2021 BHC Press Spring Fiction Sampler

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BHC Press 2021 Spring Adult Fiction Sampler 8: A Song for the Peach Tree In My Master’s Garden Copyright © 2021Christopher M. Struck e King’s Seal Copyright © 2021 Amy Kuivalainen Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe and e Dark-Elf Copyright © 2021 William Schlichter e Primus Initiative Copyright © 2021 Robert Davies A Fastball For Freedom Copyright © 2021 Gary Morgenstein Machines Copyright © 2021 Raymond Henri Shh… It’s Our Secret Copyright © 2021 Lizzie Chantree Love Match Copyright © 2021 Laire McKinney Compilation Copyright © 2021 BHC Press All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. is book is a work of ction. e characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All titles published by BHC Press For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170

Visit the publisher: www.bhcpress.com

î “is collection contains excerpts of upcoming titles releasing in 2021. All excerpts are ucorrected proofs and are not the nal retail versions. î “ese excerpts may contain errors and minor story changes from the nal retail versions.

About 8: A Song for the Peach Tree in My Master’s Garden

Seven samurai will teach him what it means to be a warrior…one by one he will remind them of what they taught. Young Miyamoto Musashi, who goes by the nickname Hachi, studies at the local samurai school of the Yoshioka’s. When he accidently meets his master’s daughter, Umi, in a forbidden garden beneath a peach tree, it’s love at rst sight. ey plan to meet again beneath the tree, but Umi never shows. Driven by his desire to prove he is worthy, Hachi vows to become the greatest samurai who has ever lived to earn the right to see Umi again. As he trains under seven great samurai, he never forgets Umi and his desire to be with her grows. When Hachi suffers a great betrayal, he is driven by his own sense of justice and the driving force of what it means to be a samurai while he searches for peace and tranquility. A classic tale of devotion and revenge, Miyamoto will come face to face with his own destiny in this origins tale of his life.

Chapter 1 The Peach Tree

A lone peach tree stands. Along one of the main streaking rivers down the lower face of Aoyama (Blue Mountain), a clump of dark rs hides the Peach Tree from the estate’s direct view. e Peach Tree. e oldest living thing on the Toda estate and hidden in a corner of the master’s large and strictly private garden. e low hills and rice paddies, hidden from its small clearing, descend out from the inner walls to the east. e Blue Mountain rises to icy caps in the north. And the Peach Tree grows in a mystical grotto carved by the tears of Aoyama and sheltered by the taller pines that line the white water of the shallow river. e grotto’s eerie silence, broken only by the wind shifting in the distance. A quiet peaceful setting, hidden from sight. It would be an easy spot to relieve oneself. And as I rush toward the river and long to part my kimono to let the idle stream export my expounding excrement to the far away silent valley, I notice something else. Something that is not supposed to be there. Like I am not supposed to be there. In that quiet space beneath the mountain. My feet planted at the edge of the river and when I turn, I can see her. It is her. e daughter of the master. With me, alone. I recognize her immediately. Umi. Her back is to me wearing an elaborate, light-blue kimono with black-andpurple owers patterned around her and beneath the wrap. Her hair is long

and tied into a stiff black bow. She faces the Peach Tree, kneeling. She cries. Whimpers. Whispering something to the ground as she presses her small, pale ngers into the dirt. Did she bury something there? Leaning forward, she takes up something else. I see only a ash of brief red and my heart jumps. I almost shout. e wind rushes in that far off way. With a sound like a deep exhale. e forest says, shh. e scent of coming rain. And then something else with it. Incense. I notice a dreary bit of smoke lift up over her shoulder. And the red thing becomes at once the shape of a stick as she places it in the small mound of earth. I wonder if I can cover up again and get away. If I might nd another place to claim a moment’s respite. But fate has a funny way of making bad things become good things and good things become bad things. In that moment I slip and fall into the river. She helps me out of the shallow stream. e bottom of my kimono is soaking wet. She looks worried. ere are too many reasons that she could have to be worried. I should have them too, since being caught in her presence without official invite means instant execution. But there is a moment of all moments to remember and to ponder for the rest of my tale of sorrow and love and above all else life more than death. ough there will be much death. at rst moment. When she shuffled over to the river with her hand over her mouth. e kimono a blur of black and blue and purple. When she sees me, and she sees that I am her age and the recognition becomes something like seeing hope in the light of one’s eyes and the full shape of another person. Like a heart nding another heart in a place where you don’t expect to see such kindness. Clean beauty. “Are you ne?” She says this once I am collected beside her beneath the tree. My poor kimono. e drab color of nothing. My only kimono. Still wet, but we did our

best to wring it out. Difficult when I still wore the garment. She must see that I am nothing and yet she asks me the question as if I am something. I should, we both should, feel a sense of danger, but I don’t. I don’t think she does either. Not beneath the Peach Tree. “Yes.” “Are you hurt?” “Hurt? No.” “I am Umi.” “I know.” “Your name is?” “Ah, my name?” “Yes.” “Hachi.” “Hachi.” “Yes.” We are both young. Younger than ten. Suddenly, sitting beneath the Peach Tree together. Watching the rivers that look like tears streaming down the mountain in silence. Listening for the whispers of the wind coming from the valley. e Peach Tree always with its ugly branches and its precious fruit. Uncultivated and misshapen. Dropping promise into our hands. Seldom. But seldom is enough for me. And in that particular time. at of late winter. Before the buds on the Cherry trees bloom, the Peach Tree had one, single peach perched on a low branch and she took it and held it in her hand. She turns it over and over gently, leaving no trace that she has touched it at all. “Are you a samurai?” “No.” “Your belt? Isn’t that the belt of a samurai?”

I look down and examine the wrap around my drab, damp kimono. e wrap is thick and bold in size, but calm and neutral in color. It tells the men of the estate that death is my second master and my sole purpose in life. Am I a samurai? I can’t remember for just that split second when her eyes lock onto mine. Two forbidden pools of black and brown and curiosity. “I am training.” ere will be a time when sitting beneath this Peach Tree together, we will be much older and at least I will not be any wiser. But for now, with the youth in our hearts and our kindred sense of being somewhere, we are not supposed to be, we be. A heightened sense of danger must have made our hearts race, but it didn’t stop us. at and a similar sense of purpose. “Why are you here?” “Why am I here?” “Yes.” “I was looking for somewhere quiet.” “Me too. I understand.” I glance at what she might have buried beneath the Peach Tree. Discretely as to not offend her. I wonder when I turn back toward the river if she has not caught my eye. I turn it around in my head trying to imagine what is her purpose in being here as the light of the day fades into pink streaks of light in one half of the sky. e other half of it darkening slowly with the coming rain. She would not bury a toy, would she? Broken, but loved. Left to become an offering to the spirits of dreams. e mountain, the forest. e stream and the stone. A poetic choice. “Hachi, do you want to be a samurai?” “Yes. I never want to not be a samurai. I want to be the best samurai.” If I had been older. If I had been wiser. I might have seen a bit of her own self-doubt. Her own feelings wrapped in her question, but I answered as

samurai do. Quickly. Honestly. Hesitation is death. And death is our master. Not our friend. “How do you know?” I thought for a long time. I enjoyed it. e training. e idea of it. I had always done it. As far as I could remember. Samurai is who I was meant to be. Selected to be. I had no other family. It was my reason for being, for breathing, for life. Without the path of the warrior, my life would be meaningless for the master of the estate, Umi’s father. Even in my youthful hour, I could comprehend that. I could understand it. I could understand it better than I could understand anything else. I was to be a samurai or nothing. I was to kill or die trying. I was to uphold the master’s will. I was to be the master’s will. I am a sword. I am to be, only, a shining piece of silver metal fashioned into cold death. at is my only. Choice has nothing to do with it. Life is a gift the master has given. He has taken me already from death. From hunger. From famine. From disease. From nothing. He has given me purpose where there would only otherwise be nothing. I am, in a way, righteous. I am, in a way, a justiciar. His justice. But there is no place, in the long life of the world, for those who become tools of death. And even in my misguided youth I could see that I would face trials. ough not how many and not what form. If death did not claim me rst, a real samurai I would be. But in becoming a real samurai the whole of the world would become my enemy and my purpose resigned to singularity. Leaving the path of the sword would never be an option. If I left the sword behind, my mind would still know the timing and purpose of being as. Samurai. But I did not say those things. And I thought them only brie y. ey drift so quickly through my mind in an instant. I sti e further thoughts within beneath the grind of my teeth and let them disappear into not words. It is the only way. I am samurai. “I don’t know.”

She held her tongue, and we breathe in only silence. A comfortable, longwinded silence like so many I would come to know in the lonely nights and the days lived in pursuit of a singular dream. I could see her thinking. Her thoughts swim as mine do. ere is nothing in the world more heart wrenching than the sight of the woman you have decided to love, thinking. And her thoughts lurk in between us as we hide beneath the Peach Tree together. I long to say more. To talk more. To hear her voice. But then from the villa. From beyond the tall rs, we hear the call go up for her. “Umi!” As clear as the sound of the distant rain that darkens the sky beyond the hidden realm of the Peach Tree, the sound drifts into our sanctum. e words to take her away from me. e words that would take her away from me many times in the coming years. “I will see you again here.” is time she whispers. I smile. I nod. She gives me the peach to hold. When it touches my hands, so do her hands. ey are soft. Too soft. Where my hands are broken and breaking. Where blood once streamed, they’ve grown to numb the pain. I look down at the peach. It is bigger than my palm can hold. It is soft and ripe. With just a single touch from my calloused hands, the juice oozes out the side. But she left the soft fruit as she found it. Safe. I destroy it with just one touch and then I realize that this will always be a difference between us. When I look up, she is not there. Not even a trace of her between the trees. Only the soft mound and the no-longer-burning incense and I ght the urge to look into the dirt. Something about it turns my stomach. I look off toward the way she left. e dark, northern path along the stream and then I go the other direction back to the place where I live. Where I should be. Where I will learn the rest of what it means to be who I will be. Or who I am.

Years will pass and we will always meet under the Peach Tree, but the tone and theme of our discussions will change. It will become clear that her interest goes beyond the romantic ideal of the warrior. ere becomes a practicality to our discussions. ere is a sense that she wants to understand her father’s estate. She wants to understand who the people are. People she has met, but that she views through the veil of stringent social ritual. Rituals that we break in the twilight hour, beneath the Peach Tree, in the master’s garden. Again, and again. Every long night. If we must break a rule in our lives, let it be this rule. Let it be the rule to stay away. Let it be the rule to stay the same. Let it be the rule to only be the one thing we are trained to be. She, the only daughter of a rich and powerful lord with no son. Destined to be the wife of the next lord. And me. A kiss of life’s shadow waiting to deliver its silence on a world that has given me no other choice. is is how I begin. With desire. A desire born in something that goes beyond my comprehension. I know only the path that I can follow, but it becomes for me an answer to something in my heart that Umi opens in that moment beneath the Peach Tree. is is a story of a curse. And of the curse of our choices. Ours and those made for us. ose choices that weave their way through our lives. But what is the curse and what is the choice is never clear until the whole picture is revealed. Some things become blessings and others do not.

Chapter 2 Samurai I

e Peach Tree. It remains on my mind. Stronger than anything. Stronger than the girl that loiters beneath it in some of my dreams. I close my eyes. I see the Peach Tree. I open my eyes. I see the lingering image of the Peach Tree burned into a blurry silhouette blink out of my sight. I long to be there again but going to the Peach Tree is too dangerous. Something has happened, and the risk of being caught remains death. For a time, I keep the kindling desire at bay, but it returns always. at image and the faint scent of incense. How dangerous it was. For now, I feel the tinge of want with each sniff of smoldering hope’s sticks. Every ritual. Every ceremony. Nearly every candle holds in it a piece of the memory. at smell. e smell of that incense that wafted up over her slender shoulder. Inevitably, my thoughts drift away from the serene image of the tree to the woman that knelt in black with purple owers. Umi. Is she waiting for me? Does she wonder about me as I wonder about her? A memory waiting to burst into ame. Igniting a passion my heart longs to know. To remember. To dream within reality and in her presence. I have not been back yet, but I dream to be. She told me to come. I want to go back every second, but it is not yet a day later. I don’t remember why or how I found that mystical place. But, the day, the night, the time when I met Umi dominates my entire memory of the tree and its quiet corner of the castle garden.

I know I can remember the way back. If I try. If I try to go, I will nd it. e getting back is always easier than the going. I imagine, me, arriving and there she is. She is happy to see me. She rushes to greet me with questions about how I am. She rushes to tell me that she worried whether I had been harmed and despite what she hears about the samurai training, she knows deep within her heart that I will achieve my goals. I know this vision is false. I know that she does not wait, and I know deep down that she might not even go to the Peach Tree. I will, and the anticipation burns. Deeper and hotter than the fated meeting could have ever ignited me. e unspoken reasons as to why she had been there in the rst place touch my foolish curiosity. But, that private serenity can’t be overlooked. She must go often. ough maybe only as a luxury, so the seclusion and nostalgia don’t lose their appeal. When those thoughts nally fade, I reimagine the same scene where I return, and she waits. She wears something colorful and pristine. She turns to see me come up the bank of the stream. My heart wrenches. Nearly falling out of my chest. Her eyes are lled with tears. Each incarnation of the dream brings a new layer. She tells me all the nightmares that have catacombed through her head. She thinks I could be dead. She thinks I may have abandoned her. She thinks I don’t care. All these things and more that must have made it impossible for me to come. She’s not wrong to think of these things. And especially of the dangers, though how likely is it that the daughter of the magistrate should take an interest in an apprentice samurai like me? We are doomed to die even more gruesomely than almost any other. At least we’re potentially saved a few years by indentured servitude rather than immediate sacri ce. Death. Immortal life. In the service of our lord. It would be our highest honor. It would be my highest honor. Fantasies remain. ey linger ever stronger. I notice that the older “recruits” who have become adepts and tasked with keeping us in line lose interest

sometimes. In the afternoon, when one sleeps on watch, I can get away. I notice that the true samurai, those that teach us, expect us to respect the danger. e danger of attempting to leave their school. My mind respects the danger. It respects the danger very much, but the heart that lurks beneath the mind scoffs at the mere mention of being caught. One half of my heart pushes me to race to the little clearing up the hill from our housing units to see Umi now. e other half pushes against the instinct of self-preservation to defy the odds. My full heart longs to nd the peaceful setting beneath the Peach Tree again, and ultimately at the core of that feeling exists the need to discover whether Umi does indeed care about a peasant boy, who will either leave the shackles of poverty in glory or death. Perhaps, Umi, like I, returns always to the Peach Tree to summon the fading feeling. She remembers the hope that stings the eyes and fools the heart. e hope that something meaningful exists here, because indeed it does. It does. Whether it exists to blossom or to wither and die. It exists and no amount of hiding from that will drown the feeling away. It only serves to allow the memory to take on new de nitions. e grotto itself of the Peach Tree evokes a feeling of peace. And every day while I take my wooden blade and smash against sticks and wood and bone, I wonder, so utterly imprisoned by violence, at how such a complete peace as that can exist in the world. It is these sentiments that drive me to sneak from the compound of the school which lies on the wooded, northern edge of the rice paddies. I risk swift death. With planning I escape on my adventure as I did before, near the middle of the day. To leave at night would have been quite an idea. Arguably easier. e only issue with leaving during the night? Umi would not be there. It had to be an afternoon. It had to be hot and bright and lazy. When the

opportunity came, I had to seize it. I can’t leave a letter. I can’t write. Not yet at least. We have an hour to ourselves, which some of the adepts use to go into town. Some of the wandering ronin or samurai who teach in competing schools of other magistrates, towns, or masters, post challenges or calls to apprenticeship. While it is not yet in my position to inspect these postings, I know that it could be soon. e future apprentices who go to see the challenges (or duels) may earn a spot amongst the adepts or even as a nubile samurai with just one convincing victory. Many duels are to the death. I have seen them as we all have, but some of the boys always sneak off during this time. It is common. Sneaking off during the allotted hours is not punished with death. But not making it back soon enough is a different punishment. at is how I know of the supreme danger I am in for leaving. As such, this early afternoon as the sun nds its place in the heavens, I follow my heart to take one of the rst true risks of many to come in my life. My master does not care whether I live or die; I know that he doesn’t. He is mortal. King of the realm, maintaining a vast estate that stretches as far as the eye can see. I am only his soldier. I am only his tool. Without his purchase of my esh and soul, I would not live. ere is glory available to me, but it is his rst. Even if I become a samurai and I earn a position as aide and retainer, I will owe it rst to my master. Because of his attention, my life could create a lineage. I could earn a solid income, own land, and command armies. ere is certainly always the risk of death, but after over a year of training as a samurai, I feel that I am making progress. Even if I do survive the training to come, I may not become a samurai. I may leave the school of the Yoshioka clan without attaining the full rank of the

samurai. It, too, is a risk I must take for a chance at a better life. At least that potential luxury is available to me. ese thoughts of life, love, and death are ever present as I toil in the sun for the prestigious teacher as a samurai in training. After a few moments as the blood pumps into my head, thumping into my ears, they disappear until they return again stronger. Only the sounds of the plants and dirt beneath my feet break the silence of the woods. Occasionally, wind splits the trees and the birds swoop between them. It is clear. I am on my way to the Peach Tree. e rst step is always hardest. I am on my way now. ere will be no stopping me. I dash through the woods. Up the hill. I can hear the streams. e echoing sounds of the forest pursue me. I feel at home with the soft melody of the water and the trees forming a quiet concert in the wooded hills. I jump from rock to rock as I climb up the mountain toward the castle wall. As I go, I nd makeshift footpaths where the shrubs have been beaten and worn away. Some start and end before they’ve really begun, signs of spirits also making their pilgrimage up the mountain. Where the shrubs have been worn away, leaving the dark, damp mud exposed, I smell the hearty stagnant scent of the wet earth mix with the soft passing scent of the cold stream. If the forest indeed has a spirit, I feel like he welcomes me back. For a eeting second, I know I could live in this shadow realm forever, but as soon as I think this simple thought, I am confronted. e wall. Or at least what is known as the outer wall. Carved out of the earth and then piled high with stone bricks larger than me, the wall separates the forest from the master’s castle. Only the faintest glimpse of the top of the castle, a six or seven window high monstrosity overlooking the southern valley, can be seen if I position myself at the right place.

Along most of the wall, between the last tree and the foot of the stone, there is some space. At least thirty feet of open grass where you can be seen by sentries who regularly patrol the area, but it’s been years since the outer defenses have been properly maintained. Japan is uni ed now and has been for longer than my life. War has left the rice and hills for good. Korea is the new battleground. I come to a spot of the wall where the woods have reclaimed territory. e wall watches over but has been overgrown with green moss marking it as unkempt but slippery to the touch. If there are ramparts over the back, they are unused. e forest is silent as if it watches me walking along the bottom of the wall making sure, even in my con dence of solitude, to not make a sound. I am looking for a tree that fell along the wall. A tree that I used the rst time that I went into the magistrate’s forbidden garden. And now a tree that I plan to use again. As I struggle to nd the decaying wood bridge, I think that my time in the forest might be dragging on a little too long. I do not have an in nite supply of time. e sounds of the forest and the thoughts of the Peach Tree have allowed me to forget about the risk that I am inheriting with the undertaking of this quest, but now in the silence beside the wall, the reality of my mischief shows itself plainly. ere it is. e fallen tree. A behemoth of the wood as old as time. Struck by lightning or pulled down by furious wind in a storm only months ago. A titan that the magistrate and his men did not dare to disturb in the decades past when the wall went up, as it appeared far enough below and away from the high wall, has now attempted its own attack on the green stones with its dying breath. From a quick glance, the fallen trunk has managed only to wedge itself against the wall, three quarters of the way up. A broken bit of its top drags to

the forest oor surrounded by shrubbery and sprouting trees that have slowly taken ground in this decade of neglect. For my use, I can climb up near the splintered bottom covered in ants and other creatures of decay and then balance myself easily on the massive circumference before embarking toward the wall. e illusion of safety remains as the surrounding canopy masks the nal leg of my ascent. I am on top of the wall. A few steps over the rotting wood of the old ramparts. I drop down off of it and onto a patch of grass below that is up to my knees. I nd my way to the stream by memory and the sound. I am almost at the Peach Tree again. ere is the copse of rs stretching out from the bank to the low lawn that runs up to the inner walls of the estate. ere is the bend in the meander of the stream that hides the Peach Tree from the rest of the world. I am here. Alone in the clearing. I don’t know why I imagined that she actually would be here. She isn’t. It doesn’t appear that anyone has been here. e incense still sticks out of the shoddily packed mud. An early morning rain has sent little rivulets through the soft earth that are now caked and dry and would show the treads of comings and goings. e peach that I had so easily bruised lies decayed and the tree does not bear any fruit. It’s branches sway in the gentlest of winds. e world waits quietly as I sit down beneath the tree that haunts my memories. e mountain and its tears swallow up the view over the stream that now runs quietly in clear peace away from me and down the mountainside from where I came. Something drove me here. Something had made me decide that I needed to see this peaceful grotto. Maybe though that’s all it was. My own desire for serenity or clarity. I wonder why she didn’t retrieve the red incense that sticks out of the barren earth as if marking the dead. It is not like a Japanese woman to leave anything out for very long regardless of what it is used for.

And it’s not simply that thought that perplexes me, but the feeling that I have when I near it. Unlike curiosity. I can’t bear to look at it. It feels almost like hate, but inwardly as if something about that stick reveals something of my truest nature. e day is lost. I pick up the rotting peach and throw it into the river. I don’t even have a letter than I can tuck away beneath the dirt for her to read. If only I could write, I could leave her something to remember me by. I knew she wouldn’t be here, deep down. And now I must be back to the school. Yoshioka School. As an adopted son of the magistrate it would be my sacred honor to take the name of our teacher, Yoshioka, but for now they call me Hachi. If I am to be a samurai, the magistrate will call on me. e easiness of life in this serenity has allowed my thoughts to wander. I’ve drifted away from the task at hand, leaving the estate before the hours run out. I sit there in peace for one more moment. Everything about this place seems somehow at once limitless and constrained. Compared to the teachings of Yoshioka Seijuro, I feel so much more connected to the world and to my dreams. e little clearing with its cavern-like atmosphere almost appears like a perfect circle. I cup my hands and look through them at the world around me as if testing the shape. As soon as I leave the outer wall, the dread of returning to the school hits me. Combined with a sheer tremor that shakes my gut and torso that sears only one image in my mind. My thoughts are poisoned again by the Peach Tree. Worse now than ever. As I run down the mountain, back along the paths that I came. Rocks, trees, shrubs, animals, leaves, the smells again, and wet earth. I think of only one thing. e Peach Tree. I want again to sit against the trunk as I did. I long to feel the cold water of the white stream against my feet and hands. It is a burden, this knowledge of this place where happiness is possible, if only brie y.

And it has ensnared me completely. e absence of its rapture stirs my young mind, but as a child I have none of the words that I can later use to describe this sense of urgency. I react only to the pang of desire and the pain of loss. I think of only two things. Did I spend too much time in that place of solitude or not enough? I don’t care about not leaving a letter. e humidity of the forest mingles with the dry heat of the midday sun as I near the edge of the woods. Did I give Umi enough time to wander through her father’s garden to nd me? ere is something about the idea of her that has implanted itself within my heart. Nothing truly coherent drifts into my mind. I almost can’t remember her face, but I long to share the world of the samurai with her. All of the danger and honor. If I become samurai, it is possible. I don’t care whether she loves or hates the samurai, but maybe I care what she thinks of me. I get to the school grounds. Cross the yard checking all directions and shuffle between a loose board int the outer wall quickly. I look both ways, slide the door of my building open unceremoniously. Place my shoes expertly along the wall. I am the rst one back. I shake my head and lie down and listen as the cicadas buzz about outside. My insecurities about being able to read begin to disappear. ere is time to learn. Soon, it begins to drizzle lazily, and in the white noise, I drift to sleep, thinking of the Peach Tree. *** ere is nothing more terrifying than the weight of responsibility. Men and women run half the world away to escape it, and then they share stories of how they’ve skirted every opportunity to become constrained, restrained, or committed to something. Being a samurai is accepting responsibility. ere are no locks on the doors. ere is no one to keep you in the intense training but yourself. ere is only

the reality of certain, meaningless death outside the paper and wood panels that guard one from thundering rain and hunger. You can run at any time and for what? To nd your peachless Peach Tree? î “e other option is to stay and accept responsibility. It is not a tough decision at a young age. It only appears that way to adults (coddled merchants and lawyers and farmers that work fertile land), because they have obligations and alternatives. For me and for many and for most, it is instantaneous. You either nd the sword an ideal or you cast it down. It is only a moment, but it is a moment that decides your fate for the rest of your life. Once you accept that responsibility over the certainty and fear of death, then you have but one goal: to die an honorable death. Death may come to samurai in many forms and at many times, but to die a death in battle means that your life was not wasted. Your life is not a soul or a solitary fraction of time. It is not you in this moment or what you might be. You are a samurai. It is the only thing that you are. It is the only thing that you will be. But it is all the things that you have done to make it to that moment on the battle eld when you are striking weapon against weapon with the intent to kill. A thousand cuts in the wind each day. A thousand steps. A thousand breaths. All serving one purpose. To die that death on that battle eld. Whether anyone sees you or not. You can close your eyes and know that every movement of your dying body has moved toward one goal. It took a long time to know these things. It took a long time to understand responsibility. Re ecting later, beneath my Peach Tree, maybe I could pinpoint a time when I recognized that it was not fear that drove me to become a samurai but acceptance. But it doesn’t matter, because the beauty of understanding the will to be a samurai came almost immediately in those rst few years at the Yoshioka school.

In fact, the memory that Master Yoshioka Seijuro (Seijuro-sama) etched into me at an early stage in my studies became a core factor in my philosophy for life. It comes back to the Peach Tree. And this is also the reason why that I went back up to visit it that day. I would write it in a letter for Umi if I could; if she would care to know what happened in the village below her father’s castle. Seijuro-sama had seen someone return from curfew after the designated time. Which was me. I knew it was me, but they didn’t. It had seemed late, although I had snuck in, appearing ahead of other. is was not an easily forgivable offense. If I was to give myself up, then I could have my hands chopped off or be killed instantly. Seijuro orders us into a line. I remember looking up and down the line thinking that there were so many young samurai. How we were all going to become officers or retainers or hired men. It seemed like there were never many samurai about. It felt like there were twenty in the whole of the master’s realm, but there are twenty boys in my age group at least. Probably even more. I look at Seijuro-sama and then to an adept that is walking on the opposite side of the line. ere is a quick nod between the two and then with a deftness that forever unto this day de es the laws of time and reality to me, Seijurosama and the adept chop off the heads of two boys. Seijuro-sama nods at the line of boys, we are dismissed. ere is nothing to say that will provide the reason to the violence perpetrated here at the Yoshioka school, and Seijuro-sama has no need to explain. But my understanding is simple. A transgression against the honor and reputation of the school has been made. e punishment for which has been delivered upon the dead boys. Public or private it does not matter. Who did the crime and who aided it does not matter. Honor and the responsibility to uphold it matter only. It’s odd I think as I walk through the wood-paneled halls. It is strange. I did not ever know their names. I barely knew their faces, and now they are dead.

ere is a lot of death at this time in Japan, and that is not unique to Japan. All the countries in the world are wrapped in this game of responsibility and desire. Uphold or die. I, then, did not know what I think or believe to be the way, but I know with that episode that Seijuro-sama remains dangerous, the Peach Tree remains dangerous, and that war is inevitable. Because people like me want to stop people like them and not the other way around. *** Seijuro-sama teaches us. He is the samurai master. Sensei. Day in and day out, I acquaint myself with the stocky veteran of the uni cation wars. His eyes are dark and void. ere is no smile to them and no reason to smile. He peers at you with an effortless malevolence that bridges the gap between hate and indifference. I’ve seen him differently with the adepts that make it through these especially dangerous years as youths in the school when we are unproven burdens on needed resources like rice and salt. But, until then. Until I prove myself, I remain a blade of grass, a ower in the garden, or possibly the bees that come to pollenate those owers. Maybe Seijuro-sama is wary, and he views us as simultaneously a threat and a blessing to the health of his home. He is stocky. His torso is about as wide as it is tall. His hands are thick, and his ngers look like giant slugs. He likes to tap his cheeks with his hands and mutter to himself something incomprehensible. He presides, continuously over our progress. He teaches us to read. He teaches us to write. He teaches us to eat, sleep, ght, kill, love, walk, watch. e list goes on and the training never ends. ere is no stopping point in the day. ere is no set time. ere is no clock and there does not need to be. We are samurai, we must live like samurai, and we must act like samurai. We will never be anything other than samurai. I progress at a normal pace in reading and writing, but I can tell that I disappoint Seijuro-sama. What I lack in the art of language, I quickly make up for in other areas that could be viewed as more important to our discipline.

Even though I still cannot write a letter, I can handle a sword. I am the best in class by far when we play our sword games. I can see Seijuro-sama’s cheeks shake as if he ghts away a smile. His eyes betray nothing. He challenges me with other weapons. Astutely, I pick up basic and then more advanced staff and kusarigama skills, but it is neither of these that entrances me. It is the sword that hangs from Seijuro-sama’s waist. He watches me regularly. He follows me from form to form, and I know why. I tell myself it is because he sees potential. I tell myself it is because he sees a glint in my eyes. I tell myself it is because I have something hidden within that he can sense. I will be the best, I say, each time that he looks my way. It is glorious. e shine of its metal in the sun. I remember it from the day when it whipped through the air and drank a feast of blood. A black, chipped case with gold dragons slipping along the side. Seijuro-sama carries a heavy blade forged from the nest smith in the prefecture at the end of the uni cation wars. I can see the marks he’s made on the side to sign his name have faded slightly with time. I can see the way Seijuro-sama labors in a half-feigned, laconic manner every time he pulls the sword up from where he’s placed it. A momentary wince. And how it shined. Seijuro-sama’s sword shined with such perilous promise. He held it out to display. His impassive, sunken, dark eyes stealing the light from the air and then the mere shimmer of the split second when it took off the heads of the target. A shudder runs through me for I know that the blade could as easily and more deservedly have taken my head instead. I breathe heavily. e sword of a samurai could sever a limb with one direct thrust. It has no equal. Where other weapons are clumsy and unpredictable, the sword is quick, clean, and precise. Every time I swing the wooden stick that we practice with I feel my mouth water and my eyes sting. I feel the heat rise in my hands and spread up my arms to my shoulders until the feeling hardens into resolution.

is is desire. I can tell. e only desire that drives the thoughts of the Peach Tree and the garden from my mind. e only thoughts that take me from the suffering of my loneliness. is is the responsibility that I accept. It is then that I remember the Peach Tree. How could I forget it? I feel shame for a brief second, but then I wonder why. And the knowledge of the Tree becomes a burden with such sudden force that I am shook again, because I realize nally that I am caught between two opposing forces. Peace. War. Both are a part of me. Both are a part of everyone. Just as we have a capacity to love, we have a capacity to kill. is is also responsibility. e honor of a samurai hangs always in the balance. Swords will be given to plowshares, and I know that I will kill. I do not have to be told to do so. It is a feeling akin to memory. I know that I will stop at nothing to be the best swordsman that Japan has ever seen. e greatest samurai. And maybe in doing so, I will earn the right to not need a sword to live. e right to walk the world unarmed. *** I awake from a dream startled. It seemed so pleasant but morphed into something unrecognizable. Everything had gone well. My dreams and plans for meeting Umi based off a letter that she sent me, but then she disappeared from the secret grotto of the Peach Tree as suddenly as if she had burst into ame spontaneously. I look around. ere is no letter. ere are only my tattered rags, my slim frame, and the huddled bodies of the others who seek to make death their companion for a little while in exchange for rice and salt. *** “Hachi! So good to see you! You have not come to the Peach Tree for months. Where have you been?” “I couldn’t come. ey found out that I’ve been sneaking away.” “I heard. Something terrible. Something, so, so terrible.” “What did you hear?” “A novice was killed.”

“Two novices. Decapitated.” “How? Oh. Are you in danger? You are a novice, right?” “Me in danger? Only if I come here. And you are here.” “Why did you come then? Oh, Hachi, you mustn’t risk your life for me.” “e Peach Tree, it calls to me.” She turns away and looks toward the mountain. “Who killed them?” “Seijuro-sensei.” “Describe him to me.” I do, and she speaks again. “Would you kill him if you had to?” “Would I kill him?” “Yes.” e Peach Tree changed color behind me, and I felt the world shake and give, then slip away.

About Christopher M. Struck

Christopher M. Struck enjoys writing contemporary and historical ction. His debut novel Kennig & Gold is a 1940s love-at- rst-sight iconic American tale inspired by true events. Â He enjoys traveling, studying foreign languages, and is especially fond of the Japanese culture. He resides in New York City where he writes reviews for Cabaret Scenes Magazine and BroadwayWorld.

