Thursday, 26 August 2010

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Have you spotted the DVD-style extras that are going up on the main Mirabilis website? Many of these are articles based on earlier blog posts, but you especially won't want to miss "The Forgotten Year", which is a big all-new feature about how the arrival of the green comet changed everyone's lives in the Year of Wonders.

Not only do you get some of the broadest hints we've ever let slip about the direction the story is taking, you can also feast your eyes on some stunning super-sized Mirabilian artwork by the incomparable Mr McKenna. This is why Hollywood producers have him on speed-dial.

The picture here shows the care and attention Martin gives to his work. Because that view of Mr Stoop the removal giant, which in most artists' portfolios would count as a near-finished picture, was the rough that ended up on Martin's cutting-room floor. You can see the final version on the website, and it is at a completely different angle, a more dramatic scene, and with a gnarlier-looking giant. But this is simply too good to throw away, don't you agree?

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Le monde à l'envers

Spot the difference - it's one of our comic book covers (all coming shortly to an electronic tablet device near you) only this is the French version which we're even now getting ready for Angoulême. And while sorting out both the print and app versions of the Winter book (in English, that is) we're also revamping the website with a bunch of articles and artworks. So keep an eye on what's happening over there and in a few weeks we'll give you the release date for those other goodies.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Juvenilia - a leaf from my salad days

I'm not sparing my own blushes today, as here is "Cubic Capacity", a science fiction story I wrote when I was fifteen years old. It's a miracle it survived, buried at the bottom of a box of Conan and Solomon Kane books. Normally I'd throw something like this away, and reading it today I have to cringe at some (most) of the prose. Who was my literary role model - Isaac Asimov?

But instead of shoving it back in the box I'm gritting my teeth and putting it up here, because there is something interesting about it. It shows the early influence on my fantasy and SF tastes of series like Arthur C. Clarke's Tales from the White Hart and Pratt and deCamp's Tales from Gavagan's Bar. I didn't know it then, but those authors must have been inspired by Dunsany's Joseph Jorkens stories - and that particular blend of British whimsical fantasy is the very lifeblood of Mirabilis.

(I will say one word of apologia for my fifteen-year-old self: his youthful opinion of politicians has surely been confirmed by the actions of Blair and Bush in initiating the second Gulf War. I wouldn't trust guys like that to run a borough council, let alone talk to folks from another star...)

"Cubic Capacity"
by David J Morris (aged 15)

"You're always going on about the crazy stuff the manufacturers are turning out these days," called out Marty across the lab. "Well, take a look at this. Free sample, came this morning."

I caught the measuring cylinder he'd tossed over to me just in time to stop it from careening into the apparatus I'd laid out for an organic synthesis later that afternoon.

"What's the matter with it?" I said, turning it over in my hands. "Looks exactly like the dozens of others we've got in the cupboard. Only it isn't broken."

Marty smiled. “Drop it."


"Go ahead, drop it."

"You can sweep it up," I snorted.

"It won't break." He came over to where I was standing and took the cylinder. "What do you think it's made of? Glass?"

"I'd have said so."

"Looks that way at first, but I don't think... Well, look."

He hurled the measuring cylinder at the floor. Instead of shattering, it hit with an almost metallic twang and bounced, reverberating with a very low note which took the better part of a minute to die away. When I bent and picked it up, I could still feel ticklish vibrations in it.

"So what do you think it is now?"

"An unbreakable glass measuring cylinder that doubles as a tuning fork." I shrugged. "I don't see what's so special."

"Unbreakable glass! I dropped the damned thing down three flights of stairs. Not a scratch. A kind of glass
that special gets a mention in the journals."

"Maybe it's some sort of plastic." I set it down on the bench. "Look, Marty, I wouldn't call that manufacturer crazy; he stands to make a tidy profit. In two years, of course, he'll have destroyed the market for re¬placements, but by that time I don't think he'll care."

With an insufferable smirk, he said: "That wasn't what I meant. Take a look at the graduations on the side."

I did, and frowned, then sighed in resignation. “Good God. What cretins these mortals be."
Because the graduations were marked logarithmically.

