Northern Exposure: Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, and Lampang

Hey guys!

Coming to you live from a little internet place in Lampang. "High-speed" internet access appears to be a relative notion depending on where you're at, but at about 45 cents an hour I can't really complain!;-)

So how hot is it in Thailand? Well, it's hot enough that people who can't park their cars in the shade raise their wipper blades so that they don't melt and stick to the windshield! I shit you not! It's unbelievable! Especially given the fact that a little more than a week ago, I was scraping the ice and the snow from my own windshield!

Before kissing Bangkok goodbye, I got up and boarded a train bound to Ayuthaya to spend the day exploring the ruins. Should have known better and rented a bike to make my way to the various sites, but dumbass that I am I elected to walk around. Ayuthaya is a mandatory stop on the tourist trail for basically everyone who's traveling north but don't want to get out of the Bangkok-Chiang Mai corridor. Hence, it's packed with tourists everywhere you go. The ruins are nice, but crumbled temple compounds get old after a while. Still, all in all, a very nice day.

Made my way back to Bangkok by bus. Like many things in Thailand, I just stumbled upon the bus stop. The bus station is supposed to be a ways away, but here are a number of big buses standing there, waiting to take tourists and locals alike back to Bangkok. No sign, no advertizement, it's just there and you haveto know where it is. And at less than 2$ for the ride, I couldn't refuse. Even if I had to take a short cab ride and then make my way back to the hostel via the Skytrain during rush hour.

Wanted to take a VIP bus toSukhothai, but to my dismay the only kind that goes there is the 2nd class air-con type. Which means that it's not very comfortable, and it's packed to the brim with locals. It made for a shitty six hours, that's for sure, but we got there all right! I stayed at a wonderful, if eccentric, guesthouse: At Home Sukhothai. Go for the garden view room with double bed and air-con. For a mere 25$ a night, they're a steal!

Spent my only full day in town at the Sukhothai historical park. And since the site is huge and many of the most interesting temples are outside the main zone, I didn't make the same mistake twice and I rented a bike. A one-gear with no breaks to speak of contraption that cost me less than a dollar for the day. And believe me, it wasn't worth more than that! Getting moving was a piece a cake. Stopping or slowing down, on the other hand, was more difficult. Unlike Ayuthaya, there are not that many tourists. Even better, the park is quite expansive, and you sometimes get a whole site to yourself.

Caught a bus for Lampang yesterday; another 2nd class with air-con, this time for only 4 hours. And it wasn't as packed, so I didn't feel like a sardine! Like Sukhothia, Lampang is just a blip on Thailand's map, and most travelers don't stop there and head directly to Chiang Mai. Which means that tourists are perceived as some sort of novelty still. And that can be a good thing. Lampang probably feels the Chiang Mai did twenty years ago. Once more, I'm staying at another guesthouse full of charm and character: Riverside Guesthouse. Based on the Lonely Planet recommendation, I went for one of the two roooms with a private balcony overlooking the Mae Wang river. Believe it or not, that room cost me a paltry 16$! That's unbeatable value!

Finally decided to get that foot massage yesterday evening. My feet have been taking a beating, so they deserved the treat. However, the experience wasn't exactly what I expected. I was aware that Thai massages were a bit rougher than what we are used to. However, I didn't really expect the have my feet, punched, slapped, twisted this way and that, and all that. I did feel very good afterward, mind you. And at about 4$ for an hour, you can't really complain. But let's just say I thought the lady would be a bit more gentle with my feet. . .;-)

Wat-ted out, I decided to spend the better part of my morning at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. That change of pace was a lot of fun. Seing the elephants bathing and frolicking in the water, then attending their show, feeding them, and, of course, the obligatory elephant ride!

On the way back, we stopped at the popular Thung Kwian Market, some sort of big indoor and outdoor flea market. After that, we went to Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, believed to be the oldest wooden structure in the country. After a late lunch, I walked to Baan Sao Nak, a huge teak house. After that, I wanted to finish my day by visiting Lampang's most important temple, Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao. Got lost twice getting there, which kind of pissed me off.

You see, Thai people, especially in the north, seem to look upon street signs and any sort of indications as some sort of novelty. It is assumed that a) You know where you are and b) You know where you are going. And if you don't, well that's your own tough luck, pal. Maps are not always decent, so you have to explore a bit in order to realize exactly where you are. For instance, in Sukhothai the main street doesn't have any street signs. What for? It's the main street, after all. But as a tourist, the main street is sort of a beacon you use to orient yourself, you know. Oh well, it makes for funny anecdotes a couple of weeks later, yes. But when you're trying to puzzle out where they fuck you're at, you don't always see the humor in the situation!:P
So tomorrow I'm off to Chiang Mai for three nights! Once again, please don't spellcheck me. . .

Exclusive excerpt from Tad Williams' SHADOWRISE

Thanks to Tad Williams, his lovely wife Deborah, and his editor Betsy Wollheim at Daw Books, here's an exclusive extract from the forthcoming Shadowrise. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.


Barrick Eddon. What a strange, strange name. For a moment Qinnitan could not understand why it ran through her head as she lay in the dark, over and over like the words to one of the prayers her father had taught her when she was a child. Barrick. Barrick Eddon. Barrick

Then the dream came flooding back. She tried to sit up, but little Pigeon was sprawled against her, tangled with her, and it would be too difficult to pry herself loose without waking him.
What did it mean, that vision? She had seen the flame-haired boy several times in dreams, but this last time it had been different: although she could not remember everything they had said to each other, they had shared what she remembered as a true conversation. But why had such a gift been given to her, if it truly was a gift? What did the gods intend? If the vision came from the sacred bees that she had served, the Golden Hive of Nushash, shouldn’t one of her friends from those days, like Duny, have come to her in dream instead? Why some northern boy she had never met or even seen in waking life?

Still, she could not put Barrick Eddon out of her mind, and not only because she finally knew his name. She had felt his despair as if it were her own -- not as she sensed Pigeon’s unhappiness, but as if she could truly feel the stranger’s heart, as if the same blood somehow flowed through both of them. But that was impossible, of course…

Qinnitan felt Pigeon shift again and looked up into the blackness. She didn’t even know what time it was, night or morning, since their cabin had no windows and the noises of the crew outside did not give much away: she hadn’t yet learned the shipboard routine well enough to know the different watches by their voices and calls.

How she longed for some light! The sailors wouldn’t let her have a lamp for fear she would burn herself up, which was foolish. Qinnitan did not care much about her own life -- certainly she would give it up gladly if that was the only thing that would keep her out of the hands of Sulepis -- but she would not sacrifice the boy while there was even a thin hope of saving him.

Still, a candle or lamp would make the long hours of the night go faster. She could only sleep so much – although Pigeon, it seemed, could sleep anytime and as much as he wished. But Qinnitan would have preferred to have something to look at when she could not sleep. Even better would be a book – Baz’u Jev or some other poetry, anything to take her mind away from her situation.

But that would not happen, at least not as long as their captor was in charge. He was cruel and clever and seemed to have no heart whatsoever. She had tried everything -- innocence, flirtation, childish terror; all had left him unmoved. How could she hope to trick a man like that, a man of cold stone? But neither could she give up.

Light. The smallest things suddenly loomed so large when they could not be obtained. Light. Something to read. Freedom to walk where she wanted. Freedom from the terror of torment and death at the hands of a mad king. Gifts that most people scarcely knew they had, but which Qinnitan would value more than all the gold in the world.

But at the moment, she just wished she had a lamp…

An idea came to her then – horrifying, but impossible to dislodge once it had arrived. Pigeon moaned in his sleep and squeezed her arm as though he could sense what she was thinking, but Qinnitan scarcely noticed him. The ship rose and fell at anchor, its timbers creaking softly as she lay in the lightless cabin with the boy clutched to her, scheming how they would either escape or die.

* * *

Daikonas Vo had been up before the dawn, as was his wont. He had never needed much sleep, which was a good thing: the house of his childhood, with its constant coming and going of male visitors and its drunken parties, had never provided much.

He had spoken with the ship’s captain as well as the optimarch, the leader of the soldiers on the ship, waking them both in their cabins before the first light of dawn had touched the clouds overhead and impressing on them that it would be hard to say which would be worse for them if anything happened to the girl while he was gone – the wrath of the autarch or the anger of Vo himself. Neither man liked him, but then what man did? What was important was that he had the autarch’s commission. Even better, he had seen the glimmer of fear in both men, better hidden in the captain’s angry stare than in the optimarch’s (who only outranked Vo himself by a few measures) but still there, still visible. He trusted that fear even more than he trusted their fear of the autarch. Sulepis was indeed fearsome, but he was far away. Vo was right here and he wanted them to remember that he would be coming back by nightfall.

