Know Your Novel, Part One: Welcome to Eden, Wyoming

Wade sauntered over to the side of the road, and for the first time got a glimpse of where he was. Brown, weedy grass stretched over endless rolling hills as far as he could see, on all sides of him. He turned to look at the sign he’d run into, and sure enough, the front of the truck had smashed into a pole. The green sign above it said ‘WELCOME TO EDEN, WYOMING. POPULATION 566. ENJOY YOUR STAY.’

I joked before this month began that I apparently have a thing for angsty guys winding up in mysterious small pseudo-western towns where the preternatural happens, but that joke wound up becoming Welcome to Eden, Wyoming – -a novel about an angsty guy winding up in a mysterious small pseudo-western town where the preturnatural happens. My main question was if I could convince people it wasn’t  Dark is The Night 2.0 but the book is taking care of that itself and shaping up nothing like my other Novel with a Similar Premise. Wade isn’t even that angsty. He’s kind of sweet.

So far.

  1. What sparked the idea for this novel? Honestly, it just came together in a flash without a particular ‘spark.’ Watching Logan and Predator made me want to write Boyd Hallbrook’s particular persona into a novel. I love the ‘weird west/american gothic’ genre and wanted to write something that felt a little more western than Dark is the Night, and include beings I hadn’t used before in other novels, like ghouls and kelpies and black shucks. Also I’ve wanted to use the town of Eden, Wyoming in a novel since we drove through it last year – I gave it a population of 566 in this book, but it might actually have been less in real life.
  2. Share a blurb! When Wade Lawson wakes up on the outskirts of Eden, Wyoming in a stolen truck, with hands that aren’t his and tattoos he doesn’t remember getting, he figures life can’t get any worse. The only thing to do is wait for his memory to return so he can go back to his normal life – but Eden’s inhabitants hold more mysteries than Wade’s past, and Wade’s past just might hold a fate worse than death for everyone involved.
  3. Where does the story take place? What is your favorite thing about the setting? I wanted to write a small midwestern town that felt kinda old-fashioned but kinda Night Vale at the same time, with a very small population and lots of room for Mysterious Things to Happen. Hence, Eden, Wyoming. Also I enjoy ironic names.
  4. Tell us about your protagonist. I originally set out for Wade to be kind of a ‘confused badass.’ So far he’s just confused. Mid-thirties. Honestly I can’t tell you more about him than he knows, that would be giving things away.
  5. Who (or what) is the antagonist? This I DEFINITELY can’t tell you. I can tell you the unseelie sidhe are involved. I can also tell you that I wanted to make them legitimately scary and not just ‘beautiful but fickle.’
  6. What excites you the most about this novel? Probably the upcoming plot twists. I do love a good plot twist. Also the Phoenix character. Also the Kelpie character. Also Miranda Rodriguez. But mostly the plot twists.
  7. Is this going to be a series? Standalone? Something else? Honestly I don’t know. I might hazard a guess at a duology unless I manage to actually wrap the whole book up this month, which is slightly unlikely. I have trouble writing standalone novels, I always wind up with dramatis persona I enjoy too much to relinquish after one book.
  8. Are you plotting? Pantsing? Plantsing? I usually plot out the barest minimum at the beginning and then fill in the rest as I go. Honestly there’s so little real plotting involved it’s BASICALLY pantsing but there is a smidge of plotting involved. Sometimes.
  9. Name a few things that make this story unique. What kind of QUESTION IS THIS, I ask? It’s not as if I choose a generic story and go ‘here’s how I’ll make it unique,’ I pick a story and I write it and hopefully everything that happens has the unique flavor of a Mirriam Neal story and manages to be fairly unique in its own right. If it winds up being unoriginal, that’s a BAD thing.
  10. Share a fun “extra” of the story (a song or full playlist, some aesthetics, a collage, a Pinterest board, a map you’ve made, a special theme you’re going to incorporate, ANYTHING you want to share!). The Pinterest Board is here for your souls: https://www.pinterest.com/mirriamneal/welcome-to-eden-wyoming-novel

SNIPPETS

(These aren’t officially part of this post but I’m including them because I’ve posted a few on Facebook but haven’t done the mandatory ‘snippets post’ for NaNoWriMo yet)

The sheriff stuck the patch onto Wade’s head. “There. Should be fine in a day or two. You didn’t seem concussed, so.”
Wade raised his eyebrows as the sheriff crumpled up the packaging and picked up the alcohol bottle. “Didn’t seem concussed?”

“Hey, I’m not a doctor.” Zane walked out of the cell, leaving the door open as he set the alcohol back in the unusual first-aid kit. “And you look okay.”


