This is an interview I did with Venom some time after writing Battle Pits… I mean, Gladiator. The publisher re-titled it. I left the first part in because, though it’s not really about Venom, it does indicate the sort of situation I was in when I did the interview. Also, some people complained about the sparsity of the description in Ba… Gladiator. So here’s a description of the town where I met Venom, written by me while I was… let’s say, a little the worse for drink. Enjoy.
Strikes-with-Venom hasn’t shown up yet and I’m bored. I’m also soused. I’m sitting in a stinking little tavern in a smelly little town in what can only be called, by an immense effort of imagination, the last civilised country on the western edge of the D’nuran Empire. A couple of days west of here lies the escarpment which marks the actual border, but there’s nothing between here and there but empty rolling hills occupied only by the occasional shepherd. Beyond the escarpment lies the High Plains, barbarian country. The land of the Marauding Tribes. Venom’s people.
Given the history between the Plainsfolk and the Empire, you’d expect there to be a strong Imperial presence along the border. You’d be forgiven for thinking there was a chain of fortifications of impressive size and strength here. No one would laugh at you for believing that the border was garrisoned by highly trained legionnaires who are constantly patrolling. The lack of laughs wouldn’t change the fact that you’d be wrong.
At the minimum, you’d expect the Gorynthians, whose country this is supposed to be, to have some sort of armed presence here. You’d think there would be a series of small forts or watch-posts, something or someone capable of passing the news of an invasion to a garrison somewhere, so that someone who might be able to do something about it could take appropriate measures. Wrong again.
This is the only town for perhaps a week’s travel in any direction. It is occupied by farmers and shepherds and one or two merchants. There’s a militia unit here, but there’s only six of them and they’re locals, for which read, ‘badly armed, inadequately trained, useful only in quelling the occasional drunk’. The only real fortification the town has is the all-pervasive stench of shit, rotting meat, and wet sheep that greets you at least an hour outside the gates. Only the strong of stomach, or weak of nose, can get within hailing distance of the gate.
True, there’s a rough-hewn log palisade running around the town, but I doubt it would even stop a sheep. One sneeze, and down it would come. Stupid as sheep are, I doubt that any of them want to get inside. The only use the palisade seems to have, as far as I can see, is to keep the shit on the streets from washing out and fertilising the fields.
The houses are all wattle-and-daub with stained walls and thatched roofs. They’re all packed so tightly together that you can walk across the town, from the palisade on one side to the palisade on the other side, without once having to set foot in a street, which you should. The streets are narrow, winding, and unpaved, meaning muddy ruts between the houses that turn into canals whenever it rains. Canals might be too nice a word. It is too nice a word. Canals makes it sound like someplace romanic with gondolas and singing and nice food, and it isn’t any of those things. When it rains, the streets flood. When they don’t flood, they’re open sewers. So when they do flood, they’re flooded sewers. Rivers of shit that swirl about inside the palisade, like a flush toilet, except that, when the water subsides, all the ‘night-soil’ has just been… distributed more evenly.
I’ve always thought that was a peculiar euphemism. Night-soil. It sounds almost romantic, as though it’s a magical dirt that springs up like mushrooms in the night rather than being the smelly excrescence of people too stupid to put their shit to some beneficial purpose, like fertilising fields, or growing mushrooms.
As you can probably tell, I’ve been in this town, village, hamlet, pimple on the butt of the world, for rather long than I wanted to be. Of course, even one hour is too long to spend in a place like this. I’ve been here for days. The only thing to do here is indulge in the dubious pleasure of imbibing large quantities of the local brew, a harsh liquor made from steeping the hides of diseased sheep in the runoff from the streets. That’s what it tastes like. Of course, everything tastes like that. It’s the miasma that hangs over the place. I told you it was pervasive.
The bar-keep suggested that I partake of the local haute cuisine, slabs of greasy, over-salted, half-raw mutton served on trenchers of burnt bread. He told me it was well-hung, which, I presume, means that he hung it out of the reach of the dogs until it was so rotten even they turned their noses up at it. Not wanting to die of food poisoning, I turned him down. I requested plain, fresh bread instead. He looked at me as though I was insane. Given that he seems to think the word ‘fresh’ means anything without mould on it, I’m beginning to think he was right.
