I wrote an entry for The Woven Tale Press’s weekly prompt contest. This week’s prompt word is blue.
All Things Blended
by Heidi C. Vlach
The apprentice lost track of how many months passed, as she travelled under the shifting sky on her two dusty feet. Gradually, she gathered all the components.
In the secret depths of mountains she found lapis lazuli, a vivid-hued thing like a jungle bird. On the salt-sprayed coast she found a sea snail, plain and viscous but its chroma was hidden inside. In markets and bazaars, she bargained for treasures: azure crystals; a velvet pouch of cobalt powder; a lovely turquoise gem polished to a pearlescent shine; desiccated leaves of indigo. When her coin ran out, she walked herself through green-flourishing places, for woad, and cornflower, and periwinkle.
She had all that the earth could give her. With feet sore and blistered, and her face weathered like wood, the apprentice returned to the workshop. The dust-cloaked space was hers now, its original master long since departed. There was no alchemist here — not yet, not until this apprentice claimed her true colour.
Over and over, she read the spellbook, with her knuckles brightly sore from gripping the pestle. The instructions were distinct for each shade and each preparation; she left fingerprints, cobalt smudges glaring against the yellowed pages.
She crafted a nerve-wracking array of fine pigments, all heaped onto tin plates. The apprentice waited some hours, tried to summon her soothing choice of colour in her heart, and finally she could stand it no longer and she spilled of her powders all onto a hammered gold platter beneath the sky. Carefully, with a knife’s edge, she arranged the powders into a ring. All her tints fanned together now, blending.
She bent close over the pigments, her dun robes a shield against the breeze. She read the spellbook with purpose now, running its words through her mind’s voice like sand through her fingers.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the claiming spell said.
Her heartbeat welled up underneath her. She had hoped the journeying would grant her wisdom, hoped that she would be a lightning rod to revelation but she was no master just yet.
Patience was key. A cool presence like her chosen colour. She closed her eyes and sat there breathing, aware of her mundane body’s outer husk. The apprentice was a fleshy thing rent in common earth’s colours but she was blue inside, she knew she was. She returned to the passage at the end of the spell, the one lodged in her mind like an eloquent fishhook:
When blended, the ingredients will produce the very colour of a productive life: equal parts calmness, confidence and clarity. Know the colour blue and you shall be as the sky, the sea, the ice never melting.
Really, she thought, a clear and oceanic life was all an alchemist could want. Breeze fingered the apprentice’s robes and she was calm regardless. She had her ingredients gathered; she could persevere a little longer.
Combine with the hue of the sky, the book said.
She turned her face upward, poised over her azure and turquoise and ultramarine. The apprentice spent a little more of her time as the daylight waned and waxed, as the winds turned and the sky showed her more of herself.
She would know the right shade when she saw it.
I have a lot to consider, regarding my writing and other life endeavours. So it seems best if I go quiet for a while.
I’ll still be using my social media accounts, if you want to follow me! And if you’d like a notification when I resume updates on this blog, consider the Follow Blog via Email option at the top-right of this screen.
Hmm, I don’t really have anything to say this week. How about I share some links to things that caught my eye?
- Till Human Voices Wake Us by Annie Bellet. I’m currently reading this collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories. It’s got an interesting variety of speculative elements — and lots of non-white humans, who are always nice to see in sci-fi/fantasy.
- War Dog and Marginalized Populations by Malcom Cross. A pair of novelettes about genetically engineered dog supersoldiers, who have to find a way to fit into human society when there are no more battles to fight. Military fiction isn’t one of my stronger interests but the concept seems like a great way to use anthropomorphic characters.
- The Whacker Chronicles by Stan Grimes. Adult fantasy fiction about a society of pigeons, who deal with very relatable issues.
- To Journey in the Year of the Tiger by H. Leighton Dickson. First book in a saga of genetically altered tigers, lions, wolves and dragons, who picked up the torches of ancient China, India and Japan. Sounds pretty cool to me!
