Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The 4th Daughter -- My 2018 Fantasy Novel



I’ve finished the first draft of my 2018 fantasy novel tentatively titled The 4th Daughter. The first draft came in at about 117K words, and when the dust settles after my revisions it will likely be around my target length of 120K words – about the length of A Summer in Amber.

My plan is to spend as much time this summer as I need making my revisions. Putting words on a blank screen is the hard part of writing for me. Going over those words and tweaking them is the part of writing that I really enjoy. I’ve a feeling that if I spend my usual two hours a day writing, I will likely be done with my revisions well before the end of summer. I need to draw a map or two, and paint several possible paintings for the cover art, but those projects shouldn’t hold up the show. Once I’m satisfied with the story, I will send it off to my proof and beta readers for their input. (If you would like to volunteer to read an almost final version of this story prior to publication, just drop me an email and I will put you on my beta reader list.) After any revisions inspired by my beta readers, I plan to publish it as both an ebook and as paperback book. The ebooks will once again be free, where possible. My original target release date was in the October- November, 2018. However, with the first draft done, I might be able to push the release date up a month or so, if all goes well. 

This time around, the story is my take on a fantasy. I’ve read my share of fantasy books over the last 50 years, but I can’t claim to be a great fan of fantasy. I love Glen Cook’s Garrett PI series. For more traditional fantasies I prefer the ones set in an alternate-China setting. These days, however, I must admit that most fantasy stories no longer appeal to me. So why did I write a fantasy? First, I wanted to write something a little different. I also wanted to write something that might attract the attention of a new group of readers to expand my readership. And finally, I took it up as a personal challenge to see if could I write a fantasy story without using all the common fantasy tropes that I dislike – their vast scales of time and action, the endless conflict between the personified forces good and evil, light and darkness, the use of magic, all the various gods and other mythological creatures, and all their darkness, blood, violence, and death. And I must admit I had fun trying to turn as many of those tropes on their head as possible. For example, I have no evil forces in the story – a few ruthless and bloody-minded people, but none that are essentially evil. For the setting I have created an imaginary world, many centuries after the fall of a technologically advanced civilization. The story takes place across a sprawling steppe empire with technology at a horse, sword, and oil lamp level. However, more advanced technology – trains, electric lights and oil, steam, and electric motors reinvented with the help of relics left from the “Elder Civilization” – are beginning to be introduced from a neighboring nation. The story centers around the title character, Ren Loh, the fourth (and unnecessary) daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne and Kel Cam, a historian from that advanced nation. Since I hate blurbs that are a synopsis of the story, I’ll just say that it follows my usual pattern: a small scale, cozy story of adventure, travel, and romance.

Well, that’s how things stand as of today with The 4th Daughter. Stay tuned for more updates.

Friday, May 4, 2018

3 Years in Self-Publishing



Since April 23rd marked my third year as a self-published writer of adventure/travel/romance novels set in imaginary places, it’s time to publish my annual report on my past year in the self-publishing business.

Let’s start with the numbers. Please note; the vast majority of “sales” are free downloads.

Sales and ratings of 1 May 2018:

A Summer in Amber (23 April 2015)
Download/sales:
Year 1: 2,359
Year 2: 1,220
Year 3: 1,336 w/ 2 print sales
Total to Date: 4,915
Ratings: (# of ratings) star average
Amazon (20) 4.4
Amazon UK (4) 4
Smashwords (6) 4.17
iBooks (13) 4.5
B & N (2) 5
Goodreads (26) 3.73

Some Day Days (9 July 2015)
Download/sales:
Year 1: 1,141
Year 2: 509
Year 3: 400
Total to Date: 2050
Ratings: (# of ratings) star average
Amazon (2) 3
Smashwords (1) 4
iBooks (6) 4
B & N (0)
Goodreads (4) 3

The Bright Black Sea (17 September 2015)
Download/sales:
Year 1: 3,178
Year 2: 2,567
Year 3: 2,091 w/1 print sale
Total to date: 7,836
Ratings: (# of ratings) star average
Amazon (36) 4.4
Smashwords (12) 4.75
iBooks (60) 4.5
B & N (6) 4.8
Goodreads (42) 4.02

Castaways of the Lost Star (4 Aug 2016 – 13 July 2017)
Download/sales:
Year 2: 1,700
Year 3: 476
Ratings: (# of ratings) star average
Smashwords (5) 5
Goodreads (14) 4.57
Rest unavailable since being withdrawn
Final Total: 2,176

The Lost Star’s Sea (13 July 2017)
Download/sales:
Year 3: 2,078 w/1 print sales
Total to date: 2,078
Ratings: (# of ratings) star average
Amazon (9) 3.8
Smashwords (2) 5
iBooks (8) 5
B & N (1) 5
Goodreads (10) 4.2

Combined Download/sales:
Year 1: 6,537
Year 2: 6,137
Year 3: 6,381 w/ 4 print sales
Total to Date: 19,055

Steady As She Goes.

My business plan is simple. Like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos I’m forgoing immediate (and tiny) profits in favor of building my readership for the long run. I am also following his aggressive pricing policy. Since I can produce my ebooks and paperback at no monetary cost, I’m selling them for free and not losing money by doing so. Indeed, with my Amazon foreign, non-price matched sales, I’m showing a slight profit.