Fuck! Venom just arrived. Who in their right mind comes to an interview with Strikes-With-Venom drunk out of their gourd? Me. Obviously. Shit!
She looks just as I imagined her from Reaper’s description, tall, whip thin, with icy eyes. She has the kind of intensity that brings instant silence to a tavern. I know, because the whole tavern fell silent the moment she walked in. Even the slobbering drunk in the corner gave a belching hiccough and stopped snoring. Her eyes took us all in with one glance then returned to me. Her only sign of recognition was a slight narrowing of the eyes before she gestured the squint-eyed tavern-keeper to approach. He scurried to her side, whole body bent in an obsequious bow. She spoke and he nodded so vigorously I thought he might detach his head with the effort of agreeing with her. He left to fill her order and she strode over to my table. She slid, almost soundlessly, into the chair beside mine, every movement as graceful as a cat.
“You’re the writer.”
It wasn’t really a question but I nodded anyway.
“You have questions for me.”
I nodded again and tried to speak but my voice came out a husky rasp and I coughed to try and clear the fear out of it. “Yes.”
“Ah…” I raised my glass and she raised her eyebrow. I took a small sip and put it back on the table. The eyebrow stayed raised. “You had a good journey?”
“That’s your question?”
“No.” I swallowed dryly and glanced longingly at my drink. “I just thought… well… things might go smoother if we…”
“What? Became friends first? That isn’t likely to happen.”
Her disdainful tone set my teeth on edge and I was drunk enough to speak without over thinking it. “Why not?”
She gave me a cold smile. “I don’t befriend random drunks.”
“I’m not a drunk! I’m—”
“But you are drunk,” she said before I could finish.
“I’ve been waiting here for three days! There’s nothing else to do in this sty but drink!”
“You could write.” Her voice was quiet but still cut through my rant like a damascene blade through flesh.
“I did. I spent all morning describing this dump.”
“That’s not writing.”
I stared at her then slowly slumped back into my chair. “Every time I try to write, all I can come up with are horrible stories about Hawk destroying cities and slaughtering innocents.”
She snorted. “It’s not like he hasn’t done that.”
“I know. But… I really don’t want to think about that side of him. He’s supposed to be the hero, not the villain, and no one wants to cheer on someone callous enough to drop an entire city into a chasm just because a few of its citizens were responsible for someone’s death.”
She pursed her lips and stared at me with measuring eyes. Then the tavern-keeper came over with a teapot that was giving off a faintly floral aroma. He put two small earthenware cups on the table and, with another bow, left.
“The cure for what ails you.”
I glanced up at her quickly, but she was watching her hands as she poured the steaming liquid into the cups.
“If you knew that, why did you ask what it was?”
“Because I wasn’t sure what it was, and I still don’t know what sort of tea it is.”
“It’s a tisane of willowbark, camomile, elderflower, and a few other things.” She pushed one of the cups towards me. “Drink.”
I picked it up and sniffed at it. It smelled wonderful, better than any tea I’d smelled before. I blew on it to cool it a bit, then took a sip. At first, I couldn’t taste much of anything and I was disappointed, then the flavour hit. Have you ever seen cancan girls dancing? The flavour was like that, on my tongue, in my nose, behind my eyes, and all the way down my throat. It soothed the roiling in my stomach, eased the cramp in my chest, and lubricated the frog out of my throat. I closed my eyes in bliss and the next thing I knew, my cup was empty and I was reaching for more.
“You have questions,” she said, ignoring my hand and the pot which was very much on her side of the table.
I looked at my hand, then at her. “Yes.”
“Do you want to ask them?”
“Yes, I do. I will.” My head began to clear and I took back my arm. “So, you were in D’vo with Reaper that time…”
“How did you get there? I mean, how did you end up a slave in the Imperial household? The way Reaper told it, you had a grudge against… ah, Fateem’s captain.”
“That was his name?”
“I separated from Hawk before he came here—.”
She smiled and a little warmth entered her eyes. “You didn’t know? This was the town where Fateem captured him, the very tavern.”
“And that’s the same tavern-keeper?”
She shook her head. “His son. Hawk had a discussion with his father about the wisdom of drugging a Plainsman.”
“Discussion?” I glanced towards the son who was keeping at least one eye on us at all times and looked about ready to faint when I glanced his way. “I take it he didn’t survive the conversation.”
