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The escapists: part 3
A brief diversion over dinner
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: Witness statements from a series of crimes on Palinor describe a balding male with a scar above one eye, a description which appears to match a known criminal from Earth. The only problem being that he’s still locked up in a prison cell in London. DC Lola Styles, liaison officer from the Met now on assignment in the Palinese city state of Bruglia, is investigating but has hit a dead end…
It didn’t make sense. More witnesses, seeming to corroborate the previous accounts and descriptions. Putting an incarcerated man at the centre of a string of ambitious robberies across Bruglia and surrounding towns. It was beginning to make the city guard seem incompetent and Lola could tell that the local officials she reported to were getting twitchy. Captain Rexen had been friendlier than she’d expected but he was relying on her for help with this one and she didn’t want her first case on Palinor to be a wash-out. The problem was that it might not even fit her remit - the suspect wasn’t George Collins, evidently, which shifted the case outside of her jurisdiction. It could just be a local matter, without any portal connection. Perhaps she shouldn’t have made the connection in the first place and wasted everyone’s time.
“You seem distracted,” said Daryla, smiling over the top of her wine glass.
Lola laughed apologetically. “It’s been a challenging first week.” She paused, frowned. “It’s not even been a week, has it? Wow.”
“You should have given yourself some time to settle in before diving into your work.” Daryla smiled. She was wearing a red and white dress, the colours drawing lines down past her waist. A delicately jewelled headdress lay strings of glittering stones on one side of her face, tracing her cheekbones. An arc of something expensive curved from the top of her right ear to a stud in the side of her nose. The edge of her other ear held multiple rings, some set with jewels of their own. Lola had only seen such a display once before - when she’d first met Daryla on the airship, just after she’d started working at the SDC. When she wanted to, Daryla really knew how to princess. Lola couldn’t help but feel she’d slipped somehow into her own fairy tale.
At least, if it wasn’t for the mountain of paperwork she knew was waiting for her in the morning.
They were in a smaller room, at least by the palace’s standards. The walls were made of dark wood - not inexpensive in the sand-blasted lands of Bruglia - and the single chandelier cast a soft light over them both. The table was still large enough to host a sizeable party, of course, and the room was significantly bigger than any of those back in her flat in London. It was all relative, she reminded herself. Lola knew she wouldn’t be invited to dinner every evening, but it had certainly made the first few days in Bruglia a little easier. For starters, she hadn’t yet needed to work out how to navigate the food markets and their infamous haggling system of payment.
“You’re probably right,” Lola said. “But I couldn’t just sit around! Everything is so new and exciting. Well, not to you, I suppose. But to me, it’s all so fascinating. Meeting Captain Rexen and seeing how he runs the garrison, and how it compares to the Met back home. There’s some surprising similarities, and a lot of differences.”
Daryla smiled again. “You’re new and interesting.”
Feeling herself about to turn an embarrassing shade of crimson, Lola looked down at her plate and concentrated on chopping some vaguely familiar vegetables into tiny pieces. “Yes, well, you’ll get to know me, and then realise that I’m a bit noisy and annoying. Like a yappy dog.”
Daryla laughed, but looked confused. “Who told you that?”
“Someone clearly told you that at some point in your life.”
“Oh,” Lola said, waving a hand dismissively, “I don’t know. I think it was something my dad used to say.” She snorted and shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s just a saying.”
“Is it, though?” Daryla put took a sip of wine then put the glass down on the table. “You have a habit of underestimating yourself, Lola Styles. Perhaps it’s a Mid-Earth thing. Always thinking you’re the odd one out. No magic, and no spaceships.”
“As you say,” Daryla said, nodding. “It is not true, you know. Not for you, not for your compatriots.”
“I don’t know,” Lola said, putting her cutlery down and taking a sip from her own glass. The wine was a dark, dark red and rich in flavour. She wasn’t used to drinking wine. At least, not good wine. “I’ve always felt out of place. A bit different, you know? I think a lot of people think like that back home. On Mid-Earth, I mean.” She was already starting to shift her definition of the term ‘home’.
“It is called the triverse for a reason, Lola. Three. Three is a vital number. It has power. It resonates. It is not a coincidence that the portals connected three universes. Not two, not four. Not an infinite number. Three. And not any three - mine, yours, theirs.” She gestured at the air. “I know it’s been two centuries, but it is my belief that we still have not really seen the true consequences of the Joining. If we’re going to survive, as a collective group of diverse people, it’s going to require all of us. In the triverse, no one universe can prosper in isolation.”
