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Excerpt Reveal: Desperation Reef by T. Jefferson Parker

Desperation ReefIn this high-stakes thriller by three-time Edgar Award winner and New York Times bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker, (“A marvel…hits the high-water mark for crime fiction every time out.” —Gregg Hurwitz), a big wave surfer and her sons compete in the same contest that killed her husband many years before.

Jen Stonebreaker hasn’t entered into a big-wave surfing competition since witnessing her husband’s tragic death twenty-five years ago at the Monsters of the Mavericks. Now, Jen is ready to tackle those same Monsters with her twin sons Casey and Brock, who have become competitive surfers in a perilous sport.

When he’s not riding waves, modeling for surfing magazines, or posting viral content for his many fans, Casey Stonebreaker spends his days helping with the family restaurant — catching fish in the morning and bartending at night. Casey’s love for the ocean and his willingness to expose illegal poachers on his platforms puts him on a collision course with a crime syndicate eager to destroy anyone threatening their business.

Outspoken Brock Stonebreaker couldn’t be more different from his twin. The founder of Breath of Life, a church and rescue mission that assists with natural disasters that no one else will touch, Brock has lived an adventurous and sometimes violent life. Not everyone appreciates the work that Brock’s Breath of Life mission accomplishes, and threats to destroy his mission—and his family—swirl around him.

As the big-wave contest draws closer, a huge, late fall swell is headed toward the Pacific coastline. Jen’s fears gnaw at her — fear for herself, for her sons, for what this competition will mean for the rest of her life.

Desperation Reef will be available on July 16th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

Hear Jen scream.

Jen Stonebreaker, that is, hollering over the whine of her jet ski, towing her husband into a wave taller than a four-story building.

“For you, John—it’s all yours!”

She’s twenty-one years old, stout and well-muscled, with a cute face, a freckled nose, and an inverted bowl of thick orange hair she’s had since she was ten.

She’s a versatile young woman, too—the high school swim, water polo, and surf team captain. The class valedictorian. A former Miss Laguna Beach. With a UC Irvine degree in creative journalism from the School of Humanities, honors, of course.

Right now, though, Jen is bucking an eight-hundred-pound jet ski on the rising shoulder of a fifty-foot wave, her surf-star husband, John, trailing a hundred feet behind her on his signature orange and black “gun” surfboard, rope handle tied to the rescue sled, which skitters and slaps behind her.

Welcome to Mavericks, a winter break in the cold waters just south of San Francisco, with occasionally gigantic waves, sometimes beautifully formed, but always potentially lethal. These things charge in and hit Mavericks’ shallow reef like monsters from the deep. A surfer can’t just paddle into one; he or she has to be towed in by a jet ski or a helicopter. One of the scariest breaks on Earth. Ask any of the very few people who ride places like this. Not only the jagged, shallow rocks, but sharks, too, and water so cold you can barely feel your feet through neoprene boots.

Mavericks has taken the lives of professional, skilled, big-wave riders.

Riders not unlike the Stonebreakers, Jen now gunning her jet ski across the rising wave, looking for smooth water to deliver John into the steepening face of it, where he will toss the rope and—if all goes well and the gods are smiling—drop onto this wall and try to stay on his board, well ahead of the breaking barrel that, if it gets its chance, will crush him to the rocky bottom like a bathtub toy.

He throws aside the tow rope.

Jen guns her two-hundred-fifty horses, roaring and smoking, up and over the wave’s huge back, and lands momentarily beyond its reach, the rescue sled bobbing behind her.

She’s got a good angle to watch John and help him if he wipes out.

She feels the tremendous tonnage of water trying to suck her back onto the wave and over the falls.

Thinks: Nope.

Throttles hard and away.

Steadies herself on the bucking machine, off to the side and safely out of the way of the monsters, where she can watch John do his thing. The next wave lumbers in—she’s always startled by how fast they are—and she sees John astride his big board, racing down the smooth blue face of his wave, legs staunch but vibrating, feet locked in the thick rubber straps glued to his board. He carves out ahead of the lip then rises, backing up into the barrel, casually trailing a hand on the cylinder as he streams along just ahead of the crushing lip—John’s signature move; he’s one of the few guys who does this daredevil-in-the-barrel thing, looking cool on a fifty-footer. He’s twenty-six years old, one of

the top ten big-wave riders in the world.

Jen hears the barrel roaring closed behind him. Like a freight train or a stretched-out thunderclap.

Jen smiles.

Jen and John. John and Jen.

Look at him, she thinks. This is it. This is why we do it. Nothing we’ll ever do will match it. Not love. Not sex. Not being a mother or a father. Not seeing God. Not mountains of money. Nothing. Nothing can touch this speed, this perilous grace, this joy, this high.

Then it all goes wrong.

The thick lip lunges forward like a leopard, taking him by the head and off his board.

The sharp orange-and-black gun hangs in the air above him, the leash still fastened to John’s ankle, then the fins catch and the board spears past John, missing him by inches.

He’s lifted high above the ribs of the wave, then pitched over the falls, pulled down by his board, into the raging impact zone.

Jen checks the next wave—well fuck, it’s bigger than this one—then steers the jet ski closer to the wall of whitewater that owns her husband. A bright red rescue helicopter swoops down, close enough to tear foam off the crest of that wave.

Two rescue skis cut wide semicircles around the impact zone, their drivers looking for a way in.

And two more of the tow ski drivers, bucking the chop in search of John.

The seconds zip by but John doesn’t surface. His broken board launches from the whitewater, just two halves hinged by fiberglass. No leash attached. Which, in spite of John’s quick-release coupling, could mean the absolute worst for him—the damned leash is still fastened to his ankle, virtually unbreakable, easily caught on the sharp reef boulders lurking just feet below the surface.

Jen watches for any flash of shape or color, his black trunks, his orange helmet—anything that’s not whitewater, swirling sand, and rocks. Anything . . .

She knows with the wave closing fast behind her it’s time to plunge into the mayhem.

Feels the monster pull of it drawing her up.

Circling tightly, checking the rescue sled, getting ready to go in, she pauses one fraction of a second and thinks—among darker thoughts: I love you more than anything in the world . . .

And in that split second, the next wave lifts her from behind and Jen feels the terrible vertigo of a coming fall while clinging to an eight- hundred-pound personal watercraft.

Her personal deathtrap.

She cranks the ski throttle full open, digs a hard U-turn into the face of the wave. Jumps the lip and flies over.

She’s midair again on the smoking contraption. Below her, no John in sight. Just his shattered board bouncing in the foam on its way to shore.

She lands behind the wave and speeds a wide arc to something like safety. Rooster-tails to near where John went down. Can’t get all that close.

She’s lost precious time. Precious seconds. A lot of them.

She grinds through the whitewater as best she can, crisscrossing the worst of it. A surge of heavy foam catches the jet ski broadside and flips it. She keeps hold, lets another wall of whitewater crash over her before she can find the handles, right the beast, and continue searching her blinding world of foam and spray.

Smacked by the chop and wind, she clamps her teeth and grimaces to draw air instead of brine.

In shallower water, she searches the rocks below. Hears the scream of the other watercrafts around her, voices calling out. The big-wave people mostly look out for each other; they’re loose-knit and competitive but most of them will lose contests and miss waves to help someone in trouble—even of his own making, even some reckless trust-funder wannabe big-wave king with his own helicopter to tow him in and pro videographers to make him famous.

It’s what watermen and waterwomen do.

Jen keeps waiting to feel him behind her, climbing aboard the rescue sled. She knows it’s possible: John has trained himself to hold his breath for up to three minutes underwater.

But not being pounded like this . . .

As the minutes pass, hope and fear fight like dogs inside her—a battle that will guide the rest of her life.

We are small and brief.

We are the human passion to stay alive, made simple.

She helps work John’s body out of the rocks.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Desperation Reef, available July 16th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: Rumor Has It by Cat Rambo

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9781250269393

The crew of the You Sexy Thing navigates the aftermath of facing down a pirate king and the relationships that they have created with one another in Cat Rambo’s action adventure science fiction Rumor Has It, the third book in the Disco Space Opera.

The crew of the You Sexy Thing have laid a course for Coralind Station, hoping the station’s famed gardens will provide an opportunity to regroup, recoup, and mourn their losses while while finding a way to track down their enemy, pirate king Tubal Last.

All Niko wants to do is pry their insurance money from the bank and see if an old friend might be able to help them find Last. Unfortunately, old friends and enemies aren’t the only unreliable elements awaiting her and the crew at Coralind.

Each will have to face themselves—the good and the bad—in order to come together before they lose everything.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  Rumor Has It by Cat Rambo, on sale 9/24/24


CHAPTER 1

Chaos brews in the space between the stars, where one might expect a vacuum and chill wastes. However, plunging through Q-space, plowing through a section of the distance hidden from most voyagers, you see the loops and snarls in reality, the unnecessary curlicues and furbelows and gimcracks that the universe has chosen to add—weirdly and bizarrely, here and here alone—which is why most people find it unsettling.

Q-space is where probabilities slide and skew like missiles skidding on ice, where logic steps out the door to pause for a smoke break, briefly replaced by its much less sane cousin wearing torn fishnets and an inverted beret that might have once been raspberry velvet. Q-space is where strange discoveries are made, unlikely coincidences are forged, and the unimaginable shows up on every side.

You Sexy Thing loved Q-space. It moved with a grace that it really wished someone had noticed but had resigned itself to no one doing so. It eased through it like a watermelon seed squirted between thumb and forefinger, moving unimaginable distances, and at such a speed that the ship had little time to examine its surroundings, catching only glimpses as it hurtled on.

In Q-space, mathematics can do odd things, can balloon and shrink in unexpected ways. Numbers are more whimsical there, or at least more prone to strange, inexplicable convulsions. But in the here and now, math behaved more predictably. And sometimes disappointingly.

Captain Niko Larsen added up the figures by hand, and then had the ship double-check them. They remained the same. She leaned back in her chair and knuckled at the back of her neck, trying to smooth out the knotted tension there.

On the asset side: the handful of credits left from their last pop-up venture, most of that profit gone to refueling costs and Gate charges.

On the debit side: the fact of those ongoing fuel costs, Gate charges, and other ways the Known Universe charged for existence within it, such as taxes, tariffs, surcharges, delivery charges, fees, tips, gratuities. Etc.

The debit side was so much larger than the asset side. She leaned forward to stare at it for a long moment before pushing the datapad away.

There was a touch of hope. If she could get at the money from their insurance claim, the money for the destruction of their first restaurant, the Last Chance, back on TwiceFar Station. But doing that meant going someplace expensive. Very expensive.

So expensive that if they went there, they might end up stranded. With only that handful of credits to satisfy a host of necessities.

But that chance was their only one, as far as she could see. So the only other question was, in telling the rest of the crew about her plans, how much she would reveal of the direness of their resources. It would encourage a small measure of conservation of those resources, but at the cost of a drop in morale and rise in anxiety. No, that wasn’t worth it.

“Coralind,” Dabry breathed in a reverential tone that delighted Niko’s heart in a way it hadn’t been delighted for a while. In front of him was a bowl of spiced bits of protein, smelling of cumin and iron, beside another of soupy yellow sauce. He was filling rounds of dough with both, pinching them closed with expert ease before arranging them on a nearby platter.

The others in the kitchen had mixed reactions. Lassite simply nodded as though in confirmation. Atlanta blinked and made a mental note to look up the destination as soon as possible. Talon shrugged while Rebbe, leaning against the wall, continued to watch the room as though it was full of dangers, without paying much attention to what Niko actually said.

Skidoo squealed. “Is being a garden there from Tlella and some of its people.” She undulated in delight. “Is being places to swim, is being places that is being only water.”

Gio, sorting through peppery corms and picking off the odd scaly leaf or two, gave a soft hoot of appreciation, eyes bright. Trade, he thought. Good trade at Coralind, some of the best in the Known Universe. And Festival time! Who wouldn’t want to be on Coralind at Festival time? This was an excellent choice.

Milly’s shoulders stiffened for a moment, then relaxed as she watched the others. They’d be happier, at least, and happier meant more ready to respond to her advances. She’d been trying to win back their trust for a while now, but the ship’s atmosphere hadn’t really been conducive. She put down the pastry knife she’d been polishing and asked, “That’s where the gardens are, eh?”

Gio nodded, signing, “Hundreds of them. Almost as good as planet-grown. Sometimes better, they say. They’ve been growing for centuries now, inside that planetoid. Food you can get there that you can’t get anywhere else.”

Dabry gave off shaping dumplings, putting a lower hand to the counter as if to catch his balance at the thought.

“I’ll have to tell Skidoo to put together a list of the restaurants there,” he said thoughtfully. “So we can go over it, look for gaps.”

“That is certainly one way of looking at it,” Niko said dryly.

He raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with that approach?”

“You will be in a place with ingredients that you may never find in their prime again,” she explained. “Cook the meal of your heart, cook something that you love.”

She had thought him motionless already, but at her words, he became utterly still, as though holding his breath. Then he let it out and said, his voice tight, “I’ll have to think about that.”

She had not thought to touch old wounds, but she had. And realized, just as quickly, that to say anything drawing attention to her blunder would be to offend even further. She cast about for words, glancing around the kitchen, and was grateful when Milly rescued her. “Will you tell everyone the full details at the meal? Neither Jezli or Petalia is here.”

“I could tell them right now,” the ship offered.

“No, that’s my job,” Niko said.

“Technically, I am the communications systems.”

“Technically, you should wait to be ordered before acting on that order,” she snapped.

“Very well.” The ship was currently thinking about ways to express irritation, and everyone jumped when eyes suddenly manifested in the upper walls and ceiling, rolling in their sockets. They were then absorbed in a process that took considerably longer than their appearance, which everyone watched with horrified fascination, including the imperturbable Lassite.

“I grasp your meaning,” Niko said when the process seemed complete and no further eyes were in evidence, “and would prefer you not express yourself in that way again.”

“In what way?” the ship said suspiciously, worried about the boundaries of this particular order. “With eyes?”

Niko paused, working through the wording, and decided upon, “By manifesting organs specifically for the sake of a gesture.”

“Mmm.” The ship filed the definition away to examine later for possible loopholes, including the precise definition of “organs,” but refrained from more “gestures.” There were plenty of other possibilities. What, for example, if it created a servitor and then had the servitor perform the gestures? It would attempt that experiment later.

Niko found Jezli in the lounge, reading. Jezli set down her reader and gave Niko her unfailing, maddeningly courteous attention.

“We are bound for Coralind next,” Niko informed her. “That will be a suitable place for you to leave the ship and find some other berth.”

“Admit it, Captain,” Jezli Farren said with an easy grin that might have had an edge of mockery to it. It was a tone familiar to everyone on the days when Jezli was feeling particularly brittle and missing her former companion, Roxana, and seeking to divert herself. “Rumor has it you’d miss me if I were gone.”

“You are a scoundrel and a con artist and the only reason you are still on this ship is because you are the sole person who understands how to operate that thing,” Niko snapped. Jezli had, as ever, managed to get under her skin with only a few words. “But how complicated can it be, telling Petalia to pull the trigger?”

Around them, the ship listened without commentary. It had found that the conversations between Jezli and Niko were highly entertaining, and even more so when they forgot that it was listening.

The “thing” in question was, for once, not the ship itself, You Sexy Thing, but the ancient alien artifact currently resting in one of the aforementioned ship’s holds. Nicknamed the “Devil’s Gun,” it was an implement of assassination.

Unfortunately, not one that could assassinate the only person they needed to kill before he could kill them.

Jezli poked at her pad. “Three days to Coralind,” Jezli said, looking at it. She was about to say something else, but there was a rustle at the doorway. She looked up; Niko turned, uncrossing her arms.

Petalia, the Florian who was both Niko’s ex-lover and current constant antagonist, as well as the only person who could fire the Devil’s Gun, stood there. They were tall and female in form, their skin and hair white and fine, the latter strewn with tiny blossoms. They smelled of ice with an edge of sweetness, and as always, their eyes were fixed only on Niko.

“Coralind?” they demanded, stepping into the room. “Why there?”

“You mentioned yourself that it’s tied into Last’s net of contacts. We may be able to backtrace from there. And I’m going to visit an old friend who may have other thoughts on how to find word of Tubal Last,” Niko said.

She returned Petalia’s stare. The notion flickered through Jezli’s head that they looked like an artistic tableau embodying complexities of emotion, and she framed it from several angles to amuse herself. She had stood as though to leave, but had failed to exit. She thought they had forgotten her presence, which they had.

“Coralind.” Petalia loaded the word with scorn. “Who do you know in that tawdry place?”

Niko refrained from taking offense, leaving her tone mild and emotionless as pudding. “Someone I knew during some of my final years with the Holy Hive Mind.”

Petalia frowned. Niko thought about the years Tubal Last had spent monitoring Niko while whispering lies about her into Petalia’s ear, and wondered how close the monitoring had been. Very close at times, it seemed. Leaving off that angle of questioning, Petalia pursued others.

“How long will we be there? Are you planning some other ridiculous restauranting enterprise?”

“That is how we make our living, with ridiculous restauranting.” Niko’s even tone faltered toward the end of the sentence, so slightly it would have been imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know her well.

Jezli continued to amuse herself, imagining a camera at different vantage points around the room, thinking about how she would have blocked the ongoing scene if she were a theatrical director, detailing it with careful precision.

Petalia’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not Festival time there, is it?” they demanded. “That would be insane.”

This time, Niko’s eyes wandered, seeking Jezli’s. Her lips quirked. “Well,” she said, and Jezli held her breath. “Certainly it would be, and certainly it is, but that is exactly what we are doing.”

“Just when I thought it was impossible to like you much better,” Jezli said. “You are a daring woman.”

“Desperate, perhaps, rather than daring,” Niko said, her tone softer than it had been.

Petalia glanced between the two, and their eyes filled with an emotion Niko had not seen in their pale depths for a long, long
time. The moment hung in the air, and who knows what might have happened if Skidoo had not entered just then.

“Is being interrupting?” Skidoo’s three turquoise eyes swiveled independently, regarding each of them simultaneously.

Petalia drew themself up to glance down at Skidoo. “You are interrupting nothing,” they said with icy hauteur.

“Well, scan you being all Ruler of Known Space,” Jezli said admiringly and over-sincerely, folding her arms as she leaned against the wall.

Petalia huffed out derision, dropped a nod at Niko, and stalked out. Skidoo’s unoccupied eye chose Niko as its new target.

“You are terribly good at getting under their skin.” Niko turned to Jezli, pointing a finger at her. “I’ll thank you not to exercise your talents on those on board under my protection.”

“And the ship,” she added, glancing upward.

“Thank you, Captain.” You Sexy Thing considered this permission to enter the conversation. It had been desperately trying to understand the nuances of the last few minims, which had seemed very significant in all sorts of ways it could not comprehend.

For example, each of the three participants had experienced an elevated heart rate—but why? Had there been subtle threat displays it had failed to decode? It played its memories over several hundred times while waiting for the conversation to go on.