“There’s an old cemetery over the hill behind the house. Keep an eye on it but pay it no mind.”

Wade glanced over his shoulder at the hill, an eerie sensation washing over him like he was a kid and his parents had just told him to ignore the monster in the closet. “You have a real grave-robbing problem or something?””

“Not usually.” Zane climbed back into the car and shut the door, draping his arm out the window.  “If you see Moon-Jae, say hi to him for me.”

“He your not-usual grave-robber?”


“Did Zane send you or what?”

The figure chuckled and opened the granola wrapper with a single long tear. “Hardly. He didn’t tell you about me, did he? He has a delightful sense of humor.”

Wade was not feeling delighted. Nor was he feeling a large amount of patience. “Yeah, well, this is my place for a while so I suggest you get out before I make you leave.”

“I suppose I shouldn’t blame you for your behavior, but it leaves something to be desired.” The figure broke off a piece of granola bar, and Wade heard the stranger chewing and chewing loud.

“Out,” said Wade. “Now.”


A twig snapped and he turned, squinting through the early-morning light at the trees to his right. A shadow – too large for an antelope or a deer – moved, then surged out onto the street several yards in front of Wade.

It was a horse, but unlike any horse Wade had ever seen. His charcoal-gray coat was slick with water, dripping in rivulets down its long, sharp face. Its mane and tail were abnormally long, and Wade was pretty sure he could see seaweed tangled in them both. Rows of small, ridged spikes ran down the animal’s neck and side, from ears to haunch. The horse shook itself like a dog, flinging water, and swung its head to look at Wade with large eyes.

“Easy, boy.” The words left Wade automatically, but for a reason he couldn’t understand this animal gave off the vibe of a half-starved junkyard dog more than a horse and he didn’t want it coming anywhere near him.

The horse lifted its ears as if surprised at the sound of Wade’s voice and took a tentative step toward him on slender legs.

Wade lifted his hands. “Easy,” he repeated, wary.

With a sudden snort, the strange animal shook its head and spun, cantering away down the street with fluid speed until even the sound of its hooves on the pavement faded out of hearing.

Wade lowered his arms and released a deep breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. With the strange feeling he’d escaped something bad, he picked up the pace again, trying to make sense of the strangeness in the air around him. The horse, the skeletal man from last night. The howling that sounded almost wolf-like but also not quite.

The fact even the air here felt different; every breath he took filled him with a mingled sense of dread and excitement, like he was going to round a corner and see a UFO idling in the middle of the road.

I was tagged by Arielle who gave me no choice thought of me but if you want to join in, head on over HERE to link up!

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//in which I am a dropout

I hate quitting. Even when I pile my metaphorical plate higher than Vesuvius, I hate to remove even a single thing from that plate. It feels like giving up. It feels like failure.

Which is why it took me two weeks to realize I had to strategically retreat from quit NaNo.

The setup was perfect – I was raring to go, my heart was 100% in the novel. I’ve done it many times before and only ever intentionally dropped out once, in 2014, when I realized the subject matter was too heavy to rush in a month.

Well, Mirriam, psychopaths aren’t exactly a fluffy subject either. You probably should have guessed this would happen.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t the subject matter this time around that caused the problem. It was several factors.

  • I wrote 17k+ words in The Dying of the Light – and subsequently finished my year-long project – in the three days before I started another novel. Having never done this before, I can safely tell you now – with experience – that it’s a terrible idea. You can’t just dive from one novel right into the next and expect it to work out – or at least I can’t. My mind was still in another world, along with most of my emotions. Not to mention I’d all but burnt out – which is a terrible way to start NaNo
  • Sometimes I take firm hold of a novel, only for it to change on me. Several times. Nihilum forced me to re-start it twice. (If I have to re-start a novel three days after I start it, it’s usually a good sign the novel isn’t ready.) I could have forced it, I could have wrung the words out for a month and struggled the whole way – but the novel would have been a sad, deformed shadow of itself. It deserves to percolate and be born as healthy as possible. Is it shelved? Not in the least. Is it still growing? Yes. And it will continue to grow until it’s ready.
  • This year has been a series of unfortunate events; some big, some small, all amounting to a very large pile. Every time I think things are evening out…they aren’t. And when something becomes a stress factor I can actually remove, I have to take it. This month that meant dropping NaNo.

So now what? I need to focus on the art commissions at hand, so that’s mostly what I’ll be doing for the rest of the month. I have a stack of books to finish, and I have a novel I can toy with (only plotting, at least until the month is out) on the side. Soon I’ll need to read back over and revise The Dying of the Light, and then find an editor, as it’s the next book I’d like to publish. (Although it may be harder than most, since it’s….long.)

