Thursday, 2 October 2014

Coding and Poetry

It's National Poetry Day, apparently, so I thought I should finally tie up the loose ends from the COBOL poem I posted the other week.  Loose ends like what on earth possessed me to write a poem in COBOL...

It all started with a blog post from Girl on the Net, detailing the filthy things she'd like to do to programmers (link probably NSFW, needless to say).  More power to her elbow, I say, though since I work in an open plan office none of the things she's thinking of would be even remotely feasible.

Anyway, that was where it started.  Following on from that, via the magic of Twitter, I found myself reading an elderly article about poetry in Perl.  And this is where the trouble started.  That article makes a couple of snarky comments about COBOL, like "getting a volunteer to write poetry in COBOL is likely to be impossible."  So what was I supposed to do?  Just let it pass?  No, I couldn't really ignore the gauntlet that had been thrown down, even if it was a gauntlet that only I could see.  So I sat down, and I wrote a COBOL poem, and I posted it on here.  And then I sent it to Girl on the Net and the individual who'd linked to the Perl article, just because.

Don't worry, I'm not about to announce that I've now compiled an entire anthology of poems in COBOL, or in other obscure programming languages.  Though I did write a haiku in Spectrum BASIC while messing around on Twitter:

10 PRINT "Forever"
20 PRINT "I will love you"
30 GOTO 10

Anyone who bothered to look at the comments on the COBOL poem, however, will have seen that I was challenged to write something using Inform 7.  Something that would work as a code poem and as a piece of interactive fiction.  In the end, I wrote two.  Sort of.

See, although Inform 7 is practically English anyway, it's still code.  And it's code designed for a very specific job.  The closest I got to actual poetry in the code wasn't a very good piece of IF; you can examine a couple of things and there's a single command that allows you to win, and that's it.  Otherwise you just expire after about five turns.  It's very poetic and lovely, but it's a bit rubbish to actually play.  The other one managed to be slightly (but only slightly) more engaging as IF, but wasn't much cop as poetry as a result.  To make good IF you need to build a rich environment and then nail down absolutely everything the player might consider doing; poetry works better when you skirt around the edges and hint at things.

So I shan't be posting the results, as interesting a challenge as it was.  They were sent to my challenger, as proof that the challenge had been completed (and since he didn't write anything I win by default!), but they won't be seeing the light of day as poems.  Maybe as IF, if I work on them a little more someday.  Or maybe I'll write something else instead.

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike...

Thursday, 11 September 2014

COBOL Poetry

*            CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!                                      *
      88 YOU-LOVE-ME         VALUE 'Y'.
      88 YOU-LOVE-ME-NOT     VALUE 'N'.
 01 MY-BEST-SIDE  PIC X(40) 

Time And Relative Dimension In Blanket

I'm... not exactly unambitious when it comes to my projects.  Or at least, once I get an idea in my head I won't talk myself out of it for flimsy reasons like the amount of work involved.  Like, say, crocheting 264 granny squares and assembling them into a blanket that looks like the TARDIS:

It's actually longer than the bed
As crochet practice goes, it's actually been quite a good method.  Plenty to focus on, it breaks down into manageable chunks, and the pattern for a granny square is extremely simple.  The repetition is excellent for getting the hang of crochet.  It took me an hour to make a single square at the start, but by the end it was more like twenty minutes.

Apart from those awkward two-tone ones at the edge of the information panel
The writing across the top is just chains, made to length and then stitched on top of the blanket.  Granny squares being full of holes, there's a limit to how small the writing can go.  Which is why I didn't make all the writing for the door - "Pull to Open" and all that.  I considered it, but it simply wasn't feasible.  The white panel breaks up the front, though, which is why I made it rather than just crocheting a different side of the TARDIS.

Yes, I took this picture just so I could make a 'P please, Bob' joke
This wound up being about six months of work from first conception to finished product, though there was a certain amount of getting distracted by other things along the way.  But I had it done just in time for the first episode of the new series, and now the whole family gets to snuggle under it while we watch.  That's really all I made it for, so I'm calling this a success.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

In Which I Get All Serious And Political, Part Two

[I promised I'd write a continuation of my thoughts, wrote it, then failed to actually post it.  But in that intervening time we've had Malorie Blackman getting abused for asking for more diverse characters in children's books, and the latest round of hate for Anita Sarkeesian looking at how women are portrayed in video games.  Clearly this is a conversation that needs to keep happening.  So here, at last, are more thoughts of mine.  But read Part One first, if you haven't already.]

When people aren't arguing that minority characters should be represented in fiction in the same numbers that they exist in real life, they tend to swing the other way. We shouldn't be including characters just to fill some sort of quota, or to make a point. People don't like to be preached at. They should only appear when it's relevant to the plot. Any number of characters could be gay, or trans, but it's just not mentioned because it's not important to the story. Just look at Dumbledore.

It's a seductive argument. Stories whose sole purpose appears to be to deliver a diatribe on a topic dear to the author are tiresome, whether one agrees with the message or not. And characters should always be connected to the plot, because that's the point. We leave out all sorts of things that don't move the story along, like visits to the toilet where nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens. We don't need to see a character peeing – we can just assume that it happens.

But these aren't questions of diversity. These are questions of storytelling. If you can't find a way to reference a character's sexuality without making it a message or an integral part of the plot then you're just not that good a writer. We talk about our lovers and our ex-lovers all the time, because they're important parts of our lives. These are people we willingly spend a lot of time with; why wouldn't they come up in conversation with other people? So unless you're writing a story set somewhere that a gay person would feel the need to hedge and say 'partner', it should be easy to include that information. And even if they are reduced to saying 'partner', the contrast with other people should still signify something to the reader.

I didn't always think like this. There's a tendency to be suspicious of the 'token' character who deviates from the norm set by the rest of the group, and of the 'rainbow' group where every member carefully fits a different demographic like a manufactured pop band. I would tell myself that it was enough for me to know a particular character was gay, without having to put it into the story and risk making them the 'token'. Drawing attention to their sexuality felt like shouting, "Look! I put a gay character in the story! Aren't I inclusive? Give me a biscuit!"

And then people who are much better than me at this sort of thing (I love you guys) pointed out that if you don't make these things clear to the reader, it will be assumed that they're straight. People don't read books and assume that anything unstated is open to any possibility. They assume that it's the default. If you don't mention that a character has a catheter up their hoo-hah, we'll assume that they pee like anyone else.

I've been using sexuality as the example here. Signalling the presence of non-white characters is easier, because it can be in their name, or the physical description when they first walk onto the page. It's not information the character has to volunteer. Sexuality has to be offered, if you're not including a lover in the story. And gender? That, I will agree, is tricky.

Trans characters are unlikely to reveal their status in normal conversation, if the story isn't specifically about their transition. Why would they? Who they used to be, or what's inside their pants, is unimportant. What matters is their own identity. But that doesn't mean we have to entirely ignore the possibility of non-binary gendered characters. Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice has non-gendered characters. Iain M Banks' Culture universe gives us characters that can and do change gender on a whim, and Player of Games includes a species with three genders (in which the female still gets the short end of the stick) Julian May's Galactic Milieu has intersexed aliens, and Iron Council by China Mieville has Qurabin, a monk who can access hidden secrets at the cost of losing something else in the process, and lost their own gender early on. No one knows if Qurabin is male or female, not even Qurabin. There are any number of options out there, if only we think of them.

Thinking is key. If you never come up with a character who deviates from the Cis White Straight Able-Bodied norm, you lack imagination. You shouldn't need 'quotas' for minority characters, because they should be showing up anyway. Especially in speculative fiction, where the world and its peoples can be anything you can think of. Why limit yourself?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

In which I get all serious and political and stuff...

I've been thinking a lot about diversity in fiction recently. There's been a lot going on lately, what with Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice giving us non-gendered characters and picking up just about every award going, Ms Marvel getting praised for giving us a well-realised female Muslim teenager, and Thor causing outrage for daring to have a woman lift the hammer. But it was a thunderstorm a few weeks ago that finally started to crystallise my thoughts into an actual idea.

One argument that comes up again and again when the issue of diversity is raised is the question of numbers. If x percent of people are gay (or whatever), they say, then surely only x percent of fictional characters should be gay (or whatever). And if that percentage is particularly small, why then that would mean the majority of fiction wouldn't (and shouldn't) contain any characters who are gay (or whatever) at all! Too much diversity wouldn't be realistic, they argue.

