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.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 5

Despite some concentrated time in a hotel room with my write-only mini-laptop (it has no e-mail, and I keep the Wi-Fi and internet turned off), I'm still not quite done with A Modicum of Truth. But I promise I AM working on it! ________________________________

After our quick meal, we entered the tunnels from the hidden passage in Luc’s bedchambers. I didn’t need illumination to pick my way through underground system between the temples. To me, the walls glowed a pale lavender. Some sort of tiny living creatures gave off a light I could see with my strange eyesight.

However, Noko and DiCook needed conventional flame. I led the way so their lamps didn’t blind me with their heat. The balls of magical energy produced by the priests of Light would have been preferable for all of our needs, but once again, we were back to our problem of a shortage of able-bodied and trustworthy priests.

It also said how desperate the Reverend Mother of Balance and how unnerved the Reverend Father of Light were to send us both to Tandor with the recent upheaval in Orrin and the trade season about to start.

Thankfully, Luc didn’t make some idiotic protest that he should accompany us to the Temple of Thief. I had equal gratitude our destination was next door to Light. I still had problems with anxiety in constrained places after Luc, Shi Hua, and I had been attacked by a demon in the tunnel system last month.

As we approached Thief’s underground door, magic vibrated against my skin. All of the temples had placed some kind of warning wards near their tunnel entrances after our latest demon encounter. No one wanted to face a possible invasion in their nightclothes.

I placed my hand on the granite door and whispered the words to unseal it. The door swung inward.

And I found a swordpoint at my throat.

The Thief warden holding the opposite end of the weapon quickly lowered it. “Apologies, Chief Justice. We were not informed of your visit.”

I entered and gave her a slight bow. “My apologies to your High Brother for the lack of notice, but times necessitate certain…avenues of action.”

DiCook and Noko followed me into the high brother’s private quarters. Some signal I missed must have passed between the two wardens because the skin of Thief’s protector turned from medium yellow to bright orange.

She sheathed her sword. “One moment, if you please, Chief Justice.” She marched across the bedchambers of her head priest, but she only opened the main door a crack. Whispered words were exchanged before she shut the door again and watched us.

In the meantime, I examined my counterpart’s personal room. To my surprise, it was nearly as spartan as my own. I’d expected trophies of some kind. Maybe even the wood paneling or tapestries the other temples used to soften the harsh chill of the marble walls. Instead, the blue-green marble blocks were bare except for…

I peered closer. Magical sigils marked the walls. Not just drawn, but carved and filled with various metals. The pale blue of gold. The warmer greens of silver and copper ores. It was odd to be able to see writing and not feel it as I normally would. My gloved fingers reached for the closest marking, the symbol for a veil.

“Find something of interest, Chief Justice?”

I turned to find the leader of Thief standing in the doorway of his own private chambers and smiled. “I always find things of interest in Orrin.” I inclined my head. “I hope you’ll forgive the intrusion, High Brother, but I found a bit of evidence at the scene of a crime today that necessitates a consultation with you.”

High Brother Talbert wasn’t a big man. In fact, he was shorter than me with a slight build. He kept his hair the length of a fingertip and appeared freshly shaven every time I’d encountered him. If it weren’t for the leather leggings and silk tunic of the Temples, he’d pass through the city unremarked. I had the impression many people underestimated his skills in that regard.

He exchanged a look with his warden, and she left the room, closing the door behind her with the barest of sounds. He touched the sigil next to the doorframe. All of the symbols in the walls flared to life, and magic tingled across my skin.

“Impressive,” I murmured.

“Given your entry route, I presumed you and the magistrate wish to keep this consultation private,” Talbert said. “How may I be of service?”

During last month’s convocation, I hadn’t been sure where High Brother Talbert stood. He’d stayed carefully neutral until I proved Gerd had initiated false charges against me and her subsequent attempt to mind-control the magistrate. But as Luc repeatedly reminded me, I needed to learn to trust people other than him. And I couldn’t blame Talbert for holding back at the convocation until he learned the players and positions of Gerd’s game.

And mine as well.

“I need any information you may have concerning a coin one of my wardens found.” I pulled the kerchief from my pocket and handed it to the priest.

One of Talbert’s eyebrows rose as he accepted the bundle from me. “I take it this is evidence from the site of this morning’s murders?”

My eyes narrowed. “How do you know they were murdered?”

A corner of the priest’s lips curved upward. “Peacekeeper Dante wasn’t implicated in the bribery scandal, and the magistrate wouldn’t have summoned you and High Brother Luc unless he had suspicions.”

“So much for keeping this matter quiet,” DiCook grumbled.

Talbert shrugged before he unwrapped the coin. “Our temple’s role is to keep an eye on things.”

“You did such a wonderful job the Assassins Guild nearly took over the city,” DiCook snapped.

The chief priest of Thief neither flinched nor grew angry. “While our previous justice ignored my warnings concerning Love, our current justice handled the situation quite ably without my temple’s assistance.”

I groaned. “This mess started when Penelope was still chief justice of Orrin?”

Talbert nodded. “Yes, odd things have been happening long before your arrival. But Gerd accelerated her plans with her acquisition of the demon grimoire around the same time as your appointment to the seat of Balance.”

“You mean sentence,” I said sourly, but the priest was no longer paying any attention to our conversation.

The subtle intake of his breath and the lightening of his skin were the only indications of his feelings.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Do you know the history of the Assassins Guild, Chief Justice?”

I shrugged. “They appeared before the demon wars. The first mention in the histories was three hundred years before the Battle of Toscana.” The beginning of the demon invasions. A chill ran through me. My own Reverend Mother had confirmed her belief my recent encounters with demons were the prelude to another full-scale invasion.

Talbert’s mien grew even more somber. “Just as the Healers Guild was originally part of the Temple of Death, and the Smiths Guild part of Father, the Assassins Guild was spawned from my temple. A fact we do not like to acknowledge.”