So that’s my update – and I’ll keep telling myself that quitting NaNo isn’t failure. It’s the equivalent of retiring before your boss can fire you.

//beautiful books: nano 2016

It’s approaching that time of year. This will be my tenth ‘novel writing month,’ between Novembers, Junes, and the one Camp Nano stuck in there somewhere. I can call myself a NaNo veteran now. Sky and Cait put up another Beautiful Books questionnaire, as they do every year, and never before have I felt so completely unqualified to answer said questions. This year’s novel is surprisingly non-conducive to question-answering, because a) it’s in a paradoxically well-formed, yet vague, stage and b) the questions imply a single main character and not an entire group of them. Unfortunately, ‘entire groups’ are rather my schtick these days, which means…I bombed this questionnaire. That being said, most people have no clue what I’m writing for NaNo this year, and whether I bombed the questionnaire or not it needs to be posted.

So without further gilding the lily, I present Nihilum: NaNo 2016.

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  1. What inspired the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea? My novels are melting pots of ideas I’ve been throwing into a cauldron for years. (I kid you not, most novels have been simmering for a minimum of three years.) The first idea for this novel actually began about four years ago, with the idea for a story called ‘Nihilum’ about a project attempting to un-create psychopaths. I had an idea a year later for a book about project Cerebrum, and the creating of telepaths. I’ve always been fascinated by psychology and have spent much of the last year researching psychopathy and various mental disorders, and so on some levels Nihilum feels like the culmination of four years of planning. I am very much looking forward to finally getting this thing written.
  2. Describe what your novel is about! The novel is about two South Korean/American programs called Nihilum and Cerebrum. Nihilum focuses on the creation and utilization of psychopaths or people with high-functioning mental disorders, and Cerebrum focuses on the creation and utilization of ‘scanners,’ or people with telepathic abilities. Both are intended for use in undercover work, but when news of a rogue Nihilum agent comes to the surface, one task force of expendable misfits from each team is assigned to work together and find the rogue operative before he does incalculable damage. I’ve always been very fascinated by the question ‘are monsters born or made,’ and the consequences either answer holds, so answering that question is a huge part of the novel.
  3. What is your book’s aesthetic? Use words or photos or whatever you like! This question had me stumped. I’ve never written a novel with Nihilum’s aesthetic before. It’s old, familiar territory and at the same time it’s brand-new. I think Nihilum will have to discover its aesthetic in November. Although you could take a look at my self-imposed stack of required reading to get a general sense of the aesthetic, probably.
  4. Introduce us to each of your characters! Once again, I’m using a fairly large cast – the Nihilum and Cerebrum task forces are each comprised of four people, and then there are various other key and minor characters to deal with. I don’t have the time to introduce them all, but you’ll see more of them during NaNo.
  5. How do you prepare to write? (Outline, research, stocking up on chocolate, howling, etc.?) I don’t prepare so much as stew. I just stew and stew and stew. I jot down each new idea on a sticky note or in a notebook somewhere and I pray I don’t forget where said idea is. Some ideas fall by the wayside or end up in other novels, but in the end each novel is just the result of me stewing for ages until the time is right. And all I can do is hope the ingredients work and I don’t under/overcook the result.
  6. What are you most looking forward to about this novel? The answer is twofold: I’m looking forward to exploring what I know of mental disorders + behavioral psychology, and I’m looking forward to the group dynamics. I’m a sucker for group dynamics.
  7. List 3 things about your novel’s setting. I’m so, so unhelpful with this questionnaire. So unhelpful. It begins in Seoul, it travels to the U.S., and the setting involves parking garages and church buildings.
  8. What’s your character’s goal and who (or what) stands in the way? As a team, their goal is to capture rogue agent Anubis – who also happens to be the figure standing in their way.
  9. How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel? All these questions involving a single character. Each character changes in different ways, which leads into the next question…
  10. What are your book’s themes? How do you want readers to feel when the story is over? The theme of the book is: can the bad guys become good guys? And I hope readers can feel satisfied and hopeful, which isn’t usually how I feel after a thriller but here’s hoping!

