Friday, January 27, 2006

The Dragon's Wall: Excerpt

Edits have finally begun. Should be making the rounds again by October, though if I could swing it this summer, that would be great.

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Thirty-Six: The Cats

Zezili pulled back the sheet covering the body, still half-hoping the face would not be one she knew. The sheet stuck to the lips. Zezili tugged it free and saw the empty sockets of the bloodied eyes, the sharp cheekbones, the aquiline nose, the frosty face of eight hundred years of Dhorinian queens.

Zezili looked into the face of the last of them.

“He took her cat eyes,” Zezili said. “Tell me you have him.”

Sir Janvier stood next to her, her cropped brown curls squashed under a woolen cap. She kept her helm under one arm.

The body lay at the back of the inn’s big kennel atop a makeshift table. The cold room stank of dogs and red grass.

“We picked up tracks going south,” Janvier said. Her voice was raw, husky. “A dog, probably carrying two, and a set of footprints. Following them.”

Janvier did not say it, and Zezili would not. Not aloud. King Nathin, whore’s get of the south, had slipped a man into the queen’s circle.

Nathin of Lendynd, self-styled king of savages.

Janvier shifted her feet, wiped at the blunt mash of her nose. She opened her mouth, closed it again. There was another question to be asked, and she would not ask it.

Zezili jerked the sheet back over the corpse. She palmed her own helm lying on the table. She pulled it over her head, fastened the strap at the chin.

“I’m going to Daorian,” she said. She had already sent a runner, likely sent her into death, bearing news such as this, but that’s what dajians were for.

“Sir,” Janvier said.

“I’ll ask her to give you first of the legion,” Zezili said. “I’m serving her my head.”

“On a platter?” Janvier said.

“Silver,” Zezili said. “Is there another kind?”

Zezili went back out to where her big dog Dakar was kenneled. His shoulder was as tall as hers. She hefted the saddle from the pen bar, buckled it over Dakar’s shoulders, cinched it at the chest.

Janvier still stood behind her, motionless at the kennel gate. Zezili pulled herself up onto Dakar and regarded her Second.

“Anything else?” Zezili asked.

Janvier shook her head.

“Then get out of the way,” Zezili said. She kneed Dakar forward.

Daorian was a five day ride, but the snow was light, the roads clear, and way-houses Zezili stayed at were old haunts. She had failed the Queen of Dhorin. She had let the heir to Dhorin die. There was no other fate, no other path, and she went willingly. It would be a gift to take death at the hand of the Queen.

By the time Zezili reached the outer sprawl of Daorian, the city was already wreathed in red, the color of mourning. Great red banners flanked the tower gates, the spires of the distant keep. The city people had put out red kerchiefs in their windows, hung them from the snow-heavy awnings of their shops.

Zezili wound her way to the keep. She had left it over three months before with a dozen of the royal guard. She returned alone. She enjoyed the silence.

People knew her by her armor, the plaited skirt knotted with the hair of dajians and outer-islanders, the image of Rhea holding a sword over a dead dragon etched into the breastplate, outlined in flaking silver. Her helm had no plume, ended instead in a curve of metal like a snake’s tail. Her dog’s scars, the bulk of him, told all who she was as clearly as her dress, and the people came out to see her, muttered about her on their doorsteps, pointed. Some saw her and hid. Two old women made a ward against evil as she passed. It told Zezili something of the Queen’s silent ambiguity regarding her station that they did not spit at Zezili or curse her. The Queen had yet to post judgment.

The city waited.

Zezili brought Dakar up onto the hill of the keep overlooking the harbor, the black water rimmed in dirty snow.

Zezili whistled Dakar to a halt in the courtyard. A kennel girl darted out from the warmth of the kennels, took the reins of Zezili’s dog without looking Zezili in the face.