I am not actively promoting my books beyond pricing them as friction-less impulse buys. My books do not fit the contemporary high volume mainstream markets in their genre, so I doubt that actively promoting them would prove worthwhile. The truth, however, is that I don’t want to bother with self-promoting. I’m writing for fun, not profit, and I’ll only willing to do what I enjoy. And for that luxury, I’ll gladly accept my modest, but steady growth.


Highlights of this year in publishing



On 13 July 2017 I released the complete companion volume in the Lost Star Stories series, The Lost Star’s Sea. It replaced my 2016 stop-gap book, Castaways of the Lost Star. This short novel was intended to be the opening episode of The Lost Star’s Sea and it took its proper place in the complete release. This volume concludes the adventures of Wil Litang. Though only two volumes long, it contains more than 650K words. The series could have been stretched into six volumes, but with no monetary incentive to do so, I wanted to make reading the complete story as friction-less as possible, so I condensed it down to two free “Buy” clicks.

As with Castaways, I had the help of a number of volunteer beta readers who pointed out errors and provided me with valuable feedback. I would like to thank them, once again, for their time and effort in making this a better book than what I could do on my own. 

I do believe, however, that writing this companion volume at this time was a business mistake. While it is gospel in the indie publishing world to write series books – and write the first three books before releasing the first one, this is, I think, “A Trap!” for the beginning writer. If the first book succeeds, then the sequels pay off. But if it doesn’t, then one has three non-sellers instead of just one. Why gamble early? Besides, there is always a natural attrition between volumes as readers who did not like the first book will not go on to the second book, and some of the readers on the fence after each book will fall away as well. And while the releases of sequels may spark interest in the first book of the series, a new, unrelated book will likely do this just as well, plus offering a chance of selling more books than the previously published book. I suppose if one has sold a large number of the first book in the series, one can afford the inevitable attrition as the series continues, but unless you have a large pool of readers, I don’t think a sequel makes business sense.

That being the case, the current sales of The Bright Black Sea does not, I think, justify a sequel from a business prospective, especially since I spent the better part of two years writing it. Those two years could’ve been better spent writing two different books, each of which would have offered the prospect of attracting a wider readership beyond that of The Bright Black Sea’s. This is not to say that I don’t like or I’m not proud of The Lost Star’s Sea, nor indeed, regret writing it. Rather that I recognize that from a purely business standpoint, I shouldn’t have done it. I won’t make that mistake again. Until I write my break-out novel, all my future books will different types of stand alone books.

Work on the 2018 Book

Which brings me to my 2018 book. At this point of time I’m 95K words into its first draft. I expect to finish this draft by the end of the month (May 2018). Knock on wood. I then plan to spend the summer polishing it, before having it proofread for a release in the October-November 2018 time frame. The working title is The Fourth Daughter. However, since there is already a book by that title, I’ll have to come up with a different final title. As for the story itself, it is my standard adventure/travel/romance novel, set in an imaginary land. This time around, I’m taking aim at the fantasy market so the technology is mostly at the horse and sword level. It doesn’t, however, have many (any?) fantasy tropes, and so, like my other books, it rather falls into the cracks between genres and sub-genres. Still, I think it presents the chance of attracting new readers to all my books.

Paperback Editions



Since I wasn’t writing in October 2017, I had time on my hands. I decided to spend some of it producing print on demand trade paperback versions of my books. I planned to use them as thank you gifts for the people who have helped and encouraged me in my writing efforts. I have no commercial illusions, especially since the ebook versions are free. As a matter of fact, I’ve sold four paper books to date, which is four more than I ever expected to sell.

I started creating the paper books using Amazon’s program to produce paper books, but switched to (Amazon owned) Create Space to finish the job. Unlike Amazon at that time, Create Space would provide proof copies for me to inspect before actually publishing them. Amazon not only did not provide this service, but I’d have to publish and then buy my own books – at retail price to boot.

The process was a learning experience. Though not especially difficult, it was time consuming and frustrating at times. The books could be produced in LibreOffice and Gimp, so the process was within my expertise. Most of the problems I experienced arose, I think, from the fact that my older books were originally written in old versions of OpenOffice on a Mac, and those files refused to cooperate with my current version of LibreOffice on Windows. The main issue was setting up non-numbered “title pages.” The old OpenOffice version allowed only one title page before it began to count pages, while in LibreOffice, you can set any number of pages before it starts numbering them. Amazon requires Chapter One to start on page 1, so all the pages before Chapter One cannot be part of the numbering. I spent many an hour trying workarounds to get this to happen in my oldest works.

Once I had the printed proof copies in hand, it seemed that (hopefully – but unlikely – all) the remaining mistakes and awkward sentences that I had overlooked on my many previous readings popped out at me. So, with paper books in hand, I spent several weeks reading each book again in print to correct and slightly revise the books, hopefully making both the ebooks and paper books better for it.