 

//latin, space, and sarcasm: the things that survived

When Arielle recently dusted off some of her old writing, I decided to hunt through some of mine. The purpose was kicks and giggles – after all, why not? I uncovered my first foray into NaNoWriMo – a novel titled, ‘Phase,’ written in 2009. It had no discernible plot, but it reads something like ‘if Twilight were Christian, and instead of vampires and werewolves we had shady people versus people with vague powers and moon-markings.’ Adverbs and exclamation marks abound, and everything bears the clunky, unsure signature of a fifteen-year-old attempting to do something new. Technically, I completed NaNoWriMo – the novel fades out at approximately 54,000 words. Realistically, it was a huge failure – no plot is indeed a problem, and the novel had no ending, let alone any kind of structure.

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That being said, it spurred me into doing NaNo the next year, and the year after that, and every year I improved, building on old blocks. Perusing the Phase manuscript (if something this hilariously awful can really be called a manuscript) I was surprised to see how many traits still remain in my writing. Thankfully my craft has improved over the years (one would hope) but there are elements that haven’t changed.

A FASCINATION WITH SPACE THE FINAL FRONTIER

The novel is called Phase for the phases of the moon. The novel involves shimmering moon-tattoos appearing mysteriously on the main character (subtly named ‘Luna’) as well as powers pertaining to each phase of the moon. I even opened the novel with Luna singing ‘Memory’ from Cats – because it mentioned the moon, of course.

VILLAINS SPEAKING LATIN

I love languages, but there’s a timeless elegance to Latin which apparently wasn’t lost on me, even as a fifteen-year-old blundering through her first NaNo novel. The villain (subtly named ‘The Hunter’) is a sadly over-the-top figure, oozing all the villainy of a cartoon caricature. That being said, he can be relatively pithy when he chooses to employ said dead language.

 The Hunter took a sip of his wine and answered “Oderint, dum metuant. Latin. A man named Accius said that. It means ‘let them hate, so long as they fear.’ I find that to fit the situation exactly.”

MOTLEY CREWS

I began by writing unlikely groups of eccentric people, and here I am – still writing unlikely groups of eccentric people. There’s something undeniably fun about the different dynamics and variables available within a group, and I prefer groups to one or two main characters. And they’re all dorks.

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TORTURE

I’d forgotten there was torture in Phase, but…there is torture in Phase. So there’s that.

ALLEGORICAL THEMES

Granted, I hope I’ve become less obvious over the years, but Phase features an over-arching villain even higher than The Hunter. The villain (subtly named ‘Gehenna’) employs humans who relinquished their souls to him, thus becoming Slahbra – servants of evil. Which leads into the next point…

SOULS, MORALITY, AND ETHICS

Souls have always fascinated me, it seems; and the teenaged protagonists of the novel have several discussions revolving around questions like, if the Slahbra have given their souls to Gehenna, is it possible to get them back? Or, if they now serve Gehenna, should they still be treated as humans, or as non-humans? If one kills a Slahbra, is that murder?

I had a lot of questions – and ideas I still like to explore.

SHAPES IN THE WOODS

Once Luna thought she saw something – a shape, in the woods. But when she looked back, nothing was there. She bit her lip and turned away from the window.

CROWS

Crows are my favorite bird. I am allowed to have crows in everything if I want to. Don’t judge me.

PIZZA

I am also allowed to have pizza in everything if I want to.

STRANGE DESCRIPTIONS OF THINGS

“Come in!” said a voice which sounded like gravel being crunched underneath the tires of a cement mixer.

I wasn’t kidding.

PROVING ANYTHING CAN BE A WEAPON

Rian pulled a small, plastic sword-shaped toothpick from his sandwich and held it up to the light while Taylor took a sip of her orange juice.

“What’re you doing?” she asked around the straw in her mouth.

“Studying the advantages a weapon this size would give me,” he replied, moving his hand around with the toothpick-sword in it, as if engaged in combat with an invisible Tom Thumb.

ECCENTRIC MENTOR-TYPES

“Why yes, who else would I be? I always say to be yourself, since there is a dreadful shortage of others to be. But you can call me Ursa.”

Luna blinked, trying to work out what had just been said. “Are you the counselor?”

“No,” smiled Ursa, “I am the school consoler. I do not counsel. I tell the truth and give advice. And occasionally a cup of tea, when it is needed.”

TESTOSTERONE PARTIES

One of the security officers walked up to the principal. “Well, we apprehended the two, sir,” he glanced at Luna. “One of them has a bruised jaw, and raw knuckles, the other has a black eye and a cut on his arm.”

“A cut? Did they have knives?” demanded the principal.

The security officer looked uncomfortable. “No, sir. We found no weapons of any kind on them. Looks like a testosterone party.”

Most of my books these days are just long testosterone parties, really.

GOLDEN EYES

Let’s face it – golden eyes are super attractive and every book should have at least one golden-eyed character. It’s a fact.

