Friday, December 28, 2018


Leisle and I were Chosen for the Assembly in the same season, the winter we turned a dozen years, and were from the same rural mountain range. I was a Mage of some talent, but she was my Tender, the one who fed me power from flames and allowed me to cast magics I could never achieve alone. I knew from the beginning that I was lucky to have her, for only one in twenty Mages are allowed to bond with a Tender. But it was not long before I realized how blessed I was to have this Tender in particular, how favored by fate I was to know her at all.

I can still see her the day of our first casting. Eyes closed and hair blowing from the magic she pulled off the candle in her hand, she looked like an angel to me. The slight smile she wore only when Tending haunts me to this day, filling me with a bittersweet longing for a girl who was never truly mine.

Leisle cared for me. Tenders usually do care for their Mage, and she cared maybe a little more than is the norm. More than once, she called me sister. It cut me to the core every single time, knowing that she loved me but not in the way I loved her. That she saved for a boy named Addeus.

Addeus was pretty and clever, his words were like music, and his soul was filled with dreams. His empathy and his kindness were of the rare variety more likely found in a children’s tale than in real life. If Leisle were determined to be with a man and not with me, then I would wish for her a man like Addeus. But his parents… They did not agree.

Addeus was of a class where money and standing are more important than things like beauty and affability and closeness to the virtues of Goddess. It didn’t matter to his family that Leisle was gorgeous, graceful, and filled with love both for their son and for humanity. And rather than valuing her rare talent, they saw it as a flaw, for it meant a life spent working in public service, something they considered beneath them. How someone as wonderful as Addeus was born into such a family I could never fathom.

It was decreed by Addeus’s parents than he would marry the daughter of a family friend. The woman in question was attractive enough in body. She paled compared to Leisle, yes, but so did every other woman I’ve ever met. It was her spirit that was ugly, though. She was petty, vain, and easily affronted by the slightest of things. She cared for no one, not even the lapdogs she surrounded herself with, as evidenced by the fact that she once had one killed for barking when she had a headache.

Addeus defied his parents and married Leisle at a public justice the very day after his engagement to the horrible woman was announced. His family promptly disowned him, which he had expected. Between Leisle's income as a Tender and the job he had been offered at a tavern we frequented, the pair would be fine without family money.

I wish the next line was that they lived happily ever after, raising a small family that included a daughter with tending talent who they named after me and a son who went on to become one of the greatest songwriters in our nation’s history. They didn’t though.

The slighted bride’s family took great offence. Disowning Addeus wasn’t sufficient, they held. They wanted him to truly pay, to truly regret the harm they imagined he’d done to their daughter. So they took from him the thing he valued most, the thing that happened to be what I valued most as well. They took our Leisle.

Her body was found in a park partway between the Assembly building where we spent her days with me and and the small apartment where she spent her nights with Addeus. She died quickly, the police said, brought down by a swift poison injected through a tiny dart. It didn’t hurt, they said. So we had that to comfort us as we tried to recover from our world ending.

Killing a Tender is considered treason, a crime even the wealthiest of families can’t get away with. And they didn’t. The jilted bride survived, but her father was put to the ax and his wealth confiscated by the crown. I don’t know what happened to her. On charitable days, I hope she learned the error of her attitude toward life and found happiness as a priestess or somesuch. Most days, I just hope she suffered.

Addeus never remarried, nor made up with his father. When the old man died, the older brother who inherited everything reached out to Addeus and welcomed him back into the family. With the portion of his father’s wealth his brother shared, Addeus founded a shelter for children orphaned by the Annexation Wars. He painted a picture of Leisle on the wall and tells the orphans she’s a saint of kindness who watches over them from heaven. On my weekly visits, I never tell them otherwise.

I was lucky enough to be matched with a second Tender after a magical plague ravished the ranks of Mages. Her name is Vella and we’re as close as sisters. I also have a wife, a woman so wonderful she lights candles for Leisle on the Night of the Dead without any hint of jealousy for my first love. I like to think I’ve lived a life that would make Leisle proud and I can only hope that there is a life after this one so that we shall meet again.

Image is Candle by Felysia Chew (aka Miyuki) who posts to DeviantArt as Ufo-galz. It was posted as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Coney Island Adventure

There’s a roller coaster in Coney Island called Thunderbolt, but everyone knows it’s not the real Thunderbolt. The real Thunderbolt, a loopless wooden structure, was destroyed in the 1980’s by a government that sited public safety concerns. I’m kinda like that second Thunderbolt, except I’m named after my grandfather and not an old ride. I’m called Skarroan, but even I don’t think of myself as the _real_ Skarroan. And like the second Thunderbolt, I’m much more daring than the older version. My grandfather would never have dreamt of leaving our ghetto and making his way to Brooklyn just so that he could steal hot dogs from the original Famous Nathan’s and climb on a bunch of amusement rides. No, the real Skarroan lived his life as he was told, keeping out of the human’s sight and thus their minds.

