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Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine


An excerpt from Persona by Genevieve Valentine, which will be published on March 10th by Saga Press.



Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine




1

The International Assembly audience hall was half-empty—too empty, Suyana might have said, in her first year there, when she was still surprised by the distance between good public relations and good politics. Now, looking across so many empty seats just made her heavy to the bones.

“Georgia,” the proctor called. “Germany. Ghana. Gibraltar.”

Missed opportunity, Suyana thought, every time the proctor’s eyes fell on an empty chair. An open vote was one of the rare times Faces pretended at politics. You were voting the way you were told, but even pretending was something, and she couldn’t imagine giving it up.

The rest of your life was photo shoots and PSAs and school visits, and saying what your handler told you to say, and going to parties where you tried desperately to look like you belonged amid a sea of other Faces who were higher on the guest list than you were.

Suyana put up with the rest of it because three or four times a year, she got to raise her hand and be counted. And today was a vote, and only half were here.

Some—the ones who ranked above her on guest lists— didn’t bother. Some feared what would happen if they did the wrong thing in front of the Big Nine, and their handlers had advised them to steer clear.

Her stomach twisted.

“They might as well just decide without us and inform us how we voted by mail,” she muttered.

Magnus said without looking over, “Try to sound professional, please, on the incredibly slim chance a reporter has a camera on you.”

No chance. The United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation had only been interesting three years ago, when the outpost got blown to pieces. Cameras had watched her for six weeks, until some other story broke.

That was before Magnus had been installed; she suspected he’d have worked harder to keep her in the public eye.

She pulled the day’s agenda into her lap, and picked the corners of the page off one at a time, where no one could see.

Magnus glanced over, said nothing.

In the sea of middle-aged handlers always conferring just out of camera range, Magnus looked more like a Face— tall, slender, fair, with a sharp expression—and she suspected he’d washed out from IA training, once upon a time.Just as well—he cast glances at the Big Nine as if he couldn’t wait to cut himself free of her. Diplomats couldn’t be so nakedly ambitious.

Little pieces of paper came off in her hands.

She couldn’t blame him; sometimes people had different loyalties than they were supposed to.

Smooth it over, she reminded herself. Keep an even keel. Don’t let anyone catch you out. Some things you can’t afford.

“I’m just nervous,” she said, softly.

It was true, but it was also what Magnus wanted to hear from her. Sure enough, he looked over.

“Understandable,” he said, high praise from him. “I have the rental.”

The rental was a necklace that was supposed to make her look fashionable, prosperous, alluring. Suyana thought it was useless, since her owning a bib of semiprecious stones would seem either openly false or a monstrous luxury depending on how much you knew about UARC economics, but Magnus had set his mind on it, and she wasn’t going to let it matter.

“Not sure it will do much. In Closer last year, he said he liked natural beauties.”

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “How cosmopolitan.”

“Iceland,” the proctor called. “India.”

“I don’t like the non-compete clause,” Magnus said. “Six months is restrictive. They’re hoping to leverage the re-up option in case the public likes you.” From his tone of voice, that wasn’t likely.

“Exclusivity ends the day the contract ends. They have the physical clause; you can’t enforce a non-compete on that. If he doesn’t want me to go elsewhere, he can make his offer alongside everyone else.”

He frowned. Three years on, he still got surprised whenever she slipped and got honest. (Most of the time Suyana wanted to strangle him. She measured her success as a diplomat by how little he caught on.)

“Japan,” the proctor called, and at the Big Nine table, far down the chamber ahead of her, the Face from Japan raised his hand.

“Suyana,” Magnus said, as careful as with any stranger he was trying to persuade. “We’re not in a place to dictate changes. We’re lucky they’re interested. After what happened—”

“I remember what happened.”

There was a little silence.

She missed Hakan, a knife of grief sliding between her ribs. She held her breath, like it could bring him back from the dead. Smooth expression, she thought. Show nothing. Be nothing.

“Norway,” the proctor called, with no answer.

Only six of the Big Nine had deigned to appear. Grace, the best of the lot, was without her handler—she always looked more eligible sitting alone. Grace was number two on Intrigue magazine’s Most Eligible Faces list for the fourth year in a row.

Suyana had already planned an attack of nerves so she’d miss Grace’s party. She was wary of open invitations; felt too much like charity sometimes.

Norway’s seats were empty. They were voting on some potential additions to the IA’s Human Rights Declaration, but apparently Martine didn’t think that was something that needed her attention.

(“You should go talk to her,” Magnus said once at an afternoon reception, and Suyana said, “Yes, nothing raises your social stock like being ignored by your betters.”)

Ethan Chambers, the American Face, had sent one of his assistants as a proxy; the Big Nine had enough staff to have them in two places at once.
At least there she knew the reason why.