TELEPATHY

                Luna looked from Taylor to Rian, who was watching her seriously. “She’s scared.”

“Of course, I’m scared!” Luna exploded. “What did you expect me to be!? This has been the freakiest week of my life, and I’m freaking out! I’ve turned into a freak!”

“Try fitting ‘freak,’ in there one more time,” said Taylor, grinning.

But Rian was looking at her with an intrigued expression. “Why did you say that?” he asked.

Luna looked incredulous. “Because you said I was scared.”

“I didn’t hear you,” said Taylor, glancing at Rian.

Rian’s eyes were still fixed on Luna’s. “That’s because I didn’t say it.”

TELEPATHY IS INCREDIBLY FASCINATING AS A PLOT ELEMENT, OKAY. EVEN FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD ME KNEW THIS.

CRYPTIDS

When I was a kid, I wanted to be three things: a horse-gentler, a magician, and a cryptozoologist. Thus horses, magic, and cryptids (or at the very least ‘paranormal creatures’) have remained steady ingredients in my novels.

HUMOR

While scrolling through Phase post-re-discovery, I told Arielle, “GOOD NEWS. MY SENSE OF HUMOR IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS IT WAS SEVEN YEARS AGO.”

Luna stared at them. For some reason, she had thought they had been Phases much longer than her. “So basically, we’re given a bunch of powers, dumped into the third world to protect it, and we have no allies?”

Rian and Taylor were silent for a moment. Then Rian said “You catch on quick.”


“This conversation is pointless.”

“So are Braille drive-through ATM’s,” said Rian.


“Do not worry, your vision will clear within a matter of moments, as will your speech.”

“It’s already been a matter of moments,” Luna said.


“Since you’re here, what am I going to do about shoes?” she asked.

“Wear them,” Asher advised, nodding wisely.

“No, I mean all I’ve got are these!” Luna held up her sneakers. “And I don’t think they really go with the evening dress. I don’t care whether or not I wear them, but the Hunter might not like the clash.” She wrinkled her nose and her tone took on a sarcastic note as she said that.

Asher grinned. “The shoes are in the wardrobe.”

Luna looked at him from the corner of her eye as she turned and looked into the wardrobe again. In the back was a pair of high-heeled black dress shoes. “Oh, lovely,” she said, still sarcastic as she pulled them out. “What next? A fairy godmother?”

“No, dinner at eight.”

“Don’t be funny.”

 

DEAD BODIES IN DRIVEWAYS

“We’re friends of Luna’s,” said Kristina. She smiled charmingly. “She fell asleep! Dead tired.”

Galvin gave her a sideways glance at the word ‘dead’. What if they had seen the body in the driveway?

It’s self-explanatory.

LOYALTY + BETRAYAL THEMES

Themes of loyalty and betrayal have fascinated me since I was a bobbin, and I doubt the fascination will end any time soon.

MORE DEAD PEOPLE

“Why are we still running away from the cops anyway? It must have been five minutes,” Kristina added a moment later, pushing her hair away from her face.

“Because the police will be chasing us,” said Trey, straightening. “We just killed people.”

ALICE IN WONDERLAND REFERENCES

She felt remarkably like Alice in Wonderland when the Queen of Hearts was chasing her and she could see herself dreaming through the keyhole, but could not wake up.

References are piffle these days. Now I’ve written an entire Alice in Wonderland novel.

SUPPOSEDLY DEAD PEOPLE WHO ARE ACTUALLY ALIVE

Why waste a good plot thread, I say.

SARCASM

Luna looked around her, then, as casually as she could manage, called up “Where are we?”

“Montana,” Asher called down.

“Thanks. I mean, where is this house?”

“It’s in Montana, too,” he replied.

“Thanks.”

THE NOT-SO-BAD BAD GUY

I’m a sucker for antagonists who really aren’t so awful, once you get to know them. Bonus points if they inch reluctantly over into protagonist territory.

LORD OF THE RINGS REFERENCES

After several minutes of sitting in perfect silence, Luna said “I’m bored.”

“Okay.” Asher flipped out his cell phone and blew out a breath.

“Say something.”

Asher did not even look up as he said “Crebain from Dunland.”

“No, something more lucid than that.”

“Duck, they’re coming in through the window,” Asher answered.

SUAVE VILLAINS AND SPUNKY HEROINES

Granted, villains need more characteristics than ‘suave’ and heroines need more characteristics than ‘spunk,’ but they’re still a staple.

“I don’t care for your compliments,” she told him, amazed at her own boldness.

