The Manipulative Phantom

[100 words, Chuck? Well played, sir. I tend to write long, but okay. I accept this week’s extra challenging writing challenge in this tweet-dominated world. Herewith, a story of 100 words.]

Photo credit: Abby Lanes, "A Postcard from the Edge," Creative Commons 2.0

Photo credit: Abby Lanes, “A Postcard from the Edge,” Creative Commons 2.0

Sorry—I found your letter behind the dishwasher. Thinking of you. Too busy to write.—Dad

“Impossible,” Beth muttered as she read her father’s stark all-capped words. “You always put the mail by the door. Either you’re lying, or that new lady in your life is sabotaging us to keep you away from your past.”

Beth sparked a match and held the postcard over the sink. The stench of the glossy paperstock blossomed.

She looked at the portrait of Anaïs Nin on the wall. “Kindred spirits. We have too much in common. Your diaries bear too much of my soul.”

 

 

 

Farewell, Somerville

Davis Square

1990: A series life-changing events brought us here, like refugees from our own respective storms. My mom transitioned to a new career at Boston Children’s after a divorce. To say my first three semesters at UMass Amherst were turbulent would be an understatement. When my mom found an apartment in Somerville, she suggested I transfer to the UMass Boston campus. No dorms meant less chance of getting swept up in the chaotic high drama that was devouring any sense of well-being I had. In an amazing coincidence, my best friend from childhood was moving to Somerville the same weekend.

Our first walk into Davis Square felt alien. We had spent lots of time in Cambridge and Downtown Boston, and at the time, Somerville felt kind of desolate. Not many people were around. Pockets of old guys hung around dive bars and smoked. On that first night, we found ourselves the only customers in an Indian restaurant. The apartment we shared was small and didn’t get a lot of light. Our hyper Labrador, Tessie, was all the more anxious now that she away from the bucolic, slightly run-down farmhouse she knew as a pup.

Tender from our respective personal ordeals, we were eager to explore the Boston area as residents rather than remote suburbanites who visited often. A Wiccan shop in Porter Square called Arsenic and Old Lace quickly became one of my favorite havens. My new space was redolent in incense and cluttered with stones, amulets, and books on mythology and witchcraft as viewed by many cultures. Countless nights were spent making mix tapes. Kate Bush, Nick Cave, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and many others were my musical solace.

Somerville Dragon

In the UMass Boston café, where I consumed vast amounts of orange-flavored coffee, people joked about living in “Slummerville.” Though the Somerville Theater was a hidden gem, there was little draw to the city other than cheap rent.

The move to Waterhouse Street had been hasty, going to the first vacant place we could find. A friendly elderly gentleman with a salty sense of humor sat on the porch of the nursing home at the end of the street each day. He always greeted me as I turned onto Broadway to head to the subway, and on occasion, I’d go sit with him for a while. His family shuttled him off to the home because they didn’t want to deal with having him around, even though he was sharp as a tack and got around well. So well, in fact, that “the hookers in Davis Square give it to me for free,” he announced with a happy smile one day. Indeed, they clustered around a brick wall outside of Papa Gino’s—their business as open as any store next to them.

My mom and I eventually settled into a bigger place on Sycamore Street near Winter Hill. With my 21st birthday came an ideal college job: beer brewing. The owner of the homebrew shop wanted all staff to know the craft well, so all supplies and ingredients were free to everyone who worked there. Soon, I stacked cases of every type of beer imaginable in my basement. I specialized in mead, and had a carefully tended witch’s garden to grow lemon verbena, rosemary, and other fragrant herbs for my infused concoctions.

Somerville phone

My best friend worked at Rounder Records down the road from the homebrew shop. There was a lot of social cross-over and in five years, and my friend and I even traded jobs. She became a beer brewer and I became the assistant international sales rep. Together, we drank more free beer and attended more free concerts than we can reasonably tally.

Meanwhile, the nascent hipster culture began to arrive in Somerville. The Burren was new, and my boss at the homebrew shop worked out a short-time deal with Someday Café—free beer in exchange for free coffee for employees of each establishment. (The closing of the Someday Café was much-mourned. Many refused to enter Mr. Crepe on principle.)

