The hottest dancer on the planet tries to stay one step ahead of two covetous queens in this wild steampunk satire.
Stan Carter's blog
Taram Zhod is one of the hottest dancers on the planet, and he has millions of female fans. But two of them are a royal pain -- Queen Gelydia and Queen Scaldera. Each one claims to be the rightful ruler of the United Realms of Mariga and both are desperate to win public approval, using any means necessary. Hoping to score a propaganda coup, Scaldera orders her soldiers to kidnap Taram and bring him down South for a command performance, but Gelydia sends her own army to intercept them, vowing that Taram will dance to HER tune instead. Taram has no desire to be a pawn in a civil war, but with two sets of soldiers on his trail, as well as alien gangsters, foreign assassins and absinthe-guzzling socialites, he'll really have to keep on his toes if he hopes to stay one step ahead of them all.
Lelly’s fingers tightened on the barrel of her spyglass as she zoomed in on Taram Zhod.
“That dance he’s doing is way over the top,” she muttered.
“Way over,” Tasca replied.
“It’s almost obscene!”
“And that outfit of his!”
Frowning, Tasca adjusted the focus on her own spyglass. “What outfit? All I see is a scarlet thong.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. How can he dress that way?”
“Well, we are in the desert.”
“It’s not that hot.”
Tasca licked her lips. “Hmm. I’d say it’s getting hotter by the minute.”
Lelly twisted the zoom dial up another notch. “Is that oil all over his body?” she said in alarm.
Tasca squinted. “Hmm. I can’t tell for sure. Could be sweat.”
“Too shiny, don’t you think?”
“What does it matter?”
“Tactically speaking, it doesn’t. But if he’s smeared oil all over himself, that’s just, you know...”
“Way over the top?
“Maybe it’s suntan lotion.”
“Somehow I doubt it.”
The music skipped a beat. The dancer didn’t.
“Zhod is nimble, I’ll give him that,” Lelly said. “It can’t be easy dancing under these conditions, especially with that god-awful music.”
She wasn’t referring to the tune itself—a sprightly Brazenian number played on clarilutes, guitubas and trumpums—but the quality of the recording. Phonograph cylinders never fared well in the Nirvada desert, even the copper ones, because the metal was softened by the relentless heat, and the windblown grit got into the turntable gears. Yet Taram Zhod seemed unbothered by the skips and scratches—and by the clapping of his Liberationist captors, which was enthusiastic, but way out of sync with the music. He wasn’t even fazed by the giant crustaccas looming over him, who were clicking their wicked-looking claws like castanets.
Lelly lowered her ‘glass and shoved hard on the eyepiece, the brass cylinders snicking softly as they slid into one another.
“I’ve seen enough, Tasca,” she said. “It’s time to attack.”
“In the middle of his performance?”
“You call that a performance? I call it debauchery.”
“Perhaps he does something uplifting at the end.”
“Oh I don’t know; he might fall to the ground in supplication to the Goddess—or something.”
“Fat chance of that. Besides, the Libs are distracted now, and they haven’t had their breakfast yet. This is the perfect time to go after them.”
Tasca sighed. “Yes, ma’am.”
She put away her spyglass, then drew her war wand from its scabbard. It was an ancient tube of dark green gnometal, covered with arcane symbols etched deeply into the surface and blurred by time. Tasca pressed a button at the base and the wand telescoped to nearly a yard in length, the sections clicking into place.
Lelly reached into a sheath on her belt and pulled out her own weapon, a swordagger. It wasn’t government issue, but had served her well over the years. The handle was made of ivory and covered with bas-relief carvings depicting Shynese demons and hell dogs, and the telescoping blade was fashioned from Glamascus steel on which a single word was etched in tiny letters, repeated once on each of the six sections. She smiled as she squeezed the handle, the well-worn carvings pressing comfortably into the palm of her hand. Exotic energies throbbed within the blades.
Her dragocorn, Kekawek, had been rooting around in the sand, searching for the succulent duneberries that often lurked just beneath the surface, but now he raised his head as he sensed impending action, his wing muscles flexing with anticipation. Tasca’s mount, Fenwek, looked up a moment later, whickering softly.
Lelly looked over her shoulder at the rest of her squad, which was lurking on the far side of the dune. Their blue caps were pushed up from their sweaty foreheads, their damp hair pasted to their reddened brows, their youthful faces full of curiosity. They could hear the music but couldn’t see the enemy encampment, and had no idea what was going on.
Time to clue them in.
“Form up!” Lelly shouted. “Form up!”
The troopers yanked on their dragocorns’ reins and the beasts reluctantly pulled their snouts from the sand. Snorting with displeasure, they trudged to the crest of the dune, where their riders brought them to a stop.
As the troopers caught sight of the dancer below, they let out a collective gasp, their jaws dropping open, their eyes lighting up.
“Crimaneewillikers, get a load of that hotty!” said Trooper Banda.
“Ooh baby!” said Trooper Waish.
“Pipe down!” Lelly snapped. “And listen up! We’re going to attack. You’ve got to watch your lines of fire and your blowbacks so you don’t hit the dancer. It’s imperative we take him alive. Understood?”
Fifteen heads bobbed enthusiastically up and down.
“Okay,” Lelly said, “let’s go kick some Libby butt!”
The troopers drew their war wands from their sheaths, the metal shafts shooting up with a chorus of clicks. Lelly made eye contact with each grrl, then turned toward the enemy and raised her sword.