National Novel Writing Month (hereafter: NaNoWriMo) takes place each year during the month of November. It’s free to participate, and all you have to do to claim victory is churn out 50,000 words before midnight on the 30th. It’s a quantity-over-quality jump start for people who always thought about writing a novel but let themselves get put off by their internal editor. If you’re of the school that holds that every author has a certain predetermined amount of crap they have to write before the good stuff can arrive, this is your event.
I like the idea of NaNoWriMo. It’s the kind of big, dramatic, and self-consciously silly gesture that I go for. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve entered it twice. You’re not allowed to reuse an old idea, so both times I spent the last couple weeks of October brainstorming something, then hit the ground running on November 1st. In 2006 I dove into an urban fantasy called Headlong. In 2007 I sought more traditional fantasy fare with Crooked Crown.
Neither one came anywhere near the 50k finish line.
Neither one came anywhere near a complete story, either.
Still, I like these almost-books, so I’m going to use them in Digital Busker’s first regularly scheduled feature (the podcast doesn’t count because we’ve only had the soft open). I give you: Failed NaNo Friday. We’ll start things off today with the first section of Crooked Crown.
Quick walked under the Lamplighters’ Arch, which glowed as always with a steady yellow light. The guards inside the courtyard looked him up and down as he passed, but didn’t stop him. Either they remembered him, not impossible even after two years away, or they didn’t think he was worth detaining. Certainly any bravo or assassin would be mad to challenge even the youngest Lamplighter with nothing more than the gentleman’s targe and short sword that hung from his shoulder.
Across the broad courtyard rose the family mansion, all arches and columns and stained glass windows streaming light out into the twilight. As he reached the main entrance, Quick was finally stopped by one the two guards there. He looked like a hard man, harder than Quick remembered the men in the red livery being. Have they changed, or have I? he wondered.
“State your name and business, please,” the guard grumbled.
“Quick. Master Daire’s expecting me.”
Black brows drew together and color started to rise in the guard’s face. Quick understood; it must have seemed like the guest was telling him how to do his job, and dodging a question to boot. He could have phrased his answer more helpfully, but this way was funnier. Before he had a chance to try on his innocent confusion face, much less his how dare you address me that way face, a window on the second floor swung open, and a shock of unruly red hair appeared, attached to the head of a young man whom Quick had known since they were children. “Quick, you’re here,” Daire said, obviously trying to sound enthusiastic. “Brynnin, he’s welcome, on my word. Come on up, Quick.”
“You need some more time to make yourself pretty for the party?” Quick called up, hoping for a chuckle or a smile, but Daire was already out of sight again. He shrugged at the guard, then extended a hand. “Quick Callan, by the way. I’ve been away for a while, so I forget that not everybody knows me anymore.”
The guard reluctantly took his hand in a firm grip. “Brynnin,” he said simply, “no house.” There was a moment of surprised assessment on his face as he squeezed Quick’s hand and recognized the swordsman’s callouses. He let go just an instant too late for normal politeness.
“It’s my fault for not putting it together. I’ve heard enough Quick stories I should have recognized you. Except you’re not juggling a half dozen wenches. On you go, then,” he stepped aside and pulled the door open.
Quick sighed theatrically as he walked past, grinning impishly. “I’m afraid those days are behind me, good Brynnin. I’m practically a Monk of the Rule these days.” He was rewarded with an incredulous snort as the door closed behind him. He decided not to let the fact that he’d spoken the simple truth spoil his mood.
The entry hall of Lamplighter Mansion was, of course, spacious and well lit in a dizzying variety of hues and manners. Gleaming marble, brilliantly polished mirrors of every metal that would take a shine, and a chandelier made entirely of the same glowing crystal as the main arch were all he had been able to remember, and that would have been more than enough, but he’d somehow forgotten the backlit stained glass installation over the blazing fireplace showing the first generations of the family, with the near-mythical founder, Praecetus, smiling down on them from the sky in place of the sun. Subtlety was not a Lamplighter watchword. Framed by the sweeping wings of the grand stairs, the crystal fireplace was placed to awe guests. Quick hated to admit how well it still worked on him, no matter he’d been here dozens, maybe hundreds, of times.
