied in a husky voice before thrusting into her once again.
Again and again, thrusting and thrusting until we both reached our climaxes and screamed aloud at the pleasure of it.
Gods, it was good!
In the aftermath, we laid together, content in holding each other and watching the moon slowly sink into the deep night sky until exhaustion took us. Exhausted and happy, I slept a dreamless sleep.

Two years later Catherine and I were expecting child and I was happily married to her. For all purposes, nothing could have been better. I sometimes tried to think of a time when I was happier and laughed inwardly when I realized that I couldn’t.
And then it all fell apart.
The day was supposed to be perfect. It was the date of Catherine’s delivery. I was filled with joy and nervousness and so many emotions that I didn’t know what to make of them. I daresay she was too but we were both all smiles.
Catherine began labour in the early morning, awakening us both in her panic. I called for servants quickly and in due course she was brought into the birthing chambers of the palace where nurses and our court physician would attend to her. It was a fitting location, outfitted with the finest medical instruments available and the physician was one of the best.
After many hours of labour and time spent nervously waiting, I was called back into the room by one of my wife’s attendants. “Sire, it’s time.”
I entered to find Catherine flushed and screaming, looking more stressed than I had ever seen her.
“Catherine…” I said softly, feeling sorry for how much pain she was in; how much pain I’d more or less indirectly put her in. But if that was the cost of love and a child, Catherine and I would gladly endure it.
“Claude!” she yelled, seemingly happy to see me despite her condition. “Claude, it’s coming. I can feel it. She’s coming!”
“She?” I asked, dumbfounded. “How can you know?”
“I’m not sure. I just do.”
A girl! I was about to have a baby girl and the thought of it filled me with such joy. A simple nine months ago I had no idea I would be a father and less of an idea that Catherine was with child. I never would have said that I felt prepared or even that I was the best person to be a father, but as I thought about it, I realized that I was not only prepared for fatherhood, but was relishing the very thought of it.
But suddenly, I saw Catherine’s face spasm with what looked to be incredible pain; the type of pain that was surely not due to birthing. Just from looking at her face I could tell it was something more.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, shocked.
She couldn’t reply. She couldn’t communicate. She couldn’t even seem to control her movements.
“My lord, please,” a nurse pleaded with me and I suddenly realized that I was in the way. I moved aside quickly to try to allow them to work but I dared not stray far. I wanted to see her through this.
The nurses worked at a frantic pace, shouting instructions and information to one another. The court physician, ever-present through the birthing thus far, stepped up slowly and examined Catherine while the nurses worked. She suddenly stopped moving and the physician felt for her pulse.
He frowned and turned to face me. “I’m sorry, sire,” he said with gravity. “She’s gone.”
“What?” I roared, unable to comprehend what had just occurred. “What do you mean ‘she’s gone?”
The physician stumbled for the appropriate words. “Sometimes,” he paused, composing himself. “Sometimes it happens, my lord. Sometimes they are lost during childbirth.”
This couldn’t be happening.
“No. No! No! Why did this happen? Why?” I roared, in a stupor, unable to contain myself. “The babe! What about the babe?” I asked, suddenly recovering some of my wits and remembering that Catherine was about to give birth. “Please tell me the babe survived!”
“I’m sorry, my lord. They were unable to save her. We were unable to save them.”
Defeated, the words hit me like a boulder, crushing my world. Not knowing what else to do, I sank to my knees and wept.

            It had been an entire year since Catherine and my unborn child’s passing. I was hopelessly depressed and it had dire consequences on the rest of my life.
            To begin with, I was no longer nearly as sociable as I had once been and slowly but surely began to lead a very insular life. I would confine myself to my quarters and grieve by writing, trying to find the right words to describe how my life had fallen apart. Gods willing, I would find the right words to put it back together too, but they escaped me, as had any positive feelings for a long while.
            In fact, it seemed that I barely felt anything anymore. I couldn’t bring myself to feel compassion for our poorer citizens that royalty is charged with helping. I couldn’t bring myself to smile when the sun came out or when happy children strolled by, mirthful in playing children’s games. I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the way that food tasted. I couldn’t bring myself to be as depressed as one ordinarily would on a rainy day. I couldn’t bring myself to feel much at all and it was frustrating me.
            It frustrated me so much that I began to abuse alcohol for the false and temporary emotions its effects would have on me. At least under its influence I could laugh and be merry on the outside.
            Simply put, I was deeply depressed.