He clambered up from the boat onto the dock and walked away without looking back, leaving the rowers to shake their heads and make the sign of pass-evil. Vo reveled in his unpopularity. It was one thing back in his own troop, when he had to live with the same men for years. He had not wished to provoke such enmity that they might all decide to band together and stab him in his sleep. But on shipboard, where he was outranked by several and had only his commission from the autarch to command respect, he wanted to keep them all at arm’s distance. The greatest threat, after all, came not from obvious enemies but from purported allies. That was how people could be caught off-guard. That was how kings and autarchs were assassinated.

Agamid rose up before him in three points, the trio of hills that were its fame, which looked down on the port city nestled in the foothills below the highest hill and sprawled all the way down to the edge of the broad bay. Even at dawn the place was bustling already, its roads full of wagons coming up from the docks toward the bazaar with the morning’s catch of fish and the first goods from the trading vessels that had docked during the night. Oxen lowing, men calling to each other, children screeching and laughing as they were chased out of the way -- it was exactly the kind of lively scene that made Vo wish some kind of massive ice storm would descend from the north and freeze everything, cover all the lands in a blanket of cold silence. That would be worth seeing! All these yammering, pop-eyed faces struck motionless like fish in an icy pond, and nothing to hear but the sweet, inhuman song of the wind.

Vo made his way from market stall to market stall, asking the owners where he might find an apothecary called Kimir, whose name one of the sailors had remembered from an earlier voyage and a bad case of the pox. Some of them were angry to be interrupted in their preparations for the day by someone who did not even mean to spend money, but a look into Vo’s cold eyes quickly made them respectful and eager to help. At last he found the shop in a row of dark, vine-tangled houses a few hundreds steps up the first hill, on the back edge of the bazaar.

The shop itself was exactly what he had expected, ceiling cobwebbed with strings of hanging leaves, flowers, fruits, branches, and roots, floor covered with baskets, boxes, and clay pots, some of them stopped with wax or even lead. Beside the table against one wall stood a chest that was taller than a man and had dozens of tiny drawers, by far the most expensive piece of furniture in the room. Perched beside it on a stool was a lanky, bearded older man in a dirty robe who wore the black conical hat common in this part of the world. He looked up briefly from the contents of the drawer he was examining when Vo walked in, but did not otherwise greet his new customer.

“You are Malamenas Kimir?” Vo asked.

The old man nodded slowly, as if he had only just realized it himself. “So they say – but then, they say much that is untrue as well. How can I help you, stranger?”

Vo pushed the door closed firmly behind him. The old man looked up again, this time with mild interest. “Is there anyone else in the store?” Vo asked.

“Nobody else ever works with me except my sister,” said Kimir, smiling slightly. “And she is older than I am, so if you mean to rob me or murder me I don’t think you have much to fear.”

“Is she here now?”

The older man shook his head. “No. Home with a bit of a pain in her back. I gave her a mild tincture of cowbane for it. Excellent stuff, but it promotes belly cramps and flatulence so I told her not to bother coming in.” He tilted his head, stared at Vo like a bird viewing something shiny. “So. I repeat my earlier question, sir -- how can I help you?”

Vo moved closer. Most people could not help shying back from Daikonas Vo when he approached them, but the apothecary seemed unmoved. “I need help. There is…something in me. It is meant to kill me if I do not do what my master wants. I am doing my best to serve him, but I fear that even if I do, he may not cure me.”

Kimir nodded. He looked interested. “Ah. Yes, the kind of employer who might do such a thing to guarantee results from his underlings is not necessarily the sort you trust to be suitably grateful afterward. Is it by any chance the Red Serpent Root he forced you to eat? Did he say you had two or three days before the poison would kill you?”

“No. I have had this in me for months.”

“Could it be Aelian’s Fluxative? Did he warn you under no circumstances to eat fish?”

“I have eaten fish many times. There was no such warning.”

“Hmmm. Fascinating. Then you must tell me exactly what happened...”

Daikonas Vo described what happened in the autarch’s throne room, although he did not mention the identity of his master. As he described the death-agonies of the autarch’s cousin, Kimir’s eyes widened and the old man began to grin a wide, yellow grin.

“…And then he told me that it was in my wine as well,” Vo finished. “That if I did not do as he wished, the same thing would happen to me.”

“And no doubt it will,” said Kimir, rubbing his hands together. “Well, well. This is quite wonderful. This gives every sign of being the true basiphae – something I had never thought to see in my lifetime.”

“I want it out,” Vo said. “I do not care what it means to you. If you help me I will reward you. If you try to trick me or betray me I will kill you very painfully.”

Kimir laughed shortly. “Oh, yes, I am certain you would, Master…?” When there was no reply the old man stood. “No one would waste such an…encouragement as that on an unimportant servant with an unimportant task, and no one who could find, afford, and employ the basiphae would hire a clumsy servant for such a task. Oh, I am quite convinced you are a very good killer indeed. Sit here and let me inspect you.”

As he seated himself on the stool, Vo lifted his hand.

“Truly, you need not say it,” the old man told him. “I am quite certain something terrible will happen to me if I make you unhappy in any way.” He touched the side of his nose. “Trust me – I have a long experience of secretive and dangerous customers.”

Malamenas Kimir’s hands moved quickly over Vo’s belly, pushing and squeezing. The old man moved on to his face, pulling back his eyelids, smelling his breath, examining the color of his tongue. By the time he had finished asking Vo a series of questions about the quality of his stools, urine, and phlegm, an hour had passed and Vo could hear the temple bells ringing the end of morning prayers. His prisoners must be awake by now, which meant the little Hive bitch would be thinking of ways to make trouble.

“I cannot wait forever,” he said, rising to his feet. “Give me something to kill this thing inside me.”

The old man looked at him with shrewd eyes. “It cannot be done.”

“What?” Vo’s fingers stretched toward the knife in his waistband.

“There are limitations to violence, you know,” Kimir said calmly. “But I do not aim to waste my last breath explaining them if you are going to kill me.”


“Make up your mind.”

Vo let go of the knife-hilt. “Speak.”

“Limitations to violence. Here are two. The only thing you could do to poison the basiphae creature inside you, although it is as tiny as a fern seed, would poison you, too. That is a limitation, is it not?”

“You said two. Speak. I do not like games.”

The old man grinned sourly. “Here is the second. If you killed me, you would never have learned what I can do for you.” He got up and walked to the tall chest, then began to search through its many drawers. “Somewhere in here,” he said. “Fox’s clote, no, herb of Perikal, no, Zakkas’ wort, squill – ah! I had wondered where that squill got to.” He turned. “Do you know, the last fellow in here who kept touching his knife the way you do wound up buying enough monkshood from me to kill an entire family, including grandparents, uncles, cousins, and servants. I’ve often wondered what happened to it…” Kimir stopped rummaging and pulled out a fat black bottle the length of Vo’s index finger. “Here we are. Tigersbane out of far Yanedan. The farmers there use it to poison their spears when a tiger -- a creature even larger and more dangerous than a lion -- is stalking their village. It is made from a mountain flower called the Ice Lily. It will kill a man in moments.”

Now the knife came out, although Vo did not yet leave his seat. “What nonsense is this. I don’t want to die -- do you, old man?”

Kimir shook his head. “The Yanedani dip their spears in the paste like eating chickpea butter with pieces of bread. For a man, even a mighty man like yourself, only the smallest, smallest amount is necessary.”

“Necessary for what? You said this thing inside me could not be killed.”

“No, but it can be…lulled. It is a living thing, not pure magic, and so it is susceptible to the apothecary’s art. A very, very tiny taste of tigersbane every day will help to keep the creature… asleep. As a toad sleeps in the dried mud, waiting for the spring rains.”

“Huh. And how do I know it will not poison me?” Vo waved the long, broad blade of his knife at the old man. “You will show me how much to take. You will take it first.”

Malamenas Kimir shrugged. “Gladly. But I have not taken it in a while. I fear I will not get much work done this afternoon.” He grinned again. “But I am sure in your gratitude you will pay me enough to make it worthwhile closing the shop for the day.” He worried the stopper out of the black glass bottle, then began searching around the store for something.

“And how do you know I won’t kill you when I have what I want, old man?”

The old man returned with a silver needle held between his fingertips. “Because this poison is very rare. You could go to a hundred places and not find it. If you let me live I will get more for you, and the next time you need it you will find it here. I do not know your name and would not tell tales on a customer if I did, so there is no advantage to you in harming me.”

Vo stared at him for a moment. “Show me how much to take.”

