Friday, July 5, 2024

The Return of the Writer

Our convoy arrived at Casa Harden approximately ten p.m. last Sunday. Except for a couple of annoyances, the trip was uneventful, though hot as f**k. Daytime temps were 100 degrees through Texas and Arkansas and in the nineties until we hit northern Kentucky.

Between the stress of the heat and the heavy holiday traffic, my barely-hanging-together endocrine system rebelled. It's bad when the pain lasts for longer than three days and prevents me from attending yoga classes or writing coherently.

In a few years, I won't be able to drive or ride on long roadtrips, which disappoints me greatly. There's something about traveling the open road in the U.S. Each state has it's own personality to experience. New sights. Different plants and critters. Different environments.

Frankly, I've learned to appreciate my home state more by seeing and experiencing different places. (In fact, I had to take this picture to prove that yes, Ohio does have trees. LOL)

Hopefully, I can get back on track with A Cup of Conflict. if not this weekend, then next week. The pain just needs to lighten enough that I can ignore it.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Leaving On a Jet Plane

As I start to type this, I should be on final approach to San Antonio International Airport. However, Mother Nature had other plans.

Massive thunderstorms ran through the Midwest yesterday. After the heat dome and two weeks without rain, the crops desperately needed the precipitation. However, the weather created a number of delays and cancellations. I don't get upset about flight delays. I want to be safe while getting to where I need to go. But the delay in Detroit meant I would miss my connecting flight in St. Louis, which was the last flight out of the city that the day.

Thankfully, Southwest texted me about the delay before I left our house. More impressive was Southwest's second text, which rescheduled me on the first flight this morning. Today is supposed to be clear and sunny, so keep you're fingers crossed for me.

Like I said last week, I'm heading down to Texas to pick up Genius Kid's Charger and the Grandpuppy, who will be staying with us while Genius Kid is overseas for the next year. I'd been looking forward to spending a full day of writing later today while Genius Kid finishes up his out-processing with Uncle Sam. But I'll be awake over twenty-four hours by the time I land in San Antonio. A good chunk of today will be spent sleeping. Like Genius Kid said, if we have stay in San Antonio an extra day, we will.

Since I don't have a current picture of the Grandpuppy, here's one from 2021. He was about a year old at the time. No, he never did grow into his ears. When he sits on our couch and watches the wildlife in back yard, he looks like a statue of Anubis. He's a German Shepard/Staffordshire Terrier mix. Despite his fearsome appearance, Grandpuppy is a sweet, gentle dog.

Do he and the Princess Pup get along? Sort of. She's bullied him for years despite our best training efforts, but he's finally realized he's five time her weight. She got belligerent during his last visit, and he'd had enough. He pinned her to the floor. She screeched. But he didn't hurt her. He just had this look that said, "I'm not putting up with your shit anymore."

I just hope the Princess Pup will remember this lesson for the next year.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 12

This is will be the last sample chapter for A Cup of Conflict. I've made some significant progress on the novel, thanks to some writer friends doing sprints with me. Next week, I won't post until Thursday or Friday when I'm in San Antonio. (My flight doesn't get in until midnight CDT.) Granted, the post will probably consist of a photo of my Grandpuppy who's coming to live with us for a year. *smile*

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The rest of the meal passed far more sociably after Lord Jia Hao’s pronouncement. He quickly changed the subject to our sea voyage from Issura during the late winter. I kept him entertained with some of the more amusing aspects of the trip, such Yin Shang’s fascination with sailing.

I had a strong suspicion Po and Shi Hua had Duke Mengchang sit Jia Hao next to me to analyze any potential trouble from him. However, the young lord only exuded an expected level of grief at his loss despite his pleasant demeanor after his declaration.

He explained each of the dishes to me and how to eat them properly. The dishes were more exquisite than the simple fare at the caravanserai and definitely more flavorful than the dried and salted rations during our sea voyage.

“What do you miss in Issura at this time of year?” he asked.

“I—don’t know.” I chuckled. “I was on circuit for the first ten years after my ordination. My partner and I usually spent the Spring Rituals in one of the small mountain villages on our route.” I left out the part where I deliberately planned to avoid Orrin and Nastine during the holidays. “And last year, we were trapped in Tandor during the siege. I and the other Orrin seats spent most of the Ritual week arranging for housing for the Tandoran refugees.”

“If I may ask…” Jia Hao started.

