Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 6

When we returned to Balance for our horses, Little Bear insisted on accompanying me to my appointment at the Healers Guild with Warden Dezba, replacing Warden Daniel. My chief warden revealed why once we turned off the main thoroughfare.

“Our young squire is quite distraught over his discovery this afternoon.” Little Bear eyed me as we rode. Neither he nor any of my wardens allowed me to walk anywhere this days. Not without a heavy escort, and that was only to another Temple. Otherwise, we rode. “Now that Sivan and Hogarth have been identified as Temple personnel by the citizens, we can’t allow them to go back to the south side.”

“And Nathan’s friends will starve if they don’t receive some assistance,” I said.

“You can’t continue taking on every other Temple’s duties,” he grumbled.

I couldn’t help chuckling at the ludicrous nature of our situation. “I don’t disagree with you, Chief Warden. I’m open to suggestions on how to get a certain priestess to perform her own damn job.”

“If you hadn’t locked already High Father Jerrod in the Temple of Balance, I would have suggested trying that with the certain priestess.”

I turned to look at him. “Why, Chief Warden, between Nicholas of Light and you making jokes, I’d think the end times were here.”

“Who said I was joking?”

Little Bear’s quip made me wonder if I’d gone about my duties in the wrong way. I sighed. Of course, I had. Luc prodded me more than once that I should have taken a more diplomatic approach with the other seats. I’d let my resentment toward my birth mother and my fury at my own Reverend Mother over using my illegal execution of a member of the royal family to force me to take the chief justice position in Orrin affect my relationships with the clergy here.

As always, it always came back to Gerd. I’d given her the very tools she needed to remove me from my own Temple. If it weren’t for the magistrate…

Balance help me. It was a wonder DiCook hadn’t hung me out to dry after the way I treated him in the beginning of my tenure. So much had changed in the last year. I was used to the steady rhythm of riding circuit in the eastern foothills. The politics of the third largest city and second largest port of Issura would be my downfall.

When we arrived at the estate of the Healers Guild, the stablehands took our horses. An apprentice I didn’t recognize bowed to us. Her long hair was bound in a bun in the Diné style.

“Chief Justice, Brother. Masters Aaron and Devin and High Brother Xander await you.”

“And you are?” I prompted.

“Healer Apprentice Simi, m’lady.” She smiled shyly. “I began my studies the day after the summer solstice.”

I inclined my head. “A pleasure to meet you, Apprentice Simi.”

“Will your wardens be joining us?”

“If you don’t mind, we’ll enjoy your herb garden. We know the way,” Dezba said with a smile. The two Light wardens noticeable relaxed at her statement. I couldn’t blame them. Observing Master Devin or Master Aaron’s examination of a suspected victim of foul play wasn’t my idea of a good time either. However, I often learned useful things by consulting with them.

“This way, Chief Justice, Brother.” Simi pivoted and led us to the treatment building. Dezba and the two Light wardens headed for the Healers garden, though no doubt they’d finagle a snack and a drink from the guild’s cook.

The Healers Guild estate consisted of two huge manses. One was designated for living quarters for the guild members and their staff. The other was used for treating the sick and injured. All the lemon oil in the world couldn’t totally eliminate the odors of decay and death, so I didn’t blame guild personnel for the separation. Unfortunately, I’d spent too much time over the past year in the treatment building thanks to the Assassins Guild. Both my Reverend Mother and Ambassador Quan of Jing said I was too stubborn for Death to want to drag me to her realm.

We followed Simi to the treatment room Master Aaron had set aside for examining corpses. As the apprentice said, the guild leader was already there, which was an unusual occurrence. But it was the change on insignia on Master Devin’s assistant Bly that drew my attention.

“You passed your examinations!” Even though I wasn’t a physical demonstrative person, I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tight. “Congratulations, Master Healer Bly!”

“Thank you, Chief Justice.”

“You never hug me,” the High Brother of Death protested.

Bly and I parted, and I eyed Xander.

“That’s because we hear too much of each other these days.” Still, I crossed to the priest and hugged him as well. Even though he’d become the seat of Death after the demise of High Sister Bertrice during the Battle of Tandor, he often took his morning and evening meals at Balance even when he did not spend the night with my junior justice. It relieved my mind he took an active interest in Yanaba and their child-to-come.

I leaned back and examined Xander’s face. “Why isn’t Sister Raven Claw observing?”

“I sent her because I was dealing with a Temple matter.” He sighed. “However, she also admitted she didn’t think she could remain impartial given the circumstances.”

I released my grip on the tall young man and turned to Aaron. “You rarely attend these post-mortem examinations anymore, Guild Master. What has piqued your interest in this matter?”

“I would like to say this was a mere formality in regards to Master Bly attaining her rank since this will be the first time she is the lead physician in such an examination.” Aaron stroked his bare chin. Unlike so many other men in Issura, he remained clean-shaven instead of adapting the moustache and short chin-beard that had become popular among the civilians. “However, the apprentices noticed some problematic issues when they were removing the clothing from the body.” “Problematic issues?” I cocked my head. The guild master had a gift for understatement.

“Similar to the atrocities that were done to Sister Gretchen,” he murmured. “And Squire Ming Wei.”

Even though the time was approaching First Evening, well past our midday meal, my stomach rebelled at the memory of what had been done to the priestess before the renegades finally strangled her and stuffed her body in a barrel of Pana wine. And if I thought too much about the horrors visited on Yanaba’s squire before she came to Balance, I would definitely be sick.

“Twelve take them all,” I spat.

“That’s why I excused Sister Raven Claw,” Xander murmured. So, this wasn’t about any bias the priestess held toward the Healers Guild.

I almost wish the sister’s dismissal were about the rift between the Temple of Death and the Healers Guild. Politics annoyed me, but it was nothing compared to the rage I felt toward the brutality inflicted on an innocent.