Now clearly, this argument is bollocks. For one thing, the people who argue that, for example, transgendered characters should make up only a tiny percentage of the whole are suspiciously silent when it comes to the question of having more female characters. I mean, women make up half the population, so why aren't they arguing that half of all characters should be female? But there's more to it than that. I finally realised, during the storm, why it is that I'm in favour of a multitude of diverse characters regardless of their frequency in real life.

You see, Small Girl decided that the best response to this particular thunderstorm was to declare herself Storm from the X-Men, and run around pretending that every flash and bang was her fighting the baddies. Until that moment, I hadn't realised she even knew who Storm was. It turns out she's been playing superheroes with the boys at school, and they'd at some point given her the choice between being Storm or being Elsa from Frozen. And apparently she'd been in the mood to try something different, because she went with Storm. Whodathunk?

What struck me was not the fact that she'd been playing with the boys (that's always been pretty normal for Small Girl), nor the fact that she chose to be Storm, unexpected as that was. What really stood out for me was the idea that she'd been offered a choice. An actual, genuine choice between two characters, either of which would have something to offer in the fighting-the-baddies stakes. Not just "you can be Storm because you're a girl."

For me, this is key when it comes to diversity – the provision of choice. For Cis White Straight Male playing Avengers, there's Iron Man and Captain America and Thor and Hulk. For Cis White Straight Female, there's Black Widow and... well, that's it, unless you're happy playing the girlfriend or Maria Hill (who, admittedly, is gradually acquiring more things to do). And for Trans, or Non-White, or LGBTQ Person of Any Gender? Well, Non-White Male has the option of playing Nick Fury, but that's about it unless we expand out from Avengers to the whole of the Marvel Universe. And even that doesn't gain us anything in Trans, LGBTQ or Female characters.

Obviously I'm not suggesting that anyone should be restricted to only playing as characters from their own demographics. I have no issue with Small Girl playing at being Storm, after all, nor did the question of race stop her dressing up to play Doc McStuffins and give all her toys checkups the other day. But I do think there should be more variety out there, more choice for the kids in the playground, or the cosplayers at the conventions. Were I to cosplay, I wouldn't necessarily want to end up dressed as a male character, but neither would I want to be stuck as a leather-clad kung-fu chick, which is frequently the only option for female characters who aren't wives, mothers or girlfriends.

More characters means more choice. All of the "Mane Six" ponies in My Little Pony are female, and all are different. You can choose to be tough, or sporty, or glamorous, or bouncy (that makes them sound like Spice Girls, but the point remains). The ensemble in Agents of SHIELD has the requisite leather-clad kung-fu chick, but also the smart-mouthed hacker and the nervous scientist. The X-Men have a dizzying array of options, though there are still some gaps there, at least in the films.

I want more. Fiction gives us the opportunity to portray anything we can imagine. I want to be shown things I'd never even considered before. I want characters I can identify with, and I want to see what it's like to be somebody different. I want a full-on, glorious rainbow of possibilities to inspire me. Because it's not just about seeing ourselves in the characters on the screen, or between the pages. It's about seeing other people, and all the different things they might be. Like seeing a black teenager as something other than a threat, as just a kid who's walking in the road because the pavement is for squares.

I have more thoughts, because there are more arguments than just the question of numbers, but I'll marshall those in a separate post in a day or two. This one's gone on quite long enough.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

I Bought a Torso On the Internet

No arms, no head, and only a hint of legs. I call her Helena.

She even came in a box

Helena is going to be a big help with my dressmaking escapades, because she's roughly the same size as me. She has better posture and less in the way of unsightly bulges, but she should be good for preliminary fittings. It's incredibly difficult to accurately fit something on your own body, because every time you move your arm to pin a seam the whole garment shifts. If I fit it to Helena first I should only need to make minor adjustments to accommodate my own quirks. That's the theory, at least. I'll let you know how it works out.

She'll also be handy as a place to store projects without them getting creased. Her manual suggests I should also be using her to try out different accessories and colour combinations, but that's getting a bit too enthusiastic about the concept of wearing clothes for my liking. I find it much easier to only buy clothes in a couple of colours to begin with. That way, everything matches even when I get dressed in the dark.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

It's been six weeks since I first submitted that story and...

...I now have not one, not two but three (count 'em!) rejection slips to my name. Apparently I'm not having much luck finding a publication that needs a story featuring a wisecracking penguin with a Bronx accent and its eyes scratched out. Go figure.

Still, I shall continue to persevere. There's always a chance that somebody, somewhere, is desperate for more penguin-based fiction. And since the alternative is to post it here, to be read by maybe three people, it's not like I'm missing out on much. (The three of you who would have read it may feel differently, of course...).

In the meantime, when I'm not sending that one back out to be rejected somewhere else, I'm working on other things. The novel continues to be very slowly edited, there's another short story gradually coming together, and I'm currently obsessing over a project that I already know won't go anywhere (as opposed to merely suspecting such things).

The idea in question, unfortunately, is one of those that really needs to be a comic. Prose simply wouldn't do it justice; it needs big, bold visuals to tell the story properly. And I can't do big, bold visuals. If I try really, really hard, I can produce something that's about half-decent, but it's just not worth it for the amount of stress and effort it requires. And while I know one or two people who can draw, I doubt any of them would be interested in taking on a project of this magnitude with no guarantee that it would ever be seen by more than three people (hi, three people! I love you!).

I'll have to work on it regardless, though. I need to get it out of my head and pinned down on a page before I can move on to something else.

And if you know anyone who might fancy drawing 120 pages of quirky, grim superhero stuff just for the lulz, do send them my way.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Inviting Rejection

I'm sitting on the sofa in my living room right now, trying not to hyperventilate.  This is because I just pushed a button on a webpage marked 'Submit'.

I've sent a story out into the wild.  Not just to cosy, friendly beta-readers, or into the rarely-visited walled-garden that is this blog, but actually into the wider world.  I've submitted it for consideration to an actual publishing-type place.  Despite having been writing for years, I've never actually done that before.

There's a very simple reason for this: nothing I've written has ever been good enough, in my head at least.  Everything always needs more work, further polishing, just one last tweak before it can be sent out.  Except the more I tweak things the less I tend to like them, as a rule.

There are two reasons why this story is different.  One is that Friendy Beta-Reader the First told me this story really deserved better than to just be posted on the blog, despite originating in another silly writing prompt like 'Lavendar and the Random Acolyte'.  The other is that Friendly Beta-Reader the Second, despite only really taking up writing for NaNoWriMo last November, is already submitting things out there.  Good things.  And if he gets something published before I've even worked up the courage to submit then I will be, as the cool kids say, 'well jell'.

It may be petty, it may be foolish, but at least it's stirred me to action.  I have a story out there, hoping to make its fortune in the wider world.  And when the inevitable rejection letter comes, I shall bear it proudly and call myself a real writer at last.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Back Off the Wagon

Last time I posted about running, I'd just finished the 5K training program from Zombies, Run! and was feeling pretty good about the whole thing.  That was back in February, and you may have noticed that I haven't said anything about running since.

That would be because I've barely been running since.  As much as I planned to keep going, circumstances conspired to knock me back out of the habit.  Most notably, the day after I completed the 5K training I came down with a nasty bout of flu that left me bedridden for several days and woozy for rather longer.  That alone was enough to destroy the momentum and make me reluctant to go back out while the weather was still so cold.

Once the habit's gone, it's hard to get back to it.  I managed one or two runs in the intervening months, but it's only in this past week that I've managed to get going properly again (and I do hope writing about it isn't going to throw me off course again).  The trigger, in the end, was upgrading my phone and finally being able to run the full version of Zombies, Run!  The thought of repeating training missions over and over just wasn't appealing, but now I finally have new plots to listen to.  Sure, I'm not exactly running the whole thing at the moment but I'm using what I've learned from the training and I figure I'll improve the more I do it.  Plus now I get to collect supplies and build up my base and that sort of thing is just cool.

It'll be a while before I turn on the zombie chases though...

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Broken Bonds

"Good morning, Your Highness."