My First and Last Promotional Effort

In December 2018 I decided to try a simple free promotion. I ran a Goodreads drawing for one paper copy of The Bright Black Sea. My drawing ran the whole month of December and I had a rather disappointing 572 entrants. I had also promoted my free ebooks in the contest blurb hoping the contest would spur my ebooks sales. As far as I can see, it did no such thing. All in all, my first, and likely last, promotional effort was largely a bust, though an inexpensive one; merely the wholesale price of the book, and the cost of shipping to the winner.

Selling Directly on Kobo

In January 2018 I decided that since Kobo does not report free sales to Smashwords, but does to the authors who list their books directly with them, I would switch to directly listing my books with Kobo. I wanted to see what sort of sales I was missing. In the process I lost the 4 ratings my books had on Kobo – no great loss – and I have discovered how many books I was moving on Kobo – 33 in 4 months. Now I know.

New List Prices on Amazon

Also in January 2018 Amazon stopped price matching The Bright Black Sea so it reverted to its list $.99 price. Perhaps taking my Smashwords distributed books out of Kobo for a few days before listing them my own triggered this action. In any event, since this was my best selling book, and the first book of my two book series, I was not happy. The last time Amazon did this, I had it priced at $3.99. It stayed at that price for 6 months until the release of Castaways of the Lost Star. I think I sold around a dozen copies. This time around, I did nothing in January, to gauge how well the book would sell at $.99. I sold some, but not enough to make me think it was worth keeping it at $.99. So, when February rolled around, I changed the list prices of all my books. From past experience, I thought that this might trigger an automated reevaluation on the part of Amazon and probably would reset all the prices back to free. It did.

Given that my Amazon list prices matter only in the foreign Amazon stores, and that in 2017 I earned enough royalties from foreign sales to order out a pizza, I decided to forgo that pizza and instead use my prices to reflect the size and quality of my products. So in February I changed my list prices to:

A Summer in Amber $8.50 ebook $12.50 paperback
Some Day Days $5.50 ebook $9.00 paperback
The Bright Black Sea $12.50 ebook $25.00 paperback
The Lost Star’s Sea $12.50 ebook $25.00 paperback

I decided to align my books with traditionally published books rather than with indie published books. Now pricing is a business decision, not a self-awarded seal of excellence. However, people do equate price with quality. I decided that it was worth giving up the trickle of income from foreign sales to suggest to people who look on ebook prices as an indicator of reading quality, that my books are the equals of traditionally published books, since I believe they are. Much to my surprise, I have sold several ebooks at these new prices, and, together with my paperback sales, it’s looking to be a banner year for record profits! Profits are already into double digits, and it is only May! I’m rich, rich, rich!

Conclusion

And that, in a nut shell, was my third year of self-publishing. After finishing The Lost Star’s Sea I tried out several new story ideas, but nothing quite clicked. I’ve posted those starts on this blog if you are curious. In the end, I took a couple of months off from writing to develop a new story that I thought was original and interesting enough to devote a year’s worth of daydreaming and work to it. I want to make each book not only better than the last one, but as different from the rest as I can, if only for my sake. I don’t want to do the same old thing day in and day out – without getting a paycheck every two weeks. And with that, we’ll see what my fourth year brings. Stay tuned.

Comments and questions are always welcomed.







Saturday, March 31, 2018

Cozy Science Fiction



I’ve been thinking about how to classify my new (hopefully) 2018 book. (63K words/first draft – halfway – at this point in time.) The story lacks so many of the usual tropes of its nominal genre that it doesn’t seem to fit any of the genre's 66 different sub-genres, and so I haven’t a clue as to what it is. This is not unique to this book. It pretty much describes all my books.

Why my books don’t fit comfortably into the mainstream of current science fiction is not a great mystery to me. They are what they are because I imagine and write stories like the ones I enjoy reading. And the stories I enjoy reading are, by and large, not current science fiction. It seems that my taste in books has failed to keep up with the changing fashions in literature, and science fiction.

I like light, clever, and witty adventure stories, with characters that I can enjoy spending hours in their company. I dislike stories with unpleasant or remote characters, which is why I generally prefer first person narratives. I also don’t like the current fashion of slicing and dicing stories – stories with multiple points of view and/or ones that flash back and forth in time. I like stories, not puzzles.

The stories I write bear the hallmarks of the popular fiction of the Victorian/Edwardian era. Some of my favorite writers include Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). Sax Rohmer, (Fu Manchu), H Rider Haggard, (Alan Quartermain), C J Cutcliffe Hyne (Captain Kettle), John Buchan (Richard Hannay), Compton Mackenzire (Highland novels), Guy Gilpatric (Glencannon) Kenneth Grahme (The Golden Age), and Edgar Rice Burroughs, (John Carter).

I also value clever, witty stories by writers who use the English language to entertain independently of the story they are telling. In addition to some of the writers listed above, this category includes writers like Raymond Chandler, (Philip Marlowe), P G Wodehouse, (Bertie Wooster), Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin), George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman), Jonathan L Howard (Cabal), and Jasper Fforde, who’s book Shades of Grey is my current favorite science fiction book. I can, and have, read many of their stories several times over, simply to enjoy their use of the language. It is a talent I aspire to, but alas, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Given my old fashioned taste in books, and the fact that science fiction books do not make up a great proportion of my favorite books, it is not surprising that my science fiction books fall outside of the mainstream of science fiction. I have a “steampunk” novel that – spoiler alert – has no zombies in it. Instead of having 19th century versions of 21st century technology in the Victorian era, I have Edwardian technology in the late 21st, along with a remnant of early 21st century technology. Unlike most space operas, my space opera is not military science fiction because I consider space operas to be space ship and space travel stories rather war stories. My space opera’s sequel is a planetary romance which hasn’t been a thing for 70 years. And then we have my odd duck sci-fi romance, which is pretty much unlike anything. All my books fall between the cracks of genres, and the new one will too.

