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Thursday, December 29, 2022
A HInt of Thief - Chapter 3
Hopefully, the weather stays above 20F for the next few days. My office is our Florida room. While I have a portable heater in there for winter, it doesn't make much of a dent when the temps are in the single digits or below like they were over Christmas. And it's a little hard to write in the main house with Genius Kid and the Grandpuppy here on leave for a month.
Anyway, here's another sample of A Hint of Thief.
Despite never wanting this moment to end, I switched back to the trade tongue. “Please, everyone, we are being incredible impolite to the Reverend Mother. This is her Temple after all.”
“It is quite all right, Chief Justice.” A broad smile lit her wrinkled face. “We all need to enjoy good fortune when Thief grants it.”
She ordered her staff to bring us more tea and some light fare, and she asked for one of her clerks to attend us. No one else ate more than a few bites, but I was extremely hungry. In between morsels, I told the tale of my strange adventures after I fell through the skinwalker’s portal.
Everyone was astounded by some of the things I described. In fact, the clerk asked me to stop and repeat some things because she was so entranced by my peculiar tale at times she forgot to take notes.
“I’m not sure if that’s a total wagonload of horseshit, or if this really happened to you,” Reverend Father Biming proclaimed when I was finished.
I shrugged. “One of you could truthspell me, and the Reverend Mother or Chief Justice Fumiko could perform a formal interrogation.”
Reverend Father Biming flushed a brilliant orange as he realized his insult.
“Really, Reverend Father?” Shi Hua clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth three times. “You dare to call the Queen of Issura’s ambassador a liar?”
“I beg your forgiveness, Lady Justice.” Biming bowed his head. “My ill-chosen words are inexcusable.”
“After the last three winters as a chief justice, I have neither the energy nor the desire to call you out, Reverend Father.” I returned his bow. “All is forgiven.”
“Now that is settled, do you have any objections to my clerks disseminating this information to the other nations’ Reverend Mothers of Balance?” The Ryukyuan Reverend Mother appeared gravely concerned about my tale.
“I have no objections, Reverend Mother,” I said. “However, I’d like the opportunity to review your clerk’s transcript prior to it being sent out to clarify or add information I may have forgotten in my exhaustion.”
“I think we could all use a good night’s sleep after all the excitement over the past two days.” As she spoke, I noticed her coloring had faded from a medium yellow to a pale yellow. Fumiko had stated the Reverend Mother wasn’t well. Between the demon attack and being roused from her sleep at my return, we were wearing out the poor woman.
I rose and my friends followed. “May I be allowed to call on you after the midday meal, Reverend Mother?”
“We were—” Reverend Father Biming started, but with sharp glances from both Quan and Shi Hua, he cleared his throat and began again. “We would be honored to have you and Chief Justice Fumiko as our guests for the midday meal on board the Unbridled.”
The Reverend Mother chuckled. “Ah, Thief Biming, you are as much as a scamp as your father was when we were novices.”
The Reverend Father couldn’t have looked more shocked if someone had tossed their cup of tea in his face. “Y-you knew my father?”
“It was a long, long time ago.” Her wide smile showed some missing teeth. “I’m too old to be running around Naha. Come to Balance for the midday meal with Anthea. While she and Fumiko review her testimony, I can tell you some tales of your father.”
Her expression turned sad. “We used to talk much more between our nations when I was younger. The failure to continue has hurt us all in the short term, which means we need to resurrect those older traditions. The Revelation of Balance says we still have twenty-one years of demon incursions to suffer through.”
I glanced at Shi Hua, who nodded her agreement. After the last two years of working closely together, she knew my question without the need for silent speech.
“May Lady Shi Hua accompany the Reverend Father and me to your Temple tomorrow?” I requested. “As part of her instruction in diplomacy, of course.”
Once again, the Reverend Mother laughed. “To make sure a Light accompanies you, or so Biming has eyes and ears everywhere?”
“Actually, I have found the lady’s counsel to be a great asset in my own duties, Reverend Mother.” I chuckled. “And between her and my wardens, I shouldn’t fall into any more holes.”
Everyone in the room, including the Ryukyuan wardens, deemed my comment highly amusing.
“As long as her husband has no objections,” the Reverend Mother said. “I would not wish to start a diplomatic incident with the new ruler of a regional neighbor.”
