I’ve been revising what is now the Prologue, as well as Chapters 1 & 2. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m doing what I can to keep the Delay bugbear at bay. I shared the most recent Prologue with my Discord writers’ group.
I was planning to share it with Scott Dikkers and his group, but I just can’t seem to make it to the Zooms he schedules during the middle of the day. Chalk it up to a combination of nervousness and the (somewhat) legitimate excuse that I take care of a 2-year-old during the day, which makes staring at a laptop screen for an hour near impossible.
So here’s the latest version of the Prologue:
“Let me get this straight. You’re a spy from an elite government agency on a top secret mission. You need to commandeer all the guns in my shop so you can travel back through a magic portal and use them to defeat an army of knights and save a kingdom. But not just any kingdom. The Kingdom of Fief. Like the theme park.”
“That’s quite a story, chiquito.”
“You’ll be doing your…um…country a great service.”
“You’re not fooling anyone with that disguise.”
“The trench coat. The sunglasses. I hope you didn’t shoplift them from the thrift store. The owners — my neighbors — they’re good people. And what’s that thing under your nose? It’s definitely not a mustache. It looks like a mouse got squashed by a tank.”
“It’s a matter of national security. ”
“The low voice is cute too. Did you practice that in front of the mirror?”
“There’s no time to lose.”
“Twenty years I’ve had this pawn shop. Some pretty interesting characters passed through here. But — Dios mío — never in all my years I have seen this. This tops them all.”
“I must insist.”
“Hold on. You’re not allowed back there. You do know guns are dangerous? Definitely off limits to children.”
“I assure you—”
“Can I see some ID?”
“A badge. Or whatever you agents carry around with you.”
“That would compromise my cover.”
“Oreja! Are you back there? Mija!”
“Excuse me for a second, amigo. Stay put. I’ll be right back.”
“Just keep him talking. Sí, I can smell him too. He needs a bath. Sí, he’s a kid. He’s obviously, you know, ill. I need to see if I can track down his parents. Get him home. Get him some help. Está bien. If you help me, I’ll give you another 30 minutes of phone time. No, not right now. After. Bien. An hour. Just keep him talking while I make some calls.”
“Greetings, young lady.”
“I’m older than you. And I’m definitely not a lady. I’m guessing you’re ten, right?”
“You’re mistaken, miss.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name? My name is…um…Page…I mean Squire. Page Squire.”
“Interesting name. I’m Oreja. Nice to meet you. Where you from?”
“You’re not too good at lying, are you?”
“I’m very good at lying. I’m a spy. That’s my job.”
“Really? Tell me about this kingdom you have to save.”
“You heard all that?”
“I hear everything in the back room. The Kingdom of Fife.”
“Not fife. It’s Fief like thief.”
“Sure, whatever. Isn’t that the theme park where those cosplay nerds dress up in silly outfits and pretend they’re living in the Dark Ages.”
“I used to think just like you. But The Kingdom of Fief is real. My cousin, Aliyah — I mean, this girl I know — she took me there.”
“I see. ‘This girl’ took you to a real kingdom…through a magic portal.” “Correct.”
“So it’s make-believe.”
“The kingdom exists. I was there.”
“Okay. I don’t want to upset you. It’s real. I get it. What’s it like?”
“The kingdom is a land of knights, wizards, castles, and dragons. It’s ruled by King Courtois and Queen Gwennifer.”
“Aren’t they characters from the theme park?”
“They’re real people.”
“Of course. Of course. It sounds like a fun place.”
“Aliyah thought so too. But it turns out things aren’t as they seemed.”
“What do you mean?”
“She thought it was a place of chivalry. But now she’s not so sure.”
“Chivalry? What’s that?”
“It means living your life with honor, courage, and faith in magic.”
“That sounds…um…interesting. What happened? You said the kingdom was in trouble. Did the king screw up?”
“We’re at war.”
“Who’s at war?”
“War — a bunch of guys in tin cans trying to stab each other to death with pointy sticks. I can see why you want guns. But why go back? You’re better off staying here…in, you know, the real world.”
