Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sacrificed - Chapter 1

Max

Max Howell tossed ten M&Ms on the pile in the middle of the kitchen table. “See your five and raise you five, Caesar.” The vampire master’s left eyebrow twitched, but he said nothing. Max turned and watched the players on his other side.

Duncan held up his cards to consult with his partner sitting in his lap. “What do you think, Ellie?”

Max tried not to smile at his daughter’s serious expression while she examined her uncle’s hand. She’d inherited the St. James blue-black hair, but somehow ended up with the Howell blue eyes.

“Hey, that’s cheating!” Alex said. His protest emphasized the Texas accent he’d kept for over a century and a half.

“You had the opportunity to obtain your own partner, Stanton.” Caesar smiled over the top of his cards.

“At least Phillippa plays poker,” Colin grumbled. “You should have heard the lecture I got about gambling.” The last scion of the famed Fitzgerald political family scowled at his own hand.

“Auntie Anne is right. You’re not very good at poker, Uncle Colin,” Ellie’s sweet voice piped in. She tossed twenty brown M&Ms on the pile. “Raise you by another ten, Daddy.” She popped a blue one from her prodigious pile into her mouth.

Colin glared at her in mock outrage. “Did you talk Duncan into reading my mind? Because that cheating, too.”

“Dude,” Jake Wong drawled. “In case you hadn’t noticed, two mere Normals are kicking your supernatural ass, and one of them isn’t even in kindergarten yet.” He tossed the requisite number of M&M’s into the kitty.

Max checked his two cards again. Did the four vampires realize how obvious their tells were? Only the really crappy hands he’d drawn had kept his pile from being as big as Jake’s or Ellie’s.

Alex pushed his cards aside. “Too rich for me.”

After a bit of grumbling, Colin folded as well.

“I’m out.” Caesar laid down his hand.

Max made a show of checking his cards again. He’d played with Jake long enough to know his sister’s ex was bluffing. However, his sister’s husband couldn’t bluff to save his life even with Ellie as his partner. “I match your bet and raise you another five.” He added more candy to the growing pile.

Sure enough, Duncan whispered into Ellie’s ear, and she tossed the necessary amount of M&M’s into the kitty. “Raise you ten, Daddy.”

Jake tossed his cards face down on the table. “Mazel tov, kid. Maybe your mom and dad will let you come to Vegas with me next weekend.” He winked at Ellie.

“Can I, Daddy?” She bounced in her excitement. “Uncle Duncan and Aunt Sam will let us stay with them.” She batted her big blue eyes at her poker partner. “Won’t you, Uncle Duncan?”

“Of course, you may visit.” He glared at Jake. “But you need to ask your mother first.” Silently, Duncan mouthed over Ellie’s head, “And you are not taking her on the casino floor, Wong.”

That didn’t mean Duncan wouldn’t set up a private room for Ellie with staff to play with her. Hopefully, her presence would get Sam to...

Max clenched his jaw at the disturbing thoughts. To what? Relax? Rejoin the human race?

Except his baby sister wasn’t human. Not any more. And she’d become obsessed with hunting down the rest of the saurian demons who’d managed to escape the Battle of Tuttle Creek last year. Even Duncan had admitted Ellie was the only thing linking Sam to the mortal plane these days.

Max stared at the flimsy cardboard in his hand. Duncan would totally lose it if Sam simply didn’t come home from one of her hunting trips one day.

“Daddy!”

Max realized with a start Ellie had been calling him more than once. “Sorry, sweetie. Just thinking about what I should do.” He tossed his matching bet on the pile. “I call.”

Ellie squealed in glee. “Three kings!” She laid down her cards.

Max smiled. He may not be able to save his sister, but he could damn well make his daughter happy. He laid his full house face down. “You win, sweetie.”

She clapped her hands. “Another hand.”

“No. I said this was the last one for tonight.” At her pout, he added, “But we can play more this weekend when we go visit Duncan and Sam.” Tiffany wouldn’t argue too much about a father-daughter weekend road trip. With the class load she was taking, she needed some serious study time.

“Can Uncle Jake come, too?”

Max hesitated for a moment. Jake and Sam’s ancient engagement was a sore point with Duncan even though Sam was long over the stunt man turned enforcer.

“Yes, he may,” Duncan said.

“Yay!” Ellie jumped off his lap and ran around the table, singing, “We’re goin’ to Vegas!”

Max rose and stretched, only to have Jake grab his arm and pull him into the foyer of Caesar’s mansion.

“You sure this is a good idea?” Jake’s brown eyes reflected Max’s concern. “I was joking about Vegas. I won’t come if it’ll cause problems.”