“Sounds like you think about this a lot.”
“I do. I have done. Sometimes it feels that it is all I think about. That is why I’m so happy that you are here. It is a small gesture, but an important one. Bruglia - Palinor - working more closely with the Kingdom of Great Britain, with mid-Earth. The more we understand one another, the closer we are, the more we all benefit.”
“Yeah,” Lola said slowly, rolling her eyes. “There’s a lot of people back home who would absolutely, positively not agree with you.”
“Then we shall have to convince them.”
“Me and you?”
“Me and you,” Daryla said, smiling warmly. “And others.” She looked down at her plate. “I think I’ve had quite enough. You?”
Lola shrugged. “I think my stomach is having trouble adjusting to being here.”
“I’ve heard that can happen. Come, let’s retire.” Daryla pushed back her chair and stretched her back and arms, her dress clutching to her figure. Lola swallowed, then put her knife and fork neatly on her plate.
“Should we clear this away?”
Daryla looked perplexed for a moment, then laughed. “Someone will come and do that, don’t worry.” She looked Lola up and down, frowning. Lola feared that she might have dropped some food onto her top. “Is that what you wore today when you visited the garrison?”
“Oh,” Lola said, looking down at her jeans and shirt. “Well, yes. I just have my wardrobe from home. I did feel like a bit of a tourist, to be honest.”
“I’m not surprised. We should do something about that. Come with me.”
Daryla swept out of the room, grabbing Lola’s hand on the way. They hurried out into the hallway, Lola having to suppress a nervous giggle and feeling immediately like a silly schoolgirl. Everything about the palace was ornate and opulent and a world away from anything Lola had ever known. Simply looking at a wall was a rich, four-course meal for the eyes. No surface was undecorated, no banister unsculpted, no window without etched illustration. It was unimaginable wealth.
As they turned a corner towards a wide staircase, they came upon an older man, thin and tall but by no means frail in appearance. Lola recognised him immediately, for there was nobody in Bruglia who didn’t know the Lord of the City.
“Father,” said Daryla, seeming to diminish slightly in his presence. “This is Detective Constable Lola Styles, the new liaison from Mid-Earth.”
Lola pulled her hand away from Daryla’s.
“Yes, I know who she is.” The man assessed her as if evaluating a specimen. “I am Everard Baltine. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Styles.”
“Thank you, Chancellor,” Lola said, nodding her head. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I’ve requested a proper introduction.”
“Yes, I’m very busy, you see,” Baltine said, looking through oval glasses that perched on the tip of his nose. “It is a continuing bloody nightmare to arrange anything. My assistant is entirely useless. Don’t worry, I’ll put something in. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find ourselves in the same place. You are working in my back garden, after all.”
“Thank you, that would be most helpful, but please don’t go out of your way—”
“It’s no bother,” Baltine said. “I wouldn’t offer if it were.” He took a step closer, removing his glasses and tucking them into the lapel pocket on his suit jacket. “How has it been so far, then?”
Lola tried to guess at his meaning. “Being here? Or the job?”
Baltine tipped his head towards his daughter. “Being her latest plaything.” He smiled and it was a cruel, pencil-lipped grin. “She always has her little projects, don’t you, dear?”
Staring at him, expression neutral and eyes still, Daryla said nothing.
“Well, don’t let me stop you. You girls have a fun night, won’t you? I look forward to meeting your properly in my office soon, Miss Styles.”
With that, he turned and walked away without saying anything further or waiting for a response from either of them.
They stood in silence for a few seconds, Lola unsure of what to make of the encounter, then Daryla took her hand again. “Come on,” she said, “and I’m sorry about him.”
“I mean, he didn’t seem too bad,” Lola said, lying. The man had given her the creeps. She’d felt like prey that had wandered into the predator’s territory unaware.
“He’s very polite in his aggressions,” Daryla said quietly, “but don’t let him get under your skin. You know he has a file on every official in the city? Even down to tellers at banks. He knows just enough about everyone to destroy them. Everyone has a dirty little secret, and he’s collected them all.”
Making better connections with the city’s governing body and the university was unofficially part of her posting in Bruglia. The Commissioner had been very clear on that, and it was now seeming like a more intimidating task than she’d accounted for.