My first post-college apartment that I shared with my best friend on Broadway was $600 a month. Not each—total. We lived on Ramen noodles, watched Ren and Stimpy, and were ridiculously happy. It was an artist’s life. We were delighted to see the evolving hipness of Somerville, Davis Square in particular. ArtBeat and the flourishing arts culture made us feel like it was really becoming home.

The wheel of fate turned. My friend got married. My brother died unexpectedly, and a ravaging depression sent me back home to mom. She had bought a home on Alewife Brook Parkway, and my grandmother moved in with us because she needed our help. Troubles at Rounder led me to find a “real office job” outside of my artists’ realm, and I eventually made my way to Harvard, where I picked up a career in publishing and two graduate degrees. I began writing my novels and short stories in earnest. My own first marriage brought me to a money pit on Lowell Street—a large two-family that went for $249,000 in 1998. Neither the house nor the marriage lasted long. Both were naïve decisions, but I recovered quickly and in 2003 found a lovely little condo that became a perfect writer’s garret. I knew it wouldn’t be forever, but it didn’t last as long as I thought it would.

Somerville graffiti

In 2009, a fateful message on Facebook changed it all: “Do you remember me?”

Indeed I did. We had mutual crushes on each other in high school, but I was too shy to date him. After finding me more than 20 years later, he invited me to visit him to celebrate our birthdays, which fall on the same day. The rest, as they say, is history. He relocated to live with me in my once-perfect condo. It was now far too small. When we began looking for a place of our own, the real estate prices in Somerville skyrocketed. What were once multifamilies selling for $249,000 were now million-dollar homes. Single family homes like we wanted were equally out of sight.

Malden, Revere, Lynn, and surrounding areas felt like frontier territory, but were our only options for commute and pricing for the space and style we wanted. We found a home we loved and well—yet it seems strange to say goodbye to a city where I’ve spent 25 years. Of course, yes, I can still visit, and will. But as I walk down the streets now, I’m haunted by what once was. Each store front that has been more than one venue…I alternately forget its past or present name…and each apartment where a friend lived (or, in another amazing coincidence, multiple, as when aforementioned best friend moved into the apartment my grandmother lived in when she was first married, cheerfully telling me and my friend about passing out on the floor from drinking too many boilermakers. Having indulged in occasional boozy fun in the same space, we giggled.) Ah, the circle of life.

Getting off the subway at Davis during rush hour was nothing like the crushing zombie horde you experience now. However, my sentimentality is hardly steeped in flowery nostalgia. Davis Square had its creeps back then. There’s a ton of cool stuff happening in Somerville today. Though I won’t miss the bureaucracy of the City with a capital C—it’s as challenging as it ever was. But in that past lies so much of my own evolution, as well as the city’s. Reading the diaries of Anais Nin years later as a writing instructor and teaching assistant at Harvard Extension reminded me of the divorce that brought us to Somerville. She too struggled with an unavailable father. My career at Harvard was amazing, but I lost a bit of my artist’s soul there. This latest turn of fate’s wheel has given me back some of what I lost and taken some of who I have been. My family is a lot smaller, but a lot happier. I am free to embrace my artist’s soul to the fullest now. Many new novels and stories are underway. I’ll miss being near the last vestiges of what I knew in 1990—like McKinnon’s, and the many places I’ve grown to love, like Five Horses Tavern and the Painted Burro.

Tres leches

When my old high school flame and I got married, he called ahead to the Painted Burro and arranged to have a rose delivered to the table with each course and drink, and a rose garnished the tres leches dessert that served as out wedding cake. It’s a fine memory to say farewell to, because it leads us forward into the future.

So farewell, Somerville. It’s been real. Time to watch another “frontier” town change and evolve.

Sunset Icicle

#FilmHerStory, #WriteHerStory

CF Cover Banner

As soon as I saw the trending hashtag, I wanted to write volumes. After all, this is what I do. Looking up #FilmHerStory on Twitter is inspiring, but alas, I’m no filmmaker. I am, however, an author, and #WritingHerStory is exactly what I’ve been doing for years. To the left of my desk stands a list of dozens of extraordinary women who have been marginalized by history. It’s a race against time to see how many I can get to.

It began with Dracula’s wife (well, consort, really). When I told people about the story, everyone had an idea. “You should write about Granía O’Malley. She was known as the Irish Pirate Queen,” said my mom’s best friend. I added her to the list. While researching Granía, I discovered a story about a woman who disguised herself as a man to accompany her lover into war, when Spain sent its armada to England in 1588. A visit to the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson introduced me to May Woodman, who, for a time, was the only female inmate in Yuma Prison, after shooting her lover on the same corner in Tombstone where Virgil Earp was shot after the infamous gunfight at OK Corral.

The women I write about cross every era and every culture. Some ruled empires. Others were solitary nomads. Others were strategists and warriors. As each story I write comes to a close, the voices of the unwritten clamor for attention, all wanting to be next. They’re often underdogs who achieved great things despite the odds. Plenty of authors have told the tales of grand ladies such as Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. True, they’re fascinating, but I like to look deeper for the forgotten voices. This misheard and misunderstood. The unusual.

Writing novels about real women in history wasn’t necessarily the theme I set out for when I started writing, but the more I read, the more lost voices I found. I’ve even gotten to the point where I wince a bit when I see a subject line in an email, something along the lines of “Have you heard about her?” “I found a new novel for you to write!” This of course, followed by a links and photos to another fascinating woman from somewhere in time. I wish I could get to them all. That’s why I was so glad to see the trending hashtag on Twitter.

FilmHerStory

I’m glad to see so many other people thinking about this. My only hope is that if they do get filmed, or novels written about them, that their story won’t be diminished by the Hollywood formula that can corrupt the essence of so many amazing personalities. Don’t make it a love story because you think it’s marketable. If the woman preferred solitude, embrace who she was. Make sure these stories pass the Bechdel test. Audiences are far more diverse than Hollywood gives them credit for, but fortunately, there are many indie avenues to explore and share. The Guardian recently reported that women who self-publish are finding good success, maybe better so than in traditional publishing. That may be so—it’s worked well for me so far.

I look forward to settling into my new home in two weeks and diving back into the fourth novel, which features Enheduanna, poet and priestess in the Sargonic dynasty of ancient Mesopotamia. I also look forward to seeing what happens with #FilmHerStory, to see if anyone makes good on the suggestions. And I also suggest #WriteHerStory as well. Let’s bring some of those forgotten voices into the light.

A Room without Books…

Brattle Books landscape

A room without books is like a body without a soul.” —Marcus Tullius Cicero

Let’s set aside the fact that this beloved quote which adorns countless magnets, tote bags, posters, etc., is falsely interpreted. Yes, Cicero said something like this—sort of—but the attitude toward books and who handled them was very different in ancient Rome, and really cannot be compared to our modern sensibilities.

But I digress. Which is easy to do when your personal library is packed into boxes (my apologies to the movers who have to haul them) and put into storage. There have been so many times in the past few weeks in which I started to work on a story and thought, “Oh, I need to verify that fact,” and reached over…to be reminded the bookcase was missing. Or I decide to make Saveur’s French farmhouse chicken in vinegar sauce. I walk to the kitchen to get the cookbook, and oh yeah, those are gone, too.

Sure, much of it can be looked up online, such as the Saveur recipe. If my writing is connected to history, I can find the complete writings of authors of the ancient world online. It’s not a huge deal, really, in the grand scheme of things. But with all the complications that come with buying and selling a house at the same time, and six weeks to go before the moving extravaganza occurs, it can feel disorienting, frustrating, and, at times, overwhelming.

The Muse has been fluttering about my imagination, impatient to return. There have been a few pages of scribble in my journal—though horror upon horrors, my fountain pen ink was packed, so when this cartridge runs dry, I have to (gasp) use a regular pen. Or maybe buy more cartridges, if I can find my way through the labyrinth of seven-foot snowbanks to get to Bob Slate Stationer in Harvard Square.

