Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Twist of Love - Chapter 4

I have to give credit to my cover artist Elaina Lee of For the Muse Design. She inspired the ending of the novel with her gorgeous cover design.

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Luc held a cup of wine to my lips. I couldn’t stop my hands from trembling to take the cup from him. We were back in Dragonfly’s sitting room. Luc sat on one side of me. Dragonfly fretted on the other.

I drank a few sips of the wine before I said, “Wh-what happened?”

“There was enough psychic residue—” he started.

“I’m so sorry, Anthea.” Dragonfly grabbed my left hand.

“You were in shock when you found Gregorios.” I squeezed her hand. “Not your fault. I’ve never had something like that happen during a rewind.”

“You usually aren’t sitting right on top of the spot where someone was murdered or discovered the corpse,” Luc bit out. “Nor have you tried two enclosed places at once.”

“Could you please restrain your annoyance with me?” I massaged my temples. The pain seemed like a solid rod had been inserted through them with a detour into my eyeballs. “My head already aches, and your leaking emotions are not helping.”

“That rewind was not worth your life,” Dragonfly snapped at me.

“You are not helping the pain either,” I muttered.

“And the rewind was necessary to confirm Gerd was the culprit behind Gregorios’s murder,” Chief Warden Citana said.

“She wanted us to know,” I said. “Specifically, she wanted to make sure I knew.” I stood and took one step before my balance wavered. Dezba jumped to my side and steadied me before I toppled to the carpets. I pretended I didn’t almost fall and said, “Luc, let’s double-check Gregorios before we haul him out of Dragonfly’s bath, but I have a feeling there’s no trap spell on his corpse.”

“You should rest, Anthea.” Dragonfly rose to her full height. The berda was a good head taller than me, and I was tall for a woman.

“If you seek to intimidate me by towering over me—” I started.

“Enough, you two!” Claudia’s bells jungled as she laborious climbed to her feet. She had gone to her chambers to dress before coming back to Dragonfly’s quarters. While she’d not bothered with her public veil, the bells on her robes chimed discordantly at her vexation with us. “We have enough problems with sniping at each other.”

Luc stood as well. “She’s right. Gerd wanted to prove she could get to any of us. She could just as easily have slit Dragonfly’s throat if she’d been in bed instead of attending to Claudia. I’m surprised she didn’t slash mine or Anthea’s this morning.”

A wave of dizziness swept through me that had nothing to do with empathetic reaction to Dragonfly’s emotion or fear of my birth mother, and everything to do with the wine in my empty stomach.

“Anthea?” Concern flowed from Luc.

“I’m fine.” I shot him a smile. “It has more to do with unwatered wine before breaking my fast.”

“Then I’ll fetch you some unleavened bread and milk with a bit of honey,” Claudia declared. “It did wonder for my morning sickness.” She left the sitting room with Warden Jocasta on her heels.

“I really wish she wouldn’t do that,” I murmured.

“What?” Dragonfly cocked her head. “Be kind to you?”

“Yes.” I sighed. “It makes me feel guilty.”

Luc said nothing, and I immediately regretted my words. The edict wasn’t his or Claudia’s fault. I simply didn’t know how to deal with my anger and frustration over the whole situation. Maybe I was the one who needed to seek High Sister Mya’s care after all.

* * *

As I suspected, there was no additional spell on the dead person in the bathing room. If Gerd wanted me dead, that would have been the fastest, smartest way to kill me.

Unless she knew about Bianca’s attempt a few weeks ago.

High Brother Xander of Death and Master Healer Devin arrived a few moments after Dezba and I fished the corpse from Dragonfly’s bath with Chief Warden Nicholas’s aid. Even I could discern the body was Gregorios.

Devin crouched in the tiles next to the dead man. “Are you sure you want a full examination of the corpse, Chief Justice? The wounds match your rewind.” “I don’t want to leave anything to chance, Master Devin,” I said. “Not when it comes to Gerd.”

The healer looked up at Xander standing next to him. “Do you concur, High Brother?”

The poor priest was barely four years older than my junior justice Yanaba. He didn’t deserve have the weight of the strife between the Temple of Death and the Healers Guild on his young shoulders. Luckily, he’d learned quite a bit from Bertrice prior to her passing, including the dance between the two factions. I often found I needed both sides’ assistance in learning the truth of a case.

“I have a few more years experience with the former high sister than you do, Master Devin.” A wry smile tilted Xander’s mouth. “Therefore, I concur with the chief justice. We all need to thorough in our duties. The fact Gerd has resorted to active violence bothers me more than I care to admit.”

“She was rather active in her previous murder attempts,” I pointed out. “Especially Sister Gretchen’s.”

“Prior to Gregorios, she manipulated other people to perform her unethical or illegal actions,” Xander said. “For example, hiring the Assassins Guild’s attempt to stab you on the steps of Light or bespelling Magistrate DiCook to bear false witness against you during the winter convocation.” Xander shook his head. “I would suggest consulting with Child, but the change in Gerd’s behavior means some other factor has shifted. People simply don’t alter their demeanor randomly. Any information at this point would assist us in finding her.”

“Us?”

“Since the renegades and the Assassins Guild appear to have some sort of alliance with the demons and skinwalkers, then every member of the twelve temples is threatened.” He frowned. “Including myself and my children.”

I looked at Luc, guilt weighing on my heart. “What say you, High Brother?”

“I would agree with our brother of Death.” He glanced at the corpse before looking at me again. “Honestly, I wondered if Gerd had dumped poison in the bath water. I worried I had missed something during the rewind. I feared for you, Dezba and Citana when you pulled Gregorios from the bath water.” He shook his head. “I don’t know if any of us at Light will be of use to you, except maybe Garbhan.”

Now, what had happened among the members of Light that he would say such a thing in front of a peer from another Temple?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Twist of Love - Chapter 3

Here's another unedited chapter from the upcoming August release A Twist of Love.

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Despite my suspicions, the reality unnerved me. The shock nearly made me release the time lines, but I squeezed my fingers tightly. The very faint ghostly image of Gerd froze in place. Thankfully, neither Luc or Dezba said a word while I gathered my composure.

Or what little was left of it.

I swallowed my heart and let the events unfold. However, I winced as the memory of Gerd passed through me.

