Issue 129 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens with a tale by Alec Austin and Marissa Lingen entitled “On the Weaponization of Flora and Fauna.” Told in a faux-19th-century style, this piece is about characters who live in a foreign and wild colonial land to which their king has recently been exiled. New fauna and flora are being discovered daily, and exploration and discovery are the pastimes of the nobility, who have as their servants the native peoples of the land they now occupy. The only somewhat original aspect to this tale is that a woman is the protagonist, an explorer and a naturalist in her own right, as well as one who is canny in the ways of politics and war. Overall, it’s a disappointingly stale story.
The second story is better: “The Goblin King’s Concubine” by Raphael Ordoñez. It begins with the destruction of a crew of mutineers on a ship of exploration, leaving only Captain Maugreth — safe in captivity in the ship’s hold when the attack occurs — alive to continue searching for riches in a new land. This country is home to the helbor, or goblins, and Maugreth believes there is wealth to be snatched away from them. To his surprise, though, he finds a beautiful human woman among the goblins, beautiful and bedecked with gold. She is a member of the House of Adul, the last noble house, which she believes will be searching for her. But she is not precisely a prisoner of the goblins; she is the concubine of the goblin warlord and the mother of his son. Maugreth determines to rescue her, appalled though he is at her insistence that her son come along. And then it becomes a question of who will double cross whom.
I found Issue 128 more enjoyable. “Ill-Met at Midnight” by David Tallerman starts with an assassin engaged in a surprisingly difficult strangulation by garrote. That’s not the only thing he’s finding surprising about his mission; his victim isn’t the right sex, isn’t dressed appropriately, and is carrying unusual weapons. He wonders about all the strangenesses of his assignment, just in time to be attacked; it’s starting to look like he is the intended victim here. This is an action piece, and it’s written so well that it’s almost cinematic. And the ending is most satisfying.
“The Clay Farima” by Henry Szabranski is another tale about murder: a wizard has been slain. The narrator, a young girl named Farima, has accompanied her father, the Royal High Wizard and Master of Dragons, to another wizard’s chambers for a dinner engagement, only to find the wizard, broken and bloody, hanging in mid-air. The king arrives within moments, though why he has come to the wizard’s chambers is never explained; his presence allows the characters to discuss the nature of the dead wizard’s studies and give the readers some sense of why he might have been killed. This leaves the narrator to explain her own nature to us. Her father’s belief that she is his natural progeny is incorrect, for she is a construct, created by her mother from stone, “a convenient tool of misdirection and revenge,” while her mother and the real Farima have fled beyond the Wizard’s Wall, beyond the reach of Farima’s father. Who killed the wizard? Why? What was the wizard researching when he was killed? And how does Farima’s father fit in? It’s a fascinating tale, if a trifle clumsy at times (why did the king appear at the murder scene when he did, for instance? It’s never explained), and my favorite in these two issues.