            On one crisp summer night we celebrated the same festival at which Catherine and I had first consummated our relationship. The moon hung brightly in the sky. It seemed even the moon, a body of the night sky, was in bright spirits. And yet, no matter how hard I tried, I could feel nothing. Content to drink away the remainder of the night, I assumed a station close to the wine servers and set about getting very drunk.
            It was then that the most beautiful woman I had ever seen walked into the area in which wine was served. She was tall, though not quite as tall as I was, and lean. She had a very feminine but decidedly athletic build. Her tanned skin was clear and looked as soft as velvet. Her shoulder-length black hair was coifed in concentric circles, hanging high on her head and held in place by ornate golden pins. But most of all, her eyes, a deep emerald-like hue caught my attention.
            To be sure, she gleamed like the precious metal that shared its color with her eyes. Those eyes met mine as she approached. “Prince Claude, is it not?” She asked, clearly eying me, whilst biting her lip.
            The attention made me nervous and made me think of Catherine. Though she had passed, it still felt like a betrayal to feel any type of arousal for another woman, not after I had loved so deeply with Catherine. But this foreign beauty was making me feel just that. I was both guilty and intrigued at the same time so I decided that I was going to let the situation play out. A little bit of fun wouldn’t betray Catherine’s spirit.
            “Indeed,” I replied in cordial tone. “And you are?”
            “Jade Xnaga, a neighbour of yours to the far south,” she replied.
            “Ah, that explains your complexion,” I noted blandly.
            “Drinking alone, my lord?” She asked with genuine curiosity.
            “Please call me Claude. I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony,” I replied, suddenly not wishing to be so formal. “And yes, I am, as I have many nights before,” I added, not quite wishing to have her company. But it appeared that Jade had other plans.
            “Would you care for a companion? I sense you might be in need of one.”
            I’m not sure why I accepted her offer. Maybe there was a part of me that was tired of being lonely. Maybe there was a part of me that wanted to feel and wondered if she could help me do just that. Maybe I was bored. Maybe she was bored. It didn’t matter. There are some things that the gods decide and that we must accept.
            “I think I’ll take you up on your offer, Jade. Well met,” I responded at length.
            That night, we had goblets upon goblets of wine. To my surprise, Jade could drink as well as I could and held her liquor equally as well. All the same, we were good and drunk within an hour’s time.
            After much drunken thought and deliberation I asked, “How can you hold so much liquor?” She laughed and her face lit up. Such a beautiful thing to behold!
            She smiled. “My people, it would appear, are accomplished alcoholics,” she replied with a roar of laughter I promptly echoed. The other patrons of the celebration looked over at us, seemingly both ashamed at my behaviour and intrigued by our foreign guest at the same time.
            After, there was an awkward silence between us. Finally, feeling quite intoxicated, I asked her, “Why are you so beautiful?”
            “Why are you so forward?” she asked, half-teasingly. It was my opening and I would not take it. I couldn’t dishonour Catherine like that.
            “Forgive me, I can’t do this,” I replied, suddenly feeling depressed once again.
            “Yes, you can,” she said, taking my hand and noticing as I tensed.
            “You don’t understand,” I began. “My wife…She passed away last year; her and our unborn child. So,” I paused, feeling uneasy. “I simply can’t.”
            I could see the flicker of understanding in her eyes and infinite compassion. To my surprise it moved something within me, easing my tension somewhat. “Come,” she said, squeezing my hand and dragging me away. “Let us go somewhere private.” Not knowing what to say, I let her drag me along up the stairs and into a random bedroom. She pushed me down on the bed and began to undress.
            “Please, my lady. I cannot do this. I don’t mean to offend you,” I protested weakly.
            “You haven’t offended me,” she said in a sweet tone. “And you can do this. As a matter of fact, I think that you should do this as I feel there may be some healing in it for you.”
            Speechless and confused, I let her continue. Before long she and I were undressed and she was kissing me tenderly.
I’m still unsure how to describe it. It wasn’t entirely sexual but it was sensual. She kissed me not only as a lover would but like some sort of healer as well.
I was very averse to it in the beginning but soon found that she was right; that there was some healing in it. Jade did all of the work, imploring me to be still and let the feelings wash over me. It reminded me of Catherine and the guilt crept up. It was almost as if Jade sensed this, as every time I felt it, she backed off and let me get comfortable again.
And so we made love in the gentlest way I have ever known it, under a glowing moon. I fell asleep holding her under that same moonlight that shared myself and Catherine’s night years prior. Only this time, I felt healed and full for the first time since Catherine had passed.

            Jade and I never married. Neither of us found marriage very practical and thought it would be dishonorable to Catherine in any sense. We did live together, though, and we shared a life together.