“Nevertheless, you shall have them,” he replied with a gallant bow.

MASKS

Of the literal kind (Phase had a character who wore a ski mask and never removed it) and the figurative kind (because intrigue is so much fun to write).

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Going through old writing can be cringe-worthy, but it’s also an interesting look into what makes you tick as a writer. Rather than avoiding old writing (because let’s face it, wading through it isn’t really our first choice as we like to preserve what dignity we have), facing it can be hilarious and even helpful. It can show you how much you’ve improved – and we can always use that encouragement.

DON’T GIVE UP ON YOUR WRITING, EVEN IF IT MAKES YOU CRINGE. ONE DAY YOU’LL LOOK BACK ON IT AND LAUGH. And possibly burn it all. (But laugh first.)

 

 

 

 

 

//The Dying of the Light: Update + Snippets. A Lot of Snippets.

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My OC Kirikizu, drawn by the incredible-amazing-fantastic Lauren, aka CielaRose on DeviantArt.

Usually, I’m an obsessive NaNo poster. I post every few days with updates – snippets, character biographies, what-have-you. This year, though, I seem to have abandoned the ‘obsessive poster’ persona for ‘completely absent blogger’ persona. I’m getting a lot done – I’ve passed 32,000 words (which is pretty modest compared to some of my friends who have already passed 50,000 like the superhumans they are) and the novel is still behaving. It makes me suspicious. I’ve realized that I probably won’t be able to complete the novel this month – if I kept writing like it was NaNo for another month, maybe. In one month? Probably not, but at least I knew when I undertook this novel that it wasn’t going to be small. Ah, well – it’s a good thing I love it.

[In other news, my mom and baby sister are in Oregon this week for my niece Seleia’s 13th birthday. Also, potato nachos are my new favorite food.]

ONWARD TO SNIPPETS

“If we can’t take temporary transportation, we’ll have to buy some.”

Shi squinted at him. “With what money, exactly?”

Saizou clapped his friend on the shoulder. “With the money in my bank account.”

“Oh,” said Shi dryly. “I forgot. You’re independently wealthy.”


The front door opened again and the second guard stepped out ahead of a man Saizou had never seen before. He was a tall, slender and pale-faced, with delicate features and a distinctive edge in his eyes that warned Saizou not to judge him by his appearance. His wavy, shoulder-length hair was pulled back to the nape of his neck, and his eyes went from Saizou to Shi and back again with lengthy deliberation before he said, “So you’re Saizou Akita?”


Shi stepped forward, but Saizou held up a hand, stopping the imminent attack. “The last time I looked, health had nothing to do with whether a Lord had control of his daimyo. What kind of lame trick is this?”

Matahachi gave Saizou another slight, insincere smile and held up a hand. “The last time you looked was five years ago. Enough things change in the blink of an eye, and you expect things to stay the same for five years?” A breathy, one-syllable laugh pressed against his lips. “It’s only a formality. I wouldn’t worry.”


Tsuki – the Tsuki he remembered – was warm and alive, a bonfire around which people gathered as naturally as moths drew to a flame. The woman in front of him held none of that warmth. It was like looking at a portrait drawn by a different artist than the one he recalled – the same person, but rendered so differently that, after the initial recognition, they had almost nothing discernible in common.


“Saizou, you recall my bodyguard, Kiba?” Tsuki clarified, and suddenly Saizou remembered catching scattered glimpses of the man years ago, before. In the days when Tsuki would coax him to run across the hills and watch the miners carting gold from the yawning open cave-mouths. In the days when Tsuki would convince Saizou to take her into Tokyo, where they would spend the day throwing coins in fountains for good luck and sampling kebabs and fried pastries from vendors lined along the streets.

The Shadow. That was the name he had called the silent figure, never in the foreground; but always there. Saizou had not thought of him in years, and he was surprised to see the man still serving the same purpose.


“There’s more to him than he lets on.” Saizou watched the doorway Matahachi had disappeared through. “But I’m not sure whether he’s a deliberate enemy or a circumstantial one.”


Saizou allowed himself to smile, and nodded toward the wide bed. “Looks like we’re doubling up.”

“Only because you don’t want to sleep on the floor,” said Shi.


Tsuki shrugged one shoulder. “Not exactly, but there are guesses. He has assassins and bodyguards and a personal army.”

“The men haven’t been conscripted?”

“No. Those who serve the Prince-Regent are exempt from entering the Emperor’s service. It makes it easy to find people willing to flock to his side.”

“Nobody wants to leave their friends and family behind to fight someone else’s war in another country.”


