Split Heirs

Wildside cover

Split Heirs is a humorous fantasy novel written by Esther M. Friesner and myself.

It's the story of the heirs to the throne of Hydrangea, a decadent kingdom recently conquered by the uncouth Gorgorians. Gorgorian superstition holds that a man can only father one child at a time; twins means two fathers.

When Queen Artemisia bears triplets -- well, two of them must be hidden immediately, before her barbaric husband finds out about the multiple birth. But how, and where? And which two? She has very little time to choose.

When you rush an important job, something always goes wrong...

"If Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker had teamed up to write epic fantasy, something like Split Heirs might have resulted." -- John deChancie

"An excruciatingly funny book." -- Susan Shwartz

"...you'll love this one!" -- Analog

"...screamingly funny." -- Dragon

"No description of plot or characters can reveal how relentlessly entertaining this story really is." -- Cleveland Plain Dealer

I wrote the following on a whim just before we turned the novel in, giving some details about the two major nationalities in the story. This wound up on the back of the hardcover's dustjacket and is even translated in the front of the German edition.

Protocols for Military Personnel in the Service of the Ancient & Honorable Kingdom of the Hydrangeans

1. A soldier is a gentleman, and will comport himself, or in those special cases where female personnel may be employed in the armed forces, herself, as a gentleman--or, as the case may be, a lady. While a certain degree of aggressive physical activity may be required in the performance of a Hydrangean soldier's duties, this in no way implies that he or she shall at any time behave in a rude, thoughtless, or impious manner. (See Volume 1, Articles 15 through 224, for further commentary on appropriate behavior.)

2. The Hydrangean soldier will at all times, while on duty, be properly attired. While a certain degree of personal modification of the standard uniform is permissible, this must not be taken to excess. The tunic shall be of fine wool, and shall extend below the waist sufficiently to ensure proper modesty, but shall not under any circumstances cover the knee.

The tunic shall be dyed to a hue matching, as closely as possible, the official color of the lower dexter quadrant of the company's banner.

Gold embroidery may cover no more than a hand's breadth of material at the hem and shoulder, and shall not incorporate any slogans, mottos, or political commentary, nor shall any names of officers or personal acquaintances be displayed. If the name of a patron, ancestor, or member of the nobility should appear, no denigration shall be stated or implied. No obscenity or profanity may appear...

Code of the Gorgorian Warrior

First Rule: Do what your war leader
tells you.

Second Rule: Don't ask questions.

Third Rule: When in doubt, kill it.

[I'm using a portion of Chapter Six as a teaser, rather than the first chapter, because Esther wrote almost all of the opening. I don't want to steal her work for my Website, so I picked a piece that's mostly mine.]

Chapter Six

The hay-rack tottered, swayed, and then slowly, with the magnificent grace of a plump dowager crossing a ballroom, it fell forward, leaving a trail of chaff floating on the gentle spring air and making a stately descent toward a black and loathsome mud puddle. Atop the wooden frame Wulfrith howled in terror and delight, flailing his arms as if he thought he could somehow propel the structure upright again, thereby sending showers of hay in all directions.

Leaping at the last minute, the boy landed atop a ewe that, until that moment, had been concerned with nothing more pressing than deciding whether or not to swallow the well-chewed grass she was currently masticating. The stuff had very little flavor left, and she had just about settled on swallowing at least part of it, when Wulfrith, with an ear-splitting shriek, fell across her back and clutched great double handfuls of wool.

Her eyes flew open, and she found herself suddenly surrounded by a billowing cloud of hay and grit.

An instant later the rack splashed into the puddle, showering thin muck over sheep and passenger both, and the beast's astonishment turned to fright. With the screaming child clinging to her back, the ewe charged across the meadow, bleating hysterically.

Odo's cat, Fang, watched nonchalantly from a nearby gatepost as the terrified ovine ran headfirst into the fence, bringing herself to an abrupt stop and catapulting Wulfrith over the rail and into the open cesspool beyond.

The boy's wail of dismay ended in an abrupt splash, shortly followed by a call of, "ooh, stinky!"

Fang decided that the spectacle was over, and settled down atop the post, planning to take a nap. His attempt to find the optimum comfortable position involved swinging his tail around, however, and the motion caught the eye of Wulfrith's brother, who had paid no attention whatsoever to the recent disasters.

The tail was irresistible, and Dunwin had not yet acquired the concept of resisting temptation in any case; he grabbed for the waving line of grey fur, little fingers clamping on with roughly the same force as a pit bull's jaws.

Fang abruptly found his nap interrupted by a strong pressure and downward pull on his tail. Visions of crocodilians and canines shattered his feline composure, and eighteen razor-sharp claws dug into the weathered wood of his perch. He yowled.

