The following is a sample from my next novel, Sky Joust: The Purple Onion vs. The Pestilence. It is about a masked vigilante who instead of tying up bad guys for the police, beats them up until they cry and puts the video on YouTube. This is the opening section.
Three horses stood around the circular altar. Their riders carried torches, waiting patiently in moonlight that broke through the roof of the abandoned church. The dome of obsidian glass that had once been the pride of the prayerful lay in shattered pieces around them, destroyed in the nineteenth century by the wrath of cannon.
Although no service was being held tonight, the horses wore their best barding, the hock-length ceremonial silk armor that served as equestrian church dress.
The riders wore leather pants but were stripped to the waist, their faces and chests covered in war paint. Heraldic tattoos adorned the breadth of their backs and shoulders.
It was a chilly evening. Clouds of breath appeared from the nostrils of man and beast alike.
“Why can’t we just meet at the pub?” said one of the riders.
“Favor your tongue, Sir Abhoc,” someone said. As in give it a rest. Shut up.
“But we’re missing the damn game. The Pharaohs play the Knockjocks in Creston tonight. Mark Savory is pitching.”
Hackley had TiVoed it, but he wasn’t telling Abhoc. “Lord Brum wants to show us something,” he said instead.
“I don’t know why he can’t show us in town.”
“Horses are banned in town, idiot.”
“Or why there can’t be hot wings. Has anyone told Lord Brum what a pain in the ass it is to dress a horse?”
“Well, is he? Does he know I can’t just throw all this barding in the washing machine when I get home?”
“You just need a bigger appliance,” said Heckley.
Torchlight crackled. Leather creaked in the saddle.
“That’s not what your wife told me.”
“Aw now. She always did do too much charity work.”
Heckley looked over at their third, a smaller pimply-faced man whose saddle seemed to swallow him. He was fidgeting, glancing nervously about. “Isn’t that right, Sir Bubo?”
Bubo startled, surprised to hear his name. “Yes, of course. Sir Abhoc, I can procure an industrial-sized washer/dryer for church use. It’ll have space-aged deep-cleaning technology, and we can remote access it from the Cloud!”
Abhoc blinked. “We’re talking about Sir Heckley’s wife, Sir Bubo.” False-bragging about diddling each other’s women was a sacred rite of chivalry, he believed.
“Well. . .” Bubo shifted in his seat. “She can use it, too, of course.”
“Listen here, you little punk.” He reached for his sword.
Heckley guffawed. “Our quartermaster here got digitech on the brain. Don’t care about no box except they built it in a lab somewhere. Or no joke unless it got bleep blorp in it.”
Abhoc reconsidered killing Bubo. “Blorpity bleep,” he said, testing him.
“Ha ha,” said Bubo, trying to smile.
“See? He thinks it’s funny.”
“Bloop, choo-weet!” said Bubo, flailing his arms about like a robot, laughing for sheer terror.
Abhoc nodded respectfully. “Aw, that’s all right now. No harm done,” he said. “But listen, I’m still going to kill you.” In the moonlight, steel flashed from his scabbard.
A loud whinny startled them. At the far end of the nave, a fourth rider appeared in the collapsed doorway of the church. Guided by a steady hand, the animal sidestepped the fallen lintel. Hoofbeats echoed hollowly on wooden boards strewn with stale hay and decades of mountain dirt windblown through broken windows.
The newcomer played a mournful fiddle on approach, a melody that a century ago had ridden hard and dauntless into the maw of British artillery, which the prickers and primers are said to have heard over the crack of their own ordnance. At every hitching post along the way, where the prayerful’s steeds once stood for mass, the rider paused to play to the ghosts of the congregation, who fleeting forms appeared teasingly in moonlit dust swirls. The music had been written for horns and meant to be performed over the thundering of hooves. The deliberate pace of the midnight charger made the advance almost unbearable.
With each clop forward, the three knights watched the mount grow in size until it hardly seemed it would fit under the collapsed dome. A monstrous destrier, almost twenty hands high, and a rider sized to match.