“Only a drop as big as you can lift on the point of this needle – never bigger than a radish seed.” Kimir dipped the needle into the jar and withdrew it with a tiny ball of glistening, red-amber liquid clinging to the tip. Kimir put it on his tongue and sucked it off the needle. “Once every day. But beware,” he said. “A great deal more at one time will stop even a strong heart like yours.”

Vo sat and watched him for some time, nearly an hour, but the old man showed little difference in his behavior. With Vo’s permission he even began tidying his shop, although he seemed to work in a slightly lackadaisical way.

“It can almost be pleasant,” Kimir said at one point. “I have not tasted it for a long time. I had forgotten. My lips feel a bit strange, though.”

Vo was not interested in how the old man’s lips felt. When enough time had passed that he felt sure no trick was being played, he took a slightly smaller quantity for himself and licked the needle clean.

“And this will keep the thing inside me asleep?”

“If you keep taking the tigersbane, yes,” Kimir told him. “What you have there should last you until the end of summer. It cost me two silver imperials.” Again that grin, like a fox watching a family of fat quail. “I will let you have it for that much, because you will be a returning customer.”

Vo slapped the money down on the table and walked out. The old man did not even watch him go, so busy was he changing the arrangement of the drawers in his apothecary chest.

Vo felt a little odd, but no worse than after drinking a mug of beer quickly on a hot day. He would get used to it. It would not affect his alertness, he would see to that. And if it did, well, he would take an even smaller dose. There was still the chance that when he delivered the girl to Sulepis, the autarch would recognize his usefulness and reward him by removing the creature from Vo’s innards. Who was to say that good things might not happen? If the autarch meant to rule two entire continents then he would need strong, clever men. He would find no better viceroy than Daikonas Vo, a man not bullied by his fleshy appetites like most of his brethren. A country of his own to rule would be an interesting experience indeed…

Vo stopped, aware that something was wrong, but not sure for a moment what it was. He stood on a promontory where the main bazaar road curved out and the hill dropped away on one side, giving a view over the harbor. The morning sun was now high in the sky, and the sky was cloudless…but clouds hung just above the water.


He stared. His feeling of near-contentment abruptly fell away, replaced by anger and something that might even have been fear.

Down in the harbor, the Xixian ship – Vo’s ship – was on fire.

* * *

The sun had been up for an hour at least as far as Qinnitan could tell, and the nameless man seemed to have left the boat, or at least he had not come in to examine them with his empty expression, which was what he had done every other day, starting first about dawn.

So, gone…perhaps. If so, it might be the last time they would be out of his reach until he delivered them into the autarch’s golden-fingered hands. If she was ever to try an escape, now was the moment.

She banged loudly at the door, ignoring Pigeon’s look of concern. At last the bolt lifted and one of the guards peered in. She told him what she wanted. He frowned uneasily, then hurried off to get his commanding officer.

Two more officers came and went before the captain himself appeared, at which point she knew for certain that the nameless man was off the boat. It was obvious that the captain still feared him, though, from the anxious way he dealt with Qinnitan: clearly he knew little about her except that she was being taken to the autarch.

“I am a priestess of the Hive,” she told him for the third time. “I must be allowed to pray to Nushash today. It is the Day of the Black Sun.” She hoped the invented name sounded suitably ominous.

“And you think I am going to let you out on deck for that?” He shook his head. “No. No and no.”

“You would bring bad luck down on your ship? Deny the god his prayers on this day of all days?”
“No. I would have to surround you with guards and to be honest, I dare not show so many men here in this harbor. We are not at home, after all.” He realized he had said more than he should and scowled at her, as if it were Qinnitan’s fault that he had a lax tongue. “No. You may pray until you are hoarse, but only in your cabin.”

“But I cannot pray without sight of the sun. It is an offense against the god!” Now she said a real prayer, begging that he would think he had come up with the idea on his own. “I must have either a view of the all-conquering sun -- or a fire. I have neither.”

“A fire? Ridiculous. I suppose you could have a lamp. Or a candle. Yes, that would be safer. Would a candle be enough to keep the god sweet?”

“You mock the gods at your own risk,” she said severely, but inside she was almost dizzy with relief. “A lamp would be sufficient.”

“No, a candle. That or nothing, and I will take my risks with the gods.”

Qinnitan did her best to look like a spoiled priestess used to getting her own way. “Oh, very well,” she said at last. “If that is the best you can do.”

“Tell the gods I did not hinder you,” he said. “Be honest! You must always tell the truth to Heaven.”

* * *

After a feverish, frustrating wait, a sailor brought her a candle in a clay cup. It was a little thing, only slightly bigger than her thumb, its flame small as a fingernail. When they were alone again she set it on the floor and began to tear her blanket into long strips. Pigeon sat up, his eyes round, and made a questioning sign with his fingers. She smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring way. “I’ll show you. For now, just help me. In pieces this wide.”

When the blanket had been reduced to a couple of dozen strips, she pulled the water jug out from under the bed. She had been saving her water from last night, drinking only a few drops, and now she handed it to Pigeon. “Start pushing the pieces of blanket in this – like so.” She shoved one in the jug and pulled it out, then wrung the excess water back into the ewer. “Now you do it. Just a few, then save the rest of the dry pieces.”

While Pigeon, puzzled but willing, began to dip the scraps of wool, Qinnitan took a tiny perfume bottle she had been given by one of the other girls back in Hierosol. She pried out the stopper and poured it onto a piece of blanket she had saved for herself, then stood up to cram it into a crack between the planks of the ceiling. As the boy looked on in dawning terror, she lifted the candle up and held it to the perfume-soaked rag. A moment later a transparent blossom of blue flame sprang from it.

“Down,” she told Pigeon. “Down on the floor. Hold this over your mouth – like so.” She took one of the soaked strips of blanket and held it against his mouth. Like every other Hive priestess she had learned the story of the terrible fire some seventy years before, when the tapestries in the great hive rooms had caught fire and most of the bees – as well as many of the priestesses and acolytes – had been killed. Ancient Mother Mudry, a young woman then and the only person still alive in Qinnitan’s day from that time, had survived the horrible conflagration because she had just come from the bath with wet clothes and wet hair, which she had pulled over her mouth. This had kept her alive long enough in the choking, blinding smoke for her to find her way to freedom. But now Qinnitan and Pigeon had an even more difficult task.

“We must stay alive until someone breaks down the door,” she told the boy, speaking loudly so he could hear her through the muffling wet cloth. The flame was beginning to blacken the beams where the cloth was wedged and showed every sign of staying lit. When it got to the outer boards and the tar that made them waterproof she hoped the flames would be impossible to stop. “Stay down low, near the ground, and breathe only through the wet cloth. When it gets dry and you can taste the smoke, dip the cloth back in here.” She showed him the jug. “Now lie down!”

O, brave Nushash, she whispered, then realized that even though she had just set the blaze herself, praying to the god of fire might not be the ideal choice. Was the autarch not the child of Nushash, after all? Qinnitan was thwarting his will – perhaps Nushash would not take kindly to that.

Suya the Dawnflower. Of course – Suya had been stolen from her husband’s side and forced to wander the world. She of all the gods would know and understand.

Please, O Dawnflower, Qinnitan prayed, clutching the shivering child beside her as smoke began to obscure the ceiling of the small cabin. Already she could smell it through the wet wool, but she wanted to save the water – only the gods knew how long they would have to wait. Give us your help at this hour. Show me your grace and your favor. Let me protect this child. Help us to escape the people who would harm us. Show us your well-known mercy

Prayer finished, she closed her eyes tight against the stinging smoke and waited.

* * *

She shoved the scrap of blanket all the way down to the bottom of the jug, but it seemed to come out even more dry than it had gone in. The piece she clutched to her own face was bone-dry, too – all she could smell was smoke. Beside her, Pigeon was coughing hard, his tiny body shaking and straining in a way that made Qinnitan feel her heart would break. She could no longer see the door through the thick, coiling clouds of gray.

I don’t mind dying… she told Suya and any other kindly gods who might be listening, and I don’t care what happens to me. But please, if the boy must die too, take good care of him in Heaven. He is innocent.

Poor Pigeon. What a dreadful life the gods had given him – his tongue taken, his manhood too, and then forced to run for his life simply for the crime of being in the wrong place when the autarch had one of his enemies murdered. It isn’t…isn’t…fair… Poor

* * *

Qinnitan shook her head. She could see almost nothing now, and had to strain to get any breath into her burning lungs. Pigeon was barely moving. At the same time a booming pressure echoed through her, as if she were underwater and some ancient, sunken merchantman at the bottom of the ocean was tolling its ship’s bell.

Boooom. Boooom. Boooom.

