Water Road Wednesday: Life In the Guilds

As I mentioned last week, Strefer Quants is from the United Guilds of Altreria, what’s commonly referred to as the Guildlands. The Guilders (as they’re known in The Water Road universe) live in a society that’s arranged completely differently from everywhere else in their world, even the Neldathi. Where family and kin create bonds in most places, Guild society is organized around the Guilds to which people belong. There are no families, as we traditionally think about it.

Here’s Strefer explaining to Rurek, her companion through The Water Road, a little bit of how that works:

“You talk about your mother and father, your siblings? We don’t really have concepts like that in the Guildlands. Sure, some woman gave birth to me and some man did his part so that I was conceived, but neither one of them raised me.”

Rurek shook his head. “You don’t even know who your parents are?”

“I told you, the concept of ‘parents’ really doesn’t exist where I come from. But to answer your question, yes, I do know who the two people who produced me were. I’ve met who you would call my mother once or twice. She is in the Guild of Musicians. I met her after seeing her sing at a concert once. She has a beautiful voice. Shame I didn’t inherit it,” Strefer said with a laugh. “The one you would call my father was from the Guild of Soldiers. He was killed fighting the Azkiri, from what I learned, before I could meet him.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rurek said with genuine compassion.

Strefer shook her head. “You still don’t get it. I’m not talking about someone like your father, who helped raise you, taught you things, protected you. To me he was never more than a name, and may have always been that way. I’m just answering your question about whether I knew who my biological ancestors were.”

“All right, then. No more sympathy from me,” Rurek said jokingly.

“I’ll take sympathy, thank you, but at the appropriate time and place.”

“Duly noted,” he said. “So, with that bridge crossed, who did raise you, then?”

“Not surprisingly,” Strefer said, starting on the final side of the pocket in which the pages had been hidden, “there’s a Guild for that. It’s called the Guild of Midwives, but it really includes a lot more people than that. Men and women, both, you know. Midwives, wet nurses, caregivers, you name it. They’re the ones that do the hard work of actually raising children.”

“But there’s more to it than that, surely,” Rurek said. “Parenting is more than just making sure your daughter gets fed and has a roof over her head at night.”

“It does in Kerkondala, because your society is structured around individual family units. Families just don’t exist like that in the Guildlands. Have you ever wondered about my last name?” she asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I know it sounds a lot like the city where you’re from, but that’s not uncommon in the Arbor or Telebria.”

“Except that, in the Arbor or Telebria, a similarity between a name and place is probably due to that person’s ancestors naming the town. Quants isn’t a family name, Rurek. It’s a short way of telling people I was born in Quantstown. My actual full, official name, as it appears on the rolls now, is Strefer of Quantstown of the Guild of Writers. Quite a mouthful, huh?”

He nodded. “I guess it is.”

“That Alban who got his head bashed in? His last name was Ventris, because that’s where he was from. Nothing more. My point is there is nothing about me that reaches back to some long line of ancestors, like you have.”

“Who named you, then?” Rurek asked.

Strefer stopped sewing for a moment, looked out over the water, and said, “You know, I’m not sure. Never occurred to me to ask. From as young as I can remember, I was Strefer. I could change it if I wanted to, but it works just as well as any other name, doesn’t it?”

“No argument here,” he said. “Rurek is an old family name, goes back generations. I hate it.”

“Why don’t you change it, then?” Strefer asked, returning to her task.

“Because,” Rurek said, stopping for a second to think about it, “it’s just not done where I come from. Like it or not, I do have some connection to my distant ancestors to worry about. Besides, we were talking about you and your childhood. So the Guild of Midwives did the care and feeding part, right? Then who taught you to read and write and how the world works and all that?”

“The Guild of Teachers,” she said. “I don’t know about Arborians, but I’ve heard Telebrians talk about the limited role teachers play in the education of their children. Makes no sense to me. The Guild of Teachers is where the experts are, in everything from how to cook a meal to how to mend your clothes to how to read and write.”

“So you went to school, then?”

“Of course,” she said. “But that’s not the only place you learn things. You know that. The members of the Guild of Teachers work in schools, but also in the dormitories where children live and all over. They teach adults, too, if they want or need to learn about something new.”

Rurek did not ask any more questions and they sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, he said, “It just all seems so strange.”