Dunwin tugged innocently at Fang's tail, enjoying the feel of the fur; the cat let out a wail several degrees more impressive than the one Daddy Odo had produced the night before upon finding that the boys had made up his bed for him, using the only cloth that they could handle easily, which was their own soiled diapers.

Dunwin and the trapped Wulfrith both admired this amazing new sound, and in hopes of hearing it again, Dunwin gave Fang's tail a jerk powerful enough that the cat came sailing off the fencepost, splinters spraying in every direction as claws pulled loose from weathered locustwood.

Three sheep, struck by flying debris, panicked and ran, one of them colliding with the remains of the hay-rack, snapping its remaining joints.

Fang gave a shriek that was heard not just in Stinkberry, but in three other villages as well.

And Odo finally woke up.

He staggered to the door of his hut and looked out at the world, expecting to find all the demons of the forty-six hells of Old Hydrangean mythology rampaging through his fields.

Instead, he found Dunwin swinging Fang by the tail in a desperate and successful effort to keep the animal's claws away from his face, while the cat continued to produce new and inventive noises; he found the recently-filled hay-rack and its erstwhile contents scattered across half an acre; and he found his sheep running back and forth, bleating in panic.

Latoya, his finest ewe, had two patches of bare skin showing where handfuls of wool had been ripped out.

The bellow that emerged was so impressive that Fang forgot his own problems and stared in admiration. The sound managed to penetrate Dunwin's sublime self-centeredness sufficiently to worry him. And it gave all the sheep a single direction in which to run--away from their master.

Odo marched out of the hut, breathing heavily; Dunwin thoughtfully lowered Fang to the ground and released the death-grip on his tail, whereupon Fang decided it would be a good idea to be somewhere else for the next day or two, and, with the aid of his mystical feline abilities, vanished.

Odo stamped across the field and stood over Dunwin, glowering at the child.

"Hello, Daddy Odo," Dunwin said. He smiled.

"What's going on here?" Odo demanded.

Dunwin looked around, blinking innocently.

"Where?" he asked.

"Where's your brother?" Odo asked, suddenly worried.

"Down well," Dunwin said, pointing in the wrong direction.

Odo, ignoring the pointing finger, turned in the direction of the well. "Again?" he asked wearily.

"Stinky well," Dunwin amended.

Odo blinked.

"Hello, Daddy Odo," Wulfrith called from the cesspool.

Slowly, Odo turned back around to face the pit. A whiff of ordure reached him--Wulfrith was stirring up the normally quiescent contents of the cesspool. Odo winced.

Lowering a rope for the boy wouldn't work; he had tried that several times when one or the other of the boys tumbled down the well. A two-year-old boy did not hold onto a rope well enough to be hauled up, and certainly couldn't climb by himself.

Odo would have to climb down himself and carry Wulfrith out.

It wasn't the smell, so much, he told himself, then stopped.

Well, yes, it was the smell. He wasn't a sissy like those Old Hydrangean noblemen, he didn't have any objection to honest lice or a little healthy dirt, but he took a bath every year whether he needed it or not, and he just wasn't used to dealing with what you might call a really serious stench. If the milk went a little sour, or the eggs were bad, that wasn't much of anything; if a sheep puked on his boot he didn't hurry to wipe it off, and he had changed the boys' nappies without complaint--but those were just little stinks.

The reek in the cesspool was an entirely different matter.

It was, after all, where he dumped the sour milk and the rotten eggs and the sheep puke and the contents of all those diapers--all of it.

The smell down there was a whole new class of stink. He really didn't want to climb down there.

He could hear Wulfrith splashing about happily.

He whacked Dunwin, on general principles, and went to fetch a rope--but after a moment's thought and another glance at Dunwin, he decided to make it two ropes.

The amazing thing, Odo thought sourly an hour later, was that Wulfrith had only managed to fall back twice on the way up.


How It Happened:

In the beginning were the Tor Doubles.

Before the beginning were the Ace Doubles, of course, which is where Tor got the idea. When I was a kid I was fascinated with the Ace doubles -- paperbacks containing two short novels, with two front covers and no back. I thought they were neat. I wanted to write a story that would appear in one, but the line was cancelled long before I ever got anything published.

The folks at Tor thought they were neat, too, so they started their own line, reprinting paired classics too short to stand alone by modern standards, and too long for anthologies or collections. They also went looking for new work of the appropriate length -- 20,000 to 60,000 words.

As it happened, I wrote a 20,000-word story, "The Final Folly of Captain Dancy," while Tor was buying for the Doubles. I'd written it with no particular market or length in mind, and found myself with a story that looked like it would be very hard to sell to any traditional market -- but that was just barely long enough for the Tor Doubles.

