Welcome to the latest edition of “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”.
So what is “Indie Crime Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of crime fiction by indie authors newly published this month, though some April books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.
Our new releases cover the broad spectrum of crime fiction. We have hardboiled mysteries, cozy mysteries, small town mysteries, historical mysteries, Victorian mysteries, Jazz Age mysteries, 1940s mysteries, paranormal mysteries, humorous mysteries, crime thrillers, legal thrillers, psychological thrillers, action thrillers, suspense, noir, police officers, FBI agents, private investigators, amateur sleuths, lawyers, serial killers, the Mob, missing persons, kidnappings, heists, crypto currencies, faked deaths, crime-busting witches, crime-busting socialites, deadly helicopters, murder and mayhem in London, New York, San Francisco, Florida, Ohio, Yorkshire, the Mediterranean and much more.
Don’t forget that Indie Crime Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Indie Crime Scene, a group blog which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things crime fiction several times per week.
As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.
The long expected death of Victoria Sedgewick’s father-in-law draws Victoria back to the family’s Yorkshire estate one final time. But what should have been a simple funeral turns dangerous as Victoria finds herself the victim of a set of eerie circumstances. Although the locals talk of a ghost that haunts Sedgewick widows, Victoria suspects the true villain is all too human — and is targeting her infant son.
Reuniting with Branwell Keats, can Victoria protect her family through one last adventure that will finally reveal the truth behind the secrets that have cast a shadow for so long?
Smith and Bea are back in London, and Smith might well be back to his old ways. Bea’s instincts are screaming, and Smith is disappearing. Something is certainly amiss, and he doesn’t want her meddling.
Ariana and Damon have just started to rebuild their lives when more bones are found in their tight-knit neighborhood. These have nothing to do with the remains found earlier.
That means one thing — another killer is roaming free.
The police are investigating, but Ariana’s friend Maya has discovered startling clues that she can’t tell them. But when Ariana’s own family is in crisis, she can’t worry about what might be unraveling all around them… until the mystery proves too much to ignore and the only way to peace is to find answers.
A neighbor is lying about something. Ariana must hurry to get to the bottom of it before another life ends up on the line. And it could be hers.
Kristen Black, PI, reluctantly agrees to investigate the murder of a young political activist. Kristen doesn’t want the job — political crimes tend to conceal other, more lethal crimes. The deeper Kristen penetrates into the dark shadows of a broken city during wartime, the more deadly the pushback against her becomes. As Kristen feared, unmasking the killer opens a pandora’s box of violence and she’s on the run from the long arm of Military Security, chemical plants around the world are being bombed and her gun is pointed dead center at the man she loves.
Three suspenseful mystery novellas with a dark edge…
Septic by Mark Allan Gunnells: The year is 1988. When Carl finds himself trapped in a school bathroom with a faulty lock over Christmas break, things seem bad. When the pain in his abdomen increases and he realizes his appendix has burst, things get worse. Can he manage to free himself in time?
Subscription Due by Shane Nelson: Rupert Seville is living an idyllic life. A successful writer married to an amazing woman, everything seems to have fallen into place. But when a strange notice arrives in the mail, Rupert’s idyllic world is turned upside down. It is a “Subscription Due” notice for a magazine to which he’s never subscribed. Beneath the surface, it is far more than that and the arrival of two violent men with murder on their minds only makes it clearer. Rupert doesn’t know it, but the amount he owes is far more than he’s able to pay. The past itself has come due, and Rupert has no idea of the terror about to be unleashed. When the world he thinks he knows begins to unravel and the truth of the past catches up to him, it is up to Rupert Seville to find a way to settle old debts and escape a horror that isn’t of this world.
Pixelated by Brandon Ford: After the passing of his grandfather, Tanner returns to his hometown to clean out the property willed to him. However, what he finds holds the key to an unsolved crime decades-old and shows just how little he knew of his former father figure.
This novella anthology is perfect for fans of mystery and suspense books, thrillers, small town mysteries, unsolved crimes, and a bit of horror.
Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.
When it comes to magic, Rowan Gray-Davenport has always been grateful to be part of the club. She never wanted to be the leader of it, though.
All of that is about to change.
When Rowan’s friends Sally and Demarcus arrive on their new purchase, a vintage steamboat they want to refurbish so they can turn it into a floating restaurant and casino, Rowan and her husband Quinn are thrilled to reunite with them. That only lasts until their daughter Lana asks about the invisible children on the boat. It seems there are a lot of them, and they just might be dead.
It appears the new boat is haunted, and the ghosts are looking for vengeance. They seem to have their sights set on Lana as a form of protection. She just doesn’t know it yet.
Lana is a little girl who wants to be seen as special. Unfortunately, she can’t see the danger that’s directly in front of her. Rowan can, however, and it doesn’t take long for her to call on her friends Ivy, Harper, and Maddie to get her through this ordeal.
The children might have been innocent when they died, but they’re out for blood now. It’s going to take the whole gang working together to see this through to the other side.
Lana’s life is hanging in the balance, and this time the magic that’s required to save her will stem from her mother’s love. Rowan had better be up to the challenge, because otherwise her family will be lost.
Her moment is here. She has no choice but to embrace it.
THE AD SAID, PERSEPHONE COLE, HOTSHOT
INVESTIGATOR: INVESTIGATE THIS!
A witness says a large redheaded woman wearing a fedora had an argument with the victim. A fedora was found at the scene.
And its owner could be only one person— hotshot P.I. Persephone (Percy) Cole–because it’s 1943 and how many nearly six-foot, red-haired fedora-fancying female P.I.s could possibly prowl the streets of New York? All the cops know Percy.
She’s one of a kind, both in1940s New York, and also in all of crime fiction. For openers, she’s a single mom living with her adored son Oliver and her parents, each of whom is their own kind of hoot. Pantsuits haven’t yet been invented, so Percy wears men’s suits that her mom alters to fit her: “A seam let out, a seam taken in, and they fit the five foot eleven, one hundred- and eighty-two-pound Percy perfectly.”
(Mom’s an inventive cook too— cranberry and ketchup fish stew is one of her specialties.)
Percy finds out about the case when she sees her name in the personals column: “Persephone Cole, Hotshot Investigator. Investigate this: Wilma Markovich, fifty-eight years old, widow.”
She knows right away she’s being set up, and no sooner has she grasped the particulars than another personals ad appears:
“Still think you’re a hotshot detective, Percy Cole? I don’t think so. And soon everyone else will know you’re not. Check out Elizabeth Wallingford, age fifty-seven, Manhattan.”
Okay, this is war! And she acquires a powerful weapon to fight it—she gets hired to find the first victim’s killer and soon notices a pattern– it seems each murder has a disturbing connection to The Cloisters Museum.
Disturbing because so does Percy—her mom’s producing a fashion show there on Mother’s Day, and her whole family will be there.
The Happy Holidays Players—a renowned acting troupe—is coming to town and Hemlock Cove is bursting with excited residents who want parts in the winter festival. That includes the three Winchester matriarchs, who are vying with one another for top billing.
Bay Winchester doesn’t care about the pageant, but she’s more than happy to sit back and watch the shenanigans. That is until her husband Landon Michaels calls with a request for her help. It seems there was a prison break twenty minutes away … and more than a handful of inmates are on the run.
Bay, Landon, and Hemlock Cove Police Chief Terry Davenport make up their own search party. What becomes apparent fairly quickly, however, is that some of the inmates are magically enhanced. By whom, though?
Each subsequent battle results in a tougher takedown, and as Bay delves deeper into the mystery of a guard who may have helped the fleeing inmates, she finds herself entrenched in a fight to the death.
Bay and Landon are looking forward to their first holiday season as a married couple. They’re desperate for some downtime and holiday cheer. To get it, they’re going to have to survive a magical onslaught that seems to be pointed at their family more and more with each passing day.
Bay might be able to call the dead to battle for her, but this is a war between the living … and both sides are going to go down fighting.
‘The Devil plays games, that’s all I can tell you.’
Steven Mason is six feet under. The only problem? He’s not dead.
After escaping from the doom and gloom of low-life gangsterism on a rundown Essex housing estate, Steven had hoped to pursue a new life in the Mediterranean. But his former world of corruption and greed is not so easily set aside, and he is drawn into yet another nefarious job.
Now, trapped with no means of escape, he is left to ponder why he keeps being drawn closer and closer to Hell.
Four women went on a weekend of fun to Miami.
Four best friends who were inseparable.
No one returned.
The story made national headlines, and even after weeks of searching for them, they were never found.
What happened to them?
Are they still alive?
Three years later, the teenage children of those same four women decide to take a trip together, against the wishes of their families. They are followed by a TV crew doing a true crime show. They’re returning to Miami to find out what happened to their mothers.
When they unearth the body of one of their mothers, they know they are in way over their heads, and soon they realize nothing is what it seems, as this vicious killer is getting ready to chase them down.
FBI profiler Eva Rae Thomas is called in to help, bringing her old flame Matt to help.
Soon, she realizes she is hunting down a serial killer unlike any other she has encountered, who will next come after someone she loves.
Hatch closed a major chapter in her life. Drifting between everywhere and nowhere, she seeks to find her new path. Like any pathfinder, Hatch cuts through the pain of her past one step at a time.
A desperate call from an old friend brings her to Florida’s panhandle. Before Hatch can connect, tragedy strikes. A helicopter training accident off the shore of Naval Air Station Pensacola takes the life of her friend and seasoned operator. All she has to go on is the cryptic message, leaving her with more questions than answers.
When the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit, Hatch must satisfy her own curiosity. There are some who don’t want the truth to be exposed and will do everything in their power to stop it from coming to the surface.
As Hatch turns every stone, she slips deeper into dark territory. Surrounded by enemies. Hatch must deploy the skills that have made her legend.
Follow Hatch down the Fastrope and prepare for yourselves for the hell she brings upon those who force her to once again honor the code instilled by her father. Protect those who can’t protect themselves and punish those responsible.
Madame Tussauds, London’s extravagant wax museum, reopens in 1928 to much fanfare. The horrific fire of ’25, which had destroyed the wax figurines of famous and sometimes infamous characters, was news of the past. Ginger Reed and her good friend Haley Higgins are intrigued and eager to visit the museum which promises new and exciting exhibits. Of particular interest is the one on Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Hailed by some as effective literary horror and by others as unnecessarily frightening, the exhibition about the book attracts all kinds. Haley Higgins, with her forensics knowledge, is the first to notice that something is amiss, and that the beautiful figurine with two bloody holes in her neck isn’t made of wax at all, but is indeed made of flesh and bone!
When a series of women are found dead in the streets of London in a similarly eerie fashion, it’s up to Scotland Yard, with Chief Inspector Basil Reed at the helm, to solve the case. Can Ginger and Haley work behind the scenes to bring this repeat killer to a stop, before one of them becomes the next victim with a deadly bite?
Something’s going on in Youngstown, Ohio—and it isn’t pretty. Newly assigned to the field office, Special Agent Jade Hui is stumped by her predecessor’s do-nothing record when there’s every indication something big is going to happen. An Aryan Brotherhood convict tells her a new designer drug from Europe is about to hit the streets of the Midwest and Youngstown will be the launching pad. Next, a female prizefighter winds up dead in a dumpster behind a bar with a shady reputation. That’s only the beginning of what turns out to be, in cop slang, a full-tilt boogie with Youngstown becoming one big crime scene.
Before it’s over, Jade will find herself in combat with some extremely disturbing characters, including a dubious former Hollywood filmmaker, his two thugs—all three employees of the most sinister character of all, one who goes by the name ”the emissary.” This someone is far deadlier than anyone she ever worked a case against in the “Little Odessa” of Brighton Beach in her last posting.
As you probably know, I was at Metropol Con, a new SFF convention in Berlin, last week. And I had a great time overall and met lots of old and new friends, though there were a few hiccups along the way.
I encountered the first hiccup as soon as I was seated in the ICE train from Bremen to Hannover. Because as I was waiting for the train to depart, the public address system announced that there was a powerline failure between Bremen and Hannover and that the train would be delayed by twenty minutes. And because my connection time in Hannover was only about twenty minutes that meant there was a high chance that I might miss my connecting train in Hannover. In the end, I did catch my connecting train to Berlin, because it turned out that the Berlin train was delayed as well, so the delays cancelled each other out.
That said, it was very kind of Deutsche Bahn to remind me why I don’t use them all that much. Because Deutsche Bahn has a lot of issues. The trains are beset by delays and there was a massive fifty hour strike planned for Monday and Tuesday, i.e. the day before I was due to travel to Berlin, which was only cancelled at the last minute, after plenty of people had already changed their travel plans. What is more, I had booked tickets for the ICE high speed train for my trip to Berlin. However, on the Bremen to Hannover route, the super-fast ICE train (the fastest they ever went was 406 kilometres per hour and they go over 300 kilometres per hour on regular journeys) used the same tracks as the regional train and trundled through all the small town stations like Achim, Baden, Verden on Aller, Nienburg, Neustadt am Rübenberge, etc… and traveled at the same speed as the regular regional train would. The only difference was that the ICE didn’t stop at the various small town stations, whereas the regional train would. Still, why did I pay the premium for the ICE again, when it’s not actually any faster than the regional train? And in fact, I had been considering getting a 49 EUR per month Germany-wide public transport ticket to get to Berlin, which is good for public transport and regional trains, but decided to go with the ICE, because it’s faster and requires fewer train changes. And indeed, on the longer Hannover to Berlin route, the ICE actually did go 352 kilometres per hour.
In the end, I arrived in Berlin only a few minutes later than I normally would have, because the train driver apparently made good time on the Hannover to Berlin route. However, the next challenge awaited me once I reached Berlin, because the layout of Berlin’s newish multi-level central station is very confusing and while there were maps for regional train networks, I had a hard time finding either a map or a signage for the city public transport network.
In many ways I was reminded of one of my first visits to Berlin in the spring of 1990, when the Wall was already open, but East Germany still existed as a state. At the time, we decided to walk from the Victory column in (West) Berlin to the Brandenburg Gate. Because the Wall and the Gate were open, we just walked through and had our passports stamped by the friendliest East German border guard I’ve ever seen and just kept walking into East Berlin, walking along famous streets and buildings we knew existed, but had never actually seen, until we reached Alexanderplatz (BTW, I tried to walk that memorable route again from the other side and gave up halfway through, because it’s a very long walk and I’m no longer 16), got tired and decided to take the train back to West Berlin. So we went to Friedrichstraße station and looked at the network plan on the platform, only to find a huge gray hole where West Berlin should be. So I went to a train attendant and told him, “We need to go back to West Berlin to Uhlandstraße station [at any rate, I think it was Uhlandstraße], but West Berlin doesn’t exist on your map, so which train do I need to take?” The East Berlin train attendant apologised for the maps – they hadn’t gotten around to replacing them yet – and told me which train to take.
Friedrichstraße railway station, looking still very much like it did in 1989.