“It’s Gerd,” Luc said, his voice bitter. “She is armed, and she positions herself behind the bathing room door.”

The very same door I had the two wardens remove.

“Gregorios is coming into the bedchamber through the sitting room door,” Dezba said. She’s still on this side of Dragonfly’s sleeping quarters. “They pause to lay out sleepwear and collect towels from the second wardrobe. Now, they enter the bathing room.”

Once again, Luc picked up the recitation. “They enter the bathing room. They stop the drain and turn on the spigot to fill the pool. Gregorios selects oils from the shelves in here, kneels by the pool, and adds them to the bath. They stand and return the bottles. They reach down to turn off the spigot. Gerd slips from behind the door and raises her arm holding the knife. They are unaware of her presence until they start to rise. She stabs Gregorios in the back.”

Luc’s fury at watching Gerd destroy someone else beat against my psyche. My fingers and lungs burned while I tried to maintain control of the spell.

“Get yourself under control, High Brother.” I spat the word as if they were a poison I attempted to expel before it killed me. His rage receded enough I could breathe again.

“Gregorios starts to topple into the pool,” Luc said. “But she wrenches out the blade, grabs their ear, and slits their throat. Gerd manages to knock them over to the far side of the room.”

Luc’s crutches thump against the marble and his voice hardens as he forces himself to continue witnessing. “The blood collects on the marble tiles. Gerd wipes her knife on Gregorios’s trousers and sheathes it. She dips her right fingers into the blood and starts writing on the wall. Gregorios is trying to get up. She stomps on his left temple with her boot heel. They are lying on the floor, no longer moving.”

He tried to contain his rage, but it bubbled up again. I didn’t have the heart to say anything. Not when he was relieving his own pain as well as Gregorios’s.

“She finishes writing the message,” Luc continued. “She washes her hands in the pool and dries them on Gregorios’s tunic before she shoves him into the water. She walks out of the bathing room.”

“Gerd comes into the bedroom,” Dezba continued. “She stares at the high sister’s bed. She partially draws her knife.” There’s a long pause in her recitation. “After six breaths, she rams her knife back into the sheath. She sharply turns to the tunnel entrance. The stone folds open, and she slips through the exit. The stone folds back into place.”

We were close to the end of the rewind. I let the threads of time speed just a bit through my fingers.

“The high sister enters her bedchamber again,” Dezba said. “She removes her veil and calls out. She cocks her head as if waiting for an answer. She calls out again before she strides towards the bathing room.”

I couldn’t breath. Shock and grief rip through me at the sight in the pool, but I’m seeing the body in red clothing floating in red water through someone else’s eyes. Someone with normal vision, not my odd sight. I start screaming. And time snapped back into place.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Another "I Need Something to Cope" Sale!

The Hero De Facto e-book is currently on sale for $0.99 across all platforms. With the current craziness in the world, this is a nice feel-good story to keep you occupied.

Have a delightful holiday weekend!

Amazon, all countries
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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Twist of Love - Chapter 2

This is an unedited version of my upcoming release, A Twist of Love.

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I swallowed hard as well. “Gina, do you recognize who is in the bath?”

“From the bald head, it may be Gregorios,” my warden whispered. “I can’t really tell with all the blood in the bathwater and the corpse face down. And I can see a stab wound on the back from here. At least the jasmine covers the scent of the blood.”

My heart sank. Gregorios was Dragonfly’s head of household as well as her personal assistant, just Sivan was mine. They were probably in the process of drawing Dragonfly’s bath when they were attacked. However, the stab wound and the message meant this was more than an accidental slip and fall.

“Do you want Dezba and me to remove the corpse from the bath?” Gina asked.

A shiver ran through me. As much as I wanted to believe a current member of the sisterhood or staff within Orrin’s Temple of Love had committed this atrocity, I knew better.

“No, the corpse may have a spell on it like Yellow Fin last month,” I murmured. The things that had been done to the orphan street urchin were far worse than anything I’d encountered before. However, Gerd’s ally, the former seat of Mother in Orrin had laid a trap spell on the child’s corpse with the intent to kill me and whichever member of Light accompanied me in the investigation. How close her plan came to succeeding made me decision easier. “We wait for assistance.”

I strode from the bathing area back to the main door to the high sister’s quarters. Sister Shada and Warden Jocasta waited outside in the corridor as I suspected they would. I ordered Shada to send for a Light priest, Master Healer Devin and High Brother Xander of Death. She didn’t question me though technically, I had no authority in her Temple. She trotted down the hallway with Jocasta in tow. With the murder inside their own walls, the wardens would be following their priestesses closer than their own shadows.

I headed back into the sleeping room of Dragonfly’s chambers. Twelve help me, I didn’t want to interrogate her while in the throes of grief, but I had no choice in the matter.

Dragonfly’s weeping had settled to an occasional hiccup when I round the chest at the foot of the platform frame and sat next to her on her bed. She pulled herself from Claudia’s comforting hold and straightened.

“D-do what you need to do, Anthea.” She gulped.

“Not until someone from Light arrives,” I said gently as I took her left hand in both of mine. “Right now, I’m here as a friend.”

“I-It had to be Gerd.” Dragonfly’s voice still quavered though her tone grew stronger. The berda was number two on my birth mother’s list of people she wished dead. Dragonfly had been Gerd’s second, and she’d only gone along with Gerd’s excesses in an effort to protect the other priestesses at the Temple of Love.

“What make you say that?” I said.

“No one else could have entered my quarters without Citana or one of the other wardens seeing them.”

We both looked at the block of spelled marble guarding the entrance to Orrin’s tunnel system. It rested between Dragonfly’s vanity table and the first of three wardrobes in the room. My heart tried to climb out of my chest and choke me.

“Chief Justice?” Gina murmured.

I nodded, and my warden dashed out of Dragonfly’s chambers. So much had gone wrong in the few months I’d been in my position as Orrin’s seat of Balance. So much so, my own wardens knew what I would order next without even the need for silent speech. Gina would gather another warden and check on those guarding the tunnel entrances that lay outside of Orrin’s walls while Dezba stayed at my side.

And Dragonfly was correct. Only another member of the clergy could have opened the tunnel entrances. I was damn lucky I’d added extra alarm spells to the tunnel entrance in my own bedchambers. Otherwise, my throat would have been slit as well while I lay sleeping.