“Oh he survived.” Venom chuckled. “He just wished he hadn’t.”
I swallowed and quickly looked away from the tavern-keeper, ashamed by my curiosity.
“I met Kalb later, in D’nur. I needed a way into the city and Fateem provided it.”
“So what did Kalb do to arouse your ire?”
“He questioned my honour at a time when I was unable to correct his presumption without betraying myself.”
I frowned at that but took the hint the coldness of her tone provided and didn’t press the point. “So you ended up in the Imperial household.”
She nodded. “I was young, beautiful, exotic. The Imperial buyers knew what the fatman liked.” Her face twisted into something that might have been either a grimace or a smile. “The fatman took to me right away.”
Her tone didn’t encourage any further questions on that topic so I wrested my mind away from the image of a young Venom wrapped in the embrace of a corpulent, old D’nuran. “How long were you in D’vo?”
“I arrived a week or two after Hawk, while he was still recovering from his execution bout.”
“You knew where he was?”
She nodded. “Mikke kept us in contact.”
“Mikke? The boy Reaper….”
“Rescued from rape. Yes.”
“So he was the source of all Reaper’s information.”
“Not all of it. Fateem trusted no one, especially not a slave, not with any information that mattered. Mikke proved more helpful as a courier and a go-between than as a source.”
“So who was his source?”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
I guess she found my incredulity insulting because her face went cold and hard. “I mean that you will have to ask Hawk that question if you want an answer to it.”
I bowed and apologised. When Venom gives you the icy-eye, you can’t help but do whatever it takes to get her to take it off you again. “Why did you go to D’nur? Reaper says he went for the name and to find his missing friends—”
“Which he didn’t do.”
“Didn’t you read your own book?”
“He says that Arje arranged for them to be kidnapped and enslaved in order to bring the wrath of the clans down on D’vo.”
“He never says that, he only implies it.”
“Then what did Fateem tell you? What did you get from his magic chest?”
She stared at me, face almost entirely devoid of emotional cues. “You mean you really don’t know?”
I nodded. “He never said.”
“You’re supposed to read between the lines.” She looked away. “No wonder he stopped talking to you.”
“He’s stopped… I thought he was just busy!”
She snorted. “Then you’re a fool. It’s considered bad form to kill someone who’s written about you—”
“He wants to kill me?”
“If he wanted to kill you—”
“I’d be dead.” I dropped my head into my hands. There was a long silence while she waited for me to pull myself together. When I finally looked up, she was gazing off towards the door and I glanced that way to see what she was looking at. There was an old fat mat standing by the door. He was wearing rumpled and soiled robes, had hair that looked like someone had attacked it with a dull knife, and a scraggly beard that sent out wispy tendrils in all directions, like ivy on a ruin. “Who’s that?”
“The Fateem? What’s he doing here? I thought he was dead.” The questions tumbled out of me like dice from a tilted cup.
Fateem caught me staring, scowled, then turned and pushed his way back through the door.
I caught sight of the mangled stumps that ended his arms. “You did that to him?”
Venom chuckled. “No. He did that to himself when he paid a mage to try attaching the hands he cut off a slave. The transplant didn’t work.”
I swallowed bile and reached for my cup to wash the flavour from my throat.
“I think you need to talk with Hawk. Next time he tells you a story, ask more questions. Don’t rely on him to tell you everything.”
“You think there will be a next time?”
She snorted. “There’ll be a next time. Hawk likes to talk about himself too much for him to be able to stay away forever.”
“Forever’s a long time.”
She smiled, and this one lit up her face. “You have no idea.”
“So what did happen to all of your missing clanmates?”
Her smile faded and she glanced towards the door Fateem had just disappeared through. “We’re still making enquiries.” She stood. “Good luck with your story, Writer. I’m sure we’ll meet again.”
She strode off towards the door ignoring my stumbling attempts at thanks. I sat back down and stared after her until the tavern-keeper came back. He wouldn’t catch my eye this time, just quickly cleared the table and ignored my attempts to order more of the tea. I glanced about as he scurried away and everyone was watching me, their faces closed off and unfriendly. I shrugged and stood. Odds were Venom wasn’t coming back, and it was clear I’d outstayed my welcome. It’d certainly outstayed my tolerance for bad liquor and worse food. I slung my pack on my back and followed Venom out the door.