“That’s because it’s not what you grew up with,” Strefer said, finishing her sewing and handing the coat back to Rurek. “We are most comfortable with what we know. That’s doubly true when you talk about things like how we grew up. To me, it sounds strange to hear people talking about their families and how much they despise a brother or cousin or whatnot, but will then turn around and defend them from attack by outsiders. It makes no sense to me.” She stood up and slung her satchel over her shoulder.

Guilders form bonds, but on their own terms and for their own reasons, rather than out of a sense of societal inertia. It’s a good example of how they interact with the world – rationally and practically, without an overlay of tradition or concerns about doing things differently. It’s a world view that others in the universe of The Water Road have a hard time grasping.

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Water Road Wednesday: First Excerpt from The Water Road

In this scene, Antrey accompanies her mentor, Alban, to a reception being held in honor of the beginning of the new term of the Grand Council of the Triumvirate. It’s an uncomfortable evening for all involved.

The reception was being held in a large foyer on the second floor of one of the subsidiary buildings. Antrey remembered that it had once been the home for the Confederation’s trade delegation, but now served as overflow office space for the Grand Council itself. As a result of its heritage, the room was filled with deep rich wood textures, with fine carvings climbing the wall. Candles flew high overhead, providing an endless supply of light that reminded Antrey of dusk on the eastern shore. They arrived slightly behind schedule and the room was already a buzz of multiple conversations reverberating around the oaken hall.

“Come on,” Alban said, tugging gently on her elbow, “we’ll find some drinks.”

They walked over to the other side of the large circular room, to a table manned by a pair of young men. Sharply dressed, one held a wine bottle in his hand, the other some kind of fruit-based punch. Alban picked up an empty glass at the table and gave it to Antrey, before taking one for himself. “Try the wine,” he said. “It’s from Guild vineyards along the northern portion of the River Innis. Best in Altreria, in my opinion.” He held out his glass and it was filled a clear crisp white wine.

Antrey did the same. She looked at the man pouring the wine, studying him. He paid no attention to her, aside from dealing with the empty glass she held. It was impossible to say if that was particularly due to who she was or merely part of his job. She thanked him when the glass was full, but that prompted no response. She turned and faced the crowd while she took a sip of wine. Antrey had not had much experience with wine, beside the common table wines Alban would bring home every now and then. It was beyond her experience to call this the best in the land, but it was very good.

“All right,” Alban said, after they had observed the crowd and sipped their drinks for a moment. “Time to get this over with, yes?”

Antrey nodded and followed him as he plunged on into the crowd. Before they got very far, a voice called out in their direction.

“Alban!” the voice said, from off in the crowd to their right.

Alban stopped just long enough to turn that direction before he was confronted by a large man with dark green skin. A smaller, but similarly hued, woman, hung off his arm. “So good to see you again, old friend!” He wrapped his free arm around Alban in a brief hug. Alban returned the favor.

“Jamil,” Alban said, “it has been a while since you were in the city. What brings you back to Tolenor?”

“I was talked out of retirement by the mayor,” the other man said, with mock exasperation. “Once you come here, everyone insists on sending you back.” He laughed. “Where are my manners,” he said turning to the woman with him. “This is my wife, Utka. Utka, this is Alban Ventris, clerk to the Grand Council.”

The woman extended a hand to Alban, who took it and shook it politely. “My pleasure. And this is Antrey Ranbren,” he said, turning to her. “She is my assistant with the Grand Council. She’s been most vital to my work over the past few years.” Jamil ignored the introduction. Alban continued. “Jamil was a trade missionary from Kerkondala back when I was a Sentinel. We met more than a few times on the roads. Or what pass for roads in the Arbor.”

“We were much younger then, were we not?” Jamil said, with a jovial smile that quickly disappeared. “And perhaps less prone to eccentricity.”

Alban smiled and took a drink, as if thrown back on his heels. “We were younger, Jamil, certainly,” he said, after an awkward pause. “So what brings you back to Tolenor? What task has the mayor given you?”

Jamil launched into a discussion of his trade mission, about which Antrey knew nothing and cared little. She stood beside Alban and sipped her wine. As he spoke with Alban, Jamil kept his gaze fixed on him alone. It was as if Antrey was not even there. This was a new sensation for her. Usually her appearance caused strangers to gawk and follow her through a room. She had come to terms with that years ago. Being treated like a black hole, a non entity that could simply be ignored was more difficult. She did her best to keep a calm façade for Alban’s benefit, at least.

