Ali Smith – ‘How to Be Both’

I’m re-reading Ali Smith’s How to be Both at the moment – I’m preparing a paper for a conference on it, and I loved the book so much that I couldn’t wait to reread it. So this is an earlier review I posted on goodreads:

I’ve never read any of Smith’s books before – but I bought How to be Both because it was listed amongst some of the great novels published in September of last year. And I must admit that, at first, I was a little suspect of Smith’s major conceit, which I feared could turn out to be a gimmick. The author claims that the book can be read in two ways. You might begin with the tale of Francesco(a) del Cossa, 15th century artist, or with that of Francesco’s twenty-first century counterpart, George. Both stories form two halves of one narrative, because in so many complex and subtle ways, both characters are connected. As George’s mother points out when visiting Francesco’s frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara:

I’ve never seen such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again. She turns to George. It’s a bit like you, she says.

And there lies the pivotal concept of the entire novel. Francesco and George – a sixteen year old Cambridgeshire school girl – are connected across time and space in ways they cannot even begin to imagine. It’s not just a question of their general approach to life – the detached irony, the pain of loss which they both share. It is through a string of apparent coincidences that Smith reveals a fundamental empathy lying at the very heart of their existences.

I use the term “apparent coincidences” since, as they both discover, people’s lives are inextricably connected. Having rejected history as irrelevant, for example, George eventually finds herself comparing it to DNA: “What if history…was that shout, that upward spring, that staircase-ladder thing, and everybody was just used to calling something quite different the word history?” History, then, is not something to be analysed from a vantage point in the present, but is reimagined by George as a vital essence – as the foundation of her own existence. For Francesco that DNA ladder is conceived as a series of ripples, gradually stretching out to incorporate the entire world.

Once that fundamental empathy is attained, the two characters begin – unwittingly – to explore each other’s lives. On a whim, George’s mother takes her to Ferrarra to look at Francesco’s frescoes. After her mother dies, George inherits that fascination with Francesco’s art. Francesco finds himself flung into the twenty-first century, into what he takes to be a purgatorio which in fact turns out to be the National Gallery. Some of the most beautifully comic moments of this story concern Francesco’s attempts to reinterpret twenty-first century life through fifteenth century eyes. And so, for example, tablets and smart phones become religious votives:

this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives..and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring at them.

The act of perception also becomes a key motif of the book and this is why Smith invites her reader to approach the story either through the camera lens of George’s world, or through the painter’s eyes of Francesco’s. I would probably say that having overcome my initial doubts about this book, I gradually fell in love with it to the point where I’d probably describe it as my favourite book of 2014. Smith wrings a delicate beauty from her narrative as both characters deal with personal grief, the exploration of their own sexuality and come to terms with the complex worlds they inhabit. Its certainly a novel that I will revisit.

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Review: The Twiceborn: Chiaroscuro

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http://www.wattpad.com/story/18619229-the-twiceborn-chiaroscuro


It’s really hard to find provocative, well-written lesbian fiction. Believe me, I’ve tried. All too often it turns out to be erotica disguised as a story. And that’s fine in it’s way, but what I really want to read are stories which don’t simply fetishize lesbian relationships. I want characters who are fully-dimensional and who have issues with the environment in which they live which extend beyond their sexuality: who engage with their world in many different ways. That’s why I was so excited when I started reading The TwiceBorn: Chiaroscuro by Rebecca Hill. Because here at last was the very thing I’d been searching for. This is the first part of a fantasy series which pivots around the love between two women: Alora, The TwiceBorn – feared by humans as the very embodiment of evil and Islinn, a woman battling with her own demons as a former slave. The action is projected against a medieval backdrop of hardship and prejudice, as Alora is both courted and shunned by the people she encounters. Courted for her supernatural powers and shunned as an incarnate demon.

Alora’s dead-pan humour and cynical view of human behaviour mask a deep and genuine suffering, the origins of which are introduced in tantalising flashbacks as the story progresses. One of the most striking aspects of The TwiceBorn: Chiaroscuro is the psychological depth with which all the characters are drawn. For Alora, as well as Islinn, this story is very much one of self-discovery: and the reader participates in that act of self-realisation. It is a narrative which is also relayed with stunning eloquence – a prose style which lifts off the page and reinforces the sense of a gritty reality. In Rebecca Hill’s world, the traditional fantasy vision of good versus evil is challenged by a realistic blurring of moral boundaries. I can’t recommend this book enough – to fans of medieval-style fantasy, to readers searching for well-rounded, thoughtful lesbian fiction, or simply to those who appreciate superlative storytelling.

