Sunday, August 9, 2015

First Lines in my books

First lines

The first line of a book can make a big impact.  You know, like "A Tale of Two Cities":

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


It was a dark and stormy night . . . —Snoopy (Actually, it was Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830))

So I decided to go through and make a list of the first lines of all my books.


Because before I can write the rest of the lines, I need a first line.  It seems a bit arbitrary, but someone decided that first would come . . . well . . . first.

No, really, why are you posting these lines?

Well, I thought about it . . .


Ahem . . . and I wanted to see how they measured up.  I want to know if they're any good.

Also, after looking them over, I'm hoping to gain some insight.

Insight as to what?

Ummm . . . Good question.  A lot of writers agonize over the first line.  It truly is important.  I spend a good deal of time on it, often a couple of hours total before publishing.  I'm never completely satisfied, but I go on and write the rest of the story.

I suppose I'm looking to gain insight as to how they relate to each other, insight as to how to make first lines better, and perhaps insight as to how to change these first lines to grab the readers' attention when they pick the books up (or read the samples online as the case may be).


Wow!  Push, aren't we!  Very well, here we go:

Ryallon Series

Dralin Trilogy
“Hello, pretty little miss." 

While in the gloomy ruins of an ancient city below Dralin, Ebudae and Pelya had discovered a temple dedicated to an unknown god. 

Sir Hamil Imbra, Knight Champion of the Goddess Reanna, floated high above the glasslike waters of Wraith Lake where the wisps of chaos drifting over its surface couldn’t reach.

Willden Trilogy
Tathan was a tall man of twenty-nine years with short, curly black hair framing a face tanned by travel.

Tathan made no sound as he walked toward the northern wall of the city, a place he liked to go to look at reflections of the moons in Trohiin Lake.  

“Vevin is Evil.”

Wyvern Trilogy
Pelya’s sapphire-blue eyes sparkled in the heavy afternoon sun.

Pelya sucked air into her lungs and ignored the sweat stinging her eyes.

Crazed Trilogy
Gurbin was hungry.

Stand Alone
Rain Glade
Rain opened her eyes as morning rays peeked through cracks in the eaves next to her straw bed.  

Stories for Demented Children

The Emo Bunny that Should
Emo the Bunny was sad.

Zachary Zombie and the Lost Boy
Tobias was determined to catch the emo bunny.

Drippy the Peg Legged Rainbow
Rainbows have existed throughout the universe since shortly after its inception.

Unholy Cow
“I hope they throw out some delicious leftovers,” Abel the raven cawed eagerly from a nearby branch.

Attack of the Sugar Plum Fairies
Light from tall streetlamps illuminated the snow that drifted lazily down to the cobblestones.

Elly zipped through a grouping of trees that provided shade for creatures of the savanna.

Naughty Nanoworms
Albert mumbled happily about the half-eaten Halibut Burger he had found in the dumpster at his 
favorite Fish Burgers fast food restaurant.

Zachary Zombie and the Wicked Worm
Zachary Zombie and his three zombie henchmen reached the secret entrance to the moss and ivy-covered tower they had spent days searching for.

Steampunk Roo
Governor Kevin Koala met Steampunk Roo at the edge of Steampunk City. 

Pow the Panda, The Case of the Rainbow Dragon
In the roaring year of 1925, business was good for a hard-working private eye in Chinatown.

Alien Coffee
Jillian tried to take a sip of her coffee, only to look at the barren mug in disgust before setting it back down with a sigh.

Short Stories
Blue Haired Alien Girlfriend
Lisa stared at the last of three orientation tapes with glassy eyes, her chin propped in hands with elbows on knees.

Test Pilot
“Who named this place ‘Moonbase City’?” 

Don't Ever Change
Lori walked through one of the smaller commons during lunch.

The Storage Room in the Grey Void
Hilda looked at her pretty dress.

What's your favorite?

I really like all the opening lines of the Dralin Trilogy.  The opening line of Liselle is great, simple but with a lot of meaning.  You can do a lot with just a few words.

"Vevin is Evil" is possibly the most powerful if you know what happened in the previous books of the trilogy.

But my favorite is:
Emo the Bunny was sad.

I think I like it, partially because of the character and the story.  It's very near and dear to my heart.  As far as the line goes, it's almost redundant.  It also sets the tone of the character and the story, which hold true to the first line.

What's your least favorite?