Every person in the room glowed with the same fury. I sucked in a deep breath in an effort to calm myself. The best thing I could do for Yellow Fin was to discover who did this to him and bring the culprit to justice.

Jeremy and I joined Xander against the one bare wall and observed the proceedings. Bly had learned much from Devin over the last six months. The guild’s clerk took notes for Bly with additional comments from Aaron and Devin, but for the most part, the older healers remained silent as the newly minted master catalogued the injuries inflicted on the boy.

On the other hand, poor Simi turned a pale green right before she fled the room. I looked up at Xander.

“Is it all right if I check on her?”

He nodded. “Brother Jeremy is here if there are any questions. I haven’t met a healer apprentice or a Death novice who didn’t empty their stomach over a situation such as this.”

I stalked out of the examination room. It was close to the main entrance into the manse, and the wide double doors were ajar. I didn’t have to guess or reach out mentally for the young woman. Someone was definitely voiding their stomach in the garden. I followed the stone path to the mulch bed. The healer apprentice bent over the stone edging.

“Simi?” I placed my right hand on her shoulder. The girl straightened and burst into tears.

“I failed!” she wailed and flung her arms around my waist.

“You didn’t fail at anything.” I patted her back.

“Yes, I did.” A sob shuddered through her body. “I was supposed to learn from Master Bly. She said it’s an honor to assist the Temple of Balance. And I couldn’t hold my stomach.”

I guided her further along the winding garden path until we came to a wooden bench near the poppy beds. Once we sat, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. She wiped her eyes and mouth on the edge of her apron.

“Do you really believe you’re the first person to be affected by a dead body?” I said softly.

“I-I—” She licked her lips. “W-we are supposed to look at patients objectively.”

“That’s when you’re trying to find the best way to treat someone’s illness or injury,” I said. “If you can look at the harm resulting in someone’s death without feeling empathy for that person’s suffering, then you shouldn’t be any kind of caregiver.”

Simi sniffed. “But the masters will send me home for running out on the examination.”

“I can guarantee they will not,” I said dryly.

“B-but—” More tears trickled down her face.

“Simi, the healing gift is exceedingly rare.” I squeezed her shoulders. “Guild Master Aaron won’t throw away such a talent. Besides, if vomiting got anyone out of their duties and responsibilities, I wouldn’t be a justice.”

“Y-you got sick?” She swiped her sleeves across her cheeks.

“My very first execution.”

“But if justices can’t see—”

“I can.”

Her body stiffened beneath my arm. “I-I’m sorry. I forgot for a moment.”

I chuckled. “Even for my blind sisters, it’s not the view. We feel the condemneds’ death, as we should since we are responsible for trying and convicting the person.”

“Wh-what did the first person you had to execute do?”

Not even Luc had ever asked me that question. I sighed.

“The man I executed murdered his brother because he coveted his brother’s wife.”

Simi gasped. “What an awful thing to do!”

“Yes, and he regretted what he had done the instant after it happened, but it was too late.” I shrugged. “My aim was quick and true, and he felt no pain, but the impression of Death taking a soul is not one you forget. I lost my breakfast all over the man’s corpse in front of everyone. You are fortunate that your gift allows you to help people.”

Simi stared at the poppies before she looked back up at me. “I do not envy your position, Chief Justice.”

“There are times I dislike my position as well, but hopefully, finding Yellow Fin’s killer will appease Balance Herself.” I squeezed the young apprentice’s shoulders once again. “Master Bly chose you as her apprentice because she obviously sees potential in you. Are we ready to go back inside now that your stomach is empty?”

She nodded.

We rose and walked back to the examination room. I didn’t envy Simi’s position either. The young woman’s innocence had been destroyed by witnessing the terrible acts inflicted on Yellow Fin, and like me, she’d probably have nightmares for quite a while after this.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 5

Oops! I totally forgot today is Wednesday!

Just a reminder, these are unedited chapters of my current work-in-progress that will be released on February 14th.

====================================

I didn’t dislike High Mother Bianca. At least, not the way I loathed clams. But Balance help me, I didn’t trust the woman. Not when she accused me of misconduct at midwinter.

Granted, my birth mother Gerd had been involved in the false charges. But even after everything that had happened in Orrin, I still wasn’t sure if Bianca was Gerd’s accomplice or her gudgeon.

However, the boy’s murder in the slums, the blanket both a clergy member and a civilian official witnessed in my rewind, and Dragonfly’s news gave me more than enough reasons to make a formal visit to the Temple of Mother. And if I was making this a formal visit, I would take my chief warden.

Upon returning to the Temple of Balance, I dispatched Nathan with a note of apology regarding my tardiness to Master Healer Devin. The murdered boy was going nowhere, and catching Bianca off guard might be a more productive use of my time. After giving Little Bear a brief account of the events in the slums, my entourage and I headed for the Temple of Mother.

The architecture of each of the Temples represented their namesake deity. Balance’s walls were stern, unyielding, with narrow horizontal windows high on the top edges. The only hint of softness was in its central dome.

Mother’s structure seemed to be nothing but curves. Round towers marked its four corners. Scalloped carvings linked the slender turrets. More reliefs decorated the walls. While Balance was a fortress, Mother was a work of art that even my strange eyesight could appreciate. The craftsmanship of the Temple would be the only pleasantness of this visit.

Upon our arrival, one of the junior priestesses escorted my party to Mother’s main receiving room. She left and closed the door.

I sat on one of the cushioned armchairs and pushed back my hood. Jeremy and Little Bear took their stances at my shoulders while the other four wardens spaced themselves to keep eyes on the main door, the windows, and the service door to the kitchen area.

Tapestries covered the marble walls. While I couldn’t make out the individual designs, they were probably a blend of Chumash, Toscan, and Britannian designs, which had become the standard in Issura over the past three hundred years. Back when Luc and I traveled circuit in the east, he often let me look through his eyes to see what neither my blindness nor my odd sight could discern. While the lack of temperature differences meant I couldn’t appreciate the artistry of the tapestries, I could detect the tiny holes in the walls.