The so-called Palace of Tears, the former transit hall of the Friedrichstraße station border checkpoint. The reason for the name is that a lot of tears were shed here, as people said goodbye to their loved ones from the other part of Germany. Nowadays, it’s a museum.
My difficulties at finding a public transport map or even signage where the public transport trains were led me to grumble, “Thirty-three years later and a brand-new station and you still haven’t put up a bloody public transport map.” I finally did find the public transport platform and had another surprise, because the S-Bahn trains (regional above-ground trains in Berlin and other German cities) still looked very much like they had thirty plus years ago. Friedrichsstraße station, where I had to change from the S-Bahn to a subway train also still looked very much like it did back in 1990 (and probably way before), though the extensive passport control area (Friedrichstraße station was also a border crossing point) has been replaced with shops and fast food restaurants. The station also still didn’t have escalators, so I was extra careful, because I had sprained my ankle lugging a suitcase up and down the many stairs at Friedrichsstraße station during my first visit to Berlin about a month before the fall of the Wall. This time, I did make it into the subway without injury. Now the Berlin subway isn’t nearly as deep as the London tube, but it is still weird that there are comparatively few escalators.
The Kurt Schumacher Haus, headquarters of the Berlin chapter of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. My hotel is the building directly behind the Kurt Schumacher Haus.
My hotel was in the Wedding neighbourhood near the con venue and was hidden behind Kurt Schumacher Hause, the Berlin city office of the Social Democratic Party SPD (built in 1961). The SPD signage was a lot more prominent than the hotel signage, so I almost missed it. Wedding used to be a traditional working class neighbourhood of Berlin and was part of West Berlin from 1945 to 1990. Nowadays it’s an immigrant neighbourhood dominated mainly by people of Turkish and Middle Eastern origin. The hotel itself was okay for a budget hotel and the fact that it was so near to the con venue was definitely a plus.
The view from my hotel room window at a typical Berlin apartment block. On the ground floor of the apartment block is a so-called “Späti”, an all-night shop. In the background, you can see the unemployment office for the Wedding neighbourhood.
Once I got to the hotel, my room wasn’t ready yet, so I dumped off my suitcase and went exploring. I had deliberately planned to arrive on the day before the con, so I would have time to see a bit of Berlin. The first thing I did was – guess what? – hit the bookstores. Well, the interesting ones, that is, because Berlin has a lot of bookshops.
Memorial plaque at the Friedrichstraße railway viaduct. The inscription reads: “Shortly before the end of the criminal Hitler war, two young German soldiers were hanged here by dehumanised SS-bandits.” The plaque is located right next to the entrance of a modern McDonald’s which is extremely incongruous.
So I made my way back to Friedrichstraße station. I made a little detour, because I took the wrong exit and suddenly spotted the distinctive signage atop of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, home of Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble on the far side of the river Spree. So I walked over the nearest bridge to take some photos.
The Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, home of Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. Plays like The Three-Penny Opera, Mother Courage or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny had their premieres here.
The man himself: Statue of Bertolt Brecht in front of the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm
After this little detour, my first stop was Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann (literally “cultural department store Dussmann”), Germany’s biggest book and media store. The store has five floors of books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, stationery, etc… and is located in a prominent location on Friedrichstraße in the city centre. It has an interesting backstory, too, because founder Peter Dussmann was the son of booksellers. He eventually founded a company which offers facility management, cleaning services, security services, etc… and became one of Germany’s wealthiest people. But he never lost his love for bookselling and when his company built a new corporate headquarters in Berlin in 1997, he also added the five floor bookstore.
Five floors of books, CDs and DVDs at Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann.
Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann truly is heaven for book lovers.
Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann is a great store with a huge English language section, which is divided by genre. They even had a table for modern gothic fiction, which I found very prescient, since we seem to be seeing something of a gothic revival going on at the moment. Much as I enjoyed browsing, I womanfully limited myself to buying only two books. Dussmann have even got a sphinx – a real sphinx that dates back to 1495 BC and is on loan from the nearby Egyptian museum.
A genuine sphinx graces the lobby of Kulturkaufhaus Dussmann.
By now it was around noon and I hadn’t eaten anything since a yoghurt at six in the morning, so I had lunch (a salmon poke bowl) in one of the many hipster restaurants around Friedrichstraße. I also caught my only glimpse of Berlin’s newest tourist attraction, the anti-climate-change activists calling themselves the Last Generation, who are mostly notable for the tendency to glue themselves to streets and to pour paint and other liquids on artworks and luxury shops. Now I happen to think that the Last Generation folks are idiots, who are certainly not helping the cause they claim to serve. But based on media coverage, I had expected that you couldn’t take a step in Berlin without stumbling over a Last Generation activist. And apparently they were protesting and blocking roads somewhere in the city, while I was there. However, I only saw a small cluster of activists on Friedrichstraße, holding up a banner. I was a bit confused, because that part of Friedrichstraße is a pedestrian zone, so if you want to block motorised traffic, that’s about the worst place in the city to do it. However, it turned out that the activists were picketing the office of the Deutsche Bank on Friedrichstraße. Which I actually don’t mind, because they weren’t actively stopping anybody from going anywhere, though if you wanted to go into the bank (I didn’t), you had to walk around them and listen to their shouting.
Last Generation actvists picketing the Deutsche Bank branch on Friedrichstraße in Berlin. You can also see how unimpressive the pedestrian portion of Friedrichstraße actually looks.
Regarding the pedestrian zone in part of Friedrichstraße, this is actually a huge battle in Berlin at the moment, big enough that the rest of Germany is aware of it. After actually seeing the pedestrianised part of Friedrichstraße, the whole thing seems like a lot ado about very little. For starts, they only turned a few hundred meters of Friedrichstraße into a pedestrian zone – most of the (pretty long) street is still open to motorised traffic. And while I don’t think turning Friedrichstraße or part of it into a pedestrian zone is a bad idea per se, the execution doesn’t work IMO. Because the pedestrianised part of Friedrichstraße is basically a canyon flanked by mostly post-1990 office and commercial buildings some seven or eight stories tall. Several of those buildings are banks or offices or otherwise not really of great interest to average passer-by. A large part of the street is taken up by a brutalist slab of concrete that houses a Russian cultural center, a legacy of old East Berlin. There are some high-end shops, but no cafés or restaurants. In short, it’s not a particularly pleasant stretch of road – in fact, the still motorised parts of Friedrichstraße are much nicer with many beautiful nineteenth century buildings and cafés and restaurants. They did dump a few artsy looking benches onto the street, but there are no planters or trees to provide shade and the sun glared down onto the tarmac. So in short, you can sit down, which is nice, but it’s not a very pleasant place to sit. And since they only banished cars, but not bicycles, you are also at risk of having a bicycle run over your foot. Finally, the whole experiment is extremely expensive, costing approx. 213000 Euros per year. Having seen how unimpressive it actually looks, that’s an enormous waste of money.
After lunch, I returned to the hotel, because my room was finally ready. Then, after a brief rest, I headed out again. This time, my destination was the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, famous for being both an immigrant neighbourhood as well as hippest neighbourhood in (West) Berlin in the 1970s and 1980s. Kreuzberg is also notable, because its inhabitants resisted the destruction of Victorian neighbourhoods in favour of Brutalist apartment blocks in the 1960s and 1970s and thus changed city planning in (West) Germany for everybody’s benefit.
The Passion church in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin, built in 1908.
My destination was Otherland, a great SFF specialty bookstore in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood. Once more, I womanfully restricted myself to buying only two books and also explored the area, while I was there. I found a comic shop, which alas did not have the comic I was looking for, and a great indoor market. There was a great spice and herb shop at that indoor market, but they didn’t have filé powder a.k.a. sassafras leaves, which are nigh impossible to get in Germany.
By that point, I was finished with what I absolutely wanted to do and yet it was still early in the afternoon. So I decided to do some tourism and revisit sights I hadn’t seen in many years. I made my way back to the crossing of Friedrichstraße and the famous boulevard Unter den Linden and strolled down Unter den Linden in western direction towards the Brandenburg Gate.
A look down Unter den Linden in easterly direction. You can see the German national library, the TV Tower and the tower of the Red Townhall in the distance. The boulevard itself is still leafy and pretty, but somewhat boring and far from bustling.
The first time I was there in the summer of 1990 (Unter den Linden was in East Berlin), I thought Unter den Linden was something of a disappointment and a far cry from the famous boulevard that even has a song by Walter Kollo dedicated to it (sung here by Harald Juhnke). Because unlike the bustling boulevard from the song, where young men stroll along to pick up women, the actual Unter den Linden was wide street lined by lots of embassies, ministeries and other official buildings. There were almost no shops, restaurants and cafés in those days, just big, old and rather grimy buildings with lots of colums. Nowadays, all of the big old buildings have been cleaned up and restored and there also are a few shops, mostly souvenir shops, and cafés, but the street itself is still quite boring. The bustling and lively Unter den Linden that Walter Kollo describes in his song must have died sometime in 1945, if not before. Though interestingly, I did walk the exact same stretch of Unter den Linden that Kollo mentions in the song – from the crossing of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstraße, site of the long since defunct and destroyed Café Bauer, to Pariser Platz, the area in front of the Brandenburg Gate – which is as long as it took Kollo’s protagonist to pick up a woman. I did not, however, try to pick up anybody of any gender.
The Brandenburg Gate viewed from the Eastern side. Once upon a time, this was where the world ended, quite literally.
The Brandenburg Gate, viewed from the western side. This was the only way you could see it up to 1989, though the lower portion was walled up.
The Reichstag, seat of the German parliament. The original building was complete in 1894, burned in 1933 and lost its original dome, was further damaged in WWII and refurbished several times. The current glass dome was added in the 1990s and designed by Norman Foster.
The rainbow flag is flying over one of the turrets of the Reichstag building, which made me very happy.
I walked through the Brandenburg Gate and paid a visit to the Reichstag, home to the German parliament. A rainbow flag was flying on one of the turrets of the Reichstag, which made me happy. I briefly considered walking onwards to the Victory Column, but it’s a long way and my feet were beginning to hurt. So I got on the subway (I had a day pass) and headed back in the opposite direction to pay a visit to the Red Townhall (so called, because it’s built from red bricks), Berlin’s townhall and one of my favourite buildings in the city. At university, I even wrote a paper about the Red Townhall, though I don’t remember all that much about it.
The so-called Red Townhall, seat of the mayor and magistrate of the City of Berlin. Designed by Hermann Friedrich Waesemann and completed in 1869.
The Red Townhall is still a stunning building and in the immediate neighbourhood, there’s also the beautiful Neptune fountain and St. Mary’s, the oldest still active church in central Berlin (the nearby St. Nikolai Church is older, but has been a museum since the 1930s). Because by European standards, most of central Berlin isn’t actually very old. Apart from St. Mary’s and St. Nikolai, the oldest buildings in the city center date from the early 18th century, i.e. they’re about three hundred years old. Most of the pre-1700 neighbourhoods and buildings in the city fell victim either to various city planning and remodelling attempts over the centuries or to WWII.
The beautiful Neptune fountain, created in 1891, and St. Mary’s, Berlin’s oldest active church in the background. The oldest parts of St. Mary’s date from the 13th century, the current tower was added in 1666.
Looming above the Red Townhall, St. Mary’s and the Neptune fountain is the Berlin TV Tower, completed in 1969 and still Germany’s tallest building. And yes, Germany’s tallest building stands in what used to be in East Germany, which must have annoyed West German architects to no end. The TV Tower is one of Berlin’s most famous and reconisable sights and while I’ve seen it from the ground several times before, I’ve never actually been up on the observation platform nor in the rotating café and restaurant inside the sphere section. I briefly considered buying a ticket for observation deck, but wasn’t willing to pay 22.50 EUR or wait an hour for the privilege of looking down on Berlin from above.
The Berlin TV Tower, completed in 1969 and still Germany’s highest building. Note the cross-shaped reflection in the sphere. People used to say that this was God giving the East German communists the middle finger by hiding a secret cross in their showpiece tower.
So I trotted past the TV Tower towards Alexanderplatz. The first time I saw Alexanderplatz in 1990, I found it a huge disappointment, because it’s basically just a huge windswept expanse of concrete surrounded by modernist buildings that certainly did not live up to its legendary reputation as the heart of the bustling Weimar era Berlin. BTW, if you’ve seen Babylon Berlin, which has a lot of scenes set on and around Alexanderplatz, it hasn’t looked like that since 1945 and the Alexanderplatz scenes are actually CGI mixed with close-up shots of buildings which look kind of similar to what would have been there in 1929/1930. For example, the close-up shots of Berlin’s long gone central police headquarters on Alexanderplatz are actually the Red Townhall, because both buildings had red brick facades. It’s still very obvious to me, because I know what the Red Townhall looks like.
Alexanderplatz has changed quite a bit since 1990, though not necessarily for the better. They’ve just added a few more large buildings which house department stores, shopping malls, a cinema and the like and covered up some of the East German murals with advertising. Besides, the World Time Clock was edging towards 6 PM, so I decided to go back to my hotel. Though I did buy a mug from a souvenir shop as a present for my Dad first. My Dad is one of those people who are notoriously hard to shop for, but he drinks coffee, so I usually buy him a souvenir mug. I found a nice one with a cartoony drawing Trabant car breaking through the Berlin Wall.
A Trabant car, once sought after and now decorating a souvenir shop on Alexanderplatz.
Back at the hotel, I rested for half an hour or so and then headed back out for dinner. I found a great dumpling restaurant very close to the hotel and had a combination platter of assorted dumplings, a tofu bao bun and fries with hoisin sauce.
My dinner, consisting of dumplings, a tofu bao bun and fries with hoisin sauce, all courtesy of Han West House of Dumplings.
After dinner, I headed back to the hotel, checked my e-mails and went to bed, ready for Metropol Con to begin the next day.
A few days ago, I got the new Masters of the Universe Masterverse Man-e-Faces, who has an extra set of faces in addition to the three faces – man, monster and robot – that we already know. So I put him on a stage – Man-e-Faces is an actor, when he’s not defending Eternia from the evil forces of Skeletor – and paired him up with Orko, who is an entertainer as well, when he’s not defending Eternia from the evil forces of Skeletor.
In Masters of the Universe Revelation, the defenders of Eternia fall apart after He-Man dies (don’t worry, he gets better). We see what happened to a few of them: Teela storms off and becomes a mercenary. Duncan is stripped off his rank and banished from the palace and moves to a little cottage in the middle of nowhere with Roboto. Cringer moves to Castle Grayskull (probably not quite voluntarily, since King Randor seems to have decided to honour his son’s memory by throwing all of the people Adam cared about out of the palace) to protect the Sorceress and the Castle. Stratos and Buzz-Off are implied to return to their respective homelands. Clamp-Champ and Fisto of all people remain at the palace to guard the King and Queen.