Zachary Zombie and the Wicked Worm
Zachary Zombie and his three zombie henchmen reached the secret entrance to the moss and ivy-covered tower they had spent days searching for.

I need to fix that.  It's not interesting at all.  Also, I use the word "for" at the end of the sentence.  It's a terrible word to use at the end.  Honestly, all of my later Stories for Demented Children have weak first lines.  I'll have to work on that.

So now that you're finished, did you gain any insights?

Well . . . yes.  There are a few I want to change right away.  I see what works and what doesn't.  That's 25 opening lines, which is a good sample size.  I think I can use this information to improve future works too.

I'd be interested to hear which ones are the readers favorites and least favorites too.  Please let me know in the comments, or on Facebook or Twitter.

All my best,

John H. Carroll

Saturday, August 1, 2015

"Liquid", Wyvern Trilogy Book 2: Chapter 1

This is the final edit of Chapter 1.

***************** SPOILERS ***************

You can find "Wyvern", Book 1 at these stores:

You can find "Liquid" at these stores:

Liquid Chapter 1

Pelya sucked air into her lungs and ignored the sweat stinging her eyes.  She deflected Commander Brynin’s thrust with her primary sword.  The ringing of metal on metal echoed off stone walls enclosing the grassy courtyard.  Her secondary sword flashed through the air in a counterattack.

The commander twirled through the air just out of reach.  Blistering sunlight sparkled off her short-cropped red hair.

Tina rounded a nearby tree to the commander’s flank.  She feinted low before turning a two-handed slash upward.

Steel chimed as the commander parried the blow with her enchanted blade.  Her bare foot came around to land a glancing blow on Tina’s chin.  The young woman’s ponytail flew around to smack her cheek.

Tina shifted her feet to regain balance and tried to sneak her blade into the woman’s side.  At the same time, Pelya swung both of her swords, one high and one low.

The high one made contact.

Commander Brynin flipped backward and landed in a crouch on her toes.  Shock registered in rose-pink eyes as a thin line of blood appeared on her cheek.  “You cut me!”

Tina crowed in triumph.  “She did!”

The commander saluted them with her sword raised.  “We’re finished sparring for today.  Well done, both of you.  Tina, you’re improving.”  She sheathed the blade

“I still can’t compete with either of you.”  Tina saluted the commander before falling dramatically to the grass, gasping for breath.  “Casting that protection spell you taught me makes it harder to get through the long battles, Pelya.”

Pelya also saluted the commander.  To Tina she said, “Yes, but each time you cast it, it takes a little less effort.  It’ll save your life as it has mine.”

Commander Brynin helped her niece up.  “Pelya was right to teach it to you, Tina.  I felt it resist my attacks.  I felt yours too, Pelya.  It’s quite the trick in addition to your ample skill.  That’s the first time your blade has ever touched me.  I must be losing my edge.”

“You’re slow as an emo bunny, Commander.  Hardly a test at all.”  She grinned.

Brynin put her hand on her hip.  “That’s why you’re sweating like a carnivorous fairy lost in the desert and why my niece was flopping on the ground, gulping air like a fish out of water.”

Pelya wiped a sleeve across her brow, thankful for the slight breeze rustling through leaves.  “I pay attention to your methods and learn every time we spar.”  She glanced over the condition of her swords, both her personal property.  The primary was made of light steel with runes of enchantment.  It darted through the air like a hummingbird when she swished it.  The secondary was shorter but deadlier.  The glistening metal stayed sharp and clean even without etched runes like those the primary had.  She sheathed them, took her gloves off and tucked those in her sword belt.

“I’ve noticed you learning my tricks and trying them on me.”  The commander waggled a finger at Pelya.  “You have natural talent, an indomitable work ethic and cunning.  You improve each time you engage an opponent.”

Tina pulled her russet hair out of its ponytail and ran fingers through the sweat-soaked strands.  “But you still cut Pelya a few times, Aunt Reela.  I can’t even do that much.”

Commander Brynin threw an arm over Pelya’s shoulders.  “That’s because I’m a swordmaster sixth class and she’s only classified as swordmaster second class.  She could qualify for third class.”  The commander ran a finger along Pelya’s cheek.

Pelya pulled away.

Brynin caught Pelya’s chin.  “I did cut you a few times, including once across the forehead.  I saw the blood.  Now it’s gone.”