I did go to Brooklyn though, one afternoon in my fifteenth year of life. All it took was an invisibility potion and a subway train. And isn’t that amazing? I didn’t even have to change trains to get from the borders of my limited little world to a land of amazement and hope. Once upon a time, when people would sail into New York harbor on their journey to this country, they saw Coney Island before they saw the Statue of Liberty. Coney Island was where the welcome to America sign belonged.

I wonder sometimes whether the people on those boats were really as welcome as the textbooks would have us believe. Of course, none of them looked anything like me, and maybe that helped. My kind came later, seeping in through cracks in the universe to find ourselves in a world that didn’t even believe we existed. “Go back!” the humans screamed. “We can’t,” my great-grandparents explained. Even if the portals worked both ways, which they don’t, the world my forefathers fled from would have killed them if they’d gone back. The fact that no one has come through in nearly a century backs up the claim that the world they knew was dying, as do the stories of the last people through.

The Merreller couldn’t return from whence we’d came, so the humans reluctantly let us stay. They put a lot of rules into place, cordoned us off our own neighborhoods, and tried to forget we were there. And my ancestors had to go along with it, because what choice did they have? It was that or fight the humans, become the monsters they labeled us. The taking of intelligent life is a sin to my people, the way it apparently isn’t to humans despite their holy books saying otherwise. We’re vegan, for crying out loud; we’re not going to start a war.

Now, the astute amongst you have probably noticed that I claimed both that I’m vegan and that I went to Coney Island in part to steal hot dogs, presumably to eat. And both things are true. I only knew two things about hot dogs going into that day: they get eaten in mass quantities in a widely publicized eating contest, and they aren’t actually made from dogs. It was only once I was at Famous Nathan’s that I realized hot dogs are made from a different animal, a cow. Appalled, I left without taking any, so I still haven’t ever had a hot dog.

Nathan’s was a disappointment, but I still had the rides to look forward to. Except… I didn’t. What I actually had to look forward to where a collection of little signs informing me that the attractions were closed until April. This explained why there were so few humans around, I supposed, but was a bit of a downer.

Coney Island wasn’t living up to my wild expectations, but I still had plenty of time left on my invisibility potion, so I jumped a gate to get onto the subway and rode to Times Square. It was crowded there under the dazzling array of lights and I worried about people bumping into me. But they never did… After a few dozen humans redirected themselves to avoid hitting me, I realized they must have known I was there.

I walked up to a group waiting for the light to change so they could cross the street. “Excuse me,” I said to one of them, a female with a fluffy white coat that reminded me a bit of my Aunt Migardi.

She looked straight at me and as she responded, “Yes?”

“Um… So, you know I’m here?”

Based on the human dramas I watch on TV, her squint meant that she was confused by the question. “Yeah.”

“And you aren’t upset?”

“No. Should I be?”

“Well… My kind… It’s illegal for me to be here.”

She shrugged. “You’re not hurting anyone.” And that’s all she said because the instant the light switched, she joined the herd migration across the street.

I smiled as the human left me, and even though everyone around me saw and undoubtedly noticed the big, pointy teeth that supposedly terrified humans, no one screamed or yelled or acted like they were having a heart attack.

On the way home, I told all of this to a man on the subway. He chuckled. “It’s New York,” he said, as though that explained everything.

Needless to say, that was not my last trip out of the ghetto.

Image prompt is Coney Island Dreams by Subway Doodle. It was offered as a prompt on my MeWe Wording Wednesday group.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

At the Train Station

When I make it to the train station and find the right platform, I see Aunt Janelle before she seems to see me. I say “seems” because she’s the type of person who is ultra-aware of everything around her, so the fact that she’s scowling at the pleasant-looking gentlemen who just tipped his expensive-looking hat to her rather than looking my way says nothing. The man smiles widely at my aunt’s disdain and I find myself a little envious she’s the one who’s caught his attention. It makes sense though; she’s gorgeous and athletic and not fifteen years old. And, of course, she would have an undeniable air of bad-assery around her even if her mechanical hand wasn’t gripping the chain of a Warden’s Beast, so what man wouldn’t be more drawn to her? And why would I want a man with that little sense, anyway?

It’s the Beast that reacts to me first, his hyena eyes landing on me from several meters away. Despite all his training, he lets out a happy yip, sending a trail of drool flying through the air. Around me, people freeze up in alarm before realizing the creature isn’t launching an attack, and I rush forward to keep him from making more noise.

“Bailar!” I greet the animal as Janelle moves her attention to me. I have a treat in my pocket for him, but his muzzle it tight enough I’ll have to wait until it’s removed.

“You’ll spoil him,” Janelle tells me, her voice full of fondness.

I scratch behind Bailar’s ears and grin at my aunt, but she’s still watching the dapper man. He’s moved on from flirting with her and is striding confidently up the train platform. Keeping half an eye on the man, Janelle pulls her image-viewer from her belt and clicks through the faces of the kingdom’s most wanted criminals. She stops on an image and curses.

“He’s wanted?” I hazard to guess.