“I apologize.” Jezli spread her hands in an expansive gesture of helplessness. “I don’t mean to. It just slips out sometimes.”

“Rein it in.”

Jezli dropped Niko a salute that somehow managed to be sardonic. How did the woman get that into the gesture? Niko couldn’t quite figure it out, but it was definitely there. She decided, with an effort, to let the matter go.

One of Gnarl Grusson’s main traits was that he had never, ever, been able to let something go, and that particularly held true of grudges. And while over the course of his existence, he had accumulated a freighter hold’s worth of such grudges, the one that currently burned in his burly chest, so hotly that no other could contend with it, was one involving Niko Larsen.

“Thought she was done with me, leaving me there to die,” he muttered to himself once again. The words elicited a sidelong look from his second-in-command, but they knew better than challenge him. He had been poring over star charts, figuring fuel costs and times, and had narrowed the possibilities down to three. She could only go so far, so fast, and her resources were limited. The first possibility was Broohaven. Tempting, with all its information networks, but the Broons didn’t go in much for culinary pleasures. They were all about efficiency and delivering maximal nutrition in minimal time.

The second possibility was Droon. Plenty of tourists there, plenty of places to play at feeding people for coin. But Droon was on the outskirts, and close to a single transit point, as opposed to the third possibility.

That third possibility . . . well, how could anyone who’d checked their calendar want to avoid such potentially profitable chaos and hubbub?

And from there, there were plenty of other port possibilities for the next stop.

He muttered to himself, and his second-in-command kept pretending not to notice. The captain had been given to this ever since they’d rescued him from where he’d been stranded on the space moth.

Personally, the second had mixed opinions about the necessity of that rescue. This, too, he kept to himself, his attention on the captain.

Lips pursed in deep consideration, Gnarl passed gas, paying deep attention to the act, then spoke to the second.

“Set course for Coralind.”

Copyright © 2024 from Cat Rambo

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Excerpt Reveal: A Sorceress Comes to Call by T. Kingfisher

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A Sorceress Comes to Call

From New York Times bestselling and Hugo Award-winning author T. Kingfisher comes Sorceress Comes to Call—a dark reimagining of the Brothers Grimm’s “The Goose Girl,” rife with secrets, murder, and forbidden magic.

Cordelia knows her mother is . . . unusual. Their house doesn’t have any doors between rooms—there are no secrets in this house—and her mother doesn’t allow Cordelia to have a single friend. Unless you count Falada, her mother’s beautiful white horse. The only time Cordelia feels truly free is on her daily rides with him.

But more than simple eccentricity sets her mother apart. Other mothers don’t force their daughters to be silent and motionless for hours, sometimes days, on end. Other mothers aren’t evil sorcerers.

When her mother unexpectedly moves them into the manor home of a wealthy older Squire and his kind but keen-eyed sister, Hester, Cordelia knows this welcoming pair are to be her mother’s next victims. But Cordelia feels at home for the very first time among these people, and as her mother’s plans darken, she must decide how to face the woman who raised her to save the people who have become like family.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of A Sorceress Comes to Call by T. Kingfisher, on sale 8/06/24


CHAPTER 1

There was a fly walking on Cordelia’s hand and she was not allowed to flick it away.

She had grown used to the ache of sitting on a hard wooden pew and being unable to shift her weight. It still hurt, but eventually her legs went to sleep and the ache became a dull, all-over redness that was easier to ignore.

Though her senses were dulled in obedience, her sense of touch stayed the strongest. Even when she was so far under that the world had a gray film around the edges, she could still feel her clothing and the touch of her mother’s hand. And now the fly’s feet itched, which was bad, then tickled, which was worse.

At the front of the church, the preacher was droning on. Cordelia had long since lost the thread. Lust and tithing were his two favorite topics. Probably it was one of those. Her mother took her to church every Sunday and Cordelia was fairly certain that he had been preaching the same half-dozen sermons for the past year.

Her eyes were the only muscles that she could control, so she was not looking at him, but down as far as she could. At the very bottom of her vision, she could see her hands folded in her lap and the fly picking its way delicately across her knuckles.

Her mother glanced at her and must have noticed that she was looking down. Cordelia’s chin rose so that she could no longer see her hands. She was forced to study the back of the head of the man in front of her. His hair was thinning toward the back and was compressed down at the sides, as if he wore a hat most days. She did not recognize him, but that was no surprise. Since her days at school had ended, Cordelia only saw the other townsfolk when she went to church.

Cordelia lost the tickling sensation for a moment and dared to hope that the fly was gone, but then the delicate web between her thumb and forefinger began to itch.

Her eyes began to water at the sensation and she blinked them furiously. Crying was not acceptable. That had been one of the first lessons of being made obedient. It would definitely not be acceptable in church, where other people would notice. Cordelia was fourteen and too old to cry for seemingly no reason—because of course she could not tell anyone the reason.

The fly crossed over to her other hand, each foot landing like an infinitesimal pinprick. The stinging, watering sensation in her eyes started to feel like a sneeze coming on.

Sneezing would be terrible. She could not lift her hands or turn her head, so it would hit the back of the man’s head, and he would turn around in astonishment and her mother would move her mouth to apologize and everyone would be staring at her for having been so ill-mannered.

Her mother would not be happy. Cordelia would have given a year of her life to be able to wipe her eyes. She sniffed miserably, her lungs filling with the smell of candles and wood polish and other people’s bodies. Under it all lay the dry, sharp smell of wormwood.

And then, blessedly, the preacher finished. Everyone said, “Amen,” and the congregation rose. No one noticed that Cordelia moved in unison with her mother.

No one ever did.

“I suppose you’re mad at me,” said her mother as they walked home from church. “I’m sorry. But you might try harder not to be so rebellious! I shouldn’t have to keep doing this to you, not when you’re fourteen years old!”

Cordelia said nothing. Her tongue did not belong to her. The person that smiled and answered all the greetings after the sermon—“Why Evangeline, don’t you look lovely today? And Cordelia! You keep growing like a weed!”—had not been Cordelia at all.

They reached home at last. Home was a narrow white house with peeling paint, set just off the road. Evangeline pushed the front door open, walked Cordelia to the couch, and made her sit.

Cordelia felt the obedience let go, all at once. She did not scream.

When Cordelia was young, she had screamed when she came out of obedience, but this gave her mother a reason to hold her and make soothing noises, so she had learned to stay silent as she swam up into consciousness, out of the waking dream.

The memories of what she had done when she was obedient would still be there, though. They lay in the bottom of her skull like stones.

It was never anything that looked terrible from outside. She could not have explained it to anyone without sounding ridiculous. “She makes me eat. She makes me drink. She makes me go to the bathroom and get undressed and go to bed.”

And they would have looked at her and said “So?” and Cordelia would not have been able to explain what it was like, half-sunk in stupor, with her body moving around her.

Being made obedient felt like being a corpse. “My body’s dead and it doesn’t do what I want,” Cordelia had whispered once, to her only friend, their horse Falada. “It only does what she wants. But I’m still in it.”

When she was younger, Cordelia would wet herself frequently when she was obedient. Her mother mostly remembered to have Cordelia relieve herself at regular intervals now, but Cordelia had never forgotten the sensation.

She was made obedient less often as she grew older. She thought perhaps that it was more difficult for her mother to do than it had been when she was small—or perhaps it was only that she had learned to avoid the things that made her mother angry. But this time, Cordelia hadn’t avoided it.

As the obedience let go, Cordelia swam up out of the twilight, feeling her senses slot themselves back into place.

Her mother patted her shoulder. “There you are. Now, isn’t that better?”

Cordelia nodded, not looking at her.

“I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”

“Yes,” said Cordelia, who could not remember what it was that she had been made obedient for. “I will.”

When her legs felt steady enough, she went up the stairs to her bedroom and lay on the bed. She did not close the door.

There were no closed doors in the house she grew up in.

Sometimes, when her mother was gone on an errand, Cordelia would close the door to her bedroom and lean against it, pressing herself flat against the wooden surface, feeling it solid and smooth under her cheek.

The knowledge that she was alone and no one could see her—that she could do anything, say anything, think anything and no one would be the wiser—made her feel fierce and wicked and brave.

She always opened the door again after a minute. Her mother would come home soon and the sight of a closed door would draw her like a lodestone. And then there would be the talk.

If Cordelia’s mother was in a good mood, it would be “Silly! You don’t have any secrets from me, I’m your mother!”

If she was in a bad mood, it would be the same talk but from the other direction, like a tarot card reversed—“What are you trying to hide?”

Whichever card it was, it always ended the same way: “We don’t close doors in this house.”

When Cordelia was thirteen and had been half-mad with things happening under her skin, she shot back “Then why are there doors in the house at all?”

Her mother had paused, just for an instant. Her long-jawed face had gone blank and she had looked at Cordelia—really looked, as if she was actually seeing her—and Cordelia knew that she had crossed a line and would pay for it.

“They came with the house,” said her mother. “Silly!” She nodded once or twice, to herself, and then walked away.

Cordelia couldn’t remember now how long she had been made obedient as punishment. Two or three days, at least.

Because there were no closed doors, Cordelia had learned to have no secrets that could be found. She did not write her thoughts in her daybook.

She kept a daybook because her mother believed that it was something young girls should do, but the things she wrote were exactly correct and completely meaningless. I spilled something on my yellow dress today. I have been out riding Falada. The daffodils bloomed today. It is my birthday today.

She gazed at the pages sometimes, and thought what it would be like to write I hate my mother in a fierce scrawl across the pages.

She did not do it. Closing the door when she was home alone was as much rebellion as she dared. If she had written something so terrible, she would have been made obedient for weeks, perhaps a month. She did not think she could stand it for so long.

I’d go mad. Really truly mad. But she wouldn’t notice until she let me come back, and I’d have been mad inside for weeks and weeks by then.

Since her mother was home today and unlikely to leave again, Cordelia took a deep breath and sat up, scrubbing at her face. There was no point in dwelling on things she would never do. She changed out of her good dress and went out to the stable behind the house, where Falada was waiting. The stable was old and
gloomy, but Falada glowed like moonlight in the darkness of his stall.

When Falada ran, and Cordelia clung to his back, she was safe. It was the only time that she was not thinking, not carefully cropping each thought to be pleasant and polite and unexceptional. There was only sky and hoofbeats and fast-moving earth.

After a mile or so, the horse slowed to a stop, almost as if he sensed what Cordelia needed. She slipped off his back and leaned against him. Falada was quiet, but he was solid and she told him her thoughts, as she always did.

“Sometimes I dream about running,” she whispered. “You and me. Until we reach the sea.”

She did not know what she would do once they reached the sea. Swim it, perhaps. There was another country over there, the old homeland that adults referred to so casually.

“I know I’m being ridiculous,” she told him. “Horses can’t swim that far. Not even you.”

She had learned not to cry long ago, but she pressed her face to his warm shoulder, and the wash of his mane across her skin felt like tears.

Cordelia was desperately thankful for Falada, and that her mother encouraged her to ride, although of course Evangeline’s motives were different from Cordelia’s. “You won’t get into any trouble with him,” her mother would say. “And besides, it’s good for a girl to know how to ride. You’ll marry a wealthy man someday, and they like girls who know their way around a horse, not these little town girls that can only ride in a carriage!” Cordelia had nodded. She did not doubt that she would marry a wealthy man one day. Her mother had always stated it as fact.

And, it was true that the girls Cordelia saw when riding seemed to envy her for having Falada to ride. He was the color of snow, with a proud neck. She met them sometimes in the road. The cruel ones made barbed comments about her clothes to hide their envy, and the kind ones gazed at Falada wistfully. That was how
Cordelia met Ellen.

“He’s very beautiful,” Ellen had said one day. “I’ve never seen a horse like him.”

“Thank you,” said Cordelia. She still went to school then, and talking to other people had not seemed quite so difficult. “He is a good horse.”

“I live just over the hill,” the other girl had said shyly. “You could visit sometime, if you like.”

“I would like that,” Cordelia had replied carefully. And that was true. She would have liked that.

But Cordelia did not go, because her mother would not have liked that. She did not ask. It was hard to tell, sometimes, what would make her mother angry, and it was not worth the risk. Still, for the last three years she had encountered the kind girl regularly. Ellen was the daughter of a wealthy landowner that lived nearby. She rode her pony, Penny, every day, and when she and Cordelia met, they rode together down the road, the pony taking two steps for every one of Falada’s.

So it was unsurprising when Cordelia heard the familiar hoof-beats of Ellen’s pony approaching. She lifted her head from Falada’s neck and looked up as Ellen waved a hello. Cordelia waved back and remounted. Penny shied at their approach, but Ellen reined her in.

Cordelia had never ridden any horse but Falada, so it was from Ellen—and from watching Ellen’s pony—that she learned that most horses were not so calm as Falada, nor so safe. When she was very young and the open doors in their house became too much, when she couldn’t stand being in that house for one more second, she would creep to Falada’s stall and sleep curled up there, with his four white legs like pillars around her. Apparently most people did not do this, for fear the horse would step on them. Cordelia had not known to be afraid of such a thing.

“Oh, Penny! What’s gotten into you? It’s just Falada.” Ellen rolled her eyes at Cordelia, as if they shared a joke, which was one of the reasons that Cordelia liked her.

“Penny’s a good pony,” Cordelia said. She liked it when Ellen complimented Falada, so perhaps Ellen would like it when she complimented Penny. Cordelia talked to other people so rarely now that she always had to feel her way through these conversations, and she was not always good at them.

“She is,” said Ellen happily. “She’s not brave, but she’s sweet.”

Ellen carried the conversation mostly by herself, talking freely about her home, her family, the servants, and the other people in town. There was no malice in it, so far as Cordelia could tell. She let it wash over her, and pretended that she had a right to listen and nod as if she knew what was going on.

Cordelia was not sure why Ellen rode out to meet her so often, when she could say so little, but she was glad for the company. Ellen was kind, but more than that, she was ordinary. Talking to her gave Cordelia a window into what was normal and what wasn’t. She could ask a question and Ellen would answer it without asking any awkward questions of her own. Most of the time, anyway.

It had occurred to her, some years prior, that not all parents could make their children obedient the same way that her mother made her, but when she tried to ask Ellen about it, to see if she was right, the words came out so wrong and so distressing that she stopped.

Something about today—the memory of the obedience or the fly or maybe just the way the light fell across the leaves and Falada’s mane—made her want to ask again.

“Ellen?” she asked abruptly. “Do you close the door to your room?”

Ellen had been patiently holding up both ends of the conversation and looked up, puzzled. “Eh? Yes? I mean, the servants go in and out of my dressing room, but I always lock the door to the water closet when I’m in it, because you don’t want servants around for that, do you?”

Cordelia stared at her hands on the reins. They were not wealthy enough to have servants, and there was an outhouse beside the stable, not a water closet. She pressed on.

“Does your family think you’re keeping secrets when you do?”

The silence went on long enough that Cordelia looked up, and realized that Ellen was giving her a very penetrating look. She had a pink, pleasant face and a kind manner, and it was unsettling to suddenly remember that kind did not mean stupid and Ellen had been talking to her for a long time.

“Oh, Cordelia . . .” said Ellen finally.

She reached out to touch Cordelia’s arm, but Falada sidled at that moment, and Penny took a step to give him room, so they did not touch after all.

“Sorry,” said Cordelia gruffly. She wanted to say Please don’t think I’m strange, that was a strange question, I can tell, please don’t stop talking to me, but she knew that would make it all even worse, so she didn’t.

“It’s all right,” said Ellen. And then “It will be all right,” which Cordelia knew wasn’t the same thing at all.

Copyright © 2024 from T. Kingfisher

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Excerpt Reveal: Iron Star by Loren D. Estleman

Iron StarSet against the sprawling landscape of the Wild West, this riveting adventure by Spur Award-winning author Loren D. Estleman follows a man on a journey to set his legacy, and the men dedicated to bringing his story to life.

From his youth as a revolutionist to his time as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, aging lawman Iron St. John has become a larger-than-life figure—and in the process, the man has disappeared behind the myth. During his brief, unsuccessful political career, St. John published his memoirs—a sanitized version of his adventures to appeal to the masses. A generation later, the clouded truth of this giant of the Old West has been all but lost.

Now, Buck Jones, a pioneering film star, is vying for a cinematic story that will launch his career to incredible heights. He approaches Emmet Rawlings, a retired Pinkerton detective, to set the record of St. John’s life straight once and for all. Twenty years ago, Rawlings accompanied St. John on his final manhunt, and in desperate need for the funding a successful book promises, he dives deep into St. John’s past—and his own buried memories—to tell the truth about this part-time hero.

As the story of St. John unfolds, the romance of the period is stripped away to reveal a reality long-forgotten in this unvarnished, heart-racing depiction of the American West by acclaimed author Loren D. Estleman.

Iron Star will be available on June 18th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

MISTER ST. JOHN

Everything about the messenger seemed smart, from the peaked cap squared across his brow to the polished toes of his boots, right down to the smug cast of his mouth. Rawlings signed for the package he brought and handed back the clipboard; and bless the man if he didn’t snap him a salute. He shut the door on the pink clean-shaven face and went to his desk for the knife that was too big for its purpose.

The cord severed, he removed two layers of brown paper and looked at the book. A phantom pain struck his side.

The book was standard octavo size but heavy as a brick, coarse brittle pages bound in green cloth with a surplus of stamping on cover and spine and the kind of lettering one found in soap advertisements. A balloon legend at the top descended in graded diminuendo until the second-to-last line, which was set out boldly in copper leaf:

THE IRON STAR

Being a Memoir of IRONS ST. JOHN Deputy U.S. Marshal
Peace Officer
Railroad Detective Trail-blazer
And

CANDIDATE FOR U.S. CONGRESS

by Himself

The educated reader might have added Reformed Outlaw to the list of sobriquets—with a Christian nod to the “Reformed”—but the object of the tome had been to elect, not repent. In fact it had managed to do neither, thus setting in motion the cosmic chain of events that had pulled Rawlings into his orbit.

Another stab came when he opened to the frontispiece, a three-quarter photographic portrait of a man past his middle years. It was contemporary to his experience of the original, although the developers’ art had tightened the sagging lines of the chin: a rectangular face set off by cheekbones that threatened to pierce the flesh and a thick moustache whose points reached nearly to the corners of the jaw. The eyes had been retouched as well, but less to flatter the subject than to keep them from washing out in the glare from the flashpan; irises that particular shade of sunned steel did not reproduce. The hair was cut to the shape of the skull and swept across the forehead; that feature, Rawlings thought, had not been tampered with. In all the weeks he’d spent with the man—seldom more than six feet away—he could barely recall having seen him with his hat off: Cavalry campaign issue, it was, stained black around the base of the dimpled crown, with the tassel missing a toggle.

It was like finding an old ogre of a dead uncle standing on his doorstep.

The book carried a 1906 copyright date and the name of a St. Louis publisher. He touched the page, as if feeling the figures pressed into paper would contradict the evidence of sight, and also of scent; the leaves smelled of dust and decomposition.

