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Author Topic: Ambervale. Part 1 of a short story I'm entering in a contest.  (Read 989 times)
The Corsair
Defective Inspector
Zeppelin Admiral
New Zealand New Zealand

« on: March 02, 2015, 08:49:41 am »

Titles are hard...

Anyway, I'm looking to enter a piece into the Writers of the Future competition, and have cooked up a plot for a short story in 3 parts, told in a somewhat pulp-fiction style where the real story is told by the stories around it. It's ambitious, and I could well fail to pull it off, but I figured I'd try anyway. Here's the first part, which I'm at this point I'm quite comfortable with. I want to give it a trial-by-fire of sorts and see what you guys think of it.

The Nature of Cities

There are two kinds of cities. Some start out small, a few huts around a coal seam, or a lone mill by a river powerful enough to turn a wheel. From there they grow, like any organism that finds a vital resource. The streets sprawl out like veins, spiderwebbing away from that mill or mine as more come to share in the wealth. Eventually they become thrumming and thriving centres of power. Empires spring up with those cities at their hearts, and they push the world forward through history.
The other kind spring up overnight. If the first kind of city is a railway station then the second kind is a crucial bridge along the line. They appear where they are needed, as struts to support a long road of wealth. In these cities the streets are straight and wide, spanning outward from a port or a market. The winding alleys and tumbling suburbs are kept to the outskirts, where the poor come in hoping to find themselves a slice of fortune. As they move inward these people pass through the strata of the city, first through the food markets where the farmers sell to the grocers, then through the lavish suburbs of the bankers and bureaucrats. At last they arrive at the bustling streets of their city's vital organ, where the merchants and their work live as neighbours.

Ambervale was the second kind, and it was the fifth city Jaxon had lived in. Despite his young age, Jaxon knew the nature of cities. He knew how to sneak aboard a ship or caravan to move about the world, he knew the ways to get work anywhere he lived, and he knew who and what to avoid in depths of the urban sprawl. Now at 14 years of age, Jaxon had long since decided that this knowledge was something he was born with, for everywhere he'd gone he'd out-earned his friends, outsmarted his enemies and outlived his work. Every time he left a city, he left behind all the people that didn't know these things half as well as him.

The sun rose on his third day in Ambervale, and today was the day to make some money, lest the soles of his shoes fall out from under his feet. This was only the second time he had been in a city like Ambervale, but he had learned from his time in Hudson that there was only one place he needed to go: the docks.

Ambervale was a special kind of city, and it was by no coincidence that Jaxon had travelled here. The second kind of city was always new, and Ambervale was the newest. The flying ships had brought about a new kind of trade. These cities didn't appear down rivers or along coasts anymore, they appeared at the source of the rare and luxurious. If the wealthy were paying hundreds for silk, a city would appear by a silk weaver. If they craved a certain food, a city would crop up by the only farm producing it. When they decided they wanted fleets of airships, someone built Ambervale.

The trees hung low over the boulevard as Jaxon made his way to the docks. Elsewhere in the world red leaves would be found underfoot, but in Ambervale they stayed on the trees all year round. These leaves let through small shards of sunlight, dappling the white stone streets as morning grew stronger. Together they painted Ambervale in a warm orange glow. After the frozen deckplates of Champlain Falls, the springtime sun was a welcome change for Jaxon. He ran a hand through his long black hair, sweeping it over his scalp so it hung around the back of his neck. This way he could pass off as more than just an urchin, and in his time on the streets of many a city he had learned how to play a dozen parts. Today, he was the son of a farmer out to make his own way in the world.

As his steps carried him further down the main street, more people began to join him. At first, it was a few early risers. Real farmers who were coming to town to buy things like new trucks or another acre of land. After them came the crews-for-hire, spilling out of the taverns and inns that lay down side streets. The last to come were the merchants themselves, ready to sell their wares to the plucky airborne traders. The buzz of business reached Jaxon's ears, beckoning him toward the end of the road. The sound was a welcome familiarity. Docks for airships shared no smells with those by the water, but they sounded almost exactly the same. All they lacked was the slap of lanyards against masts and the groaning of ropes being strained. Instead was the hum of idling engines, punctuated by the clunk of clamps locking as ships touched down. There was no rhythm or rhyme to it, but to Jaxon's ears it was music. It was the glorious song of a city's heart beating.