            It had been two years since I’d met Jade. We saw each other on and off when her country’s dignitaries would come to visit our country. I discovered that she was a noble woman herself and in command of some authority. After our first night together, she had demanded to be on every ambassadorial trip to the palace and none dared to counter her. She declared that it was for business but it became obvious to both of us after six months that it was for love. After that, she decided to move into a house on the outskirts of town with me. I was never one for formalities and was less willing than I ever had been to fulfill my duties as prince from the palace.
To my surprise, we had settled into a routine. Jade would cook us meals with what I fetched from the local marketplace in the mornings. Sometimes I would hunt for our meals. In the afternoon we would enjoy each other’s company or sometimes set about to our own devices. The evenings would come and we would have a romantic dinner for two. We would make love again and fall asleep watching the stars.
It appeared that the gods did have a purpose in uniting Jade and I. Jade was right after all: There was healing in what took place between us that first night. Almost miraculously, a large measure of it came to me right away and I learned that I could love and feel once again. The balance of it came afterwards and I’d slowly become whole over the entire two years since that night.
I still wrote, only less often and of less depressing matters. I focused now on trying to tell stories and on writing poetry. I wasn’t very good but it was a hobby that I enjoyed and it helped to temper my mind.
I also took an interest in botany, unlikely as it might have been. As such, I frequented the local botanical gardens once or twice a week, both to study and to find a sense of peace when things got hectic. If nothing else, I found it soothing as no one else was ever around and I was interested in plants and herbs that could be used to cure sickness. It also reminded me of swordplay in the palace gardens with Powell; one of my more fond childhood memories.
One day, in the gardens, I sat down on a bench in the centre of the park, contemplating a study I was engaged in pertaining to an herb that could be used to slow the effects of certain poisons. Ironically, the weather was sunny and beautiful despite my studying of such a grim subject matter. It was around midday and I had just finished my lunch. I decided to take a few minutes to myself to absorb the excellent weather before getting back to work.
Suddenly, however, the sky darkened from a sea-bright blue to a hazy shade of grey. Ominous rain clouds filled the sky and thunder and lightning loomed ahead in the distance. Gods, it came fast! I marvelled at how such sunny weather could take such a turn in scarce more than the blink of an eye.
It began to rain. To my surprise, however, I was not getting wet though everything around me was. I looked up to find a hole in the cloud cover in the sky above me. As I did, a column of sunlight shot through the hole and surrounded me, almost shielding me from the rain and unpleasant weather. The light persisted for a few minutes while I stood perplexed, and then it was gone. Looking around, I noticed that the rain had stopped and that the storm clouds were quickly dispersing. The beautiful weather that had characterized the day to this point was making its return.
Not knowing what to make of the event or even if I should make anything out of the event, I decided to quit my research for the day and head home. I could no longer focus on my studies after such a freak event. The bright and cheerful weather felt almost strange in its own right, and remained throughout my walk home and for the duration of the day.
Sometime later, I arrived at our humble countryside house. I saw through the front window as I approached the front door that Jade was inside cooking a meal of beef stew and dumplings. I could smell the delicious aroma of both through the open window. Eager to see her, and also to eat, I entered hastily.
“Jade, I’m home,” I called out. She didn’t reply. Maybe some charm would work. “Not feeling very talkative, I see.” I was met with more silence. Deciding she was likely in a foul mood, I said, “I’ll be in my study. Let me know if you want to talk.”
Hence I retired to my study for the better part of an hour. Confirming by ear that she was no longer cooking, I exited the study and joined her in our dining room where our places were set and our meal was ready.
“It looks great,” I remarked cautiously. If she was angry, I was going to have to choose my words carefully. Jade didn’t have a fiery temper but her scorn could be just as intense in its coolness.
She still didn’t reply and I was frustrated. I went to her and shook her lightly only to find her staring blankly back at me in response. Worry crept into my thoughts.
“Jade, what’s wrong?” I asked earnestly. “Let me help you. Please don’t ignore me.”
But she did ignore me no matter what I did. Eventually, defeated, I sat down to supper and finished mine as she ate hers with that same bland stare.
It was so unlike her! Jade was usually feisty, flirty, full of life. She was the type of person who would never let you get away with just saying a few words in a conversation and usually had a witty and sharp reply for just about anything you could imagine. Something was different today, though. I could tell that something had rocked her core and that I wasn’t going to be able to get through to her.