Lavendar woke in pain and bondage, and not the good kind.  Her wrists and ankles were held in heavy shackles, and the pain in her head and bile in her throat suggested more than a touch of concussion.

"I apologise for your current accommodation, but we can't have you running off again, can we, Highness?"

It hurt to open her eyes, but she forced herself to look at just how bad her situation was.  Sturdy chains bolted to the wall: check.  No sign of her usual collection of weapons: check.  Middle-aged rich man leering over her: check.  Fancy dress with ruffles and brocade and endless skirts: okay, that was a new one.  She squinted at her captor again.  He seemed too well-dressed to be your average pervert-with-a-princess-fetish, but you never could tell.  Best not to hang around too long here, just in case.

"Can I get you anything to make you more comfortable?"  His smile showed neat teeth gleaming out from the dark frame of his carefully-trimmed beard.

Lavendar didn't trust anyone that tidy and polite.  Even if she hadn't been chained to the wall she'd have been on her guard.  "My gun would be a good start," she muttered.

The smile disappeared.  "That was hardly a suitable possession for one of your breeding," he said.  "Neither were the clothes you were wearing, nor the disreputable tavern my men say they found you in."

Tavern?  Dang.  Now it started to filter back.  On the plus side, her concussion was almost certainly just a raging hangover, and she'd survived plenty of those in her time.  On the other hand, she had a feeling the whisky had talked her into doing something incredibly stupid last night.  This could be worse than she'd anticipated.  "How about a glass of water, then?" she asked in her sweetest voice.  Best to let him keep thinking she was a princess for now.

"That can be arranged."  He crossed to the door, well out of reach of Lavendar's chains, and had a brief conversation with someone outside.  Lavendar took the opportunity to look around and figure out what she had to work with.

It wasn't a dungeon, at least.  That suggested they were planning to treat her reasonably well for the moment.  The room was light and airy, and a long way up to judge from the blue that filled the one window.  There was furniture, and books, not that any of it would be much good to her while she was restrained.  It might mean there was a possibility of persuading them to unlock her if she promised to behave, though.

The well-dressed man returned, with the promised water.  "I can't drink it with my arms behind my back," Lavendar said, smiling as though smashing his head against the wall was the furthest thing from her mind right now.

"You'll manage, Your Highness," he said, taking her arm and pulling her upright.  He wasn't rough, but the motion set Lavendar's head swimming and she had to fight not to vomit.  Barfing on her captor probably wouldn't make him any more friendly.

The water helped.  She took small sips as the glass was held to her lips, allowing the cold refreshment to settle her stomach and clear her head.  More snatches of last night were beginning to come back.  She remembered loudly declaiming that she was the missing Princess Aurelia, while the real Aurelia kept her head down and avoided eye contact.  Thank goodness that lesson had stuck, even if Lavendar wasn't good at sticking to it herself.

It shouldn't have worked.  Anyone with a lick of sense would have spotted that she looked nothing like Aurelia.  Her hair was lighter, her skin was lighter (sure, she was fairly grubby from travelling at the moment but that hardly meant she matched Aurelia's honeyed tones) and even her eyes were a different colour.  Claiming her identity was the kind of stupid, last-ditch idea that only came from the bottom of a bottle, and yet it had worked.  So whoever this man was, he clearly wasn't lofty enough to score an invite to meet visiting royalty.  Probably he was hoping that 'saving' the missing princess would help boost him up the ladder a few rungs.  Or he thought he could get away with holding her to ransom.  Either way, she wasn't impressed.

Before Lavendar was done drinking, the well-dressed man took the glass away and got to his feet.  "I'm afraid I have other business to attend to," he said.  "I'll come back when I can.  Don't go anywhere."  He didn't even bother to hide the smirk as he walked out.

"Try and stop me," Lavendar muttered as the door closed.  It wasn't just empty defiance.  As soon as the sound of the key turning in the lock told her she was safe from interruption for the time being, she worked herself up onto her knees and tipped her head back.

They'd taken her clothes and her weapons, but they hadn't touched her hair.  Everybody was terrified of the matted tails that sprang from her head, and they clearly hadn't dared to touch the grotty strings with which she had bound them at regular intervals from the nape of her neck.  A stiff mass of hair hung down her back, and no one ever seemed to think of the possibilities that afforded.

It was awkward, with her arms bound as they were, but by tipping her head as far back as it would go and arching her back she was able to get her fingertips to the lowest of the ties.  Pulling it free released a section of hair and let her access the secrets it concealed.  There wasn't much she could get away with hiding in there, but she'd found a long time ago that a tight roll of lock picks could be slipped in easily enough and was handy in a number of situations.  Doubtless they thought they'd been terribly clever when they'd found the decoy set she kept in her boot.

This wasn't a job she could hurry.  There was nowhere within reach that she could easily hide the picks, so she was just going to have to hope no one disturbed her for a while.  Or that if they did they wouldn't move her, so she could get away with sitting on them.

She never could pick a lock without thinking of the woman she'd learned the skill from.  A well-regarded old rogue whose name she never learned, she'd taken Lavendar on as a 'prentice for a year and taught her plenty about locks and chains.  How to get out of them, sure, but also the kinds of fun you could have while in them.  That had paid off in unexpected ways, when she'd realised at a vital moment how much easier it was to free yourself when there wasn't someone hell-bent on distracting you in any way she could.

Even without distraction, this was painstaking work.  The angle was awkward, for one thing, making it difficult to keep the tools in place.  Her wrists were aching from the weight of the chains, and her head was still throbbing from last night's excesses.  Not that her former mistress would have accepted any of those excuses, especially not when the lock itself was relatively simple.

"Keep it together, " Lavendar muttered under her breath as her hand slipped for the fourth time.  There was still no sign of anyone coming to see her, but it couldn't last forever.  She started again, working back through everything she'd cleared before then concentrating to clear the last couple of pins.  When the shackles sprang from her wrists she could have shouted for joy, but instead she very gently laid them down and started working on her ankles.  These were much easier, so it didn't take long before she was free.

Her suspicion had been correct.  It was long way down to the ground, and far too smooth a wall to try climbing down.  If the chains hadn't been so firmly bolted to the wall they would have made a good strong start to an escape rope, but she was simply going to have to improvise.  No sheets on the bed, she found, just a couple of crocheted blankets that wouldn't be much help.  Apparently someone had been thinking this through.

If they'd left her in her own clothes, she might have been stuck, but the dress she was in had layers and layers of underskirts in stiff, sturdy fabrics.  Lavendar set to work, tearing away the skirts until she was left standing in a much shorter outfit before a pile of raw material.  She was about to start working on making a rope when there was a loud clatter from the window.

Turning, Lavendar saw a grappling hook caught on the edge of the sill.  Closer inspection revealed it to have a long rope attached, and a young man at the bottom steeling himself to climb up it.  "Well, ain't that handy?" Lavendar called down, tucking the roll of lock picks safely into her bodice.  "Mind out the way.  No sense in you comin' up just to go straight down again."

She didn't wait to listen to his spluttered protestations, just climbed up on the window ledge, grabbed the rope and lowered herself down hand over hand.  "There," she said as her feet touched the ground.  "All safe and sound.  Thanks for the borrow of the rope."

The young man was staring at her, his mouth half-open.  Lavendar sized him up: fancy clothes, soft hands and a complete inability to form a sentence.  His gaze was fixed on her legs.  "What's the matter?" she asked.  "Ain't you never seen a girl's knees before?  I could hardly be climbin' down that rope with all those skirts on, could I?"

"I-"  He swallowed.  "I was supposed to carry you down."

"You hardly look like you could carry yourself, let alone me.  Some handsome prince you're turnin' out to be."

"You're not exactly what I was expecting either."  He seemed to be getting over the shock in favour of being indignant that she wasn't a proper princess.

"Yeah, well, next time do your research."  Lavendar was about to stride off when a thought struck her and she turned back.  "How did you even know I was in there?" she asked.  "It's hardly been long.  This a regular gig for you?  Or did someone tip you off as to where to come?"

"I-"  And there was that look again, the one that would catch flies.

"Someone organised this whole thing, didn't they?  Pick up the missin' princess, hold her 'captive', then you show up and 'rescue' her and everyone's so grateful, you get to marry yourself a princess and move on up in the world."  She studied him closely.  It could have been her imagination, but there did seem to be a resemblance between him and the rich man upstairs.