About The King’s Seal

e concluding chapter of e Magicians of Venice is a treasure hunt through time, drawing on gures of magic and history as Penelope hunts for a lost relic capable of defeating the demon evetat and his followers. e search for the legendary seal ring of Solomon has begun, and Penelope must sift through its long and convoluted history, from lost emperors to crusaders, court magicians, Renaissance alchemists and popes, if she has any hope of nding it. As Penelope’s magic continues to grow with the magical high tide, she and Alexis will rely on each other more than ever to keep those they care about safe from the ongoing assault by the priests of evetat. With the tide of magic nally at its peak, the nal battle against evetat will begin and no one will be the same once it is over.


Milos was a small, picturesque island surrounded by the Aegean’s topaz blue waters, and Kreios hated every moment he had to spend on it. Out in the world, he was able to move about; he could go into a café and pretend for a few precious moments that he wasn’t bound, body and will, to a madman and a demon. Milos was the monster’s lair, and every step he took, evetat’s presence pulsed like a toothache. e locals had learned to look the other way, dismissing the opulent mansion, its owner, and the constant stream of visitors as the lifestyle of a man with too much money. Kreios made sure that the visiting priests, acolytes, and vessels that frequented the island supported the locals and behaved themselves. ose that didn’t behave were dealt with severely by Kreios, and they were not tempted to step out of line again. Kreios stepped into the produce store that was also a post office and tourist gift shop, and grabbed a handful of postcards. He greeted the owner, Rhea, with a cheerful smile before pulling out his pen. After what happened in Venice, Kreios had convinced evetat that they needed to limit their digital communications—Galenos was far too skilled in tracking them—and had presented the idea of sending cryptic instructions on the back of postcards. No one ever paid much attention to the scribbled messages, especially if they were written in a dead language. Kreios hummed to himself as he jotted down the latest orders, the addresses known by heart. evetat would never bother to check Kreios’s memories of such a mundane task, but he hadn’t survived as long as he had because he was careless. He couldn’t risk using shielding magic, not when evetat was so

close, so he chose the simplest way to cover his tracks. He shut his eyes, wrote the one-line message on the postcard, and slid it in amongst the others before opening his eyes again. When he was done, Kreios handed the pile of cards over to Rhea with some euros and left the store. Kreios had long stopped believing in hope, but something akin to it ickered in the pit of his guts. Whether death or freedom met him rst, he didn’t really care. All he knew was that within a month, the nightmare he’d endured for the last ten thousand years would be over. Â

Chapter 1

Ever since Doctor Penelope Bryne had met the magicians of Venice, she’d been forced to believe more impossible things by breakfast than Alice in Wonderland. at was why when they said things like, “Constantine the Great is still alive,” Penelope had learned to pause, take a breath, and then ask her follow-up questions. Sometimes, the answers she received were more confusing than the impossible thing itself. It had been a month since Penelope returned from Israel, and she was still having trouble reconciling everything that had happened there. Some days, her grief for Tim was like being pulled to the bottom of the Grand Canal by her ankles. Most of the time, her anger lay like a sleeping serpent in the pit of her stomach, and she did her best not to disturb it. She had work to do; the seal ring of King Solomon wasn’t going to nd itself. But rst, Penelope needed to nd Constantine. It didn’t matter how much research she did or how many time periods and historical gures she identi ed in the record of Tim’s visions; she needed a proper starting point. Most of all, she needed to know if the ring actually worked. Penelope was willing to allow some of the legends to have elaborations if the core truth was that the seal ring of Solomon could exorcise a demon. But they couldn’t waste time searching for a trinket based on some kind of allegory when they could be using their resources to track down and destroy evetat by other means. Besides, if Constantine was alive, what was to say he hadn’t tracked the ring down to get it back?

Alexis understood, but there wasn’t much he could do to assist Penelope in locating the emperor’s whereabouts. “I haven’t spoken to Con in centuries, cara. Aelia will be able to help. From what I can tell, she has always kept tabs on him.” “at’s great, but she won’t tell me. Every time I approach her about it, she walks away. I tried asking Phaidros, who grunted at me, and as for Zo? All he did was blush furiously and say he couldn’t help either.” Penelope threw her hands up in the air. “You’re all impossible. Can’t you use some of that Donato charm on Aelia and get her to spill?” “I’m surprised you believe Aelia would be susceptible to my charm at all. I’m still holding out hope that we won’t need to involve Constantine. I doubt any good can come of it,” Alexis replied without looking up from his book. “Fine. I’ll force it out of Aelia myself.” Penelope stood from her office chair. ey had gone back and forth on the matter for three weeks, and Penelope’s mind remained unchanged; they needed to talk to Constantine. ey could research until evetat had a new body and sank Venice into the sea, and they would still be no closer to nding the seal of Solomon if it adorned Constantine’s nger. Alexis was being stubborn because he was still hurt over what had passed between them centuries beforehand—yet another thing he refused to elaborate on. Alexis held out his hand to Penelope, and she moved to his desk, letting his arm curve around her waist. “Careful with Aelia. Constantine has always been a delicate subject,” he said, his lips against her shoulder. “Alexis, if I tried to dodge every sore subject with you magicians, I’d never get a chance to talk at all. I’m going to get her to tell me, or I’m going to make her life difficult until she does.” “Poseidon save me, you sound so much like Nereus sometimes. It’s like she’s found the perfect way to order us about from beyond the grave.”

Penelope bent down so she could kiss him lightly, the soft stubble of his beard tickling her lips. “And yet, you still love me, Defender.” Alexis’s indigo eyes glowed hot, and she knew she had to get away before her self-control went out the window. “I do love you, cara. Now, go and talk to Aelia before I nd a way to keep you down here,” he said, a hint of her favorite wicked smile lingering at the corner of his mouth. *** Moist, salty air hit Penelope as soon as she stepped out of the Archives elevator. April had come and gone, and with May, the sticky promise of summer had arrived. Penelope knew where Aelia would be without having to ask. e magician had claimed a stretch of the garden that overlooked the Grand Canal. In the past few days, she had nearly caused two boating accidents by strolling too closely to the stone retaining wall in her bright orange bikini. Currently, Aelia was sunning herself in another barely-there swimsuit, her hair caught up under a matching pink turban, with a sweating pitcher of spritz positioned on a small table beside her. “Ah, Penelope, pull up a sun bed and take off those clothes. e weather is far too pleasant to waste.” Penelope dragged another sun bed over to the shade of an umbrella but kept on her top and the jeans she’d cut off at the knees. Aelia lowered her sunglasses and gave her a critical once-over. “Are you here to ask me to come shopping with you?” She eyed Penelope’s improvised summer wear with distaste. “No, I’m here to ask you about Constantine.” “Oh.” Aelia repositioned her sunglasses. Penelope reached for the pitcher and poured herself a spritz. She had a feeling she was going to need it. “I’m never going to understand your reluctance to nd him unless you talk about it.”

“You are young, Penelope. I doubt you’d understand even if I did explain it to you.” “en you need to weigh up whether you want revenge on evetat and Abaddon more than you want to protect your own pride as far as Constantine goes.” “at was a horribly low blow.” “I don’t care. I’ve tried to be patient, but I’ve had it with all of you. I need the ring to stop evetat. Abaddon killed Tim. I know he wasn’t the greatest of friends in the end, but he was still my family, and I want payback. I’ll bug you until my dying breath if I have to.” Aelia moaned. “Poseidon save me, you are a pain in the ass. Drink a spritz and calm down.” Penelope leaned back in her chair, drank, and watched the ferries drive slowly past. When Aelia was still silent ve minutes later, she said, “It’s okay, Aelia. I’ll ask Phaidros. I know he won’t hold anything back.” Aelia bit her lip and looked away from her. “Please don’t. It will only antagonize him, and we’ve been getting along so well.” “en spit it out. I’m not asking any of you to make a phone call or come with me to see Constantine. I’ll do it myself. I only need to know where he is.” Aelia’s laugh tinkled across the canal, and the ferry load of people turned toward the sound. “Sweet, darling bambina, if you think the Defender will let you anywhere near Constantine without him, you are sorely mistaken.” “And if you think Alexis will be able to stop me, then you are sorely mistaken. Constantine is just a man. I don’t know what the problem is.” “You say that because you’ve never met him.” Aelia sighed and mumbled something under her breath. Penelope cupped her hand around her ear. “Scusi? I missed that.” “Dubrovnik,” Aelia repeated. She sat up and re lled her glass. “e city? What about it?”

“e last time I saw Constantine was in Dubrovnik, 1998. We had been to his villa in Niš.” Penelope waited, but when Aelia didn’t elaborate, she asked, “It ended badly?” “If by badly you mean I drove his Maserati 320S into the ocean, then yes, it ended badly. It always does; that’s the problem.” “Dare I ask why you drove his car into the ocean?” Aelia lifted a shoulder in a lazy half-shrug. “He wanted me to marry him; I said no. He got insistent, so I drove his car into the sea. It happens.” Penelope wanted to point out that such a thing would only happen if you were Aelia, but she didn’t want to piss Aelia off when she was talking for the rst time in weeks. “You think he might still be in Niš?” “He could be anywhere. He has always preferred the east to the west.” “You don’t have a mobile number for him?” “We fought. e number I have, even if I could nd it, would be over twenty years old.” “Fair enough. I’ll ask Zo if he’s heard from Constantine since ’98. As you said, it’s been twenty years. I’m guessing if he wanted to talk to you, he would have reached out by now.” “Hmm, you would think, wouldn’t you?” Broken hearts are not your forte, Bryne. Back out while you still can. Penelope downed the rest of her spritz. “anks, Aelia. I promise not to bug you about Constantine anymore. I’ll understand if you don’t want to come with us when we go and see him.” “I never said that.” “Why would you want to come along if you two have been ghting for the last twenty years?” “It might be a good chance to catch up, let him know the world could be ending—you know, that kind of thing.”

“Uh-huh,” said Penelope, not buying her act for a second. “Maybe you should stay here. I don’t want you starting arguments before I can get any useful information out of him.” “All depends on how we decide to argue.” Aelia’s lips curled into a smutty smile. “You know what? I don’t want to know.” Penelope got to her feet. “I’m going to talk to Zo. Enjoy the sun.” “I’ll make a few calls and see what I can shake loose. No promises,” Aelia called as Penelope walked away. *** Penelope found Zo in the sprawling entertainment room, ghting Phaidros on the PlayStation. “Aelia knows where Constantine is. She’s hesitating because she’s ghting with him,” said Phaidros. Zo punched the buttons on his controller with fervor. “You want to go and meet Constantine? Alexis is going to hate that.” “So everyone keeps telling me. It doesn’t change the fact I still need to talk to him.” Penelope opped down on the couch between them and watched as Zo’s character dodged the arrows Phaidros was ring at him. “Alexis is smart. He’s stayed away from Constantine because he’s poison,” Phaidros said. “Now you’re going to force him to break his promise to never see Constantine again. Alexis will do it too. As much as he’ll hate doing it, he’ll hate the idea of you alone with the emperor even more.” He cursed Zo in Greek and threw his remote at the other magician. “Don’t be a sore loser,” Penelope said. Zo roared with laughter. “Oh no. You’ve hit the metaphorical nail on its head there, Penelope. Phaidros is a terrible loser; that’s why he hates Con so much.” “Screw you.” Phaidros stormed from the room. “at reaction seemed rather extreme.”

“You should know by now, sorella, that Phaidros is always going to be extreme when it comes to his Aelia.” “at’s so stupid. ey aren’t even together! Neither are Aelia and Constantine. Why is everyone acting like this? I feel like I’m living in a crazy house.” Was one straight answer too much to ask for? “Penelope, you are living with magicians. Of course it’s like living in a crazy house. As for Aelia and Constantine—that’s complicated. It’s what happens when those blessed with an abundance of life fall in love, and make no mistake, Aelia is in love with Constantine. She’ll always be in love with him.” “en what’s the problem? Why not be with him if that’s how she feels?” “Because she’s also in love with Phaidros. She doesn’t dare admit it to herself or to him. As for Constantine…well, he’s Constantine. It’s hard to explain until you meet him for yourself. Everyone is in love with him, even Alexis, the straightest man the gods ever created. Why do you think he hasn’t talked to him in so long? He’s heartbroken, bella.” Zo leaned back into the cushions beside Penelope and took her hand. “We are hard to live with, I know. ere is too much history between all of us to ever be able to wrap your head around, so it’s better if you surrender to the ow and don’t become too frustrated with us when you don’t understand.” “You seem to be the most levelheaded at the moment. Maybe you should be the one to come with me to meet with this paragon of virtue I keep hearing about.” “Absolutely not. Constantine. He’s…” Zo placed a hand over his heart with a sigh. It said it all. Great, another one in love. Zo smiled as if reading her thoughts. “It’s so unrequited it hurts. If Alexis is the straightest man created, then Constantine comes a close second, but I can’t help but be in love with that man. You should read his poetry. Dio mi salvi!” Zo sighed dreamily.

“He writes good poetry too? Is there anything he’s not good at?” “Not much. Constantine’s not a paragon of virtue, so you should dismiss that idea at once.” “I wasn’t serious,” Penelope said. Zo gave her hand a quick kiss. “Good. Because he might be a saint, but he’s certainly not virtuous.”

Chapter 2

Marco could tell that Adal eri was pissed off by the way he chewed the corner of his mustache as he read the form in his hand. “Four weeks is a lot of time, Dandolo,” he said when he nished reading. “I know. However, I do have ten weeks owed to me. I haven’t taken time off in nearly three years,” said Marco. He didn’t want to antagonize the older man any more than he had to. “What brought this on? I know you’ve been busy since the bombings—we all have—but it’s a part of the job.” “It’s not about the bombings or the workload. I need a break, that’s all. Isabella and her wife, Guilia, have been trying to get pregnant, and it’s taking a toll on the family. I need to give them some space. And I need space myself.” It was a lie, but one that Adal eri would believe. All things considered, Isabella had been amazing as she coped with IVF and the storm of emotions that came with it. Adal eri was old-school in that he was a chauvinistic patriarch, and Marco could imagine all of the objections the older man had to a gay couple trying to start a family. Adal eri was also a politician, however, so he wisely kept his mouth shut. “Are you going anywhere nice, at least?” Adal eri asked. “e Bahamas.” “With a woman? It’s a shame that pretty doctor ran off with Donato. She would’ve been good for you.” “I’m going with a few friends. It’s the Bahamas; there will be plenty of pretty women to meet there.” Marco gave the other man a wink. He didn’t want Adal eri prying, and if he chose to believe Marco planned to get caught

up in the uncomplicated arms of some anonymous women, so much the better. It was easier to explain than, I’m going to join a group of vigilante magicians on a demon hunt. “By friends, do you mean Signore Donato?” “No, but we have a few of the same acquaintances.” “Be careful, Marco. ere’s much that is a mystery about that man and his circle of in uence.” “You don’t have to warn me, sir. I might be in need of a holiday, but I’m not about to stop being a policeman. If I see something worth investigating, I’ll look into it.” “Good man. You take after your father in some ways at least, even if he never asked to take holidays,” Adal eri said. Marco sti ed an inward groan. It wasn’t often that Adal eri brought up his father, Pietro. ey had been friends through the force, right up until Pietro got drunk, went out in his boat, and was never seen again. Marco’s mother, a staunch Catholic, had never allowed the word suicide to be mentioned in her presence, even if that’s what it had been. Marco had moved back to Venice from Padua to be there for his mother and sister. Eventually, laughter returned to the palazzo, and they rarely talked about the drunk man with his hard sts and worse temper. It was only the old men, who never knew what Pietro had actually been like, that ever talked about him with any fondness. An hour later, Marco breathed a sigh of relief as he stepped out of the police station. He lit a cigarette and got one sweet lungful before it was whipped out of his mouth and crushed to pieces in the hand of the ercest woman he’d ever met. Lyca stood proud, like a modern Zenobia, dressed in combat boots, jeans, and a singlet that showed off the impressive white tattoos inked on her black biceps. Her long silver hair was a mass of tiny braids and pulled back in a ponytail. She looked ready for action, as she always did.

“No,” she said rmly, holding out her hand until Marco relinquished his packet to her. “I don’t know why I can’t have just one.” “Because you need to quit. I won’t have some wheezing human giving my position away and unable to keep up. You wanted to join us in this ght. It’s my job to make you useful. Don’t bitch about my methods.” Lyca gestured toward her boat. “Get in. I’m driving.” Ever since the night in Cannaregio, when he’d met the Serpent of Venice, Marco had struck up an odd friendship with the warrior. It was clear Lyca saw Marco as a special project, and he was spending almost as much time at the palazzo on the Calle dei Cerchieri as his own house. It was one of the reasons he wanted to take annual leave from work. Juggling his day job and the investigation into the priests of evetat had begun to take its toll. And that was before the grueling workouts Lyca had been putting him through. Giving up cigarettes once and for all had been a part of the agreement. ey pulled into the small wooden dock on the Grand Canal, and Marco tied the boat off. Lyca smirked. She’d already explained that the magic of the palazzo would deal with the boat, but it went against every Venetian bone in Marco’s body to leave a boat unsecured. “Back again, I see,” said Phaidros as Marco walked through the door. “I missed you.” Marco offered him a sweet smile. Phaidros snorted and walked away. “What’s his problem?” “What it always is—Aelia. Penelope is pressing them to nd Constantine, and nothing pisses Phaidros off quicker than Aelia’s lovers,” said Lyca with disgust. Marco knew better than to push for more information. He liked Aelia’s company, even if she was extra irtatious at times to get a reaction out of Phaidros. Why Aelia and Phaidros didn’t get together was beyond him. e one time he’d mentioned it to Penelope, she laughed and said it was because it would

make too much sense. Marco had learned to deal with Phaidros’s snide comments once he realized there was no real malice in them, and generally, counteracting them with kindness resulted in the magician leaving him alone. ey found Galenos in the library and attached to a laptop, trails of light emanating from him. e rst time Marco saw him connect to technology with his magic, it had freaked him out entirely. It was like the magician synced with the machine and became a part of the system. It was easily one of the strangest things he’d ever seen, and that included Alexis pulling the MOSE gates from the sea. Galenos blinked a few times, code racing over his eyes, before he let the magic go. e cords of magic receded back into the magician, and then he was suddenly present and smiling at them. “Buongiorno, Marco. How was work?” Galenos asked. “Over for the next month, thank God. Did you nd anything new?” Galenos had been using the laptop from the safe house to trace where it had been and what it had been used for—a meticulous task that included studying every time one the priests of evetat had logged on to watch porn or transfer millions of dollars between accounts. “Nothing of interest at this stage.” Galenos got to his feet and crossed an item off a list pinned to the wall. He’d made a quick recovery after being tted for his new arm and leg, and Lyca was working him harder than Marco so he was ghting- t. ey made an odd pair, but Marco had never seen two people so in love with each other. “ank God, my sanity has arrived. I thought I heard your voice,” Penelope said, coming in from the gardens to kiss Marco’s cheek. “I’ve never been considered someone’s sanity before. How are you, amica?” “Frustrated. Trying to get information out of magicians has become my full-time job.” “Where is your shadow?” “If you mean Alexis, he’s in the Archives.” Penelope turned toward the wall of information. “Quickly, tell me something to take my mind off the emperor.”

Marco frowned at her tone. Since her return from Israel, there was a spike of iron in her eyes that hadn’t been there before. Marco understood the reasoning behind it, and yet it worried him. She should’ve grieved longer instead of throwing herself into work. It’s how she processes things, Alexis’s voice reminded him. Marco had spoken his fears aloud to the magician, knowing that if anyone could get through to Penelope, he could. He trusted Alexis’s judgment, but it didn’t make him worry about his friend any less.

Chapter 3

Alexis placed his book down on his cluttered desk and leaned back in his chair. Alexis could feel when Penelope was gone, just like the Archives could. Without the vibrant hum and warmth of her presence, the pressure growing inside of him became almost impossible to ignore. He didn’t want to keep her locked to his side, even if he was tempted to. e tide was creeping inevitably higher, and they were no closer to nding the ring of Solomon. Perhaps it was a fool’s hope to think it would work on evetat anyway. e collapse of Atlantis didn’t slow the wicked old snake down; what hope did they have with a ring? A ring that, in all likelihood, was still in Constantine’s possession. Alexis got up with a frustrated grunt and headed deeper into the Archives. It had changed to suit Penelope, but there were still chambers she didn’t know about. Nereus may have shown her the laboratory made of hematite stone, but none of them had mentioned the prisons. Over the years, they had all gone mad at least once—from magic, grief, or the depression of having a life so long and never seeing an end to it, unable to know why they had been cursed with it. Nereus had to ensure there was a place they could be held that would null the ow of magic inside of them, a place in which they could remain calm enough to recover from whatever ailed them without their magic reacting to every emotion. With the high tide looming and his mind on re, a cell was the only place Alexis might be able to think straight. Alexis opened the doorway hidden in the rock and found Phaidros sitting in the room of stone with his back against the wall. Waves of energy and magic

rolled off him like a nuclear reactor and were absorbed into the stone around him. Unlike Aelia and Zo, who could control their magic with words, Alexis’s and Phaidros’s power had a habit of leaking out when they least expected it. If they were emotional, it was harder to control. One look at Phaidros, and Alexis knew he was more than a little emotional. “What are you doing here?” Phaidros asked. “e same thing as you, I imagine.” Alexis slid down the wall beside him and breathed a sigh of relief. “at bad?” “My head is splitting. How about you?” “It’s so bad, I feel nauseous. Fucking high tides. I forgot how awful they are until you get used to them.” “And then once you do, they are gone again, and you have to live with that,” said Alexis. ey had been through it many times over the centuries. is was going to be the biggest high tide since Atlantis fell—who knew what would happen to them. “I thought you would be with Penelope.” Phaidros glanced at him sidelong with his golden eyes. “She needed a break from studying the ring of Solomon.” “She’s upstairs studying the priest’s movements with Marco. She never stops working. Have you noticed that?” “I have.” “I know you can be just as bad when you’re onto something, but she’s still mostly human, Alexis. is whole business will chew her to pieces if she’s not reminded what’s worth ghting for.” “She’s coping with her grief the best way she can, Phaidros. I can’t interfere with that. I don’t know what she needs. I’m trying to support her while she gures it out.” “Do something to get her out of this palazzo. You’re both so close to everything happening that you won’t be able to see the answers even if you nd

them. You need a break.” Alexis stretched out his long legs. He was feeling claustrophobic. “Perhaps there is some merit in what you are saying.” “I’m sorry, did you just agree with me?” “ere are occasionally pearls of wisdom amongst the muck.” Alexis smiled, and Phaidros burst out laughing. “I suppose that’s fair. Honestly, I’m happy that you’ve got Penelope. Jealous as anything, but happy nonetheless.” Phaidros’s body grew tense, and Alexis couldn’t resist reaching out to touch his shoulder. “Phaidros, don’t you think it’s time you tell Aelia? is high tide could be the end of our world as we know it. Stop torturing yourself like this and take the chance.” Alexis had promised long ago to never interfere when it came to Aelia, but Phaidros was his oldest friend, and he hated to see him so miserable. “Aelia isn’t ready for me to love her.” “She’s never going to be unless you tell her.” “She won’t let me love her, Alexis. Even Constantine, prick that he is, has only ever tried to love her. She allows it to a point, but when it gets too serious, she does something stupid to push people away. She doesn’t want to be loved.” “We all want to be loved. Aelia’s afraid. Love and fear go hand in hand. You’ve lived long enough to know the truth of that.” “We need her for this war against the priests. If I spook her now, she’ll run. If she runs, she’ll be alone and vulnerable and easy for evetat to pick off. I won’t risk her life like that.” “I understand. I only want you to stop wasting the time you have with her.” Phaidros laughed. It was a bitter, heartbreaking sound. “All we’ve got is time.” “For now. is high tide might be the thing that breaks this curse of immortality.” “How is Penelope dealing with the tide? Can she feel it yet?” Phaidros changed the subject too fast for Alexis to carry on about Aelia.

“I’m not sure. Penelope hasn’t said. Her magic is unique in that both parts of it originally belonged to other magicians. I don’t know what to expect from it.” “Do you think the magic will absorb and become hers? Maybe she’ll start demonstrating abilities like yours and Nereus’s?” “e Living Language from my tablet seems to have become her own. I’ve often thought of it as a proto-language—maybe not the rst language, but certainly the oldest—so perhaps that’s why it’s helping with the translations. All language has its roots in it. Nereus’s power came from Poseidon, so who knows what it will do. Penelope can balance my power like Nereus could.” He hadn’t told anyone about it, and after it happened in Israel, he and Penelope hadn’t spoken of it either. Phaidros raised his eyebrows. “If she can do that, why are you here? Can she do it to anyone else?” “She only did it once, and it was while…” “While you were fucking?” “Gods, you’re vulgar. Yes, it happened then. You can see why I wouldn’t want her testing it with anyone else.” “It could’ve just been triggered that way because it was instinctual. If she tested it in other ways, I’m sure she could do it to anyone.” Phaidros had a gleam in his eye that Alexis knew far too well. “I will hit you.” Alexis recalled how intimate it was when Penelope drew on his magic, and he’d lock all the other magicians in the prison before he’d let any of them share that with her. “Okay, okay, but you need to try to get her to explore her abilities. Otherwise, the tide will be here, and she won’t know how to cope with any of the side effects.” He was right, and while Alexis secretly hated it, it was enough to give him an idea. “I’m going out for a while. Try not to stay in here too long, or it will sucker punch you as soon as you leave.”

“Yes, yes, I know. Go and make love to your lady, Defender,” Phaidros said, then shut his golden eyes once more. Alexis found Penelope upstairs in the library, exactly where Phaidros predicted she would be. “You can’t stop working for ve minutes, can you?” Alexis kissed the top of her head. “Marco turned up, and I got distracted.” “Come for a walk with me, cara. ey can manage without us for the afternoon,” he whispered in her ear. Penelope looked up at him curiously before smiling. “I should go and get changed.” “Don’t. You look perfect as you are.” Aelia snorted from the other side of the room but managed to keep her mouth shut. “I’ll text you if we nd anything,” Marco said without looking up from the laptop screen. “You will not. We’ll be back soon enough. e world can wait.” Alexis placed his hand at the small of Penelope’s back and steered her toward the library door. *** Outside, the sun hung low in the sky, and the sea breeze was cooling off the sticky streets. “What’s brought this on?” Penelope looped her ngers around his. “I’m tired of being inside the palazzo with all of the squabbling magicians. We need a walk and time away from the search,” Alexis said as they moved through the narrow streets of Dorsoduro. ey passed the Accademia Bridge. Alexis gave some euros to Maria, the homeless widow who favored the Campo della Carita. Dodging a crowd of art students outside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Alexis bought a bottle of wine and focaccia before they crossed the bridge to the Punta della Dogana. e tourists had cleared out for the afternoon, so they sat down next to the

lamppost at the very point, with a perfect view of the light shining on St. Mark’s Square across the canal. “is was an excellent idea,” Penelope said before sipping her Chianti. “You can thank Phaidros. He reminded me that we shouldn’t have our heads stuck in books all the time.” “Dates with handsome men are all well and good, but Solomon’s ring needs to be found. e fate of the world and all that.” “Cara, there is always something threatening the fate of the world. e search for the ring has distracted us from something equally important, and that’s your magic,” said Alexis. Penelope looked away from the water and down at the silver rings shining on her hands. “I don’t know what you all expect me to be able to do.” “e tide is growing. It’s starting to affect Phaidros and me more every day. It won’t be long before the others feel it too, and that includes you. I only want you to be ready for it. It’s a part of you, and it will grow into what it needs to be. Pretending it isn’t there won’t make it go away.” “Poseidon’s power from Nereus—whatever that means. With any luck, I’ll get abilities like Aquaman and will never have to worry about drowning again,” she said with an awkward hitch in her voice. Alexis shifted so he could put an arm around her. “I don’t want you to worry unnecessarily. Just be aware of anything…out of the ordinary.” Penelope reached up to brush her ngers against his jawline. “Alexis, I live with magicians. Everything seems out of the ordinary to me, but I promise I’ll try to be more aware of it. I wonder if there is anything in the Archives about Poseidon’s abilities. I might be able to come up with a list of things to watch out for.” “at’s a good idea. I’m sure Nereus will have something. Although many of her books that I know I’ve seen seem to be missing.” It was bothering him more each day. Why would the Archives hide them?

“Kreios said that Abaddon wanted Nereus’s books on the experiments to bring Poseidon back to life. I’ve looked for them, and they aren’t there.” “Maybe the Archives destroyed them when the office was remade for you. Nereus felt strongly that those particular experiments shouldn’t be repeated under any circumstances.” “Why didn’t she destroy them herself?” Penelope asked, then shook her head. “Nope. Never mind. Magicians are academics; book burning isn’t in their nature.” ey sat in silence, watching the light begin to fade. In Alexis’s arms, Penelope let out a contented sigh. “Maybe we should’ve disappeared for a hundred years while we had the chance. I could get used to lazy sunsets and wine with you.” Heady magic coursed through Alexis like quicksilver, calling out to him to do just that. “You would miss Venice too much,” he said, swallowing the impulse. “Very true. I don’t know what it is, but I feel so at ease here. I don’t feel like a tourist. Instead, Venice feels like the home I was looking for but could never nd.” “Venice has a way of doing that to people. In a time that was full of mistrust, Venezia threw her arms out to the world, and anyone could live and make money here. Time has changed her in many ways, but not in the ones that count. It doesn’t matter where you were born, if you arrive and she invokes erce love in you, she will never let you go.” Alexis’s own deep history with the city could never alter his love for it. “You’re going to have to teach me all of Venice’s feast days. I don’t think I’m ever going to remember them all. We missed Saint Mark’s Day when we were in Israel, which sucks, because I love roses.” Alexis frowned at the wistful note in Penelope’s voice. “I’m going to have to nd a way to make it up to you. Our courtship needs more afternoons like this one.”

“I’m really glad I remembered who you are,” whispered Penelope. Alexis’s heart expanded as she leaned farther into him to watch the stars come out. As they wended their way back through the dark streets of Dorsoduro, Alexis asked, “Did you have any luck getting information out of Aelia or Zo about where Constantine might be hiding?” “Aelia said she will ask around, whatever that means. It surprises me that Constantine didn’t keep in touch with any of you. Being long-lived and alone would make me want to reach out to others like me—or at least send a Christmas card.” Alexis stopped walking. “e letters,” he murmured. He pulled Penelope to him, and they disappeared in a shower of black-and-silver sand.

About Amy Kuivalainen

Amy Kuivalainen is a Finnish-Australian writer who is obsessed with magical wardrobes, doors, auroras, and burial mounds that might offer her a way into another realm. Until that happens, she plans to write about monsters, magic, mythology and fairy tales because that’s the next best thing. She enjoys practicing yoga and spending her time hanging out with her German Shepherd, Duke in the beautiful city of Melbourne. Her upcoming Firebird Faerie Tale series combines Russian and Finnish mythology with legends, magic, the mysterious rebird and her love of reluctant heroes. Cry of the Firebird, book one in the series, releases in October 2021.

About Sirgrus Blackmane Demihuman Gumshoe and The Dark-Elf

Bacardi and Coke. Neat. Not the usual drink of choice for a mountain dwarf. en again, Sirgrus Blackmane was no traditional dwarf—not since e Great War. Being a gumshoe during Prohibition might appear glamorous, with all-night cocktail parties, scantily-clad women displaying their knees, and magic-dealing mobsters. Only constant conspiracy lurks beneath the shining illusion. A war hero, private dick, and dwarf, Sirgrus Blackmane is all this and more. e city’s two most powerful mob bosses bid to control the rum supply into Demihuman Quarters when the human half of the Mason and Blackmane Detective Agency is found dead right in the middle. His morning only complicates as two mysterious packages arrive at Sirgrus’s door, two corpses drop into his lap and he will be joining them in two days if he doesn’t nd the killer.

