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Eric: A bedtime story.

Would you think less of me if I asked you for a bedtime story?

What sort of bedtime story? I ask purely because... well, I was about to go to bed.

Something brief but reassuring. If you're going to bed yourself, no worry.

Well, but I like reassuring. What nature of story? Or genre?

A fairy tale sort of thing. Princesses. That kind.


Plucky urchins are also acceptable.

Oooookay. Give me a couple of seconds to consider....

'k. Thanks.

It's just started raining here.

Envy. The rain gave up here about a day ago and it's been warm for no good reason. Instead, we get birds. Birds and sunrise.

This is a driving rain. Hard rain on pavement, yet soft on grass. The kind of rain that washes the air as it slides to the ground.

The right kind.

Of course, you know why rain like that falls, don't you?


It's because of the Viscountess of the Northwesterlies, of course.

I'm unfamiliar with her.

It's convenient, then, that I'm telling you about her, isn't it?


The Viscountess, as with her mother before her, and her mother before her, and her father before that (there being some confusion as to the proper description of a matrilineal line), is the lady of the estate of the Northwesterlies, a Cumulous sort of affair -- which is a Latin word meaning heap, which derives from the Latin word cumulus, which is of course a number of clouds. Which perfectly describes the estate of the Northwesterlies, which are founded within absolute heaps of clouds.

And this is where the problem lies. You see, there is rather a lot of upkeep needed to keep layers upon layers of cloud clean and manageable and presentable. It's rather a full time job even with an estate full of servants. And it takes dedication and concern not to make a right dingy mess of the whole affair.

(For the record? Clouds that aren't properly kept up ultimately become the raw material of dust bunnies. Though it involves a certain purifying process as they go from sky to under the bed. Needless to say, no matter how pleasant a dustbunny might be, you wouldn't want a cloudful of the raw stuff floating around the sky. For one thing, think of the poor allergy sufferers.)

(But dust bunnies cause allergies too, even from under the bed.)

(Yes. Now imagine if they were raining allergies down from the sky constantly. There isn't enough Allerga in the world to handle that.)

(Eek. Indeed not.)

So. it's an important duty, which is why a Viscountess was assigned to it generation after generation. And generally it went well, until the accession of her Right Honorable Lady, the Viscountessa Northwesterley Laurial.

Who, at about the time she took up the Viscountess's tiara, was a right brat.

That's allowed?

Well, that's the problem with a matrilineal system. Sometimes a brat or three squeak through.

Eek. That's not right.

It's considered a step up from a patrilineal system, however, which seems to lead to total nutjobs.

Well, yeah. Boys.

Anyhow. Laurial was not know for her diligence to duty. Quite the opposite, really. She liked to lie about, watching Magic Mirrors (trashy programs at that), eating bon bons and letting paperwork pile up unattended for weeks at a time.

"I am the Viscountessa Northwesterley," she was wont to say. "And I don't eat peas if I don't want to. I don't have to make my bed if it doesn't please me to do so. And as for cleaning the cumulus -- I'm certain I have better things to do with my time."

Which leads to downfall. (Although she's right to refuse peas.)

Well, naturally it leads to downfall. Because obviously, dust and gunk began to clock up the cumulus. It became dingy and grey, not fluffy and white. The gentle slopes and rolling white fields became treacherous and slippery and full of portent.

Big, big clouds.

Big and dark and grey, with rumblings and flashes... you see... when you have bits of the dust and the like, underneath a bed, you get bunnies, which cause allergies but aren't very harmful. There isn't that much dust and gunk, after all. And dustbunnies can be taught several entertaining dances, and are noted connoisseurs of smooth sandwich spreads.

But in the Cumulus, you don't have bits of dust. you have great heaping gobs of it, and you don't get bunnies from gobs.

What do you get?

You get wyverns of grey smoke and dust, with flashing, hissing lightning stingers on their tails. Gigantic beasts, who think nothing of chomping up a person or three and wreaking havoc upon the countryside below. Beasts who wouldn't care about the very finest of sandwich spread, and, if pressed, would take chunky anyway.