Zezili paused. She reached up a hand to Dakar’s ears and rubbed at the base of them. She pressed her cheek to his. The dog licked at her face with his hot tongue. She pulled away only to find that she had gripped the hair of his collar in both hands. She slowly uncurled her fingers. She turned away, walked up the loop of the outdoor stair and into the foyer of the hold. She met with the Queen’s public minister, a fat woman with the fey, beautiful face of a clean-shaven mardana man. Zezili could never remember her name.

“She’s been expecting you,” the minister said.

A little dajian ran ahead to announce Zezili. Zezili went to the long hall outside the queen’s audience chamber.

The dajian slipped back out the door, gripped the outer handle and leaned back with all her weight so she could pull it wide.

Zezili squared her shoulders. She concentrated on the length of purple carpet, but could not help but see the willowy length of the queen at the other end of the room, two red banners framing her silver throne. The figures moving at the edges of the room were not her officials, but her cats.

The sight of them sent a prickling up Zezili’s spine. The Queen’s cats were as tall as Zezili’s shoulder, sleek and black, with the queen’s eyes; they moved the way she did. They paced the length of the cold chamber.

Zezili walked onto the carpet. The dajian closed the massive door. Zezili still did not look at the queen. She walked to within a yard of the cusp of the Queen’s belled white gown, stared at the hem, and got down on both knees before her. She took off her helm, set it beside her.

The cats wound closer. A dozen, more? She imagined them chewing on her body, saw claws rent flesh.

She bowed her head forward, reached up to the tangled hair tied at the nape of her neck, brought it forward over one shoulder. She knelt with her neck bared and kept silent. One of the big cats yawned and stretched, lolled down beside her. Its tail caressed her legs, brushed the back of her head.

The Queen moved. A delicate hand alighted on the base of Zezili’s neck. The fingers were cold.

“I charged you,” the Queen said, her voice like a sigh.

Zezili trembled.

“The most important of my possessions,” the Queen said, and her fingers dug into Zezili’s hair.

“I failed,” Zezili said, and the words came out garbled. But the queen did not need her words to understand.

“Yes,” the Queen said. She released her hold on Zezili’s hair, smoothed it back into place, petted her absently.

“And the assassin?” the Queen asked.

“Her consort. The Thordon bauble,” Zezili said. “I didn’t watch him well enough. It is my head. My head and those of my house, if you will take them.”

“Yes,” the Queen murmured. She took her hand away, walked back around Zezili to the cat lolling next to Zezili. The Queen held out her hand. The cat licked it.

“Thordon,” the queen said.

One of the cats hissed.

“I tire long of Thordon.” The Queen stepped up onto the dais. She stepped back into the long curve of her silver throne, the fantastic menagerie of beaten silver rods and spires twisted into the faces of Delaraan demons. The first queen had had their faces set with emerald eyes.

“You have left me one child,” the Queen said. “You have left me the boy. These foolish choices are yours as well as mine.” And then, lower, to herself, to the cats, “I let the boy live.”

“Look at me,” the Queen said.

Zezili raised her eyes from the carpet. She did not know what she expected to see in the Queen’s face, but looking up she saw an unchanged visage, the face of the corpse in the kennels, unmarked by feeling; grief or fear or anger. The Queen was, as ever, a blank canvas, powdered in white, with the long, regal neck and supple form of her kind, the startling eyes.

“What are you doing this spring?” the Queen said.

Zezili could not speak. She looked for words, searched the floor, the carpet, let her gaze linger on the cats. She remembered Sir Kakolyn’s letter about the purging of the Drakish camps, remembered the last time she had knelt before the Queen, swore to cut out her own heart.

“Purging Drakes,” Zezili said, “if that’s your will.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” the Queen said.

Zezili kept her mouth shut.

“I don’t mind speaking,” the Queen said. “I was to take your head, yes, as you offered it to me. I have a platter, here.” She tapped the silver throne. “But my cats are not hungry.”

Zezili looked at the cats lolling about the audience chamber. They stared back at her with the Queen’s eyes.

