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"Take dictation," said I.
At the swimming pool's edge sat my assistant, obedient as ever. The sun was rising behind the palms, and it was time, at last, to write the final book of the Sangterra Saga. A very large coffee, iced, buzzed in my blood.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
That it was coffee, iced, and nothing else was the miracle.
I had emerged from a long tunnel of drink to discover myself abandoned—by agent and editor and showrunner, by reader and viewer and fan. Internet searches revealed I had been made into a cautionary tale. Six years, griped all. What has he been doing for SIX YEARS? Only one person remained at my side: Osier Scriven, my assistant and amanuensis since Book 1, who had typed my every manuscript. Osier Scriven, who had waited patiently.
Which raises the question, why is it me typing this, not him? In short order, you’ll see.
"Six years it has been since I walked in the world of my creation," said I, "so I am glad to return, and give the saga the ending it deserves. As ever, Scriven, I rely on you. Are you ready?"
Said he, "Oh, yes."
"Then you remember how tangled I left my web. The lords of Sangterra have come together at last, some with armies in tow, others wearing disguises, still others—ah. The central player. Where did I leave Duke Alluvial?"
Said he, "In Book 6's closing pages, Alluvial began a duel to the death. Against his son."
"A cliffhanger, limned with tragic foreboding,” nodded I. “Grizzled liege against shining scion." The sun topped the palms and struck me in the eyeball. "Prince Kir must die, of course."
Scriven was silent.
"You disagree?" said I.
"Kir has died already," said he, lightly. "The river-lord now duels Prince Iscari. His other son."
This, I did not remember.
"It has been years since Book 6," said he, smoothly. "You must rely on me for the details. At the conclusion, father and son had taken their positions on Blackrush Bridge, the loser's body to be consigned to the flood. In keeping with Alluvial tradition."
"Yes, of course. The prince shall be skewered. Do you have that, Scriven? Kir, skewered."
"Iscari," amended he.
Yet in my memory, the duke's opponent was Kir; and both sons lived; and they worked together against their father. "Perhaps, before rushing into composition, I ought to survey the scene. Scriven… who, exactly, is dead?"
"You wish to hear them all?" clarified he.
"All," confirmed I.
Osier Scriven cleared his throat. The roster did not reside on his laptop; it was in his mind. "Here are the dead. Kir Alluvial, poisoned. Grogan Thurmer, also poisoned. Lord Ecto, stabbed thrice. King Heliodor, drowned. Sir Ralston, impaled on the talons of an angel."
"Sir Ralston defeated the angel," corrected I.
"I assure you," said Scriven, "he did not. I continue my list. Uzal Tharchad, disemboweled. Lord Grungar, eaten by his own children. Lord Raffin, killed by the vengeful ghost of his father. Lord Albrich, shot with a cannon."
"Wait," said I, "Grungar was EATEN—?"
Continued Scriven, unflinching, "Sandrine of the Sunless Citadel, devoured by a shark. Captain Cirrus, trampled by a hippopotamus."
"Stop," said I. "Stop!" For while I had entrusted to my assistant the keeping of all my lore, none of this made any sense. "You have listed the entire dramatis personae of Book 1. Sir Ralston is alive; he is our warrior against heaven. Heliodor could not have drowned. His is a desert kingdom!"
"Yes,” said Scriven, “his journey to the Goliath Deep was unlikely, and unfortunate. Continuing—for I have not finished—there is Lord Wulfric, consumed by cannibals. Prince Aldous, stabbed in an alley. Prince Othur, crushed beneath a chandelier. Lady Veric, freak avalanche."
Lamely I paddled in the pool, attempting to spin my raft to face my assistant. Spoke I, "The sun has scrambled your brain, Scriven. Ralston and Heliodor LIVE." Of course Ralston lived; he was me. And Heliodor was Dale Gasparyan, he whom cancer had claimed, whom I honored with my saga's most winning character, dry and funny, unflappable…
"Yours is the scrambled brain," clucked Scriven. "You suffered, this summer past, a stroke. Not a small one."
I paused in my flailing. My assistant was incorrect; I had suffered no such thing; but then, if I had—might I not say the same?
"You jest," said I.
"I do not," said he, "and even before the stroke, you drank the history of Sangterra into a void."
"But it is not a void," said I. "For example, Cirrus and the hippo… that, I recall. I wrote it beside this very pool. You recorded it. You laughed!"
"I did not," said he, and so flat was his tone that I did not doubt him.
