Friday, August 19, 2016

Time flies and evidently "Nerdstravaganza" is a curse word.

As some of you may know, I now do quite a bit of my writing for the Nerdstravaganza Podcast website, their content king if you will.

But I blinked and realized how sparse my on blog was looking lately. I got a wake up call, well more like a snooze bar when there a recent server blip over at the Ganza site.

It reminded me that most of that content is ONLY on the 'Ganza site. If it goes down, then a lot of my work is so much evaporated bits and bytes. That made me nervous.

Then, funny enough, my co-host Brian and I were playing No-Man's sky and discovered that both Nerdstravaganza and Ganza tripped the game profanity filters. That possibly explains why some of my lunch-time readers have complained that they can't access my free Clockwork River chapters at the Ganza site while they brown bag it at their workplace.

So that was the "last straw," and I'm going to make a concerted effort in the next few weeks to update the blog with my NG-P content, not only as a back up, but also because not every fan of Clockwork River, Zombie Bloom or the Tarnished Sun is also a 'Ganza fan.

So if you've been waiting for updates, thanks for your patience. I've just kicked out whole slew of chapters of Clockwork River for your enjoyment as an apology. Enjoy!

Rapids Ahead: Chapter Six of Clockwork River

Now Fen and Awrin have to use every skill and trick that posses to escape the Shan Kingdom capital as it burns all around them.
Clockwork River
By Christopher Robin Negelein

The wharf was worse than the streets but also added bobbing, unmoored boats and panicked people pushing and shoving with the unlucky ones already swimming in the river. Each place is worse than the last. Fen thought. We go from the kitchen, to the pot, right into the fire tonight.

The soldiers were here too. They had shoved all foreigners onto slave barges, olive, ebony and chalk-skinned people shoulder to shoulder with imperial bureaucrats, merchants and mercenaries who were chained together. Then one of the caravan survivors, Lord Vita, already in leg irons, looked in their direction. Please don't see us, Fen thought. The urge to step further back in the shadows was strong, but the sudden movement would be more a tip-off than standing still. There was a moment when his gaze went from resigned to hatred before a guard pushed him onto the boat, his leg irons rattling.

The stare was long enough. A leader pointed in their direction and young red rebels raced down the wharf. The siblings bolted, but they couldn't outrun the cry and alarm. Despite her exhaustion, Fen drew her sword and her trick scabbard while putting Arwin behind her.
The plan was for that to get him out of harm's way for as long as possible while he watched her back. That plan was the first casualty.

"We have company, Heron," Arwin said.

Why must he always state the obvious? She grunted, but kept the thought to herself. Time was better spent weighing her options, trying to find -- no make -- an escape route. She had been reacting to the whole night, no plan and no strategy. No, they were backed in a literal corner with no way out.

She spun to face her pursuers. "Go look for a boat, have dad tell you how to say 'we can protect your boat with magic."

Arwin raised an eyebrow. "Indeed. While you dance with your new suitors? I think not."
Fen blew a ginger strand out of her face. "I don't care how you get the boat, but get one. I'm holding them off." She reached out with her long arms and toppled some crates in front of her. If they tried to climb over, she would skewer them. "Go. Now." She heard his footfalls faded into the chaos all around them.

Two young rebels raced down the wharf to be the first to try her, smirking. While she weighed more than the shortest young assailant and had reach on them, all the boys could see was long hair and her chest. Sadly, they didn't see what happened to their friends. She smirked and tilted her head down. But I never tire of teaching this lesson, and these boys I could teach all day.

The young men clumsily wiggled around the crates while the others hung back. The chargers' grins faded as she bellowed like a true clan warrior and stomped up to them as loudly as she could.

She straight-armed her sword as she barreled forward. Metal scabbard at the ready. Her focus and fury narrowed her gaze into tunnel vision. So she saw the archers only at the last second.

With an, "Oh, shit," she dove for a crate. This is what those boys were grinning about. I lost my perspective. Arwin screamed something unintelligible behind her. Like a deer putting trees between her and a predator, she zigzagged towards him while keeping the crates between her and the flying arrows.

She dodged left as she heard an arrow dive in at the right. It bounced off a crate and clattered onto the wharf. They never stick in the wood like they do in the stories.
Fen then slid around a corner and found Arwin already climbing onto a river boat. She never slowed down. Taking a running leap while keeping her blades high to avoid cutting any passengers, she hit the crowded deck hard. Fen tried to stop rolling forward and getting tangled with the rest of the refugees. Her left shoulder banged into something. In the dark she wasn't sure what it was but it hurt. There was no time to wallow in the pain.