None of my party said a word while we waited. We all knew we would be spied upon or listened to by the sisterhood. No sense giving Bianca any foreknowledge of the purpose of my visit.

Nearly a quarter of a candlemark passed before the main doors of the receiving room opened again. High Mother Bianca swept into the room with a flair of her robes and her hair piled high on her head. Two junior mothers accompanied her, their hoods raised and their eyes downcast. Her chief warden, a dour-faced woman named Maebh, stationed herself at Bianca right hand as the priestess claimed the chair on the opposite side of the rug from me. The two priestesses stood behind Bianca and Maebh, but spaced widely, a position from where they could launch spells at us while their chief warden could cover their high mother with steel.

Good to know no trust had developed between Bianca and I over the last six months.

I hadn’t bothered to rise when she entered. It was a petty move on my part, but with the magic hangover headache centering itself between my eyes, I wasn’t in the mood for niceties. But then, her staff hadn’t served me any refreshment either.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one acting in a petulant manner.

“To what do I owe this visit, Chief Justice?” Bianca drawled my title as if it were a slur.

“If I may remind you, High Mother, you voted to have me named as Chief Justice of Orrin at my trial last year,” I said. “You may not,” she snapped. “State your business because we are both aware this isn’t a social call. Or are you planning to illegally imprison me as you did High Father Jerrod?”

I didn’t bother defending myself. Imprisoning Jerrod had been my way to protect him while I negotiated with demon dealers in my efforts to rescue Luc and capture or kill those renegades.

Instead, I focused on the real purpose of my visit. “A child who should have been under your care was found dead this morning on the south side slums.”

Her skin color remained steady. “And you bring me this news rather than High Brother Xander because…”

“Upon superficial examination, the child’s throat was slit.” I shrugged. I wasn’t about to give her any information regarding how we knew the boy’s body had been dumped. “The Healers Guild will do a more thorough examination of the corpse to learn if there were any additional injuries.”

Only Chief Warden Maebh reacted to my news, and even then, it was only a slight shift in her body color. She went from bright yellow to a burnt orange. None of the three priestesses showed any signs of distress at my statement.

The chief warden cleared her throat. “If I may, Chief Justice?” At my nod, she cleared her throat again. “The fault for this child’s death is mine. I’ve been adamant the High Mother and our priestesses remain here given the recent attempts on your own life as well as the other seats in Orrin.”

Maebh either wouldn’t or couldn’t meet my gaze, but then, that was my purpose in showing my own face. The color of my eyes disturbed people. Luc was the first person to tell me the truth. My attempted healing spell to give myself normal human sight had gone wrong and turned my eyes the color of blood.

I wasn’t surprised Bianca would allow her chief warden to take the blame for her own inaction. As much as I wanted to truthspell the clergy and staff of Mother to find out what unspoken thing lay between them, I didn’t have enough evidence to interrogate anyone here. Yet.

“While I appreciate your loyalty in protecting those clergy under your charge, Chief Warden, we all have our duties to the citizens of Orrin. We cannot allow our personal fear to interfere with our service.”

My reprimand of Mother’s chief warden finally elicited a reaction from Bianca. Her fury spiked against my own mental shield, and her face and hands glowed bright red.

“How dare you criticize my staff?” she hissed. “Each Temple deals with their own matters—”

“Unless terrible situations like this occur where our roles cross,” I said coldly. “However, your chief warden may have her hands full already. If so, you need to petition your Reverend Mother for additional wardens.”

Bianca sniffed. “Why would I need more?”

“Gerd escaped custody.” I smiled. “While my death and High Sister Dragonfly’s top her list for revenge, you, my dear High Mother, are running a very close third.”

Color drained from Bianca skin. The priestesses accompanying her gasped. Maebh instinctively started to reach for her sword.

“She wouldn’t dare,” Bianca said. The disbelief in her voice said everything about her relationship with Gerd.

“She had no problems attempting to kill her own child for the last thirty-one winters.” I waved my hand in a nonchalant manner. “Everything from illegally terminating a Spring Ritual pregnancy to hiring the Assassins Guild. She had Sister Gretchen tortured and murdered for stealing a demon grimoire from her. She allowed renegades to torture and rape the priestesses of her own Temple while plotting with them to take over the city of Orrin.” I leaned forward in my chair. “What makes you think she’d show you mercy?”

Bianca’s nostrils flared as she considered my words. “Why are you warning me?”

This was what Luc would call a fishing expedition, but I didn’t dare admit such at this time. Instead, I exhaled and met her gaze squarely. “We lost too many clergy in the Battle of Tandor. We cannot afford to lose anyone else. Not if we want to win this war.”

“So this is merely your concern for queen and nation?” Bianca’s right eyebrow rose.

I stood. “No, this is my concern for the survival of the human race. But if we stoop to slitting the throats of our children. I wonder if we deserve the lives the Twelve have bestowed on us.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 4

I have some disappointing news. A Touch of Mother will not be out on January 15th. I admit I spent a lot of time with Genius Kid while he was home on leave for Christmas and New Year's. And I totally overestimated my ability to work on my novel and do the homework for a class I'm taking this year.

The good news is A Touch of Mother's release will only be pushed back a month. I want to make sure this is the best story possible for you. The new release date is February 14th.

In the meantime, I will continue posting chapters until the week of release, so you will not be totally bereft of new material. Again, I apologize for the delay.

=====================================

Rather than take anymore chances, I ordered the corpse to be salted before I allowed Master Devin and his apprentice to load the body into their cart when they pulled up a few moments later with Sister Raven Claw of Death and Warden Hitari. I trusted the master healer to wait until I arrived at their guild house before beginning his examination. The clergy of Death here in Orrin did, too. However, the home Temples of Death still held a grudge over the schism between them and what became the Healers Guild, so one of Death’s clergy were required to observe.