At last, he reached the circle of torchlight in the chancel. Long hair fell in curls past Brum’s shoulders, and under his chin the fiddle was set. This was an authentic Sudsy & Sons cigar box fiddle, masterfully crafted by one of Dodoville’s original artisans. The elongated double S’s of the brand logo were carved out to make the F holes upon the body.
After letting the final note of the ancient warsong attenuate into silence, Brum leaned from his horse and hawked phlegm upon the floor.
He began to play in earnest.
The famous Tartini sonata for violin.
The knights glanced askew amongst themselves. Horace Brumfield, only an eighth Horsefolk by birth. But few could still trace a pure line from before the Occupation. He had drunk the mare’s blood mixed with his mother’s milk, that was what mattered. But Brum had also been educated by the Septic monks, who filled his head with papistries such as the Lord Jesus rode an ass and had no squire. Although the newly-dubbed Knight Commander had renounced all that heresy long ago, it was still the Septics who had recognized Brum’s talent for music, who had put into his hands the violin, that devil’s instrument. He had not rejected that.
The sonata required dazzling speed and dexterity. The cigar box fiddle was not a Horsefolk tradition, but Dodoville’s. Although from the city’s margin, the Horsefolk faithful were Dodovillean enough to see that music lived in his fingers, tormented his dreams, scalded streaks across the arching heaven of his mind like fiery comets on a clear night sky.
He finished. Licks of torch flame snapped in response.
“How I long to play that piece among the shattered bodies of our enemies.”
“May you get that chance, Commander Brum,” said Heckley.
“Sooner than you think, I shall. In one month’s time, we ride on Dodoville. After nearly a century, she is ripe for plunder again.”
“She is, Brum, but—”
“A millennium ago, our chivalrous ancestors rode in attendance on our Lord and King, Jesus Harthur the Christ. They witnessed him break the strength of our enemies with his powerful right arm; they saw him dispense justice with his immortal sword Signo; they wandered with him for forty days and nights through the deserts of Camelot; they helped him recapture the Sacred City from the Saxon infidel and tore from their profane hands the holy pail from which our Chosen Steeds are branned and oated. They were there too, alas, when his side was opened and he bled freely into that pail. We are the direct descendants of those who drank of that blood with their own lips, heirs to the covenant that makes us rightful masters of Dodoville and all the Kolkhek mountains.”
Abhoc saw no reason this should make him miss the Pharaohs game.
“We know all this for fact,” he said, “as we know our own names, but—”
“You have prepared your whole lives to reclaim our rights. Your skills as horsemen are unequaled. The least of you can thread a needle with your lances at a gallop. The terrible hoof-fall of your mounts at full charge make the earth itself cry out for mercy. ”
“Excepting none but you, my lord,” said Heckley, “I’d brave any man alive at the joust. But centuries have passed since the Horsefolk inspired dread in this region. Alas, what use are horses against the armored cars of the Dodoville Police?”
Brum’s face, inscrutable under his mustaches, picked Heckley apart.
“Well asked,” he said. “This is no longer merely the abandoned place of worship of our foreriders. Welcome to the fully mechanized war stable of the New Order of Horselords. Officially open for business.”
Outside in the trees, the night song of frogs and crickets.
“Brum, have you—?”
“Gone mad? No. I just haven’t pushed the button yet.”
Brum reached into his saddlebag and fished out a small remote. He compressed it, the hollow plastic clack of a device you know will never fucking work.
Bubo’s mount, sensing her rider’s apprehension, began to fret. He pet her neck, whispering in her ear as his wide eyes surveyed the ceiling.
“Maybe put it under your chin,” suggested Abhoc.
The remote disappeared under Brum’s mustaches. Somewhere, a low-decibel, high-frequency ping.
Heckley steadied his charger as the walls began to tremble, the floorboards began to move.
“Sir Abhoc,” shouted the Knight Commander over the rumble, “you may throw out your mount’s barding if its upkeep has become a chore. Today, I have something you are going to like a lot better.”
On the other side of Dodoville, snug in the rocky embrace of Mount Myrtle, the Cumin family estate enjoyed a natural shelter from the volcano’s ashen breath. The British had built Davy Castle here in the nineteenth century, a fortress of basalt designed as a sanctuary for imperial administrators from the local horrors—geothermal, zoological, but chiefly anthropomorphic—that plagued her majesty’s holdings in the Kohlkhek region, far away at the end of the earth.