I nodded. “Please feel free to inquire about anything.”

Jia Hao lowered his voice. “What is it like? Actually battling a demon, I mean.”

“Difficult.” I shook my head as I sought the best words in his language. “Even with magick. They are faster than a Gray Mountain panther. Stronger than the white bears of the northern ice fields.” A vision of Warden Tyra protecting me when the demons breached the city. High Sister Beatrice giving her life to old the Death spells to destroy the demons. My own grandfather. All of those memories stabbed me with old grief. “You’re not to only one who has lost people to them. If there’s anything I miss in Issura, it’s the people I’ve lost to this war.”

Beneath the table, Luc squeezed my thigh in reassurance. Of course, he felt my pain.

“I apologize, Lady Justice,” Lord Jia Hao murmured. “I did not mean to cause you distress.”

“You didn’t, my lord.” I forced a smile. “It’s the demons who have. Therefore, I understand your feelings regarding your own losses.”

He nodded and dropped the subject as the servants laid bowls containing the last course of the state dinner before us.


We had returned to our state rooms long enough for Warden Jonata to light the kindling in the fireplace when there was a knock on the suite door. Warden Long Feather answered, and the imperial guard announced Duke Mengchang.

“Please forgive the late hour.” He bowed and straightened. From his coloring, his news bothered him. “The crown prince and his lady wife request the presence of Chief Justice Anthea and High Brother Luc to accompany them breaking their fast and during their inspection of the palace household afterward.”

Luc and I exchanged looks. We didn’t need silent speech to know why the duke was miffed or Po’s reasons for wanting us with him.

“Unless you are pressed for time, Your Grace, would you like to join us for a small glass of Pana wine?” I asked.

My invitation startled him. “You have Pana wine?”

“It’s our private supply.” Luc inclined his head. “We’d be honored to entertain a noble the crown prince holds in such high esteem.”

Mengchang’s obvious desire for a portion of the prized wine and Luc’s flattery mollified the duke’s hurt feelings. “I would be honored to join you.”

Warden Yar retrieved one of our last two bottles. While he poured the wine, Luc and I sat with Mengchang before the fire. Thankfully, Long Feather had already positioned my chair so I wouldn’t squint at the brightness of the fire to my odd sight. Few outside of my Temple household knew my peculiar vision was affected by heat.

“Did the crown prince explain why he wished us to accompany him and Lady Shi Hua tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes,” the duke replied stiffly. “Is it true you can see demons no matter what form they take?”

I nodded, but I wasn’t about to list the exception to my odd sight. “But that’s probably not his only reason. Do you know what a skinwalker is?”

“A skinwalker is a human sorcerer dealing in demon magick,” he said.

“And I can also see them.” I accepted the goblet Yar handed to me. “Thank you, Warden.” I faced Mengchang again. “In some ways, they’re far more dangerous. Demons are simply hungry. Skinwalkers combine the worst attributes of human and demon.”

“I don’t remember that item of information during my childhood lessons.” He sipped the Pana red. “I wish we had the soil produce such wine.”

“You know your horticulture,” Luc said.

Mengchang nodded. “My duchy brews a hearty beer and plum wine. However, I promise not to bore you with the details. My eldest daughter manages our family interests while I serve the emperor.”

Again, I braced myself as I endured Mengchang’s grief. It relieved me to know it was honest grief for a family member and not fear at losing his position.

“I hope you aren’t planning to leave the capital after the coronation ceremony,” I said.

He blinked, and surprise muted his grief. “That is not my decision to make, Chief Justice.”

“Nor is it mine, Your Grace,” I replied gently. “However, the crown prince needs people he can trust to assist him in his service to Jing.”

His eyes narrowed. “Is this the true reason you invited me for a cup of your wine? To test my loyalty? Did you already lay a truthspell on me?”

“The answer is no to all of your questions,” I said. “The crown prince was trapped with the high brother and me in Tandor. He knows first hand the speed and destructive force even a small division of demons can inflict. He and his guards were instrumental in the plan to evacuate the city. Only by Thief’s grace did we save as many citizens as we did.”

Mengchang’s chin lifted. “I already know the ferocity of our foes. And I know my failures very well.”

“Someone within in the palace let those demons in,” I said softly. “Neither the Lady Shi Hua or I believe it is you, but we ask your assistance in investigating the matter.”

“The crown prince rules here,” Mengchang snapped. “Not the Temples.”