Marty and I stared for a bit at the cylinder, and then at one another, and then we began to laugh that breed of frustrated laughter born of long dealing with incompetents.

"What on Earth," mused Marty after a moment's pause, “do you imagine might have motivated the powers-that-be at Gremlin Control that inspired them to come up with
this little gem?"

Maybe I should explain – though maybe, if you're a chemist too, I don't have to. Gremlin Control is the result of our speculation as to who it is dreams up the little things (like bunsens with the air intake welded shut, or water heaters with only two effective settings: fast freeze and rapid boil) that render so delightful the otherwise monotonous tedium of work in a laboratory.

According to the markings, the cylinder would hold ten to the twenty-four c.c.s when full. I'm a skeptic. As a kid, I used to think Galileo had faked that Tower of Pisa experiment. But I put the measuring cylinder under the tap anyway. After all, the logarithmic marking didn't prevent me from measuring out volumes accurately, since every power of ten was stressed on the side just as each c.c. would be on a regular cylinder. That was the only thing that was wrong.

But no it wasn't. Now I saw the cylinder wasn't filling up. The tap kept running but the water level hardly moved.

Marty reckoned they had put two gremlins in the one cylinder, with one letting out the water through a hole in the bottom. That wasn't right, though; there was no hole, and the cylinder was becoming heavier in my hand. After a minute I put it down in the sink, with the tap still running.

"It's filling slowly," Marty said as he peered over my shoulder at it. "Funny thing, that. Let's see."

He reached out and began to pick up the measuring cylinder. Then he put it down again, quickly.

"What is it?"

"Sam— that thing must weigh at least two kilos!"

“Makes sense, I guess…” I murmured, half stunned. “It’d be, what, twenty-five c.c.s a second for about eighty seconds. Yeah, two kilograms. Makes sense."

"Not to me, it doesn't. Where has that cylinder got room for two litres inside it?"

I bent nearer. Well, look at the level of the water. Just over ten to the three. Makes sense."

"Sam, don't say that again. But ... hmm, you can see now why it would have to be so strong. Ten to the twenty-four c.c.s would exert quite a pressure."

I had to laugh at that. "You're not seriously suggesting anyone could use it to measure that much water. It would take longer than the lifetime of the Universe to fill up, unless you had a very special technique for pouring in the water."

"It would, wouldn't it," concurred Marty. "'Why make it to hold that much, then? And who's going to use a measuring cylinder like this, anyway?"

I thought for a moment. “What was the name of the firm that supplied it?"

"Altair Labware. Never heard of them before. Odd name, though. Now, you don't think..."

I saw where his train of thought was going and jumped it. "Don't get fantastic about this. It
has to be terrestrial. It uses c.c.s, for one thing, and logs to base ten. And the fact that it's built to hold far more than anyone's ever going to be able to put into it must mean that the people who are going to be using it are used to conventional measuring cylinders and they don't want to change to some other design with a more reasonable capacity. Was this the only one of its kind in the box?"

"Yes." Marty took out his spatula and began to suck it. One day he's going to do that while it still has part of his last experiment on the end. "Listen, Sam— and don't say I'm being fantastic, because after seeing this measuring cylinder, the word has lost all meaning! Suppose this is an import from Altair, built there for a foreign market. Earth."

is their market, then? And why should they be making ordinary lab equipment as well?"

“That would be a cover.” He leaned forward over the bench, warming to the subject. "The market would have to be our top scientists. Scientists get into communication with Altair, they're not going to tell the politicians, are they? Politicians aren’t even competent to handle international affairs, much less interstellar. What they would do, of course, would be to start importing Altair technology – and that would require new types of lab equipment. I guess people like you and me aren't high enough up in the pecking order to have been told. Or maybe they reckoned industrial scientists couldn't be relied on to keep quiet about it."

are we going to keep quiet about it?"

"Sure!" Marty looked self-righteously shocked. "If it leaked, how long do you think it would be before some bright military spark got the idea of shipping a few dozen H-bombs back to Altair?"

"Tell me, Marty, what is it that gives you such a rosy and optimistic view of your own species?"