After the First World War, Dodoville got swept into the independent nation of Sporqia. Yet the castle remained Dodoville’s greatest repository of worldly learning and cultural sophistication. Whatever marvels and delights could be channeled from across the globe—fashion, technology, the trendiest new exercise videos—you might say they hoarded it all in there.
Atop the west spire stood the orbiting dome of the Cumin Observatory, centerpiece of the Sporqish lunar light conservation project (of which Dodovilleans, accustomed to gross government misappropriation, said only, “It’s very serious”). Mount Myrtle, one the world’s largest active volcanoes, threw ash into the atmosphere on an erratic schedule, making for an unreliable view of the cosmos. But the acoustic telescope peeking from its dome, an engineering feat named Ladybird, was pointed not skyward but down the mountain into Dodoville.
At the chief observation desk, Victor Cumin attended the dozens of monitors supplying access to closed-circuit television feeds from all over the city. He was on a mat in a pair of running shorts and trainers, doing burpees.
The screens showed him views from inside the police stations, the trade rooms of the Tchotchke Consortium, even the conference rooms at his own newspaper companies under the Cumin Media umbrella. Cutting-edge kinetophonic algorithms rapidly converted subtle motion in the video into audio reconstructions, which he could patch into by calling out the monitor’s ID. Thanks to the network set in place by the Consortium’s Cultural Archive Initiative, a pioneer in the field of invasive surveillance, you could now make yourself digitally present practically anywhere in Dodoville, so long as you had the resources and technological wherewithal.
For everything else, there was Ladybird here, whose audio point-and-snoop capabilities could penetrate most walls.
Squat, kick out, push up, jump! Squat, kick out, push up, jump!
Maintaining razor-sharp awareness and cognitive function during intense physical exertion wasn’t just a nice trick: for Dodoville’s premier masked vigilante, it was his only chance for survival.
Plus, keeping his body in peak condition and monitoring the criminal activity in the city put such constraints on his time, it really behooved him to do both at once. Afterward, he still had his ailing father’s media empire to run!
Where the hell was Mori? He could at least come up here at throw swords at him or something.
“To keep your strength up, sir,” said a voice.
Victor glanced back mid-squat as Mori approached with long smooth bounds, landing lightly on his bare toes. The butler wore a tuxedo, its single tail rippling like a gymnast’s ribbon behind his single leg, and in his hand he carried a covered silver tray.
Mori stopped before him, and with a little bob at the knee, removed the lid. Vegetable soup. Not a single drop had spilled.
“Leave it on the desk there,” said Victor, tucking his knees on level with Mori’s eyes at the apex of his jump.
Mori moved with more speed and agility on one leg than most men could with two. And yes, Mori’s profession asked that he not be seen unless necessary. More importantly, humans had hunted skiapods like Mori across the millennia, so naturally they had developed a skill for remaining unnoticed. But Victor didn’t like being snuck up on in his own castle. Perception was as vital for him as stealth was for the skiapod!
“Do you require my assistance, sir?” Mori smiled, his large eyes beaming beneath a broad forehead. According to Mori, skiapods had evolved childlike countenances to make it more difficult for less stone-hearted homines sapientes to slay them. But whatever the survival advantage, mostly it just creeped Victor out.
Squat, kick out, push up, jump! How many was that? Also, what was he watching on the monitors?
“Mori, did you know spider silk is stronger than steel? Triple the blast protection of kevlar.”
The butler’s single eyebrow rose in surprise. “I have only a hobbyist’s interest in organic chemistry, Master Victor. But yes, I did know. It’s flexible too. That’s why its the primary material in the Violet Storm’s body armor.”
“Ugh. I wear that against my skin. What’s the secondary material?”
“Sir, if you enjoy not getting fatally shot, stabbed, burned, bludgeoned, electrocuted, or irradiated, may I whole-heartedly suggest not insisting upon an answer to that question.”
“What’s grosser than spider webbing?”
Victor glared at him in silence.
“Skin, sir.” A tilt of the head for I-told-you-so.