Qinnitan thought it was strange to be under the water. It hurt to breathe, but not in the way she would have guessed -- and the water was so murky. Sand. Someone or something had stirred up the sand along the ocean bottom until it swirled in clouds around her, flecked with gold, with light, with little bits of starshine like the sky at night the dark the beckoning darkness…

Booom! And then something splintered and the water…the air…smoke…swirled and flames leaped above her and shapes staggered into the murky cabin – dark, shouting shapes that flickered with red light like devils capering on the floors of hell. Qinnitan could only stare and wonder what was happening as strong hands grabbed her and pulled her away from Pigeon. She was carried up the stairs outside the shattered doorway, jouncing like a saddle with a broken strap.

She found a little voice, but it was faint as a whisper. “Get the boy! Get Pigeon! Don’t leave him behind!’

Before she could see whether the soldiers were bringing the mute child, she was dumped unceremoniously on the deck at the top of the stairs. Fire was everywhere, not just crackling in the deck but on the mast and even higher, flames capering in the sails and dancing across the rigging like wicked demon-children. Some of the sailors were throwing buckets of water onto the blaze but it was like throwing pebbles at a sandstorm.

Another soldier dumped Pigeon beside her. The boy was alive, moving a little, but almost entirely insensible. She stared dully at the chaos for a moment, the men running, screaming, bits of flaming rope smacking down from above like the hellwhip of Xergal, and then remembered what she had done. What horror her little candle had caused! Qinnitan struggled up onto her knees. No point trying to wake Pigeon : she would let the water do that job, or else finish the job the fire had just failed to do.

This time I’ll die for certain before I let anyone take him again

She waited a few more stuttering heartbeats until the men nearest her had their backs turned, then she lifted the boy’s limp form as best she could and stumbled to the nearby rail. She leaned her back against it, heaved Pigeon up until his weight was across her shoulder and chest, then clung to him as his momentum carried them both over.

The fall took longer than she expected, time enough for her to wonder if dying in cold water would be better than dying in fire. Then they hit the water hard and green darkness closed around them like a fist.

Musical Interlude

Thai people seem to be very fond of remakes of American and British hits, but they do have their own pop music scene.

Here's the video for the song Bump Boom Boom by Buddha Bless. Watch this clip, as it's hilarious. Saw it twice while eating breakfast in the chill-out zone of the Lub d hostel in Bangkok, and everyone shared a few laughs, the locals manning the front desk included!

Win a copy of David Louis Edelman's GEOSYNCHRON + A full set of The Jump 225 trilogy

Thanks to the folks at Pyr, I have three copies of David Louis Edelman's Geosynchron for you to win! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

The Defense and Wellness Council is enmeshed in full-scale civil war between Len Borda and the mysterious Magan Kai Lee. Quell has escaped from prison and is stirring up rebellion in the Islands with the aid of a brash young leader named Josiah. Jara and the apprentices of the Surina/Natch MultiReal Fiefcorp still find themselves fighting off legal attacks from their competitors and from Margaret Surina's unscrupulous heirs -- even though MultiReal has completely vanished.

The quest for the truth will lead to the edges of civilization, from the tumultuous society of the Pacific Islands to the lawless orbital colony of 49th Heaven; and through the deeps of time, from the hidden agenda of the Surina family to the real truth behind the Autonomous Revolt that devastated humanity hundreds of years ago.

Meanwhile, Natch has awakened in a windowless prison with nothing but a haze of memory to clue him in as to how he got there. He's still receiving strange hallucinatory messages from Margaret Surina and the nature of reality is buckling all around him. When the smoke clears, Natch must make the ultimate decision - whether to save a world that has scorned and discarded him, or to save the only person he has ever loved: himself.

Even better, one grand prize winner will receive a full set of The Jump 225 trilogy. Which means that alongside Geosynchron, the prize pack includes:

- Infoquake (Canada, USA, Europe)
- MultiReal (Canada, USA, Europe)

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "GEOSYNCHRON." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy. Just tell me if you are gunning of the grand prize, or just the new book.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

Steven Erikson is now a New York Times bestselling author!!!

Just taking it easy eating breakfast in Bangkok before getting my ass to the bus station to catch a ride up north to Sukhothai when I stumbled upon an email from Erikson's US publicist.

It appears that Erikson finally made it on this side of the pond, folks! Next week, Dust of Dreams will squeeze in at number 35 on the NYT bestseller list!=)

Now that's good news indeed! Congrats to Steve!

Bangkok: Sultry heat, temples, pollution, never-ending noise, and prostitutes

Hey there!

Greetings from Bangkok, capital of the Land of Smiles!

Okay, so I've been in Bangkok for a few days now. The upside: I have hundreds of girls after me. The downside: They're all prostitutes! I mean, even though I knew what to expect, this goes beyond anything I could ever imagine. . .:\ And it's a fucking pain in the ass not to be able to walk anywhere without having bar girls and massage parlor "attendants" stepping up to me and offering their services. Even worst are the fucking tuk-tuk drivers trying to steer me toward this or that bar for a "happy hour," or those guys hanging out on every street corner with photos of naked hookers that are ready to please me. I got very close to punching one of them last night, but held off at the last second. You never know if the guy knows a bit of Thai boxing. And it would have done little to help me make my point if I had found myself flat on my back after a vicious kick I never saw coming, right?

Anyway, I made it to Bangkok after three interminable flights, 22 hours of flying time, and 26 hours in transit. My friend Anick gave me a prescription for sleeping pills, for I knew I needed to sleep at least a couple of hours at some point, otherwise I would have been a zombie when my last plane landed. I can't sleep on planes, you see. So this was supposed to be my ticket to Never Never Land. It didn't quite work out on the flight to Tokyo, though I did manage to snooze for about an hour to two. Don't know if the second pill worked, but I was so damn tired on the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok that I got TKOed and slept for a good 4 or 5 hours. Even missed the entire food service!

I was able to catch the last Airport Express bus to get into town, and arrived at the Lub d hostel past midnight. I was so beat that I didn't even unpack my shit. I took shower, cranked up the AC, and promptly went to bed. As far as hostels go, the Lub d is pretty good. Check out their website here. Got an extension on the online special for the Railway Twin room for less than 25$ a night. At that price, I'm not doing any dorms! With everything so cheap in Southeast Asia, the only dorm I'll see will be in Singapore. Other than in Bangkok, if memory serves me right I'll always be sleeping in a double or queen bed everywhere I go.=) And for peanuts to boot. Other than in Ko Phi Phi and Langkawi, of course! But I can afford to splurge a bit here and there. . .

On any given overseas trip, I never plan to do too much on my first day, what with jetlag and everything. The forecast was for a chance of thunderstorms, so that was that. I decided to take it easy and make my way to the National Museum. Though everyone kept telling me that it was too far, I wanted to walk there. After all, what's a mere 6km walk? Didn't know that on Sundays the sidewalks of Bangkok become some sort of outdoor flea market, which means that pedestrian traffic becomes as bad as the gridlock in the streets. And I was passing through Chinatown, to make matters even worst! I've always felt that walking around is the only way to get a true feel for any city you visit. Which is why I always try to rely on public transportation as little as possible. As alway, everything is nice and tidy around tourist areas. But I want to see the real shit, the stuff they never show you in the brochures. It's like the jeans and T-shirt test for a girl. You know how any girl can look fantastic in a little black cocktail dress. I've always said that the true test is always to see her in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. If she looks good in those, she'll look good in anything!=) The same applies for cities. You want to see the main tourist attractions (the black cocktail dress), but I also want to see the true side of each place I visit (no makeup, with the hair undone, and in a pyjama!). Having seen that other side of Bangkok in the last couple of days, I can now say that in a way the city reminds me a lot of places such as Athens and Buapest. There are a lot of beautiful things to see, but the city itself is not that nice.

Anyway, I made it to the National Museum after about 90 minutes, with blisters on my feets (gotta get used to the sandals again), cursing rather long strings of expletives, and about a minute before the rain started to fall. Took my time to visit the museum, but the rain did not relent. Far from that, as it grew worst as time went by. And just when I thought that things were calming down a bit, thunder began to rumble and I knew that this was going to be that kind of day. Got back to the hostel when the rain finally stopped, had dinner at a very nice Italian place near Lub d, hung out a bit to socialize, and went to bed.

The forecast was pretty much the same for my second day, but the sun was out in the morning and I decided to give the Grand Palace a go. Learned my lesson from the day before, and took the extremely convenient Skytrain and the Chao Phraya Express boat to get there. To my surprise, the rain never came! And sunny periods were more frequent than the clouds, which means that thanks to my pale French Canadian tan,I got sunburned. It was a bitch of a day, with 33 degrees celsius and 88% of humidity, but it sure beats winter on any given day!