“Here,” Daryla said, taking a key from somewhere in her dress and unlocking a huge door. She pushed it open and guided Lola inside a room that was bright and warm and welcoming. There were books everywhere - including on the floor - and she could see a balcony on the opposite side. An enormous four-poster bed was in the middle of the room, one of those fancy ones with curtains that you never see in real life. Everything was a shade of red, pink or orange - though the longer she observed, the more she could pick out highlights of a deep, dark blue painted on drawers and floorboards.
“Is this your bedroom?” Lola gawped.
Daryla spread her arms wide. “Welcome.” She kicked off her shoes and placed them beside the door. “Oh, you should do the same. Stops the place getting dirty, but you also have to feel these rugs between your toes.”
“No green rugs, I hope.”
“A colleague of mine had a run-in with a particularly dangerous rug.”
Daryla laughed. “You say some very strange things, Lola Styles.”
“That’s what they say.”
“It’s one of the many reasons I like you.” Daryla stood with her hands on her hips and grimaced. “However, I don’t like your clothes. You’re going to get mugged if you keep walking around dressed like that.”
“I haven’t really had time to buy more authentic local attire. Perhaps you could take me?”
“I can do better than that,” Daryla said. She pointed to a folding screen that marked off an area in the corner of the room. “Go take off those rags and give me a moment.” She disappeared through a small door next to the screen.
Feeling decidedly awkward, Lola peered around the screen. It was clearly the dressing area, and was strewn with discarded items of clothing. Against the wall was a sink and a mirror, with glass displays of Daryla’s jewellery alongside. She must have help getting into all her finery, but there was nobody else in the room.
Lola could feel her heart beating absurdly hard, to the point that she began to worry that Daryla would be able to hear it from the adjoining room. She forced herself to take a deep breath, in and out, slow and measured. Calm thyself, Lola. It was all a bit much. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She unbuttoned her shirt and hung it on a hook behind the screen. Standing there in her jeans, she felt silly, and began to think she must have misheard Daryla. She reached out for the shirt, to put it back on, just as Daryla emerged from the room holding a pile of fabric. The adjoining room must be a walk-in wardrobe. Lola had heard legends told of such things.
“Very well, I have a selection of options for you,” Daryla said, then she glanced up. She pointed at Lola’s trousers. “Come on, get those off and try these on.” She laid out several outfits on the floor in front of Lola. “These are a mixture, some more stylish than others. This one here, it’s very typical everyday clothes. The sort of thing someone would wear to the market. Wear that if you want to be unobtrusive. Or this if you want to look more serious, more professional. This one is good if you get invited to a formal meeting. And this dress is perfect for formal dinners and similar occasions. You’ll likely have lots of those the longer you’re here.”
Lola was standing beside her in her underwear. She’d gone shopping with girl friends as a teenager, but this felt different.
“We’ve got the same kind of build,” Daryla said, “so all of these should fit you just fine.”
“I don’t know,” Lola said, feeling sheepish, “I’m not quite the same as you.”
Daryla put a cool hand on Lola’s waist. “They’ll fit fine, don’t worry about it. Try something on, I’ll be on the balcony.”
After she’d left, Lola took a great gasp of air, feeling as if she’d been holding her breath that entire time. She didn’t want to be reading this wrong. That would be stupid. That would ruin everything, less than a week into being there.
She looked down at the clothing options and could immediately see how they’d help her blend in more naturally, especially when on duty. In retrospect, she should have sorted her wardrobe as a matter of priority. She’d have to get to the market, use some of her transfer allowance and then give these loans back to Daryla.
It had to be the dress, of course. She’d never seen anything like it, let alone had the opportunity to wear such a thing. It did indeed fit perfectly, though the material felt unfamiliar. It stretched differently to anything she wore on Mid-Earth, though she couldn’t be sure if that was a dimensional thing or a matter of wealth.
Lola looked in the mirror. She was wearing a princess’ dress. She laughed at her own ridiculousness. It was exactly the kind of thing she’d spent most of her teenager years dismissing and teasing others about. Still, nobody had to know - except the real princess next door.
The stars were out in the night sky. Every night she was startled at their vibrancy and number. It was a cool evening and her arms felt immediately chilly, but she didn’t care.
“You’re beautiful,” Daryla said.
