The Pleasant Auguries of Our Stars

Mostly friend, partly house-guest, Avery flung himself happily into an armchair with a tumbler of whiskey and made love with a thick red-bound volume whose import Raymond could not recall from amid the myriad of books lining the shelves.
Rachel asked what sort of books were our "cosy" favourites - the books you read when you aren't researching anything, or trying particularly to expand your horizons, but just to have a bit of literary dessert, as it were. I confess it was actually very hard to put together a list of "cosy" books for myself.  I don't seem to read many of those.  I almost put Watership Down on this list, if that is any indication...  One other caveat: the older I get, the fewer books I re-read.  Ain't nobody got time fo' that.

I don't know how many times I have read this book.  I do recall curling up in my family's Lazy-Boy and reading it aloud to my cat, because she wanted to sit on my lap and I wanted to read the book to someone.  It's still a delectable favourite, with a pungent taste of medieval atmosphere for which I am unfathomably grateful.  And, you know, it's C.S. Lewis.

Er, this is a cosy book?  I don't know.  But it's one I really enjoy and one that I read every once and again just for fun.

Again, I'm not sure why this is on a cosy list, but here it is.  A-a-and it's also C.S. Lewis.

"And to be surprised that the woman who brought me up should actually be lady-like!"  Here is to my favourite of the Aquila stories: an old friend, and very familiar.  

Chesterton!  Chesterton and poetry!  ("Sugar, dates, and pistachios!") This is a marvelous book and while I haven't actually read it through again, I do take it down sometimes to drink in the delicious lines.

This is one of the best children's books I have ever read, and it stands the test of time and age.  Danger! prophecy! swords and armour! common-sense! virtues! hilarity!  It has everything.  

I didn't like any of the covers, so you get a fan poster instead.  Howl's Moving Castle!  Melodrama, tongue-in-cheek hilarity, magic, high tempers - it is the back face of a coin whose other side is The Gammage Cup

And in a crescendo conclusion, The Grand Sophy - sparkling indeed with wit, more high tempers, good sense, wonderful characters, romping and rampaging and reigning on the page.  What more do you want, I ask!
What are your favourite cosy books?

"Gratuitous Motion"

pascal campion
You know how nice it is to discover someone else shares your view, and was kind enough to put it into a succinct explanation, right?  Well, I mentioned in Write It. Shoot It. that I am indebted to the fresh angle anime/Eastern animation can bring to the creative process, and today I want to unpack a method that I find is shared between myself and the award-winning animator Hayao Miazaki (whom I have mentioned on The Penslayer before).  You remember that there is a running fad in literature today to cut numerous "unnecessary" words?  This method kind of flies in the face of that.
I told Miyazaki I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
"We have a word for that in Japanese," [Miyazaki] said. "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally."
Ma. Emptiness. But not a meaningless emptiness.  On the contrary, this "emptiness" is swollen with meaning, with life, with a purpose which is not dictated by the rushing helter-skelter of the artist's idea of the plot.  This emptiness brings dimension and life to the character, because it makes that character's life so like our own. 
[Miyazaki] clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb."
I hear a lot of people tell writers to cut any text that doesn't progress the plot - and in large measure that advice is absolutely spot on.  You shouldn't fill your manuscript with unnecessary trips to unnecessary places, you shouldn't drag the narration out when you could have just split the section and picked back up where you needed to be.   But I do feel there is a time and a place for the "emptiness" to descend on the plot, if only for a moment.  Sit still for a moment.  Sigh.  Look at something which has nothing to do with the narrow tunnel of the plot: it gives breathing space, it gives dimension, it gives the sense even for the characters that life goes on despite one's own immediate battle.
If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don't have to have violence and you don't have to have action. [The audience will] follow you.
As a descriptive matter of course in Talldogs the other day, I sat one of my characters down with a book.  It is the sort of thing he would do.   I pulled in a jumble of plot tension and progression, and after that, as my characters were sorting things out, I had my main character ask the other what book he was reading.  The book has nothing to do with the plot, but the book has to do with their lives, with dimension, and technically that conversation about that otherwise meaningless book is emptiness.  It is only a small piece of emptiness, not enough to bore the reader, and yet I find it of an utmost importance because it gives breathing space.  Without it, the plot would be two-dimensional and the characters would exist solely for the purpose of "fixing" the plot's problems.  But that is not what they exist for.  They exist because I made them, they have lives because I wanted them to, and I give them dimension because I love them.  I let them have their breathing space.  I let them have the emptiness.  I have already seen in readers a response of refreshment from this imitation of life in art, so I am not afraid to use it. 
What about you?  Do you use ma?