“Oh, yeah.” Putting the viewer back into its holster, she tells me, “Watch him,” and starts to cast her eyes around the station. The train has been here long enough that most of the incoming passengers have drifted off and it’s not leaving soon, so new passengers haven’t shown up yet. So, what, I wonder, is the man doing here?

“Don’t wanted people usually try to be more subtle?” I ask.

“Usually” she says tersely. “See that couple he’s heading toward?”

“Yeah…” I’m not sure what she’s picking up on that I’m not. “They’re heading toward that train.” My eyes widen. “But it’s still cooling down, so it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So why are they here so early, and without any baggage or servants?”

“Exactly.” Janelle rubs a fleshy finger along the hilt of her pistol, something I’ve noticed her doing while deep in thought before. “And I’d be willing to bet that if they turned around, I’d be able to find a match for them in the wanted scrolls, too.”

At the end of the platform, the station clock strikes the hour. We only have twenty minutes to get to my grandmother’s house in time for my cousin’s bridal dinner, and I don’t think we’re going to make it. Aunt Janelle is never off duty and I could never resist following her for as long as she’ll let me. But it’s just a bridal dinner. We’ll probably make the actual wedding tomorrow. Probably.

“So what’s our plan?” I ask as Janelle taps something on the little radio transmitter all Wardens have on their person at all times.

My aunt raises her eyebrows at me. “My plan is to stay here making sure they don’t anywhere until the Portsland police get here. I’ve already alerted them and I’m sure they’ll be here soon.”

I blink. “You mean we’re not going after the criminals?”

“I plan not to.” She grins. Then she leans over and slips off Bailar’s muzzle. He’s too well trained to go anywhere, but he can run now if he needs to. “But with luck, things won’t go according to plan.”

My eyes track up the platform, where the suave man has stopped paces from the couple and shifted his cane in a way that makes it clear it’s a weapon. “Would that man pointing his cane at someone change things if we thought that the cane was actually a gun?”

As Janelle looks up, her grin widens and she lets out a chuckle. “That it would. Bailar! Gun!”

The hyena yips once, sharply, then sprints toward the gunman. His target doesn’t even glance over, instead firing straight at the woman’s back. Turns out the cane wasn’t a gun, though. Instead of bullets, it sends out pulses of energy that leave gaping holes in people. I try not to look at the hole in the place the woman’s back should be.

The woman cumples to the ground as the man with her draws his gun.

“Stop!” Janelle calls, having rushed closer but then stopped to take aim. “Kingdom Warden! Drop your weapons!”

Neither man pays the slightest bit of attention. One has already let out a second pulse of energy and the other is busy collapsing.

Even as Bailar bunches up to leap on the man, the he tips his hat towards us and vanishes into thin air.

Bailar stumbles to a stop as Janelle curses. And I couldn’t agree more; using sorcery is just unfair. Somehow, I don’t think Aunt Janelle’s seen the last of this guy. And I can only hope that when she sees him again, the cane won’t be turned to her.

This weeks prompt is Steampunk Witch-Doctor by Angelique Shelley.
It was offered in my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Merbeast's Pain

I always visit Chinrar last, and would even if the merbeast wasn’t my favorite of the beasts in my care. He lives in a saltwater lake, so visiting him involves, at minimum, getting briney water on my dress and at worst ends with me covered in mud. The condition of my dress is important because a lot of the creatures in the Miac Mountain Preserve refuse to acknowledge me as a Caretaker if I’m not in pristine white. Since it’s my status as a Caretaker that calms the nervous enough to be seen and keeps the more aggressive from eating me, it’s pretty important that I maintain my qualification.

If I could change one thing about my job, it would be the dress. What sort of lunatic thought white skirts would be a suitable uniform for traipsing through the wilderness? I mean, yeah, okay, the original Caretakers were also priestesses, but they were clearly doing more than praying. If only the Preserve had been founded by a group of rangers instead of a temple!

This week as I approach the jut of rock where I usually meet Chinrar, I notice something wrong. He rests on the outcrop, his breathing sallow. When I meet his gaze, I can almost feel the pain in them. The wind that ruffles the fur on his dog-like upper half and the waves lapping against his scaley lower half mask his distressed whimpers until I’m very close, but as soon as I hear them my heart starts to race with the knowledge that I’m very much needed here.

I rush forward, sparing just enough thought to where my steps are going to keep from losing my footing. With soothing sushing sounds, I approach and kneel in front of the magnificent being. “You poor thing. What happened?”

He doesn’t answer, of course. While some of the creatures here are capable of human speech, he is not. But he moves against the hand I hold out to his snout.

His face looks fine, as do his forepaws, but when my visual examination drops to his lower half, I see a patch of missing scales. Oh, no. Not loose scale. Not Chinrar.

My magic rises inside of me, begging to be released. But magic can’t cure loose scale. The best it can do is ease the pain of it. “Please Goddess,” I pray quietly, “don’t let it be loose scale.”

Loose scale strikes fast and hard, prying scales off subjected animals at a rate of a few a day. Chinrar’s scales are where his magic is stored, and without them he’ll die. From the looks of things, if this is loose scale, it struck right after I saw him last.

