Excerpt: The Purpose of the System

In advance of the publication of The Purpose of the System on May 25, here is a short excerpt:

DISPATCH ONE

The air hisses, like a sigh expiring, as the airlocks link. Hidden gears turn, interlocking, the vessel and the habitat system speaking to each other, and at last the alarm sounds, notifying us that the doors are opening. The alarm continues to pulse, the light above the joined airlocks blinking red in unison with it. I adjust my metabolism, speeding it up from slow time, trying to time it so I reach my normal rates as the door opens and I have to move forward. I need to conserve my energy. There is no telling when I will be able to replenish myself.

Objective: CNS. Habitat A1.

A map of the habitat materializes in my mind as the thought is given voice. I see our path through the habitat to where the CNS is situated. Our target. The going will be easy until the first junction with the outer ring. After that, we will need some luck. Luck, the System’s Trojans and malware, and the System itself to guide us.

Only six of us exit the vessel, not the planned twenty-five. Those left behind did not emerge from the depths of stasis when the System alerted us to our imminent arrival. No information had been offered as to their status and I did not bother to query. They are no longer relevant to the objective.

I can hear the others whisper their invocations to the System, as we pass through the air lock, and I join them. “System guide us. System protect us. We will heed your call.”

The air in the habitat smells sweet, with hints of the sea, vegetation and earth, none of which exist here. The scent has been manufactured, I assume, for those that maintain the habitat. It seems an outrageous luxury in a place where strict functionality is the rule. The habitat’s purpose is to house the CNS, which runs the entire fleet. The Intelligence. There should be nothing extraneous, and yet the smell said otherwise.

We had infected the habitat. The System had, at least. Or other agents in its service. It was not important; we were all the System, all cells in its larger body, subjugated to the larger cause. We had infected this Intelligence, allowing our vessel to dock with the habitat and allowing us entry without being incinerated by the various firewalls. Now we had to evade its secondary security protocols, no mean feat for the six of us remaining.

I feel no fear, in fact, I feel nothing. My emotional dampeners are functioning. Logically, I know, we are all very likely to die. Our individual odds of survival are miniscule, our chances of success only slightly greater. But I am ready. We are all ready for what is to come.

DISPATCH TWO

I dreamed, I was certain of it, though such a thing was not possible in stasis. The images were fleeting, flickers in my data stream, enough so that I could almost tell myself they were messages from the System. But they were not. They were my own thoughts.

The unending streams of data—the intel and subvocalizations of my fellow chosen, my internal health sensors, and above all the System’s voice, with its constant intel updates and objectives—lulled me in my stasis, a comfort. That was what made the dream so disconcerting. It interrupted the streams, drowned them out, leaving me, in a sense, alone with my thoughts. It was utterly terrifying, or would have been, if I had not been in stasis, with my emotional dampeners active.

I saw myself standing before the Intelligence, blood pooling at my feet. I felt a touch of pain that was rapidly dimmed, my body responding with adrenaline and other dampeners. There was a taste of tin in my mouth. Blood as well, I realized. In my hands was my still-beating heart. I held it up to the Intelligence as though in offering.

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Excerpt: Border Crossing

In advance of the publication of Border Crossing on May 18, here is a short excerpt:

The moneychangers surround the bus as it comes to a halt next to the concrete platform that leads to the border post, their arms uplifted as though to welcome a returning hero. There are shouts of dolares and pesos as passengers begin to descend to arrange their exit papers. Some huddle with the moneychangers to negotiate, but most force their way through the crowd and go to the long line that leads into the border post.

George descends with the rest, squinting and looking about, somewhat confused. There are two lines, one snaking into the post, and the other, more formless, leading to some counters lined by glass outside the building. Like ticket booths at a stadium. As he looks at the various signs, trying to ascertain which line he needs, a wiry man sidles up to him.

You need to go there first, señor,” the man says, speaking in accented English. “Get the paper. Then you go inside.”

Gracias,” George says, glancing at the man.

You need a bus?” Here the man points at a bus parked in front of the one George arrived on. “Our bus goes on to Liberia. Still space for you. Twenty neuvo pesos.”

That’s all right,” George says. “Thank you.”

Your bus ends here,” the man says.

I know,” George says, with a nod, already moving to the first line the man gestured to.

On the surface, chaos reigns. The line is disjointed and shifting, with people forcing their way forward and others drifting away before they reach the windows, for no apparent reason. The moneychangers, bus touts, and other sellers ebb and flow around the line, along with others whose purpose George cannot identify. One of these approaches him, a tiny man, who looks as though he can’t be older than sixteen, wearing a faded blue uniform and cap.

Tendría usted que venir conmigo,” the man says.

George frowns. It seems unlikely this boy is here in any official capacity. “Necesito mis papeles,” he says, in his halting Spanish, gesturing to the windows. The man repeats his demand and George shakes his head, turning away, making clear his intention to remain where he is.

The man is waiting for him after he receives his exit papers and moves toward the second line within the building. “Tendría usted que venir conmigo,” he says, sternly.

George frowns in irritation, preparing to dismiss him once and for all. “You better go with him,” the bus tout says, materializing from somewhere within the crowd. He nods in the direction of the youth and George looks at him closely for the first time. Though there is no insignia on his cap, or badge on his uniform, he does have a handgun clipped into a holster on his hip. Somehow George did not notice it before. He swears to himself.

Tendría usted que venir conmigo. Continue reading

Excerpt: The Apostate

In advance of the publication of The Apostate on April 27, here is a short excerpt:

The address, I saw when I arrived, was for a strip mall set off a busy street. There was laundromat, a barbershop, a pizza place, and a Chinese food place advertising its homemade jerky. There was another shop on the far corner with a faded sign and awning where it was not immediately obvious what was on offer within. A front of some sort, I thought. There was a payphone on the street corner—no phone box, just a pole bent at an odd angle with a phone attached—and a wide-eyed man was carrying on a loud and scattered conversation. “I just need twenty bucks man. That’s all,” I heard him say, and felt a familiar itch begin to work inside me.

I turned away, before it had a chance to grow more insistent, and went to find the entrance to the offices above the shops. It was around the side from the mystery store, and I went up the stairs, noting the well-worn carpet. At the top of the stairs there was a directory, which I scanned until I found what I was looking for: 214 Regency Services Limited. I followed the arrows down one of the hallways past closed doors to offices, disconcerted by the silence emanating from the hall. Was there anyone in any of these? I began to feel quite certain that this whole enterprise was a mistake, a waste of a precious free afternoon that I could have spent doing something else. I thought again of the man on the phone below and the itch returned. That was enough to push me on toward the office.

I knocked on the door and several painful seconds passed without any indication that there was someone within, during which I told myself again and again that I should turn and go. The door opened, revealing a young man about my age with a welcoming smile and shaggy mop of hair. “Welcome, Laila,” he said. “I’m so glad you decided to come.”

I could only muster a nervous smile in return as he ushered me inside. He continued to chatter away, trying to set me at ease, but I did not listen to what he was saying, my doubts about coming here returning sharply again. This was a mistake. My roommate had been correct. It was a cult and I was just one of the susceptible fools being drawn in. I was led into a large conference room overlooking the parking lot below, and the congenial Regent, as they referred to themselves, told me to make myself comfortable and that he would return in a moment.

There were three chairs in the room, looking oddly out of place in the rest of that empty space. I sat in the one facing the other two, understanding what was expected of me. A few minutes passed and I tried not to fidget or think about the man on the phone below or why I was here at all. Just as I was preparing to stand up and leave, the door opened and the man who had welcomed me entered, still smiling, followed by an equally gregarious woman. Both of them were dressed in bland white and black clothing, as though they were administrators in some office. I half expected them to launch into a discussion on supply chain or risk management.

The woman gave me a generous smile. She had long, tightly coiled hair that she had pulled back behind her head, and it danced behind her as she spoke. “My name is Opal, and this is Hector. Thank you so much for coming today. We have so much to tell you about our faith. But first, what brought you to us?”

I squirmed in discomfort under their gleaming eyes. “I read some of Mayan Codexes and The True Nature of the Multiverse.”

It is De Gofroy’s finest work, in my opinion,” Hector said with an encouraging nod.

It was interesting. I…I guess I wanted to find out more.” The room seemed uncomfortably warm, though the windows were tinted to stop too much light from coming in.

Of course,” Opal said. “We are happy to answer any questions you might have. First we’d like to find out a little more about you. You know how we do that?”

The Protocol, yes,” I said.

What we will do today is not the Protocols,” Opal said. “That only takes place at our Protocol Centers. For our initial meeting, we do what is called a pre-script.”

Oh,” I said, and cleared my throat.

It’s something De Gofroy developed,” Hector said. “The Protocols are too difficult for most new initiates to go through. It’s overwhelming. The pre-script helps to open your mind to the Protocols. Helps prepare for the changes you will undergo. I will not lie to you—the Protocols of the faith are difficult. Not everyone is able to endure them. The pre-script will tell you if you have what is required.”

I thought this was all supposed to help me,” I said. My throat felt dry, and I wanted to ask for a glass of water.

Oh, it does,” Opal said with the certainty of a true believer. “I cannot begin to tell you how. You’ll have to experience it yourself.”

Hector nodded firmly. “I was lost, completely adrift with my life. The understanding that I have gained from De Gofroy’s teachings and the Protocols has completely reshaped me. I understand my place in the universes now and I know what must be done and the part I will play. You will be a magnificent vessel.”

I looked from face to face, their eyes shining with belief, in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I wanted that certainty. I wanted the vague sense of emptiness and unease that had haunted me for so long to dissipate. Yet everyone said the Regents were mad, a cult, with no greater understanding of the universe than any other religion. All of it lies. There was something about De Gofroy’s book that had struck a chord in me, though, about our infinite selves. I felt that, and I wanted to understand more.

Shall we begin?” Opal said.

I nodded.

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Excerpt: Drifting

In advance of the publication of Drifting on April 20, here is a short excerpt:

The Bull-a-Rama was over; the stock already loaded into trailers and on their way back to the Hertel Brothers Ranch, while the tented area behind the stands was in the process of being cleared out for the dance. Dane finished the beer he was drinking, crushing the can underneath his boot heel and throwing it away, while waving at the other cowboys who were gathered behind the corrals drinking and waiting for the dance to start. He headed off across the rodeo grounds, around the stands and towards the RV Park filled with trucks and campers.

Hey babe,” he said when he found her trailer, tucked in with several others around a small stand of trees. She squinted at him without responding as he plopped himself down on the picnic table beside the trailer.

You reek,” she said, “How many you had so far?”

Emma,” he said.

You gotta drive to Maple Creek tonight.”

He shook his head and took out his can of Copenhagen. “Nah,” he said, “We’re going first thing tomorrow. Colton thinks he’s got a line on some girl.”

Emma rolled her eyes. “You both better not get too out of hand then. You’re gonna have to get up pretty early to make it for the draw.”

Only five thirty,” he said. “Besides, don’t you want to spend a night with your man?”

She squinted at him again, but sat on the knee he offered and put her arms around his neck.

Only if you behave,” she said, kissing him quickly and then standing up to go into the trailer.

When have I ever not?”

Every time,” she called from inside the trailer and he smiled and went off to find Colton.

The dance started a little after nine, the deejay putting on a steady rotation of country music with brief digressions into AC/DC and Led Zeppelin among others. The tent, which roughly formed the dance floor, was open at all sides so that people could come and go. It had been set up in the event of rain, but there was not a cloud in the sky as the sun began its descent, ribbons of red and gold streaking the western horizon. The bar was at the opposite end of the tent from the deejay’s setup and in the first hour of the dance it was surrounded by a milling crowd while the rest of dance floor area was more or less empty. As drinks were finished the center of gravity of the place began to shift away from the bar, with couples pairing off and heading out to two-step. Even those not dancing turned their attention to those who were, nodding their heads to the rhythm as they sipped their drinks.

Dane lost track of Emma when he ducked out of the dance to smoke a joint with a few of the other cowboys. This was after he had nearly started something with Gord Steckley, another guy on the circuit who had been talking with her at the edge of the dance floor. She had stormed away while his buddies had grabbed him and taken him away to cool off and get high. She was still gone when he returned, but he didn’t worry about it and went and got himself another beer. Likely she was just going to the bathroom or complaining to some of her girlfriends about him. It was a beer or two later before he realized that she had not returned and bleary thought took hold in his mind that he should go after her, though he knew he was in no state to calm any waters.

It was after eleven by then and the darkness away from the dance was near absolute with only the dim stars and moon above and the blinking lights of the nearby town offering any guidance. How the hell had people gotten around before electricity, he wondered to himself as he stumbled his way through the RV park by feel and hazy memory. He managed to avoid nearly every obstacle, but for a bush growing on the side of the trail that he wandered into, and found Emma’s trailer.

Emma, you there,” he called out as he came to the door. He waited a moment for her to answer. When none came he swore under his breath and heaved a sigh before pulling open the door and climbing within. For a moment he was too occupied with finding the light switch to listen, but after he failed in that endeavor he stopped his fumbling and in the moment that he was standing still in the darkness he heard it. There was a man’s whisper and a woman’s soft laughter and then the rhythmic sound of their weight against the mattress.