Chapter 1 Dead Partner

e Great War is over, Prohibition is in full swing, and fairies have the right to vote. Sprinkle-dust fae, not those bloody orcs. Don’t give me any “bleeding heart,” “love your enemy” buggery. Ending a war with signatures on a paper doesn’t change what I witnessed. No way. e only good orc is a dead one. Dwarves are born hating orcs. And I’ll die hating orcs. Cops would be a close second. I’ve no ancestral urge to butcher them, but I don’t have a desire to cooperate without a warrant either. I’m jammed between two uniformed officers in the back of a coupe. I’m not under arrest, so I don’t appreciate the perp treatment. Sandwiched between them, one thing is clear: I’m not trusted. I’ve nothing better to do. My caseload is open. Private dicks aren’t normally called to the busting of a rumrunner ring—especially dwarf detectives outside the Quarters. I’ve got little to do with Prohibition, other than that it’s a law I fail to practice. Mead is a staple of the mountain dwarf diet. I slip a golden clamshell case from the inner pocket of my trench coat and remove a cigarette. I prefer pipes, but in a pinch, a cig will do. If I don’t catch a case after this, I’ll have to roll my own. e driver hits every pothole in the road before pulling into a eld. ey let me out. I crush my cig, using the moment of freedom to grind the cherry into the green grass. I’m not manhandled, but the brusque movement of my escorts suggests I’m expected to follow the officers. e sight of wooden box after wooden box being dragged from the barn makes me want to cry. Uniformed men outside smash case after case labeled

“Perfect Maple Syrup,” and their acts are the true crime. Hard rum vapors hover in the air, wafting from the growing pile of shattered glass and growing pond of brown liquid soaking into the ground. My escorts bring me to the man in charge. His suit gives away that he is no patrolman. I can’t get over the paisley print stitched into his blue silk tie. His tie reveals his talents if a person knows what the symbols mean. He’s human, and human mages are a dying breed. Mages have always been feared. Hell, they used to be burned for heresy. I light another cig. “We found a body.” Now, a body does pique my interest. Bodies are to be expected when rumrunners are raided, but not always. Most middlemen bootleggers surrender, and the lawyers have them out on bail within twenty-four hours. But other than drinking the product, I’ve nothing to do with such nefariousness. Anyway, I don’t deal with stiffs. ey tend to skip out on the check. “Agent Edgeangel, since when does the Justice Bureau’s Mage Division enforce the National Prohibition Act?” I speak with disdain, mostly because of the smell. Magic stinks worse than the wafts of spilt rye. “Sirgrus…Blackmane.” He bites off my clan name as if it’s tough, overcooked meat. “Magic crimes are on a downward trend since the end of the war. Drinking-related crimes are rising.” When you pass a pointless law to help those returning from war to curb their drinking, you create more criminals. e Great War wielded the tools of men over ancient mysticism. Europa suffered, centuries of culture was decimated, and magic failed to restore the old ways. is surly baboon won’t admit mages of any race are going extinct. But I’m here about a dead body, not a dead culture. I puff a series of smoke rings, contemplating how best to remind him wizardry is obsolete. “e trenches gutted the ancient countryside, destroying the old ways. No magic will ever bring it back.”

Edgeangel wags a nger toward the silver rune-etched beads laced into my beard’s braids—a long-standing dwarf superstition. Some claim the runes have a charmed origin. “e technology of men rules the world now. But I didn’t ask you here to discuss the diminution of the old ways.” “I gured not.” I stand next to the classy G-man. Even on a government salary, his suit is tailored. Mage-users are elitists. I’m not a fan. Mages failed us in Europa. e G-man gazes down his long nose at me. Not because of my height. Dwarf is a species, not a size. I reach a stature of ve feet, without the fedora. Edgeangel’s blue eyes reveal his distaste for me. Or perhaps he just thinks all non-mages are beneath him. I don’t need the gift of clairvoyance to understand his assignment was no career builder. Rum-running busting is a job for the common officer, not a master of the Dark Arts. Agent Edgeangel marches past the men carting case after case of booze from the barrelhouse. ey must smash it here onsite. Somehow, if they don’t, it never arrives to be booked into evidence. Another reason the lawyers get the minions out on bail so fast: no proof. We continue past a paddy wagon. e shackled men ignore me. In a back room of the barn—maybe for tools or tack storage—a white sheet shrouds a human gure. e corpse isn’t wide enough to be a dwarf. I had thought maybe a dwarf crossed the line to work outside the Quarter, which might’ve explained my presence here. Edgeangel might have supposed I knew a dwarf. Men always think dwarves know each other. We all look alike to them. A red bloom of blood is centered over the forehead. Edgeangel kneels, gripping the corner of the blanket. “Prepare yourself.” I’ve seen dead bodies before. Dead ones don’t disturb me like some of the living. I crush out my cig. My beard braids can’t hide my gaping mouth or my right hand, which drops to my side in search of my axe.

I know him—this human man. We chewed the same earth in the war and partnered afterward at the detective agency. Why in orin’s Beard is his blood all over the oor in an illegal whisky barrelhouse? Rye whisky—the good stuff. I hold back the impulse to open one of the jugs of “maple syrup” and guzzle half to block out the gut-wrenching pain of losing someone who’d shared the darkest experiences of my soul. But no—I’m not about to expose my pain before this wizard. “His face is a bit of a mess,” Edgeangel says. His nose is broken. No other signs of a beating, but he wasn’t given time to bruise before death. “ey improved on his looks,” I joke. Dwarves and humans normally don’t bond, but war changes people. Mason was my partner. Our names are painted together on the door of our office. “You two working a case?” Edgeangel asks, all business. Not that I know about. Our bank account is drier than the desert. “Nothing.” I crouch on my hams. “What are you doing?” “Checking his pockets.” “Tampering with evidence.” “My partner’s dead. I plan to nd out why. Can’t do any investigating without clues.” Edgeangel nods reluctantly. I reach into my dead partner’s coat pocket and sh out a few items: his wallet, a penknife, his wedding ring and a black matchbook from e DarkElf. I palm the matches—a possible clue; humans aren’t welcome in the Quarter’s most popular nightclub. “He must have caught a case. Or someone thought he did,” Edgeangel muses. “Maybe he learned a little too much.” “According to his wife, she claims he knows too little about too much.”

“Don’t all wives think that?” Edgeangel hints he might have a sense of humor. Not the way I want to start this week. “Do that magic trick. Show us what he last saw.” “I’m not a necromancer.” “Magic’s magic.” Edgeangel drops the sheet, pointing a nger in my face. “Listen, dwarf, I did you a solid.” He did, but only for his career. He locks in a raid with enough barrels of rum, and he gets to go back to Magical Misconducts. He asks, “You own a heater?” “Don’t have much use for one. Got my ll ring several varieties of weapons the war.” No reason not to sing. “Got two in the safe at the office. Even got a little white card says I can carry.” “.38 caliber?” I eye the forehead of my dead partner. Blood escapes, only to pool around his head. at means he was shot right here. e hole in the skull is right for a .38-caliber bullet. Don’t need some fancy medical expert to tell me as much— again, the war. Some of those poor boys bleeding in the trenches could have been diagram posters for bullet caliber sizes. “You want to see ’em? No squawks from me, Wizard. Long as you got a warrant.” Hell, as far as I know, it was from our .38. Mason could’ve been carrying it, and one of those men outside could have taken it from him. “Take it easy. I wouldn’t allow you to check him if I thought you did it. None of them outside had a .38-caliber pistol.” I stand, the perfect picture of control. Control is not stomping my dead partner’s already maimed face for leaving me in a mess. “Did you glamour them?” “You know the law.”

I tug on a beard braid. “is will be your only chance to question them. Likely, you’ll never even get real names on an arrest report.” e system favors the criminal. I step past Edgeangel to take a gander into the barn. e coppers have yet to drain a fourth of the liquor stores. Only one organization could stash this much booze in one location. I wonder if the G-man knows this observation connects with the matchbook clue. Dew melts from the eld, which is now a makeshift parking lot. Five buckets belong to the coppers—all new cars painted with fresh stars on the doors. ree more trucks with at wooden beds for hauling barrels might be the bootleggers’. en there’s the coupe I rode in and the paddy wagon. A nal pair of taillights peeks out from the far side of the barn. Forced to stand along the outside of the wagon, seven men manacled to each other sneer at my approach. I rub my jowl, giving my best angry dwarf eyes. ey wouldn’t speak to me even if I beat on them. As Agent Edgeangel strolls past each man, he raises his right hand. It glows a baby blue. “Did you plug the man inside?” “You can’t use magic to search us!” e goon next to the goon who spoke digs his elbow into his ribs as a reminder that if he shuts his yap, they will all be back on the streets by lunch. One of the young officers whaps the elbow-throwing goon in the gut with his nutcracker. A gentle reminder that beating down suspects is the copper’s job. What Edgeangel said is true. No court allows magic-obtained admissions of guilt. at said, I’m not the courts. Edgeangel signals the uniformed officers to cart the men off. “None of them did it.” My face must match my red hair. I could still beat it out of one of them. I’ll thump the protester rst since I lack a rubber hose. ey know who did it: their boss—the most powerful being in the city, which makes my job difficult.

e death of my partner cuts my access to half the suspects in the city. Dwarves aren’t relegated to the demihuman Quarters, but we stand out in the human section of the city. It was the second reason for our partnership. A man teamed with a dwarf could go anywhere in the city. “We’ll nd his killer, Sirgrus,” Edgeangel says. “It’s a human-on-human crime. I’m sure it will be a top priority.” “If you learn he was on a case, you call my office.” He waves a hand as if performing a fancy card trick. I snatch his business card that appears out of thin air. Mages, too arrogant for their own good. No one is going to solve Craig Mason’s murder unless I do it. In the old days, before medical examinations, I’d have stood over him, drawn my knife and cut my arm to allow drops of blood to cement my oath. Today’s coppers would target a dwarf as the shooter if I perform the rite now. “I’ll check with Rhoda.” “You still working with that one? Fairies are going to demand more money along with the right to vote. ey’ll unionize. Go get yourself a human woman to push your papers.” No self-respecting human woman would work in the Quarter, even if it is right across the street from the Human Sector.

Chapter 2 Fairies and Follies

I pause outside our office door, recalling the proud moment Mason and I hung out our shingle. Two war buddies, home alive and forming the dream partnership. We opened our office on the border of the Human Sector and the Open Quarter of the city. I ip the light switch. Nothing. Hovering in the dark, a foot or so off the oor so her green, feline eyes meet mine, is Rhoda, thin as a rail. Fairy women have gotten taller over the generations but remain thin, so their papery wings support their weight, unlike the males, who are smaller and have pug noses to match their fat bodies. Giving fae the right to vote brings them into the public eye; they’re the last faction of magical creatures to be granted citizenship by the Constitution. She doesn’t sport the typical fae ower blossom-cut dress. Instead, Rhoda’s in a business suit. Human clients feel more at ease with her conforming to their dress styles. “I didn’t pay the bill this month…or last month. And before you growl at me, Dwarfy, you haven’t given me jack in three months.” “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?” She utters like a feather to her desk. Too much weight and those tiny wings would lack any lift. “Who’s going to answer this phone that never rings?” “Not me. I’m going to nd a hole and drink.” Not because of Mason’s death alone; it’s necessary for me to sleep. “What do you want me to tell Mason when he shows up?”

“e only way he’ll be in will be at the hands of a necromancer with a Ouija board.” “You mean he’s dead?” Fairies usually sport happy, childlike faces, but Rhoda’s melts into a frown. I drive in the last nail. “Kicked off. Expired. Pushing up the daisies.” “What happened?” “He was shot.” I hang my fedora on the coatrack. “Was he working on a case?” “No.” She shuffles some blank papers. “Take the day off.” I slip from my trench coat. “But Sirgrus, you’ve got a woman waiting in your office.” “Human?” “As the day is long, Dwarfy.” Her smile returns. I drum my ngers on the corner of her desk, then examine my ngertips. One problem with having a fairy secretary is that they don’t dust. Or maybe I don’t spend enough time in my office. “Wait until I’ve spoken to her and she leaves. If she isn’t a case, take the day off, unless you gure out what case Mason was working on.” Freshly dead partner or not, I need income. e human woman has gams that reach the top oor, and while seated, her skirt exposes their well-de ned curves. If I were human, this hoofer would twist my dingus. Only I’m not. As a dwarf, I prefer my ladies with a bit more body hair. Dwarves are funny in that manner. It’s why it was easier to employ a fairy secretary over a human woman. Besides making a killer cup of joe, humans enjoy her Dumb Dora routine. And she was cheap. Fairy salaries are manageable, and they appeal to both human and demihuman clients. But now that they’ve won the right to vote, they’ll demand higher wages…and health insurance. “You’re not detective Mason.” e woman has a pleasing elevator voice. “I’m sorry, Miss…?”

“Mildred.” She holds out her hand. I shake it, protecting the daintiness. “Mildred. I wasn’t informed of this appointment.” I bet I know why. Mason didn’t plan to speak long—while she was vertical. She utters her long eyelashes and purses her red lips. is human kitten should know her wiles have little effect on a dwarf. We don’t pursue human women. We just aren’t wired for lack of stoutness in a mate. “It was with Detective Mason only. No offenses, but I wanted a human. It’s why I spoke to Craig before.” Already on a rst name basis. “You spoke to him before? I didn’t know he was on a case.” Mildred opens her purse. No rings on her ngers. She removes butcher paper folded into a sleeve. “He wanted expenses up front. I needed to get it together. He told me to stay out of the apartment and meet him here.” From the size and shape, I guess a wad of bills lay inside. Only one way a dame with her looks makes that kind of cabbage without a rich husband. I take my seat. Even if I can’t convince her to allow me to take her case, I’ve got to know what she sent Mason to investigate. Her eyes icker above me. I know what caught her attention. It’s not a trophy. Mounted on the wall behind my desk is my double-bladed axe. I guess most nd intimidating. If it wasn’t a family heirloom, I’d toss it in the river. A human must wield it with two hands. e handle is long enough for a double grip, but a stalwart dwarf needs only one paw on it to cleave an orc skull. I mastered the technique in e Great War. Many long days in the trenches, shivering cold and avoiding the mustard, I honed the edge. Days of mud prevented our ri es from ring. e orcs brought down many a human with crossbows when gunpowder was too wet to re. Grandfather’s chain mail de ected the poison bolt tips as the family axe took forty-three heads. “What did you want Mason to investigate?”

“My sister’s suicide. She was found in the tub with her wrists sliced.” She couldn’t add fast enough, “Only I know she didn’t kill herself.” Hm. Dead sister. Hired Mason. Dead Mason. Bring on the waterworks. Dames like this cry at the drop of a hat. Mason must have thought she was an easy mark. Family never likes to admit a loved one chose to end it. “What makes you think she was murdered?” “I already explained this to Craig.” “Mildred, I just identi ed my partner’s body. He never briefed me on your situation.” “He’s dead?” It’s impossible to tell when a woman’s grief is genuine or if it’s just a convincing show to reel in a man’s sympathies. is chippie is good, but I’d bet the light bill that her distress is because she needed a detective fast and she believed Mason was the only game in town. Now he’s dead. Could be her sister’s mystery death might be at the heart of his murder. “Tell me of your suspicions.” She’s more broken up over a weasel she just met yesterday than a person should be. She clears a catch in her throat. “I need a drink.” Don’t we all. Time for my charm. “What would you prefer?” “A Rum Collins.” A woman of sophistication, or she desires to appear as such. “I’m fresh out of club soda.” It’s an office, not a nightclub. What kind of dame did Mason hook me to? “A Scotch Mist then.” Her purr utters with uneasiness. If she can hold up under that kind of drink, I’m not going to get much out of her except what she wants me to know. I unlock the bottom drawer of my desk, pulling out the only item inside—liquor. e glasses are clean and even lack fairy dust. I slosh in some brown liquid. Not scotch. “I’ve got whisky.” Her trembling ngers wrap around the glass, and she downs the shot better than most men I served with in the Army. “My sister was a dancer.”

If her legs matched Mildred’s, I bet so. I may not be attracted to human women, but hasn’t gotten any easier to not notice the shape of them. I lock the bottle back in the drawer. “She was hired to work at e Dark-Elf.” Would’ve gotten no odds at the track on that piece of information. e matchbook, Mildred’s legs and the fact she approached the only detective agency with both human and demihumans connections… “e largest nightclub in the Open Quarter. She was human?” Now I’m confused and can guess our lack of current clientele as the second reason for taking the case—the rst being to open those gams. Paying the light bill would be third. “Many demihumans species enjoy the human female. ey pay big bucks to watch her dance and sing.” Mildred dabbed her eyes with a lace handkerchief. And that’s not all they pay for. e Dark-Elf has an upstanding, no-longerserving-liquor area that proper ladies frequent. e speakeasy below the main oor is where anything you want to pay for happens. I didn’t know it had expanded to include human dames. “Doris was earning plenty and would have been able to abandon the nightclub lifestyle after a few months with a nice chunk of dough. And she was seeing…someone. Someone who wanted to be with her too.” She dots her kerchief under her dry eyes. “She would not kill herself.” She might. Money may have been rolling in for her, but I need not guess what she was forced to do to earn it backstage. “I’ll investigate Doris’s passing if you’d like me to pursue it?” I ignore the sound of the outer office door opening. Whoever enters will have to deal with Rhoda. A muffled male voice lters in from the front room. Mildred places the butcher paper package on the desk. “When I said ‘dough,’ it was only part of the reason she took such a job. See, we have a sick mother, and she needs a surgery.”

e sick mother routine. e prettier they are, the sicker the mother. Mason wouldn’t have been enough of a sap to believe that, unless this dame told him that story while she was on her back. “Her death was ruled a suicide, and the insurance won’t pay out. You prove it was murder, and I’ll have the money to help my poor mother.” All this smells worse than a bugbear in a bait shop. I open the butcher paper, removing six Jacksons. Sixty dollars should cover any expenses. Handing her back the stack of bills, I fail to inform her she has more than enough bread to cure three mothers. “I’ll investigate e Dark-Elf. You come back in tomorrow. If it appears your suspicions have merit, I’ll take the case and your money. If not, this will cover my retainer.” I need the whole roll, but I won’t screw her like Mason did—or tried. “You’re an honorable dwarf,” she states, as if this isn’t true of all dwarves. She isn’t uncomfortable around me, so she’s dealt with demihumans before. “Do you know who shot Craig?” “Yeah. Someone with a heater.” I escort her out of the agency. After closing the door behind her, and before I can ask Rhoda who else dropped in, I note the backward letters imprinted on the glass. “Rhoda.” I place two Federal bank notes on her desk. “Get the power back on. And buy yourself a black dress for the funeral. I’ve got to tell his wife.” I slide into my coat. “You take her case?” I reach for my fedora. “I said I’d investigate if there was a case. Get Mason’s name off the door. Did I hear the door?” “You and he each had a package delivered.” She pats two small, wrapped parcels I could cup in my palm. I snatch the rst one. It’s Mason’s, but it’s the ink I’m concerned with. e name on the return address is that of our Army lieutenant during the war. Don’t know what or why he would send us anything. Now is not the time to be dealing with him.

I take each small box back to my office, place them on my desk and turn to the wall to move the axe blade aside. I handle the heft with ease, but both Mason and I knew that a thief likely would not. Behind the weapon we hid a wall safe. I turn the knob, stopping on the numbers of the date we founded the detective agency—the only date we could agree on. Not the date we opened, but the one on which we agreed to partner. I sift through the papers. None of the documents are life insurance. I toss them back inside and reach into the far back. My ngers brush metal, and I pull out both revolvers so I can inspect them in the daylight. I sniff the cylinders. ey need oil, but they have not been red recently, nor are they loaded. I return them to the back of the safe. I’ll clean them later, but not now. Fresh oil might raise an eyebrow with Edgeangel, and he will be difficult enough to operate around. I give the dial a spin, scrambling the combination. Right above the wheel is a dwarf rune. Magic could open it, but it would melt the internal contents. I unlock the bottom desk drawer and ignore the cheap bottle I keep for clients, as well as the glasses, and just swill the liquor from my private stash— Hal ing Mill’s Finest Bourbon. Now those little folks know how to brew. I return the bottle, drop in the packages and lock the drawer. Seven of my ri e platoon crawled out of the trenches alive. Now we are six, and anything the lieutenant sent can wait until later.

Chapter 3 One on the Way

“Glad the bastard’s dead.” Elyse Mason fumes as she struggles to keep eggs separate from one another in an iron skillet with a spatula wielded with her free hand. Ready to pop with her next baby, her belly sticks out past her tiny feet. e faded slip she wears was meant for a thin woman, and as pregnant as she is, it only reaches her knees. e well-worn garment must be something Mason bought for her before the war. Even as much of the city prospers, most people lack funds for an extra set of clothes, or in her case, a chance to shop for some that t. She busts the yolks, scrambling the yellow into the white, giving up on sunny-side up eggs. e child, not quite toddling age, propped on her side like a jockey hanging sideways across her belly, reaches for the stove. A barefoot toddler holds tight to her stubby leg, peeking one eye at me. I give the kid a wink. Oversized rolling curlers hold Elyse’s matted hair to the top of her head, and a cigarette with two inches of ash about to drop hangs from her lip. I smell the eggs. Burnt bacon. e baby needs a fresh diaper. ere’s no bread or muffins, and she doesn’t strike me as the type to bake cookies for kiddos, but vanilla lingers in the kitchen. “BANG! BANG!” It takes everything I have not to leap from my chair at the rst bang. It wasn’t even loud. I successfully suppress how much it startled me. e largest boy strikes the table again while screaming “Bang, bang!” A long stick serves as his weapon.

“Die, you bloody orc!” He races around the table. Faux rage ares in his eyes. e next-sized child clutches her chest and contorts into an agonizing death pose. “You got me, you lthy human.” She collapses faux dead on the unswept oor. Another boy belts a gravely. “You’ll never win.” My mouth dries. I need a drink. I ball my left hand into a st to hide the quiver. I’d settle for my pipe. No orc sounds like the noise the child creates. ey wouldn’t be playing this game if they’d known a half hour in the trenches. “Don’t like kids?” Elyse drops the cigarette ash into the metal waste can before it crumbles to the oor. I hate that she saw me jump. Dwarves fear nothing—except for a little kid with a stick. “Craig was jumpy after he got back. e nights he was home and not on a case, he tossed and turned. Sweated until the mattress was soaked. He never did that before the war.” She places the child in her arms in a high chair. e boy pretending to be the orc rises from the dead, and the siblings chase each other again. e back of my eyes throb with each new “Bang, bang.” “Hard to get used to a soft downy bed after a year of sleeping on rocks in the mud.” I’m not here to talk about the war. Being startled was enough. I’m not about to look even weaker by speaking on my time in Europa. Warriors and Orcs is just a game most kids play, not understanding there are places where children are forced to march into a mine eld, or that where the forces fall, they don’t rise. “You were his partner even in the war. You know he was a cheating bastard?” She wags the spatula at me. “Tell me you didn’t know.” Bits of egg ing from the kitchen utensil. I don’t want to answer. “When we weren’t on a case, I assumed he came home to you. He doted on you and his kids.” It’s a lie, and it turns out, his kids might make me change my mind about orcs being the worst creatures on

the planet. I knew Mason had children, but not this many. Six. Wait, is that counting the bun in the oven? Plus, there’s the older girl—Evelyn Rose—the product of the shotgun wedding. ere should be a gap in the children’s ages for the two years we were in Europa. A small one, at least, since Mason had leave just before we shipped out. Before meeting her husband, Elyse must have been a Sheba. I bet he didn’t take a week to de ower her, and the rest is history. Based on this room full of kids, she’s highly fertile. “I take it there’s no money?” Elyse stirs the eggs. “He probably spent it on one those oozies at e Dark-Elf.” I missed what she mumbles afterword. e kid in the high chair beats time with his sts on the wooden tray. Not that I know of. I don’t know how he would have paid a life insurance policy when we haven’t had a case in months. Wyvern manure. I don’t know how he bought this child army food. Were there seven? e missing girl makes eight? ey move so fast I can’t count. I feel for Elyse. No one is going to provide for this tribe. “I’ll check with Rhoda, but I don’t think we have insurance papers.” I know I don’t, but insurance is a human racket. Gamble on an accident that may never happen? Death, sure, but we all die, which is why we should be allowed to drink and be merry. “You expect me to believe you’ve got no income? He was bringing home so much cash this last month. Said you guys were swamped with cases. It was why he was never home. He didn’t sleep in my bed once. I’ve got a few hundred to last, but I would have thought he’d have policies paid up.” She scrapes the scrambled eggs onto three plates. “Kids!” e two boys and one girl racing around the table leap into chairs, grabbing forks ready to shovel grub. At some point, Elyse must’ve swamped one baby for another, and now the one that had been clamped to her ankle is in the high chair, and the smaller one is back on her hip. When did she do that?

I draw my ngers through my beard. I need to tighten one of the braids. Might let one of the sporting girls do it for me. Mason was bringing home cash money, yet we’ve had no cases in two months. Was he working on the side? If we had folded, it would have ruined his cover. What was he involved with that he couldn’t tell me? “Did he say anything about his last case?” “You know that was against agency rules.” She slams each plate on the table. “He never spoke about work. He never spoke about you. e war. Anything. He just came home, impregnated me, showered and was back on the job. He was all about being on the job.” No matter what I witnessed in the trenches, nothing was as dark as the eyes of Mason’s pregnant wife in this moment. She waves her free arm at the pictures on the wall. e eldest daughter is there, the one that prompted the shotgun wedding. She clearly isn’t home. Is she at school? Is it time for school? Better she isn’t in this madhouse. “Eat!” Elyse slams the kid on her hip into an empty high chair. I would’ve cried from the mistreatment, but the baby doesn’t inch. I can not get out of there fast enough. And here I thought consoling a crying woman would’ve ruined my day. Elyse hated Mason. I spent a year in the trenches with him; I get it. And yet, they had more than a half dozen kids. Before the war, humans believed a woman’s place was in the home. Elyse was forced into that role, and now she’s stuck there with too many children. Not much I can do for her but uncover any money she can use to feed her babies. Best I check out e Dark-Elf. Retrace Mason’s steps. Find out if he’s given me the Chinese squeeze—giving her hundreds of dollars and not paying the office electric bill. If Mason wasn’t dead, I’d have to kill him. After all we’d been through, he was chiseling me.

About William Schlichter

William Schlichter is an award-winning screenwriter and author specializing in science ction and the phantasmagorical world of the undead. His popular No Room in Hell and Silver Dragon Chronicles series are fan favorites, and he enjoys spending time on the convention circuit. His full-length feature script, Incinta, is a 2014 New Orleans Horror Film Festival nalist, a 2015 Beverly Hills Film Festival nalist, and an Official Selected nalist in the 2016 Irvine Film Festival. William also placed third in the 2013 Broadcast Education Association National Festival of Media Arts for his TV Spec Script episode of e Walking Dead.

About The Primus Initiative

A war that began twenty years ago has arrived at last, and humanity will join the ght to save ve civilizations from extinction. After a twenty-year journey across space, the mysterious and dreaded Namadi re ships are arriving. eir mission to destroy ve civilizations will cost the lives of billions across the galactic sector if the ships can’t be stopped in time. e only hope to defeat them hinges on the success of a daring operation. In a desperate race against time, Darrien Norris and Onallin Rantara must lead a team of commandos to a remote world in search of crucial information to destroy their enemy. e Namadi are drawing closer and where their foe is scheduled to emerge is the most prized secret in galactic history—one they are prepared to kill for. With surprises waiting at every corner, Darrien and Onallin have no choice but to trust new allies before it’s too late. Time is against them, and the race for survival has begun.


rough the great space between things, a strange and malevolent shape raced onward in empty darkness on its programmed course toward the Frontier. Observers from afar might describe a school of sh gathered to impossible proportions and moving as one through the sunless depths of a vast ocean. It was huge, they would say, but the mass of objects would not be deterred from a terrible, mindless advance. A sum of its identical parts counting in the millions, the shape seemed static and unchanging until dividing from itself a lesser portion veering suddenly to follow a new, tangential path. e swarm of little ships in tight formation were mostly uniform in their dimensions—thirty meters at most— and crewed only by obedient computers, but they shared a purpose no one outside the strange, gnarled towers of alien cities where the machines had been built could imagine. In the vague distance, one modest planetary system waited unaware, and within, a solitary world they called Nulu traveled quietly in its orbit. ere were no hails or transmissions from the freezing silence of the void, nor bright navigation lights to betray its presence and warn others. Still it came on, driven by the purpose of more than a curious visitor. e Nuluan people could not yet see a hidden monster, but it had seen them. In the long history of the planet, preceding generations had been looking up for thousands of years pointing in wonder at the tiny, brilliant dots in the night sky. By their eighth millennium as a distinct culture, the march of technology had guided the Nuluans toward knowledge and understanding as science pulled away the cloak of ignorance when each confounding, age-old

mystery fell. At last, those who searched for such things found compelling evidence of organic life elsewhere in their remote, galactic neighborhood, and the anticipation of rst contact made their spirits soar. Wondrous instruments were constructed to look and listen, but no indicators were revealed to suggest other advanced beings beyond Nulu. Were they truly alone, many wondered? It seemed so, but still they studied and theorized, hoping to one day detect a telltale signal—radio waves, perhaps, or arti cially generated energy pulses on an endless journey through space to prove their isolation was temporary. When the answer arrived so abruptly and without warning, no one could imagine there would be an end to hopeful, fervent searches coming out from the gentle planet. Late on a silent and windless night, a remote observatory’s staff shivered in thin, mountain air as optical instruments captured the spectacular, rare images of a faraway star’s death throes. ey hurried to gather data before dawn’s light could appear in the eastern skies and end their work for the evening, but another chance would return with the night when the planet spun them back into darkness. ree million years before, when the Nuluans’ prehistoric ancestors walked upright for the rst time, an aging hypergiant’s nuclear fuel had run out. As its furnace converting hydrogen to helium failed, the doomed star could no longer survive its own gravitational force, and the resulting implosion ejected stellar material outward across space (and time). e light of that cataclysmic event nally reached Nulu, aring suddenly in the night sky like a lonely beacon as senior astronomer Eleo Ma tapped at her controls to capture a supernova’s incredible, rst moments. Other observatories aimed their telescopes likewise, and excited conversations between them created a frenzy of collaborative effort so that nothing would be missed. Eleo watched, and her automated systems measured it all, but lost in the chatter, a usually muted channel blinked on her communications display. Courtesy alerts from a telemetry control station to

announce planned launch activities, she wondered? Perhaps it was merely a fellow observer seeking advice or con rmation of the compelling supernova’s discovery. After all, hers were not the only instruments aimed upward on that fateful night. Either way, nothing was interesting enough to interrupt the dazzling images and because of it, she ignored the call. Colleagues and researchers across the planet compared notes and arranged follow-up meetings to validate and publish their ndings, but the comm alert persisted until Eleo relented and reached to answer. One hesitant voice from a combined weather and astronomical research station far to the north spoke to her, but it was not the supernova he wished to discuss. Instead, the young scientist wondered about a different object of interest, unsure if what he was seeing was real or a serious fault in his equipment. A strange, blurring effect had been detected by his technicians on the ‘day’ side of Nulu while calibrating a solar array reserved for the study of a neighboring planet passing between them and the Nuluan system’s star. ere was no obvious explanation for the strange anomaly, he noted, but the effect was unique and worthy of calling in. At dawn, Eleo brought one of the observatory’s small, ltered re ectors online and keyed in coordinates low on the horizon where a strange, shimmering effect distorted the early morning glow. At once, she saw the image her caller watched from his lonely station, and as they looked together, the shape grew and darkened with astonishing speed. When she turned to call the observatory’s director, it was already too late. e machines appeared before early warning systems rang out their alarm, and Eleo dashed from her control room to lean against a footwalk’s cold railing. She looked upward at a handful of dark shapes streaking across the awless, purple sky, each making gentle turns left or right, tracing thin condensation trails in the freezing air. She would never know, but those invading objects functioned only as advance, path nder ships dispatched to identify crucial, high-value targets. A handful swept through the upper

atmosphere seeking out population centers, clusters of industry and potential threats made by the various military installations once designed to attack other Nuluans in the planet’s distant (and violent) past. After a while, they vanished as quickly as they appeared. It seemed there would be nothing more until far to the south, a subsequent wave showed streaks of blue-green ame marking out their progress and betraying each tiny ship’s ablative armor burning off from friction in the thickening air, just as it was designed to do. But it was no intense meteor shower they watched, and that truth became horribly clear when the rst high-altitude air bursts ashed from above. In the resultant, blinding explosions of light, powerful gamma and X-rays washed over the planet to doom millions in a single, horri c moment. Nuluan technology earned through centuries of research and progress had failed them, but worse still, once-capable military forces from a half-dozen global states were struck down and a civilization’s fate was sealed. e second assault wave arrived soon after, and its numbers were staggering. Unfettered by surface-to-air defense systems made useless in the rst moments of the attack, swarms of tiny ships moved downward to the surface before fanning out on individual courses. In smaller cities and towns across their planet where many escaped the rst, terrible bombs, Nuluans scurried in confusion and fear never knowing who attacked them or a reason to explain why. Instead, they could only look with stark, cold fear when the machines’ intended purpose became clear. Strange cylindrical vessels slowed, pausing brie y until they came apart in midair to dispatch bulbous objects racing quickly in all directions. e effect suggested an explosion from within, and the people pointed with excitement, mistaking what they saw as evidence Nuluan defenses were ghting back at last. ey were not, and when the spheres began to move in precise formations, those few who understood ran for cover. With a loud thump, the fragments transformed into expanding globes of pink mist growing ever wider, and when the alien uid—a powerful incendiary

—turned to ery showers the appalling destruction resumed. Confusion turned to panic, but there was no place to shelter or hide exposed Nuluans from the carnage. On and on the machines came—wave after wave of dark shapes—diving from the sky to deliver their lethal cargo until the rst restorms formed and swirled ever higher. Cities became incinerators as white-hot ames were churned into powerful cyclones pushed onward by unrelenting winds until whole regions were consumed. e re-breathing bombs were deployed at precise distances for maximum effect, but also to deny the planet any future hope of recovery. It was obvious the unseen, nameless attackers meant to bring an end of all Nuluans, and for eleven days the assault continued without letup. Huge balls of the pink mist gathered in groups to multiply their deadly effect and the searing uid fell like rain until the planet’s surface lay in smoldering ruins. Anything ammable was gone. ose bits made of stone or hardened metal were all that remained. Forests and plains where lush crops once grew became a blackened, endless wasteland that would wait many decades before nature might begin reviving a dead world. In the northern and southern extremities, small pockets of Nuluans who survived the relentless attack faced a slow, ghastly death by radiation poisoning, but exposure, disease and starvation would deliver most of them to their inevitable, painful deaths. e observatory staff watched a re line move through their valley like a glowing, orange tide beneath billowing mountains of smoke, swallowing every forest and eld in its path as it advanced without mercy. Embers vaulted on powerful winds settled far downrange to ignite new res and make the con agration’s task that much easier. Eleo looked in horror toward the eastern horizon, dotted with a dozen massive palls so vast the ground had become indistinguishable from a gathering haze. She went slowly along the footwalk with tears pouring from stinging eyes, but it wasn’t merely the smoke’s irritating effect that brought them. Instead, she felt profound sadness and a numbing realization all she ever knew was being transformed before her. As she

gasped with crushing despair, a world of beauty and promise had been made into a blackened desert, and in that nal scene, Eleo Ma saw her future where an agonizing struggle would only end when death found her at last. ere was nowhere to run—no hiding place she could nd—and the violent conclusion of a civilization’s short life was hers to witness. When the machines ceased their bombardment, an ominous, thick shroud of smoke from countless res gathered and hovered over the stricken world, blotting out sunlight and chilling the dry air. It couldn’t matter to the billions who lay dead or dying, but only creatures in the deepest ocean trenches where light never goes stood a chance to escape untouched. As it had been in an ancient time when the infant world cooled and the rst drops of water gathered, physics and chemistry had wagered future life on the survival of Nulu’s most remote and delicate marine animals and their ability to restart a process spanning millions of years. No one knew who sent the machines and they would never understand why. e alien ships simply appeared in vast clouds, like swarms of deadly insects. ere were no ground troops—no subsequent surface attack—to invade and conquer. e assault had been mounted only by aerial means, and when their work was complete, an endless count of ying bombs left behind a desolate, charred rock. Across Nulu, the aftermath brought an eerie, planetwide silence few would hear. As it had been for other species in the long history of the galaxy, descendants of Nulu’s earliest life-forms had evolved and slithered out from primordial muck to join a timeless ght for survival. But the progeny of those tiny organisms who clawed their way to a modern civilization met a sudden, ery and agonizing end as targets of a mysterious and brutal enemy. No one remained to chronicle the terrible event. eir question had been answered, but its meaning found no home among the corpses and ashes to con rm a hope that Nulu had not been alone in the Universe after all. Nine thousand years of growth and learning brought them to the rst, tentative

steps of space exploration, but the distinction became their destroyer when Nulu’s shining technology was noticed by a distant and suspicious foe. An entire civilization at the height of its evolution stood accused of a crime made only by the inconvenient placement of their planet. In the end, a merciless extinction event stopped it all. Beneath the permanent haze, their smoldering, lonely planet continued in its orbit a radioactive cinder, no longer the thriving world of four billion. e Nuluans had done nothing to provoke such atrocities, it was true, and yet they were made to pay in blood, tears and ashes. Unknown attackers came and destroyed, but for them, Nulu was a distraction on the path toward a much larger goal more distant still. A target of opportunity, one might say, but a target to be killed just the same, and the young civilization’s voice was forever stilled. By a cold and indifferent measure, Nulu was simply in the way.