“Because my cousin is still there, and she needs my help. They put her in charge of the peasant army. If I don’t get back soon, she’s going to do something really brave — and stupid — and get herself killed. I need to save her.”
“So you’re not a spy.”
“Okay. I admit it. I’m not a spy. But I do have a cousin. Who’s a knight.” “Your cousin is a knight.”
“I know it sounds crazy. When it happened — the trip down the portal to this other realm — I thought it was crazy too.”
“To be honest, I’m a bit confused. Tell you what. Park yourself on this stool. I’ll help you take off that coat. What’s that underneath there? Are you one of those cosplay—”
“It’s a squire’s uniform. I’m a squire.”
“Esquire? Isn’t that a lawyer?”
“Not esquire. Squire. Squires serve knights.”
“So you’re your cousin’s squire?”
“Okay, super. You’re a squire. Great. It looks itchy, that costume. Hey. Try to settle down. Make yourself nice and comfy. I’ll get you some water.”
“I’m in a hurry.”
“Let’s make a deal. If you can convince me what you’re saying is true, I’ll help you. Help you, a squire, save your cousin, a knight, who’s trapped in la-la land or whatever. How does that sound?”
“I really need to get going.”
“No story, no deal.”
“Can’t you just let me have the guns? I’ll bring them back. I promise. Preferably, if you have them in stock, machine guns. Big ones.”
“Start at the beginning.”
And here’s the (slightly less) crappy second draft of Chapter 1:
You see, my mom was going on a trip with her new boyfriend. She wouldn’t say for how long. His name is Ponce. The new boyfriend. I guess he’s okay. He’s nice to me, I guess.
While Mom was gone, she arranged to send me to my aunt’s house. Aunt Fatima lived in Merrymount, which was far away. Far, far away.
[REWORK — on one hand, he’s saving face, on the other, he was sent to his Aunt’s because he’s failing out of school — be direct]
[COMIC nightmare ideas — he wants to convince his mom not to send him to his aunt’s — IDEAS — she comes downstairs and he’s frantically cleaning the house — but making a mess of it because he’s never tried to do it before — it’s the end of summer — bargaining — promises to clean the house every week — even scrub the toilets — promises to cook all the meals — has breakfast ready — it’s half-frozen sausage links and burnt pancakes — there’s sticky orange juice on the chair where his mom sits down — HOW would his mom feel about this? — she’d be feeling guilty but trying her best to sound enthusiastic about it]
Mom said to me, “Think of it as an adventure, Jester.” [MAYBE too soon for this — is this consistent with his character — as a clown?] That was her nickname for me. Because I was good at making her laugh. Cheering her up when she was down.
But I won’t lie. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself about it all. “How long will I be gone?” I asked. Though I saw them every year at Christmas, I had never been to their new house. The one they moved into a few years ago.
“We talked about this. For the school year.”
“Do I have to go? I promise to do all my homework.”
“That’s not the problem. The problem is I get home from work most night until late. You’re on your own too much. The problem is that school’s too easy for you. You’re bored. You don’t have any discipline. It’s too easy for you to get yourself into trouble.”
“Why would they want to have me live with them for an entire year? I’m a pain in the butt.”
“Oh, honey, they love you. It’s not a burden for them. They said so.”
“Let me give you some advice,” she said. “The quickest way to get others to like you is to show interest. Find out what they like. What they’re into. Get them talking about themselves. If that doesn’t work, compliment them. Tell them how you like their clothes, their stuff, their opinions. Especially their opinions. Try your best to agree with them. If you do that, they can’t help but like you. I can promise you that.” She squeezed me hard. “Everything’s gonna be fine,” she said.
I packed my favorite camouflage cargo shorts. The sports jersey my dad gave me. My secret gummy worm stash. Then Mom put me and my duffel bag on a coach bus to Merrymount.
It was a long ride…a whole day and night. I had to change buses twice. I used the duffel for a pillow. I almost missed the first transfer because I was passed out. I almost missed the second one when I got into a battle with a vending machine. It wouldn’t let me have a bag of chips I had paid for — with my own money. So I started kicking it and shaking it. The security guard at the bus station didn’t appreciate that.
[need to jack up the comic nightmares here — big person sitting next to me snoring — a talker — a driver who liked to hammer the brakes — breakdown? arrive late?]