He did not stay to hear any more, the door crashing shut behind him as he fled from the trailer, going headlong into the iron fire pit at the center of the campsite. It sent him sprawling to the ground, but he sprung back to his feet almost as soon as he had fallen, not even pausing to see if he was hurt. No sound followed in his wake, but he still kept turning back to see if Emma was rushing after him to stop his flight. No one was there but for he and the shadows.

Returning to the dance he found Colton and pulled him aside. His friend looked at him curiously an odd smile on his face. Dane’s own face felt hot, as though all the turbulent feeling within him was erupting on his cheeks and forehead. For a moment he was worried that he would start to cry, but the emotion turned to anger in an instant and he grabbed Colton by the shoulder.

Come on,” he said, “We’re going to Rimbey.”

What the hell man? Tonight?”

Fuck yes.”

Colton studied him a moment attempting to judge the level of his seriousness. At last he shook his head, “Come on man. I’m having a good time here. Let’s just stick around till morning.”

Dane felt the flush growing deeper on his face. “No, I’m going now.”

What the hell happened?” Dane didn’t answer and Colton shook his head. “How much you had to drink? Neither of us is good to drive.”

I’m good,” Dane said, not even convincing himself. “Look, I’m going right now. You can come or you can try to catch a ride with someone else tomorrow. It’s my truck.”

Colton considered this a moment, a wave of thoughts illuminating his face. At last he relented and they left the dance, Colton taking their last tickets to get some beer, which he smuggled out in his jacket. Dane was already at the truck, the engine idling. Dane took the beer Colton passed him, draining half of it in a single pull and then set it in the cup holder. He gripped the steering wheel tight but made no move to shift it into gear, a pensive look crossing his face. Colton was staring at him, a concerned look on his face, but he did not notice. At last, a decision made, he reached out and put the truck into gear and pulled out of the rodeo ground and onto the road.

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Excerpt: Riders On The Storm

In advance of the publication of Riders On The Storm on March 30, here is a short excerpt:

1

THEY HAD JUST entered the long and narrow draw past Sounding Creek when the storm hit. It had been threatening from the moment they left MacAllister’s, the sky filled with brooding clouds that seemed even more ominous in the last light of the day. Seeing them, they hurried to reach the valley, in the hopes that it would provide some cover for both them and the cattle they were trailing.

At the very least, Amos thought, as the rain began to spatter his duster, it would keep them from scattering everywhere once the winds and the rain truly hit. Nothing had gone as expected to this point though, and the encroaching darkness and the storm promised only more misery.

If he were a superstitious man, Amos might have thought the omens were against them from the start. Coming down to MacAllister’s from the north, where the three of them holed up for two days in Davenport’s old sod shack, getting in each others’ way and on each others’ nerves, they came across a dead cow lying abandoned in the scrub. The coyotes and crows had already been at it for at least a day, the smell of it so putrid the horses shied away. Amos stopped to study it for a moment, out of curiosity more than anything, while Wright and H.S. continued on. There was no evident signs as to the cause of the animal’s death, which was not out of ordinary in any way, but he still found it disconcerting for some reason.

The next problem came when they arrived at MacAllister’s ranch. The cattle were not around Gillespie’s Lake, as H.S. had said they would be, but spread out in the surrounding hills. It would take hours to round them up with just the three of them, though the hills would offer them some cover from anyone who happened to be passing by. H.S. had assured them that was extremely unlikely, with MacAllisters gone to Calgary and their hands all in Lethbridge for a day of drinking and whoring.

There was nothing else for it, other than abandoning the job entirely, but to set to work at rounding the herd up as best they could. They split up and went into the hills, thick with brush and trees. Both horses and men were soon in a lather as the cattle ran them across the countryside. Their swears echoed through the air, which might have been a concern, but they saw no sign of anyone.

It was well into the afternoon by the time they had the herd mostly together and heading out of hills toward the ranch. There they encountered their next challenge, for both the cattle and the horses wanted to stop at the lake to drink.

Just let them,” Amos said as Wright whipped at the cattle, who ignored him, plunging their heads into the water. “They’ll go better if we just let them.”

Reluctantly the others agreed and they had lunch by the lake in full view of the ranch house and the shacks where the hands lived. It was disconcerting to say the least, and Amos found himself unable to look away from the yard, expecting at any moment to see someone coming toward them, rifle in tow.

Ain’t nobody there man,” H.S. said, following his gaze. “I told you. They’re all off in town. Nothing to worry about.”

Amos nodded, though he did not feel reassured. Wouldn’t they leave somebody behind just to keep an eye on things? To stop the very thing they were attempting to do. Evidently not for, except for the cattle and birds circling and crying around the lake, the day was quiet and nothing stirred at the ranch.

When they were through with lunch they got back on their horses and got the cattle moving again, past the lake and south beyond the ranch. After their rest and water the animals moved easily, settling into a comfortable walk. The three riders all relaxed in their saddles, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Amos, though, could not resist a final look back at the ranch. As he stared into the distance he was certain he saw movement beside the ranch house. There and then gone. He stopped his horse to watch for a moment, waiting to see if whatever he had seen would reappear. All was quiet and at a call from Wright he turned his horse around and returned to the herd.

2

WHAT REMAINED of the day passed without event, but because of the problems they had encountered in the morning they were well behind schedule if they wanted to be across the border before morning. That would be impossible now. Worse, the most difficult portion of their journey remained and they would have to complete it in darkness, for the sun was setting quickly now, the light going from the day even faster with the storm gathering overhead.

The draw was hard to navigate in daylight and with the added complications of trailing the cattle and the night, it would be even more perilous. Amos did not think about that now, pressing his hat down more firmly upon his head as the drops began to spatter on them. The wind began to gust as well, almost knocking the horses sideways as they picked their way down into the draw.

Amos felt the urge to hurry the horses and cattle ahead of them on into the draw where they might find a bit of shelter, but he knew it would foolish to go faster than they already were. A flash of lightning sparked to the south and west, illuminating the cattle in spectral colors, followed a short time later by the low rumble of the thunder. That seemed to be a signal of some sort, for the rain began to come in torrents only moments and the wind howled as though possessed by spirits.

The air itself felt charged and wild, as though the storm clouds above were about to spill below and engulf them. The animals were disconcerted by it, Amos’ horse jumping about as though there were rattlesnakes at his feet.

God damn,” he said and spurred the horse up to join H.S. who was staring up into the rain at the clouds.

I hope to hell there’s no hail in this,” H.S. said to him.

You think we should stay here in the draw?” Amos said, turning his horse about so that he was looking back the way they had come. “Wait out the storm.”

H.S. shrugged, “Could be an idea. Cattle might be easier to handle if we keep them down here. Don’t know if we can though.”

Amos was about to reply when a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky around them. He waited a moment for the thunder that was to follow, so that he would not have to shout over it along with the rain and wind. As he did so, he glanced from H.S. up the trail to where they had entered the draw and was certain he could see the form of a man in amidst the shadows there. In the instant that he saw the form there was another lightning strike, blindingly bright and nearby, the thunder following atop it almost instantaneously. By the time he opened his eyes again, blinking furiously against the sting from the flash, nothing was visible but the coalescing shadows.

What is it?” H.S. shouted at him.

Amos shook his head and slapped his horse on the haunch, starting back up the draw. The trail they were on was already a muddy, slippery mess and the horse had to pick its way carefully up the, now precarious, incline. The wind blew the rain directly into his face so that it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the horse. When he arrived at the spot where he was certain he had seen the man standing there was no one there, nor was there anyone that he could see in amongst the shrub and trees that dotted the trail. He leaned down from the horse to inspect the ground and could make out a variety of hoof prints, no doubt from their own passage, but nothing else.

He shook his head and returned down the trail, muttering to himself under his breath.

Seeing things?” H.S. shouted at him when he grew near.

I guess so,” Amos said, telling himself it had just been the play of the shadows in the heavy dusk which, with the hour and the clouds swallowing the sky entire, had now turned to utter darkness. The black was leavened only by the flashes of lightning, which illuminated the valley for the briefest of instants as they flickered across the clouds or to the ground. He pushed it from his thoughts, dwelling now on the growing heaviness of his duster and the spreading damp he could feel beneath. It was going to be a long night after a hard day, but if they could get the cattle across the border it would be well worth it.

The cattle, he could see, had reached the bottom of the draw, where it opened up allowing them to spread out off the trail, which they did immediately, heading for the sparse groupings of trees that littered the valley floor. It was the only shelter available to them and they clung to it as the storm continued to intensify. The three cowboys hunched together under few nearby trees as well, though it only provided meager cover from the rain and wind. They leaned in close to each other so they could hear the others as they yelled over the rumble of the storm.

I think we gotta keep pushing them on,” Wright said. “If not we could spend hours trying to get them out of these trees in the dark.”

They won’t wanna go,”Amos said.

They won’t wanna go no matter what in this weather. But if we don’t go now we might still be here come morning. Don’t want that.”

Reluctantly, both Amos and H.S. agreed and, after a few more stolen moments of respite beneath the trees, they split up and went to start the cattle out of the draw. Amos went to the eastern end of the valley, letting the horse pick his way around the buckbrush, as he headed to where a group of five cows with their calves was huddled against the slender trunks of the trees there. The animals were even more reluctant to stray from cover than he had been, so he nearly yelled himself hoarse by the time he had the group started south again.

He slowly picked his way back to the trail as he found where some of the other cows had gathered and forced them on their way. He could see Wright just to the west doing the same each time the storm lit up the sky, but H.S. was too far off into the darkness for the lightning to pierce. The storm was almost directly overhead, the thunder now announcing the lightning bursts, which were so close they felt as though they were scalding his eyes.

Wright stayed to trail the cattle they had started back along the path, while Amos went to help H.S. with those that remained. There had to be another twenty cows with calves left to gather and he had seen no sign of them or of H.S., which was strange, given how narrow the draw was and how bright it became with each blast of lightning. The cattle he found easily enough. They were all huddled together in the largest stand of trees to the west of the trail and they refused to move when he came at them with the horse. He tried yelling, clapping and waving his hands and snapping the reins of the horse, but all his sound and fury was easily drowned out by the surrounding storm.

Giving up at last he descended from his horse and plunged into the trees on foot, waving and slapping at the cattle, sending them out scattering to the south. He nearly lost his horse as the cattle leapt from his path, some combination of the storm, the darting cattle and his own flailing startling the nervous creature. When he had calmed it and climbed back on, he rode around the trees to ensure that there were no cattle left and then turned to see what had become of H.S.

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Excerpt: All Down The Line

In advance of the publication of All Down The Line on March 23, here is a short excerpt:

The first car, a blue Corsica with peeling paint that was gradually turning it silver, came from the west on Highway Nine. When he reached the turnoff for Hubbard, the driver pulled off the highway and rolled slowly past the ruins of an old gas station and down the main street, such as it was, to the far end of town where a hotel stood at the corner illuminated by one of the hamlet’s two streetlights. The other they had just driven past, stationed by the Community Hall, a stolid and square white building behind which sat the town’s ball diamonds. There were only a handful other buildings to speak of in the place—even the elevators had been torn down years ago—and only a few of those appeared to be inhabited.

There were no lights on in any of the windows they drove by—hardly surprising, given the hour. Even the hotel was dark, with no vehicles parked in front of it. That too was unremarkable, for it had been years since a room had been rented. Even the strippers passing through to perform made the drive to Loverna for better accommodation. The bar still did a regular business, somehow, mostly the local drunks who couldn’t be bothered with an extra half hour of driving to find more pleasant climes.

The Corsica pulled up in front of the hotel, under the streetlight and the driver turned the engine off and the lights as well. Nobody emerged from the car, though there were two people with the driver. They all sat in silence, waiting, looking at the broken and stained stucco that covered the hotel. The driver rolled down his window to let in the cool night air and they listened to the hissing and whirring of various insects.

They didn’t have long to wait. The second car arrived five minutes later, coming from the east on one of the gravel roads south of town. The three men in the Corsica could hear its approach, the distinctive grind of car wheels on gravel, long before it arrived and each of them began to shift in their seats in anticipation. The approaching vehicle, a Dodge half-ton, crossed the railroad track and turned onto a road running parallel to it that intersected with main street and the hotel.

The truck engine pulled up alongside the Corsica and cut its engine. Everyone emerged from their vehicles to gather at the steps of the hotel and shake hands.

Ed. Misty,” the Corsica driver said, nodding at both of them. “You know Shane and Burscht.”

Of course,” Ed said. “Good to see you Randall. You haven’t tried to wake Eduardo up?”

Randall shook his head. “We just got here.”

I’ll see if I can get him up,” Misty said. He had earned the name when a stripper, of that nom de plum, had managed to take all his casino winnings one drunken evening, along with his clothes, boots and hat.

He strode up the steps to the door and hammered his fist against its heavy steel. When there was no response he repeated the tactic, cocking his head against the door to listen for any sound within. He turned to the others and shook his head.

For fuck sakes,” Randall said, going halfway up the steps and craning his neck above to where a window on the second floor overlooked them. “Wake the fuck up, you lazy fucking half-breed Chinese.”

You trying to rouse the village?” Ed said, something like a grin on his face.

This fucking guy,” Randall said, shaking his head. “Every fucking time. He knows we’re coming. He can’t stay up or set a goddamn alarm?”

It is aggravating,” Misty said.

You get that from the dictionary?” Burscht said, bouncing back and forth on his heels.

Misty clenched his fists and came down the steps to where Burscht and Shane stood.

Hey, hey,” Randall said, holding out a hand to forestall him. “None of that now. We’re all friends here.”

Misty turned to Ed who nodded curtly, but his eyes were leveled at Burscht and they were cold.

Randall turned to Burscht. “Hey, I’m already dealing with one dummy,” he said, gesturing up to where Eduardo remained asleep. “Now I gotta worry about you running your mouth? We’re trying to conduct a simple business transaction here. Let’s not make this more complicated than it fucking is. Alright?”

He looked from face to face and everyone slowly nodded. “Okay then. How do we get this useless fucker up?”

Maybe try the door first,” Shane said, with a shrug.

Everyone watched as Misty clicked down the handle and pulled. The door swung open and they all walked in.

We could walk away with the whole inventory and he’d never wake up,” Ed said, shaking his head in amazement.

I wish I could say I’m surprised,” Randall said. “Go roust the pigfucker and don’t be gentle about it.”

Burscht went upstairs, while Shane ducked behind the bar to grab them all beers. The rest sat down at the largest table, looking around the room. It was a sight to behold, cluttered with tables and mismatched chairs in various states of disrepair, all thirty years old at least. Off beside the bar, Eduardo had set up a little kitchen on one table, with a hot plate and microwave. Surrounding them on the table were scattered plates and bowls, well-encrusted with food.

This place smells worse every time I come here,” Ed said, lifting his head to scent the air, which was redolent with mildew and ancient carpet, cigarette smoke and urine.

We’re just damn lucky no inspector gives a shit. They’d condemn this place straight out,” Shane said, bringing the beers over for everyone.

From above they heard a cry of pain that was quickly silenced, followed by Burscht’s angry voice. A few moments later Eduardo emerged, stumbling down the stairs bleary eyed and clutching his nose which was bleeding. Burscht came behind him, a laconic grin on his face, the look of a child who knows he has pleased his father. He led Eduardo to the chair, which Shane pushed out for him, and shoved him down to sit between the two opposing sides, before going to lean against the bar.

Don’t tell me you forgot we were coming again?” Randall said. “Or did your alarm not go off this time?”

That guy broke my nose,” Eduardo said, his voice muffled by his hands.

Be glad that’s the only thing he broke,” Randall said, but he gestured to Burscht, who brought a damp cloth over from the bar. Eduardo pressed it to his face to staunch the flow of blood and put his head back so his nose was elevated.

Now, maybe this is too goddamn complex for your Chinese brain—”

I’m Filipino, man.”

“—but you have one fucking job in this whole enterprise. And that is to be awake when the fucking delivery comes. When you’re not, when we have to wake the whole fucking town up just to get a sit down with you, it jeopardizes the whole operation. Not to mention, it makes me look like a shitheel to our friends here.”

Randall gestured to Ed and Misty, who sat, staring stonefaced at Eduardo.

Man, I been asleep like twice when you guys come.”

You’ve been asleep every time Misty’s come by,” Ed said. “Don’t fucking lie.”

Eduardo gave a half shrug of his shoulders and fell silent.

Randall looked at Ed and shook his head apologetically. “Look, Eduardo, like I said, you got one fucking job here. And it’s not to keep this bar running. It’s to be awake when Misty comes in with the product. Or when we come in with the money. Or when, like tonight, we need to have a meeting to discuss your fucking incompetence.”

Maybe we need to find someone else to take over the bar?” Shane ventured, trying to put something like a threat in his voice.

Who the fuck else would choose to live here?” Misty said, looking around.

That is a valid question,” Randall said. “But not relevant at the moment.”

I don’t know, that picture really brings the place together,” Shane said, nodding toward the mural that covered one wall of the bar. It depicted an idyllic scene of a prairie lake of people swimming and picnicking along the shoreline. In front of the mural, which looked as faded as everything else in the place, a stage had been built with a stripper pole at its center.

You don’t have any girls for us either,” Burscht said from the bar, drawing a glare from Randall, which froze his smile.

Girls don’t come out anymore. Nobody comes anymore,” Eduardo said. “People are wondering why I’m even open.”

Randall and Ed looked at each other. “Are people asking you that?” Ed said, an edge to his voice.

Sure. Guys at the mailboxes joke about it. Even the assholes that come in here everyday wonder about it.”

Now see,” Randall said, leaning forward and grabbing Eduardo’s shoulder to pull him close. “This is why we need you awake when we come. Because if people start asking those questions and then they see us showing up at one in the morning, they’re going to start thinking we’re the answer.”

Right. Sure.”

Randall was about to say something more, but he thought better of it and Ed spoke instead, addressing his counterpart. “This is what I am talking about. We’ve attracted too much attention here, and it’s going to bite us in the ass at some point.”

I don’t think so,” Shane said. “This place has been open for years with nobody coming. Eduardo’s not the first moron these people have seen coming in and trying to start something here. They won’t be surprised he’s here. And they won’t be surprised if he decides to go.”

You sure about that,” Ed said, and Shane nodded. “Alright, I guess we can live with this arrangement for now. Provided he’s awake when fucking deliveries happen.”

Leave that to me,” Randall said and turned to Eduardo. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Eduardo stumbled from his chair and went back upstairs, still clutching his nose with the cloth. The others watched him go and then listened as the stairs creaked and the floor above them groaned with his weight.

When it was quiet above, Ed leaned across the table. “Now, let’s discuss our other problem.”

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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Three)

In advance of the publication of  The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:

The ship arrived at Hessen not long before daybreak. The pier was already busy with fishermen heading out on their morning runs and another trading vessel in the midst of being loaded. Word went down the dock to the trading company that their vessel had arrived from Craitol, and a work crew began to straggle in to unload the silks that were in the hold. The captain wandered off the ship, leaving the first officer in charge of unloading the cargo and headed into the city for the company house. A Craitolian left with him, which drew a few glances from various onlookers, the more so because he was of Kragian extraction by the shade of his skin. They walked together to the end of the pier and then parted, the Craitolian heading to the Custom House that lay just outside the city walls.

Vyissan was ecstatic to be on land again, his feet firm about him. Sailors, he knew, spoke of being too long at sea in that weary way everyone has speaking of a burden they alone must carry, one they cannot live without, but they were thinking in terms of weeks and months and port after port. For Vyissan, one day was too long at sea—his stomach never steadied, his balance never became sure. This had been the first time aboard a vessel since his journey south to Craitol over four years ago, an experience he had sworn never to repeat. His was not a lot in life where he could make such vows.