Chinrar pulls himself further onto the rocks, allowing me to move down to the missing the scales. My blood chills as I take in the picture presented. With loose scale, scales separate quietly, leaving no blood. Right now, I’m looking at scabs. That means it isn’t loose scale, and I’m relieved about that. But it also means that something pried these scales off, which I’m not so happy about.

Pressing my hand against Chinrar’s side, I let my magic seap out into the wounds. “Of course you hurt,” I say gently. “I’d hurt too if someone ripped parts off me.” The closest a human has to the connections of scales would be the beds of our nails. I tore off a nail in a climbing incident once and that hurt like hell, and from the looks of things, Chinrar is down several dozen scales.

Chinrar begins to purr as the healing takes place. He’ll never grow the scales back, but at least he’s going to be spared the pain of healing and free from possible infections.

We have poachers though. I’m certain the only reason they didn’t kill poor Chinrar is because for the scales to retain their magic, and thus their value on the black market, they have to belong to something still living.

I finish healing my friend and then use the communication spell on the ring I wear on my left hand to inform the station of what happened. My boss isn’t happy with the report, but thanks me for telling her and says I can take some time to comfort Chinrar before coming back in. Sitting with the merbeast, I consider what to do next. It’s not my call, but I want to have a plan to suggest... The scabbing I observed means that the scales were stolen at least a day ago, so the people responsible are likely long gone. The sort of masking spell that would keep them from alerting me and my sister Caretakers to their presence wouldn’t be able to last more than three hours at tops. They would have needed to come straight here, knock Chinrar out somehow, and take their plunder as quickly as possible to get out again before we sensed them. They’ll be back, though, if not for more of Chinrar’s scales, then for a phoenix feather or a sphinx tooth.

I stroke Chinrar’s fur, thinking about how I’m going to trap and kill the people who hurt him.

The merbeast raises his head, interrupting my thoughts. He pulls back with a growl, then leaps over me. And a blast of magic slams into him, knocking him senseless.

As Chinrar collapses to the ground, I roll behind his body. The cursing I hear makes my breath catch and lights a fire of anger in my chest, because I recognize the voice behind it. Manilla. My direct superior and the only person I’ve told about Chinrar’s injury. She knocked him out, but was aiming for me. And magic strong enough to knock Chinrar out would have killed me.

I press into Chinrar’s side and summon the opposite magic to the healing I used earlier, letting it sizzle on my fingertips as I wait to be able to unleash it. My mind scrambles to catch up with events, to figure out why Manilla is here attacking me. “The poachers didn’t mask themselves, did they?” I call out. “You knew they were here. You let them in. Or...” Bile rises in the back of my throat. “Was it just you? Have you been hurting our wards?”

When Manilla speaks, her voice comes from closer than the cursing did. “It’s so easy to be righteous when you don’t know what it’s like to know your family is starving. My sister died from the famine. Her kids are next unless I do something, and the Goddess knows they don’t pay us enough for me to save them without finding something to sell. Do you really think a handful of scales are more important than the lives of children?”

“You took an oath,” I call back, shifting into a crouch that I hope will make me more able to react should Manilla come into sight. “We’re Caretakers! We exist to make sure people don’t hurt these animals.”

“I took an oath to defend life,” she says. It sounds like she’s still moving, still getting closer. Chinrar lets out a snore, a sign that he’s not going to spring into action to help out. “Those kids? They’re just as alive as the creatures here, and just as deserving of staying that way.” Her voice catches. “So was my sister.”

Her pain is honest, I can tell that from the suffering in her voice. But hurting our charges won’t bring her sister back, and there are better ways of taking care of the children. I’m pretty sure saying so won’t make an impression on her, though, so I stay silent as I try to figure out a way to get out the situation without ending up dead. My skirts are bothering me, so when Manilla starts to cry and I can tell she’s not approaching right now, I yank the dress off and crouch in only a bra and panties. It will be somewhat less dignified to die this way, but maybe it will help me avoid dying at all.

“You don’t understand!” Manilla sobs. “You’re an only child with no children of her own! You can’t say what you’d do for them!”

“You’re right!” Maybe if I act sympathetic, I can get close enough to hurt her without being hurt myself. “It can’t be easy to know that kids you care about are hurting.”

“It isn’t!”

I lick my lips. Will she buy it if I offer to help her? Only one way to know… “I think I would do what you did. I don’t blame you. You’re just being a good aunt.”

She lets out a caustic laugh. “Nice try. You’re hoping I’ll let you live if you pretend you won’t turn me in.”

“I guess I should have taken drama as a kid.” What I took instead might have been better though, because it’s my gymnastics training that lets me leap up over Chinrar with a mid-air flip and twist that causes the spell Manilla throws at me to miss. I let go of my own magic even as I stick the landing.