To add insult to injury, I was forced to don long pants in order to visit Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddah. The temple compound is absolutely gorgeous, but to force people to wear shoes and long pants in that kind of heat should be illegal! So I spent a few hours sweating my ass off as I visited Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and then made my way to another gorgeous temple compound Wat Pho, with its enormous Reclining Buddha (46m long and 15m high).

Got my first taste of Thai food near the pier, and then took the ferry to another temple compound, this time the mesmerizing Wat Arun. Spent a while there, then took the ferry back to the other side of the river so I could make my way back to the hostel. Had my fill of temples for one day, thank you very much!

Had to fend off countless prostitutes to get to a nice Greek restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, for it is located near the Patpong red light district. Not much was happening at the hostel and it's taking me a bit longer to get rid of jetlag, so I turned in not too late after an eventful second day.

For some reason, though they book bus tickets to basically every point in Thailand between Bankok and the rest of the country, the hostel can't book tickets to Sukhothai, my next destination. So I had to go all the way to Mo Chit bus station at the other end of the city to get a ticket for the 28th. You gotta love Thailand: a seven-hour bus ride to Sukhothai in first class cost me about 10$!

More than a little wat-ted out, I elected to forgo any more temples and made my way to the renowned Bangkok shoping malls. Went to MBK and Siam Paragon, but ended up wasting less than an hour there. They're just stupid malls, after all.

With the suffocating heat, I decided to wander around Lumphini Park for a while. And since I was close, I bought a ticket for the muay thai (thai boxing) fight night at the Lumphini boxing stadium. I'm a big boxing fan, so I was expecting a lot out of this fight card, especially since Tuesday evening is supposed to be the best time to catch a fight or three. Given the price of basically everything in Thailand, thai boxing tickets don't come cheap. But hey, I might never make it back here, so what the heck, right? Well, to my dismay, the entire card was kind of lame. And to make matters worse, I arrived a little late ad missed the only KO of the evening!

In any event, it will soon be time to kiss Bangkok goodbye. I'm catching train to Ayuthaya tomorrow morning, and I'll need to pack up my shit when I return in the evening because Thursday will see me travel north to Sukhothai.

Bangkok is interesting, for it is a city of sharp contrasts. The past lives alongside the present, with the future not far behind. Ancient traditions battle with encroaching Western ways. Pollution and poverty on one side, yet you have thei mpeccably clean, super efficient, and ultra-modern Skytrain and subway system on the other. It's kind of odd that some aspects of Bangkok could put any Western city to shame, and all the while show you sides straight out of a Third World country when you turn around and face the other way. And there are cranes everywhere, so the Bangkok of tomorrow will be much different from what it is today. For better or worst? That remains to be seen. . .

One thing that will likely ever go away is the prostitution. It's kind of sad to see fat and old Western men walking hand in hand with pretty young Thai girls. They're absolutely everywhere and not likely to go away. There are a couple of universities here, so hopefully there is a brighter future for many Thai young women. But man, it feels as though 50% of the girls you see are bar girls, or another euphemism for prostitutes. And considering the high number of dirty old men spending time in Thailand just for the sexual tourism, well the demand will always be there, I guess. Too bad. . . Thai girls have different facial traits than other Asian women. I can see the appeal, certainly. They are beautiful, as well as taller and more shapely than the more petite Asian girls from Japan, Korea, etc. So there will never be any shortage of horny old farts looking for cheap fucks with them. But Christ, when you can't cross a street corner without having a group of them waving and calling out at you, well that's a major problem. And the worst thing is that the Thai government doesn't seem to have much of a problem with the situation. I guess that sex tourism brings in too much money.

Okay, that's it for now. Don't spellcheck me, for this keyboard is driving me insane!

For fuck's sake. . .

Are you fucking kidding me???? Am I running a day care??? I've been running this blog for more than 5 years, and it's the first time I've been forced to disable the comment function.:\

To the GRRM haters and the trolls out there, do everyone a favor and stop reading anything Martin writes. There's enough good SFF material to keep everyone happy, I believe. And yes, a little maturity would go a long way. . .

Never thought I'd be saying this, but you are even worst than the brainwashed Goodkind fans on the Yeard's forums. And Christ, that's saying something!=( As a matter of fact, you make Mystar sound like the Voice of Reason and the Soul of Wisdom. . .

I would like to believe that this is the work of pimply anti-social teenagers who get pick on at school and whose sex lives amount to downloading porn every night. But my gut tells me that it's from "responsible" adults. . .

Come on, man. . .

Win an Advance Reading Copy of the US edition of Ian Cameron Esslemont‘s RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD

I'm giving away my US ARC of Ian Cameron Esslemont's Return of the Crimson Guard to one lucky winner! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam) with the header "CRIMSON." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.

Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.

Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.

Good luck to all the participants!

Prince of Storms

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Kay Kenyon's The Entire and the Rose is one of the very best ongoing science fiction series on the market today. Indeed, the author has raised the bar rather high with Bright of the Sky, A World Too Near, and City Without End, and I was eager to discover how Kenyon would close the show. Especially with the way City Without End was brought to an end.

I loved the fact that Kenyon wastes no time revisiting plot threads or slowing down the rhythm of the book with info dumps to reacquaint readers with the various storylines. The first three volumes were enough of a setup, and the author picks up the action shortly following the events of the previous installment.

Here's the blurb:

Finally in control of the Ascendancy, Titus Quinn has styled himself Regent of the Entire. But his command is fragile. He rules an empire with a technology beyond human understanding; spies lurk in the ancient Magisterium; the Tarig overlords are hamstrung but still malevolent. Worse, his daughter Sen Ni opposes him for control, believing the Earth and its Rose universe must die to sustain the failing Entire. She is aided by one of the mystical pilots of the River Nigh, the space-time transport system. This navitar, alone among all others, can alter future events. He retires into a crystal chamber in the Nigh to weave reality and pit his enemies against each other.

Taking advantage of these chaotic times, the great foe of the Long War, the Jinda ceb Horat, create a settlement in the Entire. Masters of supreme technology, they maintain a lofty distance from the Entire's struggle. They agree, however, that the Tarig must return to the fiery Heart of their origins. With the banishment immanent, some Tarig lords rebel, fleeing to hound the edges of Quinn's reign.

Meanwhile, Quinn's wife Anzi becomes a hostage and penitent among the Jinda ceb, undergoing alterations that expose their secrets, but may estrange her from her husband. As Quinn moves toward a confrontation with the dark navitar, he learns that the stakes of the conflict go far beyond the Rose versus the Entire—extending to a breathtaking dominance. The navitar commands forces that lie at the heart of the Entire's geo-cosmology, and will use them to alter the calculus of power. As the navitar's plan approaches consummation, Quinn, Sen Ni, and Anzi are swept up in forces that will leave them forever changed.

In this rousing finale to Kenyon's celebrated quartet, Titus Quinn meets an inevitable destiny, forced at last to make the unthinkable choice for or against the dictates of his heart, for or against the beloved land.

City Without End moved the plot like never before, taking the series to new heights. The Entire and the Rose turned out to be a complex tapestry of storylines, as well as a multilayered blend of fantasy and science fiction. And Kay Kenyon brings it all together for an enthralling finale in Prince of Storms.

In the past, the worldbuilding proved to be the most absorbing facet of this series. But with all her pieces now on the board, Kenyon can simply concentrate on bringing the disparate plotlines together and tying up the loose ends. As such, Prince of Storms is a veritable conclusion which brings this series to another level. There is room for sequels, certainly, but once you've read the epilogue you realize that the whole story has been told.

As was the case in the first three books, the author has a tendency to jump from one POV to the next in any given scene. These POV shifts without any break in the narrative used to be offputting, but I guess one gets used to it as the series progresses. Still, sometimes you need to read a paragraph or two before you realize that you are no longer in the same character's head.

My favorite aspect of Prince of Storms was the characterization. I liked how Kenyon created a good balance between the POVs of the three main characters: Quinn, Anzi, and Sen Ni. There are a surprising number of unexpected twists and turns involving secondary characters such as Geng De, Lord Inweer, and the Jinda ceb Horat. Seeing events unfold through various perspectives makes for a thoroughly satisfying reading experience.

A rich, vivid environment; complex and multilayered storytelling; genuine and interesting characters; brilliant execution; that's The Entire and the Rose in a nutshell.

Prince of Storms is the perfect conclusion to what could well be one of the most ambitious and fascinating ongoing scifi series out there.

Highly recommended. . .

The final verdict: 8.25/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

Exclusive excerpt from George R. R. Martin's "The Mystery Knight"

Thanks to George R. R. Martin and the nice folks at Tor Books, here's an exclusive extract from the latest Dunk and Egg novella!=) "The Mystery Knight" is one of the short fiction pieces that comprise the Warriors anthology edited by GRRM and Gardner Dozois. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

And keep your eyes peeled, for I'll have copies of Warriors up for grabs in the near future!