“And the nobles and clergy working together are the only reason we didn’t lose our entire queendom,” I replied. “Crown Prince Po hopes to unit all the factions of Jing in order to do the same.”

The tension eased from the duke’s shoulders. “I will consider your words, Chief Justice.” He swallowed the rest of his wine before he rose. “However, I reserve the right to give my answer to my liege.”

“Of course.” I inclined my head.

“Good night, Chief Justice, High Brother.”

“Good night, Your Grace,” Luc and I said in unison.

Once the duke departed, Luc laid a ward on the receiving room of our suite. “Opinions?”

“The duke hasn’t discovered how the demons entered the palace, and he’s worried he will be blamed for Emperor Chengwu’s death,” Jonata said.

“The chief justice’s compassion is improving,” Long Feather volunteered.

“Tomorrow, you and the chief justice will need to address the crown prince’s favoritism toward you, High Brother. It will not be seen favorably by any Jing citizen.” Yar rarely said anything, but win he did, I listened.

Luc nodded. “That was one of my concerns as well.” He eyed me. “What are your thoughts on the matter, m’lady?”

I sighed. “I have more fun playing Mill than I do with these political games. But I share Yar’s analysis. I’m praying to the Twelve our esteemed crown prince isn’t setting us up to take the fall.”

Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 11

June is going by too fast! I'm trying to finish two novels, but I fly down to Texas on the 26th to convoy Genius Kid's cars back to Ohio. The Grandpuppy will be riding with me because I'll be driving the sedan, and it has a much bigger back seat. (The Grandpuppy is a German Shepard/Staffordshire mix. He's huge and mainly black, but he's a lover, not a fighter.)

However, I am making progress on the writing front! Here's the latest unedited chapter of A Cup of Conflict.

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A member of the imperial household banged a gong with a huge hammer before anyone from the schools of philosophy could make a comment or ask a question about Master Quan’s demise. The guests immediately quieted before the last echoes of the instrument died.

“His Imperial Highness, Crown Prince Po and his wife Lady Shi Hua invite you to join them for the evening meal!” the household staff cried out.

The walls next us slid apart to reveal a larger, ornate dining room. The walls were covered in lacquered panels. Swatches of silk hung at intervals. Imperial guards stood at every other panel.

Po and Shi Hua were already seated at the head of humungous wooden tables arranged in a narrow U. Captains Huizhong and Mateqai stood at attention behind their charges. The arrangement was reminiscent of a Temple convocation on a much larger scale. Except I had no clue of where to sit since Luc and I were the only clergy present.

Follow Duke Mengchang, Shi Hua whispered silently inside my mind.

Thank you, my lady, I responded as the duke subtly gestured for us to follow him.

Stop being so formal, Anthea, she chided. It’s silent speech.

Except thoughts can become deeds, I responded. I can’t make a mistake while in Jing.

The empress-to-be giggled silently, her mental voice girlish in nature. Deep down, I pitied the young woman. She would have been an excellent leader of a Temple of Light in any place in the world.

She would have been an excellent leader anywhere.

Was that why the Twelve had seen fit to condemn her to a throne in the middle of the fight to save the human race from extinction?

And then it registered where the duke was leading us.

He stopped at the bend to the left of Shi Hua and bowed to us. “High Brother.” He gestured at the chair closest to Shi Hua. “Chief Justice.” He indicated the chair to Luc’s left.

A glance at the other dinner guests hinted that we should remain standing. Yin Li had taught us a bit about Jing etiquette during our voyage across the Peaceful Sea, but we didn’t have much chance to practice the formalities on the journey from the coast to the capital. I was grateful for the pointers in the middle of the welcome dinner.

Once all the guests were in their places, Po rose to his feet. “Thank you for coming my friends. Please be seated.”

No one moved until he lowered himself to his throne-like chair. Then as one the rest of the guests sat. Luc handed his crutches to Warden Yar. Much attention was on him with a whisper of surprise emanating from those people who hadn’t met him yet as he maneuvered in front of his assigned chair and sat.

I didn’t have to look behind me to feel our wardens take places between the imperial guards behind us. We weren’t the only ones with security personnel, but there was only one guard for each noble and their family. From Yin Li’s lessons, this was highly unusual.

What was Po’s purpose in allowing his nobles to bring guards to his table? To reassure them? Or to test the noble’s loyalty by seeing if they would use their own people against him?

