Hmm, characters interacting with the worlds about them. I love this, I love writing scenes where K’Barthans and people from this version of reality meet and are a bit freaked out by one another or their surroundings. In fact it’s how I show a lot of the stuff going on inside their heads. As a result, there are rather a lot of scenes like this but some show the characters of the people involved better than others.
Having said all of that, this scene doesn’t involve any inter-reality interaction but it does give us a sketch of the protagonist. Deirdre Arbuthnot, K’Barthan Resistance agent, has been sent to work undercover in the laundry of the Security Headquarters – the old Architrave’s Palace – in K’Barth. Deirdre is an assassin used to strike operations. Espionage is not her natural forte. She has the subtlety of a brick and the patience of a very impatient, impatient thing but she has been given the alias of a meek country maiden from Tith called ‘Rosa Trampleasure’. Deirdre is not meek. She is from suburbia and wealthy, she has no experience of hard physical labour and she is not looking forward to getting any.
The aim here, as well as showing a bit about the laundry, the Palace and her mission, is to give the reader a bit of an idea of how Deirdre, herself, sees the world and how her view clashes, or chimes in, with those around her. I’ve also tried to write in her ‘voice’ so to speak, so even though there’s rather a lot of telling/scene setting here, I hope that it gives a reasonable feel of who she is.
There are probably a few explanatory notes I should add. Denarghi is the head of the Resistance and after letting some prisoners escaped he’s pinned his mistake on Deirdre and she is at the Palace on a punishment mission. This is particularly dangerous because the species running the Palace, the Grongles, are as randy as hell and Deirdre is tall, blonde and smokin’ hawt. Her orders are to go in unarmed, but as she herself decides, in light of the Grongles’ nature, what are a few throwing knives among friends?
That’s all, I hope you enjoy reading.
In the dormitory set aside for female laundry workers, Deirdre Arbuthnot had spent the night awake. She had never had doubts before. She had always followed orders, sure that she was on the side of good, but being punished for Denarghi’s mistake had shaken her faith. Around her, the ladies of the laundry snored and occasionally farted in their rows of beds.
“You aren’t helping me,” she told their unconscious forms. Not that they would hear her. Deirdre wondered how it was that she could sleep through a mortar attack in a freezing fox hole but, so far, had never been able to cut out snoring. She’d have to go to the staff shop and get some ear plugs tomorrow.
“Shut up!” she shouted. A couple of the others sat up and looked blearily about them, before flopping back into their slumbers. Just in case, Deirdre pretended that she, too, was asleep. The loudest of the snorers made a gargling noise, turned over and started breathing normally. Great! Blissful silence.
Or not. Three beds away, another of Deirdre’s colleagues started making a kind of whistling bubbling noise with every breath. Arnold’s Y-fronts, that was about the most annoying sound she had ever heard.
“Three smecking months of this is going to be a tough mission,” she muttered. Perhaps she shouldn’t have brought the throwing knives; any minute now she’d find herself using them on her colleagues. She plumped her pillows irritably and lay in the darkness reflecting on her situation.
The security implications of having a K’Barthan workforce enter and leave the Palace every day were immense, so all non-Grongolian life forms working there – NGLF’s as they were called – had to sign up for three month residential stints. They were paid more to make up for the time spent away from their families and friends but they were not allowed out of the Palace until their period of work was up. Indeed there were stories of people dying at work and still not being released until the day stated in their contract.
Some of the day’s events had reassured her but Deirdre didn’t feel settled or comfortable in the Palace. Part of this was because ‘Rosa’ was so very different from Deirdre, and it was difficult pretending to be someone else the whole time, especially when playing the part convincingly meant allowing herself be walked over by every halfwit in the vicinity. She might get used to it in time but the fact that she was trapped would not change. And she hated the fact that as well as being some useless bumpkin from Tith, she had the most stupid, stupid surname imaginable. That was unnecessary spite on Denarghi’s part. She lay in the dark, fuming, yet bored. Why couldn’t she just go to sleep? She sighed and turned over, but the day’s events kept replaying in her head.
Having passed through extensive security to get in, her first afternoon at the laundry had not gone well. Her Resistance colleagues were Blurpons to a man, and were helpful enough, but they seemed to think she needed to learn about laundering shirts. Why, Deirdre couldn’t understand. It was typical of Denarghi. She pictured him laughing as he imagined her cleaning up after the Grongles. Little git. She had believed in him, looked up to him and this was how he repaid her loyalty. Well, tough. She wasn’t interested in servitude. She would gather information and familiarise herself with the layout of the Palace.
The dress was annoying, too. Even thinking about it now made her roll her eyes. The Blurpons and the Spiffles in the laundry, being furry, never wore clothes. Both had cat like features and hands instead of paws but while the Blurpons had one leg and red fur the Spiffles had orange fur and two legs. The Spiffles were a great deal more relaxed, too. Deirdre had almost forgotten how spiky Blurpons were until she saw the two species working side by side. Both the Blurpons and the Spiffles wore belts with pouches on to carry the items they needed. Lucky them. Like all the ladies, Deirdre had to wear a uniform – an old fashioned corset, long frilly skirts and a white shirt – low cut and off the shoulder, of course, because for all their aloofness, the Grongles liked a bit of feminine allure. As long as it was vaguely humanoid they weren’t that fussy about the exact species. The uniform was flattering, but to Deirdre’s dismay, not in a way that would further her aim of remaining incognito. It was also uncomfortable and restrictive. She thought with longing of her military fatigues.
She felt so much more at home in them.