The unrefined.


Now, there were a goodly number of servants and peasants and artisans in the Cumulus before all this happened. The Northwesterlies were known for culture and hard workers, and they kept things clean. but Laurial had distracted them with orders and demands -- she had them cooking for her and dancing for her entertainment and sewing her new clothes and rearranging the furniture and standing juuust right to improve Magic Mirror reception. And so none of the work that she was supposed to be responsible for was getting done, and the dust and gunk and goo was clogging things up and the clouds were getting greyer and greyer. Then one day, the wyverns began to rear their serpentine heads, hissing, their tails flashing with lightning that split down to the ground.

And the servants and artisans and peasants of the Northwesterlies looked up and saw the wyverns -- saw them getting closer and getting stronger -- and collectively said, "Oh, no freaking way." And they got out of town as fast as they could.

Laurial, unfortunately, was sleeping late, as was her wont. So her first indication that she was suddenly alone in the Northwesterlies was when she woke up and discovered there was no breakfast made. Nor anyone to make it. And after a long period of grumbling and the breaking of the coffee maker -- it's not particularly easy to figure out a coffee maker when you've never actually used one one before -- Laurial put on her traveling clothes and tromped out to the estate to start slapping people and otherwise demanding a reckoning.

Of course, she didn't get nine feet out of her castle before she discovered that A) there were no people to slap, B) there were wyverns, and C) the wyverns were entirely too large and hostile-looking to slap.

And so, like any smart person who's discovered she's way in over her head, she ran into her castle and locked the door. She didn't think to ask the wyverns if they knew how to work the coffee maker, which is something of a pity since wyverns pull espresso like champs. But that's neither here nor there.

She probably only had a basic drip machine, anyhow.

Almost certainly. And she'd broken it besides.

So. Trapped in her castle, Laurial had an opportunity to consider what she had done wrong up to that point. She figured out relatively quickly that the lack of cloud maintenance and cleanliness had led to the rise of the Wyverns, but as the people who were trained in cleaning the dust away had all run away, and the Viscountess herself had never received more than the most formal of training with a feather duster (far more for ceremonial purpose than anything else), it looked like things were going to get bad.

So she's toast?

Well, not yet. It's a good castle, you see. Made of solid dolomite -- and that's one bad mother building material. So the Wyverns grew and grew outside, feeding off the dust and gunk that continued to collect and spread, slamming their lightning tails, smashing the buildings of the estate other than the castle, cracking lightning stings down to the ground below -- generally making a mess of things.

But if she hides, and the people are gone, it's not going to be a sustainable situation.

Well, the story isn't done yet -- and besides, the dust that gathers comes from all over the world. So who knows how much will collect or how many wyverns will rise up out of the gunk or how big and mean they'll get -- especially if they have no espresso machines.


Forty wyverns?


It's a big number.

Mmm. Yes. Yes, that sounds about right. And of course, forty wyverns would cause a lot of trouble, not only for what was left of the Northwesterlies, but for all the other clouds and indeed for the whole world.

And Laurial knew it. And knew she had to do something. For her land. For her castle, for the world.

But mostly because she only had so much food in that place, and besides, who wants somewhere between one and forty wyverns tearing up the hedges and howling at the doors all day and night?

After a while she got on person-to-person crystal ball service, to try and call in some favors. But, because she'd been such a brat, none of the other duchies, counties or earldoms wanted to give her the time of day. They figured so long as the wyverns stuck to the Northwesterlies, why should they worry? Which was short sighted of them, but what can you do?

It's what they get for bringing up a neoconservative viscountess.

Well, there is that, certainly.

Finally, however, Laurial managed to get a call in to the Spirit of the South Wind herself. Southy had gone to finishing school with Laurial, and while she didn't much care for brats in general or Laurial in particular, she had been raised to be courteous and helpful to all people.

In the annals of the kingdoms of the sky, such people are called "suckers" or "soft touches."