“Thanks?” It felt weird to get the compliment, let alone accept it.
“Not the most practical, though,” Daryla said, “it is the middle of Frostfield, you know.” She moved closer.
“I know, but I couldn’t resist.”
Daryla put her arms around Lola’s shoulders, embracing her gently from behind. “I know the feeling.”
“I’m so glad you decided to come here.”
Being her latest plaything.
She could feel Daryla’s warm breath on her neck. She felt a kiss. Lola gripped the balcony’s rail and tried to breathe. Her heart was going to leap out of her throat.
Another kiss, and Daryla’s hands moved up from her waist.
Lola felt like she was going to faint.
Pushing Daryla’s arms away, Lola took a few steps, moving to the other end of the balcony. She was breathing fast, too fast. Was she hyperventilating? It felt like she might be. God. She put her hands on her knees, then crouched down on her haunches. She dropped her head, and concentrated on her breathing.
“I’m sorry,” Daryla said, “I don’t understand.”
Lola took more breaths, eyes closed, fighting the pounding in her head. She’d not had that for a while, coming that close to an attack. She wiggled her fingers, finding them cold and unresponsive.
She turned and sat on the cold stone floor of the balcony, back against the railing, resting her forehead on her palms, elbows on knees.
A deep breath.
“It’s different for me,” she said, at last. “I’m not like you. I’m not a princess living a perfect life in a palace, and ruling over everything I see.”
“Is that what you think my life is?”
“I know you think the triverse needs to work together, and be together. And I agree with you! But that’s not how the world works. It’s certainly not how my world works. Mid-Earth isn’t about unity. It’s getting further from that, if anything. You know there’s an actual political party arguing for the closing of the portals? Who want to cut all ties, or at least do it all on their own terms?”
“I’m aware of this, yes. It makes me sad.”
“I’ve had to live in that my entire life. It’s not just about portals. If it isn’t koth and aen’fa, it’s something else. Black people, Indian people, Australian people. Palinese people. Women. Old people. Young people. There’s always something or someone to hate. They never run out of something to go after.”
“You’re here now, though.”
Lola tapped a finger on the side of her head. “I’m not up here, though, am I? I’ve lived two and a half decades back there. It’s going to take more than a fucking week to get my head out of there. Do you know what it’s like?”
“What what’s like?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “To always be the outsider. To not fit anywhere. To feel like you’re living in a cage. All I’ve ever wanted to do is escape from it, but it seems to be following me around everywhere I go.”
“Maybe I can help you escape from it.”
Lola snorted. “You know it’s still illegal in Britain, right? You can literally be put in jail for loving someone. They’re not allowed to even acknowledge we exist in schools, so there’s all these queer kids trying to figure shit out by themselves. It’s not good, Daryla.” She sat up a little straighter and looked over at Daryla, who was still standing, looking startled. “So when you bring me here, and give me nice clothes, and give me wine, and bring me to your bedroom, I’m sorry if I’m a little complicated. Because I’m still expecting someone to knock down that door and take me off to enforced therapy. That’s the world I come from. Not the happy-anything-goes Palinor, not the progressive, better-than-everyone-else Max-Earth. I didn’t even talk to Clarke about any of this, because he’d probably be disgusted, and he’s one of the good guys. I’ve always kept it hidden, always. So that gives you an idea of how fucked up Mid-Earth is. You want some utopian future, but it’s not going to happen. Maybe for you, with all your money and power, but not for the rest of us. Not in this lifetime.”
They were both silent. Daryla’s gaze shifted to the gardens and the city beyond the walls, Lola glancing up at her a couple of times. She just wanted to be gone, to get back to her apartment in the city, to be alone.
“Perhaps not in this lifetime,” Daryla said, “but what about the next? We can change things for those who come after us.”
“But I want to change it for me. Why is that not OK?”
“Then we’ll start tomorrow,” Daryla said. “We’ll help each other make our escapes.”
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Thanks for reading!
I did that sketch ages ago for Daryla’s first appearance, waaaay back in ‘The Ambassadors’, based on some online reference. That was in November 2021, which seems impossible, but there you have it. If you missed that story, you can check out Daryla’s debut here:
Substack was busy this week. The Substack team innocently asked in their office hours if there were any book writers in the house - at which point, the house exploded. Check out the discussion here if you want to find a whole bunch of new authors to follow.