Tears form in my eyes as I look down at Manilla’s form. Breaking an oath like ours, an oath backed by magic, comes with a price. I suspect hers came in the form of impaired thinking and loss of rationality or surely she would have pretended to investigate rather than try to kill me for realizing something was wrong. Maybe she’s been taking things for a while now and it was the impaired thinking that led her to take enough scales that I could know there was a problem; if she’d only taken a few, or taken them from different places, would I have noticed and put the pieces together?

Crouching, I put my hand against Manilla’s throat. The pulse is faint, but there, telling me I judged my magic correctly and she’ll wake up in an hour or so.

After I pull my silly dress back on, I activate my com-ring again, call both the police and my mother, and then sit down to wait for the authorities to take my former boss to jail. I stroke Chinrar’s fur as he sleeps, keeping an eye on Manilla just in case she stirs early, and I ponder ways to raise money for the famine victims without hurting my charges. Because although what she did was wrong, Manilla was right about something; we are sworn to protect life.

Featured image is Strength, by Meredith Dillman. Prints can be ordered from her store here.
It was featured as a prompt in my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Potions Are a Girl's Best Friends

"What are you doing in here?" my father asks, using a weary tone I wish I was less familiar with. He stands in the doorway to my brewlab, looking at the beakers and conconcutions in them as though baffled by their presence. Neither of my parents were ever very good at potions, focusing instead on verbal spells. They conceded to grant me this lab a few years ago as a coming-of-age present, but neither of them seem to understand why I spend so much time here.

"Just checking on something." The vial closest to me bubbles merrily, which it shouldn't be doing. I lower the flame under it, although I don't shut the heat off completely. Across the room my feline familiar, Whiskey, stares at a different section of the brewlab. Does that mean the tea over there has finished steeping? I need to add it to the cauldron if it has.

"Darla, dear..." Daddy lets out a slow sigh. "It's your birthday ball. It's bad enough you insist on wear black and refused to put your hair up, but now you're not even there."

My fingers brush my hair. I don't actually like having it down, but Mama said I couldn't wear my ponytail. She had meant I needed something more elaborate, but I didn't have the time to sit there while my maid did my hair. It may be my birthday, but it's also the week before the university selection tests and I need as many working potions by then as I can get or else I'm not going to get into anywhere decent.

"My education is important to me, Daddy."

He sighs again. "I know that, sweetheart. And I want you to go to wherever you want. But you making a good personal match is important to your mother. There's no rule that says you can't fall in love and go to school at the same time. Your mother and I did."

"I know." And I do. I've heard their story over and over. They met in middle school, were friends through high school, and started dating after they were both selected by the same university. It's sweet, but not really relevant to me. I have precisely two friends and neither of them are the gender I'm attracted to. "That's just not my focus right now."

As I approach the tea I've been preparing today, Whiskey jumps from her perch and sashays over to Daddy, who bends to scratch her behind the ears. "It doesn't have to be," he says. "Just finish here as soon as you can and come down. Please?

"Yeah. Give me another ten minutes."

"Alright." He smiles. "See you in half an hour."

He leaves me to my work, which I finish up in about fifteen minutes. There are other things I could start, but if I did that, it will be another hour before I get downstairs... If I were the only one Mama would be displeased with about that, I might do it, but she'll get mad at Daddy for not forcibly removing me from the brewlab and I'd rather spare him the marital strife.

"Well, Whiskey, wish me luck."

The cat looks up, meows, and returns to cleaning her paws. Sometimes I envy her.

I turn to go, but before I make it to the door, I find the exit blocked by someone I've never seen before. The young woman is busy taking in the room with eyes that are wide behind a pair of stylishly chunky glasses made of something silver and glittering. She wears a strapless dress with a corset similar to mine, but whereas I am all in black, she is all in purple. It's my favorite color. "Whoa," she says. "You have a brewlab in your house. That is so awesome."

"Um... Yeah." I smile hesitantly. The woman, who I think is about my age, isn't classically beautiful, but rather what I would call cute. I like cute.

She smiles, turning up the adorable factor considerably, and I find myself grinning inanely as she continues to look around the room. Her gaze falls on my cauldron and she gasps. "Is that a Wexter?"

Whoa. She can tell that from a glance? The girl knows her cauldrons. "Yeah. I inherited it from my grandmother."

"Sweet. The only things I've ever gotten from my grandmother have been questionably knitted sweaters that I feel compelled to wear to make her feel appreciated." She laughs. "The last one had one sleeve that was six inches longer than the other one, but I love it anyway."

My imagination helpfully provides a picture of her wearing nothing but a poorly constructed sweater, one sleeve hanging well past her finger tips and her legs completely bare. The image very nearly makes my heart stop.

"Anyway..." My visitor bites her lip for a second as she stops examining the room and looks at me. "Your dad said you were here. Says you're hoping to get selected by Marsters."

I nod. "Yeah. I'm Darla, by the way. But I guess you knew that already."

She blinks. "Oh! I didn't introduce myself! I'm Eliah Banks. My dad works for your mom."


We smile at each other as seconds tick by. It seems like the silence should be uncomfortable, but it isn't.

"I go to Marsters," Eliah says after a bit. "So if you have questions, I can answer them."