I blinked. “Why?”

Talbert chuckled. “Why don’t we like to recognize such a horrid past, or why such an organization was created?”

“The creation,” I said. “I can understand not wanting to recognize it.”

“Originally, the guild’s purpose was to…ensure leaders stayed on task regarding preparations for the coming war with the demons. Our memories are so short compared the gods though.” Talbert sighed. “There were those within our own order who didn’t believe Balance’s warnings.” He shook his head. “They preferred to sell their skills, and over time, well, they didn’t think twice about extending their reach or their profits.”

The idiocy of men never failed to amaze me. “But why are they here in Issura? And why now?”

Talbert sighed and rewrapped the coin. “I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. We have been trying to discern their purpose and lost nearly a dozen of our own priesthood in the course of two years.”

His admission jarred me, but not enough to speak when he was forthcoming with information.

Talbert stared at the cloth in his hand. “Our temple has worked too hard to keep them out of our queendom for the last two centuries.” He hesitated for a moment before he said, “Why aren’t you asking the most obvious question, Anthea?”

“Do you mean the reason for the coin?”

He nodded.

I smiled. “It’s a warning to you they will continue to kill innocents if you assist me.”

His own lips tilted. “And why don’t you think it’s a warning to you?”

Laughter spilled from me. “I’m at the top of their list of contracts to fulfill.”

He cocked his head. “And how did you come by that information?”

I hesitated for a moment. “Would you mind terribly if I kept my source to myself for now? I would hate for the magistrate to request my presence at another murder.”

A slight smile curved Talbert’s mouth. “I understand your reasoning. If I may be so bold, Anthea—” He paused as if searching for the right words. “Maybe you shouldn’t make your reports to Standora quite so thorough.”

I watched him through slitted eyes. “Why?”

“Not even your temple is immune to infiltration,” he said. “Don’t ever make the assumption it is. Thief is the easiest for them because of our shared history, but we’ve also been on guard for exactly this possibility for centuries.”

Talbert held out the cloth-wrapped coin. He’d given me quite a bit of information to mull over. It didn’t quell my discomfort that my own Reverend Mother had insinuated the same fear. What woman would deliberately blind herself to gain admittance? Had the Assassins Guild recruited someone like me who resented being trapped in temple service? Or was our problem with the support staff the sisterhood depended on so much?

“Thank you for your analysis, High Brother.” I took the small bundle from him, slipped it into my pocket, and turned to leave.

Talbert cleared his throat. “One more thing, Anthea—”

I faced him again.

“Bianca is far more dangerous than your mother ever was.”

“Gerd was insane,” I said.

Talbert inclined his head. “Even so. However, Bianca is not. She found her association with Gerd quite…profitable. You ruined that.”

“Profitable how?” I asked, though I had a sick feeling I already knew. Nathan, the squire I’d acquired last month, had mentioned Orrin’s street children feared to approach Mother for aid though caring for those in need was one of the Temples’ primary responsibilities.

“I think you already know.”

Anger burned through my blood. “And you didn’t take action because…?”

“Lack of proof and a senile justice.”

Talbert’s wry reply didn’t help my mood. My anger turned into sheer rage. “Penelope knew?”

He shrugged. “I cannot tell you what she knew and didn’t know during the last year of her life. All I can tell you is that your own Reverend Mother ignored the pleas of the staff at your temple. And that Penelope herself ignored much of what was happening in the city during her tenure despite my predecessor’s counsel when she was still in control of her faculties. All I can say is be careful. While I will tender any aid you may require, don’t make the mistake of trusting everyone.”

I smiled. “And here the current holder of the seat of Light has recently lectured me on taking the chance of trusting someone other than him.”

Talbert laughed. “Then my temple and I shall try to live up to High Brother Luc’s opinion until the two of you return.”

“Return?” I could feel my eyebrows climb my forehead.

“As I said, we try to learn everyone’s secrets, Chief Justice.” Another shrug from Talbert. “It’s our purpose.”

Of course, it was. “Are there any other temple heads I need to concern myself with?”

He shook his head. “You already know the issues with Father Jerrod, but he’s the only one Bianca can truly manipulate. Actually, the rest of us are breathing a little easier with you in Balance’s seat.”

Now, why did Talbert’s reassurance send a surge of doubt through me?

* * *

Once we returned to my own bedchambers and DiCook had departed to warn the rest of his peacekeepers about this new threat, I summoned Yanaba to my office.

I smiled as Ming Wei carefully guided my junior justice to a chair at the little dining table in my workspace. The extra furniture crowded the already tight accommodations, but I’d had broken my fast while meeting with various officials lately. I could have those same engagements in one of the proper receiving rooms and had my own squire Nathan race back and forth, fetching various documents. However, I deplored wasting time.

Having another justice in residence also gave Ming Wei purpose as a squire since I didn’t need two. Last month, Ambassador Quan of Jing had turned the child over to my care as a show of good faith. The girl had been terribly abused by her own parents and a Jing noble with a predilection for children. At first, the child couldn’t tolerate any adult touching her. Balance help her, she still couldn’t with anyone else but Yanaba. But here at our temple, she started to come out of her shell, and we all had Nathan to thank for that.

And to the girl, a sightless woman wasn’t a threat.

Yanaba pushed back her cowl. “Thank you for your assistance, Ming Wei.”

The girl bowed even though the younger justice couldn’t see her. “You’re welcome, Lady Justice. Please summon me when you are finished.” She shot me an impish grin and darted out of the room, closing the door behind her. With Yanaba and I meeting, Ming Wei and Nathan would have some time to play.

The younger justice twitched in her chair. “I apologize for speaking out of turn—”

“Stop.” I resisted the urge to hold up a hand as those with normal sight would do. I’d picked up too many bad habits once I’d accidentally given myself vision.Of a sort.