Twenty years.

He was fifty, the same age St. John had been then, when the man had seemed as weatherworn as the Red Wall of Wyoming.

The old humbug.

But, no; that was unfair. You didn’t mark down a man’s accomplishments just because he never missed an opportunity to remind you of them. He’d been a politician after all, however briefly and unsuccessfully, and that wound had yet to heal. Was he so easily dismissed as less than advertised? Truth to tell, constant exposure for nearly a month to any fellow creature outdoors in all extremes of weather would turn an Ivanhoe into a Uriah Heep. There were no heroes in a cold camp.

He turned to the first page of the editor’s preface. (“Nothing in little Ike’s childhood bore witness to the man he would become.”) Tucked in the seam between the sawtooth sheets was a cardboard rectangle, glaringly white against the ivory pulp, with glossy black embossed printing in eleven-point type:

Charles Gebhardt, Esq.

The card contained neither address nor telephone number: a proper gentleman’s calling card, an anomaly there, amidst the oat and barley fields of southeastern Minnesota.

Likewise there was no return address on the wrapper, and no postmark, since it had been sent by private messenger; nothing to explain its origin apart from the unfamiliar name on the card, which may have been nothing other than a bookmark employed by a former owner. The book was sufficiently shopworn to have passed from hand to hand, eventually to settle in a clearance bin, the last stop before the pulp mill. No provenance, and not an inkling as to purpose.

But he was still enough of a detective not to waste time pursuing a line of reasoning that offered no beginning and promised no end. He laid aside the book and took a seat in the wooden armchair that had come with the room, at the leftward-listing rolltop that had come with it, and turned back a cuff to measure his pulse against his watch.

After fifteen seconds he took his fingers from his wrist, replaced the cuff, fixed the stud, and entered the figure in the notebook he kept in a pigeonhole.

Not too rapid, considering; but on the other hand his heart wasn’t likely to finish out of the money at the Olmsted County Fair. He snapped shut the face of the watch, glancing from habit at the engraving but without reading: to emmett force rawlings, in grateful, etc., robt. pinkerton ii, and returned it to his waistcoat pocket, where the weight of the gold plate tugged the unbuttoned garment uncomfortably off-center. He fastened the buttons.

From the right drawer he lifted a stack of yellow paper and reread what he’d written in the same small, precise hand he’d employed while waiting out his retirement in the records room in San Francisco. He reread it from the beginning as always, scratching out passages that struck him as prosy and inserting additional information in the margins, which he’d left wide for the purpose. The Chief had often said that if he ever tired of the field he could apply for a post in bookkeeping; after the Buckner debacle the remark had seemed not so much a compliment as a threat.

He caught himself stroking his chin; there’d been no beard there for years. That blasted book had sidetracked him. One of the reasons he’d started this comprehensive history of the Agency was to expel the nattering memories of his past, as well as to audit the account.

The Wild West: No grand exposition, that: rather a roadside carnival. Hundreds of hacks had squandered tons of paper and gallons of ink on midnight rides and gunplay; which, if one were to lift them from the record, would have no effect on how it had come out. Dakota would have been divided, the Indian question resolved, and the frontier closed regardless of which side emerged intact from the O.K. Corral fight, whether William Bonney was slain from ambush or escaped to old Mexico, or if Buffalo Bill had chosen black tie and tails over feathers and buckskin. Washington was the big top, Tombstone and Deadwood a sideshow at best. Historians were crows, hopping over treasure to snatch up bright scraps of tin and deposit them at the feet of spectators who— thanks to them—would never know the difference.

His face ached; the scowl might have set permanently but for the interruption of a tap on his door. He shoved himself away from the desk and got up to answer it.

“A gentleman to see you, sir.” Mrs. Balfour, his landlady, extended a card in a large hand with veins on the back as thick as a man’s. She was a tall Scot who held her hair fast with glittering pins and kept snuff in a hinged locket around her neck.

He took the card, read again the name Charles Gebhardt, Esq. “I don’t suppose he said what he wants.”

“No, sir, and it wasn’t my business to ask.”

In truth he couldn’t imagine what circumstances would lead this woman to ask any sort of question, including whether she should allow the man up. They exchanged meaningless nods and she went back downstairs.

He remained in the doorway while the visitor ascended the last flight. At the top they stood not quite face to face; the man was two inches shorter and thicker in the torso, with a nose straight as a plumb and big ears that stuck out like spread clamshells. His smile was broad as well, overabundantly friendly, and furnished with teeth too white and even for trust: a salesman’s smile. Larger-than-life features on a larger-than-life head. They belonged on a billboard.

The hat was wrong: a tweed motoring cap, worn at an angle after the current fashion, taking up too little space in relation to the head; and now that Rawlings had identified the problem, he realized where he’d seen the man, or at least his image, painted in crude brush strokes reproduced in lithograph: a muscular frame in blue denim, plaid flannel, and yellow kerchief, dangling from the face of a cliff or a railroad boxcar plummeting down a steep grade with no train attached. Perhaps both. Wearing the hat, too big just to provide shade and too small for a fire pit.

“Mr. Rawlings?” A pleasant enough voice, a tenor, with a hint of the stage.

“Mr.—Gebhardt?” The name was as unlikely a fit as the headgear.

The smile flickered. “Yes; but that’s just between you, me, and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Professionally it’s Buck Jones, and I’ve come all this way from Los Angeles to ask if you’d consider making a movie with me.”


Click below to pre-order your copy of Iron Star, available June 18th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: The Doors of Midnight by R.R. Virdi

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The Doors of Midnight

Myths begin, and a storyteller’s tale deepens, in the essential sequel to R.R. Virdi’s breakout Silk Road-inspired epic fantasy debut, The First Binding.

Some stories are hidden for a reason. All tales have a price. And every debt must be paid.

I killed three men as a child and earned the name Bloodletter. Then I set fire to the fabled Ashram. I’ve been a bird and robbed a merchant king of a ransom of gold. And I have crossed desert sands and cutthroat alleys to repay my debt.

I’ve stood before the eyes of god, faced his judgement, and cast aside the thousand arrows that came with it. And I have passed through the Doors of Midnight and lived to tell the tale.

I have traded one hundred and one stories with a creature as old as time, and survived with only my cleverness, a candle, and a broken promise.

And most recently of all, I have killed a prince, though the stories say I have killed more than one.

My name is Ari. These are my legends.

And these are my lies.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  The Doors of Midnight  by R.R. Virdi, on sale 8/13/24


ONE

Stories in Stillness

 

I came to Etaynia in search of the most important thing in the world.
A story.
A secret—the sort best held and better kept from the world.
But I met with a prince instead.
The second the stories will say I’ve killed.
And I did not find the story I came looking for.
I wound up in the most dangerous one of all.

˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖

The prison was blanketed with the weight of stone, and its stillness. A silent-heavy assurance of what we would find in this place. It was the unmoving noiselessness of a place so deep down it has forgotten the sounds of the world above—knowing only the echoing quiet of things buried to be lost to memory. This was the soft-sullen silence of the weary who see no point bothering with speech as it has failed them all before.

It was a stillness found in the iron bars that knew nothing but the keeping of things inside. Long-rusted, as if to make their promise clear: The way would not open, no matter the protests of those within—no matter their efforts.

This was the unspoken prayer, muttered in thought only, full-apparent in the fingernail scratches along the rough stone of the cell floor.

And all the soundlessness of a man whose story might be coming to an end. As once before, the stillness sat before me, waiting for me to do what I do and have done best.

Break it.

And so I did.

Because it was mine to break.

“My name is Ari, and I killed a prince of Etaynia.” The words hung quivering in the air as if they themselves did not have the heart to disturb the quiet that had persisted in this place.

The other prisoners traded a look—the only one they had left to themselves. The long-hollow stare of men who have forgotten all the shapes the world has to offer. They knew only the cold and unblinking regard of stone. One of them traced lines through the air with his gaze—first over the bars of my cell, then over my cloak and cowl.

He was a man who had been hobbled by hard life well before his time, and the years in prison had done no favors to his body. Frail, knotted, and bent in a way that came just as much from pain in back as from the broken pieces inside. His cheeks had a pointed gauntness to them that spoke of little to eat and much less to live for. And the brown of his eyes had long lost whatever spark they once held. He raked fingers through his long hair as he spoke.

“Ari.” His mouth moved as if chewing over the name—tasting something foreign. He spoke it again. Then a third time.

And the stillness returned in the space between words.

I said nothing, adding another layer to it as I used what little strength I could muster to pull my cloak around me. A steady band of torchlight filtered through a slit in the wall above, coming from the halls I’d been dragged through. It washed over the incarnadine fabric obscuring most of my body, painting it a brighter red. A color found fresh in blood.

The man who’d spoken now settled his gaze on my garment, his lips pressing tight. The hollow of his throat tensed visibly. “He wears a blood-red cloak.” The words had no weight—whisper soft and short-lived.

Another man found the strength to throw his weight against the bars of his cell, using them more for support than anything else. “The one that killed a Shaen princess?”

The words brought an unseen fire to my heart and banded it with a heat none of the prison’s cold stone could leach out of me.

“No,” said a third man. He sat with his legs folded, hair hanging so low as to hide his face as he slumped. “He’s the one called that storm down off the Rose Sea. A fury that laid low a fleet of ships, they say. Not a one survived.” The man’s stare weighed heavier as he regarded me.

The first of the trio took advantage of the pause to add his own piece to my legends. “Heard said he killed the emperor of Mutri . . . or was it a prince?” The man’s lips pursed and eyes fluttered as if losing himself in thought. “They say he rescued Enshae from some Shaen lords, and for it, he earned their wrath.”

I nodded. “They say that.” I turned my attention to the lance of light coming through the wall. It resembled a rod—like something I could reach out and take hold of. The thought brought a crooked smile to my mouth that faded as a piece of memory came with it.

The second man rubbed his chin. “Been said he had some swords, no? Three.” The man held up just as many fingers. “Magic. The sorts out of stories.”

I said nothing.

“How’s it go?” He knuckled his forehead and his gaze fell far away. “He took a piece of morning light, then turned it into a sword burning bright? Then he blew a breath, light and thin, to shape a sword that held the wind within.

“No, no.” The third man waved a hand and faced the second of the prisoners.

“That’s half wrong and only two. It goes like this: With a word that no one heard, he pinched a piece of Solus’ light, to make a sword that burned true bright. Then
came the breath, whisper thin, to shape the sword with the wind within. Then there is the final sword. The one of brass and blood and jade. The one all cursed and
wrong-made.”

The trio turned on each other then. They bickered over the lay of the lines, though none found the proper wording.

I cleared my throat, then spoke for all to hear.

“With just a word,
one gone unheard,
he bound a blade // of pale morn light
without edge,
that burned full-bright
to cast back shadows,
far from sight.

With a second word then,
came the gossamer breath,
blown whisper thin,
to shape the sword // full-formless,
the wind within

And lastly there is the sword of jade
of brass, and stone, and blood it’s made
twisted, tainted, cursed,
and still waiting for its price // to be paid.”

The third speaker licked his lips, regarding his fellow inmates as if seeking approval to speak to me. “So, you don’t happen to have any of them magic swords with you, then? Something to cut our way out of here, hm?”

“No, I suppose I don’t.” I raised upturned hands to show the utter lack of anything left to me.

No candle. No cane. Just the blood-red cloak, and my name.

“But you are him?” said the third man.

I inclined my head.

“All that. Princesses, magic swords, sinking ships, walking the Shaen lands. Heard some say he’s kin to gods. Others that he’s demon spawn. Heard him called Godsgrief once.”

“I’ve heard that too.” I brushed my cloak with my hands, seeking something to do with myself as I sat without my books and staff. Having traveled so long with those items now left me with an uneasy lightness in their absence.

“Fire and lightning. Doorways in the sky. So many stories.” The third man exhaled and looked to the ground, tracing his finger against the tiles. “So, can you conjure a way out?”

I blinked. “What?”

“Break down these walls. Shatter the stones. Bend these bars.”

Stone and steel were foreign to me, but fire was not. So I chose to show them what I knew.

I cupped my hands together, eyeing the empty space above my palms, envisioning where to set the ball of fire. The ring of fire at the heart of me came to mind and I fell into the folds. Just a small performance then. I could do that much, couldn’t I?

“Start with whent, then—”

The third man burst into laughter and the folds slipped from me before I could even shape them. He slumped against one of the walls, his amusement growing
louder. The others stared at him before getting the joke I didn’t and joining in his merriment.

After a moment to take in the strangeness of those sounds in this place, I added a chuckle of my own. What else was there to do? And, if I could give these men even that little reprieve—at the expense of myself—well, why not?

The third man ground both palms against his eyes. “Solus, I haven’t had a laugh like that in a long time. We lot haven’t heard our own voices in . . .” He trailed off, frowning at the thought.

“Years, Matio. Years,” said the second man. “They took our voices when they took our freedom. Took everything else too.”

And the silence returned, and with it, the weary resignation the men had grown so accustomed to. Hopelessness serves as a better set of shackles than any metal.

But for a moment, I’d roused them out of it. And I would again, making them think it was their idea all along.

Because after losing our voices to whims of others, the most rebellious thing we can do is take them back. And every voice has something worth saying—hearing.

“What else have you heard?” The simple question would draw more out of them now that they’d begun.

The first man didn’t hesitate. “Heard his name, for what it’s worth to you, sengero, wasn’t Ari. Been said it’s Araiyo. Or was it Ariyo?” His face lost whatever clarity it had moments earlier. “Sorry to say, but he weren’t one of you off-foreign folks. Stories say he’s one of ours. I think.”

The second man waggled a finger toward the first. “No, no. His name was Aram, or so I heard.”

Stones filled my gut at mention of that name. They churned and ground against the core of me.

“Or was it Athwun? No, no, it was Ari, much like our friend here. Though I’m thinking you’re more a storyteller whose tales grew a bit too tall for the crowd above, eh?”

I gave him a practiced smile. Thin as a razor and just as cold. The second prisoner went on. “I know it for fact because I was there to see him, once.”

“You what, Satbien?” Matio crawled closer to the bars that divided their cells.

“You what? God’s honest truth, tell me now, when and where were you anywhere near that man? I call you a liar.”

The man named Satbien shrank a little. “Was close enough, wasn’t I? Heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend of his who talked to a sailor who shared that man’s ship. I swear it, I do.” He gestured in front of his body in the same manner I’d seen others do when making silent prayer to Solus.

Matio waved him off and Satbien readopted the hollow sunkenness the man had kept to before. My one chance then—a moment to be even a shadow of the storyteller I thought myself to be, and rouse them.

All I needed was a few simple words. “I believe you. What did you hear? Tell me.”

It was enough.

And the prison soon carried the sounds of stories.

━━━━━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

“Ari stood on the deck of the large Zibrathi ship and knew a storm was a-comin’. But that weren’t the worst of it, as much as a storm’s a bad thing to face at sea. He’d been strung up on account of seducing the captain’s daughter.”

I smiled at the detail and wondered where it could have come from.

Voices echoed along the stone stairs above. Heavy thuds that meant boots clomping closer. Guards. We would have visitors soon enough, and I had an idea who they were keenest on seeing.

“On account of old sailor’s law, the guilty gets one thing to say and the captain has to give ’em an honest hear of it. So, Ari says, ‘If you drown me, you’ll drown yourselves. I can see the way ahead as clear as I can see you now. A storm will come, and a ship will sail before it. A ship of ill omens. Red as the waters of the Rose Sea can be said to run.’”

“God above, what a lie, Satbien. Everyone knows the waters out there are as blue and green as ours. Maybe gray on some cold bad days. No such thing as red waters.” Matio crossed his arms and legs, winding himself so tight I feared his old joints would lock in place like a knot wound too far in on itself.

“Go back to when you forgot you could speak, Matio. Can’t bother with that? Then swallow your tongue. Let me say my piece.” Satbien scooted closer to the front of his cell, now directing his performance at me and the other member of their trio.

“Now, a red ship ain’t much of an omen. Any crew can paint their ship so, right?” The question lingered in the air and I realized he wanted an answer.

I gave him the simple pleasure and leaned forward, hands on knees. “What happened then?”

That did the trick and Satbien sat back, smug satisfaction plain across his face. A snap of his fingers punctuated the next line of the story. “They all took one look at the ship and realized it weren’t painted red at all. It was what was coming off the ship. Smoke. Like there’d been a fire, and all aboard could see some embers still alight. Red, red as blood.”

“When the chimney smoke goes red as blood.” Matio’s words left him in a whisper. “And comes the storm that brings the flood.” Satbien nodded as Matio went on, and the third man watched in silence. “Nuevellos—the Nine.”

Satbien gestured with a finger. “That’s right. Ari and the crew had come across a ship with the Nuevellos on it. Now, the sailors of the crew weren’t smart enough
nor well-learned of the world to know what they looked at. But Ari knew. And seeing as he was the only one who knew what was happening—”

The footsteps loudened. Approaching men—the sort you didn’t want visiting your quiet little cell on account they would likely ruin what little peace you had to yourself.

Satbien cast a look to the prison’s entry, eyes wide and tongue peeking between his lips. He sucked in a breath and quickened the story. “Ari knew a great many things, and he knew that the men and women aboard the ship had no hope to survive the Nuevellos without him. So he took charge, didn’t he? Commanded ’em
with just a word, loud as thunder, and called down the same against the Nuevellos. Solus strike me down if it ain’t true. He called fire and lightning on that ship and—”

Metal groaned, almost more in protest against the story than from its own age and neglected state. The door to the prison opened and the guards of Del Soliel entered.

Satbien gave us one last look—the stare of a desperate man uttering a final secret before the chance is taken from him once again. “And heard it told that no one survived but for him.” He shut his mouth, and the other men followed his lead.

All of them turned away from me.

And the silence returned again, now waiting for someone else to break it. But it wouldn’t be me.

Heavy boots beat against the stone of the prison floor, drawing a splash where water had worn down the ground and formed a puddle. Matio and the others
adopted the looks of dogs long beaten into submissiveness. Their gazes fell low, not even taking in the feet of those walking by.

I never did learn to keep a supple spine. So I straightened and looked up, eye-ing each of the approaching men.

Two guards, dressed unlike those who’d first tried to bar my way into Del Soliel. If they had armor, I wagered it to be linked mail hidden beneath their padded plum-colored jackets. They had matching pants the same shade and were cut from cloth too similar, and I didn’t mean their clothing.

Twins?

The pair had trimmed their hair in identical fashion, short-cropped and tight in the manner of career soldiers. Lean, angular, and cold of face. But what took my attention the most was the long knife each wore at their side.

Odd choice of weapon for a guard. I reassessed the thought as soon as I’d finished it. No, not guards. Something else.

The man between them was the greatest oddity. A figure so thin I wondered if he only ate every third day, and then kept to just one meal. Just enough to stay alive. Were he not dressed as he was, I’d have thought him the lowest of paupers.

A rake of a man in the clothes of the gentry.