Chapter 1

A poet known for her work celebrating the Grand Age of Khorran history famously declared that Alavaz had always been ancient. e city, she said, was a sacred site “where the people began.” On a clear, summer evening caressed by gentle winds, those wistful words remained safely out of sight in the archives of an aggressive society’s past, rightfully painted over in the shades of conquest. It was just as well, some would say, as most nostalgic sentiment had been deservedly overrun by the capital’s modern, severe lines and soaring towers. A megalopolis renowned as an example to be followed when reaching out to the future from a con dent place in the present, Alavaz stood at the center of all things Khorran. On that mild evening, the poet’s sprawling city glittered on the shores of a tropical sea where broad, white sand beaches disappeared beneath a polite, orderly surf. In afternoon’s fading light, Kalell Perraos, inspector general of the Khorran Security Directorate, looked from her apartment high above the muted rumble of ten million people moving as one —and a mighty civilization preparing all too soon for another war. Loud, public announcements echoed upward from gaudy network displays cheering one more regiment or naval squadron’s departure to marshalling points no one had heard of, and the effect drew from Perraos a thin, automatic smile. Media dramatics and overdone slogans of propaganda were tiresome, she decided, but necessary tools to be employed so all would hear of the Namadi threat and embrace a rising surge of purpose, knowing their enigmatic, unseen attackers would soon be met and engaged. As she surveyed the compelling scene, a sudden glint on the horizon signaled the approach lights of another big lander moving in from the north,

slowing to hover as it neared a transit port barely half a kilometer distant. e pale glow of dusk re ected off the empty ship’s smooth, curved anks until it settled on a wide landing pad bathed in harsh lights where twenty thousand soldiers loitered in tidy groups waiting to board troopships and begin their journey. In an hour, she thought silently, the huge machine would lift into the sky and hurry armored warriors far away to a moon on the Anashi border where others like them gathered in ever-increasing numbers. From there, a fast transit to join the armada, and then a direct course for the Namadi home worlds. Perraos gazed in wonder at a scene that would surely have been a laughable impossibility only months before. In the swarming mass of troops, Khorran infantry stood shoulder to shoulder with Anashi, human, Porseth and Revallan counterparts. Some remained aloof and cautious of others, but most accepted the urgency and set aside ancient hatreds now rendered secondary to the task at hand. She watched them, but an unde nable, haunting sensation reminded her the events she so often controlled were moving beyond her grasp to follow courses of their own making. e military might of four civilizations that had worked with deliberation and patience to kill one another through the centuries waited with strange, new aliens from Earth to stroll up the lander’s wide access ramps. Far away, equivalent scenes were playing out on three dozen worlds across the sector, and its powerful message was unmistakable: e old ways—and a mortal duty to annihilate or conquer—had been replaced (at least for the moment) by the menace of an even deadlier enemy. A small cadre of traditionalists found the sudden shift and imposed condition intolerable, but their in uence dwindled with each passing day as the chilling nature of murderous Namadi intent spread out like a siren on the wind. In the quiet from far above, Perraos saw a new, powerful alliance moving with deadly purpose.

From every corner, they followed convergent paths aimed at singular points on a star chart giving form and muscle to the largest invasion otilla ever assembled. Fear of the bombardment clouds rushing toward them washed away concern for politics and age-old con ict, replaced instead by the simple, primal instinct to survive. Khorrans and the Anash pretended not to notice, but Revallans, and even the Porseth among them, looked on with quiet gratitude that the constant condition of war might soon end when—and if— they came through this last, most important battle alive. She turned to go when a loud treble chirp of her communicator announced an unscheduled call from the Anashi capital on a secure, point-to-point link shared with her counterpart and unlikely ally, Bez Ammel, the high minister for Anashi Intelligence. “is must be truly important,” she began with a facetious grin, “if it’s kept you awake at so late an hour.” “I thought we should speak awhile,” he replied without pause. “ere are new developments, and all of them are troubling.” New developments. Perraos drew a deep breath and waited. ere was plenty to do as it was, but Bez never called for trivial conversation, and she had learned long before to trust his judgment. e reason could only have been discussions at the Anashi ambassador’s retreat, and a rst encounter with the ever-aloof Searcher officials by Ammel’s deputy, Trelav Aspil. e Searchers had lived among the Anash and conducted their research without hindrances they would surely face if attempting such a thing on her own world, Perraos knew. Tolerated, perhaps, but Khorran acceptance of the strange, wispy aliens remained conditional, and secured only by their discreet (and demanded) distance across the Anashi border. “Your Number Two met with the Pod Elders?” “He left them moments ago,” Ammel answered. “ey have retired for the evening to rest and conduct their odd nitrogen purge.”

Perraos remembered her own deputy’s description of the experience, and the troubling sensation of xenophobia it produced. ey were ancient—a people who crossed great swaths of the galaxy long before Khorrans took their rst, cautious steps toward the stars, and yet, seeing their spindly form only made worse an irrational distaste and revulsion. “What did he think of them?” “eir reputation is one of unmoved stoicism, but Aspil found the Searchers rather nervous and easily agitated.” “Ruam, my Assistant Director, has met with them brie y on two occasions,” she replied, “but they didn’t seem to be either.” “Perhaps, but recent events have changed their perspective, opening a window of opportunity, one might say.” “Which events?” “Qural Embree and your professor are now openly questioning the inclusion of Norris on the covert mission to Primus Station.” “e Elders told Aspil this?” “e ambassador’s assistant informed him. You will recall, their scienti c contingent has always been close. Kol, the senior scientist, and the one called Haleth are integral to the ambassador’s household now.” “Sending the human was Embree’s idea!” Perraos closed her eyes, regretting quickly a rare occasion of raised voices to a friend, particularly one in so unique and uncomfortable a position. Both were hidden from all others, forced to it by the nature of their job, and no one enjoyed more authority from behind the heavy, dark curtains that hide all spies. Since their friendship was formed (and the profound, carefully guarded secret it created), Bez Ammel and Kalell Perraos had never been at odds. Despite the illogic of such a risk, and the dangerous reality waiting should anyone discover both chiefs of Khorran and Anashi Intelligence working closely together, she was determined to keep it that way. “I’m sorry, Bez.”

“Do not think of it, my friend,” he answered softly. “Remember, Qural’s decision was made long before our governments agreed to take up arms against the Namadi. With no guarantee of success that Norris and Rantara alone would win Terran support, she had little choice.” “I suppose it was not difficult to see,” Perraos admitted, “but Embree’s hesitation is understandably personal. From her view, risk of harm to the human is arguably needless.” “Without a truth that has not yet been revealed, her desire to protect him is at least predictable. Still, this development has also given the Elders a convenient and useful tool.” Perraos leaned with folded arms against the balcony’s ornate railing. “Of course,” she said with a mild sneer. “e character of these creatures, exploiting Embree’s emotional weakness simply to avoid exposure of their dirty secret.” “If Norris is withheld,” Ammel continued quickly, “there will be no need of the physician, Oreil. Without both, that secret remains safe.” “And with it, the reason Searcher Elders need to intercept this human and prevent his inclusion,” Perraos added. “Obviously, we cannot allow that to happen, Kalell.” “If that damn thing can be activated one last time, the human must be there or the effort will be worth nothing beyond retrieving the bombardment clouds’ exit locations.” “We must consider alternatives,” Ammel cautioned, “should the ambassador and Tindas convince our governments to remove Norris from the Primus mission.” “ere are no alternatives, Bez, you know that. Under the circumstances, they are wise to advocate against the human’s involvement, and yet they said nothing about Alar, Rantara or that little Revallan murderer?” “e envoy’s language skills are considerable—and worrisome to the Elders—but she would not agree to the mission if Norris is held back. As for Rantara and Doleval, neither are valuable beyond their ferocity in battle.”

“Which returns us to Norris, and Embree’s untimely interference.” “Although she does not realize, continuing this nonsense will only invite unwanted attention and awkward questions Qural is not prepared to answer.” “at’s putting it mildly!” Perraos snorted. “Such a move would be misinterpreted deliberately by her political enemies as blatant favoritism, despite the urgency of the Namadi threat.” “And present an opportunity to attack her in the public forum,” Ammel echoed. “Many resent Qural’s growing in uence as it is, and a rare chance to diminish her power would be irresistible.” Perraos walked in a slow circuit from one end of her balcony to the other, looking at her feet as though doing so might help to formulate her thoughts. “ey have always been secretive,” she continued, “but I wonder how your ambassador will regard them when she discovers her mysterious Searcher friends are not quite as noble and sel ess after all?” Ammel waited a moment before answering softly. “I will leave it for the Elders to explain that another time.” He could imagine the thoughts speeding through in her mind. Both were masters of strategic espionage, manipulating others like pieces on a board game and often without their knowledge, but the delightful surprises made by nature and personality always arrived so often at those most inopportune moments. “In any case,” he said with a sigh, “they may have worse problems when Rantara discovers she and the others have been deceived.” Perraos shrugged, grateful to be watching from afar. “I admit, Rantara may no longer be the merciless butcher she once was, but I do not envy those within her immediate reach when that day arrives.” “Nor do I. For the moment, it is essential to proceed as planned.” “I will instruct Torbal to have a private word with your ambassador. She has come to trust him, and with luck, he will be successful in allaying her fears.” “And Tindas?”

“If Embree can be convinced, the schoolteacher will follow. ey need not understand why, but this ridiculous notion about withholding the human’s participation must end before it becomes unmanageable. Is there anything else you need from me?” “Not at the moment.” “I’ll be here if anything changes. Good night, my friend.” “Good night, Kalell.” *** e quiet of early Sannaran mornings had never been especially appealing to Onallin until they settled on the edge of Tevem’s coveted network of lush spaces in a newly constructed house they had made a home. e patio door slid silently closed behind her as she padded in bare feet over cool, dew-soaked grass toward an imaginary line between their lot and a park that translated from Revallan to “South Green.” Beyond, a meandering path made of smooth, octagonal paving stones was bordered by a knee-high plasticrete wall built only weeks before in order to discourage carefree maintenance workers and curb their habit of sending service carts careening onto the carefully manicured lawn in what had been thoughtfully characterized by a municipal superintendent as “harmless, spontaneous competitions.” She found Darrien standing with folded arms near a grove of trees he insisted were surprisingly similar to palms straddling a pedestrian boulevard near his parents’ apartment in Fremantle. Onallin remembered them from images Darrien showed her as they approached Earth for their historic (and secret) meeting with President Fernandez, but in her eyes, they were anemic trees in need of branches. He smiled when she handed over a steaming cup of her favorite oolong tea with care. ey were nearly out of the stuff, she reminded him with a childish frown, but he assured her plenty more would be waiting when they arrived in Perth. A rst visit with her new in-laws was scheduled only days before her human wedding ceremony, which Onallin decided was a prospect more daunting than any live re ght, but it was just as unavoidable. e trip would

begin soon, and a rough itinerary prepared by Darrien’s mother suggested a hectic, two-week ordeal meeting every living relative, friend and acquaintance of the Norris family. “I thought you were going to sleep in,” she whispered. “So did I,” Darrien replied with a sigh of resignation, but she knew the cause. “More bad dreams?” “Not bad, but one was really weird.” “I hope I wasn’t in it!” He shook his head and sipped from the cup, but Onallin could see the fatigue in his reddened eyes. “You need rest.” He brushed aside the idea and said, “It’s almost here. By this time next month, we’ll be on our way to Namadi space.” “e sooner,” she replied rmly, “the better.” “Still itching to shoot something?” “I’m itching to get this done so we can come home and spend the rest of our time living like everyone else.” “After all the shit we’ve been through,” Darrien noted sadly, “living like everyone else will be a tall order.” “No, it won’t,” she declared. “We haven’t come this far only to change out one stupid damned adventure for another without end. I am sick of war, Darrien. is new life is something I never thought possible, and I won’t allow anything to interfere.” He nodded toward the Green and aimed an open hand the way common route peddlers show off their wares on advertisement vids. “Here we are, standing on our back lawn in an upscale Tevem neighborhood as if we’re the local gentry—all these bankers and land-owners with soft hands and a carefully scrubbed conscience.”

“We needed somewhere decent to settle, and Sannaris is a better place than most.” “And the fact that we nally noticed each other our rst night in Tevem had nothing to do with it?” “We noticed each other long before Tevem,” Onallin declared, “so no—that has nothing to do with it.” “You’re a shitty liar.” Onallin reached for his hand and held it tightly in hers, nodding toward gleaming skyscrapers that stood like giant statues in the orange, morning glow from the far end of the Green. Despite the bustle of a city going about its business only a kilometer away, the silence of dawn—broken only by songbirds itting in and out of the trees—seemed more precious than all the money in their accounts. She remembered a darker time when the stink of death and decay wafted up from Bera Nima’s chasm, and much of it made by wretched people clinging desperately to a dead-end existence. It was just a stop on her long, strange journey, but time stood still, and sorrow had often been her only companion. Months later, she traced gure eights in the grass with her toe, watching as the cool wetness gathered in droplets sending tiny, reassuring signals it had all been a temporary misery, and the life she had made with Darrien was no illusion. “I suppose that café was part of it,” she admitted at last. “Maybe it’s better to say Tevem is where we saw each other notice—the place where I realized we belong together.” “It’ll be all right,” Darrien whispered. “We’ll go to Primus Station and nd the location codes for Qural. After we nish, we’ll go to their home worlds and hammer those insane bastards into the dirt.” She moved behind him and pulled him close, leaning her chin on his shoulder. “When this is over, and the Namadi are gone, we’re coming home to stay.” “No more adventures?”

“No more,” she answered. “I want us to be a normal, boring couple, Darrien, not soldiers shooting and getting shot at everywhere we go.” “Are you sure about the invasion?” he asked suddenly. “We don’t have to do this, you know.” “Yes, we do,” she replied softly. “I can’t stay behind, and I know you would never allow me to go alone.” “One more ght, huh?” “First, the codes, and then we nish it. No one will ever say we didn’t do our part.” “I’d say we satis ed that requirement back on Esharam, but I know what you mean,” he said with a single nod. ey held onto each other awhile, watching shafts of golden sunlight wash over the Green to cast long shadows on the grass that made a singular shape as if to remind them that each had become a whole. “Let’s go back to bed,” Onallin said behind a poorly concealed yawn. “I want you alone right now.”

Chapter 2

ree days had passed since Qural and Tindas returned to Fells Moll from Belex. A progress brie ng from a collection of military leaders had been a sobering experience. e immediate goal and purpose of their efforts, officially titled “Multilateral Defense Initiative #505-Primus,” left the respective leaders of ve civilizations con dent a grim task would be successful and blunt the Namadi incendiary ships bearing down on the Frontier with each passing day. With its conclusion, their invasion eets would soon depart for the Dome. An unannounced invitation from Marelle brought Onallin and Darrien across space to the familiar and comfortable surroundings at Qural’s estate in the soft hills above Aremor City where Banen and eriani waited with the professor. As they made their way inside, all interest and discussion focused on preparations across the sector, and Darrien spoke rst, pressing them for details. Qural tried to be patient with the relentless, predictable nature of human curiosity, and after elding a stream of questions, she smiled and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. “You are a skilled interrogator!” “Am I prying again?” he asked with a sheepish grin. “Not at all,” she replied, “but now it is time for something far less strenuous.” Darrien looked at Onallin rst, sensing a new obligation. “What have you gotten us into this time?” Qural laughed and shook her head.

“Marelle has arranged for an outing,” she said with a broad smile, “and I think her plan is inspired.” Darrien frowned a little and said, “What kind of outing?” “Go and change,” Qural instructed. “We will meet at the shore for an afternoon boat ride, but later, we have something special for you—something you will never forget.” *** e towering, crooked spires swathed in orange Lobix blossoms loomed like a forest of stone in the middle of the Crescent River as summer returned to Fells Moll. Even low on the surface where they drifted lazily in open excursion boats the fragrance was wonderful. Darrien smiled, remembering the scent of Plumeria wafting through warm, humid galleries at an arboretum he and Rachel Levy had visited on Odessa II. After hours spent navigating nearly to the delta and back, a tone in the boatman’s control panel signaled a message for Qural, reminding her the air cars that would return them to the estate were waiting. All too soon, it was time to go, and they gathered their things as the boats were aimed toward the crumbled remains of an ancient pier Qural’s ancestors had built nearly two centuries before, reaching outward from a narrow, sandy beach. Onallin stepped ashore rst, turning to wait as Hesset handed over the twins, one by one. Darrien guided Prehta as she and Zalis followed when the second, larger boat nosed gently to a stop on the soft sand. Banen steadied the craft while Qural, Marelle, eriani and Rentha came along last, but Darrien paused, smiling at Hesset’s little girls holding fast to ‘Auntie’ Onallin’s legs as they squinted into the bright, afternoon sun. In an odd moment, he wondered what Ellimox Rantara would think, seeing her deadly sister dote with inexhaustible patience on rambunctious Anashi children she had come to adore. ings change, he knew, but the familial scene in his mind hid another, more personal condition. Since he ventured out to the Colonies on his rst Navy tour, Darrien had always followed a purpose—a point to it all that guided him and gave his life

meaning. As a military oďŹƒcer, an unquestioned sense of duty was all he needed. When he passed through to civilian life, his responsibility to the job and those people with whom he worked kept him on the path, even in the most desolate of places where one lonely posting was merely a launch point to the next. But that life had been twice shifted and transformed by the accident of proximity to an alien device waiting silently in the frozen darkness. Without warning, it had taken him again. Confused and alone, he endured a desperate ght for survival on a distant world no human eyes had ever seen. Later, the struggle turned to a singular, driving need to escape a most terrible place, and his purpose became de ned by the unyielding compulsion to get out of Bera Nima alive. At last, his path had been shaped by impossible forces that pushed him to a new and more important purpose, joined in a great and noble campaign to save billions of people from extinction. In cool shadows along a quiet shoreline, he was no longer the ordinary man who lifted into heavy clouds above Station 8 on that rst day of his unlikely odyssey. Instead, and by events that were unavoidable products of the Searcher machine’s reawakening, his role in veering the course of history had made him an iconic symbol across a fth of the galaxy. In every way possible, Darrien Norris had become something more. As he stood knee-deep in the slow, wandering current, the old companions of doubt and uncertainty that plagued him in the nal years of his service had been driven out and replaced by a strange calm he could not describe. î “e gap of simple ignorance had been closed as the past was fused once more into the present. His memories fully restored explained at last what had been impossible to know, and for the rst time in his life, Darrien had but one destination or plan, and it would follow only the course he and Onallin desired. When the Namadi threat was removed forever, he would truly become a free man.

About Robert Davies

Robert Davies enjoys writing science ction as well as exploring other genres. His work includes the science ction series e Specimen Chronicles (Specimen 959, Echoes of Esharam, e Primus Initiative), When the River Ran Dry, and e Seventh Life of Aline Lloyd. Robert’s work has earned several IPPY awards, including his debut novel Specimen 959 and When the River Ran Dry. When not writing, he enjoys music and ying. He lives in southwest Washington with his family and four mildly overbearing cats.

About A Fastball for Freedom

Baseball historian Puppy Nedick is back, on the run from the government that lists him and his friends as traitors. Challenged by weaponized religion and a new Family gurehead, Puppy will stop at nothing to ght against the new regime. He and his friends struggle with returning to their lost loves and keeping the ones they love away from harm.  Can baseball once again impact the robot- and hologram-run world or will the world plunge into a deeper darkness?  In A Fastball for Freedom, the sequel to Gary Morgenstein’s criticallyacclaimed science ction-novel A Mound Over Hell, a war-weary 22nd Century world turns to baseball, robots and faith to bring together a hate-ravaged planet and avoid a nal cataclysmic global con ict.

Chapter 1

On Puppy Nedick’s rst morning in the Caliphate of England, he was wakened by a defaced statue of Jesus crashing near his head. But he was too damn sick to care. “Get up, Puppy.” Annette Ramos yanked him upright, where he wobbled like a very weary doll. e ground convulsed from another explosion, shattered marble ying around the bleating, terri ed goats running through the desecrated Church of All Saints. Crouching, Annette narrowly avoided a dive-bombing chicken crashing into the pew; the fowl’s blood spurted onto the groggy Puppy’s head. He peered in profound surprise at the red liquid as his ex-wife tugged him along by his right shoulder, which felt like it was about to come off. Everything hurt down to the roots of his thinning black hair. Staccato bursts of machine gun re knocked out a stained glass window. A squat priest with clipped gray hair nimbly jumped over the shards like a frantic frog and helped Annette lift Puppy. “is way. Hurry,” Father John Dempsey shouted, leading them through the animal feces and the pieces of Jesus, Puppy’s rubbery legs pedaling like a cartoon character. “What’s going on?” Annette asked. “Someone’s attacking London,” Dempsey said. London, Puppy’s mind cleared slightly, wishing it hadn’t. He retched. A chandelier fell, the two-hundred-year old xture which had survived three world wars nally surrendering and spitting pieces of glass. Kicking aside

hysterical goats, Dempsey sidestepped two pigs charging from opposite ends. Annette menacingly waved her st to warn the animals away from the stumbling Puppy. Another bomb shook the church and the terri ed pigs collided; it was like a farm gone wild. Dempsey knocked over a battered old wooden table, lifting a metal door and frantically gesturing into the dark. “Can you make it?” Dempsey asked Puppy. “I struck out fourteen batters at Yankee Stadium,” he said indignantly, his eyes lolling. Annette shot the priest a worried look. ey lowered Puppy down the steps like a really big bag of potatoes, where he landed on his knees in the dank cellar. Following, Annette tenderly rubbed his forehead, frowning at the hot esh. “You okay, honey?” Puppy shrugged, there being no easy answer, though the pain ripping into his side nurtured some recollection. e priest turned on a small ashlight and slid the overhead door closed, barely muting the screams of dying animals. Dempsey handed out bottles of water stashed beneath a battered desk. “I’m sorry, there’s no food.” “It’s okay, he probably shouldn’t eat anyway.” “Why not?” Puppy grumbled, suddenly starving. “Because you’re on antibiotics.” Right. e Arab woman doctor stitching him up on the bathroom oor. Dempsey looked between them knowingly. “You’ve been married a long time.” “We’re divorced,” Annette said, tamping down the thick black curls snaking about her shoulders. “But he can’t get along without me.” She clucked her tongue over the bloodstains on his bandages. Dempsey fumbled for a pack of open gauze on a shelf.

“at’s not clean. Grandma’s bra straps, you’ll give him an infection.” Annette placed herself between the priest and Puppy. “I studied nursing.” “Four lessons.” Puppy weakly held up his ngers. “Enough to know not to use old bandages that’ve been exposed to dirt and animal shit.” She cradled his head, glaring at Dempsey. Dempsey stared a moment, assessing their accents and brash manners. “You’re Americans.” “Maybe,” Annette answered carefully. “Maybe’s the most de nition I’ve had in a while.” He smiled out a grimace. “John Dempsey. I’m the priest here at the Church of All Saints.” ey exchanged cautious stares. “It’s okay. I wouldn’t trust me, either.“ Dempsey waited for the rolling thunder to pass. “I’ve not had a parishioner in more than two years.” “Maybe you’d get more visitors if you cleaned things up a little.” e priest laughed bitterly. “It’s supposed to be this way. What are your names?” Annette poked Puppy when he started answering. Dempsey nodded with sad understanding. “All the churches throughout the Caliphate are used to pen animals, although some are also used as public toilets. We’re supposed to remember the lth of our beliefs. at said, they still encourage worshippers. I know”—he waved off their blank stares—“it might not make sense. e Muslims believe that if you’re a true believer, even in the evil that’s Christianity, you’ll make a sacri ce to continue praying to your God. In a strange way, they think they’re helping us by leading people to God while reminding them we’re worshipping false values. ere was actually an Imam I met once at a program called Ilm, which is Arabic for knowledge…” Dempsey paused. ey had no idea what he was talking about. ey really are from America, where they think you can just lock God out of your house. Well, you’ve changed the locks a number of times, haven’t you? Still haven’t found the new key.

e priest continued cheerfully as if they were sitting at Alton’s Wolf and Bear Pub down the block on Great Jones Street, nursing a couple Bud’s Brown Ales around a game of darts. “ere are bi-annual sessions where priests and ministers, the few of us left, are interrogated about Christianity. e Muslims want to see if we can change. ere’ve been converts. e Muslims are suspicious, with good reason, so they question people like me who they know will never convert as a benchmark for what constitutes real faith. You two coming to the church when you were in need, now that would qualify as real faith. ey respect that, in their brutal way.” “We’re ne,” Annette said brightly, sleeping on the oor of a church just part of their great European vacation. “We’ll be going soon.” Dempsey arched an eyebrow. “To where?” “We have papers.” Puppy swallowed with effort; the ground shook again. Dempsey answered their uneasy looks. “It could be your missiles. Apparently we’re at war again or a semi-war or thinking of it or the Caliphate has already conquered America or you’ve already surrendered or your new leader, what’s his name…?” “First Cousin Albert Cheng,” Puppy rasped. Annette poked Puppy again. “He tricked you into admitting we’re Americans.” “I sort of already guessed.” Dempsey smiled reassuringly. ough how the hell did you get here? “e news says he’s a madman and will launch all your nuclear missiles. ough I suspect we would’ve been incinerated by now if that were true. Or it could be the civil war, again there are more rumors. e Grand Mufti is battling his son Abdullah. Or the Mufti’s dead and his allies are ghting Abdullah. Or Abdullah’s dead and his followers are carrying on the ght. Or both the bloody bastards are dead and Lord only knows what happens next.”

Squawking chickens and bleating goats raged above, masking the pounding of heavy boots. Dempsey motioned for Puppy and Annette to remain quiet, not that they needed any prompting. He extinguished the ashlight. Bullets pounded through the door, skipping around the oor. Dempsey moaned and tilted over. e door ripped opened. Two snarling black-robed Holy Warriors pointed machine guns. “Akhraj,” one of them shouted. Puppy held up his hands. Annette followed. “Akhraj.” A burst of gun re sent them sprawling against the wall. “It means get out,” the priest whispered, struggling to his feet. “Akhraj!” “Hasananaan, you bastard.” Dempsey held up his wounded arm, shaking his head at Annette’s offer to dab the blood. “Up, up, before they blow our heads off.” e Warriors jabbed guns into their necks as they climbed up the steps, looking for any excuse to shoot them. A lthy bearded face pressed into Puppy’s chest, backing him against the wall. “Aljasus, aljasus,” the Warrior spit. “I don’t speak Arabic,” Puppy said, earning a kick which drove him onto one knee. “No Aljasus.” e priest pointed at the blood escaping the bandage around Puppy’s side. “Hurt, hurt.” “Aljasus.” e Warrior yanked Annette’s hair. “Leave my hair alone, you son-of-a-bitch,” she shouted. Puppy had to laugh at the utter absurdity, which baffled the priest and enraged the Warriors. He got jabbed in his side and spun into momentary darkness. Two of the Warriors dragged him beneath the arms down the hallway, a third twisting Annette’s thick curls so she had to walk sideways.

Dempsey trailed, pleading, “No Aljasus.” An explosion about a hundred feet away sank a nearby building like a punctured concrete balloon. Frightened goats ran, seeking peace in a world with none. Another missile ripped through the sky, landing to the north. e Warriors stared a moment in the church doorway, fascinated or horri ed, Puppy couldn’t tell. If he had any strength, he would’ve grabbed Annette’s hand and ran. Better to be gunned down in the back then on their knees. Sensing his thoughts, Dempsey imperceptibly shook his head. e Warriors shot some animals, clearing a path and shoving Puppy and Annette forward, slipping on intestines. “No,” Dempsey shouted, getting butted in the chest as Puppy and Annette were pressed against a broken wall outside the church. “No Aljasus.” Two of the Warriors pointed their ri es at Puppy and Annette, who gave them a de ant nger. “Fuck you.” She adjusted her clothes, not about to be murdered looking less than fashionable. “Hey, come on,” Puppy said rmly, his broad Bronx accent startling the Arabs. “No Aljesus.” “Jasus,” Dempsey corrected. “What?” “Aljasus. With an ‘a.’ Not an ‘e’ like Jesus Christ.” e Allahs muttered, bewildered by the exchange. “He’s with Jesus.” Puppy stepped forward calmly as if about to demonstrate how to throw a curve ball. “He’s a priest. A holy man. Like an Imam or Sheikh. Very important. We don’t believe in God. Jesus. No Aljesus. Atheists.” He pointed at himself and Annette. “Atheists, atheists.” “You bloody fool, they’re calling you spies,” the priest said wearily. “Well, we’re not really,” Annette protested. Well, they kind of were.

e Warriors had quite enough of the Crusaders talking among themselves when they were trying to form a ring squad. e leader exploded with some brusque instructions. Dempsey joined Puppy and Annette against the wall. Puppy squeezed Annette’s hand and shorthanded DV; she nodded bleakly. ey coiled into their knees, ready to rush the guards when, from around the corner, an old NATO model M-50 tank, a devastating prototype back in 2055, rolled to a stop. e top of the turret popped open and a Muslim officer in khaki military uniform began yelling. Great. Now we’re going to be executed by a tank, Puppy thought. e Holy Warriors leader stomped forward, angrily gesturing at his prisoners, which in amed the officer, who hopped out of the tank, landing with lithe arrogance by the ancient Union Jack on the side, obscured by the crescent moon and star. ere was more shouting and some chest bumping. e tank turret swiveled slowly until it pointed at the other Warriors, who raised their guns stubbornly. e officer shouted again. e Warrior leader kicked at the ground, scowling in menacing pride before nodding reluctantly. e prisoners were dragged toward a black van parked crookedly across the sidewalk, the turret carefully following them. ey were tossed inside where a black-robed Warrior shackled their ankles to four disheveled, bruised European men in varying stages of beatings. e Warrior leered at Annette, licking his lips. Annette shrank into Puppy’s chest. His side was on re, but he wouldn’t faint and frighten her. Dempsey got down on one knee to pray. Puppy expected the guard to riddle them with bullets, but he only grinned as if at the zoo. “Let’s all pray.” e priest closed his eyes. Annette took out the cruci x, which Clary Santiago had given her for luck, and knelt. “Come on,” she whispered at Puppy’s hesitation. “Salaa, salaa,” the guard said, laughing.

“I don’t want to,” Puppy insisted. “Salaa,” the guard shouted, knocking the other prisoners to the oor and pointing his ri e at Puppy. Dempsey held his palm toward the guard to calm him. “Salaa. Everyone, salaa. Everyone.” He glared at Puppy, who grudgingly got to one knee. e priest’s eyes uttered thanks before closing. “Father in Heaven, watch over us and give us strength.” e guard slammed his ri e. “Jesus.” “Jesus Christ…” e guard grunted in approval. “Jesus Christ, give us your love and let us love our enemies. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Dempsey crossed himself; the others followed except Puppy. He shook the chains. “Still here.” Dempsey smiled. “Yes. We’re still here. Saved by the Muslim captain. If that’s not enough to warrant faith, what is?” “What happens when we arrive and there’s no one to protect us?” “ere will be.” Annette caressed Puppy’s cheek in apology. “Puppy can get grumpy sometimes.” Dempsey’s eyebrows shot up in sudden recognition. Yes, of course. Jesus, what are you up to? “Sorry, Priest Dempsey,” Annette said. “We appreciate your helping.” ey waited out a barrage of machine gun re which wasn’t directed at the van, though the curious guard peered out the metal-laced back window. “Excuse me, but what’s happening?” Annette asked. e guard frowned. “Outside. What’s going on?” she repeated peevishly. e soldier menacingly shook his ri e.

“Are you going to charm the guard now?” Puppy asked. Grandma’s bra straps, where does she nd this courage? She’s as terri ed as I am. “Yes. I’m a salesperson. I own one of the top shoe boutiques in the Bronx,” she announced in case anyone found themselves in the neighborhood eager for a bargain in women’s shoes. She looked at Dempsey. “How do we ask, what’s going on, Father?” “Annette…” Puppy started. “I want to see this, mate,” a shaggy-haired prisoner with a broken nose piped up; his colleagues on the shackles murmured agreement. “ank you.” Annette bowed sarcastically. “Try madha yahduth huna.” Dempsey smiled. He wanted to see this, too. e guard stared at them. “Madhop…” Annette started. “Madha.” “Madha.” “Yahduth.” “Yahdut.” “. Yahduth.” e guard yelled at them to be quiet. “Excuse me?” Annette put her hands on her hips, swaying as the van skidded a moment. “I only know one language. English. Every other language is banned in America so cut me a little slack, would you?” She made a disgusted sound and Puppy just about applauded in delight. “Madha Yahduth…” “Huna,” Dempsey said. “Huna.” Annette pressed down her skirt and crouched in pathetic dignity against the strain of the chains. e guard pointed his gun. “Do you mind? I’m trying to be polite. One of us should be. Now. Madha yahduth.” She glanced at Dempsey, who mouthed the last word, “huna.” Annette nished with great pride. e guard peered in disbelief.

“I asked you a question, sir.” “Say wabialttali,” Dempsey said. Annette’s eyes glazed. “at’s probably not happening” Puppy said, chuckling. e priest addressed the Muslim. “Wabialttali?” e guard studied Annette as if she were some new lifeform evolving before his eyes and rattled off a few angry sentences. “You get all that, sweetie?” Puppy said with a grin. “Now everyone can see why we’re divorced,” Annette snapped, turning to Dempsey. “What’d the Allah say?” “He talked a little fast, but most of it was about traitors and non-Believers spitting on Allah.” Dempsey glanced warily at the guard. “Perhaps we should let this go for now.” e van lurched to a stop outside the old headquarters of the London Times. Like the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, the offices had been turned into prisons; the Independent and Guardian had joined the Prophet of Truth news site shortly before the war started. Holy Warriors nearly tore the van doors off their hinges. Machine guns jabbed the still shackled prisoners onto the ground. Roadblocks manned by armored vehicles protected both ends of the street, littered with bricks from the remnants of a bombed building. Two female Holy Warriors, blazing brown eyes peering out from within their black burqas, wrenched Annette’s leg free from the chains and dragged her away. “Puppy…” she screamed. As he tried chasing her, still chained, Puppy was slammed in the head with a ri e butt. He barely remembered how he got into a cell. e priest knelt over him, mopping the blood once he woke after a couple semi-dead hours; at least the pain in his skull distracted him from the pain in his side along with the abrasions from the metal restraints.

“You don’t always think before acting, do you?” Dempsey asked softly. “One of my charms,” Puppy answered, half sitting up in the corner of the small, square cell which reeked of sweat and fear and urine and some smells he didn’t want to know. A very old man with a white beard sprawled in the corner, snoring. Puppy wondered how long he’d been asleep. Down the hall came weary moans, as if whoever had been tortured was too exhausted to scream anymore. Puppy scrunched his brain, trying to focus. You’re in London. You’re a prisoner of the Caliphate. You don’t have any idea what you’re doing or how to get of this. On the other hand, you’re wanted for treason and murder in America, so there’s no going back. None of this made him feel better. “Where’s Annette?” e priest shrugged. “In the woman’s center, I assume.” Puppy peered at a lthy cup of water with something half-alive swimming about. He decided thirst was better. “What’ll they do to her?” “I don’t know.” “Will they hurt her?” Dempsey shrugged again. is time Puppy jabbed his forearm into the man’s throat. “at’s not a fucking answer.” e priest shoved aside his arm with surprising ease. “at’s all I have. ey round up Crusaders, sometimes out of pure sport. ey beat us, sometimes rape the women. is is different, what with the ghting going on. e Allahs have a purpose, however hysterical. Does that make sense?” “No.” He tried shaking his head, but it hurt too much. “I’ve been a prisoner many times, Puppy. It’s their way of asserting superiority over my religion. ey accuse me of subversion, disloyalty, all kinds of nonsense, as if I would or could ever have any loyalty to them. But I’m

necessary, as I told you. We represent a failed people, a failed faith. Like relics in a museum to show the world what Christianity once was and how Allah is greater. Without us, their glory isn’t quite as great. In a way, it’s somewhat similar to how early Christianity viewed the stiff-necked Jews, wanting to protect them as witnesses to Jesus as his kin, while punishing them for rejecting him as the Messiah.” Puppy shrugged dimly; he couldn’t really follow any of that. Dempsey tapped a yellowing front page from the Daily Herald, September 16, 1940: 175 NAZI PLANES DOWN. RAF Triumphs in Biggest Battles of the War. “Each cell has at least one of these newspaper stories. If you spend enough time here, it’s like a small history lesson to remind us of what we once were.” Dempsey’s eyes glazed with self-hate. “We’re all aljasus to them. Second class, dhimmi, in dels, whatever they want to call it.” “ey were going to kill us.” e priest pondered this, nally conceding. “An outright execution would’ve been unusual without some basis. ey’re not entirely savages.” “at’s reassuring.” He dropped his voice. “ere are more decent ones than you’d think, Puppy.” Puppy looked down. “Who’s Puppy?” Dempsey sighed. “You’re quite famous for killing Grandma.” He studied him shrewdly. “Remember that there are people in the Caliphate who revere you for just that.” “Yeah, I’ve seen the subway posters.” “e tube,” Dempsey corrected him with a smile. “Your face was everywhere right after it happened. You couldn’t turn on the Prophet of Truth or BBC without seeing you. It might be some leverage. Once the Allahs get it into their head to honor someone, it doesn’t just go away. ey’re not real strong about admitting mistakes, which is probably why they don’t ever question their dogma. Christians question everything. For a while before the

war it seemed the Pope was issuing edicts every week, like allowing priests to marry. e Muslim birthrate had terri ed the Church by then. As it turned out, with good reason. I don’t know how much a couple of my children would’ve mattered, but I was a bit too set in my ways to take on a bride.” “at was the Pope John?” Puppy asked. “John the XXVII.” “Where is he?” e priest hesitated. “No one knows. ere was a rumor his office pleaded with Grandma for sanctuary, but she turned him down.” Dempsey’s face hardened. “Another had the Holy Father in China. Or living underground in Rome. After the Allahs sacked Italy, stories came out that he’d been captured and beheaded, which apparently set off the Mufti. ey were afraid the Christians would rise up if the Pope were really killed. Let him live somewhere as an example of Muslim superiority.” Dempsey’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why the interest in His Holiness?” Because that’s why we’re here. To nd Pope John and stop World War Four. Ignoring Dempsey’s steady stare, Puppy peered through the bars of the square window. Four oors below, Holy Warriors passed in three man foot patrols. It was suddenly quiet for a war. “What’s that?” Dempsey followed Puppy’s nger toward a break in the dark, billowing smoke clouds; otherwise, it’d be a nice, crisp fall day. “at was Big Ben,” he said sadly. Half the tower had been sheared off, the torn crescent moon and star ag holding on like a stubborn viper to a gutted oor. “May 31, 1859,” the priest whispered as if praying. “at’s when Big Ben rst rang its chimes. A re had destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament were headquartered, back in 1834. When they were rebuilt, it was decided they wanted a clock with pinpoint accuracy. Everyone scoffed, but we are the bloody British and we found a way.”

Dempsey paused with pride. At least you had a history you could believe, unlike America, Puppy thought enviously. “Big Ben weighed thirteen tons. At night, each of the clock’s four faces was illuminated. ere was also a light which told everyone Parliament was in session. It went out the day the Arab Legion marched in. January 8, 2073, I’d just gotten out of the seminary. e Grand Mufti rode a horse up the steps of Parliament and into the House of Commons, where he let the animal take a dump and then called Parliament into session. “None of the Members would go inside until the horse shit was cleaned up.” Dempsey paused again. “You’ve not heard this?” Puppy shook his head. “I don’t think we always heard the truth about what really happened.” “I imagine not. Otherwise, you’d look really bad for abandoning us.” Dempsey waited for the resentment to pass. “Instead of getting some janitor or the like, the Allahs insisted that one of the Christian Members do the honor. ey all refused. e Allahs shot one hundred and fteen Members and piled their bodies outside the entrance so it looked like sandbags after a while, the corpses were stacked so high. Finally they just stopped. I don’t really know why. One story had it that the Mufti didn’t realized just how tough we could be, especially since he’d just conquered our country and gured we’d bow down. Bowing? e bloody English Allahs already controlled Parliament. Who the hell unlocked the door by conceding to the Caliphate, insisting they only wanted peace? Just like the bloody Nazis tried except back then we had Winston Churchill. is time we had Prime Minister Anwar Maheen. Always claimed he was a real Englishmen. Real Englishmen ght.” Dempsey twirled his knuckles around. “In 2075, when the Allahs formed the puppet government, like it wasn’t before the war”—Dempsey’s mouth twisted—“they reopened Parliament. Of course, Parliament is all Muslim now, the will of Allah showing the way, which helps when only Allahs can vote. ey scrubbed the oors and polished the

bronze and wood and apparently, it’s been fully restored like back in the days of Queen Victoria. And if any Brit ever sets foot there, you can bet we’ll make sure he’s oating facedown in the ames the next day.” Dempsey’s jaw squared. “Now the clock’s gone,” Puppy said quietly. “It’s just a clock. ey can take that from us. But not this.” He tapped his heart. “What do you think of the view now?” Puppy watched another patrol pass. Overhead, a trio of ghter jets fanned out, impulsively ring at some point in the distance, triggering more explosions. “I’m here to nd the Pope,” he whispered. Dempsey face turned into a cold mask. “Why would you do that?” “I kind of have my own reasons I can’t share.” “Understandable, coming all this way looking for the Pope.” “Sarcasm really isn’t helpful in these circumstances, Father. Can you help?” Dempsey stared through him. “Do I look like I can help?” “Yes. And you’re the only priest I know.” e priest laughed. “John died back in 2078, 2079. We’re not sure.” “You just said he was alive.” “I lied.” “Are you supposed to do that, being a Catholic priest and all?” Dempsey smiled. “Faith doesn’t make you a good person. Look around.” “You sound a little self-doubting.” “When you tend a ock of goats before a defaced Jesus, it tends to shake your con dence just a little.” “So you won’t help?” Puppy persisted. “To nd a dead man, no.” “Because you don’t trust me?” “It’s very convenient that you ended up in my church and then were rescued by a Muslim soldier.”

“I thought that was thanks to your prayer asking Jesus to send the tank.” Dempsey reddened. “Or they planted you here.” “To nd a dead man?” e priest scowled and wandered into the far corner by the snoring old man. Fed up, Puppy shook the bars until a Warrior guard with the eyes of a hungry snake wandered over. “Where’s my wife?” Puppy shouted. Dempsey held up his palms and rolled his eyes to convey Puppy was a crazy man best ignored. e guard sneered. “I said, where’s my wife, asshole?” Puppy futilely shook the unmoving bars one last time, pressing his nose through the bars. e Warrior made an obscene gesture requiring no translation, swiping aside Puppy’s outstretched hand with his ri e. His vicious laughs echoed down the hallway, swallowed by the screams of a prisoner. At sunrise, two burly Holy Warriors hooded Father Dempsey, cuffing his hands behind his back to his ankles and carting him off like an animal about to be roasted. In a deep pain-intoxicated sleep, Puppy imagined for a moment Dempsey was his dead, drunk, abusive father Alvin, former head of the Blue Wigs terrorist group, so of course he didn’t help. But prisoners across the way watched until the priest’s shoes screeched in fading protest along the oor before cowering back into their corners, their time coming. e open cells in the former newspaper offices had glass doors, allowing other prisoners to witness beatings, such as the two men whose heads were bashed bloody during the night. Puppy had forced himself to watch because he realized those were the rules. Like one of those bad old vident shows which popped up occasionally where people were packed into a house and a camera spied on their unguarded moments, the Allahs gleefully beat the prisoners and then looked across the hall with malevolent patience for a response. Puppy almost applauded, but

whatever his expression, it was sufficiently horri ed. e point was to induce fear and disgust. Even in Hell there was logic; evil was so simple and basic. He had to think more clearly. But that wasn’t easy between the moans and screams and the relentless explosions and gun re, and occasionally toppling into agonized hallucinations, a naked Beth dancing, Zelda beheaded, Annette raped, Frecklie falling off the top of Yankee Stadium. In between whatever hazy reality he stumbled into, Puppy re-read the Daily Herald from September 1940, marveling at the British courage, wondering where that had all gone, angry because that was the point of mockingly posting the article on the wall. He tried ripping the story off, but it was glued or soddered or something defying human strength, the ancient black-and-white newspaper taunting from the past. A rocket or missile landed nearby, shaking the jail and sending Allahs running down the halls swearing at the prisoners as if it were their fault. Maybe it was. Maybe America had really struck back. Puppy’s sense of disquiet at World War Four had vanished. He didn’t care about keeping any peace. He wanted to see Allahs blown up. He wanted to watch their limbs y into the air. You were wrong, Grandma. Hate always wins. It’s just easier. He wasn’t sure how long he was unconscious, a day or two, an hour or two; his face burned with fever. Where was Annette. How was Annette. e prisoners seemed segregated by sex and race; there were no Allah prisoners. Maybe there were and he just missed them. Maybe he should ask one of the guards. What were the Arab words? Puppy yelled and a boot drove him back into the corner of the cell, where he fainted again, waking slowly, his vision more blurred this time. He was a little out of his head, he realized, staring across into an empty cell for quite a while, disappointed there wasn’t a show. e stream of blood on the bandage was now an ocean. You might be dying, Puppy. How about that. Coming to London was a great idea. He’d have to get a different travel agent.

A black-robed hand slid a tiny tray of foul smelling vegetables beneath the glass. Famished, Puppy scooped up the food with his blood-stained hands, shoveling it down. e guard laughed as Puppy puked it right back onto the oor. “Clean.” e guard pointed at the vomit. Puppy searched his pockets for a tissue. “Clean.” Nodding with irritation at the impatient guard, Puppy desperately looked around the cell for something to use. ey hadn’t even given him a pillow. en what, the blanket? He slept poorly as is. e guard stormed in and, shoving his ri e butt against the back of Puppy’s skull, pressed his mouth onto the oor. “Clean.” Puppy sensed the eyes of his fellow prisoners across the hall. If they’re paying good money to come out to Yankee Stadium, he couldn’t disappoint them. Puppy barked and yanked the guard’s ankle, ipping him onto his back. He scooped up the vomit and ung it into the Allah’s eyes. A Holy Warrior clubbed Puppy unconscious. He expected to be dead when he woke, but the awful pain in his head told him not yet. His limbs were free. ere wasn’t even a black hood covering his face. He almost toppled off the narrow wooden chair, nally focusing on a heavy-set man in a tan military uniform, somewhere in his early 40s with a shrewd, amused expression behind a thick black moustache, who was scribbling on a pad behind a huge oak desk shadowed by a large painting of the smirking Grand Mufti. Outside the wide window, ames ate a skyscraper. Puppy coughed up a little blood and the man held out his palm for another minute until he nished writing. “ere’s always so much paperwork.” He made it sound like an apology for keeping Puppy waiting.

“Where’s Annette?” Puppy rasped. “She’s ne. Would you like some water?” He greedily gulped the cold water, taking in the cluttered office. “I’m Colonel Ali Basa.” e pleasant officer held out a plate of sweets. “Please.” Puppy hesitated before cautiously biting into a piece of cake whose beige and brown colors complemented the Captain’s uniform. “is is basbousa. You’re tasting coconut. Good, yes?” Ali popped a piece into his mouth to show Puppy he wasn’t being poisoned. “It’s originally from the Caliphate of Egypt, but you can nd variations elsewhere. e French make it, gabelouze, the Greeks, I cannot pronounce, and the Armenians, shamali. e Egyptian Crusaders used it for their feasts such as Lent. at stays between us. Some would take offense, as if even dessert must have only a perfect history before Allah.” He chewed on another basbousa. “Not as good as my grandmother would make, but perhaps memories from our childhood should never be eclipsed. What do you think, Mr. Nedick?” Puppy tensed. It hurt. “Have more. I am fat enough.” Basa held out the plate; this was an order. Puppy greedily shoved three more cakes down his throat. He thought of how much Zelda would enjoy this and smiled crookedly. “Yes, delicious.” Cleaning the plate with his nger, Basa licked off the crumbs with a noisy sucking sound. An air raid alarm screamed as if it were under the desk. Puppy inched, but the Colonel merely shrugged and poured them two cups of tea. “Be careful, that is hot. Sugar, milk, honey?” Puppy waved him off, his stare lingering on the half-open window between the desk and the ling cabinets. “We are four oors up. I doubt even a great athlete like you would survive the fall. I hope you’ll not try, Mr. Nedick.”

Not yet, he thought. “at must hurt.” Ali touched his head. “As well as that.” He pulled aside Puppy’s shirt, stained with blood. “at must be a fresh wound for the stitches to tear so soon.” “I’m ne.” “I doubt it. You very much need a doctor. Who helped you originally?” Puppy just stared. He was going to die anyway, he realized. Bleed to death, fall on his head escaping from four stories. “No one. Annette was a nurse.” Puppy’s voice sounded slightly distant. He shook his head, trying to bring it closer. “And she happened to have a needle and surgical thread, bandages?” “She’s always prepared.” “Which doctor helped you?” “Annette.” “Was it a Muslim?” “Annette has no religion.” “A Crusader doctor? Anger brought its cousin, clarity. “Annette’s only faith is shoes. Where is she?” “As I said, I believe she’s ne. I’m told when a prisoner has a fatal accident.” “Accident. Cute.” “ank you.” “I want to see her.” “Certainly, Mr. Nedick…” “Why do you keeping calling me that?” Ali burst out laughing and returned behind his desk, thinking Puppy was one funny guy. “If you’re not Puppy Nedick, then who are you?” “Elias Kenuda.” He recited the fake papers that got them on the mail plane over. “With Annette Ramos. We are, I am, a member of Grandma’s Family, a ird fucking Cousin, and I, we, expect to be treated with official courtesy.”

Basa stared to make sure Puppy was serious before laughing again. He tossed their passports on the desk. “You mean these?” “Yes.” “Ah.” e colonel thumbed through the passports. “Annette is your anceé, not wife.” “Close enough. We’re in love.” “Of course, there should be nothing else.” Basa ipped a few photos of Kenuda into Puppy’s lap, taken by one of the Shurta agents who’d managed to cross the Canadian border into America during its recent little civil war. “is is Elias Kenuda.” “No, that’s me.” “No, Mr. Nedick.” He swung around his laptop so Puppy could see himself on the vidnews, pitching. A few weeks ago. Two weeks ago. ere is no sense of time in a nightmare. Kenuda turned up the sound on the vidnews clip. He grinned approvingly. “It’s a fascinating game. Hitting is quite an amazing feat. I salute you. Oh, I know your forte is throwing. Pitching.” “Your video’s wrong. at’s not me.” Ali feigned bewilderment and peered at the screen. “You don’t think so?” “Nope. You’re confused because Puppy and I are both of African descent.” “I can tell Africans apart. at continent now walks with Allah.” He sneered. “You’re Puppy Nedick. You and Annette, your ex-wife who is the anceé of the real ird Cousin Kenuda, came to the Caliphate for some reason. You can understand I’m curious why.” Puppy wavered in his seat, the blood dripping onto his thigh. “Please, Mr. Nedick. I only want to help.” He scooped up a couple ngertips worth of his blood. “I can see.” “e Holy Warriors would’ve killed you and Annette already. ey’re not really curious about much. You’re an in del with fake papers so you must mean us harm. ey kill for far less reasons.”

“And you?’ “I am not Mutaween,” he said, slightly offended. “ey enforce the Sharia, our laws, so, God willing, everyone knows what’s expected of them according to the Qoran. Mostly it’s about morals, which doesn’t interest me. I’m concerned with the secular world, not the practices of our faith.” “Wouldn’t that be the same?” Basa smiled thinly. “It could be. Should be. But not always. Following the law and invoking the law are very different, Mr. Nedick. It’s enough for the Mutaween to shoot you on sight because you’re here. I want to know why.” “Before you shoot me?” e colonel shrugged. “My wife and I have never been to Europe before. She likes shoes and heard there are some terri c bargains.” Basa sighed impatiently. “I don’t want to hurt you, Mr. Nedick.” Again, Puppy gestured at the blood. “Nor to hurt Annette.” Puppy stiffened. “I want to see her.” “When you explain yourself.” “Now,” he shouted. Basa gashed Puppy with the tip of a pen; ink smeared with blood on his left cheek, forming a quizzical ‘I.’ “Like the Mutaween, the Shurta also do what they must. We are an ancient tradition from the middle of the Seventh Century, just after the Prophet joined Allah. In the Caliphate of Uthman, we had police powers, security powers, even some judicial authority. e Sahib al-shurta, the head, was a powerful gure in the government. But by the Tenth Century, the Army took over many of these roles. e Grand Mufti restored us, as he restored so much of the earlier glory.” Ali looked reverentially at the painting. “Don’t confuse my kindness with weakness, Mr. Nedick. I much prefer that you don’t watch Annette raped and

tortured.” Colonel Basa was an honest man occasionally and that was an honest admission, he thought after the African Crusader had been returned to his cell. Finishing the last of the basbousa by the window, he watched the re ght along the ames, bodies forming barricades between the Hazmi Eighth Martyr Brigade and the renegade Southern Army of the English Caliphate. A few kilometers away from the London Bridge, ancient M-40 tanks seemingly red on both positions. A ghter jet suddenly dove toward the Bridge as if falling off a cloud. e plane spun slightly, making it unclear if the pilot were in control. As if anyone was, Basa sighed, watching the aircraft hurtle toward the Bridge. e plane exploded into a tank, setting off a reball. e middle of London Bridge collapsed, sucking in armored vehicles and tiny ailing gures beating off the ames scorching their bodies before plunging amid the steel and concrete into the ames River. From a oor below, cheers broke out, silenced quickly by rapid gunshots as guards killed prisoners. Was that a suicide pilot from Abdullah’s rebel forces, a jet on automatic for death, one of the Holy Warrior brigades loyal to the Mufti, or someone else? Who was who anymore? Basa shook his head as he took the staircase for a few minutes of blessed solitude for his thoughts, and to work off the basbousa. He nodded curtly to a black burqa by the entrance near the woman’s holding area. Steely eyes brie y challenged him; there was no deference in the Khawlah Holy Guards, named after the fabled Muslim warrior princess of the Seventh Century. “Peace be upon you, brother.” “Peace be upon you, sister. I want to see the Crusader woman.” A moment’s hesitation produced a slight smirk beneath the black fabric before Basa was led down the stinking hall of empty cells; females were quickly

transferred to sex traders or put on convoys as part of pleasure battalions for troops. Annette was sprawled face down in the cell. “Open the door,” Ali said coldly. “She is only for viewing.” e colonel’s blazing eyes were met in kind. “Clearly not.” He gestured at the torn blouse opening onto welts. “Open the door, sister.” “e Crusader whore is property of the Khawlah Holy Guards,” the soldier rmly replied. “And this is a Shurta prison…” “Which we are using…” “Temporarily.” Something nasty exploded nearby, sending ceiling dust onto their heads. e woman didn’t blink. “We handle the traitors,” she snapped. “No, that’s an internal security matter. Since they’re dhimmi, they have no morals. She’s here under my authority and my jurisdiction. Now open the door, sister.” He drew out the word with more syllables than there were letters. e woman hesitated again, hands by her side, not in meekness but, Basa knew, searching for the knives on the hips beneath the robe. ere were slits which enabled a skilled Khawlah to slice an opponent like a goat. “We have more important things to worry about than a Christian whore.” Ali found some amiability. e woman nodded reluctantly and opened the door. Ali kicked at Annette’s rib, rolling her over. Buttons were torn off; more welts covered her upper chest and stomach. “e whore attacked us with her claws. She needed to learn obedience,” the guard explained from the doorway. Basa noticed a bloody ngernail lying a few feet away. “And you succeeded. God is grateful. But I have need of her.”

e woman smirked again. “Of course.” Basa reddened, turning away to catch his anger before returning with a chilly smile. “Have her cleaned and brought to me.”

Chapter 2

Zelda Jones looked as sad as she ever had at the trickle of pee dripping out of the bottom of the stolen diaper. She was sad because once again, she hadn’t put the diaper on Diego Junior correctly. Sad because she doubted she’d ever learn. Sad because her only clean pair of pants were now wet with the urine of a week-old child. Diego cried. It’s all about you; Zelda smiled at such a thought since her own life had been built on that very premise. But now she had to take care of another human being. She had to make another person happy without considering how that made her feel. at worked because for the most part none of this “I’m a Mommy” routine was going well so far. She was hungry and thirsty and scared and her breasts were about de ated from Diego’s sucking on the nipples. Zelda peered at the baby, still mysti ed by it all, it being motherhood, responsibility, loving someone beyond you. A lover, a friend, they could respond, help, guide, offer insights, say when you screwed up. Not this one. But for all his egotism, Diego Junior was the bahm diggity. She gave him that. Zelda dabbed her stinky pants with a Billow’s Barbecued Chicken napkin and risked feeding him. Easy, little guy, I might need these breasts again someday. She maneuvered beneath the doctor’s stolen white coat to fend off the biting cool fall air. Out of the dusk rumbled another caravan of pick-up trucks. Since the amnesty of baseball fans ended the brief ghting across the country last week, siblings had taken to the roads offering help to anyone displaced by the con ict. Zelda had ducked into the woods a few miles back

when she saw a medical emergency tent set up, just in case they were looking for the supplies she’d lifted. ere’d been food tables, clothing stands, which Zelda had also avoided. In addition to the thousands dead in the original Miners terrorist attack at Yankee Stadium, another hundred or so had died from “Allah-agitations,” according to the vidnews report Zelda had caught outside the crowded bar last night. In his nightly Chat With e Family, First Cousin Cheng admitted there’d been excesses from the Black Tops which he justi ed as unfortunately necessary until all the traitors responsible were found so decent baseball fans could resume their decent lives as decent and loyal Americans and help defeat the Islamic Empire. Including nearly twenty decent baseball fans who’d died by the ruins of Fenway Park, someone had muttered beside Zelda in the frosty pub doorway. e “Allah-agitations” had brought Puppy’s face brie y onscreen wearing an Allah scarf, what was it called, a keffiyeh, kaffir. Puppy wearing a towel instead of a baseball cap made her laugh, which earned suspicious stares from bar patrons, so Zelda, who spent her life saying and doing the wrong thing, suddenly turned the tender laugh into a derisive snort about traitors and hurried into the shadows. But right now Zelda didn’t give a shit about any Miners or Allahs or baseball fans. She was cold and stinky and she had a child she wouldn’t let e Family ever take away. Zelda adjusted Diego’s mouth around her aching breast. “Need anything?” A ruddy guy with a bent nose peered out of the driver’s window by the bus stop. Zelda shook her head. e driver frowned. “You sure? We got room.” He pounded the side door to indicate a nearly empty truck bed. She almost asked for food but thought better of it. Zelda Jones turning down a meal, something for her diary. e driver grunted and pulled away. “Hey,” she suddenly called out. e truck stopped. “Where am I?”

“You don’t know?” “I had to leave the hospital suddenly. BTs hit it. I’ve just been walking.” e driver nodded sympathetically in instant kinship with anyone surviving a Black Top attack. “Emerson.” Diego squirmed. You pooped, didn’t you? ank you. “Emerson. Where’s that?” e man smiled faintly. “Just outside Boston.” Diego started crying. “It gets cold at night,” the driver said. “We’ll be ne.” Zelda wrapped the jacket tighter. A thin woman got out of the passenger side and stopped about ten feet away. “We don’t ask questions.” “What makes you think I’m afraid of your questions? Or my answers.” e woman stared leadenly. Zelda hugged Diego. “I’m kind of out of diapers.” As the woman held out her arms for Diego, Zelda raised a knee in defense. “It’s okay, honey,” the woman said. “You can hold her.” “Him. Diego Junior. Actually Diego Pablo Junior. at’s a boy.” “Nice name. You can sit in the front. I’ll go in the back.” If Zelda were alone, she would’ve jabbed the woman’s eye and run. But she had this fat little smelly mess, crying again. I don’t know what I’m doing except none of it seems right. Zelda’s stomach and Diego’s wails won for the moment; she slid into the front seat, leaning as far away from the driver as she could without falling out the door. Ruddy Face handed her half a sandwich. He grunted at her hesitation. “When’s the last time you ate?” “We had a big breakfast this morning.” From the truck bed, his wife pounded on the window, angrily gesturing for Zelda to eat the damn sandwich.

Don’t want to be murdered over some alleged chicken, Zelda thought, taking big bites; it was the best thing she’d ever eaten. e woman abruptly pounded on the window again, indicating to her thick-headed husband to give Zelda some cookies. “Sorry.” e driver steered with one hand as he tossed a baggie of homemade chocolate chip cookies on Zelda’s lap. She ate slowly, nodding thanks to the man and his wife, who still glared through the window. “I gure we won’t do names,” the driver said. “I’d appreciate that.” “Norma,” the woman shouted through the window. “at’s Doug.” Zelda sighed and ate another cookie. She was a whore for sugar. “Zelda.” “Music okay?” Doug asked after a mile or so on the dark road, the caravan of trucks ring funnels of headlights. Zelda shrugged. e man slipped in a musdisc; “Hills Over Hell” blasted out. “Love this song.” Doug jiggled a little, scowling as Norma motioned for him to concentrate on driving. Zelda closed her eyes. Oh Mooshie, where are you? Where is anyone? Puppy, Clary, Pablo. Beth. She blinked back tears, remembering their last kiss. “I saw Dara Dinton one night in a Westchester supper club.” His eyes rmed stubbornly at Norma’s pounding on the window. “She sang all of them Mooshie Lopez oldies. I heard she died at Yankee Stadium.” Zelda bit her lower lip. “You sure?” “Anyone sure of anything anymore?” Doug ignored Norma’s cautioning nger and exed his right leg, which was tucked into a shin-high thick boot. e Gelinnium wiggle. Zelda recognized the veteran’s trademark arti cial leg. e handle of a baseball bat stuck out beneath a pile of dirty rags by the gas pedal. “For protection,” Doug said simply. “Who the hell knows what’s what. Like Mooshie’s songs.”