Seeing no one about, Quick jogged up the gold-carpeted stairs to the second floor, as richly, though not as ostentatiously, appointed as the entry hall. He didn’t see anyone here either, and he wondered at that. Even at twilight, there should have been servants scurrying about the place, seeing to the innumerable needs of the house and the family. At least, in the old days there would have been. Now Quick looked at the furnishings with a fresh eye, and saw dust on the tops of mirrors, rugs ever so slightly askew, and a long smear on a marble tile. Has the whole house caught one of Daire’s black moods? Newly concerned, Quick made his way to Daire’s door and knocked twice.
“Come in, Quick,” came the barely audible answer. Quick stepped in to Daire’s sitting room and saw his friend clambering up from a divan. Daire smiled, more than a little sadly, and extended a hand. “Good to see you again, friend.”
Quick crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed Daire’s hand, pulling him into a one armed back slapping embrace. “You don’t know the half of it, my fine shining fellow.” Releasing Daire, Quick’s expression turned serious. “But what is chewing away at you, Daire? You’re looking half snuffed.”
Daire whirled and threw himself back onto the divan, sighing. “How should I look, Quick, with my heart in the hands of another?” He sat up and visibly reconsidered. “No, not the hands, the feet! Under her feet! While she stomps, and stomps, and stomps…“
Without letting his mask of grave concern slip, Quick sighed inwardly. Ah, a girl. And here I thought he might have grown out of this by now. Well, at least I know how to deal with it. “Keep in mind I’ve been away for two years, Daire. Whom are we discussing, please?”
Daire blinked and smiled sheepishly. “My apologies. I forget myself. Her name, the sweetest and most painful sound in my world, is Miaria, and her beauty outshines…. but I am being a terrible host. You’re back after two years away at the academy, I should think you have other priorities than listening to me eulogize my broken heart.”
Quick sat down at the foot of the divan and flashed a mischeivous smile. “Not just I, Daire. Both of us have more important matters to attend tonight. And by ‘attend,’ I mean,” he pulled a thick folded parchment from his pocket with a flourish, “attend. This is my invitation to the biggest and best party of the year, at the Thane’s hall. Tonight. And it’s for me, and whomever I should choose to honor as my guest.” He tapped Daire on the forehead with the heavy document, making sure the golden wax seal with the Thane’s crest was visible. “That would be you, my old young heartsick friend.”
Daire’s eyes crossed as he tried to read the waggling parchment. “That is a fine welcome home gift indeed, but you should pick someone else for your guest, I have no parties in me tonight.”
Quick let him finish the sentence, but only because he didn’t want to let on that he had the conversation planned out three moves in advance. “Nonsense. If I know you, and I like to flatter myself with the thought that I still do, your Miaria is just the kind of lovely, well bred young woman to get invited to this party herself. This is your chance to impress and woo her. You can let her think I’m your guest, if it helps. Order preserve us, once my novelty wears off–I judge a week on that, and will accept wagers–we will return to our old relative statuses, you and I, you providing the coattails, and I the grip.”
Daire shook his head glumly. “No, she’s set against me, I’m afraid. Her family works for the Shroudweavers, and there’s nothing I can do to make her see past my family.”
Quick silently puzzled over that for a time. Certainly the Lamplighters and the Shroudweavers had been feuding for longer than anyone living could remember, but that had rarely stopped the younger generation from fraternizing. Either this Miaria was stodgy in the way only a young person can be, or the feud had gotten worse since he’d been gone. He would have to ask his father for a more detailed account of what he’d missed than he’d gotten. That was a problem for later, though, after he got his friend back. “Well then in that case, you’ll have a chance to see her up against her competition, and I’ll wager a crown to a penny there will be girls there that make you forget all about… whatever he name was.”
Daire opened his mouth to protest, but Quick barely listened. He’d seen the flicker of interest in his friend’s eyes. He was going to the party, it was just a matter of time.
* * *
Indeed, an hour later Quick, Daire, and Daire’s cousin Naiden were walking through Old Tewett, surrounded by a loose screen of subtle but vigilant Lamplighter guards, led by the unsmiling Brynnin. Naiden and Daire seemed accustomed to the guards, so Quick took his cue from them and ignored them, but he found their presence unnerving. In his short life, Quick had never made any enemies serious enough to warrant a bodyguard–he wasn’t important enough or unpopular enough for anyone to seriously want him dead. The thought that someone might want to kill or abduct Daire or Naiden made more sense–the Lamplighters were very nearly as powerful in Tewett as the Thane himself, albeit in a near tie with the Shroudweavers. But when Quick had left, the protection had been much more subtle. Again he wondered what could have brought such an escalation, but abandoned fruitless speculation in favor of enjoying his time with his friend. Time enough for gossip gathering at the party. Quick glanced at Naiden, a head taller and about twenty years older than Daire, in soul if not in body, and found something new to wonder about. “Naiden, if you don’t mind me saying, it’s an unexpected pleasure to have you along. Did you take up society parties while I was gone?”
Naiden smiled broadly and winked. “I still think the starched collar crowd is dull as cinder, but Uncle insisted.” His smile vanished and he mimed spitting on the cobbles. “Everything is political these days, and I’m supposed to make friends if I’m… going to serve the family.” What he hadn’t said was “if I’m going to take over the family,” Quick was sure. The Lamplighters weren’t exactly nobles, but their succession was usually from father to eldest son, unless there was some reason to believe the presumptive heir was a poor choice. Old Donel, the current patriarch, had exactly one son, Daire, and they didn’t get along. As far as Quick knew, Daire didn’t actually want to succeed his father, but it would have been rude to say what everyone apparently still whispered, that Naiden was being groomed to take over if Daire didn’t show signs of growing up. Both men glanced at Daire to see if he had heard the unsaid and taken offense, but he was gazing off into the distance, apparently in his own world.
Naiden just smiled affectionately and rolled his eyes, but Quick stepped in and put his arm over Daire’s shoulders and made a show of looking for whatever his friend was staring at. “Is my friend the seer having a vision? Pray, wise one, share your gift with these poor sinners. What does the future hold?”
Daire shook Quick off with a laugh. “You jest, Quick, but our family’s gifts have been known to include prophecy. For all you know, I did just see the future.”
Naiden waggled his finger at his cousin, grinning. “Yes, and who was the last Lamplighter with the sight? Our great grandfather?”
“His great grandfather, I believe,” Quick put one hand theatrically to his forehead and feigned a swoon. “No word from the heavens on the fate of this poor supplicant? Must I continue to make my way through this world of trouble and strife blindfolded? Oh woe!”
Daire grew serious again, and said quietly, “Be careful what you wish for, Quick. I had a dream last night, and I fear it may be prophecy. That’s what I was thinking about just now.”
“A dream? Not a good one, either, by the sound of it. But what makes you think it’s more than just a dream?”
Daire shook his head. “It was no ordinary dream. All the time I knew I was dreaming, but I couldn’t control the dream, the way you normally can when you know that. And it was so clear, even on waking, even now. I can remember every detail. Not that I want to.”
Naiden looked genuinely concerned. “What did you see?”
Daire shuddered and ran his hands through his hair. “I was running through a swamp, chasing will o’the wisps. I lost my compass, then my staff, but I kept running. I knew I wasn’t going to catch one, because you can’t, but I kept chasing them despite that. Finally I saw what I took at first to be the largest wisp yet, but when I go closer I saw it was a fire. I slogged my way onto an island of dry land in the swamp, where I saw a neat, empty campsite. There was the fire, of course, and a pot of something savory, and wash water, replacements for what I had lost, and a large dry tent. I knew then that this was what I had been searching for, and the wisps had merely been distractions.”
Naiden nodded approvingly. “Well at least it had a happy ending, then.”