The Sounds That You Hear

All right, I have a question for you guys.  
I admit, I am not a big fan of "classic" literature.  It's not that I hate classic literature for the sake of hating classic literature; truth is, I'm not a big fan of any one genre, I'm a fan of numerous particular books.  I never take things wholesale, I take them on their individual merits.  So when I pose this query I don't want you to think we should all hie back to dense, massive books that go on for forty pages about a priest who has very little to do with the actual plot of the novel.  Because that's silly. 

However, I think my biggest beef with the contemporary fiction I've come across is that it is too much like a skeleton.  There isn't enough meat on it.  Writers today have a phobia of using "unnecessary" words (said, then, very, just, they, to name a few).  So they cut them, almost to the point of creating crime upon the body of literature.  I am not sure why writers feel the need to do this.  Perhaps the argument is that readers don't want to read a bunch of words.  Well, sure, readers are lazy.  I'm lazy.  But the solution to that problem is not in cutting words.  It's in making the words make magic so that the reader no longer realizes he is participating in the exercise of reading.

A great example of a piece of contemporary fiction which pulls this off and still remains a chewable size is Rachel Heffington's recent debut Fly Away Home.  Its diction is light on its feet, giving you the illusion of ease, and yet she uses words.  There are words in that book.  Let's face it: if you're reading this blog, you're probably a writer, and your only material with which to work is words.  You are literally performing alchemy here.  You are taking one heap of common materials (words), breaking it down in the crucible of your imagination, and coming out on the other side with something wholly other than what you started with (living persons, a story, a world).  Don't cut yourself off from the one substance you have to work with.  You need those words!  You can't use them and be afraid of them at the same time.

On the other side of the spectrum from Heffington (because Fly Away Home is a "light" book, although by no means shallow), I am particularly prone to laying back my ears when people tell me to cut "unnecessary" words because my style relies on the cadence created by the words, and tends to have more text in a manuscript.  I need those saids and verys and thens.  I am trying to conjure in you the same visceral reaction you would have to poetry without scaring you with a length of poetry.  I need that cadence.  I need that beat.  I need that sound that you hear in your head to be tangible.  You may not realize it is happening (that is the large part of magic), but it is happening to you.  And you know what?  I use words to do that. 

When you ask someone to pick a card out of a playing deck, you don't get rid of the other fifty-one cards thinking they are now superfluous.  While that one card is the only card the person picked, it fails in its game if not supported by those other cards that no one sees during the sleight.  In the same way, the reader's eye may "skim" words like said and very and then, and not consciously focus on them - but the impact is still there.  You are making magic, and you are making it with words.  There is nothing wrong with English, despite what you may have been told about adverbs and prepositions: the merit is in your deftness with its use.
So tell me: would you cut?

Write It. Shoot It.

this is uncannily tim & me in our glasgow flat
Write It. Shoot It.  Publish It.  Crochet It. Saute It. Whatever. Make.

It's no secret that I am a fan of Joss Whedon's work.  I've seen a lot of "Buffy," some of "Dollhouse," I love the prematurely truncated show "Firefly" and its summation movie "Serenity;" "The Avengers" was an amazing film, and then the casual, homely, but sparkling production of "Much Ado About Nothing" is on par with the Kenneth Branagh film.  He has a knack for telling a story with a fresh perspective, a jarring but pleasant spin - as a storyteller myself, I really appreciate his way of breaking outside the box.

The following is a list of writing tips attributed to Whedon.  I've been mulling them over for a while, and thought I might share.  
1. finish it
This one seems like a no-brainer, but I think we have all experienced that moment when the first love of the story seems to have died, when it is slugging and not blitzing.  It's that moment when you discover whether you are toying with writing, or if you are really a writer.  It's that moment when you discover how much grit you have in you, how much patience - and sometimes you don't have enough, but rather than despair, you carve out the grit and the patience as you go.  Because you have to keep going.  You'll need breaks, and research: no one is asking you to slog through non-stop, because that's stupid.  You're going to have fresh ideas for new stories, and you're going to want to hurl yourself into that fresh meat, and no one will blame you, but you can't give up on your novel.  Mirriam has two (what seem to me to be) amazing new stories blossoming in her brain-pan, but she has promised herself that she won't seriously dedicate her time to them until she has finished her work in progress.  I've had to put Gingerune aside for the time being, but I haven't given up on it.  I'll finish it.  No matter what, the bottom line is finish it.
2. structure
As much as possible, have an extensive scope for your idea with which to work.  When the going gets tough and the flame begins to die, you'll need a backup fuel supply to get through those times.  It doesn't matter if you outline everything, or write as things come to you, think seriously about the scope of your story.  Have scenes in mind off in the future.  And if you can - this is very important - if at all possible, try, try, TRY to get your ending set up.  You may not be able to do this right off the bat; that would be very difficult to do before you have discovered your characters and built their lives - but keep that idea revolving in your brain.  The tires will catch on something eventually and you'll be off like a shot!