Not helping to ease the difficulty of his voyage had been the captain of the vessel, a foul Nrain. He had distrusted Vyissan from the first instant, the peninsulars always suspicious of northerners, especially one with his shade. Two days into their journey from Nrai he had asked, through his second, that Vyissan not eat with the other officers. He was free to eat with the common sailors or on his own. No reason was given him, though the second to his credit had been embarrassed to deliver the message. Vyissan had not made an issue of it, taking his meals in his quarters. In his circumstances he did not need attention drawn to himself.

For all the frigidness of their passage, their parting on the docks of Hessen was a warm one; the captain glad to be rid of this particular burden and Vyissan relieved simply to be back aground. He was not yet free of his own burden, hidden in the satchel he wore across his shoulder, an unremarkable weight though it yoked him as tightly as any beast, and would not be for some time yet. In fact, he would hardly have time to wash the taste of this voyage from his mouth before he would begin another. But he would not think on any of that now, with his equilibrium regained he determined to slake his thirst and find what women were on offer in the city. There was a brothel district not far from the port, far better in quality than the harlots one would find outside the city walls, which the second officer had given him directions to. When the clerks in the Custom House had read over his letters and gone through his belongings to their satisfaction he made his way there, his steps growing more sure as he went.

He took a room at one of the academies and had the first untroubled sleep of his journey. On the vessel his dreams had been shadowed by the task set before him. He carried something with the power to reorder their profane realm, if those who led him were to be believed. Such a thing could not rest easily on the mind, and his nights had been filled again with images that had dominated his childhood night terrors: the Council Adepts scouring Desecrators, alkemya ravaging their minds and souls, leaving them ruined husks of men. Vyissan could remember the Adepts and their Craitolian soldiers going from home to home in the Fegh district where he had grown up looking for those who had stood with Kercubegahedd against the Council. At the time he could not fathom how they could know that his cousin, hidden in the straw of their roof, was there or that he was an insurrectionist. That he had learned later.

When he emerged the next morning he had altered his appearance. His skin was now the olive-green hue of those of the east rather than his normal sallow color. This, combined with his silk and ardeh wool robes, gave him the look of an Enir merchant from any of the city states that lined the desert coast. A man of no real consequence—or so he hoped. He walked out without receiving so much as a glance from the madam or the swords she had keeping an eye on the entrance. Later in the day someone wondered what had become of the Craitolian northerner who had taken a room the night before and one of the servants was dispatched to see what was keeping him, for the girl had not even spent the night and he had not called for another or for food. The room was empty but for the ash from his burned letters, and there were a few comments about how strange it was that a Kragian could leave unnoticed. His room and the girl had been paid for, though, so no one gave him much thought.

He made his way back to the docks to find a ship sailing for Sylaron, the Renian city that lay at the mouth of the Rensnan. From there he planned to find a boat heading up river to Darrhyn. He fervently hoped that river travel agreed with him more than sea or the next few weeks would be an unending misery.

Hessen was a quiet port, its trade mostly with the nearby Republican cities, so there was only one vessel he could find heading to Sylaron, and it was not due to leave for three days. It was a Renian company, as he had expected, which suited him well. An Enir entering Renuih on a Renian vessel would not attract questions, and in his position questions were what he had to avoid. He had heard any number of stories of Craitolian merchants being turned back at the Custom House in Sylaron, or worse, imprisoned or enslaved. Who was to say what the veracity of those tales was, but it seemed wise not to tempt the Gods’ hands. The last thing he could afford was a close search of his satchel, that would truly get him killed. Gods forbid they somehow determined he had knowledge of alkemya, which they might if they searched him—that was punishable by death in these realms.

The second led him aboard the ship for an inspection, sounding its merits as he went. Vyissan nodded politely, thinking that even if the boat were overrun by vermin and all its crew stank of pestilence he would still take his passage.

You’ll not lack for companionship,” the second told him as he led him below decks to the passenger quarters. “We’ve another passenger with us. He’ll share the quarters with you.

And perhaps his own quarters too, if tales of their kind be true,” he whispered to Vyissan, adding in a louder voice, “He’s here now. You can meet him and gain the lie of the land, as it were.”

The second ducked in through the doorway of the fore deck quarters and pulled aside a hammock to allow Vyissan an encompassing look. There was a man stretched out in another hammock, and as he levered out of it and came forward with an offered palm Vyissan had to stifle a gasp.

Hello,” the man said, his Enir heavily accented with his native Kragian tongue. He held Vyissan’s arm a long pause, staring into his eyes, Vyissan praying to the Gods that none of the thoughts flooding his brain were showing on his face.

Of all the cursed luck, to be on a ship with Nesyur Geshlvyr a Fegh. A Kragian, from Fegh. Their families had known each other in passing, though Vyissan doubted Nesyur would remember him. The Geshlvyr were a family of low rank, which passed for something in Fegh, while Vyissan’s family had no rank and only modest means. He had still been a boy when Nesyur had gone into exile. The years had not been kind, but there was no doubt of who it was.

So you are to be my company, are you?” he said, releasing his hand and smiling again. “My name is Nesyur.”

Atasem,” Vyissan said, forcing a smile to his face. “I am considering the vessel.”

It is quality, quality as you can see,” the second said, thrusting his face between them.

Not much choice either, as I’m sure you’ve found.”

No,” Vyissan said. Nesyur. It was beyond belief. He had to remind himself that he was still in disguise and that his accent was holding firm. The Gods mocked all, those who pretended to control their destinies especially, but Nesyur. The name was a curse in the right company in Kragi. In Craitol too, for that matter.

During the alkemycal war between the Council Adepts and Kercubegahedd’s rebels, every northerner was forced to swear fealty to someone. There was no standing apart, now or then—enough blood had been spilt on both sides that no one’s hands could remain unstained. It had been a war over the very soul and practice of alkemya and a war for the freedom of Kragi. The Adepts had called the rebels Desecrators of the Balance for their alkemyc engines, and for daring to defy the Council and its proclamations. The rebels had decreed that the slavery of the Council and the Qraul could stand no more.

In a war of true believers, Nesyur Geshlvyr was something else entirely. He had received Council training, though he had not been talented enough to be inducted into the ranks of Adept and Disciple, and when the first stirrings of the insurrection were heard in Usgelt and Asder he had insinuated himself among the rebels, sending regular reports to the Adept in Devew on what was occurring there. When it later emerged that the Adept and his Disciple were using the alkemycal engines of the Desecrators, Nesyur was implicated in turning them from the Council. Even as they were being executed, Nesyur was ensuring the capture of the rebels who had supplied the engines to them. Following that, neither side could say for certain whether he was working for their interests, and so both turned against him. He had fled the province, barely escaping, and had not been seen in over ten years.