My bag was a terrible pillow. When we got to Merrymount, I had a serious crimp in my neck.
Aunt Fatima wasn’t at the bus station. She and her husband were busy people. They must have had more important things to do than pick me up. Instead, my mom hailed me a rideshare.
[On the last leg of my journey], telephone poles whizzed rhythmically by as I nodded in and out. I imagined a long sword was jutting out the window from the crimp in my neck. The razor-sharp blade was slicing them all down. [REWORK — this isn’t funny]
We pulled up to the destination in the map app. It was sunset. I climbed out of the minivan and texted my mom.
“You sure this is the right address?” the driver asked.
Mom and me lived in an apartment. It was big enough for the two of us. Plus my pet tortoise, Sir Shmoozles. That’s it. There was definitely no room for anybody else. Sir Shmoozles agreed. Whenever Ponce came into my room — he was always trying to get me to like him — Sir Shmoozles hissed and stuck his head back into his shell. I swear.
[THIS is funny but not aligned with the new reason why he’s going to Merrymount]
Aunt Fatima’s house was huge. Like a castle. It had lawn as big as a football field with grass so perfect it that looked astroturf. Alabaster [WOULD he know this word? I doubt it.} Plaster statues of mounted knights reared up everywhere. All manner of birds frolicked in birdbaths spewing crystal fountains. The house had turrets and parapets and high arching windows with stained-glass panes. There was even a moat. I’m not making this up. Well, maybe it was more of a garden bed where the mulch got a little too soaked by the sprinklers and formed puddles of muddy water with bits of wood chip floating around in them.
I was so busy gawping at their house that rideshare drove off — with my bag still in the back. Now the minivan halfway down the street.
I ran after it, but it just kept getting further away. Pain shot through my neck. And now my ankles started aching too. And my knees. And hips. I was huffing and puffing. I hobbled back to the house and up the winding cobblestone path to the front door.
The door was massive — planks of hard, knotty wood bound by iron bands — hinge-plates in the shape of battle axes. You had to cross this mini-drawbridge — over the soggy garden beds — to get to it.
It was getting dark. A hedge at the edge of the yard rustled. I squinted into the deep shadows. Something popped its head out. A little creature. It had beady black eyes, a pink nose, scruffy ears. A rat? Too scruffy. A squirrel? Too fat. Like something out of a fairy tale. Only later did I learn it was an opossum. In its tiny paws, it was clutching a bunch of what looked like thistles. It was munching away on them.
You’re probably not going to believe me — but I swear it’s true. The little guy was wearing a hat. Some kind of old-fashioned cap — green, pointy — with a long white feather jutting out of a flap.
It must be a neighbor’s pet. They liked to dress it up in tiny costumes. It had escaped. That was it.
Then it waved at me. Or did it? Maybe it was just scratching itself.
Here was where it got even weirder. Without realizing what I was doing, I waved back. There we were, waving to each other like long-lost pals — me and this beady-eyed creature.
Then it ducked back under the bushes and disappeared.
I snapped to. What a dummy. Best to act like it never happened. I approached the drawbridge. To the side a sign stuck out from the soupy mulch. It said, “Dragon Eye Home Guardian.” I padded lightly over the drawbridge and stood beneath the front door. It had a huge brass knocker. I could barely reach it, let along lift it.
Maybe no one was home. I might set off the alarm. On my tippy-toes, I pulled the knocker up and back then let it go.
Wham! It crashed into the door and kept on ringing like a clanging of a church bell. Still, no one came. So I knocked again. Nothing.
Was the driver right? Did I have the wrong address? Maybe they were out for dinner. It was Saturday night, after. That’s what rich people do on Saturday night. Or maybe they saw me and were pretending not to be home. I did that all the time when one of my mom’s friend came calling, and I was the only one home.
So I stood there staring at a knot in the door. Finally, I heard some steps approaching from inside the house. Heavy steps. A march of thick boot soles.