Also (and thanks to Rachel for bringing this back to my mind) it really helps to have a familiar place to work.  She just moved her writing place and mentioned to me in a letter that she is having a lot of trouble writing since the move happened.  She's not used to her new place yet.  Her brain doesn't associate this new space with comfort and creativity.  For some people, this is not nearly as big of an issue; for others, creatures of habit like myself, familiar, structured space is paramount.
3. have something to say
I don't mean everyone has to have an agenda.  Everyone always has an agenda and there is really no point in beating that horse any deader than it already is.  But make sure you care about what you are write, make sure it is true (or, alternately, not true), make it matter - make the reader care.  In conversation, it is good manners to not speak until you have something of import to say: the same goes for writing.  It doesn't have to original or groundbreaking.  Just have something to say.
4. everyone has a right to live
Everyone has a life.  Everyone is a me looking out at the world with a backstory, with a worldview, with a purpose.  Don't write a superhero action scene in which the entire city is destroyed and countless lives are lost and we call it a win.  They're not numbers, they're people.  They matter.  Human life, even fictional human life, is precious.
5. cut what you love
Reading back over a section of Plenilune the other day, I came across a piece that I had forgotten to edit.  I'm going to have to take it out, and there were a few lines in the section that I really liked.  But you know what, no one else is going to know that piece was ever there once I take it out, and if I leave it in, it will ultimately drag the story down.  I'll use those pretty little lines somewhere else, no doubt.  But the rest has to go.  I love it, but it has to go.  For the sake of the story, always do what is best.
6. listen
Personally, I don't mean this in merely a people-watching sense: I mean it on a deeper level than that.  Listen to the way things work.  Listen to the way people work.  Listen to the way their hearts cry out - in agony and ecstasy.  Listen to the sound behind sounds.  It is like perfume: a burst of scent builds a sensation, often an image of places or colours, channelled through a wash of emotion.  Listen for that sound which you hear in your head when you hear things in your ears.  And then write that.
7. track audience mood
When people are reading a book that you have also read, pay attention to how they react to the way the plot unfolds.  Pay attention to your own reactions.  There is a kind of circadian rhythm to a good plot, a flow which the human mind finds pleasant to follow, even if it involves a thorough wrenching of emotions.  While readers are your playthings, and their hearts are toys with which you can make light, you are at the mercy of their desires, and they will kick back at you if you make the ride unpleasantly rocky.  Pay attention to what people like in a story.
8. write like a movie
At first I thought this had to do with dialogue, but now I don't think so at all.  Dialogue will always be subject to the characters, to the time, and to the setting.  A good writer will be very fluid with the type of dialogue he uses.  Writing like a movie implies a vividness of impression.  Reading a book is a very visual experience, and a movie is one of the most visual mediums of creative communication that we have today.  The two can mesh very well.  This is one thing I like so much about anime: the people who draw it and put it together literally see things from different angles and perspectives than we here in the West do, and it gives me a fresh way of twisting my writing away from the expected into the unexpected.  Problem: I need to say in the text that my character gets to his feet, but that's boring, the kind of text people skim over and don't care about.  Simple solution:
His reflection in the enormous hazel eye gathered itself together and got to its feet.
Throw the reader's angle of awareness into places it is not used to going.  It helps shake things up, keeps things spicy, and keeps the reader's brain from dozing off while reading the text.
9. don't listen
"I stare at a word and think, 'Why can't you sound like Jenny?' And then I think 'Dash Jenny.' But in a very loving kind of way."  She nodded gently upon me from a height of Hibernian gold, as if to will the words to fall as soft and snow-like as possible. I gave back a guttural whicker of amusement and sympathy, silently calculating how to wrap her round my little finger to get back at her for her advantage of height over me. "You may dash me, that's all right.," I demurred.  I kinked one hand up at the wrist and gazed with cool criticism on my nails. "I've dashed many other contemporary scribblers when I have that looking-in-the-mirror-of-writing-and-never-feeling-beautiful happenstance." I threw a daring look up at her from under my brows, something masculine staring out of my own eyes: her scarlet lips flashed in defiant amusement.  There.  I had won.

You're going to hate yourself.  You're going to want to be someone else.  Someone is going to tell you that you're not doing it right (they are often correct) and they're going to tell you how it's done (they are often wrong).  The trick is to remember that, while many people are alike, there is only one you: only you know your creative genius, only you can do your creativity just your way.  Don't listen to the others.  Don't listen to that absurd negative voice that I fight with (and lose against) every single day.  Just don't.