“As Chief Justice Anthea pointed out, I trust my wife to keep her out of trouble,” Quan replied. “Given the recent demon attacks in both Jing and Ryukyu, we need to support and defend each other.”
Amazement filled me. Whatever worries I had about Quan ascending to the Jing throne disappeared with his answer to the Reverend Mother. And it reminded me Shi Hua was not Temple anymore. I could no longer rely on her assistance in certain matters. Or for much longer.
“Thank you, Your Highness, for this small kindness.” I inclined my head to him. “I apologize for my presumption regarding your lady wife.”
“No insult was taken, Chief Justice.” His smile was gracious. “The two of you have become great friends, and I owe you her life. I would not to presume to interfere in your relationship in the short time you have left.”
“Not to interrupt your mutual admiration society, but it is late, and this old woman needs her sleep,” the Reverend Mother said. “Until our visit tomorrow, my friends, may the Twelve bless your paths.”
The Issuran and Jing contingents hastily rose at the Reverend Mother’s dismissal. I offered a quick thanks to her before Chief Justice Fumiko and their Balance wardens escorted us from her presence.
How much longer? I asked Fumiko silently as the Balance escort walked us to the Naha docks.
Every day she remains with us is a blessing from the Twelve. The Ryukyuan justice’s unease permeated our private link. If she lives through the Spring Rituals, our Master Healer will be shocked.
You will make a fine Reverend Mother when the time comes, I assured her.
Fumiko’s self-deprecating laugh felt like glass beads clinking together. She says the same thing, but I fear I will not live up to her excellence.
No, you will have to do better. I sent a thread of empathy for her position. Yesterday’s demon incursion is the first one in Ryukyu during her tenure, isn’t it?
And you led the Balance forces in the battle against the demons?
Naha and the Kingdom of Ryukyu still exist to fight another day. I would call your first combat experience a rousing success, and you will do just fine leading your Temple as a whole.
Fumiko laughed her glass-bead laugh. I can see why the Jing crown prince trusts you. Such logic can uplift while being practical.
The real practicality facing me was completing my mission and seeing Quan take the Jing throne without enduring anymore losses. And I still didn’t know the fate of all who fought in front of the gates of the Crimson Palace what was for me nearly a fortnight ago.
Thursday, December 22, 2022
A Hint of Thief - Chapter 2
And yes, my eye is much better! Thank you!
Instead of being dragged to a goal cell as I half-expected, High Brother Gajoko bade his wardens to guide me to a bench in the Temple of Balance’s main courtroom. I sat with a contingent of wardens and clergy watching me while the Balance staff scurried off to wake whomever they needed to.
To my surprise, Chief Justice Fumiko entered the room on the arm of the Temple’s chief warden a few moments later. I stood out of respect, which caused the warden to shove me back down to the bench.
“You do have a reputation for causing a commotion, Chief Justice Anthea,” she said in Issuran.
“Surely, I would have thought my terrible reputation had circled the world a number of times before now, Chief Justice Fumiko. Forgive me for not greeting you as an equal, but your wardens seem terribly concerned for your safety.”
“Like your wardens would not have done the same if our positions were reversed?”
We both laughed. Switching to the Peaceful Sea trade tongue, she bade the wardens to remove my shackles, much to High Brother Gojoko’s consternation.
“Thank you,” I said while I rubbed my wrists. “Come with me, Chief Justice,” she said. “My Reverend Mother wishes to meet you while we wait for your compatriots.”
“You mean she doesn’t want a diplomatic incident with Issura.”
She laughed again. “Nor with the Jing Empire. I fear the Crown Prince and his lady wife were as distraught by you disappearance as your own people.”
I had brought Wardens Jonata and Long Feather from my own Temple of Balance in Orrin on this expedition because I trusted them to keep their heads in any occasion whether it be diplomatic or a battle. Which meant Luc had raised a terrible fuss when I disappeared through the portal.
“My acquaintance with Crown Prince began years ago when he was merely the Jing ambassador to Issura.” I shrugged. “I did not know of his regard for me until he asked Queen Teodora to allow me to accompany him to Jing for his coronation as the official Issuran representative. I sincerely apologize for any problems he or High Brother Luc may have caused in my absence.”