It was still early in the evening and I figured that a venture to the palace to visit my father and the others I’d known since my youth would be in order and could put me at ease. Surely they would have some proper advice for me. Maybe I could reconnect with Powell, my instructor of old. He was a wise man and a good one at that. He might know what to say.
I quickly saddled and prepared a mount from the nearby stable that was kept for us. It was small and only consisted only of mounts for the two of us, but it was appropriate given the remoteness and the size of our country abode. I chose the sturdier of the two mounts, reasoning that Jade wouldn’t likely be going anywhere this evening and also due in small part to rising contempt for the way she had acted towards me that afternoon.
I rode hard, my thoughts playing heavily on my mind, and made it to the palace in under an hour. I found no one there to stable my mount so I did so myself. The palace seemed quiet. I could only see a few guards and nobles within it from the stables.
No matter, I thought. I only wanted to talk to a few of the palace’s inhabitants, anyway. I wasn’t in the mood for anyone else’s company and came to think of the surprising emptiness as a blessing rather than a curse or an oddity.
I ran into Powell in the main corridor of the palace leading to the ballroom and anterior chambers in which the summer moon festival occurred.
“Powell, well met!” I called out to him. I was met, again, with silence.
I tried a few more times to get him to speak but failed each time. Eventually, he simply walked past me, adopting the same blank stare that Jade had given me earlier in the day.
I was worried now. What was happening around here? Why was I the only one who seemed capable of intelligent thought?
Hoping for an answer to my question, I went to my father’s chambers to visit him. I hoped that whatever was happening around here had not claimed him either. Frustrated and worried, I flung open the door to his chambers.
“Father!” I yelled, while running inside.
Again, I was met with no reaction.
He gave me that same blank state and seemed incapable of speech. I felt worried and scared. I was confused and couldn’t figure out why these events were taking place.
“What’s happening?” I screamed out to no one in particular, knowing that my calls would not be heard. “How is this possible? Gods be damned!” I cursed, frustration taking me. “Father, Powell, Jade. Why?” I asked, feeling as if my brain would explode in my head. I felt defeated and hopeless. Almost as bad as I’d felt when Catherine died. It was like I was stuck in a nightmare with no way out.
So I turned and ran. I ran as fast as I could, trying to get out of the palace and back to Jade where I would make her respond to me no matter what it took. As I was running, I slowly began to realize that I could no longer see anyone at all. Slowly, it dawned on me: Not only was everyone I knew becoming unresponsive, but they were disappearing.
I had to get to Jade.
I rode home faster than I’d ever ridden before. If I weren’t so worried about the circumstances of my situation, I daresay I would’ve noticed that I had broken a few speed records. When I arrived at the house, my heart was pounding with fear. I ran inside as fast as I could and scoured every room in the house in search of Jade. I found nothing.
Finally, something inside me did snap and I felt worse than I had when Catherine passed. I wept openly and loudly and curled up into a ball on the floor for several minutes, unable to accept that my world had fallen apart around me.
Eventually, I snapped out of my depression enough to have clear thoughts. I remembered where this awful chain of events began: The botanical gardens. I had to go there! I had to find out whether or not this was all real and if I could save them all.
I mounted my horse and went off in the direction of the gardens, though at a slower pace than I’d just had my mount run. I was worried about what might come to fall at that place but ultimately knew I had no other options.
In time, I entered the gardens and made my way to the same spot where the bright light had enveloped me earlier in the afternoon; the spot where that terrible and surprising storm had occurred a few hours ago. The first thing that I noticed was that the column of light was present once more and inside of it stood Jade.
“Jade! Jade!” I called out, a sense of relief temporarily dispersing my rising panic. To add to that relief she turned to face me, acknowledging that she could see and hear me.
“Claude,” she said in a somber tone. “You must be worried.”
“Not anymore,” I replied. “Not now that I’ve found you.”
She smiled. “My thanks, but it is not Jade that you have found.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling that same panic from earlier rising once more, my throat getting dry and tight.
“I am not Jade. Jade never existed.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling the uncertainty of the entire situation tug at my heartstrings, my eyes watering in response. She had to exist! What was she talking about?
“Jade never existed. Your father, your mother, and even Catherine,” she added, like rubbing salt in an open wound. “None of them ever existed,” she said in a monotone voice with what seemed like toxic conviction.
“But you’re right here! I can see you!” I roared in confusion.
“You still don’t see, do you?” she asked, turning her head to the side and turning back to re-centre her gaze on me. “None of this was ever real. Even I am not real right now. In fact, you are the only thing that is real.”
“Just…Me?” I asked hesitantly, not sure I wanted to hear what she had to say.
