I don’t pay a lot of attention to literary prizes as they tend to ignore the genres I love. But the Guardian are currently running their alternative to the Booker and the long list includes some top quality sf+f. So if you enjoy that sort of thing then you might want to go look at their list in search of some more varied reading. I particularly recommend RJ Barker’s thrilling Age of Assassins or Jeannette Ng’s incredibly atmospheric Under the Pendulum Sun.
Tarvel spat a gobbet of chewed up moss into his hand, spread it across the interwoven branches, and then reached for a fresh piece. This part of the nest would be Rena’s room and he wanted it to be good and solid. Live branches, carefully interwoven, would create an interior soft and fragrant with growing leaves. The chewed up moss would harden and bind it together. A place of comfort as well as safety.
He hummed to himself as he worked, weaving together those living branches as well as dead twigs and freshly harvested foliage. The balance of parts was important in building the perfect nest.
Badok landed beside Tarvel and folded her wings in behind her shoulder blades.
“It’s looking good,” she said. “But do you need this many rooms?”
“This one’s for Rena,” Tarvel explained. “Only the best for her.”
“Mm-hm.” Badok’s face crumpled. Then she untied a sack from her belt and handed it to Tarvel. “Feathers from my family’s moulting. I thought they might make good lining.”
“Are you sure?” Tarvel looked at the sack. “That’s too generous.”
“Anything for a friend.”
Tarvel hugged her, then opened the sack and looked at the feathers. These would insulate the nest ready for winter. Rena hated the winter.
“There’s something I wanted to talk about,” Badok said, pulling Tarvel to sit down beside her. The bark here was smooth and comfortable, one of the reasons Tarvel was making it his home. “About Rena. You do remember that she’s gone, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Tarvel snapped. “She’s apprenticing for the season under Silolu.”
“And marrying him,” Badok said. “She’s not coming back to your nest, Tarvel.”
“Silolu is too old for her,” he said. “She won’t go through with it.”
“They married last week.”
“She would have invited me.”
“They tried, but you kept throwing away their carved barks.”
“No!” Tarvel leapt off the branch, wings spreading behind him. He swooped around and landed back in the nest, back where he had been working.
“This is her home,” he said loudly. “Why wouldn’t she want to come back?”
“Because of this,” Badok said. “Your daughter loves you, but when you’re together you two argue all the time. Is that really what you want?”
Tarvel squeezed a lump of moss. Juices ran between his fingers and green fragments fell to the floor.
At last, he let out a breath and sank to his knees.
“She could just live here some of the time,” he said. “I’ve built it for her. Surely that counts for something?”
“Was it really for her, or was it for you?” Badok asked.
Tarvel turned to glare at her.
“That’s not fair,” he said.
“And that’s my point.”
Tarvel crouched, his whole body tense, like a hunter about to strike. The last time he had wanted to hit Badok they had been younglings fighting over woven toys. Then she had fought back. Now she sat still, looking at him with sadness in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I went too far.”
The tension inside Tarvel unravelled.
“No, you’re right,” he said, hanging his head. “But what can I do?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to build Rena a nest.” Tarvel’s tears dripped onto the interwoven leaves.
“She doesn’t want a nest with you. She wants one with Silolu.”
Tarvel sighed. He didn’t know the words to mend what he had broken, but perhaps there was another way. He closed the sack of feathers and fastened it to his belt, alongside a bag of moss. Then he flexed his wings ready to fly.
“If I can’t build a nest for us, then I can build one for them,” he said. “She can be safe and comfortable even if she isn’t with me.”
Badok stood and spread her wings. She smiled.
“Let me help,” she said.
“You already have,” Tarvel replied.
He leapt from the branch, letting the wind catch beneath his wings and lift him up. Badok followed, swift and sure. Together, they left the half-finished nest behind.
* * *
There’s an exhibition about nests and nest building at Leeds Art Gallery. It’s the work of a son working with his father and his father’s passions. Sometimes inspiration is easy to find.
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My latest issue of Commando, Walking the Line, is currently out in newsagents and electronically via Comixology. It’s the story of Alan Freeman, a British pilot shot down over France during the Second World War. Saved from capture by members of the local resistance, Alan sets out on a journey across an occupied country. All he wants is to get home and impress his ex-fiancee with tales of his adventures. But the Nazis on his tail have very different ideas.