“There is another use for you,” the Queen said.

Zezili shook her head. “My Queen –“

“I have told you.” She nodded at the cats. “They are not hungry. Another day? Until that time, I have changed my mind.”

“Your mind?”

“There are Drakish camps, yes. Kakolyn and Orianlyn will clean it. I have some… insects there. They need to be purged. But after, I have a task for you, one your death will not sully.”

Zezili bowed her head.

“You and Storm will go south.”

Zezili brought her head back up. “South?”

“Thordon,” the Queen said. “I want him. I want his country. I want it burned and routed, raped and maimed and mutilated. I want them scattered and twisted. And it is his head you will bring to me. On a platter, no less.”

“Pardon, my Queen, with only two legions?”

“Three. You will have Tanasai’s. I have contacted her.”

Zezili took a breath. Tanasai was dead, packed in snow in the storage house of Zezili’s estate. She tried to think of other things, but the Queen’s gaze had become keen.

“Or will I need to?” the Queen asked.

Zezili gritted her teeth.

“No,” the queen said softly, and her eyes never left Zezili. “No, perhaps I will not have to. Perhaps that time is done.”

“My Queen –“

“So your bauble has gone,” the Queen said, and a strange look came over her face, a turning inward. “Your bauble has committed violence and left you. Sought you out and could not find you.”

Zezili shifted on her knees. She had told no one about what the night keeper of the inn had told her: some hours after her departure, a strange person had come looking for her, too thin to be a woman, the voice too deep, his face hidden in a long hood. She had given him a room. He had disappeared along with the assassin.

“There were tracks leaving the inn,” Zezili said. “A dog carrying two. A third trailing.”

“Then it is both of us owe Nathin something.”

Zezili knitted her brows. “I don’t –“

“You will look. Your wife is south,” the Queen said. “And the killer. You owe Nathin something too, do you not?”

“Yes,” Zezili said. She would find her wife. And Nathin. She saw something opening ahead of her, beyond the throne room. Life. Pursuit.

“There were will be mercenaries from the outer islands. Three thousand Sebastyn pike men, five hundred Alorjan archers. This will not be your campaign, of course. I am giving it to Storm. He has first of the campaign. He decides his subordinates. You understand?”

“Yes,” Zezili said.

“Then we are settled.”

“I await your will,” Zezili said.

“Then rise,” the Queen said.

Zezili stood. Her knees ached. She bowed, turned. She put her back to the cats and the Queen. Her hands were pale, trembling. Cold sweat had gathered along her spine. She had not expected she would be allowed to rise, to leave the door. She had not thought past kneeling upon the carpet.

She saw the little dajian pulling back the door, leaning into it.

“Zezili?”

The tone was light. Zezili felt fear. She pivoted on her heel, regarded the queen. The cats were uncurling from the floor, stretching, yawning.

“Perhaps there is something else,” the Queen said.

Her cats crept up alongside Zezili, paced between her and the door. They circled her.

“My cats would like a token,” the Queen said. “Just a bit. You will give it freely.”

“Yes,” Zezili said.

The cats pounced.

She did not have time to bring up her hands.

How To Write About Afrika!!

"The View From Africa," by Binyavanga Wainaina (abridged. See the link for the whole thing):

Some tips: sunsets and starvation are good

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover
of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel
Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If
you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or
Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is
hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of
animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot
and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get
bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big:
fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy
starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your
book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands,
savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care
about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and
evocative and unparticular.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between
Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African
writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who
are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital
mutilation.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving
African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits
for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on
their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and
empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past,
no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans
are good. She must never say anything about herself in the
dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also
be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling
laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her
Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should
buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero
can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of
babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or
a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now
cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet
ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When
talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese
and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa's situation. But
do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the
African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids,
or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate
something about Europe or America in Africa. African
characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but
empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in
their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

You'll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where
mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and
guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something
about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.