“Yes, Claude. Just you.”
“Then what are you?” I asked, not quite believing her although everything she was saying did perfectly reflect the unfathomable events of the day.
“I am what you might call a God…Yes, some have called me that. I do not occupy your reality but I control it and can manipulate it. I can tell that your world has collapsed and you would not be content being the only real one in it, so I am prepared to offer you a choice.”
“A choice?” I echoed.
“Yes, I am prepared to let you live your life again; to continue as if this day had never occurred. And at the end of your days we will meet again to discuss the next step.”
“Why? Why would I be the only one who’s real?” I asked, not understanding any of what she was saying.
“Because I willed it to be so. There is no other reason,” she replied as if that statement would make perfect sense and that I would accept it.
“I don’t believe you,” I countered. “You’re lying. You’re no God and, everyone I know - they’re all real!”
“NO!” she roared, suddenly taking on a much deeper and angrier voice. “You are the only one who is real! You must accept this. If you do not believe me then reject my offer and walk the world alone for the rest of your life!”
Her tone scared me. The whole situation terrified me, but there was only one way to find out if what she was saying was true or not; to squash all doubts in my mind either way.
“Assuming I do believe you,” I began. “How would I accept your offer?”
“It is simple,” she replied. “Step into the light and take my hand.”
“That’s it? No tricks or anything?” I questioned.
“No tricks,” she agreed. “I promise you.”
Hesitantly, I stepped into the column of light. When I did her face softened and she offered her hand. It was right there and all I had to do to make this nightmare end was to take it and accept her offer. Questions plagued my mind, at once too numerous and too specific to address at all. The words couldn’t escape my mouth and I was afraid to know the answers. Giving into that fear, I took her hand and she squeezed mine firmly in response. Then the column of light and everything else in the world turned white and I remembered nothing else.

I awoke to a beautiful summer day. I thought I would go to the Botanical Gardens in the afternoon to pursue my interests in botany and medicine. The weather was fitting, as was my mood.
I descended the stairs to find that Jade had prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs for me. Kissing her in greeting, I sat down to my meal.
“So you’ll be going to the gardens today?” she asked.
“Yes, I think I’ll spend the afternoon studying.”
“If only you’d give me half as much attention as you give those plants,” she said wryly.
Finishing my breakfast, I rose and kissed her. “I’ll give you all the attention you can muster later tonight!” I exclaimed. She flushed, which I found to be slightly unusual. But I did love it when she flushed!
After a brief silence, she said, “I hope you have a good day out there. I love you, Claude.”
“I love you too,” I replied, kissing her deeply. Then I put on my shoes and opened the door to leave. “I’ll be back.”
“No matter what?” she asked.
“Again and again, always and always,” I replied, meaning every word of it.

April 1, 2012

Short Story Training #1: David's Dream Story

I've been writing more and more lately, trying to improve by writing as many different types of things as I can. So far I've written two short stories. The following is a short story that I wrote in the summer based on a friend's dream. It's very difficult to write something like that because I wanted to maintain enough of it so that it was still based on his dream while adding my own personal touches to it all. In the end, I think I got a result that was significantly different from what he actually dreamed but that fits what I wanted to do with the story quite nicely. At any rate, it's really the first legitimate short story I've ever written so I thought I would post it and the others that I end up writing to this blog so we can observe how I make progress and improve. Hell, maybe I'll find the genre I want to write in! Anyway, here it is! Enjoy!

            I awoke in a strange room. Unfamiliar sights greeted me as I opened my eyes. In my groggy state I noticed a white ceiling, patterns like waves etched into its paint. Turning my head I saw a nightstand made out of rich wood. Probably mahogany. The rest of the fixtures matched the nightstand from the bed to the large closet in the corner of the room.
            I rose and made my way to the thick curtains hanging over a window at the side of the room. Seeking any way to gain more information about my surroundings I pulled them and revealed the harsh light of day. The sun was bright and luminous, nearly at its zenith. The light was harsh on my eyes, only freshly opened and accustomed to the darkness inherent in sleep. I jerked my head away sharply, recoiling from the light as a vampire might.
            It was then that I noticed that I was already dressed. Inspecting myself, I found that I wore my best dress shirt with black trousers to match, all perfectly tailored and fitted. Every detail including my favourite pair of socks was perfect. How odd. I didn’t remember going to bed dressed but I wasn’t as concerned with that as with exploring my surroundings.
            I found myself washed over by a wave of curiosity. I had trouble recollecting events that happened before waking up. That fact didn’t worry me much, though. Rather, I was curious as to what this place was and why I had woken up here, fully dressed, instead of some other place. I had to satisfy my increasing zest for knowledge.
