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First a couple of general updates.

We went to a fascinating talk by Cheryl Morgan the other night, concerning the representation of Trans people in SF.  There were a whole bunch of people there, activists, trans people and SFies, and it went down really well.  She talks about it on her blog, and had come up with a handy reading list (and avoiding list!) for people who want to read further.  So I won’t duplicate what she says, but instead direct you to : http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=12836

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The submissions deadline for the Colin Harvey Anthology had been extended until the end of April, at least, though we might keep it open until it’s filled.  Hope over to the page and have a look at the guidelines if you’ve thought about submitting but didn’t because the deadline was too short / you ran out of time.  In retrospect, having a Christmas Eve deadline wasn’t the best timing….  We learn from our mistakes.

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And in novel news, having re-drafted the Plan for Spark and Carousel (I say “Plan”, it’s a scrappy piece of a4 paper ripped from a notebook and tacked to the wall in front of me.  But it works), I’ve discovered there’s a lot less plot still to come than I thought, and it should come in under a reasonable 100k.  So half the size of Art of Forgetting.  The first draft seems to have whizzed by, maybe because I thought it would be longer.  Maybe I can write two books in a year?

So, in honour of both being able to see the end, and reaching 200 pages, have an extract.  In this scene, Carousel has been forced into some embarrassing shoes and taken to a party by the unscrupulous Allorise….
* * *

The carriage stopped in the snowy street, opposite a pair of high iron and brass gates, topped with a coat of arms Carousel didn’t recognise.  The gates stood open, and beyond them she could see a single-storey villa, set out on three sides of a rectangle looking out onto a frozen pond.  Braziers burned at intervals around the edge of the pool, and a few people were sliding on the ice on what looked like knife blades strapped to the bottoms of their shoes, shrieking and clinging to each other as they skidded about.  Carousel hung back.  It didn’t look anything like the way she had imagined a high society party to be.  Braziers glowed at the edge of the frozen pond, and the smell of spicy toasted nuts drifted towards them, making her mouth water.

“Come on!”  Allorise gestured for Shadow to hand them down into the street.  Carousel glared at him before he could make a move, and he kept his nipping fingers to himself.  She stood in the road, feeling the ice bit against her bare, crushed toes.  It seemed a long walk across the street to the gate, and now Allorise surged on ahead, gaily calling greetings to her friends, leaving Carousel stranded.

She felt Shadow grinning at her.  “Aren’t you going to the party, little Carousel?”

“Bugger off.”  She took a few unsteady steps, felt her feet skid out from under her, and groped for the side of the carriage.  Her hand fell on empty air, her leg twisted, and she landed with a thump in the gutter.

Shadow laughed as he spurred the carriage away, abandoning her to the ice.  “Good luck!” he called.  She bit back a curse and dragged herself to her feet, wavering like the skaters on the pond, with nothing to cling on to.

There was more laughter, a lot of it, and when she looked up from her feet it was to see Allorise and her friends clustered around the gate, some of them openly pointing and grinning.  Allorise had her hand over her mouth, in shock or amusement, but she was making no effort to give Carousel a hand.  Well, she could walk to the gate herself!

She took three determined steps.  This time, she pitched forward onto her face, with a jolt that knocked the breath out of her.

The gale of laughter was louder this time, and she just lay where she was, hot tears melting the snow that clung to her eyelashes, face burning with embarrassment.  She wished she could go home.

“I think she’s really hurt!”  A man’s voice sounded a note of concern amid the hilarity, and Carousel heard boots crunching towards her.  She squeezed her eyes shut, blinking away the tears as a knee draped in red velvet landed in the snow in front of her face, and a hand clasped her shoulder.  “Are you hurt, miss?”

“I’m fine.”  She sat up, rubbing the snow off her face while her rescuer brushed down the fur Allorise had lent her.  Her knee was bleeding, a striking red trickle against the white, and with a flourish he withdrew a cloth from his sleeve, licked it, and applied it to the wound.

“You must be Carousel,” he said, with a grin.  “Allo has written us all letters about you.  You know how to make an entrance!”

She had no answer to that, but the fact that Allorise had already introduced her to society, even by letter, made her feel a little better.

“I’m Korl.”  The man helped her to her feet.  “Do you want to lean on my arm?  You’ll never get there on your own, not in those shoes!”

“They are stupid shoes, aren’t they?”  She clung to him, grateful for the support.  He was very tall, all legs and arms, with a shock of blond hair poking out from beneath the brim of his hat, and a black fur jacket that came down to his knees.

“Very fashionable, I’m told,” he said.  She snorted her derision at this.

“Come on,” he added.  “Let’s find you a seat, and some food.  She’s all right, everybody!”  He raised his voice to carry to the crowd at the gate, adding, in an undertone for Caro’s ears alone, “show’s over, you bastards!”

The audience dispersed, leaving only Allorise, wringing her hands with worry.  “Are you all right, Carousel?” she demanded.  “I would have come and helped you, but I was scared of slipping and making a fool of myself too.  Do you need to sit down?”