I Reserve Comment

SKATER girl Avril Lavigne wants to get rid of her trademark men's shirts and ties and become a fashion model.

What, was she getting hit on by too many women? I'd consider that a compliment!

I sometimes distrust it when women make the decision to "give up" on being "boyish," or wearing comfortable clothes. I agree that feminism is all about choice, and if she wants to wear make-up and run around in tight clothes, that's cool. I just question the reason why she's decided to run this flip so suddenly.

(thanks, b)

Sweet Jesus

I see there's a reason I had a nightmare about my credit card balance last night.

Sweet Jesus.

Radical Militant Librarian

Get your own "Radical Militant Librarian" button.

You know you want to.

When It All Breaks Down

I went to the doctor again yesterday, this time to PP. For the last six months, I’ve been suffering from what I thought were recurring yeast infections. If you’ve had these or had a partner who’s had these, you know that they make walking uncomfortable, kill most of your sex drive, and make sex uncomfortable anyway.

Two weeks before, I visited another doctor after suffering from a persistent hacking cough. I’d been choking on my own phlegm for nearly two weeks. The coughing fits were so bad that during one of the worst bouts I pulled a muscle on my right side. I had to alter my morning weights routine so I put less strain on it. Getting out of bed in the morning was painful.

The doctor sounded me out and said she had no idea what was wrong with me. She gave me some antibiotics and cough syrup and sent me home.

A few months before that, I got taken out by a major case of the flu that kept me in bed for two weeks. I lived on chicken broth and juice. That’s when all the weight started coming off. I’ve dropped two sizes in 6 months.

When the clinician at PP weighed me in, she looked over my chart and said, “You’ve lost a lot of weight!”

“Yea,” I said, “I have. What am I at?”

“188,” she said.

I was 180 at Clarion. I’ve never in my life wanted to be below 175. I didn’t ask my starting weight, but I’d guess I was 215-220 6 months ago.

The clinician asked me the long list of questions you get about yeast infections: are you using scented soap? Bubble bath? Do you wear a thong? You wear cotton underwear? Cut down on sugar? Alcohol? Change out your clothes after the gym?

I’ve been trying to handle this discomfort for six months. If I hadn’t done some google homework on the issue and tried everything else, I wouldn’t be here.

I told her I’d been taking massive amounts of acidophilus, using creams, and doing or avoiding all of the above things she indicated. Mostly, I felt like I was in a constant state of remission – I noticed some discomfort, but it didn’t really spike except once or twice a month. It was like living in a constant state of tension, with occasional outbursts.

She looked genuinely perplexed.

She checked out my IUD and said there may be a couple of things going on:

1) my IUD may be irritating my uterus, which is why I feel better during my period, because everything’s getting flushed out.

2) I overdid it with the acidophilus (and, I think, if she knew how much I took – every day – she’d likely have gone pale), and too much of a good thing can cause a lesser irritation, which is what I’d been experiencing.

So I got another dose of antibiotics to flush the extra acidophilus from my system and clear up any kind of irritated infection that the IUD may have caused.

Seventy-five dollars poorer, I headed out of PP and went home . The whole right side of my face was throbbing, and I kept a tissue handy for my dripping nose. That morning, I’d discovered I had another of my twice-yearly sinus infections. I needed to take some Sudafed.

I’ve been sick for the last six months. I asked my clinician when I’d first come in about a yeast infection. She said it was in July. Getting on and off the pill will do that. I had one getting on the pill, one getting off. Made sense.

But it started recurring again six weeks later – and kept recurring. Not long after that, I got the flu. Not long after that, the bronchitis-like infection in my lungs. Now the sinus infection. My sicknesses are accumulating more quickly now. And I’m dropping a staggering amount of weight.

None of the doctors I’ve gone to can pinpoint what exactly is wrong with me. They’ve got theories, but nothing concrete. They threw some drugs at me and told me to drink more juice.

