Realization, when it came, was was a slow, creeping thing. It arrived in fits and starts, not to be swayed by anything so pathetic as logic and common sense. And even after arriving, Lyra did not want to accept what she knew deep down to be true. She was above such base ridiculousness. It was too stupid to be worth considering, and Lyra was not a stupid person. Ipso facto , it couldn’t be true.
She couldn’t have been hooked by a trashy pulp adventure story starring a heroine with more boobs than sense.
(If Brent was to be believed, such an end was inevitable, but he knew better than to say so to her face. He might be the part-orc with the berserker rage, but hell hath no fury like a pissed-off Lyra. They both knew who would win that fight.)
But, gods damn it, there was a reason why the damn things were so popular. A person who actually cared could suss out the keys to its success: the nature of serialized fiction, ending on cliffhangers that never got resolved, the familiar catharsis of an undefeatable Good usurping an irredeemable Evil, the soapy drama reminiscent of old stage plays appealing to the lowest common denominator.
And, truly, de Rotrou had a way with words. Despite being kinda sorta really racist and including bounds of logic that sometimes made the plots of the Ti’fa’nii books fall apart faster than a tinderstick house during a hurricane, there was a certain rhythm to them that was almost hypnotizing. Lyra fell into a trance while reading, often finishing an entire book in an afternoon’s leisure. Days later the plot would be a blur in her mind, details already fading into oblivion, but in the moment it was enough. There was always a reason to turn the page. And the next. And the next.
And the next.
It was better once Margot found the unlicensed spin-offs. As long as the author knew how to work around the copyright of the original, it seemed that anyone could write them. A few were worse than anything de Rotrou ever put to paper, but over time Lyra settled on a few authors who were a cut above the rest. She burned through books at a pace that would have mortified her mother, had Lyra told her mother what kinds of stories she was reading these days. There was a tiny burst of gratification that came with adding yet another hobby to the list of life choices her family did not agree with.
The books had all the pulpy sensationalism Lyra craved without the racist, sexist, chest-thumping elven superiority that was seeped into the bones of the original. The characters were better written, making the loss of the lyrical style of the official works a little easier to bear, with the added bonus of smut that was written by someone who seemed to have actually had sex sometime in the last century.
There was one detail that always niggled on her nerves. None of the authors Lyra read had any idea how adventuring really worked, or seemed to have talked with a bonafide mercenary. The lack of research was disappointing, small, incorrect details derailing the entire reading experience.
Margot tried to sooth her growing irritation by talking about wish fulfillment and fantasy, but Lyra was not so easily satisfied, until finally she gave up entirely, saying with a laugh,
“If you want something that bad, why don’t you write it yourself?”
Margot meant it as a joke; Lyra took it as a challenge. With a huff, the later stole the former’s magicked pen, rummaged around her pack until she found a scrap piece of parchment, and dashed the following lines:
Tiffany spent her morning filling out paperwork. It was very boring, and she wished she could have spent the time kissing her awesome orc chieftess girlfriend instead. The end.
Margot looked over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow. “I thought Tiffany was spelled differently?”
“Ti’fa’nii is copyrighted,” Lyra said blithely. “Tiffany is an entirely original character, whose resemblance to any person, real or imagined, is purely coincidental.”
They laughed, they kissed, and the matter was dropped.
But the idea, once planted, would not get out of Lyra’s head.
“Hey, Thistle, do you think you could look at something for me?”
Thistle jumped a little at the sound of her own name, jolted from the book she’d found during their afternoon trawling through the bookstore’s clearance bin together. Though not typically Lyra’s idea of a good time, it was something Thistle enjoyed, and Lyra had been able to pick up a pocket dictionary for when they were on the job. She hadn’t gotten a chance to use it yet, but figured if it didn’t help her writing she’d at least be able to reference it the next time Thistle went on her tangents about magic theory.
“Er, yeah, sure,” Thistle said eagerly. Nervously . “What is it?”
“I need someone to proofread this.”
Lyra thrust out a handful of paper for her inspection. At first Thistle was confused, then curious, eyes squinting as she took them in one gloved hand.
“It’s been years since I did any real writing,” Lyra explained. Letters didn’t typically have dialogue in them, and she could never remember when she was supposed to use a comma or a period. “I want to make sure it reads nice before I send it off.”
“Send off?” Thistle echoed, looking up confusedly. “Where?”
“To be judged,” Lyra said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She fished around her pocket before pulling out a news clipping. “The publishing house that puts out the Ti’fa’nii novels is holding a contest. Winner gets their short story published in the next book. I guess after the thirtieth sequel it’s hard to drum up enthusiasm with the fans.”
“Oh,” Thistle said. “ Oh. ”
“Don’t worry, there’s nothing in there to offend your prudish sensibilities,” Lyra said, laughing a little as she squirmed. “I want those idiots to know what a real adventure’s like.”
“Okay.” She scanned the first paragraphs while Lyra waited impatiently. With her head ducked and hood covering her eyes it was impossible to gauge any sort of expression, but after a few seconds her posture relaxed.
“I’m not...the best at writing,” Thistle said hesitantly.
“Oh, please,” Lyra said, flapping her hand dismissively. “Why do you think Orrig lets you handle half of his paperwork these days? Can you help or not? It’s okay if you don’t want to or whatever, I just thought I’d ask.”