"That's-"  He forced a laugh.  "That's ridiculous.  You've got this all wrong."

"I'm hungover," Lavendar snapped, "and I've been chained up, and I'm mighty annoyed.  But if you set this whole thing up," she marched over and thrust her hand into his pocket, "you'll have brought a key for the shackles."  She pulled it out and held it up.  "Yep, this looks like the right sort of key, all right.  You gonna tell me you just happened to think that far ahead?"

"I was rescuing you," he said as she dropped the key on the grass in front of him and walked away.  "I wasn't part of the kidnapping."

"Forgive me if I'm not convinced."  She managed a whole five paces before she heard the sort of click that always made her stop dead and turn around very slowly.

His gun was as fancy-looking as his clothes.  Not really to her taste, but no doubt it shot well enough, certainly at this distance.  "Knowing where my uncle keeps his keys doesn't make me his accomplice," he said.  "I came here to rescue you, and now I'm taking you back to your father."

Lavendar snorted.  "You know somethin' I don't?  I couldn't even tell you who my daddy is, let alone where he is right now.  Could be six feet under for all I know."

"We're going to see the king," he said firmly.  "I'm taking you back, and you're going to tell him I rescued you."

"I'm sure he'll be thrilled," she said.  "You rescued a scruffy urchin and you expect to be rewarded.  You'll be askin' for my hand in marriage next, for all the good it'll do you."

"You wouldn't be so scruffy if you hadn't destroyed your dress."

"Still wouldn't make me a princess."  A smile crept over her face.  "You know what?  I think I will go with you.  It'll be worth it to see the look on your face when you try presentin' me to the king."

"Start walking then."  He gestured with the gun, and Lavendar had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.  Clearly this boy wasn't the sharpest blade in the armoury.  If she'd been just a little closer she'd have been holding his gun right now, and no doubt there'd be more opportunities to come.  She'd grab the next one that arose with both hands in preference to seeing the king, since no doubt he'd want to ask awkward questions about how exactly she came to be pretending to be his daughter.  If she were really unlucky he'd already have had word that someone matching her description was accompanying the missing princess, and she didn't have anything else hidden in her hair to get her out of the next dungeon.

"So what's wrong with meetin' a nice girl the usual way?" she asked over her shoulder as she started walking.  "I ain't ever needed to chain a girl up just to make her look at me."

"It wasn't me that chained you up.  I'm not going to keep having this conversation with you."

Lavendar shrugged.  "You might as well.  I'm just tryin' to pass the time while we're marchin' to our doom."

"Well, don't.  I don't need idle chatter from you."

"Now I'm startin' to see why you can't just win a girl's heart.  Courtship usually involves a fair amount of idle chatter, you know."

He didn't reply, but glances over her shoulder told Lavendar that she was on the right track.  His aim was wavering as he walked, and it was taking him longer than it should to correct it.  She slowed her pace by the tiniest amount, hoping to make him draw closer.

They were following a dirt track, but it didn't look like it got much in the way of traffic.  She could cross her fingers for a wandering acolyte or a farm cart, but it could hardly be plan A.  Maybe she could do something when they got closer to the small copse of trees up ahead.  He didn't look the type to be much good at climbing.

"Come on," she said, "just give it a try.  Give up on the kidnappin' and try bein' a bit friendlier.  You can practise on me if you like, though you're really not my type."  Was that just sunlight flashing through the branches, or was there someone in the trees?  Lavendar drifted across to one side of the track to try to work it out, but no sooner had she moved than a shot rang out.

"You missed," Lavendar said, though she stopped walking.  When the only response was a groan she turned and found the young man lying on the ground clutching his shoulder.  "Oh," she said, glancing back at the trees, "I see."

From out of the trees a figure emerged, a familiar face with tanned skin and dark hair tied back in a loose ponytail.  She was holding a gun with rather more conviction than Lavendar's captor had, and kept it firmly trained on him as she approached.

"You're late, your Highness," Lavendar called.  "Even this guy managed to beat you at comin' to the rescue.  You might want to work on that."

"This guy didn't stop to pick up your belongings on the way," said Aurelia.  "I thought you might at least appreciate getting your gun back.  Nice gun, by the way.  Fires beautifully.  I might have to keep it after all."  She didn't take her eyes off the man on the ground, but she smiled as she spoke.

Lavendar stooped and plucked the other gun from the young man's hand.  "I'll swap you for this one," she said.  "You'll do better with it than he ever did, I think."

"I doubt that's difficult."  She held out her free hand to take the gun from Lavendar, then pointed that one at the man while she passed Lavendar's own weapon back.

"Are you going to kill me?" the young man whimpered, looking from one woman to the other.

"I'm thinking about it," said Aurelia without malice.

"He'll only get ideas about takin' you back to your daddy if you don't," said Lavendar.  "Unless he's still convinced that I'm the missin' princess."

"No, no, I won't, I promise," he spluttered.

"I knew it was askin' for trouble to let you tag along with me," Lavendar said to Aurelia, entirely ignoring the protestations from the ground.  "I should never have let you bat those big brown eyes at me."

"You shouldn't have broken into my bedroom in the middle of the night, you mean."  With two weapons pointing at the man, Aurelia took her eyes off him for the briefest moment to grin at Lavendar.  "That was your mistake."

"I was lookin' for valuables, not a companion.  Visitin' royalty just as I'm passin' through town?"  Lavendar shook her head.  "Can't let an opportunity like that go to waste."

"And you stole the most valuable thing my father owned.  I was planning to leave anyway, and I'm not wasting any opportunities either."  Her gaze was trained on the man again.  "Speaking of which, you should get going.  I'll make sure this one doesn't go anywhere for a while longer."

Lavendar nodded and headed for the copse to retrieve the rest of her belongings.  Aurelia, bless her heart, had managed to pick up everything that had been taken.  Within minutes Lavendar was dressed in her own clothes, with her roll of picks safely stowed back in her hair and her gun in its holster where it belonged.  She strolled back to Aurelia and dropped the remains of the dress onto the young man.  "I guess this is goodbye then," she said to Aurelia.

"In a moment," said Aurelia, and she caught hold of Lavendar's collar to pull her forward into a long, lingering kiss.  "Sorry, couldn't let you go without doing that at least once."

"I told you you weren't my type," Lavendar said to the young man, who was staring up at them.  "Next time you decide to go rescuin' a girl, try makin' sure she wants you to first."  She shouldered her bag and nodded to Aurelia.  "I won't tell you you stay out of trouble, 'cause I know you ain't goin' to.  Just make sure it's the right kind of trouble, okay?"

As she walked away down the track she wondered if she was doing the right thing.  Sure, continuing to travel together would only attract attention that neither of them needed right now, but Aurelia had been pleasant enough company these past few weeks.  And that kiss, while a little too polite for Lavendar's usual tastes, had promised interesting things.

She pulled a worn old coin from her pocket, rubbing her thumb over its familiar faces for a moment before tossing it into the air and catching it on the back of her hand without breaking her stride.  Smiling to herself, she dropped it back into her pocket and kept on walking.  There was always another princess out there to save.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Jewel of the Heart

The hesitant flutter of the saloon doors was barely audible amidst the noise of the bar, but it made every head turn to look.  Patrons of The Desiccated Husk usually entered boldly, pushing the doors aside and leaving them to flap and clatter behind them, but this visitor seemed to be struggling to get through.  The men inside watched with idle curiosity, but no one moved to help.

At last one door swung forward just enough to admit a woman in a lilac dress that was buttoned up to her throat and swept the floor.  She was gripping her handbag in both hands, knuckles turning white above the brass clasp, and her elbows were tucked tight against her waist.  It seemed she lacked the strength to keep the door from closing on her, or perhaps she was just reluctant to do anything as un-ladylike as barge her way through.

When she finally made it through she turned to watch the door closing, standing transfixed as it swung back and forth.  Then she picked her way towards the bar, keeping her head down with the brim of her hat obscuring most of her face.

"Can I help you, ma'am?" the barman asked amiably enough, his bushy moustache curving up into a smile as she stopped three feet from the bar.

"I'm looking for Ms del Rio," she said in a small voice.  "I was told she works here?"