Laurial explained what had happened to Southy, and to her credit didn't try to shift more than one third to one half of the blame on the townsfolk and peasants who had left.

Well, they did leave.

On pain of being stung and devoured.


Southy listened. She considered carefully, and she said, "All right, Laurial. It all comes down to getting your clouds nice and clean, so that the dust and gunk and the wyverns are all cleaned away."

"But how can I clean the Northwesterlies all by myself?" Laurial moaned. "It takes thousands of workers and peasants to do that. With my people fled, I would have to hire migrant workers and strike breakers, and I think the AFL-CIO's just waiting for an excuse to unionize my whole operation. What can I do?"

And Southy took pity on Laurial, and sent a zephyr to deliver a very special flute to the girl.


Yes. Well, more like a pennywhistle or a musical pipe.

So, not classical.


"Take this to the very highest tower of your dolomite castle," Southy said to Laurial. "Once there, step onto the roof. It will expose you to the wyverns, so you must be very brave. And then, begin to play. Play with all your might, and the flute's magic will whisk away all the dust and dirt and gunk, and the wyverns with it. Your lands will once more be clean."

And Laurial took the flute, and climbed the many many circling stairs up the tallest tower of her castle. Higher and higher she climbed, counting the stairs as she went to help keep her bravery awake. For she knew that at the top, she would have to see the wyverns once more.

And their taste in sandwich is suspect.

Wait. They have a coffee maker, but no elevator? The tower is inaccessible?!

Yes, well, it was very old, and not built with progressive ideals in mind. Besides, there was a service elevator, but even after all this, Laurial was enough of a brat to not want to take a "service" anything.

And finally, she reached the top, and climbed out onto the roof. And the wyverns (there were thirty-eight at this point, so you can see just how close to disaster we had come) circled and rumbled, their tails flashing lightning.

But in perhaps the first truly selfless moment of Laurial's life, she did not flee. Instead, she lifted the flute to her lips, and she began to play.

And from the flute came a great torrent of wind and water -- water that purified all it touched, and wind that could blow apart even the mightiest of dust wyverns. And as she played a great flood of water and wind frothed all around her, down the castle and over the cumulus, washing away the dust and dirt and gunk that had made the clouds so dark grey, and filtering down into droplets that fell from the sky, forming a driving, hard rain down to Earth. The kind of rain that scrubs the very air as it falls, and lands into mud puddles and slick streets below.

Of course, the wyverns fought back, so even as the rain fell there were flashes of lightning all through the clouds from their tails.

And when the song was done, Laurial looked around and realized that her dark, dingy, grey cumulus had once again become pure, snowy white, as far as the eye could see.

But she also saw that aside from her castle, there was no sign of any other building anywhere. The estate was gone, completely. And she knew that her former servants would never come back -- that in the end it would be up to the Viscountess herself to wash clean the clouds, with the song she played on her flute.

And even today, you see some days when the white clouds turn grey and dingy. And you sometimes hear the rumble of the thunderous voices of the wyverns. Because even though Viscountesses come and Viscountesses go, in every boy and girl there lives a little bit of a brat, and sometimes you let even the most important things slide. But when things look darkest for the northwesterlies, the Viscountess still ascends to the top of her tower, and plays her song, and washes the clouds clean with purest rain.

If everyone is gone, how do they make more viscountesses?

Oh, there are arranged marriages and the like. The Kingdom must go on, of course. The current viscountess is actually married to the Earl of Moss. He's not a bad sort, as it goes. A bit dull, but he appreciates a good cup of tea. And he had a coffee maker of his own to contribute.

Okay. That works.

And, listening out my window, it sounds like the rain has gone down to a drizzle, which makes me think the viscountess has finished her night's cleanings and rainings, and probably headed to bed. And it occurs to me I should probably do the same, and so should you.

Probably, yeah. Thank you. Dude.


I had figured on Cinderella or something. Dude.

