The votes are in and we once again have a tie between Dragon Stones and The Wolf. I think all my other books are getting a little jealous. But the readers have spoken!
The dining hall was impressively large, with enough wood in it to build a corsair fleet to rival the Spanish Armada. A huge fireplace stood at each end of the room, made of smooth river rock set into whitish mortar that had grown discolored from years of smoke. They entered near the hearth on the southern end of the room, and of course the kids raced right over to it, squealing with delight; they were fascinated by fire, as kids often were. A sharp instruction brought them up short, and they slunk back to rejoin their mother at the Please Wait To Be Seated sign.
The room was done up in what Michelle supposed was a frontier style; the log walls were barely visible through the hanging blankets, animal pelts, tchotchkes, creatures stuffed and mounted or, worse, with their disembodied heads nailed to boards and hung from hooks. The skins and skulls made her think of the poacher who had nearly killed them all, and the furs Darwin had found in his wrecked trailer. Wolf pelts, he’d said. She wondered if there were any wolf pelts in here. She vaguely remembered wolves being endangered, but ranchers still shot them for taking livestock, didn’t they? What did they do with the skins afterwards? Maybe they sold them to places like this. The only wall that didn’t sport macabre adornments was the window wall on the western side of the room. From there you could see straight down the valley, gazing across dark, tree-shrouded slopes and the glittering water of the reservoir.
The seating consisted mostly of picnic tables, with a few glass-topped wagon wheels near the bar that had a bistro look to them. The picnic tables were made of knotty pine, lacquered to a new car shine. At least the benches had backs and padded seats.
A host, dressed up like a cowboy, only clean and not smelling of dust, sweat, and horses, came over to the waiting area. He looked like a high schooler, probably working here as a summer job. The name Wayne was sewn onto the breast pocket of his shirt. “Three?”
“Are you a real cowboy?” Robbie asked.
“Sure thing, pardner,” the teenager said, with all the enthusiasm he probably showed when the teacher called on him in class. Michelle wondered how many hundreds of times he had answered that question.
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a cowboy too,” Robbie said.
“Thought you were gonna be a game warden,” Michael muttered.
“Hey, that’s great,” Wayne said. “We can ride together.”
Robbie’s eyes widened. “Do you ride a horse?”
“Of course he does, honey,” Michelle said. To Wayne, she said, “Yes, three.” Greg, complaining of a stiff neck, had decided to spend the evening in the hot tub and the sauna. She supposed this wasn’t unreasonable, but had hoped that part of being on vacation would be eating dinner together.
“Okay, super. Follow me.”
As Wayne led them to a table, Robbie kept up with the questions. “What’s your horse’s name?”
“Do you have a lasso?”
“Do you have a six-shooter?”
“Two of ’em.”
“Do you know any Indians?”
“How many have you killed?”
“Robbie!” Michelle snapped.
“Here you go.” Wayne put them at a smallish picnic table with a good view of the entrance. “Your server will be here shortly.”
He fled, leaving Robbie’s last question unanswered; after a moment, Robbie said: “I don’t think he’s a real cowboy.”
“Of course he isn’t, dummy,” Michael said. “There aren’t any real cowboys anymore.”
“Michael, apologize to your brother,” Michelle said.
“You know for what.”
Michael looked at Robbie.
“I’m sorry you’re a dummy,” he said solemnly.
Sounds like a good place to get a burger. Next, we have a randomly-selected scene from Dragon Stones:
Tolaria stood at the prow of the Pride as it approached the docks of Achengate. A strong wind had kicked up out of the east, speeding their passage across the grey lake; they had arrived at the harbor much earlier than Talbrett had estimated. From her vantage point it didn’t look like the city had changed much since the last time she’d passed through. Still dirty, still ramshackle. The dilapidated buildings along the harbor stood on rime-encrusted poles rising from the salty waters. She supposed some might find the town quaint and charming, but to her eyes it was merely dreary.
Far beyond Achengate she could see clouds of sand and dust towering over the Salt Flats. The same wind that had sped Talbrett’s ship toward the city was making life hellish out in the wastes, where she was going. Flaurent’s high walls helped keep the salt out, but on a day like this grit would fall from the sky like hail.