The door creaked open. There towered a wiry girl with broad shoulders. Her black hair fell loosely to her shoulders but was cropped in a straight line across her forehead. She was wearing an odd looking dress. It was kind of plain. Like a wool poncho with a thick leather belt clasped tightly around her waist. She had on knee-high boots and these leather gloves that went all the way back to her elbows.
She was staring down at me with a frown.
I held out my hand. “A…Aliyah?” I said.
“Who are you?” she said.
“I like your dress. It’s…um…neat.”
“It’s a tunic.”
“It’s nice. I like the…uh…belt. Is that leather?”
“Where’s the box?”
“The box? I didn’t bring a box. I have a duffel bag. I mean I did have a duffel bag. I kind of lost it. I mean I left it in the ride-share. By accident.”
“You’re the courier, are you not?”
“I’m your cousin, Lester. You remember me? I know it’s been a few years. You’re so tall. I almost didn’t recognize you. I’ve grown some too. Not as much as you. Ha ha! It’s nice to see you. Didn’t your parents tell you I was coming?”
“How do I know you’re my cousin?”
“What do you mean?”
“There are all manner of brigands lurking around in this neighborhood. You might be trying to deceive me.”
“Prove to me that you’re of my bloodline.”
“Bloodline? Your mom is my aunt.”
“Judging by the looks of you, unlikely. Name your ancestors. Ten generations hence should be sufficient.”
“Um, my mom —”
“Clod. Your bloodline. Who’s your father? And his father. And his father’s father. And so on.”
“My dad is Randall. Ah…Randall Louche. My grandfather…his name was… funny. I can’t remember it at the moment. Ha ha. Anyways, I always called him Dodi.”
“Pitiful. Can you at least describe our family crest and its provenance?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
Aliyah slammed the door in my face.
I just stood there. It was now dark. Like, really dark. Sprinklers were hissing away in the lawns all down the lane. The rose bushes were rustling again.
I worked up the courage to knock again.
At last, I heard voices, not just Aliyah but other ones, deeper ones. Grownup voices. And a baby. They were muffled. But it sounded like they were arguing.
Steps approached. Once again, the massive door creaked open.
There was Aliyah, still scowling. Luckily for me, my aunt and uncle were right behind her. They were scowling too. But once they caught sight of me, their frowns turned to big shinny smiles. Maybe a little too shinny. A tangled mop of curly brown hair and wide brown eyes poked out from behind Uncle Mo’s knee.
Aunt Fatima nudged Aliyah. “Go on.”
“Come on now.”
Aliyah crossed her arms. “Enter.”
“Yes, please, come in, my boy,” Uncle Mo said. “We’re so sorry we didn’t answer sooner. It’s hard to hear the door from the kitchen. Especially with a chatty toddler running around.”
I stepped inside. “What a beautiful house you have!”
“Thank you,” Aunt Fatima said. “You’re so sweet.” She squeezed me. Uncle Mo shook my hand. His grip was thick and firm. He smelled of garlic and wine. “Good to see you, kiddo.”
“Nice glasses,” Uncle said.
“These? They’re nothing special. My mom makes me wear them ‘cause I keep losing or breaking regular ones.”
“I bet you can see those day-glo frames from a mile off at night. And the strap — keeps them snug on your head.” Uncle Mo looked behind me. “Where are your things?”
“Um, long story.”
“I’m so sorry about Aliyah,” Aunt Fatima said. “She gets a little bit carried away with this role playing sometimes. You must be… you must have had a long journey. Exhausted. And starving.”
“I’m okay.” I rubbed the crimp in my neck.
“You have impeccable timing,” Uncle Mo said. “Dinner is just about ready. But there’s still time for you to go upstairs and get settled. Maybe splash some water on your face, if you like. Aliyah will show you around.”
Aliyah pointed up the long curving staircase. “Up there.”
“Now don’t be so rude. Take Lester up to your room and help him get comfortable. Make him feel welcome.”
Aliyah’s little brother was only a tiny baby when I saw him last. He was running around screaming his head off.
“Amir is excited to see you too,” Aunt Fatima said. My aunt and uncle chased after him back into the kitchen. I was left standing there with Aliyah.
She looked me up and down once again. Then, abruptly, she strode over to the staircase and mounted it two steps at a time.
I limped after her as fast as I could.