Pelya’s jaw clenched shut as an intricate orange tattoo covering the left half of her torso exerted control.  It had performed the healing and didn’t like when people noticed.  The dragon mark was a reward from a dragon for saving its baby.  However, the magic of the mark physically prevented her from answering questions about it.  It remained invisible on her skin unless taxed to heal or protect her.

The commander narrowed her eyes.  “I sense my mind being pushed.”  She tapped one of her dangling earrings with a finger.  “If I didn’t have these little charms to protect my mind from enchantment, I’d probably forget yet again that you have no scars.  Tell me how you manage it.”

The tattoo heated in protest.  The muscles in her body tightened.

“Are you playing a game with me, Pelya?”

The dragon mark squeezed Pelya’s lungs and set her bones on fire.  She didn’t understand why it punished her when someone else asked questions.  Pelya fell to her knees, screaming through teeth clenched near to breaking.  Darkness surrounded the edges of her vision.

Brynin took Pelya’s cheeks in her hands.  “I withdraw my question!  Release her, foul geas!”

The pressure released, allowing a breath of desperate air to shudder down Pelya’s throat.  She collapsed into the commander’s arms, her muscles drained of strength.

“I’m sorry, Pelya.  No more questions.”  The commander helped Pelya to her feet and steadied her.

 “Let’s have some chilled juice in my office.”

Pelya clutched the commander’s shoulder for support.  It had reached the point where she no longer cared how many times the dragon mark had save her.  She wanted it gone.

A flash of heat burned her bones to punish her for the thought.  Then it hid from her memory until the next time it would be needed.

Pelya grunted in pain and sent a silent curse after it.

The commander helped her along a path bordered by flowerbeds.  When they reached the courtyard door, Tina opened it and stepped aside to let them in first.

The manor was cool after stepping in from the summer heat.  Tina and Pelya paused to remove their boots before stepping onto soft, expensive carpet that ran the length of the hallway.  Brynin’s feet were already bare as usual.  “Thank you for taking those off.  The carpet lasts much longer that way.  Besides, feet are happier out of the artificial prisons you two call shoes.”

“Those are boots, not shoes, Aunt Reela,” Tina said in her peppy voice.  Her smile lit twinkling grey eyes.

A corner of the commander’s mouth twisted in amusement.  There was a hint of familial resemblance in their thin noses and rounded cheekbones.  “They’re atrocious, whatever you call them.”

Tina held the door to Brynin’s personal office open.  The interior was lush with a beautiful whitewood desk.  To the left of the door was a sitting area with a whitewood table that matched.  Priceless tapestries and paintings bordered the window to the courtyard.  Wall to wall carpeting caught their steps in its soft embrace.

To the right of the door was a large globe with swaths of blue, brown and green.  Floating mystically around it were Ryallon’s two moons, Siahray and Piohray.

Commander Brynin took a seat in a comfortable chair behind the desk.  Pelya and Tina flopped into chairs across from it.  The commander leaned back and kicked her feet on the corner of the desk.  “Do the two of you know what Liquid Wyverns are?”

Pelya stretched.  “They’re powerful magical artifacts.  I saw one on a tour of the library at the University of Settatt when I was a recruit.  It moved and seemed to look at me.  If I remember correctly, they consist of a mixture of metals such as gold, silver and platinum in their liquid state.  Powerful archmages merge the metals with other ingredients and imbue the devices with more magic than can be placed into something solid.  Gems are added to focus power.”

“I won’t ask who told you all that.  I’m not in the mood to arrest anyone today.”  The commander folded her hands over her stomach.  “About fifty years after the Blue Wyverns were formed, communications became a problem for the fast growing organization.  When things went wrong far away, there was no way of knowing until messengers arrived with reports.  By then it was too late to rescue soldiers in danger.”

“Which is why the Blue Wyverns strive to engineer better highways in the kingdoms that employ us,” Pelya responded.  “We establish waypoints along them to increase the speed of communication.”

“I bet there’s more to it than that,” Tina said.

Brynin winked.  “Very good, my pretty little niece.”  She pointed a warning finger at both of them.  “I’m trusting you with one of the closest kept secrets in the Wyverns now.  This is confidential.”

They nodded.