Another time.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at October 11, 2005 10:17 AM


Comment from: Doc posted at October 11, 2005 11:20 AM

Chunky is awesome. For peanut butter anyway. It's possible there is chunky jam or mayonnaise or something out there but I don't want to know about it.

Oh and DUDE! Your on the fly bedtime stories rock. That is a totally classic and authentic sounding fairy tale.

Comment from: Doc posted at October 11, 2005 11:21 AM

Also I am about to go to bed, so it is awesomely appropriate.

Comment from: Sundre posted at October 11, 2005 11:27 AM

Dude. This reads like you collided with a Hitherby and got all tangled up in awesome.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at October 11, 2005 11:41 AM

Chunky mayonnaise is...not something you should eat. It's gone horribly bad.

Comment from: Matt Sweeney posted at October 11, 2005 11:42 AM

You know there is some precedence of writers who have just posted all their stuff on line and used the fan base that they build up to get publishing deals.

Which is to say, more fiction please. Thank you.

Comment from: Merus posted at October 11, 2005 12:00 PM

I wonder if the conversation happened pretty much as written. It's a damn fine story anyways.

I mostly wonder because I have a friend that uses the nickname Indeed to capitalise on the confusion when a certain type of person talks, and the italicised person sounds just like her. Except she rarely says 'indeed' herself, because then others get confused.

Ooh! Ooh! Do a Just So story next time!

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 11, 2005 12:10 PM

This is indeed pretty much as it happened real time. ;)

Comment from: Greg Dean posted at October 11, 2005 12:32 PM

Eric - wow. I'm floored. I love it. :)

H. Morgenstern would be proud, if he existed. :D

Comment from: Tice with a J posted at October 11, 2005 12:49 PM

A good weather-explaining fairy tale always reminds me of Edward Scissorhands.

Comment from: Tice with a J posted at October 11, 2005 12:49 PM

By the way, who was this conversation with?

Comment from: gwalla posted at October 11, 2005 12:50 PM

I got to the point about the castle being made of Dolomite and couldn't stop laughing.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 11, 2005 12:56 PM

The other person on this website. ;)

Comment from: JoeFF85 posted at October 11, 2005 1:07 PM

Figured as much. Well, either Wednesday, or you were imagining your cat could talk.

Comment from: chalcara posted at October 11, 2005 1:20 PM

You know, this story seems like something Ursula Vernon would write, especially the castle material bit.

And this is a real huge compliment. ;)

Comment from: Matt Sweeney posted at October 11, 2005 1:21 PM

The other person on this website. ;)

God, your long distance bills must suck.

Comment from: MasonK posted at October 11, 2005 1:27 PM

Of course Sarah Kyriotate can talk. We had many a long conversation when I was living in New Hampshire.

She even occasionally types on Eric's computer when he's fallen asleep. Oh, sure, it looks like random keypresses as she strolls across the keyboard, or a constant set of one key being pressed as she lays down on it, but that's just her code.

Comment from: Zaq posted at October 11, 2005 1:29 PM

Man. This makes me wish very much that I had a little kid to tell bedtime stories to (at least a nephew or something), so I could shamelessly plagiarize you. And if through some freak chance I am charged in the nearby future to tell a bedtime story to a little kid, I will plagiarize you like a, um, person who plagiarizes shamelessly. Yeah.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at October 11, 2005 1:32 PM

Matt -- Skype is our friend.

Also, this was an IM conversation. Which makes it much easier to post the next day. ;)

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at October 11, 2005 1:40 PM


Comment from: Matt Sweeney posted at October 11, 2005 1:40 PM

Oh yeah, forgot about Skype.

Comment from: Doctor Setebos posted at October 11, 2005 1:42 PM

I'm telling this story to my son at bedtime from now on.

Because, dude. =)

Comment from: Ford Dent posted at October 11, 2005 1:57 PM

This is a mighty fine yarn you've spun.

You should do this more often.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at October 11, 2005 2:12 PM

Wait a minute... you expect me to believe we have a Viscountess that prissy and bratty, and yet she had a single-drip coffee maker? I can suspend disbelief, but not *that* much. I would expect her to have a triple-press espresso maker with milk steamer and bean grinder.