"Roxie?" the barman asked, leaning forward and putting a hand to his ear.  "Did I hear you right?  You're looking for Roxie?"

Her eyes stayed fixed on the wooden boards of the floor, but her hat twitched in the tiniest of nods.

"She's not here right now."  He stood up straight, plucked a glass from the shelf behind him and started polishing it.  "Not due on for another hour, you see.  Why don't you take a seat while you wait?  Would you like a drink?"

"I don't touch alcohol," she said, her voice suddenly a little stronger.

"How about coffee?"  He swapped the glass for a porcelain mug which he gave a perfunctory wipe before filling it with steaming hot coffee and pushing it across the bar.  "There you are, ma'am.  On the house."

The rest of the bar continued to watch as she tiptoed forward to take the coffee, then seated herself at an empty table.  Her bag went into her lap, still gripped tightly with both hands except for the rare moment when she reached forward to take a sip.  She sat like that, her whole body tense, keeping her eyes fixed on the drink in front of her and not acknowledging anyone in the room.

Before long most of the patrons had grown bored of watching her and returned to their conversations, but a group around one table continued to cast glances her way and mutter to each other.  At last one, a burly man whose thinning hair was balanced by a thick beard, got to his feet and swaggered across to her table, looking back at his friends as he went.

"What's a lady like you doing looking for a girl like Roxie?" he asked, leaning on the back of the chair next to hers.

"She's an old friend of mine," the woman said in a tiny voice, cringing away from him as he loomed over her.  "I'm just here to catch up with her."

"A friend of Roxie's, eh?" he asked, loud enough for the whole bar to hear.  "Dressed for your day off, are you?"  He winked at his friends, all of whom were grinning broadly.

"I don't know what you mean," she whispered, her grip tightening on her bag.  "I always dress like this."

"Sure you do."  Now he was leaning on the back of her chair, talking down to her hat.  "Come on, darling, give us a look at the goods.  Maybe you could replace Roxie here, hey?"  One large, calloused hand landed on her shoulder.

"Please don't touch me," she whimpered.

"Come on, Charlie," the barman said, though he didn't move from his spot.  "Knock it off."

"I only want a look," he protested.  "If she's a friend of  Roxie she must let men look all the time.  What harm could it do to give me a peep?"  His hand reached round towards the buttons at her throat.


"That's the last time I suggest you come and see me at work."  Roxie stood in the doorway and surveyed the carnage, one corner of her mouth twitching and ruining her otherwise stern pose.  Her friend still sat primly at her table, sipping coffee and clutching her bag, and Eddie was still behind the bar, polishing the glasses for all the good it would do.  Charlie, on the other hand, was out cold on the floor.  This was a man she had seen down a full bottle of Eddie's 'special' hooch with nary a wobble, but it didn't look like he'd be getting up any time soon.  There were a fair few others nursing injuries, and none of them seemed willing to look at her or her friend.  "What the devil happened here?"

"Some people needed to learn some manners," said her friend, still in the same soft register.

Roxie sighed.  "All right, well, I think they've all learned their lesson.  Come on out back with me and stop terrorising these folks with your coffee drinking."

The woman rose gracefully to her feet and followed Roxie out through a door behind the bar.  The men at the tables she passed cringed away from her, but she did nothing more than favour them with a winning smile.


"All right, Lavendar," said Roxie once the door was firmly closed.  "Start from the beginning.  What's with the old lady getup?  That hat really doesn't suit you, you know."

"You told me to be subtle," said Lavendar with a shrug, finally talking with her own brash voice.  "Can't go attractin' too much attention when you've got a job for me.  And you know my hair is my most distinctive feature."  She took off the hat and let the matted, dirty blonde mess fall around her shoulders.  There hadn't been a brush anywhere near her hair since the day she'd left Momma's house.  The tangles always came back so quickly it had never seemed worth the effort, and now there was no one who could tell her otherwise.  As soon as she was free she'd twisted it into a series of rat tails that could be as scruffy as they liked.

"It's certainly unusual," said Roxie, gathering together her working clothes and starting to unfasten her dress.  "But don't you think laying Charlie out like that kinda goes against the whole subtle thing?"

"He thinks any friend of yours is a stripper who doesn't mind givin' people a free look.  I couldn't just let that stand.  Maybe now he'll think about keepin' his hands to himself."

"And the others?"

Another shrug.  "They didn't seem to appreciate me teachin' Charlie a lesson.  There was quite a rumpus there for a while."

Roxie pinched the bridge of her nose as she shimmied her dress off her hips.  "I knew I shouldn't have asked you to come here.  I wouldn't have, but this was the only place I could be sure we could talk.  At least you left Eddie standing so he can watch the door for us."

"I'd have left them all standin' if they hadn't started it."  Lavendar flumped down into a chair, no longer bothering with the ladylike facade.  "Now, what's all this about?  What's so important you needed a secret meetin'?"

"It's Theodore," said Roxie, the bright sequins of her working outfit shimmering as she pulled it on over her head.  "Things ended with him recently, and it wasn't exactly the friendliest of endings."  She pulled her head free of the dress and looked directly at Lavendar, pain written all over her face.  "He took my Jewel, Lavendar.  My one treasure in this rotten old world."

"And you'd be wantin' me to effect a retrieval, I suppose?"  Her face brightened at the mere thought of it.

"Is that okay?"  Roxie's hands were trembling as she fastened the ties on her dress and it took her several attempts to perfect the combination of concealment and the promise of later revelation.  "I know this is the kind of thing you do, but still I wouldn't ask if it weren't so important."

"Of course it's okay," said Lavendar, springing to her feet to envelop Roxie in a bone-crushing hug.  "I was expectin' a whole lot of showin' off from you on this visit.  Can't be leavin' again without so much as a peep."

"Thank you," Roxie mumbled into her shoulder, and Lavendar pretended not to notice how she was shaking.


Lavendar eased her way through the open window, silently giving thanks for the warm weather that made breaking and entering so easy.  Not quite as easy as it could have been, since Theodore apparently wasn't so dumb as to leave ground-floor windows open at night, but Lavendar had always been good at climbing.  The upper floor had a choice of open windows and it had been easy enough to locate one that didn't have snoring floating out to betray its occupancy.  Fingers crossed none of the help were quiet sleepers.

The dreadful lilac dress had been discarded, replaced by Lavendar's customary attire of a sturdy pair of trousers and a dark shirt that concealed layers of padding and protection.  She wore soft boots for silent running, and gloves with artfully roughened fingertips for an enhanced grip.  A handgun was holstered at her hip, though it was mostly for show.  A shooting match here would cause more trouble than it would solve.  Better to rely on her wits and whatever luck she could make.

She dropped into the room with the lightest of thuds and paused for a moment to check that no one had been disturbed.  When all stayed quiet she allowed herself to breathe again, and gently pulled the curtain across to enter the room.  There was very little light from outside to help with her search, but as her eyes adjusted to the dark she realised she had chosen the perfect window.  Roxie's Jewel was right here.

"Hello, beautiful," she breathed as she crossed the room and leaned over to make sure she was right.  In the crib, the baby girl stirred gently and opened large eyes to look at Lavendar.  "Hey, Jewel," Lavendar whispered, breaking into a smile.  "Your momma sent me to get you.  Are you ready to go?"  She reached down and lifted Jewel out of the crib, putting her against her shoulder and wrapping the blankets around her.  "You just go back to sleep if you like.  You'll be back with your momma before you know it."

There was no question of going back out the window.  The climb had been tricky enough with both hands free, but there was no way she could get back down while holding a baby, even one as willing to nuzzle peacefully against her as Jewel apparently was.  Breaking out of buildings was generally easier than breaking in, at least.

She opened the bedroom door and eased out onto the landing, holding Jewel close.  All was quiet, the other doors all closed as far as she could make out in the darkness.  One hand on the wall, lightly brushing along, helped to guide her towards the stairs and she slipped down without a sound.  Jewel had gone back to sleep, the front door lay ahead and there was nothing between her and freedom.

As Lavendar reached for the door it suddenly swung inwards towards her, bringing with it a man who smelt of cheap whisky and was hanging onto the doorknob.  He looked up at her, his eyes unfocused and watery.  "You're not the nanny," he slurred.