At home, my room looks like a war zone. Everything’s been torn off the walls. The angry ripping left behind brown patches where the paint’s been stripped. I have a box of crap sitting by my bed, ready to be moved out.

Six months ago, K moved in with Jenn and me.

For six months, we’ve been trying to make our living situation work.

We’ve all been trying very hard.

Things were not good when we moved in. Things went from bad to worse. There were screaming fights. We had a long list of “house rules” that needed to be followed. No labels on things. Close the shower curtain and medicine cabinet. Keep your stuff out of public areas. Jenn and I did all the dishes. Wipe down the counters every morning. Keep to a strict cleaning schedule. Make sure you wipe down the door handle in the bathroom.

I began to believe that I had to rigidly stick by all of these rules to the letter. If I didn’t, I thought, then K would be upset., and if K was upset, Jenn and K would fight.

All I wanted was to live in a happy house where everyone loved each other.

Now I know what it is to be a child of parents who are constantly fighting.

You keep thinking that if you just do this one thing, everything will be all right. If you pick up the slack – if you do more dishes, give up the TV more often, try harder to have a “relationship” with K, spend more time in your room, maybe, if you were just around the house less often, then everything would be all right.

But, of course, it’s not.

I started to dread coming home at night. I didn’t know what state the house would be in. Would it be a happy night? Or would there be closed doors and angry words?

We all wanted things to get better. Yet no matter how many talks we all had, no matter how many times we said, “This isn’t right, we need to fix it” – it never got better. It never got fixed.

It got worse.

“It’s so strange,” my clinician at PP said, “I had this eight-month time period where I was getting yeast infections all the time. I did everything I could think of, and they kept coming back. Then one day they just stopped.”

After months of talking about breaking off the relationship, about different living arrangements, after a week of K sleeping at other people’s houses, of everyone being “unsure,” after six months of sickness and tension on my part, after surviving more and more on credit cards, after my second computer in two years died, my printer went down, after having my fantasy novel rejected again, after getting stalled on my latest novel because of my dead computer and tangled plotline, after increasing stress at work, after another discussion about all of the things my partner and I were unhappy with in our own relationship, I lost it last week. I completely broke down into a screaming, sobbing mess and told Jenn I was moving out March first.

I tore everything off my walls and started packing. I returned all of the library books Jenn had loaned me. I started moving out.

When I say I’m going to do something, I do it.

I hated my house. I hated how we lived. I hated coming home at night. This was hurting me.

My body had been saying no to this situation for some time. I tried to move out as early as October, but it wasn’t financially feasible. This time around, I was getting a big check for my writing contract work at the end of February, and it would give me my freedom. I’d get a shitty, cockroach infested studio apartment until I moved to NY. I’d done it before.

For months my body was telling me to get the hell out. I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen because every time I ran into something I thought was a problem, I’d try to rationalize it. I told myself things would get better. I told myself that stress wasn’t something that affected you physically. Stress was something you just ignored or “got over.” It was a weak, emotional thing. There had to be some other explanation for all of my sicknesses.

But as the third wheel in a house where two people live who are in a relationship, I had no control over that relationship. Nothing I could say or do would change any of it.

Jenn and K spoke, and K said she would move out. She’s gone to spend time at friends’ places until March 1st. She’ll come in to get her stuff piecemeal, and head out.

On the one hand, I was upset about this. I was sad. I wanted it all to work. And if somebody was going to move out, I wanted it to be me. I didn’t want K feeling like she’d been shit on. I was willing to take the hit. But Jenn and K came to their own decision about that issue, and K decided to go.

I am sad. I’m not as bad off as Jenn, of course. There’s a long grieving process.

I tried hard. I tried to wish everything better.

But it wasn’t my place.

In the end, all I could do was leave. Fight or flight. I needed to protect myself, because my whole life was falling apart.

I don’t know how this is all going to turn out. I don’t even know if me and my own partner will make it through this.