A lot of this story is inspired by real people and events, so here’s a brief guide to some of the reality behind the fiction…
The French Resistance have become such a fixture of World War Two fiction, it’s easy to take them for granted, especially if you’ve seen them played for comedy in ‘Allo ‘Allo.
But holy crap, these people were impressive. Their country had just suffered one of the most shocking defeats in history. A murderous regime had taken charge. You could be tortured and killed just for speaking your mind against the authorities. And here they were, taking up arms to actively resist the Nazis. That takes incredible courage and fortitude.
For the next four years, they worked in secret, their lives in constant danger. They saw friends and family disappear into concentration camps, but they kept going.
As the war went on, the Resistance grew. By June 1944, hundreds of thousands of French citizens were ready for action. Their sabotage efforts, together with Allied bombing, knocked out most of the rail networks and rolling stock in northern France. Armed only with what they could hide beneath the floorboards, they kept German tank divisions from reaching the front on D-Day.
They kept the hope of freedom alive and then helped turn it into reality.
Though Walking the Line follows Alan’s journey through France, he’s not the one who drives the story forward. That falls to Juliette, the leader of the escape line, who literally keeps pushing Alan towards safety.
Escape lines were part of the resistance networks across Europe. They spent their time helping Allied airmen who had been shot down and POWs who had escaped from prison camps. They hid them from the authorities, provided them with disguises and fake papers, and got them back to Britain to rejoin the war.
Juliette is inspired by one of the most impressive leaders of the real-life escape lines, Andrée de Jongh. De Jongh was in her early twenties when the Nazis invaded her native Belgian. Determined not to accept what had happened, she set up one of the most successful escape lines in Europe, the COMET line. COMET helped escapees cross France to neutral Spain, where they could reach freedom via British Gibraltar. She personally crossed the Pyrenees to establish a safe route and contact the British embassy. Eventually arrested by the Germans, she survived incarceration in a concentration camp. 156 of her colleagues, including her father, weren’t so lucky.
De Jongh’s efforts saw hundreds of Allied combatants escape capture and return to action. So while I didn’t want to be constrained by telling a true story, I drew a lot of inspiration from her when creating Juliette.
One of the greatest threats that Alan and Juliette face is a traitor within the escape line. Sadly, this is also inspired by true stories.
The Nazis were constantly trying to get agents inside the Resistance. Sometimes they succeeded. Whether for money, ideology, or simple self-preservation, several people turned against their comrades.
One of the most infamous examples was the destruction of the PAT escape line. This was undermined by two traitors from within – a British sergeant named Harold Cole, who was living undercover as part of the network in France, and Roger Le Neveu, a Frenchman recruited by the Gestapo to infiltrate the group. The PAT line is credited with helping around 600 escapees achieve freedom, but it had to be shut down in 1943 because so many members had been arrested that it could no longer run.
This was the life of the Resistance members running the escape lines – one of dangers both from without and from within.
The Small Stuff
A lot of smaller details in the story are also drawn from reality.
Alan’s escape kit, as provided by MI9, is the sort of equipment that organisation gave to real airmen. Both the compass in the bootheel and the convertible flight jacket were used by British pilots.
Alan’s cross-country journey in the boot of a car is also real. As a neutral country, Spain interned combatants found on its land, and so British embassy staff had to hide POWs on their journey to Gibraltar. That can’t have been a fun ride.
Even the little old Frenchman out cycling after dark, looking to rescue downed airmen, is based on real events.
The Resistance and escape lines were an extraordinary part of history, and I’m proud to have crafted this story around them. I hope you enjoy it, and if you did, lleave a comment to tell me what you thought.
Ella leaned on the wall and watched the Thames lapping against the stonework below. She came here every night and watched the water, whether by the light of the moon or of the gas lamps. It was a connection to the life she had left behind to become a governess, and though the water looked murky during the day, at this time she could pretend that it was as clean as the river back home.