Jeremy insisted Master Devin examined me for any injuries before he left despite my protestations. Magistrate DiCook seconded Jeremy’s request. The healer pronounced me as healthy, and as stubborn, as ever.

Magistrate DiCook stepped closer to me while the cart turned around to make its way to the center of Orrin, followed by Raven Claw and her warden. Even the formerly mumbling crowd showed the appropriate silence for the demise of someone so young.

“Can you still do the rewind?” DiCook murmured.

“I can try,” I replied. “But let Brother Jeremy and I doublecheck the alley before we make another attempt. I doubt you’d want us to fry your peacekeepers’ brains if we miss another trap spell.”

DiCook shook his head. “I’m not talented, and I know you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, but it was almost like the trap wasn’t in the now. Like it came into existence when you started your spell.”

“Because it existed in the past. When I rewound time, my spell yanked it to our moment,” I said. “I pulled a similar stunt with the demons in the Tandoran tunnels.” I shook my head. “Either someone survived who knew about my deed, or I wasn’t as inventive as I thought.”

DiCook snorted. “How many refugees did you and Luc bring back? It could be any one of them.”

His observation only brought back my worry concerning Elizabeth. She’d been at the skinwalkers’ mercies for nearly a year after they taken over our sister city. The same city we destroyed in order to kill the demon army. Every time I sure Elizabeth was innocent of being under the renegades’ influence, something like the trap spell on the boy’s corpse made me wonder about her true loyalties. She, Luc, and Brother Bumblebee, a Diné Light priest, were the only ones who knew about my stunt placing a magical flashbang in the past of the Tandoran tunnel system.

No, the surviving demons in the tunnel knew about my trick as well. Were there more renegades among the survivors from Tandor than we realized? Such questions and concerns would surely drive me mad.

“Despite my powers, I can only deal with one problem at a time,” I answered. “We investigate Yellow Fin’s death step by step as we would any other murder.”

DiCook snorted at my poor pun, but he remained silent while Jeremy and I did a thoroughly check of the alley. When we were done, I settled on the cobblestones once again.

I hesitated before I reached for the timelines. I’d never had to worry about anyone being harmed directly by this spell before now.

I looked up at DiCook. “Magistrate, you and your peacekeepers should vacate the ally in case I missed something.”

“You heard the chief justice, lads.” He jerked his head in the direction of where we’d entered. “Out.”

After a bit of grumbling and protests, the peacekeepers walked back to the streets framing the alley. “You, too, Malven,” I murmured.

“Nah, I trust you.” He spat on the cobblestones before he grinned at me. “And I trust Brother Jeremy here even more. The boy’s faster than you.”

“I’m not a boy,” Jeremy growled.

DiCook looked startled at the priest’s foul mood. Not was it like Jeremy to snap at anyone. Maybe I needed to speak with Luc privately about sending Jeremy over to High Sister Mya of Child. Her talent would be far more useful to the young priest’s peace of mind than a reprimand would at this time.

“Of course, you may stay, Magistrate,” I said softly. “However, the risk to life and limb are your responsibility.”

“Understood, Chief Justice.” He glanced at Jeremy with a worried expression.

I didn’t need to touch DiCook’s mind. I had the same concerns as did Shi Hua. She had continued her intimate relationship with Jeremy because they were ordered to, but she’d asked me for my advice when it came to the changes in his behavior since the Battle of Tandor.

“Let me know when you are ready, Brother,” I said.

He inhaled deeply. The sharper edges of his psyche receded, but it still prickled against mine. A visit to Child was definitely in order before the day was out.

“I am ready to witness for you, Chief Justice,” Jeremy murmured.

My odd eyesight marginally picked up the chill wisps of the past, but I still couldn’t see them as clearly as anyone with normal human vision could. I still had to rely on a witness to relay the actions just like my blind sisters did. I reached into the memories of the surrounding cobblestones and bricks. The stones were steadier, but the bricks and wood paid more attention to the humans since they injured and transform the respective building materials. I yanked on the timelines from two days ago, half-expecting something to rush out of the past again. However, my spell worked as expected this time.

Candlemarks slipped between my fingers, faster than the normal passage of time but slow enough for Jeremy to make out events. Sweat beaded along my hairline and trickled down my spine.

“Slower, m’lady,” Jeremy said. “Four peacekeepers are passing through the alley. Magistrate?”

“I’ve had to increase the number of personnel over the last few months,” DiCook said.

“Has there been problems in this section of the city?” Jeremy shifted to view the time shadows.

“Not yet,” DiCook grumbled. “Hoping to prevent it.”

“Continue, Chief Justice,” the priest murmured.

I sped the passage of hours. Jeremy noted the peacekeepers passed through this alley at least once per hour. However, the intervals were random. DiCook trained his people well.

“Hold!” Jeremy said. He took a few steps toward the west end of the alley and circled a spot of grayish mist. “The person appears to be dressed in a black cloak, leggings, and boots in the style of the Temples.”

“Balance or Death?” I gritted my teeth at holding the time lines still.

“There’s no insignia on the robes, and I can’t see their face.” Jeremy stepped back from the faint image. “Continue.”

The time phantom stopped before me and dumped its bundle before me. My anger and sorrow at the treatment of the child’s body nearly made me lose my grip on the threads of the past.

“From the angle of the shadows, the person arrived shortly after First Morning.” Jeremy crouched across from me. “They’re unwrapping the child from a blanket.” He gasped. “Hold!”

“Brother…” My entire body shook from the strain of holding time in one moment.

He pointed at something and looked up at DiCook. “Do you see this, Magistrate?”

DiCook’s face paled to a dull yellow. He nodded and muttered a curse under his breath.

I couldn’t hold the lines at one point any longer. My fingers burned as the moment slipped from my grasp, and time snapped back to the now. I leaned my elbows on knees and tried to catch my breath. I hadn’t lost control of a rewind spell like that since I was a novice.