“Why weren’t you in your bedchambers this morning?” I asked.

“That was my fault,” Claudia murmured. “The baby woke me before First Morning.”

“He’s moving?” I said, trying my best to keep the bitterness from my voice.

Claudia nodded. “It was the first time. I wanted to share it with someone.”

“Dragonfly, you’re the only sister I’ve seen in Love in their formal robes.” I rubbed her hand. “Why were you still up?”

“Gregorios and I were counting the evening’s donations and filling out the ledgers.” Of course, she had been. Gerd’s theft from her own Temple was one of her minor crimes. Dragonfly, as the first berda to hold a seat in any of the Issuran Temples, had become quite obsessive with following her Temple’s procedures.

To the point, where she had a seat from one of the other Temples double-check her counts and sums. Usually, it was me.

She swallowed hard to keep from weeping again. “We had just finished when Ichik fetched me to Claudia’s quarters. She worried her assistant unnecessarily.” Dragonfly glanced at Claudia and squeezed the other priestess’s hand with her right one.

“Wh-when I returned to my quarters, I smelled the bath oils.” Dragonfly continued. “I called for Gregorios to assist me with combing out my hair. When he didn’t answer, I walked into my bathing room and-and found him.” Though she struggled to keep her composure, fresh tears coursed down her cheeks.

I looked up at Citana. “Chief Warden, may I speak to you privately?”

She hesitated for a moment, obviously loath to leave her two priestess alone after such a horrendous murder occurred in the next room.

Thankfully, Dezba spoke up. “I swear by the Twelve I’ll guard High Sister Dragonfly and Sister Claudia with my life. Just as I know you’ll do the same while speaking with Chief Justice Anthea.”

Citana nodded curtly. “Very well then.”

After a final pat of Dragonfly’s hand, I rose from the bed. Citana followed me to the high sister’s sitting room and closed the door behind her. She stood at attention, as if she feared I would lash her then and there.

I circled the sitting room, warding it from anyone overhearing our conversation.

“At ease, Chief Warden. I don’t blame you for the murder,” I said. “I merely wish to establish a timeline.”

“Yes, m’lady.” She cleared her throat. “However, given the actions of the previous chief warden of Mother, it would be best if you truthspelled me.”

“Oh, I will truthspell you, but only when someone from Light arrives.” I gestured at one of the cushioned chairs. “For now, can we please speak plainly as civilized adults?”

She nodded more slowly this time. Whatever she expected from me, I wasn’t delivering. She sat gingerly on the chair I indicated while I sat across from her.

“What were you doing prior to the high sister retiring to her chambers?”

Her chin lifted. “I was in the worshippers receiving room, guarding the high sister.” Citana frowned. “The only odd thing during the evening or night was no one requested personal worship with the high sister.” “Why was this unusual?” I asked.

A rueful smile tilted her mouth. “There’s always a handful who believe direct worship with our Temple seat will bring them closer to the Twelve.”

“Were activities what you would call normal over the last few days?”

“Yes.” This time, Citana chuckled. “I expect a few heat related fights between worshippers. Tempers are often short between the Solstice and the Vintner’s Festival.”

I cocked my head. “There haven’t been any reports of brawling or arrests at your Temple.”

She shrugged. “My trainer at the Academy said it’s not unusual for rutting behavior to occur at Love. Worshippers sometimes forget they aren’t competing for the sisters’ attention. A couple of knocks get their attention along with the threat of banning them from the Temple. We learn when it’s just stupidity and when there’s a real problem with a worshipper.”

“Did the Temple end worship at the usually time?”

“Third Evening bells on the last chime,” Citana said. “The sisters wind things down with their worshippers before then. It makes my people’s job much easier.”

“And after the worshippers were cleared from the Temple?” I prompted.

“I escorted the high sister and her assistant to her chambers with the cash box.” Citana sagged a bit in her chair. “I stood guard in the corridor. Ichik rushed to me, saying Sister Claudia needed the high sister right away.”

“Did Ichik enter the high sister’s bedchambers with his message?”

“No.” Citana shook her head vigorously. “I made them wait in the corridor. Both I and my wardens have been following the guidelines the chief wardens devised after the assassination attempts on the seats this spring.”

“That’s good,” I murmured. “I take it you relayed the message?”

Citana nodded. “When I entered this room, the high sister was at her desk.” The chief warden gestured toward the corner where a familiar ledger rested on a small, ornate maple desk. Dragonfly’s workspace was always far neater than my own.

“I gave the high sister the message,” Citana continued. “Then I escorted her to Sister Claudia’s quarters.”

“What about Gregorios?” I asked.

“I-I left them alone,” Citana choked out. “Th-they weren’t even here when Gerd was Love’s seat. I’ve heard stories about her, but there was no reason…”

“Gregorios earned Dragonfly’s affection and respect,” I said. “In her twisted mind, that would be enough for Gerd. She couldn’t kill Dragonfly through the happenstance of Claudia’s son making his presence known. Therefore, the way to hurt Dragonfly would be to harm someone she cared about.”

“Logically, I know your words are true, Chief Justice.” A wan smile appeared on Citana’s face. “However, I trusted in magic too much to guard that one egress, and I allowed my high priestess’s wish for privacy to circumvent my better judgment. Both Little Bear and Sabine are right. It’s better to wound your seat’s pride than to find them dead.”

I blinked at her mention of mine and Thief’s chief wardens. It explained Little Bear’s grumbling about Luc refusing to use the front door when High Brother Xander did so in his visits with Yanaba. And Talbert’s chief warden had someone stationed in his bedchambers for months before the assassination attempts on me last winter.

Even when Talbert was elsewhere performing his duties.

No wonder Citana was cross with herself. If not for Claudia and Luc’s son, Dragonfly would have been the one floating face down in her bath.

“Were you the one who discovered the body, or was it Dragonfly?” I murmured.

“Dragonfly entered through the main door.” Citana gestured at the entrance to the high sister’s chambers. “I heard her scream, and I rushed in. She was kneeling at the entrance to her bath. A few moments later, Sister Claudia, Ichik, and Warden Jocasta entered the bedchamber as I tried to pull the high sister away from the sight. The warden said she heard the high sister cry out. Sister Claudia and Warden Jocasta assisted me in moving the high sister to her bed and ordered Ichik to fetch you.” The chief warden’s face heated at the last confession. It was probably mere embarrassment that a sister had the wherewithal to summon me.