And now here he was in Hessen on his way to Sylaron.

What would take a Kragian to Renuih?” Vyissan said.

Nesyur smiled. “That is a tale in itself, not a happy one at that, so I’ll not burden you with it.”

It was a simple mistake and the second seemed not to notice it. There had been no change to Nesyur’s expression either, but Vyissan was certain he would be aware of it. How could he not? Someone from the Republics would have called him a northerner. That Vyissan had called him by his kind, even in the Enir tongue, could only mean he was from Craitol.

Vyissan smiled in turn, disguising the rising turmoil within, and carried the conversation to safer territory, commenting on how beautiful a city Hessen was.

It is one of the finer Republics I have seen,” the second said, and Nesyur nodded. “And the academies. I’d a ramp my last time through so beautiful I’d be a brother starling with any man, with a dozen men, for the rest of my time if it were in her nest.”

What is your town?” Nesyur asked Vyissan. “I cannot tell from your accent.”

Tuissar.” One of the more populous Republics, and the man who had taught him the Renian tongue and the Enir dialect had been from there. It had seemed the safest choice at the time; he could easily adopt his tutor’s accent and the city was large enough that he could navigate most conversations without exposing the true depths of his knowledge. Nothing was safe just now, though—it was only a matter of time before he made another mistake. Nesyur would be sure to press him, to confirm what he now suspected.

A marvelous city,” the second declared, his eye still on the coin.

Grand Republic. I spent two years there.” Of course. Vyissan had to resist shaking his head.

There is a square there—the name escapes me now. It was between the Hezier’s Palace and the silk market. The gesht would gather there in the evenings and sing, and all the old men. As perfect a square as exists in our earthly realm.”

A marvelous square,” Vyissan agreed.

Strange to say it reminded me of home.”

Now, what did that mean? Vyissan raised an eyebrow as if to inquire, feeling his breath go still in his chest.

Nesyur gestured as though the sensation could not be captured by mere words, so feeble and devious, “It was only…I grew up in a town called Fegh, and the old men would all gather at sundown in the squares and play cards and dice and drink. As they do everywhere, of course. When I was a child that was where I would go. And when I was in Tuissar, that was where I would go.”

Vyissan frantically parsed his words for some metaphor, some meaning that he had buried within that only a Craitolian could unearth. If there was any hidden import it was more carefully entombed than a Renian. He allowed a small measure of hope to seep into his body. Perhaps Nesyur hadn’t noticed a thing. It was only a matter of time if he went on this voyage, though. Only a matter of time.

They also have the best dala in Tuissar,” the second said.

Extraordinary,” Nesyur said, and Vyissan murmured in agreement. “Although the cups I had here—”

There was an angry shout from above deck, a name sounded as a curse. The second winced hearing it and nodded at both men before going above.

Nesyur continued, “The cups I had here were unlike any I’ve ever had. Have you—”

He did not finish his sentence. Vyissan had been waiting until he heard the second’s footsteps joining the others above them. Once they did he moved, lunging at Nesyur, the dagger in his hand emerging smoothly from his robes to be buried to the hilt in the other’s chest. Nesyur gasped in surprise, raising his hands to ward off the blow too late.

Whoreson.”

Vyissan did not give him time to say anything further, yanking his blade out and grabbing Nesyur, stepping behind him as he did so, and cutting his throat with a vicious pull of the dagger. He was careful to keep his robes away from the blood that sprang forth as he lowered the Kragian into one of the hammocks.

That blood is only a small payment on what you owe. The rest you’ll give in Ulternon’s Hall.” Said in Kragian, nothing more. Let him wonder who, in the end, had found him.

Vyissan moved quickly, arranging the body on the hammock as best he could so that someone just passing by the quarters might not see anything amiss, and then wiped his hands clean. Nesyur was still in his death throes as he left, blood filling up his mouth and spilling out as he tried to speak, his eyes blinking furiously and seeing nothing. Vyissan went above deck, finding the second and giving his leave, promising to return tomorrow with his decision on the passage.

The journey from the ship across the wharf and to the city seemed to pass in another sort of time, not the steady trickle of accumulation he was used to, but one where drop after drop fell at uneven intervals, and the moments in between the beads passed with all the realms gone still. At any moment he expected to hear a cry rising from the vessel, the sound of running men coming towards him, the summoning of the authorities. None of which occurred. He passed into the city, unable to resist a glance back, and set about on a winding path towards its center.

The Shadow Men Trilogy box set is now available for preorder:
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Now Available: The Shadow Men Trilogy Box Set

THE SHADOW MEN TRILOGY BOX SET

FANTASY

CLINT WESTGARD

Craitol and Renuih, two empires a world apart, divided by the desert that lies between them. A desert ruled by the Shadow Men.

An uneasy peace holds sway in both realms, hiding longstanding feuds and bitter rivalries. Until a Shadow Men raid on Renuih shatters the calm and sets in motion events no one can control.

Vyissan, a mysterious alkemycal practitioner, begins a journey to Renuih, the latest strike in a long war over who shall control the secrets of alkemya and Craitol itself. He carries with him a secret that, once revealed, will reverberate across all realms. But first he must cross the desert…

Panoramic in scale and populated by a fascinating array of characters, The Shadow Men, is an epic and enthralling work of fantasy that delineates the bitter struggle for power in two realms and its terrible cost to the soul.

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Now Available: Stand By Your Man

STAND BY YOUR MAN

A THRILLER

CLINT WESTGARD

Tammy Fairchild left Loverna to escape her reputation and make a new life in a new town. But problems seem to follow her wherever she goes.

Starting over, she finds herself a new job and a new man, someone she can trust. For Kevin Burscht is not like the other men she’s known. He is caring and considerate.

But not everything is as it seems with Kevin. He has a mysterious past filled with dark secrets. And Tammy finds that she is the one who will pay the price for his wrongs…

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Excerpt: The Shadow Men Trilogy (Two)

In advance of the publication of  The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:

Donier a Fieled, a noble of the third rank, and an officer in the army of Lastl, was not watching Gver Keleprai, as so many others in the palace for the Feast of Balance celebrations discreetly were. He was staring at the woman beside him, who at that moment was laughing at something he said and laying her hand on his arm as she did. He excused himself from his companions so that they did not notice the direction of his gaze. He did not trust his face to hide his emotion, he had taken too much wine. One of the balconies was empty, but for a Cureder and some scholar discussing Senteur’s heavens, so he went there, affecting to take some air.

In spite of himself, he turned from his feigned interest in a nearby tree where several sprites sang to watch the woman, Liene ul Terainous a Fusel. She and the Gver were now carrying on their own discussion separate from the other three, his back to Donier while he could see her face. He forced himself to look away at the tree before she noticed.