I reached the end of my rope with everyone in my life. I was so angry at one point that I never wanted to speak to Jenn again. We’ve known each other for nearly six years. We’re Clarion buddies. For me to get to that point says a lot about how emotionally exhausted I am.

I don’t know that anything can help me at this point.

“Drink this,” the clinician told me.

I stared dubiously into a cup of fizzing water.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“The antibiotic.”

I’d never taken a drink-based antibiotic before.

It tasted all right going down, but the aftertaste was bitter.

“That will flush everything out,” she said.

I hope she's right.

God's War: Excerpt

Chapter 19

Nyx blew out of Punjai and hit the radio a couple of times with her palm, but all she got was misty blue static.

It was going to be a long ride.

She spent the night in the bakkie after making good time, about halfway to Mushtallah. She kept as far off the road as she dared and was up before dawn and back on the road, out past Mushtallah and the central cities. She landed another night on the road, then climbed over the low mountains that divided the coast from the interior.

As she came up over the other side, the terrain began to change. Sandy scrub gave way to rocky soil. The desert bled away and turned into long-needled pine trees, then tall oak hybrids with leaves the size of Nyx’s head, low ferns with thorns, tangles of wild roses, snake maples, amber ticklers, patches of low-spring wildflowers.

Nyx found it all pretty claustrophobic. The trees were so big they blocked the big sky, the sun. She couldn’t see beyond the turns of the road. That made her nervous. She started checking her mirrors more often.

She came out of the mountains and onto the rolling veldt of red-tipped wheat, the broad pastureland that kept the big, hairy, shoulder-high omnivores they called pigs. Farmsteads dotted the landscape. Swarms of locusts, red flies, and ladybirds mobbed the fields, tailored to devour the less friendly bugs and fungi that ruined the staples.

Nyx found a motel that night at a crossroads. She parked her bakkie out front alongside flatbeds and rickshaws and a cart hitched to the front end of a converted bakkie.

She splurged on good food and a bath. The only upside to coming out to the coast was all the water. Sweet, sweet, water. All the water you could soak in.

Nyx lingered in the bath, rubbing at old wounds that had started biting and aching again. It got colder on the coast, and the cold would only make the aching worse.

She missed the desert.

When she crawled into bed, her sheets weren’t full of sand. The floor was made of wood, and swept clean.

She couldn’t sleep.

Nyx grabbed her pillow and moved to the floor, spent long hours staring at the roaches scuttling along the ceiling. A couple took flight, landed on her head, her arms. She flicked them away.

There was a call box downstairs, but she had no one to call. If she called Kine, it was likely her sister would tell her not to come. If she called the Keg, she could make small talk with Taite or Anneke about defense, but she’d be repeating herself, and they’d see through it.

Nyx got up and went to the bar.

The motel had an “honor” bar, the kind with liquor bottles affixed to the wall upside down and a little book to record how many shots you’d pulled so they could bill you for it later.

Nyx took out her dagger and pried a bottle of whiskey from the wall and went out and sat on the front porch. The sky was big, and the stars were the clearest she’d seen since she was a kid. She drank, leaned back in the chair, and tried reading the constellations. Tej had been good at that.

A noise from the parking lot drew her attention. She went still. The night was clear, but the big bloody moons were at the far end of their orbit, meaning they looked about as big as her thumbnail in the night sky. A year from now, they would look about three times the size of the sun.

But that didn’t help her out much now.

The figure was dawdling next to Nyx’s bakkie. She’d parked close to the motel so she could keep an eye on it. The figure crouched for a long while, then rose and moved off. As Nyx watched, the figure shrank, dwindled. She heard a sneeze, and then a white bird was flapping off toward the road.

Nyx swore. She took a last pull from the bottle, returned it to the bar, and held out the rest of the night in her room with the door bolted. She slept in front of it.

The next morning, an inspection of the bakkie turned up an ignition burst and a cut brake line. It looked like Rasheeda had tried to cut open the main hose connecting the pedal mechanisms to the engine as well, but only nicked it. Some dead beetles and organic fluid had pooled beneath the bakkie.