Max glanced at the vampires, who were studiously ignoring him and Jake. He knew damn well they could hear everything they said, but he was grateful they kept Ellie entertained while they cleared drinks and snacks so he and Jake could talk.

“Actually, yeah, it would be good if you came. Nothing against Duncan—”

“I am glad to know you bear me no ill will.”

Max jerked and glared up at his brother-in-law. How could someone with his bulk and height sneak up on anyone? “I really need to put a bell on you.”

Duncan’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. He turned his attention to Jake. “You are most definitely welcome to visit the Karnak. I think it would do Samantha some good.”

A sick feeling filled Max’s gut. Duncan wanting Jake at the hotel/casino he ran said volumes. “Are things getting worse?”

“Define ‘worse’.” Duncan grimaced.

“She’s been coming home, hasn’t she?”

“It is not the coming home that disturbs me.”

Alex joined them. “My father-in-law isn’t trying to put the moves on her again, is he?”

Max leaned around the men to check on Ellie. Caesar galloped down the main hallway of his mansion with her on his back. Max shook his head. If he filmed the vampire master, and former prince of Egypt, playing horsey with his daughter, he could make a mint. He just wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy it.

“No, she has made her wishes in the matter quite clear to Ares. We have not had any more issues with unwanted suitors.” Duncan looked perplexed. “She has taken to playing bridge with some of the goddesses when she’s home.”

Max took off his glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his polo shirt to cover his own unease. He’d met some of Sam’s new friends, all of them death deities from various world religions. It was creepy as hell, but what could he say when Sam was one of them? “She’s not ignoring the baby zombies, is she?”

Duncan shook his head. “No, and please stop calling them ‘baby zombies’. They are restored humans, and they have been for nearly five years now.” Lines creased the alabaster skin of his forehead. “Frankly, they are doing better than she. And they are worried about her obsession with the Old Ones’ acolytes as well.”

Max put his glasses back on and rocked on his heels. “Guess we’re coming out to Vegas this weekend.”

* * *

As Max had figured, Ellie was out cold by the time they pulled into their Tarzana ranch house’s driveway. When he lifted her out of her safety seat, her little arms automatically wrapped around his neck and baby snores filled his ear.

The living room lights weren’t on. That was odd. Was Tiffany still at the university?

No, it wasn’t just the main lights. Even the little antique lamp Grandma Neel had sent them as a wedding present was out, and he was pretty sure he’d turned it on before he and Ellie left for Caesar’s this evening.

Crap. One burnt out bulb meant tripping over whatever toys Ellie left scattered in the living room. He really didn’t want set her down on the couch. If he did, she’d be wide awake, hyper about the trip to Las Vegas. Then he’d get an earful from Tiffany for allowing their daughter to stay up so late.

Maybe if he shuffled along the carpet, he’d be okay.

Max twisted the key and nudged the front door open. The hairs on the back of his neck rose before he consciously recognized the scent of sandalwood.

Vampire. Fresh vampire. Except it had been two weeks since the last time Duncan had dropped by, much less any of the rest of Augustine Coven.

The odor was followed by the equally distinctive scent of unwashed human.

Intruders.

Max pivoted back toward his Volvo, but something grabbed him from behind at the same time his daughter was ripped from his arms.

“Ellie!”

Pain exploded at the back of his head. He couldn’t make his arms work. The second punch landed on the side of his face and sent his glasses flying.

“Daddy!”

He struck out blindly in the direction of his daughter’s terrified shriek. There was a muffled grunt before a blow to his back drove him to his knees.

“Ellie!”

Her screams grew fainter. Someone was taking her away. He lashed out, but fists pounded him, boots kicked him until he couldn’t take a breath. A sharp crack and his jaw broke along with a couple of teeth. More bones broke until all he felt was agony.

But it didn’t match the agony in his heart. Someone took his daughter.

Ellie!

A voice whispered through his mind. Your daughter is ours. Make sure you remember that when your world burns.

The fire in Max’s brain consumed him until everything he’d ever been burned to ash.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sacrificed - Prologue

While I finish up A Modicum of Truth, here's a little taste of Sacrificed. Fair warning though, this is not the final edit of the book.

--------------------------------------------
Duncan

Eight months ago…

It was movie night. Samantha wanted the latest version of the Expendables franchise. I wanted the new Sandra Bullock-Melissa McCarthy comedy. We compromised with Shakespeare in Love, my wife’s favorite method of torturing me.

Thankfully, my head of security, Mai Osaka, rang me before the end of the first act.

“Thad’s out with Leslie and the kids northwest of the city. They found a body. Female. Possibly demon related from the damage to the abdomen.”