For Edith Sumner

This post is by way of a therapy session, I guess. After a very long struggle with Alzheimer’s, my grandmother died last night. If I could choose one person who has influenced my life, the direction I’ve taken, the choices I’ve made, it would be her. It’s odd how, typical of women of her generation, she was outspokenly anti-feminist and yet in her actions, her thoughts and opinions she was perhaps the greatest feminist I ever knew. Leaving school at 14, to work as a secretary in Manchester,  she understood the value of education to the core. “Get that piece of paper, that degree, that MA,” she used to tell me, “and they’ll never take it off you.” And I knew that, when she told me that, it was with such regret that those options had never been available to her.

“You have to vote. Women have died to get you that vote.” Born in 1918, the year women did attain political enfranchisement for the first time, she was brought up in an environment in which genuine equality was a pipe dream. And I think that deep down, such injustice really hurt my Gran. She’d never admit it in political terms. It was just a running sore, an open wound, something that cut her to the quick. The fact that such fundamental rights could be denied her on the grounds of her gender.

It was Edith who taught me the value of reading. She was quite adamant that she read to escape. “I see enough misery around me without reading about it,” she’d say. And so as a kid I’d get so excited discussing the latest David Eddings with her, or lying in bed while she read me Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time. For both of us it was a form of escape, a shared fantasy. We entered that world together and we lived it.

Edith suffered from Alzheimer’s for the last ten years. For a woman who could once complete a cryptic crossword in under fifteen minutes, who devoured books, who could narrate whole episodes of British history and bring them to life, it was a cruel, painful and frustrating illness. At first, she didn’t know what was happening. She was confused, frustrated but she didn’t know why. Fiercely independent and proud, she’d memorise her address or her date of birth in order to trick the doctor into thinking everything was alright. But of course you can’t keep kind of charade going with Alzheimer’s. And eventually, that light faded and all those stories were lost – or they would have been if she hadn’t told them to me and my sisters.

In the first few years of her illness, while I myself was trying to understand what it meant, I wrote a poem for her. I’ll admit that poetry is not really my thing. And Edith would probably have hated it because it doesn’t rhyme. ‘That awful Philip Larkin,’ she’d moan. ‘He destroyed English poetry.’ Nothing if not conservative, my Gran.

Anyway, here it is. And I hope, Gran, wherever you are now, you can forgive the poor attempt at verse.

For Edith

 

The projector beams its dusty light.

Screen pulled down, the lens reflects

Familiar scenes upon the wall.

*

A beach in Wales, sand-coated dog,

Mountains, hills, our rain-soaked faces

Grinning through the mist.

*

We’re enthralled when the machine whirrs and clicks,

Taking on a life all of its own.

Your life.

*

Slide one: A slice of Salford living,

Back to back terraces peeling away

And just behind them a Great War, gradually fading out of sight.

*

A young girl, a child still, but free of school

Beginning work for the first time

And rising through the ranks until you could

*

Remember all the rules, and it was your boss

Who came to you with the questions. Another slide,

Another war, far more personal this time.

*

Hitler was attacking you and your family, it seemed,

As you sheltered beneath the stairs, returning to work

to find an office shred down to typewriter ribbons.

*

The picture is clearer here, more acute:

How you served returning soldiers at Victoria

and danced down Deansgate, victorious.

*

And emerging from the frames of these old shades

A new picture: of a husband, a son,

Of an ideal home, of church meetings, family

*

Holidays on Cornish beaches, the pattern of

Things to come: a little stability at last

And finally the chance to revel in that history you really loved ─

*

Not your own, of course, but that of other people:

A history which could be seen so clearly with its

Stately homes and ancient churches,

*

The books which could be read about it, the

Ornaments which could be collected and named,

An old house which you could finally live in

*

And which, above all, could be described to those

Who were willing to listen, myself included, until, finally

The slides roll on and on to the sea.

