I was sitting in a tavern at a corner table, a pot of tea at my elbow, writing up my notes from my interview with the new royal family of Sehm. No one there knew who I was, or so I had assumed, but someone, somewhere, knew me, and knew where I was, because the young man didn’t even hesitate at the door. I was watching it when he came in, not that I was looking for anyone, I just happened to be looking in that direction, gathering my thoughts, when it opened. I noticed him immediately, and not just because he didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the room before moving towards me. No, what I noticed was the smoothness of his walk, almost as though he was gliding over the floor. It was a poorly copied and over-exaggerated version of Reaper’s walk. On him it looked entirely natural, and not as though he were doing anything special, on the kid, it came off as an arrogant demand for attention, like a gun-slinger flinging back his jacket to clear the butt of his gun.
That was the second thing that caught my eye. The first was his clothing. It wasn’t a uniform, but it was certainly worth a lot more than anyone else’s in that tavern, and was stain-free, which none of ours were.
The young man stopped at my table and I blinked up at him in surprise. “Can I help you?”
“My master requests your presence.”
“That’s nice. Remind me, who is your master again?”
“There is no need for reminders, Writer, as I have not yet said his name.”
“I know. My memory might be a bit wonky, but it’s not that bad.”
He looked confused. “Wonky?”
He frowned. “Iffy?”
“Not as good as it once was, or as I might wish it to be.”
“Ah.” The frown didn’t fade. “Then why didn’t you just say that?”
“Because I’m an action adventure writer, and we like to use simple words instead of masses of expository sentences.”
“Writer, nothing you say is simple.”
I smiled, then winked. He seemed to take that the wrong way because he reared back and his hand went to his hip where, from the marks on his belt, it was obvious a sword usually hung. “Look, kid, I’m not coming on to you. I’m just not from around here.”
“Obviously, or you would know who my master is.”
“Kid, frankly, I’m starting to wonder if I should even care who your master is. Stop being all secretive and just tell me before—.” I stopped myself before uttering the stupid threat.
“What? Before you what, Writer?” There was a challenge in his voice, but it wasn’t that that irritated me, it was the sneer on his face. I’ve seen that too many times before on the faces of too many people.
I gave him a nasty smile. “Before I use my delete key and erase you from existence.”
His frown deepened and he looked me over as though searching for a weapon. “What is this delicate key you speak of, and what does ‘erase’ mean?”
I sighed and my shoulders slumped a bit. It’s always a let down when you have to explain the joke to people. “It’s the delete key,” I said, carefully enunciating it. “And I’d use it to go back in the story to the point where you came in, removing everything you did, and rewrite the whole section so that someone more pleasant takes your place.” I looked him over. “A comely woman perhaps, in a low-cut blouse, with loose morals and a liking for overly-large men.”
“You can do that?”
I shrugged. “Sure. I’m the Writer.” I smiled as a thought struck me. “Tell you what, I could turn you into a woman with loose—.”
“You will not!”
“Then answer the damned question!” I was getting irritated, more irritated. I’d had a rough day.
He glanced around then leaned close.
I stood up before he could speak. “Thanks, kid.”
“But I haven’t said anything…”
“You don’t need to say it. I’m the Writer. I know what you’re going to say before you say it.”
“But if you already knew, why did I need to say it?”
“Because I can only read it in your head as you’re about to say it. I’m a Writer, not a puppeteer.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it kid. It’s nothing personal.”
“Then why threaten me?”
“Sometimes we’re just working through personal issues and you lot get caught in the middle.” I smiled. “Just be thankful I’m only irritated and not dealing with some pent-up rage or you’d be fighting giant lizards or something, and probably getting your ass whipped.”
“Why would my ass be whipped? It has done nothing to warrant a whipping.”
I sighed and walked out. Sometimes its fun talking to the people in my head, sometimes it’s just disturbing. Hopefully King Xantin would have a better tale to tell than his page-boy.