“This talk isn’t a dressing down about your insubordination on the street earlier.” I picked up the teapot Nathan had brought before Yanaba had arrived and poured her a cup. “With everything happening over the last month, we haven’t had a chance for a frank conversation between the two of us. And I did promise to inform you of the results of my meeting with the magistrate and High Brother Luc.”

“A-all right,” she said as I pressed the cup into her hands. She took a sip and grimaced.

I suppressed the urge to laugh at her expression. “And to start, when were you planning to tell me you hate Jing black tea?”

Her jaw fell open. “H-how—you didn’t probe my thoughts.”

“I didn’t have to.” I sat and watched her reaction.

A wry expression ameliorated her disgust with my choice of teas. “I apologize, Chief Justice. I keep forgetting you can see.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean I pay attention to everything I should.” I took the cup from her hands before I poured contents from the second pot into a fresh cup. “I think you’ll like this better.”

She took a sip and smiled. “Rose hip. My favorite. Thank you.”

“This brings me to the first issue we need to discuss. Honesty.”

Shock marred her features. “You think because I didn’t state my tea preference to you I am untrustworthy?”

I laughed. “No. That was simply manners. Something our staff reminds me I’m sorely lacking.” I took a long swallow from the cup with the black tea to sooth my own discomfort. “I want us to truthspell each other while we have this conversation.”

Yanaba’s stillness reminded me of rabbit unsure if a predator had spotted her yet. Finally, she released the breath she held. “You fear I may have fooled the Reverend Mother and I may be a renegade priestess.”

“Are you saying the same thought hasn’t crossed your mind about me?”

She choked off her aborted laugh. “When the Reverend Mother first briefed me about my assignment to Orrin, yes. Now…” She stared at nothing before she added, “I think you’re far too troublesome for the renegades to want to recruit. Are you sure you want to truthspell me?”

“Yes, but as long as you don’t worry about offending me, it won’t hurt you.”

“You mean like killing the imposter who murdered Brother Mat and impersonated him?”

I sighed. “You heard about that.”

“Except your staff—”

“Our,” I corrected her.

“You didn’t lose our staff’s respect in that incident,” she amended. “Which either means they conspired to commit treason with you or you’re forthright and committed enough to our purpose for them to follow you through the gates of the demons’ realm if you asked.”

I leaned back against my chair at her words. “I pray it never comes to that.”

“As do I, Chief Justice.” She shook her head. Worry sliced lines in her youthful features. “But I fear we may not have a choice.”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 4

By the time the guild apprentices and our wardens loaded the bodies into Master Davin’s wagon, Daniel returned with Sister Farah from the Wildling temple. She shed her robe, leggings and tunic and placed them on the seat of the wagon before she shifted into her fox form. She examined the corpses before I led her through the building. She thoroughly sniffed everything in the seamstress shop and the apartment above.

Once we were outside, she shifted back to human form. Master Davin averted his gaze just as he had when she first removed her clothes. However, he was the only one who did so. Social mores were different in the eastern nations of the Northern Long Continent, but I didn’t know the details. I’d been meaning to ask him about his personal history over a social meal in an effort to know him since I wasn’t sure where he was from originally, but with the recent troubles in Orrin, I had not had the opportunity.

The normally light-hearted priestess’s skin glowed a dark orange, and anger radiated from her. “You were correct in your observations, Chief Justice. I could smell kyaneos notos in the used cups and in the honey.” I frowned. “Kyaneos notos?”

She reached for her clothes. “The poison used by the Assassins Guild. Roughly translated, it means ‘southern blue’. It can produced by the manioc root or by bitter almonds.” She tugged on her leggings. “That’s the reason no one in the Healers Guild noticed the substance when their stock was tainted. They use sweet almond oil which blended with and obscured the specific scent.” Her coloring faded to lighter shade as she reached for her tunic. “What I don’t understand is how they managed to get a lethal dose into the honey.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

Farah mumbled something, but I couldn’t understand with her tunic covering her head. But Davin frowned. “She’s right.” I looked at them both askance. “About?”

“The honey,” the priestess and the healer said at the same time.

“Honey, fruit, sorghum grass,” Davin continued. “Anything sweet can help offset the effects of kyaneos poisoning. It is not a remedy in and of itself, but a treatment of last resort or used in conjunction with a healing.”

“So, the honey jar may have simply been the most expedient method of killing the peacekeeper,” Yanaba said. “His wife and children may have been collateral targets.” Before either I or the magistrate could say anything, she sighed. “But I’m jumping to conclusions again by assuming Dante was the primary target, aren’t I, Chief Justice?”

“You’re learning.” I smiled even though she couldn’t see it. “That’s the important thing.” However, the deep-seated feeling in my gut said my protĂ©gĂ© was correct.

DiCook clapped his hands. “If we’re finished here for the time being, Chief Justice, High Brother, I need to speak with you about additional patrol arrangements in Orrin.”

From the way the magistrate rocked on his heels, that wasn’t the subject he wanted to discuss, but it was good to know he was learning some discretion. Despite our efforts, the orders for Luc to visit Tandor weren’t as secret as I’m sure both the Reverend Father of Light and the Reverend Mother of Balance would have wanted.

“I must accompany Master Devin first—” I started.

“Go take care of the magistrate.” The healer made shooing motions with his hands. “I was leaving to check on Lady Katarina when Warden Daniel arrived. With her so close to her due date, the living need to take priority. Besides, Aaron won’t do anything until we are both present. Or I should say politics prevent him from examining our victims until I return. None of the other masters want to be directly involved.”

I snorted at the melodrama between the Temples and the Guilds. “They are certainly curious enough when I’m present.” Luc shuffled forward on the steel crutches Davin had designed with one of Orrin’s master smiths. The devices were far more than the typical Y-shaped polished wood most injured amputees used. In fact, he’d been leaning how to fight with them thanks to Shi Hua. “Do you mind if we have this meeting at my temple, Magistrate?” Luc grinned at Davin. “I know a healer who will be most irked if I miss my afternoon medication.”