Rather than pay attention to Jamil’s story, Antrey studied Utka. She stood, silent, behind Jamil. Presumably, she knew all that Jamil was saying, yet she nodded as if hearing it for the first time. After a few moments, she turned her gaze to Antrey. They said nothing, but Antrey could sense some shared misery between them. Antrey was roused from her thoughts by Alban’s hand on her shoulder.

“It was good to see you again, Jamil,” he said, turning to walk away. “Perhaps we can talk in a few days.”

“That would be good. I might have to ask you for some help, depending on how things turn out,” Jamil said.

“Come by my office,” Alban said. Without any other parting words, he and Antrey began to walk away.

As they passed each other, Utka reached out and grabbed Antrey’s arm. The two women paused, exchanged glances, and then went their separate ways.

“I apologize for that,” Alban said as they wound their way around various clutches of people.

“For what?” Antrey asked.

“For Jamil. The way he treated you. Or didn’t treat you, as the case may be. I can’t go so far as to call him a good man, but he’s not a bad one. He isn’t the most enlightened of fellows, however. Even within the Arbor. Try not to let it bother you.”

“I really didn’t notice,” Antrey said, lying. She appreciated Alban’s attempt to smooth things over, even if it cost him little.

They had almost reached the other end of the room when Alban changed direction and intercepted a woman who had just broken away from a small group. “Galenna!” Alban called out after her. She stopped turned, began to walk towards them, and greeted him with a smile.

Antrey surveyed Galenna as she approached. She looked to be about Alban’s age, with some cracks and wrinkles evident on her face, which was dominated by bright black eyes that almost overpowered the pale green of her skin. She was dressed in a formal military uniform, pale yellow with hints of silver around the collar and cuffs. Although Antrey did not recognize the insignia, she must be from the Guild. Telebrian women were not part of the military. While some of the cities in the Confederation had women fighters, they were more organized as irregulars or ready militia. A professionally dressed military woman could only be from the Guild.

“Hello, Alban,” she said, greeting him with outstretched hands. “How does the evening find you?”

“It finds me well,” he said. “This is my assistant, Antrey Ranbren. Antrey, this is Galenna, Master of the Guild of Soldiers and the new member of the Grand Council from the Guilds.”

“Pleased to meet you, councilor,” Antrey said, with a courteous nod.

“Please, call me Galenna,” she said to Antrey, before quickly shifting attention to Alban. “We’ve known each other too long to rest on formalities, eh, Alban?”

Alban laughed. “I suppose that’s true.” He turned to Antrey. “Galenna was the first woman allowed into the Sentinel corps. They kept her isolated in an outpost on the shore of Great Basin Lake. They sent all the trouble makers there.”

Galenna’s eyes flitted quickly to Antrey, but then returned to Alban before she answered. “Which is why that is where they sent you too, of course.”

“Of course,” Alban said. They launched into a discussion about Galenna’s recent postings, how she found life in Tolenor, and a little about the trouble in the Badlands. All the while, Galenna continued to snatch glances at Antrey. It was if she was afraid to actually look directly at her and be caught by someone. Unlike Jamil, who was content to excise her from his reality, Galenna was concerned about Antrey’s presence. What was her concern? That the trained beast would break its chains and cause a scene. Antrey sipped her wine slowly and deliberately, breathing deeply. She was shaken from her observations when she heard her name pop up in the conversation.

“As Antrey can tell you,” Alban was saying about something, “the work of the Grand Council can often lose its focus on real issues and devolve into minutiae.” He paused, expecting either of the women to pick up the conversation. Galenna looked nervously at Alban and Antrey, but said nothing.

“Yes, that’s true,” Antrey said, finally, to fill the silence. “But, to be honest, even the minutiae can be fascinating.” It was only a partial lie, one designed to inject some levity into the conversation. It didn’t help.

“Well, I suppose I’ll see firsthand for myself tomorrow,” Galenna said to Alban. “If you’ll excuse me, old friend, I’ve had a long day and will have a longer one tomorrow. I must be going. Good evening.” She turned and walked off before Alban could return the courtesy.

“Wait here for a moment,” Alban said to Antrey before rushing off after her.

Antrey watched as Alban caught up with Galenna just as she was about to leave the rotunda. He grabbed by her arm and obviously surprised her. Alban promptly began to tell her something. Antrey couldn’t hear what was being said, but the tone was clear. He spoke quickly and gestured with his free hand more than usual. At one point, he shifted his feet to block Galenna’s view of Antrey, just as she tried to snatch another glance at her. When Galenna tried to get a word in, Alban cut her off. It was a tense exchange and it made Antrey nervous. She turned away, back toward the bulk of the crowd. Alban returned in a few moments, clearly upset.