He grinned. "My lifelong interest in history. I'll write a letter here and now to the managing director of Altair Labware – has he got green skin and bug eyes, do you suppose? – telling him about the mix-up. With any luck he'll keep us supplied with free apparatus for months." He turned at the door. "And turn that tap off before the measuring cylinder goes clean through the sink.”

A week later, a van from Altair Labware arrived and two uniformed delivery men hauled out a crate which seemed almost to float on the little, castor-like attachments under it. We hurried down from the lab. Before they drove off, one of the men handed Marty a note. It was in reply to his letter:

'Dear Sir: Please allow me to apologize for the error in sending you one of our logarithmic measuring cylinders, and to thank you for returning same. I regret sincerely any inconvenience to your work that this mistake may have caused. I am taking the liberty of sending you a crate of normal measuring cylinders in the hope that you will find them useful. Please feel free to write again. — Harold T. Marx, Managing Director/Altair Labware.'

"I do believe," Marty said, pointing at the label on the crate, "that there's been another clerical error. Listen: 'One box (standard), twenty-fourth power logarithmic measuring cylinders'."

Frantically, we tore off the top. There, indeed, they were: arranged in no particular order, ten logarithmic measuring cylinders.

I removed them carefully there and then and scattered the chips of polystyrene packing material. Then I picked at the corners of the cardboard partition beneath and lifted it out to get at the next layer.

And sighed.

There, arranged in no particular order, lay one hundred logarithmic measuring cylinders…

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

And on the wireless tonight...

A short while ago, Roz and I headed over to Devon so I could work with Leo on that Apple-y project that we aren't quite ready to unveil yet. (I say Devon; it was also Somerset, because you cross the border in walking to the pub. And "apple-y" is a pun, coz that's where the pub is, ie Appley in Somerset.)

Well, as all work makes Jack a dull boy, whenever we're slogging away to a deadline like that, we of course make sure to fit in a bit of fun, beer, food, natter and computer gaming also. And on this occasion, arriving as we did on a Thursday evening, Roz and I were corralled onto the Bantering Boys radio show for some confabulatory silliness. Listen to our guest spot here and tune into 10Radio every Thursday at 9pm BST for more in the same vein.

The illustration is from a fascinating piece on this TV history site which shows a number of trading cards from Victorian times depicting the future as it was imagined back then. Rather handy for Mirabilis, eh what?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Paper moons

Here are some photos of a bit of paper engineering that Leo did to go with the other day's mouse tale. What you're looking at is part of a fairy tree complete with little elfin actors searching for that lost ring.
The original intention was to create a book which you could hang up on the ceiling and it would then bellow out, concertina-like, to form a little model theater. Leo called the concept "squeezebox books" but the packager didn't like that name any more than they liked my story. Ah well, we had bags of fun working on it. I probably have a rosier view of it than Leo, mind, as all I wasted was the day taken to write the story. Those models, though - they demand a tad more effort.
For more marvellous paper modelling magic, grab your gluepot and scissors and zip over to Leo's Fantasy Cutouts site.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A fairy story

I should have dug this out for Midsummer's Day but I didn't think of it. It's a little story I did for a packager who wanted it overnight before Bologna a few years back. The editor absolutely hated it, but the reasons she gave only made me like it all the more. When you write something in such a rush, you tend to be more unshakable in your confidence than when it's a piece you've agonized over for days.

It's nothing to do with Mirabilis, but you might like it anyway. And if you hate it, you can always get a job as an editor.

A Midsummer Night's Moustery

It was the kind of night in early summer when the moon gets as thin as an old penny and the stars are as bright as sparklers.

Homer the cottage mouse was just turning to the last page of his book when it came into his head that a piece of cheese would go down nicely.

Once he’d thought of it, he couldn’t read a word. Nothing would do until he got himself that bit of cheese. Homer banked up the fire, put the guard in front of the grate, and locked his front door – which was a little loose knot in the wainscoting.

As he set out across the kitchen floor, he saw that the fridge door was open. The light was on inside and he could hear somebody moving about. Inside the fridge!