            I stepped into an open hallway on what appeared to be a mishmash of the first and second floors of a building. There wasn’t so much of a divide as there was a gradual descent. Not quite a stairway, not quite a ramp. I could see a large lobby below me and the general buzz of commotion filled the air. There appeared to be only natural lighting in the hall and the rest of the building for that matter. Still, with the sun near its peak, the white walls of the house I inexplicably found myself in were glowing. On the wall were paintings that seemed very old as the frames were worn and some of the paintings themselves were scratched or torn in places. The other part of the hallway was a dead-end and appeared to serve as an entry to another area of the house. The doorway in that area appeared to rise into the wall somewhat and had an odd white glow when compared to the rest of my surroundings. It probably led to an upstairs of some sort. In fact, the entire area on that side of the hallway seemed to be brighter than everywhere else but I couldn’t decide why. On the other side was the subtle decline, providing a means to reach the concourse below. It was white and ornately decorated with circular rails at its sides and complex etchings carved throughout. It seemed to be the only way down.
            Deciding to investigate, I made my way to the staircase and was greeted by others coming out of their rooms. All were dressed in the finest fabrics. Some were male and some were female, all of varying ethnicities and backgrounds. The men were mostly dressed in fine button-up shirts, although some wore t-shirts. They wore varying sorts of pants. Some wore dress pants, some wore jeans, and some wore khakis. Most of them seemed content and were engaging in light conversation. I approached a few of them and found that I was content merely to listen to what they had to say. As opposed to usual, I felt no compulsion to speak and was filled with what I can only describe as an aura of peace. I decided to listen to most of them in order to gain some additional information if I could. After some time, the group looked at each other and a certain recognition lit up in their eyes as if they were having some sort of unspoken conversation. They nodded subtly and turned to go downstairs.
Following them, I descended the staircase to find a group of people funnelling in through an adjoining room. They all had warm smiles on their faces and had an odd glow about them. Not a glow in the sense that light might glow but a glow in the sense of an aura or warmth of some kind. They seemed to radiate this warmth and each seemed content and at peace. I remember thinking how strange it was to wake up in an odd house to find a group of people so happy and unassuming. I also remember feeling completely at ease with the situation though it was the sort of thing that might make me uncomfortable in any other circumstance. The denizens of the house seemed perfectly at ease, content with their light conversation. Unlike myself, they seemed to show no particular curiosity about their surroundings. They were more than likely already familiar with everything around them.
            The group talked amongst themselves for a while and I did manage to learn somewhat pertaining to my situation from joining subgroups and listening to their conversations. From what I could piece together, there was soon to be a picnic in the garden outside. The vast majority of the conversation was concerning the picnic, what was to be eaten, and the pleasant weather outside. Some nuances were made to a few of the guests arriving from afar to join the group but nothing tangible. I would have to settle for guesses at the moment.
            Eventually, our two groups began to shuffle outside, muttering all the while about the picnic. Naturally, I chose to follow. I had an insatiable curiosity and it seemed like following the group was the only course of action that might quell it. I had to explore my surroundings. I needed to find out what was around and why it was here.
            I made my way through the open doorway, styled in the form of an ornate arch with trim made of the same wood I had found earlier in my room. Outside, the first thing I noticed was the lustrous green lawn. To say that the lawn had a certain shine to it would be an understatement. As my view through the window had shown me earlier, the day was perfect. The air was warm with a smooth breeze flowing through the air and caressing my skin through the thin fabric of my shirt. I noticed the gardens – how not? They were beautiful with flowers of every color imaginable, carefully trimmed and arranged in rows. Very pleasing to the eyes. They played together perfectly with the clear blue sky above.
            I approached the group who had congregated to a nearby area and attempted to find a spot in which I might view the proceedings while fitting in. While I was in the process of doing so, a girl caught my eye. This girl was dressed just as nicely as the rest of us but seemed to be distinct, as if there was something different about her. She seemed to have an awareness about her. She was beautiful, wearing a flowing summer skirt that perfectly accented her legs and breasts. Her hair fell straight, a few blond strands flowing about her face. Her smile was contagious and her eyes gleamed with the same curiosity I had felt to this point. Immediately, we both recognized each other by a simple glance, one look in the eyes, and made our way through the crowd to each other. As we neared, I felt compelled to speak.
            “Hi.” The words sounded alien coming out of my mouth. Had it really been so long since I had last spoken? It had probably been about an hour since I had woken up. Why didn’t I feel compelled to speak to anyone until now?