Po struck a smaller gold gong next to him. On that cue, servant paraded into the dining room with huge steaming bowls. They ladled what smelled like a savory soup into the bowls in front of the guests.

I surreptitiously watched the other guests. As I’d hoped, Master Ma and those who had been within hearing range of my revelation concerning Master Quan’s death passed along the tidbit to the other diners. Many of the Jing nobles and sorcerers glanced at me. Some with speculative expressions. Others with worry. But a token few eyed me with suspicion.

I think your plan is working too well. Luc pretended to focus on his soup.

I’m not trying to kill two geese with a single sling stone, I chided. But I do believe the murders of Master Quan and Emperor Chengzhou are connected.

That’s assuming Po is correct the School of Sorcery was behind his father’s condition. Luc turned to Shi Hua and answered her question. “I believe this is the best meal I’ve eaten since we left Orrin.”

“What do you think of our cuisine, Lady Justice,” the man seated to my right asked in careful and heavily accented Issuran.

“Thank you for the effort to learn my language…” I examined him as I smiled. I hadn’t been introduced to him by Duke Mengchang. Like most Jing men, he wore his hair in a top knot with jewels dangling from the tips of his moustache.

“Lord Jia Hao.” He inclined his head.

I switched to the Jing tongue. “A pleasure to meet you, my lord. If you don’t mind, may we please use your own language for this dinner. I do not wish to disrespect the crown prince.”

Jia Hao nodded politely. “As you wish, Lady Justice.”

“And to answer your initial question, I enjoy trying new delicacies.” I dipped the ceramic spoon into the hot soup and tasted the broth and meat. “This is delicious. What is it? I don’t recognize the meat.”

“Turtle soup.” He ate a spoonful from his own bowl. “It’s considered good luck.” He leaned closer. “The palace cook will probably serve swallow’s nest soup next Rest Day. A very rare delicacy that’s only made during the Spring Rituals.” He smiled. “Which is why most heirs to the throne schedule their coronations for this time of year.”

“I don’t think he chose this time of year on purpose,” I murmured.

“No, he didn’t.” Jia Hao stared at his bowl. “That’s one thing the crown prince and I have in common.”

A hint of grief leaked from the lord. I hesitated a moment before I said, “He never believed he’d be in this position with the births of his nephews.”

“And I never believed my sister would die on the same day as her husband and children,” he said sadly.

Air caught in my lungs, but I forced out the words. “Your sister was the former empress?”

“Yes.” Jia Hao met my horrified stare with his own glare. “And I’ll do anything to make her murderers pay.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A Little Behind

I meant to have Chapter 11 of A Cup of Conflict posted today. However, I'm behind on everything. So behind, I'm actually skipping yoga this week.

With all the rain and sunshine this spring, it's been difficult to keep up on the yard. I'm splitting my time between unpacking, cleaning, and writing. I still have two Christmas presents sitting on the kitchen table that I haven't mailed yet.

Well, you get the picture.

I literally can't catch up, so I'm rebooting on Saturday. It's the first of June. And the last three days of May will be spent dealing with paperwork and clearing off my desk so I don't have any distractions on Saturday.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying their spring!

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 10

While the weather has been good, I've been splitting my time between the yard, flowerbeds, and writing. Weeding is the third best thing after a shower or cleaning the bathroom to get the idea juices flowing. Here's the next unedited sample chapter of A Cup of Conflict.

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I and my wardens barely had time to sponge off the road grime and dress appropriately for a state dinner. It was all my fault, and I apologized to them repeatedly. And repeated the apology to Luc in silent speech while a palace steward escorted us to the dining room.

My fellow priest and his warden Yar had waited for us outside of our shared suite when we return from the Jing home Temple of Balance. When I and my wards exited once we’d changed our clothes, the palace steward stood nearby. His expression remained serene, but the power of his internal seething .slammed into my mental shields.

While we followed him, I said yet again, I’m terribly sorry for my tardiness.

What was so blasted important you would risk embarrassing or insulting Quan?” Luc wouldn’t look at me. He stared straight ahead, swinging on his specially designed crutches at a rapid pace.

The same pace as the palace steward’s.

Reverend Mother Xiang asked for my testimony regarding the complaint Reverend Mother Fumiko filed.

Luc let out a stream of invectives in several different languages that would have made the crew of the Mars Tranquilus blush. Thankfully, my love didn’t speak the words aloud.

Is she planning to bring formal charges against you?

No. From the murmuring voices ahead, we must be approaching our destination. She wanted to know if Reverend Mother Fumiko exaggerated Ogusuku’s behavior and actions.

Did she question you under a truthspell?

I glanced at Luc. No. But she wanted to know if I wished to file a charge of slander against Ogusuku and Biming.

What did you say to her?

I told her if Ogusuku or Biming insult me when I’m not charged with escorting the Jing crown prince home for his coronation, I would consider her suggestion.

Luc made an odd sound deep in his chest as he tried to contain his physical laughter.

“Are you all right, High Brother?” Yar murmured.

Luc cleared his throat. “Just a bit of a digestive issue. Something from our last caravanserai stop didn’t agree with me.”

“You’ve probably burned away all of your digestive tissues with Cantan sauce,” I said.

“Or else my sauce coated my stomach so nothing bothered me.” He shot me a wicked grin. “It’s been three weeks since I ran out.”

The steward paused midstride and whirled to face us. “Is everything all right, Chief Justice?”

I realized we’d been speaking in Issuran, which was incredibly rude of us. I inclined my head to the steward. “We beg your forgiveness,” I said in Jing. “The high brother has pointed out I should have been more attentive to the time. Your Reverend Mother of Balance had some concerns that needed to be addressed. No insult was meant to you, your liege, or your Temples.”

His serene expression didn’t change, but his mood lightened. I realized in all of my apologies in the last few moments, I’d neglected one.

The steward nodded in return. “Etiquette may be different in your queendom than it is in our empire, but one does not keep a higher rank waiting at his own table.” “I will not forget, good sir.”

He sniffed, pivoted, and continued toward the sounds of conversation. My party followed him. For once, Luc didn’t make a witty aside at my expense. Neither did my wardens. I would probably pay for my moment of grace later, but for now, I accepted the quiet.

We entered a large room that would have made Queen Teodora’s throne room appear provincial. The steward made no grand pronouncements of our titles upon our appearance. However, we drew the attention of the entire crowd.

A wave of curiosity from them flowed over me. Neither Luc nor I wore our clerical robes. However, our formal wear did display our Temple affiliation. Gold beads on the left chest of Luc’s deerskin vest outlined the flame of Light while the silver broaches that pinned the shoulders of my dress in place formed Balance’s scales. My deal with the silversmith Govind had paid off handsomely with the accessories he’d crafted for me.

Duke Mengchang approached us and bowed deeply. “Chief Justice Anthea, High Brother Luc. May I introduce you to the rest of the guests?”

I bowed in return. “We would be honored, Your Grace.”

“We appreciate your hospitality.” Luc bowed as well.

Mengchang led us through the crowd. Everyone was perfectly polite. Almost too polite. Now that their curiosity of our identities was satiated, a general sense of unease filled the room. While Po hadn’t been formally exiled to Issura by his half-brother, his subjects no longer viewed him as Jing.

I could pick suspicion and worry as the primary emotions swirling around us, some of which was aimed specifically at our party. There were occasional flashes of shock from the other guests that Luc and I were fairly proficient in their language. But the majority of feelings were concerns over the demon attack within the walls of Chengzhou. For once, the appearance of my eyes took a back seat in the pieces of gossip I could pick out.

Considering the majority of people were capital bureaucrats, their basic dread over the new emperor made sense. Humans loathed change when it affected their livelihood. With the switch in regimes, they feared for their positions.

Everything was politely pleasant until Mengchang led us to the heads of the various schools of philosophy. We were met with stiff postures and cold attitudes, which barely stayed on the side of etiquette.

Were they still upset over the demise of the School of Sorcery? The idiots from that particular center had been consorting with demons. They’d even managed to get a demon inside the city walls of Orrin without setting off the Temples’ alarms.

I think it’s time to cast our line into the water, I silently said to Luc.

He chuckled in the back of my mind. Be careful. You might accidently hook a sea wolf.

“Chief Justice, High Brother, this is Master Ma of the School of the Phoenix and the Dragon,” Mengchang announced.

I forced a brilliant smile and bowed. “It is such a pleasure to meet you, Master Ma. Master Quan spoke quite highly of you during my visits with him.”

My pronouncement took all the philosophical school dignitaries by surprise, including Master Ma, whose beaded moustache ends swayed with the twitch of his lips. “He was one of our most learned members and a dear friend. Do you visit with him often?”

“As much as I could for the short time he spent in Orrin.” I let my smile drop. “However, I fear I bring sad tidings. Death embraced Master Quan during our voyage to Jing.”

Ma’s eyes closed, and grief spilled from his psyche. He swallowed hard before he opened his eyes again. “Your news saddens me, but it is not unexpected.”

“The Child’s Curse is a terrible affliction,” another master I hadn’t been introduced to yet muttered.

“The Child’s Curse?” I affected a confused manner.

“Yes,” Master Bolin of the School of Nature said. “Master Quan’s decline showed all the classic symptoms of the condition.”

“He didn’t have the Child’s Curse.” I frowned. “Master Quan was murdered.”

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A Cup of Conflict - Chapter 9

While I finish Death Goddess Walking, here's another taste of A Cup of Conflict for you to savor!

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I could feel unseen eyes watching me while Long Feather, Jonata and I retraced our path back to the Jing home Temple of Balance. Hopefully, I would be able to meet with Justice Mei Wen as well, if only to reassure Shi Hua her friend had recovered from the injuries the young justice received during the demon attack on the city last winter.

When we reached the Temple of Balance, the wardens on guard at the main entrance treated us courteously. One of them raised two fingers to his mouth and blew a piercing whistle that would surely have deafened me if I stood right next to him.

A squire raced down the steps to take the reins of our horses. She had to be three or four winters older than my own squire Nathan. Once again, I bit my tongue to keep from insulting the child, but she handled all three steeds with aplomb as they disappeared down the street between Balance and Knowledge.

Something must have shown on my face however. The warden with the piercing whistle said, “Do not worry, Lady Justice, Squire Yang has a talent with all animals. Your horses will be well cared for.”

I smiled and inclined my head. “If it were my own Nassa, I would not be as concerned. However, the Reverend Mother of Balance in Haung He was gracious enough to allow me to borrow the mares from her Temple’s stable for the journey to Chengwu. I pray the Twelve will allow me to return the horses to her in the same, if not better, health than when I left.”

The warden shrugged. “Balance in all things. Ours is not to reason why any of the Twelve do as They do, Lady Justice.” He gestured for me and my party to follow him up the steps.

As we stepped through the main doors, the first sense of familiarity I’d felt in nearly three months enveloped me. Hallways led left and right from the foyer. Through the second set of doors, the statue of Balance stood on Her dais on the other side of the courtroom. Her hood hid Her features from view, and She clasped her hand in front of her, holding a non-existent sword.

A podium rested in front of the statue of Balance. High windows illuminated the court for those with normal sight. The gallery was larger than the one in the courtroom in Standora, as was the defendants’ box. But everything else was so similar that for a moment, homesickness nearly drowned me.

“Greetings, sister.” The justice who entered the courtroom from the door to the back hallway and the clerks’ offices spoke Issuran. A warden guided her to me.

“Greetings to you,” I said in Jing. My wardens and I bowed even though she couldn’t see our gestures. “I am Chief Justice Anthea, the seat of the Duchy of Orrin in the Queendom of Issura. I have come to pay my respects to your Reverend Mother.”

The justice pushed back her hood and smiled. The only hair on her head were her brows and lashes. Yet, there was a sense of familiarity about her.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Chief Justice Anthea. I am Justice—”

“Mei Wen?” I blurted.

Her smile turned into a full-on grin. “Yes.”

I forgot all etiquette and pulled her into a tight hug. “Shi Hua has been so worried about you! So have I and the crown prince!”

She laughed. “It was a close thing. If it weren’t for Warden Yichen here, the demons would have surely have killed me.”

“Thank you, Warden Yichen.” I bowed deeply to the warden. “Not only from myself, but from Lady Shi Hua and her husband as well.”

His cheeks glowed red at my sincere gratitude. “I serve the Temple of Balance to the best of my ability.” He wrapped Mei Wen’s right hand around his left elbow once again.

“If you and your wardens will follow us,” Mei Wen said. “Our Reverend Mother is looking forward to meeting you as well.”

The Chengzhou home Temple of Balance was indeed much larger than Issura’s home Temple back in Standora. However, the general layout was much the same. The justice and staff offices were directly behind the courtroom. A single warden was stationed at several the doors we passed. However, Mei Wen and Yichen led us past the business area and to the personal quarters. Two wardens stood guard at a single door.

“Chief Justice Anthea to see Reverend Mother Xiang,” Mei Wen announced in her crystal bell voice.

Both wardens at the door nodded, and the one on the right opened the door and repeated her statement.

“Come in, come in,” said a woman. Her melodious tone made it difficult to determine her age.

Mei Wen and Yichen led the way inside. My wardens and I followed.

And it struck me that I’d never seen Reverend Mother Alara’s personal receiving room.

A woman in clerical robes sat beside a huge fireplace. A female warden stood behind the beautifully carved wood chair and slight to the left. What struck me was the Reverend Mother was as bald as Mei Wen. I needed to ask Yin Li about the style. Last thing I needed was to stumble over a cultural issue on the mission.

The Reverend Mother rose, and both she and her chief warden bowed. “A pleasure to meet you, Chief Justice Anthea. Justice Mei Wen has spoken highly of you.” When the Reverend Mother straightened, a bit of a smile tilted her mouth. “After assisting the Lady Shi Hua with her marriage trousseau, I hope you would allow our Temple to reimburse you.”

I bowed in return though she couldn’t see my gesture. “I appreciate your offer, but the trousseau was my wedding gift to Lady Shi Hua. No recompense is necessary.”

The Reverend Mother’s smile brightened. “I shall send for some tea. Would one of your wardens care to accompany my squire to the kitchen?”

Safety warred with etiquette in my mind, and I hesitated.

“My dear, you would not offend me by being cautious,” Reverend Mother said gently. “Justice Mei Wen has made me aware of the issues in Issura.” She sighed. “And frankly we’ve had our own share of problems here in Jing. If it weren’t for your tracking spell, Crown Prince Po would not have discovered the complicity of the School of Sorcery. Jing owes you a great debt.”

“I have come to serve,” I said. “There is no debt, Reverend Mother. I have come to regard the Lady Shi Hua as family. All I ask is that you allow Justice Mei Wen to visit your future empress as much as her duties allow. The lady will need a confidante in her new role much as I did when I was assigned to the Balance seat in Orrin.”

Mei Wen emitted a slight gasp of surprise.

However, Reverend Mother Xiang chuckled. “Fumiko didn’t overestimate your shrewdness.”

I quelled my shock. “You have spoken with her?”

“Don’t dissemble with me, young lady.” The Reverend Mother settled back in her chair. “She followed through with her complaint against Reverend Father Ogusuku. I would like to hear your side of the tale. To my knowledge, no human who entered a demon portal has ever returned from one.”

“Warden Long Feather, would you please accompany Warden Yichen to fetch the Reverend Mother’s tea?” I said.

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Please sit, my dear.” The Reverend Mother gestured in the direction of another carved chair across from her. From the position, the sharp white light of the fireplace made me squint, but I didn’t dare refuse.

While we waited for our refreshments, I told Reverend Mother Xiang of my strange adventures. She didn’t truthspell me, but her questions were rather thorough. And the conversation lasted through two pots of tea and a platter of almond-flavored short bread cookies.

I didn’t even register the temple bells until Jonata murmured, “I beg your pardon, Chief Justice, but it’s First Evening.”

“I apologize, my dear,” the Reverend Mother exclaimed. “Please stay for the evening meal. I still have so many questions to ask you.”

“I’m afraid I can’t, Reverend Mother.” I rose from the chair. “The crown prince has requested my presence at the palace. I enjoyed our conversation. I hope we can speak again.”

“We will, my dear.” She smiled. “We will.”

The young squire waited with our horses at the bottom of the steps when we exited the main doors of the Temple.

I bowed to the girl. “Thank you for your assistance, Squire Yang.”

Her face brightened to a lovely orange, and she bowed in return. “I am here to serve, Chief Justice.”

As we rode back to the palace, I sense Long Feather holding in a round of laughter. I turned to him. “What is so funny, Warden?”

“I merely imagined the chief warden and Sivan’s pleasure upon hearing my report when we returned home.”

“Your report?” I ground out.

“You remembered a squire’s name and addressed as such.” He shrugged.

Jonata made an odd sound in her throat before she added, “I believe Little Bear’s exact words were ‘Do whatever you must to prevent the chief Justice from starting a war with Jing. We have enough problems with the demons’.”

Even I had to laugh along with my wardens as our horses trotted down the Temple avenue.