Barbarian, art by Seaver Liu

Barbarian, art by Seaver Liu

Saladin Ahmed, one of the most exciting young writer in Fantasy, is giving away a short story, ‘Iron Eyes and the Watered-Down World’, today. Exciting news, yeah? Yeah, it is. I always jump on a chance to read any of his short fiction, and have raved about it once or twice in the past. He’s good. But, there’s a caveat here, and that comes to the reason he’s releasing the story. But first, the fun part.

The story begins thus,

‘Iron Eyes and the Watered-Down World’ by Saladin Ahmed

Zok Ironeyes stared at the tilecard table before him and cursed softly as Hai Hai clacked down the Dragoness tile with a gloating grunt.

Hai Hai looked up from the table and locked her shiny black eyes on the innkeeper, her nose and whiskers twitching. The scraggle-haired, red faced fool avoided Hai Hai’s gaze with the shame of a man who’d been caught staring. Zok couldn’t fault the innkeeper’s curiosity. The man had probably seen only a handful of rabbitmen in his life, for few of Hai Hai’s people ever made it this far south. But if the proprietor of the preposterously-named King’s Crest Inn didn’t watch himself, he was like to get his nose broken at least. Hai Hai wasn’t one to indulge untraveled bumpkins’ gawking.

“This innkeeper ain’t more careful with his stares, he’s gonna find himself smiling that swindler’s smile with only half a face,” she said. Her furry, four-fingered paw drifted to the hilt of one of her twin sabers as she peered skeptically into the hammered-brass mug before her. “And if this is true Rubywine, then my father was a fucking fox-lord.” Her paw left her sword and pulled at the pink-tinged end of one white ear. “Thousand-gods-damned hicks and their thousand-gods-damned dyed wines,” she muttered before looking up to level a weary gaze at Zok. “We need to spend our spoils in a real city again, Zok. I’m sick to death of these pathetic little dust-bucket shithole towns. Not cozy enough to be a village, not busy enough to be a city. And where in the three hells is that priest of ours, anyway?”

Zok shrugged. “This is where the four fickle gods of the road have led us. And I’m sure Mylovic will be here soon,” he said, only half-listening. He eyed the tilecard table again and saw that he was screwed. Hai Hai had put the Dragoness into play as soon as Zok had used up all his Knight cards. A better player might have wormed his way out of such a corner, but Zok had played enough games against Hai Hai to know that wasn’t going to happen.

He sighed over his lost coins and studied the Dragoness tile. The inn’s tilecard set was an old one, painted in the ornate Emerald Empire style, with the Dragoness depicted not as a serpent, but as a beautiful green-eyed woman. A woman that looked enough like Fraja that it made Zok sigh a second time.

He reached into his purse to pluck out a forfeit-coin and paused, running a calloused finger over the thick gold hoop earring he’d carried for all these years. Sometimes he almost thought he could feel his wife Fraja call to him when he touched the earring. But of course Fraja was a decade dead and gone.

Saladin explains why he’s giving it away for free, despite writing almost no short fiction in the last several months:

In essence, this is a plea for a sort of patronage. A number of you have bought or spread word about my first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and I can’t thank you enough for that support. I’ve also had a humbling number of readers write to ask how they can further support my writing. So here I’m offering up a new piece of fiction and, with it, a request for further support. Depending on who you are, this support might be described as help for a friend in need, patronage for a writer whose long-term career you’d like to support, or both.


The past year or so has been surprising on a number of writer-fronts, but one of the biggest surprises has been this: After becoming a master of the fine art of collecting rejection letters, publishers are now asking me (!?) for short stories. And, in a turn of events that once would have been unthinkable to me, I’ve had to turn them away. Why? Because, due essentially to a combination of crippling anxiety and chronic fatigue, I haven’t written a short story in ages.

He also explains the genesis of the story:

[T]his story is basically Conan pastiche. I sort of wrote it in spite of myself; a spontaneous , damn-near-fanfic effusion occasioned by reading Jonathan Strahan’s and Lou Anders’ sword-and-sorcery anthology Swords and Dark Magic, which book got me through a couple of VERY hard nights when my kids were ill. It’s not the best or most profound or most challenging thing I’ve ever written. But I hope at least that it’s fun.

A plea like this certainly helps shatter the illusion that surrounds the high-rolling life of Fantasy authors. For every Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, there are dozens, hundreds or thousands of other writers, published and filling your Kindles and bookshelves, who’re just like you an me, trying to make ends meet while doing the things we love. Writing is an art, a passion, but it’s also a profession. It takes guts to come out like Ahmed has done, so, to that, I tip my hat.

Ahmed is a great talent, but, more than that, he’s a great dude. Bottom-line. If you enjoyed this story, or any of his other various pieces of short fiction, if you liked Throne of the Crescent Moon (like I did), or just want to help a brother out, consider support Ahmed, either by buying one of his books, sending some cash his way, or dropping him an encouraging tweet (@SaladinAhmed).

UPDATE, 06/14/12: And a very nice update from Ahmed:

I AM NO LONGER IN NEED OF IMMEDIATE FINANCIAL ‘PATRONAGE.’ PLEASE JUST ENJOY THE SHORT STORY. In less than 24 hours of my asking for help, you wonderful readers, friends, and fellow writers have pulled me from the brink, $-wise. I’m working on a full ‘thank you’ post, but for now please save your money.

Good for a smile on a Wednesday morning. :)