A hand touched my shoulder. “You all right, Anthea?” DiCook murmured.

I reached up and patted his hand. “Despite Brother Jeremy’s efforts, that trap spell affected me more than I realized. It’s nothing a little rest and some tea won’t take care of.”

“Perhaps Master Aaron should take a look at you before you continue this investigation,” DiCook. Both he and Jeremy took my hands and pulled me to my feet.

“First, tell me what you saw.” My gaze flicked between the two men. The skin on Jeremy and DiCook heated to a brilliant red under my odd sight.

Jeremy exhaled. “The blanket held the insignia of Mother.”

My stream of obscenities would have blistered the ears of the demons themselves.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 3

As usual, this is an unedited draft of my current wip.
========================================

My worry over Nathan superseded my annoyance at Luc ordering Jeremy to accompany me. Things between Luc and me had been strained since the order came down lifting the chastity restrictions of our Temples. Since Balance and Light formed the backbone of the judicial proceedings, not only in Issura but the entire world, the original restriction was necessary to provide a semblance of impartiality in court proceedings.

Luc and I had broken that rule years ago. Our illicit affair hadn’t really mattered because I couldn’t conceive. But now… Now, we needed as many children with Light and Balance talents as we could produce. Especially Light, because the demons were vulnerable to their direct powers. The renegades allied with the demons had been targeting that particular order due to the demons’ susceptibility.

And I could never bear any child, much less one with Luc’s abilities. Which meant he needed to lay with another woman to have those children.

“A copper for your thoughts?” Jeremy murmured.

Nassa snorted and tossed her head as if affirming the priest’s request. I patted her neck.

We rode through the slums of Orrin on the southern edge of the harbor, well away from the duke’s estate and the homes of the other nobles and prosperous merchants. The people here were much less afraid to speak aloud about the Red Justice. Therefore, I had an excuse to answer the younger priest without betraying my private musings.

“I’m thinking we should have brought more wardens,” I said as I scanned the crowd. From the color of their exposed skin, few were happy to see me in their neighborhood. “Balance help us, I hope we don’t have an incident beyond the one Magistrate DiCook called us to attend.”

There was a time when I wouldn’t have feared walking any part of this city. We had six wardens escorting us as well as two peacekeepers, but they may not be enough if the people staring at us and muttering decided to get ugly.

The first demons in a hundred years showed up when I covered the Duchy of Orrin as a circuit justice because my own Reverend Mother refused to name a replacement after Chief Justice Penelope passed. Since I’d been assigned as chief justice of Orrin, or rather sentenced, more demons appeared. And the citizens of the city and duchy blamed the justice with the red eyes for the demons’ return.

Now, Orrin was crowded with refugees from Tandor. The resettling process was slow, and tempers frayed. In three months, everyone had forgotten we’d fought and destroyed a demon army. No, they only remembered what they lost. Or what they believed they were losing.

“Back this way, m’lady,” Jaime said, pointing to a narrow alley barely wide enough for two horses abreast between ramshackle tenements. From the grim set of the peacekeeper’s mouth, something more than the muttering crowd disturbed him. When I had asked about DiCook’s summons, Jaime shook his head and I would have to see for myself.

I didn’t need my odd sight to find the body, nor did I need the cluster of peacekeepers. The smell of death put the sweat of men and the stink of fish to shame. I dismounted, and Nathan surged past the crowd and flung his arms about me. My fingers met rough homespun clothing when I wrapped my arms around the boy. I eyed my head of household as she approached. There wasn’t any need to touch her clothing. She would have been dressed the same as Nathan and my stablemaster.

“Where’s Hogarth?” I asked Sivan.

“With the magistrate.” She gestured at the knot of peacekeepers.

Nathan peered up at me. Despite his efforts to maintain a stoic demeanor, salt stained his cheeks. “You have ta find out who killed Yellow Fin.”

“We’ll do our best, young squire,” Jeremy said. “Why don’t you stay here with the wardens while the chief justice and I examine the site?”

The Light priest spoke gently to my squire. However, I could feel the sharp pricks of his psyche against mind. He lost the carefree attitude he’d possessed on the battlefield of Tandor. The loss of his bright outlook on life left a bad taste in my mouth.

Jeremy wasn’t the only one affected by the aftermath of that battle. One of Shi Hua’s nightmares accidentally set off the alarms of their Temple, and Elizabeth resorted to warding her bedchambers each night to keep from disturbing the sleep of everyone else in Balance.

The peacekeepers parted when we reached them. The corpse had gone cold, but the size of it bothered me. It lay in a puddle that could have been water or urine, but the sharp coppery stench said the liquid was something else. I knelt carefully beside the body and gently fingered the clothing at its shoulder. The weave of the cloth was rougher than even the clothing my three staff members currently wore. It felt like the cloth used to carry grain. The flesh beneath was bone-thin.

I looked up at Jeremy.

“Throat’s been slit.” He frowned. “There should be more blood than this even for the boy’s small size.”

“Aye,” DiCook said. “That was our conclusion as well.”

“Why in the name of Child would someone bother with a street urchin?” I asked.

“Also, a good question,” DiCook muttered. “And why leave him where he could be found? Why not burn the body themselves?”

I gently lifted the corpse’s wrist. Its hand hung limp from my grasp. “Rigor has come and gone.”

Something about this didn’t feel right. Not even the people of the slums would leave a body lying around like this. There was too much danger of a demon possessing the corpse and wreaking havoc. Protocols regarding prevention of demon infestations had been slacking over the last century, but with the Battle of Tandor, those same protocols were being strictly enforced now. They could save Orrin from a similar fate as our sister city.

I looked up at the men. “Who found Yellow Fin?”

“Squire Nathan did, m’lady,” Hogarth fingered the sailor’s cap he wore as part of his disguise. “He said this is one of the places he and his friends hid before he entered Temple service.”