“Please!”  Caro realised she was shaking, and her knee throbbed.

Allorise clicked her fingers for a servant to fetch a chair from the villa, and pressed her into it as soon as it was set down.  “I’ll fetch you some nuts,” she said.  “You stay right here!”

Korl nodded at her.  “You’ll be fine now?” he asked.

“I think so.  Thank you.”

“Any time!”  He grinned.  “I’ll take you for a spin on the ice later, if you feel up to it.”

“I think I might have skated enough already today, thanks for the offer.”

“Come and find me if you change your mind.”  A woman hailed him from the far side of the pool and he turned away, sliding across the ice with long strides in his flat-bottomed boots.  Carousel felt a twinge of jealousy, but she was grateful to have another ally in this strange new world she had been thrust into.

Allorise was standing by the brazier where the nuts were roasting, deep in conversation with a dark-haired man and a girl with broad, sweeping cheekbones stained with too much powder.  The powdered girl glanced her way, and a smile flickered across her face, to let Carousel know they were talking about her.  Carousel shrugged, licked her palm and rubbed her stinging knee, and concentrated on the skaters, their blades scraping over the ice.  On the far side of the pool was a red-curtained booth, and a few of Allorise’s friends had gathered around it to watch a lewd puppet show.

“Sketch you for a copper?”  A man holding pad and charcoal sidled up to her.  Carousel shook her head.

“I don’t have a copper, sorry.”

He scowled.  “You could just say no.  There’s no reason to be stupid about it.”

“I’m not –” but he had moved on before she could protest.  She glared after him, shaking her head, but was distracted as two girls skidded to a halt in front of her, breath steaming, throwing up a powder of ice sheared off by their skates.

“Are you Carousel?” the older one asked, while the younger, so alike she must be her sister, knelt and freed her shoes from the blades strapped to them.  “You’re here with Allo Carey?”

The younger girl looked up, hazel eyes wide.  “Is it true you’re a street rat?”

“Harmonie!”  Her sister gave her a playful shove, tumbling her into the snow.  “Don’t call her that, it’s rude!  I’m sorry,” she addressed Caro once more.  “My sister has no manners.  Do you work for Allorise?”

“Allorise is my friend.”  Harmonie might be curious, but she was only a kid.  About fifteen summers, Caro guessed.  Her sister’s smile was wide and welcoming.

“Of course she is!  We’re all friends here.  I’m Derata.”  She extended her gloved hand, Telesian style, and Carousel shook it.

Derata kicked off her own blades and ordered a maid to bring more chairs.  Laughter rang across the garden at some obscenity provided by the puppets, and Derata rolled her eyes.  “I don’t know why they have to be so crude!” she remarked.

“I like it,” Harmonie said.  “But it’s one I’ve seen before.  Do you like puppets, Carousel?”

Carousel had seen puppet shows on street corners before, but she had never had time to linger.  Most of the ones she had glimpsed had been for children.  She nodded, uncertain, wanting desperately to fit in.

“Where did you see this before?” Derata demanded of her sister.

“Maxies.”  She coloured.  “You won’t tell Mama –?”

“What were you doing at Maxies, at your age?”

Harmonie stared at the toe of her boot as she dug it into the compacted snow.  “Everybody goes,” she muttered.  “All the fashionable people.  I’ll wager even Carousel goes!”

“Goes where?”  Allorise had returned, at last, holding a bug of warm nuts which she offered around the trio.

“Maxies,” Derata said.

Allorise smiled.  “And why wouldn’t she?  All the best people go to Maxies.  You go there, don’t you, Carousel?”

Carousel had never even heard of Maxies, but Allorise was looking at her with wide, inquisitive eyes.  She had tried so hard to help Carousel fit in…

“Yes,” she lied.  “I go there a lot.”

Derata swallowed a handful of the nuts.  “I’m surprised I’ve never seen you there,” she observed.

“Do you mostly stay upstairs?” Allorise asked.  “There’s the smaller dance floor upstairs.  More exclusive.”

Like a drowning woman snatching at a straw, Carousel clutched the lifeline Allorise threw to her.

“Yes,” she said.  “I usually stay upstairs.  It’s a bit less crowded.”

“It is, isn’t it,” Derata agreed.  “Maybe I’ll see you there next moon.  Do you always go?”

Harmonie jumped to her feet, muttering something about wanting to see the climax of the puppet show.  Derata let her go with a shrug, her attention on Carousel, as the couple Allo had been talking to earlier wandered over to join them.

Allorise introduced them as Sharla and Duk.  “And this is Carousel,” she said, proudly, waving her hand as if she was showing off a new gem.

Duk bowed, and his lip curled.  “The famous Carousel, at last!”

“She goes to Maxies, you know,” Derata said, as if imparting some vital wisdom.

“But she stays upstairs,” Allorise added, “so you might not have seen her there.”

“Upstairs?”  He arched an eyebrow.  “That does explain it.  I would have remembered running into you.”