"She had an... emergency?" Lavendar ventured, thinking on her feet.  "I said I'd look after this little bundle while she took care of it.  I just got her back to sleep, so be careful."

"Why were you taking her outside?  Were you stealing my baby?"

"Well, who wouldn't want to steal such an adorable little thing?" she beamed.  "I guess you must be Theodore, then."

His eyes narrowed and he straightened up to look at her properly.  "That's Mr Anderson to you," he said.  "How did you even know my first name?"  Suspicion spread across his face.  "Roxie sent you, didn't she?  She sent you to take my child.  I won't have my girl living with a cheap tart, you know.  Not a chance."

"Oh, because havin' her live with a ragin' drunk is so much better?" Lavendar hissed back, keeping her voice low so as not to wake Jewel.  "Roxie ain't never been cheap, as long as I've known her.  She makes more money than you, for one thing.  I never did understand what she saw in you, though I always figured I just wasn't well placed to judge these things."

"You won't take her," Theodore said again, and he spread his arms wide to block the doorway.

Lavendar wondered for a moment about finding another door, but she didn't dare turn her back on him.  There was really only one thing for it.  Sighing, she pulled her gun from the holster and pointed it straight at his heart.  "You'll let us through," she said, "or I'll make you wish you had."

They stood, caught in an impasse.  Lavendar was closer to him than she would have liked, but backing up would take her further from the door and make her look scared.  With Jewel asleep on her shoulder her options were limited, and so everything depended on convincing Theodore that it would be better to get out of the way.

Theodore was too drunk to blanch in the face of a weapon.  "Shoot me and you'll have the law on your tail," he slurred.

Lavendar shrugged.  "You think that's somethin' new for me?  Ain't never met a lawman could give me a run for my money."  She held the gun rock steady.

Without warning, Theodore lunged forward.  For a moment Lavendar thought he'd lost his balance, but he was grabbing for the gun.  She made no effort to hold onto it, concentrating instead on not being pulled over or dropping Jewel.

"That's better," said Theodore, pulling himself upright and pointing the gun back at Lavendar.  His hand wasn't as steady as hers and the barrel waved erratically, sometimes pointing at her head, sometimes at her feet, sometimes at the baby.  "You're going to give me my daughter," he said, "and then we'll see what we're going to do with you."

"Or what?" Lavendar snorted.  "You'd risk shootin' your own baby?"

"There'll be no shooting if you give me the baby," said Theodore.

"There'll be no shootin' if you let me through," she retorted.  Tired of trying to reason with a drunkard, she stepped forward and prepared to push him out of the way.

Theodore pulled the trigger.

There was a click, but nothing more.  He stared in disbelief at the gun as Lavendar barged through with Jewel.

Once Lavendar was safely out of the house she turned to look at him.  "Nice goin'," she said.  "Firin' a gun when you're too drunk to hold it straight?  Riskin' your daughter's life?  You're lucky one of us has the sense not to bring a loaded gun near a baby."  She reached out and lifted the empty gun from his unresisting hand, dropping it back into its holster.  "You know, the sensible thing would have been to let me take her and then work it out as a legal matter later.  The really sensible thing would have been to work out custody as a legal matter in the first place, instead of just stealin' her from her mother."

"Her mother's a whore," Theodore said, but there was no real conviction in his voice.  His shoulders had slumped and he didn't look inclined to stop them leaving.

"You and I both know that ain't true.  Roxie ain't never let the punters do more than look at what she's got."  Not that it would have mattered to Lavendar if she had, of course.  It seemed to her that were plenty of worse ways to earn a living.  "If you had such a problem with what she does then why did you ever take up with her in the first place?  Seems to me you were just put out 'cause she wouldn't give up her job and become your cosy little housewife.  Well, you've lost it now.  Ain't no judge that'll give you this girl after what you did tonight."  And with that, Lavendar turned and walked into the night.


"You ready to go?"  Lavendar had taken Jewel straight to Roxie's house, where her friend had been packing a few necessary items and preparing to get out of town.  They'd both known that retrieving Jewel would mean heading for a new life somewhere else; Theodore wouldn't let them leave peacefully if he knew where they were.  Not once he sobered up and got over his shock, anyway.

Roxie gave a cry as she saw her daughter nestled on Lavendar's shoulder, and came over to take her.  She held her close, burying her face in the baby's soft golden curls.  "How can I ever thank you enough?" she mumbled.

"Don't thank me till you're safely out of here," said Lavendar.  "And even then, do it by looking after the little one.  She's been good as gold the whole way.  Clearly doesn't take after her father."  As Roxie wrapped Jewel up in extra blankets, Lavendar shouldered the bags that had been packed.

Before they left, Lavendar took one last look at the sleeping girl.  "Never could resist rescuin' a princess," she said with a smile.

[If you missed Lavendar's previous escapade, you can find it here.]

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Out of Focus

I seem to have a lot of stuff on the go at the moment.  There's an enormous crochet project, which is probably going to take about three months and an awful lot of wool.  There's the novel to edit, of course, which currently stands at twenty thousand words of second draft.  There's Lavendar, who keeps poking me and insisting that I write more stories about what she did when she grew up.  There are all the other people who keep sending me stories and asking me for feedback (I love you all, guys, honestly!).  And of course there's work and family and the all-important Twitter to keep track of.  And, just occasionally, this blog.

I envy anyone with the focus to do one thing really well, rather than my usual trick of doing lots of things in a half-arsed, mediocre manner.  I have to have deadlines to get stuff done, and even then I can't devote too much time to something before my brain begins to itch and I need to do something else.  Writing every day in November is wonderful, but by the 1st of December I'm desperate to get back to other things.  There's simply no way I can sustain that kind of pace outside of November.  Not when there are things to crochet and giant squids to make and jackets to sew and...

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Lavendar and the Random Acolyte

[This story was written in response to a challenge from a Chap in my writing group, to write something with the above title.]

Lavendar hefted the sword, taking a moment to assess the weight and perfect the grip before lunging forward on the attack.  The enchanted blade made swift work of the slavering monsters that guarded the tower, dispatching them to whatever afterlife they considered worthy without a moment's hesitation.  There could be no hesitation when there was a beautiful princess to save.

And yet, Lavendar hesitated.  The monsters were slain, the door to the tower stood ahead, but there was an old man in some kind of robe walking up the road.  Lavendar regarded him warily, holding the sword ready just in case.  One more fight wouldn't make much difference, not in the long run.  The princess would be safe.

The old man stopped some distance away, holding up his hands to show he wasn't a threat.  He looked Lavendar up and down, one corner of his mouth twitching into half a smile.  "My, that's a big sword for such a little lady," he said gently.

Lavendar looked down at the blade in her hand.  "It's just a stick," she said at last, wondering how on earth the man could have thought it was a real sword.  "I'm only pretendin'."

"Slaying fearsome monsters, no doubt," the man said, coming a little closer.

"And rescuin' princesses."  Lavendar's chest puffed up with pride.  "I'm the mightiest hero in all the land."  The sorry-looking bushes on the edge of the property were a testament to that.  Not one of them had put up a real fight when faced with her and her magic sword.

"Well, Mighty Hero," said the man, "I'm just a humble acolyte, so I hope you'll let me pass unmolested.  I'm not hiding any princesses, I promise."

Lavendar screwed up her face in confusion.  "What's an ag... aglyte?"  She kept the stick gripped firmly in her hand, just in case.  Momma said you never could tell when some nice old man would turn out to be a horrible monster, and that tatty brown robe of his could have held any number of tentacles.

"An acolyte," said the man, pronouncing the word carefully.  "It means I've devoted my life to following my god.  You've probably seen people like me in the temples in town."

Momma didn't take Lavendar into the town very often.  She didn't like the hustle and the bustle, she said, and it always brought on one of her bad heads.  But when they did go in for something, Lavendar always liked to look at the temples with their fancy statues and to wonder about the lives of the people inside.  There were the High Priests of Glor, reciting the 1,667 words of power before images of their insatiable god in his squidly form, his mechanical form and his rotten form.  There were the Servants of the Hidden Eye, who covered themselves from head to foot and who Momma said liked to eat little girls who didn't behave themselves.  Lavendar's favourites were the Sisters of Glamour, who wore shiny, colourful clothes that she could only dream of.  Momma said they were no better than they should be, but Lavendar figured that meant they must be very good indeed.  She was never as good as she was supposed to be.