A light summer rain was falling as Dunk and Egg took their leave of Stoney Sept.

Dunk rode his old warhorse Thunder, with Egg beside him on the spirited young palfrey he'd named Rain, leading their mule Maester. On Maester's back were bundled Dunk's armor and Egg's books, their bedrolls, tent, and clothing, several slabs of hard salt beef, half a flagon of mead, and two skins of water. Egg's old straw hat, wide-brimmed and floppy, kept the rain off the mule's head. The boy.had cut holes for Maester's ears. Egg's new straw hat was on his own head. Except for the ear holes, the two hats looked much the same to Dunk.

As they neared the town gates, Egg reined up sharply. Up above the gateway a traitor's head had been impaled upon an iron spike. It was fresh from the look of it, the flesh more pink than green, but the carrion crows had already gone to work on it. The dead man's lips and cheeks.were torn and ragged; his eyes were two brown holes weeping slow red tears as raindrops mingled with the crusted blood. The dead man's mouth sagged open, as if to harange travellers passing through the gate below.

Dunk had seen such sights before. "Back in King's Landing when I was a boy, I stole a head right off its spike once," he told Egg. Actually it had been Ferret who scampered up the wall to snatch the head, after Rafe and Pudding said he'd never dare, but when the guards came running he'd tossed it down, and Dunk was the one who'd caught it. "Some rebel lord or robber knight, it was. Or maybe just a common murderer. A head's a head. They all look the same after a few days on a spike.” Him and his three friends had used the head to terrorize the girls of Flea Bottom. They'd chase them through the alleys, and make them give the head a kiss before they'd let them go. That head got kissed a lot, as he recalled. There wasn't a girl in King's Landing who could run as fast as Rafe. Egg was better off not hearing that part, though. Ferret, Rafe, and Pudding. Little monsters, those three, and me the worst of all. His friends and he had kept the head until the flesh turned black and begin to slough away. That took the fun out of chasing girls, so one night they burst into a pot shop and tossed what was left into the kettle. "The crows always go for the eyes," he told Egg. "Then the cheeks cave in, the flesh turns green... " He squinted. "Wait. I know that face."

"You do, ser," said Egg. "Three days ago. The hunchbacked septon we heard preaching against Lord Bloodraven."

He remembered then. He was a holy man sworn to the Seven, even if he did preach treason. "His hands are scarlet with a brother's blood, and the blood of his young nephews too," the hunchback had declared to the crowd that had gathered in the market square. "A shadow came at his command to strangle brave Prince Valarr's sons in their mother's womb. Where is our Young Prince now? Where is his brother, sweet Matarys? Where has Good King Daeron gone, and fearless Baelor Breakspear? The grave has claimed them, every one, yet he endures, this pale bird with bloody beak who perches on King Aerys's shoulder and caws into his ear. The mark of hell is on his face and in his empty eye, and he has brought us drought and pestilence and murder. Rise up, I say, and remember our true king across the water. Seven gods there are, and seven kingdoms, and the Black Dragon sired seven sons! Rise up, my lords and ladies. Rise up, you brave knights and sturdy yeomen, and cast down Bloodraven, that foul sorcerer, lest your children and your children's children be cursed forevermore."

Every word was treason. Even so, it was a shock to see him here, with holes where his eyes had been. "That's him, aye," Dunk said, "and another good reason to put this town behind us.” He gave Thunder a touch of the spur, and he and Egg rode through the gates of Stoney Sept, listening to the soft sound of the rain. How many eyes does Lord Bloodraven have? the riddle ran. A thousand eyes, and one. Some claimed the King's Hand was a student of the dark arts who could change his face, put on the likeness of a one-eyed dog, even turn into a mist. Packs of gaunt grey wolves hunted down his foes, men said, and carrion crows spied for him and whispered secrets in his ear. Most of the tales were only tales, Dunk did not doubt, but no one could doubt that Bloodraven had informers everywhere.

He had seen the man once with his own two eyes, back in King's Landing. White as bone were the skin and hair of Brynden Rivers, and his eye -- he only had the one, the other having been lost to his half-brother Bitterstell on the Redgrass Field -- was red as blood. On cheek and neck he bore the winestain birthmark that had given him his name.

When the town was well behind them Dunk cleared his throat and said, "Bad business, cutting off the heads of septons. All he did was talk. Words are wind."

"Some words are wind, ser. Some are treason.” Egg was skinny as a stick, all ribs and elbows, but he did have a mouth.

"Now you sound a proper princeling."

Egg took that for an insult, which it was. "He might have been a septon, but he was preaching lies, ser. The drought wasn't Lord Bloodraven's fault, nor the Great Spring Sickness either."

"Might be that's so, but if we start cutting off the heads of all the fools and liars, half the towns in the Seven Kingdoms will be empty."

* * *

Six days later, the rain was just a memory.

Dunk had stripped off his tunic to enjoy the warmth of sunlight on his skin. When a little breeze came up, cool and fresh and fragrant as a maiden's breath, he sighed. "Water," he announced. "Smell it? The lake can't be far now."

"All I can smell is Maester, ser. He stinks.” Egg gave the mule's lead a savage tug. Maester had stopped to crop at the grass beside the road, as he did from time to time.

"There's an old inn by the lake shore.” Dunk had stopped there once when he was squiring for the old man. "Ser Arlan said they brewed a fine brown ale. Might be we could have a taste while we waited for the ferry."

Egg gave him a hopeful look. "To wash the food down, ser?"

"What food would that be?"

"A slice off the roast?" the boy said. "A bit of duck, a bowl of stew? Whatever they have, ser."

Their last hot meal had been three days ago. Since then, they had been living on windfalls and strips of old salt beef as hard as wood. It would be good to put some real food in our bellies before we started north. That Wall's along way off.

"We could spend the night as well," suggested Egg.

"Does m'lord want a featherbed?"

"Straw will serve me well enough, ser," said Egg, offended.

"We have no coin for beds."

"We have twenty-two pennies, three stars, one stag, and that old chipped garnet, ser."

Dunk scratched at his ear. "I thought we had two silvers.”

"We did, until you bought the tent. Now we have the one."

"We won't have any if we start sleeping at inns. You want to share a bed with some peddler and wake up with his fleas?" Dunk snorted. "Not me. I have my own fleas, and they are not fond of strangers. We'll sleep beneath the stars."

"The stars are good," Egg allowed, "but the ground is hard, ser, and sometimes it's nice to have a pillow for your head.”

"Pillows are for princes.” Egg was as good a squire as a knight could want, but every so often he would get to feeling princely. The lad has dragon blood, never forget. Dunk had beggar's blood himself... or so they used to tell him back in Flea Bottom, when they weren't telling him that he was sure to hang. "Might be we can afford some ale and a hot supper, but I'm not wasting good coin on a bed. We need to save our pennies for the ferryman.” The last time he had crossed the lake, the ferry only cost a few coppers, but that had been six years ago, or maybe seven. Everything had grown more costly since then.

"Well," said Egg, "we could use my boot to get across.”

"We could," said Dunk, ,but we won't.” Using the boot was dangerous. Word would spread. Word always spreads. His squire was not bald by chance. Egg had the purple eyes of old Valyria, and hair that shone like beaten gold and strands of silver woven together. He had as well wear a three-headed dragon as a brooch as let that hair grow out. These were perilous times in Westeros, and...well, it was best to take no chances. "Another word about your bloody boot, and I'll clout you in the ear so hard you'll fly across the lake."

"I'd sooner swim, ser.” Egg swam well, and Dunk did not. The boy turned in the saddle. "Ser? Someone's coming up the road behind us. Hear the horses?"

"I'm not deaf.” Dunk could see their dust as well. "A large party. And in haste.

"Do you think they might be outlaws, ser?" Egg raised up in the stirrups, more eager than afraid. The boy was like that.

"Outlaws would be quieter. Only lords make so much noise.” Dunk rattled his sword hilt to loosen the blade in its scabbard. "Still, we'll get off the road and let them pass. There are lords and lords.” It never hurt to be a little wary. The roads were not as safe as when Good King Daeron sat the Iron Throne.

He and Egg concealed themselves behind a thorn bush. Dunk unslung his shield and slipped it onto his arm. It was an old thing, tall and heavy, kite-shaped, made of pine and rimmed with iron. He had bought it in Stoney Sept to replace the shield the Longinch had hacked to splinters when they fought. Dunk had not had time to have it painted with.his elm and shooting star, so it still bore the arms of its last owner: a hanged man swinging grim and grey beneath a gallows tree. It was not a sigil that he would have chosen for himself, but the shield had come cheap.