So I sent it to Tor, and they bought it, and informed me that it would be the front half of Tor Double No. 37, backed by Esther M. Friesner's short fantasy novel, Yesterday We Saw Mermaids.

I was pleased. No, I was delighted. I was going to be in a Double with Esther Friesner, who wrote quirky, charming, highly entertaining fantasy. The more I thought about it, the more I thought our styles would be a good match. And when I got a cover proof, it looked great.

But then it all blew up. The Torfolk and I might think doubles were neat, but booksellers hated them. They were hard to catalog, hard to shelve, and generally confusing. And finally, several distributors informed Tor that they would not carry any more doubles, and Tor was forced to cancel the line -- advance orders were simply too low, due not to poor sales, but to resistance from booksellers. The books did sell once they got on the shelves, but nobody wanted to put them on the shelves.

So the line was cancelled. Tor Double No. 36 was the last.

And ours was No. 37.


Tor and I salvaged the situation as best we could by having me write a short novel, The Rebirth of Wonder, and putting "The Final Folly of Captain Dancy" in the back -- they'd actually wanted me to write a couple of prequel novellas about Captain Dancy, but I didn't have any in my head, so we compromised on this. And they published Yesterday We Saw Mermaids as a complete stand-alone novel -- it was just barely long enough for that.

But I wanted to see my name and Esther's on the same book cover, dammit! And if we couldn't do it with a Double, there was only one other obvious solution.

So I did some careful hinting, and coaxed Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the editor at Tor who had handled the Doubles, into suggesting that hey, you and Esther should collaborate on a novel! Since it was apparently his idea it looked like a pretty sure sale, which made it easy to talk Esther (and our respective agents) into the idea.

Then all we needed to do was plot it. And write it.

So Esther and I decided to meet and do some planning at a science fiction convention we were both going to attend anyway, called Disclave. We ran into each other at a room party there on Friday night, ensonced ourselves on someone's bed, and began plotting.

We decided that we ought to play to our strengths. It should be light fantasy, with a young protagonist. (This eliminated at least one of Esther's ideas, which was downbeat SF, and I think might've been what later became The Psalms of Herod.) We'd each come with a couple of possible storylines in mind -- but I didn't like any of hers, and she didn't like any of mine, and it began to look as if the whole thing would collapse right there. (I remember one of hers involved Cleopatra, but the details are otherwise mostly forgotten.)

We weren't quite ready to give up, so we agreed that we would meet for lunch the following day, each bring one more idea, and if we still didn't have anything we both liked we'd abandon the project.

So the next day we showed up, and I had come up with a variant on "The Prince and the Pauper," where it's not a pauper who trades places with a prince, but a wizard's apprentice. Esther's idea involved certain superstitions about twins, a clash between barbarians and a decadent civilization, and the notion of raising a girl as a barbarian prince. It was immediately obvious that not only were these both viable, not only did we both like both of them, but that they could readily be combined into a single plot, which I gave the title Split Heirs. (I'm better at puns. Esther's better at character bits.)

We spent the rest of lunch coming up with characters, scenes, and plot elements that ought to be included. Esther is amazing at this -- she'll just sit there cranking out these bizarre characters and magnificent comedy set pieces. I began to feel that I wasn't doing my share -- I'd estimate two-thirds of the ideas generated there came from Esther, so to catch up I took on the job of fitting them into a coherent plot. Which turned out to be something I do better than Esther, though maybe not by much.

Anyway, by the end of lunch we had a shapeless mass of ideas that needed to be assembled, we had the rough framework of a plot to hang them on, and we'd missed a signing we were supposed to do at the convention. Oops.

After the convention I wrote up an outline, divided it into forty-two scenes, and sent a copy to Esther. We then divvied up who would write which scene, each taking twenty-one. Esther happened to get the first three, which meant that I had nothing more to do for awhile except to submit the proposal to Tor. Which we did, and they bought it.

That convention was at the end of May. We had a deal with Tor by the end of June, as I recall. What I didn't have was any sign that Esther was doing anything with those opening scenes. She was finishing up other projects, and insisted that she'd get to Split Heirs in plenty of time.

In fact, she did, but by the time I actually got the first installment (late September or early October) I was getting very jittery about the whole thing, so I wrote my scenes (I believe I had the next two) very, very quickly. I write fast anyway, and this time I wrote very fast. I had the whole thing back in the mail in a couple of days.

I don't know what really happened, but I imagine Esther getting that package, easily a week sooner than expected, and thinking, "Oh, so that's how he wants it, eh? Well, two can play at that game!" Because her next scene was written and in the mail to me in about two days.