Orko is also kicked out of the palace and is ill and being cared for by Duncan the next time we see him. As for Man-e-Faces, he never appears in Revelation at all, so we have no idea what happened to him. Though I suspect he didn’t stay at the palace, because I doubt the grieving King Randor and Queen Marlena had much need for an entertainer.
So enjoy this story of Orko and Man-e-Faces, the two entertainers at the royal palace, teaming up and taking their show on the road.
On the market place of the city of Sarnscepter:
“Come, good people of Eternia and see straight from King Randor’s court: Eternia’s greatest actor Man-e-Faces and Eternia’s second greatest, no third greatest – I mean, there’s the Sorceress, obviously, and Evil-Lyn and Skeletor, only that he’s gone now, and the Faceless One and Shokoti… brrr… and Mallek and…”
“Orko, come to the point already.”
“Anyway, Eternia’s greatest actor Man-e-Faces and court magician – former court magician Orko bring to you, The Tragedy of Keldor, Prince of Eternia a.k.a. the play King Randor does not want you to see. So give a big hand for Man-e-Faces… and me, of course.”
“Thank you, good people of Eternia.”
“You all know Skeletor, self-styled Lord of Destruction and Overlord of Evil…”
“Yes, that’s exactly the right response to Skeletor. Though to be perfectly, he’s very much a failure, though I’m only saying that out loud, because he’s no longer around to curse me like he did the last time I mocked him.”
“But did you know, good people of Eternia, that the fearsome and terrifying Skeletor was once the handsome Prince Keldor, half-brother of King Randor himself?”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Of course not, Orko. All that happened long before you came to Eternia. And King Randor is understandably reluctant to talk about his wayward brother…”
“Well, I’d say that the King is reluctant to talk period.”
“You may be right, Orko. But let’s get back to Keldor. For you see, Keldor was extremely privileged. He was handsome, rich, he was a Prince of Eternia, a talented alchemist and master swordsman. However, there was one thing Keldor wanted that he couldn’t have. For though he was a Prince, he’d never ever be King. And that irked him more than anything else. So Keldor decided that if the Elders and the laws of Eternia would not make him King, he’d make himself King…”
“And how did he plan to do that?”
“Simple. Keldor made a pact with Hordak, a terrifying demon from beyond, to increase his magical powers. Then he gathered others around him, beings as ambitious and ruthless as himself. And then he started waging war on the throne and the Council of Elders. The royal guard under Captain Randor, as he was then, and the defenders of Eternia met them in battle and a terrible clash of arms ensued. The horrible war we call… the Great Unrest!”
“Oh, I’ve heard about that.”
“And so you should, Orko, for the Great Unrest plunged all Eternia into war, as Keldor and his allies devastated the land. And it all culminated in… the Battle at the Hall of Wisdom.”
“Oh, that sounds dramatic.”
“The two brothers Randor and Keldor met in battle with clashing swords and singing blades. Keldor was one of Eternia’s best swordsmen, but Randor still bested him. But treacherous Keldor still had an ace up his sleeve. A vial of acid that Hordak had given him to vanquish his brother. Keldor hurled that vial at Randor, but….”
“…Captain Randor raised his shield and repelled the attack. The acid backfired and hit Keldor right in his handsome face…”
“Eww, that’s got to hurt.”
“Indeed, it did, Orko. Keldor only survived his injuries due to the dark magic of Hordak. Alas, the acid ate away the skin and the flesh of his face, leaving only…”
“…the bare bones beneath. And that is how handsome Prince Keldor became hideous Skeletor, Lord of Destruction. Shortly thereafter, Man-at-Arms and the Sorceress of Grayskull erected the Mystic Wall…”
“And that’s not all they did together.”
“Orko, there are children present. Anyway, the reacted the Mystic Wall, locking away Skeletor and his minions in the Dark Hemisphere for the next sixteen years. King Randor, as he was by now, never spoke of his brother again and over time Prince Keldor was forgotten. Until he breached the Mystic Wall and reappeared as Skeletor, Overlord of Evil.”
“Wow, that’s quite a story, Man-e-Faces.”
“It’s not a story, but the whole and unvarnished truth. I swear by all my faces.”
“Alas, poor Keldor! I knew him, Orko, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he has borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it.”
“”Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table a roar? No one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”
“And thus ends the tragic tale of Keldor, Prince of Eternia.”
“Thank you, good people of Eternia, and don’t forget to put a coin in the hat for these poor impoverished ex-royal entertainers.”
“So, how much did we make today?”
“…ten, twelve, thirteen gold coins.”
“Enough to buy us a room at the inn, a good dinner and a mug of ale for me and a mug of hot chocolate for you, then.”
“Sigh. It’s sure hard to have to perform on the market places of random towns for a living.”
“I know, Orko. But would you rather have stayed at the royal palace, with the sobbing Queen Marlena and King Randor’s random outbursts of anger?”
“No. First of all, because I got kicked out of the palace. And besides, everything there reminds me of Adam. Sniff, I miss him so much.”
“I know, Orko, I miss him, too.”
The story of how Keldor became Skeletor can also be seen in this episode of the 2002 He-Man cartoon. Meanwhile, Man-e-Faces has borrowed the gravedigger monologue from Act V, scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
That’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Toy Photo Story, because there will be more, when I’m back from Berlin.
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, I just bought some toys, took photos of them and wrote little scenes to go with those photos. All characters are copyright and trademark their respective owners.
The 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novel goes to Babel by R.F. Kuang. This is not a huge surprise, since Babel got a lot of buzz and showed up on various “best books of 2022” lists. I have to admit that I haven’t read it yet, because R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy did not work for me at all. That said, I’m always happy to see a work of linguistic SFF gain attention and awards.
The winner of the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novella is Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk. This is one win I’m fully aboard with, because Even Though I Knew the End mixes a lot of elements I like – urban fantasy with a retro noir setting, a hardboiled detective story and a wonderful love story. It’s agreat novella and I hope to see it on the Hugo ballot this year.
The 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novelette goes to “If You Find Yourself Speaking to God, Address God with the Informal You” by John Chu. This is another win I’m really, really happy, because I enjoyed the story – a sweet gay romance between two guys who meet at the gym, only that one of them may be a superhero – a whole lot. This story was also on my personal Hugo ballot.
The winner of the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Short Story is “Rabbit Test” by Samantha Mills. I’m afraid this story completely passed me by, though I’m looking forward to reading it.
The 2022 Andre Norton Nebula Award for Middle Grade and YA Fiction goes to Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion by K. Tempest Bradford. This is another winner I’m unfamiliar with, largely because I’m not the target audience for a middle grade novel about a little girl dealing with an alien invasion. That said, I have always enjoyed K. Tempest Bradford’s insightful commentary on racism and SFF.
The winner of the 2022 Ray Bradbury Nebula Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation is Everything Everywhere All At Once. If there is such a thing as a surefire winner, it is Everything Everywhere All At Once, which has already (deservedly) won all the awards everywhere in the multiverse. Now Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert can add a Nebula to their collection. It may not be as prestigious as an Oscar, but it’s prettier.
The 2022 Nebula Award for Game Writing goes to Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin for Elden Ring. This is another unsurprising winner. As I’ve repeatedly said, I’m not a gamer and often can’t really say anything about the game category, but even I have heard of Elden Ring.
Several special and lifetime achievement awards were awarded along with the Nebulas as well.
The recipient of the 2023 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is Robin McKinley. This is a very good choice, since Robin McKinley has had a lengthy and well regarded career. Plus, she was doing fairy tale retellings before it was popular – at least in the US.
The brand-new Infinity Award, basically a posthumous Grand Master Award for authors who did not receive a Grand Master during their lifetimes, was awarded for the first time this year. Initially, there were some concerns that the Infinity Award would be yet another honour bestowed on dead white men, who already have accolades enough (and a lot of the obvious choices actually did receive the Grand Master Award in the past). So SFWA decided to preempt these concers and award the inaugural Infinity Award to a dead black woman, namely Octavia E. Butler. It’s an excellent choice, for while Octavia E. Butler was hardly obscure during her lifetime, her recognition has only grown since her untimely death. I’m certain that Octavia E. Butler would have eventually received a Grand Master Award, had she not died too early. The Infinity Award rectifies this.
As for future possibilities, one person I would love to see receiving an Infinity Award is C.L. Moore, because she was supposed to receive the Grand Master Award in 1985 as only the second woman ever (the first was Andre Norton). However, her second husband declined on her behalf, because by that time C.L. Moore was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and her husband feared that the ceremony would upset and confuse her. C.l. Moore’s second husband gets a lot of flak for that decision, though I believe it was made with the best of intentions. Nonetheless, the Infinity Award would be a perfect way to rectify this.
The winners of the 2023 Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award are Cerece Rennie Murphy and (posthumously) Greg Bear. The 2023 Kevin O’Donnel Jr. Service to SFWA Award goes to Mishell Baker. All strike me as very good choices.
Those who worry that men are no longer winning the major SFF awards will be happy that we have one male winner (John Chu) in a fiction category and four more (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert, Hidetaka Miyasaki and George R.R. Martin) in the media categories (plus Greg Bear for the Solstice Award). Of course, the usual suspects will probably complain anyway that those are not the right sort of male writers.
One thing that struck me is that a lot of authors of colour won last night. Of the thirteen winners altogether (including the special awards), eight are writers of colour. This is excellent, especially considering how very white SFF still is in many parts.
All in all, this is a very good set of Nebula winners.
This week, from Thursday May 18 to Saturday May 20, I will be at Metropol Con, a new multimedia SFF con in Berlin.
The venue is the silent green Kulturquartier in the Wedding neighbourhood in Berlin. The silent green Kulturquartier is a former crematorium (built in 1910) turned cultural center and events venue.
This is actually the first in person con I’m attending since 2019, though I have attended several virtual cons since then. But great as virtual conventions are, in person cons are a different matter altogether and I’m really looking forward to the experience.
If you happen to be at Metropol Con, you can see me on the following panels:
Translation: What gets lost and what is gained
Friday, May 19, 2023, 9:30 AM in Atelier 1
Participants: CD Covington, Julie Nováková, Cora Buhlert, Moderator: Claudia Rapp
SFFH around the globe: developments, themes, trends
Friday, May 19, 2023, 12:30 PM in the Kuppelhalle
Participants: Mary Robinette Kowal, Peter J. Maurits, Cora Buhlert, Moderator: Sabrina Železný
I’ll also be hanging out at the con and attending programming, so if you see me, say hello.
Once I’m back, there will of course be photos and a con report.
Now that spring is here and the weather is nicer, it was also the perfect time to take my Masters of the Universe figures out into the garden to pose for some photos. And while I was taking pictures, I made a little story, too.
On the plains of Eternia:
Yes, I know the vehicle is supposed to be called “Ground Ripper” now for trademark reasons, but it will always be the Road Ripper to me.
“I just love getting out of the palace and enjoying the peace and quiet of the Eternian wilderness in springtime. And the Road Ripper really packs a punch. Too bad it’s only a one-seater, so I can’t take Cringer along. Or Teela…”
“Still, nothing beats racing across the plains of Eternia. No Prince Adam, no royal duties, no He-Man, just me and the unspoiled wilderness and… – Oh, raptor crossing!”
“Sigh! Thank Zoar that the brakes on this thing are as good as the engine.”
The raptor is a Schleich dinosaur.
“Have no fear, my little friend. I love all creatures of the wild and brake for raptors. And of course for…”
“Adam, where have you been? I’ve been looking for you all over.”
“Let me guess, I missed a training session?”
“You did. As usual. And instead of reporting for combat training, you go cruising with the Road Ripper. You’re impossible and irresponsible. As usual.”
“Listen, Teela, I’m sorry, okay? But your Dad asked me to take the Road Ripper for a spin to test the new gear coupling.”
“Liar. He asked Meckaneck.”
“Yes, but Meckaneck’s son has a flute recital today, so I offered to do it instead.”
“So you could shirk combat training? Of course.”
“Look around you, Teela. It’s a beautiful spring day. Much too nice to stay indoors. So why don’t we head back to the palace, grab some cinnamon rolls and a bottle of wine and have a picnic? We can even have a sparring session later. And maybe take a nap in the grass.”
“But only after you’ve finished your combat training.”
“Sigh. As you wish, my lady.”
“You were right, Adam. Just getting away from it all to have a picnic was a wonderful idea.”
“I only have good ideas.”
“Well, I have an even better idea. Let’s have a round of combat training.”
“Let’s not, okay? Unless it’s very close quarters combat, if you know what I mean?”
“Trust me, Adam. I will wear you out either way.”
“I can’t wait.”
“What a beautiful day to hang out! Sunshine, green leaves, tasty flies. Yes, Snake Mountain and the Dark Hemisphere may be my home now, but sometimes I still miss the woods and the plains of the Light Hemisphere. But wait! What do I spy with my little eyes?”
“That was nice, Adam. Kiss me again.”
“As you wish, my lady.”
“Well, if that isn’t Prince Adam! And he’s making out with Captain Teela… again. If I capture them, Skeletor will be so pleased and then he’ll promote me. The cowardly Prince won’t be much of a challenge, but that Captain Teela is another matter. She’s a handful. And if I fail, Skeletor will punish me. So maybe I should call for reinforcements. Especially since it looks as if those two will be busy for a while.”
Will Adam and Teela’s picnic be rudely interrupted by Skeletor and his Evil Warriors? Will Adam be able to say the magic words and transform into He-Man in time?
You’ll have to wait for another installment for the answer, because a bunch of ants decided to interrupt my photo shooting, apparently mistaking my Masters of the Universe toys for something edible.
In the meantime, here is another outdoors Masters of the Universe photo. I took my figures into the garden to recreate Errol McCarthy’s cardback artwork for the original 1982 release of He-Man.
Here’s the original:
And here is my version:
“Now that Skeletor is vanquished – for now – what shall we do next?”
“Return to the palace and prepare for his next attack. Because the evil forces of Skeletor never rest.”
“Talking of the palace, does anybody where Adam is? One moment he was here and then he was gone. What if he’s in trouble and needs our help?”
“I’m sure Adam is fine, Teela. He’ll turn up again. Meanwhile, I’ll have to take my leave. But rest assured that He-Man will always be there when he’s needed.”
That’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Toy Photo Story, because there will be more.
Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, I just bought some toys, took photos of them and wrote little scenes to go with those photos. All characters are copyright and trademark their respective owners.
Nominations for the 2023 Hugo Awards closed April 30 and the finalists are expected to be announced later this month.
However, after the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2023 and are eligible for the 2024 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
Therefore, I am thrilled to welcome Jason M. Waltz, one of the editors of Hither Came Conan, to my blog today:
Tell us about your book.