The first riders galloped past within moments; two young lordlings mounted on a pair of coursers. The one on the bay wore an open-faced helm of gilded steel with three tall feathered plumes; one white, one red, one gold. Matching plumes adorned his horse's crinet. The black stallion beside him was barded in blue and gold. His trappings rippled with the wind of his passage as he thundered past. Side by side the riders streaked on by, whooping and laughing, their long cloaks streaming behind.

A third lord followed more sedately, at the head of a long column. There were two dozen in the party, grooms and cooks and serving men, all to attend three knights, plus men-at-arms and mounted crossbowmen, and a dozen drays heavy laden with their armor, tents, and provisions. Slung from the lord's saddle was his shield, dark orange and charged with three black castles.

Dunk knew those arms, but from where? The lord who bore them was an older man, sour-mouthed and saturnine, with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard. He might have been at Ashford Meadow, Dunk thought. Or maybe we served at his castle when I was squiring for Ser Arlan. The old hedge knight had done service at so many different keeps and castles through the years that Dunk could not recall the half of them.

The lord reined up abruptly, scowling at the thorn bush. "You. In the bush. Show yourself.” Behind him two crossbowmen slipped quarrels into the notch. The rest continued on their way.

Dunk stepped through the tall grass, his shield upon his arm, his right hand resting on the pommel of his longsword. His face was a red-brown mask from the dust the horses had kicked up, and he was naked from the waist up. He looked a scruffy sight, he knew, though it was like to be the size of him that gave the other pause. "We want no quarrel,: m'lord. There's only the two of us, me and my squire.” He beckoned Egg forward.

"Squire? Do you claim to be a knight?"

Dunk did not like the way the man was looking at him. Those eyes could flay a man. It seemed prudent to remove his hand from his sword. "I am a hedge knight, seeking service."

"Every robber knight I've ever hanged has said the same. Your device may be prophetic; ser...if ser you are. A gallows and a hanged man. These are your arms?"

"No, m'lord. I need to have the shield repainted.”

"Why? Did you rob it off a corpse?"

"I bought it, for good coin.” Three castles, black on orange... where have I seen those before? "I am no robber."

The lord's eyes were chips of flint. "How did you come by that scar upon your cheek? A cut from a whip?"

"A dagger. Though my face is none of your concern, m'lord."

"I'll be the judge of what is my concern."

By then the two younger knights had come trotting back tosee what had delayed their party. "There you are, Gormy," called the rider on the black, a young man lean and lithe, with a comely clean-shaved face and fine features. Black hair fell shining to his collar. His doublet was made of dark blue silk edged in gold satin. Across his chest an engrailed cross had been embroidered in gold thread, with a golden fiddle in the first and third quarters, a golden sword in the second and the fourth. His eyes caught the deep blue of his doublet, and sparkled with amusement. "Alyn feared you'd fallen from your horse. A palpable excuse, it seems to me, I was about to leave him in my dust."

"Who are these two brigands?" asked the rider on the bay. Egg bristled at the insult: "You have no call to name us brigands, my lord. When we saw your dust we thought you might be outlaws, that's the only reason that we hid. This is Ser Duncan the Tall, and I'm his squire."

The lordlings paid no more heed to that than they would have paid the croaking of a frog. "I believe that is the largest lout that I have ever seen," declared the knight of three feathers. He had a pudgy face beneath a head of curly hair the color of dark honey. "Seven feet if he's an inch, I'd wager. What a mighty crash he'll make when he comes. tumbling down."

Dunk felt color rising to his face. You'd lose your wager, he thought. The last time he had been measured, Egg's brother Aemon pronounced him an inch shy of seven feet.

"Is that your warhorse, Ser Giant?" said the feathered lordling. "I suppose we could butcher it for the meat."

"Lord Alyn oft forgets his courtesies," the black-haired knight said. "Please forgive his churlish words, ser. Alyn, you will ask Ser Duncan for his pardon."

"If I must. Will you forgive me, ser?" He did not wait for reply, but turned his bay about and trotted down the road.

The other lingered. "Are you bound for the wedding, ser?"

Something in his tone made Dunk want to tug his forelock. He resisted the impulse and said, "We're for the ferry, m'lord.”

"As are we...but the only lords hereabouts are Gormy and that wastrel who just left us, Alyn Cockshaw. I am a vagabond hedge knight like yourself. Ser John the Fiddler, I am called.” That was the sort of name a hedge knight might choose, but Dunk had never seen any hedge knight garbed or armed or mounted in such splendor. The knight of the golden hedge, he thought. "You know my name. My squire is called Egg."

"Well met, ser. Come, ride with us to Whitewalls and break a few lances to help Lord Butterwell celebrate his new marriage. I'll wager you could give a good account of yourself."

Dunk had not done any jousting since Ashford Meadow. If I could win a few ransoms, we'd eat well on the ride north, he thought, but the lord with the three castles on his shield said,"Ser Duncan needs to be about his journey, as do we."

John the Fiddler paid the older man no mind. "I would love to cross swords with you, ser. I've tried men of many lands and races, but never one your size. Was your father large as well?"

"I never knew my father, ser."

"I am sad to hear it. Mine own sire was taken from me too soon.” The Fiddler turned to the lord of the three castles. "We should ask Ser Duncan to join our jolly company."

"We do not need his sort."

Dunk was at a loss for words. Penniless hedge knights were not oft asked to ride with highborn lords. I would have more in common with their servants. Judging from the length of their column, Lord Cockshaw and the Fiddler had brought grooms to tend their horses, cooks to feed them, squires to clean their armor, guards to defend them. Dunk had Egg.

"His sort?" The Fiddler laughed. "What sort is that? The big sort? Look at the size of him. We want strong men. Young swords are worth more than old names, I've oft heard it said."

"By fools. You know little and less about this man. He might be a brigand, or one of Lord Bloodraven's spies."

"I'm no man's spy," said Dunk. "And m'lord has no call to speak of me as if I were deaf or dead or down in Dorne."

Those flinty eyes considered him. "Down in Dorne would be a good place for you, ser. You have my leave to go there."

"Pay him no mind," the Fiddler said. "He's a sour oldsoul, he suspects everyone. Gormy, I have a good feeling about this fellow. Ser Duncan, will you come with us to Whitewalls?"

"M'lord, I..." How could he share a camp with such as these? Their serving men would raise their pavilions, their grooms would curry their horses, their cooks would serve them each a capon or a joint of beef, whilst Dunk and Egg gnawed on strips of hard salt beef. "I couldn't."

"You see," said the lord of the three castles. "He knows his place, and it is not with us.” He turned his horse back toward the road. "By now Lord Cockshaw is half a league ahead."

"I suppose I must chase him down again.” The Fiddler gave Dunk an apologetic smile. "Perchance we'll meet again some day. I hope so. I should love to try my lance on you."

Dunk did not know what to say to that. "Good fortune in the lists, ser," he finally managed, but by then Ser John had wheeled about to chase the column. The older lord rode after him. Dunk was glad to see his back. He had not liked his flinty eyes, nor Lord Alyn's arrogance. The Fiddler had been pleasant enough, but there was something odd about him as well. "Two fiddles and two swords, a cross engrailed," he said to Egg as they watched the dust of their departure. "What house is that?"

"None, ser. I never saw that shield in any roll of arms.”

Perhaps he is a hedge knight after all. Dunk had devisedhis own arms at Ashford Meadow, when a puppeteer called Tanselle Too-Tall asked him what he wanted painted on his shield. "Was the older lord some kin to House Frey?" The Freys bore castles on their shields, and their holdings were not far from here.

Egg rolled his eyes. "The Frey arms are two blue towers connected by a bridge, on a grey field. Those were three castles, black on orange, ser. Did you see a bridge?"

"No.” He just does that to annoy me. "And next time you roll your eyes at me, I'll clout you on the ear so hard they'll roll back into your head for good."

Egg looked chastened. "I never meant -- "

"Never mind what you meant. Just tell me who he was.”

"Gormon Peake, the Lord of Starpike."

"That's down in the Reach, isn't it? Does he really have three castles?"

"Only on his shield; ser. House Peake did hold three castles once, but two of them were lost."

"How do you lose two castles?"

"You fight for the black dragon, ser.”

"Oh.” Dunk felt stupid. That again.