Whereupon I said, "I can top that!" and wrote my next scene overnight, and mailed the package the next morning.

Having now proved to each other we could both write as fast as necessary, we settled down some after that, but the book still got written very quickly. We had it done well before the contracted deadline.

I should probably mention a few things about how we worked. We'd made an agreement about modifying each other's work, with detailed rules about veto power and so on, but it almost never came up. I did add about three paragraphs to the first chapter because I thought it needed a little more scene-setting, but other than that, Esther's scenes were by Esther and I didn't mess with them, and my scenes were by me and Esther didn't mess with them. We each liked the other's work, and saw no need to tamper with it. We started out working in somewhat different styles, but as we went along we each imitated the other's, and wound up writing so much alike (on this one project) that even we can no longer tell who wrote what. We both added stuff that wasn't in the outline -- sometimes major stuff -- and trusted the other to use it appropriately, whether it was weeping cheeses or official screamers or poisoned mushrooms. (None of those were in the outline, and no, I won't tell you who came up with which.)

Most of Esther's contributions delighted me. I had mild reservations about one or two bits of what I considered excessive violence, but most of it was sparkling and funny, and getting to read it and then respond in the next installment was some of the most fun I've ever had writing.

When the first draft was done and the various files assembled in one place in a consistent format, I was amused to notice that we had each written exactly the same number of pages -- 198 apiece. This was a very balanced collaboration.

That first draft had some minor problems; we went through and rearranged some sections so the plot would make more sense, punched up a scene or two -- I remember Esther had some good suggestions for one of my bits right near the end. Then I wrote a second draft, changing very little but smoothing out the stylistic inconsistencies (which mostly disappeared well before halfway through anyway, as our styles had converged). I sent the result to Esther, who was supposed to do a third draft -- the idea was we would keep sending it back and forth, polishing it, until we were both satisfied.

She didn't see anything to fix, so there was no third draft. My second draft is what got published.

When I read through it in proofs I was pleased with the result. There was one place -- only one! -- where I could see a style shift when she'd stopped and I'd started, and it felt like a sort of psychic speedbump to me, but nobody else has ever mentioned noticing it, so I guess it's not too bad. Elsewhere I discovered that I often couldn't remember or tell who'd written what.

Jerry Pournelle sometimes says that when he collaborates with Larry Niven, he does 90% of the work, then turns it over to Niven, who does the other 90%. I can understand that; I've done collaborations that felt like that. On Split Heirs, though, it seemed as if I did 25% of the work, Esther did 25%, and we don't know where the other half came from.

We just hope it's as much fun for other folks to read as it was for us to write.

Will there be a sequel?

We'd hoped so. We did plot one, called Putting on Heirs, specifically designed so that each of us could play with things the other had put in the first novel that we hadn't gotten to use as much as we wanted, following up on various cliches we hadn't yet stomped on, such as the scheming uncle and the lost heir.

Unfortunately, Tor wasn't interested. Split Heirs did sell well, if not spectacularly, but the Powers That Be at Tor had decided humorous fantasy was dead, so they turned it down. And taking a sequel to another publisher just wouldn't be practical.

So unless things change, the sequel will never be written. We haven't been able to generate any publisher interest in any further collaborations between us, which is a shame, as we really enjoyed working together and would like to do it again.

Publishing history:

First hardcover edition published by Tor Books, July 1993, ISBN 0-312-85320-3. Cover art by Walter Velez.

Book club edition published by Science Fiction Book Club, 1993. Same cover art.

First paperback edition published by Tor Books, June 1994, ISBN 0-81252029-7. Same cover art.

Trade paperback edition published by Wildside Press, August 2012, ISBN 978-1434441119. Same cover art.

Ebook edition published by Wildside Press, August 2012

German edition published by Bastei-Verlag Gustav H. Luebbe GmbH und Co., September 1997, under the title Das Schwarze Wiesel, oder Der Erben drei verderben den Brei [literally, "The Black Weasel, or the Three Heirs Spoil the Porridge" -- okay, it loses something in the translation], translated by Dietmar Schmidt, ISBN 3-404-20316-x. Cover art by Richard Hescox, originally for Royal Chaos, by Dan McGirt (Roc, 1990, ISBN 0-451-45014-0). (Oddly, Das Schwartze Wiesel was printed in France.)

Russian edition published by AST, April 1999, under the title Korona na Troikh [literally, "Crown for Three"], translated by M.B. Vainshtein [Weinstein], ISBN 5-237-00220-X. Like most of my AST books, it's in the Vek Drakona series. I haven't yet seen a copy.


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