Of course, Samantha could hear the entire exchange without benefit of activating the speaker phone feature. She stiffened, and her eyes glowed silver. Her appearance still bothered me. On the surface, my discomfort was ridiculous. As a vampire, my eyes did something similar, but it was a reminder that I had failed to keep her safe when I had the chance. When she had still been alive.

“We are on our way,” I said to Mai.

Our private elevator to our penthouse whined to life. “I’m still here in the Karnak. Please tell Sam to wait for me, Master St. James. I’ll be there momentarily.”

“Of course.” I ended the call and rose from the couch.

“I wouldn’t have left without her,” my wife grumbled. Ozone tainted the air. Samantha’s powers manifested further, changing her clothing from shorts and a t-shirt advocating a fictional character for president to a solid black coat with matching slacks and boots.

I had discovered I could not look at her directly too long when she was in this state. Not without risking my sanity. I focused on a spot on the couch next to her left ear. “Of course not, darling. However, I need to change my clothing if we will be traipsing through the desert.” I gestured at the black sweatpants and t-shirt I wore.

She jumped up from the couch. “I could—”

I held up my index finger. “No!” At her stricken expression, I softened the tone of my voice. “I appreciate your offer, but I can dress myself through conventional methods. Thank you.”

Samantha crossed her arms. “Just because I screwed up once—”

“If Thaddeus and the werecoyotes found evidence of a demon, arguing about my dress now is not a productive use of our time.” I left the living room before either of us could say something else. Otherwise, she would continue to use the issue of my clothing to mask her anxiety of a possible demon incident so near our home.

A few seconds later, I returned to the living room to find my wife and my chief of security whispering furiously at each other. Perhaps they forgot I could hear every word from our master bedroom, but they dropped their argument of whether or not I should go to the crime scene the moment I stepped into the hallway.

And they both consistently accused me of being overprotective.

“I am ready unless you two wish to continue your debate concerning my delicate masculine sensibilities,” I said as I strode into the living room.

Mai’s cheeks flushed a bright pink. At the sweet scent of her blood, I had to clamp down on my instincts, but there was nothing I could do about the lengthening of my eyeteeth or the emerald glow of my own eyes. I hoped the women would interpret my slip as concern over Thaddeus’s discovery.

Samantha glared at me as she seized Mai’s hand. Unfortunately, her telepathic powers had been growing along with her other abilities as a goddess.

Goddess. As much as I tried, I still had problems accepting the concept.

“Get your ass over here if you’re coming,” she snapped.

“Yes, my lady.” I crossed the floor and clasped her warm hand in mine. Everything went black and the floor tilted from under my feet.

Then the full moon shone directly overhead, and sandy loam cushioned my boots. Two high-pitched yips of dismay rent the cool desert air.

“Booker, Deanna, get your butts over here now,” barked a deep voice. “I told you two not to wander off.”

The female werecoyote pup toddled back to the Normal enforcer sitting on a nearby waist-high boulder. The male, however, crouched down and growled at us.

I scooped him up. The little bugger tried to nip my fingers while I strode to where Thaddeus Wolford waited. A shot gun lay beside the enforcer. He cuddled the whimpering female pup.

“Where is the corpse?” I handed Thaddeus’s grandson back to him.

His head jerked in the direction of more boulders. “Back there. Leslie and the kids have been sniffing around, trying to pick up a scent.” He turned in the direction he had indicted. “Staci! Need you to watch the babies for a few minutes!”

My wife’s secretary trotted from between the two closest towering rock formations. Brimstone and ash radiated from the werecoyote. Thad set down her children, and they immediately began wrestling in the dirt. A sharp bark from their mother ended the tussle.

Samantha, Mai, and I followed Thaddeus through the maze of rocks to a shallow depression. Two flat slabs leaned against each other, forming a lean-to of sorts. From the run-off tracks in the soil, the corpse had originally been placed under the slight cover.

“In all my years as a sheriff back in Ohio, I never saw this much weird shit.” Thaddeus paused at the edge of the depression. Four werecoyotes prowled around the area. The female padded over to the sheriff.

Her gray-brown fur faded. Muscles and bones flexed and twisted until Leslie Warner Wolford stood beside her husband. “Body’s been here for at least a week. We were out here running last Thursday so somebody dropped the body soon after we left.” She shook her head and her graying dirty blonde hair flew. “No scavengers have touched it. Not even insects.” She shuddered. “Fucking creepy as hell. Boys!”

The three male werecoyotes, her sons by her ex-husband, backed away from the corpse, and Samantha took up their prowling behavior. Her eyes flared silvery-white. The glow provided enough illumination for Mai and Thad that their flashlights were not needed.