He carried on walking until the noise of it surrounded him, pressing against him like a physical force. In a strange way, this place was safety for him. Nowhere else did he feel more confident that he would end the day with money in his pocket and a warm meal in his belly. Jaxon pricked up his ears, scanning for the crucial words that signalled work. As he listened, he idled his way down the rows of airships. When he saw one approaching, he'd hurry toward the docking bay it was about to land in, each time hoping there would be some cargo to help unload. But each time he was too late or just plain unlucky, watching time and time again as someone else snapped up the scraps of work and small pennies that followed. Still, the day was long and Jaxon was, if nothing else, persistent.

He carried on this way for a good many hours, eventually finding the odd job unloading a box or sending a message to a merchant somewhere. It wasn't enough to make his purse heavy, but by noon he'd earned enough pennies for the night's meal and bed. Not wanting to spend any of it, he pressed on through the encroaching lunchtime hunger. The docks quietened ever so slightly for the hour, but his hard work paid off and he added another two pennies to his stash. When the merchants came back from lunch he found a few more jobs, earning him another four pennies. Around mid-afternoon a ship came in with passengers, and ferrying someone's luggage uptown to a lavish inn earned him a further three pennies, bringing his total up to 17.

With his luck turned, Jaxon afforded himself the luxury of some less arduous work. Instead of scurrying about, hoping to be in the right place when someone yelled 'you boy, come grab this crate', he changed his tactics. Now, he hung back against the stalls on the far side of the docks. It was risky, but if it paid at all it would pay big. You see, from here Jaxon could spot out the traders who came to speak with the shop owners in low, hushed voices. These traders had something important on them, and wanted as few people as possible to find out. If you could get in the know, you gave them no choice but to include you in their business dealings. The cut might be small, but 8 pennies for one job was still a lot to someone like Jaxon.

With his eyes scanning the long row of stalls, he tuned his ears in to a different kind of conversation. If a trader wandered up to a stand, Jaxon would slink over and slip into the shadows between stalls to eavesdrop. In a few hours the traders would be turning in for the night, Jaxon's time was short. But he was smart, he knew how to spot who might be having a clandestine conversation. Maybe they carried a dagger just under their shirt, or maybe their trousers were just a little too big. Something always gave away who was in for some shady dealing.

Again Jaxon's persistence paid off when he saw a man with a blue band of fabric tied around his cuff. Every city has its underbelly, and every underbelly has its factions vying for control of whatever illegal goods are in demand. These factions wanted to avoid treading on each other's toes, so they marked themselves. Jaxon was too new to Ambervale to know who wore what, but that tiny scrap of blue in that particular location marked this trader clearer than if he wore a sign on his front. Whatever this man was here for, it wasn't the selling of fur.

Jaxon slipped through the shadows, ducking through the thinning crowd as he made his way to what he hoped was the trader's destination. At one point, a large greengrocer stumbled into Jaxon's way, knocking him over and causing him to lose sight of his mark. After a few panicked moments and an exchange of passing apologies, Jaxon caught the flash of blue in the crowd again. He hurried toward it, seeing the man head for a jeweller's stall a few metres away.

All of a sudden, the man stopped, looking as though he was searching for a friend that wasn't where he was supposed to be. Jaxon stopped, hesitated. Was the man here to meet someone? Perhaps it was wise to back away. Pre-arranged meetings meant crime of a deeper sort, and Jaxon had no wish to get tangled in anything dangerous.

I think I should also mention I had a dream about this game, only Bailey was a woman...

I assure you, that incident in Singapore was all a misunderstanding.
The Corsair
Defective Inspector
Zeppelin Admiral
New Zealand New Zealand

« Reply #1 on: March 02, 2015, 08:51:25 am »

The afternoon sun shone through the red-hued trees and bounced off the white stone buildings, making the docks look as though they were ablaze. Jaxon squinted as he looked at the man, who stood just metres away scanning the crowd. Then the man looked Jaxon's way, gaze fixing on him as though he'd known all along that Jaxon was watching. Jaxon started, turned, stumbled. He picked himself up and regained his composure, trying to hurry while keeping a casual air about himself.

"Hey! You!" he heard from behind him.

There were two options. One, try and run with no place to go, drawing attention to both himself and this potentially dangerous man. Two, turn and speak with the man, getting dragged in to whatever foul business he was here to attend. Jaxon made his decision almost on instinct. He composed himself and turned around.

"Hey," said the man, drawing close now, "Sorry to scare you."

"How can I help ya' sir?" said Jaxon, doing his best to sound every bit the subservient farm boy.

"I need someone to run an errand." said the man.