Davin shook a finger at Luc. “I meant it when I told you if you miss a dosage, I’ll haul you back to our manse.” “What? You mean Istaqa hasn’t been making his daily report to you about everything that enters and leaves my body?” Luc mocked.

The healer crossed his arms and glared. “He tries, but you go out of your way to make his job difficult.” DiCook leaned toward Davin. “I totally blame Chief Justice Anthea. He’s picked up quite a few of her bad habits over their time riding circuit together.”

“I know damn well who to blame, Magistrate.” But the healer’s sharp words were leavened by a certain amount of teasing.

The peacekeeper and our wardens tried to muffle their snickers, but a fair amount of dismay flowed from Yanaba. I would have laughed also, but somehow, I’d been accused as an accessory. Retaliation seemed more appropriate.

“Since I’ve been deemed guilty of corrupting a priest, maybe I should have you pay for our midday meal, Magistrate,” I said.

“Oh, no.” He waggled a forefinger in my direction. “I’ve seen you eat. You wouldn’t leave enough scraps for a rat along the wharf, much less my children.”

Even my protégé giggled at that rejoinder. It was good to see Malven relaxed around me, considering how bad our initial relationship had been.

It also meant I didn’t have to be as careful about any remarks I made. “I’m surprised you wish to save your most cutting insults for a private meal.” I tilted my head. “How can you possibly perform without an audience?”

“That’s enough. All of you.” Luc jabbed a finger in DiCook’s direction. “Magistrate, I believe you’ve been equally corrupted. I seem to recall you quite peeved with the Chief Justice’s jocularity when previous murder victims were found.” He faced Davin. “And you threatened to tie down the Chief Justice in order to treat her wounds.

“I, on the other hand, am becoming quite cranky because it’s past first afternoon, I am hungry, and the one thing Anthea did right while we were on circuit was making sure we ate at regular mealtimes.”

Laughing, I raised my hands in surrender. “Far be it for me to step between any priest and his meal.”

One of Luc’s warden brought his horse forward. Or rather his new mount, a placid creature unconcerned when her rider mounted on the right side rather than the left.

My good humor fled at the sight. The use of the same poison meant we still had assassins operating in Orrin. Regardless of my rebuke to the magistrate months ago about making assumptions, I was sure of that fact. Balance help us, the alleged noblewoman could even be the skinwalker who as behind Luc’s abduction and had eluded us while we dealt with the demon.

While I was still hesitant about involving someone outside of the temples, there were few of my fellow clergy I could trust in this city. That meant I relied heavily on Magistrate DiCook over the last few months despite our personality clashes. And he may have some insight about the strange coin Daniel had uncovered.

We walked behind the healers’ wagon until we reached the Temple of Light. Davin waved as he and his apprentices continued down the main thoroughfare. The clopping of the horse’s hooves melded with the rest of the day’s traffic. I paused at the steps while Luc and his warden continued to the back gate of the Light complex. “Justice Yanaba, would you please review today’s court reports? The clerks should have them ready for you.”

Her lower jaw dropped, and her disappointment rolled across my psyche. She had hoped to be included in this meeting. “But, Chief Justice—”

I leaned close to her ear. “Your place is to obtain practical experience right now. And things are far too dangerous for both of us for you continue arguing with me in public.”

Her mouth closed, and she nodded firmly. “Yes, m’lady.”

Good. Maybe she had some sense after all.

At my nod, Daniel took her arm from DiCook. She wrapped her hand around his bicep and let him lead her back to our temple across the thoroughfare. Noko, however, stayed at my side. Considering the Assassins Guild’s first attempt on my life had been on these very steps, I knew any command I gave her to leave would fall on deaf ears.

At the top of the step of the Temple of Light, the two wardens standing guard bowed as we approached. The man on my right opened the door behind him and guided me, Noko, DiCook, and DiCook’s peacekeeper to the chief priest’s private dining room. It wasn’t like we didn’t know the way, but with the infiltration of the temples by renegades, all protocols were being followed to the letter.

The murders of Love’s entire contingent of wardens had left everyone a little paranoid.

Luc was already settled at the head of the table. I still expected Kam to take that chair though it had been nearly a year since he semi-retired in favor of Luc taking the temple seat. Now that he was dead…

I repressed a sigh. Balance knew I would have missed the old man even if he weren’t my grandfather.

The Light warden gestured for DiCook’s peacekeeper and my own warden to follow him, but Noko stood resolutely at my side. Almost as if she dared her opposite to physically remove her.

“This is a private meeting, Warden Noko,” Luc said.

“With all due respect, High Brother, I will remain.” She lifted her chin.

“Are you claiming either Magistrate DiCook or I would harm the chief justice?”

The color of Noko’s skin didn’t alter one whit at Luc’s chiding. “Given the circumstances over the last year, the wardens of Balance are leaving nothing to chance. We will do our duty regardless of the pride of any official.” Her gaze fell on me with that last statement.

I now had a very good idea what Little Bear and the rest of the wardens wanted to meet with me about over supper. DiCook broke the tension by chuckling. “Let her stay, High Brother. Far be it for either of us interfere with the young lady’s duties. I wouldn’t want to lose my head should Justice Anthea choke on a fish bone.”

Unease washed over me at the magistrate’s jest. When had Luc and DiCook switched personalities?

I took a seat on Luc’s left, but Noko didn’t claim a place at the table. Instead, she stood behind me and slightly to my right, keeping her own sword arm free should the need arise.

Istaqa and two of his staff entered with platters of dried meat, cheese, dried fruit, and Cantan flat bread. Simple fare like we consumed on our circuit compared to Kam’s gastronomic efforts. Luc’s personal attendant shooed the other men out, placed a pot of tea with Luc’s medicine on the table before the chief priest, and poured DiCook and I each a cup of wine. Istaqa shot an irritated look at Noko before he too departed.