Homer looked up to his favourite shelf, the one where the cheese was kept. When he saw who was there, he gave a little gasp of surprise.

“What are you doing?”

Virgil the field mouse gave a start and almost fell into the blancmange on the shelf below. He turned around holding a wedge of cheese almost as big as he was.

“Help me cut this cheese in two,” said Virgil, nimbly climbing down to where Homer was standing.

“Why?” Homer wanted to know. But he did it anyway. He always did what Virgil told him.

Virgil handed half the cheese to Homer. “Come on, we have to hurry.”

Homer followed Virgil outside and across the lawn. The grass had been cut recently, but even so it was hard to keep up with Virgil. He was so excited, he kept breaking into a run.

“Where are we going?” said Homer as they got to the field at the end of the garden. But all Virgil would say was that it was a surprise.

The corn stalks were so fat and stiff that it was like travelling through a forest of walking sticks. Homer, who rarely took much more exercise than a stroll to the larder, was soon out of breath. He was very glad when Virgil slowed down to tear a leaf off a dock plant.

Virgil gave half the leaf to Homer. “Tie it round the cheese.”

Soon they each had a little parcel of cheese, wrapped in a dock leaf and tied with a couple of blades of grass. Homer was a little disappointed. He had hoped the surprise involved having a bite of that cheese. It smelled so good!

“Perfect,” said Virgil. “Now we’ve each got a present.”

“A present?” said Homer, quite bewildered by now.

“Yes,” said Virgil. “A wedding present.” And he pushed aside the stalks of corn.

There, in a wide clearing in the middle of the field, stood the old fairy tree. It was glittering with lights of all colours. Troops of pixies, goblins, imps and sprites were coming from far and wide. There was music drifting through the warm night air, and the sounds of laughter from inside the tree told of a party in full swing.

But best of all, there were the most delicious smells of cooking. Pastries baking and parsnips roasting. Dumplings steaming. Pancakes frying. And sherbets and jellies and sugar-sprinkled cakes wafting such a sweet aroma that it was hard not to just bolt inside and scoff the lot.

The wedding banquet was all ready for the guests to tuck in. And they were invited!
* * *
Princess Thissaly was in her bed chamber near the top of the tree. She had just climbed out of a scented bath and was gazing out over the cornfield with a dreamy look in her eyes, taking no notice of the bustle all around her.

Some of her maids patted her dry with soft white towels. Other maids were laying out her bridal gown, brushing her long golden hair, sprinkling fairy dust on her skirts, and making cooing noises like a gaggle of pigeons.

Thissaly’s mother, Queen Araminta, had once been the most beautiful woman in Fairyland, so you can bet she had plenty to say about fashions, make-up and perfume.

“I think the essence of jasmine, dear,” she said, spraying her daughter from a gilded glass bottle. “Oh, how lovely you are! The prince will think a painting has come to life! He will say his most wonderful dream has come true!”

Princess Thissaly was hardly listening. As the maids pulled the dress on over her head, she thought about the note she had received only hours before. It had been brought by a bumblebee who, of course, couldn’t remember what the sender had looked like. Silly muddle-headed creature!

“If I can’t have you,” the note had read, “no man will.”

Well, that was all very flattering, but in an hour Thissaly would be wed to Prince Drawlight. So much for secret admirers!
* * *
Virgil and Homer had arrived at the foot of the tree. Everybody from far and wide was invited to the wedding, and everybody was wearing their best clothes and carrying a present.

“I hope fairies like cheese,” muttered Homer, wishing that he’d had time to trim his whiskers, comb his hair, brush his jacket and maybe tie a ribbon round his tail.

“Who doesn’t like cheese?” said Virgil. “Oops, watch out.”

He tugged Homer back out of the way just as a pumpkin coach rattled past drawn by a red squirrel. They caught a glimpse of a proud-looking young fairy fellow sitting inside. He wore an expression like the last prune in a dish.

“That’s the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” somebody said. “He doesn’t care whose toes he runs over.”