Zelda listened intently, stroking the sleeping baby’s head. “Her music was banned for so long because she was associated with the Miners, then everything’s okay, then the Miners blow up Yankee Stadium, so you gure…” He shrugged, waiting for Zelda to say something. She continued attending to the baby. “You gure they’d ban ‘em again. But now Mooshie’s all over the rad. More popular than ever. at make sense? Miners are bad, but are they really? Baseball fans are good again, but are we? Is baseball really coming back, or is Cheng jerking us off? Grandma promised to build ten stadiums, Albert agrees, but where the hell are they ’cept Fenway and Wrigley? Well, I’m just asking, Norma.” He futilely tried drowning out Norma’s shouts. “I heard outside fans outside the Wrigley Field site set up these humongous speakers”—he took his hands off the wheel to demonstrate the humongous size —“and blasted Mooshie’s music. Supposedly, and this is all just between us…” “’Course,” Zelda said, putting her hand on the steering wheel to keep them in the lane. “Some of the BTs joined in. e Black Tops are plowing forward, ring away. e fans, sympathizers, vets like me, which I can admit proudly now…” Zelda held her breath as a truck coming in the opposite direction came awfully close to tearing off their side view mirror. “e BTs are singing Mooshie’s ‘Dark Depths.’ e fans are singing ‘Dark Depths.’ Shooting at each other and singing. What the you-know-what.” Zelda grinned, imagining Mooshie between the two sides, ipping her hair and clenching her groin. “I know, right?” Doug asked. “Did I have a point?” “No,” Norma yelled. Zelda slept uneasily for a few minutes before waking to a gentle nudge from a smiling Norma; Doug was pumping gas. “I think Diego Pablo Jr. could use a cleaning up.” “Course, sure,” she mumbled and, tucking the infant under her arm, headed into the bathroom on the side of the convenience store. She

unsuccessfully tried rinsing off the diaper. Faced with re-using a soaking, poopstained diaper, Zelda wrapped his little red butt in paper towels yanked from the dispenser by the sink. Norma was standing in the truck bed, stretching. She pointed to the lights ahead. “Boston. ere’s a couch in our basement, all clean.” Zelda clutched Diego. “anks anyway, but I’d better not.” “If it’s because my foolish husband ran off his mouth…” “No, Norma, really. I’m not the sort of person you want around. I might bring some trouble.” It took Norma a doubtful moment to believe this chubby terri ed woman with the baby was a menace. “How bad?” “at’s hard to say. Enough.” “Lots of folks are in that spot these days. But the baby…” “He’s mine,” Zelda said savagely, hurrying in the opposite direction. “I didn’t mean anything,” Norma shouted. After a last hopeful honk, Doug and Norma drove off. at was immensely smart, Zelda thought, returning to the gas station. You could’ve done with one night of sleep. But better to be noble and not put someone else at risk. Your mother’s an idiot, Zelda whispered to Diego. Get used to it. Inside the gas station market, she laid the package of Clemen’s Clean ’N Fresh Diapers onto the counter. e teenager rang up the purchase and held out his hand for her Lifecard. “I lost it,” she said with her very best innocent smile. e boy frowned; he wasn’t sure how to void a sale. Zelda stopped the clerk from taking back the diapers. “But I need them. e baby smells.” “Not my problem.” In Grandma’s House, it was all about individual responsibility. If you couldn’t care for yourself then you had to nd a way. Your child’s poop never became someone else’s shit. “What if you look away and I just steal it?”

e teenager was now absolutely horri ed. He snatched the diapers, expecting Zelda to pull a blade as part of this crime spree. Diego cried. “It’s a real baby?” the teen suddenly asked. “What the hell did you think I needed the diapers for?” e teen considered various sinister reasons before dismissively shaking his head. “You gotta go, ma’am.” “Miss. I’m a single Miss which makes me a single mother.” e boy really didn’t want to hear this, either. “I escaped from jail.” “Please…” “en from a Miners camp…” e boy paled. “All these clothes are stolen. According to law, so is the baby. I have no partner. I’m an outlaw.” He had to report all this. He’d be on the vidnews. His friends would desert him for being a rat. “Or,” Zelda and Diego leaned onto the counter, “I’m just a crazy bitch. Who wouldn’t understand you doing anything to get rid of me before I…” her voice trailed off ominously. A path beamed before the boy. He shoved the package at her. “anks.” Zelda pocketed a couple of Doug’s Dainty Caramel Pops. She needed some breakfast tomorrow. “Can you lend me bus fare?” Fleeing did narrow the options, Zelda thought, cradling the exhausted baby as the purple bus rattled through Boston. Lights ickered to the east piercing the black night like a yellowed brocade. “Curfew’s at ten, everyone has half an hour. Get home safely,” the A24 bus driver said with as much warmth as a robot could muster at the passengers hustling down the steps toward the South End Station. “e whole city closes?” Zelda asked, panicking.

“’Cept for there.” Zelda followed the light, which was closer than she thought. Siblings rushed past, slowing with resentful respect for an armored BT patrol vehicle. On the corner, a scarecrow oozing stuffing dangled from a hook above a shuttered haberdashery, a red B cap stuck atop its clown-like face. On its chest was a sign, “Give Me Baseball Or Give Me Death.” Zelda walked quickly along Boylston Street toward the hammering humming. A BT tank was parked to the side as if unsure about being there; fans passed by quietly, bumping into her with muttered apologies. More scarecrows hung on both sides of the street mutely proclaiming “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Fastball” and, at the corner of Yawkey Way, “All baseball fans are created equal.” e scarecrows were nothing compared to the light. It was as if the illumination were coming from underground, bathing the construction site like an upside down volcano. Workers in red B baseball caps scurried up and down immense steel ladders, while others dug with shovels and picks into the frozen ground. Buckets of concrete ew by on wheelbarrows pushed by singing fans in Red Sox warm-up jackets; from somewhere, a medley of Mooshie’s songs played. Makeshift stands stood patiently amid stacks of paint cans. Zelda thought it was a viewing area, but she was the only one just watching. Everyone came to work at the only place in America, along with the site of the new Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the 10 p.m. curfew was lifted. “What’s going on?” Zelda asked an old woman in a oppy t-shirt. e woman sighed disapprovingly at such an idiotic question, gesturing at the huge, hand-lettered red sign atop a ag pole jammed de antly into the ground: “Welcome to the New Fenway Park.” “Hopefully we can re-open next summer if everyone pitches in,” she said accusingly, heading off with a paint brush.

A BT tank squatted at the north end of the construction site, bored soldiers sprawled on the front of the vehicle occasionally exchanging good-natured suggestions with passing workers about how best to build a ballpark. All around the site, the lights of Boston went out for the ten o’clock curfew, setting off a loud cheer of pride. For a moment, BT ’copter blades lost their stealth and glittered. Zelda hushed Diego, stirring noisily to tell the whole world he had gas, and edged toward a trench of concrete being poured into the ground. “What’s this?” Zelda asked a heavy-set man in a Yaz sweatshirt. “It’ll be the home plate side.” He pointed to some rickety chairs off to the right. “ere’s a seat over there for you and the baby.” “anks, but if everyone else is helping, we can, too.” He moved off with a skeptical look. Zelda tucked Diego under her arm and tipped over the sparse remains of concrete from a can into the trench, drawing quickly with her right fore nger while jiggling Diego Pablo Junior as a shield until “Puppy Nedick was here” had dried. Mooshie’s song “Bats and Balls” thumped somewhere in the distance: Poke me with your lumber But don’t throw me a curve If you’ve got any thunder en show me your nerve Bats and balls And clouds in the sky Make me a wish And I’ll make you a star. ***

“Hey.” A thick hand jostled Zelda; she instinctively curled over Diego. ere was a husky laugh attached to the bulky body yanking bedsheets off the

cots in the over-heated aluminum tent. “Relax. I don’t need your kid. I got ve of my own.” Zelda blearily squinted up at a red-faced woman who looked like she could smile or sneer with equal joy. e woman juggled a steaming metal tray, tiny in her stubby ngers. “You want breakfast?” “Yeah, sure.” Zelda chewed on a slice of burnt toast as Diego chewed on her nipple. e woman sighed impatiently. “You going to work?” Zelda shrugged and adjusted Diego’s mouth. e woman ripped the sheets off the bed and ung them into a large cotton container, dismissing Zelda’s startled protest with a belch-like grunt. “If you’re not working, you’re not staying.” “Guess not.” “en where are you going?” “Obviously not sleeping in.” “You’re a smart one.” “If I were, would I be in this position?” “Which is?” Zelda caught herself and started bundling Diego. “Rushing out the door. Everyone has somewhere to go.” “Oh, you’re a big philosopher, too. Because philosophy won’t get Fenway Park built.” “I just, you know…” “What, honey? Just came in the middle of the night to pay homage to baseball?” “Something like that.” “With a baby?” “I’m raising him as a Red Sox fan.” “You also raising him without any food or shelter?”

Zelda ushed and put on her coat. Cut the shit, the woman DV shorthanded. Not your business, Zelda answered, tapping her butt and her temple. e woman grinned. “You don’t have a Lifecard.” “You went through my things?” e woman cackled. “It’s my job to make sure the wrong people don’t come here pretending to help. Enough people died so Cheng would change his mind and build Fenway. You don’t have a Lifecard. You reek. When’s the last time you washed under your arms? I thought so. You ate so fast I’m surprised you’re not choking and dead on the oor. en I’d have to call the Blue Shirts about the baby.” She hugged Diego tighter. “You’re not…” “I’m not doing nothing except offering you a job and a place to stay.” Zelda peered. “But I don’t have a Lifecard.” “ere are enough of them oating around the city what with DVs losing their wallets.” e woman thumbed through IDs, stopping with smug satisfaction as she handed over a Lifecard. “You’re Francine Elio. at’s Paulie peeing on the bed.” “Francine? Is that the best name you have? I’d at least like a name I’d like.” e woman glared. “She’s dead and probably smells better than you.” Zelda followed the woman, who nally introduced herself as Mary E. J. Dougherty (“I’d happily use my real middle names like someone named Mary Elizabeth Janet could be elitist”) into a dank shed near what looked to be the future rst base side. Off a quick grunt to a dark-haired man suggesting she had better things to do than engage in pleasantries when it was only twentyeight degrees and just early October, Mary motioned Zelda into a chair and left. Indicating with a glare that he also had better things to do than engage in pleasantries, the man shuffled a piece of paper by his chin. “Francine Elio. And Paulie Elio,” he asked with a dubious squint.

“at’s right,” she snapped. “Okay, I just asked.” “Sorry.” Zelda wondered how confused Diego would be working on a third name inside of two weeks on Earth. “What do you do?” “About what?” “Skills,” he said impatiently. “Your Lifecard says you’re domestically inclined.” Grandma’s bra strap, I’m supposed to cook plus have a lousy name. “I don’t know. Make spaghetti. I also clean. I’ve sewn buttons. I’m good at laundry, especially folding sheets.” “How’s that gonna help build Fenway Park?” He sighed at her sheepish shrug. “Can you lift?” “What, cookie trays?” e man had no sense of humor. She really didn’t deserve any. “No, Ms. Elio.” He lingered on her new last name as if he wasn’t buying any of this false ID shit either. “Can you do anything other than what’s on the Lifecard?” In about ve minutes, they went through the many possibilities. In Grandma’s House, you could be anything; skill wasn’t considered a limitation. “Dream big, my darlings,” she’d often said. ’Course, you had to actually succeed. Mixing cement, building seats, carpentry, and planting grass were all beyond Zelda. At one point, she mentioned a background in theater and the performing arts, which got a stony stare until the man squinted at his paper and asked if she could be in a choir for the opening day music. He couldn’t promise anything because the daily entertainment was supposed to come from up high, he waved up high to indicate siblings who knew better. Zelda quickly shut down her future in Boston Red Sox colors gaily singing traditional baseball songs at home plate.

“I can’t really sing but I can sell a song on stage if you give me a solo number.” e man muttered Mary Elizabeth Janet Dougherty’s name as if it were an Allah curse. Zelda waited outside a few minutes where workers carted ladders and buckets of cement, almost everyone wearing a name on the back of a shirt. A rotund bearded man in a tall blue hat ipped his red cape over both shoulders and waved a long silver wand. e weary workers paused reverentially for Ernie Paicopolos to bless each part of the new park, bricks, nails, dirt, if it went into the ground it received a boisterous “Big Papi lives” and “Splendid Splinter” and something Zelda thought referred to a Rocket Roger. In the faint sunlight, Zelda saw hundreds of people scampering around, snapping orders, drilling, hammering, Mooshie’s Dark Depths album blasting out of speakers. ere was a grim joy, as if the BTs sitting on the tanks might suddenly change their minds and roll down the hill, ring. Mary honked and Zelda slid into the front seat of the squat gray Chrysler. Seemingly unsurprised by Zelda’s utter failure to show any talents, the woman, whose brown hair stood up like fake wood paneling, chattered on about the Boston DV. ey drove down Cross Street, turning up onto Salem Street, which Mary explained was the south end of the DV, formerly called the North End. Goes all the way just past Commercial Street to the edge of the Harbor, Boston Harbor if you remember your history and, remember, Francine did have a degree from Harvard State College, a shitty little school, but still pay attention. Off to the east is Paul Revere’s house dating back to 1680. Mary waited futilely for Zelda to jump in with some crypto-Francine historical insights. Sighing, she explained all about the midnight ride and the British invasion and the Boston Tea Party, stopping again to ask with growing irritation if any of this resonated and don’t say you weren’t taught this in school because that’s no excuse, there are ways to nd the truth.

Zelda said she’d heard about the American Revolution led by the slaveowners, doing little to mollify Mary, who officially abandoned hope of any intelligent discussion with this glum woman. After parking half on the sidewalk, Mary pointed de antly at the ground. “Not expecting you’ve heard of the Old North Church?” Zelda steeled herself for another outburst. “Why would you? Just played a big role in the Revolution, too. Remember I mentioned Paul Revere?” “Just because I don’t know what you’re talking about doesn’t mean I don’t pay attention.” Mary grumbled skeptically. “April 18, 1775, church sexton Robert Newman and Captain John Pulling Junior climbed to the steeple and held up two lanterns to relay Revere’s signal that the British were coming to Lexington and Concord by sea, not land. Not supposing Lexington and Concord rings your memory steeple?” “I heard of it,” Zelda lied and stamped her freezing feet. “So where’d the church go?” Mary fell still a moment. “Right after 10/12, Miners climbed the steeple and waved one lantern to signal that BTs were coming by land. About ve of them squeezed up there, waiting, knowing it would be the end, but wanting to end it there where they felt it all started. Freedom and liberty. BTs crushed the church, pouring missiles down until the rubble couldn’t jump anymore. ey paved over the site. Like that ever works.” Her eyes shone as if she could still hear the screaming Miners, pointing to the left. “My place is there, next to Bob Capri the shoemaker. By the way, John Adams didn’t own any slaves. Doubt you know who he was.” Mary led them past a store window of shoes arranged in smiles, high heels forming the top edges of the leather mouth anked by child-sized Pinocchios, and into Mary’s Restaurant, simple tables and chairs arranged in a long rectangle on a worn yellowish tiled oor, as if you were in her home. Several

patrons warmly shook Mary’s hand in greeting. e breakfast special, “Believe What You Want: Two Eggs and Bacon,” was chalked on a blackboard over the counter, where Mary grabbed an immaculate apron and, in one motion, knotted the string behind while tossing an apron at Zelda. “Everyone, this Francine. Francine. Everyone.” Everyone welcomed Zelda with a quick shout. A pale freckled girl of ten with wispy blonde hair like loose threading wheeled a baby carriage to the side of the counter and reached for Diego; Zelda shrank back, hissing. Mary yanked Diego away with a loud sigh like a train stopping. “You got to work. is is my daughter Evelyn L.P. Dougherty. She’ll watch the kid.” “Where?” “At school, where the hell else? Unless you think my child should miss an education and grow up ignorant like you. Evelyn Lucille Patricia Dougherty, recite.” Evelyn curtsied. “According to the Restaurant Code of 2075, all employees must focus solely on their jobs. Any outside in uences such as children must be placed with a loved one beyond the scope of employment.” Evelyn curtsied again, this time to polite applause. “I don’t give a…” Mary cut Zelda off with a deadly look. A Dougherty child was never interrupted when they were showing off. Evelyn curtsied. “According to the Restaurant Code of 2075, appropriate non-employment areas for the care of children by loved ones include e Family designated office buildings and schools.” A very large wooly man poked his head out of the kitchen door, waving a three-pronged fork. “If my baby can stay at P.S. 402 with Evelyn L.P., then why can’t yours? Unless you think you’re better than me.” “Walter, none of that.” Mary clapped her hands. “Francine and little Paulie have never been separated.” e patrons murmured understanding.

“Evelyn L.P.?” her mother cued. e girl curtsied again, grimacing slightly at the wear and tear on her onceyoung knees. “According to the Restaurant Code of 2075, a parent may request the delay of removing the child from the place of their employment to ensure comfort with the loved one’s caregiver. Does that mean I miss school, Mama? I’d be heartbroken. ere’s a new history lesson from First Cousin Albert starting today.” Mary folded her arms and glared at Zelda, joined by the entire restaurant. Cater to her insecurity that this girl would steal her baby or bear responsibility for an uneducated idiot passing into e Family? Zelda tied her apron and nodded warily. Evelyn L.P. squealed and, wrapping Diego up in his blanket and adding several stfuls of napkins as a cushion, wheeled him on the run out the door. “He only eats soft food,” Zelda yelled at the window, where she could see the carriage spinning on one wheel down the block. Mary clasped her shoulder. “Don’t worry. She’s only lost a couple babies. Now get to work. I’m hoping you can at least write down food orders.”

About Gary Morgenstein

Gary Morgenstein is the critically acclaimed author of e Dark Depths series (A Mound Over Hell, A Fastball for Freedom), a unique dystopian science ction baseball saga. He has appeared on several podcasts and science ction roundtables at the popular Fan Boy Nation and Fellowship of Fools. An accomplished playwright, his humorous new play about racial harmony, A Black and White Cookie, is slated for premiere in 2021. He is also the author of the stage dramas Saving Stan, A Tomato Can’t Grow in the Bronx, and the offBroadway sci- rock musical e Anthem. His work has been featured in e New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, e New York Post, Sports Illustrated, Fox News Radio, and NPR. He enjoys sports, yoga, and taking care of his beloved pug. Gary lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, playwright-director-theater critic Marcina Zaccaria.

About Machines

Mink learns what it means to be a Metal user, hunts the one who stole Gyov, and remotely saves the lives of people in his home country of Octernal. He just has to break some laws to do it all.  Mink’s journey takes him deep into the Machinist culture of Freeland, teaching him much about science, love, oppression, and independence. His newly developed elemental aďŹƒnity for Metal proves useful for underground Machinists. As Mink pursues the Immortalist who took his precious Gyov, he risks losing a new love he has found. And when he learns of a plot to wipe out Octernal by destroying the Tear of God there, he must use his unique skills and risk everything to prevent it.

Chapter 1

Enough light ltered through the window slats that Mink knew being late was a risk. Not that it mattered. Mink had taken the same class numerous times now and knew the scheduled plan as well as the instructor. Next week, the former Elementalist would have a sixth opportunity to take the Citizenship Exam, offered semiannually, and become a full citizen of Freeland: A Machinist. e faucet of the water recycler was taking forever to reconstitute the energy cube into a drink. At least the sweet smell of the powder broke up the usual musty smell of the hut. It wouldn’t be the rst time the water supply ran out prematurely before the re ll date. Maybe someone farther up the pipeline had a massive leak or there was another blockage. Mink opted to rummage the only cabinet above the sink pedestal for the tenth time instead of watching the water drip. Pacing the tiny bungalow made of thick gray plastic printed in a cube, Mink irritably adjusted an ill- tting donated shirt and shorts meant for someone shorter and fatter. Typical Machinist pants had extra-long legs and waists that came up nearly to the arm pits. e intention was to have the cuffs pulled back up to the knee and rolled back down over the calves and waist turned down to look almost like a skirt, but Mink preferred the shorts that had no shortage of pockets. e shirts were mostly plain as Machinists tended to wear thin vests as an outer layer. ose were still in a bag in the corner. Wearing them only made Mink feel like a clown. e hut was one open square space with no dividing walls, which nevertheless felt cramped compared to the octagonal rooms Mink had grown

up with. A simple gray chair was the only movable piece of furniture, pushed under the equally drab desk protruding as an extension of the wall. Likewise, the bed was printed as a lower platform of the same wall, covered with a thin mattress of something unnatural that felt like lying on mud. Anxiety and bad dreams had deprived the applicant-immigrant of muchneeded sleep, a condition that was either exacerbated by thirst, or the reverse was true. Last night’s nightmare of killing Gyov had been particularly unsettling. Dark hair secured in a long ponytail from years without being cut, Mink checked the lock on the door, slid the window slats shut, and pulled the foot off of the chair’s leg. e crystal Gyov had gifted Mink that morning before the Battle of Rift Ridge fell into open palm. Eyelids drew deep brown eyes closed. A thumb searched carefully across the facets of the crystal. Gyov’s singing voice lled consciousness with Oongk Gyoriah Ahtima. It drove out fear of the exam. It eased the pain of the nightmare. at dear friend who was horribly taken away three years ago after they had just confessed their feelings for one another. Everything they had was preserved in this sole crystalline archive. e two-ounce shot glass was lled enough. Shutting off the water, Mink gulped the drink. e crystal was returned to its hiding place. Drawing deep breaths helped the drink spread energizing and super-hydrating refreshment throughout the body. It tasted like plastic. Sweet plastic, but plastic all the same. Everyone was issued a Wireless Information Service Portal, or WISP, upon arrival at the immigration camp. is singular contraption was made out to be the most critical possession. It didn’t look like much, being a shiny black case with a seam bisecting the top so it could be opened up and unfolded into a Ushape. However, this unassuming machine had tens of thousands of rows of tiny projectors that created holoimages within its frame that could be interacted with by voice or touch. A WISP was keyed to a speci c user and allowed that user to perform a variety of tasks depending on the location of the

WISP. Quickly, Mink’s WISP was plucked from the bedside table, the door was unlocked, and Mink Jolle stepped out into the immigrant camp. e haze lingering in the lower atmosphere really brought out the green in the sky’s usual teal color and dimmed the glare of the morning sun. Two dozen more gray plastic huts were arranged along with Mink’s in a ve-by- ve grid separated from the administration building by a quad of dirt where sitting areas were provided around two large repits. No plants could be seen and the camp’s own ten-meter-high perimeter concrete wall prevented a view as much as the nearby twenty-meter eastern border wall. e administration building, a rectangular, gray plastic common hall for the classroom and office, was anked by smaller chambers, one for the water recycler reservoir and the other for maintenance and storage. Down the path to the right, chubby Crpeskth rushed with a determined look and short legs toward the common hall and lanky Yoloni was not far behind. Both of them were attractive in their own right. Yoloni had the fairer skin tone of a specklenut and curly, long hair showing more volume than the classmate’s body. Crpeskth had beguiling yellow-brown eyes and a dimpled smile, framed alluringly by short ruddy-brown hair. is was no time for gawking, however. Seizing the opportunity to not be the last one to class, Mink ran across the quad to cut them off. Behind Mink, a sudden thump ceased the quiet hum as WISP shut off all services to the little house. Five meters away from the common hall, a click unlocked the door and slid it open. Mink rushed inside, hoping to hear the door shut, con rming neither Crpeskth nor Yoloni were right behind. Sliding into a desk at the back of the room, Mink heard the click and grinned. e walls of the common hall were completely covered with maps of the thirty districts, common use words, the alphabet, the number system, simpli ed descriptions of the laws, rules for the class, generalized encouragement that life in Freeland will be the stuff of dreams, and job recruitment posts. Ten rows of eight desks lined up in front of the large, plastic

instructor’s desk, but in the last few years, Mink had never seen all of them in use. Glowing tiles had been arranged throughout the ceiling to bathe the room in a warm, natural light without shadow. Each desk had been printed in place and allowed just enough space to lean toward the WISP dock at the far edge of the desktop. Placing the WISP on the groove of the desk and swinging it open, it spoke, “You are four minutes late.” “Water problem. I only got three milliliters every minute,” Mink said to the instructor standing by one of the few windows. Instructor TiLou, a white-haired and congenially animated person shaped like a fruit, corrected Mink’s improper use of Freelandian grammar, “I was only getting three milliliters a minute.” “Oh. You too?” Mink set off a round of chuckles. Proper use of Freelandian had proven difficult for Mink, despite the years of practice, and humor was often used to de ect the embarrassment. “ere is a problem with water supply this morning,” TiLou informed while crossing slowly in the general direction of the large desk. Just then, the door opened and Yoloni sprinted through, wheezing, “Sorry. Water. Barely any water.” “Yes. ere is a water problem.” TiLou sat at the big desk in front of the room as the chair whined. Before the door could close, Crpeskth sauntered in clutching a abby side that wasn’t responding well to the recent loss of weight. “My water wasn’t working.” Crpeskth dragged across the back of the room to an empty seat. Yoloni’s WISP spoke up, “You are ve minutes late.” Instructor TiLou smiled again and spoke up from the chair. “We have a known water problem. It will still be a problem tomorrow. Adjust your schedules accordingly. After tomorrow, the problem will be fully resolved.”

Crpeskth placed the WISP on the desk and everyone heard, “You are ve minutes late. You are the last one to arrive. Please send your apology to the rest of the class.” Last one? Mink double-checked the room. Davder hadn’t shown up yet. Nevertheless, Crpeskth’s face broadcast across all WISPs with a huff and thick Smranksth accent. “I must apologize to my fellow applicant-immigrants. My tar…tardi…” Crpeskth struggled to read the Freelandian word. “Tardiness,” TiLou offered. “…tardiness has delayed the progress of your learning about our new country…” Continuing to atly read the words, Mink stared at Crpeskth’s holographic face projected by WISP. Such light-tan skin. Eyes seemed to scan Mink’s face as they read words. Mink’s ngers traced the three-dimensional image along the lines of Crpeskth’s cheek. “I do not think I am any better than any of you. e reason for my tardiness is not because I think your time is less important than mine…” Crpeskth had only taken the test once. ere wasn’t any reason to kindle feelings based on eeting attraction. Mink didn’t intend to fail the test this time and playfully poked at the gorgeous yellowish-brown eyes on the WISP screen. “Please accept my humble apology, and I ask that you not hold my lapse of judgment against me.” Crpeskth concluded the dictated apology with no attempt at sincerity and the broadcast ended. e more Mink saw of the antidiscrimination laws and their punishments for violations, the less the de nition of antidiscrimination made sense. Having been the target of many forms of bullying, Mink easily recognized the methods at work to create a deep-rooted avoidance of ever putting one’s own interest above another’s. at part was much more tangible. e applicant-immigrants were rarely late as a result of the ensuing embarrassment of being the last one. However, some days it was simply unavoidable. at didn’t seem to matter to Freelandian law. ere were no

legal allowances for someone having different abilities, perspectives, or circumstances. e values of the antidiscrimination laws seemed utopian in a general sense. Yet, after experiencing the public humiliation on a few occasions, Mink doubted that the practical application of such wellintentioned austerity was better than the quasi-acceptance of differences back in Octernal. Lesson 147 replaced Crpeskth’s face and Instructor TiLou spoke through all the WISPs. It was simultaneously familiar and frustrating to Mink, knowing how long each image would be displayed, what words would show up when, and yet still apparently not know the material enough to be allowed to enter the country. It would be decidedly better if Mink or the instructor ever saw a score; if not also what answers were wrong. Each of the previous ve attempts had ended with WISP stating simply that Mink did not pass, which resulted in compulsively refreshing the status of WISP in disbelief. Few passed the test the rst couple of times, but they all seemed to get it by the fourth try. Mink, however, was stuck. Everyone at this camp had come from Octernal, having agreed to forego the use of the holy elements for a new life in Freeland. It wasn’t like Freelandians didn’t have affinities, since it was the core commonality of every person born on Georra. ey eschewed their elemental use for a life where anyone could learn to perform any task, given the proper tools. ere was even a deliberate lack of related terms in Freelandian. As an example, affinities for elements were referred to as resistances. Furthermore, the three chief languages of Octernal were forbidden so that they might learn to speak Freelandian better. Socialization had a natural way of zzling out before it went beyond small talk and conversation practice. e newer applicant-immigrants tended to start off buddy-buddy, with no concept of how quickly friends might leave, or how long they themselves would probably stay. inking back on it, Mink felt naive getting close to some of the applicant-immigrants who had already passed the exam and were

now long gone. Nearly three years in, no one had even got as far as nding out Mink was at the Battle of Rift Ridge. e extended-stayers were easy to spot at the immigrant camp. ey were like Mink. Concentrated on their studying. Were nothing more than polite to the newbies. And most of all, they barely had muscle, let alone fat. Camp provisions were designed for shorter stays, built under the assumption that if an applicant-immigrant didn’t succeed on the rst attempt that they would surely pass on the second. e general hope being that they would soon enter the country, nd work, and make a better life for themselves by the merits of their own efforts. From what Mink had learned, Freeland took very good care of its citizens. Even without passing the test, there was an underlying sense that everything was pretty well gured out. Driven to nally pass the exam, Mink still had to keep the priorities in order. Becoming a citizen was just one of many steps needed to track down the one who had taken Gyov away. Even more important than both objectives, the urge to discover what being a metal user meant remained a primary focus.

Chapter 2

Amid the typical din, when people were unquietly settling inside their huts, Mink would experiment to nd the rhythm and voice for metal chants. Even on this, the night before the Citizenship Exam, there was no better time for this illicit work. So had run the ritual for the last two years. e wording wasn’t the problem. Every attribute enhancement effect was essentially the same eight-syllable line for each element, just switching out the name of the element and using the verb that adjusted to the proper number of syllables. In Mink’s case, the Octernalian word for metal was “shendyu,” making “trat” the proper verb choice. e attribute enhancement chant for metal should be “trat shendyu combando toma.” e literal translation to Freelandian would be something like “resulting from metal shared power with me,” but that would never work as a chant. Mink had tried the chant in both Octernalian and Freelandian many times, but decided that the language used couldn’t matter much because the effects worked the same with Smranksth and Pashmeetan. Chants just sounded better in Octernalian, so that became the tongue of choice. e difficult part was discovering the type of voice and rhythm that needed to be used for the effect to happen. ere were enough variables that Mink had trouble keeping track of them even with the assistance of WISP. Mink endeavored to try different combinations every night until it was no longer safe to be repeating a chant aloud. “Trat shendyu combando toma!” Mink continued variations of the same squeaky voice for over an hour using different emphasis without feeling the vibrational connection that would

indicate progress. Frustrated, focus switched to passing the exam and getting out of the camp for good. Mink woke up WISP, which immediately went back to the practice test at question forty-eight. It hardly seemed to matter that the Combustion Cessation Act of the year 26,342 was still in effect when there hadn’t been any fuel to combust for over a hundred years, or a need thanks to quark yoking. Yet, Mink had four choices of which Chairman-elect signed the act into law: A) Tyron Powers, B) Raggie S. Blinkmat, C) Illumin Federton, D) Momo Play. Raggie S. Blinkmat was just thrown in to add confusion as the one who was widely credited as bringing about the broadest sweeping environmental reforms, but Mink knew Illumin Federton was the right answer. WISP con rmed it. Mink read over question forty-nine repeatedly without thinking once about what it was asking. Preoccupied with thoughts of what more could be tried with the chant voice, the Freelandian words lining up across WISP’s display meant nothing. What is the mandatory sentence for interfering with the task functions of a worker automate? Mink had to think about what an automate even was. ey didn’t work in the Immigration Camp. Automates were described as mechanical entities built and programmed solely to ful ll a speci c set of repetitive tasks. Given only enough intelligence to keep working when unforeseeable circumstances arose. Apparently, they were as complex as vehicles, and as simple as stationary objects performing one task several times a minute around the clock in factories. WISP wasn’t classi ed as an automate. Everything about the way WISP functioned was dependent on the user interface. It could not move, nor communicate on its own. WISPs and weapons were the only examples of that kind Mink knew. ere was a word for that that Mink was forgetting. inkers, their own classi cation of automate, were programmed with an impressive amount of instructions that took decades to write, making them capable of reaching their own decisions, developing their own plan of action, and infallibly maintaining a consistent code of ethics that even allowed them

to supersede precedence when the situation warranted. ey were employed in a variety of managerial positions and as judges, but never military. If someone was caught interfering with the duties of an automate, their sentence would be handed down by a thinker. e severity of the interference would vary the punitive damages, but it would always be at least, what? A) two thousand chips, B) twelve days in jail, C) three hundred hours of doing the automate’s job for it, or D) exile… A gravelly voice? Mink hadn’t tried that yet. It would take a couple weeks to progress through all the speeds, but it would be nice to go lower on the voice for a change… B) twelve days in jail. Correct. Question fty out of two hundred replaced the screen. When someone invites you to a party and tells you not to tell one of your friends, what is the appropriate action? Ah. e social discrimination law section of the test. A) go to the party and not tell your friend? Mink remembered going to Pirk’s fteenth birthday years ago. Pirk would be seventeen now… B) go to the party and tell your friend about it anyway? Mink turned seventeen in this same hut, without Dreh or Pulti around… C) don’t go to the party and be with your friend. Mink didn’t have friends. But it would be good enough to avoid any party just to have one more hour with them… D) inform the proper authorities of the infraction and take the friend to the party. It was all Mink could do to remember the last interactions with Dreh, Pulti, the parents, Sapo, Tralé, Mouké, Tolrin, Gyov… D) inform the proper authorities. Correct. Mink got up from the chair and pulled off the foot concealing Gyov’s crystal. Sitting, listening, and remembering. Everything mattered. Everything was out of reach from this trap. is little hut that just recently started getting adequate water again had held its captive too long. It was keeping Gyov away. Mink had to remember Gyov was gone. Mink was gone. e crystal went back into hiding. WISP turned off. Mink walked over to a tiled corner and disrobed. Freeing the ponytail with one hand and grabbing the soap shaker with the other, Mink shook out a generous portion of the powder. Rubbing it in completely was most difficult with hair as long and

thick as Mink’s. Eventually, all the powder had been rubbed in. Mink grabbed a pair of shorts from a drawer and stepped inside them. Mink opened the box of nighttime cubes and picked out a green one. e box still had about half of its original contents and that would be plenty. e cube rattled in the bottom of the shot glass with a clink before the water recycler lled the glass. Within seconds the cube had dissolved, giving the water a deep green tint. Mink swished the minty liquid around by mouth until it no longer zzed. Spitting it back into the water recycler, a fresh blast of water rinsed out the glass. “WISP, turn off the lights,” Mink said, settling into bed. A collage of distant memories danced before Mink as the darkness shrunk the sense of space even more with its relentless black. en came the moment when Mink couldn’t be sure if eyelids were open or shut. “I have to get out of here,” Mink said, unaware of being awake or asleep. Gyov walked ahead, bedecked in royal blue silks. ere seemed no way to catch up as Gyov kept sending smiles back over a shoulder. It felt like running through the wilderness of Georra using Quick Legs, but Gyov walked ahead all the same, smiling, laughing. Gyov tried to speak, but Mink couldn’t hear any words. “Slow down!” Mink called out, ignored. “I miss you. You’re too far away.” Desperation turned to anger. Anger coupled with dread. Swinging an arm down hard, metal spat out of Mink’s ngers and Gyov twisted down to the ground in a supine position, laughing all the same. Mink stopped and crouched over Gyov’s body. “Why didn’t you stop? I was telling you to stop!” Mink shouted into the laughter. “I couldn’t keep up with you.” More laughter. “Stop.” Mink swung a hand down to Gyov’s shoulder, only it wasn’t a hand anymore. Now it was a knife. “Stop!” e knife-hand swung down to the other shoulder. “Stop!” e laughing wouldn’t stop. Several times, Mink stabbed Gyov in the chest.