My stomach grumbled but before I could pop a wedge of cheese in my mouth, Luc said, “Anthea, would you mind?” I shook myself out of my maudlin thoughts of Kam. “Of course not.” I circled the room, laying the wards that would keep anyone, including the nosy Istaqa, from overhearing our conversation. My stomach grumbled again when I finished. I snatched a slice of sharp cheese and shoved it into my mouth.

DiCook ignored the spread of delectables and folded his hands together. “You need to start including Justice Yanaba is these little war councils, Anthea.”

“Why?” I said around my mouthful of cheese as I slid into my chair. “She needs to learn the basics first.”

“She needs to be included,” DiCook repeated.

“Did you actually watch her and listen to her conclusions at Dante’s? Balance, help me. Was I that arrogant when I was her age?” I muttered as I reached for more cheese.

“Actually, you were far worse,” Luc answered.

“She needs to look deeper, or she will continue to miss the obvious,” I countered.

“She needs to know what in the Twelve is going on in this city if she’s going to be any use while you two are gallivanting around Tandor!” DiCook slapped the table for emphasis. The dishes and utensils rattled at the sharp blow. Luc and I exchanged looks.

He’s right.

I didn’t answer the high brother’s silent reprimand. I faced DiCook. “Was that all you wished to discuss?”

“No.” He leaned forward. “What did you find at Dante’s?”

“Four bodies,” I said dryly.

He threw his hands up. “We’re back to dissembling? I thought you and I had finally gotten beyond that.”

I sighed. “I wanted to ask Luc about the evidence I found first so I’d have a solid lead to give you.”

Luc leaned forward eagerly. “What did our assassin give Dante’s daughter?”

I reached into my pocket and drew out the cloth. Both men watched breathlessly as I unwrapped it. Even Noko leaned over my shoulder to see it.

I carefully passed the unusual coin to Luc by the folds of Daniel’s kerchief. “I was hoping you might be able to place a tracking spell on it.”

His brows drew together as he held up the coin by a corner of the cloth and examined it under the overhead lamp. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He shook his head and passed the cloth and coin to DiCook. “I’m not going to be able track the person who gave it to Dante’s daughter.”

“But you were able to track the gold piece your father gave you years ago,” I protested.

“Because it had more sentimental value to me than what the metal was worth, and I had carried it since I’d become a novice,” he said.

DiCook cleared his throat. “This doesn’t make sense. Minting coins has always been the province of the national governments, even at the height of the demon wars. It’s not gold, silver or copper.” His eyes met mine. “Why would an assassin give a child an essentially worthless coin?” He slid the disc nestled in cloth across the table to me.

“A very good question, Magistrate.” I smiled. “Chief Brother Luc, if you don’t mind me using your entrance to the tunnel system, I think it’s time we ask the source. Anyone else interested in a visit to the Temple of Thief?”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sword and Sorceress 32 Is Out!

Sword and Sorceress 32 is out today! It includes my story "Unexpected" where the damsel saves the dragon.

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P.S. I'll update the links as they go live or I'm conscious. It's been a long week, and this cold is kicking my butt.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Modicum of Truth - Chapter 3

Unfortunately, A Modicum of Truth isn't out today as I'd planned. I'm down with a nasty cold right now. The book will definitely be my focus next week.
________________________________

Per usual, people on the streets stopped and stared as I left the Temple of Balance. When they thought I was safely out of hearing range, the whispers started.

The gossip had been bad after I’d been sentenced to Orrin’s Balance seat as opposed to assigned, even though I’d been Orrin’s acting justice since Chief Justice Penelope’s death over a year ago. It didn’t matter that I had stopped a member of the royal family from seizing the throne through demons. But then, a demon had been discovered inside the Jing Embassy, and Brother Jeremy of Light had killed another one in the tunnel system beneath the city. All of this happened in less than a year, two of the occurrences within the city walls. And I was involved in every single incident.

After the shock of the renegade infiltration of Love and Light had worn off and the initial grief of the murders started to dissipate, the rumors shifted to blaming the Red Justice for bringing demons back to Issura.

Part of me wanted to scream at the civilians for their complacent and lackadaisical attitude. As long as someone else solved their problems, they acted like spoiled, ungrateful children. It almost made me want to summon a demon horde since they were already accusing me of it.

Almost.
I shivered at the awful thought and shoved it back into a dark hole at the back of my mind. Demons would simply eat me if I did summon them. After they found a more complacent pawn in order to remain in our dimension, that was.

But my experience actually handling a demon grimoire scared the piss out of me. I’d lose far more than my life if I’d given in to the temptations the evil tome had murmured in my head when I touched it.

Noko marched at my side, Daniel at my back, as we followed DiCook and Yanaba. A little envy rose in my heart while th
e magistrate and the justice walked arm in arm.
Before I was condemned to Orrin, I often walked about the city by myself after it had been added to my circuit after Penelope’s death. After two attempts on my life by the Assassins Guild in the span of a week, well, three if one counted the attempted stabbing that killed my grandfather Kam, neither the peacekeepers nor the other temples, much less my own wardens, would let me attend the privy by myself. Forget strolling up Bakers Street for a treat.

Once we passed Government House, DiCook turned right onto a quiet side street. He guided Yanaba through a left turn. The tiny avenue held small, but well-appointed, two-story buildings, the kind that held a storefront at street level and the family quarters above.

DiCook stopped at a shop and knocked on the door. It opened and he led Yanaba inside. He didn’t want an obvious guard outside the storefront. That would have invited speculation from the neighbors, which meant he was far more worried than he let on at the temple.

However, the appearance of Yanaba and me at the shop would elicit the same questions.

“What kind of establishment is this?” I whispered to Noko as we approached.

“The sign says the proprietor is a seamstress,” my warden whispered back.

Noko shifted so she was in front of me. The door opened and a peacekeeper opened the door just wide enough for us to slip through.

He bobbed his head. “Warden Noko, Lady Justice, Warden Daniel.”