How can you triple press something, you ask, when you get liquid after the first press? Well, that's why the machine is very expensive - it can do that. But by consequence, it's also very easy to break. And the warranty is terribly short and limited.

Comment from: John Bankert posted at October 11, 2005 2:23 PM

Hooray for fun!

Comment from: quiller posted at October 11, 2005 2:24 PM


And I believe Peanut Butter should be chunky and some jams, but I have to agree that chunky mayonnaise is not something you want. Don't generally want chunks in butter either, unless it is garlic butter or something.

Comment from: HKR posted at October 11, 2005 2:31 PM

If I ever had a kid, I would pull this up to read to him/her. Because, Dude.

Comment from: Phil Kahn posted at October 11, 2005 2:56 PM

That was really fun to read.

Also, I'm addicted to Skype.

Comment from: disturbed_kiwi posted at October 11, 2005 3:50 PM

That was great.

Get an illustrator. I'd buy that book for my daughter.

Though the Neocon ref may not fit in that case...

Comment from: larksilver posted at October 11, 2005 4:25 PM

My son is three, and is just at the stage where, after a "real story" out of a book, he asks for me to just tell him a story. Which is, of course, one of the best parts of my day, although it was a bit of a challenge at first. Nowadays, the real trick is that he may want to hear today's story *again* tomorrow.. and I often have no freakin' clue what I said. But he's very forgiving, and easily distracted by new tales of adventure and wonder.

Never in all my latenight ramblings with my little snugglebear could I have come up with anything this much fun. Weds, however, sounded terrifically like my little guy in between and all around up there - interjecting for details just the same as he does.

Now I want to go find my baby and get a squeeze, but he's at school, and I'm at work. So, I guess I'll just make a big sigh, wipe the big softie look off my face, and go deal with the big whiny babies I work with.

My ex was a writer, a lover of words. This brings up memories of our years together, the little made-up stories and songs that punctuated our time together. Wow. I have just discovered that I'm no longer saddened by the way our story faded out into nothingness, but rather have come around to where guilt and regret have turned into fond memory. That's pretty cool, and I thank you for makin' me aware of it.

Thanks for that awesome moment of softness and sweetness in a yucky, hard kind of day. You totally rock.

Comment from: Doctor Setebos posted at October 11, 2005 4:33 PM

My son is three, and is just at the stage where, after a "real story" out of a book, he asks for me to just tell him a story.
My 3-year-old son does the exact same thing. Don't you just love kids? I so look forward to bedtime every night. =D

Comment from: Zutto posted at October 11, 2005 5:02 PM



If you look up the word "zauber," you'll see it means "magic."

If you look up the word "sauber," you'll find it means "clean."

You extemporaneously told the story of the Sauberfloete! :)

Comment from: Zutto posted at October 11, 2005 5:05 PM

-- And well you told it, I wanted to add. A blast to read, and impressive.

Comment from: theliel posted at October 11, 2005 5:56 PM

oh good gods...mind blowing.

Comment from: Harry posted at October 11, 2005 6:07 PM

Seriously Eric. You need to write a book. Going from this, it would be fantastic.

Comment from: quiller posted at October 11, 2005 7:19 PM

I also find it kind of scary that you and Wednesday would be sharing the same bedtime, given the time differential.

Comment from: PatMan posted at October 11, 2005 7:40 PM

You don't go to bed at 10 AM, Quiller?

Comment from: quiller posted at October 11, 2005 8:52 PM

Err, no, though I often seem to wake up around then...

Comment from: kirabug posted at October 11, 2005 9:21 PM


You need an illustrator. I could see Penelope starring in this so easily. Or someone delightful from Ms. Vernon. And using LuLu, we could buy it.

And, having no kids of my own, I would give this book to everyone.

Comment from: Lilamrta posted at October 11, 2005 10:43 PM

[sigh of contentment] And now I go to bed. Thanks!