“What’s wrong, sir?” Antrey asked.

He sighed. “I’m afraid that I must once again apologize for an acquaintance. And this time, I can make no excuses on her behalf. Galenna, given all she has accomplished in her life and the prejudice she has faced, should know better. I am truly sorry, Antrey. I trust that the entire evening won’t be like this.”

“You should stop apologizing for the acts of others, sir,” Antrey said. He started to say something else but closed his mouth without uttering a word. Perhaps Alban was surprised by her directness. “Neither you nor I can control how others behave or how they react to me. I am, like it or not, a curiosity, sir. It is enough to know that you are offended on my behalf.”

That seemed to please Alban. He looked about ready to start across the room to refill his drink when an elegant older man stepped in front of him. “Alban, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance once more,” he said, extending his hands.

“The pleasure is all mine, president,” Alban said, bowing his head slightly.

Antrey knew at once that this was Atilleo, the current President of the Grand Council. He was also a member of the inner circle of the King of Telebria. Quite possibly, he was the most important person in the city.

“President, I don’t believe you have met my assistant, Antrey Ranbren,” Alban said, presenting her for inspection.

“Why, yes, of course, I have seen her in the chamber many times,” he said to Alban before turning to her. “Good evening, Antrey,” he said, in a slower cadence and at a slightly higher volume than he had been speaking to Alban. “Does it find you well?”

“Yes, president,” Antrey said, somewhat self consciously. “Thank you.”

The older man turned his attention back to Alban. “Are you ready for the start of the session?”

“Of course, president. Antrey has been hard at work making sure everything is in place while I finished my latest volume.”

“Ah, yes. You do us great honor with your work, Alban. It reflects very well on the Grand Council,” Atilleo said.

“Thank you, president,” Alban said, giving him a deferential nod.

“As does all your hard work, Antrey,” Atilleo said, turning to address her. Again, he spoke with a halting tone and talked to her as if she was deaf. “I know that Alban relies on all that you do.”

Antrey mimicked Alban’s nod. “Thank you, president. I have learned a great deal from working with Alban, both within and without the Grand Council chamber. I look forward to hearing the session tomorrow.” In spite of be treated like a dim-witted child, she did her best to match Alban’s eloquence.

The effort obviously threw Atilleo out of his comfort area. “Well, yes,” he said, before pausing awkwardly. Finally, he took Antrey’s hand in his and patted it, like one might pat the head of a small animal. “I am sure you will learn something.” He hastily turned back to Alban. “I beg your forgiveness, but I must go and say a few words. In the morning, then?”

“In the morning, president, absolutely,” Alban said.

Atilleo gave Antrey one last look, smiled nervously at her, and then bled into the crowd.

Alban stood for a moment, speechless. One of the wine servers started to walk past and Alban grabbed him, abruptly and without warning. He shoved his empty glass into the young man’s hand, then took Antrey’s from her and did the same.

“Come on,” he said, turning and walking away from the crowd that was gravitating towards where Atilleo was about to speak. “Galenna was right about one thing. We have an early morning tomorrow.”

Antrey said nothing and they walked back home in silence.

Moore Hollow Monday – Free Excerpt

Welcome to the first Moore Hollow Monday! These posts will help you get excited about the release of my new novel, Moore Hollow, on October 5.

In this excerpt from the book, the main character Ben Potter meets with his sometime employer and editor Artith, about a potential job:

The book said nothing on the outside, its brown leather binding just barely holding up against years of abuse and neglect. It was about the size of a trade paperback with an afterimage of rough cowhide on the cover that had been worn smooth with age. He flipped open the cover and found the title page. The word “Journal” was printed across the top in barely legible gothic script. Underneath were a few black lines, spaces for the owner to write his name and the dates covered. The dates, written in neat, plain handwriting, were “July, 1905” and “February, 1907.” In the space where the journal owner’s name was written, it said, “Reginald Benjamin Potter.”

“Bloody hell,” Ben said.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” Artith asked, leaning back in her chair and looking extremely pleased.

Ben stared at the journal. “It’s my name, all right. But it’s not me. I’m the fourth poor soul to be saddled with it.” He closed the book and rubbed the rugged outer covering again. “Is this my great-grandfather’s?”