Living in a perfectly staged house has been fun. It’s clean all the time. Over time, though, finding the simplest of things: hairbrush, slippers, laundry basket, all tucked away at the last minute before a showing, go missing and recovering them is a challenge on par with the memory game played by so many kids. It gets tiresome. Buying and selling homes simultaneously tests your problem-solving skills on an intense level. All too often, I’m distracted by the next challenge that has popped up: something needs to be fixed and we need to get bids for the project immediately, or a form needs to be signed and filed right away and I have to dig for some obscure bit of information.

Photo credit: Christine Frost

Photo credit: Christine Frost

So what do I read these, other than The Economist? Only 5 actual books remain: Two old Norton anthologies of literature looking for a good home, an out-of-date atlas from 1990, and a massive dictionary. I eased into the realm of ebooks easily enough. Half of what I read—at least—is in the form of ebooks, the dragging commute of the notorious MBTA being the main supplier of time to kill. Immersing yourself in a good read is an excellent pastime when surrounded by your fellow crabby commuters. Like many avid readers, though, I still appreciate the feel of a real book in my hands. George R. R. Martin’s World of Ice and Fire is a treasure to hold. This Silmarillion-like tome is the only “actual” book left I’m actively reading. The dictionary, like the atlas and anthologies, will wait for some spring evening, when they can be placed on the stoop for passersby to pick up—a common fate for many books in the Greater Boston area.

As much as I love my real books, some have fallen from favor. My stained and tattered Roget’s Thesaurus seems feeble compared to PowerThesaurus. Online dictionaries are updated frequently. When it comes to reference books, the online versions have won.

Several times I’ve seen an announcement of a new release and thought about whether I’d prefer the paper version. I meandered around Porter Square Books and had a long internal debate about picking up a signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s latest short story collection. Then I thought, “It’s one more thing to pack.” The book stayed on the shelf.

The Great Purge of Clutter which led to the Perfectly Staged House was a great exercise in getting used to living without things. I have a tremendous appreciation for the open space, but living without the books has proven to be one of the biggest challenges. Even when I don’t need them, just passing by a shelf and seeing a favorite title makes me smile.

I’m looking forward to that day (well, days—let’s be honest) when I’m unpacking books with my husband in our new dual-library at the new house. We’ve already decided to name them and get plaques for them, á la Harvard endowment style—the Frost-Garcia Library and the Garcia-Frost Library. It will be a new, sun-filled sanctuary.

When the Muse Flees

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The Muse by Eddi van W, via Creative Commons 2.0

The next novel is underway. All the ideas are there. I think about it all the time. So why the radio silence from the Muse for the past month?

I’d like to think I handle change well. I’ve certainly had plenty of it, both good and bad. Ever since my now-husband moved in with me, we knew my condo was too small for the two of us. It was a special place. I came here after my first marriage failed and it has been a sanctuary ever since: three novels were written and published from here. Several short stories penned and published. From here, I got my master’s degree—I have stark memories of donning my robes at 4:30 in the morning and walking to the T to get to Harvard’s graduation ceremony. I was so tired it hurt. People walking their dogs or jogging smiled as we passed each other on Somerville’s community path. The past 11 years have been so meaningful here, but it just isn’t the right space anymore.

Onward. Finding a single family home in Boston has its challenges. Fortunately, I have a great team in place to help with the transition. But the time it takes to view listings and compute all the logistics of commuting, place bids in a highly competitive market, and prepare my own place to go on the market is immense. The stress is also immense. There is no room left for the Muse.

I had just finished editing the 125 pages I had for the new novel, and was well underway in getting the chapter outline revised. After looking at the first set of houses, the Muse said, “That’s it. I’m out of here. See you when you settle in somewhere else, wherever that may be.”

And gone. I can’t even get up the gumption to write in a journal.

It’s not helping the insomnia. My walks to the T used to be occupied by developing characters and plotlines. Now my mind is occupied by the impact of property taxes on square footage, comparing commuting options, and figuring out how much of my current household I can put in storage so that the condo looks nice and open when it goes on the market.