HITHER CAME CONAN is a compilation of two successful examinations of all of Robert E. Howard’s original Conan the Cimmerian stories (and one story fragment) with about 15 additional essays included. It is also the single most-inclusive repository of REH Conan story data to date. This alone makes this title invaluable; coupled with the almost 60 essays it makes this THE BOOK to shelve alongside your Wandering Star/DelRey Conan trilogy. The majority of essays (and opinions!) come from the Bob Byrne led ‘Hither Came Conan’ series hosted by Black Gate Magazine and the ‘Conan Re-Read’ of Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones in conversation on Howard’s blog. Data compiled for each story by Dierk Günther includes tidbits such as the probable age of both Conan and Howard, the location, the major characters, the word count, date and source of first publication, and the first recorded public reaction to be found. HITHER CAME CONAN is a wealth of all the information any reader of Conan could desire.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a proponent of heroic literature: I read, write, edit, publish, collect, speak, and preserve it. I’m also just a fellow who happened to lend a hand one day back in 2005 when a few small press people solicited help. Things led to other things, and in 2008 I was suddenly the micro publisher Rogue Blades Entertainment, publisher of all that is heroic, specifically heroic fantasy. Several well-regarded (though never as many as intended) anthologies–such as RETURN OF THE SWORD, RAGE OF THE BEHEMOTH, CROSSBONES & CROSSES, REACH FOR THE SKY–and the popular non-fiction how-to WRITING FANTASY HEROES later, Rogue Blades Foundation was established specifically to take on larger scale projects and titles, such as the award-winning REH CHANGED MY LIFE you featured in 2022.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
HITHER CAME CONAN was a natural fit for the mission of Rogue Blades Foundation: Exploring Heroics! As a not-for-profit literary publisher of heroics, RBF puts explorations of the heroic into your hands and hearts through books that are well-read and not just on your shelves. We put heroes into print. With the almost-always on-going conversation of what truly is Sword & Sorcery and its foundations, Robert E. Howard and Conan naturally come to the center of attention. Bob Byrne had led a series at BLACK GATE MAGAZINE online in 2019 wherein he had Howard Conan scholarly types (somehow I made the cut!) randomly defend each original Conan story as the ‘Best’ of the lot. That initiated a long, on-and-off again conversation about putting the series into print between he, I, and John O’Neill (of BLACK GATE). When Bob won a REH Foundation award for the series, conversations heated and we came up with the idea of including the Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward re-read discussion Howard had hosted on his blog back in 2015 during which they closely examined each Howard Conan tale. Once Howard and Bill agreed, the train had a head of steam and was already powering down the tracks. I am a gent who enjoys adding special features to my books and as this book as it currently stood consisted of all previously released material, I worked out ways to add more value for the reader. I hit the jackpot when Dierk agreed to helm the research into each story and find those first public reactions. This then became the largest tome I have ever published and in addition, I believe it is beyond reasonable to claim it is THE Conan of Cimmeria reference title.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
HITHER CAME CONAN covers ALL 21 Robert E. Howard original tales plus 1 story fragment with at least 2 essays of examination, many extra essays as further examinations of stories or additional aspects of the Conan Saga, and the single most inclusive story database of information such as important characters, age of Conan and Howard, setting and synopsis, word count, and first publication and reaction, and comes wrapped in a gorgeous Didier Normand cover that embraces and conveys the spirit of homage. THIS is the book you shelve alongside your Wandering Star/Del Rey Conan trilogy!
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
Ha, no! That’s why it’s so huge and heavy! Seriously, I added just about everything. Dierk’s work on tracking down the first recorded public reaction to each story was phenomenal and super exhilirating. When I followed his lead and started reading all the letters in Weird Tales’ ‘The Eyrie’ I was hard pressed not to keep adding reactions. So that is about all that didn’t make it into the final version: EVERY public reaction we could find. I don’t think we could have lifted HCC if I had added them all. I did choose to add a closing Memorium section though, wherein I gathered all the public responses to Howard’s suicide and the then-end of Conan’s story.
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
Oh, we can learn so much through non-fiction examinations! HITHER CAME CONAN holds far more value than just talking about the character of Conan. This is actually a very good exploration of the writing of one of American’s most influential fantastical creators of all time! In-depth dicussions of writing styles, purposes, plots, world-building, character creation, market writing…other than perhaps writing habits, there really is no aspect of speculative, heroic writing left unturned. Anyone dreaming of, trying to write, anything action-packed could definitely improve their chances of delivering popular heroic adventure readers want by picking up this book. I will close by repeating what I said before: the analysis of creativity, of motivation, and of legacy should be a regular genre consideration.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
There is lots of work going on in the pulp and heroic fantastical non-fiction arena. Will Oliver is working on his own Robert E. Howard biography; there is a recent Clark Ashton Smith documentary worth viewing; Jason Ray Carney is the force behind numerous non-fiction and fiction projects, including his recent TED Talk on Sword & Sorcery; the Glenn Lord Symposium at the annual Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, always has scholarly presentations and readings. There is a lot to find out there if people are interested in seeking it out.
Thank you, Jason, for stopping by and answering my questions. Check out Hither Came Conan, if you’re at all interested in Conan of the Cimmeria, Robert E. Howard and the history of sword and sorcery. And if you haven’t picked them up already, get those Del Rey Conan collections, too, because they are currently the best and most affordable way to experience Conan.
About Hither Came Conan:
HITHER CAME CONAN is a collection of essays examining each of the 21 original Conan stories plus 1 of the story fragments from the Father of Sword & Sorcery, Robert E. Howard!
This title collects Bob Byrne’s Award-winning series ‘Hither Came Conan’ hosted by John O’Neill at www.blackgate.com alongside the famous Bill Ward and Howard Andrew Jones ‘Conan Re-read’ discussion hosted by Howard at www.howardandrewjones.com. Numerous extra essays appear as further examinations of stories or additional aspects of the Conan Saga. Also includes the GREATEST EVER compilation of story data such as important characters, age of Conan and Howard, setting and synopsis, word count, and first publication and reaction! ALL WRAPPED in a gorgeous Didier Normand cover that embraces and conveys the spirit of homage.
Contributors include: Fred Adams, Jr., John Bullard, Bob Byrne, Jason Ray Carney, Vincent Darlage, Bobby Derie, Woelf Dietrich, Jason Durall, Gabe Dybing, Mark Finn, Dierk Günther, David Hardy, Ryan Harvey, John C. Hocking, Morgan Holmes, Matthew John, Howard Andrew Jones, Patrice Louinet, James C. McGlothlin, Brian Murphy, Scott Oden, James Reasoner, Deuce Richardson, Jeffrey Shanks, Steven H Silver, David C. Smith, S.M. Stirling, Keith J. Taylor, G.W. Thomas, Fletcher A. Vredenburgh, Jason M Waltz, Bill Ward, Clint Werner, and Keith West.
THE book you shelve alongside your Wandering Star/Del Rey Conan trilogy!
About Jason M. Waltz:
Jason M Waltz is THE RogueBlade, owner/editor at Rogue Blades Entertainment, a high octane adventure publisher sharing heroic literature, and founder/publisher at Rogue Blades Foundation, a literary publisher exploring heroics. As such, he gets to produce the wonderful titles from RBE & RBF listed here. In addition, you’ll find a few adventures of his own, mostly within the speculative and grand adventure genres.
Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2023 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll probably know that the coronation of King Charles III took place on Saturday. Therefore, this month’s free story “The Tear of Chronos” is a story about a coronation, namely that of Kurval, King of Azakoria, who crowned himself after killing his villainous predecessor in true sword and sorcery fashion, but is still required to go through the motions and is about as thrilled about the entire ceremony as King Charles looked at times.
The lengthy coronation ceremony requires Kurval to consult the oracle of the goddess Ashvarya and gain a glimpse of the future by gazing into a magical jewel called the Tear of Chronos. However, he gets far more than he bargained, when he enters the inner sanctum only to find himself not just with a statue of the goddess, but with a woman of flesh and blood who is the spitting image of the goddess and wears the Tear of Chronos around her neck.
So follow Kurval, as he meets a woman who may or may not be a goddess, uncovers a conspiracy and gazes into…
The Tear of Chronos
“When King Kurval took the throne of Azakoria in the Year of the Forked Serpent, he consulted the oracle of Ashvarya, as is custom for the newly crowned kings of Azakoria. Just what precisely the oracle revealed to him is not known, though King Kurval would go on to have a long and glorious reign, bringing peace, justice and prosperity to Azakoria…”
From the Chronicles of Azakoria by Ragur, Count Falgune
I. The Coronation
It was the day of his coronation, but Kurval, King of Azakoria, wanted nothing more than to retire to the royal apartments with a jug of wine and a leg of lamb and be left alone. But instead, he had to spend the entire day either on his feet or in the saddle — and all in full armour, too.
As far as Kurval was concerned, the whole ceremony was superfluous anyway. He had won the crown fair and square — by chopping off the head of the previous King Orkol and placing the bloody crown on his own head. As long as no one challenged him — and no one dared — he was king, ceremony or no ceremony.
However, his vizier Izgomir, whom Kurval had inherited from Orkol along with the crown, had insisted that a formal coronation was absolutely necessary to keep up appearances and pacify the nobles, the people, the priests and the gods. And since Kurval did not actually know a lot about being king, he’d gone along with it.
And so he had gotten up at the crack of dawn and dressed in his rich, but impractical royal robes. He had dropped to his knees in the temple of Odulf, God of the Sun and Lord of all lesser Gods, to receive the crown — the very crown he himself had taken from Orkol’s severed head not quite two weeks before — from the hands of the high priest.
Next, he had overseen a seemingly endless military parade, as every single regiment in the Azakorian forces plus various mercenary companies marched past Kurval to salute him.
First came the elite Blood Guards in their splendid red armour, led by the young Lord Vangenard. Vangenard had been involved in the uprising against Orkol for reasons of his own and had been the first to cry out “All hail King Kurval,” once Kurval had placed the bloody crown on his own head. In return, Kurval had given him command of the Blood Guards after Vangenard had slain his predecessor Vitericus.
Izgomir did not trust Vangenard. He said that a man who had turned first against Orkol and then against his employers would eventually turn against Kurval as well. And who knew, maybe he was right? However, Kurval liked the young Lord and for now Vangenard seemed to be on his side.
Once the Blood Guards had ridden past, came the not quite so elite Silver Sentinels in their shimmering silver armour. Their commander was one Baron Kelgurd. Kurval did not know the man well. However, both Izgomir and Vangenard had recommended him as a dependable man who was no friend of Orkol’s. And since those two almost never agreed on anything, Kurval figured he should heed their advice the one time they did.
Next came the Ruthless Swords, the mercenary company that Kurval had commanded before the crown of Azakoria had landed at his feet. He smiled and waved, this time with genuine enthusiasm. These were his people, after all, and he knew every single man and woman marching past him in the plain, functional armour of the professional mercenary. He might not be certain about the loyalties of Izgomir or Vangenard or Kelgurd, but he was certain about the Ruthless Swords.
Tsabo, commander of the Ruthless Swords, rode ahead, splendid in his gilded armour that gleamed against his dark skin. Tsabo was probably the only true friend Kurval had in the world. The armour had been a gift, together with the offer to become general of the Azakorian army. Kurval had hoped for an enthusiastic acceptance, but so far all that Tsabo had said was that he needed to discuss the matter with his wife.
Kurval decided to take the fact that Tsabo had chosen to wear the splendid plate gilded armour rather than his ordinary plain chainmail as a positive sign. Because he did not want to deal with the intricacies of kinghood, not to mention a palace full of backstabbing nobles who despised him, without his best friend by his side.
More soldiers marched past. Archers, pikemen and the alchemists with their deadly but cumbersome flash powder cannons. Soldier after soldier, a seemingly endless stream of them. All the while, Kurval was in full armour and seated upon his faithful stallion Shadowmane. The day was unpleasantly hot day and he found himself desperately needing to pee, but found that he could not move from his post until after the last infantryman had filed past.
Even after the parade, Kurval barely had time to relieve himself, before he had to sit on the obsidian throne to receive the oaths of fealty of the various nobles, most of whom hated him and half of whom wanted to kill him and sit on the throne themselves. To make matters even worse, the obsidian thrones was infernally uncomfortable and so his back and arse were sore, when he could finally rise.
And still there was no rest for Kurval. For now it was time to ride through the streets of the capital and gracefully receive the cheers and homages of the people of Azakoria who cheered and threw rose petals onto his path, which struck him as very wasteful, though at least Shadowmane appreciated having some petals to nibble on. Though at least the cheers of the people were genuine — unlike the smiles and bows of the nobles — though they were cheering less for Kurval than for the demise of his hated predecessor Orkol.
Once Kurval and his retinue had reached the temple district, there followed a tour of every single temple in Amalgonda to pay his respects to Gods that were not his in rituals that were meaningless to him.
“What am I even doing here?” Kurval asked himself, not for the first time.
Many years ago, in his homeland Temirzhan across the Great Sea, the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow had prophesied that one day, Kurval would be King on the far side of the great sea. So Kurval had travelled across those endless waves, not so much to chase a glorious destiny, but mostly because there was no place in his homeland anymore for a captain of the Royal Guard who had gotten his king killed.
Kurval had spent many years wandering the lands on the far side of the sea, selling his brawn and his sword to whoever needed his services. He’d started out as a lone sellsword and eventually rose to commander of a mercenary company in the employ of the King of Azakoria, the glorious destiny that the Dark Gods had prophesied long forgotten. Most likely, the Dark Gods had lied anyway, cause that’s what they did.
When some of the Azakorian nobles approached Kurval to enlist him and the Ruthless Swords in their uprising against King Orkol, Kurval had accepted without hesitation. After all, Orkol was perpetually late in paying, so Kurval felt he owed him no loyalty. Not to mention that the plotting nobles promised to pay Kurval and his people better than Orkol ever had.
Finally, Kurval had seen what Orkol did to the people of Azakoria, how he abused those he was responsible for. He’d seen how Orkol bled a once wealthy country dry. He’d seen protests and uprisings brutally squashed, citizens randomly arrested, imprisoned, tortured, executed. He’d seen men slaughtered and women ravished, all in Orkol’s name. Worse, Kurval and his people had even been ordered to take part in Orkol’s atrocities.
Unbidden, an image rose in his mind. Bodies swaying in the wind outside the walls of the rebellious city of Fredegond. Young women in plain white gowns with nooses round their necks, gently crying into their execution hoods, bound hands clutched in prayer, as they were led to the gallows.
That had been the last straw. Kurval had walked away in disgust and thrown in his lot with the plotting nobles. After all, Count Walbordo, leader of the plotters, could hardly be a worse king then Orkol. At the very least, he paid better.
He’d had no illusions why Walbordo and the other plotting nobles wanted his support. Their own troops weren’t sufficient to take on Orkol’s, so they needed Kurval and his men. The mercenaries were to be used as shock troops, to break down resistance, to fight and bleed and die, so Walbordo’s own men would be spared.
Kurval knew fully well that he and his people were expected to die fighting Orkol’s troops, that they were never expected to collect the generous payment they’d been promised. He also knew that they were better than that, better fighters, better trained. He knew they would prevail. And they did.