Simon: Captain, why did you come back for us?
Malcolm: You're on my crew.
Simon: Yeah, don't even like me. Why'd you come back?
Malcolm: You're on my crew. Why we still talkin' about this?
10. don't sell out
You have to work for your dreams, and sometimes it's really not fun.  You have to watch the market swing wildly away from your interests, from your genre, from your style, from everything that fires you as a writer.  You have to face the fear of never being liked as an author.  You have two choices: write what the masses want and cheat yourself of the joy of your own creative spirit, or run the risk of never being popular and of coming to the end of your life having stayed true to your self.  And no one ever thought highly of a man who pandered to the crowd.  So don't sell out.  For your sake.  Don't sell out.

an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail

Mes Chers


why beat around the bush?

But Avery had become invested in his own reins and was fiddling with them protractedly, the ends of his forelock damp and dangling in his eyes. “I was going to say you could kill him,” he admitted at length; “but then I was not sure in my own heart that I was gammoning, and I frightened myself.”

Spoken like a Maresman,” laughed Avery. 

Her face blossomed like an orchid, colouring faintly, and a little of the St. Jermaine bled through, somehow, in the surprised joy of her countenance.

He pivoted—her head whirled—and swung her into the light again; downward bent, his teeth laughed at her, canines abnormally sharp in his mouth: was it the lighting and the terror, or did his mouth look sheeny red, as with blood?

He pressed his first two fingers to her broken lips and hauled the horsewhip back behind his head. His eyes flashed.
"Fight me!"

Turning back, he asked, "Did you cry?"

Taking his finger from his broken skin, [Bruin] asked gently, mockingly, “What will you do to me, which Badger has not already done?”

Playfully quizzical and suspicious he produced his hand like a lady, head backflung to watch her slip her fingers beneath his as a steadying influence, and lay two, three drops of the light brown liquid on the flecked skin. The marriage of living heat and essence was instant. [He] was overcome by the sharp top note of black pepper, red-laced across his vision, and in a moment he was wandering through the scents of nutmeg and blood orange, smooth and powerful as the sides of a sorrel mare. And down beneath it all, rich and made richer with the passing of time, lay the olibanum, a gift of kings and to Christ himself.

Her sister’s voice was careening downward into softer, more desperate tones. “Damn Goddgofang,” she panted disconsolately. “Damn him. I hate him. I hate him. I hate you all…”

He walked up behind her through the silent dark to where she knelt on the gaily-coloured travertine in the pillowing cloud of candlelight, a bundle of silk around her waist. Her hair was piled atop her head; her bare back and shoulders glistened with scented oils. With his feet mingling in the water and his humours mingling with her perfume, [he] slipped his hand around her throat and drew back her head. She stiffened, eyelashes fluttering: her left hand closed tightly on her straight-razor.
He pressed his mouth against the curve of her brow and came away damp. Her blood beat beneath his fingertips.
"You are good to me."

His teeth flashed in that curious angry humour of his family. “By the twelve houses! I remember when you were just a kitten mewling on your mother’s knee. A’come,” he added, beckoning. As he came a step into the room, the candlelight stroked the backs of its hands down the silver threaded into his blue-black doublet. He stood above her and smiled down into her face, something deliberately soft and gentle flung over the natural harshness of his countenance. “Come, my little black-haired wench."

With a very horse-like bluster through her lips Pan Aeneas took the pick off the top of the post and slung it over between her fingers, very deftly, like a magician, so that the handle of it was toward me. With my brow against Bramimound’s chevron quarter-mark for balance I cupped her hoof in one hand and took the pick from Pan Aeneas in the other, hitching up at hoof and haft and kinking my knees to get all the parties of this little domestic game into their positions.

Shh,” [Bruin] bade her, finger laid to his lips as she opened hers. His eyes stabbed into her own and he saw the momentary fear pass behind those green curtains. He put one hand under her bare elbow, fingers closing on the chilled skin, and put his other hand behind her ear: her eye followed it with veiled apprehension. When he took it back out, he held a silver coin between his first two fingers. He pressed the flesh-warm metal to the woman’s lips and smiled. “Go home,” he said, and made sure there was no brooking his tone. “It is going to rain.”

"You have a little bit of fire, enough to make it worthwhile to punish you, but not enough to make yourself disagreeable."

"You have your 'He is a blackguard, and I will enjoy grinding him between my teeth' look. Would you care to introduce me to the miscreant?"

"Take my hand, and do not touch me."

"He's got guts," I remarked, "among other things. I like him."

I smiled coaxingly. “My dear, I do not use the people I love.”
“No!” he replied with a sudden sharpness; “they are glad to spend and be spent for you! You have only to look at them and the elements of their souls are as molten in your hands.”

"May his seed wither, and his woman grow ugly!"

The corner of [Bruin's] mouth crawled with an unpleasant smile. He dropped his gaze to the pencil and knife in his hands, and went about the work of sharpening it, his body thrown back against the glass casement of the secretary. It was too bold a card she played, but he would accept it and give his opponent something to work with. It was not unenjoyable, being game master. Without looking up, he asked,
“Have you ever contemplated murder?” 