"How come you ain't in a temple, then?" she asked the acolyte.  "You don't look like none of the ones I've seen."

"You won't see many of my order," he replied.  He sat down on the grass at the edge of the property, basking in the sunlight and making Lavendar hold her sword a little bit tighter.  "We don't keep to a temple, as a rule.  We follow the path laid out for us by our god."

"This path?"  Lavendar scuffed at the dirt with her bare feet.  "Never thought this path would be chosen by a god for anythin', 'cept maybe gettin' rid of someone they didn't like."  She cocked her head to one side as she looked back at the man, curiosity overriding her nerves.  "Does your god not like you?"

He laughed, a surprisingly high-pitched laugh for such a big man.  "I don't mean a literal path, necessarily.  I just let my god decide where I go and what I do.  I follow His will in everything."

"He talks to you?"  She knew a lot of people in the temples claimed to talk to their gods, but she'd never once heard one actually reply.

"Not in the way you're thinking."  The man pulled a small leather pouch out from under his robe, where it had been hanging from a string around his neck.  "He uses these."  He gestured for her to hold out her hand, so she offered him the one that wasn't holding her sword.  He tipped the contents of the pouch into her hand.

"He talks to you with these?  But they don't look holy or nothin'."  She was holding a set of gaming dice of various sizes, plus a well-worn old silver coin.

Another high-pitched laugh.  Lavendar decided she didn't like the way he laughed.  It made something itch between her shoulders and she took a small step backwards, still holding out the dice in one hand and her sword in the other.

"They don't have to be holy," said the man.  "They're just tools.  Say I reach a junction, where I could go left or right.  I flip that coin, and the way it lands tells me which way to go."

"That ain't god," Lavendar snorted.  "That's just luck."

"Some call it that, yes," the man nodded.  "I prefer to think of it as my god guiding me down the path He has chosen."

"And you do that for everything?"

"Everything," said the man.  "Where to go, when to sleep, who to ask for food or shelter.  He guides me well."

"You ask folks for food?  Don't you have money?"  Lavendar knew some grown-ups had more money than others, and most had more money than Momma, but she didn't know it was possible to have no money and walk around like nothing was wrong, instead of begging on the streets or going to one of the poor houses.

"None but that coin you're holding there," he said, smiling like it was the finest thing in the world to be so poor.  "And I need that one, so I can't just spend it on bread."

"So you just walk up to people and ask them for somethin' to eat?"

"When He tells me to, yes."

"What if he tells you not to?"  This was a major stumbling block with any religion, as far as Lavendar was concerned.  Momma was always telling her not to do stuff, and she hated it.

"Then I go hungry."  The man sat up straight, abandoning his sunbathing in favour of addressing her in a more serious manner.  "If He says no, it's usually because the folks in question don't really have much to spare.  Or because asking would get me more trouble than an empty belly.  I just have to trust that He knows the best course of action."

"Are you gonna ask me for some food?"  The dice were getting heavy in her hand and she wanted to give them back to him, but he seemed in no hurry to ask her for them and she didn't want to just drop them in his lap if they were special to him.

His eyes flicked over to her house.  Lavendar followed his gaze to the peeling paint, the straggly clematis that grew by the door and tangled worse than her hair did, and the shuttered blinds behind which Momma was sleeping off one of her bad heads.  She held her breath as she waited for him to comment.  People always commented as they went by the house.  Often they didn't even bother trying not to be heard.

"Let's see what He says, shall we?" was all the man said.  He plucked the coin from her outstretched palm and in one fluid motion flicked it up into the air and caught it on the back of his hand.  Lavendar didn't manage to see which way it landed before he dropped it back into her hand, saying, "Looks like I won't be asking you for anything.  Good job I had a hearty breakfast this morning."  He patted his belly cheerfully.

"That's it?"  Lavendar used the question to hide her relief at not having to try sneaking food out of the house.  There'd be hell to pay if Momma thought she'd been stealing, holy man or no holy man.  "He says no so you don't do it?  What if he keeps sayin' it, over and over, till you starve to death?"

"That's the chance I take, following this path."

"Has it ever happened?  Not starvin' to death, but goin' for days and days without food?"

"Once or twice."  The man shrugged.  "Not as often as you might think, though.  He takes good care of me."

"But it's just luck," Lavendar burst out.  "You're just tossin' a coin.  What if it always comes down the wrong way?"

"It never has yet.  That's why I keep following this path.  It works out surprisingly well.  All you need is a little faith to see it through."

"Show me some more."  Lavendar finally crouched in front of him, putting the sword down on the ground at her feet and gently dropping the dice into the pool of his robe that covered his lap.  "Make another choice."

"You want me to ask Him to perform for you, like a circus entertainer?"  The man's eyebrows disappeared up into the fringe of his dark hair.

"Show me somethin' else," Lavendar insisted.  "I want to see how it works."

"Far be it from me to cross the will of a fearsome hero like yourself," he said.  "What would like me to show you?"

A world of possibilities opened up before her, and at first she was unable to think of anything to ask for.  "Where are you goin' next?" she asked at last.  "I know which way you came from, but there's a few places you could be goin' to from here.  Did you already decide which one you're goin' to?"

"I hadn't made a final choice, so let's find out together, shall we?"  He poked through the dice until he found the one he was looking for, then held it out to Lavendar.  "Here.  You throw it for me."

Tentatively, Lavendar took the die from him and inspected it.  It was just like the ones she'd seen used for games, with the same sorts of spots on each side in different patterns.  She rolled it around her hand, feeling the edges tickling her palm as it flipped over, then she tipped it out onto the dirt.

The man looked down at the top face.  "Looks like I'm going to Harbourtown.  Maybe I'll end up on a ship sailing to some foreign shore."

"All that's in Harbourtown is fishin' boats and a bad smell.  You should roll it again till you get some place nicer."  Lavendar picked up the die and looked at that one face more closely.  "How do you know it's Harbourtown?  I don't see no letters.  It could be anywhere."

"Yes, it could," the man agreed.  "That's the point.  I could hardly have a special die for every occasion.  One for right now with just the places I could go from here?  And then another for the next choice?  I'd never manage to carry them all around."

"Then how do you know which side is which when you do it?"

"I let Him tell me that when it falls."  There was a look in his eye that she'd seen once or twice from teachers when they really wanted her to figure something out.

"You decide which is which before you throw it?"  She turned it over in her fingertips.  "Like, this is Harbourtown?  And this is the redwood forest?"

"Not before I throw it," he said, still giving her that look.  "After it lands."

"After it lands?  You mean..."  She stared at him, and at the triumphant smile on his face as he saw that she'd figured it out at last.  "You're cheatin'?"

"Not cheating," he said mildly as he took the die back from her.  "We make our own luck in this world, little hero."  He scooped up all of the dice and dropped them back into the pouch, but the coin he held onto and looked at for a moment.  Then he tossed it into the air and caught it like before.

"What did that tell you to do?" Lavendar asked, rising up to try to see how the coin had landed even though she knew now that it didn't matter.

"Here," said the man, holding out his hand with the coin balanced on top of it.

At first Lavendar thought he was just holding it out for her to see, but then he gestured and told her to take it.  She stared at him in confusion until he repeated his offer.  "All good heroes need a lucky charm.  You can have this one."

Long after the man had disappeared out of sight down the road, Lavendar was still crouched in the dirt staring at the coin hidden in her hands.  It was old and worn, so much so that the two faces were nearly indistinguishable, but it was still a good coin.  She should probably give it to Momma, or use it to buy some nice white bread for them both, but it was her lucky charm.

Tossing it into the air was easy, but Lavendar lacked the grace and practice to catch it on her hand.  She looked at it as it glinted up from the dirt where it had landed.  We make our own luck in this world.

Lavendar smiled and picked up her sword.  There was still a princess to save, and you should never keep a girl waiting.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A Permanent Fixture

Today I got the official confirmation that I have passed probation and am now employed in a permanent capacity at the COBOL factory. Needless to say, this pleases me immensely.