Once Kurval and his people fought their way to the throne room, he’d finally found himself face to face with Orkol himself. Kurval had treated the swine better than he deserved and gave Orkol the chance to draw his sword. But Orkol was not much of a fighter and so Kurval chopped his head off. The crown, still sticky with Orkol’s blood, rolled across the marble floor and landed in front of Kurval’s feet. And suddenly he heard the voice of the Dark Gods in his mind again, heard their prophecy, their mocking words. And he bent down to pick up the crown and put it on his own head.
And now that he was king, now that he had finally fulfilled the glorious destiny that he’d been foretold all those years ago, Kurval realised that he had no idea what came next. The Dark Gods had certainly never said anything about that and Kurval himself knew nothing about being a king.
Briefly, he’d even entertained the thought of just making off with the royal treasury and leaving the throne to Walbordo who’d wanted it all along and who probably knew what to do with it, unlike Kurval. However, the royal treasury turned out to be nigh empty, the kingdom’s wealth squandered on Orkol’s whims. And besides, the people that Orkol had abused and bled dry actually cheered for Kurval, called him their liberator. Kurval could not steal what little was left from these and then abandon them. For their sake, he had to try to be the best king he could be.
“And now, Sire, it is time to consult the oracle in the temple of Ashvarya,” Izgomir whispered to him, looking distinctly uncomfortable in the saddle, though his mount was the calmest, most good-natured mare to be found in the royal stables.
Kurval grunted in acknowledgement. Maybe this oracle could tell him what to do now he was King.
II. The Temple of Ashvarya
The soaring columns and spires of the temple dedicated to Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, gleamed silver in the light of the midday sun.
In front of the temple, Kurval dismounted and handed the reins to a waiting groom. It wasn’t necessary — Shadowmane would not run off, unless he was hungry — but the boy would be disappointed, if he did not get to hold the reins of the King’s horse, so Kurval and Shadowmane obliged him.
He waited patiently, as Izgomir dismounted with some difficulties. The groom who held the reins of the vizier’s mare remained stone-faced, but Shadowmane neighed in obvious amusement.
Finally, when Izgomir was back on his feet and had straightened his robe of office, Kurval ascended the white marble steps that led up to the temple, his vizier by his side.
“So how does this work?” he asked Izgomir.
“You will be welcomed by Morelia, High Priestess of Ashvarya. Then you will enter the inner sanctum, where you will remain alone in contemplation and prayer, until they oracle reveals its wisdom to you.”
Alone sounded good, though Kurval couldn’t help but wonder what would happen, if the oracle did not deign to reveal its wisdom to him.
“So what exactly is this oracle?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, there stands a lifelike statue of our blessed Lady Ashvarya, Sire. Around her neck, the goddess wears the Tear of Chronos, a jewel that fell from the sky eight hundred year ago and burns with cosmic fire. If the true King of Azakoria looks into depths of this jewel, the goddess will grant him a vision of the future.”
Izgomir was polite enough not to point out that Kurval was not the true King of Azakoria, but a foreign usurper who’d taken the throne by sword and slaughter. However, if this oracle was truly omniscient, it would know. Most likely, this jewel — if it was even real — would show him nothing. Or maybe it would tell him to go away and leave the throne to someone who actually knew what he was doing.
“And then?” he asked, “Am I obliged to share the vision the jewel has granted me with the Council or the people?”
And what if there was no vision? Would Kurval just have to make something up? Or admit that he was not the true King of Azakoria?
“That, Sire, is Your Majesty’s decision. However, traditionally, the Kings of Azakoria have shared the wisdom granted to them by the Tear of Chronos with the High Council and the people.”
“So what about Orkol?” Kurval asked, suddenly curious, “What did he see?”
“When King Orkol emerged from the inner sanctum, he announced that the Lady Ashvarya had commanded him to put down the uprising in the northern provinces with fire and sword, Sire.”
Kurval sighed, for he was only too familiar with Orkol’s cruelty in squashing the rebellious northern provinces. After all, his mercenaries had been hired to participate in some of it.
They had reached the top of the stairs by now and were met by Morelia, High Priestess of Ashvarya. She was a striking woman swathed in a cloth of silver gown that was draped around her shapely figure. Jewels gleamed at her wrists and throat. A diadem of diamonds and pearls adorned her midnight black hair that had been arranged into tightly curled ringlets.
The priestess curtseyed, which was quite a feat, given her slinky gown.
“Welcome to the temple of Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and Mother of all Lesser Gods. May Her light always shine upon Your Majesty’s reign.”
The words were polite but rote. And though Morelia had dropped to her knees before him and lowered her gaze, Kurval had caught a flicker of disdain in her eyes. This woman despised him and only went along with the ceremony, because she expected that the goddess she worshipped would tell Kurval to go away.
However, since Morelia was being polite, Kurval would be polite as well.
“Thank you,” he said solemnly, “I hope that I will prove myself worthy of Ashvarya’s blessed rays.”
Morelia gracefully rose to her feet and again, her slinky gown neither slipped nor tore. Maybe there truly was magic at work in this temple, though keeping a priestess’ gown in place struck him as a rather frivolous use of sorcery.
“And now, Sire, I shall escort you to the oracle chamber, so Ashvarya may share her guidance and wisdom with Your Majesty.”
The High Priestess led the way and a procession of lesser priestesses fell in step behind her, bearing silver staffs and fans of ostrich feathers. Kurval followed, Izgomir at his heels.
One by one, the lesser priestesses came to a halt and stepped out of the way to line up on both sides of the broad temple hall, until only Morelia continued forward, followed by Kurval and Izgomir.
Morelia led them to a large door of white ash wood, inlaid with silver. She took a key from her chatelaine and unlocked the door. Upon opening, the door squeaked like a slaughtered pig. Clearly, it was not used often.
Morelia bowed and still her slinky cloth of silver gown did not slip, but remained glued to her body. “Here, Sire, is the inner sanctum, where you may confer with the oracle of our blessed Lady Ashvarya.”
Again, there was a look of disdain in her eyes and again, Kurval chose to ignore it.
“Thank you,” he said and stepped inside. With another squeal, the door closed behind him and Kurval found himself alone in a small, windowless chamber.
The walls were of white marble, just like the rest of the temple, and adorned with chiselled scenes from the legend of the goddess, as she fought and smote the Great Old Ones to banish them from the world of men. The rays of the midday sun fell in through the filigree roof, sprinkling the chamber with glowing spots of light and stranger shadows.
The room was empty except for a statue of a beautiful woman. Skilled hands had chiselled every feature of her face, every fold of her skirt, every ornament on her body, every hair on her head, out of a block of pure white marble. The effect was remarkably lifelike, as if a living, breathing woman had been turned to stone. So this was the goddess Ashvarya or at least an artist’s vision of her.
Around her neck, the statue wore a gleaming jewel the shape of a teardrop and the size of a child’s fist on a finely wrought chain of silver. This had to be the Tear of Chronos then, the magical jewel that Izgomir had mentioned.
In front of the statue, there was a bench of white marble, the only other piece of furniture in the small chamber. Most likely, this was where Kurval was supposed to sit down and gaze into the jewel, hoping for some kind of divine vision.
What if there was no vision? What if the jewel remained empty, the future clouded to him? What if the goddess with her mocking smile should decide that Kurval was not the true King of Azakoria, that he was not deserving of being granted a vision?
Should he just make something up, just as he suspected Orkol had made up the divine command to subdue the rebellious northern provinces with fire and sword? Cause no deity who cared about those who worshipped her would ever condone the brutal slaughter Orkol had committed in the northern provinces.
Still, there was no way of knowing whether he would be granted a glimpse of the future or not, unless Kurval actually gazed into the jewel. So he took a step towards the bench, only be hurled backwards, when a clap of thunder echoed through the small chamber, followed by a blinding flash of light and a puff of purple smoke.
III. The Apparition
Instinctively, Kurval reached for his blade. Now he was King, he was bearing a ceremonial sword with a gilded and jewel encrusted hilt, but the blade was still cold hard steel and sharp enough to deal with any threat that might have invaded the inner sanctum.
If there was a threat to deal with, that was. For once Kurval’s eyes had recovered from the flash and the smoke had dispersed, he realised that he was no longer alone in the chamber. Stretched out on the bench in front of the statue of the goddess lay a woman.
In every detail, from her gauzy skirt via her silver girdle and bejewelled breast plates to her gleaming tiara and the teardrop gem around her neck, this woman was the spitting image of the statue. Only that this was a woman of flesh and blood. Her skin was soft and rosy, her lips the colour of a morning rose. Midnight black hair fell to her shoulders in gentle waves, long lashes quivered and her chest heaved with every breath.
His hand still on the jewelled hilt of his ceremonial blade, Kurval took a hesitant step towards the sleeping woman. Was this the goddess then, miraculously become flesh? And why had neither Izgomir nor Morelia mentioned that the goddess would appear in the flesh? Or had this never happened to any of Kurval’s predecessors before? And if so, why had the goddess decided to appear to him of all the Kings of Azakoria that had come and gone? Was she here to smite the usurper or bless his reign?
Kurval had almost reached the bench, when the sleeping goddess suddenly opened her eyes. She stretched her limbs like a great jungle cat and sat up, shaking her midnight black hair.
Kurval froze, when the goddess opened her rose red lips and spoke. And though she was speaking a barbarian tongue that Kurval had never heard before, he could nonetheless understand every single word, as if by magic.
“Ugh. Wherever and whenever I am, this is obviously not Cross Plains, Texas. Must have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Again.”
The woman looked down at herself, clearly surprised by what she saw.
“Oh great! I’m dressed like a lesbian villainess from a fucking Margaret Brundage cover…”
The woman looked up, only now becoming aware of Kurval’s presence. She emitted a heartfelt sigh.
“And hither comes Conan. Or is it Kull? Cause you’re obviously not Elric. Nor Kane, cause I’d recognise that bastard anywhere and in any time.”
“I am Kurval,” he announced, wondering how a goddess and all-knowing oracle would not even know something as simple as his name, “King of Azakoria.”
The woman nodded. “Of course, you are. So Kurval, King of Azakoria, can you tell me where and when we are?”
Kurval blinked, taken aback. “You don’t know?”
“Would I ask if I did? So, for the slower barbarians among us, where are we, what is this place and what year is it?”
Even if the oracle of Ashvarya was not truly all-knowing, Kurval would have at least expected her to know such basic facts as where or when she had appeared. Or maybe, the oracle was forever casting her all-seeing eyes into the great river of time, with the unfortunate side effect that the present became dim and obscure to her.
“We are in your temple, my Lady,” Kurval replied with a polite bow, “In the city of Amalgonda, capital of Azakoria, in the Year of the Forked Serpent.”
“None of this means anything to me,” the woman replied. She rested her head in her hands, midnight black tresses obscuring her face.
“Still, this place is definitely prehistoric, an early high culture, bronze or iron age equivalent. Not our world, though, since the art and architecture don’t match anything we know. So this is likely some kind of parallel world. Which means I didn’t just take a wrong turn at Albuquerque, I ended up in the wrong fucking universe. Fuck!”
“For a goddess, you sure swear a lot,” Kurval remarked.
The woman, who was very likely not a goddess, looked up, her sparkling dark eyes meeting Kurval’s steel grey. “Is that who you think I am? A goddess?”
“Are you not Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, God of the Sun and King of all lesser Gods?”
“Is that who you were expecting?” the woman asked, “Cause in that case I’ll have to disappoint you, cause I’m very definitely not the goddess Ashwhatever.”
“So who are you then?” Kurval asked.
“Call me Stella,” the woman said, “And by the way, you don’t have to stand there like a big barbarian oaf. You can sit down. This bench is big enough for both of us.”
So Kurval plopped down on the bench next to the woman, careful to keep sufficient distance between them, for goddess or not, it was only polite not to crowd the woman.
“I have no idea who or what I was expecting,” he admitted, “After all, I’ve never done this before.”
Stella shot him a sideways glance. “New to the crown, are you?”
Kurval nodded. “This is actually my coronation day.”
“And let me guess, you did not inherit the crown from a long line of ancestors but instead won it by blood and steel?”
“Is that so obvious?” Kurval grunted.
Stella nodded. “The crown doesn’t quite fit you and you seem uncomfortable in those kingly robes, as if you don’t quite know how to wear them. And while your royal robes are nice enough, the seams are not quite straight and the embroidery is hastily stitched, as if some overworked seamstress had to alter them in a hurry to fit you.”
“You have a good eye,” Kurval said.
There was a pause, then the woman asked, “So Your Majesty, what were you doing in here, before I so rudely interrupted you?”
“I was waiting for the goddess to grant me a vision of the future.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you there,” Stella said, “I can only foretell the future or pretend to, if I know what’s going to happen. But since I’ve no idea where or when this place is, I don’t know what’s going to happen either. I’m sorry”
“That’s all right.”
Stella turned at him, interest gleaming in her eyes.
“So how is this supposed to work anyway? A ghostly voice from nowhere, a drug-fuelled vision, a prophetic dream or do you just make something up, which fits your policies?”
“I have no idea,” Kurval admitted, “The last time I was given a prophecy of the future was when I was doing battle with the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow…”
“Sounds creepy,” Stella remarked.
“But the Dark Gods are an ocean away, so I doubt they will appear in the here and now. According to my vizier, I’m supposed to gaze into a magical jewel called the Tear of Chronos, which will grant me a vision. Though personally, I suspect that my predecessor just made up something that suited him.”
At the mention of the jewel, the woman stiffened. “You know of the Tear of Chronos?”
“I’d never heard of it until today,” Kurval admitted, “As far as I know, it’s the jewel that the statue of the goddess wears around her neck…”
His eyes were drawn to the identical copy of that jewel around the woman’s neck.
“…and the one that you wear.”
And how was this possible anyway? How could there be two identical jewels?
Stella suddenly jumped to her feet and clambered onto the bench with surprising grace.
“No, this…” She grabbed the jewel that the statue wore around her neck. “…is just a piece of cheap cut glass. This, however…”
Her hands reached for the jewel around her own neck. The jewel glowed brighter, as she touched it, almost as if it were responding to her.
“…is the real deal.”
So if the jewel the statue wore was a forgery, how could Stella have the real one? Was she just a clever thief using trickery and flash powder to abscond with the jewel? But if so, why did she admit that her jewel was the real one?
“How did you come by the jewel then?” Kurval asked.
“I did not come by it. The Tear of Chronos chose me to be its guardian,” Stella replied and sat down next to him again, “Its current guardian, that is. There have been others before me and there will be others after me.”
“Like the goddess Ashvarya?” Kurval probed.
Stella shrugged. “Or someone your people mistook for the goddess at any rate. It happens.”
She shivered and wrapped her arms her body. “Brrr, it’s bloody cold in here. And this silly outfit provides no protection at all.” She gazed down at her gem-encrusted breastplates. “These jewels are the real deal, though. Must be worth a fortune.”
Gooseflesh had appeared on her exposed skin, so Kurval took off his royal robe and draped it around her shoulders. “Here. This should keep you warm.”