My Lord Avery

You know how you can be minding your own business, doing the most habitual thing in your life, and a new story idea comes to you?  "Thus the female mind."  I think this newest idea will make Number Ten (roughly speaking) in my Plenilune series which I am working on (Talldogs makes Number Three - Ethandune, who is Number Two, will be overhauled and expanded from its two-month blitz at some point in the future).
I've used my tentative, embryonic scene for this newest story as my Chatterbox.  This month's Chatterbox subject is mirrors, but the actual story (so far as I know) does not hinge upon mirrors.  They are a prop, a foil.  And upon my soul I have cheated so shamelessly this month, it is a wonder Rachel didn't throw me off a cliff.  I lo-o-ove you, Rachel.
my lord avery

“Is my Lord Avery at home?”
I slipped loose the heavy garnet fibula and let my chamois slide from my shoulders into Julia’s hands.  The maid took it and I turned in the burnt shadows of the hall entryway, my nostrils full of the scent of mown grass and freshly baked goods.  The wind was in its summer quarter, and the familiar smells of Amaranth in the height of the year hummed inside my veins.  My heart had been going at a quickened pace since the morning two days past, and had not slowed: now that I stood upon the threshold of my future, its gait seemed to redouble. 
Julia folded my little riding cloak in her arms and took up my pack with ease.  She was a tall woman, a little roughened from use, but surprisingly strong for her light-boned build.  With the yellowed evening light catching on the thin grey of her eyes she looked down a little at me, smiling straightly.  “Aye, hast been expecting thee these two days past.  He was a dragon in these halls this morning!”
Guilt was added to the active emotions in my chest.  If only Father had not been tardy returning from Battens and I had been sent off in due time!  I knew I was not late for my own coming-out, but I should have arrived at Amaranth at least a day ago.  I had not known my Lord Avery to ever be cross with me—trifling and, at times, a little perplexed, but never cross—but when he was out of temper there was no gentle place in the world for my soul.  I hoped he was not angry now.
“Art dusty, and thirsty besides,” remarked Julia gaily, in ignorance of my trepidations.  “Come by and I will set up the bath for thee and tuck thee in before supper.”
“Thank you, Julia,” I replied meekly, and tread softly along behind her down the hall.  The stone flags underfoot were scored and scarred with fire, but the walls were new, and still looked to me a little like playthings, they were so clean-cut and fresh.  “Give them another six generations,” my Lord Avery had once said to me—I glanced over my shoulder: I had been sitting on the stone kerb of the wall on the east side, where the summer’s evening light would hit me, and I had been reading a book of history.  My Lord Avery had looked on the book with a strange fondness and his eye had not been upon me.  “These walls will grow hoary about the whiskers with age.”
The rest of the house was old—very old.  I walked after Julia through a narrow arched doorway into a darkened dog-leg of corridor where very few lights shone after dusk and it was a horror to walk in the dead of night, even with a lamp.  I have never been equal to the dark.  Many other things I have conquered in my sixteen years, but the dark has not been one of them. 
The buckle of my saddle-bag jingled as Julia moved.
She took me to the familiar blue-tiled washroom with its high narrow window and plumbing that could alternately freeze your bones and strip the skin off your muscles with its heat.  It was a small, familiar, fish-scale-coloured place, and I was glad to see it.
Julia shut the door behind me and moved to place my pack on the stuffed seat of the armchair by the old copper tub.  As she began to remove my clothing and lay out a fresh set of garments for me, I moved to the basin and framed my reflection in the round, heavily gilt oval of the mirror.  The face which gazed back at me was paled by the blue light, but picked out on the cheeks with lively pink, woefully freckled, and shrouded in the flaxen hair which the wind of my ride had teased from its coils. 
Mon coeur, I sighed dismally.  I had hoped that, magically, the eve of my coming out would wake a kind of spell that would make me very beautiful.  In all respects I was tolerable, respectable, and plain.  Most days I could contrive to believe that I was not ugly: very few days came which found me vain.  But tomorrow, I reasoned with myself and with providence, I should have liked to be beautiful, and to stand before the world with unrivalled grace.  My Lord Avery—
“There is the clothing for thee,” said Julia, rising and turning to me.  “Canst undress thyself?”
I drew my gaze from the image in the mirror.  “Yes.  Thank you, Julia.”
She pinched the corners of her gown and dipped.  “I will get a glass for thee and come back to thee presently.”
“Thank you, Julia.”
She went out through the heavy oak door, shutting it again so that its iron latches squealed a little in their places, and I was left with the hollow sound of my own voice echoing in my ears.  Thank you, Julia.  I would be saying that often.
I unbuttoned the throat of my riding habit and crossed to the tub.  It was a sweltering day, and my head was light with the blaze of the sun.  A cool bath, cool enough to jolt the brain back to reality—a heart-thundering reality—would be the sort of thing Lady Greymere of Hol would take.  Would she not?  With my hand upon the handle of the spigot, I frowned over my shoulder at that ordinary reflection. 