The water stirred, a shadow approaching the bank. Ella watched, expecting the shape of a duck to emerge from the darkness. If she had been a duck perhaps she could have swum away from London and found a life of her own. But that was just wishful thinking. All the feathers in the world wouldn’t have given her a purpose, something to swim away to.
The shape grew into something larger. Gaslight gleamed off a pair of long curves with a cluster of shining points below. Half a wheel-rim reached up out of the water and hooked onto the wall not a dozen feet from where she stood.
Amazed, Ella watched as the creature dragged itself out of the water. It was as tall as a woman, its body made of an old barrel with wheel rims for arms. Underneath, a flattened metal plate had been shaped into something like a fish’s tail. The creature turned its head and she saw a face made of old tin plates and rusting gears. A ticking emerged from the hollow of its mouth.
Now she was frozen not in amazement but in terror. What dreadful things might this machine monster be here to do?
It turned its head once more, stretched out with its arms, and dragged itself away down the road.
Ella sagged in relief against the stonework. No sooner had her heart stopped racing than a ticking once again caught her attention. Another machine dragged itself out of the river using arms of chain and pipe. Trailing pond weed like a ragged gown, it followed the first one up the street.
As a thudding sound announced a third machine arriving on a mud bank below, Ella almost ran away to raise the alarm. But by now her fear was passing and curiosity was triumphant. She watched as something fish-like lay flopping on the mud, gaslight glinting off tin scales.
Ella stared in wonder at the machine. This junk couldn’t have reshaped itself, so who had turned it into such a marvellous imitation of life? Who was down there beneath the water, crafting machines from cast-offs, not yet knowing that a fish could not swim on land?
Perhaps there was wonder in the city after all. Perhaps she didn’t have to flee to find her own purpose.
She looked at the river again. Whoever was down there, she had to meet them, but she wouldn’t be able to see them in the dark of night and the murk of the Thames.
Perhaps if she scratched a message into wood she could sink it and begin a conversation. Perhaps, if she was lucky, and if they understood that there was someone friendly up here.
She hurried down a set of steps to the mud bank, pulling a ribbon from her hair as she went. The mud squelched and soaked her boots but she didn’t care. She strode up to the fish, tied the ribbon around its tail, and lifted it out of the mud. Then she strode out into the water, its icy current tugging at her skirts, and set the strange machine adrift. It sank beneath the surface with a ticking of gears.
Ella walked back up the stairs, skirts trailing damp behind her like pondweed. Tomorrow she would come in the daylight, not to be reminded of what she had left behind, but to see what new wonders she could find.
* * *
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The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.
An Important Book?
The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.
As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.
The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.
Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.
This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.
My Reading Experience
For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.
This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.
And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.
Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.
That summer, the city planners set up giant fans on the rooftops east of Grand Street. Vast sails of painted steel spun through the air, powered by the same sunlight as the heatwave. It was an insane solution, using a broken environment to mitigate its own worst symptoms. But those were the times we lived in.
Using a rope and grappling hook, I climbed the last dozen feet from the fire escape to the rooftop. I felt dizzy just looking at the buildings around me, never mind at the ground far below. But I had to get up there. The heat in the city was melting my brain. I couldn’t get any work done, and soon I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. Like ninety percent of people in the city, I couldn’t afford air conditioning, but up here there was an alternative.
This close, the wind from the fan was almost enough to knock me off my feet. Its cooling effect was glorious. I sat cross-legged beneath it, pulled out my laptop, and started typing.
For the first time in weeks, the words flowed.
“You can’t be up here.”
I turned at the voice. A uniformed security guard stood at top of a stairwell, glaring at me. She waved a taser.
“Please,” I said. “Just let me have this.”
“Too dangerous,” she said. “These fans could blow you right off the edge. Even the birds have flown away.”
Now that she said it, the absence became obvious. Most city rooftops were covered with pigeons, but not this one.
“I’ll take the risk,” I said.
“Not on the city’s insurance.” She took my shoulder and started dragging me toward the door.
I didn’t struggle. She was stronger than me and she had a taser.
In the elevator to the ground, we talked about the weather and the state of the city. But inside, I was planning my return.
The second time, I took a different route up to the roof, using pitons as well as rope. At the top, I paused for a moment to enjoy the glorious blast of the fan, then settled down to work.