Samantha crouched next to the body. “Honeyed apple. It’s Sharon Tyson all right.”

One of the two women who could not be accounted for after the Battle of Tuttle Creek. Sharon was the one woman we had discovered was supernatural. The poor lady had not known she was part fae. However, no one deserved her fate. If I did not feel the wash of my wife’s rage, the rocks around us humming would have given us fair warning.

“Darling, you need to control yourself before someone is harmed.”

Her attention focused on me. “Haight used her, Duncan. This is my fault.” She jabbed her index finger in the direction of the corpse. A fissure appeared in a boulder with a sharp crack. “There’s another demon running loose because I didn’t find her in time.” She rose in a motion that was unnaturally smooth even by my vampiric standards. “And they left Sharon’s body here to make sure I knew.”

Mai stepped a little closer to my wife, but I noticed not any closer to the corpse. “Sam, you can’t let them rattle you—”

“Shut up, Mai. Just—” Her gulping inhale meant she was trying not to let loose her tears. Or her power. “Just shut up, okay? I’ve heard it all.” Samantha pushed past my chief of security.

“Darling—” I reached for her, but she evaded my touch.

A strong hand grasped my arm as I turned to follow her. “Let her go, Duncan. The kid needs some time alone,” Leslie murmured.

“She is taking this personally.” I glanced down at Leslie’s hand but she didn’t release me.

“The bastards meant it to be personal,” the werecoyote said. “It’s the reason they left the lady’s body so close to Las Vegas.”

“Leslie’s right, sir,” Mai said before she turned to Thaddeus. “You have any extra gasoline? We need to burn the corpse.”

He frowned. “Don’t you want one the witches to take a look at it first?”

Mai looked at me for confirmation, and I shook my head.

Thaddeus shrugged and trudged off to retrieve the fuel. Leslie released me and shifted back to her canine form. She and her sons followed the enforcer.

Mai clasped her hands behind her back. “May I ask why you don’t want Quinn’s people, or even Bebe, to check out the body?”

“Because its purpose was exactly as Leslie said.” I stared at the thing that had been a living breathing woman until a demon had clawed its way out of her abdomen. “To taunt us.”

“But why would the demons do such a thing?” Mai gestured at the remains. Remains not even bacteria would touch.

“This was not the demon’s idea,” I replied. “This was Marcus’s.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Ravaged Paperback Is Now Available!

For those of you who love having a hardcopy of a book, Ravaged is now available in trade paperback! You can buy it online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If you want to support your local bookstore, you can have them order it for you.

Right before the holidays, a reader asked why the paperback version is so much more expensive than the e-book for my titles. Unfortunately, it comes down to production and transportation costs.

For an e-book, downloading a few MBs of data is relatively inexpensive for me as the publisher. I pay the retailer a percentage of the cover price to host my book on their commercial website (and that fee covers their computers and personnel) and an additional few cents to transmit the book to you when you buy it.

For a paper book, there're more hands in the pot. The printer charges X amount to print the book, which is generally based on the number of pages. They have to pay for the paper, the ink, the machines, and their employees. Then there's the distributor. They've got to pay for the trucks that carry the books, the fuel for the trucks, the warehouses where the books are stored, and their own employees. And finally the retailer in a brick and mortar store has to pay for rent, utilities, equipment, merchandise, and their own employees. All those little costs add up.

In the final accounting, Writer Me makes less money on a paperback than I do an e-book. And that's okay because I know what it's like to want to have a paper copy of the things you read over and over again. (Though in my case, I re-read my own books because I forgot to record something in the series bible and have to go look it up. LOL)

In the end, it doesn't matter which format you prefer. As long as you're happy with the story I wrote, then I'm happy.

In other news, I'll start posting chapters of Sacrificed next Wednesday. That novel will start 2018 with a bang!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017 Status Report

If you take a peek at my word count for A Modicum of Truth, you'll see I blew past my original goal of 80K words. No, it's not quite done yet, but the good news is I only have three scenes left to finish. The bad news is it won't be out in 2017 as I promised.

Yes, I feel terrible about it. Yes, I've seen y'all peeking in at the Justice Series main page. But, I am trying to finish it. You can ask my family. No pies or cookies for Christmas, and they all received gift cards and t-shirts.

Except for DH. He got a new phone, but only because his old one made a rabbit-like squeal and collapsed at 4:00 p.m. EST on December 22nd. All his attempts to resuscitate where unsuccessful. Time of death was called at 6:32 p.m. EST.

And with half of his staff out on vacation, DH really needed to have a mobile phone. So we rushed over to the AT&T store before it closed at 8 p.m.