            “Hi,” the girl replied, “My name’s Eve. What’s yours?”
            “Tony, pleased to meet you,” I said dumbfounded as I extended my hand to her.
            It was then that I noticed the people from the other group – the ones that had the inexplicable warmth – were moving about us, not seeming to notice anything or anyone else other than themselves. I found it passing odd.
            “The weather is beautiful, isn’t it?” She said, releasing my hand and holding eye contact briefly before flashing me a smile.
            I couldn’t help but smile in return. “The weather’s perfect!” I said. Now more aware than ever of the lustrous green grass, I asked her, “Why is the grass so shiny?”
            She laughed - such a sweet sound - and replied, “Why shouldn’t it be? It makes sense, doesn’t it? Everything here is beautiful.”
            We shared a silence for a time, each of us seeming to take into account the conversation and the surroundings. I had to own, it was beautiful. The weather was showing no signs of changing anytime soon. Not only that, but it was peaceful too. Everyone around was content and there was no malice I could detect from anyone. I studied Eve, who was poised to speak once more.
            “Are you here for –” She began.
            “The picnic,” I said, cutting her off. It wasn’t that I was trying to be rude, I just felt that we were on the same wavelength and knew what she wanted to talk about. She was curious like me. Not only that, but she seemed to take a special interest in me and I in her. It made her more attractive to me. It made her special.
            We both laughed at the same time, clearly noting the same things. “I suppose,” I said, answering her question that I had interrupted. “Do you know when it’s supposed to start?”
            “No. But I think it’s going to be soon. Did you notice that?” She asked, referring to the increasing buzz and commotion about us.
            “Yes…” I said, thinking about the commotion. “I suppose you’re right then.”
            The picnic started in short order. More finely dressed people of warm hue brought out plates of fruit, sandwiches, and lemonade. There was enough food and drink to feed a small army. There was no order to it either. People were seated in groups wherever they chose. The servers merely brought the trays over to our group and then left to find and serve the next one. After they were finished, the servers too took their places seated in the garden and began to eat their meal.
            The picnic passed in due time, all the while Eve and I talked within our group. We talked of small things, likes and dislikes. There didn’t seem to be too much else pressing to say.
            As the others began making their way back to the white house I paused and marvelled at Eve. “You’re different. You do know that, right?” I asked, quite certain that she did in fact know that she was special.
            “Yeah,” she replied. “But you are too, aren’t you?”
            “I suppose. I mean – everyone else here – no one strikes a chord with me the way that you do. You’ve got that certain…awareness about you. It’s intoxicating.”
            “Oh, so I’m like a strong wine to you?”
            I laughed, “I don’t know. It’s not so simple.”
            We sat for a while longer, measuring each other in the silence. After a while she spoke again, “It’s like something…metaphysical. There’s some inherent quality in you – in me too – and it makes you stand out. It’s kind of like taking a highlighter and coloring all over someone.”
            A highlighter? Coloring people a different hue? It reminded me of the “warm” people. The denizens of the house. That train of thought got me thinking. Why were those people “warm?” How could I unravel that mystery? And so, while pondering the nature of the warm-hued people, time slowly passed until Eve and I were among the last remaining in the gardens.
            “We should go,” she said, rising and beckoning for me to follow.
            On the way back to the white house we noticed that the buzz and commotion inherent in the house earlier had returned. We entered to find a great congregation in the commons. It was the same as before: People talking lightly with that same eerie smile on their faces. I began to wonder if they knew any more than I did or if they held all the answers behind that casual ease with which they conducted themselves. I decided to listen to them a little more. Maybe there was something I was missing like some sort of undertone to the conversation that might light up a bulb in my head, making everything apparent.
            I stood with the group nearest to me. They were talking about the picnic and how much fun it was. There was no talk of past and no talk of future. It was frustrating. I was curious and hungry for answers to my questions. Still, I was compelled to silence as if my speaking might break some tenuous covenant of the group, sending everything crashing down. A while later I snapped out of my thoughts to notice that Eve was gone.
            Not knowing where to look or being able to remember where she had gone, I decided to continue listening to a few more groups. Some time later, the serenity of each casual conversation was broken by a piercing scream. It was a woman’s scream.
            Damn it!
            Several people ran toward the adjacent room that the scream emanated from. Someone called out, “To the kitchen!” Well, at least I knew a little more about the layout. I rushed to follow.