“Blech. At least it’s not human skin.”
The smile on Mori’s face didn’t change.
“Did you ever consider applying the silk like a shrink wrap?”
“I confess the thought occurred to me, sir, but I decided you were still capable of dressing yourself.”
Mori had read somewhere that butlers should have a dry sense of humor, but the innocent expression made the jokes seem off-kilter.
“Okay then. Ever think of using the spider silk on animals?” asked Victor.
“You weren’t planning on riding one of the hunting terriers into combat were you?”
“How about a horse?”
“That’s a lot of spider silk.”
“Where do we get ours? Do we import it?”
Mori closed his eyes for an instant. “All our silk, sir, is local. From Ariadne’s Arachnophilia Euphorium.”
“Emporium, you mean?”
“They are very enthusiastic about spiders there, sir.”
“I wonder how an operation like that turns a profit.”
“It’s not vigilantism in a vegetable mask, sir, but they do make a living.”
Mid-burpee, Victor stopped burpeeing.
“Did you fashion my breathing apparatus out of a turnip or something?”
“No, sir. But following the specifications you gave me, well . . . Some of the writers at your newspaper have observed it looks sort of like . . .”
“Some . . . vegetable. One of the more fear-striking ones, I presume.”
Victor reached for a towel and walked over to the desk where he opened the file on the Church of the Knight Errant.
“Horace Brumfield,” he said. “Named Knight Commander of the CKE three years ago. Ramped up their training programs in dressage and medieval weaponry, especially lancing.”
“The Brumfields, I recall, were one of the losing families in the gangwar that overthrew the Botanists from political supremacy back in the ‘90s.”
“That’s right. All their power and prestige vanished overnight. Perhaps Horace wants revenge on the city that betrayed his benefactors.”
Mori shrugged. “If it makes sense in a human mind, sir. Skiapods believe that dramatic reversals of fortune are simply a part of life. The rich among us cheerfully joke about the day when they will be penniless.”
“Well, of course it’ll come if they make jokes about it!”
“I don’t understand, sir,” Mori said smiling.
“The Horsefolk have waged war in this territory since before Dodoville’s founding. They are our oldest enemy.”
Mori tilted his head cheerfully. “Since the obsolescence of the war horse, the population has mostly assimilated into Dodoville society. Law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. Veterans of the Zahzian War. Nice people, if you trust reputation.”
“Except the Church of the Knight Errant believes they will be restored to their former glory, when in dust-scuttling hordes they ranged the Kohlkek mountains, plundering and terrorizing the local population.”
“You fear that now with indestructibly-armored horses, it may actually be possible.”
“Thanks to Ladybird, I know it is. I’ve been watching them for weeks. Weapons upgrades, elite horsemanship, a state-of-the-art saddle-mounted stereo sound system.”
“The telescope hears the audio quality!”
On his desk stood a framed photo of Victor as a boy with his mother Rochelle. He picked it up now and held it, gazing off into the distance.
“The Brumfields weren’t the only family hurt in that gang war. But you don’t see me taking it out on the whole city.”
“From a certain point of view, sir, that’s exactly what—”
“I have to stop him, Mori.”
“Obviously sir. He’ll buy out all the silk. The way you go through bodysuits.”
Victor eyed the pair of fuzzy purple slippers on his desk and thought about his unconventional vocation.
“If there is any blessing in the rule of the Tchotchke Consortium, it’s that Dodoville hasn’t endured a full-blown gang war in twenty years. But if with these new weapons they can offer a legitimate threat to the Consortium’s power . . .”
“I don’t know the Knights Errant qualify as a gang, sir. They aren’t political. They just want to burn things and watch people suffer.”
“Sounds like politics to me.”
“What do I know, I’m only a skiapod. We like to make people happy! That’s all politics means to us.”
“And your kind is nearly extinct.”
“Exactly, sir! Eradicating our foolishness from the face of the earth is the least we can do for others’ comfort.”
For thirty years, Mori had served in the Cumin household, saying things like that with the same smile on his face. Never once had he murdered everyone in their sleep. Someday Victor would have to figure out why that was.
But someday would have to wait until a horde of barbarians wasn’t breaking down the gate.
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