*

A last place to call your own, maybe at times a place

Under siege it seemed, from sand and rain but

Always a place where you could carry on, you hoped.

*

Granddad died, suddenly you seemed only half

Yourself. The sea, relentless, hurled itself at the walls,

But I don’t believe you ever admitted defeat.

*

Forgive the breaks here, the fading edges

Which could have been filled

Had I just thought to ask,

*

For these edges had begun to fade

In your mind too

Until all the slides became as one.

*

The projector is turned off. The room turns briefly dark

Without the lens’s discerning light which we have used

And from which we try to make sense.

http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/

Hal available on amazon from 1st March

 

 

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So Hal is now up for pre-order on Amazon, and will be available for purchase from the 1st March.

 

A disinherited aristocrat, Halanya Thæc has been brought up in the confines of the imperial court, destined for a life of privilege and luxury. Yet Hal is happiest with a sword in her hand, and forsakes her status as ward to become a professional duellist, spending her days in training, her nights revelling, famed for her prowess in the capital’s duelling arena.

All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Hal-Kate-Cudahy-ebook/dp/B00TQCH4VQ/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

‘The Luminaries’ – Review

Curse you, Eleanor Catton! It took me over a month to wade through The Luminaries – I’ll admit that I’m a slow reader, but even so. And the thing is, perhaps it’s just me but I’m still none the wiser. After 832 pages of intricately poised plot, I still found myself thinking ‘what?’ ‘eh?’

OK so perhaps I’m not a very bright reader either. Perhaps I was biting off more than I could chew. I’ll admit that in terms of scale and structure, this is an ambitious work. I’ve heard it referred to as the first ‘great New Zealand novel,’ in the same way that Ulysses is touted as the great Irish novel. And in fact I did find myself drawing comparisons between the two – in terms of Catton’s decision to root her story within a broader mythic context. Not only that, but the triangulation of characters as they move around Hokitika reminded me of the ‘Wandering Rocks’ chapter of Ulysses.

And then there is the whole mathematical subdivision of chapters, the years of research which have fed into a vivid portrayal of gold rush New Zealand, the postcolonial/postmodern subversion of the Victorian novel. What’s not to like?

Yet for some reason, I just felt that this book eluded me. I guess I should summon up the courage to read it again. But the thing is, I got the feeling Catton was trying too hard. That all the underlying symbolism, the complexities, the research was just a little too forced.

I’m aware, for example, that some of my favourite writers of historical fiction – such as Sarah Waters or Caleb Carr – also put an incredible amount of time and effort into research. But for some reason that blends in so well with the story they’re trying to tell that it’s not obvious – it’s a natural element of the narrative. In The Luminaries, though, I was left with the feeling that the author had thought ‘I spent a month researching how to pan for gold and I’m damn well going to put a description of it in this book.’ The research just didn’t seem sufficiently integrated with the narrative.

And so, while, I’m aware that The Luminaries won the 2013 Booker, and even though I know that it’s a novel which celebrates New Zealand in a way that, perhaps, no novel has done so far, I still get this nagging sense that I missed something important here. And that really irritates me.

Welcome

 

So, here I am, a newbie to the world of blogging, teetering on the brink of writing my first post. All very exciting.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be using this blog for the nefarious purpose of promoting my own novels, Hal and Hannac which follow the exploits of Hal Thæc, a young duellist who simply doesn’t seem to be able to keep out of trouble:

It has been several years since Halanya Thæc left court to become a professional duellist. A disinherited aristocrat, she forsakes her status as imperial ward to spend her days in training, her nights revelling. It is rare for a woman to achieve fame in the duelling arena and Hal is renowned for her swordcraft throughout the imperial capital, Colvé.

All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy merchant.

I also hope to publish my reviews of other people’s work, to host interviews with independent authors and to publish chapters of my new novel, The Firefarer.

Well, that’s all for now but if you’d like to read the first chapter of Hal, you’ll find it posted below the covers.