He ran a thin finger under the length of his equally narrow mustache. It didn’t suit him, especially under the crook of his long and curved nose. “Storyteller.” The word left him as more accusation than greeting.

I gave him a lopsided smile. “I was, and then I never got to be, mostly on account of being locked in here before I had a chance to perform.”

The slender man glowered, but his face couldn’t lend any real menace to the stare. His brows looked more like scant lines traced in charcoal than real hair grown. Nothing about him spoke of severity. “I think you’ve performed enough, haven’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

I kept silent, knowing it to be bait, and that nothing good would come of replying.

The man was set in his opinion before he’d stepped in to see me. And I knew on what his mind dwelt. After all, there could be only one thought. But before he could speak, a smattering of whispers broke out in the cells behind them.

“The storyteller?” Satbien’s gaze rose from where it had been fixed before. He didn’t have eyes for the men in front of me, however. His look was for me alone.

Matio mirrored him, as did the last man. “The Storyteller? The red cloak. Of course. You’re the Storyteller. That’s why you started with all that talk of him.” Matio rubbed the palm of a hand against his forehead, face nearly cracking into the smile of someone just catching a joke’s meaning. “Solus. I swear. You had us going for a moment and I—”

“Quiet.” The starved bird of a man turned on a heel and stared at the prisoners. “If you haven’t forgotten how to still your tongues after all this time, then perhaps it’s best I help you remember.” He whirled and reached for one of the long knives on the belts of the twins. The sound of metal sliding out of a sheath filled the air, and then all eyes went to the length of silver catching what little light the prison held.

“Tongues”—the man waggled the blade—“do not grow back. Or so I’m told.” He took a step toward Matio.

My mind tumbled into the folds. I saw and felt my voice bound to the very air around me—my atham, the space that I occupied greater than my own physical being. First two folds, then four. I saw a fishing-line-fine length of imaginary cord flow from the core of me and pass through my lips. It flowed outward, fraying into countless threads to spread through the room. Eight folds now, more than enough. “Start with Whent, then go to Ern.”

Someone shuffled but I barely had ears for it, shutting the sound from my thoughts.

I stood straight, lunging and clasping my hands to the bars of my cell. “I am!” The two words cracked with the force of thunder in a cave, resonating through
the prison with almost enough force to shake free stone and rattle iron. Almost. But the performance had done the job.

The three men who’d come into the prison yelped and leapt back. The whole of their collective attention now fell on me, leaving none for the poor men who’d only just found their voices after far too long a time without them. Their chests heaved in unison and their eyes went wide as a child’s caught in the act of making mischief.

The echoes of my voice died and a new stillness spread through the place. This one tremulous—shaking, and one we all knew could not last. In fact, it
meant not to. It wanted to be broken. And the man who broke it would control the conversation to come.

So I seized it and spoke the words again. “I am.” This time a whisper, just soft enough they couldn’t be sure they’d heard me clearly. “I am the Storyteller. I’ve made lords and ladies cry with tales of daring heroes and tragic romances. I’ve set taverns and inns shaking with applause so loud heaven itself has heard the noise. I’ve been the guest of kings and princes and emperors alike. And I’ve held them, hearts and mind, all enraptured till the end of my tales. I’ve learned every
story there is to know and told them back to men like you as if it’s your first time hearing them.

“That’s who I am. And that is why I came here.” The last line was only half the truth, but it would have to do for now. For the whole of it would surely see me hanged even faster.

The thin man licked his lips, looking to the men at his side for support. It never came, and the knife shook in his hands.

“If you need someone to brandish that at”—I nodded to the blade in hand—“you can try me. It’s not the first time a group of men have pointed blades my way. And I don’t believe it will be the last.” I found a candle flame’s worth of heat in my heart and drew on it, willing it into my eyes as I glared at the men just beyond my bars.

The man with the dagger took the challenge and stepped close enough that his nose nearly touched the metal separating us. “I can assure you, murderer, it will not be the last. You killed a prince of Etaynia. An efante. My efante.” Each word came as quiet as a breath blown into the wind, yet fell with all the weight of lead hitting stone.

His efante. His prince. Brahm’s blood and ashes, he must have served Prince Arturo. Voted for him in the election, and dreamed of seeing him king. A dream that had now died with the efante’s passing. “I’m sorry.” I knew the words wouldn’t do anything but spur the man into greater fury, but they were the truth, and a piece of him needed to hear it no matter how he’d take it.

He quivered in place. The knuckles of one hand going white as he squeezed the handle of the knife with more strength than a man of his build should have been able to manage. “You’re sorry? You killed a prince of this country in cold blood, over tea, after he welcomed you into his company . . . and you’re sorry?” His arm snapped out, thrusting the knife as far as he could into my cell. The point of the blade stopped just short of the hollow of my throat.

I did not move.

“No. You are not. But I swear it, by Solus, Etaynia, and Prince Arturo’s rest, you will be.” His lips trembled long after he’d finished speaking.

Then he took a slow breath, shutting his eyes until he’d regained his composure.

Most of it.

“I could kill you now. No one would know.” He fixed me with a knowing look

that told me it was more than mere temptation. A piece of him had already committed to the act and all that stood in the way was a set of iron bars.

“I would know.” I kept from adding that the imprisoned men would know as well, lest it bring his ire back upon them. I had nothing to do with them being here, but a storyteller’s job is to offer reprieve and escape to those who need it most. I could offer them a poor form of that in the moment, but I would do that much at least.

The man with the knife clenched and unclenched his free fist as if the muscles in his hand were in the throes of a bad spasm. “You think you’re terribly clever, don’t you?”

I gave him a thin curved smile—sharper than the edge of his knife, but with none of the malice in it. “I know I am. Clever, and terrible, in all the ways that can be. That has been my problem all my life.” I lost focus for a moment and failed to see the men, the bars, and all the stone of the prison.

The man in front of me spoke, but I did not hear him. Nothing could reach me in that moment.

When clarity returned, it came with one last thought—a kindness I felt obliged to offer the well-dressed rake. “A piece of advice, friend. Don’t swear promises on the name of a dead man. They never go well. They’re rarely fulfilled. And they don’t bring the dead back . . . or any satisfaction.”

My words reached the wrong part of the man, for he threw his open hand against the bars, taking one in his grip and wrenching at it. If he had the strength, I’m sure he would have torn the metal free and sunk his knife through my ribs. But the iron held firm and his grip slackened. Some of the color waned from his face and his collar darkened with sweat seeping into the fabric.

“My name is Ernesto Vengenza. Remember it. Keep it in your mind, now and until the end. I want you to know there is a knife to haunt your dreams. That this knife is waiting to find your heart. And I want you to know the name of the man who will put it there.” Ernesto didn’t return the blade to the man he’d taken it from and turned to leave. The pair at his side gave me one last look before following suit.

You’re in line behind a great many others. I hope you’re content to wait your turn.

The door to the prison shut.

The silence returned.

And this time, no one tried to break it.

Copyright © 2024 from R.R. Virdi

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Excerpt Reveal: Glass Houses by Madeline Ashby

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9780765382924

A masterful near future whodunit for fans of Glass Onion and Black Mirror; join a stranded start-up team led by a terrifyingly realistic charismatic billionaire, a deserted tropical island, and a mysterious AI-driven mansion–as the remaining members disappear one by one.

A group of employees and their CEO, celebrating the sale of their remarkable emotion-mapping-AI-algorithm, crash onto a not-quite-deserted tropical island.

Luckily, those who survived have found a beautiful, fully-stocked private palace, with all the latest technological updates (though one without connection to the outside world). The house, however, has more secrets than anyone might have guessed, and a much darker reason for having been built and left behind.

Kristen, the hyper-competent “chief emotional manager” (i.e., the eccentric boyish billionaire-CEO Sumter’s idea of an HR department) is trying to keep her colleagues stable throughout this new challenge, but staying sane seems to be as much of a challenge as staying alive. Being a woman in technology has always meant having to be smarter than anyone expects….and Kristen’s survival skills are more impressive than anyone knows.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  Glass Houses by Madeline Ashby, on sale 8/13/24


CHAPTER ONE

It feels good to wash the blood off her hands. It had dried tight to her skin, pitting the creases of her knuckles like rust. She is not sure how much of it is her own.

Stray strands of hair, caked in even more blood, come away in her fingers. Recently highlighted, it now drinks the blood eagerly as if to replenish its lost proteins, turning it gloriously red. The air smells of smoke and salt and the kinds of flowers now found only at fancy studios.

She had gotten her roots done before taking the trip. She had gotten everything done. Fingers and toes, legs and underarms and landing strip. Her mouth had filled with light as they gave her TV teeth and a Barbie cunt.

How many days ago was that? The crash makes it hard to remember.

She had emerged from the belly of the plane feet first; felt the sun on her toes. It had tingled, like a numbness receding. Then her grip slipped and she was sliding down and down and down the rest of the way, landing on a pile of battered luggage.

It was like being born.

Now she stands at the lip of the waves and wonders about sharks. They say most sharks kill people in only three feet of water. Pushed by hunger and desperation, they circle closer and closer to the splash patterns blithely made by foolish swimmers and snap them just above the ankle. Her boss said the same was true for startups. In the ocean and in business, it didn’t take a big shark to bloody the waters. All it took was one big bite in the right place, and the competition would bleed out while frantically treading water, desperate to stay afloat.

She walks farther into the ocean. Salt water stings her legs. It is warm. Bathwater warm. Blood warm. So, she is in a warm place. Palm trees. White sands. The sort of paradise they were promised. Their reward—a celebration.

Are the others alive?

The waves hit above her knees. Maybe they are dead. Maybe they are all dead, and this is Hell. Or Heaven. Or purgatory. Maybe this is her own unearned twist ending, the kind that makes no sense.

She wades up to her waist. Here she feels the current’s tug more strongly. She feels better semi-weightless, toes gripping the velvety sand, than she did standing on dry land’s cruel gravity. Bodies are always such a problem. She thinks this must be true for most women. No wonder so many girls fantasize about being mermaids.

She pushes herself deeper, the water up to her chest. Then her chin. Then her eyes. Maybe being dead would be better. More convenient for everyone. More convenient for her, especially.

Survival is work. Hard work.

Underwater, the hair slowly lifts off her scalp. She senses the crusted blood there dissolving, salt returning to salt. It feels like undoing the Velcro on a child’s sneaker. Some of the coders she’s met still wear those. Why would they waste their precious executive function doing something so banal as tying shoelaces? It was like cooking and cleaning and laundry and driving from place to place: things their mothers used to do for them, until they found quieter and more reliable automation elsewhere.

She sinks down lower in the ocean, until the sand hits her knees. Her hands float up without initiative. I surrender, she thinks. At her gym, that’s what the move is called. It is the motion of a soldier holding a gun crosswise, as though marching out of a jungle and kneeling before her captors.

I surrender. I surrender. I surrender. 

A hand brushes hers.

She rockets out of the water. She blinks blind, wet eyes into the dying sun. On the waves in front of her floats a body. He is face up. Birds and bottom-feeders have been at him. He looks like a cake with swipes of frosting missing. The eyes are mostly gone. But she still recognizes the shape, the hair, what is left of the ears. It’s Craig. His sneakers are still on, their proprietary polymers now swollen with salt water just like the rest of him. How long has he been in the water? When did the crash happen? She has no memory of anyone trying to awaken her. Maybe the others had assumed she was dead.

Or maybe they just hoped she was.

“Kristen?” Someone is calling her name.

“Hey! Kristen! Kristen, stop!”

She keeps looking at the horizon. She hears the splash that her boss, Sumter Williams, makes while jumping into the ocean. Her job is to know him well, so she recognizes his gait faster than any airport security system, and identifies the sound of his indrawn breath before she even hears his voice.

“Don’t move! I’m coming!”

He sounds exhausted. Hoarse. It’s his post-conference voice. His throat is dry. If they were at work, she would get him a water and he would have no idea where it came from. But they aren’t at work, so he embraces her from behind. Apparently he has been out of the plane long enough for the hair on his arms to turn golden.

“Stop.” He’s breathing hard. “Please stop.”

“Where did your watch go?” Kristen asks.

What?” He spins her around. He doesn’t look too bad, considering: sunburn, chapped lips, a bruise near one ear, a scrape on his jaw. But he also looks surprised, the kind of surprised that means he’s about to be angry. He seems to want to shake her. “We survive a fucking plane crash and you want to know where my watch went?”

“You love that watch. The band—” The band was your father’s, she is about to say, when he wrenches her to him. The company designed a custom bezel just for you, to fit that band. That’s how much your brand is worth to theirs. But he is stroking her hair and digging his chin in her shoulder. So instead she says what all Canadians say when they feel awkward: “I’m sorry.”

“I’m not mad. I’m just scared. I was scared you were . . .”

“. . . Quitting?”

He chuckles. There’s a slight wheeze to it. “Yeah. Quitting. And I refuse to accept your resignation.” He pulls away and smiles. “I mean it, Kiki. I need you here with me. Between the two of us, you’re the only one who actually knows how to start a fire.”

Kristen remains silent long enough for him to realize his blunder. Perhaps the burn scars are less prominent now. Perhaps he didn’t even notice them when he ran his hand up and down her back.

“Oh, Jesus. Kristen, I’m sorry, I didn’t think—”

“We should take care of Craig,” she says.

So that’s what they do next. Towing his body across the water is easy enough, with Sumter there. It isn’t until they hit the beach that Craig really begins to feel like deadweight.

Sumter sinks into the sand beside her. “He’s heavier than he looks.”

“We’re in shock,” she says. “I think I have a concussion.”

“Let’s see your eyes.” Sumter takes hold of her chin. “This is probably inappropriate,” he murmurs, squinting into her face. He holds up his other hand to shade his view of her eyes. “Well, your pupils are decidedly un-Bowie-like. So that’s something. What was he even doing out there, in the water? What were you doing out there? Did you see him? Is that why you walked out there?”

Kristen shakes her head. “No. I just wanted to clean up. I have cuts . . .” She holds out her hands. “I thought the salt water would help.”

“Smart. But you still scared the shit out of me.”

She is going to be cold, soon. Entering the water with her clothes still on was a bad idea. “When did you get out?”

“Me? I don’t know. An hour ago? Maybe more? The sun was higher up, but . . .” He flicks the skin of his right wrist with the fingers of his left hand. There is a band of skin there where he is whiter than usual. “I remember my arms flying up; my watch must have hit something and fallen off. So I couldn’t contact anyone. That’s why I left you in the plane; I was looking for people. I’m guessing whoever else made it out is doing the same.”

Kristen blinks three times. Then she remembers she’d removed her HeartEyez contacts for the flight. Sumter had removed his, too. They had used them at passport control, and then to log themselves on to the flight manifest. But the lenses dry out during air travel. And they’re mostly useless midair, unless the user needs active monitoring for heart attack or seizures. She’d already turned the Wuv functions off by the time they boarded. She had been looking forward to never needing to use Wuv again. Had she put the lenses in her carry-on? Where is her carry-on? Where is her passport? Biometrics are useless without a reader. Kristen stares at her meaningless fingers, considers her meaningless eyes. Without supporting infrastructure she is nothing, no one—nameless.

It feels liberating.

“You checked on me before you looked for anyone else?”

He scoffs. “Uh, yeah? You were sitting right next to me, remember?”

She doesn’t remember. She remembers helping Sumter with his lenses, in the tiny airplane washroom. But she didn’t wake up in the washroom, so she must have returned to her seat. If the cabin pressure dropped abruptly, would they all have passed out simultaneously? The others on the plane, the dead ones whose corpses she’d crawled past, must not have buckled their seat belts in time. They would have been thrown every which way, if the plane went into free fall or rolled over.

“Do you remember what the plane told us? Did it warn us about a crash?”

Sumter shakes his head. “Nope. It just told us to sit down and buckle up. Turbulence.”

Kristen remembers her bare feet on plush white carpet, the delicate stem of a champagne flute in one hand. The champagne was dry and musky, not too sweet. Actual champagne. Actually French. Not a hint of wildfire on the bouquet. She’d had too much of it.

They’d had so much to celebrate.

“Do you remember anything else?”

“No. It’s a blur. A blur that hurts.” He looks over his shoulder. “There’s an airstrip. The plane must have found it, when it was hunting for a place to land.”

The plane. The plane had found an airstrip. The plane that had told them when it was safe to stand up and when they needed to sit down. Because, of course, they had opted for the easiest flight—the simplest, quickest option between acquisition and celebration. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but an automated one. Sumter chartered the private flight himself. Their plane had no pilot.

“Do you think . . . ?” She licks her lips. Even after her dip in the water they are dry, cracked. She tastes blood. “Do you think someone could have hacked the plane?”

Sumter stares out over the ocean. “What, like our being here is the result of some sadistic plot to strand all the principals of our company on a remote, desert island, where we slowly die of thirst, begging forgiveness for developing the world’s first emotional currency?”

He turns to face her. “Yeah, that thought crossed my mind.”

Copyright © 2024 from Madeline Ashby

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Excerpt Reveal: The Daughters’ War by Christopher Buehlman

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The Daughter's War

Enter the fray in this luminous new adventure from Christopher Buehlman, set during the war-torn, goblin-infested years just before The Blacktongue Thief.

The goblins have killed all of our horses and most of our men.

They have enslaved our cities, burned our fields, and still they wage war.

Now, our daughters take up arms.

Galva — Galvicha to her three brothers, two of whom the goblins will kill — has defied her family’s wishes and joined the army’s untested new unit, the Raven Knights. They march toward a once-beautiful city overrun by the goblin horde, accompanied by scores of giant war corvids. Made with the darkest magics, these fearsome black birds may hold the key to stopping the goblins in their war to make cattle of mankind.

The road to victory is bloody, and goblins are clever and merciless. The Raven Knights can take nothing for granted — not the bonds of family, nor the wisdom of their leaders, nor their own safety against the dangerous war birds at their side. But some hopes are worth any risk.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of  The Daughters’ War by Christopher Buehlman, on sale 6/25/24


CHAPTER ONE

 

I saw my first goblin the same day I saw my first shipwreck.
I was under sail, on my way to war.
On my way to fall in love with death, and with a queen.
On my way to lose all of my friends, and two of my brothers.
I would see a great city fall in blood and fire, betrayed by a
false god.
Later, I would be commanded to die on a high stone bridge,
but I would fail in this.
The rest of the First Lanza of His Majesty’s Corvid Knights
would not fail.
This is not a happy story, but it is a true one.
I have no time for lies, or for liars.

The name of the ship I sailed on was the Rain Queen’s Dagger, and it was a troopmule, packed with goblin-meat, which meant new soldiers like me. It leaked and rolled about during storms, and there was a smell you could not help but wrinkle your nose at. I tried never to wrinkle my nose because this was a haughty way to look, and it reminded me of my father’s first wife, Imelda, who is not my mother.

There had been a battle.

The sea was rough and littered with masts and beams and with sailcloth. Here and there firejelly burned below the waves as though small suns tried to shine in the deep. Here and there the body of a man or a dam, or clumps of them, or goblins, floated.