The whole episode was rather amusing. We take turns over who gets the REALLY expensive gift for the year, and this year was DH's turn. First, he wanted a new phone. Then, he wanted a large-screen TV. Finally, it was a new laptop.

And all of my budgeting got shot to hell when first, my car was rear-ended, then Genius Kid's car broke down, and finally, thanks to the stupid tax bill, we needed to pay some expenses in 2017 that we wouldn't be allowed to write off next year.

So in the end, I had to dip into our savings to buy DH a fairly necessary item.

Yeah, it's little things like those that really screw with my daily schedule.

New year! New focus! Right?

Right!

Here's to a fruitful 2018!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 7

Hello, my wonderful readers! Here's one last chapter of the upcoming Justice novel, A Modicum of Truth.

From now until after the New Year, I'll be radio silent (or slightly internet silent anyway). I'll be spending the next couple of weeks editing A Modicum of Truth and the next Bloodlines novel, Sacrificed.

(P.S. If you want early notification of when one of my books is available, plus notice of sales and special deals, you can sign up for my newsletter. The sign-up box is on your right; you may have to switch to desktop mode if you're on your phone. I WILL NOT spam you. Nor will I sell or give your personal information to anyone.)

In addition, I need to finish reviewing the paperback proofs of Blood Sacrifice and Ravaged. They've been sitting on my to-do list for some time, and I really need to get all this taken care of because DH is on a house-hunting rampage.

On the plus side, I said I'm not buying anything unless I have my own office!

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season! Here's to an incredible 2018!

_________________________________________________

Sivan scrambled to her feet to intercept the ambassador and escort him to my office. While Hogarth and Deborah guided everyone else in the cleaning of our dining tables, Little Bear pulled me aside.

“Was there something else?” I asked innocently.

“You know damn well what I’m objecting to,” he growled. At least, he didn’t undermine my authority in front of the rest of the staff. He’d taken last month’s lecture about discretion to heart. “You need more than just Tyra on this trip.”

“I need you here more than I need you to watch my back,” I murmured. “You saw Noko and Daniel’s reports from earlier today.”

“I also know about the coin Daniel found and what it means.” Of course, Noko had informed her chief warden of my off-the-record meeting with High Brother Talbert. Little Bear raked his hands over his short hair, a gesture I seemed to provoke in many men these days.

“Which is exactly why I need you guarding Yanaba,” I said. “I fear the Assassins Guild may target her next in order to make an additional point.”

His eyebrow arched. “You’re on the top of their list, not her.”

I grinned. “They’ve lost too many of their people trying to kill me. They need easier prey.”

“Like Dante’s children?” His gaze felt like a knife slowly penetrating my ribs before it sliced into my heart.

“Yes,” I whispered. “And Yanaba is just as vulnerable as they were. She needs you more than I do at the moment.”

“You know Tandor is a trap.” His hands clenched. He was probably imagining them wrapped around my throat in order to shake some sense into me.

“It’s the not-so-obvious traps that worry me. And we have more than enough of them here in Orrin. I need you here, and that’s the end of the discussion, Chief Warden.” I pivoted on my boot heel and strode toward my office. Little Bear was following his duty, but he needed to learn personal feelings did not always mesh with those obligations. A bitter lesson I still had trouble swallowing.

* * *

This time, Quan’s guards didn’t question me entering my own office because I’d left my cloak in the courtroom. Therefore, my face, and especially my eyes, were visible to them.

I found the ambassador lounging in my chair with the missive from the queen in his hand. “Enjoying yourself, Quan Po?”

His answering smile sent the beads at the ends of his long moustache swaying. “I wasn’t sure how long you would be, dearest Anthea, so I found some reading material to pass the time.” He rose and bowed. “I’ve come to offer my services.”

“Your services?”

There was one quick knock on my door before Sivan bustled in with a tray. Steam rose from the teapot, bringing with it the scent of my secret stash of expensive Jing black tea. The tray also held a selection of almond and cinnamon dessert pastries as well as teacups. The ambassador laid my pardon on my desk, but remained silent while my personal assistant set everything in place.

Sivan shot me a sharp look when she was done. My subtle negation didn’t make her happy, but she left anyway. Two of my own wardens would be outside my door and challenging Quan’s guards to a staring contest while the ambassador and I spoke.

While I understood my personal assistant’s feelings on the matter, my relationship with Quan was a necessary one these days. I gestured for him to take a seat at the little table, which he did. He stayed quiet until I poured the tea and handed him the cup.

“The rumor among the fishwives is that you and High Brother Luc are riding south in a few days.” He watched me over the rim of his cup, but I also knew when to remain silent.