“You’ll have to tell me,” she said. I flipped through it, but I wasn’t really interested in the stuff he said about England. Did your namesake go to America?”

Ben nodded. “For a couple of years just after he left school. He went to some backwoods mountain town, coal mining country.” Ben shot her a dull look. “Only someone in my family would travel halfway around the world to wind up in a place that was just like home.”

Artith flashed him a confused look.

“Yorkshire,” Ben said, remembering that they had never really talked about his family before. “My family’s from just outside of Leeds. Been there for centuries. So leave it to my ancestor to go from English coal country to American coal country.”

“West Virginia,” she said.

Ben chuckled. “Where the bloody hell is that?”

“Somewhere west of Virginia, I suspect,” she fired back. “You know anything about what he did while he was over there?”

Ben shook his head. “Something with railroads, I think. The ones they used to haul coal out of the mines and to wherever it went before it got shipped off. He only spent a couple of years there before he came home and started the family business.”

“Which is not paranormal investigation or journalism, let me guess?” Artith said, chuckling.

“Much to my father’s chagrin,” Ben said, remaining stoic. “Civil engineering, actually.”

“How come you’re not an engineer then, Ben?” Artith asked, enjoying this little bit of torment. “Bad at maths?”

“No,” Ben said, more defensively than intended, “although that didn’t help. It just never did anything for me. To be a good engineer you have to be curious about how things work and why they sometimes don’t.”

“And you don’t care?” Artith continued.

Ben shook his head. “So long as whatever the damned thing is actually works, I’ve got no interest in the details.”

Artith thought for a moment like she had another prickly question ready but apparently passed on asking it. Instead, she shifted topics. “Did you know your great-grandfather then?”

“No, no,” Ben said, shaking his head. “He died before the Second World War. Granddad told me a lot about him, though.”

“He was an engineer too?” she asked.

Ben turned his head to one side, looked at the wall in thought, then said, “After a fashion.” Looking back to Artith’s confused face, he added, “He was a bit eccentric.”

She let that pass by unremarked. “Did your Granddad tell you anything about what his dad did in America then?”

“A little bit,” Ben answered without thinking. Then something tickled the back of his memory, something he hadn’t thought about for years. “Why?”

Artith leaned forward in her chair as if she might pounce. “I told you I skimmed that over the weekend,” she said, pointing to the book in Ben’s hands. “Your namesake tells quite a tale in there. As he lays it out, one of the local politicians was in a very tight race for his seat on whatever their little local council was called.”

Ben whistled. “A hundred-year-old political squabble is the kind of thing that gets you excited these days, Artith? Better find a job at Sky.”

She waved the joke away. “No, no, no. What’s interesting is what this desperate pol did about it. Or rather tried to do about it. According to your great-grandfather at least.”

“Which was?” Ben asked. The memory was coming into better focus now. He had some idea where this was going.

“This guy,”—she paused for a moment—“the name escapes me, but this guy, according to your forefather, actually raised the dead so that they could vote for him.”

Something clicked in his head. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The zombie voters.”

“You knew about this?” Artith asked, obviously hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not as if I was holding out on you, Artith,” Ben said. “Granddad told me a few stories. They were fun, but I never thought they were real. Seriously, why should I?”

“And nothing about working for the Journal made you think, perhaps, in a moment of reflection, that the time was ripe to revisit these stories?” she asked. It was clearly a rhetorical question.

Ben answered anyway. “I don’t work for the Journal, Artith, or for you unless some checks have gone missing in the post.”

She put up her hands in mock concession.

“Look, I loved my Granddad,” Ben explained. “But he was a little, what’s the word? Off, you know? When he’d talk about things his father saw in America I just took them for what they were—fun stories. Besides, Artith, you know me at least a bit. Do you think that working for places like the Journal have made me a believer in all this shit?” He gestured around the room, taking in all the paranormal exotica on display.

She shook her head. “Of course not,” she said, not altogether convinced. “That’s not why I showed you that, anyway.”

“It’s not?” Ben asked. “Then why? It’s kind of neat, I guess, but—”

“I want you to check it out,” she said, cutting him off with a devious look.

