The Flash Fiction challenge this week was to come up with a title – which we’ll obviously be writing something for next week. So, in honour of my blog tour, and to give you an absolute exclusive, here is a 2,000 word extract from the start of Book 7 in the Princelings saga, working title The Chronicles of Willoughby the Narrator. If you’ve read Book 1, you should be able to work out where we are! It is, of course, a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read book 1.
Chapter 1: No Way Back
from Princelings series book 7, subject to amendment copyright J M Pett 2015
Seven days after I’d followed my uncle Mariusz down the time tunnel, I stood in the corridor, looking for the line of blue twinkly lights to show me where the portal was.
They weren’t there.
They resolutely failed to twinkle at me.
I walked forward where they should be, walked even further, till I knew beyond doubt that I had passed the place they had been, and I turned back.
I reached the place where the side tunnel joined the main tunnel, and knew I hadn’t seen them on the way back either.
They weren’t there.
If they weren’t there, I couldn’t get back.
I was stuck.
I was stuck twelve years in the past, in a place generally called the Realms. Everyone I knew, my home, my uncle, my brother, were all on the other side of the time tunnel in a place called Hattan. They were in 2021, which is where I should be too. Instead, I was homeless, friendless, and stuck in 2009 in a backward place with a lot of people who spoke in a funny accent. Lots of funny accents.
I sat down, closed my eyes, and called upon my ninja training to help me out.
“You will never be an effective ninja, Willoughby, until you learn to focus.”
It fine for my teacher to tell me that, again, but if he was tickling my nose of course I would be distracted. I frowned and tried again, but he sighed, stood up and waited for me to copy him. We bowed. That was the signal for the end of the lesson.
I went out into the afternoon sun, pausing for a moment to look out from the sky courtyard onto the towers that grew up from the murk below me, fingers against the shimmering ribbons of the rivers joining together in the distance. It was a great view, and it always calmed my mind. Yes, I needed to focus more, but I was making progress in my training, and my teacher knew it. My hearing was coming on exceptionally well, mainly because I got in a lot of practice listening to my uncle and Professor Saku wrangling about the time tunnel. All sorts of theories about it: concerns about its side-effects, plans to meet the cola orders that came through, and whether to train up a new travelling salesman as a replacement for Hugo. I had not so far discovered who Hugo was. We didn‘t have a Hugo at Hattan, so it must be someone at the far side of the tunnel, the place they called the Realms. The guys who looked after the deliveries down there did so in shifts, and were shipped off for a break as soon as they came back, so I never managed to find out what they did. I was planning to slip down there myself, just working out when and how.
I waved at my cousin Raisin, who was lounging about on sentry duty. We had a sentry in the sky courtyard just because it was an easy job for one of us juniors, and it gave us basic training before we got into serious work. I heard him make out he was accosting someone as I left the yard to nip down to see Saku.
“Stay where you are! You are completely surrounded!”
Yeah Raisin, I thought. It does get boring, doesn’t it?
Down in Saku’s lair, I hitched myself onto a stool while he did some complicated twiddles of his calculating machine. Always trying to improve the processes in our cola manufacturing plant. Always trying to improve me, too, although he’s given up trying to make me an engineer. Saku is great, though. Kind, always willing to listen, always willing to share his wisdom. He’s a great guy. Trouble is, he’s very clever, and knew perfectly well that I was trying to uncover the secret of the time tunnel. He denied there was a time tunnel, of course. It was a Big Secret. We all knew it was a magic tunnel, that wherever it went, it didn’t go to street level, yet it took a decent share of our production every year. It was only my ninja listening that gave the game away. I had a new idea, though.
“How can I get into cola sales, Saku? Does uncle pick people to train or is there some route up through the system?”
Saku looked at me down his long nose. “Are you interested in sales? Well, I suppose you might be. You have an interest in people; you’re sociable, enthusiastic…” He looked up at the ceiling as if there were more answers written up there. I knew there weren’t – I’d checked the ceiling long ago, when I was much younger.
I sat there in my best ‘keen teenager’ pose – alert and attentive. I had others I used with my cousins – loafing about and being rude about everything.
He looked like he was going to say something useful when one of the machines started making a juddering noise and losing puffs of steam. He leapt up to attend to it, and I heard a “thanks for stopping by, young Willoughby!” echoing back at me, so I guessed it was time to go.
At the top of the stairs I stretched my hearing out to find out what Uncle Mariusz was up to. He had a guest he was boring with the history of Wozna Cola. I could recite it with him, if he wanted me to.
Looking back on it, I realize that was the start of the end of the time tunnel.
Or maybe it had really started when Argon had arrived. That had really caused a stir.