She went to her tiny cabin below deck to gather what little she had—Talbrett had somehow scrounged a change of clothes for her—and also to get out of the way while the crew moored the ship. She tied the unworn clothes into a little wad of fabric, tucked it under her arm, and waited for the motion of the ship to stop before going back above. When she did, the boat was adjacent to one of the piers, secured by long, drooping ropes and complicated knots.
She found Talbrett at the railing, idly fingering the knuckle-like growths at the base of his skull. He didn’t hear her approach; he was intent on staring into the city, as if trying to imprint it on his mind and take its memory with him from this world to the next. He glanced at her as she came to the railing next to him, and said: “Here we are. Achengate.“
She said nothing.
“Last time I’ll see this place,“ he said, sounding wistful, though she knew the emotion was not directed at run-down Achengate but at the world in general. “I’ll miss it.“
“Thank you for helping me,“ she said. “I can’t begin to repay you.“
He shrugged. “I didn’t do that much.“
“You did more than many other men would have.“
He smiled wanly, then pointed at the gangplank, which his crew had just finished securing. “Shall we disembark?“
“Certainly,“ she said. He linked arms with her and escorted her down the walkway. After spending so much time on the water, the dock felt odd under her feet, solidly immobile. They walked up it, stopping at one of the flat-bottomed boats they used to navigate the network of shallow rivers out in the Salt Flats.
“This one’s mine,“ Talbrett said. “We’ll transfer the cargo to it and head out into the wasteland. You’re welcome to come if you want. We’re not going to Flaurent, but we can take you part of the way.“
“Thank you,” she said. “Perhaps I will, if you think—”
Suddenly something flashed in the air, catching the oblique rays of the sun. Talbrett shouted and jumped in front of her, pushing her to the side. He grunted and reeled backwards, his pudgy hands clutching the black hilt of a dagger. It had caught him neatly in the left eye; if he hadn’t intercepted it, it would have taken her in the heart or the throat.
The little merchant collapsed onto the dock, twitched a few times, fell still. She knelt beside him, her body trembling all over, and touches his fleshy throat, looking for the heartbeat. She felt nothing. Blood oozed from around the blade; the knuckles would not have him after all.
Someone came out of the cabin of Talbrett’s flatboat, a big, dangerous-looking man. He walked casually up the gangplank to the dock, and drew a long, gleaming sword as he approached. She stood and faced him. “You killed Talbrett,” she said.
The man shrugged. “I was trying to kill you. The little fool spoiled a perfectly aimed throw.”
“Dunshandrin sent you.”
He nodded slightly.
“How did you find me?”
“Once we realized that you must have slipped away by boat, it wasn’t hard to figure out which one you were on. I’ve been following you all the way up the river.” He frowned. “I thought you would get off at the Crosswaters, but you didn’t. Get back, all of you!” he shouted suddenly, pointing his sword at something behind her. She turned and saw that Talbrett’s crew had begun to gather around. Would they risk their own lives to protect her from this man?
“Murderer!” Rennald cried. With Talbrett dead, Tolaria thought, the others would look to him as their leader. He stood ahead of them, his fists raised, as if they would do any good against the killer’s sharp blade.
“My business is with the lady,” the assassin said, “but I will kill any who interfere with me. The merchant chose his own death. Would you choose yours as well?”
Rennald hesitated; the men behind him exchanged glances, waiting to see what he would do.
“I warn you,” the man said. “Return to unloading your vessel, and you will be allowed to go about your business. Meddle in this affair, and you will—”
The man turned; so did Tolaria. A woman was sprinting toward them, her own blade upraised and gleaming in the sun.
“Well, look who’s here,” Gelt said. “Hello again, Diasa. Are you coming to finish our dance?”
“Diasa,” Tolaria whispered, remembering her dream. She reached them and swung her sword. Gelt parried it easily, the two blades clanging against each other, holding for a few seconds as the two of them gazed at each other. Then Diasa’s gaze shifted just a hair, to look at Tolaria.
“You’re early,” she said.
Ooh, a swordfight! Unfortunately Gelt doesn’t fight fair; but that’s a different scene.
The poll has been reset and votes are now being accepted for the next scene of the month!