I had seen goblins dead before, we all had. They do not rot, they just shrink and dry and harden. Flies want nothing to do with them, and only birds with great hunger will peck at them. Sharks will eat them, of course, but a shark will eat a wooden oar, I have seen this. Because they do not rot, everyone was bringing home dead goblins from the last two wars. They were popular exhibits in circuses. We have used many dead goblins in training, especially to make the war corvids hate them.

And they hate them much.

But on this day, I saw my first one living.

It clung to an island of wreckage that was sinking.

One thing I can say for goblins, they look as awful as theyare. They look like they want to eat the meat from your thighs,and they do. Kynd are not always so easy to read—many of us hide cruel natures behind fair faces, or have our kindnesses over-looked because our flesh is twisted.

Goblins are honest killers.

And they are fucked-ugly.

This one looked to be perhaps four feet tall, on the larger side for them; it was a sailor, so it wore a simple hemp jerkin and leggings of kyndwool, or human hair, from the manfarms. I did not know what any of that was at the time. Its tough flesh was pink and gray, and this one was too far away for me to see its teeth, though I knew these were triangular and sharp enough for shaving; nor could I see its tongue, which was shelled. These articulated tongues help them make the buzzes and rasps that serve them for consonants.

This biter was badly injured and trapped, its larger arm caught between two sections of a ship’s hull. And it was not alone. A kynd woman clung to the same wreckage that was grinding the biter’s arm to meat. Her hair was bound in a mariner’s braid, her leather pants puffed at the thighs after the naval fashion, and she came into sight as the wreckage slowly spun. She was injured, too, her linen shirt red at one side, but she did not care about her injury.

She was watching the goblin.

“Help her,” a woman yelled at our ship’s captain. The captain was a whitehair of sixty years with a pipe full of fastleaf and a shapeless red hat; he was like an old sailor from a joke. The dam who shouted had the look of a knight, finely dressed in fine armor, and, if she did not step away from the railing on this rough sea, would soon make a fine ornament on the seabed.

“Turn this fucked thing and save her!” she said again, pointing.

The captain shook his head and puffed, letting smoke out with his words. “We cannot linger. If it was a biter juggernaut that wrecked this ship, as I have heard rumor there’s one in these waters, we’ll be the next ones they pound to kindling.”

The knightly dam saw that the captain was right and said no more about it. Three archers near the ship’s rear, however, began loosing arrows at the goblin. The first shafts missed, thanks to the distance, the motion of the troopmule, and also the spin of the wreckage the sailor and goblin clung to. At last, one arrow struck the biter in its hip, and it rasped like they do, not a sound for forgetting. The shipwrecked woman crawled over to it now. She nearly slipped off the wreckage but caught herself. It tried to bite at her but had neither speed nor strength. She held it down by its neck. She ripped the arrow from its hip and plunged this into its eye, then she stirred the arrow to be sure.

I gasped.

I knew the violence of the sword-yard well—the chipped tooth, the bloodied head, the broken finger. I was also familiar with the blood-business of a country estate—the hanging of pigs and deer, the putting down of sick livestock, the whipping of thieves, and the hanging of poachers and deserters. But this of the arrow and the eye, and the scrambling of the goblin’s brain in its skull, was so sudden and brutal that I was struck with fright.

This was no academy sparring match I went to; this was no bout of footboxing.

We were sailing for a killing field.

The soldiers on our ship cheered, and those on the ship next to us. We were many troopmules, I do not know the number, but too few warships, and only small ones. We had lost our best escort, a royal dreadnought called the Brawling Bear, when it hit a goblin seatrap and had to put in for repairs.

Only with the cheering did the woman realize we were near. To her great credit, she did not beg to be saved. Instead, she waved at us, her hand dark with the creature’s greenish blood.

The kynd on the ships cheered again, some saying “Gods bless you!” or “Mithrenor keep you.” One of the few young men on these ships filled with women yelled “Marry me!”

“I will!” she yelled back, though weakly.

A third cheer rose up, greater than the first, because we could all see that she was a woman of spirit and a good Ispanthian.

And then the little island of ruined wood and rope bobbed up once and sank below the surface of the water with great finality, taking the sailor and the goblin down with it.

The cheer died.

Everyone went silent.

I had now seen a goblin and a human die in this war, and within moments of each other; I have since thought how apt this was.

Our two species are wed in death.

━━━━━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

2

From time to time during this long voyage, I would scan the faces on the deck of the nearest troopmule, looking for my brother, Amiel, so we might wave at one another. I took comfort from this, and I think he took even more. He is no warrior, and this voyage to occupied Gallardia scared him even more than it scared the other green youths, prisoners, and oldsters he shipped with.

I saw him soon after the business with the goblin and the dam.

He wore a good velvet doublet, dove gray and silver, and his ceremonial sword. He had failed the military proofs but, as a duke’s son, was expected to serve in some way. He would be a supernumerary, which means something extra. He would be attached to a wizard, and he would do the tasks his temporary master required.

This was not just any wizard, some starter of small fires or weaver of illusions; one for making love philters, or tattoos that might or might not protect one from minor curses. Fulvir was perhaps the most powerful magicker in the Crownlands, and almost certainly the strongest one openly fighting for us in this war. The goblins would know him, and fear him, and want him dead. My little brother may not have been a fighter, but he was going to war all the same, and I hated it.

I looked more closely at Amiel.

What was he wearing in his hair?

White natal-day ribbons!

I suppose it was the fourth of Highgrass after all.

“Some fucked eighteenth birthday,” I said.

“Whose?” the captain said. “Yours?”

“Well, certainly not yours,” I said back to him, and he laughed in that mad way of fastleaf chewers.

I was not eighteen, though.

I had just turned twenty.

Amiel stood near the prow of his ship, the Lady of Groves, and he scribbled in a writing tablet he was having pains to keep dry in the ocean spray—the seas were still quite rough. I had seen him throwing up for the first days out from Ispanthia, and I had been seasick, too, but only the first day. It is best to be abovedecks for that kind of thing. Today, though, he seemed to be in good form. I worried about him, how could I not?

He was my Chichún.

Well, ours.

We all called him Chickpea because he was the only one of the Duke of Braga’s four children to be born bald. The rest of us had come into the world with thin black hair that soon fell out and grew back thick. But he was mine. I remember struggling to carry him when he was two and I was only four, telling everyone that Chichún was my baby now.

That is the last time I remember wanting one.

Amiel was not just writing, though—he was shouting a poem at the dolphins jumping in the ship’s wake. It was a good poem, about Mithrenor, the god of the sea. Amiel’s long hair was blowing in the wind, making him look quite the romantic figure.

Whose badly fucked idea was it to put such a boy in a war?

And why with the wizard?

I knew that Fulvir, called Fulvir Lightningbinder, had helped to create the war corvids now in the hold below my feet—for this bone-mixing magic, he was also called Fulvir the Father of Abominations. He was rumored to be mad, though those of his country of Molrova all seemed half-mad, with their language of lies. Why must my Amiel be posted with such a man? He could have served our brother Pol, who was a general. It would not have been as good for him to go with our eldest brother, Migaéd, because Migaéd . . . had difficulties.

I had enlisted in an experimental unit, the First Lanza of His Majesty’s Corvid Knights, and we were going to find out how good our birds were at killing goblins. Though we did our best to train it out of them, they had already shown they were good at killing us. Obviously my birds had not yet murdered me, but I had seen a dam killed by her raven—a quick death, it must be said, but difficult to watch if you have not embraced the mysteries of the Bride.

Now I saw a couple of speardams on the Lady of Groves laughing unkindly, watching Amiel at his poetry-shouting. They began to swagger toward the prow of the ship. Clearly they intended mischief, and it seemed to me that women of their age who had not been mustered before must be prisoners.

Knowing how to whistle loudly can be useful, it is something I taught myself to do as a girl. I whistled, and many on that ship looked at me, the bravas with the spears included. I now rolled up my left sleeve to show them the tattoo of the sword wrapped in three flowers. We were perhaps too far away for them to see it clearly, but they knew what it was. They might not have been able to count the flowers, but they recognized the symbol and understood that I had spent some years studying Calar Bajat under a high master of sword. I looked at the speardams in a way to show them I would remember them. Amiel saw me now and waved. I lowered my sleeve and waved back. He then blew me an extravagant kiss, which I returned, though more discreetly. I am not given to fabulous gestures, just what is needed.

The bravas found a better direction to walk in.

Later I would try to remember the poem he shouted at dolphins, but I could not.

“Who is the pup?” Inocenta asked.

You will hear much about Inocenta, she was my best friend, if siblings do not count. Shorter than me, though I am not tall, but stout, and strong of arm and leg. Her ginger hair was what most remembered about her, it is an uncommon color in Ispanthia. I should say, her hair was what you remembered if you never fought her at practice. If you had, you would remember that she moved her axe so fast you had to watch her shoulders to see where it might go, and still you would be wrong; and even if you put your shield in the right place, she’d hit it so hard she’d numb your shield arm to the collarbone. And then of course her next blows came, as fast as clapping. Still, I mostly beat her, though less often than I beat the others. That was in training, though. I would not have wanted to fight her for blood. There was something of the
animal about Inocenta.

“That is my brother,” I said.

“Amiel.”

“Yes.”

“Had to be.”

“Why?”

“Because the other one is a general, and that boy is no more a general than my tits.”

“I have three brothers. And you have no tits, you cut them off.”

“I will cut yours off, too.”

“Maybe if you were faster.”

“I will remind you that you said that when you are picking up your tits. Is your other brother a general too?”

He was a sixt-general. This was not a general who commanded armies, but one who wore a fine suit of armor with no dents in it. This was a general of bordellos and sitting for portraits.

“Not a proper one.”

“What is he, then?”

I considered what to say about Migaéd.

“A luckless gambler,” I said.

Someone on a forward troopmule shouted, “Land, land!”

We were approaching the shores of Gallardia.

Inocenta looked at the horizon we sailed toward.

She said, “So are we all.”

Copyright © 2024 from Christopher Buehlman

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Excerpt Reveal: Brothersong by TJ Klune

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Brothersong

Brothersong is the fourth and final book in the Green Creek Series, the beloved fantasy romance sensation by New York Times bestselling author TJ Klune, about love, loyalty, betrayal, and family.

Complex and startling… Green Creek is the perfect setting.” —Charlaine Harris

The Bennett family has a secret: They’re not just a family, they’re a pack. Brothersong is Carter Bennett’s story.

In the ruins of Caswell, Maine, Carter Bennett learned the truth of what had been right in front of him the entire time. And then it—he—was gone. Desperate for answers, Carter takes to the road, leaving family and the safety of his pack behind, all in the name of a man he only knows as a feral wolf. But therein lies the danger: wolves are pack animals, and the longer Carter is on his own, the more his mind slips toward the endless void of Omega insanity. But he pushes on, following the trail left by Gavin.

Gavin, the son of Robert Livingstone. The half-brother of Gordo Livingstone.

What Carter finds will change the course of the wolves forever. Because Gavin’s history with the Bennett pack goes back further than anyone knows, a secret kept hidden by Carter’s father, Thomas Bennett. And with this knowledge comes a price: the sins of the fathers now rest upon the shoulders of their sons.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Brothersong by TJ Klune, on sale 9/01/24


GONE

“A wolf,” my father once told me, “is only as strong as his tether.

Without a tether, without something to remind him of his humanity, he’ll be lost.”

I stared up at him with wide eyes. I thought no one could ever be as big as my father. He was all I could see. “Really?”

He nodded, taking my hand. We were walking through the woods.

Kelly had wanted to come with us, but Dad said he couldn’t.

Kelly had cried, only stopping when I told him I’d come back and we’d play hide-and-seek. “You promise?”

“I promise.”

I was eight years old. Kelly was six. Our promises were important.

My father’s hand engulfed my own, and I wondered if I would be like him when I grew up. I knew I wasn’t going to be an Alpha. That was Joe, though I didn’t understand how my two-year-old brother would be the Alpha of anything. I’d been jealous when my parents told us Joe would be something I could never be, but it’d faded when Kelly said it was okay, Carter, because that means you and me will always be the same.

I never worried about it after that.

“Soon,” my father said, “you’ll be ready for your first shift. It’ll be scary and confusing, but so long as you have your tether, all will be well. You’ll be able to run with your mother and me and the rest of our pack.”

“I already do that,” I reminded him.

He laughed. “You do, don’t you? But you’ll be faster. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with you.”

I was shocked. “But . . . you’re the Alpha. Of everyone.”

“I am,” he agreed. “But that’s not what’s important.” He stopped under a large oak tree.

“It’s about the heart that beats in your chest. And you’ve got a great heart, Carter, one that beats so strongly that I think you might be the fastest wolf who ever lived.”

“Whoa,” I breathed. He dropped my hand before sitting on the ground, his back to the tree. He crossed his legs, motioning for me to do the same.

I did so, and quickly, not wanting him to change his mind about how fast I would be. My knees bumped his as I mirrored his pose.

He smiled at me as he said, “A tether to a wolf is precious, something guarded fiercely. It can be a thought or an idea. The feeling of pack. Of home.” His smile faded slightly. “Or of where home should be. Take us, for example. We’re here in Maine, but I don’t know if that’s our home. We’re here because of what’s asked of us. Because of what I must do. But when I think of home, I think of a little town in the west, and I miss it terribly.”

“We can go back,” I told my dad. “You’re the boss. We can go wherever we want.”

He shook his head. “I have a responsibility, one I’m grateful for. Being an Alpha isn’t about doing whatever I want. It’s about weighing the needs of the many. Your grandfather taught me that. An Alpha means putting others above yourself.”

“And that’s going to be Joe,” I said dubiously. When I’d seen him last, he’d been in a high chair in the kitchen, Mom scolding him for putting Cheerios up his nose.

He laughed. “One day. But not for a long time. But today is about you. You’re just as important as your brother, as is Kelly. Even though Joe’s going to be the Alpha, he’ll look to you for guidance. An Alpha needs someone like the two of you who he can trust, who he can look to when he’s uncertain. And you’ll need to be strong for him. Which is why we’re here. You don’t need to know what your tether is today, but I’ll ask you to start thinking about it and what it could be to you—”

“Can it be a person?”

He paused. Then, “Why do you ask?”

“Can it?”

He stared at me for a long time. “It can. But having a person as your tether can be . . . difficult.”

“Why?”

“Because people change. We don’t stay the same. We learn and grow and, from new experiences, are shaped into something more. Sometimes, people aren’t . . . well. They aren’t who they’re supposed to be or how we think of them. They change in ways we don’t expect, and while we want them to remember the good times, they can only focus on the bad. And it colors their world in shadows.”

There was a look on his face I’d never seen before, and it made me uneasy. But it was gone before I could ask after it. “Is a tether a secret?”

He nodded. “It can be. Having a tether is… it’s a treasure. One that is unlike anything else in the world. Some even say it’s more important than having a mate.”

I grimaced. “I don’t care about that. Girls are weird. I don’t want a mate. That’s stupid.”

He chuckled. “I’ll remind you of that when the day comes. And I can’t wait to see the look on your face.”

“What’s yours? You can tell me. I won’t say anything to anyone.”

He tilted his head back against the tree. “You promise?”

I nodded eagerly. “Yeah.”

When my father smiled for real, you could see it in his eyes. It was like a light shining from within. “It’s all of you. My pack.”

“Oh.”

“You sound disappointed.”

I shrugged. “I’m not. It’s just… you always talk about pack and pack and pack.” I scrunched up my face. “I guess it makes sense.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Is it the same for Mom?”

“Yes. Or at least it was. Tethers can change over time. Like people, they evolve. Where it once might have been the idea of pack, it’s become more pointed. More focused. For her, it’s her sons. You and Kelly and Joe. It started with you and grew because of Kelly and Joe. She would do anything for you.”

Fire burned in my chest, safe and warm. “Mine won’t ever change.”

My father looked at me curiously. “Why?”

“Because I won’t let it.”

“You sound as if you already know what it is.”

“’Cause I do.”

He leaned forward, taking my hands in his. “Will you tell me?”

I looked up at him, too young to understand the depths of my love for him. All I knew was that my father was here and asking me something that felt important, something just between us. A secret. “You can’t tell anyone.”

His lips twitched. “Not even Mom?”

I frowned. “Well, she’s okay, I guess. But not anyone else!”

“I swear,” he said, and since he was an Alpha, I knew he meant it.

I said, “Kelly. It’s Kelly.”

He closed his eyes. His throat clicked as he swallowed. “Why?”

“Because he needs me.”

“That’s not—”

“And I need him.”

He opened his eyes. I thought I saw a flash of red. “Tell me.”

“He’s not like Joe. Joe’s gonna be Alpha, and he’ll be big and strong like you, and everyone will listen to him because he’ll know what to do. You’ll tell him. But Kelly is always going to be a Beta like me. We’re the same.”

“I’ve noticed.”

I needed him to understand. “When I have bad dreams, he doesn’t make fun of me and tells me everything is going to be okay. When he hurt his knee and it took a long time to heal, I cleaned it up for him and told him it was okay to cry, even though we’re boys. Boys can cry too.”

“They can,” my father whispered.

“And I think about him all the time,” I told him. “When I feel sad or mad, I think about him and I feel better. That’s what tethers do, right? They make you happy. Kelly makes me happy.”

“He’s your brother.”

“It’s more than that.”

“How?”

I was frustrated. I didn’t know how to put the thoughts in my head into words. Words that would show him just how far it went. Finally, I said, “It’s… he’s everything.”

For a moment I thought I’d said the wrong thing. My father was staring at me strangely, and I squirmed. But instead of a rebuke, he pulled me toward him, and it was like I was a cub again as I turned around, settling between his legs, my back against his chest. He wrapped his arms around me, his chin on the top of my head. I breathed him in, and in the back of my mind, a voice that had once been weak whispered as strong as I’d ever heard it.

packpackpack

“You surprise me,” my father said. “Every day you surprise me. I’m so lucky to have someone such as you as mine. Never, ever forget that. And if you say your tether is Kelly, then so it shall be. You’ll be a good wolf, Carter. And I can’t wait to see the man you’ll become. No matter where I am, no matter what has happened, I’ll remember this gift you’ve given me. Thank you for sharing your secret. I’ll keep it safe.”

“But you’re not going anywhere, right?”

He laughed again, and even though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was smiling all the way up to his eyes. “No. I’m not going anywhere. Not for a very long time.”

We stayed there, under a tree in the refuge outside of Caswell, Maine, for what felt like hours.

Just the two of us.

And when we finally went home, Kelly was waiting for us on the porch, gnawing on his bottom lip. He lit up when he saw me and almost tripped as he ran down the stairs. He managed to stay upright, and he tackled me into the grass as our father watched. He threw his hands up over his head as he howled in triumph, a cracked thing that didn’t sound anything like the other wolves.

I grinned up at him. “Wow. You’re so strong!”

He poked my nose. “You were gone forever. I got bored. Why did it take so long?”

“I’m here now,” I told him. “And I won’t leave you again.”

“Promise?”

“Yeah. I promise.”