Chief Justice Fumiko bade High Brother Gojoko to return my blades to me. He reluctantly did so. His suspicions grated against my psyche, but no emotion showed on his visage.
As I sheathed my weapons once again, one of the Balance wardens stepped forward and bowed to me. “I am Warden Miyagi. It would be my privilege to act as your escort until your own wardens arrive, Chief Justice.”
My impulsiveness had already cause a bit of a diplomatic mess. I couldn’t chide the man for performing a traditional duty. Every other priestess of Balance, from the youngest novice to the Reverend Mother, depended on the wardens to act as their eyes. I was the only justice who could see.
After a fashion, that was.
“Your offer of service honors me.” I held out my left hand. He gently grasped my fingers and wrapped them around his elbow. I stood, and this time, the Death and Vintner wardens didn’t restrain me.
We followed Chief Justice Fumiko and her chief warden through the stone hallways of the first story of the Temple. Unlike the granite and marble used in Issura, they constructed their first floors with limestone. The upper floors were made of wood and paper. It sounded ridiculous at first until Sister Jasmine of Thief explained the prevalence of typhoons and ground quakes in in the Ryukuan islands.
The Ryukyuans also relied on Knowledge magic to light their buildings and streets. Given the construction materials and the nature of the islands, using such lamps reduced the incidence of fire when a fierce storm or a quake occurred as the lightweight materials prevented severe injury if they collapsed.
Not that I needed conventional light any more than I needed a warden to guide me. Well, that wasn’t totally true. The fogs along the western Issuran coast inhibited my sight as much as they did conventional human sight.
Two wardens stood guard in front of the door at the end of the last hallway. As in my own Temple, no signs marked any of the doorways to the private quarters. I had kept count of the steps and turns in case I was forced to escape. I prayed I didn’t need to do so.
On one side of Balance’s scales, I hadn’t spotted a demon or a skinwalker. But even my peculiar sight couldn’t penetrate the spells that allowed a demon to wear a human skin. I could be surrounded and not even know it.
One of the wardens on duty opened the doors to the Reverend Mother’s chambers and announced our presence. I think. He spoke in Ryukyuan so I couldn’t be sure, though he definitely said my name.
We entered a sitting room that was modest, but the few furnishings and decorations were made of the finest quality. An elderly woman reclined on a chaise of mahogany and silk. Several pillows propped her to a sitting position, and blankets covered her legs. Her hood was pushed back, and her scalp held only a sparse selection of white hairs. She had more strands on her wrinkled chin than the rest of her head.
I bowed along with Chief Justice Fumiko and the wardens who escorted us.
“Reverend Mother, the reports are accurate,” Fumiko said. “The Issuran chief justice has returned to Naha.”
Another’s mind touched mine. Not intruding past my outer thoughts, just enough to see my talents.
The Reverend Mother chuckled and spoke in the trade tongue. “I am impressed you not only survived the demon realm, but they did not corrupt you.”
For the first time, I truly believed High Sister Mya’s analysis of my emotional and mental health. Orrin’s seat of Child had spent two months caring for me after a demon grimoire impaled my psyche with its malevolent influence. I had been lucky Yanaba’s squire Ming Wei’s own empathic talents had ignited and saved my spirit.
“Forgive my correction, Reverend Mother, but I never reached the demons’ realm despite their intentions,” I said. “Brother Jin of Light killed the skinwalker who cast the portal spell. I believe a combination of his spell, the skinwalker’s, and my time spell at the same moment to kill the demon I chased disrupted the portal.”
The people in the room were totally silent for a very long moment.
“Where did you go, child?” the Reverend Mother finally asked.
“It’s very complicated, Reverend Mother,” I murmured. “May I beg your indulgence to wait until my associates have been notified of my whereabouts? It’s late, and I would much like to only tell this tale once.”
She said something to her aide, who bowed and exited the sitting room. “Shall we speak of more pleasant topics while we wait for our tea, Chief Justice?”
I inclined my head. “That would be more than acceptable, Reverend Mother.”
She asked me questions about my travel outside of Orrin. I did my best to give her pleasant descriptions, such as the sea wolves playing alongside our ship during our voyages, the stark and wild beauty of Diné, and the change of seasons during my circuits in the Gray Mountains.