“I’d be happy to,” Thistle said, and there was nothing about her tone or posture that made Lyra think she was equivocating, an animated light sparking in her eyes. “Thank you for asking.”
Lyra snorted, but was secretly pleased as she left Thistle with her manuscript. If there was anyone who would be happy to be used as a glorified spellchecker, it was Thistle.
“Do you really think you need three paragraphs of her putting on armor?”
“It’s immersive, ” Lyra said, snatching the page before Thistle could mark anything out. “I told you, I want to show what being a mercenary’s really like.”
“Yeah, but…” Thistle’s voice trailed off before she could finish the thought, and Lyra pounced on the silence before she could regather her lost courage.
“Besides, if de Rotrou can spend an entire chapter describing one meal, I think I should be allowed to have three paragraphs of my character suiting up,” Lyra said.
“Isn’t there a limited word count, though?”
At this Lyra had to pause. She’d managed to keep her story within the limits of the contest—just barely. Chewing on the inside of her cheek, she looked down at the page once more. Maybe she could cut it down to two…
From the other side of camp, Brent groaned, “Are you still writing?”
“Nobody asked you,” Lyra snapped.
“ Her amaranthine orbs sparkled in the sunlight, her resolve as undying as that mythical bloom ,”
“Shut up, Brent!”
Laughing, he ducked the pen Lyra hurled across the campsite. She would never forgive Thistle for reading that line aloud when he was in hearing distance. It had been a mistake trying to copy de Rotrou's style, but damn it if she hadn't tried during her rough draft.
Embarrassed enough for the both of them, Thistle magicked the pen out of the bushes and flicked it to Lyra, who caught it easily. “If you want to make it in time, you’ll probably need to send it in today. You could post it when we make it back to town.”
Lyra massaged her forehead and muttered a string of curses that made Thistle’s cheeks flush, even with the magical darkness. “You’re sure everything’s spelled right?”
“As sure as a mage can be about spelling.”
“Was that a joke?” Lyra said. “Did our little baby Thistle actually make a joke? ”
For a moment, the attention was taken off Lyra’s writing, as Thistle retreated deeper in her hood, but not before Lyra caught the bashful smile on her face. Ignoring Brent’s overprotective jump to her defense—which was honestly so sweet and dorky, Lyra was secretly amazed Thistle hadn’t realized—she reached into her bag for a fresh stack of paper and began to write.
Lyra didn’t win, but then again, she didn’t really expect to.
She flipped through the newest Ti’fa’nii book, mildly curious. She hadn’t paid much attention to the main series since it’s twenty-somethingth entry, and was a little surprised to see there’d been something of a reboot to the character. She was still half-naked and kind of racist, but the origin story referenced half-way through was different than she remembered.
Or maybe she hadn’t paid that much attention. Lyra had never been a stickler for canon.
She skimmed this new origin story, trying to remember who the Poacher Baron of Hagthorn was and why he was teaching Ti’fa how to fight, when she came to a sudden stop. Her eyes glued on three familiar paragraphs of the book’s glorious heroine donning armor for the first time.
Lyra’s paragraphs, almost word for word.
Gods and goddess, she was a published author.
And then her whole world went red.
According to Orrig, there was nothing she could do.
It turned out there were more rules to the short story contest than the newspaper article implied. As he explained after Lyra calmed down enough to think straight and he’d examined the fine print, by sending in her manuscript (could a short story meant to be printed at the back of a book be called a manuscript?) she’d forfeited her rights to it. She wasn’t good enough to win the top prize, but that didn’t stop the powers that were from poaching the parts they liked best and using it for themselves.
It was all perfectly legal, if not all that ethical. With de Rotrou’s productivity, Orrig wasn’t even sure all the Ti’fa’nii books were all written by one person. For all they knew, there was a whole assembly of people writing everyone's favorite big-breasted heroine. Likely as not, there were bits and pieces stolen from all sorts of people and mashed together like a patchwork quilt, and she didn't even know it.
Which, in retrospect, explained more things than it didn’t, but still. That didn’t stop Lyra from wanting to storm the place and demanding justice. She might have anyway, if the publishing house wasn't in the elven capital, half-way across the continent.
“So I guess you’re through with that series for good?” Margot said sympathetically over lunch.
Lyra looked down at her drink morosely. “Yeah.”
A cool hand lay over hers. “I’m sorry.”
“Makes you wonder how many other people they screwed over.”
“Probably a lot.” Margot gently squeezed her hand. “If it’s any consolation, I’m proud that you wrote the story. I don’t think I could have done it, even if I knew the subject matter.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Lyra said, cheering slightly. “And you know what?”
“The fact they put in the armor scene means there’s people out there that want more realistic adventure stories. And obviously, without my expertise de Rotrou or his ghost writers don’t know their head from their ass when it comes to that sort of stuff.”
“Most people don’t,” Margot said, smiling ruefully.
“Which just means I have to write it,” Lyra said, a wide grin spreading across her face at the thought of writing a full-length story of Tiffany and her awesome orc chieftess girlfriend. “Might be tough to get Thistle to spell check something that, er, long.”
Reaching across the table, Margot kissed her on the check. “I’m sure you’ll find someone.”
"You know, I'm going to hold you to that," Lyra said.
Her laugh tickled against Lyra's cheek. "I hope you do."