“I’m sure you would.”  Sharla tightened her grip on his arm and upturned her wide blue eyes to the sky, where grey clouds were gathering.  “Do you think it’s going to come on to snow?” she asked.

He followed her gaze.  “I think we’ve got a bell or two of skating yet!  Do you skate, Carousel?”

“Only in the road,” Derata muttered, and Allorise stifled a giggle.

“Don’t tease so!” she said, before Carousel could protest.  “I brought her here for entertainment, after all!”

“Then let me take her skating.”  Carousel didn’t know why Duk was asking Allorise, as if she was a child and couldn’t decide for herself.

“I don’t know –” she managed.

“Come on, it’s easy!”  He was already freeing her feet from her horrible, ridiculous shoes.  “Sharla, are there spare boots in the house?  There must be!”

Sharla hastened into the villa, the heels dangling from her hands, and returned with a stout pair of boots of roughly the same size.  Her face darkened at the sight of Duk, kneeling in the snow with his gloved hands wrapped around Carousel’s numb toes, and she elbowed him out of the way.  “Put these on,” she insisted.

The warmth of fur against her feet was worth any humiliation she might encounter on the frozen pond.  Sharla strapped her own blades to the bottom of the boots, and Duk helped her to her feet.  It was no worse than balancing on the high heels.  He kept a tight grip on her arm as she shuffled out on to the ice.

“Don’t look at your feet, keep your head up, and just slide.  Follow my legs.”

It was easier than she anticipated, not much different from dancing on the high wire.  It was all about balance, and concentration.  Carousel didn’t know why she hadn’t been able to balance on the shoes, but skating was lovely.

“My, you’re a natural!”  Duk’s hands were tight about her waist, hard thumbs digging into her flesh.  “Shall I let you go?”

“Go on then.”  She was gliding across the ice, passing the puppet show in a multicoloured blur, breathless and exhilarated.  Let them call her a street rat now, she was a better skater at her first attempt than most of these lordlings.

She stumbled as a sharp elbow hit her in the back, tripping off the edge of the pond into the snowy bank, into arms that didn’t try to catch her.  She managed to remain upright more by willpower than good balance, and glared around to see who had hit her.

Sharla skidded to a halt at her side.  “I’m so sorry!” she gasped.  “I tripped, I didn’t mean to grab hold of you.  Are you hurt?”

It hadn’t felt like a grab, it had felt like a punch, but Carousel wasn’t going to cause an argument.  “No harm done,” she said, grudgingly.

“Let’s go into the house.  I’ll get you a drink.”

Sharla kicked off her blades, and Carousel followed suit.  The sky was darkening rapidly now, and the puppet master was dismantling his stand.  People drifted towards the villa.  Carousel looked around for Allorise, but she couldn’t see her.  Maybe she was already indoors.

Sharla led her through the kitchen, grabbing two tiny glasses from a tray held by a poised butler and passing one back to Carousel.  She took a sip, and winced at the fiery liquid trickling down her throat.  “What is this stuff?”

Sharla shrugged.  “It’s no different to the ones they serve at Maxies.  Just a bit stronger.”  She knocked back her own drink in one mouthful, and dropped the glass on the floor for the servants to clean up.  “What are you waiting for?”

Carousel drained her own glass, trying not to retch.  The drink burned her throat and tongue.  Sharla nodded, apparently pleased.

“Through here,” she said.

The room she showed Carousel into was soft, with thick crimson carpet and red-tapestried walls.  There were two fires blazing, one at either end of the room, the only light, as the windows were tightly shuttered against the winter evening.  There were plenty of comfortable couches, the same rich shade as the carpet, and large, soft cushions scattered across the floor of Allorise’s friends to sprawl on.  Silent, masked servants moved among them, handing out more glasses of the liquid, and jellied sweetments, like the ones little kids liked to eat.

She took a sweetment and was chewing on it awkwardly, unsure whether she should sit down, when she heard Allorise hail her from close to the nearest fireplace.  She lay on her back, her head in the lap of a man Carousel hadn’t been introduced to yet, and she had somehow purloined a whole tray of the fiery drinks.  She held one up as Carousel approached.  “Drink?”

“No thank you.”  Only the sweetment had got rid of the taste of the last one.

Allorise scowled.  “You have to.  What sort of party is it if you don’t drink?  Just have one, for me?”

She sat up, and watched closely while Carousel swallowed.  “That’s better,” she declared. “Come and sit with us.  This is my friend Einon.”

Einon nodded, and Carousel sat.  The floor felt a little unsteady beneath her, like it did when she hadn’t eaten for a few days.  The second drink had been less unpleasant.  Maybe she was developing a taste for it.

Allorise lay back, her arms draped over Einon’s legs, which were wrapped around her waist, and gestured for Carousel to help herself to the tray.  The fire was hot against her face, drying out her mouth, and the smoke prickled her eyes.  Without thinking, she took another drink.

“That’s my girl,” Allorise murmured.

 

* * *

Apologies for any slightly rough first-draftiness of the above, but that’s what editing is for, to knock off all the lumps and bumps and make it all make sense.  Hope you enjoyed that!

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