K X

4265211-256-k711591 [ File # csp13307599, License # 2939848 ] Licensed through http:

Chapter One: The Duellist

With a sudden roar the crowd erupted, the duelling arena resounding to the clink and ring of money exchanging hands as bets were paid. Hal sank in exhaustion, her knees making painful contact with the splintered wood of the duelling circle. The arena’s high arched roof broke into a dizzying spin above her, and she almost vomited with fatigue. Her opponent staggered away, collapsing amongst the jeering groups of spectators. She eyed his burly mass as they hauled him upright. What the Easterner had lacked in skill, he more than made up for in strength. Gathering her final reserves of energy, Hal struggled to her feet, slumping down once more on the edge of The Circle, its arched edge digging into the backs of her legs. Why did Beric always pit her against such giants?

A cadet hovered before her, clutching a flagon of water to his chest. She nodded to him, seized the vessel from his hands, and gulped down the contents in long, thirsty draughts. Dragging her arm across her eyes she wiped them free of sweat, and scanned the room. The buzz of conversation slowly died away as spectators filed out, and from the back of the hall, someone called down to her:

“Thought he had you for a minute there, girl!”

Hal twisted around to observe the man who was now threading his way between empty seats and benches towards her ‒ a tall, slim figure darkly clad in senatorial robes. She barely managed a nod as Senator Marc Remigius approached the circle and beamed down at her. Aging with little dignity, Marc exuded an energy which never seemed to desert him. The greying tips of his hair were always lightly powdered, as was his face, once handsome features now creased with wrinkles. She continued to drink, too drained to reply. He frowned, lowering himself onto the platform beside her.

“Fancy celebrating?”

Hal’s thoughts were finally clearing, her heart no longer hammering against the walls of her ribcage. She contemplated his suggestion.

“Where did you have in mind?”

“My place? I’ve been looking for an excuse to organise a party for some time now. You just handed me the opportunity.”

“Really, Marc, you don’t need an excuse for that. Besides, your ‘surprise’ parties always seem to attract an indecent number of people.”

“Hal Thæc, you may doubt my sincerity, but you can never deny my capacity to entertain. I’ll be expecting you at eight. In the meantime, I suggest you bathe.”

She sighed, knowing full well that her friend would accept no excuse.

“I’ll think about it.”

“I know you will.”

Both rose, Hal with some difficulty. The Senator headed out for the city streets with the remaining spectators as she crossed the arena to greet her duelling master, Beric Thælda, who was studying the tally of bets with satisfaction.

“Well Hal, looks like you’ve done us proud today, girl.” She winced as he squeezed her shoulder beneath a bear-like paw. Unlike Marc, Beric was incapable of gentleness or subtlety. His silvery hair and beard gave him an unnervingly metallic appearance which, combined with brutish strength made him an intimidating character. That was, at least, how the young cadets in his duelling academy saw him. But Hal had learned long ago that beneath the rough exterior lurked a paternal spirit, if not a soft heart.

“You know,” he continued, “I was a mite worried in that last round, girl. Tiring were you?” He leant forward, his eyes narrowing to slits as he scrutinised her. Hal looked away.

“I won. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

“No, lass, as I’ve told you many times: style can make or break a good fight, especially as far as the punters are concerned. Now, I suppose you’ll be wanting your prize money?”

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

“Half for you, half for me, right?” He leaned back again, a tight, provocative smile concealed beneath his brindled moustache.

“As always.”  Tired and irritated, Hal was in no mood for banter.

“Very well.  Don’t go throwing it away like the last time. I won’t be bailing you out again before the next fight.”

“Beric, please just give me the cursed money, I’m tired.” Crossing her arms she glared at him, aware of how much pleasure he derived from dragging out these little deals.

Beric shook his head, unoffended, and handed her the winnings.

“There you go, just give me another such success in your next duel.”

“Your confidence in my abilities is overwhelming, Beric.” Snatching the bag of coins from his outstretched hand, she turned to go.

“And your respect for your elders and betters is the talk of the town, girl.” She stopped, contemplating a response, but then thought better of it. The prospect of quarrelling with Beric was not an appealing one. Instead, she made her weary way across the arena, aware that she had just granted another victory to the old master.

A very small part of her conceded that he was right. Sometimes vanity got the better of her and she flaunted her skills instead of reserving her strength. Only the previous month her opponent had sliced open her arm as she attempted to somersault across the circle. Beric had been furious.

“I can see you don’t need any more training,” he’d yelled, “when you’re prepared to throw away a duel for the sake of looking like a damned acrobat!”