Stella smiled at him. “Thanks.” She wrapped herself in his robe. “So, do the women really dress like this, where you come from?”
“Dancers and tavern girls sometimes do.” He glanced at the statue behind them. “And goddesses, I guess. But most women wear clothes.”
She grinned, as if Kurval had just settled an argument she’d been having with someone. “Knew it.”
“Actually, I thought this is how women dress where you come from.”
She looked straight at him. “Goodness gracious, no. No one ever dressed like this outside a Weird Tales cover.”
Once again, Kurval had no idea what she was talking about, so he asked, “About the jewel, can it really foretell the future?”
“Sometimes,” Stella replied, “When it feels like it. Cause the Tear of Chronos is nothing, if not capricious. After all, it sent me here rather than where I was going.”
“So what is this jewel?” Kurval asked, because none of what little she’d said about the gem made any sense.
“The Tear of Chronos is very old… and very powerful,” Stella began. Her eyes took on a distant look, “It’s not from Earth — either yours or mine — but was forged somewhere in a depths of space, maybe even in the Big Bang at the beginning of time. It is imbued with magical energy. Those of us, who have the ability, can tap into that energy and use it for our purposes.”
“So are you a sorceress then?” Kurval asked.
Stella nodded. “I guess you could say so.” She looked at him and smiled. “And thanks for not saying ‘witch’, cause I really hate that word.”
Kurval returned her smile. After all, Aelisia, the only other witch he had ever known, had hated that word as well.
“And the jewel responds to your magic and allows you to foresee the future?”
Stella shook her head. “Oh, it allows me to do much more than that. Time and space are nothing to the jewel, that much is true. It’s said that the Tear of Chronos has seen everything that has happened and ever will happen, all of time compressed in a single moment.”
“So it can foretell the future?” Kurval exclaimed.
“I guess it could. But if you’re like me and can harness its power, the jewel doesn’t just show the future or the past, it can take you there.”
Her hands closed around the jewel, which glowed brighter in response.
“With this, I can travel through space and time. I can go anywhere and anywhen I want… at least, if it works properly. Which it doesn’t at least half of the time. Like right now.”
She let go off the jewel and clenched her fists in frustration.
“Where did you want to go?” Kurval asked.
Stella lowered her eyes. “I wanted to travel eighty-five years into my past, to a town called Cross Plains in a place called Texas. A great poet of my world lived there, until he took his own life. I wanted to persuade him not to do it.”
“That sounds like a noble mission.”
She banged her fist against the marble bench.
“It probably would have been futile anyway, cause some people are very hard to keep from dying. I mean, don’t get me started on John Lennon. I tried, I honestly tried. I tried so many times, but that idiot always gets shot anyway.”
She emitted a heartfelt sigh.
“And the jewel tends to take me to places where I don’t want to go. But to get knocked off course by what’s probably thousands of years and a whole universe, that’s new. Most of the time, it’s just a few months and a different part of the world. Like when I wanted to go to Woodstock and ended up in Vietnam.”
Sorceress or not, the girl seemed lost, lost and confused. And Kurval very much wanted to help her to go to wherever it was that she wanted to go, though he had no idea how.
“Can’t you just ask the jewel to take you to… well, whatever the place is that you wanted to go?”
Stella looked up, eyes blazing. “What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? I’ve been trying to tap into the jewel’s power to take me to Cross Plains or home or anywhere but here really. But it’s not working. It might as well be a chunk of glass like that statue is wearing.”
“I’m sorry,” Kurval said, cause he really had no idea what else to say. He had only met one other sorceress, Aelisia, whose life he’d saved in Temirzhan on the far side of the Great Sea. But while Aelisia’s abilities had been powerful, she had never been able to travel through space and time. And until today. Kurval had no idea that this even was possible.
Stella, meanwhile, was holding the jewel by its silver chain, dangling it in front of her face.
“What do you want of me?” she demanded, almost as if she were speaking to a living being, “I know you brought me here for a reason, cause you always do, but I can’t do what you want, unless you tell me what it is.”
Kurval didn’t know if she expected an answer or not, but she got one. And so did he.
IV. The Voice of the Oracle
“Kurval…” a ghostly voice — vaguely female — echoed through the inner sanctum.
Both Kurval and Stella started and looked around for the source of the voice. It came from behind them, from the direction of the statue.
“Kurval, usurper of the throne,” the voice continued, “Listen to me, for I am the oracle of Ashvarya, Goddess of the Moon and consort of Odulf, God of the Sun and King of all lesser Gods…”
“Is this supposed to happen?” Stella whispered.
“I don’t know,” Kurval admitted, “But I doubt it.”
“Kurval, you usurped the throne against the will of the Gods,” the voice of the oracle continued, “The crown was never supposed to be yours and you know it. And your reign shall be cursed, cursed with death and war and pestilence, unless you abdicate at once in favour of Count Walbordo…”
“Who is this Walbordo?” Stella wanted to know.
“The man who hoped to be king, until I got in the way,” Kurval whispered back.
Stella got to her feet. “Now isn’t that convenient?”
Kurval nodded and got up as well, reaching for the hilt of his sword. “Especially since this ‘goddess’ has a notable northern accent.”
“Lots of pantheons have a north.”
Stella pointed at the statue. Kurval nodded and drew his blade. Together the rounded the statue, Stella on the left and Kurval on the right.
Behind the statue, the white marble walls were covered in decorative friezes. And hidden among these friezes, there were a few strategically placed holes, from which the voice boomed. So this was how the oracle conveyed its messages.
“Abdicate or you shall be doomed, barbarian usurper…”
“Now that’s just rude,” Stella whispered and methodically let her fingers run across the friezes with a swiftness that made Kurval wonder, if she was not a very clever thief after all.
“…and the streets of Amalgonda shall run red with blooahhh!”
In less than a heartbeat, Stella had found a part of the frieze, which retracted into the wall, as she pressed it. A hidden door opened, revealing a barren alcove in which a young women in the garb of a temple acolyte was huddling.
With a strength and roughness that belied her slender frame, Stella grabbed the girl by her plain white robe and pulled her out of the alcove.
“So here we have the false oracle. Not very impressive, is she?”
She hauled the girl into the main chamber and slammed her against the wall. Kurval raised his sword, the tip pointed at the girl’s ample chest.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” he demanded.
The girl quivered and began to cry, golden curls bobbing. “Oh mercy, Your Majesty. The goddess…”
“Don’t blame your goddess,” Stella said, “This is very human trickery. No divine intervention needed.”
The girl looked at Stella and then at the statue and her eyes — blue, like twin sapphires — went wide. Abruptly, she threw herself to the floor, prostrating herself in front of Kurval and Stella.
“Oh my Lady, have mercy on your humble servant,” the girl sobbed, “I… I thought it was your will.”
Stella turned to Kurval, a devilish gleam in her eye.
“Well, it is not,” she declared in her best imperious tone, “You have blasphemed the very goddess you claim to serve.”
“I’m sorry,” the girl sobbed, “Please, my Lady, have mercy.”
“Maybe,” Stella declared, “But first you must answer our questions. Who are you and who put you up to this?”
“I’m Elissa,” the girl cried, “An acolyte of the temple. Morelia, the high priestess, came to me, locked me in the alcove and told me what to say. But she said it was all the will of the goddess and that I had been chosen to deliver the prophecy.”
“Well, it’s very much not the will of the goddess,” Stella thundered, “And now where is this Morelia?”
It was Kurval who answered. “She should still be outside, waiting.”
Waiting for Kurval to reappear, dejected, because the goddess herself had declared him unfit to be king.
Anger rose inside him. He wouldn’t have minded if the goddess genuinely considered him unfit to rule. But for Morelia to use trickery to get him to give up the throne in favour of Walbordo…
“Why?” he demanded, “Why does Morelia favour Walbordo over me?”
“I… I don’t know, Sire. And…” Elissa’s rosy skin flushed bright red. “Well, I should not repeat gossip, but…”
“I command you to speak,” Stella thundered, every inch the goddess she pretended to be.
“Morelia is Count Walbordo’s lover and was hoping to become his queen,” Elissa blurted out, “At least, that’s what Jozella said and she’s Morelia’s personal handmaiden.”
The girl broke down sobbing again.
“Please don’t hurt me. Please, I didn’t mean to…”
Kurval had no intention of hurting this pitiful girl. Though he had every intention to apprehend and question the treacherous Morelia.
Stella seemed to have the same idea. “Let’s go and get her.”
She shrugged off Kurval’s royal robe and handed it back to him. “Here. You’d better put this back on, so you look suitably kingly. While I…” She smoothed down the gauzy skirt and adjusted the jewelled breastplates. “…must play the goddess some more.”
With surprising strength, she hauled the still sobbing Elissa to her feet.
“And you’re coming with us as well.”
V. High Treason
When Kurval threw open the door of the inner sanctum, he found himself faced with Izgomir, Morelia and a dozen of her priestesses. There was a look of pure triumph on Morelia’s face. Most likely, she already pictured herself as queen of Azakoria. But not as long as Kurval had anything to say about that.
Izgomir bowed. “And, Sire, did the goddess speak to you?”
“Indeed, she did,” Kurval said with a grim smile on his face, “And it was most illuminating.”
He stepped aside to reveal Stella who was holding the sobbing Elissa by the arm. At once, the lesser priestesses dropped to their knees and mumbled prayers.
Morelia paled and the triumphant look faded from her face.
“I did it for you, my Lady,” she snarled, slowly retreating backwards, “I did it to expand your worship and influence and to save the realm from this… this foreign barbarian.”
Stella took a step forward and then another, every inch the goddess.
“Liar,” she thundered, “You did it for yourself, because you wanted the throne, wanted the crown.”
In response, Morelia went deadly pale.
“Stupid woman. Did you really think he’d marry you? Cause he won’t. They never do.”
“No,” Morelia howled like a wounded animal.
Then she spun around and ran with remarkable speed, given her slinky gown. Without hesitation, Stella set off after her, gauzy skirt flying.
“Have the Blood Guards and the Ruthless Swords arrest Walbordo,” Kurval called to Izgomir, before going after the two women, sword in hand, “He’s in on this as well.”
“In on what?” Izgomir called after him, utterly confused.
“Treason, Izgomir, high treason.”
Morelia fled through a door at the back of the temple, Kurval and Stella hot in pursuit.
Behind the door, a staircase spiralled upwards and further upwards. Ahead of him, Kurval could hear Morelia’s light steps, followed by Stella’s equally light and his own heavier footsteps.
Up and up the staircase wound with neither branches nor any end in sight. This had to be one of the spires of the temple then. Good, cause that meant that Morelia was trapped and could not escape.
At last, after a seemingly endless number of steps, Kurval and Stella burst onto a small platform at the top of the spire. In the middle of the open platform, there was a swivelling telescope, allowing the priestesses to observe the moon and the stars.
Morelia was here, panting and dishevelled, her tiara askew and her slinky cloth of silver gown torn at the side.
“I will not hang,” she said, her eyes wide, like that of a wild beast at bay, “Nor will you torture a confession out of me, monster.”
She took a step back, until she bumped against the low railing that surrounded the platform.
Kurval spread his hands away from his body. “Morelia, I promise that you will not be tortured…”
He’d spare her the noose as well, if he could. Though he feared that he’d have to sentence her to death for her part in this plot.
“Liar,” the high priestess spat, backed against the railing, “I did what I had to, for the good of the realm.” Her eyes sought Stella’s. “You know this, my Lady. You know that I’m right.”
She took another step backwards, even though she had nowhere left to go.
“No,” Kurval cried, but it was too late.
Morelia tumbled over the railing with the scream of a damned soul, until she landed on the marble paving far below with a sickening crunch.
VI. Aftermath with Roasted Quail
“Walbordo had already fled for the border, when we reached his estate,” Lord Vangenard reported. He bowed, his golden curls tousled, plumed helmet in his hand. “I sent the men after him, of course, but Walbordo has a significant head start. Once he crosses the border, he’s beyond our reach.”
“The Ruthless Swords are in hot pursuit as well,” Tsabo reported, his gilded corselet gleaming in the firelight. They’ll be riding through the night, but Walbordo is too far ahead. Unlike the Blood Guards, we can cross the border, but it could still be seen as an act of war.”
Kurval nibbled on a leg of a roasted quail and leant back in an ebony chair in what had once been the private chambers of the late Morelia. For the moment, that was the best place to set up camp, while the Silver Sentinels combed the city for traitors and the Blood Guards and Ruthless Swords chased Walbordo to the border.
“A war with Gandersum is the last thing we need right now,” he said, “And even if Walbordo crosses the border, he can never return without risking death. So either way, we’re rid of him.”
“But how can we be sure that you…” Izgomir pointed at Vangenard with a leg of quail, “…did not warn Walbordo?”
Vangenard blushed furiously and ran a hand through his tousled curls. “And why should I warn Walbordo?”
“Because you were his man once,” Izgomir said, nibbling on a leg of quail, “Just as you were Orkol’s man before that.”
“I was never Orkol’s man,” Vangenard replied, his temper flaring, “All I ever wanted was for Azakoria to have a good and just ruler. And as far as I’m concerned, she does.”
“And we should trust you why exactly?” Izgomir asked, taking a sip of the late Morelia’s wine, “After all, you’re a traitor twice over. First, a traitor to Orkol and then a traitor to Walbordo.”
Vangenard’s hand reached for the hilt of his sword. “With all due respect, Izgomir, but…”
“Stop,” Kurval ordered in his best kingly voice, “I do not tolerate my people fighting each other and I shall certainly not tolerate any duels fought for any reason.”
Stella was sitting opposite Kurval, listening with to the conversation interest. She was nibbling on grapes and peaches from Morelia’s larder and her shapely legs were resting on the table in a quite ungoddesslike fashion.
“If I may…”
Kurval nodded and Stella continued.
“It seems this young man’s loyalty is in question, am I right?”
“Very much in question,” Izgomir said, shooting uneasy glances at Stella, clearly unsure what to make of her.
“Only because Izgomir, a man whose loyalty is as fickle as the affections of a tavern wench or a catamite, says so,” Vangenard replied hotly.
“Well, that question can be settled easily enough, if I were to read this young man’s mind.” Stella batted her lashes at Kurval. “Only with your permission, of course.”
“It’s Vangenard’s choice to make,” Kurval said and popped a grape into his mouth, “Not mine.”
“Well, then…” Stella turned to Vangenard. “…ready to prove that you’re not a traitor?”
Vangenard nodded firmly. “I have nothing to hide.”
“Oh, you probably do,” Stella said, “But don’t worry, I’m not telling, unless it’s pertinent to this case.”
She reached out and Vangenard flinched a little, as she laid her hand on his temple, fingers resting among his golden curls.
Then Vangenard’s expression went blank, as his eyes lost all focus. Stella closed her own eyes and a look of pain, grief and horror flickered across her face. If it was an act — and Kurval was not certain that it was — it was certainly convincing.