            What I saw in the kitchen was a gruesome sight. Eve was dead. It looked like she had been stabbed everywhere. The amount of blood was surprising. It was still running out of the fresh wounds, staining the pristine white floors. The most eerie part of it all was that there was a smile on Eve’s face like she wanted this. Who would want this?
            The others were calm, exchanging glances, still unaware of their casual attitudes or warm hues. A few moved to pick up Eve. They wanted to get rid of her corpse. Soon she would be gone. They would dispose of her and clean her red legacy spilled on the floor.
            Oh, Eve! A strong wine indeed.
            In time, the cleaning was done. The warm-hued ones did it with those eerie smiles on their faces. I did notice that the mood of the room had changed somewhat, though. They were a touch more sombre – just a touch – and mildly celebratory. The conversations that followed elaborated on my observations a little.
            They were talking about Eve. One said, “She was a great woman. I am sad for her loss but happy for her at the same time.” What? Happy? Another said, “This is a sombre but momentous occasion. My friends, do not grieve too much. We must celebrate her as well!” I didn’t understand any of it. My curiosity had not been sated, Eve was dead, and I felt the same as the others did though I had no idea why.
            Soon a more formal reception began with red wine being served. It wasn’t like a funeral reception. Just a reception. And the red wine. It reminded me of Eve’s blood on that white floor. A tribute, I thought, like she was sacrificing herself for some greater good. No, that wasn’t right. Not sacrificing. The reception, the conversations, the mood. Everything made it feel like Eve had transformed herself into something else.
            After the reception we retired to our chambers. I stumbled up the ramp, my mind swimming in wine. Again, I noticed the glowing door at the end of the hallway. What was up there? I had the distinct impression that it was not yet time for me to unravel that particular mystery.
            In the morning it was as if nothing had happened. It was all strange smiles and inconsequential conversation. I was still filled with a zest for knowledge too. The day was analogous to yesterday, with perfect weather highlighting that incandescent glow of the lawn and the door in the hallway. Not knowing what else to do, I continued as I had yesterday. Soon, I found myself at another reception.
            I was engaged listening to a particular group that I had deemed to be the most interesting when it happened. Eve walked out of the kitchen with a smile on her face, as beautiful as ever. I stood there, shocked and dumbfounded. It was all I could do. She picked me out of the crowd instantly and strode over to meet me, perfect hips swaying in that flowing summer dress.
            “Tony, how are you?” she asked.
            “Me?” I asked, surprise apparent in my voice. “I should ask you. What happened? How are you here?”
            “I never left.” She paused, as if she was going to say something else but stopped, seeing my confusion. “Maybe I should explain this to you.” She looked into my eyes and held out her hand to me. In those eyes I saw compassion and understanding, fused into beautiful irises of sea-blue.
            I took her hand and she led me upstairs into the hallway with the glowing door. We stopped some distance away from it. Instead of releasing my hand like I thought she might, she grabbed both of mine and held them tightly.
            “I didn’t die in the kitchen. This place,” she said, releasing my hands and gesturing around us, “This place is perfect and that’s the entire point. We can be anything we want while we’re waiting. It is somewhat sad but my time waiting is now over. I think yours is getting close too and that’s why we noticed each other at the picnic.”
            “What is this place? What is it really? This house, these people, the warm hues – is any of this real?”
            She flashed me a comforting smile, “It depends on how you define real, doesn’t it?” She paused. “You see it. It’s real to you, isn’t it?”
            “I suppose…” I said, still not fully understanding. “Why do I not feel afraid? Should I be?”
            “No, you shouldn’t. This place is peace and was only meant to be seen as peace.” She let a moment of silence pass between us. “Everything will be fine,” she said, spreading her arms.
            Suddenly I felt strange. Everything was blurry and convoluted. Her arms were fusing into mine. No, we were becoming one! Every single body part was fusing. It wasn’t like an addition. It was more like becoming complete or whole. The process and feeling went on for a while and then she was gone. Or was she me now? The lines between her and I didn’t exist anymore and suddenly I understood everything.
            The warm-hued people were who we had left behind. Everyone else was in my situation. We were waiting. Waiting to go through that glowing door. This place was meant to be a comfort.
            I managed to steal a glance at my reflection in the glass of a case holding a deep-blue rock. I found that I wasn’t quite a man, nor was I quite a woman. I was still human but I was something different.
            “Now you see,” Eve’s voice – my voice – stated in my head. “We can be anything now. There are no limits.” No is. No isn’t. Just this. Just reality. Nothing else mattered.
            I straightened and composed myself, finding a smile on my face I didn’t know was there. I was nervous but I gathered my courage and opened the glowing door at the end of the hallway.