His rage surprised him. Why should he care that she was holding court with the Gver? It was appalling, but no more so than any number of other transgressions that marked the passing of days. What did it matter who the Gver might turn his attentions to, and that the lady might encourage it as well? That her husband was missing, dead in all likelihood, not even a month ago; well, perhaps she was simply looking to her future as best she could. Still, she would not even be here, would be sitting in her home in a mourning gown, if they had only found Terainous’ body. It was odd, he thought, that the Afusel were allowing her about the court given current circumstances, but she was obviously being escorted by the other noble couple who were conversing with Nes Kigarle, and perhaps in this day and age that was all that was required for the sanctity of a woman to be guaranteed.

It had been a nightmare. A small band of the Shadow Men had evaded the notice of the pyrsedies and set about razing and looting the countryside east of Lastl. In response the Gver sent Nes Ludenn and his cohort, including both Terainous and Donier as seconds, to hunt the beasts down. They marched down the old Renian highway for two days before they came upon the still-smoking ruins of a way station, the defiled bodies of the innkeepers and postal men strewn across the road.

The area around the way station was forested, nearly the last trees one would see passing through to the desert. Only the burned-out buildings of the station and the path down to the river were uncovered by foliage. After a cursory investigation of the slaughter, the cohort spread out along the path, most clustered near the river filling their flasks. The Shadow Men materialized from the dense underbrush, as if their dark flesh were formed from the very gloom that lay overgrown there, with swords drawn, shrieking their awful war cries. Everything after was confusion.

The men who had straggled behind on the path to the river were cut down. The five tasked with burying the dead of way station fled down the highway. The rest of them were left to form a poor phalanx, their backs to river, and it wasn’t long before Donier found his ankles wet and his foothold slipping. The Shadows snarled and yelped, sensing the desperation that had seized the remaining cohort.

He could not say when the battle turned. There was no singular moment, no coalescing of the disparate spirits gathered, no transformation from the many to the one, which songs and chroniclers always spoke of authoritatively. Looking at it dispassionately, as Donier did these things, it was a matter of superior numbers finally telling the tale, for, though nearly a third of their men were killed in the first moments of the battle, the cohort still counted nearly twice the men.

In the midst of it all, with the situation at its most dire, Terainous was touched—a demon’s hand, there was no other explanation. The gossip about it was everywhere. He wondered if Nes Liene had heard any of it. He himself had not, for no one would dare say anything of it to him, but he knew what was being said. And he could deny none of it. He had been there, heard Terainous whooping and shrieking, saw him throw his sword at the beasts as they pressed in. Then he had turned and flung his shield into the water and tried to swim across the river. The waterway was wide, the current quick, and he was pulled downstream. The last any of them heard of him Terainous was singing some child’s song from his youth as he floated away.

When the Shadows were routed, half the remaining cohort was sent in pursuit. Ludenn led that group, leaving Donier to cremate their dead. Afterwards, he spent the better part of the day scouring the forest downriver for any sign of his friend until he sensed the men growing restless. They returned to the highway and set off in search of the deserters, laying them to the sword.

Nothing was done after, no party sent downriver to see what trace could be found of the missing second. As far as the Lastl cohorts were concerned, he was dead and there was no use in sending anyone to investigate. Better for everyone to assume he was than to go out and find otherwise. Donier understood their reasoning, but he still felt it was a disgraceful way to treat the heir to an important family. He was a noble of the second rank, after all.

The Afusel had refused to accept the cohort’s verdict that Terainous had passed to the Hall, which explained why Liene was not in mourning, and that was surprising in its own way. A family of their stature would be expected to prefer a dead son to the return of one with senses beyond this realm, especially when they had other heirs.

When his emotions had cooled enough that he thought they would no longer show, Donier rejoined the festivities within. The Gver and Liene had disappeared into the crowd and he returned to his companions, resisting the urge to see where they were and what they might be doing.

Her name, Kigarle had told him, was Liene ul Terainous. The Gver still felt he should know who she was, but the names meant nothing to him and he dismissed it. How often was he left with this feeling? Too much these days, he thought ruefully, as he stared intently at her almond-colored eyes. The musicians had taken to the stage again, playing some of their quieter numbers, the romances and the tragedies. The air was finally beginning to cool somewhat as the crowd dwindled and the strains of a breeze passed through from the balconies.

He had contrived to speak to her alone beside the stage, the crowd ebbing and flowing around them. She had been eager to talk to him, he thought. He noted the flush on her cheeks, from the heat or wine. She was watching the musicians intently as they performed and he followed her gaze. Only two of them were playing: one of his court players and a man who, by the pale hue of his skin, was Kragian. They were singing a romance that had been popular before the Northern War, though then it had been played with Mgetir pipes, not the two guitars they were using. He could not remember the last time he had heard it, yet the words rushed back into his mind as if they had always been there for the asking.

What a lovely song,” she breathed as they finished. She was very young—could not have been married for longer than a year or two, he thought.

Haven’t you heard it before?” he asked her. He was aware of others watching them as they stood close. It was her eyes, he decided, the way they turned her whole face alight that made her so enchanting. Her features were plain but the eyes made them dance.

No,” she said. “Is it old, Most Gracious?”

He laughed. “That depends. How old do you think I am?”

Her eyes widened, “Oh, Most Immortal, I didn’t mean—”

I know. I know,” he said, laughing again. “But I am old. That song was written just before the war. It was the only song you heard the summer before. And I think I’ve only heard it a handful of times since.”

She turned back to the stage as the musicians began to play again, this time a recent song, one which had been heard in every music hall through the winter. He watched the rise and fall of her dress. The song finished and she turned to him, nervous he thought, considering her word and how to proceed.

He decided not to give her the chance. “You are too young to understand, perhaps, but do you know how a singular beauty can drive a soul to utter distraction?”

She smiled, flushing even more deeply. “You are most gracious, Immortal Gver. I wonder if I might speak to you of my husband.”

Her voice dropped. “He’s been missing, Most Beneficent, since the Shadows’ raid last month. There’s been no sign of him for good or ill since.”

With that, her name was no longer simply a name: Liene ul Terainous.

I wanted to ask, Most Gracious, if it is not too much consideration, if perhaps you could send another party to search for him. It has been so difficult these last weeks, not knowing one way or the other.”

He said something, agreeing to speak with Adept Tehh about it later, promising her. Cursed old fool, how could he have forgotten that, he thought, the ground no longer so sure under his feet.

I cannot imagine how hard it has been. Let us see what we can do to ease your mind of these worries this evening,” he said, taking her by the arm to lead her away from the stage, the eyes of the crowd upon them. His eyes were on her, though: how young she was, how light in every movement.

The Shadow Men Trilogy box set is now available for preorder:
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