For two hundred years the realm had been ruled by the descendants of Aegon the Conquerer and his sisters, who had made the Seven Kingdoms one and forged the Iron Throne. Their royal banners bore the three-headed dragon of House Targaryen, red on black. Sixteen years ago, a bastard son of King Aegon IV named Daemon Blackfyre had risen in revolt against his trueborn brother. Daemon had used the three-headed dragon on his banners too, but he reversed the colors, as many bastards did. His revolt had ended on the Redgrass Field, where Daemon and his twin sons died beneath a rain of Lord Bloodraven's arrows. Those rebels who survived and bent the knee were pardoned, but some lost land, some titles, some gold. All gave hostages to ensure their future loyalty.

Three castles, black on orange. “I remember now. Ser Arlan never liked to talk about the Redgrass Field, but once in his cups he told me how his sister's son had died.” He could almost hear the old man's voice again, smell the wine upon his breath. "Roger of Pennytree, that was his name. His head was smashed in by a mace wielded by a lord with three castles on his shield.” Lord Gormon Peake. The old man never knew his name. Or never wanted to. By that time Lord Peake and John the Fiddler and their party were no more than a plume of red dust in the distance. It was sixteen years ago. The Pretender died, and those who followed him were exiled or forgiven. Anyway, it has nought to do with me.

For a while they rode along without talking, listening to the plaintive cries of birds. Half a league on, Dunk cleared his throat and said, "Butterwell, he said. His lands are near?"

"On the far side of the lake, ser. Lord Butterwell was the master of coin when King Aegon sat the Iron Throne. King Daeron made him Hand, but not for long. His arms are undy green and white and yellow, ser.” Egg loved showing off his heraldry.

"Is he a friend of your father?"

Egg made a face. "My father never liked him. In the Rebellion, Lord Butterwell's second son fought for the pretender and his eldest for the king. That way he was certain to be on the winning side. Lord Butterwell didn't fight for anyone.”

"Some might call that prudent."

"My father calls it craven."

Aye, he would. Prince Maekar was a hard man, proud and full of scorn. "We have to go by Whitewalls to reach the kingsroad. Why not fill our bellies?" Just the thought was enough to cause his guts to rumble. "Might be that one of the wedding guests will need an escort back to his own seat."

"You said that we were going north."

"The Wall has stood eight thousand years, it will last a while longer. It's a thousand leagues from here to there, and we could do with some more silver in our purse.” Dunk was picturing himself atop Thunder, riding down that sour-faced old lord with the three castles on his shield. That would be sweet. 'It was old Ser Arlan's squire who defeated you,' I could tell him when he came to ransom back his arms and armor. 'The boy who replaced the boy you killed.' The old man would like that.

"You're not thinking of entering the lists, are you,ser?

"Might be it's time."

"It's not, ser."

"Maybe it's time I gave you a good clout in the ear." I'd only need to win two tilts. If I could collect two ransoms and pay out only one, we'd eat like kings for a year. "If there was a melee, I might enter that.” Dunk’s size and strength would serve him better in a melee than in the lists.

"It's not customary to have a melee at a marriage, ser.”

"It's customary to have a feast, though. We have a long way to go. Why not set out with our bellies full for once?"

* * *

The sun was low in the west by the time they saw the lake, its waters glimmering red and gold, bright as a sheet of beaten copper. When they glimpsed the turrets of the inn above some willows, Dunk donned his sweaty tunic once again and stopped to splash some water on his face. He washed off the dust of the road as best he could, and ran wet fingers through his thick mop of sun-streaked hair. There was nothing to be done for his size, or the scar that marked his cheek, but he wanted to make himself appear somewhat less the wild robber knight.

The inn was bigger than he'd expected, a great grey sprawl of a place, timbered and turreted, half of it built on pilings out over the water. A road of rough-cut planks had been laid down over the muddy lakeshore to the ferry landing, but neither the ferry nor the ferrymen were in evidence. Across the road stood a stable with a thatched roof. A dry stone wall enclosed the yard, but the gate was open. Within, they found a well and a watering trough. "See to the animals," Dunk told Egg, "but see that they don't drink too much. I'll ask about some food."

He found the innkeep sweeping off the steps. "Are you come for the ferry?" the woman asked him. "You're too late. The sun's going down, and Ned don't like to cross by night unless the moon is full. He'll be back first thing in the morning.”

"Do you know how much he asks?"

"Three pennies for each of you, and ten for your horses.”

"We have two horses and a mule."

"It's ten for mules as well."

Dunk did the sums in his head, and came up with six-andthirty, more than he had hoped to-spend. "Last time I came this way it was only two pennies, and six for horses."

"Take that up with Ned, it's nought to me. If you're looking for a bed, I've none to offer. Lord Shawney and Lord Costayne brought their retinues. I'm full to bursting."

"Is Lord Peake here as well?" He killed Ser Arlan's squire. "He was with Lord Cockshaw and John the Fiddler."

"Ned took them across on his last run.” She looked Dunk up and down. "Were you part of their company?"

"We met them on the road, is all.” A good smell was drifting out the windows of the inn, one that made Dunk's mouth water. "We might like some of what you're roasting, if it's not too costly."

"It's wild boar," the woman said, "well peppered, and served with onions, mushrooms, and mashed neeps."

"We could do without the neeps. Some slices off the boar and a tankard of your good brown ale would do for us. How much would you ask for that? And maybe we could have a place on your stable floor to bed down for the night?"

That was a mistake. "The stables are for horses. That's why we call them stables. You're big as a horse, I'll grant you, but I only see two legs.” She swept her broom at him, to shoo him off. "I can't be expected to feed all the Seven Kingdoms. The boar is for my guests. So is my ale. I won't have lords saying that I run short of food or drink before they were surfeit. The lake is full of fish, and you'll find some other rogues camped down by the stumps. Hedge knights, if you believe them.” Her tone made it quite clear that she did not. “Might be they'd have food to share. It's nought to me. Away with you now, I've work to do.” The door closed with a solid thump behind her, before Dunk could even think to ask where he might find these stumps.

He found Egg sitting on the horse trough, soaking his feet in the water and fanning his face with his big floppy hat. "Are they roasting pig, ser? I smell pork."

"Wild boar," said Dunk in a glum tone, "but who wants boar when we have good salt beef?"

Egg made a face. "Can I please eat my boots instead, ser? I'll make a new pair out of the salt beef. It's tougher."

"No," said Dunk, trying not to smile. "You can't eat your boots. One more word and you'll eat my fist, though. Get your feet out of that trough." He found his greathelm on the mule, and slung it underhand at Egg. "Draw some water from the well and soak the beef.” Unless you soaked it for a good long time, the salt beef was like to break your teeth. It tasted best when soaked in ale, but water would serve. "Don't use the trough either, I don't care to taste your feet."

"My feet could only improve the taste, ser," Egg said, wriggling his toes. But he did as he was bid.

Glen Cook contest winners!

A trio of Canucks will get their hands on Glen Cook's latest Black Company omnibus, The Many Deaths of the Black Company. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

The winners are:

- Ivan Nash, from Calgary, Alberta, Canada

- Adam Collingwood, from Kingston, Ontario, Canada

- Chad Henderson, from Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada

Many thanks to all the participants!

HALO: EVOLUTIONS contest winner!

This lucky girl will get her hands on my review copy of the Halo: Evolutions anthology. It contains short stories by authors such as Tobias S. Buckell, Eric Nylund, Karen Traviss, and more. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

The winner is:

- Zoe Samson, from Seattle, Washington, USA

Many thanks to all the participants!

Southeast Asia: Itinerary

Okay, folks.

My bags are close to being packed, and ready or not tomorrow morning I'm flying away to Bangkok. Previous attempts to meet up with Hotlist fans kind of went down the crapper in the past, but here's the provisional itinerary. In case you're in the neighborhood and fancy a drink.;-)

Provisional because traveling is never really set in stone, and you never know what you'll see or who you'll encounter that will suddenly make you change your mind. But here is how it's supposed to go down:

January 22nd: Depart Montreal


January 23rd: Arrive in Bangkok
January 24th to 26th: Bangkok
January 27th: Ayuthaya
January 28th and 29th: Sukhothai
January 30th and 31st: Lampang
February 1st to 3rd: Chiang Mai
February 4th to 6th: Phuket (Karon Beach)
February 7th to 9th: Ko Phi Phi
February 10th to 12th: Ko Lanta
February 13th: Phuket Town


February 14th to 17th: Kuala Lumpur
February 18th to 20th: Cameron Highlands
February 21st: Pulau Penang (Georgetown)
February 22nd to 24th: Pulau Langkawi (Pantai Cenang)
February 25th and 26th: Melaka


February 27th to March 2nd: Singapore
March 3rd: Flight to Montreal

I'm also posting this itinerary on Facebook. So if any of my friends were not aware that I'll be kicking back in Southeast Asia for about 6 weeks and you want to join me for a while, let me know!=)

Take it easy, guys. I know I will!:P