The first bit reminded me of Winnie the Pooh. I mean that in the best possible way. I love Pooh.

Comment from: UrsulaV posted at October 11, 2005 10:59 PM

Dude, that was awesome! I was previously unaware of the barista skills of the common wyvern, and consider myself much better informed now.

Comment from: DarkStar posted at October 12, 2005 12:11 AM

An inspiration, you are. Sometimes the best stories are those just told on the moment. I haven't had one of those in a while. Thank you for posting it. I needed a bedtime story.

Comment from: larksilver posted at October 12, 2005 12:17 AM

"Dude, that was awesome! I was previously unaware of the barista skills of the common wyvern, and consider myself much better informed now."

I so completely want to see what Ms. Vernon there does with dust wyverns with lightning tails and the ability to pull a mean espresso...

I, too, must chime in and say "I WANT A BOOK!" I can see something such as this being a favorite in my house.

"My 3-year-old son does the exact same thing. Don't you just love kids? I so look forward to bedtime every night. =D"

I love the pre-bedtime, and the bedtime... but the "go to sleep already, you squirmy critter!" time isn't so much fun.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at October 12, 2005 1:18 AM

You, Mr. Burns, are awesome, and if you do not produce a book post haste, I shall be forced to drcry such audacity. Well, more just cry. But that's another matter.

Comment from: whymy posted at October 12, 2005 3:00 AM

I'm sharing with friends. That's just so awesome.

Comment from: Zaq posted at October 12, 2005 3:17 AM

Now, I can't draw. I can't draw even a little bit. I mess up stick figures (and while people sometimes say that in jest, I say it with dead seriousness. I couldn't replicate Order Of The Stick much better than I could Narbonic or CRFH.).

It seems to me, though, that those of you who can draw should be begging to be allowed to illustrate this.

(And yes, italic tags were on sale. Was it that obvious?)

Comment from: miyaa posted at October 12, 2005 4:56 AM

This sounds either like a story from Charlie and Lola or the idea behind Shrek 3. And I do like Charlie and Lola. Don't ask me why. (And I never EVER eat a tomato!)

And as an aside, cirrus comes from the Latin for curl of hair, because it looks like hair strands. Horse hair strands to be exact.

(Can I be the Duke of Chinook?)

Comment from: Meagen Image posted at October 12, 2005 9:10 AM

A friend of mine had an online sorta-boyfriend who also told her "bedtime stories". But they were more of the erotic kind, from what I gathered.

Comment from: Ceejamon posted at October 12, 2005 10:09 AM

Eric Burns, you're my hero.

Comment from: J.(Channing)Wells posted at October 12, 2005 11:43 AM

Well, it's not as though you're lacking for praise on this one, so the following is probably less than required, as such, but I think that "Would you think less of me if I asked you for a bedtime story?" is a great line to start a storybook with. I can see it all by itself on an otherwise perfectly-white page right at the beginning.

Comment from: bartles69 posted at October 12, 2005 8:26 PM

Eric Burns gets a biscuit. A tasty, tasty biscuit... and a glass of warm milk.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at October 13, 2005 4:24 AM

J- That is an awesome idea. Maybe put it in one of those calligraphic fonts with all the curlicues.

Comment from: Horus posted at October 13, 2005 7:48 AM


Comment from: Glaser posted at October 13, 2005 11:27 AM

I read stuff like this and wonder how someone with this much talent managed not to ralize he could be making lots and lots of money selling this stuff...

Err...I didn't say anything. Keep putting your stories up for free. Yes.

Comment from: Eric Astor posted at December 20, 2005 4:08 PM

Wow - it's a little late, but rereading this, all I can think of (besides how amazingly good it is, not even considering that it was extemporaneous) is how many people this would make such a great gift for, properly illustrated and such... We've passed Christmas, and I doubt even the end of Hanukkah this year would be a reasonable deadline to get this up on Lulu... but I promise you I'd buy at least three copies the next gift-giving opportunity that arises (correction - four of them, I left out the one for myself), even if the price went as high as $10 per book.

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