I examined our surroundings. After witnessing Shi Hua climb over impossible walls and dance along rooftops, I could make out the tiny hand and footholds those with appendages smaller than mine could use.

However, I needed a better picture of events. A healthy layer of dirt and offal covered the cobblestones. The building to each side were contrived of wood, but their foundations were a mix of stone and brick.

“Would you give us some room, Magistrate and Peacekeepers?” I settled on the alley and crossed my legs. “Let’s see who left this poor unfortunate here.” Despite the heat of the summer days, I pulled on my gloves. No sense in sticking my bare hands in the filth.

Resting one covered palm on the alley cobblestone and the other on the riverstone foundation of the closest building, I concentrated on the threads of time and pulled on them. A demon-black wad of nothingness shot toward me from the past. I tried to release the strings of time, but I couldn’t stop the demon magic.

White light flashed around me, blinding me, and pain spiked through my mind. When I could see again, Jeremy lay on top on me in the alleyway, his arms wrapped around my neck. Somehow, he kept my head from slamming into the stones or bricks around us. I glanced around the alley. The corpse still rested on the cobblestones in the same position it had been. However, all the peacekeepers and the magistrate had been knocked over by the…whatever that thing had been.

“What the demon was that?” I muttered.

“A trap spell of some kind,” Jeremy said as he climbed to his feet. “I barely raised a ward in time. Otherwise, I fear we all would have journeyed with the boy to Death.”

Balance take whoever had done this to Nathan’s friend. I needed to be more thorough in my examinations. I should have learned that lesson after the horrors that had been inflicted on Brother Jon of Light, not to mention Peacekeeper Dante and his family. But the damn thing was so subtle.

I sighed and looked up at Jeremy. “Well, I think that answers why the body was left here.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 2

As usual, this is an unedited draft of my current wip.

==============================

Of course, Little Bear demanded a group meal at midday with our counterparts from the Temple of Light to discuss the situation. I thanked Balance our cook Deborah put up with our shenanigans. My predecessor Chief Justice Penelope didn’t entertain visitors often, if at all. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the senility that gradually destroyed her mind or her generally disagreeable nature. However, my Temple had become the meeting place for the clergy, the local nobility, the Guilds, and the citizen officials. Mainly, because I didn’t tolerate petty politics.

Not when we’d been dealing with the Assassins Guild, demons and renegade humans for the last year.

My staff rather enjoyed the reaction of the Light personnel when I announced the news from Love. They would have been less surprised if I’d tossed a Jing flashbang with a lit fuse in the middle of the dining table.

After the initial shock and disbelief, the four members of Light surreptitiously peeked at High Brother Luc. As the seat of Light order in Orrin, he had a particular cause to dislike my birth mother. Of course, she had her renegade allies actually cut off Luc’s left foot and deliver it to me in their attempt to force me to turn over a demon grimoire Gerd had obtained.

I spent a great deal of my nights since midwinter, lying awake in my bed and wondering if I made the correct decision.

“Why foster her escape?” Luc said.

“What do you mean, sir?” Garbhan said. As the newest priest of Orrin’s Temple of Light, he was often reluctant to speak up during our meetings.

I leaned my elbows on the polished surface of our dining table. “He means why isn’t she dead. She lost a demon grimoire the renegades wanted. She accidentally exposed the Assassins Guild’s alliance with the renegades, and by that, ruined the plot to quietly takeover Orrin as they had Tandor—”

“You’re forgetting your own contribution,” Elizabeth teased. “You’re the one who uncovered Samael DiRoy’s conspiracy with the previous duke and duchess of Orrin.”

The former chief justice of Tandor had remained in Orrin for her recovery from the year of torture the renegades had inflicted on her. Despite her emotional troubles, I was grateful for her presence. My junior justice Yanaba had been suffering from excessive morning sickness. I wished I could say my gratitude was due to the easing of our workload, but I would be lying to myself.

When Gerd tried to illegally end her pregnancy, she left me blind and unable to bear children. Elizabeth had been granted an exception to the recent change in Temple policy, which allowed, well reluctantly encouraged, the orders of Balance and Light to pursue carnal relations. With the increase of demon activity, we needed as many clergy with our particular talents as we could conceive.

But between my inability to have children and the terrible things the renegades did to Elizabeth, we often retreated to my office and commiserated over a bottle of red wine from the Pana Valley. Even now, Elizabeth sat between me and Sister Shi Hua of Light at the table because she couldn’t barely tolerate being in the presence of any priest of Light. I cleared my throat. “That was totally by accident. We’ve been lucky—”

“You call losing the city of Tandor lucky?” Luc exclaimed.

“Considering we save a majority of the civilians in the midst of a demon siege and invasion,” I snapped back. “Yes, I do.” Regret immediately flooded me. “I apologize for taking my anger out on you.” I blew out a deep breath. “All of you. I’m worried. Worried Gerd and her Assassins Guild cronies will attack the people I care about while the renegades carry out some other scheme.”

“We’ve been warned she’s loose, which is a point in our favor.” Little Bear ran his index finger around the rim of his ceramic cup. I didn’t need to sniff his cup to know it contained water. He would have a tankard of ale on his day off, and I’d never observed him drink more than a sip or two of wine at a meal out of etiquette.

“However, I agree with the high brother.” Little Bear’s gaze fixed on me. “The Assassins Guild doesn’t suffer failure. Especially not failure of Gerd’s magnitude. If she didn’t commit suicide out of loyalty to them, and they didn’t silence her, then they need her for another purpose.”

“But what purpose?” Yanaba asked to my right. She reached unerringly for the pitcher of milk in front of her and pour some into her bowl of oat porridge. Deborah made sure to serve my junior justice something that would agree with her delicate stomach.

Shi Hua sighed. “We could speculate on that subject until the stars fall from the sky.” She jabbed her table knife into the slice of roasted duck on her plate and sawed furiously even the bird was far more tender than the dried venison and beef we’d relied on through the winter.