I was impressed he knew everyone’s names. His politeness was another reminder of my poor behavior over the last year. “I must apologize, Peacekeeper. What is your name again?”

“Jaime, m’lady.” His head bobbed again because he didn’t have enough room to execute the proper bow he obviously intended.

“This way, Justices,” DiCook called for my benefit.

I steeled myself as I followed him and Yanaba. The sickly sweet smell of death and bitter almonds tainted the air. Two corpses sat slumped over a table, cups in front of each of them. A man and a woman. They were the same blue-green color, which meant they’d been dead for some time. A pair of live peacekeepers stood guard over the bodies.

“The children?” I asked.

“Upstairs in their bed,” DiCook said.

“What was his name?” Yanaba asked.

“Dante,” DiCook said.

My body jerked at the name. “Dante?”

“You know him?” my protĂ©gĂ© asked.

DiCook shot a look at me. “He was one of the peacekeepers I brought with me when the duke’s staff found Sister Gretchen’s body in one of his keep’s wine barrels.”

“Chief Justice, if I may?” Yanaba said.

I smiled even though she couldn’t see my expression. “The point of this exercise is to cultivate your experience,
Justice.”

She released her hold of the magistrate’s arm and was quiet for a moment, no doubt gathering her thoughts before she started her questioning. “What are the positions of the adults?”

DiCook glanced at me, and I nodded for him to answer. “Dante’s face and upper body are flat against the table top. His left arm lays beside his head, bent at the elbow. His right hangs at his side. His wife Barbora—” Malven’s voice caught, and a wave of grief flowed from him before he could regain control. He must have been close to the couple. “She’s slumped against the back of the chair,” the magistrate continued. “Her head is canted over the top slat. Blood-flecked foam is at the corner of her mouth. Both of her arms are straight down at her sides. She is dressed in her night clothes. He is wearing his uniform.”

“Are there any items on the table?” Yanaba asked.

The magistrate cleared his throat. “A tea cup sits before each body. There’s a pot next to Dante’s head.” He reached for the pale blue metal. “It’s cold.”

Yanaba folded her arms and slipped her hands into the opposing sleeves. The first week she was in my court, I’d deduced her gesture came when she was about to reach a conclusion in her reasoning. I prayed she didn’t gamble. Her body language was far too open and obvious.

“Have you had any problems with Dante’s performance of his duties?” she asked.

“None.” His single word matched the scowl on his face.

“If he was not one of the peacekeepers taking bribes, he had undiagnosed melancholia. No doubt it was a severe enough infliction that he felt the need to relieve his wife and their children of their lives as well.”

I swallowed the urge to sigh. Gina had pointed out my own habit occurred whenever I felt as if another person’s intellect was not equal to my own. And I was rather disappointed in Justice Yanaba at the moment.

“If I may point out something, Justice?”

She stiffened. I didn’t blame her. I still resented the Reverend Mother’s constant dressing-downs in public. “You read my reports on the incidents in Orrin over the last month, didn’t you?”

She tilted her head to the side. “Yes, m’lady, but Dante’s admitted indiscretion at the Temple of Love was minor. How does that relate to his death?”

“It may or it may not. However, you have not asked Wardens Noko or Daniel for their impressions of the scene,” I said. “You don’t.” A certain sullenness lay under her words.

Balance help me, had I been this arrogant when I was a freshly minted Justice?

Yes, Luc would have said silently if he were here.

“I can see,” I said.

She seemed to shrink inside her robes at my rebuke.

“Also, there is the matter that both Magistrate DiCook and I provided you two important clues, which you instantly disregarded.”

“Do both you and the magistrate believe it is murder?”

I looked at DiCook.

He sighed for me. “With all due respect, Justice, I wouldn’t have gone to the temple to fetch you and the Chief Justice if I suspected otherwise.” Maybe the magistrate had received the same lecture about decorum as I had from High Brother Luc.

“M’lady, I don’t know if I can perform two reviews of the past in such a short period,” Yanaba’s choked whisper said volumes about what she truly feared.

“I’ll take the children,” I said softly.

* * *

DiCook sent one of his peacekeepers to fetch someone from Light. We didn’t have to wait long for the priest to arrive, but I was surprised Luc came himself, along with one of his own wardens.

When I said as much, Luc nudged me in the ribs. “I can’t let Balance have all the fun.”

“But Jeremy or Shi Hua—”

“I needed to get out of the temple for a bit. Istaqa is driving me mad.” Silently, Luke added, I’m not putting the junior priests in the middle of this quagmire if I can help it.

Unfortunately, the small shop and home quickly became too crowded with all these people. DiCook released all the peacekeepers back to their patrol routes, except the one he sent to collect Master Davin of the Healers Guild. Daniel accompanied me up the stairs to the three-room apartment over the shop. The odor left no question of which room was the children’s bedchamber. My heart broke at the two tiny dark blue-green figures huddled on the straw mattress. Did they know what had been done to them, or had they slipped into Death’s arms in their sleep?

“This is wrong,” my warden murmured as he opened the shutters for a breath of fresher air. “There was no reason to poison the children.” He scuffed his boot against the wooden floor. “Are you sure wouldn’t rather wait for the high brother, m’lady?”

I shook my head. “First of all, it will be difficult for him to navigate those narrow stairs. I don’t relish telling the Reverend Father of Light I got another member of his order killed should High Brother Luc tumble down the steps and break his neck.”

“Secondly—” I softened my tone. “This is a prime example of why the high brother is training you and the rest of the Balance wardens in the non-magickal aspects of his duties. We’re losing Light priests faster than we’re gaining justices. And these renegades have no care or thought as to who gets hurt.”

“I meant no complaint or disrespect, m’lady.”

I patted his shoulder. “I understand. This won’t be easy on either of us.” He stepped back to the corner of the room between the window and the door, the better to view everything.