Quick winced inwardly, because he knew better. Daire was too emotional by half most of the time, a failing common in his family, but he wouldn’t have been so broken up by the dream if it hadn’t gotten much worse than what he’d already revealed by the end. And indeed, Daire was scowling at Naiden as he continued. “That was not the end, cousin. Though it’s funny you should speak up here, because you are about to enter the story. Just as I was surveying the camp, you walked up, girded in your armor. You said ‘We must go, you are needed.’ Then you reached out with your right hand and…” Daire paused, face etched with remembered pain, and took a quick breath before plunging back in. “You reached into my chest and pulled out my beating heart. Then you placed it in my hands and said ‘That belongs here.’ I nodded and walked over to the tent with it. I placed it on the ground in front of the tent, covering it with a corner of the flap over the entrance. I stood and followed you out of the camp. As we walked through the swamp, we started to burn, brighter and brighter with every step. The very swamp around us was burned away and we walked across an empty plain, blazing like the sun. The shadows grew around us, though, and ate our light as fast as we could produce it. For a time it seemed we must prevail, but the darkness surged around me and I felt my fire die. The darkness crawled down my throat and into the hole in my chest and my limbs went cold and dead. I fell into the darkness, and I knew no more.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then, that seemed to last for hours. Quick was, as usual, the one to break it. “That is a truly harrowing dream, Daire, and no wonder it still haunts you. There’s no reason to suspect it’s truly prophetic, though. Everybody gets strange dreams from time to time. Just last night I had one myself. Shall I tell it?”
Naiden stared at Quick, apparently trying to decide if he was being serious. Daire knew better, and just smiled weakly. “Well,” Quick said, feigning reluctance, “if you insist. My dream began at a party very much like the one we are about to attend. All the most influential and beautiful people in Tewett were there, dancing the night away. Around they spun, in a complicated pattern that I didn’t recognize. I joined in, though, and the steps came to me as I danced them. I was having the time of my life.” Quick was speaking faster now, though he didn’t realize it, and he was only vaguely aware that he was ahead of Daire and Naiden, zig zagging across the cobbles in an imitation of the dance he described. Suddenly he clambered up a light pole and hung by one hand from the bar next to the shining crystal. “But it was not to last, my friends! The pattern of the dance spun me into a corner where I stumbled into a moldy old tapestry, and I fell through a concealed passage into darkness.” Naiden and Daire were just passing the pole then, and Quick kicked off from the pole and dropped between then, grabbing their shoulders. “I couldn’t find my way back to the light and the music, so I went deeper into the dark, through dust and cobwebs and the names of the dead.” Somewhere in Quick’s head a rational voice said That was an odd thing to say, but his mouth kept going. “I walked for a thousand years in a few minutes and then I saw a light ahead. I knew I hadn’t found my way back to the party, because the light was cold and blue–frozen light, frozen time. Not at all the right light for a party, you see. But it was better than the dark and the dead, so I sought it out. I entered a crypt of marble, lined with the stony visages of great men and women long dead. In the center of the room was a simple stone block the size of a table, and on that block was the source of the chilly light.” Quick let go of their shoulders, now, and darted out ahead again. Dimly he realized that the two Lamplighters were not his only audience. A number of the surrounding guards, and even what looked like random passers-by were watching him with interest.
“Shall I describe the source of this eerie incandescence? Alas, I cannot, for I could not bring myself to look upon it, even in a dream. I was filled with dread, and my feet were rooted to the floor as though by mortar.” As if for contrast, Quick turned and walked backwards down the uneven cobbles, gesturing wildly at his rapt audience. “Desperate to lay my gaze somewhere other than the source of my dread, I turned to the marble walls and the faces of the honored dead. And what I saw then, my friends, wounded me to my very soul–more terrible and horrible than anything that had come before! I saw….”
Quick’s heel struck an upturned brick and he feel backwards. Automatically he caught himself, albeit just barely, with his outstretched hands. Too stunned to move, he held himself there, one foot sticking up, suspended on his other foot and his hands mere inches from staining his breeches on the street. He knew he must look ridiculous, and his face flushed hot.
Daire was the first to laugh, long and hearty, and soon Naiden joined in. Taking their cue from the Lamplighters, but unwilling to risk offense, the guards and random citizens who’d been following the strange performance indulged in scattered chuckles as well. Daire stepped forward and helped Quick back to his feet, turning the movement into a brotherly embrace and a hearty slap on the back.
Quick strode on down the street, trying to hide his embarrassment. Daire stayed just behind and to his right, asking “I’m afraid for both our sakes to ask, Quick, but what was it that you saw?”
Quick stumbled again, although there were no uneven cobbles here, but kept his feet. Forcing a smile, he looked over his shoulder at Daire and lied “I saw people who were stuck in marble when they could have been dancing!”