While I was thinking of how I might describe my newest story, I came to realize that all my books have one common denominator. Some years ago the term “cozy mysteries” was coined to describe modern stories that attempted to recapture the charm of the early, Agatha Christie style of mysteries. Seeing that my stories lack the graphic violence and sex common in modern fiction, and that the prototypes of these stories date from the same era or earlier, I believe that they can be described as “cozy science fiction.” While they may not feature white-haired busybodies, they do feature ordinary, pleasant people in extraordinary – but not too extraordinary – circumstances. While the circumstances they face may be deadly to the characters, the stakes are low compared to those of many stories where the fate of a nation, a world, or the galaxy hangs by a thread. Indeed, sometimes the stake is just happiness… I think that this combination of pleasant characters and modest stakes, along with modest violence, little in the way of rough language, and just enough sex to keep them from being YA novels (I hope) makes them good candidates for “cozy science fiction.” So, is cozy science fiction is a thing? Well, there are some “cozy catastrophe science fiction” -- a handful of small scale survival stories set in a post catastrophic England, but other than that, well, it seems to be pretty much an unclaimed island. That being the case,  I think I’ll plant my flag on cozy science fiction and make it my own.



Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A New Story Underway

Well, after some idle time over the summer and fall after finishing up The Lost Star's Sea, and several false starts, I'm 25,000 words into a new, stand alone story. Ideally, I'd like to see it finished and published in the Oct - Nov 2018 time frame, which is quite do-able. But it will be done when it is done, and I'm not feeling any pressure to get it done by a certain date. I will keep you informed as to landmarks in its progress.

It has been rather slow going, three steps forward and two back. I've rewritten the opening act several times over the last two months. After getting some 20,000 words into the story I realized that I had focused on two characters that I didn't actually need, and who would play no part in the rest of the story after the first act. Now, I'm never one to start a story off like a bat out of hell, so spending 20,000 words on non-essential characters right off the bat seemed like a pretty iffy proposition. So I started over. I've had to revise this second start several times as I change my mind on how I want to stage the action. The opening act needs to set up not only the rest of the story, but the climax as well, so I have to make the actions in the opening act justify the climax. I think I have the first act down now, except for the usual tweaking -- that is best done by coming back to it after the story is completed. 

With the opening act more or less done, my writing is now bumping up against my day-dreaming. While I have the story sketched in, many of the day-to-day scenes need to be dreamed up, and to do that I usually have to replay and revise every scene many times in my head to get it right -- preferably before I put it into words. If I put it into words too soon, as I have been doing, I then have to go back and change those words. And then go back in subsequent revisions and try to get the words right. I have a ways to go... But I've been putting 2 - 4 hours a day into it, so it will get done, if I live long enough.


You may have noticed that I've been very vague as to what type of story I am writing. I want it to be a surprise. I will only say that it is something different than what I've written before. Life is too short to do the same thing over and over again -- without a regular paycheck. So you can expect that it will not be a space opera, a planetary romance, a steampunk adventure romance, or a new adult SF romance.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Bright Black Sea -- Free Again

It appears that Amazon once again is price-matching The Bright Black Sea, (as of 1 Feb 2018) after I raised the price to $12.50. I'm happy. I guess it pays to be a little passive-aggressive. Some Day Days is still full price, but that is a very slow seller on Amazon, so I don't care about that. Update Hey, I sold a copy of Some Day Days! Thanks!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Still Free (Except on Amazon)


Amazon is the only major ebook seller that requires ebooks to have a minimum price of $.99. They will, however, match the price of the books their competitors offer – at their discretion. For the most part they have matched the free price of my books. Some two years ago they decided not to price match The Bright Black Sea (then priced at $3.99), and in the six months before the release of Castaways of the Lost Star, I sold something like 10 copies. This month they have again decided not to price match both The Bright Black Sea, my “best seller” and Some Day Days, my slowest seller. While I would rather just give my books away, I’m cool with that, since they have, over the last nearly three years, kindly matched my free price (in the US). I can’t complain.

Now, if I could sell a copy a day, at $.99 I’d be very happy – that would put me in the upper 5 - 6 % of indie authors on sales volume. I’d accept half that sales figure. But below that, I think I could find a better use for my prices on Amazon.