Lord Saizou Akita, you are hereby called to the Palace of the Sun at high noon. You will appeal for Akita Domain directly to Prince-Regent Mamushi, who will personally oversee your case and make a fair and wise decision regarding the ownership of said domain. Failure to respond to this summons will result in the automatic forfeit of Akita domain. Hail the Sun.

             Saizou sat on the edge of the bed, reading and re-reading the note until Shi plucked it from his grasp so he could read it. After a moment, Shi said in a dramatic voice, “You’ve been summoned.”


“I don’t have anything formal,” Saizou said. “I’m assuming Matahachi put my belongings in storage, if he didn’t burn them on a bad day.”

“I guessed as much,” said Shi, and flung a long, leather Nehru jacket at Saizou. “Wear that. At least it’s in better shape than the clothes you have.”

Saizou turned the jacket around and held it up to himself. “You seem to have forgotten the fact I’m five-foot-eleven.”

Shi glanced up, his eyes narrowing. “And?”

“You’re five-foot-seven.”

Shi folded his arms and leveled a challenging stare at Saizou. “It will fit you. If you don’t like the fact it doesn’t reach your feet, deal with it. The arms are long enough.”

“If I wear this, what will you wear?”

“Don’t be such a woman, Saizou. They won’t be looking at me, and if they do, it’s not like they ever look beyond my face anyway.”

Tsuki’s voice came over the intercom with a single word – “Breakfast.”

“Speaking of women,” said Saizou.

Shi blinked at the intercom. “Don’t tell her what I said.”


No songs rang from the mines, although he could hear the faint, metallic ringing of work floating over the crisp breeze. Black smoke rose from chimneys, mingling with dust from the mines, and smudged the storm-swollen clouds above, turning everything into a grim, bleary haze.


Saizou blew out a deep breath and whispered back, “Try to relax. Remember, we also have brains and diplomacy on our side.”

“No,” grunted Shi, “I have brains and diplomacy. You only have me.”


The other figure stood on the Prince-Regent’s right, tall and slender, with his hands folded in front of him and his head tilted to the side. While not as strange a creature as the dog-man, he was a curiosity, if only for the thing fitted around the lower half of his face. It looked like a cross between a gas mask and a muzzle; a sleek, elegant thing still somehow barbaric when attached to a human’s face. He wore a split skirt over close-fitting leggings and boots, and a sleeveless jacket that went high up his neck was cropped high enough to show several inches of lean, hard stomach. His detachable sleeves were openly carriers for knives; a long, thin blade decorated each of his forearms, and even more circled the sash around his waist.


The men turned to see their motorcycles tearing across the courtyard toward them, riderless.

“That’s weird,” said Shi. “I have the keys.”


“If there was no panic,” the man continued, his unblinking gaze still focused on the bartender – whose name, apparently, was Honey, “then why did you push it? It is called a ‘panic’ button because it is intended for times of panic, not mild concern.”

“Kai,” said Honey, putting the glass she had gotten out for Saizou back where it belonged, “when have you ever know me to panic?”

“Never, and that is why your decision to install a ‘panic’ button still confuses me.”

“All right, then we’ll change the name and call it a ‘mild concern’ button. Does that help?”

“It does make more sense, yes,” said Kai.


. “What should I do with this man?” He indicated Saizou with his free hand.

“I think he has a friend bleeding out in the bathroom,” said Honey, leaning her elbows on the counter. “I’m going to go help. You guard the door.”

“I always guard the door,” said Kai. “It’s my job.”

“I don’t mean guard it like a bouncer. I mean guard it like someone who’s preventing the Shinsengumi from entering the place. Keep people from coming in instead of throwing them out.”

Kai gave Saizou a curious look before releasing his arm. “Yes, Honey.”


“The Prince-Regent says forty-eight hours is the most you have. He would prefer Lord Akita and Shi Matsumoto to be caught before then, if possible.”

Haka rolled his eyes. “Yes, well,” he began, but cut himself off. “Of course. The Prince-Regent should see them both in prison before tomorrow evening.”

“Don’t roll your eyes,” said Kirikizu in flat tones.

Haka’s eyes widened and he pulled the telephone away from his ear to give it a startled look before putting it back. “I would never do such a thing. Also, how did you know I did?”

“I heard it,” said the assassin, and hung up, a click signaling the end of the call.


A man stood on the other side of the broken bridge. Saizou could not make out the expression he wore, but his stance was angled and his head lowered, still and observing; a heron standing in the shallows, waiting for a fish to swim near.