He knew it, this man was trouble. Jaxon opened his mouth to make some excuse, to tell the man he had to get back to work with his da'. Then he saw the glint of silver in the man's palm. 'A full half-crown' Jaxon thought, and before he could stop himself he was imagining all the small luxuries that sort of money could buy him. It still wasn't much in the grand scheme of things, but it was more than double what he'd made so far today and it would mean new shoes and better clothes, which meant a higher calibre of work. Maybe, just maybe, his life's luck had turned altogether.

"What sort'a help you after?" he found himself saying.

At the back of his mind some part of him protested, told him only big trouble paid big coin, but it was too late. Maybe he was just young, or maybe every man gets stupid around more money than they've ever held. Jaxon was hooked in spite of himself, and the man knew it too.

"Listen," said the man, and Jaxon listened with wider ears than he'd ever had in his life.

It was then, with every fibre of his attention on this stranger, that he saw something different. The man didn't have the usual easy confidence of a gangster. The tiny speck of light bouncing off the coin quivered in a frantic dance. The man's hands were shaking.

'Why?' thought Jaxon, 'Is this man just a rich fool caught up in something bigger than he'd meant?'

Before he could think his way into an answer, the man continued, standing just inches away now.

"Take this," he said, pulling off a canvas messenger bag around his shoulder and handing it to Jaxon, "to a man called Vance."

Jaxon took the bag out of reflex before his better senses could reject it. He found himself holding it, stuck halfway between dumbstruck and attentive, vaguely aware of his instincts still protesting.

"You'll find him up a flight of stairs in an alley beside an inn called The Dusty Sparrow. Knock three times, give the doorman that bag and tell him Shiner is out."

The hint of nervousness in the man's voice disappeared as he ended his spiel. Before Jaxon could say or do anything, there was a heavy silver coin in his hand, a brown canvas bag in the other and an ever-thinning crowd swirling around him. The man was gone, and Jaxon couldn't so much as glimpse a swathe of blue fabric in the crowd.

Jaxon stood, still stunned by what had just occurred. The weight of the half-crown in his hand was the only thing dragging him back to his senses. 'You've got the money now, take it and go before anyone sees you with this bag' his mind pleaded. But another part of him said something else. He knew, deep down, that there would be someone watching for this cargo to arrive. If he turned tail and left with this bag, or even if he dropped it here and ran, someone would follow him. Jaxon knew full well what that person might do to him where the crowds were thinner. In any case, the job was simple enough, and Jaxon reckoned he'd passed The Dusty Sparrow on his way down the main street in the morning. The job might be dangerous, but it would be over soon. Besides, he still passed off as a little boy. No-one had any cause to hurt him.

He got moving before anyone could see him lingering too long. At first, his eyes darted nervously around the crowd, suspicious of everyone he saw. A rough-looking lady wearing a wide coat with all manner of pockets to hold nasty things. A bald, sinister-looking man who wore a permanent snarl. A lean, roguish teen with shining white teeth and scars to match.

But no-one followed him. No-one gave him so much as a second glance. He was just a young boy, invisible in the crowd even as it dwindled. The man had known that, he'd picked Jaxon for exactly that reason. After a few moments Jaxon began to relax. He turned down the main road heading away from the docks, eyes searching down the side streets for the aforementioned inn. As the minutes began to pass, he started to wonder what might be in the bag. Was it a weapon of some sort? It didn't feel heavy against his side, so if it was a weapon it lacked anything metal. Was it some vicious new substance, cooked up to make the rich and poor alike crave it to their dying breath? Why would that be enough to scare the man, 'Shiner' as he called himself, out of his dangerous business?

As he wondered and walked, the distance melted beneath his feet. All at once, he realised he'd stopped paying attention to the buildings around him and could have already passed the inn. Did he turn around and waste more time searching? Or did he ask for directions and get this nervous chore over with? It was a hard thing to decide, but the low growl in his stomach decided for him. It was time to be eating meals and readying for bed, and that meant it was time to ask for directions.

Jaxon made for a tavern that opened out onto the main street. At his best guess The Dusty Sparrow wasn't the friendliest of places, but with any luck whoever he spoke to would only give him pity instead of asking what business a young lad like him had at such an inn. Nearing the tavern, he spotted a youngish serving girl bringing in the outdoor tables to prepare for the night-time crowd. He out on his best 'lost boy' face and crept near.

"Excuse me," he said, in the most pathetic voice he could muster, "could you tell me where The Dusty Sparrow is?"

The serving girl turned and saw him, expression switching from annoyance to sympathy in an instant.

"Awww sweetie, are you a little lost?" she said, facing him but not crouching down to his eye level. Jaxon nodded to her, forcing his eyes to well up a little but not so much that she would insist he stay at the tavern for the night. "Go two streets over. It winds about a little down there, but if you keep the drainpipes to your right when you turn down alleys you should find the inn no trouble."