She stood straight up and strode up to the starboard side of the deck trying, to hide her hurt by letting her left arm limply hold the scabbard. "Arwin. Now would be a good time."
"No need to say it." He sighed." But it will be tricky to aim it without the red ball."


"Yes, I'm sorry."

Arrows, lit by the burning rags wrapped around them, arced beautifully towards the boat. She raced along the edge duckling around those leaning away from the projectiles. Putting herself in the way of the largest grouping of projectiles. People yelled at her.

She had no doubt that some refugees were screaming how insane she was. One fellow tried to grab her but she danced out of his reach as he pleaded with her. Even if they spoke the same language, he couldn't have changed her mind. But he snagged her bad arm
Which sent shooting pains into her shoulder. Fen didn't have time to gasp while she fought back the tears and bellowed at him. The man's sense of self-preservation kicked in and he's backed into the others.

Arrows descended on her like a rain of spikes. I only get one chance at this. Fen breathed out and inhaled slowly as the arrows crossed the water. One graceful swing with a flourish and five arrows bounced off her blade. The vibrations sent tingles up her good arm. Three other arrows skidded across decks to quickly be stomped out. One fell short as another sailed past and landed in the river with a "pfft."

"Duck!” Arwin yelled.

She obliged.

From behind her, a gleaming streak shot over her and across the water. Diving towards the archers, Arwin's haw buzzed the whole archer line. In their rush to avoid the razor-tipped avian, men ducked and screamed with one dropping his bow into the water. They were joined by the wharf rope that had been cut loose from the boat.

Enchanted smoke trailing from every vent and joint, the clockwork bird made another pass.

Fire on the Waters: Chapter Five of Clockwork River

This is where it all changes and the siblings can take nothing for granted.
Check out the next chapter of Clockwork River and enjoy!


By Christopher Robin Negelein
Arwin thought the sky had had never looked more beautiful as it had with the searing
white clouds drifted against a bright blue. Then the smoke rolled over, blocking it all out. He
realized that he was laying on the ground. The world, and his thinking, were fuzzy.

Those dark eddies above, though, had a depth and symmetry that Arwin wanted to
scribble down on paper, even as he hoped he could still feel his fingers. He curled his fist to
confirm that he still had five fingers on each hand as the ringing in his ears faded. Thank the
Gods, he thought. I’m too young to go deaf already.

But when he sat up, he realized that going deaf was the least of his problems.
People were running around, some in traditional Shan green and others had red scarves
tied around their heads or arms, with weapons drawn and steel flashing. Rolling onto his hands
and knees, Arwin crawled to his wagon. While his body seemed to move in slow motion, his
brain was on fire with questions. Where was Fen? Or Uncle? I hope they are okay. Who did this?
Until he found them, he had to take care of himself -- and father. The wagon was not far
off, he had to walk just a few steps to reach it. As he crawled closer, he felt better. He tried to
stand up, which became a wobble and then a few solid steps.

Closer to the wagon, he peered into the destroyed kingdom workshop that Ju was going
to show to him. The building’s doors, that the Shan magistrate had opened with such a flourish before, now stood askew and smoking.

Inside was a swirling inferno, fed by the lab's stocks of coal and mystical infused oil, the
păcură, as the thick smoke darkened the sky.

That was when red arm banded men noticed him. With a sword pointed in his direction, a
younger one came his way. Shit. Why you could have waited until I was in the wagon? That
would have been much, much more convenient.

Arwin’s heart was racing as he shuffled towards the wagon. "I'm not the one you want.
I'm just a visitor." Both hands were in the air as he tried his best performance voice. It squeaked a little. Damn, Fen, where are you? You're the sword-fighting type and there are too many The man, barely older than Arwin, kept asking him something in their foreign tongue, marching up to him and emphasizing his seriousness with a flick of his sword.

With his back to the wagon, Arwin slid closer to the door. If he could just get two
minutes, his creations would turn the whole mess around. Without them, he felt so helpless. He lowered his arm, reaching for the door handle.

That set his new friend off and the man yelled as he grabbed Arwin's arm. The other hand
pointed a sword under Arwin's chin. The man called over several older men. Arwin's heart sank when he saw the leader had cold eyes and a grey streak in his beard. He had seen that look They continued talking as Arwin felt the weight of the man's gaze.