<$img:RH Scene Break;h=45>
Xantin was in a much nicer version of the tavern I’d just left. It was a real up-scale type of place with real glass beer mugs instead of pottery or cheap tin. It had something other than rancid vinegar to put in the crystal wine glasses too. Xantin’s drink looked like copper-coloured maple syrup and probably cost a week’s wages for a labourer, so he wasn’t living like an ascetic all the time. The room was fairly empty, with just a few richly dressed fellows settled into the large armchairs scattered about the richly carpeted floor. I recognised all of them as guards I’d seen about the palace that morning.
“It seems you’re paying the price for those perks you enjoy,” I said, taking the seat near him.
“The guards. You’re worried about someone trying to assassinate you.” I smiled at the maid who came to take my order. If her uniform were any tighter, something might have popped free. “Or are they all here for me?”
“For you? Why would they be here for you?”
“You wouldn’t be the first person to want to apply pressure to ensure they get a better sequel.”
“Only I don’t think it’s in the cards for you. You get to make your own story from here. I’ve no intention of interfering in it.” The maid brought my glass and I sniffed it appreciatively. A 1995 port from a small winery in the Barossa Valley. I sipped, enjoying the mellow flavour as it spread across my tongue. I hadn’t tasted anything so good in years.
“You look like you’re enjoying that.”
“Is that why you come here? To drink wine you can’t buy at home? To fornicate with the only women who’ll have you?”
“No.” I smiled. “Those are just the fringe benefits.”
“Then why do you come?”
“For the stories.” I took another sip and sighed. “And I know you’ve got one for me.”
“What did you do to the page-boy I sent?”
I gave him my surprised face. “Nothing. As far as I know, he’s on his way back to the palace, or to his girlfriend’s house to get laid.” I shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”
“Do you talk to Hawk this way?”
I smiled. “Why don’t you tell me about Galentin. Your cousin, not your son.”
His face paled when I mentioned his son. “Leave your pen off him!”
I sighed. This was getting boring. Who knew that being the villain would inspire so much trite dialogue?
Time to rewrite.
<$img:RH Scene Break;h=45>
I walked into the tavern to find it bustling and loud. There were musicians playing on a small stage and people were dancing and looking merry. I glanced around and saw the maid. Her clothes were a lot more appropriate this time. I grabbed her sleeve as she moved past and shouted my order. She nodded, smiled, and then gestured into the corner farthest from the musicians. I walked over and found Xantin sitting at a table with his son, playing a game of chess, leastways, it looked enough like chess that I didn’t bother thinking up a new name for it. Chess is chess no matter where it’s played. They both had almost untouched beers close to hand. I sat down between them.
“I got your message.”
Xantin nodded. “Writer. Thanks for coming.”
“I take it you didn’t want Ysmelda to hear this?”
He shrugged and moved a piece that looked like a gnome and played like a pawn. “She doesn’t like it when I talk about Galentin. She says it makes me morose.”
Galentin moved a trog-castle so it threatened Xantin’s queen.
“And does it?” I asked.
Xantin shrugged. “Sometimes.” He looked up. “I figure it might help if I tell you the story. This purging thing has to go both ways right?”
It was my turn to shrug. “I don’t know. It might do.”
Xantin turned back to the board, studied it for a moment, then looked up at Galentin with a smile. “You’ve been playing with your mother too much.” He shook his head and chuckled. “She always was a better strategist than me.” He tipped over his king, conceding defeat. “And now she’s made you better too.” He held out his hand and Galentin took it.
My drink came while they were packing away the pieces and I waited patiently for them to finish. When they were done Xantin sat back, cleared his throat, and with a glance at his son, began to talk.
“My cousin was a wonderful man, loyal, honest, brave. I loved him dearly.”
He took a sip of beer and when he didn’t look to be saying anything more, I urged him on.
Xantin sighed. “He wasn’t…” He sighed again. “He was rash. Impulsive. And I never knew a man quicker to take insult at the smallest thing. He was a womaniser.” He sipped again. “He seemed to be on a mission to tup every gently-bred woman between the age of fifteen and fifty in the kingdom, and succeeded with far too many of them.