Moore Hollow – The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

Preorder now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo

Cover (KDP)

“The Destiny Engine” – An Excerpt

A scene from “The Destiny Engine” – available now at Amazon

Mister James insisted that Miss Smith be brought to dinner the next day, rather than for a more relaxed meeting over tea. It mattered not to him, but it greatly complicated my day. I was able to scrape together a suitable meal of braised elk, potatoes, and freshly picked greens. Miss Smith seemed pleased with the mixture of rustic and exotic and was too kind in her praise.

Over dinner Miss Smith explained how her family came west from the Carolinas during the War Between the States, settling in Denver near her great aunt. Mister James, in turn, regaled her with tales of his exploits in New York and San Francisco, carefully avoiding those that might touch on the reason he fled from both cities to the wilds of Wyoming.

As I began to gather the dishes, Mister James turned the conversation.

“Tell me, Miss Smith, what, exactly have you heard of my machine?” He leaned back in his chair, fussing with a fresh cigar.

“They say that it can tell the future,” she said, pausing, “or, rather, the future that might have been. Is that true?”

“They do?” Mister James chuckled. “And who are they?”

“Who are they?” She furrowed her brow. “I don’t see the relevance of that.”

Mister James leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “The relevance is that you have come seeking my help, Miss Smith, so it behooves you to answer my questions.”

She threw up her hands in halfhearted protest. “Very well. I believe I first heard about the mad inventor of Douglas during a salon in Denver. Very respectable. Before you ask, I do not remember the man’s name who spoke of you.”

Mister James grinned and puffed on his cigar. “They talk of me in Denver? How interesting.” He looked at me as if for me to share in his pride. I continued clearing the table without comment.

“Based on what I heard, I hired a professional to try and find out more,” Miss Smith continued. “He arranged a meeting with a man from Douglas, a man named Finn, who was quite specific about you and your machines.”

“And what did this Mister Finn say?”

“That you like to talk in the taverns,” she said. “Brag, really. About your machines. The ones that never work. He said it was not worth my time to try and meet you.”

“Did he?” Mister James said, laughing. “Finn was always the jealous one, wasn’t he, Whorle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Regardless of that,” Miss Smith said, “was he telling the truth? Have I wasted my time coming here?”

Mister James thought for a moment, slowly drawing in and puffing out smoke. “That depends, madam, on why you came here. I mean, why did you need to come talk to me, about anything?”

She sighed and started down at her hands, folded in her lap, for a long moment. “I am here because of my great aunt, Mister James. Because she is in need of a miracle, and my intelligence suggests you just might be able to provide one.”

This provoked a grin. “A miracle, dear lady? I can promise no such thing. I am a man of science, not magic.”

“Miracles look different to different people, sir,” she said. “Whatever it may be called, are you capable of providing such?”

“Tell me about your great aunt,” Mister James said.

Miss Smith took a deep breath. “Great Aunt Odetta has led a long and hard life. In particular, she has lost everyone in her life who was dear to her. Her husband, you see, died, under,” she paused, then said, “let us say that he passed on prematurely.”

Mister James nodded.

“But also her children, sir, her dear boys,” she said. She removed a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

“They are gone, too?” Mister James asked.

She nodded. “Drowned. Fell through the ice when they were nine and eleven, respectively. Solomon and Alistair, bless their souls.”

“A pity,” Mister James said, “but for them I can do nothing. I am not a necromancer. What do you think I might do for Odetta?”

“Since the boys died, all those years ago, she has shut out the rest of the world,” she explained. “She came to live with us, as she could not keep up the house. She sits in her room all the time, staring out the window. All she talks about is how she will never see the boys grow up, never see them become men. It is as if she is stuck in that terrible moment.”

“I am a scientist, Miss Smith, but my expertise is not of the mind,” Mister James said. “How do you think I can help you?”

She sat still for a moment, as if trying to figure out what to say, while looking back and forth between Mister James and myself.

“Have no worries about Whorle, Miss Smith,” Mister James said. “He and I are a team, aren’t we, Whorle? Anything you wish to say to me can be said in front of him.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said. Compliments were rare, so I thought it best to acknowledge one when it came.

“You can help me by using your device to allow my great aunt to see her family once again,” she said, finally, shaking her head as if she knew it was madness.

Mister James raised an eyebrow. “It is not that simple, madam. At best I can show what would have happened to them in another reality, had things turned out differently. Is that what your great aunt would want?”

She nodded. “Without doubt, sir. If she could see their lives, even if they are lives that never actually happened, it would ease her soul. I am certain of it.”