Ten minutes later, the security guard was back.
“You again.” She shook her head. “Come on, you can’t stay.”
“Please,” I said, hands clasped beseechingly. “I’ve got more done in the past ten minutes than in the whole of the past week. I need this place.”
“These fans get surges sometimes,” she said. “Like sudden violent gusts of wind. You want to be blown off the edge?”
“I’m willing to risk it.”
“Even the pigeons aren’t that dumb, and they could fly if they got blown off. All you’ll do is make a stain on the sidewalk, and that seems like a waste.”
“I’m not going.”
“I could make you.” She raised her taser.
“You’d really do that?” I blurted out.
She looked me up and down.
“Maybe not,” she admitted. “But I will call the cops. So do you want to be arrested or do you want to come with me?”
I put my laptop away and trudged to the stairwell.
This elevator ride, we talked about books and TV. It turned out she was a Chandler fan too, just not a fan of trespassers on her rooftop.
The third climb was the toughest. I planned it out carefully, based on where I’d seen security cameras. If I could avoid them then maybe the guard wouldn’t know that I was there.
At first, it seemed to work. I settled down with my laptop on my knees and started typing.
I’d been at it for an hour, the air blowing past me in glorious cooling gusts, when something caught my eye. A seagull was soaring on the artificial wind, a hundred miles from the sea yet somehow here, showing off as it swept through the air currents.
“Time’s up,” said a voice beside me.
I looked up to see the security guard. Despite myself, I smiled. She was getting to be a familiar face.
“Spotted me on your cameras at last, huh?” I asked.
“Something like that.” She nodded toward the stairs. “Come on, trouble.”
I sighed, put my laptop in my bag, and rose to my feet.
“Enjoy it while it lasts!” I shouted to the gull. “She’ll chase you away soon too.”
The guard laughed.
“Holy crap,” she said. “Didn’t think the birds could cope up here.”
“Different sort of bird,” I said. “Shall we go?”
She hesitated, then sat down, took off her cap, and wiped the sweat from her brow.
“Screw it,” she said. “It’s too hot in that building anyway.”
“Don’t we need to…?” I pointed toward the door.
“Nah,” she said.
“What about the risk? Getting blown off the roof?”
“Just stay back from the edge. And if I look like I’m going, you grab hold of me, you hear?”
I nodded and sat down next to her.
“I’m Adi,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Becca,” she replied. “Don’t wear it out.”
We sat chatting, enjoying the cool breeze and watching the seagull soar. Work could wait.
* * *
It’s been insanely hot in Britain this summer. I haven’t climbed on any rooftops to get away from it yet, but it would be tempting.
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I haven’t done an Elmo post in ages, so here he is, watching a truck from the office window. I haven’t seen much of him recently, as he’s usually out enjoying the summer weather. It always feels weird to wish for cooler weather when you live in England, but I’m looking forward to him being at home more. The writer’s life can be a lonely one (plays smallest violin, gets back to decadent life of sitting around working at home).
Thomas drew his brush across the wall, leaving a curve of thick red paint. He filled out the space beneath the curve, then added the white points of teeth and the black barbs of a pitchfork. Another demon emerged on the wall, ushering the pale images of sinners into the flames.
Thomas shook his head. Doomsday paintings were so much of his work. Every noble wanted one in their house. But just painting them filled him with dread, driven by the certainty that he would be judged and found wanting.
He mixed more paint on his palette and turned back to the wall. The paint had clearly run, as the new demon’s fork was pointing at a different sinner, and another of the beasts had approached the flames on pigment wings.
Disconcerted, Thomas took a step back. The composition would still work if he added another demon between these two. He brought his reddened brush to the wall.
The demon with the pitchfork tipped its head back.
Thomas screamed and dropped the palette. Precious paint-spattered the flagstones.
The demon grinned. Its companion flexed its wings and started pulling away from the wall, struggling against a sticky mass of paint.
“It’s a dream,” Thomas exclaimed.
He raised a trembling hand and slapped himself across the face. He did it again, but still, reality didn’t return.
“No dream,” the demons hissed as one. “You have given us life.”
“Then I can take it away!”