You have always misfitted your name.  I turned the water on and felt the cold dig its fingers into my palm through the sweaty metal pipe.  Then, as an aside, I have been waiting for this moment all my life.  Why am I so terrified of it now?
As I stood placidly watching the tub fill, my fingers toying with the purple pearl buttons of my silk, it crossed my twitching mind that I had not brought my set of combs with me, choosing to use those which were held here for my use in the little ivory drawer of my little ivory dressing table.  I would need them.
I shut off the water and let myself out of the washroom.  The muffled sound of my boots on the stone flags was my only accompaniment as I wound through the familiar passages to my bedroom at the rear of the house.  It was a beautiful room, long and low-seeming, with a bank of leaded windows looking out over the park.  There was always good light in that room, and it was lavishly furnished.  As a bower, I did not know its rival. 
I turned the corner to my room and stopped, mumchance, my lungs fighting to expel a sudden wave of rotten stench.  It was as though something had died, and been left to decompose!  I slung my elbow over my mouth and hurried by the window, bracing as the sharp light lanced across my eyes, and dove for my bedroom door.  My foot hit a little red thing on the floor—something like a rose petal; the door stuck and banged as I pushed it open.
The butcher scent, which I thought had been coming in from the window, welled out at me as I stood stricken in the doorway.  I got a confused image of scarlet and a man’s silhouette, but it was a moment before my flogged brain could pick itself up from the oppression of the smell.  I jumped back, flinching, as a fly dove for my face, and then a familiar voice was cutting through the miasma—
Don’t come in here!
Something wet and red hit the back of my hand and I recoiled from the threshold.  When I could see, when I could breathe without gagging, I looked up through the fan of electrum evening light to find my Lord Avery standing half upon the seat of a chair, half upon my receiving table, holding what looked like the cover of my windowseat like Atlas above his shoulders.  He kinked it backward, cutting off the aureole around his head; long red droplets, shining in the light, fell to the ground behind him.
“Greymere!”  His voice was reproachful, harsh and serrated.  My body shrank from it, but already my eyes were starting round the room, glassing over as they took in the shattered furniture, the scarlet smears on the lime-washed walls, the bed-hangings ripped and sodden with blood.  There was a puddle inside the doorway not far from me which had thickened, but still carried its rich, guttural shine; three flies were skirting its oblong perimeter. 
“Lord Avery!” I gasped weakly.  “What—what have you done!”
Don’t come in here,” he snapped.  Then, beneath his breath, “Shi’batch! you would come at this instant!”
It was a new word for me.  In the back of my mind I wondered what it meant, and if I could use it.  Later I would pull it out and see what his response was.  I was not sure how Lady Greymere ought to use such things.
I stared at the coagulating blood and the flies.  “What happened?  Did you kill someone?”  I took a step over the threshold.
“No—don’t come in!”  He took a step up onto the tabletop and swung the windowseat-cover off his shoulders.  It spat blood across my carpets and stained the cream linen of the back-turned bedspread. 
“What are you doing?” I demanded.  My stomach was feeling queasy and my voice sharpened to cover it.  What happened!
It did not occur to me that he might not know.  He was Lord Avery, head and shoulders above me, even when he was not standing on a table, and I had always looked up to him as a kind of god.  It did not occur to me that he might not know. 
He set the cover down on the floor, dropping its weight against the lip of the table.  As he bent his face was plunged in grey shadow, and I was able to see his eyes, brown-hazel in the light, flickering round the room as if he was expecting something more to spring out at him.  I, too, travelled round the room with my eye, sick-feeling and suspicious, repulsed by the sheer amount of carnage that covered my belongings.  There was so much blood.  It was throat-catching, filthy—the lot would have to be burned. 
It must not be human.  It is too much blood.  Perhaps it is cow-blood, or pig—something no one would notice if it was slaughtered.  A human would go missing, and surely—my mind darted back over countless items of information I had picked up from my Lord Avery over the years, pieces he had probably not been aware I was storing away—surely this is too much for one person to bleed out. 
But where are the bodies?
My Lord Avery stood on the table, the crown of his fair hair brushing the ceiling, and gazed round on the room with a kind of sullen despair.  I pressed tenaciously to the entryway, my hands clasped together among my skirts, and tried to make myself as small as possible.  He was deeply in thought, and I was always fearful of disturbing him when he was angrily pensive.
He looked down at a shattered chair between himself and a scarlet end of bedding.  “Is that a new gown?” he asked lightly.