“Academy Commander Vernt came up with the idea for Liquid Wyverns all those years ago.  They are now in twenty-two Blue Wyvern garrisons throughout the countries we operate in.  They act as a communication and tracking system for the Blue Wyverns.  Each one has a troop of Academy-trained wizards called Liquid Mages who interpret the messages sent between them.

Pelya gave a low whistle.  “That’s complicated and powerful magic.”

“Yes it is.”  The commander held out a hand and studied her fingernails.  “In addition to that, every recruit who graduates to become a Blue Wyvern is entered into the system using a drop of blood.”

“That’s why they wanted our blood,” Tina remarked.  “I never understood that.”

“Yes.”  Brynin dropped her feet to the floor and leaned forward on the desk.  “Now, the extraordinary thing about Liquid Wyverns is that they know the health of every Blue Wyvern.  Whenever a member dies, an alarm is activated in the nearest Liquid Wyvern.  A wizard will be able to tell how many soldiers have perished in addition to who they are.”

Pelya mouthed, “Wow.”

“The original Liquid Wyvern is at the Academy here in Settatt, which is the one you saw, Pelya.  As the Blue Wyverns expanded, keeping track of everyone was more than it could handle.  Another was created, and then another.  Academy Commander Vernt realized that a central device would have to be made to handle the growing number.  Thus, the Settatt Wyvern here at Headquarters was created.  You won’t see that one.”

“But I want to see it,” Tina said.

“Tough.”  The commander smirked.  “Vernt invited a few powerful archmages he knew to assist him in making the Settatt Wyvern.  It stands at fifteen hands tall and forty-two hands long.  Vernt wasn’t able to find a lone sapphire large enough for the heart.  Instead, he took a number of the largest sapphires he could get and cast them in a powerful heart shaped device that came to be called the Heart of Settatt.”

“You’re telling us a great deal.”  Pelya nibbled on a fingernail, a habit Tina abhorred.  “I must admit curiosity as to why.”

Brynin nodded.  “There’s a lot I’m not telling you.  But I trust you both and it’s important for you to understand the gravity of your assignment.”

Tina slapped Pelya’s hand away from her mouth.  “Which is? . . .”

“I’m getting to that.”  The commander stood and walked to the window.  “There are currently three magicians in the world capable of making the Liquid Wyverns.  One lives in Zimth, the Capital city of Swelth.  The White Talon Company should be picking up a newly made wyvern from him in twenty days.  Their task is to bring it back here to tune it with the Settatt Wyvern.”

“The White Talon Company is one of the best,” Tina said.  “Do you expect trouble, Aunt Reela?”

“I’ve heard a couple of whispers.  Your mission is to get in touch with my contacts in Zimth and investigate those whispers.”

Pelya raised her eyebrows hopefully.  “Any chance it could be the Guild of Scales?  Those papers I recovered last year mentioned they were out to ruin the Blue Wyverns.  If you’d just let me read them . . .”

“She did discover them after all,” Tina contributed, “along with exposing the old Recruit Commander who was sabotaging basic training.”

Brynin gave a long-suffering sigh.  “Yes, I know.  She’s obsessed with the man who killed most of her squad in Dralin.  As I’ve explained countless times, the papers are sealed away in a vault and can’t be opened except by order of the Council of Eight, which isn’t going to happen.”

Pelya leaned her elbow on the arm of the chair and rested her chin on her fist.  She stared at the globe and wondered where the man named Laen might be.

Tina patted Pelya’s leg.  “Do you think the Guild of Scales will try to steal the Liquid Wyvern, Aunt Reela?”

“No.  There’s nothing in the whispers that suggest anything about the Guild.”  Frustration crept into her voice.  “I don’t want you wasting time trying to make a connection that doesn’t exist.”  Brynin retrieved a jug with runes around its base to keep it chilled.  She poured them each a cup of juice.

“We won’t, Aunt Reela.”  Tina shot Pelya an apologetic look before asking the commander, “Do you want us to do anything besides investigate the whispers?  It’ll take us longer than twenty days to get to Zimth.  The White Talon Company should be on the road by then.”

Pelya leaned toward Tina and whispered loud enough for the commander to hear.  “She probably wants us to find out more information about the Rojuun.”

Tina chuckled.  ”Probably.”

The Rojuun were Brynin’s obsession.  Discovering information about them was one of Pelya and Tina’s permanent tasks.  A few years earlier, in Dralin, Pelya had met one and helped him rescue others that were imprisoned.  It was the last time she had seen one.