“Even if those other lives might not be particularly pleasant?”

“Have you children, Mister James?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Never married.”

“Then you cannot know the pain that comes from a mother seeing her children die. Parents should precede their children in death, yes?”

When Mister James did not answer, Miss Smith added, “There will be, of course, a substantial fee. To help further your work.”

Mister James smiled. “I should hope so,” he said, standing and striding to the other end of the table. “For what I am willing to do for you and your great aunt, madam, is one of the glories of modern science.”

“You will do this?” Miss Smith beamed with satisfaction.

“I will. How long will it take to bring dear Odetta here?” he asked.

“Five days, perhaps six?”

“Then let us meet again, here, at dusk in a week’s time,” Mister James said. “It will be my honor to serve you.” He bowed, a gesture that did not appear to be so full of mockery as I would have imagined. “Whorle will see you out.”

Mister James retired to his library, while I assisted Miss Smith with her cloak and signaled her driver. While we waited, I noticed the broad smile on her face and the gleam of joy in her eyes.

“Miss Smith, may I speak?”

“Of course, Whorle.”

“Do not come back next week,” I said, lowering my voice to avoid any chance of detection. “If you do so, I am concerned you will not be pleased with the results.”

She frowned. “Mister James would not be trying to sell some snake oil, would he, Whorle?”

“No, madam,” I said, shaking my head. Perhaps her investigation turned up more of Mister James’s past than I imagined. “Just the opposite. I believe the device will work as promised. Which is why I beg you to stay away.”

She looked puzzled.

“There are things we are simply not meant to know, madam. The past cannot be changed, nor can the present.”

“I am surprised, Whorle,” she said, looking out the window as her carriage pulled into the driveway. “I would not think that a man who worked for someone like Mister James would be so prone to superstition. Is not everything we do tampering, in some way, with God’s creation?”

“This has nothing to do with God, madam,” I said, opening the door. “I fear for the wellbeing of your great aunt should you return next week.”

She stepped out the door, turned, and looked back at me. “Your request is duly noted, Whorle.” She turned and began to walk toward the carriage. “And rejected.”

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“The Last Ereph” – Excerpt

Another little taste, this time from the title story of the new collection, “The Last Ereph.”

It’s not about a dragon. Obviously.

The cobblestones that paved these byzantine back alleys were not as clean as they appeared. Kol discovered this when his left foot, rather than pivoting him crisply to the right towards the open alleyway, instead slid out from under him. He did not fall. He managed to catch himself with his right hand. It stung, but was not broken.

More pressing, the slip caused him to lose momentum and provided the chance for one of his pursuers to loose an arrow towards him. It missed, but not by much, flying close enough that Kol could hear it zip past his left ear. Too close.

Kol took just enough time to glance over his shoulder and count–only two of them now. Still enough to catch him. Still enough to kill him. He regained his footing and sprinted down the alley.

Why did he always let people talk him into these things? On the surface they were wrong, but his friends always managed to convince him. “It’s for the best,” they said. “It must be done,” they said. “It is the right thing to do,” they said. If that is all true, then why did the duty to act always fall on him? Why would none of his friends ever risk their own skin? No one could ever explain that, on the few occasions Kol was bold enough to ask.

And this time, doing the “right thing” had the Corps of Constables chasing him like hounds after a hare. Whoever this gem belonged to, they were close enough to the His Eminence to have all his power deployed to retrieve it.

He could not outrun them. Kol knew, as a petty thief, that most of his marks, if they pursued him all, had no stomach for a prolonged chase. They would give up in five minutes at the most. It had already been fifteen minutes since Kol snatched the gem and the hue and cry went up. Two of his immediate pursuers had fallen away, but others would no doubt appear from who knows where.

What he needed was to disappear into one of the locked doors of the shops that lined the alley. All were closed and empty, thanks to the feast day. And Kol had never been a lock picker, only a thief. Picking locks seemed so much worse to him than merely taking something that was already available. He would be angry if someone picked the lock of his small room by the wharf. If someone took something because he left the window open, however, he could hardly blame them.

He kept running. The alley jogged left then right, so Kol followed, deftly clipping the apexes of the corners. The next turn lay about two hundred feet in front of him, a sharp right around which the alley disappeared from sight.

Directly in front of him, sunken into the wall at the end of the alley, was a door. This would be Kol’s best chance. If it did not work, at least the attempt should not slow him down too much. The jog, about 150 feet behind him now, should provide him some cover if the door did give way. If it did work, he would disappear as if into thin air, for all his pursuers knew.