I coloured and looked down the length of my dress.  It was a dove-grey silk, ribbed in glossy purple thread.  My father had ordered it so that I might not come with trunks full of old gowns.  “Yes,” I murmured.
He nodded sharply.  “It is very becoming on you.”
My colour deepened.  It was only very recently that he had taken to remarking, now and then, on the cut of my gowns, and I had not grown accustomed to the event.  But he was not cross with me, and I was emboldened to prompt,
“Who would have done this—please?”
My Lord Avery flung a sharp laughing look at me, covering a latent fury which he did not want me to see.  “ ‘Please’!  I am sorry my tone was so strong.  But sooth I do not know,” he added in a growling, baffled voice.  “Have you see Malcholm?”
I shook my head, and the blonde tendrils of my hair trembled around my cheeks.  “No.  Julia saw me in, but I did not see Malcholm.” 
He thrust his hands down upon his hips and scrunched his nose in perplexity.  “Aye!  I do not think anyone knows of this.  And yet the windows are not broken, nor the latches undone.  I have a wretched worm in my heart telling me it was a person of my own household.”  He looked at me sidelong and quizzical.  “Have you ever,” he began, then stopped as if he had thought better of it.
I stood very small and cold in the doorway, wondering what was going on behind his suddenly inscrutable face.
He began again, speaking his words very gently, as if they were made of glass and might cut his lips.  “Have you ever had a disagreement with any of the members of my household?”
A disagreement!  I was not yet out, and despite the strength and the money behind my name, I was not powerful or clever—not as powerful or clever as I wished I was—but I heard the words he did not speak and I felt the heat rise in my face.  My voice came out very soft.
“No, my lord.”
His eyes widened a fraction, like a wick when it catches the flame and sinks again.  “ ‘Please’ and ‘my lord.’  What have I done to deserve this treatment?”
I shifted my heel toward the corridor.  “I am sorry, my lord.”  It seemed very clear to me now.  Someone was jealous.  Perhaps someone had had her eye on my Lord Avery for some time now, and felt I was unworthy of such a position.  And I was, was I not?  My throat was very dry: I tried to swallow.  It had been an old, settled thing before I had shaken out of the mould.  And look at how I had shaken!  Here I stood on the brink of my coming-out and the announcement of the shape of my life, and someone had painted a very clear sign of what would happen to me if I should dare to go forward.  It was very clear to me. 
My heart felt like a broken silver.
“I am sorry.”
My Lord Avery was very quiet and I did not dare to look up at him for the corners of my eyes were smarting and any movement might send a telltale pearl of water over the edge.  But at last he said, very gently and very thoughtfully,
“I am facing a room debauched in something’s blood and the suspicion that someone of my house is trying to send me an unpleasant message—not very clearly, but very poignantly—and the little chit standing before me, to my mind, is not upset about any of these things.  She is upset about something, but not these things.”
“I am—I am very sorry.”  My throat was tight, but I pulled the words out of my mouth with an effort.  I straightened my shoulders.  How I wanted to get out of this and run away from it like a coward!  I levelled my chin at the nightmare.  “Did you—did you jilt someone?”
This appeared to take him aback.  The chape of his sword clawed across the back of a chair as he pivoted with the movement of his surprise.  “Jilt?  No more than you, it would seem!  Whom would I have jilted?”
It was all a bad omen: Father’s lateness, the bloody carnage, the flies.  My stomach crawled up my backbone and hid there.  “The timing is—tomorrow is my—was my—coming-out.  To find my room like this—”
His voice cut across mine.  “If you think you are playing a very subtle game with your words, your grammar is markedly telltale.  But let us suppose you are in the right.  I can think of no female I have jilted—not to her face, at the least—but the landscape has an expression of revenge, don’t you think?”  His teeth flashed and his nostrils flared on the scent of his words and the old bloodlust of his noble pedigree.  “Sooth, I did not want you in here because I would rather you not see the foreskin that is nailed to the lintel.”
Shi’batch!  I jerked from the doorway and scrubbed at the blood-streak on the back of my hand.  “An’ sure it was a woman!”
“Why—language, girl!—why a woman?” my Lord Avery laughed.
My flesh trembled with appreciative revulsion.  “A man would not do such a thing.”
His brows flickered admittingly.  “An’ true.  Ma petite mère,” he added, swinging down off the table to stand with the sun’s areole around his head, “I believe you have just formally graduated from the schoolroom.”
I bit my lip and stared up at him from an angle, discomforted and frightened and desperately hopeful.  He had used his old pet name for me—could that be a good omen among all these nasty imports?  Could it be that he was not looking round at this violated chamber and looking twice at the picture he had made in his mind of his future? 
He hooked his middle finger through his sword-belt at his back and gave it an unconscious hitch.  “It is in my mind that you are right,” he said in a more serious tone.  He smiled straight-lipped and mirthless at me, and the hope in my chest died.  “Someone—an’ I do not know who, but I am sure I will meet presently—someone is towering angry with me, and from the looks of things it is a woman.”