I view the price of a book as a marketing decision. I chose FREE because I could “sell” a hundred times the books I could sell if I put a price on them, even as low as $.99. And I could get a hundred times the ratings and reviews, which I value. And although I’ve no intention of making a career of writing, if I was, I’d likely follow the same strategy – the Amazon strategy of losing money early to build a long term business. (Especially since it would be pocket change.) However, there are some people who think the price of a book is a self-awarded badge of excellence. If an author doesn’t charge money for their book, or very little, they think it is because the author doesn’t think highly of it. I really doubt that this is the case. You don’t publish something for everyone to read that you think stinks – no one needs that kind of grief. This snobbish attitude also extend to readers. I’ve come across postings on blogs were the readers of free books are disparaged, not worth a real author’s efforts. I don’t know how widespread this attitude, this misconception, is, but just in case it is widespread, I can now do something to address it. I can raise my list prices on Amazon.

So what should I charge for my books, if I want them to reflect my self-awarded badge of excellence? Prior to listing all of them at $.99, I had them at $1.99 for Some Day Days, $2.99 for A Summer in Amber, and $3.99 for The Bright Black Sea. These are standard indie-published prices. But… well, I think my books are better than the standard indie-published book, so if price reflects quality, I really should price them out of the common indie range. Right? $9.99 is the highest price one can set and still get Amazon’s 70% royalties, so most ebooks stay under that limit. However, big publishers charge between $12 and $15 or more for their new releases, and my books are certainly as good as theirs, so perhaps I’d best follow their lead and price my books in similar fashion. I can afford to turn a blind eye to the fact that pricing them over $9.99 will actually bring me less money because I know that they will actually bring me no money. So, with that thinking here is my new Amazon Price List, effective 1 Feb. 2018:

Some Day Days:        ebook $5.50    177 page trade paperback $9.00
A Summer in Amber:  ebook $8.50    276 page trade paperback $12.00
The Bright Black Sea: ebook $12.50  703 page trade paperback $25.00
The Lost Star’s Sea:   ebook $12.50  723 page trade paperback $25.00

All of the ebook versions will remain FREE in all the other stores, Kobo, iBook, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Hopefully Amazon will soon go back to matching their competitor's prices for all books. But that will be up to them.



Monday, January 22, 2018

Rust in the Dust


This is the last of the "story noses" I wrote over the summer. It's pretty much just a "info dump." The basic premise was much the same of the Velvet Night Islands -- a previous civilization has left artifacts behind. Most are just pieces of technology that the current civilization does not understand. In the story, one of the provinces is threatening civil war, though it is certain to be defeated, by the combined forces of the other provinces. So why does it seem to be pursuing this course? One suggestion is that they have uncovered a WORKING artifact from the previous civilization that will allow them to triumph. The heroes of the story set out to find this artifact, if it exists. The reason the story never got written is that I could not think of a way to, one, make it any different than a sort of intrigue/spy story -- they track down clues within the threatening province while trying to avoid capture, and two, what could this artifact be. I didn't want to do a GIANT ROBOT... I just came up short in the imaging department. I just could not come up with something to make it unique enough to bother writing.

I had several opening. In some the war had already began. But this is the only one I can find.

Note: As usual, this is a first draft, non proofread version.