The laundry was insanely busy, hot and dusty – or muggy depending whereabouts she was – and the staff were constantly interrupted by the Grongle who oversaw the running of the household, an ugly great brute called Captain Snow. His shifty, bloodshot gaze always slid to wherever Deirdre was working and remained on her. It wasn’t a look Deirdre liked. Simple Tithian maiden or not, she was going to beat him to a pulp if he tried anything. She betted he would, too. The laundry, indeed the whole Palace was significantly lacking in female employees under middle or old age and Deirdre guessed that Captain Snow, and others like him, were the reason.
Considering what a mundane boring job it was, laundering things was surprisingly difficult. Deirdre’s lack of skill became annoyingly apparent early on, when she put a red sock in with a whole load of white shirts. The Head Launderer, an affable Spiffle called Sid, gave the baby pink results to the Head Bleacher for correction and reassigned her to ironing sheets. Even for a laundry task this looked as if it would be incredibly boring but Deirdre never found out for sure. She worked the ironing tables for approximately thirty seconds before setting one of the linen presses on fire. A glaring error from the point of view of blending in but a good result in the sense that it was unlikely she would be given ironing duties again. Once the flames were doused, the Head Launderer, completely at a loss, assigned her to collection of soileds, as the dirty laundry was called, until such time as he could find a job she was able to do safely. She was to be sent out with a trolley and a map because no-one could think what else to do with her. It would have been a pretty ignominious start for a genuine Tithian maiden like Rosa Trampleasure, but for Deirdre Arbuthnot, trained Resistance assassin, it was a fine result.
At last, she would get to do some reconnaissance.
Due to their tendency to extreme violence the Blurpons were discouraged from leaving the laundry, except along certain routes that were considered best served by the non-humanoid species. However, in this instance one of Deirdre’s Resistance colleagues, a Blurpon called Snoofle, was assigned to accompany her on her human-only route – riding shot gun on the trolley as she pushed it along the corridors.
Snoofle wasn’t like the other Blurpons, not at all.
“Here you are.” He handed her a photocopied map with notes all over it. She looked closely:
‘Ugly beardy chap with sword – Commander Thistwith-Mee? – by Gloombin of Tith.’ Deirdre knew very little about Gloombin of Tith, other than that he was an artist and sculptor but Commander Thistwith-Mee was one of the greatest military strategists in K’Barthan history. The Inter-Species Wars had gone on for years until, after a run of decisive victories, Commander Thistwith-Mee had given the warring parties a choice of living in harmony or being annihilated by his forces. Funnily enough, after that they had all suddenly hit on ways to overlook each other’s differences. She examined some of the other notes; all of them detailed the positions of works of art.
“What is this supposed to be?” she waved the paper at Snoofle.
“I meant these,” she demanded, turning it round and pointing to one of Snoofle’s notes. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes,” said Snoofle.
“Good. Then you’ll know we’re not on a sightseeing tour. I’m here on serious military business.”
“I should have explained,” he said equably. “This place is about 2,000 years old. Labyrinthine doesn’t begin to describe it. Away from the State rooms, many of the corridors are similar, but the art works are all different. I navigate by them. Let me show you. This is our route, left out of the laundry, right at the Mong vase, up the stairs, left at the Bunn Jones window and so on, d’you see?”
“That’s… lateral.” And absolutely not what Deirdre would expect from a Blurpon. Blurpons were into combat and clean clothes. She was impressed and a little depressed, because she wasn’t sure Snoofle’s navigational system would do her much good – what she knew about art could have been written on the back of a teaspoon.
“Don’t worry, I’ll show you each artefact and when we’re done, you can try it out for yourself by navigating us back. Then, if you think it works for you, I can show you the other routes.”
Getting lost was only one of the trials Deirdre had to contend with. The Arbuthnot effect on males clearly extended to Grongles. By the time she and Snoofle had made three collections Deirdre had been pinched and groped, and one particularly foolish Grongle officer had tried to steal a kiss. Deirdre had accidentally tripped, elbowed and lightly gouged each of her tormentors in turn. Since she was prepared to pretend their injuries were inflicted accidentally, they were happy to play along. Anything rather than acknowledge that a human woman had got the better of them. She was relieved at how easily she could use their pride against them and to her delight, they were clearly cautious about any further interaction with her. That was progress. She began to feel more confident.
However, Snoofle declared that they had done enough for one day and though Deirdre was all set to explore the Palace further, he persuaded her it would be wise to return to the laundry. That didn’t stop him pausing frequently to point out important architectural features, over and above the navigational requirements: art works, frescoes and even a mosaic floor. They strayed from the route so he could show her the Upper Quadrangle with its ancient statues, historic central garden and cloisters.
Deirdre was grateful for the chance to see more and to try to improve her knowledge of the building. It was ludicrously complicated, but then, as Snoofle had said, it was 2,000 years old and forty generations of Architraves had built on, enhanced, redecorated and generally messed about with it.
At the end of the Quadrangle, Deirdre and Snoofle stopped and she listened with uncharacteristic patience as he expounded the artistic merits of a yet another statue. He knew all of the bizarre trivia that makes history alive and interesting – right down to which museum, in Blursoptan, the Grongles had looted it from. He glanced cautiously up and down the corridor to check there was no-one about.
“OK Lieutenant, ma’am,” it was the first time he’d addressed her by anything other than her cover name. “Time to go back. D’you want to take it from here?”
“Yes.” She looked carefully at the statue and examined her map. “Snoofle, are you sure you’re all Blurpon?” she asked him as she set off in the direction, she hoped, of the Laundry.
“One hundred percent.”