- And, for a non-book entry, the tile-matching game 2048. WARNING: highly addictive.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me mentioning this: I’m working on a new novel. Worldbuilding began at Furnal Equinox while I was sitting at my dealer’s table, and I’m nearly finished a chapter of rough draft.
It’s still very rough, of course, but the tentative title is Tinderstrike. This is the story of Eino, a middle-aged woman who’s been working the fields for decades and has very little to show for it. If she hopes to provide for herself in her declining years, she’ll need some extra income. So Eino secretly goes out trapping in the forest — and in her inexperience, she gets stuck in one of her own traps. Unable to free herself, she uses communication magic to call a phoenix (which are highly intelligent, crow-like birds, known for using flint and pyrite to start fires). And after the phoenix uses Eino’s knife to cut her free, the phoenix makes off with it. Since that knife was Eino’s most valuable possession — and part of her retirement resource — she has to find that phoenix.
But the phoenix didn’t just take that knife because it’s shiny. She’s trying to pay off a looming price of her own — to the leviathans, a race of subterranean water dragons that humanity knows very little about.
Tinderstrike takes place in a fantasy realm loosely based on the Himalayas and surrounding Asian countries. The dry, high-altitude climate means that local plant life is mostly coniferous. Magic-rich flowers are rare and valuable.
Why does Eino have deer-like ears and horns in the concept art? Because in this world, humans develop animal traits as they age. It’s thought unseemly to be anything except a human, so non-human features are kept covered up with clothing as much as possible. Full transformation in old age is thought to be worse than death. Eino has early-onset deer features, so she was abandoned by her upper-class family at a young age, and now her time to provide for herself is growing short.
This is part of the new writing direction I was talking about. It’ll have plenty of non-humans with viewpoints of their own, but it’ll also have broader appeal (I hope) than the Stories of Aligare. I’ll let you folks know when Tinderstrike is near completion!
This past weekend, I attended Furnal Equinox 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. It was my first time at this particular anthopomorphic convention. I had some technical difficulties over the weekend, and my Render reading had less than a handful of attendees (possibly because of its timeslot: 1 PM on Friday, when many of the con-goers had yet to arrive).
But the convention’s atmosphere was great. I chatted up artists and costumers. I participated in a goofy scavenger hunt. I lounged in the hotel’s lobby, reading an ebook and giggling when fursuiters leaned over me to peer at my phone’s screen. Overall, I’d call it an enjoyable weekend!
I also did a lot of thinking while sitting at my dealer’s table, waiting for people to happen by. My biggest life decisions are made while I’m away from home, it seems. So, here goes.
I’ve been giving the Stories of Aligare series the best treatment I’m capable of right now, but its very essence is also its greatest handicap: these are small, odd stories. They’re not thrill-a-minute page-turners. They’re not the kind of book people gobble down in one night and then rave about to all their friends. I firmly believe that quiet stories deserve to exist, and deserve to be read. The tiny little legion of Aligare fans is so meaningful to me — but I think I need to increase my reach as a writer and publisher, or else I’m not doing justice to this goal of mine.
I’ve got other unusual, human-free stories in mind. Some of them I’m holding back because I don’t think I’m ready to execute them well. (I felt kinship in the way Pixar’s WALL-E took years of development and tinkering with the emotional tones. ) But as a writer, I like working with a variety of literary tones and approaches. And Serpents of Sky has gotten a better reception so far than any of the Aligare books. I’m clearly able to write higher-concept stories.
So my next full-length novel won’t be a Story of Aligare. The next story (or stories) I publish will be something with broader appeal. I’ll still twist and subvert fantasy clichés wherever I find them. But I’ll see if I can tell a more crowd-pleasing story, before asking that crowd to give my weirder works a chance.
Stay tuned! I’ll tell you folks what my next book will be as soon as I’m sure myself.