Arwin swallowed. "Ransom, do you understand the word ransom? I am worth money.
My lord and clan can pay for me. I am a walking gold purse for you."

The man raised his hand, silencing his underling. "Ransom? Gold? You?"

More Kingdom tongue flew past him like garbled nonsense. Someone came up to him
with a rope. Arwin sighed and held out his arms. Oddly, they made for his forearms instead of his wrists. He tensed his arms, making his muscles bulge a bit as they wrapped him from forearm They suspect something. Maybe they think I will do some sort of wizardry. Afraid that I'll summon lighting or demons if my arms move. Then they shoved him down onto the cold gravel as the old man nodded to the younger.

The young man approached the door in a crouch, ready for anything to jump out at him.
Arwin sighed. "I would just leave well enough alone." Everyone looked at him for a
moment. Then they looked back at the youth. The leader nodded his head.

The boy stood stock still, disbelief in his eyes. His leader nodded again and grunted an
order to the boy, but as the youth put his hand on the handle, Arwin took in a deep breath and leaned away from the door. The boy crumbled and sank to his knees, babbling in what was obviously a plea to not open the wagon.

The man roared his frustration, walked over and kicked Arwin hard in the hip. The boot
hit a nerve, making Arwin cry out. The rest of the kicks were for his minion. The young man
took only a few before he scuttled away, still pleading for mercy.

Puffing up his chest, the leader walked straight for the door and yanked it open. The
simple twist and pull tripped the complex tumblers in the door, setting off the booby trap.
The Swarm Dagger shot out from its spring release. The blade bounced off his chest and
hit the ground with a pathetic thud. The leader looked down at the scratch in his armor and then smirked at Arwin. The kind of smirk that promised retribution.

Then a hazy smoke spilled out of the wagon, making the men wrinkle their brows and
hold up their swords, ready to take on whatever demon they imagined was inside. Arwin simply dove to the ground. Well, the spring was too weak to penetrate the armor, but it did its job. Here The metallic wasps flew out, wings rattling and smoke billowing, but they lacked their poisonous payload. Arwin had run out of the nightshade after the bandit ambush.

Their stingers and bites still hurt, though, distracting the men. Arwin rolled under the cart
and wiggled out of the ropes by relaxing his tensed forearm. Within seconds, he shucked off the coils and rolled out to the opposite side. Arwin heard the red army men already swatting away at his priceless constructs.

Arwin cringed. Years to build, seconds to destroy.

Without a moment to mourn, Arwin rushed into the wagon and slammed the door and
slapped down the brace. Immediately, people were battering at the door.

He grabbed a few pieces of parchment, some potent păcură and then released the latches
securing the black cylinder. He yanked it off the shelf and unceremoniously stuck it in a bag.
A rattle came from inside.

The voice wheezed out like a deflated bellows. "What's going on?"

"Hush, Father, not now."

There was no room for the hawk. Hell, there was barely room for him to turn around
without knocking combustible and mystical materials off the shelves.

Arwin pulled out his personal dining knife. Only one person can come in here, I could
hold them off forever this way. Then he put the knife away. Unless they have a longer sword or an arrow. But then two could play at that game. He looked around and found on a single
prototype barrel that he planned for his multi-cannon invention. With a dowel and a rag, Arwin stuffed a scoop of his best gunpowder down the barrel.

He grabbed a rejected wooden ball he'd been carving as part of a toy for a noblewoman's
son last year and tamped it down the barrel. Then he brought out his custom sulfur matches and tinder box. With a quick cut of his knife, he whacked the fuse to be extremely short fuse. and braced it against the back of the wagon. With practiced ease, he got spark on the match and then gingerly held it over the fuse.

Arwin looked skyward. Please don't let it me lose an arm when this goes off. His captors
were yelling louder and they were banging on the side of the wagon. He heard swords clanging as the bellows reached a fever pitch. The wagon rocked back and forth.

Arwin poised ready with a spare sulfur match when the first burned down. He'd have to
crush that one under his heel if he didn't want the whole wagon going up like a bonfire.
The door opened and the fuse lit. Arwin saw the flash of Fen's red hair too late. "Duck!"
She ducked, exposing the man right behind her - to Arwin's line of fire.

Spooky Waters: Chapter Four of Clockwork River

Things are not all what the seem to be in these unfamiliar lands and our heroes begin to wonder about what's really going on.
By Christopher Robin Negelein
"I want to kill him!" Fen gripped her reins so tight that her leather gloves creaked. "There was the back of his head and I could hear the gears turning in that thick skull of his. I knew he was planning something."

Uncle Monteriso nodded. "I never doubted you. It was a good call."

"But now everyone thinks that I gave him some sort of signal. That I was part of his show."
"But you know you weren't. So let it go," Uncle said.

Her pent-up frustration was ready to burst and she wanted to growl, grunt or something to let it go but that wouldn't help. And knowing that Uncle Monteriso was right made it worse. She could maneuver around a big man for forever to find his weak spot and then surgically strike but she had no patience with Arwin's foolishness. For all his talents, he was still a boy at heart -- and boys loved attention.

Behind her, Ju and Arwin were talking shop. Their wagon train had grown by more than just a judge, though. The Governor, a general, and a wealthy merchant rode and all their entourages in tow.

They pass through deserted towns every day, while the mysterious Governor kept himself hidden. As the sun descended into the evening sky, the caravan would stop at another noble or official's house.

Dinner entertainment stayed the same. Another local magistrate would demonstrate their latest apparatus, which was not much more than a moving statue, to be upstaged by Arwin’s realistic clockwork hawk. By morning, their wagon train grew again. Every official and noble wanted to attach themselves to the prestige of the Imperial Ambassador and his pet alchemist on their way to the capital.

On the other side of the desert, Imperial alchemists focused on the practical, mostly war and labor, not works of art. But none of them made apparatuses like Arwin. His hawk apparatus had no equal in the Known World.

If their clan, the Ríagáin, had been freemen instead of tied to the Ambassador’s house, then Arwin's hawk could have gone to the highest bidder. But then again if their great-grandmother had resisted the Empire, she could have spent a childhood living out of a hut, then again maybe Clan Ríagáin would have been a head clan among the mountains.

New Waters: Chapter Three of Clockwork River

This week, Arwin gives us a show and meets a fellow Alchemist in the third installment of Clockwork River.
Enjoy  -- CRN.


By Christopher Robin Negelein


Arwin found the spicy aromas drifting from the Governor's kitchen odd, but still enticing enough to make his mouth water. Even more odd was the magnificent banquet hall offered only flat pillows for seating at low, polished tables, with place settings providing just two lacquered sticks and a spoon.

Uncle Monteriso grunted as he got down. "So, on this side of the desert, they don't believe in chairs?"

Ambassador Tertius gave Monteriso the briefest glance, but it spoke volumes, which prompted Arwin to remain quiet and focused on keeping his brooding alchemist façade on display outside, while keeping his grin on the inside.

Dominating the head of the table was a small palanquin covered in gauzy fabric with a dim outline, the only evidence of its occupant. A nearby servant held a plate, standing ready to slide the food under the drapes.

Arwin tried not to stare, but he desperately wanted to peer inside. He found himself going through the possibilities of how he could pull it off. At some point, his hawk flying above the tables would be the evening's entertainment, so he wondered how he could contrive an accident.

A dive that forced someone to topple onto the palanquin was too risky. Perhaps if the apparatus flew low enough, the following breeze would pull the veil to expose the hidden Governor.

The temptation distracted him enough that it took a few moments to master holding and using the two sticks the same how the Shans used them in place of a fork, which frustrated him even more. He noticed that other Imperials were taking much longer as their fingers stiffly held the foreign utensils.

Uncle leaned in and jabbed him with an elbow. "I know this bores you, but we all have our parts to play. Your sister is standing watch behind us, I'm sure she'd switch places with you in a heartbeat to eat a hot meal."

Arwin glared but kept his voice low. "Don't bet on it."

Uncle's voice took on a growl. "That man across the table has been trying to make eye contact with you the whole time. When you look up, nod and introduce yourself."

Arwin gritted his teeth while the hawk box dug into on his left side. He took in the whole table at a glance and noticed how quiet the table was to his left, where the lesser members of the retinue were seated, those could not or would not learn the Shan language. On Arwin's right and higher up the table sat the learned men, ambassadors and translators who chatted away.

He had no idea what he could say as he met the man's gaze other than, "Good day, to you and your family, honored one." Arwin's gifts had their limits; he had picked up a few stock phrases. Fen has the talent for tongues. And bowed his head.

The man had the typical appearance of the people on this side of the desert, but had a slighter build and was a little shorter overall.

He bowed his head and recited his one good Shen phrase. "Good day to you and your family, honored one."

This is going to be a riveting conversation, Arwin thought.