His lips twitched in faint amusement. “It has been suggested to me that a sea route would be safer, quicker, and would catch our demon dealers by surprise.”

I didn’t need to ask who had made the suggestion. Shi Hua was a very clever young priestess. I snorted. “Hardly. They already know we’re coming.”

“But not when and not how.” Quan sipped his tea. “The next high tide is at Second Night, and my ship is ready to launch.”

His proposal had some merit. Sailing along the coast would get us to Tandor two days early. And if Luc and I could scout the city prior to officially approaching the temples, we would have a better idea of what was in store for us. “And how long will your ship stay in Tandor’s port?”

“Three days. The captain was supposed to go late tomorrow to pick up a shipment of pulque and azul wine. However, his first mate is a registered weather oracle—”

“Another storm?” I sighed and refilled both our cups.

“No ice this time.” Quan saluted me with his cup before taking a deep drink.

“Thank Balance for that.” However, this close to the spring equinox we should be having fewer storms, not more, regardless of the ice question.

I stared at the orange steam wafting from my own tea. Three days. Could we even begin to accomplish what we needed to in three days? “What about our horses?”

Quan shrugged. “It depends on how well they travel by ship. But are you sure you want to take temple-trained mounts with you, Anthea? If you hope to reconnoiter the city prior to your official arrival, such horses will be obvious to those enemies who are all too aware of temple practices.”

“And you believe a red-eyed woman and a man with a missing foot won’t prompt questions?”

“True,” Quan admitted. “But human traits could be disguised. The horses will be far more difficult.”

I didn’t like depending on anyone else for transport, especially in a situation fraught with uncertainty, but Quan made a good point. “I still must speak with High Brother Luc first.”

“As I surmised.”

“If we’re not at the docks when your captain is ready to cast off, he is not to wait,” I said.

Quan laughed and set his cup on the fine ceramic saucer that accompanied the serving tray. “Trust me. He won’t.”

We both rose at the same time. “Thank you for assistance, Ambassador Quan.”

“My pleasure.” We both bowed, and he departed.

While he was being more than helpful now, I had to wonder exactly what the Jing emperor’s brother would want in return.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Where's the New Chapter?

I know you're looking for a new chapter of A Modicum of Truth. Right now, I'm feverishly scribbling down the big climatic scenes (yes, scenes as in two). So this is a quick note letting you know the progress.

In addition, I've had numerous requests for additional information. I can say one wish will be granted. You'll get three appendices: one listing the Temples and their functions, one with places, and one with characters. The trick is editing my personal notes so you don't end up with a bunch of spoilers. 😉

Eventually, I hope to put out a hardback special edition encyclopedia of this world with pictures and maps, similar to Anne McCaffrey's The People of Pern and The Atlas of Pern. But like anything else in life, that's money and time down the road.

Most of all, I want to say thank you to all the readers who loved a little short story and allowed me to make it a fully realized world!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 6

My truthspell session with Yanaba, as emotionally uncomfortable as it was, relieved both of our minds that neither of us were part of the conspiracy to destroy the Twelve Temples. I also revealed my meeting with High Brother Talbert.

Unfortunately, Yanaba’s lack of experience meant she could provide no further insights, but at a minimum, she was forewarned the Assassins Guild was still active in Orrin. Part of me prayed the renegades and their allies would follow Luc and me to Tandor and leave the younger priest and priestesses at our temples alone, but I feared the junior clergy would only provide more tempting targets.

When First Evening bells rang, I put aside the paper work I had been reviewing. Talbert’s warning continued to bother me. I was still wondering how to give the Reverend Mother adequate information without revealing too much to possible traitors. The entire process gave me a headache.

Stretching my cramped fingers, I headed for the courtroom. Since it was the largest room in our temple, it was also the most convenient place to have a nearly full staff meeting.

Or full staff meeting, I realized as I quickly counted heads.

Two tables had been shoved together. Wardens were placing benches around them while Sivan and Deborah directed the rest of the household staff in the placement of eating utensils, steaming bowls, and hot platters. Ming Wei watched over Justice Yanaba and kept her out of the way.

“Isn’t anyone guarding our gates?” I asked to no one in particular.

Hogarth shuffled closer to me in order to be heard over the din. “Gina made deals with some of the wardens from Love and a couple of the Wilding priests. People she trusts to watch our backs. They’re protecting our walls for the next couple of candlemarks.”

The Wildlings I understood. “Love?”

Hogarth shrugged. “You don’t think Dragonfly and the rest of them girls didn’t truthspell the demon out of their new wardens. Plus the priestesses owe you and Gina more than a few favors for getting them out of that mess they were in.”