Inside the tree, the main hall was festooned with garlands of flowers that made the air smell sweet and heady. In the middle of the hall stood a floral arch. “The happy couple will walk through that arch at the end of the ceremony,” a pixie waiter said, handing them each a glass of rosehip punch.

“What lovely big presents you’ve brought,” said a pretty, dark-eyed fairy.

“Just a couple of things I pinched earlier,” piped up Virgil as she cast him a mischievous smile over her shoulder.

He nudged Homer in the ribs. “Don’t look so disapproving. Fairies like a dash of roguery, you know.”

“You don’t have to make us sound like a couple of gangsters, though!” grumbled Homer.
* * *
Having greeted all the guests I person, Prince Drawlight was pacing up and down the fairy garden that filled the treetop. He felt quite queasy now that his wedding was less than an hour away.

“It’s odd,” he said to his best man, Spattershaw, “I feel like I had butterflies for lunch. I didn’t, did I?”

“It’s just your nerves,” said Spattershaw, looking at his pocket watch – which was the size, to you and me, of a sequin. “Once you’ve got the vows out of the way, slipped the ring on her finger, and planted a kiss on those sweet, strawberry lips – why, then you’ll be fine.”

“Oh, but then there’s my speech!” groaned the prince. “And King Usk will want to shake hands – he’s got a grip like a bad-tempered badger. And – oh no, Spattershaw! I’ll have to kiss my new mother-in-law!”

Spattershaw nodded grimly, as if to admit that was good cause to be nervous.

Prince Drawlight was patting his waistcoat pocket for the umpteenth time. Suddenly he stopped short, gave a croak of dismay, and went as white as a dandelion in the moonlight.

“Indigestion?” asked Spattershaw.

“Worse,” said Drawlight in a tiny, dismayed voice. “I’ve lost the ring!”
* * *
There were so many guests crowding in from outside that Homer had to stand on tiptoe to see to the back of the room. Thissaly’s fairy godmother waited there in front of a golden altar, ready to read a few words out of a big leather book whose covers lay so floppily in her hands that it looked as if she was holding a slumbering bat.

The guests were filing to their seats. Homer and Virgil squeezed in at the end of a pew. The babble of voices dulled to an expectant murmur as the musicians stopped tuning their instruments and began to play the first bars of the wedding march. Homer saw the bridesmaids peeping down the stairs, ready to signal the princess to come down.

Then suddenly Prince Drawlight rushed into the room. He was going so fast, and waving his arms so wildly, that several people later swore that his trousers were on fire.

“Stop the ceremony!” he cried. “Bar the doors! Nobody gets out!”

A big figure at the front lumbered to his feet. Homer guessed it was King Usk himself – the jewelled crown being a dead giveaway. Queen Araminta burst into tears. The King growled in a voice like a ton of gravel in a cement mixer: “What the deuce is going on, Drawlight?”

“There’s a thief among us,” shouted Prince Drawlight. “And he’s stolen the ring!”

Instantly there was uproar.

“Quiet!” said King Usk.

That got their attention. You could hear a pin drop.

A dark-eyed fairy in a slinky black dress stood up. “Your majesty,” she said in a loud, clear voice. “I know who stole the ring.”

“Well? Out with it,” thundered King Usk.

She turned. Homer shrank down in his seat and wished he could turn invisible as she pointed her finger straight at Virgil beside him.

“That’s him, the field mouse,” she said. “He was boasting to me about how he thieves for a living.”

Virgil opened his mouth to protest that he was innocent, that he wasn’t a thief. And even when he took the occasional crumb of cheese, which was pretty rarely, he usually made up for it by running little errands.

He was going to say that he was a law-abiding kind of mouse really. That, yes, he had taken the cheese from someone’s fridge. But the fridge practically belonged to his very good friend Homer, who was now sitting right beside him, and who would certainly vouch for him as a mouse of the most honest character.

And he was going to say that he most definitely had not taken the ring. He never saw the ring. He didn’t know what it looked like. And in any case, he had no use for rings – even though he was sure it was a very nice ring – and that wouldn’t they do better by looking for a jackdaw or magpie to pin the blame on?