With a hand wave, the stranger summoned a slave woman. Her lips seemed fuller and punctuated by a bold red makeup. Her hair gleamed like moonlit waves and her grace stirred his imagination. The beauty stopped Arwin's heart and brain; so that he barely noticed that she had the same effect on all the nearby men.

Then he took her all in, wishing that time would stop so he could pull out a canvas and paint her into immortality on said canvas. Those tiny details burned into his brain would be just a part of the challenge. He sensed from her something below the surface. A strength that she belied with demure facade, but Arwin knew facades well, having lived with one on for the last two years now. It was only the pride in his intellect that gave him the will to compose himself again, with a deep, silent breath.

The man's smirk conveyed a sense of ownership that rubbed Arwin raw, but he remained stoic. I’ve seen men look at my sister that way. His mind kept racing, but then the woman spoke.

Her smooth, resonant voice floated to his ears. "As you heard, my master offers you a gracious welcome and we are flattered that you know our language."
A singer too, maybe? He thought. Her Imperial accent is clipped, but it doesn’t hide her intelligence, maybe also a Prodigal?

Arwin stopped trying at that point. "I only know enough to ask for more wine. Which does me no good, since I don't care to drink."

Her laughter was surprisingly deep. The teenage boy who rarely missed a detail the first time now realized how his infatuation had deeply distracted him. She was older than she first appeared, maybe even older than his sister.

Her master's disposition had switched from a warm welcome to an icy suspicion as his smile upended into a deep frown and hard glare were aimed at Arwin until she translated Arwin's words in that, their sing-song language. The frown dropped from his face just as quickly, but Arwin was wary now; he thought it best to let the man make the next move.

The Master continued to speak and the earthly angel translated between them. "My master, Magistrate Ju wonders if you are the imperial magistrate?"

"A judge?"

"Yes, a judge who is gifted in the Arts."

"I am not a judge. I only do the Arts and some other artistic endeavors as well."
She tilted her head as she effortlessly translated between them. "So your kingdom employs you to do nothing, but art?"

"No. A long time ago, my clan served the Ambassador's Imperial family well and we have been citizens ever since. My father and grandfather were alchemists before me. My Uncle is the most trusted bodyguard, the Satellitium, of the Ambassador and my sister is in his ranks."

He saw her eyes flicker as she stood behind Ju. You want to find out more about my sister, don’t you? You want to ask her name but don't dare ask. Ju is hiding enough anger already.
Still translating, she never slowed down. "So then your kingdom pays the Ambassador for your gifts."

"No. His family has livestock and businesses back home that make up his wealth. It is all very complicated how the Sentorium works and I am not a fan of politics."
Both master and slave bowed the head slightly in agreement. "My master agrees that is best to avoid talk of those higher than us, especially at their table. He apologizes for this awkward inquiry.

"Here, the kingdoms allow those who are magistrates to pursue the craft when they are not holding court. Those who are truly gifted may decline more cases when their work benefits their superiors."

That last part sounds no different than back in the Empire, Arwin thought. Some things are universal, it seems. Now that we have that sorted out, I double the rest of the conversation will hold any surprises.

As if on cue, two slaves quickly, but quietly, came into positions on either side of Ju.
Almost as if we had been watched the whole time. Now the show begins.

The girl looked down, as if shy. "My master has made several pieces this year. He would like to show you a modest project of his."

Two servants strode up to bracket Arwin.

He smiled. “And I would be pleased if he would witness a small thing I have been working on.” That was a lie, the hawk was Arwin’s masterpiece. But, obviously, the same went for Ju.
Different places, same games.

The slaves motioned to the head table. They were being summoned.

He took the box with him even as Ju went up empty-handed. Arwin didn't care.

They will play whatever games they will play. If the Ambassador scolds me, he will do so. Either for my presumption of bringing my work with me, or for being forgetful if I leave it at the table.

At court, he had seen the man do it to others before. The reasons varied, from deflating egos to boosting his own.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Around the bend: Chapter 2, Clockwork River

Thanks everyone for your great feedback on the first chapter of Clockwork River. Here’s the second in what seems to be an evolving, semi-regular feature around here.


Clockwork River


The next morning, Fen decided to be somewhere else as Uncle Monteriso supervised the lieutenant of the scout detail dressing down his troops for letting the bandits through. She didn’t need to be gifted to know that most men didn’t like a younger officer, especially her, to be present for that, but she also wanted to stay busy and not think about last night.