Thomas grabbed another brush and smeared streaks of white across both fiends, slapping it on over and over. At last, he stood, panting and staring at a pale blank space.
“Not so easy,” the demon voices croaked.
Red hands appeared, then heads, then torsos. The demons emerged like swimmers from a lake.
“We are still here, whatever you paint over us,” they said. “You made us real.”
Thomas gaped in horror. How had he done this?
It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he could do it. He picked up the black brush and painted a cage over the demons. Bars, floor, roof, hinged and locked door. Red wings batted against the sides in frustration.
“Ha! Thomas said. “Got you.”
“Perhaps,” the wingless demon said, grinning. “Or perhaps…”
It thrust its pitchfork between the floor and bottom of the door. There was a grinding noise as the prongs slid through the slim space. Then it flexed its muscles and heaved. Levered by the pitchfork, the door lifted off its hinges and fell to the floor.
The demons stepped out.
“It’s not fair,” Thomas wailed. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was painting a landscape or a tavern sign?”
“Where is the power in those things?” the demons said. “Only we would do.”
“What do you want from me?”
The demons grinned.
“Just keep painting,” they said. “Let the fires roar and our kindred emerge to judge the world.”
Thomas trembled in terror. But then he realised, he didn’t have to face them. He turned to run.
With a wet flapping sound, the winged beast burst off the wall, swept around, and hovered in front of him, teeth bared, claws gleaming.
“Really?” it said, cackling. “You think you can flee us?”
“No,” Thomas whispered.
Brush in hand, he turned back to the wall. At least while he did as they asked, they would not drag him down to Hell. And he could paint demons for a very long time.
* * *
People in Medieval England were very aware that, according to their Christian faith, they would soon face Doomsday. When fear of Hell is a big part of your moral motivation, life can get pretty terrifying. Especially given the tendency of clergy and nobles to commission paintings of that coming day.
Thanks to Laura for sending me the postcard that inspired this story. If you enjoyed it, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases.
Somebody recently suggested that I should try writing up some live roleplay (LRP) memories. I’m wary because what’s dramatic or funny in the moment may not always work in the retelling. But it worked when I wrote up New Pathways in Lycanthropy, so I’m going to give it a go here. Who knows, maybe this will end up as a regular thing…
* * *
It’s late at night in the market field. Overhead, an occasional star peaks through the clouds. My name is Hereward Saxum, a miner from an isolated community that recently discovered the fantastical world of Edreja. Today I’ve seen magical clowns, unliving monsters, and speeches by the most powerful people in my world.
The market field is almost empty as Father Candle and I walk across it, heading for the tavern tent. Candle is our community’s high priest, an old man with little more than a dagger to defend himself. We know there’s trouble out here in the darkness – hit squads hunting each other through the night, monsters looking for prey in civilization’s shadows. But a quick trip to the tavern should be fine, right?
Someone walks towards us through the darkness. I rest my hand on my sword hilt. I didn’t bring my armour or shield, didn’t think I’d need them. Hopefully, I won’t, but you can never be sure in this place at night.
There’s a jingling of bells. I make out the pointed shape of a jester’s hat. The stranger is one of the sinister clowns that stalk the local carnival. I’ve seen them around all day in their bright motley, laughing, prancing, and occasionally assaulting people. They aren’t mere mortal jesters. They’re magical beings who could take on a dozen heroes single-handed.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “I saw a trick earlier for how to deal with this.”
I face the clown.
“This rabbit walks into a butcher’s,” I begin.
That afternoon, I’d seen someone stop a clown in its tracks just by telling a joke. The deadly jester had burst out laughing, all thoughts of homicide forgotten. And this rabbit joke is one of my favourites.
“Hereward,” Candle says, “I don’t think that will work.”
The clown keeps striding towards me. It’s pulled out a wickedly sharp knife that glows with magic in the darkness.
Sure of myself, I keep telling the joke.
“Hereward,” Candle says. “We should run now.”
I keep going, a little less certainly than before. The other clown had started laughing by now.
The creature raises its knife.
“Hereward,” Candle says, backing away. “It’s the wrong sort of clown.”
I try to draw my sword but it’s too late. There’s a flurry of blows and I fall to the ground. The clown crouches over me and starts cracking open my skull, ready to eat my brain.