She goes to my dream school. Oh dear Fates. Maybe Daddy is right and I can find love and get an education at the same time. Not that I'm in love with someone I just met. That would be stupid. But... Damned if I don't want the chance to fall for Eliah.

"Do you want to dance?" I hear myself ask, although the words never formed in my mind.

Slowly, she nods. "Yeah. I really do."

Our hands fit together perfectly when, with a boldness I usually lack, I take her hand and lead her to the ball.

Image is "Poison" by the incredibly talented Victoria Frances. It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Night Mission

Milton walks beside me, squinting at a map that I’m pretty sure he’s holding upside down. “It should be around that corner.” He uses his flashlight to point to what I’m assuming is the wrong path. I don’t know Milton well, but I’m pretty sure he’s a master at getting lost, so I’m not too surprised that he doesn’t say anything when I nod and proceed to walk in a completely different direction.

The last time I was in Capitol City Park was more than twenty years ago. I was here with a school trip; there was no way my parents would have lended enough credence to royal rule to visit the newly created city. At the time, I thought they were crackpots, but that was before I lost friends in the University Masacre and learned that the Queen isn’t the benevolent mother she wants people to see her as.

Beyond the beams of our flashlights, the park is eery. The tall buildings surrounding the park lent light to the entrance, but we’re well past that now, so the only illumination comes from what moonlight makes it through the lush late-spring branches and the scattered glowshrooms spreading their greenish radiance along the ground. Nearby, a bird launches from one of the trees, diving for a prey too small for me to see. Milton stops dead with a gasp, and the beam of his flashlight starts to shake. I wish, not for the first time, that our leaders had paired me with someone a little more… competent. That’s not a kind thought, but if this extraction goes sour because I’m working with someone completely lacking in common sense and basic skills, my ghost will be even less kind.

“Keep moving,” I grunt, and I’m relieved when he starts walking again. We go onwards, deeper into the park. A park after closing is an interesting place, and under other circumstances I’d be really enjoying the novelty and quiet of the deserted paths. Maybe if my wife were here with me instead of dead at the hands of the people who will execute me if I’m caught. Yeah, seducing Jeanie in a place like this would have been amazing.

“Vanessa?” Milton tugs on my sleeve as though saying my name wouldn’t be enough to gain my attention. What is he? Five? Because he’s acting five, for all that he looks thirty. Again, not a kind thought for me to be having.

“Yes?” I say, trying to sound less annoyed with him than I am. He’s been in the resistance movement for years, but this is his first field operation. And I do need him, much as I hate to say it. I’m about as magically inclined as the average turnip and it’s going to take sorcery to break the creature’s bonds. The device I’m carrying should do the actual work, but it has no magic of its own and will need someone to power it.

“I feel funny.”

My teeth grit together even as I try to smile just in case he can see my expression. “That’s the no-see we took. You know, the stuff keeping us from showing up on the sensors and protecting us from being spotted by the park rangers?”

“Yeah, I know.” And well he should; he’s one of the people who makes it for us from ingredients that are increasingly hard to come by as the Queen’s Service cracks down on them. We’re going through some of our movement’s last no-see ever and I can only hope we aren’t wasting it on a failed mission. “I just… Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”

My eyebrows raise. “Hell of a time to start worrying about that.”

“I know…” He slows, but keeps going fast enough I don’t feel I can say anything about it. “It’s just… If we free this thing, people are going to die.”

“Bad people,” I answer swiftly. “It’s not going to hurt us, or even the rangers. It’s going to go straight for the Queen. It’ll only take out people who try to stop it from hurting her.”

“And you’re sure they’re bad?” His pace decreases even more as he looks over at me. WIth the lighting, I can’t really make out his expression. “Aren’t they just doing their jobs? Trying to make money to support their families like everyone else?”

I let out a slow breath. It’s an argument I’ve had before. I used to have it with Jeanie every time I’d leave for a mission. She never actually did any fieldwork herself; she was too much of a pacifist to risk hurting anyone. “They know who the Queen is, maybe even better than we do. And they’re still choosing to work for her.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they don’t think they have a choice. And at this point, I’m not sure they do either. We picked sides a long time ago, and changing them now?” He shakes his head. “They’d have to give up their whole lives. Maybe literally. Have you ever heard of anyone who quit the Queen’s Service and didn’t wind up an outlaw?”

Something calls out from up the path, the creature hurrying us onward? How would it know we’re coming? No one has ever established how intelligent it is.

“I’d rather die than help that woman,” I say simply as I stomp onward, picking up my speed and assuming he’ll do the same.

“I guess,” says Milton. And though he doesn’t sound convinced, he trots to catch up with me.

We round a bend and stop in unison as we behold the target of our rescue. It stands there in its tiny moonlit yard, staring at us with eyes that burn with hatred. I can’t blame it for despising us. I’d hate a species that kept me locked up in a paddy barely large enough for me to lie down in then paraded a series of onlookers and gawkers to look at me. How many people have taken selfies with this beast? How many people posed their grinning children next to it? 