Try not to think about it, she thought. I swear it wasn’t my imagination, his voice sounded so weak, like he was fading away.

Fate answered her plea as she made morning rounds at the perimeter with Centurion Sedicatus, who had never stared at her once and he wasn’t much of talker either and that suited her fine — that meant he’d given himself fewer chances to say something to offend.

It was on her second circuit that she spotted the Royal Shan patrol trotting up the road and, even from a distance, their faces looked different from both her kinsmen, the Imperials and even the Outlands peoples.

I have lost count of how many shapes noses and eyes come in, she thought. They even hang their banners sideways, but I bet they want the same as everyone else, they protect what’s theirs, mercy is rare, and men value women for their hips instead of their minds.

Beyond their strange banners, their armor was unusual as it was a mix of woven mats and leathers instead of the imperial design of leather and metals. Fen made a mental note that arrows and thrusting swords would do better against that sort of armor than hacking and slashing weapons. “Corporal?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

Fen’s gaze never turned from the advancing patrol. “Have the Satellitium know that we have a welcoming committee.”

With complete sincerity and no hesitation, he curtly nodded. “As you command.”

She gave a small smile. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome as always, Half-Captain.”

Gods, true professionals are hard to find. She sat tall in her saddle as the patrol kept their distance and watched her. After a while, her Uncle passed by with his lieutenants and a translator, while Damianus spared her a smile that she wanted to slap off his face.

Fen put her hand on her sword. This is one of the few times I am happy to not be given my full due. She kept an eye out for sniping archers, but saw none. But that meant nothing. There were too many hiding places. Never mind if the archer was a Prodigal.

She and Sedicatus watched, ever ready.

Uncle Monteriso trotted back, his troops following. “Pass the word, we will break camp and follow our escort to a Governor’s domain. We are to stick to the roads and they say we have no need of our scouts. We promise full protection.”

Fen’s face was a calculated blank. “I do not like this, sir.”

Her Uncle’s grin stayed on his face though his voice could frost a lake. “And demanding the sun drop from the sky at noon does not make night. We stay alert, watch them and watch the tree line. Our scouts are being escorted back. That gives us extra eyes. Use them.”

“Yes, sir.”


The Ambassador’s convoy was a tight fit on the Royal roads, which were paved like Imperial roads but narrower. Fen didn’t spend much time thinking about it though, as she kept scanning the underbrush and the forest canopy for ambushers and archers. It didn’t matter to her that hundreds of other eyes were doing the same. It was a contagious mood that subdued the twittering in the grand ladies’ wagon into muted whispers, which made them now sound like scheming conspirators.

Arwin’s horse caught up to hers just as tall wooden town walls came into view. Without stopping, their escorts barked orders and the gates opened to let them in. Both siblings were silent as they passed through.

The town itself was as quiet as an open field. The flies buzzed, leaves rustled, and somewhere an out of sight chicken clucked. But not one resident was heard or seen. Unlike Imperial towns, there were no hanging picture signs, so even the creak of a sign swinging in the wind was absent.

Fen’s hand slid from her sword’s pommel to the grip. The hairs stood up on the back of her neck. Arwin said nothing; it must have been the longest he’d ever gone without a word. The box sitting in the saddle with him was three feet tall and about two feet wide. A wisp of dark smoke drifted from a slot near the bottom. The astringent fumes belied that it was păcură because coal smelled like dirty earth to her. She saw that his thumb sat on a release switch.

That brought a sardonic smirk to her face. It’s his brass hawk. I want to see it fly again. Her mind’s eye picture it’s metal wings flapping with the sound of wire string and gears moving to a fast rhythmic beat. But I’d rather see in the skies from our old home. Oh, Arwin. You’ll need supplies soon. Without your machines and your substances, you’re only a smart boy with a big sister to protect you. If they had been alone, she would have hugged him. This trip has been hard. I miss the days they let us be children.

A shifting shadow in a window got Fen’s attention – it could have been a hiding villager or an assassin. One of the Shan men caught her stare and yelled something in their weird language, several guards responded by storming the house in two squads. One took the lead by rushing through the front door as the second waited by the back for any escapees.

Fen noted that the Shans’ non-metallic armor made so much less noise than metal-studded Imperial gear. In moments, one of them leaned out the window and shook his head.

Up front where Uncle was, the exit gates were already open, but it felt as if the walls were closing in seemed that the rest of the wagon train crawled by, even though she knew that wasn’t the truth. Fen fought the urge to spur her horse on. If everyone else can take their sweet time, I will endure.