Kurval had no idea how long the moment lasted. It might have been the space of a few heartbeats, it might have been hours. But then Stella opened her eyes and abruptly withdrew her hand as if she’d been burned.
She turned to Vangenard, who slowly shook his head, as if awakening from a deep sleep. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” she said, reaching for his hand and squeezing it, “They shouldn’t have made you watch. That was cruel.”
Vangenard looked at her in shock. “You saw that? You saw everything?”
Stella nodded, an odd sadness flitting over her features. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. Though I think you can tell him.” She pointed at Kurval.
“Well, what is the verdict?” Izgomir interrupted, inpatient as ever, “Is he a traitor or is he not?”
Stella turned to him, a flicker of annoyance in her dark eyes. “Lord Vangenard stands loyal to the King, exactly as he says.”
“And the rest? There is more, isn’t there? You saw something in his mind.”
Stella nodded. “I did. But that’s not my story to tell. All you need to know is that he’s loyal.”
“But what about Orkol and Walbordo?” Izgomir wanted to know, “He was their man before.”
Stella leant towards him, eyes blazing. “Do you doubt the word of a goddess?”
It was Izgomir who looked away first. “No offence, my Lady. But it’s my duty to keep the King safe from traitors and spies.”
“Just as it was your duty to keep King Orkol safe?” Stella countered.
Kurval decided to intervene, before they could come to blows. Especially since he had no ideas what kind of blows Stella could deal.
“Enough. Vangenard says he’s loyal, Stella confirmed it and that’s good enough for me. And now, can we maybe focus on the real traitors here?”
“Of course, Sire.” Izgomir smoothly changed the subject. “It’s a pity that the treacherous priestess took her own life rather than face justice. However, I have ordered that her body be hung in chains as a warning to all traitors.”
Kurval took a sip of wine. “Izgomir, I will not condone displaying dead bodies in my city. It stinks and attracts vermin. Have the body of Morelia burned or buried or whatever the cult of Ashvarya demands.”
“As you wish, Sire,” Izgomir said, a hint of disappointment in his voice, “As for the girl, Elissa, she was taken to the dungeon to await trial and execution.”
Kurval slammed his hand down on the table, setting goblets, platters, roasted quails and fruits awobble.
“You will set the girl free,” he ordered, “She confessed and she also truly believed she was be doing the will of the goddess…”
“But, Sire…” Izgomir protested.
Across the table, Stella raised an eyebrow. Vangenard and Tsabo smiled.
“Elissa was deceived by the treacherous high priestess, as were we all. And naivety is not a crime worthy of death. See to it that she is set free and allowed to return to the temple if she wishes.”
Izgomir bowed, clearly disappointed. “As you wish, Sire.”
At this moment, a dark-haired young woman in the plain white garb of a temple acolyte entered the chamber and bowed deeply. In her hands, she bore a silver platter with flat square biscuits embossed with various figures.
“Sire, we baked these sacred biscuits in honour of your coronation, as the Lady Ashvarya demands.”
The girl moved to set down the platter on the table, but before she could, Izgomir intercepted her.
“And how are we to know that these are not poisoned?” he demanded.
The girl quivered. “But they… they are sacred to the goddess.”
Izgomir grabbed the girl by the arm.
“This entire temple is sacred to the goddess and yet your high priestess conspired against her king. How are we to know that the rest of you are not in league with Morelia?”
“I… I’m loyal, Sire, please.” The girl broke out in tears.
Kurval sighed. “Izgomir, let her go,” he ordered, “She’s bringing us biscuits. And since the wine, the quails, the stuffed peacock or the fruit did not turn out to be poisoned, I doubt very much doubt that the biscuits are.”
Stella got up, graceful as ever, and bent down for a closer look at the pastries.
“I’ll be damned, it’s speculaas,” she exclaimed full of wonder and snatched the platter away. She picked up a biscuit and popped it in her mouth.
Izgomir blanched. “My Lady, do you think that’s wise?”
“Oh, it’s not poisoned, just in case you were wondering,” Stella replied, still munching on the biscuit, “And they even got the spice mix right. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and pepper. Though the figures need some work. I mean…”
One by one, she held up the biscuits, so everybody could see the embossed figures.
“…a headless man, a king with a big sword, a bare-chested woman with really big boobs, a skeleton, some kind of demon, a phoenix, Cthulhu and…”
She squinted at a biscuit that was stamped with a misshapen blob with too many eyes.
“…is that a misprint or is that a Shoggoth?”
“The… the sacred biscuits show scenes from your life, my Lady,” the young priestess stammered.
“They do? Well, I guess you know best, but I certainly don’t recall fighting Cthulhu or a Shoggoth or chopping some guy’s head off.” Stella popped another biscuit into her mouth. “Anyway, my compliments to the baker. But you definitely need a windmill stamp. And an elephant. Those are my favourites, you know?”
The priestess nodded and backed out of the chamber, clearly glad to get away from Izgomir and a goddess who was critiquing the design of her biscuits.
Stella retreated to her seat, taking the platter with her. Izgomir turned to Kurval.
“Sire, I still think we should arrest and interrogate all of the priestesses and temple acolytes. Who knows how many more of them were in league with the traitress Morelia?”
Kurval decided that he had enough of this. Izgomir might be invaluable to the throne and the realm, but there was only so much of the man he could tolerate.
“Don’t you have something else to do?” Kurval said, “And Izgomir, you will not — I repeat not — arrest or interrogate any priestesses or indeed anybody without my order. And see to it that the girl Elissa is set free.”
Izgomir bowed. “As you wish, Sire.” He rose to fulfil his orders.
“I’d be careful about that one,” Stella remarked, once Izgomir was gone, “He’s rather bloodthirsty and likes torturing and executing people a little too much.”
She was munching on another biscuit.
“He is right, though. There probably are other traitors lurking about, waiting and biding their time. But I forget my manners.”
She held out the platter.
“Have some speculaas. They’re excellent.”
Kurval and — after some hesitation — Tsabo and Vangenard each took a biscuit. Kurval regarded his. It was square-shaped, brown and embossed with some kind of tentacled monstrosity. He took a bite, savouring the sweet and spicy taste. Stella was right. They were excellent.
Through it all, Tsabo had been uncharacteristically quiet. Now, however, he did turn to Kurval, his biscuit — embossed with a lion — uneaten in his hand.
“Captain — ahem — Sire, may I have a word? In — ahem — private.”
“Of course, old friend.” Kurval rose and clapped him on the shoulder. “And you know you don’t have to call me ‘Sire’. After all, you didn’t call me that when we were chained together to the bench of a slave galley either.”
There was a curtained doorway at the back of the room, so Kurval and Tsabo retreated there for some privacy. Stella, meanwhile, offered another of the sacred biscuit to Vangenard.
“So, you like poetry…?” she began.
VII. An Offer and a Blessing
Kurval swept the blue and silver embroidered curtains aside, only for him and Tsabo to find themselves in what had obviously been the late Morelia’s bedchamber. A divan piled with silken cushions stood at one end of the room, while a large bed with curtains of silvery gauze took up the other side of the chamber. Bottles of perfume and pots of various ointments stood ion a delicate table in front of a large mirror.
“So, what is it, old friend?”
Tsabo studied the intricate pattern of the rug on the floor, almost as if he did not want to look Kurval in the eye.
“About you offer to become commander of the Azakorian troops, it’s very generous, but…”
“…you’re declining,” Kurval completed with a sinking heart.
Tsabo nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“I know you’re weary of the mercenary life, but this would be different. I don’t aim to start a war, though of course Azakoria shall defend herself, if attacked. Still, there would be no more tents and camps. You and Sunilda could have a house in the city or a villa in the country…”
“It’s not that. It’s… Sunilda is with child.”
“But Tsabo, that’s wonderful news.”
Kurval hugged his friend. Because it was wonderful news.
The marriage between Tsabo and Sunilda had not exactly been voluntary, at least on Sunilda’s part who’d been given the choice between marriage and the gallows, that is no choice at all.
Tsabo adored his wife and Sunilda respected her husband, though she did not love him, at least not at first. But a child might change all that and bring them closer together.
Tsabo grinned, his ivory teeth stark against his dark face. “It is wonderful. It’s a blessing, a gift I hadn’t dared hope for.”
“But…” Kurval prompted.
“Sunilda wants to return to the north to have her mother by her side, when she has the child.”
“And of course you want to go with her.”
Tsabo nodded. “My place is by Sunilda’s side and our babe’s.”
“You could always return, you know? Once the baby is born and old enough to travel. My offer still stands and the armour is yours regardless.”
But Tsabo shook his head.
“I’ve been a warrior since I was barely more than a boy. But I’m weary of war, so maybe I should try what peace feels like. Sunilda’s father was a blacksmith, but his workshop has stood empty since he was hanged. I can take over his trade. And besides, I’ll be a father myself soon and I have to think of Sunilda and our child. War is for younger men and for bachelors.”
Kurval clasped Tsabo on the gilt-armoured shoulder.
“I understand, old friend. Much as I shall miss you in this den of vipers.”
“You could always resign and come with us to the north,” Tsabo suggested, only half jokingly.
“And leave the throne to Walbordo or some other backstabbing noble?” Now it was Kurval’s turn to shake his head. “No, Vangenard is right. Azakoria deserves a better king than what she had. I’m not sure yet if I will be that king, but I want to try.”
“Azakoria is lucky to have you,” Tsabo said, “About that woman, Stella, do you think that… that she’s the real thing?”
“I have no idea what she is…” Kurval admitted, “…and whether she’s a goddess or a cunning con woman. But I saw her appear out of thin air with my own eyes. And we both saw how she read Vangenard’s mind. Though a skilled con artist can fake that.”
“But if she were a con woman, wouldn’t she act a bit more like… well, like a goddess.”
Kurval laughed. “Who knows what goddesses are like? The only gods I’ve ever met were the Dark Gods that dwell on the Plains of Shadow and I doubt they were representative of godhood.”
“And a biscuit munching goddess is?”
“Well, I know which one I’d rather deal with.”
They found Stella in close conversation with Vangenard, who seemed to have relaxed by now, which was unusual, because Vangenard was normally tense and nervous around women. Kurval had never understood why. After all, Vangenard was young, handsome, a lord and a highly eligible bachelor. Surely, he had no lack of female company.
Yet somehow Stella had persuaded Vangenard to relax, which was testament to hr powers.
“Your friend was very talented, though I have to admit that I don’t quite understand all the political allusions in this ballad,” Stella said, still nibbling on a biscuit.
“I am certain you would have liked him,” Vangenard said gravely.
“I’m sure I would have. If nothing else, we could have talked poetry.”
She turned to Kurval and Tsabo, a dazzling smile on her face.
“Oh, you’re back. Vangenard here was just reciting some poetry written by a good friend of his.”
Vangenard liked poetry?
Tsabo took a step towards Stella and bowed, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
“My… my Lady, I know that I am not one of those who worships you…”
“That’s all right. I know there’s more than one god. If anything, there’s enough gods to fill an arena out there.”
“…but may I ask you for a favour?”
Stella turned to face him, lowering her legs to the floor.
“Of course. If it’s in my power to help you, I will.”
“My wife Sunilda… she’s with child…”
“And though I do not worship you, she does. She wears a silver pendant dedicated to you around her neck…”
Stella was still nibbling on her biscuit, listening intently. The jewel around her neck glowed.
“…and I was wondering if you would bless her and our child.”
“That’s all? Of course, I’ll bless and your wife and your baby.”
Stella raised a hand and sprinkled silvery dust from her fingertips onto Tsabo. It landed on his shaven head and gilded armour, glimmering in the candlelight.
“Consider yourselves blessed. And here…”
She grabbed some of the biscuits as well as some grapes, persimmons and pomegranates and piled them into a bowl.
“Give these to your wife. She’ll enjoy the speculaas and the fruit will do her good. And make sure that your wife doesn’t have raw milk or cheese and that she goes easy on the wine and the ale. Finally, when the time comes, get a midwife. Not a physician, a midwife. Cause birthing is women’s work.”
Tsabo bowed. “Thank you, my Lady.”
Stella smiled. “By the way, even if you wife did not always love you, I’m pretty sure she does now or she would have left and not told you about the baby. And now go to your wife and bring her the fruit and biscuits.”
“But the troops…”
Kurval clapped him on the back. “Go to Sunilda and give my regards to her. The troops will be fine. Chem will lead them well. After all, he’ll have to learn anyway.”
Once Tsabo had left, bearing a bowl of fruit and biscuit, Kurval turned to Stella. “What did you do to him? That silver dust…”
“Oh, that was just glitter. Gets everywhere, but is completely harmless.”
“And the blessing?”
“Your friend was clearly nervous about becoming a father and if a bit of glitter calms him down, so what?” Stella shrugged. “And the rest that I told him — about avoiding raw milk and cheese, wine and ale, and getting a midwife to assist the birth — that was actual useful advice that will help his wife have a healthy baby. Sure, things might still go wrong, but women have been having babies for thousands of years or we would all have died out a long time ago.”
“So you know about poetry and midwifery?” Vangenard asked.
Stella shrugged once more, her whole supple form rippling. “I know about lots of things. I can dance and sing and play the lute, too, though don’t tempt me or I will.”
“Ashvarya…” Vangenard pointed out, “…is the goddess of the moon, of poetry and music and dance as well as patron of midwives and birthing women.”
“Is she now?” Stella raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s convenient. Anyway…”
She rose to her feet, graceful as ever.
“…the speculaas were excellent and the wine, the roasted quails and fresh fruit were quite nice, though I’m not a fan of stuffed peacock, I’m afraid.”
She turned to Kurval with a smile and a sweeping bow.
“In spite of the circumstances, it was nice meeting you, Kurval, King of Azakoria, and Lord Vangenard, commander of the Blood Guards and connoisseur of poetry. But I have places to go and people to see. So if you would escort me back to the inner sanctum?”
Kurval rose as well and offered her his arm.
“So does this mean you can go back to… well, wherever you are from?”
Stella looked down at the jewel she wore around her neck. It was glowing brighter than before with a nigh magical fire.
“The Tear of Chronos is glowing, so…” She grinned. “…I guess I can.”
VIII. A Glimpse of the Future
Inside the inner sanctum of the temple, Stella positioned herself in front of the statue, examining it like one would look into a mirror.
“You know, the goddess really does look like me,” she remarked, “Down to the jewel and the ridiculous outfit.”
“Maybe you have been here before,” Kurval suggested.
Stella shook her head. “Not that I remember. But I may yet be. Time travel is complicated, you know.”
She turned to him. “But with all this excitement, you still did not get your prophecy.”
“That’s all right,” Kurval replied, “I wasn’t expecting to receive a vision anyway. After all…” He shrugged. “…I was never supposed to be king.”
“But the guy who thought he was supposed to be king is on the run for the border, so your throne is secure for now, Your Majesty.”
She settled down on the marble bench and removed the jewel from her neck.