Such cooperation reassured me that we made some progress in repairing the relationships between the Temples in Orrin. Yet, I could help but notice everyone, not just the wardens, were armed. Even our two squires and the kitchen girl had knife sheaths on their belts.

Their concerns plus the wardens’ confrontation with me this morning made my next decision a little easier. “I’ll ward the room as an extra precaution.”

Hogarth nodded. “That would be best.”

I reached for my shoulder and pulled my sword from its back sheath.

And every one in the courtroom immediately drew their weapons, too.

Everyone except Hogarth. Even Yanaba’s blade was in her hands.

“Do I need to throw a bucket of cold water of all of you?” I snapped. Most of their faces gleamed scarlet.

Yanaba shrugged and sheathed her sword. “You cannot fault the wardens and staff for their uneasiness, Chief Justice.”

“What was your excuse, Justice?” I asked as I headed for the basalt statue of our goddess.

“I heard you draw your sword,” she said primly. “In my scant time assigned to Orrin, I’ve learned you rarely do so without a threat present.”

My glare had no effect on her since she couldn’t see it. However, the rest of the wardens and staff stowed their weapons amid stifled snickers. Nor did I want to destroy the good humor by pointing out we haven’t had any capital cases since the chaos Gerd and the Assassins Guild had caused.

I turned to our cook. “Deborah, do you have everything you need from the kitchen before I ward the room?”

The residual snickers cut off abruptly. I hated ruining their moment of levity, even if it were at my expense, but I also wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances with their lives. A demon would make short work of those wardens and priests watching our walls right now. And even as fast as my people had armed themselves, one or two would die before any of us registered one of those bastards in the room.

“No, m’lady,” Deborah said.

I knelt before the statute of Balance and sucked in a deep breath. The one helpful thing Penelope had done during her tenure was to place a padded kneeler at the base. The ancient invocation rolled off my tongue. Yanaba and the staff responded at the appropriate places of the prayer/spell.

I rose, and holding my sword perpendicular to the floor, I strode clockwise along the circuit of the room. Once again, I detected a presence at my shoulder, one I’d felt since the Reverend Mother sentenced me to the Orrin seat. While it would be comforting to believe Balance herself had taken a direct interest in the happenings of the city, I wasn’t that much of a fool.

Maybe it was one of my predecessors. Not Penelope because she hadn’t given much of a shit when she was alive. The more likely choice was Justice Thalia, who’d died protecting Orrin from pirates. But that was only wishful thinking on my part since I’d learned she was my maternal grandmother.

I brushed aside the wayward thoughts and concentrated on the spell. Residual power from centuries of my predecessors rose out of the stones and melded with mine as I circled the room. When I return to the statue, I slid my sword between her clasped hands. The wards settled into walls, floor and ceiling of the huge chamber. No intruder would enter without my permission.

The energy pulsing in the stone made the courtroom feel far warmer than a hundred braziers ever could in winter. I removed my harness, gloves and outer cloak and placed them on the podium seat before I took my place at the head of the table.

I held up my goblet. “Thank Child for her bounty, and thank Mother for gifting Deborah the skills to make everything edible in the dead of winter. Let us eat.”

That impromptu grace brought the humor back to the room. Once everyone had taken their fill, I raised my goblet to Little Bear. “You asked for this meeting, Chief Warden. Why don’t you begin?”

His face turned a bright orange-red as he cleared his throat. “I’m speaking on behalf of the entire staff of Balance. Are you being permanently transferred to Tandor?”

Is that what they were worried about? I shook my head. “No, definitely not.”

“Then why is Justice Yanaba here?” Leilani blurted. The junior clerk immediately slapped her hands over her mouth. Thanks to the residual effects of our earlier truthspell, Yanaba’s emotions rose above the others. She was more amused than angered by Leilani’s indiscrete words.

I held up my own hand. “This is one time where temple decorum will be dropped. Everyone needs to know what’s happening because all our lives depend on it. I want you to present your concerns.” I turned to Yanaba. “Would you care to answer our junior clerk’s question, Yanaba?”

She sipped her wine before she began. “The Reverend Mother sent me here for several reasons, chief among them was to see if my presence would ferret out further conspirators while Anthea is investigating the Balance Temple in Tandor.” “But why?” Tyra asked. “All our evidence points to their Temple of Light’s involvement, not Balance.”

“The Reverend Mother has noticed the similar discrepancies in Justice Elizabeth’s reports that were in Penelope’s prior to her death,” I said.

“B-b-but—” Donella sounded like she was having an attack of nerves. Probably because she’s the one who’d handled the bulk of Penelope’s duties when the justice had become too senile to perform them.