“Thank you, Chief Warden,” I said. “I will have to truthspell you later, but thank you for helping me now.”

“I understand, m’lady.” A ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “And you’re welcome.”

There was a knock on the main door, and we both rose. I lowered my wards, and Chief Warden Citana crossed the room to answer the door. I automatically drew one of my daggers. When Citana opened the door, relief spread through me at the sight of High Brother Luc of Light and his chief warden Nicholas.

“Really, Chief Justice? Can’t I get through First Morning service once before you summon me?” Luc teased as he swung into Dragonfly’s bedchamber on his crutches. The little twinge of guilt I constantly felt over the loss of his left foot hit harder than usual. Especially since Gerd was ultimately responsible for his torture.

I shoved my guilt back into its hole. “It’s much worse than that,” I answered. “I haven’t had my morning tea, much less broken my fast yet.”

My dark sense of humor couldn’t hold up under the emotional strain. I looked at the door to Dragonfly’s bedroom and back at Luc. “We believe its the high sister’s personal assistant. I didn’t allow the wardens to touch the corpse in the bath, yet.”

“Dragonfly?” Luc cocked his head, a shocked expression on his handsome features.

“We’ll have to truthspell her to confirm it, but hers and Chief Warden Citana’s preliminary testimony says no,” I murmured.

Nicholas’s attention shifted to Citana. “How could anyone enter a seat’s quarters—”

But Luc’s countenance hardened, and his skin shifted to a deep red. “Gerd.”

“Gina is checking on the guards at each of the exits of the tunnel system,” I said.

Luc drew in a deep breath and released it. “Thank you for waiting for one of Light to arrive.”

I shrugged. “After the incident with Yellow Fin, I learned my lesson.”

Ironically, Luc’s second Jeremy had been with me that time. I discovered just how far my opponents would go after conventional assassination attempts against me repeatedly failed. It was a depth that chilled me to my core.

Luc looked at Nicholas. “No one enters of leaves High Sister Dragonfly’s chambers without mine of the chief justice’s permission.

“Understood, High Brother.” Nicholas’s thick blue moustache and beard wiggled with his acknowledgement. I never understood why so many men of Toscan and Briton descent bothered with facial hair when they kept the rest of the hair on their head so short.

I pivoted and headed back into the main bedchamber, Luc and Citana on my heels. Dragonfly inclined her head to Luc, but it was Claudia’s sweet smile in his direction that set my teeth on edge. I tried to shove my jealousy into the same hole as my guilt but I was running out of room to store my emotions.

However, Dezba appeared very relieved at my return. No doubt Dragonfly’s grief made the reserved young warden uncomfortable.

“High Sister, Sister, could you please wait in the sitting room while we…deal with things in here?” I said.

“Of course,” Claudia murmured. Dragonfly merely nodded.

Once they were out of the room, Luc said silently, We should take Dragonfly to Mya.

I was thinking the same thing. After everything the sisters of Love had been through, High Sister Mya and the rest of the clergy of Child had more work ahead dealing with additional emotional damage to priestesses and staff of this Temple. “Shall we pull the corpse out of the high sister’s bath?” Luc asked. “Or do you wish to do the rewind first?”

“The rewind.”

I examined the two rooms again, trying to calculate the best way to conduct a rewind. My own sisterhood needed three dimensions to anchor our senses while we manipulated the fourth dimension, time. The problem was a rewind acted the same way as a ward. It used the wall as a base and covered any windows or doors. I propped my right on my opposing forearm and tapped my right forefinger against my lips as I consider the problem.

“How hard would it be to remove the bathing room door?” I asked.

The two wardens looked at each other in confusion before Citana said, “We would need a clawed hammer to pry out the hinge pins.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have one available in Love, would you?” I asked.

Once she left the bedroom to fetch the tool, Luc frowned. “What the demon are you trying to do?”

“If we’re right and Gerd is behind the murder, both the bathing room and the bedchamber would be involved,” I said. “And what?” Luc stared at as if he were questioning whether I needed care from the Temple of Child as well. “You’re too lazy to perform two rewinds?”

A little hiccupping sound came from Dezba.

“Don’t stab him for the insult just yet, Warden,” I teased. “I’m not sure if my idea would work yet.”

“But you did a rewind for several blocks during the investigation of Old Anne’s murder,” Dezba said. “This is only two rooms.”

“I also used Justice Yanaba and her bond with Orrin itself as the anchor for that spell,” I said. “This rewind needs to be fine-tuned, and I’m not risking her or her baby. I shouldn’t have done it the last time.”

“What exactly are you planning, Anthea?” From Luc’s expression, he’d made up his mind that I was mad after all.

“We take off the door, and in essence, make the two rooms as one.” I gestured at the open doorway to the bathing room. “I’ll position myself on the sill. One of you will be in the bathing room to witness, and the other out here in the bedchamber.”

“I don’t remember you ever trying anything like this before,” Luc said. “Are you sure it will work?”

“No.” I grinned at him. “But then, I wasn’t sure the stunt with Yanaba would work either. If it doesn’t, then yes, I’ll have to break down the rewinds, but this works we’ll have a solid chain of events in the high sister’s rooms.”

Chief Warden Citana returned with a claw hammer in her hand. “Bless his heart. Our maintenance man Dougal had one. I was worried I would have to borrow one from the Smiths Guild.”

We all chuckled. The Smiths Guild wasn’t known for their sharing, plus I’d made them look like selfish fools at the last city meeting. If Citana had to go to any smith and they’d known I was the one who requested it, there would have been a hefty price to pay, someway, somehow.

Luc and I stayed out of the two wardens’ way as they made quick work of the pins and carefully set them and the huge slab of heavily lacquered and sealed wood out of the way.

“Are you sure about this, Anthea?” he asked.

“No.”

“But you’re going to do it anyway?” Luc looked at me askance.

I merely returned his gaze.

He made an exasperated sound. “Some day, I’ll learn not to ask ridiculous questions.”

Citana leaned close to Dezba. “Is this normal investigative behavior?”