Eventually, as her part of the train passed the gate’s threshold, the knot of unease in her chest loosened and she took a deep breath.

Awrin covered up the box with a black cloth. “That was unsettling.”

Fen’s sweaty hand went back to the pommel. “Have I ever told you about your gift for understatement?”

“Hmm. So back there, what did that tell you?”

She took in the town one more time. “The five kingdoms are always fighting on and off the battlefield. And that the Shan distrust their cousins more than any bandits or Imperial assassins.”

He nodded. “Could there be anything else they’d want to hide from us?”

Fen ruminated for a moment. “No. Why?”

Arwin shrugged. “There are uncommon times when the common answer is wrong.”

“Really, do you think this is one of them, He Who Breathes Ink and Smoke?” Fen said.

Arwin didn’t look back. “Not sure. But you never know, unless you ask.”

Fen would have hit him right there but she was afraid the box would have slipped out of his grip. So a glare had to do. “I don’t need to be jumping at shadows.” Especially me. If I cry wolf at every moving branch, they will think that I’ve gone timid and chuck me into the Ladies Wagon. That’s not true. I’ll end up giving mock duels as entertainment at the Ambassador’s dinners and be Arwin’s tag-along. She shuddered.

To read the rest of the chapter, check it out here.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Cruising the Clockwork River

That was a pleasant surprise.

I never thought that offhandedly saying that I was editing a “proto-Steampunk Celtic/Roman Han mashup” would get such a response. “When is it out?” You all asked.

I’d like to give a solid finish date, but I know how it feels I’m excited for something and then three months later there’s nothing after someone promised “soon.” Drives my impatient self crazy. Next thing I know, I'm in my backyard screaming, “Just give me something! Anything!”

Which might explain the regular visits by the cops. Well, it’s either that or the noises in the middle of the night when I’m working on my death-ray robot. It’s a coin toss, really.

So with the Golden Rule in mind, I’m going to stop working on robot – for now – and give you guys a taste of what’s to come with the first free Chapter of Clockwork River below followed by a link for the full chapter if you want even more.