Although she would never have admitted it, the reprimand had remained with her during this fight, As the Easterner had swung, blocked and parried she focussed upon his weaknesses, using his own strength against him to bring him down. Not such spectacular fighting, but certainly more effective. The last thing she wanted was another armful of Beric’s crooked stitching.

Doors on the far side of the arena opened onto public baths, the women’s divided from the men’s by a thin partition wall. Pulling off her boots, Hal gasped as her feet encountered the cool chill of marble. The sound of  water lapping at the walls of the pool seemed to have a calming effect on nerves still frayed after the duel. A small group of women bathed and gossiped, releasing occasional cascades of laughter around the stone chamber.  Recognising one or two of them from the palace, Hal decided against joining them. Few courtiers ever acknowledged her with more than a stiff, cold nod.

Hal stripped, leaving her clothes in a pile, and lowered her body into the water, aware of the sly glances the women threw her, their curiosity overcoming disdain. She slid from sight beneath the surface, only too aware of strange figure she must cut: boyish grace combined with an athletic physique, intense blue eyes contrasting with a pale, almost white complexion. City-dwellers saw little of the sun. With a gasp, she rose again to stand at waist height in the water, raking wet fingers through cropped, coal-black hair. Finally, allowing herself to sink lower, she leant her head against the pool’s edge, sensing the sweat and vigour of the fight drain out into the water. The women lost interest and resumed their chatting, leaving Hal alone to debate with herself whether she had strength enough for the Senator’s celebration.

It was early summer. The evening had taken on a slightly hazed appearance as the sun wound its way downwards, yet the city seemed to resonate with excitement: the commerce of the day exchanged for the entertainments and pleasures of the night. While some citizens scurried home, others were evidently heading for masked balls, parties or concerts. Hal made her way amongst the groups of revellers, exchanging the occasional nod with an acquaintance but in general attempting to steer clear of prying eyes.

She had bathed and felt more refreshed, hoping that the fresh linen shirt and leather trousers she now wore made her appear more respectable. But the constant ache in the pit of her stomach was a reminder of how much Hal dreaded such occasions. Lacking the natural social graces of her friend, she found it difficult to appear relaxed and carefree when faced with his distinguished guests. And as the burble of conversation and laughter drifted down the street towards her, her stomach lurched and she almost turned back.

Marc’s town house was a tall, free standing building surrounded by a high-walled garden. Topiary birds fronted the terrace, which led to a sweeping semi-circle of steps. All three floors of the building were lined with rows of high, latticed windows, and the roof was decorated with ornate statues: ostentatious touches which Marc had added to improve the grandeur of the place.

Realising how late she already was, Hal bounded along the terrace and found the doors to the main salon thrown wide open. She craned back her neck, taking in the grand scale and spectacle of the party. A wooden gallery ran beneath the entire length of the ornate ceiling, enabling guests to group along it and gaze down at the swaying pairs of dancers, as the court’s finest musicians entertained from a corner of the room.

Servants swarmed around her, overladen with arrangements of food on silver platters, or carrying crystalline pitchers of wine. Hal caught her breath a little. Her friend had truly surpassed himself.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she span round to face the Senator. Marc was dressed in a long silver frock coat threaded with gold brocade at its cuffs and collar, his hair and face delicately powdered. He could easily have passed for the Emperor himself.

“Late as usual.” He shook his head in mock disapproval. “For that, I’m afraid; you’re going to have to dance.”

“Marc, you know I can’t.” What was he thinking of? “Anyway, I’m tired. I only came out of courtesy.”

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “I saw the way you leaped up those steps. Don’t even begin to pretend that you’re so far above us lesser mortals you don’t enjoy a good party when you see one.”

Hal laughed.  “Fine, I’ll dance, once I’ve seen the quality of your guests. Last time you just invited a bunch of second-rate hangers-on from the court!”

Marc threw her an indulgent smile. “I don’t think you’ll find them lacking. Allow me to introduce you to one or two of them.”

He led her on a precarious course between dancing couples towards two wealthy looking women and a short, round, well-dressed man, who were talking animatedly to each other ‒ or at each other. Hal couldn’t tell.

“I would like you to meet Master Braint, an eminent merchant from the East, his wife and sister. Ladies, Master Braint, this is the renowned duellist, Halanya Thæc.”