Unfortunately, the room held no stone. The clay and brass brazier at the foot of the bed had cooled. Without anything else still alive in the room, it was the best I had to work my spell. I lifted the brazier from its stand, and placed it on the plank floor. At a minimum, I wouldn’t have to worry about setting the building on fire.

The room chilled as the cold air blew through the open window. I shivered as I sat cross-legged next to the brazier. Hopefully, Seamstress Barbora had prepared the container for the last two nights before putting the children to bed. Otherwise this whole exercise would be for naught.

Placing my hands on the metal and baked earthenware, I concentrated. Even though I had a semblance of vision, the figures and images were fleeting shadows when I rewound time. Therefore, I still had to rely on a partner to interpret them. Next to Little Bear, Daniel and Noko performed the task to my exacting specifications when a Light priest was otherwise engaged. And it made far more sense to have someone with Luc’s experience assisting Justice Yanaba.

I still missed him acting as my eyes, though I’d never say so to Brother Jeremy or my wardens. After ten years of riding circuit together, he knew exactly what to look for without adding unnecessary description.

To be thorough, I yanked the threads of time back a little over a day thanks to the seamstress’s concern for the children’s well-being, then let the threads slide forward. Shadows hovered over the bed before they darted to the pegs on the wall.

“The children awake,” Daniel said, his voice gruff. “They change from their shifts into their day clothes. The boy runs from the room, but the girl walks more sedately.”

I gritted my teeth against the strain of the time threads. While it would be easier to skip to the evening since I was fairly certain the children would not return to their room until bedtime, I couldn’t take the chance of missing a pertinent clue.

“The girl has returned to the room.” Daniel went silent, but confusion laced his tone when he continued. “She has something in her hand.” He shifted to his left. “She’s hiding it under this floorboard. Stop!”

My breath hissed between my teeth as he crouched next to the window. “Daniel…”

“It looks like a coin, but her hand covers it.”

“Daniel, I can’t hold the lines forever,” I snapped.

“Continue,” he murmured, but his attention was on the shadowy figure of the girl.

I let the threads slide forward once again.

“She’s left the room.” His attention was on the floorboard though.

“Warden! Witness me!” Despite my promise to improve my behavior, my fraying temper and the strain of the spell got the better of me.

“My apologies, Chief Justice.” He rose to his full height and resumed watching the room.

The review of yesterday passed without anyone returning until Daniel said, “The seamstress enters the room and takes the brazier. Nothing, nothing. She returns. From her stance and the pads she uses, the brazier is full and hot. She sets it on the stand and leaves. Now, both children have entered the room. They are changing into their nightshifts and climbing into the bed.”

His voice hitched. “Peacekeeper Dante comes in with cups in his hands. He gives them to the children. They drink whatever is in the cups and hand them back to their father. He sits the cups on the floor and tucks in the children. He kisses them on their foreheads. He gathers the empty cups and leaves.”

“They fall asleep.” My warden stepped closer to the bed, and his voice choked. “They have stopped breathing.” He continued to stare at the bed where the ghosts of the past have merged with the corpses of the present. Before I could reprimand him about his duty again, he shook himself and stepped back.

Once the timelines slide into synchronicity, I blinked the sweat from my eyes, released the cold brazier, and shook the feeling back into my hands. “Anyone else enter the room after Dante left?”

“No, Chief Justice. May I check beneath the floorboard now?”

I nodded. As I climbed to my feet, Daniel knelt and pried up the wood. His gestures reminded me too much of High Sister Dragonfly’s method of hiding evidence and valuables from my mother and her Assassins Guild cronies at the Temple of Love.

Using a piece of clean cloth from his pocket, my warden pulled a small round object from the space he’d uncovered. “Well, this doesn’t help. It’s not true silver.”

I crossed to him and examined the coin he held up for me. Unfortunately, my eyesight couldn’t detect detail, and I di
dn’t want to contaminate the metal by touching it. “What are its markings?”
“It has the markings of the Temple of Thief on one side though someone has scratched a cross through it. I don’t recognize the symbol on the other side.” He shook his head and carefully laid the cloth with the disk in my palm. “When has Thief ever minted coins?”

No sensation of magic from the metal pierced the weave. I frowned. “Never to the best of my knowledge. No nation would tag coins with a temple glyph, and all metalwork has been the province of Father until the Smiths Guild broke from them.”

However, a trick Luc once pulled flashed through my mind. “Perhaps the high brother can cast a tracking spell.” I wrapped the coin careful in the cloth and placed in a pocket of my robes before I glanced at the dead children. Where had the girl gotten the coin? Why did she hide it? I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud until Daniel answered me. “It could have something to do with their death,” the warden said. “Perhaps Peacekeeper Dante needed the coin, and when he couldn’t find it, he knew his family was doomed and that’s when he poisoned—”

I held up my hand. “That’s merely speculation at this point. We need more facts. The only thing we know for certain was that Dante’s daughter hid a strange coin and the poison that killed her and her brother was most probably in whatever Dante brought his children to drink.”

His face glowed a brilliant red. “Yes, m’lady.”

Balance help me. I did it again. Treated a colleague as if he were a child. “Thank you for trying to look for solutions, Daniel.”

He fidgeted. “But I understand your point, m’lady. We have very little evidence at this time. I won’t presume to make any premature conclusions again.”

“Good.” I nodded. “Let’s see what trouble Justice Yanaba and High Brother Luc have found.”

I headed back down the stairs, perturbed. There was no reason for the children to be poisoned. None. Unless they weren’t innocent bystanders.

After chiding Daniel, I had no right to speculate either. My own emotions were getting in my way. It had been less than a month since I’d learned my own mother had tried to abort me using poisonous mushrooms and herbs during her pregnancy. There had been no real reason for her actions as a sister of Love either other than her vanity.

We reached the first floor to find Yanaba looking puzzled. On the other hand, Luc’s anger grated against my mind. “What did you learn, Justice?” I asked my protĂ©gĂ©.