Her skin glowed dark pink, far hotter than the effort she expended on the slice of breast on her plate. The fact I knew she was with child was driving me mad. It was really none of my business, given the uncomfortableness regarding the lifting of the chastity restriction on our orders. It was merely a reminder another priestess could do something I couldn’t.

“It would be nice if we were ahead of whatever the renegades planned for once,” Jeremy growled.

“It would help if we had a true oracle at our disposal,” Nicholas said quietly.

All of us paused eating and stared at Light’s chief warden. Even my blind sisters turned their heads in the direction of his voice.

“Why, Chief Warden, did you just make a joke?” I grinned at him. The quiet man rarely offered his opinion unless he was asked directly, though he’d become more vocal over the last six months.

The corners of Nicholas’s lips twitched beneath his turquoise facial hair. “It’s been known to happen occasionally. However, I’m not jesting at the moment. Brother Jeremy is right. We can’t keep chasing the renegades. It’s as productive as a hound chasing its tail.”

“So, what do you suggest?” Luc asked.

Nicholas shrugged. “We infiltrate them.”

“Thief has tried,” Shi Hua said.

“They know Thief’s practices to well,” Nicholas murmured. “It would have to be someone they’d normally be interested in turning to their cause.”

“Then who? And how?” I waved my hand to indicate everyone at the table. “Anyone we truly trust is too well known to the renegades.”

“We have two possibilities,” Nicholas said. “Chief Justice Elizabeth or Brother Garbhan.”

“Me?” he squeaked. The newest brother of Light was barely a year younger than Jeremy. On the surface, he seemed terribly shy and unsure of himself. However, he’d been one of Reverend Father Farrell’s primary aides. And after a couple of incidents Shi Hua and Jeremy mentioned, Luc and I rather suspected everything we said in front of Garbhan was reported back to the Issuran home Temple of Light.

“Of course.” Elizabeth leaned forward as if trying to peer into Nicholas’s soul. “Garbhan could be extremely dissatisfied with his new posting since he’s no longer directly advising the Reverend Father. In my case, we use the story the renegades in Tandor succeeded in converting me.”

“High Brother, I assure you I have no complaints about being assigned to your Temple,” Garbhan protested with a wild look in Luc’s direction.

However, Luc was staring at me. From the tight rein on his thoughts, he didn’t like his chief warden’s idea, but he wouldn’t undermine the man in front of his peers. No doubt we would be discussing this matter later in private. Luc turned to Garbhan.

“Your loyalty isn’t the issue, Brother.” He grinned at the young priest. “However, most priests in your position would consider such a transfer an insult.”

“B-but with Tandor gone, and the loss of most of your staff—” Garbhan blinked. “Oh!” His face shifted from orange-yellow to a red-orange. Maybe the naïve persona the young priest displayed was his true face. Few people could control their body heat to such a level.

“Can High Sister Mya or someone from her order create a sub-personality for us?” Elizabeth asked.

“You mean like what your seat of Child did with High Brother Aduba to gain the confidence of the renegades?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I’ll make the inquiry, but between her and Talbert, I believe it’s possible.” I pushed back my own plate, my appetite gone despite the excellent roast duck. “I’m not sure putting you in that position is such a good idea.”

“Nicholas is right.” Elizabeth gestured in the general direction of Light’s chief warden. “I wouldn’t take much to make it appear as if the renegades broke me. Garbhan is too valuable to risk since we have so few Light talents in Orrin. I’ll just need a little extra help to make the deception work.”

I opened my mouth for my retort on the matter when someone knocked on the door of Balance’s new dining room. “Come!” Warden Gina pushed the door open, her skin orange-red and worry rolling off her psyche. “I beg your pardon for the interruption, Chief Justice, but Peacekeeper Jaime is here. There’s been an incident involving your squire.”

Alarm jerked my body. “Nathan?”

She nodded. “Magistrate DiCook requests your presence along with a member of Light.”

My heart sank. There was only on reason Malven DiCook would want me and one of the clergy from Light.

There had been a murder.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 1

This is the unedited version of January's release A Touch of Mother.

==========================

The soft knock on my door couldn’t be my head of household and personal assistant Sivan with my second pot of tea. She would have simply barged into my office. The jingle of bells as the door opened immediately set my teeth on edge. I wish I could blame my reaction on my visitor. However, my past wasn’t Dragonfly’s fault.

Nor was my present her fault. Dragonfly wasn’t sleeping with my lover. The sad part was I liked and respected Sister Claudia, but I could no longer stand to be around her, which was the reason Dragonfly came here.

“Good morningtide, High Sister.” I set aside the latest dispatches from the Issuran home Temple of Balance. Whatever else my own Reverend Mother prattled about could wait. “Ready for our next round of examinations?”

High Sister Dragonfly’s veil fluttered with her sigh. “I hope you’ve had your first cup of tea, Chief Justice.” Her hands clutching the mound of scrolls and parchment were bright orange. Whatever currently bothered her must be worse than the audit of Orrin’s Temple of Love.

The poor priestess had inherited a royal mess when her predecessor, my birth mother, had been caught in a number of criminal acts, not the least of which were embezzling from her own order, demon dealing, and high treason.

“Yes, but Sivan should be here any moment with a fresh pot.” I cleared my desk of research grimoires from Light and Knowledge. “What has happened?”

Dragonfly flipped back her veil. Her shorn cheeks were as bright orange as her hands. The silk covered her face as required by all the priestesses of the Temple of Love when in public. Here in my office, neither of us stood on ceremony. The times we had met privately at her office, she would switch between male and female civilian clothing. I could never decide if she made a more handsome woman or a prettier man, but such was the lot of a berda in the service of Love.

Neither of which mattered with the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I feared she would announce Claudia was with child.

Dragonfly shook her head, and the bells lining her robes jingled. “You are not going to be pleased with this news, Anthea.”