Chapter 1 May 14



01
Twenty-seven books will not fill a wall of bookshelves, not even the wall of a very cozy dormer office under the rafters of Croft Hall, Wayscross University. This came as not a complete surprise to me. I had hoped, however, that by artistically spreading my twenty-seven books out across the shelves – displaying the larger volumes cover out – I might create the impression that the shelves were more filled than they actually were. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. Indeed, rather than disguising my scarcity of books, it seemed to emphasis the barrenness of the shelves – each book a lonesome cry of despair.
Stepping back to consider my options, I sent the coat tree teetering, saving it from crashing onto my desk with a desperate grab and an angry curse.
'I would think, Nies, that after seven years of travel up and down the Great Serpent you'd have accumulated enough rusty talismans, curiosities, nicknacks, keepsakes and lightprints to fill a little bookshelf like that,' said a once familiar voice from the open doorway behind me.
It had been all of those seven years since I'd last heard the voice of my best friend. Still, it had been seven years, so it was with both eagerness, and wariness, that I spun to greet her.
'Ash!'
She hadn't changed. Not too much. She was leaning on the door-frame, hands in the pockets of her long dark green traveling coat, with a rather shapeless felt hat at the back of her head. She stared down her long nose at me, took me in, and then leisurely withdrew her hand from the coat's pocket and extended it.
I took her cool hand in my own, and then, what the blue beyond, pulled her close and gave her a bear hug as well. She didn't resist, and may've even tapped me on the back once or twice herself with her free hand until I released her, to hold her at arm's length.
'It is wonderful to see you. I wrote you...'
'Six letters, I believe.'
'Five. Two to your Boulevard of Evening Blossoms address, two in care of the Ministry of Trade, and one to Hayvale. The sixth was to your father asking about you. He, at least, replied, if only to say that he was unable to help since you don't keep him any better informed of your whereabouts than I. He did, however, invite me down to Hayvale, with or without you, and I will certainly take him up on that. Hopefully with you. So why didn't you answer any of my letters?'
'I'm here.'
'You are indeed. I withdraw my complaint.' I said, gazing on her fondly. '
There are not likely all that many people in the world who can gaze on her fondly.
Ashra Bedoux, Baroness Roudorn is a hard person to be fond of. She is tall as I, though slimmer. Her face is long, with a wide mouth that naturally settles into a disapproving frown. She can, however, with very little effort, twitch into a condescending sneer. Back when I first knew her – when we were students – she often found it necessary to make that effort. She held her head in such a way that she could look down along her long, thin nose on you, regardless of your height, with unspoken contempt in her green eyes half hidden under lazy eyelids. Now, as then, she wore her chestnut colored hair very short. In her youth she could, and often did, dress and pass herself off as a boy, despite the fact that she holds male sex in contempt. Or perhaps because she does. By passing herself as a boy she may've been trying to show us what we should strive to be, given the possibilities of our sex. All in all, many people found her to be unpleasant and uncomfortable company. And yet, when she laughs, or even smiles, she's almost pretty – confidential, rather than condescending. She rarely smiles and hardly ever laughs.
Still, I've seen more than my share of those rare smiles and laughs, for as I said, she was my best friend throughout my university years. There were even a couple of years back then, when I was in love with her. Blame it on my youth.
I came to my senses. 'Come in, sit down… What am I thinking of?' I said, drawing her in to my new office.
'I have no idea. However, having found you, I shall now return to my room to sleep. It was a rough night passage from Litabay – no sleep at all. No sleep either on the rail carriages from Southarbor. I've taken a room at the Station Hotel. Hire some horses and pick me up there at four. We can ride out into the countryside and dine at one of the outlying inns.'
'I won't hear of that. I've a spare room in my digs. Let's get your bags. You'll stay with me.'
She shook her head. 'No. We must think of your new career. Your new colleagues will be watching you. You must choose your friends wisely. I'm not a wise choice…'
'Bosh!'
'Trust me. There are important people in the University who will remember me…'
'True, but they also remembered me as your boyfriend. That didn't seem to matter.'
'I'm sure they're hoping Sunset has knocked the foolishness out of you. You mustn't disillusion them. We'll ride in the countryside where we can talk freely without covert glances and wagging tongues.'
I didn't think she was right, but I wasn't going to win the argument. I never did. 'Well, we needn't hire horses. I have a new three-wheeler. We can take it on a long drive and dine far from the gossips. I'll pick you up at the station entrance.'
'A runabout? Was that mystery find of yours a King's Talisman that you can afford a runabout?'
'I'll tell you all about that find as we drive. It is the better part of seven years of unspent wages that allow me to purchase a small runabout, a Gough and Hardinge Four.'
' Did you go native and live off a game in log huts?'
'Mostly I lived in tents. However, the Institute provides all the necessities while you're in the field, so as long as you keep to the field and didn't gamble or keep an expensive mistress, you needn't touch your salary to live. I kept to the field. And now, with a free summer and a great deal of leave owed to me, I felt a GH 4 would allow me to get reacquainted with…'
'Civilization'
'Camalea, in any event.'
'Can you pilot a runabout?'
'I'm learning. It's not hard.'
'Never mind, I can. The station courtyard at four,' she said, and turned to go.
'Wait, let me get my hat (it had fallen on the floor) I'll walk you back to the station.'
She glanced back to serve me one of her sneers. 'Did nothing I said about gossips penetrate?'
I sighed. 'You're wrong. But we won't argue. At four then.'
She nodded, and slipped into the dark corridor. I stepped to the doorway to watch her walk down the dim lit corridor and disappear down the stairwell. Seven years and it seemed that nothing had changed. I was rather happy.