The commander didn’t share in their amusement.  “The White Talon Company will be on the road by the time you reach them.  Check with their Captain, Leacy Emaate, and make certain all is well.  Once you’ve done that, continue to Zimth.  I still want you to investigate the whispers even though I don’t believe there’s much credibility to them . . . and yes, see if you can learn anything about the Rojuun.”

“Where do we start?” Pelya asked.

“I have two contacts you can get in touch with.  The first is a merchant of exotic goods by the name of Tumera.  She has a store called the Tiwari Gem just off the City Market.”  Brynin returned to her seat and nursed the juice while she kicked her feet back on the desk.  “People talk to her easily, telling her stories from all over the continent and even beyond.  Her grandmother was a member of the Wyverns.  Tumera always loved the old tales the woman told to her.  She also knows to keep her ears open for word of Rojuun.”

Tina fidgeted in her chair, never one to sit still for long.  “Who’s the other contact?”

“Everyone calls him Idget.”

Tina frowned.  “That’s not encouraging.”

“Don’t let the name fool you,” Brynin said.  “He’s clever like a fox but acts the part of an ox.”

Pelya raised an eyebrow.  “You’ve become a poet?”

“I’d torture you by reciting some, but I don’t have enough rope to keep you tied to the chair.”  Brynin grinned.  “Idget is a thief and a sneak.  He pretends stupidity in order to loosen people’s tongues.  Don’t underestimate him.”

Tina’s brow furrowed.  “Is it safe to deal with a thief?”

“It’s never safe to deal with a thief,” Pelya said.  “They make some of the best informants though.  Just remember not to trust everything they tell you.  Always look for their true motive.”

Brynin nodded.  “Let Pelya handle him.  She dealt with far worse when she lived in Dralin.  To get in touch with Idget, you have to speak to Rymon, the bartender at the Black Moon Tavern.  Tell him, ‘horses are stupid,’ and he’ll get you in touch.”

“Horses are stupid?” Tina asked with a laugh.

The commander shrugged.  “I never learned the meaning.  I suppose I could, I just don’t care enough to do so.”

“Should we speak to the mage who’s making this new Liquid Wyvern?” Tina asked.

“Yes.  That would be Professor Klunjun of the Dayblossom Orphanage.  He’s an archmage, but few people know that.  I doubt he’ll know anything about the rumors.  His head is too deep into his work, but it won’t hurt to ask.  He lives in the northern tower, which is cluttered with books and magical items from what I understand.  He’s reported to be just as messy as his tower.”

“What about the city?” Pelya asked.  “I don’t know much about Zimth.”

“Mother took me there once,” Tina said.  “I nearly broke my neck gawking at the sights.  I think Zimth is one of the prettiest cities around.”

“It’s also one of the most disorganized cities in the world,” Brynin added.  “There isn’t a straight road anywhere in Zimth.  The buildings are oddly shaped and don’t fit quite right.”
Tina laughed.  “That’s true.  We got lost a few times, but that was part of the fun.  Can you give us specifics about the whispers you’ve heard, Aunt Reela?”

“Idget heard from one of his connections that a group of mercenaries was hired to create a riot around the time when the White Talon Company is supposed to pick up the Liquid Wyvern.  He wasn’t able to discern a connection other than the timing, but it’s my job to worry about those things.”

“Coincidences are often planned in my experience,” Pelya said.

“Exactly.”  Brynin steepled her hands in front of her chin.  “Tumera heard a pair of customers discussing the creation of an artifact.  They stopped talking when they noticed her.  It’s not much, but I don’t know of any other artifacts being created in Zimth.  She also sent me these.”  The commander opened a drawer and tossed three coins on the desk.  “This is the first time I’ve seen these.”
They were small with intricate designs on them.  Copper was the smallest of the three with silver and gold being similar sizes.  Pelya picked up the silver.  “You can find just about every type of coin that exists in Dralin, but I’ve never seen these either.”

“It’s called ‘uun’.  It’s what Rojuun use for currency.”  Brynin tapped each one.  “Four copper uuns make a silver uun and eight silver uuns make a gold uun.  Tumera got these from someone who escaped from Rojuun territory.”

Pelya’s head jerked up.  “Really?  What else did they tell her?”

“She said she has too much information to put in writing.”  Brynin pointed at them.  “That’s why the two of you need to get to Zimth as fast as possible.  Find and speak to the person Tumera got these from if at all possible.”