“For them? Yes.” The corners of Dezba’s mouth quirked as she looked at Luc and me.

“You are all mad.” Citana shook her head.

“Oh, definitely,” Luc grumbled.

“Who made you the high brother of Child?” I said.

He ignored me and swung forward on his crutches. “I’ll take the bathing room, Warden.”

“But, High Brother.” Dezba took a step toward him. “I don’t want you to slip and fall into the bathing pool.”

Luc’s irritation spiked through my mind, and I had to bite the inside of my lower lip to keep from laughing aloud. He slowly pivoted to face Dezba. Her skin grew a brilliant red shade as she realized she’d overstepped propriety.

“My dear, Warden Dezba.” His smile wasn’t his usual charming one. “I am beginning to understand why the chief justice finds the entire Balance corps of wardens particularly vexing at times.” He twisted back toward his destination and stomped into the bathing room.

“Ignore him,” I said to Dezba. “He hasn’t broken his fast either, and you know how testy I am without tea and that first meal of the day.”

“Yes, m’lady.” She bobbed her head.

On the other hand, Citana appeared as if she were about to call for reinforcements.

I gestured for the women to back away from the tunnel entrance. “Chief Warden, if you would stand with Warden Dezba, we can get started.”

Dezba led Citana to the corner between Dragonfly’s bed and the door to her sitting room, the farthest they could be away from me and still observe everything. That didn’t account for the nervous ripples coming off Citana’s psyche.

“Chief Warden, have you ever observed a rewind spell?” I asked.

“Only during class at the academy, m’lady,” she murmured. “Even something as minor of seeing myself form the day before was unsettling.”

“Think of it as watching an athletic competition in a square on a field,” “Dezba reassured the older woman. “I will report what I see to the chief justice. However, if you noticed anything odd or unusual, please speak.”

Citana nodded.

Satisfied the chief warden understood, I folded back the rugs closest to the bathing room and exposed the bare marble before I settled myself on the sill. Thankfully, this would be a fairly short rewind. I didn’t think my buttocks could deal with straddling the narrow length of marble if I were pulling the timelines past First Night.

I ignored the hard edges digging into my thighs and calves, placed my palms on the slabs of floor marble on each side of the sill, and took a deep breath to still my mind. Whispering the words of the spell, I reached out and yanked the past toward me.

On this occasion, no trap spell or anything else came flying along the time lines to attack me. I pulled until First Night and let the time lines flow forward a little faster than normal between my fingers.

For a few moments, Luc and Dezba alternately called out, “Nothing.” Finally, Dezba shouted, “Slower.”

I gritted my teeth and slowed the velocity.

“Chief Warden Citana enters the room with an oil lamp,” Dezba recited. “She checks beneath the bed, inside the wardrobe, and enters the bathing room.”

Luc picked up the recitation, but his voice echoes oddly with the marble and water. “Citana enters and lights the lamp in the corner of the bathing room across from the door. She looks around. She seems satisfied no one is here and leaves.”

Dezba picked up the events. “The chief warden passes through the bedchamber again. She places the lamp on the stand next to the high sister’s bed, and she exits.”

I almost let the time lines speed up, but Dezba said, “High Sister Dragonfly enters her bedchamber. She heads straight for the bathing chamber.”

“Dragonfly walks in, and—really, Anthea? Must I tell you this?” Luc complained.

“Yes,” I hissed.

“The high sister relieves herself in a chamber and leaves,” Luc growled.

“The high sister passes through the bedchamber and goes to the sitting room,” Dezba said.

I let the time lines slip a little faster through my fingers. So far, the only thing Dragonfly left out of her statement earlier was her pause to take care of her personal needs.

Once again, Dezba shouted, “Slower!”

Perspiration that had nothing to do with the summer heat trickled down my back as my fingers tightened around the time lines.

“The stone guarding the passage to the tunnel system folds back,” Dezba said. “A cloaked and hooded figure enters the bedchamber. I cannot see their face. They glance in the direction of the bed before closing the tunnel entrance. She turns toward the bath chamber and crosses the room.”

Footsteps come toward me. Deep down, I know it was Dezba attempting to see the face of the assassin, but I can’t help raising my head.

My birth mother Gerd stared down at me, and she has a knife in her hand.

Friday, June 19, 2020

A Twist of Love - Chapter 1

For those who keep checking for the next Justice release, here's the unedited first chapter of A Twist of Love.

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I sat at my scarred oak desk in my office and stared at the pile of morning dispatches from the home Temple of Balance in the capital. Summer’s heat was upon us even this early in the morning. Despite my office being located within the cool marble depths of my own Temple, I hadn’t bothered with my formal robes. It was too warm.

So I perched on my chair in leggings and tunic, considering if taking my boots off was a move to close too breaking etiquette for my station, and I stared at the pile. There shouldn’t be this many dispatches from Standora. Not during the height of the growing season.

My city of Orrin was the third largest city in the queendom of Issura and its second largest port. Normally, we would only have our share of petty crime, property damage from brawling sailors, and the occasional stabbing when a brawl got out of hand before the city peacekeepers arrived to break it up.

But ever since I was assigned, or rather sentenced, as the city’s chief justice a little over a year ago, it seemed like the Twelve decided to up the ante. Especially over the last six months. And I was hoping for, or dreading, some more information in today’s dispatches about one problem in particular.

I ran my fingertips over the seals of the various pieces of parchments until I found the one with the personal sigil of the Reverend Mother herself. I cracked the wax and brushed my fingers over the raised symbols of the Temple of Balance to read them. Even though I was no longer totally blind like the rest of my sisterhood, I couldn’t discern the difference between ink and parchment as sighted people did. There wasn’t a large enough difference in the level of heat for me to read ink writing.

As I suspected she would but I desperately wished otherwise, the Reverend Mother failed to give me any more details about Gerd’s escape from custody in Standora. I wanted to throw the tiny scroll across the room. Gerd, the former high sister of Orrin’s Temple of Love, may be my birth mother, but she was insane and dangerous and on the loose. Not necessarily in that order, and I was at the top of her list of people she wanted dead.

The Reverend Mother should have tried and executed Gerd months ago after she was discovered demon dealing among her multiple other crimes. Once again, the Reverend Mother failed to explain in her letter why Gerd was still alive, much less how the Mad Whore removed shackles designed to inhibit her magical talents, killed a warden and escaped from the capital. I crumpled the parchment and threw it anyway, knowing my senior clerk Donella would merely give me disapproving looks when she carefully smoothed is out and added it to the official records.