And as I hugged my tether close, listening to him talk excitedly in my ear about how Joe had stuck two Cheerios up his nose and how Mom had gotten mad when Uncle Mark had laughed, I told myself it was a promise I’d always keep.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” I snapped. “Do you have to follow me everywhere? Dude. Seriously. Back off.”

The timber wolf glared at me.

I tilted my head, listening.

Everyone was in the house. I could hear Mom and Jessie laughing about something in the kitchen.

I jerked my head toward the woods.

The timber wolf huffed out a breath.

I ran.

He followed.

I laughed when he nipped at my heels, urging me on, and in my head, I pretended I could hear his wolf voice saying faster faster faster must run faster so I can chase so I can catch you so I can eat you. We went deep into the forest, bypassing the clearing, heading for the furthest reaches of our territory. The wolf never ran ahead, always staying at my side, his tongue lolling out of his mouth.

We ran for miles, the scent of spring so green I could taste it. Eventually, I stopped, chest heaving, muscles burning from exertion.

I collapsed on the ground spread-eagled as the wolf paced around me, head raised, sniffing the air, ears twitching. When he decided there was no threat, he lay down beside me, head on my chest, tail curled over my legs. He huffed out an annoyed breath in my face.

I rolled my eyes. “Have to keep up appearances. I’ve got a reputation to maintain. You know how much shit I would get if anyone found out?” I flicked his forehead.

He growled, baring his teeth.

“Yeah, yeah. And I wasn’t exactly lying. You do follow me everywhere. A man has got to be able to shit in peace without an overgrown dog scratching at the door. You don’t see me staring at you when you’re squatting in the backyard.”

He closed his eyes.

I flicked him again. “Don’t ignore me.”

He opened one eye. For something that wasn’t exactly human, he certainly could get his exasperation across.

“Whatever, man. I’m just saying.”

He sneezed on me.

“Fucking asshole,” I muttered, wiping my face. “Just you wait. You’ll get yours. Kibble. I’m going to make sure you only get kibble from here on out.”

Thick clouds passed by overhead. I laughed when a dragonfly landed between his ears, causing them to flatten. The translucent wings fluttered before it flew away.

He was a heavy weight upon me.

Once I thought it crushing.

Now it felt like an anchor holding me in place.

It should have bothered me more than it did.

He grunted, a question without words, his breath hot on my chest through my thin shirt.

“Same old, same old. Who, how, why. You know how it is.”

Who are you?

How did you come to be this way?

Why can’t you shift back?

Questions I’d asked over and over again.

He grumbled, lips pulling back over his teeth.

“I know, dude. It’s whatever, you know? You’ll figure it out when you’re ready. Just . . . maybe that could be sooner rather than later? I mean, would it be so bad if you—stop growling at me, you dick! Oh, fuck you, man. Don’t take that tone with me.”

He moved his head, nosing at my arm.

I ignored him.

He pressed harder, more insistent.

I sighed. “You’re spoiled. That’s what’s wrong here. You think you’ve got it good. And you do. Maybe too good.” But I did what he wanted, resting my hand on top of his head, scratching the backs of his ears.

He closed his eyes again as he settled.

We were drifting, just the two of us. The world around us turned hazy, the edges like a dream. Hours passed by, and sometimes we dozed, and sometimes we just . . . were.

I said, “You can, you know?”

I said, “If you want to.”

I said, “I don’t know what happened to you.”

I said, “I don’t know where you came from or what you had to deal with.”

I said, “But you’re safe here.”

I said, “You’re safe with us. With me. We can help you. Ox . . . he’s a good Alpha. Joe too. They could be yours if you wanted.”

I said, “And then maybe I could hear your voice. I mean, totally no homo, but I think it’d be . . . nice.”

He was shaking.

I looked at him, thinking something was wrong.

It wasn’t.

The motherfucker was laughing at me.

I shoved him off me. “Asshole.”

He rolled over on his back, legs in the air, body wiggling as he scratched himself on the ground. Then he fell to his side, mouth open in a ferocious yawn.

“Would it be so bad?” I whispered. “Shifting back? You can’t stay this way forever. You can’t lose yourself to your wolf. You’ll forget how to find your way home.”

He turned his head away from me.

I’d pushed enough for the day. I could always try again tomorrow. We had time.

I sat up, stretching my arms above my head.

His tail thumped on the ground.

“Okay, so where did we leave off last time? Oh. Right. So, Ox and Joe decided it was time for them to mate. Which, honestly, I try not to think about because that’s my little brother, you know? And if I do think about it, it makes me want to punch Ox in the mouth because that’s my little brother. But what the fuck do I know, right? So, Ox and Joe . . . well. You know. Bone. And it was weird and oh so gross, because I could feel it. Oh, shut up, I didn’t mean like that. I meant I could feel it when their mate bond formed. We all could. It was like this . . . this light. Burning in all of us. Mom said she’s never heard of a pack having two Alphas before, but it made sense that it happened with us because of how crazy we already are. Ox is . . . well. He’s Ox, right? Werewolf Jesus. And then he and Joe came out of the house, and I never want to smell that on my little brother ever again. It was like he’d rolled in spunk, and Kelly and I were gagging because what the fuck? We gave him so much shit for it. That . . . that was a good day.”

I glanced down at him.

He was watching me with violet eyes.

“And that’s how it ended. At least the first part. There’s still Mark and Gordo to—”

His tail twitched dangerously. His body tensed.

My hand stilled. “Why do you get like that every time I bring up Gordo? I know you’re an Omega and all and you’ve probably got evil Livingstone magic in you, but it’s not his fault. You really need to get over whatever the hell is wrong with you. Gordo’s good people. I mean, yeah, he’s a dick, but so are you. You guys have more in common than you think. Sometimes you even make the same facial expressions.”

He snapped at me.

I laughed and fell back against the grass, hands behind my head.

“Fine. Be that way. We don’t have to talk about it today. There’s always tomorrow.”

We stayed there, just the two of us, until the sky began to streak with red and orange.

As I sat behind my dead father’s desk for the last time on a cold winter morning, I wondered what he would think of me.

He told me once that difficult decisions must be made with a level head. It was the only way to make sure they were right.

The house was quiet. Everyone was gone.

My father was a proud man. A strong man. There was a time when I thought he could do no wrong, that he was absolute in his power, all knowing.

But he wasn’t.

For someone such as him, an Alpha wolf from a long line of wolves, he was terribly human in the mistakes he made, the people he’d hurt, the enemies he’d trusted.

Ox.

Joe.

Gordo.

Mark.

Richard Collins.

Osmond.

Michelle Hughes.

Robert Livingstone.

He had been wrong about all of them. The things he’d done.

And yet . . . he was still my father.

I loved him.

If I tried hard enough, if I really tried, I could almost smell him embedded in the bones of this house, in the earth of this territory that had seen so much death.

I loved him.

But I hated him too.

I thought that was what it meant to be a son: to believe in someone so much that it caused blindness to all their faults until it didn’t.

Thomas Bennett wasn’t infallible. He wasn’t perfect. I could see that now.

Days ago, I was on a ledge.

Below me was a void.

I hesitated. But I thought I’d already been falling for a long time. I just hadn’t realized it.

That final step came easier than I expected it to. I’d already prepared. Drained my bank accounts. Packed my bags. Prepared to do what I thought I had to.

Which led me to this. Now.

This moment when I knew nothing would ever be the same.

I looked at the computer monitor on the desk.

I saw a version of myself staring back, one I didn’t recognize. This Carter had dead eyes and black circles underneath them. This Carter had lost weight, his cheekbones more pronounced. This Carter had bloodless skin. This Carter knew what it meant to lose something so precious and yet was about to make things worse. This Carter had taken hit after hit after hit, and for what?

This Carter was a stranger.

And yet he was me.

My hand shook as I settled it on the mouse, knowing if I didn’t do this now, I would never do it.

And that’s the point, my father whispered. You are a wolf, but you’re still human. You give all you can, and yet you still bleed. Why would you make it worse? Why would you do this to yourself? To your pack? To him?

Him.

Because it always came back to him.

I thought it always would.

Which is why when I hit the little icon on the screen to start recording, his name was the first thing from my lips.

“Kelly, I. . . .”

And oh, the things I could say. The sheer magnitude of everything he was to me. My mother told me when I was young that I would never forget my first love. That even when all seemed dark, when all was lost, there would be the little pulsing light of memory stored deeply away.

She’d been talking about a faceless girl.

Or boy.

She hadn’t known that I’d already met my first love.

My throat was raw.

I was so very tired.

“I love you more than anything in this world. Please remember that. I know this is going to hurt, and I’m sorry. But I have to do this.” I looked away, unable to watch this broken man speak any more than I had to.

“You see, there was this boy. And he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. He gave me the courage to stand for what I believe in, to fight for those I care about. He taught me the strength of love and brotherhood. He made me a better person.”

I tried to smile to let him know I was okay. It stretched wide on my face, foreign and harsh, before it cracked and broke.

“You, Kelly,” I said hoarsely. “Always you. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

I looked out the window. There was frost on the glass. Snow was beginning to fall. “You’re my first memory. Mom was holding you, and I wanted to take you for myself, hide you away so no one would hurt you.” It was fuzzy, the edges frayed like it’d been nothing but a dream. My mother was wearing sweats, her face free of makeup. Her skin looked soft and glowing. She was speaking quietly, but her words were lost to me, a quiet murmur that disappeared at the sight of who she held.

A tiny hand reached up, the fingers opening and closing.

And there, in the recesses of my mind, I heard her speak four words that changed everything about who I was.

She said, “Look. He knows you.”

I didn’t understand then the earthquake this caused within me.

I poked his fat little cheek, marveling at the way his skin dimpled.

He blinked up at me, eyes bright and blue, blue, blue.

He made a noise. A little squawk.

And I was reborn.

“You’re my first love,” I said in this empty room, lost in the memory of how his hand had wrapped so carefully around my finger. “I knew that when you would always smile when you saw me, and it was like staring into the sun.”

I swallowed thickly, looking away from the window.

“You’re my heart,” I told him, knowing there was a chance he’d never forgive me. “You are my soul. I love Mom. She taught me kindness. I love Dad. He taught me how to be a good wolf. I love Joe. He taught me that strength comes from within.”

My breath hitched in my chest, but I pushed through it. He needed to hear this from me. He needed to know why. “But you were my greatest teacher. Because with you I understood life. What it meant to love someone so blindingly and without reservation. To have a purpose. To have hope. I have been a big brother for most of my life, and it’s the best thing I ever could be. Without you, I would be nothing.”

It hurt to breathe. “I know you’re going to be angry. But I hope you understand, at least a little bit.” I looked back at the screen. “Because I have this hole in my chest. This void. And I know why. It’s because of him.”

Leave. With you. I’ll. Go. With you. Don’t. Don’t touch. Them.

“I have to find him, Kelly. I have to find him because I think without him, there’s always going to be part of me that feels like I’m incomplete. I should have listened to you more when Robbie was gone. I should have fought harder. I didn’t understand then. I do now, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Maybe he’ll want nothing to do with me. Maybe he’ll…”

No. Stay. Back. Don’t want. This. Don’t want. Pack. Don’t want. Brother. Don’t want. You. Child. You are. A child. I am not. Like you. I am not. Pack.

“I have to try,” I pleaded in this empty room. “And I know Ox and Joe and all the others are looking for him, for the both of them, but it’s not enough. Kelly, he saved us. I see that now. He saved us all. And I have to do the same for him. I have to.”

Blood rushed in my ears. My vision was narrowing. There was a heavy weight on my chest, and I couldn’t catch my breath.

I said, “I made you a promise once. I told you that I would always come back for you. I meant it then and I mean it now. I will always come back for you. No matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing, I’ll be thinking of you and imagining the day I get to see you again. I don’t know when that’s going to be, but after you kick my ass, after you scream and yell at me, please hug me like you’re never going to let me go because I won’t ever want you to.”

I tried to say more, tried to continue, but the weight was crushing me, and I bowed my head, claws digging into the surface of the desk. “Fuck. I can’t breathe. I can’t—”

My shoulders shook.

I gave in to it. My eyes burned as I choked on a sob.

I had to finish this while I still could.

It already felt like it was too late. For me. For him.

For all of us.

“Remember something for me, okay? When the moon is full and bright and you’re singing for all the world to hear, I’ll be looking up at the same moon, and I’ll be singing right back to you. For you. Always you.”

I wiped my eyes. The screen was blurry, and the stranger staring back at me looked haunted and lost. “I love you, little brother, even more than I can put down in words. You’ve got to be brave for me. Keep Joe honest. Give Ox shit. Teach Rico how to be a wolf. Show Chris and Tanner the depths of your heart. Hug Mom and Mark. Tell Gordo to lighten up. Have Jessie kick anyone’s ass who steps out of line. And love Robbie like it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.”

And ah, god, there was still so much I had to say, so much I’d never told him, so much he needed to hear from me. That the only reason I was a good person was because of him. That our father would be proud of who he’d become. That when I’d been lost to the Omega, feeling it clawing at me, threatening to pull me down into an ocean of violet, I’d held on with all my might to the ragged remains of my tether, refusing to let it go, refusing to let it be taken from me.

I am alive because of you, I wanted to say.

But I didn’t.

I said, “I will come back for you, and nothing will hurt us ever again.”

I said, “I’ll be seeing you, okay?”

And that was it.

That was all.

A lifetime broken down into a few minutes of begging my pack to understand the terrible choice I was about to make.

I stopped the recording.

I thought about deleting it.

Just . . . deleting it and forgetting about all of this.

It would be so easy.

I’d delete it, and then I’d stand up. I’d leave the office. I’d sit on the steps on the porch until someone came home, and I’d tell them what I’d done and what I was about to do. Maybe it’d be Mom. She’d be smiling at the sight of me, but that smile would fade when she saw the look on my face. She’d rush forward, and I would tell her everything. That I thought I was losing my mind, that I hadn’t known what Gavin was, not until it was too late. That I should have fought harder for him, that I should have told him that he couldn’t leave with Robert Livingstone, he couldn’t leave with his father, he couldn’t leave me. Not when I understood. Not when I knew now what I should have known a long time ago.

Or maybe it’d be Kelly. Maybe he’d know something was wrong. Dust would be kicking up from the tires of his cruiser, the light bar across the top flashing, the siren wailing. He’d throw open the door, the look on his face a mixture of worry and anger.

“What are you doing?” he’d demand.

“I don’t know,” I’d reply. “I’m lost, Kelly. I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know what’s going on, please, please, please save me. Please tie me down so I can never leave you. Please don’t let me do this. Please don’t let me leave. Scream at me. Hit me. Destroy me. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

I saved the video instead.

I stood up.

It was now or never.

Before I left the office, I looked back once.

For a moment, I thought I saw my father standing behind his desk, hand stretched toward me.

I blinked.

There was nothing there.

A trick of the light.

I closed the door for the last time.

And yet. . . .

I hesitated on the porch, duffel bag at my feet.

I told myself it was because I was taking it in. This place. Our territory. A last few breaths of home for whatever lay ahead.

But I was a liar.

I looked down the dirt road, snow falling in flurries and clinging to the trees. No one came.

And still I waited.

One minute turned into two, turned into three, into seven.

When ten minutes had passed, I knew it was now or never. I had stalled long enough.

I picked up my bag.

Stepped off the porch.

And went to my truck.

I climbed inside and closed the door behind me.

I stared up at the house.

I imagined Kelly was with me, sitting in the passenger seat.

He said, “Hold on to me.”

He said, “As tightly as you can.”

He said, “I know it hurts.”

He said, “I know what it feels like.”

My hands tightened on the steering wheel. “I know you do.”

I sighed and reached over to my bag. I unzipped a small pocket on the side and pulled out a photograph. I touched the frozen, smiling faces of my brothers before putting it on the dashboard behind the steering wheel.

And then I left.

As soon as I’d gotten far enough away, I stopped.

I gathered the last of my strength.

I found the bonds within me, bright and alive and strong.

Could I do this?

I found out I could.

It was easier than I expected, slicing through them. At least at first. It wasn’t until the end that I opened the door of the truck and vomited onto the ground, my face slick with sweat.

I gagged as the bonds faded.

My mouth was sour. I spit onto the ground.

“Kelly,” I muttered. “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly.”

It was enough.

The tether.

It was enough.

I pulled myself back up and looked into the rearview mirror. The stranger stared back. I flashed my eyes.

Orange.

Still orange.

I closed the door.

Took a breath.

I looked at the road ahead.

There wasn’t another car for as far as I could see.

I pulled back onto the road.

A few minutes later, I passed a sign telling me I was leaving Green Creek, Oregon, and to come back soon!

I would.

That was a promise.

Copyright © 2024 from TJ Klune

Pre-order Brothersong Here:

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Excerpt Reveal: Gravity Lost by L.M. Sagas

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Gravity Lost by LM Saga

L. M. Sagas follows her fast-paced sci-fi adventure Cascade Failure with an equally explosive sequel, Gravity Lost. Everyone’s favorite fierce, messy, chaotic space fam is back with more vibrant worlds, and the wildest crew since Guardians of the Galaxy.

After thwarting a space station disaster and planetary destruction, the Ambit crew thought turning Isaiah Drestyn over to the Union would be the end of their troubles. Turns out, it’s only the start.

Drestyn is a walking encyclopedia of dirty secrets, and everyone wants a piece of him—the Trust, the Union, even the Guild. Someone wants him bad enough to kill, and with the life of one of their own on the line, the Ambit crew must jail-break the very man they helped capture and expose some of the secrets he’s been keeping before it’s too late.

In the Spiral, everything has a price. In their fight to protect what they love, Eoan, Nash, Saint, and Jal will confront some ugly truths about their enemies, and even uglier truths about their friends. But nothing will come close to the truths they’ll learn about themselves.

You can’t always fix what’s broken … and sometimes, it’s better that way.


Please enjoy this free excerpt of Gravity Lost
by L.M. Sagas, on sale 7/23/24


CHAPTER ONE

SAINT 

“I did tell you not to touch my shit.” Nash snatched her bag back from the wide-eyed security  technician as alarms bathed the checkpoint in red. She didn’t even look inside; just thrust her hand in, fiddled around, and  after a few seconds the alarms stopped. “What the hell was that?” said the tech, face flushing  and blanching at the same time, in cheese-curd blotches. He  watched the bag as Nash reclaimed it, like he half-expected whatever he’d touched to jump out and take a bite out of him.

Go with that instinct, Saint thought. He didn’t actually  know what’d set everything off; could’ve been any one of the  half-dozen fun, fantastically dangerous toys Nash kept in that  bag. Being the crew medic and mechanic came with some interesting equipment. Nash ignored the tech and turned back to Saint. “You heard  me, right? I told him not to touch it.” “You told him,” Saint agreed, gravely. He’d stopped a few  steps back from the checkpoint, mostly to wait his turn for  the scanner, but also to enjoy the show. Had to get your kicks where you could on a slow day, and lately, they’d had nothing  but slow days. Nearly four months posted on that satellite, and in that time, Saint hadn’t had to punch, shoot, or bury a single soul. He woke up, drank his coffee, did his job, and went back to bed, and then he woke up and did it all over again. 