Tina sighed dramatically.  “Don’t you want us to take a few days off first, Aunt Reela?  We’ve been traveling since we graduated from the Academy and not a day’s rest.”

Brynin got to her feet and leaned her hands on the desk.  “You’ve had plenty of rest over the last week since you’ve been in Settatt.  Get going.”

That wasn’t entirely true considering Pelya and Tina had been debriefing the commander the entire time.  However, they weren’t about to test her resolve.  They jumped up and saluted her with the edge of their hands to foreheads.  Then they gave her hugs and headed out.


Pelya sat atop Honey, a spirited chestnut warhorse with flowing blonde mane.  Humidity caused Pelya and Tina’s undershirts to stick to skin as they rode out of Settatt on the graveled southern highway.  Sleeveless black tabards over polished chain shirts amplified the heat of the day.  A flick of Honey’s tail swatted flies hovering around her rump.

They stopped on a wooded rise to look back at the tranquil city.  It spread out through the valley and over hills to the north and east.  The sun shone with joy over the fact that it was summer, the season of its supremacy.

Dominating a rocky hill to the west of the city was the headquarters of the Blue Wyverns, a massive castle with rounded towers.  The main tower was eight stories high and watched over the city like a sentinel.  Pennants flew proudly above the towers and battlements.  It was the sort of castle bards sang about.

Settatt was the third largest city in Eddland after the Capitol of Auraroth to the west and Beltaddo to the south.  Its primary purpose was to support the Blue Wyverns, an all-woman mercenary group acting as the standing military for the country of Eddland.  They also contracted out to nearby countries for various purposes such as hunting bandits and pirates, security of remote areas, and protecting highways.  There was even an engineering division that built and maintained roads.

Though it hadn’t always been so, the country of Eddland was a wealthy country that thrived on trade.  In addition, it had a rich agricultural presence with vast farmlands, orchards and vineyards.  Due to the safety of the roads, Eddland had become a major trade hub for merchants.

A muffled drone of activity drifted from below to fade into the symphony of wildlife in the thick woods bordering the highway.  Birds chirped merrily in the leafy trees as they darted back and forth to catch insects.  The scent of warm leaves and flowered underbrush combined with dusty gravel.

Tina patted her dappled horse.  “I don’t know how many times we’ve ridden out of Settatt in the last year and a half since we graduated.  At least we get to leave the country this time.  I’m tired of investigating corruption in unimportant waypoints on the border or reports of abuse from officers like the one in Permo.”

They resumed riding.  “We’ll have to go through there on the way to Zimth.  It’s a nice enough town, especially since we arrested Captain Gurbell a few months ago,” Pelya said.

“The town isn’t nice, it’s boring.”  Tina tugged at her black tabard emblazoned with a white wyvern that marked them as Covert Services.  Dark-blue pants finished the uniform.  “Nobody likes us when we’re wearing these.  Even when we get rid of torturers like Gurbell they don’t trust us.  You’d think they’d be grateful after exposing the secret dungeon where she kept the people she kidnapped.  We rescued eleven townspeople, eleven.  Instead of giving us a party, they asked us how soon we’d be leaving.”

“Quit letting it get to you.”  Pelya wore the same uniform.  They were different from the dark-blue tabards embroidered with light-blue wyverns that most troops wore.  “When we get up tomorrow, we’ll change into our plain clothes.  The black sashes on our sheaths are sufficient to show our position to anyone who needs to know, but subtle enough not to draw undue attention.”  She referred to a black cotton sash with embroidered white wyverns.  They each had one tied around the neck of their sword sheaths.  Pelya’s was on her primary sword.  “You mentioned that Zimth is pretty.  How do you mean?”

Tina’s sweet face lit in remembrance.  She was a few months shy of Pelya’s age.  Innocence made her seem younger.  “The houses are round and painted pastel colors.  Each has a conical roof made of thatch.  Even businesses have at least one or two round sections.  You won’t be able to travel the rooftops like you did in Dralin.  They’re not close enough.”

Pelya snapped her fingers in mock dismay.  “We’ll just have to sneak around in the sewers.  Zimth has those, right?”

Tina gagged.  “I am not going into a sewer.  I’m sure I don’t know if they have them.  It’s not the sort of thing I pay attention to.