The wadded ball barely missed Sivan’s head as she entered my office with my breakfast. I received the disapproving look earlier than expected. My personal assistant and head of household shoved aside some other documents with her elbow, set the tray on my desk, and turned to close the door.

“I’m sorry Sivan,” I said.

She bent to pick up the wadded parchment and examined the broken seal as she straightened. “I’m assuming you weren’t happy with whatever the Reverend Mother said.”

“More like her lack of saying anything,” I grumbled. “Dragonfly has gotten more information from the Reverend Mother of Love than I have from Balance. If I didn’t know better, I’d think my own Reverend Mother hopes Gerd will succeed in killing me this time around.”

“I doubt it,” Sivan said dryly. “She went to too much trouble to force you to be Orrin’s chief justice.” She carefully straightened the parchment I’d thrown and laid it on the pile of dispatches I hadn’t read yet. “Not to mention, it’s been over a month since Gerd escaped. She’s a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them. She probably hightailed it for the Gray Mountains. Get through those before the snows start, especially with a death sentence here.”

“The Reverend Mother of Love seemed rather certain Gerd would head south to seek revenge,” I said.

“As I just said, Gerd’s—” Sivan started.

“Not stupid,” I finished while I poured a cup of tea from the steaming ceramic pot on the tray. “But she makes less sense than a Wixáritari Wildling priestess using peyōtl.”

Sivan shrugged. “Let’s try a different subject. How long are you planning to mope about the Temple?”

“I am not moping,” I said. “And definitely not about Gerd.”

“You’ve been moping ever since you found out Sister Claudia is carrying High Brother Luc’s child.” Sivan folded her arms across her chest. “And it’s gotten worse now that she’s showing. You say you’ve accepted the edict—”

I leaned my elbows on my desk and propped my chin on my fists. “She asked me to attend the birth.”

“Oh. Oh, dear.” Sivan dropped into one of the visitor’s chairs without my permission, but I didn’t have the heart to chide her over the etiquette misstep.

Maybe I wanted someone to talk to about this situation. I couldn’t talk to Yanaba. She was also pregnant thanks to the stupid edict.

I couldn’t talk to Elizabeth either. She had been raped and tortured for nearly a year when the renegades secretly took over our sister city Tandor, so she had a special dispensation excluding her from the order to procreate. Feeling pity for myself because I was barren seemed like a terrible thing to complain about to a friend and fellow justice who’d suffered so much.

And I’d been born barren and blind thanks to my birth mother’s attempt to illegally abort me.

“What did you tell Claudia?” Sivan said softly.

“I tried to jest about it, saying we should see how I handle Yanaba’s delivery first.” I sighed. “I don’t know what to do. Part of me hates her for giving Luc what I can’t—”

“Stop right there.” Sivan held up her right palm. “This isn’t about what you want. Or even what Luc and Claudia want. They would never have lain together if it weren’t for that damn edict.”

“And the other, logical, part of me knows that. This is about breeding as many children with Light and Balance talent as we can.” I groaned and laid my forehead on my desk. “What is wrong with me, Sivan?”

“Felicitations, Chief Justice. You’ve finally joined the human race.”

I rolled my head to the side so I could look at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You hold yourself, and everyone else around you, to impossible standards.” Sivan shook her head. “As a result, you make yourself and everyone around you miserable.”

I sat upright and glared at her. “Excuse me for trying to adhere—”

Someone banged on my office door. “Chief Justice Anthea!” my head warden Little Bear called out. Another round of banging as Sivan rose and opened the door.

“What the demon are you carrying on about?” she snapped.

He shot her a sheepish grin and whispered, “Sorry, m’love,” before he turned to me and inclined his head. “I apologize for intruding before you’ve finished your first pot of tea, Chief Justice, but there’s a messenger from Love who says it’s quite urgent he speak to you.”

“Send them in.”

Little Bear gestured. It wasn’t one of the stablehands or one of the priestesses’ children as I expected. Ichik, Sister Claudia’s personal assistant, appeared in the doorway. They wore the standard uniform of the staff of the Temple of Love, but their long hair was loose. Whatever had happened, they hadn’t had a chance to do one the intricate hairstyles the staff of Love were known for before rushing to Balance. They were also slightly out of breath.

Ichik bowed. “Please forgive the intrusion, Chief Justice, and my disarray. The high sister begs most urgently for your presence in her chambers.”

The alarm rolling of the eunuch spiked a rush of my own nerves. Why hadn’t Dragonfly sent her own personal assistant? “What happened?” I rose and reached for my formal robes, sword and harness hanging from their pegs. “Is Dragonfly all right?”

“No, Lady Justice.” Ichik’s voice shook. “She is not all right. No one in the Temple of Love is. She asks that you come immediately.” Between their fear and their loyalty to Dragonfly and Claudia, I wasn’t going to get more anything out of them.

I glanced with longing at the steaming cup on my desk as I donned my gear. So much for having my first pot of Jing tea before disaster struck.

Sivan caught my yearning look. “I’ll brew a fresh round for you when you return, m’lady.”

Little Bear exited my office, but his bellow for Gina and Dezba echoed through the Temple corridors. The two female wardens were a better choice of accompanying me. After the awful things Gerd and her cohorts had done to the sisters of Love, the priestesses had a tendency to draw weapons first and ask questions later when it came to armed men. The eunuchs that served them were barely tolerated right now as it was, despite the Temple of Child doing their best to heal the priestesses’ spirits.

Gina and Dezba ran up to me as I entered the courtroom with Ichik trailing behind me. Balance didn’t have a true sanctuary as the other eleven Temples did. The citizens didn’t worship her. Balance meted out what a person deserved, and no amount of pleading or prayer swayed her. That was why her priestesses, like Yanaba, Elizabeth, and me, meted out judgement for wrongdoers and restitution for victims.

“Horses, m’lady?” Gina asked as I strode toward the main doors.

“No, it’s not worth the time to saddle them, but let’s give Dezba a moment to fix her attire.” I raised an eyebrow as the young warden attempted to secure her padded leather jerkin. From her damp hair that was merely braided instead of pinned up like Gina’s, Dezba had been rousted from her bath.