So, hey, when was the last time I told you folks an anecdote from my life? I’ve been talking about Serpents of Sky and other book-centric stuff for quite a while now. Yeah, let’s have a science center story.
To recap: when I was a teenager, I volunteered at the local science center. I was stationed in the live animal section — so I sometimes did cool things like handle snakes and give spontaneous educational speeches, and I mostly did less cool things like scrub animal habitats.
One of those animal habitats contained a deer mouse.
“Deer mouse” is a generic term for many different mouse species, but I’m fairly sure he was a white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). I don’t remember what the signage said: I was busy studying the animals that visitors handled on a regular basis, like the snakes and flying squirrels. Regardless of his scientific classification, this particular deer mouse was a tiny thing, about 3 inches long and weighing less than an ounce (7 1/2 centimeters and less than 30 grams). Despite his delicate size, he was a willful creature who did not like to be handled.
One day, I was working with a fellow teenage volunteer named Eric. We were tasked with cleaning the deer mouse’s enclosure: just put the animal in a bucket for safe keeping, scrub all the hard surfaces, change the bedding, and put the animal back in. Sounds simple enough. Armed with buckets and supplies, Eric and I went out onto the science center floor and opened up the lid of the big triangular plexiglass box that was the deer mouse enclosure. We were wearing lab coats so that probably made us experts!
Now, we had a net to catch the mouse with. One of those fine-meshed green nets you’d use to scoop up a goldfish from an aquarium. But the deer mouse didn’t appreciate being woken up and he was having none of this grabbed-by-humans nonsense. He evaded the net, and evaded our attempts to seize him by the tail. And then the deer mouse darted up Eric’s arm and out onto the floor — to bounce away across the wide open carpet. In the public area of the science center, where tourists wandered around by the dozens.
Oh geez oh my god grab more buckets and nets and another teenage volunteer, we have to catch this thing before it escapes into a crevice or gets stepped on! So we — this gaggle of three lab-coat-wearing kids — chased that deer mouse behind displays and under equipment. I imagine Yakety Sax would have made an appropriate soundtrack.
Eventually, we cornered the deer mouse in a dark, curtained-off alcove. The deer mouse hunkered in a corner with nowhere to go. I positioned my foot beside him so that he only had one direction left to run: into Eric’s bucket. Well, actually, the deer mouse’s other option at that moment was to run up my pant leg. So that’s what he did. Ran up my pant leg.
Did I mention that our science center deer mouse was known to bite when agitated?
So, yes, I had this biting-prone small animal jamming itself higher and higher in my khakis. While I was surrounded by science center visitors I couldn’t just drop my pants in front of, and also two male coworkers.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said. And I calmly walked back into the staff-only area, with a tiny lump of a time bomb creeping up my thigh.
I’m a little sketchy on what the more experienced staff were doing during this ridiculous slip-up. But thankfully the department supervisor that day was female, making it marginally less uncomfortable to undress so she could grab the deer mouse. I didn’t get bitten in any sensitive areas — and to be really optimistic about it, deer mice are known for their personal cleanliness so really, there are worse animals I could have had inside my clothes.
As my supervisor and I exited the back room with the deer mouse safely contained in a bucket, Eric came around the corner asking why I just left like that.
The entire mousecapade is one of those events that my writer’s brain wants to attach some meaning to. Is there a lesson to be learned here, other than not underestimating rodents? (No, really, mice and rats have pretty incredible capabilities.) Should I learn from my own example? In the 15-ish years since that happened, I don’t think I’ve ever handled any crisis as gracefully as I handled walking to the staff area with a mouse in my pants. (My supervisor did make sure to praise me for that part.)
Maybe this is just an example of life’s great capability for chaos, and the human ability to make stories out of chaos. Even the weirdest nonsense gives us chances to laugh, learn and share a narrative. And I can offhandedly describe things as “less scary than having a mouse in my pants”, which is a fun mental image to throw into a conversation. I’ll call that a win!