I’m suddenly less sure the creature is only going to hurt the Queen. Maybe it will hurt all of us, driving its singular horn through chest after chest until it collapses in exhaustion. And maybe we deserve it. 

Slow but steady, I walk up the creature’s pen. I hold up the device I was given. “This is going free you,” I tell it. It bows its head as though it understands. I can’t touch the fence due to its magic, so I put the device on the ground and roll it toward the barrier. 

“Alright,” I tell Milton. “Do it.” 

He nods once and holds his hands out, directing magic into the device that should destroy the bonds holding back the unicorn. And despite the fact that he could well be releasing the agent of my death, I pray to the fates that it works.

The above was prompted by a image of The Unicorn in Captivity which was shared on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Under the Moon's Eyes

The second the men are out of sight, I leave my seat near the campfire. I wasn’t lying when I told them I hadn’t seen the young woman they’re looking for, but I did fail to mention that my beloved crow familiars had seen someone I assume is her. How many pale-haired runaway brides can one section of forest hold?
According to the men's testimony, the woman is barefoot and dressed only in a shift, which prompts my second in command to hand me her cloak and another soldier to hold out a pair of shoes. We always carry spares of basic uniform items because our ranks expand so frequently. The women don’t always stay with us, but they need clothing while we get them to safety.
Magred, the eldest of my three crows and their leader, caws for me to hurry up and I give her a half-heart sush. “We don’t want them to hear you and wonder what you’re excited about,” I whisper to her. Really, though, I think the odds of these particular men figuring out something like that are slender, for they truly weren’t the brightest examples of humanity I’ve seen. That combined with the way they looked at my soldiers not as the warriors they are but as objects of lust is part of what kept me from helping them. The way they phrased their search was the rest of it. They made it very clear that even though one claimed to be a father and the other a husband, the woman they’re looking for isn’t loved by either one of them. They’re looking for a lost possession; not a person.
I follow my crows as they lead me down the path the men had come up and then down an embankment to a stream. There’s a footprint on this side, but none on the other. I’d think she had decided to walk in the stream to through off trackers where it not for my feathered spies. Millicent taps my shoulder to make sure she has my attention, then flies up into a nearby tree.
“Clever girl,” I mutter under my breath as I look up into the branches. Even expecting her to be there, it’s hard to see the woman cowering by the trunk.
“Are you cold?” I call up to the runaway. “I have an extra cloak and some shoes that may or may not fit.”
There’s no response, like she’s hoping that if she stays still I’ll go away.
“You don’t have to come with me,” I tell her. “But if you do, there’s food, clothing, transportation to somewhere far away, and combat training, if you want it. And those dingus brutes looking for you won’t be able to find you. I swear by the Moon.”
A chilly breeze ruffles by. “Are they your crows?” she asks.
“They are.”
She moves, looking down at me from her perch. “Are you Crow Moonsdaughter?”
My lips curl. “They’ve given me that name, yes.”
“Then I’m to tell you that Rabbit says hello.” She begins to climb down. Even from here, I can see the dress is torn and bloodied.
“Good old Rabbit.” I smile fondly as I think about my brother. We weren’t named Crow and Rabbit as children, but we adopted the names after being rescued by the spirit of the moon. We could just as easily be Reclamation and Retribution. I help victims reclaim themselves while he punishes those who victimize. The men who hurt this woman may well be dead already, and most certainly aren't going to make it home if they're not.
I let the woman make her way down without help, then hold out the cloak for her to slide into as I try not to glare at the burgeoning bruise on her cheek. She's shaking, either from cold or from nerves. “I’m not a goddess,” I tell her. “I’m not even really a demigoddess. Sure, the Moon is my father, but he’s adopted.”
From how wide her eyes are, I don’t think she takes much comfort in that. But that’s alright; the awe will wear off eventually. For now, I lead her back to camp and her new family.

Above image is "Prayer" by Amanda Clark (For sale here)
It was a prompt given to my Wording Wednesday writing group on MeWe in response to the random words despair, kismet, and blue.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What the Cats Saw

Ship’s cats are very important, although, perhaps, somewhat less important than they think they are. Sir Night the Knight and Her Ladyship Snow are from the same litter and I’ve sailed with them for their entire lives. Their mum, Queen of the Storm, is a tuxedo, equal parts black and white, but it struck me as an odd omen when one was born pure white and the other unadulterated black. I just never figured out what it was an omen of.

Tonight they’ve left the ship and are exploring the dock. I watch them as I sip a bit of rum, that beloved standard of seafaring folk. The vessel beside us appears to be hosting a party. A band plays on deck, their songs just loud enough for me to make out the words, and a steady string of persons have come and gone over the last few hours, but I’m not drunk enough to consider joining them. I am, after all, on watch, all that stands between The Duchess of the Swift Winds and those who would try to plunder her hulls. She’s riding high, and normally that would indicate she’s low on cargo, but she just pulled in from the Zekly Isles, so what it actually implies is that her hull is full, just not of mundane items. You’d think with all the spells and enchantments onboard, Captain Bladebearer could have spared a guardian charm, but it’s not my job to question her any more than it’s my job to get keelhauled.