No Adults Allowed had a pretty good January, and my light dabbling with Amazon ads worked out positively. Still small numbers and tentative, but interesting data to munch on. If you like my writing, do go grab a copy of the ebook or paperback.
OK, there’s a lot to talk about this week, so let’s get into the…
This isn’t a plot-driven chapter. Which might come as a surprise after the first two parts of the ‘Escapists’ storyline.
At which point everyone goes ‘ooh!’ and realises the title has a double-meaning.
This is very much a character piece, largely driven through dialogue. I’m always slightly nervous about that, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of having two or more characters standing in a room talking at each other with no particular staging or motion. Action doesn’t just mean punchy-punchy - it also refers to movement within a space, which is what makes the geography of a scene come alive and a place feel real.
So in this case we begin with a sort-of flashback, or semi-recap, inside Lola’s thoughts, then we’re into the dining room, then out into the hallway, then up the stairs, into the bedroom, behind the folding screen, Daryla exits stage then returns then we’re out onto the balcony. So while there’s not much plot development and we don’t have much excitement in a traditional sense, there’s a lot of movement within the piece.
This is also an unusual chapter because it doesn’t cut away to a different POV or time - it’s 3k words of continual drama. I think that ratchets up the tension somewhat - or the intensity, at least. We start off all happy and fun and chilled, then Chancellor Baltine comes in and ruins everything, after which the tone slips into a new phase.
The second half is unnerving and remains ambiguous to a degree. We’re not sure how Daryla feels about everything, or what her motivations are. We don’t know how much stock to put in Baltine’s words (and neither does Lola).
What we do get is Lola, who has always been an irrepressible burst of enthusiasm and optimism, suddenly being faced with her new situation and not quite being able to cope with it. She’s in Palinor, living the good life, making friends with a princess, having her own fantasy adventure - all the things she’s dreamt of since she was a kid, and now that it’s here she finds herself overwhelmed.
I’ve been trying to make my writing more diverse in its representation for years. It wasn’t something I ever thought about as a kid, or a teenager, or even into my twenties. I’d always thought of myself as being an open-minded, tolerant person, but I was very much coming at that from the point of view of a privileged young, straight, white guy. I wish I could say that I moved beyond that narrow viewpoint on my own, but it was really having a son of mixed heritage that enabled me to view things from a slightly different perspective.
In particular, taking him to watch Spider-Man Into The Spider-verse at the cinema when he was 6 was a formative experience for the both of us. We came out of the cinema and he simply said “Miles Morales looks like me,” and that was that. Black Panther came out the following year and made the point even more strongly. Representation matters, it’s a positive for society, and anyone who says otherwise has an unpleasant agenda.
So, back to my writing. When I was putting the cast of Triverse together I knew I wanted it to be a diverse ensemble. Aside from anything else, it’s a way of exploring the fictional world and the real world, juxtaposing them in interesting ways. A more limited cast reduces your options as a writer - it’s as simple as that, really. It helps the storytelling be more interesting, and that’s before you get into the other inclusive benefits I mentioned just above.
A key thing, I think, is that Lola has always been written as gay. It’s not something that’s been introduced suddenly in this chapter: it’s an indelible part of who she is as a person, and it’s been there from the start. This chapter’s just the first time it’s properly come to the fore. It’s the first time Triverse has delved into what she wants, and how she’s survived in a hostile culture.
As much as I aim to write with understanding and respect, I’m aware that I won’t always get it right. These are characters who do not share my personal expereiences. Hopefully I’ve hit the marks here - it’s very much Lola’s story, written from her point of view.
I’m still a straight white guy, though, in my mid-40s. I’m writing about a community I’m not part of, and that does make nervous. It’s done with love and support, so I hope that shines through in the writing. I’ll be keeping a close eye on feedback.
This chapter overtly plays into the themes that pervade all of my work. Everything I’ve done, from A Day of Faces back in 2015, through The Mechanical Crown and No Adults Allowed, is ultimately about discrimination, prejudice, and the endless ways in which we can be mean to one another. Triverse is the biggest canvas I’ve played on to date, which can be a little daunting.
The story and my writing wear their intentions on their sleeves, I think. And for as grim as some of the setting of Triverse can be, it’s ultimately going to be a message of hope and optimism. Eventually. Just might take a while to get there. You know, like real life.
Thanks for reading. Hope the chapter worked for you.