Attacking gave way to sobbing and wailing. “You just needed to stop,” Mink belabored between wails. “You should have stopped.” e wounds oozed a thick, black, and foul blood. Gyov was silent at last. ey were both surrounded by people watching. Mink didn’t look up. ere was no reason. Everyone was there, watching. e silent Gyov disturbed Mink more than the laughing one. “I killed Gyov,” Mink confessed to the silent crowd. “I did it.”

Chapter 3

On the day of the Citizenship Exam, the applicant-immigrants were tested in order of their arrival to the class. Mink timed it perfectly to get settled in the quiet, far corner of the room and do some more review, but not have to wait all day in silence, or risk apologizing to the class for tardiness. Middle of the pack. e best place to be. WISP randomized the practice test questions so Mink couldn’t anticipate their order. According to WISP, Mink hadn’t missed any questions the last few practice attempts. ere was more to it than just studying the correct answers. Experience had shown how the actual test could have the same answer set, but a different question. To pass the test, one had to know the right question to every answer. Instructor TiLou sat at the big desk and played games on a WISP. As long as everyone remained quiet and didn’t compromise the integrity of the test taking, an instructor’s job was easy. Every applicant-immigrant used the time before taking their test to run through practice tests. is was serious business. Failure on the exam meant another six months in the camp, and time had shown that more than half would fail. For example, here was the family of three. e Huloughs, or something. ey all needed to pass to stay together. is was their second time taking the test, with odds favoring at least one would fail, holding the family back. Ten more individuals had come in throughout the term, this being their rst time taking the test without the bene t of all six months of class. at was thirteen with a near guarantee of having to wait six months for another chance.

Seven more of the class had just nished their rst full six-month class and would take the test for the second time. Mink knew none by name or conversed with them. ere might be a few of them passing the test and becoming citizens, but mostly Mink considered this group to be staying. No reason to look them up in country, regardless. erefore, in this group, only ve, including Mink, had decent odds for passing the test and moving on with their lives. is would be Crpeskth’s third time taking the test. A lot of people passed on their third attempt. Yoloni, Ruséth, and Fénik had failed the third and were about to take it for the fourth time, giving much better odds for passing. Davder would have been set to take the test for the fth time, nearly an automatic pass, but had not been seen since before the water trouble a few days ago. No one was more senior than Mink. Even Instructor TiLou came in on rotation after Mink’s second fail. A couple years ago, Mink was still idealistic enough to form friendships, of which the ones remaining were Yoloni, Fénik, and Davder. So foolish. ey had naively gone as far as making plans to become roommates after passing the test. Over the past year, demoralized by stagnant, repetitive lives, they were barely friends. To think that any of them might pass and leave Mink alone was extra motivation to focus attention on the practice test. Mink had just enough time to think about taking the practice test a third time that morning before the screen on WISP changed to say, “Please enter the testing room.” By “testing room,” they meant a temporarily partitioned cubicle area at the back of the room close enough to the exit to ensure no information could be passed along before leaving. e partitions gave just enough privacy to not have anyone watch the test takers, but not so much that they felt alone and able to cheat. Mink crossed the room with WISP, thinking with every step that this would be the last time ever taking this walk and getting those nods of encouragement from people who knew how long this stay had been.

Mink placed WISP in the groove about twenty centimeters from the front of the desk, unfolded the sides to open it, and sat down. A solid, noncollapsible frame was built into the top of the desk near the far side. e question would appear on the frame and Mink would select the answer on WISP. e larger holoimage reminded Mink that talking or leaving before the test was complete would result in an automatic fail. Mink selected “I understand, please start” on WISP’s smaller holodisplay and the sixth attempt at becoming a citizen of Freeland began. Mink felt very prepared. Every third question was something new that hadn’t been on any practice test, even though the answer set was very familiar. It didn’t take long to make the proper choice and move on. In no time at all, question two hundred had been asked and answered. e second part of the test was to write a short message about why Mink should be allowed to live in Freeland and what contributions were planned for Machinist society. is part of the test demonstrated the command of the language more than anything. ere may have been a measure of importance on the content. Surely, they kept an eye out for revolutionaries, delusions, and other potential problems. Yet, the attitude Mink took was one of obedience and selfsufficiency. e overall message remained the same, but the words got better with each attempt at passing. Mink wrote, “Freeland, through General Stroud acting on its behalf, offered protection from abuse and promised a new life. I completely submit to that opportunity with gratitude and humility. ere is no other place on Georra that offers me a greater hope of pursuing a life of ful llment. In return for the gift of citizenship, I cannot match the impact in kind, but only pledge to make my own way, contributing to the greater good through my efforts, in whatever job I will perform, with allegiance to the laws of this nation. I will enter Freeland gladly, foregoing the traditions and trappings of my former land, and adopt the ways of the Machinists.”

Mink spent the rest of the time tweaking the answer until con dence and pride garnered enough courage to select “submit.” Getting up and leaving the partitioned area had a profound sense of nality. At last, there was a feeling of celebration. Mink strode out of the common hall and continued with great purpose toward the shack that would soon enough be used to house someone else. Yoloni sprang forth from a bench to intercept Mink, waving and skipping in the approach. Mink felt great, but not obliged to entertain anyone else with small talk or the rote well-wishes from post-exam relief. Avoiding eye contact until Yoloni blocked the path, nerves became steeled to tolerate pleasantries for however long necessary before escape was opportune. “How did you do, do you think?” Yoloni asked, rocking back and forth on restless feet. “Ah, you know. I have a good feeling about it this time. Can’t think of anything I got wrong. You?” Mink deliberately arched an eyebrow, thinking it polite to so demonstrate genuine interest in the answer. Yoloni held both thumbs up over clenched sts which pumped like pistons on the verge of breaking down. “ere’s no way I failed this time! I did it! I just know I did!” Mink nodded and smiled, with a ray of hope that the conversation might have reached its logical conclusion. Yoloni lingered with excited breath and a face that could have sold soap. It became painfully obvious that Mink was expected to offer assurances to the success and words were chosen carefully to do so without prompting further talk on the matter. “Well, yeah. You’ve been working very hard at it, Yoloni. You know the test just about as well as anyone. I have no doubt that you’ve passed. I’ll congratulate you now so I can get inside and rest up. Congratulations, Machinist.” Mink gave Yoloni a rm handshake while stepping around to continue on to the hut.

“anks. I was wondering. You think you might have some of those cakes left? e ones that have the frosting on the inside? To celebrate.” “Dearlings,” Mink stated simply without turning around. “Yes! at’s what they’re called. I haven’t had any in months. Did you eat all of yours?” Mink pretended to think about whether or not some dearlings were left in the cabinet while actually trying to come to terms with the prospect of toasting good fortune with Yoloni and cake. is was not on the agenda for the rest of the day. Mink knew better than to assume Yoloni would take a cake and go eat it elsewhere. “Yeah.” Mink looked back over a shoulder with a little nod. “I think I might have some left. Never really cared much for them.”

Chapter 4

Yoloni sat on the only chair while Mink rearranged packages in the cabinet, searching for the right treats to send the former friend away. Sure enough, four dust-coated dearlings stacked in the back found a new purpose. Mink went ahead and pulled all four out. e extras could go away with Yoloni. Cabinet closed, Mink carried the crinkly wrapped cakes with a smile that gained sincerity with every passing minute. “You’re on luck,” Mink said, setting three packages on Yoloni’s lap and sitting on the bed with one. “In luck, I think,” Yoloni corrected. “at’s what I meant. By this time, I’m usually down to the food I don’t care much for.” Yoloni brushed the dust off the packages with a held sleeve. “Me too, but I would have eaten these months ago. ank you for giving me the extra.” Mink didn’t see the point in brushing off the dust, never planning on eating the wrapper anyway. e package gave off a sort of pop when opened and then the air smelled of toasted sugar and dust. e our used in the cake was so overly processed that dust would be Mink’s exact description of the taste. Compacted dust held in the shape of a roll with oils, avored by merit of the vibrantly colored frosting gems made with little more than melted sugar dried into a paste. Yoloni’s craving for them was a bit of a mystery, but one Mink was happy to leave alone. Yoloni popped open a dearling and took in its bouquet like a ower. Once freed from the plastic enclosure, it was held aloft in offering. “To our health!” Yoloni cheered.

“To citizenship,” Mink replied as they bumped their dearlings together. Mink laughed aloud as Yoloni emitted such satis ed moans chewing a bite. For Mink’s own part, the one bite was plenty and not even courtesy could force another. Yoloni laughed along and savored the rest of the dearling. “At least they are going to good use,” Mink said. “Remember when we thought we were supposed to roast them?” Mink did remember that. Back when they both attended camp re socials. Yoloni was so scared back then. Forced into exile for thoughts of dissention and taken from university without ever seeing home again. An unwilling applicant-immigrant expecting only torture from the enemy country. Watching dearlings ooze when held over a ame was what rst got Yoloni to relax. A place with such ridiculous amusement couldn’t possibly be hostile, right? “I think I prefer them that way,” Mink confessed. “Here. Have the rest of mine. If you want.” Yoloni snatched the cake out of Mink’s hand as if that was the plan all along. Before chewing up the rest of Mink’s cake, Yoloni asked, “What do you plan on doing? For work? If you pass.” Mink had one singular occupational obsession: to work the Weldon Bracer mine. It felt like the safest way to continue to explore testing metal use. “I’m thinking of becoming a miner.” Yoloni smiled so wide cake showed in cheeks. “A miner?” Yoloni echoed. “Like someone who digs underground? Why? ey let you pick any job you want.” “And that’s the job I want.” “You try so hard to get into the country and then you wind up spending your days out of it? e only active mine is the new one in Rift Ridge.” “I bet it sounds kinda crazy, but that’s what I’ve been thinking. How about you? What do you want to do?”

Yoloni nished Mink’s dearling. “I’m going to pilot ying craft. at’s a lot of why I was sent here, so I’d be ignorant not to pursue it.” Mink wanted to ask Yoloni about prior element use, but such language was strictly forbidden. ere had to be more than a desire to become a pilot to wind up in exile. “Do you have a problem with that? You seem upset.” “No,” Mink said, standing. “I think that’s bold and admirable.” Yoloni stood as well. “anks. And thank you for the dearlings. I’ve imposed enough. Good luck on the results tomorrow.” Yoloni stepped up and gave Mink a hug. Mink held the warm body. Yoloni made no attempt at letting go and they hugged long enough for Mink to admit to wanting the embrace. eir heads backed away enough for cheeks to touch. Mink’s eyes closed to allow visions of a moonlit Gyov staring back from the copse in the wilderness, raking lips across Yoloni’s cheek to waiting mouth. e kiss was passion, lips locked and moving in unison. e kiss was frustration. It held de ance, admitted need, awoke desires, and made empty promises. e sweetness Mink tasted off Yoloni’s dearling tongue gave a unique appreciation for the treat. Yoloni grabbed a stful of the back of Mink’s head and held it fast against the kiss. A hand fumbled up the back of Mink’s shirt, scratching lightly with clumsy attempts at pressing their bodies together. Before Mink could lower a hand to the side of Yoloni’s waist, both WISPs spoke in unison. “Applicant-immigrants are not allowed to fraternize,” they asserted. “Please back away from each other.” Yoloni leaned back, keeping their hips together, and asked “What does ‘fraternize’ mean?” Mink’s hand was plucked from the waist and clutched tightly over a breast. Even through the pocket on Yoloni’s jacket, it was a soft delight. “I don’t think I’ve heard that word.”

e WISPs issued a nal warning. “You have three seconds to separate or face arrest. One.” Yoloni thrusted back against Mink, whispering, “If I knew they would have given us three seconds…” “Two.” “…I would have had us strip rst,” Yoloni teased. e two applicantimmigrants broke away from their embrace and Yoloni walked backward to the door. Mink had no idea how to react, but could not even imagine complicity. ere is no way it would have been worth risking citizenship. “ree. is concludes your warning. You both are not permitted to be within arm’s reach of each other for the duration of your stay.” “Hear that, Mink?” Yoloni called from outside the door. “We have to wait a whole day!” Mink smiled and waved until the door closed and then proceeded to lock the hut down. No more interruptions. No more risks. Not even another session of chant practice. e only activities between now and the meeting with TiLou tomorrow would be cleaning, sleeping, and packing. e random make-out session with Yoloni became haunting. What was the reasoning behind all that? From what was said, the whole thing was planned. Now what would happen if they saw one another before leaving camp? ey could not touch, which wasn’t really a problem for Mink, unless Yoloni tested the warning and they both wound up arrested and not allowed to become citizens. Was that the point? Did someone send Yoloni to prevent Mink from joining Freeland, even if passing the test? If that were the case, why obey the three-count? Absent of a conspiracy, all that was left was to assume that Yoloni acted of free will and desire. Hitherto unprofessed feelings or even affections toward Mink. Did that mean Mink had, in any way, misled Yoloni into believing those affections were reciprocal? How? ey had barely spoken over the past year and a half. Now Mink wondered how easy it would be to wind up in

different areas of Freeland and not cross paths. Ever. e whole episode left a bad feeling including, but not limited to, guilt and shame. Mink still belonged to Gyov, even if they could never be together. For the last time, Mink took Gyov’s crystal out of the chair leg. After listening to the recorded song and message, the crystal would be packed with Mink’s belongings, never to be hidden again. It would sleep under the pillow this night. Maybe then Mink could avoid dreams of killing Gyov.

About Raymond Henri

Raymond has enjoyed writing from an early age. After exploring a variety of other formats, he just recently started writing novels. His character driven stories re ect the diversity of the places he has lived and the jobs he has had, focusing on animals and lm.

About Shh… It’s Our Secret

Violet has a secret that could change the lives of everyone she loves, but destroy her own. She lives in a at above the run-down café bar that she works in, with her overbearing boyfriend. After losing her parents at a young age, her café bar regulars are the closest thing she has to a family and she feels responsible for them. Gorgeous new neighbour Cole is out to cause mischief and he’s determined to nd out more about Violet and what is happening in the café bar on Wednesday nights. First, he has to nd a way to make enough money to leave his current singing job and avoid the wandering hands of his lecherous landlady. Mollie tries to keep up with the mortgage on the house she bought with her husband, but when he deserts her for a woman from his past, her world crumbles around her. She struggles to cope with the pressure of being a single parent and watching her sister, Violet, make terrible life choices, when she has the ability to save them all. Kai has moved just outside of a small town to get away from the people and stresses at work. Now it is bursting at the seams with band members and song writers and he has to drive to town for solitude. Finding a run-down café bar in town, Kai steps over the threshold and the sight before him changes his life forever.

Chapter 1

Present Day Violet had made a terrible mistake. Looking around the buzzing room from her hiding place by the kitchen door, she realised that she should never have shared her secret with the world. Yes, she loved the fact that this room, the place that had been her world for so long, had turned from a desperate mess into the successful creative hub it was today. And she couldn’t help but raise a smile when she saw Esme and Doris sitting at the bar with Hal, looking so happy and carefree. But resentment still burned in her chest. Why couldn’t she feel that joy herself? Her shoulders slumped. She was trapped. She couldn’t run away and let these people down. ey all depended on her now. ey’d relied on her when this place was just a rundown coffee shop and karaoke bar. Now it was a popular music venue, with original breakthrough artists, and she was a big part of its success. It had been her dream to turn the café bar around, but not like this…not at the expense of her own happiness. She tried to brush the sel sh thoughts away, but she felt like she’d had a headache for days. She just wanted to hide under the covers in bed and ignore the world outside, but it felt as though there was someone constantly banging on her door and demanding that she wake up. Esme was perched at the bar on a tall stool and snorted loudly at one of Hal’s jokes, whilst waving her new walking stick at him, almost whacking a woman passing by. She was dressed in a bright yellow top today, and her scarf

was swirls of burnt orange. Unlike her old accessories, this was made of silk and draped beautifully across her ample chest. Hal beamed a wide smile at Esme, and Violet was almost knocked sideways by the glare from his new teeth. She grabbed onto the doorframe for support, hardly believing her eyes. She recalled him proudly telling her that he was getting his broken teeth capped and whitened. She should have called him to see how it had gone, but she hadn’t had a moment. Her phone had been ringing so much that she’d nally thrown it into the bin with such force that there had been a satisfying crack as the screen broke and died. Hal turned to Esme’s friend, Doris. She was still wearing her favourite stripy jumper, but she now had a beautifully crafted hat perched on her freshly tinted curls and her make-up made her look about ten years younger. Violet knew they were all enjoying the changes happening in their lives, and she felt a punch of guilt to her stomach that she might be the one to destroy it. e other people in the bar were a mix of ages and they were all chatting and enjoying the live music. e latest singer was really good, and she hoped that this exposure would help him nd a new audience. She wished with all her heart that she could go into the main bar area and join the crowd. She used to enjoy interacting with customers. All she’d ever wanted was to support other singers and to run a place where locals could come together to chase away isolation—and feel like they belonged. She glanced up and saw Kai standing by the stage. He looked as strong and handsome as ever, but her heart had a wall of ice around it. He spotted her at the same time and his eyes lit up with joy, then he noticed her body language and the fact that she was still hiding, and the smile slipped from his face. He bent and said something to a man standing at the side of the little stage and then headed toward her through the crowds. She knew they had to talk about what had happened, but she felt that her needs had been ignored and she was alone. With no parents to run to and her makeshift family all here in the bar,

she wanted to slump on the oor and sleep for a week. A lone tear escaped from her eye and ran down her cheek, but she angrily brushed it away before Kai saw it, and she summoned up enough energy to turn and leave the bar before anyone else saw her and all hell broke loose. She thought back to the start of the year and how repetitive and simple her days had been then, even when she was exhausted. î “en she remembered the moment Kai had walked into her life, and how everything had changed. Â

Chapter 2

Ten months earlier Violet held the glass up to the window by the open door and checked for imperfections. Liam would complain if she left so much as a tiny smear on the rim, even though he never bothered to do any of the work himself. e children were playing in the bright sunshine in the yard behind the coffee shop and she began to hum along to the radio she’d put on earlier. She glanced into the shop to make sure no one had wandered in at such an early hour, and then she felt her throat vibrate as she began to sing along quietly. e sound lled the room, her soft tone enveloping her in a warm feeling, and for the rst time in a while she felt carefree and happy. She would never dream of singing in front of anyone other than her sister Mollie’s children, Fliss and Bobby. She collected them every day before her shift in the café and gave them breakfast so Mollie could go off to work. It did mean Violet, who lived in the at above the café, had to fetch the children before she started her own day. But with this help, her sister was able to hold down a full-time job. And Mollie had to pay the mortgage on her little house after her husband had walked out and left her for a woman who was ten years older and looked like a horse. Violet loved having the children around. Collecting them meant she got out of the coffee shop for a while, and her sister could stop fretting about them having time for a hearty breakfast. ey ate at the shop and, as they were old enough now, they then walked to their school, which was just down the road in the small town she was based in. Liam was never up early enough to open

the shop and said that’s what he employed her for, but she actually loved the early mornings when it was peaceful and still. inking about her boyfriend Liam made her bones ache, and she also remembered that he’d forgotten to pay her again this month. e place she worked in was more of a bar than a coffee shop now, although it hadn’t started that way. Liam owned it and he’d added a stage and opened it up every Friday night to karaoke and some live acts. It wasn’t very popular, but his rowdy friends managed to ll it each week, barely paying for drinks, while Liam lapped up the attention and laughed in Violet’s face when women draped themselves all over him to get free alcohol. He expected her to work there after a long day in the coffee bar, watching as he stroked other girls’ hair while he stared into her eyes and enjoyed her pain. He would then try and cuddle her later and wonder why she turned away. is made him angry, and he often said she didn’t appreciate all he did for her—and he was right. She only had her job and home because of him. When they’d met, his parents had just asked him to take the place over due to his dad’s ill health and, as he’d been let go from the sales job he’d had for two years, he’d jumped at the chance. He’d been looking for new employment, but it was harder than he’d thought, as his old bosses were less than complimentary about his work ethic in his references. Violet had been a regular at his parents’ coffee shop and knew lots of the people there. She had worked next door with her best friend who had a craft shop. It wasn’t doing so well, and Annalise had reluctantly told Violet that she couldn’t afford her anymore. Violet would have loved to have stayed working there for free, but she had to pay rent on the tiny, little one-bedroom at she lived in down a side street in the town, and it was almost Christmas, so she had really needed some work. She had been staring into space and despondently stirring a sachet of sugar into her coffee when Liam, who had been watching her from the counter, sat down and asked her why she looked so glum before winking at her. She’d gone bright red because he was good looking, in a city boy sort of way, with slicked

back blond hair and designer stubble. After he’d asked her again, she’d shyly told him that she’d just lost her job. He had lifted her chin and made her meet his eyes, and then said a few staff had left when he’d taken over and he was just about to place an advert in the window for a new team. She could see why everyone had left now, as he was a slave driver. He enjoyed bossing everyone around and strutted like a peacock, but didn’t lift a nger to help. He happily took any money the shop made, but didn’t reinvest it when things got worn out and stopped working. He just expected her or the other staff members to pick up the slack and work harder. It was probably her own fault for letting him get away with it, but he could be so sweet sometimes, and when he was in a good mood, all was right in her world. It was just the other times… Smiling at Fliss and Bobby, who were playing with a ball outside, she sang along to the music on the radio and then turned the sound down and began to sing one of her own songs. e raw emotion of the words made her draw a deep breath, as the feelings they evoked were personal and heartbreaking. She sang about her life and the loss her parents, of nding love only to discover it was as painful as it was joyous, and of the way she wished she could reach out of her life and break free but still carry parts of it with her. She always felt con icted when she sang, but she also felt liberated. She would never sing in front of anyone else and embarrass herself, but it was a compulsion that she couldn’t shake. Singing was the one thing in her life that lled her soul with happiness, as much as it terri ed her. Her sister asked her time and again to sing to her but she always said no, she couldn’t. It was something that she’d shared with her parents, and without them it felt wrong. Her sister would be devastated to nd out Violet sang to her children, but they were so innocent that they didn’t hear the sadness behind the words, only the melody and the sound they loved to hear, and they always begged her to begin again. She hadn’t asked them to not tell their mum, but Mollie

eventually tired of asking and the kids hadn’t brought it up. It was something that they enjoyed doing together, and Fliss and Bobby were a rapt audience. Violet sometimes wondered if she should move on and out of the at she now shared with Liam, but as he rarely paid her, she didn’t have any money to leave. She occasionally asked herself if he didn’t give her money for that reason, then she felt ungrateful and told herself he would never treat her that way.

Chapter 3

It had been a long week. Violet brushed her hair out of her eyes and secured the slick ponytail she always wore, as it kept her appearance neat and meant she didn’t have to bother fussing with her raven locks every day before work. By the end of the day, she had probably brushed her hand through her hair so many times in exhaustion that tendrils poked out in all directions, and she imagined that she looked like a scarecrow. She was too tired to care, and now it was Friday night. Although she’d been there since six, she had two hours to tidy up with the help of Hal, who had arthritis and could only bend at the waist, and she ended up running around after him and worrying about his hip joints aring up, too. He was such a sweetheart and only stayed out of loyalty to Liam’s parents—and because he thought she needed someone in her corner, thanks to the way her boyfriend behaved. He reasoned with her that she could make better choices, but he didn’t see the kinder side of Liam, just the boss who was plain bossy. Violet used to love this job, but lately it was becoming a chore. Hal began to pick up the plates and cutlery left around, and she gave him a quick hug to let him know how much he was appreciated. He grinned a toothy smile back at her, which reminded her she needed to book him into the dentist. He lived alone and often forgot to look after himself, so Violet chided him and made sure he was ok. He spent all day looking after others, as did she, but she was determined that he would know how much she appreciated him, too. He was one of the people who kept her sane. She didn’t have any family other than her sister and her children, so the regulars and staff at the coffee shop had become her family over the years. Not

the Friday night crew, just the ones who visited during the day. ey only had about twenty regulars, but they were an oddball community of loners who came together as a homemade family. ey didn’t spend much, as most of them were on the breadline, but what they did have they spent at the café. ey often told Violet that she brightened their day with her caring manner, and they thought she was born for this job. Violet wasn’t so sure. She loved helping people, but the coffee shop wasn’t her vocation. She could never share with them what it really was, as they would probably laugh. At least she had been able to persuade Liam to let a few proper singers try out their music on a Friday night. Unfortunately, he and his cronies often got drunk and heckled them, so not many returned for a second show. Violet could see that Liam was gradually destroying the business and it was really only her keeping it alive, but when she tentatively broached the subject, he screamed at her that it was his place and she could go and live and work somewhere else if she didn’t like it. She had cowered away and learnt not to bring it up again. Lately, Liam spent days recovering from big nights out and sometimes stayed away with friends, so he was in the bar less and less. It was hard to make it look presentable with the tools at hand, but she was determined to keep it running for as long as she could. Where would her regulars go without the bar? Most of them used it as a home away from home and they would be distraught if it shut down, as would she. She viewed herself as one of them; a loner with not much going on. But she didn’t cling to them just because she was lonely. She clung to them because she loved each and every one of them. Her favourites, beside Hal, were two old ladies who lived in ats on a nearby housing estate. Violet worried about them constantly. She knew they didn’t have enough money to heat their homes, but they still came in and managed to share a piece of cake. She didn’t tell Liam, but she always cut an extra-thick slice and saved it for them, presenting it with two spoons, and she

gave them free re lls of their pot of tea for two. It was only a tea bag and water, for goodness sake, and as Liam didn’t pay her anymore, she saw it as in lieu of her wages. Esme and Doris were such colourful characters. Esme had warm brown skin and sparkling eyes. She always wore a bright scarf whatever the weather, and her laugh was loud enough to crack glass. Doris was just as bad with her stripy jumpers and blue leggings. Her skin was pale and mottled and her hair was grey, and mostly stood out at funny angles as though she’d just stuck her nger in an electrical socket, and she often squashed on a jaunty hat. Violet shook off the memory with a smile and wiped down the coffee bar counter. She looked around the shop to see if anything else needed doing. As you entered the shop, there were several square wooden tables with colourful plastic chairs. Toward the back right-hand corner was the bar and the entrance to the small patio garden outside that customers could use to sit in the sun. Most of the Friday night regulars stood and smoked out there, which meant Violet spent her Saturday mornings sweeping up the detritus, as Liam was too mean to buy more than a couple of ashtrays. Opposite the bar was a small, square stage area. ere was just enough space for four or ve people, but as it tended to be solo singers or a few people singing karaoke out of tune, it didn’t need to be any bigger. ere was room for a couple of amps to plug guitars into and a huge speaker at each side of the stage. Liam had even tted up strobe lighting, but as it usually hit people in the eyes and made them fall over, he’d had to unplug that effect. She’d tried to advise him to place it a little lower, but he hadn’t listened. She was glad it didn’t work anyway as it made the place feel more like a teenage disco than a serious music venue. She’d also tried to talk to Liam about the way his ‘friends’ used this place as a free bar and pick-up joint, but he’d just roared with laughter and swatted her on the backside, which made her skin sting and her face ush. She hated his friends, but she had to plaster on a smile and put up with them leering all over her and demanding not to pay for their drinks. Sighing, she rinsed out the

glass she’d just picked up and called out to Hal that she would rustle up a quick dinner for him, then he must go home and rest before their busiest day of the week, Saturday. Liam always slept through Saturdays, so at least she was able to chat to customers without him making snide remarks about slacking, and she could hum along to the music she chose on the radio without him shushing her and turning it over to punk rock. He also couldn’t moan at her when she bumped into things and knocked them over. She was sure it was his presence that made her so jittery, but she had always been a bit of a klutz.

Chapter 4

Kai sat with his arm resting on the car’s open window and tapped his ngers to the music on the radio. He admired the way the artist brought the words to life and was proud that he had been part of that journey. en he frowned, remembering that he had moved just outside the small town in Kent to get away from work, but now he was having to drive back to said town to get away from his house! He’d chosen the area because it was near beautiful coasts and countryside and, although it had privacy, it was close to a vibrant metropolis where he could get his x of being with people and topping up his creative juices. It was less than one and a half hours’ drive from his office in London, but was nicknamed the ‘Garden of England’ for its glorious elds and world heritage sites. He enjoyed walking around the town and visiting the bustling cafés, galleries and designer craft and clothes shops that were popping up everywhere. He had got into the habit of going to different places every time he came so that he could learn where he could relax best. He had a very demanding job and lots of responsibility, so he needed to take time for himself to clear his mind and be able to focus on the days ahead. His eyes lit up when he spotted a free parking space on a side road next to a row of shops, and he seamlessly swung his sleek, top of the range 4x4 into the spot. Glancing around, he noticed that there was a shop with art in the window, a real weakness of his. His mates wound him up that he was always bringing weird art pieces back to his house. But they seemed to forget it was his home and not theirs, though they acted like they owned the place.

He had bought a huge house with its own in-and-out driveway, gates to stop intruders, and many bedrooms that he planned to ll slowly with original art. Before he’d even had time to settle in, hordes of people had arrived and half of them were still there. He now had to vacate his own house to get some peace and quiet. His work was so taxing that he had decided, for the sake of his sanity, to move out of London and into the country. What he hadn’t banked on was his team and clients deciding that they couldn’t live without him, and then descending on his new home. He’d made the mistake of having a soundproofed recording studio and recreation rooms built before he moved in, thinking he could mooch about and play with music as he’d used to when he rst got into his job. But now, as a top record producer, he was constantly in demand. He had a knack for matching songwriters and musicians, and the list of hits he had to his name was long and still growing. e people he worked with thought he was joking when he told them to get lost and go and buy their own homes, as he usually had a wry smile on his face and they all knew he loved his job, but this time he meant it. He kind of liked having them around, but he needed to clear his head and get away from their constant demands. He was their boss, but they treated him like a friend. He had found this bene cial in building great working relationships in his industry, but he was becoming tired and a bit jaded, and he wanted to nd some peace and quiet away from the stresses and strains. Slamming the car door and heading toward the arty shop, he noticed a café to its right and veered that way. It was fairly early on a Monday morning, and he’d forgotten to have breakfast, even though the drummer from a popular boy band had offered to make it when he’d walked into his kitchen this morning before another producer on his team from London had come in, rubbing tired eyes, exclaiming how soft and comfortable the beds were. Kai hadn’t even known they were there!