"Thank you miss." Jaxon said, making sure to sound relieved but not excited.

Before the girl could so much as offer a glass of water, Jaxon was off. He hurried toward the street she had mentioned, eager to be off the main road before men of the law could be called after a lost child. Jaxon turned down the sideroad, checking behind him just the once to make sure no officers were following him. There was still two or three people on the street close to him, so he didn't feel all that unsafe just yet. But Jaxon knew as well as anyone how close a place can go from safe to dangerous with just a few wrong turns, and he was planning on going somewhere dangerous anyway. Whatever safety he felt, it would be short-lived. Still, at least he could be back on the main road soon once off the bag was delivered.

He turned the first corner, following the drainpipes like the serving girl had told him. A feeling rose in his gut, and his hairs stood up on their ends. Something deep down told him he wasn't half as safe as he'd been just a moment ago.

'Turn back now.' his subconscious urged, 'Drop the bag here and run. No-one will see the bag, and no-one will see you. Run. Get out.'

This time his instincts won out. He turned to look over his shoulder, just to make sure there really was no-one to see him dropping the bag and leaving. His eyes reached the entrance of the alley. A man rounded the corner, bald head shining in the evening sun, looking straight at him. Jaxon's head whipped around to face forward. He tried to keep his composure, to keep walking like nothing was amiss, but his self-control was only so strong. He sped up in an all-too-obvious way. 'Don't turn around', he told himself, 'for god's sake don't turn around.' But he was panicked, and a fool. He turned again. The bald man was closer.

Jaxon broke into a run, all thoughts of maintaining nonchalance abandoned. One thing mattered right now; get out alive. He dashed forward, young legs taking off at a speed the older man couldn't hope to match. He darted down an alleyway, too scared to think about where the drainpipes were. Behind him he heard the slapping of boots heavier than his meeting cobblestones. He ran faster, pushed himself, flung around another corner hoping the man hadn't seen him. Still the footsteps continued. The man would be faster than him, Jaxon knew that. Normally he would know the secret ways of a city, could slip away from someone faster than him. But he was new here, he knew nothing more than where he slept and how to get to the docks. He was relying on luck to save him, blindly barrelling down alleyways hoping to find some narrow passage his pursuer couldn't fit through.

Jaxon turned another corner, glanced behind him to check that the alley he'd just left was clear. It wasn't. His heart skipped a beat and he rushed forward again, faster than he'd ever run before. Suddenly there was a bright light and he was thrown backwards. It was as though he'd been punched all along his body at once. He was only dazed a moment, but when Jaxon came to lying on his back in the dirt, he knew the jig was up. The rhythm of boots was slower now, purposeful. The man knew the streets better than Jaxon, knew he had him cornered.

Still panting heavily, and woozy from running into a wall, Jaxon lay flat on the cobblestones. The sound of boots drew nearer still, closing in on where Jaxon lay. Everything ached, the chemical madness in his head unable to keep the pain at bay. The boots echoed louder, and above him Jaxon saw the glint of a hairless head as the man rounded into the dead-end alleyway. A hot wetness burst from Jaxon's waist, soaking his trousers and adding to the stink of the alley. He wanted to curse himself, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Instead, he just lay there, quivering. His heart raced, his head spun, but deep down he knew this was the last thing he'd ever see.

"Sorry kid." said the bald man.

Then a gunshot.

Then nothing.
Antonus Fudge
United Kingdom United Kingdom

« Reply #2 on: April 25, 2015, 08:01:27 am »


Is this still a going concern; i.e. are you still looking for feedback? I'll assume so now for the purposes of time-saving, & supply a little feedback. I actually thought I did already but perhaps that was just a night-reverie. Anyway, here we go:

First, I think you have a great writing style, smooth and eminently readable. As for the content, I think if you're going to do up-front exposition, you've hit upon a neat way to do it - the "infodump-as-essay" style of the first two paragraphs. It allows us a never before seen helicopter view of this fabulous world, delivered in a voice of some authority so we believe it, before doing a big narrative swoosh down into Jaxon's head in para 3.

Now, Jaxon; you're telling us alot about him - his age (better perhaps to use numerical words, eg "fourteen" instead of 14); what he is doing; what he knows. This is okay but it costs us in terms of closeness to him. If we shared in some of these discoveries in some way, we would feel more of a kinship. It's like when you go through a gruelling time with someone; while that time may be stressful, the bonds you forge are often very strong. That's the mechanism by which you achieve closeness with your characters (just ask any religious leader!). But then, this may not be your intention.