02
Baroness Roudorn selected me as her boyfriend five days after we had arrived at Wayscross for our first term. We both had digs in Tungstand Hall. She came to the univeristy to study economic history and I, arcaneology. I'd like to think that her interest in the economics of the Third Age (a field study that she was inventing), and mine in the arcane remains of the Three Lost Ages was the deciding factor, but I've never summoned the courage to ask her. I had a feeling, and still do, that her reasons, if she had any at all, were not very flattering, given the fact that she never made any secret of her tastes in lovers. She'd openly walk arm in arm, hand in hand with her girlfriends, her “sisters”, as she called them, regardless of how she dressed for the day – as a girl or as a boy. She once said that she needed n official boyfriend to give the masters of the University some small comfort – they could, if they cared to, dismiss the obvious by saying, “Be that as it may, she does have a boyfriend, you know, so...” Of course the fact that she was a young Avadorian Baroness may also have defused any scandal. Avadore Provence aristocracy are notorious for their free and easy ways in such matters so the young Baroness' flaunting of conventions could be viewed as merely the youthful indulgence of a headstrong, rebellious girl – a phase that would pass in time. The former may've been true, the later almost certainly wasn't. Unless she had changed in these seven years.
Still, somehow, despite my figurehead status, we grew close. With our shared interest in the Lost Ages, in their artifacts and what history could be pried out of dusty volumes written in Sumbarian, we grew to be in fact, the best of friends. I knew her only as a boy. A carefree, mischievous boy, who, with the self-assurance of an Avadorian Baroness – maintained that the rules simply didn't apply to her. She carried me off on many an ill-advised adventure during our five years at Wayscross. Art galleries were far more enjoyable when you had them to yourself – at midnight. The museums so much more interesting when you could rummage through their basement storage rooms, after closing hours. The dockland dives of Southarbor, offered far more authentic dinja music than anywhere else. Their questionable clientele merely added the spice that the music needed to be fully appreciated. Or so she claimed. To this day I never hear dinja music without a shiver snaking up my spine.
There was also a bright, far less risky side to being her pal – an idyllic month of deep summer spent in the heart of Avadore Province on her estate of Hayvale. Hayvale, as estates go, is quite small – little more than a large farm, a small village, and lots of wooded hills. But the great house was old and imposing, her father, Allader Bedoux, the Baron Roudorn, a great but kindly, man, and her step-mother, Contraina, a pleasant down to earth woman who was also a most marvelous cook and the author of several highly regarded cook books. The Baron is a famed economist, a schoolmate and close friend of the Grand Duke of Avadore, Lord Brydane. He's as settled and serene as his daughter is (or at least, was) wild and untamed. She, I'm given to understand, was much like her mother at her age. She died in a riding accident when Ashra was twelve years old. Two years later the Baron married Contraina, who, even as the wife of a Baron, takes a hands-on approach to preparing the meals at Hayvale. To Ashra's great credit, and to everyone's surprise, she accepted her step-mother without a fuss. It may've been due to the fact that Cantraina was content to be the Baron's wife, and not his daughter's mother. Or it may've been her cooking…. In any event, each summer I'd spend a month roaming the countryside with Ashra, ridding, hiking, swimming, and touring the province on horse back. I also fell in love with her in Hayvale, adopting, for a time, the old masters' belief that her taste in companions was just a passing fancy, as it had seemed to be with her mother.
It took me two years to realize that wasn't the case. She made it clear that she had no more desire to make love to a boy than I had – she hoped. I guess it made sense, she was a boy at heart, and will likely always be a boy at heart – a boy, but never a man. Our friendship survived the crisis, but with no ties to bind us together once we finished our studies, we parted ways, I for the great continent of Sunset, to make my name digging in the ash and dirt for the rusty fragments of the Lost Ages, and she to a post in the Avadore Ministry of Trade. And though we have kept in touch over the years with long, but infrequent letters, it can not overlooked how far apart we've been these years. While I find that she's still as dear to me as she had been, I must wait to see how life had changed her – and me in her eyes.