“My apologies, Lady Justice,” she murmured as her skin went from orange to red while she struggled with the laces. I shook my head. “If Ichik here had been half a candlemark earlier, I would be in the same position. However, we do have an image to maintain in public.”

With Gina’s assistance, Dezba was presentable within three breaths.

I exited through the main door with a nod to Warden Ahiga who stood guard, jogged down the marbles steps, and strode at a brisk clip toward the Temple of Love. My wardens and Ichik trailed behind me.

It was earlier enough in the morning that traffic was light on Orrin’s main thoroughfare. A few people gave us curious looks, but for the most part everyone ignored us. It probably had something to do with my lecture to the citizens of Orrin last month about knowing when to mind their own business and knowing to speak up when they learn of an injustice. It also meant there were fewer spies watching me these days.

When we reached the Temple of Love, Sister Shada met us in the foyer. She wasn’t wearing her formal robes or veil. For a brief instant, I feared something may have happened to Claudia and her unborn child. But surely, Dragonfly would have sent for a master healer, not me.

Shada bowed. “This way, Chief Justice.”

From the whispers of the other priestesses and servants, not everyone knew what was going on. Like Shada, none of the priestesses were dressed in their formal wear. It wasn’t like Dragonfly or Claudia to keep secrets from the sisters either. My gut clenched as I matched Shada’s pace back to the priestesses’ private quarters.

Shada knocked softly on the door. Love’s Chief Warden Citana opened the door to Dragonfly’s bedchambers just enough to see who it was. Citana relaxed a bit when she saw me. Shada inclined her head to me.

“Call if you need additional assistance, Chief Justice.” The silence as she walked away was unnerving. I was too used to the tinkling of the silver bells that adorned the robes of the Love priestesses.

Citana opened the door wide enough to admit me and my companions. The weeping and jingle of bells drew me past the sitting room into the main bedroom.

Claudia sat on the huge wooden platform bed and held a crying Dragonfly. Claudia wore a plain linen nightshift, her braids cascading down her back. Dragonfly was the first person in Love I saw in formal robes though her public veil had been removed. Her bright yellow tears soaked the shoulder of Claudia’s shift. Dragonfly’s second nodded toward the door to the bathing room.

I didn’t want to see what had disturbed Dragonfly so, but I forced my boots in that direction. I stopped at the doorway. Gina peered into the room beside me.

A body floated in the pool of jasmine-scented, orange-hot bath water. Equally orange writing marred one of the deep blue marble walls.

“Please tell me the message was written with bath water,” I whispered.

Gina swallowed hard. “It’s not m’lady.”

In large orange letters, the message read, “You’re next, bitch.”

Monday, June 8, 2020

Hero De Jure - Chapter 2

Aisha grabbed the receiver from her phone set, hit the button beside the flashing light, and leaned back in her chair. “Hi, Nella! What can I do for you?”

“Is Winters & Franklin going to issue a statement about Ultramegaperson’s arrest?” the producer blurted.

Shock ran through Aisha. She concentrated a bit. With her enhanced hearing, she could tell Harri was on the phone with their client. Part of her had been upset to know what she thought had been HRSP, as hormone-related superpowers was known colloquially, wasn’t going away after her son Mitch’s birth. But sometimes, her new abilities came in handy.

“We can’t comment on the alleged arrest at this time,” Aisha said. “Not until we have a chance to talk to our client.”

“You didn’t know, did you?” Nella accused.

“Sorry, Nella, you know I can’t officially answer that.”

“But off the record?” the producer prompted.

“Would you want me telling your secrets?”

“Come on, Aisha.” Nella’s tone was somewhere between wheedling and threatening. “You don’t want other people controlling your client’s story.”

Aisha rolled her eyes even though Nella couldn’t see the expression. “Is that your way of saying you’re going to sic Ted on us if I don’t say something now?” Ted Meadowfield, Essie’s co-anchor, would literally sell his own mother for ratings. Especially after he lost out on a chance at an on-air reporting job at CBS. Calling the president of the news division’s wife a bitch he’d like to tap in front of said president hadn’t won him any admirers.

And Ted hated Harri with a passion matched only by the members of Corvus, a black-ops group who had been illegally recruiting supers.

“It’ll be harder for me to keep Ted on a leash if you don’t give Essie something to use,” Nella said.

“Blackmailer.” Aisha knew there was a symbiotic relationship between the news makers and the news reporters. It didn’t mean she liked it. She considered what spin to use. “We just received the official notice a few minutes before you called. I haven’t talked with the San Francisco D.A.’s office or the Justice Department yet to find out the specific charges.”

Well, that part was technically true. Aisha glanced at her computer screen for the current time. “Give me until three. Essie will have an exclusive statement for tonight’s prime time broadcast.”

“Deal!” Nella’s voice was a little too gleeful. “But if you’re a minute late, I’m going to have to run with what Ted learned.”

Aisha’s heart pounded. “What are you talking about?”

“Maybe you should talk to your client first.” Nella’s switch to reluctance set off alarms in Aisha’s brain.

“I’m not going to hang a client out to dry if you’re planning to boil them anyway,” Aisha bit out. “Spill.”

“The governor of California and his security team were on the Golden Gate when it was hit.”

Aisha fell back in her chair and struggled to breath. “Is this confirmed?”

“Yeah,” Nella said softly. “The web cameras on the bridge caught the governor’s cortege falling. Our direct source has a close-up from a personal drone camera.”

“May I please have a copy of the drone footage?”

The news producer hesitated a moment. “Our source didn’t want to be named.”

“I understand wanting to protect your sources, Nella,” Aisha said gently. “But this source may have information as to who’s really at fault here.”

“You sure you’re not just covering your bottom line?”

“Frankly, that would be a certain partner’s chief concern, but I left Dewey & Cheatham because they didn’t give a rat’s ass about the people underneath the masks or the civilians caught in the crossfire in these battles.” Aisha waited a beat before she added, “Whoever was behind the Golden Gate Bridge incident needs to pay for what they’ve done.”

“All right,” Nella finally said. “But you don’t get the footage until I get a statement.”