I ventured among the dead embers of my hope, and they did not burn my feet as much as I would have thought.  “It is not me she is angry at?  That was your first thought.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him whip his head toward me.  “It was my first thought that it was a man playing a brutal game with your sensibilities.  I have got account of that kind of thing done before, and it is not pretty.”  He came carefully across the mess toward me, sure not to set his boot in any of the congealed patches of blood.  His shadow thickened on my trembling skin.  “But now that I look at it anew I am convinced you are right.  This was not a man’s work.  Not a lady’s work, either, but certainly not a man’s.”
Was he convinced?  My mind backstepped quickly from his advance, and a new, nasty thought occurred to me: what if he knew more than he let on, what if he was trying to convince me, and all this was a façade to break up the coming-out and the announcement and everything I had anticipated all my life?  What if he wanted none of it, and sought a bold way out?  Oh—oh God—my chest hurt abominably.  “My lord—” I began thickly.
“I am a lord,” he cut me off gently; “I am also a man, and I will take my liberties.”
Next thing I knew my heart was in my throat and his hand was firm beneath my chin, drawing it up so that he could touch my mouth with his.  It was so sudden, so unexpected, that I did not catch my own reaction of his lips and his smell and the comfort of his presence until the thing was over—and then he was smiling soft and crooked down at me, as if something hurt a little on his inside, and he asked,
“Now tell me: why does my first kiss taste of salt?”
I gasped and ducked my head to brush the back of my knuckle against my dampened eye.  “I—I am sorry,” I stammered and stared at his feet.  “Please do not—I do not mean to cause you trouble—if you would rather send me back—”
I heard his teeth in his voice when he spoke.  “I thought that was the thing which troubled you.  Send you back!  My girl, what kind of picture have you painted of me, that I would backstep from the gate like a coward?  If this is the way the weird lies, I will follow it, and nothing will induce me to upset either your coming out or the formal announcement of our engagement.”  His voice softened a little, but the sound of his teeth was still in it.  “Sooth, my own blood is up, and I would like to look the witch in the eye who has done this.  A good test of our mettle, don’t you think, you and I?”
He put his hand up on the doorhead and leaned into it, tall and dominant above me, and the presence in his eye as he stared down at me was blunt and heavy like high summer sunlight on my skin.  I did not feel brave—I was still sick inside—but I thought he was in earnest, and with the knowledge of that, feeling better would come in time.
His free hand brushed my cheek and he said without lifting his gaze from me, “Malcholm.  Art just the man I am needing at this moment.  Come soft.”
I pressed into the wallspace behind me and turned to see the big soft-spoken steward standing hesitant in the hallway some yards behind.  He was a great man for silence and efficiency, and I knew that in a moment my Lord Avery would speak a few deft words in his ear and turn the matter of my bedchamber over to capable hands.  Malcholm would know, but would not mind save that it was a matter pertaining to his lord’s comfort, that someone had painted a gruesome message across the threshold of my life.
Staring at my hands clasped in my skirts, I wished powerfully that I could determine what the message said.
My Lord Avery bent to my ear.  “Chin up, ma mère.  Do not look so peaky.  I will see you at supper.”
Then he backstepped into the doorway again and Malcholm joined him, nodding with kindly deference to me as he passed, and in a few moments I had my back to them and was wandering in a daze toward the washroom.  Nothing felt right to me.  My Lord Avery did not yet feel safe in my grasp and the vicious thing which had happened cast a sordid pall over the glint and glimmer of the ton into which I was about to be ushered.
But perhaps my Lord Avery is not wrong.  My breastbone ached with the effort of hopefulness.  He is not cross with me, nor regretful.  God and his angels preserve me—I could not bear it if he was regretful.  I came to the washroom door and let myself in silently upon the gentle blue-lit chamber.  Perhaps it is not all glint and gilt, but blood too, and we will come together through it, he and I.  Those were his words. 
I shuddered and slipped the lock to on the door behind me.  I do not feel safe.
Crossing to the tub, I turned the water on once more and watched the high pale light dancing in the coppery depths.  My fingers played with the long row of buttons down the front of my silk, and as the silk fell open the air stroked my nettled skin.  With an effort I drew a deep breath to soothe the tension of my chest and found the tang of blood was still in my nose.
I jerked my head toward the mirror.  Something told me it was there the moment before I saw it, but the little scream still started from my throat.  The bloodied back of my hand flew to my mouth and I recoiled, grasping the edge of the tub for support.  The mirror was slashed and streaked with bloodied handprints, and across the width of it someone had written—