03
Wayscross Rail Carriage Station and Hotel is a grey stone building, built in perpendicular style with five stacks of bowed out windows on either side of the wide entry arch rising four stories to dormers in the steep-pitched roof. The central entry arch leads to the glass roofed platforms, with a buffet and shops on the left, and the hotel dinning room on the right. It has a busy stone paved courtyard in front where passengers and goods are dropped off or picked up.
Arriving a bit early, I cautiously edged my runabout into the fringe of the busy courtyard – crowded with electric and horse-drawn cabs, delivery lorries, wagons and people, recklessly dodging the carts and cabs. A GH 4 is a light, low-slung vehicle, two wheels forward, one in back chain-driven by a voltaic-cell powered engine. From my low slung seat, I could look up and see the bellies of the draft horses staring down at me with suspicion, if not ill-concealed hostility. I took their warning to heart and declined to press my luck by pushing too deep into this throng.
I was greatly relieved when I spied Ash, impeccably dressed, emerge from shadows of the station arches. She was an elegant young man this afternoon – brown and white shoes, white twill trousers with a matching jacket, unbuttoned to show a bright yellow and blue stripped sweater over a pale blue shirt with a yellow silk scarf under the stand up collar around her neck. She had added a large pair of amber framed and tinted glasses to her look and finished it with a flat cap set at a rakish angle. Spying me, she picked her way though the throng, with a haughty look of disdain on her aristocratic face.
'Slide over, I'll drive,' she said as she reached the runabout.
'I can manage.'
'I'm sure you can. Still, I'll drive. We don't have all afternoon. Move.'
I could spend the rest of the afternoon arguing with her, and she's still end up driving, so I moved, sliding over to the passenger side of the narrow seat. She swung her leg over the low side panel of the runabout and as she slipped down into the seat, she drew the other one in. Taking the wheel in hand, she threw the runabout in reverse and twisting about started it moving decisively backwards. And with a few sharp warnings to unwary pedestrians, quickly extricated us from the courtyard and out into the stream of High Street traffic. I half turned in the cramped, or rather cozy seat, and took Ash in.
'You realize, my dear Ash,' I said as we drifted along in the mixed horse and electric traffic of the stone paved High Street. 'That if any of those people I'm supposed to avoid while in the company of Baroness Roudorn should happen to see me driving out with the foppish young man you're playing this afternoon, it will not do my reputation any more good than seeing you as you were this morning.'
'You're wrong. It will do you a great deal of good. Oh, I suppose that if some of your new bachelor scholar colleagues catch sight of you driving out with a bright young man like me they may be madly jealous. However, they'll get over it soon or later, and when they do, I'm sure you'll find them ever so nice and chummy.'
'They're not like that at all…'
'Ha! Wait and see… You'll be one of the old boys in no time.
'I don't want to be one of the old boys.'
'That's your choice. I'm just doing what I can to help you comfortably settle in to the cozy Wayscross academic society and make new friends.'
'You're not. You're merely having fun. At my expense. Hopefully no one will notice, and if they do, they won't recognize me.'
'They're noticing me,' she replied brightly, and flashed me one of her rare smiles. 'Where to?'
'Since you commandeered the wheel, so I guess it's your choice. You know the countryside as well as I.'
She considered our options as we left the busy High Street behind for the long, terrace house lined, tree shaded streets, of Wayscross's residential environs. 'The Angler's Rest?'
'Dinning in the garden along the Rhym sounds like just the ticket on a day like this. Plus it's far enough away that we're unlikely to run into anyone from the University on a weekday evening,' I added.
Five minutes later we put the row houses behind us and drove through hedge boarded cottages until even they grew thinner on the ground, leaving us only with the hedges. The white road stretched ahead of us, bordered by tall dark green hedges that hid the countryside beyond them from view, leaving us in a world of sunlit tree tops of distant woods, the pale blue sky, the bright white clouds, their flat bottoms silver grey as they sailed the sky, the purring of the wheels and the songs of the birds. On reaching the crest of a hill, we were rewarded with a brief glimpse of the next valley and the next hill beyond, hazy in the mild May sunlight and soft with distance. Occasionally the road would take us past or through the cool shadows of a woods, fresh with new leaves. Behind us, we left a thin cloud of white concrete and chalk dust – the main roads of Camalea are paved with concrete gravel excavated from dead cities – the ground up bones of the Lost Ages.
'How fast does your new toy go?' she asked, accelerated to answer her own question.
'They say it has a top speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour. But unless you want to walk home from The Angler's Rest tonight, you'd best keep it at 20.'
'Not much better than walking…'
'A great deal better than walking. You can put 200 miles on without charging, if you keep it at 20. And it will get you home.'
'The Angler's Rest isn't more than 25 miles…'
'Are you in such a great hurry to eat, my dear?' I asked, staring at the road ahead as the hedges started flashing by with rather alarming rapidity. I'd traveled this fast before, on the carriageline of course, and in bigger, more substantial vehicles of the Baron's as well – with Ash at the wheel. We hadn't ended up dead in a ditch. But it had always seemed rather touch and go. More touch and go than I'd prefer. It still did.
She sighed and slowed down – after having shoved the accelerator pedal to the floor board. As we drifted down to 20, she asked, 'Now tell me about your great find. The one you alluded to in your last letter from Sunset. Reading between the lines it sounded like you'd found an Iron Giant or a King's Relic, or even, working wizard's talisman? It has be one of those, given your great reluctance to say anything more than tantalizing hints about it.'
'Well, I didn't want to say too much until we had secured it. In the wilds of Sunset, you can't be sure what your rivals will do for a possibly intact First Age relic.'
'That's what you found?'
'Ash, this must stay strictly between us. Even though the relic is here in the Institute’s Wayscross warehouse, we don't want word to get out.. You know how it is. Find something too important and certain people get interested….'
'Like the King.'
'Like the King. Right now, it certainly doesn't meet the King's Find criteria. But it's hard to defy the King if he or his agents should take an interest in it, so it's better to keep things quiet for now.'
'We're all the King's men,' she said sarcastically.
'Right. And it will be his if it is his by right,' I replied. The kings of the 19 Provence of Andareia have laid claim to any working Lost Age relic or magical device that should be uncovered. It is extremely unlikely than any such relics or devices exist, since the First Age, known in myths and folklore as the Age of Iron Gods lies some 40,000 years in the past and the Second Age, the Age of Iron Wizards, lies more than 35,000 years in the past. I've spent more than a decade studying the science of arcaneology, and for the last seven years overseeing arcaneology digs on First and Second Age sites in Sunset, and so can say with a fair amount of certainly that finding anything more than crumpled, corroded metal amongst rubble fields of concrete or patters of rust and impressions of decayed components in the ash is an extremely rare occurrence. That I chanced upon one artifact that may be at least partially intact, was the break of a lifetime, my ticket to, if not fame, notoriety within the arcaneolgist community.
'So what is it you've found that you are hiding from the King?' she asked with a sidelong glance. 'You secret is safe with me.'
'I don't know. And may never know. But what makes it so special is that the vast majority of First Age finds, the metal appears to be largely free of corrosion. Rather than trying to reconstruct an artifact from the patters and layers of rust in the ash, we may have the artifact complete. And, if the metal enclosures are intact, we may be able to study the so-called talismanic parts of a First Age relic.'
'How can you be sure it's not just some Third Age machine? If it is intact, that would seem to be the most likely explanation.'
I shook my head, 'No, it is embedded deep in Fist Age ash. I suspect that it has been buried under the glaciers, frozen in permafrost these many eons, to have preserved it so well.'
The Third Age peaked a mere 2,000 years ago, and we are still living in its embers. There are those who claim that Andareia is the beginning of the Fourth Age, but in reality, we are, at best, Third Age point five, or the Northern Third Age. The Third Age was a southern and eastern continent phenomena, and what is not Andareia was an agricultural colony of the vast Sumbarain Empire, one of the great powers of the Third Age. The Sumbarian Empire has long since decayed into dozens of small, sleepy, agricultural based, nations, like Sumbara itself, much of its Third Age scientific and industrial wonders lost.
'So how did you come across it?'

'Luck mostly.