Kol took a deep breath as he reached the end of the alley and flung himself into the door. As if by a miracle, it gave way. The surprise of success caused Kol to fall face first onto the dark, cool, stone floor inside. He had just enough time to recognize his good fortune before leaping towards the door, back first, to slam it shut.

He sunk to the ground, back against the closed door and the street outside. He held his breath, even though his heart was pounding, listening. There were footsteps. They did not stop. Instead, Kol heard them come and go, taking the turn and continuing down the alley. He was safe.

Kol exhaled and closed his eyes. Only for a moment, he told himself. Just to catch his breath.

The Last Ereph and Other Stories – available March 2, 2015.

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“The Dragon of the Bailey” – Excerpt

Here’s a taste of “The Dragon of the Bailey,” one of ten tales from The Last Ereph and Other Stories.

This one is about a dragon. Obviously.

Lhai sniffed the water in his trough. Was the poison in there? He couldn’t tell. He cursed, not for the first time, that the Maker had given dragons such a poor sense of smell. What if he just didn’t drink it? How could they make him? He was as large as any of the guards. Bigger, if one counted his tail. His rough grey hide would be difficult for spears or swords to pierce. What could they do if he would not drink? But how could he refuse when he was so very thirsty?

He extended his wings, stretching nearly six feet from end to end. The cobalt blue feathers had come in fuller and thicker this time. It had been easy for him to swoop up to the perch yesterday afternoon, probably too easy. If he had resisted the urge to be away from these humans for a while, to sit above them and keep watch on their activities, maybe his keeper would have forgotten about the clipping. Another few days and perhaps he could have flown over the wall and away from this bailey. But his regular water and food disappeared a few days ago and the keeper would not let Lhai out of his sight. The clipping was near. His keeper was not so forgetful.

But now it was too late, and he was so very thirsty. He drove his head into the trough and gulped furiously, knowing that a deep sleep would soon overtake him.

~~~~~

When he woke up, Lhai could feel the cold iron and leather muzzle that had been wrapped around his face for the ceremony. It took a few moments before he realized where he was and for the throbbing pain in his wings to come to the fore. He gritted his teeth and tried to stand, but was stopped by a sharp yank on the chain that lashed him to the stone pedestal.

To one side, keeping a safe distance, was a priest. He held a large, worn, brown book in his hands and smiled nervously at Lhai when their eyes met.

To the other side, at the same distance but looking much more certain of himself, sat the one they called Lord Kala. He looked bored by the state of affairs, as if he had something better to do. Lhai hoped his unconsciousness had delayed the proceedings, just to be difficult.

Out in front of him, Lhai could see the crowd that had gathered in the courtyard below, huddled together against the chill of the damp morning mist that was so prevalent in these parts. There were a few dozen people, ringed by another dozen guards in polished armor, creating a makeshift fence out of tall, golden spears. What the Maker had taken from the nose, She had given to the ear, but the crowd murmured to itself, making it difficult for Lhai to hear the contents of any one conversation.

The crowd hushed when the priest raised the book high over his head and began to intone the prayer. Lhai had heard it six times before, every year on the anniversary of his capture, a day that also happened to be Kala’s birthday. For Kala, the coincidence made Lhai’s captivity all the more auspicious.

“And so the Maker, who is just and gracious,” the priest said, slowly and deliberately, “did promise that should any dragon come to your castle, then should you know peace and happiness.”

“Get on with it,” Kala said, slumped in his chair.

The priest picked up the pace, as ordered. “And so long as the dragon remains in your castle, the lord of that castle shall rule, with justice and mercy to his people.” The lines were well worn and got little reaction from the scrum.

As the priest continued, Lhai’s eyes caught some movement near the back of the crowd. He focused on a young boy, no more than nine years old, tugging urgently on the arm of the old man who stood beside him.

“Grandfather,” the boy said, in a loud whisper that was drowned out by the priest’s speech for everyone save Lhai. The old man tried to shush him, but the boy kept on. “Why does it wear a muzzle? Why is it chained down? If it wants to stay, why does it . . .,” the boy asked, before the old man put an end to it with a swift smack up the side of his head.

Lhai grinned, as best he could.

The Last Ereph and Other Stories – featuring “The Dragon of the Bailey” – available March 2, 2015.

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Preorder now at Amazon.