“You should pay attention,” Pelya said.  “It can be one of the best ways to get through a city unnoticed.  It’s also the method many criminals use to escape the law.”

“Then they can just escape.”  Tina shuddered away the idea and resumed her description of the city.  “Most houses have small yards with gardens.  The people of the country love their flowers.  Trees line the streets, large and small.  The people are polite.  They favor wide straw hats with conical tips that look like their roofs.”  She mimicked the shape of the hat over her head.  “And they tend to be short.”

“How short?”

“Just a few inches shorter than I’ve seen in other countries.  I’m one of the tallest women you’ll find from the Kingdom of Swelth.”

“Interesting.  I wonder why?”

“They probably don’t eat entire cows for lunch like you do.”  Tina grinned gleefully.

Pelya took a swipe at her, but Tina sidestepped her horse.  “The palace has lots of towers and buttresses.  It’s not built for defense so much as it’s made to look beautiful.”

“Is it as nice as Settatt Castle?” Pelya asked.

“It’s beautiful,” Tina assured her.  “You’ll love it.  Maybe we’ll find a way to sneak in and look around since you have an obsession with castles.”

“Daddy used to take me to Carnival to listen to the bards.  There were always tales of knights in shining armor riding out of pennant-topped castles.  Most of the knights I’ve met are disappointing.  I still have hope for castles.  One of these days maybe I’ll explore the world just to visit them.”  With a gloved finger, Pelya flicked a mosquito off the sleeve of her own shiny chain armor.  She had taken time to oil it properly during the past week.

“You’re such a romantic.”  Tina smiled.  “Although, knowing you, you’ll probably sneak into each one and find mysteries to solve.

Pelya chuckled.  “I enjoy sneaking around and solving mysteries.  When we get to Zimth, we’ll spend a couple of days exploring.  Perhaps we’ll get out of our armor and wear common clothes.  You like doing that as long as the garments meet your standards.”

“It’s not a matter of standards!  Those rags we wore at the rural waypoint near the border of Foauth weren’t normal.”  Tina made a face.  “And they had fleas!”

“For many people they’re normal,” Pelya pointed out.  “Poverty exists everywhere.  The guards at that waypoint were stealing from the poor.  It was despicable.”

“I still can’t believe anyone in the Blue Wyverns would behave that way.  They beat anyone who couldn’t pay their extortion.”  Tina shook her head in disbelief.  “When we reached the waypoint, Sergeant Malir was taking all the money and groceries that farmer and his family had.  When the farmer’s son tried to protest, she beat him.  Then she encouraged her squad to kick him while he was on the ground.”

Pelya grunted.  “I still don’t understand why people behave that way.  If everyone treated each other decently, the world would be a tolerable place to live.”

“For all your intelligence, you’re awfully silly, Pelya.  The world will never work that way and it would be boring if it did.”  Tina rolled her eyes.

Pelya gazed at the verdant trees and fell into silence.

“I’m sorry,” Tina said contritely.  She leaned on the pommel of her saddle.  “The fact of the matter is that I admire you, Pelya.  By the time you finished with Sergeant Malir and her squad, they were all lying on the ground nursing wounds.  You didn’t yell or call them idiots.  Instead, you explained the concept of decency to them and explained at length how they should treat people.”  Tina shifted in her saddle.  “Even in violence you’re considerate.”

“Hopefully they listened.”

The corner of Tina’s mouth quirked.  “I’m sure they did . . . except for the ones that were unconscious that is.”  She shifted in her saddle.  “Sergeant Malir was pretty.  You would think pretty people would be nice.”

A bark of a laugh escaped Pelya’s throat.  “Now who’s being awfully silly?”

“I’m pretty and nice.”  Tina stuck her tongue out.

Pelya chuckled and shook her head.  She wondered if the younger woman would talk the entire way to Zimth.  The thought of strangling the peppy woman was tempting some days, though they had become good friends.  She stretched toned muscles that made her more masculine than she would like.  “It’s a beautiful day.  Look, butterflies.”  She pointed at a field of flowers.  Spotted yellow butterflies fluttered between blossoms.

“Yes, delightful.”  Tina wasn’t to be sidetracked.  “What I’m trying to say is that you aren’t interested in just finding crimes and arresting people, you use your power to make the world a better place.  I swear if you could, you’d make certain every peasant and beggar was given a home and all the happiness they could ever desire.”