Taking a sideways look in the artist’s window and raising his eyebrows at the strange vases that were lined up on a shelf inside, with their clashing colours and phallic shapes, he grinned and wondered if he was losing it. He pushed open the coffee shop door, not checking the card listing the opening times, and was surprised to nd no one inside. e room had lots of tables dotted around, a bar counter and a small stage. Maybe this was a nighttime venue and he’d made a mistake? He looked at the designer watch on his wrist and realised that it was still only 8:15 a.m. e sign above the shop had said the place was called Secrets. Perhaps it was such a secret that no one went there before 9:00 a.m. Most cafés he ventured into opened early these days, so he was hopeful that they might at least offer him a cup of coffee. He was just about to call out when he heard someone singing. He froze and the hairs on his arms stood up. He tilted his head and tried to work out if this was a new artist on the radio and if he’d somehow missed out on this one. He had such a wide network of contacts that he usually heard a song before it had airplay. It could be a very competitive industry, but most people like him had an ear to the ground and knew all the voices or faces that were about to appear. He stayed quiet, continuing to listen, frowning, then his mouth dropped in awe at the raw passion in the tone. He concluded that the sound was coming from a room behind the bar area, probably a kitchen. He wanted to move but the power of the voice and the sadness of the words mesmerised him. He pulled out a chair and sat, immersing himself in the feeling. It made him want to laugh with happiness and then cry with the sorrow pouring from the singer’s heart. He trailed through his memory to see if he believed he had heard it before and decided that the song was original, so his pulse ramped up a notch. He leaned his arm on the table for support and sighed at the uncensored emotion of the words. He had sat too near the edge and his arm slipped off, knocking the chair next to him, which started to topple. He was in such a trance that he didn’t notice until it was too late and, as he jumped up and

reached out to catch it, it clattered to the oor. e singing immediately stopped, and a woman with skin the colour of butterscotch and dark hair scraped back in a ponytail poked her head around the door, gasping in shock when she saw him. He reached out a hand in apology and hoped he hadn’t scared her too much. Before she could say anything, two children rushed in, chattering excitedly, and hung around her legs, looking at him curiously. ‘I apologise for startling you,’ he said. ‘I wandered in looking for coffee, but I realise now that you aren’t open yet.’ e woman seemed relieved, maybe thinking he’d just this minute come in and walked into a chair. He hoped she didn’t see from his guilty look that he had been sitting there in a trance for ten minutes. She shooed the children back into the garden and gave them a ve-minute warning about having to head off to school. ‘I’m sorry, but we don’t usually open until 9:00 a.m.’ She glanced at the big clock behind the counter and turned to offer him a shy smile. ‘It’s not far off from opening time though, so I’ll start the coffee machines up and pour you a cup, if you don’t mind waiting?’ She seemed very nervous in his company but appeared not to want to upset a potential customer, so she was willing to break the rules. Interesting, he mused. ‘It’s my fault,’ Kai said, attempting to put her at ease. ‘Lots of friends have descended on my house and I had to get away for some peace and quiet. I really should have checked to see what your opening hours were.’ ‘at’s my fault, not yours,’ the woman said graciously. ‘ere is a sign on the door, but it’s half folded over. I meant to tape it back up last week. Kids,’ she called over her shoulder, and the two lively children immediately appeared again and stared at him blatantly. en they made him laugh, as the little boy stepped forward and shook his hand, while the little girl grabbed her brother’s arm and hissed loudly in his ear that he shouldn’t talk to strangers. ‘Time for school,’ the woman said, smiling and bending down to kiss their cheeks and ruffle their hair. Both children hugged her and then grabbed their

bags, waving farewell as they ran to the door in a urry of activity. ‘ey are a bit of a whirlwind.’ He laughed, enjoying their energy. ‘ey certainly are,’ she joined in. ‘Now, which coffee can I get you, and would you like to see the breakfast menu?’ ‘Strong black coffee please,’ he said, looking once again at the surroundings with new insight. He wondered if she sang at this bar. It looked like a café by day and music venue by night. It must be bursting at the seams with talent, if she was anything to go by. How had he missed this place? Surely someone must have offered her a record deal by now, but if so, why was she here? e shop was a bit rough around the edges, but the place certainly had potential and he could see what the person who had conceived the idea was trying to achieve. He hadn’t planned on staying for breakfast, but remembering all those people in his kitchen made his stomach hurt, and he wondered eetingly if they had given him an ulcer. He’d bought his house to start taking better care of himself, not to give himself even more work. ‘I’d love a menu if it’s not too much trouble.’ He smiled, earning one in return. e woman in front of him intrigued him. She appeared shy, but must own or manage the place if she was able to make decisions like opening early and encouraging customers. ‘No trouble at all,’ she replied as she slipped behind the counter and began ipping switches to set the café up for the day.

About Lizzie Chantree

Award-winning inventor and author, Lizzie Chantree, started her own business at the age of 18 and became one of Fair Play London and e Patent Office’s British Female Inventors of the Year in 2000. She discovered her love of writing ction when her children were little and now works as a business mentor and runs a popular networking hour on social media, where creatives can support to each other. She writes books full of friendship and laughter, that are about women with unusual and adventurous businesses, who are far stronger than they realise. She lives with her family on the coast in Essex.

About Love Match

Violet has a secret that could change the lives of everyone she loves, but destroy her own. She lives in a at above the run-down café bar that she works in, with her overbearing boyfriend. After losing her parents at a young age, her café bar regulars are the closest thing she has to a family and she feels responsible for them. Gorgeous new neighbour Cole is out to cause mischief and he’s determined to nd out more about Violet and what is happening in the café bar on Wednesday nights. First, he has to nd a way to make enough money to leave his current singing job and avoid the wandering hands of his lecherous landlady. Mollie tries to keep up with the mortgage on the house she bought with her husband, but when he deserts her for a woman from his past, her world crumbles around her. She struggles to cope with the pressure of being a single parent and watching her sister, Violet, make terrible life choices, when she has the ability to save them all. Kai has moved just outside of a small town to get away from the people and stresses at work. Now it is bursting at the seams with band members and song writers and he has to drive to town for solitude. Finding a run-down café bar in town, Kai steps over the threshold and the sight before him changes his life forever.

Chapter 1

Serena McAllister could not get her mouth to close despite the un attering angle at which it was hanging. She had been committed to portraying herself as sophisticated, elegant, and as appealing as a Marilyn Monroe-Jessica Rabbit crossbreed, but she was failing. Miserably. “Miss McAllister?” someone said, but she didn’t respond. Who would blame her? No one could look upon this sprawling palace and expect her to react otherwise. It was too gorgeous, with its blush-colored stucco exterior and light beige roof, all shimmering under a burning island sun. A mirage. A dream. A veritable oasis tucked on remote Birin Island in the southern region of the Paci c Ocean. Unfortunately, it housed a prince who kept what she suspected was a modern-day harem, known among royalty in this region as a coterie, further known as the reason she was here. Albeit this trip was so last minute, she packed and left just yesterday. Never-the-less, undercover investigation and eventual exposure of yet another womanizing male, another suppressive institution, and her last attempt at job security made this endeavor nothing but a positive in her eyes. “Serena McAllister?” Serena ran her tongue over her parched lips, dehydrated not only by the dry air on the long, overnight ight from New York, but also from the three glasses of champagne she’d had on board and the two bourbons in their tiny, delicate jars. at had to be it—she was tipsy and hallucinating this palace into existence as a sort of self-soothing. Plus, she was struggling to recover from the

nightmare that had been the past week of her life. It was no wonder her mind wasn’t ring on all cylinders. Who could have guessed she would come away from that week and nd herself in this tropical paradise? Since calling her name didn’t work, whoever was by her side tugged at her arm several times, the last tug more of a curt twist. When she dragged her eyes from the setting in front of her, her gaze met that of a tall, broad-shouldered, wide-smiling man. He was dressed in a white linen tunic with matching pants and tan moccasins—perfect attire for the warm and balmy temperature. “Miss Serena McAllister, I presume.” He extended his hand. “My name is Tareek. I am Prince Shailemon’s personal assistant.” “Um, hi.” “Please follow me.” Despite the number of speech, acting, and etiquette classes she’d nickeledand-dimed to afford over the years, all in an attempt to erase any trace of her rural, poverty-ridden upbringing in Kentucky, manners were not in Serena’s repertoire today. is magical island had extinguished her ability to speak. Tareek took her elbow and guided her past two huge planters brimming with blooming jasmine, through wide ornate double doors, and into an interior that stopped her in her tracks. Tiffany lamps rested on shiny wooden tables, along with a scattering of golden animal gurines. e ceiling was high, the rugs oriental, the window treatments silk. Small yet elegant furniture was positioned strategically to create an opulent ambiance but did not hinder the view of the Paci c Ocean, which shimmered just beyond the crystal clear windows. Tareek pulled her toward a hallway that extended to the left, saying something about “the coterie wing,” but he could have been taking her to the guillotine for all she was aware. She struggled to drink it all in, not only to add depth to the article she wanted to write for e Daily New Yorker—the real

reason she was here unbeknownst to anyone on this island—but for her own personal memories. Never had she seen luxury so, well, luxurious. Head raised toward a picturesque ceiling that depicted an island sunrise on one end and a sunset on the other, her feet followed a route of their own. She slipped away from Tareek, who continued on his brisk path toward the coterie wing. A few more steps, an ill-timed stumble—damn her constant clumsiness —and she slammed straight into one of the enormous glass windows. “Ouch.” She grabbed her head. “Shit, that hurt.” She pulled her ngers away to see if there was blood. ere wasn’t. “Seriously, Serena,” she mumbled to herself. “You’re supposed to be charming and elegant, not an errant elephant in a glass shop…” When she looked up, a man who was not Tareek stood nearby, staring at her as if she were possessed by a rowdy band of demons. Her hand fell from her aching head. “Oh my God. You’re…you’re…” “Crown Prince Shailemon Sharma. Who might you be?” “I’m so sorry.” Serena whipped around to nd Tareek scurrying toward them, a look of panic on his handsome face. “I was with him.” She pointed an accusing nger. “It’s his fault.” e prince did not look impressed. “But don’t be mad,” she added in a rush. “He’s cool. Um, he was taking me to your…to that place…the coterie.” Her cheeks warmed as shame washed over her. Even though she would never consider herself graceful and poised, she usually handled herself better than this—better than a blubbering idiot, that is. But there was something about the prince that made the ground beneath her feet shake and her normal thought process to atline. Damn this gorgeous man. And Prince Shailemon was gorgeous. Almost too gorgeous—a god-like version of a steamy Bollywood hunk. He was tall, broad-shouldered, leanwaisted, and dark-eyed with an even darker stare that simmered with

something akin to irritation or impatience. She wanted to shrink from him— or throw herself into his arms and beg to know the way to his royal bedroom. Get it together, Serena. You knew what to expect. You’ve seen the pictures of him. But what she’d seen on the internet did not capture how handsome he actually was, even though one article had deemed him the hottest man on the planet. She and her Danish roommate, Kir, had ogled over these pictures whilst sharing a bottle of wine merely two days ago. Serena pulled in a deep breath that wavered more than she cared to acknowledge and released it with a huff. She thrust out her hand. “Let me start over. I’m Serena McAllister.” Prince Shailemon did not reach out. Tareek stepped in front of her. “Sorry, Shai. She got away from me.” Serena peeked over Tareek’s shoulder. “I did. I really did. I slid right out of his needy little grasp.” Both sets of eyes stared at her, unblinking and unreadable. If she didn’t shut up, they would put her on the next ight off Birin Island, and she would have no content for her article—an article that would push her ahead of rude and vile Jane Childers to nab the assistant editor in chief position she coveted. If she didn’t have an article worthy of national attention, she would be shown the door, and she certainly didn’t have another job lined up. e industry had little space for print journalism these days. To say her level of desperation was glacier-deep was laughable. Why? Because it was so much deeper than that. e Daily New Yorker was one of the few pro table print newspapers in the United States. If she didn’t get the new position, she’d be up the creek without a paddle or job prospects. Staying in her old position wasn’t an option now that it was being phased out to freelancers. To make matters worse, the source for her original topic—police treatment of prostitutes—suddenly and inexplicably stopped returning her calls, making the investigation of royal

coteries, commonplace in this area of the world and possible front for more traditional harems, her only option. Not to mention the not-so-minor issue of a certain philandering ancé— ex- ancé—who was still back in Manhattan. No way she wanted to return to any land that housed that slimy, cheating bastard. Mick Long III can kiss my little Pilates-toned ass. She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat. “Your palace is beautiful. I apologize for getting lost…Your Highness?” Serena dropped into an awkward curtsy like she’d seen British citizens do on television, then glanced at Tareek to see if this was the correct way to greet a prince. Confusion morphed into horror on the assistant’s face, as if she’d just released a resounding belch. A sheen of sweat glistened on his upper lip. “I presume you are our new American?” Prince Shailemon’s expression was close to blank, save for the slight narrowing of his lids. He exuded authority and a no-nonsense air that only added to his appeal. He was the single most handsome man she’d seen. Ever. She was barely able to control her tongue and keep from blurting out that little observation, followed by an offer to lick peanut butter off his biceps. “American extraordinaire, at your service. Well, not at your service.” She stammered, “Um, I don’t think so at least. Not like that.” Her cheeks burned. “I mean, I hope not. I’m not ready for that just yet.” Tareek’s head fell forward like he’d just been smacked in the back of it. Shailemon remained immobile except for the pursing of his full, sculpted lips. What would it be like to kiss lips like that? Oh, dear God. Maybe I am ready to hop into bed with this man—though I doubt the editor in chief would want my investigation to be quite so thorough. “Tareek.” Serena clapped him on the shoulder. “You might want to get me out of here before I do something really offensive, like offer him a st bump.” Serena stepped back. “I’m sorry. I’m usually far more poised than this. I’m not sure what’s gotten into me.”

She felt her blush creep to her hairline. Shut up, Serena. Just shut up. Tareek ashed Prince Shailemon a look of woeful apology and grabbed Serena by the arm. “Sorry, Shai,” he mumbled. She liked Shai more than the longer version of his name and was about to say so when Tareek gave her another tug. “Come. Now,” he whispered, not dragging her per se, but certainly eager to get her out of there. “Okay. Okay.” She tried to get her footing. “You don’t have to be rude about it.” But Tareek was no longer paying attention to her. His attention was on Shailemon, who was staring at a group of men in owing black robes as they swept down the hall toward them like a swarm of overeager mosquitoes.

Chapter 2

“Why is King Ata here?” Tareek muttered under his breath. Shai heard his friend and assistant’s question but did not acknowledge it. He was wondering the same damned thing. In this region of the world, customs were adhered to with an iron st, and dignitaries and rulers never slighted these customs. In fact, one hundred years ago, it would’ve been cause for war if a king showed up on an unexpected visit to another kingdom. To make matters more interesting, Birin Island had only broken free from Lovaria, the country ruled by King Ata, fty years ago. e smaller island’s independence was fragile at best. row in the unexpected death of Shai’s father, King Arumon, mere weeks ago and Shailemon, along with Birin Island, was in a vulnerable position until he ascended his father’s throne in a month’s time. He glanced at the American. She didn’t belong in this wing of the palace. Based on his rst impression of her, she was a typical American—unpoised and silly—and the last thing he needed was to be embarrassed in front of the rotund Ata. At least she was beautiful, and beautiful women were the Lovarian king’s greatest weakness. As the men strode closer, Shai gave her a quick once-over. Her long chestnut hair owed down her back in loose waves. e tan pencil skirt and white button-up blouse made her look like a 1950s secretary, but he liked the look and easily—too easily—envisioned her shimmying that skirt up over the curve of her hips.

He cleared his throat as he lowered his folded hands over his groin. Maybe Madame Moreau, the French woman in charge of his coterie, was right in inviting her here despite Shai’s protestations that American women were jealous, crass, and did not t in with a coterie. Not that he t with the coterie either. He viewed it as a necessary entity for social and political gains versus its ancient purpose of housing royal mistresses. More than anything, it was a tradition that dated back long before him. But her sculpted cheekbones alone, with their high, rounded smoothness, were enough to make a man’s resolve falter. Not to mention her eyes—as green and clear as rare gems. And her lips? Plump and full, almost overly so but not quite, and bare of makeup. She was exquisite. Shai could tell he was not alone in his assessment. Ata’s blatant perusal of her person was enough to make Shai want to cover her with a cloak. en Ata was standing in front of him, his smile broad and arti cial, and Shai forced himself to focus. “Prince Shailemon.” Ata threw his arms out wide. “King Ata.” Ata folded Shai in an embrace that he tolerated for ve seconds before sliding away. “I apologize for coming on such short notice.” Ata released a booming laugh because he had, in fact, given no notice of his pending arrival. “You are always welcome.” Shai ensured the words were unaffected and monotone, giving nothing away of his inner disturbance. “I am still grieving over the death of Arumon. Your father was a jewel of the Paci c Ocean.” “ank you for your condolences.” Ata’s eyes rolled away from Shai and returned to the American. “Who is this stunning woman?”

Shai bristled as Ata reached for her, and pulled her to his own side instead. She seemed ne with being saved from Ata’s embrace, even leaning into Shai like she wanted to be there. She smelled fresh and airy, a mix of lemons and honey and sugar. He inhaled as he closed the two inches separating them, securing her under his arm. “Allow me to introduce Serena McAllister,” he said as Tareek slid to his other side. With a ourish, Ata captured her hand and kissed it, his fat lips leaving a visible wet mark on her skin. If the king noticed her cringe, he didn’t react. “It is a distinct pleasure to meet you, my dear,” Ata said. “It’s nice to meet you as well.” Ata tugged at her arm, but she wouldn’t budge, tilting her head toward Shai until her cheek brushed against his shoulder. He made sure his satis ed smirk didn’t show on his face as his arm exed around her. He would relish her nearness, if only to taunt Ata. *** Serena studied the overweight king. ere was something behind his beady stare—hunger, desire, a feral instinct to devour—that made her recoil farther into Shailemon. If she could, she would have slid behind the prince’s back, taking the shelter his powerful body could offer. But his arm was solid and secure around her shoulders, and if his embrace was not warm and cozy, at least it offered her a sense of protection—no matter how eeting it might prove to be. “I can tell by your accent you are American.” Ata yanked on her hand again, not getting the hint that there was no way she was moving from Shailemon’s side. “I live in Brooklyn, New York, United States of America.” e place with bombs and guns and a government that has a cowboy complex… She wasn’t sure why the sight of this man put her on edge, but it did. She needed to be careful. What if this coterie indeed was a traditional harem, like

her worst fear and dreaded instinct told her? What if they believed they owned women…shared them…traded them…? Oh God. “Ah, New York. When was the last time I was there?” He tapped a nger against his temple. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I love America, except for the food. I do not like anything fried. I prefer fresh foods simply prepared.” He clapped his hands. “Shailemon, invite this beauty to dinner tonight. We can show her the most decadent dishes from our side of the world. I assume there will be the traditional dignitaries’ banquet?” His brows raised, expectant, challenging. Shailemon tensed, and she wondered why, assuming it had something to do with why King Ata looked like a cat teasing its prey. But something about the anger emanating off the prince suggested he was anything but easy prey. She wondered if this King Ata knew who he was dealing with. “Of course.” Shailemon’s voice was as smooth as chocolate mousse. “And tomorrow we will sit down to discussions, which I’m sure is why you are here.” “Yes, and this beautiful American?” Ata’s eyes sparkled with an unspoken intention that made Serena wilt. “You will invite her to the banquet? I should like more time with her. I do so love Americans.” Serena’s knees buckled as Shai offered a curt nod. More time with me? Shailemon was going to lend her to this awful man like a book to be shared. Nausea washed over her. At least she’d get her story, but at what cost? “Tareek, please see Serena to the coterie. She seems fatigued from her travels.” Shailemon transferred her to Tareek’s arms. Ata swooped in and snatched both her hands, planting wet kisses on the back of each. “Please rest. I would not want the evening to pass without the pleasure of your company.” Serena tried to offer a smile, but even her lips were shaking. Coming here was the single worst mistake she’d ever made. How could she have thought this

would be safe? at she could come halfway across the world to enter what was likely, for all intents and purposes, a modern-day harem and leave unscathed? Exposing this type of institution, and the prince who supported it, might not be worth it after all. Clearly, the recent events of her life have deluded her ability to make sound choices. Tareek had to practically carry her down the hall. Just before they rounded the corner out of sight, Serena twisted in Tareek’s arms. King Ata was staring at her bottom, his pudgy hands wrenched together, his heavy jaw slack with distraction. If she were wearing a potato sack, she still wouldn’t be covered enough. But it wasn’t Ata’s expression she wanted to read. It was the prince’s. He, too, was watching her, though his gaze was settled on her face. If a look could smolder, his did—with lids hooded and eyes focused like a tiger’s. Standing there, stoic and impenetrable, he reminded Serena of a Greek statue, molded and carved and smoothed to perfection. She didn’t know if the intensity behind his gaze was from pleasure or distaste. She hoped for the former more than she cared to admit, but based on the distinct look of dissatisfaction spreading across his face, she predicted the latter.

Chapter 3

A short time later, Shai was in his office, pondering the real reason behind Ata’s visit. “Tareek!” he bellowed. Tareek ew into the room, skidding across the oor. “Yes?” “Get Chiro to my office. I need answers as to why Ata is here.” “And you think the master of coin has those answers?” “He must have some idea. My father had asked that I return from London to discuss the relationship between Birin Island and Lovaria. We were scheduled to meet in a week’s time.” Shai gazed at his hands, the sound of his father’s deep voice still resonant in his ears and the loss of him still palpable in his heart. “But,” he sighed, “as you know, my trip back to the island was for his funeral instead.” Tareek remained silent. ere was no need for further condolence, so what else was there to say? Shai was grateful for Tareek, who had been by his side since they were young boys. Even over the past ten years while Shai lived in London, Tareek had remained a steadfast, loyal part of his life. And though Tareek refused to get on an airplane to visit him in person, he had been willing to Skype so they could watch football matches while hurling harmless insults at the teams, referees, and each other. “I hope Chiro might be able to enlighten me as to what is going on and what my father would’ve wanted during that meeting we never had.” “I’ll summon him right away. I’m sure he’s in his office with the blinds pulled down, empty teacup by his side, poring over some document or other. I

swear the man is going to wither away into a ghost someday.” Shai tried to chuckle, because Tareek’s words were so true, but he was troubled, and the sound fell at. “And tell Madame,” he continued, “to prepare a coterie woman for the banquet tonight. I can’t believe we are holding a dinner for that pompous ass.” “He didn’t follow diplomatic procedure. Maybe you shouldn’t either.” “I won’t stoop to his level.” “Who do you want Madame to prepare? e American? I just left her in the coterie reception area.” “I don’t think so. I need someone more seasoned, someone who knows how to behave in delicate political situations. Until I nd out why Ata is here, I need to keep my guard up, and I can’t have any missteps.” “ere is the Russian, Ekaterina. She accompanied you to an event the last time you were home.” “I don’t want to spend an evening with Ekaterina. Is there no one else?” “ere are multiple women in your coterie, but Ata asked for Serena in particular. If I’m not mistaken, you agreed, as evidenced by your little head nod.” Shai ddled with a pen, weaving it between his ngers with ease. “When you found us in the hallway earlier, before Ata arrived, she had just walked into a window. Slammed right into it like an errant bird.” Tareek chuckled. “Perhaps she could use time with Madame to learn grace and poise, but there is no doubt Ata would like her to be in attendance. Perhaps you would too? It would help take your mind off things.” Life had become overwhelming. When his father died of a heart attack, Shai had been in London—where he’d remained after obtaining a degree from Oxford—growing then selling small businesses with no immediate plans to return to the island. In fact, the reason he hadn’t come two months ago when his father had rst requested a meeting was because he’d been in the early stages of a delicate and highly lucrative acquisition.

Shai had developed an actual career in Europe and was making substantial money from it, not trading on his royal status for even a pound. He felt, if not fully alive, at least free of sti ing obligation and duty. His father was healthy and thrived in his role as king. Shai thought he would rule for another twenty years. But with King Arumon’s unexpected passing, everything changed. Now Shai was back on Birin Island as a king-in-wait, preparing to ascend the throne in a month’s time, with the legal obligation to nd a queen before he could do so. Considering he had no appealing prospects in that last regard, he felt more doomed than ever, like a capsized boat sinking into the endless depth of the Paci c Ocean. Maybe he could use a distraction. “Tell Madame to prepare the American.” Shai paced along the periphery of the office, oblivious to the glistening ocean just beyond his royal garden. He moved to the small putting green that ran along the wall, grabbed a putter, and readied a ball. With one smooth tap, the ball rolled down the green and plopped into the hole. “Shai, are you okay?” Shai readied another ball as tension shot across his shoulders and sadness swept through his heart. “No, Tareek. I am not okay.” at distraction could not come fast enough. *** Tareek had deposited Serena in what looked like the empty check-in area of a high-end spa, only without the signature counter. e beige walls were free of artwork or adornment, save for a mural rendering of blooming jasmine. A small wooden table stood near the door, and on its surface was a large pitcher of ice water with fresh melon oating on the top. Serena sat in one of two suede-covered chairs that rested opposite a matching love seat and looked around. As she waited for someone, anyone, Serena picked at her cuticles, trying not to chip the French manicure Kir had given her. Without magazines or books to peruse, and her computer tucked

away in her luggage, she had nothing else to do with her hands and nothing to divert her anxiety- lled thoughts. What made her think this was a good idea? Desperation was what. She needed this article to be a success. Just as she started to nibble on the corner of her nail, a petite woman swept into the room from a side door. She was dressed in a tailored pink sheath dress with sky-high nude heels that barely brought her to ve feet tall. Her dark hair was cut into a sleek French bob with thick bangs. She looked like a life-sized porcelain doll. “Miss McAllister?” Her painted lips spread wide to reveal little white teeth. Serena stood. “Yes.” “Welcome to Birin Island. I am Mirena Moreau, known as Madame Moreau in the palace, or simply Madame among the women. We spoke yesterday on the telephone. As I mentioned, I’m in charge of the prince’s coterie, and will be your contact person during your stay here.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you in person.” “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, my dear. Tell me. How was your ight? e travel from America can be quite tedious.” Not if you’re intoxicated. “It was ne.” “Your trip was quite last-minute. Typically, I conduct more than one phone interview and do a background check, but we had a room open, and I like to keep the coterie full. I must admit, they are not as popular as they used to be, and we nd ourselves without the lengthy waitlist we once had.” Wonder why that is? “Anyway, I am glad you were able to make the trip to our beautiful island on such short notice.” “Why did a space open up, if you don’t mind my asking?” “Well.” She offered an indignant huff. “e young woman found herself with child.”

A soft beep caused Madame to glance down at her phone, interrupting further explanation if there was one. Was it the prince’s child? Serena had to assume it was. What kind of place was this, where he knocked someone up and then sent her away, alone and shamed? Serena had a sudden and powerful urge to get this story out to the world. Maybe the exposure from her investigation would help change the sexist tradition of coteries or at least get a dialogue started. Further, it might open up the discussion within America as well. e trip did seem timely. Her mind reeled as her ngers itched to get to her computer, to document her ndings so far and expand on the notes she’d started taking as soon as Kir planted this idea in her head—gained from the back of a Danish magazine her parents had sent her. But for now, Madame was talking, and Serena forced her mind to focus. “We have not had an American in years, and it was time to offer the coterie experience to a broader pool of women. It seems to be a dying entity, even with all the recent changes to the institution, so we are doing what we can to keep the numbers.” “Recent changes?” “Recent meaning fty or so years ago. e coteries of old were phased out, and a replacement version was phased in.” “What does that mean?” Madame waved a hand in the air. “ere is time for the history lesson later. Besides, I’m sure you already know all this. Now, I will show you around and introduce you to the ladies who are here, then we can begin orientation. At that time, I will answer all questions you may have. For now, there are fteen women in total, and they often spend their free days at the beach, reading in the palace’s library, or in town shopping, so it’s quiet right now. I’m sure someone is lurking about, though.”

Serena followed Madame into an expansive, elegant lounge lled with suede-covered chaises, silk pillows, and cashmere blankets. Healthy plants and small owering potted trees were placed around the periphery of the room, adding an exotic, sensual air, like Serena was on the outskirts of a balmy rain forest. She inhaled as she bent toward a fat pink bloom. e scent was heady yet lovely, the petals softer than silk against her ngertips, their color richer than anything she could nd in a paint supply store. A counter ran along one wall, the surface covered with dates, nuts, fresh fruits, and small vases of fresh-cut owers. A small stainless-steel refrigerator sat at one end. e room was empty, save for a stunning honey-blond resting on a nearby chaise. She looked up as Madame and Serena entered the room, her eyes as cold as a Siberian winter. “Who’s this?” She unfolded her tan legs and stood. “Ekaterina, this is Serena, your new roommate. She is from New York.” She looked at Serena. “Ekaterina is from Russia. Siberia to be exact.” Serena extended her hand, but Ekaterina did not acknowledge it. First, the prince and now, this woman. What was it about people on this island and the aversion to the good ole handshake? Madame shot Ekaterina a warning glare as her phone chirped. “Excuse me.” Ekaterina folded her arms across her chest. “I’m sure it’s about me. e prince probably wants me to attend a function with him.” Madame slid the phone into her pocket, then placed a dainty hand on Serena’s arm, a faint whiff of her rose perfume escaping into the air. “My dear, I need to speak to you. Ekaterina, enjoy the rest of your day.” “Is it a note from the prince?” Ekaterina positioned her hands on her hips like a de ant child. “Surely he doesn’t want to share his time with this American.” She spat this American like the words came straight out of the lthy language dictionary. “is is no concern of yours, Ekaterina.”

With another magni cent huff, the Russian stormed outside. Madame motioned for Serena to sit. “I’m sorry you had to witness that.” “Not the friendliest woman I’ve ever met. Seems to be a little territorial.” Madame smiled. “e reason I need to speak to you is…well, we usually don’t throw our novices into delicate situations such as this.” Never good words on one’s rst day in a coterie. “Prince Shailemon has requested your presence at the banquet for the King of Lovaria and his dignitaries.” “He wants me to be there?” She hadn’t thought Ata’s request would actually be granted. Madame glanced at her Cartier watch. “You need to be ready in an hour and a half.” Serena’s jaw fell slack. “Huh?” What about time to rest? She was jet-lagged and disoriented, her head still spinning from everything that had happened over the past week. She could use, at the very least, a nice long bath, as well as a gallon of water to rehydrate after her one-too-many airplane cocktails. She was so far off her A game right now that she was rmly in the D zone, and that was never a good thing. With a heavy sigh, she looked around for a wine rack, frowning when she didn’t see one. Pray tell, this isn’t a dry island, is it? Madame was staring at her with an expression of unease and blatant apprehension. “I am sorry to put it so bluntly, Serena, but you will have to handle yourself with more grace this evening than you are displaying now. e prince is putting a lot of faith in you not to embarrass him.” Serena’s jaw snapped shut, and her spine straightened. “I won’t embarrass His Royal Hotness.” She slapped a hand over her mouth. “Highness. His Royal Highness. I mean, he is hot…” Madame cringed. “King Ata has requested your presence at the banquet, and Prince Shailemon wants to be accommodating, even though we never

allow new arrivals to attend such functions. We prefer the women have a better understanding of how relations work in our part of the world rst.” Serena’s internal alarms roared. “I am part of Prince Shailemon’s coterie. I’m not…I don’t want to be…passed around.” She could not keep the horror out of her tone. It might make a good diary entry, but it would not make a good life entry. “My dear, no. You have it all wrong. You will be Prince Shailemon’s date. ere is more to discuss about what is expected of you during your stay, and we will talk about that during your formal orientation, which I will put off until tomorrow. For now, you must get ready.” Madame walked toward an opened doorway at the back of the room. “is way, please. I will show you to your apartment, and then I’ll return soon to help you dress.” She glanced over her shoulder. “It’s clear I’ll need to allow time for a quick etiquette review.” Serena’s right foot tripped over her left foot, and she caught herself on the nearest chaise. “Etiquette would be good,” she muttered. “Maybe a lesson on balance too…”

About Laire McKinney

Laire McKinney is the author of contemporary and fantasy women’s ction. She believes in a hard-earned happily-ever-after, with nothing more satisfying than passionate kisses and sexy love scenes, endearing characters and complex con ict. When not writing, she can be found traipsing among the wild owers, reading under a willow tree, or gazing at the moon while pondering the meaning of it all. She lives in Virginia with her family and beloved rescue pup, Lila da Bean.

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