Nyx disarmed the ignition burst. She opened up the trunk and took out one of the toolkits. She patched the leak, replaced the brake hose, and got back onto the road.

This time, she kept an eye on the road behind her the whole way.

She stopped at a dusty station just past a couple of farmsteads at the foot of the coastal hills and filled up on bug juice.

The woman who popped open her tank was a soft, fleshy, coastal type with big dark eyes and a plump mouth.

“You come in from the desert?” she asked.

Nyx wondered where else there was to come in from. As the woman pumped the feed into the tank, Nyx gazed out at the road. She saw a bakkie crawling along around a bend in the road, coming in from the direction of the motel. Following her?

She turned her face away, but noted the movement of the car in the station windows. The car slowed as it passed the station, then sped up again. Nyx saw three figures. She slumped in her seat, wondered if they’d open fire.

But the bakkie sped on. She looked after it.

“Friends of yours?” the attendant asked. She capped the tank.

“I hope not,” Nyx said. She leaned over, opened her pack and rolled a couple of bursts onto the passenger seat. Just in case.

She paid the woman and got back onto the road.

Three kilometers on, she saw the bakkie parked at the side of the road.

Waiting.

Fuck.

She switched pedals, kicked the bakkie a little faster. The other bakkie turned out onto the road after her.

Nyx didn’t know the country well, and unlike the cities, the place was all wide-open, no cover. About all the cover she had were the hills, and some woods, if she could find them. She switched pedals again, reached for the clutch. She hadn’t had to use the clutch in a long time. She wondered if it still worked.

The dark bakkie kept just within her rearview mirror view. They knew they’d been seen. Either they didn’t know where she was going and wanted to pin her there, or they were waiting for a good turn in the road to take her out.

She sped up. They sped up.

She watched the image of the dark car grow bigger in the mirror.

She fucked with the clutch. It made a nasty grinding sound.

“Come on, you fucker,” she said.

It flipped.

She switched pedals. The bakkie shuddered. The speedometer climbed. She saw a turnoff on her left that went up into the hills. Nyx did a neat break, twisted the wheel, and hit the speed as she came out of the turn.

The bakkie screamed under her. She caught the smell of burning bugs, death on the road. She glanced back and saw smoke and dead beetles roiling out from the exhaust. The way was narrow and twisted, and as she climbed, the grasslands turned to a forest of oak hybrids. She took the turns too fast.

Nyx kept checking the mirror. She spent a moment too long looking and nearly lost herself on a narrow turn. She’d seen the other bakkie.

They were still behind her.

She kept a sharp eye out for turns off the main road. She didn’t want gravel tracks or logging roads. The bakkie would get stuck, and she’d be for shit.

The black bakkie was right behind her. She could just see their faces now. The big woman in the driver’s seat was definitely Dahab. Not a doubt in her mind. Dahab had a new team with her, not bel dames, from the look of them.

Nyx twisted around another curve. Raine had taught her to drive when she was nineteen. It wasn’t a skill magicians taught to boxers. Raine had gone to boxing gyms for years to recruit young blood from the front. She’d started out like all of his crew – as a driver.

Nyx heard a shot, and ducked. Checked the mirror again. The woman riding shotgun with Dahab was doing what people riding shotgun did.

Nyx dared not take her hands off the wheel. Even if she could clip off a couple shots with her pistol, the odds of her hitting anything in that bakkie were slim.

She hit a crossroads. Right was back up into the hills. Left was down into the coastal valley. Down meant she would have to put a lot of faith in her repair of the breakline.

Fuck it.

She veered left and barreled down the hill. She disengaged the clutch.

Heard another shot.

Something exploded against her back window.

That wasn’t good. Organics. A fever burst? Or something worse?

She grabbed at one of the bursts on the seat next to her and lobbed it out the window. Heard a satisfying pop as it exploded on the road.

