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.


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.”

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