As a creative person, it feels terribly strange not to have that source of inspiration being generated all the time. Even in the worst of circumstances, maybe especially because of the worst of circumstances, I kept writing. Creativity helps alleviate stress for me. So why did the Muse flee? Should I beat myself up over it, or take another look at the calendar and put it into perspective? After all, in a couple of months, this will all be settled and I’ll be happily writing again in a new space. But meanwhile, I’m contending with a massive guilt trip, laying tons of drama on myself about not writing, which probably does nothing to inspire the Muse to return.

Everyone needs a break from time to time, right? Even Muses. “Out of chaos comes a star,” a coworker once told me years ago when I was upset about another perfect storm of life-transforming events.

So posts are prone to be sporadic over the next few weeks. Soon enough, the Muse will be pleased with new surroundings that enhance creativity all the more.

Dream of a Journey Appears in Eternal Haunted Summer

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Image credit: David Revoy via Creative Commons 3.0

Every now and again, something comes along that you know is going to click. Google+ has been an invaluable resource when it comes to advancing my work in the publishing world. In 2013, it was with a call for submissions to an anthology called Shadows of a Fading World by Long Count Press. A collection of dying earth stories, it’s a mash-up of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction. When I saw the post on Googe+, I knew I had just the thing—an epic series that I wanted to resurrect from my days obsessing over it in high school, but it needed a lot of work. A short story was a perfect way to test the waters and see if the concept was viable. It was, and I was thrilled to have the short story version included in the anthology.

While searching for literary journals and magazines this year, I happened across a link that led me to Eternal Haunted Summer, a pagan e-zine. Something clicked again. And a Muse was ready with inspiration.

Like many writers, I’ve long been fascinated by folklore and mythology. It seems to seep into many of my works. After reading some of the stories in Eternal Haunted Summer, I tried to decide what to write. As I often do, I gravitated to the Ancient Near East, and began working on a story that will eventually lead to a lengthy epic work á la Margaret George, but again, the short version served as a means to test the waters. I was delighted to learn that “Dream of a Journey” was published in the winter issue of the e-zine.

Set in Sumer just after Sargon the Great conquered the region, “Dream of a Journey” is a view into the world of Enheduanna, a priestess who is credited with being the first known author of the written word. It’s an exploration of light and dark forces, and the necessary balance. While the story opens with Enheduanna’s role in Sargon’s new empire, it comes to focus on her sister, who is destined to become a priestess in a city-state where the patron deity is of the Netherworld.

Say what you will about Google+–it is often mocked by people who don’t know it well. And it’s true that as a platform, it works well for some groups and not others: if you’re into independent publishing, it’s the place to be, in my opinion. The Writer’s Discussion Group is highly organized, full of intelligent conversation, and the community has a good sense of humor. APE: Author, Publishers, and Entrepreneurs, which focuses on Guy Kawasaki’s works, is another excellent resource for people serious about the publishing business. As in most good quality groups, spammers and whiners who often clog the newsfeed over at Facebook are not welcome. Promote your work elsewhere. Come for the knowledge, stay for the witty conversations. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my two favorite indie author organizations, the Independent Publishers of New England and the Alliance of Independent Authors. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of IPNE, so of course I think they’re great!)

If you’re an indie author seeking to make inroads: don’t limit your channels. Explore everything. Find new ways to be seen: join organizations, get published in literary magazines—they’re out there by the boatload online; tune in to resources like the Indies Unlimited blog to stay up-to-date on news and get tutorials on any number of topics. It’s the great Digital Age, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the tsunami of words—wield it to your will, and be open to any path that opens—you never know where your own words will be discovered.

The Oathkeeper’s Forge

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

[It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]

The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.

“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.

“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”

“But you work during the day all the time.”

“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”

Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”

Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”

Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on Arúon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”

Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”

Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.

The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.

Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”

Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”

Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.

She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.

The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”

Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.

Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”

Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”

“To do what?”

She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”

Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”

“What if it leads to civil war?”

“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.

“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”

“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”

Sylvi shrugged again.

Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”

“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.

“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”

Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.

When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.

He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”

Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.

She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.

Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.

There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.

Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.

Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it. “Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.

She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.

The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.

Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.

She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.

It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own.