The bakkie squeezed around another narrow turn. The cover of the woods was thinning out. She saw a house set back away from the road. If she couldn’t lose them, she had to fight them.

Fight Dahab.

Nyx ignored the house and kept on down the road.

She came down a long stretch and turned. The road abruptly changed from pavement to gravel. Logging road.

The bakkie skidded on the sudden raw stretch. Nyx hit the far left and far right pedals, and all four wheels twisted sharply, got her some traction.

She looked back. Missed a turn. She spun the wheel and tried to recover, but she was trying to recover on a graveled road.

The car slid clean off the road.

For a long, hopeful moment, she thought she’d be all right. But as she braked and twisted the wheel, she saw she wasn’t going to avoid the big tree in front of her.

The bakkie smashed into the hybrid oak with a loud crunch. Bugs exploded from the hood. A rain of leaves dropped onto the windshield. Nyx’s torso thumped into the steering wheel, knocked the breath from her.

The sound of hissing beetles filled her ears.

Adrenaline flooded her body. She pushed at the door, couldn’t find the handle for some reason. She leaned over and reach for one of the bursts on the floor.

The barrel of a very big gun pointed in at her through the passenger side window.

“Don’t fucking move,” Dahab said.

"Ten ways you know you're reading a story of mine"

1) It opens with something like: “The Heroes took wing from a dark, raw field the color of blood.” And you know exactly what you’re in for. This isn’t going to be a “happy” story.

2) Somebody loses something - an eye, a finger, a limb, a head, a womb - at some point

3) Big women with commitment issues go around killing things and trying not to care about people.

4)Skinny men - usually described as looking like or acting like dancers (hey, I used to have a thing for a dancer) - act as the loyal sidekick to above strong woman.

5)There are a lot of bugs

6) Wars are going on and shit is blowing up

7) Somebody’s carrying around a big gun that shoots acid.

8) The traditional “one man, one woman,” happy hetero pairing is very sweet – and you’re not reading about it.

9) Getting pregnant isn’t a good idea. And if the women are going around having sex (and oh yes, they are), you’ll get an explanation as to why she ain’t pregnant.

10) The civil war’s just the subplot

Weird Habits For La Gringa

Five weird habits:

1) I talk to myself. I picked up this habit while living by myself in Alaska, and South Africa. It’s a pretty constant streaming narrative of what’s going on in my head (“I need to do this, then this. Fuck. I forgot that thing. That’s lame.”). So when I’m alone in the house I turn on movies and music. I used to constantly run a DVD in my computer in South Africa when I was home so I didn’t feel so lonely. I’ve been doing it this last week, as well, as K is out of the house and Jenn doesn’t come home until after I’m in bed.

2) When I don’t write for about three or four days, I get emotionally weird. This is because I channel my emotions into my writing. It enables me to keep up a calm façade out in the real world. When the writing doesn’t happen, the emotion tends to build up, and explosions over small issues happen more regularly.

More writing: less craziness!

3) I’m claustrophobic. I can put up with small spaces if I have to, but if it’s for prolonged periods or I’m not 100% mentally or physically well to begin with, I’ll start to lose it and wack out.

This is probably why I need to have moving air in my room when I go to sleep. Preferably, I’ve got a fan going all the time, but if one’s not available, I need to have an open window. I won’t die without it, but it’s something I do automatically if I’m in a hotel by myself – I try to open the windows. This also means I have more trouble going to bed when I’m too warm than when I’m too cold. Lord knows how I managed to live in Durban.

4) I often put on perfume before bed. I have no idea why I do this, since 98% of the time, I go to bed alone anyway.

5) I drink whiskey straight. A lot of it. That may not sound weird to some people, but I’ve gotten startled looks when I tell people to serve me my hard liquor straight. Whiskey is my preferred “I want to get drunk now” beverage. In fact, that sounds like something I’ll indulge in tonight.