Thinking of the Captain, I tuck my flask into my belt. She doesn’t mind a little drinking on the job, but she’ll have my liver cut out if she catches me inebriated. Would probably feed it to the cats, too.

Thinking of my feline crewmates, I look away from the party goers and back to them. There’s something odd in the way the cats move, something suspicious. Snow keeps looking out at the harbor, like she’s tracking someone approaching. But there’s nothing out there; the night is clear enough and the moon bright enough that I’d see if there were.

Night looks back at me and even though I couldn’t possibly hear a snort over the distance, I could swear I hear him snort at me. It’s derisive, a dismissive sort of sound, and if I didn’t know any better I’d tell you he accompanied it with a sneer.

I look away from the cats, looking toward town. There’s a tavern near the end of the dock, and most of the crew is there now, drinking and feasting and spending the money they promised to send home to their families. Just not me. Luck of the short straw. And not the Captain, who never sets foot in Chepton Province. It’s inconvenient since the most profitable ports in the kingdom are here, but we all have our peculiarities, and since her wife is our second-in-command, she can be trusted to act in the Captain’s favor.

A hiss draws my attention back to the cats. Both stare at a point in the water a few measures away. I roll my eyes and plan on looking away again, but as I start, my attention catches on ripples in the water. It looks just like a ship drawing into dock.

“Captain!” I call.

“It’s alright,” she says from just behind me. How she snuck up without me noticing, I couldn’t say. She’s stealthy like that; always has been. “They’re not here for us.”

“They?” I ask dimly.

The captain hands me a pair of far-seer lenses. “Just some friends I made in the Zeklies.” She puts her hands on the rail and leans over. “Snow! Night! It’s alright! Get back here!”

And they come, because the cats always do as the Captain says, same as the rest of us.

Trembling before I even get the glasses to my closed eyes, I assure myself that if the Captain says I’m safe, then I’m safe. I get the lenses in place and force my eyes open. Then it’s all I can do to keep from dropping what I’m certain is a very expensive pair of glasses into the water. They’re not farseers; nothing is bigger than it would be to the naked eye. But they show things I couldn’t see before. “What are they?” I whisper as monsters the likes of which I can’t even describe begin to pour off their boat and onto the dock.

The Captain laughs. “LIke I said, they’re friends of mine.”

The glasses drop to my side as I turn to stare at her. How does one make friends with nightmares? I don’t ask.

The Captain smiles as the cats make it on board. She reaches down to pet them in turn, then turns to lead them to her cabin.

“Captain!” I call.

She pauses, turns. “Yes?”

“What about the crew?”

Her head tilts to the side. “What about them?”

I swallow. “Are your friends their friends?”

She laughs. “You think I’d sacrifice my crew?”

I shiver. I would never have had such a thought before, but watching her nonchalance as these creatures invite themselves onto the ship beside us and begin to do things to make the partygoers scream in terror, I’m not so sure. “Of course not.”

Her sigh tells me she’s disappointed in the answer. “Any who are loyal to me will be spared.”

Her eyes lock with mine. “Anyone merely pretending to be will not.”

My mouth is dry, but I send my tongue to flick across my lips in an attempt to moisten them anyway. “Noted, sir.”

The Captain shakes her head, but she’s smiling. “I’m messing with you, Galeborn. They’re here for Kambert’s people and only Kambert’s people.”

Kambert, the governor of the provence. Known for corruption, malice, and violent acts against women. There’s been some speculation amongst the crew that the Captain knows him, but no one has any idea how.

“Why?” I hear myself ask, even knowing I should mind my own business.

The captain’s smile turns cold. “Because it’s high time my father paid for his deeds. Him and everyone who’s helped him stay in power.”

Her father… I look down the dock at the party ship. It’s quieting down over there already, but I see several people staggering away. Pulling the glasses back to my face, I see the monsters are still there, but they’re letting most folks through.

“The monsters are harmless,” the Captain says. “To anyone who isn’t a monster themselves.”

I hand the glasses back to her and pull out my flask. “Permission to drink, sir?”

She nods. “Go ahead.” And with a weary glance toward land, she retreats to her quarters with the cats.

There isn’t enough rum in the world to make all of this seem normal or good, but if a tenth of the things I’ve heard about Kambert are true, he deserves everything that’s coming to him. And, yes, the province is going to be launched into anarchy, but maybe that’s a reasonable price to pay for allowing monsters to hold power.

I lean against the rail and feel a brushing against my leg. Looking down, I see Queen of the Storm regarding me with large yellow eyes. And despite everything, I smile as she jumps onto the rail beside me and meows for attention. I scratch behind her ears and things seems just a little less awful. Yes, ships cats are very important things.

Image is The Cats' Rendezvous by Manet.

If you are on the social network MeWe, I invite you to join my writing prompt group Wording Wednesday. This was our first prompt, so I was very happy when the random word generator included "cat" in the list of things to put into image search.