The door opened, and the same warden who announced me only said a few words before the new guests rushed past him. I rose at the commotion and was immediately enveloped in hugs.
Luc. Jonata. Long Feather. Quan. Shi Hua. Even Reverend Father Biming, the head of Jing’s Temple of Thief. They embraced me, all talking at the same time, both out loud and silently.
And swimming in their love was the happiest moment of my life.
Friday, December 16, 2022
A Hint of Thief - Chapter 1
I breathed in the air of my home world through the wave of vertigo caused by the Grey Ladies’ portal. The sweet scent of cherry blossoms and other spring flowers brought tears to my eyes. Not from the pollen or the fading dizziness, but from the release of my emotions. Deep down, I had feared I would never be able to return.
The Grey Ladies deposited me where I had left my world, at the edge of the royal gardens near the square in front of the Crimson Palace in the capital of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. However, I was still thousands of leagues from Issura. I prayed to the Twelve I wasn’t alone in the island nation.
As usual, none of our deities bothered to answer me.
The lack of sound in the royal square of the Ryukyuan capital of Naha unnerved me. Blood still stained the pavers of the square, and the gates of the Crimson Palace itself were closed. How long had it been since I fell through the portal the skinwalker had opened to allow one of the demons to escape?
Or perhaps the skinwalker’s real goal had been to summon reinforcements from the demon realm. Either way, neither the demon nor I ended up in the demons’ home dimension. What had happened while I was gone? How long had I been gone?
Time ran differently in different universes. I needed to remember to relay that information to my fellow justices Elizabeth, Yanaba, and Erato back at the Temple of Balance in Orrin. That was assuming I had access to Lady Shi Hua or another distance speaker. And that was assuming I’d arrived within a few hours of my unfortunate departure as the Grey Ladies had promised.
I took another deep breath, mainly to calm myself, and looked up at the sky. It was blank, a plain dark blue. No clouds impeded my vision. Definitely no bloody orbs floating above me. I released the air in my lungs. It was night. The next question was which night.
The best course action would be to go back to the harbor. Surely, Captain Titus wouldn’t have left Ryukyu without me. Luc wouldn’t have let the Mars Tranquilus leave if I weren’t onboard.
Except once again, I assumed both my love and the captain were still alive.
I considered calling out in silent speech, but I could end up attracting demons if the Ryukyuan Temples didn’t vanquish the demon army that had attacked us in the square. I examined the walls of the Crimson Palace once again. No sentries. No lights.
Had Naha become like the handful of island villages of the western Peaceful Sea? The citizens had disappeared without a trace, taken by either skinwalkers or demons. Or maybe something worse.
My best chance was to return to the harbor where the Mars Tranquilus had been berthed. I started walking down the main boulevard. The Ryukyuan Government House was actually divided into six different one-story buildings, three on each side of the street. There was no evidence of any humans, but of course, the bureaucratic offices would be closed after First Evening regardless of any demon attack.
The Ryukyuan government district bled into their Temple District, which again was oddly quiet. Night was the high time for worship at the Temple of Love. The paper sculptures the Ryukyuans used to light their streets were gone from their poles in this part of the city.
However, the wardens guarding the entrances to Vintner and Death raised the alarm the moment they spotted me walking down the thoroughfare. I stood still and clenched my fists to keep myself from reaching for my sword or knives as they converged on me. Unfortunately, my skill with the Ryukyuan language was far worse than my skill with Jing, so I remained silent at the shouted questions I couldn’t comprehend.
As much as I wanted to resist the wardens’ manhandling, I allowed myself to be shackled. Someone yanked back my hood, and a torch was thrust near my face. Squinting against the obscene brightness was totally involuntary on my part. A warden wrapped their arm around my throat, and another warden roughly forced my right eye open.
The wardens muttered amongst themselves, and then they reported their findings to the clergy who poured out of the nearby Temples. I blinked away the yellow afterimages of the damn torch. However, the yelling in the Ryukyuan language stopped.
“What day is it?” I asked in the Peaceful Sea trade tongue.
“You are breaking the island-wide curfew. Identify yourself,” one of the Death priests demanded.
“I am Chief Justice Anthea DiBalance of Orrin from the Queendom of Issura. Which your wardens confirmed by poking me in the eye to make sure it was red,” I added dryly.