Streaks like that never held. 

With a damn right nod, Nash turned back to the tech. “You want to lose a finger, Newbie? Because that’s how you lose a  finger.” 

“Maybe a hand,” Saint said. 

“Possibly the whole arm,” Nash agreed. “Say, Newbie, you a lefty or a righty?” 

The newbie didn’t manage much more than an uneasy stare as Nash zipped her bag and shouldered it. That stare said he couldn’t decide if she was joking or if she was genuinely, ball shrivellingly terrifying. Don’t worry, Saint thought. She has that effect on every one. Even Saint. Maybe especially Saint, because he knew her well enough to know that ball-shrivellingly terrifying was an undersell. 

It took the tech a handful of seconds to recover. “Wait,” he said, finally. “I need you to sign in.” 

“First shift, huh?” Saint thought he looked new. They’d passed through that checkpoint over two hundred times, coming and going. Always the same trip down the same hall at the same time of day; the only thing that ever changed was the technicians. A new face every few weeks—newbies on break-in rotation, and this guy fit the bill. Way too green to be a transfer, and if he’d hit his twenties, it was only by the tip of his  pimpled nose. His oversized uniform said he’d either lied about his measurements, or just felt real optimistic that he still had some growing to do. They’re running a damn daycare down here. Saint guessed every organization had its version of a mail room; theirs just included a few more deadly weapons. 

“We’ve got a standing reservation,” Nash told him, shrugging her bag onto her shoulders. “Table for two, under Shooty McBlastinshit.” 

Saint pinched the bridge of his nose. “You have got to let  that go.” 

“Over my cold, dead body,” Nash replied sweetly. “That’s Shooty with a Y,” she told the tech. “And McBlastinshit with  a—” 

“We’re with the Ambit.” Saint cut in, and Nash coughed  something into her elbow that sounded conspicuously like  buzzkill. He ignored her. “Designation GS 31–770. We’re here  for prisoner escort.” And while the tech fumbled with his holo screen, Saint took his turn in the scanner. Christ, he hated  the things.

Every screw and plate in every bone, every keep sake shard of shrapnel under his skin, put on display. Always earned him a certain look, like one the Ambit got whenever they docked her in a new port. Like how the hell’s that thing still running? 

Stubbornness was probably as good an answer as any. 

“You’re clear,” the tech managed to say, in a voice that tripped on a crack and landed a pitch higher than it started.  

Out of the corner of his eye, Saint thought he saw Nash hiding a smile as he grabbed his shit from the bin. Belt and holsters, wallet and flask. Nash had already made it a few steps down the hall, so Saint dressed while he walked to catch up. 

He wouldn’t miss it. Not the checkpoint, not the scanner, not the sterile white lights and bare metal walls of the secured sector. The Alpha Librae Satellite wasn’t exactly a tourist destination, even in the more civilized parts. Built into the icy crust of the sixth-largest Saturn moon, it was more colony than satellite, but never let it be said the Guild didn’t know the power of  a word. Colony came with a whole lot of well-earned baggage  that the Guild just didn’t want to carry. 

So. Satellite.

It domed up out of the ice, about 140 meters at  its highest point. Like a massive militarized snow globe, Nash liked to say. Ever wondered what’d happen if you shook it?  Saint leaned more toward iceberg, though: way more shit happening under the water than above it. Structures plunged like stalactites into the ocean below, all chitin and silica and oxidized aluminum alloy, woven together into something almost organic.

Like coral grown around the bones of scuttled ships along the coasts where he’d grown up. Had to go deep; all the station’s power came from the hydrothermal vents at the moon’s core, and it turned out they didn’t make extension cords that  long. The temp in the station never rose above a balmy seventeen degrees Celsius, which meant creaky joints for Saint, and a near-endless rotation of hand-knit sweaters and shiny bomber  jackets for Nash.

There in Sector F, though, he swore it got even colder. Set into the deeper parts of the satellite, it had the silence of something buried. Sector F was where the Guild housed most of its security operations—station surveillance, armory, the brig. Even the lobby past the checkpoint felt like something out of a penitentiary, without so much as a potted plant to spruce it up. No place to sit, no pictures on the walls, just two rounded elevator bays cutting through the center of the room like glass tree trunks. Only one of them serviced all the floors of the sector; the other was overflow for the administrative floors. 

Nash and Saint made for the one marked brig access. 

“Okay,” said Nash, as they walked. “Who shit in your sugar flakes?” 

“What?” 

“All the bitching you’ve been doing about our babysitting detail, I’d have thought you’d be thrilled to pass the torch. Half expected you to dance your way to the brig.” 

“Not much of a dancer,” he replied. 

“Cry one single, solitary tear of joy?” 

“You know satellite atmo dries me out.” 

“Not even a little jazz hands?” She glanced over, and he sighed and stuck up his hands. Gave them a wiggle. Got a grimace for his efforts. “Aw, sad hands.” 

“I’m not sad.” 

“Tell that to your frown lines.” 

“They’re not frown lines. They’re line lines. It’s called get ting old.” 

Nash snorted. “You’re not even forty,” she said, patting his  arm as he hit the call button and keyed in his access code on the biometric pad. Code, facial recognition, retinal scan; they really didn’t want anybody getting into that elevator without a damn good reason and some damn high clearance. “Relax, you’ve still got a few good years left in you before I gotta start replacing parts.” 

Whatever face Saint pulled, it screwed so badly with the facial rec that the pad flashed red. He shot her a flat look over his shoulder, like look what you did, but she just smiled and gave him another pat. Don’t know why I bother. “Nobody’s replacing my parts,” he grumbled as he rekeyed his code. This time the facial rec and retinal scanner got what they needed, and the doors slid open. “My parts work fine. I like my parts.”

He’d just like them better with a little less scar tissue was all. Maybe forty wasn’t old, but Saint felt that way. Old and tired, in ways even four months’ downtime couldn’t fix. He shook his head.  

“Get in the damn elevator.” 

She did, but probably only because the doors had started to close. He slid in right after her, his back to the rounded glass walls as they started their descent. That elevator was the only way in or out of the brig’s high-security ward. Main brig, you could take the stairs if shit got dicey, but for the unlucky bastards in deep lockup, that was it—one long umbilical stretching down another hundred meters from the brig, ready to get snipped at the first sign of trouble. Hit the right button, trip the right alarm, and the whole ward could be detached from the rest of the station and jettisoned into the dark.

Alpha Librae didn’t fuck  around. 

Not a bad view, though, once they got down past the brig.  

Floors of dull lobbies rose like curtains around the elevator, until only ocean remained. If he looked up, Saint could still make out the backlit windows of all the different stalactite structures of the station glittering like diamonds in the dark. Like stars whose glow haloed the whole station below the water’s surface. He’d have been content to take the ride in silence, watching the lights grow dimmer as they sank farther and farther away. 

Nash had other ideas. “Seriously, though,” she said, leaning back against the wall with her arms crossed. “Bad mood. What gives? It’s our last day of daycare—we should be celebrating. Cap, back me up, here.” 

“You know I don’t take sides,” Eoan’s airless voice said  over the comms.

Nash and Saint were a long way from the Ambit, which was still docked in one of the surface ports, but the signal came clear as day. Nash had done a lot of tinkering with their comms since the shitshow on Noether.

Her way of coping, and something to do with all the time she spent holed up on her own. Socializing hadn’t been too high on her to-do list lately. “Although . . .” 

Saint scowled. “There’s no although.”

“Nothing to talk about that they hadn’t already talked about the other couple hundred times they’d taken that long-ass ride on that slow ass elevator. The trouble with an underwater base was all the damn pressure. The car had to stop every thirty meters or so to let folks’ ears pop or to rejigger the gas mixtures, because apparently oxygen did some real weird shit at depth. Nobody wanted a bunch of stoned rangers stumbling around, bleeding out of their ears.

Eoan chuckled, voice warm with amusement. Lot of folks didn’t expect that kind of affection from a centuries-old AI, but with the benefit of years under Eoan’s command, Saint knew better. He’d never met a captain with more grit, compassion, and sheer damn savvy than their Eoan. Even if they did have a cosmic curious streak and a bad habit of playing Secret Science Experiment with their crewmates.

Undeterred, they said, “It’s just an observation, dear. You’ve never been fond of prisoner details, and I know this one’s been harder to stomach than most.”

“It’s been fine.”

“Bullshit,” said Nash. “It’s been boring as hell. Same thing day after day after day. I wanted to scramble my brains with a knitting needle by week three, and I actually have hobbies outside of work. Don’t tell me you’re not going full-on non compos mentis in this bitch.”

“I didn’t know you spoke Latin,” Saint muttered.

She ignored him. “You hate this detail,” she said. “I know you do. Cap knows you do. But you’re walking around today, our last day of this snoozefest, in your own personal storm cloud. So, I say again: What. Gives.” She punctuated the words with a poke to Saint’s chest and a stare promising tragedy and torment if he even thought about giving her the runaround.

He might’ve chanced it, anyway, but Eoan intervened. “It’s not about the detail, is it?” they said. It sounded like a question, but for Eoan, it was more like a hypothesis. They’d considered all the variables and arrived at the most likely explanation. “It’s been quite nice, hasn’t it? Having the Red family on base. I hear Regan’s doing excellent things in the communications division.”

Well, Eoan wasn’t wrong.

At first they hadn’t been sure where Jal and his family would end up after Jal recovered enough to travel. The Captains’ Council didn’t stick to one place, and shit had been so crazy there for a while, he could’ve gotten shipped to any one of a half-dozen Guild outposts. Wasn’t until about a month after the Ambit’s assignment to Alpha Librae that the council finally decided to bring Jal there for the hearings, and everything kind of sorted itself out after that. Regan got herself a position as a comms engineer; Eoan pulled some strings, got Bitsie into school with all the other station kids; and Jal had ready access to the best docs on offer, Nash included, while he finished healing from the fall on Noether that should’ve killed him. Couldn’t have worked out better.

Except.

“Does he know we’re shipping out tomorrow?” Eoan asked gently.

Except for that.

Saint sighed again, rolling his neck and shoulders. Damn cold always made him seize up like a rusty hinge. “He does.”

“And how’d he take it?” Nash, this time, but she didn’t look at him as she asked it. She’d turned to the wall, puffing hot breath on the glass and drawing her finger through the fog. She and some other poor, bored bastard had a running series of tic tac-toe games—maybe fifteen rounds and counting. She drew an X in the bottom right corner, scratched a line through it and the two above it, and drew a smiley face below it. No new hash. No sixteenth game.

“I don’t know,” Saint admitted.

Nash squinted. “You don’t know?”

“That’s what I said.”

“How do you not know?”

You don’t know, either, Saint tactfully didn’t point out. Wasn’t like she spent a lot of time with Jal, anyway. Tagged along with them for drinks a few times, and dragged Jal aboard the Ambit sometimes to upgrade the specs she’d made him. For the most part, though, Nash kept her distance, and Saint couldn’t help wondering if it was because Jal reminded her of something she’d rather forget.

Or someone, maybe.

“I thought he took it fine, all right?” he said instead. “But we were supposed to meet up last night, and he begged off last minute. Hasn’t answered any of my comms since.”

Nash raised a hand. “Yeah, I’m gonna say definitely not taking it all right.”

“Thanks for that.” Brutal honesty was just another service Nash provided. She’s right. He’d told himself something similar—just a lot of murky water under that particular bridge. If the kid was having trouble getting left behind again, Saint could hardly blame him.

It just . . . didn’t sit right. Jal’d been so damn serious about keeping in touch and, Don’t you leave without a proper send off, old man, or I’ll hop a ship and run you down myself. Kid wasn’t exactly the sulking type, either. Golden retriever personified. So maybe that did have something to do with the knot in his stomach. The itch between his shoulder blades.

Or maybe those had more to do with what waited at the bottom of that elevator.

“Well, shit,” said Nash, shrugging. “If that’s what’s got your holsters in a hitch, miner boy could always come with us. We’ll have to, like, quadruple our food stocks, but I didn’t hate having the guy around last time. You know, once we got past the whole fugitive deserter with a chip on his shoulder thing.”

Saint shook his head. He’d left Jal behind once, and it’d been one of the worst mistakes of his life. Things were different now, though. “Kid went through hell to get where he’s at.” Back with his sister and niece, alive and safe and happy. “I’m not pulling him away from that.”

“So we’re just gonna sulk about it and hope it goes away. Got it.” Nash was first off the elevator when it finally slid to a halt, clapping him on the shoulder as she passed. “Good talk.”

“Was it?”

“Was for me.” She swept ahead into the central hub of the security pod. Not much to look at—just a round space with a single control console jutting out of the floor in the middle. Five offshoot hallways, like the legs of a sea star, led to the high security cells; but the whole time Saint had been there, only one of the cells had been full.

“One last time,” said Eoan encouragingly. “Whenever you’re ready, you’re clear all the way to the secondary dock, and the Union transport ship is ready and waiting for delivery. Let’s finish this out with our heads high, shall we?”

Saint didn’t much care about high heads or low, just that in a half hour or less, it would be finished. He nodded to Nash as she took position at the console, punching in her credentials and the access code for the middle cell of the sea star—creatively labeled Holding C.

Standing before the thick cell door, Saint swallowed against the acid heat rising in his chest. Nearly four months, and it hadn’t gotten any easier to stare down the man behind that door. To remember what he’d done and who he’d done it to.

“Opening the porthole,” Nash said, and a beat later a panel on the door slid open at waist height.

“Hands.” Saint’s voice sounded so mechanical, so automated, it could’ve been part of the building. Just another moving part, just another piece of protocol in action. His own hands clenched to fists at his sides, before he forced them loose and reached for the cuffs on the back of his belt.

A beat later, another pair of hands came through the port hole, palm-up. White and scarred, with calluses that even months of captivity hadn’t worn away. They seemed too small, too fine-boned and aristocratic, to have drawn as much blood as they had.

Jaw clenched to aching, Saint clamped the cuffs around those wrists and tightened them flush. A man could be as wily as he wanted to be, but the only way he’d slip those cuffs would be to leave his hands behind. “Clear,” Saint called back to Nash, and he counted off three, two, one in his head before the door opened.

It didn’t slide, didn’t part; it opened from the porthole in the middle like an antique camera shutter, individual panes twisting and withdrawing into the walls to reveal the man inside.

Isaiah Drestyn didn’t look like a man with a rap sheet, much less one as long and varied as the one he had. He was about a dec shorter than Saint and built like a reed, eyes soft and sloping on a pale, pockmarked face. Only sign he’d ever seen trouble was the web of scars across one side of his face, a memento from the refinery fire that’d killed his brother and kick-started him on the winding path to, well, here. Looked more like a preacher or a poet than the kind of man who could gladly sacrifice an entire space station to a planet-killing computer virus for the sake of showing the world what its makers were capable of.

Saint wasn’t sure anybody in the universe could hate something or someone more than Drestyn hated the Trust. For the man who’d run Jal off a rooftop, though? Saint would surely try.

“Move,” Saint said, and Drestyn moved. His slippered feet slid across the diamond-plate floors, and his stiff scrubs rustled; otherwise, he didn’t make a sound. No talking—the speech jammer around his throat saw to that. Distorted his voice when he spoke, so he never managed much more than nonsense, and the opaque white shield over the bottom half of his face thwarted any would-be lip-readers. The Captains’ Council’d had a strict hush order on him since day one, and for good reason. The man was a goddamn encyclopedia of hard truths and batshit conspiracies, and since nobody’d come up with a good way to sort one from the other, Saint reckoned it was better he kept them to himself.

Nash led the way back into the elevator, punching one of the buttons on the console as she passed it. Not back to the lobby this time, but all the way up to the private docks in one of the auxiliary surface domes. You didn’t escort a man like Drestyn through a populated shipyard, especially since the Guild had never managed to track down his two accomplices from Lewaro. For all Saint knew, the pair was out there plotting a jailbreak that very second.

“You know,” Nash announced into the strained silence, somewhere around the three-minute mark. Elevators had a way of stretching time like taffy, and Nash didn’t handle idle very well. “I’m really starting to rethink my position on elevator music. Some smooth jazz, a little bebop—shit, I’d take a ten minute drum solo. Might really help cut the awkward.”

Awkward didn’t quite cover it, Saint thought, but what did it matter? Just one last time. One last trip.

Finally, the doors slid open to the private docks. Felt like walking into a frosted fishbowl; from a distance, the hexagonal tiles of the dome faded into something rounded and smooth, a clear wall against the white haze of water vapor rising off the ice. Despite the dome’s thermal insulation, Saint’s breath fogged in front of his face, and condensation settled on the outside of Drestyn’s face shield as they stepped out onto the docks.

A single Union transport vessel waited down walkway, not too different in design from the Ambit, with mothlike wings and thrumming quad-thrusters. It wasn’t made to carry much, but it was made to carry it quickly. The sort of vessel you chose when you expected trouble and wanted good odds of shaking it with your ass and ship firmly intact.

Four uniformed Union security officers stood at the ship’s hatch, navy-blue fatigues crisp and berets tipped slightly to one side, and an un-uniformed man and woman stood a few paces farther down. Seemed to be shooting the shit.

“And here’s our guest of honor,” said the man when he noticed them approaching. He was the kind of tall, rangy fella that you just knew would play dirty in a bar fight—and probably come out on top because of it. Had a fading tan and a drawl that made Saint a little homesick, a single revolver on his belt, and a head begging for a cattleman hat. Cowboy came to mind, but Saint couldn’t take the credit for it; he’d heard it a dozen times across a dozen retellings and conversations, as many critical as they were complimentary. Captain Dalton Raimes had a bit of a reputation in the Guild. Youngest buck on the council, but some were convinced he only got the promotion so the rest of the council could keep a closer eye on him.

Sure, here’s the text with adjusted spacing:

Of course he’d be the one overseeing the transfer.

“You must be Saint and Nash,” Raimes said amiably, pointing to each in turn. Not Toussaint and Satou—clearly not the type to stand on occasion. Saint was suddenly sure he’d be a friendly drunk, but only because he sounded half-drunk already and greeted them with a cheerful cant of a smile. “Me and Mister Agitator here have already had the pleasure, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t shake his hand.” He stepped one foot back to gesture to the woman he’d been talking to. Short purple hair, tall as the day was long; she looked damn near Amazonian next to Raimes, with a stern brown face and muscles visible through her white jumpsuit. A getup like that was as much a statement as a dare: I don’t expect to get dirty today, and if I do, it’ll be your blood I’m bleaching out in the wash. “This here’s Phillipa Casale, head of Union security.”

“Head,” said Nash. “Kind of high on the food chain for a milk run.”