But he didn’t say any of those things. His mouth just hung open and he looked at the terrifyingly fierce expression on King Usk’s face, and all the accusing faces staring at him, and all he said was:

“I’m stuffed, aren’t I?”
* * *
Virgil was carted off to a dungeon built into a big split gall on the side of the tree trunk. His gaoler looked like the kind of fairy who pushes maggots into apples and writes rude graffiti in the dew on bedroom windows.

“I used to be a tooth fairy,” said the gaoler, “but then they found me knocking children’s teeth out while they slept in order to meet my monthly quota. It all got a bit nasty. So now I keep criminals like you under lock and key.” He gave Virgil a look that mice usually only see on the faces of cats.

“What will happen to me if I’m found guilty?” asked Virgil, holding onto the bars of his cell.

The gaoler looked puzzled. “What do you mean,
found guilty?”

“You know,” said Virgil. “At my trial.”

“What’s a trial?” said the gaoler.

“Oh dear,” said Virgil, “I’m getting a nasty feeling about fairy justice – mainly that there isn’t any. So what’s the penalty for theft?”

“Hanging or tickling.”

Virgil gave a sigh of relief. “Phew. I’ll go for tickling then. It doesn’t sound too bad.”

The gaoler pointed to a huge steel axe hanging on the wall. The blade looked sharp enough to open a knight’s armour like a can of sardines. “That’s ‘Tickler’.”

Virgil gave a gulp. “Oh dear, I am in a pickle. And a pickle with no cheese!”

Talking of cheese, at that moment Homer came down the dungeon steps carrying his parcel under his arm. “I just came to give this to the prisoner,” he said, holding the parcel between the bars of the cell. “I thought you might be peckish, Virgil.”

“Oh no, you don’t,” said the gaoler, pushing the parcel of cheese back into Homer’s hands. “I’m wise to those tricks. I’ll bet you put a hacksaw inside it so he can cut his way out.”

“What a good idea,” Homer whispered to Virgil when the gaoler turned away. “I wish I’d thought of it.”

“Listen, Homer,” said Virgil urgently. “You’ve got to get me out of here. At sunrise they’re going to see if I’m ticklish. Particularly around the neck.” He pointed at the axe.

“I’ll help any way I can,” said Homer. “But what can I do?”

“You’ve got to catch the real thief, Homer. It’s the only way to clear my name.”
* * *
Homer decided the best place to start would be with people who might have witnessed the crime. So he talked to Spattershaw, the prince’s best man.

“Come to think of it, I did see a suspicious sort of character in the garden,” said Spattershaw. “That was just before Drawlight noticed the ring was missing.”

“Suspicious? Male or female? What were they doing?” asked Homer.

“Yes. Dunno. Loitering,” said Spattershaw.

“You don’t know if they were male or female?” cried Homer. “Can you remember anything about them?”

Spattershaw nodded. “A tall head cosy.”

Homer blinked in astonishment. “A what?”

“Like a tea cosy upon the brow. A crown of woven locks. A nest for the pate. You know…”

“A wig!” realized Homer, remembering that fairies love riddles. “What colour?”

“Dawn herald, dusk glimmer, hue of blown cinders…” said Spattershaw. But Homer was already off to interview his next witness.

“Did you see a fairy in a tall red wig?” Homer asked a footman on the stairs.

“I can’t leave my post,” said the footman, staring straight ahead as if he was carved of wax. “But I did see somebody bustle past towards the kitchens.”

In the kitchens, Homer could get no sense out of the cook, who was shouting furiously about a missing cake. But a small serving girl told him that she saw a figure in a red wig wrap something before dashing out.

“Wrap it in what?” said Homer.

“In petal chains. In a rope of flowers.”

“That’s easy,” said Homer. “You mean the garlands decorating the table.”

He noticed one of the garlands was missing. A trail of petals led down the stairs…

In the cellars at the roots of the tree, Homer came across an apple-cheeked little sprite who was looking at a garland of daisies.

“Did you see who dropped that?”

“I did, sir,” said the sprite.

Homer was quite taken aback, as people didn’t usually call him ‘sir’. He supposed it had something to do with being a detective. It made him feel important.