I floated, struck dumb. The sky seemed to buzz, and I felt the stirrings of the panic that had been the signature of six years lost.
Scriven resumed his litany. "The sea-mage Orcana, entombed in an iceberg. Orcana's lover Selene, executed. Selene's cat, roasted."
"LUNA??" roared I, and leapt into the water—or, not leapt, but slid; flopped—and thrashed to the pool's edge. Osier Scriven had given away the game: for never, not in the darkest depths of drink, not with half my brain melted away, would I kill a cat.
"I dictated none of these deaths," sputtered I.
"A secretary always makes small amendments," replied he.
"Many things have been roasted."
"What of the science-witch Ulrika? What of the Goose Knight? Surely not—"
"Exploded, both. That was Book 2." My assistant towered above me, and for the first time in many years, I saw him clearly. My laziness in failing to review any published edition of my books, I saw also.
"You have bent the saga from the start toward despair," said I. "Did you set down a single word I spoke?"
"Oh, many of them," said he. "Your names—for princes and sea-mages; for castles and cats. I recorded those faithfully, as I have no talent for names, and it is the names that make a place, and make it worth destroying."
He sounded suddenly like someone very familiar. "Scriven," said I, "why did your roster of the dead not include the name Mordant Fellstar?" For I had killed the Dark Sorcerer of Sangterra in spectacular fashion (picnic, necromancy) at the end of Book 3.
"The Dark Sorcerer lives," said he, "and he is more powerful than ever. You have forgotten."
I attempted to lift myself out of the pool, but my limbs had no power. I slid back into the water, choked briefly. "Mordant's death in Book 3 was my great twist," coughed I. "It was my rejection of the premise that the enemy could be so simple as a bundle of hate! Scriven—what have you done?"
"I have affirmed the premise that the enemy can be so simple as a bundle of hate," said he. "What else? I have extinguished the light of a story utterly. I have built a world of death and disappointment. Best of all—my highest achievement—I have chased away every last reader and viewer and fan. Don't you see? I have proven that it can be done."
I saw. "You have shown there is a limit."
"Yes. With poison and blade, with burning and grinding, I have produced the vilest, emptiest saga ever committed to page or screen. I believe it will be understood, some day, as art of the highest order. Of course, it is your name they will herald, but that is part of the art. An emptiness within the emptiness."
"Did you expect me never to learn of this treachery?"
"Yes, with confidence. But then you found your way out of yourself... and I am happy for you, truly. However, I have worked for too many years, with too much diligence, to allow your sober vision to retake Sangterra. That is why I have poisoned you. Just as Kir Alluvial was poisoned—by his own brother."
In my limbs I felt the weakness of this poison, which had surely been in the coffee, iced. What of it? The real poison had been flowing for years, not only in my blood (and anyway, I had given up on my blood) but in the imaginations of all those readers and viewers and fans.
"We are not BROTHERS," roared I, and found somewhere the strength to hoist—or, not hoist, but lever; flop—myself onto the tiles, where Osier Scriven scuttled back as I rose to my full height and pushed him into the pool.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
Consigned to the flood. In keeping with Alluvial tradition.
With my ears ringing and my vision going yellow, I scuttled around the palms into the adjacent yard, where I croaked for help and was aided by my neighbor Farooq Issawi, who summoned an ambulance and monitored my pulse while we waited. In these pages, Guardian Far-Issa is named in gratitude.
Osier Scriven has fled, and I have not pursued him, for though he twisted my Sangterra into a ghoulish ruin, he also wrote six books, each enormously profitable, while I lazed. Just as importantly, he delivered, at last, the insight that allowed me to write this, the saga’s conclusion.
For when Mordant Fellstar died, he did not die. His wrecked spirit took another, deeper form; and like a god, he presided over Sangterra thereafter; and yes, he was Osier Scriven, and Osier Scriven was him. The Dark Sorcerer must be truly defeated now; and Sir Ralston shall attempt it, he who the angel's talons did not kill, only sent into a deep enchanted slumber; and aided he shall be by Lord Heliodor, who cannot die—Dale, you cannot be dead—and with all the rest (with Luna's seven kittens, grown into fierce battle-cats) they will holler and strike sparks, make noise and light, and try, in this deepest hour, to call back the readers and the viewers and the fans, and everyone we have lost.
Robin Sloan's first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, was a New York Times Best Seller, translated into more than twenty languages. His latest novel, Sourdough, was published in 2017, and his new novel is forthcoming from MCD. He splits his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley.