Wednesday, January 29, 2020

A Touch of Mother - Chapter 7

Just a reminder this is an unedited chapter from a book that will be released on February 14th.


Upon returning to the Temple district from the Healers Guild, the bells peeled First Evening. I turned to Dezba. “You’re relieved for the evening, Warden. I need to relay our findings to High Brother Luc.”

She glanced at Little Bear, who inclined his head.

“Very well, m’lady.” She guided her mount toward the alley between Balance and Knowledge. The tiny passage was the closest to our own postern gate.

“You think I won’t perform my duties adequately and inform my superior?” Jeremy bit out when she was far enough away not to overhear. The vehemence in the bright young priest’s tone took me by surprise. The sharp shards of his psyche grated against my own mental walls again. It was almost painful.

Before I could formulate a response, Little Bear kneed his horse between ours. Nassa didn’t respond, but Jeremy’s mount skittered back a few steps. The two Light wardens escorting their priest exchanged looks, but thankfully, they didn’t reach for any weapons.

“You will treat your superior with the respect she deserves.” My chief warden’s rebuke was far milder than the one I would have normally offered. But then, he was trying to save the priest a lashing for insubordination.

Jeremy drew a quick breath and looked to ready to launch another scathing remark, but Little Bear’s calm, steady demeanor reached the younger man far more effectively than harsher words would have. Jeremy exhaled, and the prickly edges of his mind receded. He faced me and bowed.

“My apologies for my ill manners, Chief Justice.”

Both of the Light wardens relaxed at Jeremy’s words.

“Accepted.” I inclined my head in acknowledgement. “Today’s events have disturbed all of us who were involved. And for the record, I would expect Justice Yanaba to report her findings to both me and the high brother of Light in the event of a murder investigation.”

“Yes, m’lady.”

Despite the young priest’s confession of remorse, I definitely needed to have a quiet word with Luc about Jeremy’s behavior. Over the last three months, his attitude had become increasingly distant, as were his ill temper over minor things. Enough so, that Shi Hua confided her worries to both me and Yanaba.

The five of us entered Light’s postern gate. Their stablemaster Henry and two of his hands took our reins.

He bobbed his head. “Would you like one of my boys to return yours and the Chief Warden’s horses to Hogarth, Chief Justice?”

“No, thank you, Henry.” I smiled at the man. “Food and water will be enough. I have a feeling we will need them once I’ve spoken with the high brother.”

“Was this about the boy that was found in the slums this afternoon?” Like Hogarth, Henry had been a warden for his Temple and kept an ear out for any fishwives’ tales that might prove informative and useful.

“Have you learned anything I should know?”

“There’s a rumor floating around the docks the body was dumped by someone in Temple robes.”

A chill ran up my spine. No one but I, the magistrate, and Brother Jeremy knew that. The peacekeepers and wardens had been far enough away, they wouldn’t have seen the ghost images clearly. However, the person who had actually left the boy’s corpse in the alley knew what he or she wore. Was there a witness who feared retribution if they came forward? Or had the rumor been started to cause us more grief?

If Jeremy was right and the person who dumped the corpse wore Balance robes, it would make my investigation a damn sight more difficult. People in Orrin distrusted me thanks to the recent spate of demon incidents in our city alone. “Do you have a source?” I asked.

“My brother heard it at the Seven Coins when he was delivering shellfish there around midday.” Henry shrugged. “Mentioned it when he stopped here for our delivery.”

The Seven Coins was a reputable inn. Luc and I often stayed there when we were on circuit and had to come to Orrin. Back then, I avoided the Temple of Balance itself like the plague unless duty forced me to go there.

“We should send someone through all the inns and taverns. See what other information we can find. Either there was a witness who didn’t come forward, or someone is framing the Temples,” Jeremy said, giving voice to my own worries.

“I agree with the brother,” Little Bear murmured.

“And I need some wine,” I bit out. “Let’s raid Light’s stores and sort through the clues we do have. We’ll proceed from there.”

* * *

When we entered the main sanctuary, the only people other than Brother Garbhan, who was on ministerial duty, and Chief Warden Nicholas were two love wardens. I needed an entire barrel of Pana red even more when I saw Sister Claudia of Love exit the hallway leading to the private chambers of the clergy. She may have been wearing her public veil over her face, but I’d recognize her even if she wore several layers of Diné wool and Plains Nations buffalo robes. Luc was with her, and he wore a huge smile.

My gut clenched. It was the same ridiculous smile Xander had been wearing for the past three months, and the same one Jeremy most likely would be wearing once Shi Hua told him she was with child.

That smile made me want to draw my sword and chop Claudia into tiny pieces. Which wasn’t fair to her. She was doing her duty. We needed more people with Light talent. But something deep and dark inside of me wanted to claim Luc as mine, even though I had no right to do so.

And frankly, I wasn’t sure I could handle bearing a child if I were fertile. Anyone’s babe, much less Luc’s. I feared I would be an even worse parent than my birth mother.

The pair spotted me from across the sanctuary. Luc matched the speed of Claudia’s demure glide across the wood floor. He’d become quite adept with the specialized steel crutches Master Devin had designed for him since the loss of his left foot. He could move nearly as fast on them as he used to be able to run.

They halted before me, and Claudia glanced at Luc. He gave her an encouraging nod.

“May I speak with you privately, Chief Justice?” she said.

I didn’t want to hear this news. I was the one who pointed out Luc couldn’t disobey the edict handed down from our home Temples before the Spring Rituals. It didn’t mean my heart wasn’t broken that he had to lay with other women.

But to deny a minor request from a fellow priestess would be incredibly rude. I swallowed the lump threatening to choke me and nodded.

She led the way to one of the private consultation rooms adjoining the main sanctuary. Once we were inside, she murmured a word. Magic tingled across my skin, and I realized she’d lit the alabaster globe that indicated the room was in use.

She drew her veil back from her face. Her color was a steady orange-yellow. “You have already deduced the news, haven’t you?”

“Yes.” I belatedly added, “Congratulations.”

She sighed. “He loves you. He will always love you, Anthea. You have nothing to fear from me.” Of course, she’d learned about his feelings. It was difficult to withhold thoughts from another talent during such an intimate act.

“I…know.” I folded my arms across my chest. “I hope you can forgive me for my petty feelings. It isn’t fair to you or your child.” I inclined my head toward the globe. “Is that the reason Dragonfly suggested you to…Luc?”

Claudia nodded. The bells hanging from her braids chimed. “My mother was a Light talent, but of course, she could only register as a civilian practitioner. I inherited a small measure of her skills.”

She stepped closer to me. “I hope you realize part of his joy in our conception is that his duty is done, and he can return to warming your bed.”

My face heated at her obvious conclusion. “There’s no point in my case.”

“I am merely suggesting the two of you take advantage of the edict while it is practical.” A wry smile crossed her face. “If you wish to be present for the birth, you are more than welcome, and I would be honored by your presence.”

I laughed at the absurdity of her request. “Let’s see how I handle Justice Yanaba’s birthing before I answer your gracious offer. I’m not sure I would be much help.”

“This child would have been yours if not for Gerd.” Claudia’s voice held so much bitterness, but I knew it had nothing to do with me personally.

“I’m sorry for what she did to you and your sisters.”

Claudia snorted. “I don’t hold her actions against you. I hope you can find it in your heart not to hold your feelings against Luc’s child.”

Her words drove home the truths I wanted to avoid. “I shall do my best.”

“That’s all the Twelve can ask of any of us.” Claudia drew her veil back into place and extinguished the globe.

When we exited, the fear and worry on the men’s faces was comical. The two female wardens appeared to be disgusted by the men.

I leaned toward the Love priestess and said, “I believe they expected us to duel at dawn.”

“Crossbows at twenty paces?” Claudia’s laughter chimed as delicately as her bells.

“You would bring a crossbow to a sword fight.” I chuckled. The humor between us eased the ache in my heart a bit. Maybe, I could grow to accept the situation regarding her unborn child.

“If you two are finished mocking us, perhaps you and Brother Jeremy will enlighten us as to your findings,” Luc said. The scowl he wore didn’t disguise his joy. He was going to have a child.

And someone else lost a child in the last day. A child that should have been protected and cared for and cherished as much as Luc and Claudia would cherish the child she carried.

The swirl of emotions in my heart was too much. My eyes burned and my nose clogged.

“Since you have business to discuss, I will take my leave of you, Chief Justice, High Brother.” Claudia inclined her head before she swept out of the sanctuary in a whirl of fabric and the tinkle of bells. The two Love wardens quickly trotted after her.

“Well…” Luc drawled expectantly.

“May we have a couple of bottles of wine to get through this?” Jeremy muttered.

Luc looked askance at him before his eyes met mine. What’s going on?

“Our brother misspoke.” I shook my head. “We’re going to need a barrel.”

* * *

Sitting in the high brother’s private dining room with the Light clergy, I calmly sipped from my goblet while Luc let loose a stream of Cantish invectives after our reports, including a couple of obscenities I hadn’t heard before. His head of household Istaqa was right. The crisp white wine paired nicely with the baked fish and fresh asparagus Light’s staff served as the evening meal.

Jeremy had warded the room before we started our discussion. When Luc finally had to stop in order to breath, the younger priest also added the gossip from Henry’s brother.

Luc rose from his chair, grabbed his crutches, and started pacing. “Three months? Three months of peace is all we get?” “We knew it was merely the quiet before the next storm,” I said softly.

“There’s been no word from Reverend Father Chen regarding the other cache of demon eggs either,” Shi Hua added. “We also knew the renegades would try something here in Issura eventually.”

Shi Hua’s news added to the unease that had settled on my shoulders since Dragonfly shared her dispatch from the home Temple of Love this morning. Jing’s Reverend Father Biming of Thief had traced part of a cache of demon eggs to this side of the Peaceful Sea. The hatching of those eggs resulted in the demon army we faced in Tandor.

From what Biming, Shi Hua, and Ambassador Quan said of Chen, Jing’s Reverend Father of Conflict, he had issues with his ego and often let his pride get in his way. However, he was an accomplished warrior and adamant about his duties. He and members of his order chased the other half of the eggs. If neither the Jing Temples nor Emperor Chengwu had received any message from Chen over the last three months, Balance only knew whether he and his people were even still alive.

Or where those damn eggs were. Or even if they’d already hatched.

“With all due respect, High Brother, we need to focus on what we can control,” Little Bear said before he turned to me. “Given your reaction to Henry’s revelation in the stableyard, the rumor is true.”

I nodded. “The news gets worse. The robes the person who dumped the corpse wore were either Balance or Death.”

“There was no insignia though despite the style and color,” Jeremy added.

Luc paused in his pacing. “Just like the renegades who abducted me wearing Light colors.”

I nodded again. “However, the blanket originally wrapped around Yellow Fin’s body to carry it to the alley bore the insignia of Mother.”

Luc dropped into his chair and leaned his crutches against the table. “Jeremy, did—”

“Of course, I had someone confirm it,” the younger priest snapped. “The magistrate saw the same thing I did.” Everyone stared at Jeremy.

Realizing his poor manners, his face turned a brilliant crimson. “I apologize for my outburst, High Brother. This affair disturbs me more than I care to admit.”

Should I ask? Luc whispered in my mind.

Yes, there’s additional information you should be aware of regarding your second, I replied. But now is not the time for that particular discussion.

“It’s disturbing to all of us.” Shi Hua laid her hand over Jeremy’s. He normally would have responded to her gesture with a smile or turning his palm to meet hers. He didn’t respond, and the hurt in Shi Hua’s expression was obvious even to me.

Now, I know what part of our discussion will be about, Luc said sourly.

“Have you spoken with High Mother Bianca about the dead boy?” he said aloud.

“Only as far as informing her about the death of one of her charges.” I cut into the fish on my plate. “Neither she or the two other priestesses with her were surprised. Chief Warden Maebh was disturbed. She tried to take the blame for Yellow Fin’s death by stating she had been restricting the clergy of Mother due to the recent spate of attempted assassinations on Temple seats in Orrin.”

Luc snorted. “Like the High Mother would do anything someone else told her to do.”

“Mother’s chief warden may have been the one who dumped the body,” Garbhan said quietly. “The act could be preying on her conscience.”

Everyone at the table turned to stare at the newest Light priest. He so rarely offered an opinion.

“That’s merely speculation at this point,” Shi Hua murmured. She’d withdrawn her hand from Jeremy’s and now poked at her dinner.

Little Bear tapped a galloping rhythm with his fingertips on the oak tabletop. “Nor do we have enough evidence to truthspell her.” His drumming stopped. “What if Gina spoke with her, warden to warden?”

I pushed back my plate and leaned my elbows on the table. “Maebh’s not likely to confide in a junior warden.”

Little Bear shrugged. “Both High Sister Dragonfly and Justice Yanaba wanted to recruit Gina as their chief warden. She could say that Chief Justice Elizabeth has asked Gina to accompany her to her new assignment, and she wanted to speak to another chief warden before making a final decision.”

“That’s an excellent idea, Chief Warden.” Luc leaned back in his chair.

“Why can’t you talk to her peer-to-peer?” I asked.

This time, Little Bear’s face glowed red. “Because, um, there was a confrontation between her and Sivan before Chief Justice Penelope passed.”

“When?” I growled. “And what exactly happened?” The clergy of both Balance and Light had completely turned over in the last two years. If there were additional issues between the Orrin Temple personnel, Luc and I needed to know.

Little Bear took a long swig of water and cleared his throat. “It was the Spring Rituals three years ago. I swear Maebh and I were only discussing our duties—”

“But that wasn’t how Sivan perceived your interactions,” I said.

“No.” He sighed. “Thankfully, Maebh chose not to file charges against though the magistrate urged her to.”

I paused in taking another sip of wine. “DiCook wanted to throw Sivan in the gaol?”

“Given the situation with Chief Justice Penelope at the time, I think it was his way to get all of us to calm down.” Little Bear smiled wryly. “She would have certainly have executed her own head of household in her mental state at the time.”

“So,” Luc drawled. “It’s a matter of keeping the Balance household running smoothly rather than any personal issue between you and Maebh?”

“Yes, High Brother.” The relief from Little Bear was a palpable thing.

I’d never seen my chief warden nonplussed before. But then, I’d been on the receiving end of Sivan’s temper as well, though I’m sure her annoyance with me wasn’t fueled by drink or lust.

Luc turned to me. “So what’s our next step?”

“High Brother Xander and I have instituted general inventories at our respective Temples.” I shrugged. “Unfortunately, our culprit may have acquired their disguise elsewhere like the skinwalker and his minions did. Otherwise, we’ll stick with my chief warden’s plan and see it Gina can shake some information loose from Maebh.”

“There’s another matter we need to address,” Jeremy said.

“Yes, Brother?” Luc inclined his head to encourage the younger priest.

“The south side slums are turning into a giant flashbang with a very short fuse.” Jeremy toyed with the condensation on the side of his goblet. “Is there anything we can do to encourage the queen to increase the pace of resettlement? It’s been three months, and less than ten percent of the Tandorans sheltering in Orrin have been placed.”

Little Bear shot me a wide-eyed look. “Should I have accompanied you this afternoon?” I shook my head. “Tensions were high due to the murder of a child.”

“There was also resentment of us,” Jeremy said. “They expected the Temples to save them.”

“We did—” I started.

“At the cost of their lives and homes!” Jeremy gestured wildly in the direction of the south end of the city. “Now, they live in pest-infested tenements, eating what little scraps are given to them, when they would rather continue their trades.”

“I’m not unsympathetic to their plight, Brother,” I snapped. “But pray tell, where do we place them within our duchy that won’t cause resentment among our own populace?”

“What has the magistrate said about conditions on the south side?” Once again, Garbhan’s quiet voice cut through the emotion in the room. Now, I was beginning to understand why Reverend Father Farrell of Light had chosen such a young priest as one of his personal advisors.

“Peacekeepers patrolling past the Temples of Death and Vintner do so in groups of three or four,” Little Bear said. I cocked my head and regarded him. “How did you learn this?”

“The magistrate mentioned it to all the chief wardens.” Little Bear shrugged. “If tempers boil over, the Temples will be the next closest targets other than the butchers and the lower docks.”

“Twelve take everyone,” I muttered and rubbed my temples as a headache I couldn’t blame on too much wine intruded. Despite my jest at wanting a whole barrel, I’d barely drank half of the white wine Istaqa had poured for me. “Then we need to speak with both the duke and the magistrate. The last thing we need is a human riot in the middle of a demon attack.”

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.”