The odd thing is, a year ago I'd sworn I wouldn't go after a job like this. After hopping around through various temporary and retail jobs, I'd finally settled into something I thought I could see myself pursuing as a career (online marketing and SEO, if you must know). And so I'd told myself that I was going to do exactly that. The job I was in wasn't exactly brilliant in terms of pay and conditions, but I thought I could take the experience and use it to get a better job doing the same sort of thing somewhere else.

But life's a funny thing, ain't it? As soon as I decided to focus on looking for marketing jobs, an advert in the local paper for this position caught my eye. I was done with trainee positions, I thought, but as previously discussed I've always had a hankering to code. So I took the plunge.

There were certain provisos. I wouldn't have taken the job if there had been any suggestion that a job wasn't guaranteed at the end of the six months. If the four of us who were taken on had been competing for a single position when it was over, I'd have stayed in my old job. I'm too old to take that kind of risk these days, especially with a mortgage and Small Girl to consider. Fortunately it was made clear that if we were all up to scratch then we'd all be kept on (and indeed that's exactly what has happened).

The time between accepting the job offer and actually starting was tense, to say the least. First there were the hurdles to jump; a ten-year background check that had to be completed before the job offer would be absolutely concrete. Then there was the general fear of the unknown, the panic that making this leap would turn out to be a bad idea. That disappeared as soon as I got here and started learning. The phrase 'duck to water' has seemed fairly apt over the last six months.

I got some very nice comments on my final probation paperwork today. In particular, it was nice to see an acknowledgement that, although I may make it look easy, I'm actually working damn hard. I'm blessed with a good memory (for things I actually want to remember, anyway) and the right sort of mindset to approach a coding problem in a reasonably structured manner, but those things alone don't get you through. I have a folder packed with notes that I refer to regularly, links to useful sites for researching commands and syntax, and a certain amount of dogged perseverance that often leads me to spend time looking for elegant solutions rather than just taking the easiest route. I've been less likely than the others to ask for help from others in the office, but that's not because I don't have the same problems as them. It's just because I prefer to try to solve the problems myself and hopefully learn something in the process.

In some ways, I can relax now. I've passed, I've got the job, panic over. In other ways, the hard work is only just starting. Now is the point where I really need to prove myself, to get myself established as 'programmer' and not just 'trainee'. I can see a lot of rungs on the career ladder above me, and I'm ready to start climbing.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Make Do and Mend

Of all of the cardigans, jumpers and other assorted warm tops that I own, there is one that's a particular favourite.  Not that I don't like the others, but this one is particularly special.  It was bought a few years back, to mark my seventh wedding anniversary (that being wool), but that's not the reason why it's my favourite.  Not that it means nothing, but I'm pretty sure the jumper I bought for Husband on that occasion has long since bitten the dust, what with him being in possession of the World's Sharpest Elbows and all.

No, it's my favourite because it's comfortable, it's warm, and it looks damn good.  It's not the workaday black rollneck, nor is it the huge, snuggly, not-terribly-smart cardie.  It occupies that hallowed territory right at the centre of the Venn diagram, meaning that I'm extremely reluctant to ever part with it.

This, naturally, became something of an issue.  My elbows may not be quite as sharp as Husband's, but I do still have a terrible tendency to lean on them when sitting at my desk, and that takes its toll on knitwear.  The sleeves of the cardigan developed increasingly threadbare patches, until I could no longer wear it in good conscience, certainly not anywhere that required a reasonable standard of dress.  Was this to be the end for Favourite Cardigan?

No.  Of course it wasn't.

Darning isn't something that comes up much these days.  Modern socks are both cheap and fairly flimsy, so nobody really bothers trying to mend them when they develop holes.  It's not something I'd ever tried myself, but the need to rescue Favourite Cardigan spurred me into action.  Fortunately, although it may not be as widely practised as it used to be, there are plenty of websites out there that will give you an introduction in how to darn.  And it's actually remarkably simple.  Some thin mending wool.  A cardigan with a threadbare patch.  Something to stretch it over (I bought a cheap wooden mushroom from my local Large Craft Chain).  And then it's basically just weaving.  A row of threads going one way, weaving in and out of the existing wool.  A row going the other way, weaving in and out of both the regular wool and the mending wool.  Easy as pie.

The work is all done on the inside of the garment, because it ends up looking like this:
Darn it!

Part of the reason for the ugliness is that you leave a loop at the end of the line every time you turn around, to give a little space for stretching.  That's why the edges of the patch look so fuzzy.  Fortunately, when you turn it the right way out it looks like this:

Flawless Victory!

I followed some advice that suggested making the second set of rows (the weft, if you will) diagonal rather than perpendicular, which again allows for a little more stretch.  It's also best to catch the problem before it turns into a full-blown hole if you can, because the darning is a lot easier (and will be stronger) if there are still threads left behind to work in and out of.  Although I'm told that if a large hole has developed you can cover it with mesh before you start, to give something to work with.

I'm immensely pleased that it worked and I can continue to wear Favourite Cardigan for a while longer.  I still don't plan to start darning my socks any time soon, but there's a chance that if I can keep an eye on Husband's elbows he won't have to spend quite so much of my hard-earned money on knitwear...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

I Seem to Have a Reputation for Liking Tentacles...

Honestly, you write one sex scene involving multiple tentacles and suddenly you're branded as a weird fetishist for the rest of your life...

Still, in the 'continuing to not help my cause' vein, allow me to introduce you to Insatiable Glor:

With Bonus Cameo from Previously-Featured Cushions!
(The name is a long story, involving accidental typos and the willingness of a small group of writers to transform almost anything into a deity they can pretend to worship.)

Yes, Insatiable Glor-as-pictured is an eight-foot-long cuddly squid.  What of it?  I got both the idea and the instructions for making him from Build-a-DIY.  The link was sent to me by Husband, who assures me that he did realise I would be immediately seized by a need to make one, and much encouragement in the endeavour was supplied by Giant-Plushie-Loving-Friend, who mostly just wanted me to be the guinea pig before she makes one of her own.

Step one was of course to make up the pattern.  Discussion with Giant-Plushie-Loving-Friend (henceforth GPLF) of ways to transfer the image on the site to a large-enough piece of paper took in everything from projectors to pinhole cameras to pantographs (apparently, it needed to be something beginning with P), but in the end I settled for a good old-fashioned pen-and-ruler approach.  The living room floor was covered with greaseproof paper and I spent a happy evening measuring, marking, and freehanding curves until I was satisfied with the end result:

Next step, acquiring the materials!  GPLF was snared into agreeing to drive me to the craft and fabric shops (my car is currently out of action until the clutch gets seen to) and giving me a second opinion on things.  Polyester stuffing and beanbag beans for filling Glor were easily acquired, but the fabric was a slightly tougher proposition.  The fabric shop came up trumps with a lovely mottled green that was a perfect squid colour, but was entirely lacking in suitable spotted-prints for the sucker side of the tentacles.  I was on the verge of settling for something that would *just about* work when GPLF spotted, in the clearance bin, a perfectly-sized offcut of a far better sucker fabric than I would ever have imagined existed.  Clearly intended for upholstery or curtains, it has textured circles that make perfect squid suckers.

While all of this was going on, Husband and Small Girl were away for a few days visiting family over half term.  By the time they got home, the living room was full of tentacles:

See what I mean about the fabric?
The pattern is mostly easy to assemble, which is always nice.  Turning the tentacles was a little tricky, but turning a narrow tube of fabric always is.  Otherwise, the only difficult thing was manhandling something of that size, with that much padding, under the sewing machine.  There were tentacles everywhere!

The tentacles and fins were stuffed with polyester stuffing, but getting enough stuffing for the body would have cost an absolute fortune, so instead I went for beanbag beans.  I also went a little off-piste as far as the instructions were concerned, and sewed the final piece on before stuffing the body (leaving a hole both to turn the squid the right way out and to insert beans).  Then I got busy with a jug and a funnel:

This was remarkably soothing to watch...
It didn't take me long to dispense with the funnel, since it kept getting clogged and the hole in the squid was large enough to pour the beans in directly.  I also wound up drafting in Husband as an extra pair of hands, to hold the squid at a suitable height so the body could fill up properly.  A bit of leftover stuffing went on the top, to help prevent the beans falling out while I sewed it close.  All stitched up, it was on with the eyes and Insatiable Glor was complete.

No, I don't have any idea where I'm going to put him.  No, I don't care.