“That sounds wonderful!  Let’s do that.”

Tina threw her head back and laughed.  “Of course!  Happiness for all.  You’re one of a kind, Pelya.”

Pelya wasn’t in the mood for laughter.

Tina’s mirth died.  “What’s wrong with you lately, Pelya?  You’re never the cheeriest of people, but over the last couple of weeks, you’ve been downright cloudy.”

“I’m one of a kind, like you said.”  Pelya closed her eyes and inhaled.  Woody scents lingered over the gravel of the well-maintained highway.  Even in bad weather, the road would be easy to negotiate.  “We should travel into the late evenings and then get up early in the mornings, taking a long afternoon break when it’s hottest.  The journey will be easier on us and the horses that way.”

“Yes, fine.”  Tina wasn’t about to be diverted.  “You say one of a kind like it’s a bad thing.  You’re extraordinary.  Why wouldn’t you take pride in that?”

“Because I don’t fit in anywhere,” Pelya said in irritation.  “Even when I was in the Dralin City Guard, I never truly fit in.  They treated me like their mascot; put me on a pedestal.  Now, like you said, nobody likes us because we’re Covert Operations.”  She chewed on a fingernail.  “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

“Wow.”  Tina snorted.  “You are moody today.  You don’t know what to do with your life?  Keep going the way you are in the Blue Wyverns.  You’ll be able to take Aunt Reela’s job in twenty years or so.  You’ve got the ability.”

“I don’t want it.”  Pelya’s mood grew darker.  “She has to be too deceptive.  Even though the Blue Wyverns do good in the world, they’re susceptible to corruption.  I don’t want to be stuck between the rules and doing what’s right.  I definitely don’t want to compromise my morals.”

Tina shut up for a few minutes.

Pelya went back to staring at the woods.  Occasional clearings with cottages dotted the landscape.  Dirt paths led to unknown locations.  Pelya had a desire to ride along them to discover where they led.

“You don’t intend to remain with the Blue Wyverns, do you?” Tina accused.  “When are you planning on leaving?”

“I don’t have anything planned.”  Pelya had given it a great deal of thought.  “Who knows what the future holds?  Perhaps I will take your aunt’s job someday.  I might serve out my minimum time and then take off for some exotic location.  Then again, it’s possible that a god could strike me dead tomorrow.”

“You’ve already defeated one god.  That’s what forced you out of Dralin.”

“I was part of an army that killed an entity that was trying to become a god.”  Pelya sighed in frustration.  “Killing a High Chancellor was what got me banished from Dralin.”

“Do you think a god would really try to strike you dead?”  Tina looked around as if searching for an irate deity.

“I’m not looking to irritate the gods, but I’ve attracted the notice of a few.  Hopefully they don’t involve me in their silliness.”

Tina stared at her in silent contemplation while the hooves of their horses clopped along the gravel.
Pelya resisted commenting until she couldn’t handle it anymore.  “You’re staring at me.”
Tina snorted.  “You make it all sound so casual.”  She affected a snobbish voice and waved her hand like a noble.  “Oh, I meet with gods all the time.  We have tea on the veranda.  It’s quite lovely.”

Pelya rolled her eyes.

“You act as if all this is nothing to be concerned about.  You have powerful enemies, Pelya.  One of these days, it could make your life difficult.”

“One of these days?  It’s already made my life difficult,” Pelya retorted.  “If it kills me, so be it.”

“You’ve become jaded to the concept of danger, Pelya.”  Tina shook her finger.  “You’re too valuable to throw caution to the wind like you do.  You seek danger.  I’ve seen it before.  It’s almost as if you challenge the universe to give you a good fight.”

“The universe gives me a good fight whether I want it or not.  So let the universe bring its best!”  Pelya thumped her chest and threw her arms to the sky.  “I’ll take on everything it has to throw at me.”

Tina buried her face in her hands.  “Aggghhh!  You are so frustrating!  You’re going to get us both killed.”

“No.”  Pelya’s voice deepened with intensity.  Determination ran through her blood.  “I’m going to win every single fight the universe throws at me.”

Tina gave a rueful shake of her head.  “You know, I don’t doubt you will.  I just wonder what price you’ll pay in addition to what you’ve already suffered.”

Pelya wondered the same thing.  “The road is shady.  Let’s give the horses a little run.”  She kicked Honey forward without waiting for Tina’s reply.