Instead of introducing himself as etiquette demanded, he glared at me. “The Issuran chief justice fell into a demon summoning portal yesterday evening. For all I know, you are a demon wearing her skin.”
The Temple bells started tolling. Not a demon alarm, but the time. First Night. If the Death priest spoke truly, I’d been gone for a little over a day in my world’s time.
Despite the urge to argue with a priest simply performing his duties, I took another calming breath. “Before you toss me in whatever gaol cell you plan to use, would you please send a message to the Mars Tranquilus to let my associates know I’m alive?”
The Death priest barked an order in Ryukyuan, and two of his wardens took off in the direction of Naha’s harbor. “I am High Brother Gajoko. We will escort you to the Temple of Balance for additional questioning.”
“That is satisfactory, High Brother.” I couldn’t bow with the chokehold around my neck. I hoped the priest didn’t take offense to my failure to be polite. I’d encountered such illogical behavior before in Issura.
The forearm across my throat was removed, the warden divested me of most of my weapons, and I shuffled from the weight of the shackles on my wrists and ankles down the street in the grip of two wardens. I merely hoped my friends were still alive and would arrive at the Temple of Balance before the Ryukyuan Reverend Mother decided it was better to behead me rather than take the chance I was under demon influence.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022
Invasion! - Chapter 4
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Also, I finally posted November's free short story, "A Place at the Table". It takes place in the Solar System Services, Inc. universe, a few centuries after "Alone Is Not Lonely".
In the meantime, here's Chapter 4 from Invasion!
Otherwhere, Time - Irrelevant
Samantha Marie “Sam” Ridgeway St. James, the vampires’ goddess of Death, locked the gate to her afterlife and trudged through the black sand of Otherwhere, a region between places no one but the gods traversed. Even then, none of the deities she personally knew took Otherwhere, or the things that hunted here, lightly.
She wasn’t sure she liked being so busy lately. Even worse, she wasn’t sure she liked being worshipped. It gave her a weird feeling. She’d never been the center of attention when she’d been alive. Now, it was just plain uncomfortable. But when the dying called for her, she had to respond.
And very few of the dead were people she personally knew. Ares and Morrigan had ripped her new assholes for turning Duncan, Alex, and Connie into gods like her when the stupid, fucking dino demons had killed the three of them. But according to Sam’s deity pals, the other pantheons would regard Sam making gods out of more of her dead loved ones as an act of war.
Ares and Morrigan would know as the patrons of War in each of their pantheons.
The warning came because Alex’s death was technically the Incan god of Death Supay’s fault. Alex made the mistake of promising Sam’s Incan counterpart he’d hunt down the assholes who stole Supay’s tumi, the symbol of his power. Which Alex accomplished, a few seconds before Sam engaged the dinosaur god trying to break into her home dimension, causing Mount Rainier to erupt.
Come to think of it, Puget Sound didn’t look much better than Otherwhere these days.
The sepia sky in the between space looked bleaker than normal, and a sharp, arid breeze snapped her long black coat against her legs. In the distance, something howled. Something she didn’t recognize as a denizen of Otherwhere. A chorus of familiar shrieks and screams answered the initial howl.
The birdcats hunted something, which wasn’t a good sign.
She stopped and sniffed the air. The odor of something living penetrated the acrid scent of Otherwhere. Ginger mixed with something else. The second scent was vaguely familiar. She sniffed again. Not quite the smell of a dinosaur demon, but still slightly reptilian. But the ginger scent she definitely knew.
Now, why the hell would any witch be stupid enough to enter Otherwhere? Not even a god in their right mind would come here unless they were desperate. Only death resided here. A living soul would attract the undead predators who prowled this place, which explains the familiar shrieks and screams. And there were worse things than the birdcats in Otherwhere.
Sam took another deep breath. Along with the ginger came the smells of rotting jungle vegetation and—
She sniffed again. Chinese food? But underneath them all was the odor of fresh apples.
Humans. More than one.
Sam ran in the direction of the living. Behind her came the skittering of chitonous feet on the diamond-sharp sand. She glanced behind her. Eyes glowed blue and orange amongst the ever changing shadows. Another pride of birdcats followed her.
Fuckity-fuck. If she didn’t reach the humans first—
Well, watching someone’s soul being eaten wasn’t a pretty sight.
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