“You’re not in trouble, Donella,” I said. “You informed the Reverend Mother of Penelope’s condition.” I couldn’t help grinning. “Frankly, you, Sivan, and Little Bear were doing a better job of running the temple than your justice, which was why the Reverend Mother let the situation slide until she could find a way to force me to take the seat. So, to rest your minds, I’m not leaving Orrin anytime soon.”

“That leads to the other main reason I’m here,” Yanaba added. “If, Balance forbid, something has happened to Elizabeth, I’ll be sent south to Tandor once Anthea is satisfied with my performance.” She lifted her goblet again. “That’s assuming our Chief Justice fails to get herself killed during the audit.”

More snickers rounded the table. If the teasing kept the staff at ease given the dire circumstances we faced, the least I could do is graciously accept it.

Little Bear rapped his knuckles on the table. “Which brings us to our next concern, m’ladies. This trip to Tandor. We have no idea what’s really happening down there. Anthea and Luc could be walking into a city already under the thumb of the Assassins Guild or demon dealers.”

A murmur of agreement ran around the table.

“Or both. We are well aware of it,” I said. “But someone needs to find out for sure before a demon army scales our walls on their march north. Given what happened at Love, our own Reverend Mother refuses to risk more lived than necessary in case Tandor has unknowingly fallen. Nor can the queen risk sending in conventional troops without raising the ire of the nobility.”

I took a gulp of wine before I continued. “The reverend mothers and fathers in Standora made their decision, and I’m going to follow it. They need members of the clergy who they are sure haven’t been compromised.” “Anthea, I don’t mean to be contrary, and the Twelve know you’re a pain in our collective backsides—” Sivan started. “Aye,” Deborah muttered.

“—but you need to be here,” Sivan finished. “Whatever’s going on, Orrin’s at the heart of it.”

“Once we know what’s going on with Chief Justice Elizabeth and what the demon High Brother Dav is up to, we’re coming back,” I said, injecting as much reassurance into my voice as I could.

“Which brings us to our final concern,” Little Bear said. “Who is accompanying the two of you?”

I sighed. “If I had my druthers, it would be just me and Luc—”

“That’s unseemly,” Hogarth snapped. “You’re no longer a circuit justice. You’re both temple seats.”

“Thank you for stating the obvious, Reverend Mother,” I said sourly. He glared back at me.

I turned back to Little Bear. “Right now, I can tell you who’s not going. You and Gina are staying here. Yanaba needs the two most experience wardens if something does happen to me.”

A smile twisted my lips. “Gina’s already turned down Love’s request for her transfer to their temple as their new chief warden, for which I thank you more you realize, my dear.”

She bobbed her head in acknowledgment even as her face turned scarlet.

I leaned forward. “By the same token, Yanaba has requested you as her new chief warden if we discover the temple in Tandor has been thoroughly compromised.”

Gina’s attention flitted between me and Yanaba. “I-I don’t know what to say.”

The younger justice smiled. “You don’t have to answer just yet. While I hope my planning becomes a moot point, I wanted to be ready in case. Anthea has already stated she won’t give up Little Bear because she spent too much time training Sivan, and they are a package deal.”

The assembly broke out in laughter, with Sivan muttering some nasty things about my hygiene even though she was smiling.

When the din died down, I said, “Have no doubt, this trip is extremely dangerous. We already lost Aglaia last month. Thief knows the odds of everyone involved in this alleged audit dying are damn high. That’s why I’m asking for one, and only one, volunteer.”

Tyra jumped to her feet. “I’m going.”

The last thing I wanted was to hurt the grieving woman. She and Aglaia had been far closer than I knew before the battle at Love had cost Aglaia her life. “This isn’t a revenge trip, Warden.”

Tyra inclined her head. “I realize that, Justice, but you need someone who understands how both you and High Brother Luc work—”

Muffled banging on the main courtroom doors interrupted her justifications for her inclusion.

“Were we expecting guests tonight?” I muttered wryly.

Sivan chuckled. “Since you took the seat, nearly all guests are unexpected.”

Whoever was at the door tried to enter. While my normal wards had a certain flexibility, the addition of centuries of power would have barred even our brothers and sisters from the Temple of Conflict along with the Issuran army from getting into the courtroom.

With a word and gesture, I dissolved the wards. Farrah, the Wildling second, nearly fell on her face when the door abruptly gave way and she stumbled through.

“Sorry to interrupt, Chief Justice.” Her narrow countenance didn’t look the least bit apologetic. “But Ambassador Quan of Jing demands to see you over a matter of life and death.”