Something similar happens with Ambervale. I think it's a great name - both accessible and otherworldly, when juxtaposed with Hudson, it places it while keeping it mysterious and "other". You say it's a special kind of city. I'm intrigued. How is it special? Can you make it feel special? This is telling-not-showing. You have already elucidated about the second type of city being new, and told us that Ambervale is one of those so you can probably cut that from here and just give us a handful of the hallmarks of newness you already described as Jaxon interacts with them. Cutting here will also eliminate repetition of "new" and "day" and refs to the category of city it is in. I'd also be mindful of the number of ordinal words; second, fifth, third. Readers might fear things are getting dry and technical, as well as this being tell-heavy. You did the telling successfully in the 1st 2 para's; now is the time to show us the flying ships coming in and the shouts of burly dockworkers or what-have-you. You show us his walk to the docks - but it keeps popping out and telling us how it is in other times of the year or other places. We all like to world-build, and speculative fiction and its relations are particularly prone to this, so try invoking the places and things as the characters interact with them with just a handful - literally, a sentence here or there, describing something external ("The evening sun reflected onto a shimmery lake from a distant golden tower" sort of thing) - of deftly-placed description. Think of it like spreading butter on toast: you can either dollop a lump of butter on one edge, or spread it on properly. Either way you will have buttered toast, but one will be more enjoyable than the other. Don't play your cards all at once. There's probably a huge world you've created here - let me discover it, and adventure through it, rather than telling me what I will find. Otherwise it's a sort of self-generated spoiler Smiley

The next thing is: why do we come into the story at this point? What noteworthy event means we focus in on this day on Jaxon's life rather than any other? The first post covers alot of fantastic description and scene setting but I'm not sure what is happening. Are we just following Jaxon about as he goes from one errand to the next? What's the hook? I see we get that in the 2nd post with the taking of the coin to Vance, but I wonder if it should be sooner. Not too much sooner, but just where some of the extra stuff is cut, that would bring it forward, without compromising the wonderful visuals we have of your world, bearing in mind that the shorter the work is, the more each word must count.

When we meet this guy (Mister Hey You Smiley ) we are told that "He knew it, this man was trouble.". This is a prime opportunity to build some live tension in. Don't tell us this; let us sense it. The fact that we have zoomed in on this man rather than any other tells us that this man is "something". The glint of silver suggest much. That's sufficient for this point, I feel, though by all means feel free to add more.


"Listen," said the man, and Jaxon listened with wider ears than he'd ever had in his life.

I love that. It is an invitation to us the reader as much as Jaxon. It also depicts J. as, among other things, young. We're not being told why to listen in this way, we're not reminded of how this is like another encounter in another city, we're just listening because at this point we'll probably get knifed if we don't.


Before he could think his way into an answer, the man continued, standing just inches away now.

Could probably just be this:

The man continued, standing just inches away now.

It just keeps it a bit more "alive", a bit more "there". The first part is a fine turn of phrase, but it just reminds me that I am reading a story, not facing up to some back alley gruffian in a far-distant otherwhere.

So I suppose the same points apply elsewhere. Sorry if this seems like I'm pulling it apart - I'm not, because I really enjoyed it - but feel it could use just a few minor touch ups here&there, and they're of the sort that tend to slip through because it "Feels So Damn good Using Them" (TM) if you know what I mean Wink . Hope this is of some use for you!
« Last Edit: April 25, 2015, 08:16:05 am by Antonus Fudge » Logged

~ * ~
The Corsair
Defective Inspector
Zeppelin Admiral
New Zealand New Zealand

« Reply #3 on: April 30, 2015, 10:31:48 pm »

Hi Antonus

Thanks for the feedback first up. No need to apologise for picking it apart, that's what I posted it here for Tongue

You make a good point about the over-worldbuilding. I'm used to longer form fiction, so I'm not so good at condensing it down to the essentials just yet. I'll do some trimming and pruning in that regard and see how little I can get away with.

As far as the questions about Jaxon go, GOOD. I'm glad you're asking those. You're asking all the questions I want the reader to ask during this part of the story. As far as I'm concerned, I've done my job and am operating on the assumption the reader has enjoyed themselves enough to keep reading for the answers.

You also make some good comments about creating a sense of closeness with Jaxon. I've given myself a tough challenge here by needing the reader to get to know the setting and come to like the character, then kill him off all in the space of about 5,000 words. Again, I'll tweak some bits to up the empathy.

Again, thank you very much for the feedback. It really is much appreciated.

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