◦ The Western view of snakes, and how I changed it in my spare time (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Hanging out with a porcupine (heidicvlach.com)
◦ Psychology at tableside: what waiting tables taught me about people (heidicvlach.com)
Today is the day! You can buy Serpents of Sky from Amazon for $1.99 US.
This 34 000-word collection explores the many roles of dragons. Contains 9 short stories of fantasy and science fiction, including:
- With Less Lament. During a dragon attack on her city, an elderly woman meets unexpected guardians in her own garden.
- Cardiology. Trapped in his laboratory and running out of supplies, a scientist bioengineers reptilian creatures based on the dragons he grew up reading about. These flawed beings are his only hope for survival in the ruined outside world.
- Clearsight. Two dragons perform magical biology experiments with prehistoric Earth animals. They hope to aid the evolution of more dragons — a rare event in all the universe — but an oncoming extinction event threatens all their efforts.
- Iron Workings. A boy stands on a cliff edge, his flightsuit wings spread. His dragon captains use electric magic to force his compliance and enable him to fly — but then one of the dragons whispers in his ear about mutiny.
- In Lifetimes Spared. Once a princess kidnapped by a terrible dragon, she is now a wise queen who calls that dragon her friend. Her dream is for humans and dragons to share peace, but the process is not proving simple.
- Raise (A story of Aligare). A novelette set in the magical, human-free society of Aligare. Tenver, a weasel-like ferrin, accidentally trades away the eggshells his adoptive mother Constezza hatched from. Those eggshells are any korvi’s most precious possession. Determined to fix his mistake, Tenver enlists the help of Judellie, a korvi just finding the courage to leave home on her own wings.
Also of note, I recently did an interview with Self Publisher’s Showcase!
They asked me some great questions about the Stories of Aligare characters, as well as my own path to self-publishing and why I write fantasy fiction. Check out the interview here!
I have lots of final prep to do before Serpents of Sky launches next week! So I don’t have much in the way of bloggish thoughts today, but I did do a few rough sketches. Just some random Aligare folk.
I think it’s about time I update the diagram of the Aligare peoplekinds — the one that appears at the beginning of every Story of Aligare book. In the original image, I was trying for a clean, simplified look. But I’m thinking a more detailed, dynamic art style like these sketches might make it easier for readers to visualize the Aligare races in the story to come. Thoughts?
Well, folks, here’s that cover art I’ve been working on! That paper maché dragon got a few coats of paint, then I enlisted my dad’s help to set up lights and take photos. I’ve been slaving away over a hot image editing program and now I bring you the Serpents of Sky cover:
Because dragons are fictional, yet such a deeply-rooted part of human culture and lore, they’re unreal even when they’re “realistic”. So I was going for a semi-realistic look to this cover. This art project has been a learning experience!
And when will you be able to read the short stories underneath the cover? February 17th! Serpents of Sky is going to be an Amazon exclusive when it first launches. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can use Amazon’s free Kindle app, or convert the .mobi file to another ebook format using Calibre or a similar service. Paperbacks should be available by the end of February. After a few months, I’ll consider bringing Serpents of Sky to Smashwords and other ebook retailers.
Like any of my writing, I’m really excited to show this to the world. Serpents of Sky touches on a wide variety of genres, from sword and sorcery to dystopian sci-fi. The crown jewel of the collection is Raise (A story of Aligare), a novelette of adventure and family drama — which I hope will welcome new readers into my land of Aligare. Judellie of Cherez, one of the dragon-like korvi from Render, makes another appearance in Raise. (Syril of Reyardine returns, too, but it just wouldn’t be a Story of Aligare without some mention of that guy.)
That’s enough blogging for me. Back to editing!
◦ Once again, it’s paper mache season heidicvlach.com)
◦ What do dragons represent to us? (heidicvlach.com)
◦ What’s on tap, Heidi C. Vlach? My plans for 2014 (heidicvlach.com)