Those in the cages were not human at all; but mutts – mutant animals, created to the Prince-Regent’s requested specifications. Large, hulking beasts with grotesque muscles, twisted features, and six legs maximum strength and speed; some with switch-like tails, some with three or four eyes, and all disgusting, in Haka’s personal opinion.

They were dangerous, too, of course; ruled by the growl in their stomachs more than the brains in their thick skulls, and it took someone with a special touch to oversee them, much less control them. Haka knew of only one person who had the ability to make them listen, and by all appearances, she was unlikely.

“Otter,” Haka bellowed, reaching the bottom of the stairs and stopping where the cages and cells began. He disliked walking between them – mutts on one side, sometimes humans on the other. He shuddered. “Otter!”

“Shhh!” The fierce hiss reached him, although it not close by. “Lower your voice, for crying out loud! No, wait, crying out loud cancels the whole ‘lower your voice’ thing. I’m in Violet’s cell.”

Haka blinked. “And that cell is?”

“The last one, commander,” the loud whisper replied, with an added “Geez.”


“Do whatever you do to get them ready.”

“You could stay and watch,” Otter offered.

Haka gave her a sharp look, noted the mischievous glint in her eyes, and leaned down until his face was just inches away from hers. “Don’t push me, Otter.”

She watched him, unblinking, for a long moment, before lifting a finger and pressing it against his chest. Then she pressed, and just as quickly tucked her hands behind her back. “Never again, commander.”


“Your tongue is yours, to form your own words, and I don’t care what those words are,” said Winter finally, “as long as they are minimal, and don’t waste my time.”

Saizou squinted, trying to feel out an appropriate response to the other man’s statement. “So…an apology is a waste of time?”

“Yes,” said Winter.


He could hear General Isao’s voice in his head as he walked; not harsh, but reprimanding nonetheless. ‘A leader who cares for his soldiers is a good leader, but a leader who cares more for his soldiers than for victory can only go so far. You will not be promoted until you learn the unfortunate lesson.’

            Saizou had bowed deeply, grinding his teeth until he thought they would turn to powder. ‘Please tell me the lesson, General.’

            He could remember the look on General Isao’s face – a sudden sharpening, a fierce light – vicious, with just a hint of regret. ‘Every victory flag is red.’


He lifted his wakizashi and watched the pale winter light glint off the fine edge. “Come out where I can see you,” he said in a loud voice. “To be honest, I’m too tired for hide-and-seek.”

A laugh split the air; loud and half-crazed. “That’s disappointing. I like games.”

Saizou frowned and tensed, lowering the wakizashi. From the stand of bamboo trees across the bridge, a tall figure emerged, his all-black clothing separating from the shadows where he had previously gone unnoticed. The man reached up and pushed his hood back, revealing a shock of wild, unnaturally red hair.

His face split in a wide, white-toothed grin and he lifted a hand, motioning with his fingers as if to say ‘come at me.’ “Who told you I was here? Was it the monk?”


The Prince-Regent turned around. His upper lip trembled, as if to form a snarl, but he smiled instead and drew closer, his hands still clasped behind his back. “Sometimes I think you are the only subject I can trust,” he said softly, standing a few feet away. “You don’t let me down. Do you? Do you let me down, when I’m not looking?”

“What do you think, Prince-Regent?”

The Prince-Regent took one long stride forward and stopped, now just inches away from the other man. They were the same height, and the Prince-Regent’s dark, bloodshot eyes were intense with scrutiny.

He released a sigh. “Kirikizu, my deadly flower, you will never betray me. Do you want to know why?” Before the other man could answer he urged, “Ask me why.”

Kirikizu breathed deeply through the muzzle and listened to the sound that left the filters; a monotone buzz. He was used to it by now, in the way a person got used to chronic pain or bad vision. “Why, Prince-Regent?”

“Because I’ve been good to you,” the other man said, a hollow smile on his face.


The doors slid open with a whisper and a girl stepped into the room – or he assumed it was a girl. Her top half was obscured by a pile of white blankets. He moved to stand up and help her before she tripped over her own feet, but one of her hands shot out and motioned for him to stay where he was.

“Do you need help?” he asked politely, watching in bemusement as she approached him and dumped the blankets beside the mat in an unceremonious heap.

“No,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

“I see that now.” Shi eyed the blankets, then the girl. She was pretty, he thought – or maybe ‘cute’ was the right term. “Nice sweater,” he added, and then mentally slapped himself. I shouldn’t be allowed to talk when I’m not fully cognitive. Who knows what I said to Saizou. I probably talked about puppies.

SHI

My OC Shi, as sketched by yours truly.