“I know,” Braint returned, with a hint of bitterness.

“Oh really?” Marc sounded surprised. “Have you met before?”

“No, I just lost a lot of money betting on her opponent in the fight today.”

“Ah.”  Marc looked at his feet. The conversation ground to an awkward halt.

Hal offered them a thin smile. “Well, you’ll know who to bet on next time, won’t you?”

“In my opinion,” Braint’s wife began, “The Duelling Circle is not a place for…”

“Yes, let’s be moving on, shall we?” Marc caught hold of her elbow. “Come along Hal, there are so many people I’d like you to meet.”

He whisked her away. Braint, and the two women remained silent for a few brief moments and she held her breath, sensing their glares. Eventually their conversation picked up again, louder and more frantic than before.

“What the devil did you have to say that for?” asked Marc in agitation.  “You stirred them up. Could you not be more diplomatic occasionally?”

“Very well,” Hal sighed in resignation. “For you, Marc, I can be diplomatic. I can start being diplomatic with that girl over there.”

“What girl, where?”

“That one who’s watching us. Who’s she?”

Marc followed her gaze across the room to where a young woman was stood alone by a window, her light-brown eyes flecked with amusement as she took furtive sips from a glass of wine. The simple cut of her black dress contrasted with her fair hair, which was twisted intricately about her head, caught in a knot at the nape of her neck. Hal noted a certain defensive pride in the girl’s eyes, in the way she kept herself at a distance from the party.

“Well, Hal, that is definitely someone you do not want to talk to, diplomatically or otherwise.”

“Why not?”

“Why not?” Marc repeated Hal’s question, his voice edged with disbelief. “I’ll tell you why not. Her name is Meracad and she just happens to be the daughter of Master Salius Léac, one or our great city’s most esteemed burghers. That’s him over there.”

He nodded in the direction of a burly man in his fifties who was drinking heartily with a group of merchants. Their peals of coarse laughter struck the air. Prime examples, Hal recognised, of the new money which was beginning to challenge the authority of the court.

“Now, to you and me,” Marc continued, his tone laced with sarcasm, “he may appear a brutish oaf, but in fact beneath that somewhat bullish exterior lies the ingenious mind of a brilliant and utterly ruthless man of business. So ruthless, in fact, that his daughter, Meracad, is pretty much the financial jewel in his crown.”

She stared at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that, when the occasion arises, he will almost certainly sell her to the highest bidder in order to secure the business deal of his dreams.”

“What a bastard.”

“Maybe, Hal, you did not express that quite as elegantly as I would have done, but in not so many words, you hit the very nail upon its head; which is every reason for you to stay away from both him and his daughter. Anyway, she’s not your type.”

“And how would you know about that?”

“Hal, there was gossip about your latest entanglement from here to the city gates. Scullery maid in the court kitchens, wasn’t it? Freckles, curly hair…”

“Yes, alright, there’s no need to go on. Anyway, I’ve no intention of going to speak to her when she’s coming over here instead.”

“Oh God!” Marc groaned, as the girl began to pace towards them in a graceful arc. “Her father will have me by the testicles. The only purpose in her being here tonight is so that Leac may show her off to his business associates .” Marc nodded toward the group of men gathered around Meracad’s father.

Meracad reached them and inclined her head in a polite nod. “Well, Senator,” she began, “you never told me that you played host to such famous guests at your parties. This is, I believe, Hal Thæc?”

“I am. And the Senator here has just been informing me as to your own identity. Meracad Léac, I believe?”

“That’s correct. I heard that your duelling today was spectacular. I’m pleased you won.”

“In that case, I’m please to have entertained.”

“I shall have to come to more of your parties, Senator.” She turned away from them for a moment and then looked back, her brow creased with worry. “I believe my father wishes to speak to me. I’m sorry, please excuse me.”

“Of course.” Hal peered across the room at Meracad’s father. A scowl drawn across his face, he stared back at her.

Marc gulped down an entire glass of wine in haste as the girl left them to re-join Leac.

“Oh come on Marc, you don’t mean to tell me you of all people are scared of an old brute like that?” joked Hal.

“I’m not scared of him, Hal Thæc,” Marc replied gravely. “I’m scared for you.”