I'm going to start posting little rough draft excerpts from Shriek inbetween "real" blog entries as I begin to reach the end of my work on the novel. Just to kind of reward myself for lurching ahead with it by releasing some of it into the world. The narrator of the novel is Janice Shriek, and throughout there are parenthetical asides by her brother Duncan.
The war continued in Ambergris...
And yet, on certain days, in certain parts of the city, you could walk down a dozen streets and not even realize a war was going on—if you could rationalize the mortar fire as thunder. Markets were open, people walked to work, the telephones operated (even if few wanted to use them!), restaurants served what food they had. The Religious Quarter, for political reasons, remained largely safe, with both H&S and F&L doing a respectable trade in foodstuffs and clothing—sometimes while fighting raged only a few blocks away. A few times, I was still able to meet with artists and gallery owners, and I regained a little respect from them because of my new profession. People tended to find it amusing, but not in a mocking way.
In part, this sometimes sense of safety was caused by a retrenchment by both sides after the first seven or eight months of the war. After House Lewden’s original probes and feints toward H&S headquarters, and toward taking control of the docks, and after several intense battles, F&L had been held to the northern third of Ambergris. They controlled part of the docks, a portion of Albumuth Boulevard, but they could not smash through to H&S headquarters. After the initial shock, H&S had recovered enough morale and discipline to hold their ground. Thus, the “front” became relatively stable, except for sneak attacks and mortar fire, and spies, of course. The regularity of it became a kind of comfort. (I was never comforted. The whole conflict had troubled me from the very beginning. Just trying to guess the reasons for gray cap involvement bothered me. Never before had they backed one faction over another, or even seemed to recognize the difference between factions—or seemed to care. Why now should they change tactics? Besides, their weapons were everywhere, but they were nowhere to be seen.)
Still, it could not go on forever. The city was in real danger of becoming less than a city, of becoming rubble and black smoke and piles of bodies—of becoming twenty different cities that only loosely formed a country called “Ambergris.”
Duncan sensed this, but could not anticipate (articulate) it.
“We’re near the end,” he said one evening eighteen months into the war, as we sat in the smoldering remains of the Café of the Ruby-Throated Calf. It was more or less neutral ground now that most of it had been destroyed by mortars. At least, we could count on no one trying to kill us as we sat there, protected by overturned tables and a few strategically-placed shrubs. The service was terrible, but, then, the waiters were all dead.
Duncan was pale but whole, face dark with dirt, a flurry of cuts rubbed red. We were drinking a couple of bottles of Smashing Ted’s Finest Ale, which we had found in an abandoned store, miraculously unbroken under a fallen, splintered door.
“Near the end?” I prompted.
“Yes,” he said, and took a long pull on his beer. “We’re near the end. Something has to give. Someone has to blink. To change. It can’t go on this way. It just can’t.”
“It’s done a fine job of going on this way for awhile now, Duncan,” I reminded him. I took a sip. It was warm, almost hot, but the bite of it still tasted good.
“Maybe I mean I can’t go on this way,” he said.
“You mean, being paid in eggs, cauliflower, and milk?” I said.
He laughed, but I knew he was thinking about Mary, always Mary. She had come free of her Academy obligations a couple of months before, finished her extra coursework, and graduated with honors. Bonmot had no hold over her anymore, except for the hold created by her gratitude. She and Duncan had moved into an apartment off of Albumuth Boulevard, in an area under Hoegbotton’s control. A nice little domestic arrangement. I think they were happy at that time. Certainly, nothing in Duncan’s journal from the time denies it. A typical entry read:
I wake up to the sunshine and to her. I’m not sure which I’m more enamored of. This freedom after much heartache seems almost unreal. She’s here, in front of me, sleeping. I can watch her as long as I like—catalogue the elements of her beauty, from her rose-colored mouth to the fine down above her upper lip to the soft line of her nose to the long dark lashes that frame her closed eyes to the neck with its delicate glide to the lightly freckled shoulder and the golden-hued arm that has slid out from beneath the sheets during the night. I should wake her. I should. But I can’t. She’s so peaceful right now, and the world outside is not. I gain strength from watching her like this, and I hope I give it back to her as well when she is awake. I must cut this short—the mortars are going off again, and she is beginning to stir.
(That’s a nice entry, Janice, if atypical for more than a short while. I almost feel as if I am trying to convince myself with that entry...I went home to her every night after hours of hard, dangerous work. Under even the best of circumstances, I would hardly have made what you would call a stable lover. But with bombs exploding everywhere, screaming shells digging into the street only blocks away, and the random violence of the militias, I was very unstable. There were times when the danger brought us close together, when we didn’t need words or other constraints, like it was with her back at Blythe. And then it was good. But the rest of the time, I loved her despite the tense, closet-like atmosphere. I admit it—there was no way to preserve the allure of the forbidden, of having to sneak into her room at night. Now I was the man who snored at night and sometimes, choking on the spores in my throat, woke gagging. I think I began to scare her almost from the beginning. This was everything she hadn’t seen yet. She wasn’t ready for me. She was brave in many ways, but not that way. I can’t blame her. My reality must have seemed very strange.)
We sat there in the café and watched as across the street six Hoegbotton irregulars took up positions behind a stand of trees and began firing into the buildings, from which came spiraling down the distinctive crimson bullets that had become known as “Lewden Specials.” Two of Hoegbotton’s men went down writhing and clutching their chests. An F&L supporter fell from the third story of one of the buildings and landed with a wet thud on the pavement below in a confusing welter of blood and bone.
And we just sat there, watching and drinking our ale. Really, it was tame next to what we had already seen. Really, it was expected. We had to concentrate on the important things; anything else, we had no time for. So we sat there for another half hour and talked while men killed each other across the street.