I didn’t see him arrive, but I saw him being led away by security, and Mariusz standing at his door practically steaming with fury, shouting “clap him in irons and don’t let him out of your sight,” and a few more overreactions. I did a lot of listening, and heard Mariusz and Saku discussing visitors from the ‘other side’ and guessed Argon must be from wherever the tunnel led. It didn’t take me long to go and visit him in his dungeon.
It was a pretty nice dungeon, as far as they go. I’ve seen the ones in the basement, they’re nasty. Wet and cold and tiny. This was tiny, but had a window looking north, which meant it was cold since it was winter when Argon arrived. But it was dry and cosy, really, with a bed and blankets and some books in case he wanted to read. I reckoned whoever Argon was, uncle liked him, he just didn’t fit in with uncle’s plans.
Argon wasn’t allowed visitors.
I persuaded the guard to let me look at him, though. Red haired, but similar in looks to Saku, really. Normal. I wondered why he’d been locked away. I kept listening, to him, to Saku, to Mariusz, and struck gold the day Mariusz let Argon out of his dungeon.
“You must promise not to tell anyone about the time tunnel, or the realms, or the Wozna business down there,” Mariusz said, as a condition of letting him out. Argon agreed. “How would you like to work at our bar on the ground floor?” Mariusz asked him, “it’s not exactly the Inn of the Seventh Happiness but it’ll keep you from being bored.”
“Do you mean to keep me here forever, then?” asked Argon.
“Well…,” I’ve never heard Mariusz hesitate before. He was almost regretful, like he was being mean to a friend. “Yes, I’m afraid I must,” he finished.
So now I added ‘Inn of the Seventh Happiness’ to my list of things connected with the time tunnel, and I was itching to go down there. I’d more or less decided to go down in summer, but then we started to get these other visitors. Mariusz had a huge row with one of them just after midnight one night, and with all the coming and going I decided to sneak down the tunnel after them.
It was weird. I was swept off my feet on a current of light, with a strange whooshing noise in my ears. It felt a bit like swinging on the ropes to go down the tower, which is our quick way down to street level, but it felt like you could be going up, not down. I also felt like I was tumbling over, head over heels, and yet I was sure I was just in the same position as I started. Anyway, whatever it was, I landed in a dark corridor, with a string of lights dwindling back to a blue twinkly ring that went all the way round the corridor behind me. I stepped forward into a larger corridor, and wondered whether to follow it or not. My nose told me that was the way Mariusz had gone. I went along it for a while, got a bit hungry, and decided to turn back. All the whooshing and lights happened again and I got back and sidled into the courtyard.
Mariusz was already back, and his mood had changed completely. He was talking to Saku in his chambers.
“If they find out, we’ll have to stop.” Mariusz said.
“If they find out, we’ll have to close the tunnel down,” replied Saku.
“Maybe it’s something to do with the diet cola. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, now. It’s a coincidence that the tunnel arrived about the same time we started doing Diet.”
“That sounds crazy to me, but you’re the professor. What sort of losses will there be?”
“You do the accounts, I do the science bit, sire. But… it could be that your problem will go away if you’re not travelling so much.”
“You think it’s connected?”
“I don’t think it helps. You don’t have to be so active at your age. You behave like a youngster when you’re down there, don’t you. Running miles before breakfast indeed, just to keep up with a prince.”
“Well, you have to keep up appearances.”
“And you crossed yourself on your last trip, didn’t you? How did you manage that?”
“The paradox, you mean. It was weird. I mean, I knew I’d meet myself, so when I heard myself coming, I just steeled myself. Had to do it in both directions. It was even weirder doing it on the way back, knowing what I was feeling coming towards myself.”
“What did you feel?”
“That was the only effect?”
“Yes, although it put me off balance, too. It wore off as soon as I’d passed myself.”
“You’ve been overdoing it again. Get some rest, Lord Mariusz.”
“Will he come back, do you think?”
“I doubt it. If he’s guessed, and I don’t see why he should have, I reckon you’ll have a few days before anything else happens.”
“Well, I’d better double the guard on it from Tuesday then.”
The ninja in me stored that conversation to dissect, line by line, in the coming years. The immediate thought was to sort out some provisions and anything else I might need, to get down and explore whatever was at the other end before anything else happened. This sounded exciting!
I gave it a day for any further action to happen, but it seemed Saku was right, and apart from Mariusz, Saku, Argon and some other person having a big meeting together, it was all quiet. I stocked up on breakfast both in my tummy and in my shoulder bag, added a few more things I thought I might find useful, waited till Raisin was on duty and slipped down the tunnel when he was gazing at the view.
Willoughby the time-traveller was going exploring!
© J M Pett 2015
You’ll have to wait a long time for anything else, I expect, and maybe it won’t even make the final edit, but I like this as a start. I’m hoping to bring book 7 out next autumn/winter.