I turned to the open doorway where my squire Nathan stood. Beyond in the hallway, Balance Warden Jonata and one of the new Love wardens stood guard, a leftover from the demon attack inside Orrin right before the Spring Rituals. No warden would let their priest or priestess go anywhere unescorted.

It had become damn annoying when I had to attend a privy other than the one in my personal quarters.

“Nathan, would you please tell Sivan my morning visitor has arrived early?”

“Yes, m’lady.” He bobbed his head and took off in the direction of the kitchen.

Dragonfly closed the door Nathan had forgotten and dropped heavily into the chair on the other side of my desk. “Gerd has escaped. The Reverend Mother of Love believes she may be headed south.”

“What?” It was worse than Claudia carrying my Luc’s child. My right hand automatically reached for my sword, but my scabbard and harness hung from their peg behind me. I forced myself to relax and lowered my hand. “How? What happened?”

“No one seems to be sure on the details, according to my Reverend Mother.” Dragonfly handed me the top parchment on her pile before she leaned forward and rested her elbows on the scarred oak of my desk.

I ran my fingers over the parchment. There were none of the raised marks used by my Temple for records. Though I wasn’t blind like the rest of my order, even my odd sight couldn’t quite discern between the ink and the skin. Which meant I couldn’t read the demon-blasted original.

I rerolled the message. “May I have Donella make a copy of this?”

“That’s the reason I brought it,” Dragonfly answered sourly. “I rather suspected you didn’t know about Gerd’s escape yet.”

There had been nothing of that sort in the dispatches from the home Temple of Balance in Standora. Why hadn’t an alert gone out?

Unless the Reverend Mother’s pride had gotten in the way. Losing a traitor of this magnitude would have our entire order questioning her competence.

I sucked in a deep breath and released it. “Tell me.”

“The warden who delivered her evening meal was found in her cell beneath her blankets. Dead. He wasn’t discovered until the next morning.”

“What about the second warden? No one opens a cell door without a reinforcement.” I couldn’t see any warden much less any assigned to Balance breaking protocol, especially not with a treason case.

“They haven’t found him.”

“Balance help us.” I wiped my hands down my face. “This is not good.” I pushed to my feet. I needed to move.

My birth mother on the loose meant the Reverend Mother of Balance was right. There was a traitor within her own Temple in the capital. Goddess, no wonder she wanted to keep this quiet. The dread in my stomach shifted to fury.

“Why does your Reverend Mother believe Gerd is fleeing south?” I asked as I paced in the small confines of my office. “According to the Reverend Father of Child, Gerd’s overriding desire is to kill you and torture me.”

I stopped abruptly. My robes swirled around my ankles. “You say that very calmly.”

Dragonfly shrugged. “It’s not the first time Gerd has threatened me.”

Which was true. Even though Dragonfly had been Gerd’s second, she had never trusted the berda and often threatened her with castration if she didn’t obey Gerd’s every whim and command.

“If it make you sleep better, Gerd allegedly hasn’t decided exactly what retribution to inflict on High Mother Bianca.” Dragonfly chuckled.

I shook my head as I rolled possibilities and probabilities through my mind. I still wasn’t sure how involved Orrin’s seat of Mother had been in Gerd’s illegal activities. There were a lot of rumors, but no actual evidence. Gerd could simply be enraged Bianca failed to convince the other Temple seats regarding the false charges my birth mother had brought against me. However, I sincerely doubted the matter was that straightforward.

“Would any of the other Love priestesses here in Orrin help her?”

Dragonfly cocked her head and simply stared at me.

“That was an idiotic notion.” I bowed. “My apologies to your sisters for even allowing the thought to enter my head.” Gerd and her renegade allies had done worse things in order to keep the city’s Love clergy under control.

Dragonfly inclined her head in return.

I resumed pacing and tapped my index finger against my chin. “So who else in Orrin is mad enough to possibly help her?”

Dragonfly laughed. “Why do you make light of such serious matters?”

“Would you prefer I soil myself?” I grinned at her. “I’m assuming you have some proof of Gerd’s additional misdeeds in those ledgers you carried here.”

“That’s what you and I have been verifying.” She patted the topmost binding.

Sivan chose that moment to burst into my office with tea and cups.

“Find Chief Warden Little Bear for me,” I ordered as she set down the tray on my desk.

Sivan frowned at my rudeness.

“Please,” I amended. “It’s a matter of Temple security.”

Alarm filled her expression. “What happened?”

“Our dear Reverend Mother managed to lose the Mad Whore.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Latest News

I'm finally getting the 888-555-HERO series out into the wide world. Hero De Facto has slid out of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited, and I started loading it onto the other retailers last night. Over the next three months, the other three novels of 888-555-HERO will go wide as well. Buy links on the series page will be updated as they go live.

I've also been working on the publishing schedule for 2020. The first six books have pre-orders on Amazon. Once again, I'll update them here and on the main series pages as they go live:

January 15th - A Touch of Mother (Justice #4)

February 14th - Seasons of Magick Anthology (Entire Seasons of Magick series)

March 15th - Spells and Sleuths (Millersburg Magick Mysteries #1)

April 15th - Fae and Felonies (Millersburg Magick Mysteries #2)

May 15th - Magick and Murder (Millersburg Magick Mysteries #3)

June 15th - Hero De Jure (888-555-HERO #5)


The Millersburg Magick Mysteries will be initially exclusively on Amazon's Kindle Unlimited. They're paranormal mysteries set in the Bloodlines World. Kaley and Kirsten's mom Rachel and aunt Jo should be familiar to anyone who's read Amish, Vamps & Thieves.

My other goal is to get my ebooks on the Ohio Public Library system for those of you who rely on libraries for your reading material. If you don't live in Ohio, you can always request my books through your own library!

If anyone has questions or comments and doesn't want to leave them on the blog, you can always contact me through the "Contact Me" tab at the top of the page!