“Sounds like quite the charmer,” I said. “You know the womanising didn’t stop, right? After he left Karvek, I mean. Reaper thought he’d been touched by Varsheena.”
Xantin’s only reaction was a shrug. “It wasn’t the womanising that was the problem. He never forced himself on anyone. The Guild probably could have ignored him until someone managed to kill him if all he’d been doing was womanising and getting into duels. Every duel over a woman’s honour just did more damage to our cause. No one wants a king they can’t trust their women around. No, it wasn’t the womanising that brought the Guild’s ire on him, it was the constant challenges to their authority that forced them to act.” He took a sip of beer.
“He was a hero, though, so they couldn’t attack him directly, right?”
Xantin nodded. “He’d fought and killed a number of dangerous bandit chiefs and someone had turned the tales into songs. His exploits against the bandits and in the bedrooms of all the noble women made him popular amongst the common folk who didn’t have to worry about him stealing their wives or daughters. He was popular enough that there would have been riots if the Guild had tried to execute him, so they exiled him instead.” He took another drink.
I waited for him to go on. He didn’t. “That’s… not a particularly good story.”
“Not all tales have happy endings.”
“I know. And I know that you know that that’s not what I meant.”
Galentin was frowning at me. “What gives you the right to question the quality of my father’s story?”
I shrugged. “All writers are critics. It’s what helps us become better story tellers.”
Xantin put a hand on his arm.
“You know, I’m starting to feel like there’s a theme to this,” I said, sitting back and glancing between them while twisting my wine glass on the table. “It’s like you want me to be the villain.”
Neither of them said anything.
“Do you want me to be the villain?” I was actually curious.
“You are an abomination!” said Galentin.
Xantin squeezed his arm in warning. “Yes! No one should have the power you have!”
“Oh?” I studied his face and was able to read it all there. He was a very honest young man. “So you blame me for the fall of Karvek? You are upset perhaps that, instead of living in constant apprehension of being assassinated by servants of your own government, you now live as an honoured prince in a city where your father provides the best leadership and governance it has had for three thousand years? You believe that all of this is somehow my doing?”
He glared at me.
“And believing that I have this power, the power to set up thousands of years of history, the lives of countless tens of thousands of people so that events would play out the way I want, you don’t think it’s at all foolish to confront me with your fears?”
“I’m not afraid to die!”
I chuckled, then laughed. It was all too ridiculous. I’d just now understood how their expectations of me as the villain had been shaping the narrative, not just their own, but mine too.
Galentin glared at me until I brought my laughter under control.
“Laddie,” I said at last, “if I’m as bad as you think, then death is the least of your worries.” I wiped a tear from my eye and chuckled again. “You should be glad I’m not a horror writer.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Laddie, I like you. I like your dad. He’s a good man. You should hope to be as good as him one day.”
Galentin looked to his father for guidance or support, but he had neither to give him.
“It’s hard, Writer,” said Xantin quietly. “It’s hard to bear this knowledge that we are but bit players in someone else’s story. That nothing we do matters.”
“There are no ‘bit players’, Xantin. Everyone is the hero of their own story.”
“Even when that story is never told?”
“Just because the tale doesn’t appear on the page doesn’t mean that it doesn’t impact the story that does. Your life is what you make of it.”
Xantin shook his head. “Still… there are some things that man was never meant to know.”
I studied his face, saw the sadness there, the weight of knowledge, and nodded. “So be it.” I finished my wine and stood. “Thank you for the tale, Xantin, and you for your honesty, Galentin.” I gently took back control of the story and shed the villain aspect. It wasn’t one I’d enjoyed playing. “May you both live long and prosper.” Then I walked away.
“Who was that man?” I heard Galentin say.
“I don’t know, but he looks familiar,” said Xantin.
“What do you think he meant?”
“I don’t know. Shall we play?”
Galentin laughed. “Are you sure you’re ready for me to defeat you again?”
I glanced back from the door. They were both sitting straighter and smiling, feeling happier than they had in a long time now that the weight and sorrow of the knowledge of their place in the universe had been removed from them. I sighed and went back to my cheap tavern. I still had notes to write up.