Clockwork River
By Christopher Robin Negelein


Fenella of Clan Ríagáin hated how the heavy aristocratic dress squeezed her like a giant snake. It barely gave her room to breathe — never mind move. The Imperial carriage's bumpy ride made it worse as it jostled her tailbone on top of every lump hidden in the seat. All of it felt entrapping, like manacles decorated in fine silks and embroidery.
If she had held still, though, she would have been the perfect picture of an Imperial citizen. One with mixed ancestry with her lighter skin of course, but still floating in circles where it would be overlooked in polite company.
From the corner of her eye, she saw her brother, Arwin, pulling at his tight shirt collar as he rolled his eyes and sighed. He sweated under a heavy jacket and the matching hat that kept slipping off his head.
He tried to hold onto an ornately engraved metal box, which occasionally released tiny puffs of smoke. A silent exchange of looks and the siblings shared their pure hate for these ridiculous clothes.
Fen wanted to say something but bit her tongue and focused terrain speeding by. Other young women her age might have noticed that the trees and grass grew taller this far out from the Kanhai desert, which had taken the Ambassadorial convoy a whole week to cross even at its shortest tip. Or that in this new landscape, natural stone columns rose up like gargantuan fingers poking out of the earth, which offered a bit of shelter from the sweltering heat. Fen, though, was a different type of lady and also noted that the stones proved far too many spots for those looking to ambush the caravan.
Even Uncle Monteriso was distracted, keeping his place in the book he always carried with a manicured finger as he watched the distant hills crawl by. His clothes were even more ostentatious, with gold sewn into the embroidery and rings flashing on his fingers as he tugged on a loose shoulder sleeve.
Somewhere, they heard the Ambassador's wife laughing in a carriage further behind them. Fen let out an exasperated sigh.
Monteriso shook his head. "I told her, and her hens, to keep their cackling to themselves. I —”
A screaming horse stopped her uncle's tirade. Fen grabbed the window sill so she could lean out and see the injured animal, a crossbow quarrel sticking in its side as it thrashed to the ground, pinning its rider underneath. Swinging her head, she saw a tree crashing down in front of their carriage.
"The rider behind us is down. I see a bolt sticking — “she said.
Monteriso sucked in a gasp as he reached for a long, fat dagger. "I heard a falling tree, yes?”
Fen nodded.
Monteriso grunted. “Bandits."
Arwin struck a match and slipped it into a hole in his prized metal box as the conveyance stopped. "A distraction? Sow confusion in the ranks and draw the guards away from —" The carriage door swung wide open to reveal a man with his head wrapped in a turban in the style famously worn in the city-states by honor-bound caliphs. A simple scarf covered all but the cold eyes. The bandit grabbed Fen and tossed her out.
"All of you out, now!" He growled.
Monteriso and Arwin gingerly stepped out. Monteriso had his hands in the air as Arwin grasped his box with only his fingertips.
Fen noticed that several bandits had gotten the drop on the caravan. She looked around for for back up but then she saw that two of the Ambassador's men were lying in the dirt, lifeless, and knew they were trapped.
One masked man, taller than the rest and resting a hand on his sword pommel, strutted towards them. "So this is the famous Ambassador and his beautiful family from the West." His accent was clipped but understandable. From a distance, his clean clothes draped in silks and fine linens with bright dyes would have made for good impression. If not for the mask, he could have been a wealthy merchant or official. Up closer, Fen made out the faded brown spots in the linen, blood stains that had been repeatedly washed out again and again.
Uncle had one hand on his chest as the other gestured to a loaded wagon. "We are just merchants — take our goods and go in peace. Let us bury our dead."
Arwin slowly tilted the box on its side as if he was going to put it under his arm.
The first bandit snatched it. "What is this?"
"Nothing," Arwin said. "It's not worth your trouble."
The bandit king laughed. "Well, we will see, young man. Have you ever thought about being a bandit?" The bandit king took off a glove and waved his man closer.
The other handed it over. "Careful, it seems warm."
"As does any metal box you set out in the sun," the bandit king said, but he still took it with his gloved hand before flipping the catch and opening the lid to get a face full of smoke and flickering metallic wings accompanied by a high-pitched buzzing noise. On cue, everyone in the Ambassador's party dropped or ducked.
Fen pulled out a throwing knife, with a glittering quartz handle, from the folds of her dress and threw it into the dead center of where the bandits were standing. The unnatural smoke, filled with tiny brass wasps, dived at the bandit king and spread out to the other robbers. Their flailing hands and swinging swords didn't stop the insects' razor-sharp bites or the needle-like stingers filled with virulent poison. Within moments, the injected toxins constricted throats, caused blindness as fire ran through the bandits' arteries, and stopped their hearts.
Fen then got up to fetch her dagger. Too many escaped last time, Fen thought. If we kill enough of them, it will become too expensive to send any more assassins.
She tumbled into the thick of them, stabbing and slicing. Using her natural grace, she kept low and avoided the mechanical swarm with a sublime ease. A ripping sound came with a sudden freedom for her legwork as her powerful legs and wide stance effortlessly popped the seams of her silly dress.
Her spirit sang as her power and grace made short work of the bandits. It was in these moments when Fen felt the most alive — fully embracing these gifts of being a martial prodigy, as "unlady-like" as it may be. This was who she was and as long as it lasted, she couldn't care less what others thought in this moment.
Hearing her dress tear put a wide grin on her face. Too late now, she thought. This will cost me later, but it’s totally worth it.
Her knee hit the dirt, grinding a smear in the silks, but it still no substitute for a padded greave. As another bandit fell, his blood splattering on the dress. None of them are escaping this time.
From her peripheral vision, she caught Uncle fighting on the edges of the swarm, sword and shield in hand. Jaw set, he stormed towards his targets like a trotting bull. Without slowing down, he shield bashed one bandit off their feet. Another was downed by his sword. Another one downed with sword stroke.
His motions were brutal — and economic. While hers were elegant and precise. Both methods produced quick and lethal results that no one could deny.
She kept spinning and diving under the swarm, taking out hamstrings and shins. The yells and screams confirmation of her accuracy.  One by one the little mechanical wasps drifted down around her. Their miniscule reserves of the mystical oil, păcură, exhausted.  She paid them no mind. She was the vengeful tidal wave claiming souls below a roiling cloud of mechanical death.
Distantly, she heard the other legionnaires of the Ambassador’s bodyguard making quick work of the stragglers along the edges of the fight. At a glance up, she saw the metallic cloud thinned out enough that she dared to pop up to give stab at an armpit or a throat. But otherwise she still stayed as low as she could. She reveled in the extra challenge.


And you can find the full chapter of Clockwork River here