In my last dying moments, I see Candle stride up behind the clown and stab it in the back. My friend has come to my rescue!
There’s a flash of magic and Candle’s blows are turned back against him. He falls next to me, the life running from his body.
The clown giggles in the darkness.
Wrong sort of clown.
* * *
Out of character, I look up into the face of our friend Dave, who’s running this encounter. It takes ten minutes to die in game, and he has a stopwatch in his hand.
“You idiots,” he says, shaking his head.
Al and I look at each other and laugh sheepishly. This is a tough break for Hereward and Candle, and one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done, but at least it’s a memorable night.
Girish tensed as the white man walked into his shop, followed by a pair of labourers in worn, dusty clothes. It was days since the siege had ended and Delhi had supposedly returned to peace. But could it be called peace when the looting continued, accompanied byviolence against those who tried to cling to what was theirs?
“You speak English?” the man asked.
“Yes, sir.” Girish replied, keeping his voice steady despite the pounding of his heart. He could not have run a successful jewellery business if he didn’t have the words to haggle with Europeans.
“I’m working for the prize agent.” The Englishman didn’t offer a name or ask for one in return, just walked into the middle of the shop and looked around. He looked over-dressed for the heat in his tailcoat and cravat, and his expression was stern.
Nodding, Girish took a step back to stand against the wall. He had heard of the prize agent, the man responsible for the plundering of his city. Merely mentioning him sent a shudder through any honest citizen. But their city was not run by honest citizens anymore.
“You can see my wares,” Girish said, pointing to a table by the window.
The Englishman picked up one of the necklaces on the table.
“Cheap paste gems and painted tin,” he said, throwing it back down in disgust. Coloured plaster cracked and fell from one of the gems. “I’m after the real thing.”
“That is all I have,” Girish said, pressing back against the wall, as far from the man as he could get.
“Nonsense.” The agent began a methodical examination of the room, tapping at walls and peering at floorboards. “You all have your hiding places, and I will find them.”
When he looked up, his gaze made Girish tremble.
“Too easy.” The Englishman grabbed Girish and shoved him aside. He peered at the plaster of the wall, then took out a knife and started scraping it away.
“Fresh plaster,” the Englishman continued, as Girish steadied himself against the table. “And look…”
A chunk of plaster fell away, revealing the brickwork and a gap in its midst. The Englishman drew a box from the gap, opened its lid, and sneered at the contents.
“All that for this?” he said. “A few cheap stones and a handful of coins. Pathetic.”
“Please,” Girish said, sinking to his knees. “I have a family. I need that money to feed them.”
“You should have thought of that before you rebelled.”
“I didn’t! I just live here.”
“Only traitors stay in a traitor city. Just be glad we didn’t burn you all to the ground.”
One of the labourers opened a sack and the Englishman tossed the box inside. It rattled against the rest of his looted wealth.
As he headed for the door, the Englishman stopped and peered at the cracked plaster jewels on the table. A fresh wave of tension gripped Girish. He had come so close. Would things fall apart now?
“Pathetic,” the Englishman said, the word almost a snort. Then he walked out, taking his followers with him.
Every muscle in Girish went limp with relief. He sagged against the table and recovered his strength while he waited to be sure they were gone. Then he picked up the necklace the man had examined. Beneath the cracked plaster of a large fake jewel, a real gem was visible. Such a simple trick, and the Englishman had completely fallen for it.
“Pathetic,” Girish said.
* * *
Prize agents and their employees were a real part of military history for hundreds of years. They helped soldiers to sell their loot and organized the partitioning of wealth taken by armies. Following the siege of Delhi in 1857, they were responsible for systematically robbing the city’s citizens and dividing the profits among the British. As often happens in war, innocent civilians suffered to make a point, despite the extraordinary lengths some went to to hide their wealth.
I recently read an account written by one of these agents, talking about his actions in Delhi. Completely oblivious to the hardship he had inflicted, he talked indignantly about how little profit he had made and how people wrongly thought he’d come out wealthy. It was an extraordinary example of someone with little perspective on his privileged position and harmful actions. Thanks to Tamlan for showing it to me.
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