“I can’t promise you that you will get a vision of the future,” she pointed out, “Like I said, the jewel is capricious. But it sent me here to help you, so I guess you’re meant to be king.”
She let the jewel dangle from her hand on its silver chain.
“And if you’re meant to be king, the Tear of Chronos might just give you a glimpse of the future. So why don’t we give it a try?”
Kurval set down on the bench and looked into the jewel, looked very intently.
The jewel the statue wore was clear shimmering glass, but this one was different. It was burning with magical fire in a billion different colours, half of them unknown to mankind. The colours flickered and swirled and gradually coalesced into images.
Kurval saw a hooded assassin and a dagger aimed at his heart. He saw dead bodies on the gallows, swaying in the wind. He saw battles, horses trampling, blades clashing, swords flashing. He saw the people cheering him, saw knights raise their swords and call out his name. He saw Izgomir and Vangenard and the High Council and a blonde young man he did not recognise. He saw himself fighting a knight in black armour, saw a torchlit execution chamber. He saw a woman with hair like living fire fighting by his side, cutting down monstrous things from beyond. He saw the same woman lying in his arms, in his bed, her fiery hair covering him like a blanket, as his heart burned with fierce love. He saw himself sitting on the obsidian throne, a little boy with curly hair bouncing on his knee, and was overcome with a feeling of overwhelming love.
A shadow fell onto the throne and Kurval saw the Dark Gods in the skies above the streets of Amalgonda. He heard their voices again, mocking him, taunting him and heard himself shouting into the wind in pure defiance.
“This is my land, my people. You can have me, but you can never have them…”
Abruptly, the vision vanished and Kurval was just staring at a diamond pendant again. A very large and very valuable diamond, to be sure, but still just a diamond.
“And…” Stella wanted to know, “…what did you see?”
Kurval shook his head to clear it.
“I saw battles and assassins, monsters and dark gods, executions and deaths…” he began, “…but also people cheering, calling out my name. I saw a woman, a beautiful woman. And I had a child, a little boy.”
“So you’ll have a queen and you’ll have a son,” Stella said, “That’s a good thing.”
“And what of the battles and the deaths and the Dark Gods?” Kurval asked.
“Well, you did not expect this to be easy, did you?” she countered, “Being a king rarely is.”
In a fluid motion, she put the jewel around her neck again and got to her feet.
“This was all quite fascinating, but it’s high time I went back to where I want to be, so farewell, Kurval, King of Azakoria. And though I may not really be a goddess, I’m sure you’ll be a good king.”
Her hands gripped the jewel at her breast. There was a blinding flash of light and she was gone and Kurval was alone in the inner sanctum once more.
“That woman… do you believe she really was the goddess?” Izgomir asked him later that night, as he reported that Walbordo had escaped over the border, beyond the reach of the king’s justice.
“I have no idea who or what she was,” Kurval admitted, “But she had magic and she did aid us and that’s good enough for me.”
Izgomir shot him a questioning look. “Sire, if I may inquire, what was the vision of the future that the oracle revealed to you?”
Kurval smiled. “The Tear of Chronos said that I’ll have a wife and a son and that I’ll be a good king.”
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.
Nominations for the 2023 Hugo Awards closed yesterday and the finalists are expected to be announced sometime in May.
Right now, no one except for possibly the Hugo administrators knows who those finalists will be. And yes, I deliberately posted this so shortly after the Hugo nominations closed that the e-mails won’t have gone out yet and no one know who the finalists are.
However, sometime in the next two weeks or so, some of you will receive an e-mail from the Chengdu Worldcon, informing you that you are a finalist for the 2023 Hugo Award and asking you whether you want to accept the nomination. Some of you will have received such e-mails before, for others it will be the first time.
But whether it’s your first or your twentieth nomination, congratulations! That’s awesome.
The e-mail may not look like you think it will. When I got the e-mail from CoNZealand in 2020, the subject line was “CoNZealand Hugo Awards Confidential”. I was exhausted that day and waiting for two important e-mails, so I scanned right past that subject line, because I assumed it was the convention newsletter. I only opened the mail, because none of the two important e-mails had come yet, so I thought I might as well check out the CoNZealand e-mail while I was waiting. Good thing that I did.
If you receive an e-mail from the Chengdu Worldcon, please reply as soon as you can whether you accept the nomination or not. If there are questions with regard to eligibility, answer them as soon as possible. The Hugo administrator and their team work very hard, so don’t make their job any harder than it has to be.
The Chengdu team will also ask you to keep quiet about your nomination until the official announcement. Please don’t violate this, because you don’t want to steal Chengdu’s thunder!
The period between the time when the finalists are notified and when the Hugo finalists are officially announced can be weird, because while you know that you’re a finalist, almost nobody else does. I blogged a bit about my experiences in 2020 here. Basically, I kept having the niggling fear that there had been some terrible mistake and that I wasn’t a finalist after all or that I only was a finalist because all twenty people who would have been ahead of me had withdrawn. From talking to other first time finalists, I learned that I wasn’t alone in this. And while I can’t guarantee that terrible mistakes won’t happen, the chance that the wrong person is notified about being a Hugo finalist is extremely small. So relax. You really are a Hugo finalist, even if nobody else knows it yet.
Do something nice for yourself to celebrate. Have an ice cream, a nice box of chocolates, a glass of champagne, a good beer, a bubble bath, whatever it is that makes you happy. You’re a Hugo finalist, so you damn well deserve to celebrate in private.
You can tell a few people you trust about your nomination as long as you know they won’t blab it all over the internet. Before the official announcement, a handful of people knew I was a Hugo finalist. These include my parents (whose reaction was, “That’s nice,” before turning back to watch a rerun of Midsomer Murders), some folks from Galactic Journey and others in the SFF community, who knew not to say anything before the official announcement, as well as my accountant (because I asked her if buying an evening gown for the Hugo ceremony was tax-deductible – it’s not BTW) and the guy who repaired my patio, because he just happened to be there, when I got the e-mail. Neither the accountant nor the patio guy are SFF fans, so chances of a leak were zero. They both also probably thought I was quite mad.
If you are nominated in a fiction category – i.e. short story, novelette, novella, novel, Series, Lodestar or Astounding – or nominated for a non-fiction book or essay in Best Related Work, you should let your editor and/or publisher know that you’re a finalist. They work in the industry and therefore know not to say anything and they may want to prepare some kind of congratulatory tweet, post or other promotion effort. Finally, editors are also thrilled when one of their authors is nominated.
One thing I did not do is tell people about my nomination who might be up in the same category. Because I didn’t know who else was nominated (you don’t before the official announcement) and didn’t want anybody to feel disappointed, because I was a finalist and they were not.
Even if you can’t publicly talk about your Hugo nomination just yet, there are still a few things you can do in the meantime. For example, you can update your bio to mention that you’re a Hugo finalist or write a bio, if you don’t have one yet. Important: Don’t upload your updated bio anywhere until the official announcement has been made! In fact, I spent a chunk of the evening after the Hugo finalists had been announced updating my bio everywhere it appears.
In fact – and this is important – don’t upload anything that mentions your Hugo nomination anywhere on the internet, until the official announcement has been made. Even if you set a Tweet or blogpost to go live after the announcement has been made, don’t upload it yet. Because mistakes happen, you accidentally hit “publish” rather than “schedule” or a post goes live too early. I had my celebratory blogpost ready to go in Word, but I only uploaded it with links and a few comments added once the announcement had been made.
Another thing you can do in the meantime is prepare a media kit, if you haven’t got one already. You can see mine here and there are also plenty of pages around the web that tell you what a media kit is supposed to contain. Important: Get permission to use any photos that you did not take yourself.
Another thing you can do is write a press release about your Hugo nomination. It doesn’t matter which category you’re nominated in, whether it’s Best Novel or a fan category. Write a press release anyway. There are plenty of places around the web which tell you how to write a press release. It varies from country to country, so make sure you get the correct format for your country. My press releases from 2020, 2o21 and 2022 (in German) are here. Then make a list of the contact info for the relevant newspapers, radio stations and other media outlets in your region or country. Once the nominations have been announced, send your press release as well as the link to your media kit to those media outlets. The press release linked above netted me two in-depth profiles and a bonus article in two different newspapers in 2020 and two more in-depth profiles in 2021 as well as an article and an interview in 2022, which is much more than I’d hoped for.
Consider whether you want to attend Worldcon and the ceremony. And yes, I know it’s difficult, because of covid and because conditions and restrictions are very different in different parts of the world. For Chengdu, high travel costs and difficulties getting a visa may also be a problem for many. Nonetheless, get a Worldcon membership, if you haven’t got one already. Like most recent Worldcons, Chengdu offers a reduced rate for people attending their first ever Worldcon. You can also start looking for flights, hotels, etc…. If you need to apply for a visa, do so now. If money is an issue, as it’s for many of us, think about crowdfunding your Worldcon trip, as several finalists have done in recent years. However, don’t start your crowdfunding campaign, until after the finalists have been announced.
If you want to participate in programming, contact Chengdu, since I can’t find a program participation form on their website. Do this as early as possible, so the programming team doesn’t have to find suitable programming for you at the last minute.
Finally, start thinking about the Hugo voter packet. If you need to get permission to include certain texts or images, contact the relevant people.
Finally, here are a few observations regarding what happens after the Hugo finalists are announced:
A lot of people will congratulate you. These will be people you expect – friends, peers, etc… – but also people you don’t expect. After the newspaper articles mentioned above came out, I suddenly got congratulations from translation customers, various relatives, neighbours, former classmates, my plumber and my Dad’s diabetes doctor among others. Enjoy the experience, thank everybody and don’t forget to congratulate your fellow finalists.
Some people will also not congratulate you and again, some of these will be people you don’t expect. There are several reasons why someone might not congratulate you and most of them are not malicious. For example, some people might simply not have seen the news yet. Or they may not understand the significance, since not everybody is plugged into the SFF community and knows how important the Hugos are. Of course, there will also be a few people who think that you don’t deserve your nomination. Ignore them!
Your fellow Hugo finalists are not your rivals, they are your peers. You’ll probably know some of them already and if not, you’ll quickly get to know them. And yes, only one of you will get to take home the rocket in the end, but all six of you are amazing and in a way, you’re all winners. This also applies across categories. I met a lot of great people in the SFF community and even made new friends, just because we were on the Hugo ballot in the same year.
In general, there is a sense of community to siblinghood among Hugo finalists. Whether you’re a bestselling author or a first-time finalist in a fan category, you’re all in this together. There is usually a private group for Hugo finalists to chat, ask questions, share gripes, post photos of Hugo gowns, tiaras and pets, etc…
If you’re not part of the Worldcon SFF community and don’t know anybody else on the ballot, don’t worry! You’ll get to know the others soon enough and pretty much everybody in this community is lovely and very welcoming. If you’re a repeat finalist, reach out to the first-timers to make them welcome. This year, we will likely see at least some Chinese finalists, so please try to reach out to them as well.
As a Hugo finalist, you will get plenty of e-mails from Chengdu about anything from the Hugo voter packet via the program book to the ceremony itself. Pay attention to those e-mails, send any information requested in time and check your spam folder. You don’t accidentally want to miss something important.
Once the Hugo finalists have been announced, there will be people who have opinions about the ballot. Most will be positive or at least fair – I always try to be fair in my own Hugo and Nebula finalist commentaries, even if I don’t care for some of the finalists – but some will be not. There are always people who think that your category or the entire ballot is too male, not male enough, too white, not white enough, too queer, not queer enough, too American, not American enough, too bestselling, not bestselling enough – you get the idea. There will be people who complain that only people no one knows got nominated or that only the usual suspects got nominated – and multiple bestsellers and Hugo winners can be “people no one knows”, while first or second time finalists can be “the usual suspects”. Some of these people won’t even wait 24 hours after the Hugo finalists have been announced to air their opinions – at least they didn’t in 2021. Some will even tag you, just to make sure you don’t miss their very important opinions. The best thing to do is ignore those people.
A handful of people seem to have made it their life’s mission to mock and harass Hugo finalists. Ignore them and block them on social media and don’t let them get you down. Most of them are just jealous.
There will be drama. So far, I’ve never seen a Worldcon that did not have at least some degree of drama and I have been a Worldcon member since 2014. Often, this drama affects the Hugo finalists in some way. Sometimes, the Hugo finalists even band together and try to resolve this drama. How you engages with whatever this year’s drama will be is up to you. However, don’t let it get you down. Drama is normal. At this point, I would be more surprised at a Worldcon without drama than at one which has some degree of drama. And usually, everybody winds up having a great time anyway.
So what happens, if you win?
Basically more of the same. Lots of people will congratulate you, most of them with genuine enthusiasm, a few very grudgingly (one in my case, not a fellow finalist) and some not at all.
Make sure to have your acceptance speech ready before the ceremony with the names of all the people you want to thank. Check with people how their names are pronounced, if you aren’t sure. Always have a printed paper copy of your speech, because phones can and do break down, run out of juice, fail to have reception or get overloaded with messages at the crucial moment.
After you win a Hugo, you should prepare another press release and send it to all the local, regional and national media you can think of. I actually wrote mine at six AM in the morning after the winners had been announced.
Don’t forget to update your bio wherever it appears. That includes anthologies or magazines where you’ve been accepted, but which aren’t out yet.
Your “market value” (for lack of a better word) does go up with your first nomination, goes up even further with your second and even more, if you win. For example, I got a story acceptance in the mail literally the day after I won. Of course, the story might have been accepted anyway, but the timing was still interesting. I also gained a bunch of new Twitter followers with every nomination and winning a Hugo pushed me over the 3000 follower mark for the first time. You’ll also notice that your name will start to show up on covers of anthologies or magazines, sometimes with “Hugo winner” attached. However, you’ll still get rejections as well, because even Hugo winners get rejected and that’s perfectly normal.
You’ll also find that you have acquired more clout in the SFF community, something which also happens once you get nominated. Use what influence you have in the SFF community for good, to uplift and support others.
One thing I noticed is that I would sometimes find myself thinking, “Wait a minute, I have a Hugo and [insert name of vastly more important genre person here] doesn’t? How on Earth did that happen?”
That said, certain people will still call you a nobody who barely sells any books or a fake fan or whatever. This literally happened to me approx. a month after I won the Hugo, when I got into an argument about a TV show with the adherents of one of those “We hate everything” outrage clickbait YouTube channels. I pointed out that I really enjoyed the object of their rage du jour and so did many others and was called “not a real fan” in response. When I said, “Dude, I’m the 2022 Hugo winner for Best Fan Writer”, I was told that awards didn’t matter, that I was clearly not a real fan, because I didn’t hate the thing. Best just ignore those people and privately think, “Guess who has a shiny rocket? Hint, it’s not you.”
Finally – and this is the most important point – enjoy your experience! You’re a Hugo finalist, i.e. your peers consider you and your work one of the six best in your respective category. That’s amazing, so celebrate!
If anybody wants to translate this into Chinese for the benefit of Chinese Hugo finalists, please feel free to do so.