She cocked her head in my direction. “I beg your forgiveness, Chief Justice, but I fear we have more questions than answers to the deaths in this house.”

“How so?” My attention flicked from her to Luc and back again.

The younger woman hesitated before she began her recital. “Events during yesterday played out as I expected. Barbora plied her trade with the children assisting her. After the day ended, the evening meal was consumed prior to Dante’s arrival. Barbora prepared two cups of milk and honey. Dante took them upstairs while Barbora set a kettle on and readied for bed. When he returned, they sat at the table and drank their tea.”

Horror squeezed my heart. “Did Dante and Barbora use the same jar of honey for their tea as they did for the children’s milk?”

Matching emotion flowed from Luc. “Yes.”

I crossed to the table, removed the lid from the jar and sniffed. A hint of almond mixed with the honey but I couldn’t be sure it were poison or if the bees had harvested the nectar of a large number of almond blossoms last spring. “Daniel, please go to the Wildling temple. Tell High Brother Jax I need the member of his order with the most accurate sense of smell.”

With a quick glance at Noko and her answering nod, he strode to the front room. I couldn’t miss the exchange. Noko would stay with me, regardless of Yanaba’s safety. All of the Balance wardens had taken the attempts on my life far too personally. Daniel exchanged a word with the Light warden before the hinges squealed as the door opened and closed.

Oblivious to the silent exchange, my protĂ©gĂ© focused on the matter at hand. “But, Chief Justice, several customers were here and put honey from that same pot in their tea with no ill effects.”

“Did any of the patrons give something to the children?”

“Yes,” Luc said. “A noblewoman from her dress and bearing. She gave a coin to the girl.”

“Was she the last custom of the day?”

Magistrate DiCook spoke for the first time. “No, but she was here the longest, and she was the last to accept Barbora’s offer of refreshment.”

“What happened upstairs?” Luc asked.

My recitation to my audience was very short. At the end, everyone looked at the jar of honey sitting on the table. “This makes no sense,” Yanaba protested. “Why would a noblewoman want to poison a peacekeeper and his family?” “You’re jumping to conclusions again, Justice,” DiCook said.

“I beg your pardon?” she said haughtily.

I grinned at him. “Do not take the magistrate’s rebuke personally, Justice. He has had to learn logic in public, rather than in the classroom.”

He inclined his head to me. “The Chief Justice and the High Brother of Light have been excellent teachers in investigative techniques. However, I do miss the days when Orrin’s biggest problems were tavern brawls and petty theft.”

“So, you don’t believe she may have slipped the poison in the honey?” Yanaba asked.

I couldn’t get a sense whether her confusion was over DiCook’s statement regarding conclusions or his sentiment over misdemeanor crime.

“Oh, I believe the woman managed to slip a poison into the honey.” He stroked his short beard as he considered the problem. “However, I do not believe the visitor was a local noblewoman.” He shrugged. “In fact, she may not be a noble, or even a woman at all.”

The young justice laughed. “In other words, your sight can be fooled, but—”

“Any sense can be fooled,” I corrected. “Never presume one sense is better than another.” I was harsh with her, but better here in a controlled environment than when we were in the middle of a battle for our lives.

“Comparing various sources of information will allow you to detect discrepancies, Justice,” Malven said, far more gently than I would have.

“You’re becoming soft in your old age, Magistrate,” I chided.

He chuckled and hooked his thumbs in his belt. “No, I simply would like one decent working relationship at the Temple of Balance.”

I grinned. “I seem to remember your voice was one of the loudest calling for my head after the Samael DiRoy incident.” “And you spent nearly a year looking for a reason to take mine,” he replied jovially.

Everyone else in the room laughed except Yanaba. When the humor died, she bowed her head. “I shall take the words of both of you under advisement, Magistrate, Chief Justice.”

Maybe there was hope for the younger justice after all.

A loud series of knocks at the front door echoed through the small shop before I could answer her. Luc’s warden exchanged words with a familiar voice.

Master Healer Davin strode into the back room. He took a good look at the scene before he nodded to me. “Another one, eh? Once again, I’m afraid you’ve called me too late.”

I shrugged. “Unfortunately, I have need of your keen mind in helping us discover the culprit of these heinous crimes.” He shook his head. “It would be a change if you would summon us for something as simple as a hangnail.”

“Admit it. You like the challenges I present you.” I smiled.

Davin circled the table before he knelt next to Barbora’s corpse. “I don’t think you need a healer’s expertise in this matter to know that they were poisoned, Chief Justice.” He looked up at me. “But I assume you would like us to examine them more thoroughly at the Healers Guild’s facilities.”

“It will be the same terms as before.”

Davin rose to his feet. “Understood. The guildmaster is considering permanently assigning a healer to assist the chief justice in these investigations.”

“I’m sure there one or two that would volunteer for such duties,” I answered.

“You know damn well that won’t be acceptable,” Davin muttered as he moved to examine Dante’s corpse.

In other words, I could expect to hear more complaints from High Sister Bertrice about how I allowed the desecration of remains, but it was more due to politics and appearances within her own order. As a former healer herself, she was more than sympathetic to me and the investigative techniques of her old guild. But thanks to those same internal politics, I’d become the intermediary between the Healers Guild and the Temple of Death in Orrin.

When the guilds had started breaking away from their respective temples after the last major demon invasion a century ago, the relationship between those who cared for the living and those that cared for dead had been especially contentious. Which meant either a member of her priesthood or I needed to observe the healers while they dealt with the dead.

Unfortunately, the healers preferred me.

I braced myself before telling Davin the rest. “Their children are upstairs, still in their bed.”

The wave of disbelief, quickly followed by anger and sadness, flowed from the master healer. When the tide of emotion disbursed, he bowed. “We will show them all due respect, m’lady. Is there anything my apprentices should know before they start?”

“Yes. Don’t eat the honey,” Luc quipped.