Casale let out a bark of a laugh that echoed all the way through the small dome and back again. “Milk run. She’s funny,” she said to Raimes. Then, to Nash, “You’re funny.” Then, like a flipped switch, her face went serious. “Our agreement with the Trust makes the Union responsible for Drestyn’s security while we have him in our custody. If he gets away, if he gets dead—not so good for us. So, they send me.” She made a quick gesture toward the four uniforms, who stepped up and took Drestyn off Saint’s hands like he wasn’t one of the deadliest people in the universe. Cuffed and gagged and diminished, somehow, by the faded gray scrubs he wore, he didn’t look the part.

It was harder than it should’ve been to let those Union officers shepherd Drestyn away into the belly of their ship. At the top of the gangway, Drestyn stopped. Just for a moment, just long enough to turn back and give Saint a look he couldn’t begin to interpret. Meaningful, purposeful—a question, but one too short-lived for Saint to decipher—before a shove from one of the officers sent him deeper into the ship. Out of sight. Out of reach.

“Good luck with that one,” said Raimes. “Keep on your toes. Fella might have the whole buttoned-up accountant vibe going on, but believe you me, he’s slicker than a wet cat in an oil drum. Not much of a conversationalist, either.”

“Conversation isn’t my department,” Casale replied. An all-clear call came from inside the ship, and that seemed to be her cue. “We’re behind schedule. Good meeting you, funny girl. Saint. Councilor.” She nodded to each of them in turn, and with one last handshake with Raimes, she set off into the ship after her crew.

Saint watched until the hatch slid closed, then forced his eyes away. It was done, and damn whatever feelings he had on the matter. Onto the next.

“Must be a relief,” said Raimes, starting back for the elevator and motioning for them to follow. Wouldn’t pay to still be in the dome when the air lock opened, and those engines were already starting to turn the air uncomfortably warm. After all that time in all that cold, Saint started sweating under his jacket. “Y’all headed back into the great wide yonder? The frontier,” he clarified, when Nash gave him an odd look as they stepped onto the elevator. “Heard that’s your usual stomping grounds. Give Captain Eoan my regards.”

“They can hear you,” said Nash, tapping her earpiece.

Raimes rolled with it. “My regards then, Captain Eoan. Been a while.”

“Indeed,” Eoan agreed, broadcasting their voice through the external speakers on the earpieces. “Congratulations again on the promotion.”

“Is that what this is?” Raimes said. “Feels an awful lot like time-out with benefits and time-and-a-half pay. Keep your friends close…” He trailed off as the elevator slowed to a halt halfway down to the sector lobby. Administrative floor. Turning on his heel, Raimes back-walked off the elevator with a half-cocked salute. “Be seeing you.”

As soon as the door closed, Nash mimicked his salute. “Jesus, he’s like a caricature of himself. And what was that bit about not much of a conversationalist? I thought we weren’t supposed to talk to Drestyn.”

“We aren’t,” said Eoan, and Saint knew that pained them more than anyone. They’d never been able to pass up an unanswered question, and Drestyn was about three thousand unanswered questions stacked together in a trench coat. But Eoan had changed, since the Deadworld Code incident. They hadn’t gotten any less curious, but they had gotten more cautious. Noether had shown them things—fear, danger, death—in a way they’d never experienced. Intensely. Personally. Their whole world had shifted, and AI or not, that took time to work through.

And they had to be careful here. Too many security cameras, too many watchful eyes, too many people with strong opinions about who should and shouldn’t be talking to Drestyn. They’d drawn some heat of their own, too, with what folks had started calling the Redweld Leak. Nobody knew it was the Ambit crew that’d released Yarden’s extremely detailed, extremely unflattering Trust records to the public, and most people were content to blame it on Drestyn and his two escaped crewmates. Still, some had their suspicions. Better for the crew to lie low, let the clouds blow over, so that was what they’d done.

“But Raimes said—” Nash started.

Eoan interrupted gently. “Raimes has always had a somewhat… flirtatious relationship with the rules. Two weeks into Drestyn’s hold on Alpha Librae, he shut off his security feeds and had himself a friendly tête-à-tête with our resident agitator, ostensibly to try to get the locations of his accomplices. It was all in the memo.”

Nash glanced over at Saint. “Did you know they sent memos?”

“I did.” He’d simply continued his proud tradition of not reading a single goddamn one of them.

Eoan gave a long-suffering sigh. “Impossible, the both of you. I blame myself, really,” they added, with the mock dismay of a parent who’d indulged their children too long. “For what it’s worth, it was only the once, and I understand Drestyn wasn’t particularly forthcoming.”

“A damn waste,” Nash said. “Four months’ exclusive access to a walking database of the Trust’s dirtiest laundry, and we couldn’t even talk to the guy. And now he’s just.” She waved her hand. “Gone. Poof. Don’t you want to know what kind of skeletons our commercial overlords are hiding in their collective closet? I mean, the Redweld Leak was a good start, but you know that barely scratched the topcoat.”

Saint frowned as the floor display ticked down. Only a few floors left to the lobby. “It’d be a bad idea. The Trust and the Union were at each other’s throats for months to get first dibs on Drestyn. The Guild starts meddling, they might get the impression we’re trying to jump line and start some shit.”

“Maybe it’s time the Guild started some shit,” Nash shot back. “Neutral preservation of human life.” Saint had said it so much, it’d turned into a mantra. The oath he’d taken, and the path he followed. “That’s what we signed up for.”

Nash turned away, hands shoved in her pockets and lips pursed in a thin line. “Yeah, well, I’m starting to think neutrality’s not an option anymore. If it ever was.”

And that, for better or for worse, was when the elevator stopped.

The door’d barely opened when Nash strode out, elbows out and shoulders straight in her unmistakable you’re wrong, I’m right, and you’re lucky I like you too much to put my boot up your ass march.

Saint followed at a slightly less fuck you pace, but just before he caught up to her, Nash stopped abruptly.

“What the—?” she said.

He had his sidearm drawn before he even saw the problem. Knew from Nash’s voice that it was trouble, and she didn’t disappoint. Down the hall at the security checkpoint, the baby-faced recruit lay sprawled across the floor, slack and unmoving. Unconscious was the knee-jerk mental sitrep, followed closely by not alone. Above him, a hooded figure hunched over his console. No uniform, just mismatched clothes so big that they obscured the size and shape of the person underneath. A full-face tactical mask and gloves made it so Saint couldn’t have guessed one thing about them.

Other than, it turned out, that they had a decent set of reflexes. The figure’s head jerked up, and in the split second it took Saint’s finger to reach the trigger, they yanked something from the console and launched themself in the opposite direction.

“Go!” Nash shouted, already sliding to her knees by the newbie. The medic in her couldn’t leave him lying there, as much as the fighter in her wanted to give chase. Saint would have to handle that for both of them.

He took off after the figure, fast as his legs would carry him. “Cap, we’ve got a hostile leaving the Sector F lobby,” he hissed down the comms as the figure breached the first security door. Whoever they were, they’d had the sense to swipe the tech’s access badge. It went beyond that, though. The whole station was monitored all hours of the day. One of the three dozen cameras or sensors or mics in the hall should’ve picked something up, triggered an alarm, but nothing happened. Not so much as a blip of the emergency lights overhead, and it didn’t make sense. Didn’t make a goddamn bit of sense, but the timing—the day of Drestyn’s transfer, minutes after the handoff—set Saint’s teeth on edge. His muscles burned with the effort of propelling him faster, faster, faster in the stranger’s wake.

Goddamn automated security. Downside to relying too heavily on technology; warm bodies might’ve flagged a figure hightailing it out of the brig and done something about it, but warm bodies were at a premium for the Guild, and they’d much rather have them out in the universe pulling jobs and making caps than burning resources on a satellite.

He growled as the hooded stranger blew through another authorized personnel only door. “Might need some reinforcements to head him off, Cap!” If the alarms wouldn’t sound themselves, maybe Cap could sound them instead. Fast, he hoped. One more door, and they’d be out of Sector F completely.

But Eoan’s reply, when it came, was a distracted “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“What?” Saint snapped, boots sliding as he cleared the last door between the secured halls of Sector F and the concourse. By then, he was nearly a rockhopper’s length behind the stranger. Barely had eyes on them, tracking them more by the disgruntled people they’d bolted through than a direct line of sight. Fuck, they’re fast. Saint could count on one hand the people he’d seen run like that. One finger, maybe. “How the hell is that not a good idea? We don’t find a way to block this bastard, we’re gonna lose them.”

It’d be easy to lose anybody in a place like that. The Alpha Librae concourse was like the rail stations back home on Earth—a five-story terminal stretching up to the center of the main dome and down to lush green space that supplied half the satellite’s oxygen. Enclosed gangways ran the circumference of every floor, next to office spaces and little shops and housing on the lower levels. More gangways crisscrossed the opening in the middle like threads on a great round loom, and everywhere you looked, corridors branched off to all different parts of the satellite, from secured spaces to the market sector to the port and everywhere in between. If Saint lost sight of the stranger there, he might never pick them back up again.

“Just follow him,” said Eoan. Him, like they knew something he didn’t.

A beat later, Nash’s voice came down the line. “Newbie’s waking up. He’s got no idea what hit him, but he’ll be okay.”

Saint made a judgment call and, mid-run, switched to riot rounds. If he wasn’t chasing a killer, he’d much prefer a chance to talk. No hush order to contend with here.

Miraculously, he got the leggy son of a bitch back in his sights. Picked him out of the crowd as the figure ducked suddenly sideways down one of the corridors, through an archway marked maintenance.

“He’s headed to maintenance, Cap.”

“I know a shortcut,” said Nash, because of course she did. A stroll through the underbelly of a satellite for Nash was like an art gallery for, well, people who were into art galleries. “Newbie’ll be fine; I’m headed your way. Let’s see if we can jam this asshole up.”

Sounded good to Saint, though he was shocked he could hear a damn thing over the roar of blood in his ears. His racing heart. The smack of his boots against the gangway. He liked to think he was in good shape, but whoever this was, they had him seriously reevaluating his cardio regimen as they blew through the door to the maintenance bay. The change from the concourse was stark, startling—finished, glossy walls to exposed pipes with all sorts of peeling warnings; solid flooring and railing to paper-thin, perforated metal catwalks that rattled under his weight. Down a flight of stairs, double back, down another flight, just in time to watch the stranger vault over a knee-high, boxy air handler and disappear into the forest of ductwork and steel off the catwalk’s beaten path.

“Stop, goddamn it!” Saint shouted, barreling over the unit and trying not to wince at the give of too-thin metal under his too-heavy frame. He wasn’t made for this. He was a bare knuckle brawler, a grunt made to trudge through swamps and deserts and half-sunken cities. But what he also was, and what he did have going for him, was this: he was the stubbornest son of a bitch you ever met, and he wasn’t stopping ’til his heart gave out.

Or, ’til the catwalk did. He heard the snap only a split-second before the narrow walkway dropped out from under him, and by then, it was nearly too late. Reflex alone had his arms out in time to catch the railing. His ribs slammed into the edge of the remaining catwalk as his hips and legs dangled over a seventy, eighty-dec drop.

“Shit!”

It took Saint a second to parse that out through the cold-blooded, lizard-brained panic of dangling over a deadly drop by a few bits of untrustworthy metal. He hadn’t cursed, and the vibration through the catwalk had gotten closer, instead of farther.

With a growl, he swung a leg over the side and made a grab for his gun, just as the stranger came into view. Coming back to finish him off? To help? Whichever it was, he clearly hadn’t expected to come back to the business end of Saint’s pistol.

“Wait!” It was more a yelp than a command, but it did the job. Saint paused. He knew that voice. The stranger’s hands rose in the universal sign of surrender, and when Saint didn’t shoot, they kept moving. “Just wait,” said the stranger, again, softer. Gloved fingers found the hem of his hood and the clasp of his mask. They came away almost as one, and even in the spare, hazy light of the maintenance bay, Saint knew exactly who he’d been chasing.

“Hey, old man,” said Jal, with a hoarse laugh and a fragile smile. “I, uh . . . I could really use your help.”

 Copyright © 2024 from L.M. Sagas

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Excerpt Reveal: Still Waters by Matt Goldman

Still WatersIf you’re reading this email, I am dead. I know this will sound strange, but someone has been trying to kill me.

Liv and Gabe Ahlstrom are estranged siblings who haven’t seen each other in years, but that’s about to change when they receive a rare call from their older brother’s wife. “Mack is dead,” she says. “He died of a seizure.” Five minutes after they hang up, Liv and Gabe each receive a scheduled email from their dead brother, claiming that he was murdered.

The siblings return to their family run resort in the Northwoods of Minnesota to investigate Mack’s claims, but Leech Lake has more in store for them than either could imagine. Drawn into a tangled web of lies and betrayal that spans decades, they put their lives on the line to unravel the truth about their brother, their parents, themselves, and the small town in which they grew up. After all, no one can keep a secret in a small town, but someone in Leech Lake is willing to kill for the truth to stay buried.

New York Times bestselling and Emmy award-winning author Matt Goldman returns with a gripping, emotional thrill ride in this compelling story on grief and uncovering the past before it’s too late.

Still Waters will be available on May 21st, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

The Ahlstrom twins were not really twins. They were Irish twins, though they weren’t Irish either. But they were siblings and estranged ones at that. Odd because they seemed to get along with everyone else. Friends and coworkers had accused each sibling of being Minnesota Nice. So nice they might as well have been Canadian.

Liv and Gabe Ahlstrom had not spoken to each other in over a year when Liv picked up her phone and called her brother, who was not even a favorite in her contacts. Her florist was. The wine store down the street was. Even her dentist was. If your dentist is a favorite but your brother isn’t, well, that’s saying something. Months had passed since Liv had last thought of Gabe. Years had passed since she’d last seen him. For Liv, growing up with Gabe in northern Minnesota felt like something that had happened in a previous life, a life Liv had no desire to revisit.

“Hello?” said Gabe.

“Hi,” said Liv. “Listen, I have some bad news. Mack is dead.” She said the words out loud for the first time. They left her mouth in a rapid-fire, matter-of-fact tone. Liv felt empty and expected grief to fill the void, but grief did not come. She had hardly known her older brother. She did, however, know her slightly younger brother, Gabe, all too well.

“What?” said Gabe. “What do you mean Mack is dead? What are you talking about?”

Liv stood in the bay window of her townhouse looking down on Bedford Street. Spring splashed color on the West Village. Tulips
bloomed in sidewalk planters. Green buds tipped tree branches. The dark overcoats and boots of winter had been closeted in favor of pastel jackets, athletic wear, and sneakers. Liv kept her eyes on the street. She needed a distraction when talking to Gabe: her laptop, the TV, gazing down on passersby in lower Manhattan. Something. Anything. Talking to Gabe made her anxious, and a diversion softened the edge.

“I just got off the phone with Diana,” said Liv. “Mack had a seizure at the office yesterday. They rushed him to the hospital but he never regained consciousness. They took him off life support and he died this morning.” Liv caught her reflection in the window. She was thirty-eight years old and finally looked like the grown-up she’d always pretended to be. Organized. Driven. Focused. Responsible. There was a girl in there somewhere who Liv didn’t allow to have any fun. The pressure she put on herself had crinkled the corners around her eyes and lined her forehead.

“My God,” said Gabe. “Mack was only fifty. Damnit. A seizure? How did that happen? He’d never had a seizure before, had he?” The sad truth was that neither Liv nor Gabe knew whether or not their older brother had ever had a seizure. They were as distant from him as they were from each other.

Liv listened for emotion in Gabe’s voice but heard none. At least they had that in common. Maybe they were both in shock. Maybe
they both had hearts as cold as a northern Minnesota winter. Or maybe they were both healthy, well-adjusted, compassionate human beings except when it came to family. No shame in that. It’s why we have self-help books and moving boxes. Liv turned away from the window and sat on the couch next to her laptop. She scrolled through Facebook and said, “Diana told me Mack had been acting strange lately.”

“What does that mean?” said Gabe. “Strange how?”

“She said Mack seemed anxious. Nervous. Couldn’t sleep. Weird, right? And that he talked about us a lot.”

“That is strange,” said Gabe. “Mack wanted nothing to do with us. How did Diana sound?”

“Destroyed,” said Liv. “Totally destroyed. Her husband died.”

So much distance lay between Liv and Gabe: three thousand miles, three time zones, and three decades of disharmony. They had never liked one another, at least that’s how Liv remembered it. But that couldn’t have been completely true. Their brother Mack was half a generation older and rarely around. Their parents were busy running the family resort, leaving Liv and Gabe to fend for themselves—Liv and Gabe must have found a way to get along at least some of the time. And yet, after graduating high school in consecutive years, they each moved away from northern Minnesota. Liv went east. Gabe went west. They’d seen each other only a handful of times since. A handful of times in the past twenty years.

Gabe said, “When’s the funeral?”

“Thursday,” said Liv.

A short pause, then, “I wonder why Diana called you.”

Here we go, thought Liv. Gabe just learned his brother died and a minute later he’s wondering why Gabe’s widow had called Liv
first and not him. This was where Liv had to be careful. She’d never put Gabe down for not going to college. She’d never poohpoohed his dream of being a rock star. She’d never denigrated his parade of odd jobs while he chased that dream. Liv had never boasted about her accomplishments. And yet Gabe had a hair-trigger inferiority complex. “I don’t know,” Liv said. “She had to call one of us first.”

“I should give Diana a ring,” said Gabe.

“Yeah,” said Liv. “You should. She’d appreciate it.”

“Are you going to the funeral?”

“Of course,” said Liv. “I mean, we have to, right? Doesn’t matter if we hardly ever saw Mack. He’s our brother. We’re the closest
blood relatives he has.”

Gabe hesitated then said, “Do airlines still have discounts for a death in the family?”

Money. Another topic where Liv had to be careful. Liv and Gabe weren’t friends in real life but they were on Facebook, which allowed her to peek into his world, if only voyeuristically. In the photos he’d posted, he never wore anything nicer than jeans and a T-shirt. His apartment appeared small and modest. His travels seemed limited to day trips in Southern California—Mount Baldy, Malibu, San Diego. Liv was obviously doing a lot better than Gabe when it came to finances.

“Gabe, don’t sweat it,” said Liv. “I have tons of miles. They’re going to expire soon. I can get your ticket.”

“Really?”

No, not really. Last year Liv cashed in 300,000 miles to fly Cooper and herself to Paris first class. “Yeah,” lied Liv. “Use ’em or lose ’em. I can get your hotel, too.”

“Thanks,” said Gabe. “Appreciate it.”

“Yeah-yeah, of course.” Liv heard her husband’s footsteps on the narrow wooden staircase leading up to the third floor. Their townhouse was thirty feet deep and twenty feet wide and two hundred years old and, Liv often thought, the foundation of their relationship. They’d lucked into Bedford Street in their mid-twenties. They’d pooled every resource they had and then some to buy it. Liv couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

She was about to call out to her husband when her laptop dinged. She looked at her screen and saw the notification. It was an email from Mack Ahlstrom. Mack Ahlstrom, her and Gabe’s older brother. Their older brother who had died hours ago. Liv’s throat went dry. She manipulated the pointer on her screen to hover over the email. Her fingers trembled. She took a deep breath . . . and clicked on it.


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