“What’s in the parcel, sir?” asked the sprite, nodding towards the cheese Homer had under his arm.

“Er… never you mind, lad,” said Homer. “Did you see what the culprit did then?”

The sprite nodded. “Hid something, it looked like.”

Homer followed his gaze to the back of the cellar. “Where?”

“In the cooper’s egg.”

“You fairy folk do love your riddles, eh?”

“I can’t say it more plainly, sir. The wooden cradle of merriment. The sloshing box. The inn-keeper’s piggy bank.”

Homer’s eyes alighted on a big shape in the shadows. “A keg of ale!”

“If you must say so, sir,” grumbled the sprite, as if Homer had just spat on the floor or eaten ice cream with a soup spoon.

Homer tipped up the keg, but all it contained was beer. The ring was not there.
* * *
Homer found the butler, a tall fairy with spindly legs and an outraged face as if someone had stuck a pin in his bottom. He asked him if anyone had taken anything from the beer keg.

“Oh yes,” said the butler, smoothing his green silk waistcoat. “A figure lurking there in the darkness, waiting till the coast was clear, I dare say.”

“A thief, perhaps?”

“Very likely,” said the butler, nodding vigorously. “They took something small and glittery from the tap of the keg. It may have been a stolen item. Now I come to think of it, possibly a ring.”

“But you didn’t think to call for the guards?”

“I was about to,” protested the butler, looking doubly indignant, “but just then the prince started shouting, so I rushed upstairs and forgot all about it.”

Homer shook his head. “And what about the thief?”

“He – or perhaps it was a she; I didn’t have my spectacles on – looked for a new place to hide whatever it was. I noticed them go to the soot door, the fire cave, the throat of sparks and ashes.”

Homer was already at the chimney. He reached up inside. Perhaps a loose brick - ?

“Use the coal tweezers,” suggested the butler.

“Hmm?” said Homer, frowning.

“The long iron fingernails!” said the butler, pointing.

“You fairies and your kenning talk,” sighed Homer. But he took the tongs, reached up the chimney, and drew down – the missing ring!
* * *
Homer gathered everybody together. When Virgil had been brought up from the dungeon, and with guards standing at all the doors, he turned to the King and Queen.

“Your majesties – here is the ring!”

Everybody gasped.

“Virgil is innocent!” added Homer.

Another gasp.

“And the real thief is in this very room!” announced Homer.

There was no gasp this time. Everybody was out of puff. But an excitable goblin cried, “Ooh!”

King Usk glared at everybody – as he always did. But when he glared at Homer it was a glare of approval. “Go on, sir mouse,” he boomed. “Catch me a thief.”

Homer lined everybody up. Every single wedding guest, with no exception. And he walked along examining their fingernails. Whoever had hidden the ring up the chimney, he reasoned, couldn’t have avoided getting soot under their nails. And it would take hours of scrubbing to get rid of it.

The only trouble was,
two of the guests had sooty fingernails. The Duke of Hoit-de-Toit and a pretty little bridesmaid called Ammernaddy.

“Please, sir, that’s not soot, it’s mascara,” explained Ammernaddy.

“I admit to having a dirty nose,” said the Duke of Hoit-de-Toit vainly. “That is the only place my fingers have been.”

Homer looked from one to the other.

“Which one did it?” Virgil hissed in his ear.

Homer felt everybody staring at him. He didn’t want to get it wrong. He liked being called ‘sir mouse’. And most of all, of course, he wanted to prove his friend was innocent.

Suddenly the answer came to him. “My lord Duke of Hoit-de-Toit,” he said, “I hereby arrest you for the theft of one wedding ring, which we’ll call exhibit A. Your grace doesn’t have to say anything – and really, if it’s a riddle I’d rather you didn’t – but anything you do say will probably lead to you being severely tickled.”

The Duke started to laugh.

“You haven’t seen ‘Tickler’,” said Virgil, and the way he said it took the smile off the Duke’s face as sure as cleaning a windowpane with vinegar.