“Agreed. Thanks for telling me about the video.” Aisha swallowed hard. “I’ll talk to you before three.” She tapped the button to end the call and buried her face in her hands.

Oh, god. Ultramegaperson was so fucked.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Hero De Jure - Chapter 1

Here's the first chapter from the latest 888-555-HERO adventure! Hero De Jure will be release June 15th!

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“Harri!”

Patty Ames’s shriek proceeded her bursting through Harri Winters’ office door, her blond curls bouncing in her wake. “You’ve got to see this!” She rushed to Harri’s second hand maple desk and grabbed the TV remote, her pale face even whiter than usual.

The Action 12! News logo flashed in the bottom right corner of the supersize screen hanging on the wall opposite from Harri’s desk. But it wasn’t Canyon Pointe’s skyline in the video.

Instead, a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge filled the screen. The bridge glowed under the rising sun.

Until a dark blur hit the north end of the city’s famous landmark.

Cables snapped and flailed. Bits and pieces fell, but from the distant perspective, they were probably slabs of pavement and chunks of metal larger than Harri’s ancient Honda. Vehicles tumbled hundreds of feet into the vicious Bay current. Harri covered her mouth with her hand to keep from screaming as well. They were watching innocent commuters plunging to their deaths. Even if every super in California and the surrounding states had been there, they couldn’t have saved everyone.

Aisha, Susan, and Arthur darted into Harri’s office and stared at the TV screen, no doubt their attention drawn by Patty’s shriek.

“…current death toll is unknown. The damage to the San Francisco icon allegedly happened during a battle between Ultramegaperson and Doctor Liquidation that started at the San Francisco Federal Reserve.” The camera shot switched to Action 12!’s evening co-anchor Essie Morales in the studio. This level of carnage required someone with poise, which Essie had in spades.

The analytical part of Harri wondered if Essie had beaten her co-anchor Ted Meadowfield to the studio, or if their producer Nella Lopez hadn’t bothered to call him this morning. Ted never quite grasped the necessity of simply being polite to your co-workers.

Essie’s concerned-journalist expression was firmly fixed on her beautiful face. “Ultramegaperson is assisting the Coast Guard in rescue efforts. Guy Montana, spokesman for the National Superhero Bureau, says a thorough investigation will be undertaken once all victims have been retrieved.

“In other news, the Dow Jones—”

“Victims retrieved” was reporter-speak the body recovery for an obscene number of deaths.

Patty hit the mute button and set the remote back on Harri’s desk. “You want me to call them.”

Harri wearily shook her head at Patty’s reference to the NSB. “No. Ultramegaperson will call us when they’re able. No comment until we decide how we need to spin this.”

The law firm’s assistant nodded. Before she could take a step, the phone lines at her desk out in the reception area started buzzing. Patty rolled her eyes.

“What a way to start a Monday morning.” She strode out of Harri’s office.

“Arthur—”

“On it. I’ll see what I can retrieve.” Arthur Drallhickey, the firm’s head of IT and a reformed supervillain himself, charged out the office door. If anyone could dig through the bureaucratic bullshit and learn the truth, it was him. Harri ignored the fact that some of his techniques weren’t exactly ethical. Or legal. But they needed as much information as they could get about the incident, especially since one of their top clients was involved in this mess.

“You two have any bright ideas?” Harri leaned her right elbow on the desktop, set her chin on her palm, and stared at her legal partners.

Aisha Franklin shook her head. Her hair no longer flipped all over the place. She had their closest friend Jeremy slice off her dreads not long after she delivered her first-born. Baby Mitch had a tendency to yank on them.

Hard enough she feared baldness. However, she pulled off the super-short, henna’d afro Jeremy had styled.

“We need more information first.” Aisha gestured toward the TV screen which was replaying the top news story after Essie’s brief update on other headlines. “What hit the bridge?”

“Considering its size, it wasn’t a person.” Susan Kennedy pushed a lock of her red hair behind her ear while she watched the replay closely. Harri had hired their former law school classmate nearly a year ago to cover for Aisha during maternity leave. Susan had an excellent legal mind, a ton of trial experience, and was pretty damn patient considering the chaos Harri and Aisha’s personal lives had been during the initial months Susan was with them.

Out in the reception area, Harri could hear Patty repeating, “No comment,” like it was a Buddhist mantra.

Aisha stalked over to the office door and closed it. “Now’s when I really wish I could drink coffee again.”

“Wean Mitch early.” Harri grinned at her partner.

“Your godson’s only four months old.” Aisha gave her a dirty look. “He’s not even eating solids yet.”

“But is he flying yet?” Harri continued to tease.

If Aisha had laser vision in her superpower arsenal, Harri would have been a crispy critter.

“When you two are finished bickering—” Susan started to say, but Harri’s intercom buzzed, interrupting her.

Patty wouldn’t interrupt them unless this was super important.

Harri poked the appropriate button on her phone set. “Yes?”

“Nella is on line one,” Patty chirped.

“I’ll handle Nella. Transfer her to my office, Patty.” Aisha strode toward the office door. “Find out what hit Golden Gate, and you’d better hope it wasn’t something our client actually did.” She left, closing the door once again. No doubt Nella Lopez, Action 12! News’s senior producer, was hoping to finagle an exclusive out of Aisha. Harri would be the first to admit her best friend was better at handling the publicity side of their boutique clientele.

“She’s right.” Susan snatched the remote and thumbed the slow-motion button as Action 12! News began to replay their film of the morning’s incident for the fourth time.

Ultramegaperson could be the biggest twat waffle on the planet, but they had come through when Aisha needed some help last Christmas. And the fees from the trans superhero alone kept the firm afloat this year.

That money was a godsend. Aisha wanted a careful well-thought-out plan to introduce hers and her husband Rey Garcia’s new superhero identities. She also wanted to shed the baby weight before she squeezed into spandex again.

The rush job they’d done with Rey’s first persona, Captain Justice, had blown up in their faces thanks to the supervillain Professor Paranoia. The saving grace was they knew Paranoia was roasting in a top security prison in Japan. The intercom buzzed again, and Harri tapped the button. “Yeah, Patty?”

“Ultramegaperson is on line two.”

Harri hit the speaker function. “Hey, Ultra! Susan’s here with me. What do you need?”

“Um, Harri,” the superhero said hesitantly. “I’m under arrest.”