“I admit it!” shouted the Duke. “I wanted to marry Thissaly, and with the ring gone I knew her wedding to Drawlight would be called off.” He ran to a window, threw it open, and struck a dramatic pose on the sill. “But you will never catch the artful Duke of Hoit-de-Toit.”

He leapt. A moment later, there was a muddy splat and a muffled cry of disgust.

“Oops. I told the servants to clear away that cowpat before the wedding started…” said Queen Araminta.

“How did you know it was him?” Virgil asked his friend. “Was it just a guess?”

“A guess!” sputtered Homer. “Of course not! I remembered that I needed tongs to get the ring. So whoever put it up the chimney needed a long reach, and Ammernaddy is no taller than I am.”

Virgil gave a low whistle. “Well, I call that plain brilliant.”
* * *
After that, the wedding went off without a hitch – except, of course, for the two young people who got hitched. They did everything the way it’s supposed to be done. They gazed longingly into each other’s eyes, they held hands throughout the banquet, they sighed sweet nothings, and afterwards they rode off on honeymoon in a little flying boat carried by doves.

The sun was just coming up by the time the party was over. Homer looked up into the paling sky and he could have sworn he saw the dawn light glinting off the princess’s ring, far, far off up among the clouds.

Half the wedding guests had just fallen over and gone to sleep where they lay. The Queen, well oiled with rosehip punch, was the last on the dance floor, boogying for all she was worth. The poor musicians had had to prop their eyes open with toothpicks, they were so tired. The King lay flat on his back snoring, and his snores were so loud that they shook the whole tree. It sounded like somebody had taken a buzz saw to the trunk.

“Well, I’ll bid you good morning,” said Virgil as they reached his front door. He lived in an old rusty oil can half-buried in the bank at the edge of the field.

Homer was so tired that all he could do was nod. He yawned as he trudged home across the field. Just as he reached the end of the garden, he heard Virgil yelling. He turned around.

“I just wanted to say,” called Virgil, “that you’re the best pal anyone could have!” And, with a wave, he disappeared into his oil can.

Even though he’d been up all night, Homer was too excited to go straight to bed. He flopped down in his armchair and looked at the cold ashes of the fire. What an extraordinary adventure it had been. Better than a dream!

Then he saw his book beside the chair. He’d been about to finish that when Virgil showed up. He picked up the book and gave a great big yawn.

“This will put me in the mood for bed,” he told himself.

But, you know, he was so exhausted that he fell asleep without reading the last page of his book. And it was a whodunit!

Monday, 9 August 2010

iPad news

No, not that iPad news. You'll have to hang on just a short while longer before we can bring you that. But while you're waiting to hear when the green comet is going to light up the App Store (soon, very soon) you might be interested in this report on Russ Nicholson's blog about the Fabled Lands game coming on iPad.

Fabled Lands was a series of connected swords-n-sorcery gamebooks I wrote with Jamie Thomson back in the 1990s. We don't usually cover that branch of the fantasy family tree around here. We're more into Dunsany and John Collier than Feist and Gemmell. But if you allow that the point of contact between those two extremes might be authors like Moorcock, Whitbourn, Tim Powers and Susanna Clarke then possibly there's a line of connection to be drawn.

And while I'm on the subject of fantasy, there are interesting stirrings of something fresh in the genre, in the form of a movement called the New Weird. Okay, not really all that fresh (other than in name) as you can trace it back to In Viriconium, indeed to Gormenghast, and thence back to Gothic literature. But that dark, spicy strain of fantasy is enjoying a bit of a renewal of late. I like it because it brings a little of SF's progressiveness and naturalism to a genre that is often stilted, twee, contemptibly conservative, and slavishly adherent to familiar tropes. (Although if you like all those elven council sagas don't let me put you off.) The New Weird, though, is a bit grungier and rather more likely to shake your world-view than reinforce it. If it sounds like it might be your tincture of opium, you could do worse than start with this manifesto by Paul Charles Smith.

None of which applies to Fabled Lands, I hasten to add, which is unreconstructed FRP-style adventure as it existed in the heyday of gamebooks. Coming soon to an iPad near you.