Ethan Chambers was sitting in a boutique hotel a few miles away, waiting to meet her and sign the contract for a six-month public relationship. There would also be discussion of the terms of the physical clause; they were rare enough that they required careful debate, which meant everyone was preparing for several awkward hours. Still, you did what you had to, to get someone’s attention—the physical clause was the reason the United States had taken her offer seriously.

uyana suspected the American team thought that if Ethan got her in bed, she’d get emotionally involved, and be easier to pressure with PR fallout whenever they wanted the UARC to fall in line.

Everyone could dream, she supposed.

“New Zealand,” the proctor called, and a few rows in front of her, Kipa raised her hand for each count of the amendments. Each time, it was steady and sure, and Kipa locked her elbow as if to make sure her vote was counted. Suyana tried not to smile. Her turn was coming soon enough, and she didn’t want to know what she looked like when she was pretending she made a difference.

After she’d exercised her duties, there would be lunch with Ethan. After lunch, they’d start mapping out the first place they’d be caught together “accidentally.”

After that—

“United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation,” the proctor called.

Suyana smiled for the cameras, raised her hand to be counted.



2

Daniel wished he’d stolen a camera he actually knew how to use.

He huddled deeper into the restaurant alley and pried the long end of a paper clip into the lens assembly, trying to loosen whatever had jammed the thing in the first place before the sedan showed up and he missed his chance to shoot Suyana. His hands were shaking a little.

Suyana Sapaki was a risk for a shoot on spec. She’d barely escaped being burned out three years ago; she was on the verge of a comeback, but a verge is a tricky thing to measure. Too late and you’re drowned in the tide, too early and the pictures go for nothing and get used as archive footage without royalties whenever they finally do something interesting.

But the alley was perfectly positioned across the street from the swank hotel where Ethan Chambers, Face of the United States, was waiting to meet Suyana Sapaki on business unknown. The bellboy Daniel bribed said Ethan had been there since yesterday while his empty car drove all over town.

The lens assembly slid back into place, and Daniel settled behind a garbage can—the poor man’s tripod—to focus before Suyana’s car showed up.

He hoped it was worth what he’d spent on intel to catch negotiations between the US Face and what Daniel suspected was his girlfriend-to-be. He couldn’t afford to go home.

The sedan turned the corner—a cab, not one from the IA fleet. Daniel braced his hands. They still shook a little before a great shot. (It was embarrassing—he was twenty-two, not twelve, he knew how to take pictures—but sometimes the thrill got the better of him.)

Magnus got out first. He was the UARC’s new handler, a pro from some Scandinavian country they’d brought in to help spin the disaster, and he looked like a man who was used to getting out of messes clean.

Magnus scanned the square for a moment before he reached back into the car, to call Suyana out.
       [Submission 35178, Frame 7: Magnus Samuelsson standing beside a black sedan sitting around the corner from the front entrance to the Chanson Hotel. Subject in profile and three-quarters length, hand extended into the backseat of the car, looking at something out of frame.]
Weird, Daniel thought, risking a glance up from the viewfinder. Magnus didn’t seem the type to get swept up in scenery, and it wasn’t as though Ethan Chambers would be standing with flowers at the balcony to greet the girl he might be about to contract to date.

He didn’t know much about most of the IA handlers— you weren’t supposed to, that’s why countries had Faces, to give you something to look at—but something seemed off. Had they fought in the car? Was Magnus just cautious? Had he arranged for official nation-affiliated photographers to catch the first moments of budding romance, and Daniel was going to be without an exclusive after all this?

But then Suyana stepped out of the car, and Daniel forgot everything in the queasy thrill of a scoop.
[Submission 35178, Frame 18: Suyana Sapaki (Face UARC), sliding out of the backseat of a sedan. Large necklace—appears genuine (ID and trail of ownership TK). Face three-quarters, turned to the hotel. Has not taken Samuelsson’s hand.]
Daniel had, once or twice in his research for this, questioned why Suyana had been considered the best option for the Face of the UARC. She was Peruvian, and the Brazilian contingent had given her flak for it—they were a much bigger slice of that pie, and a Quechua was playing even harder against the numbers, unless you were going after diversity points. She was a little stocky in a world that liked its Faces tall and thin, a little hard around the eyes in an organization that prized girls who could fawn when the cameras were going. Even from here it looked like she was suffering a punishment. No way that was true—if she could get Ethan to sign on the dotted line, it was a PR coup the UARC could only dream of.

But her brown skin and knotted black hair and sharp eyes made a decent picture when the light hit her, and she moved with more purpose than Daniel saw from a lot of IA girls. (Wasn’t much purpose for her to have, except look good and do as she was told. Handlers did the real work. Faces just made it look sharp to the masses. Though nobody wanted a Face getting ideas, as they’d reminded him plenty back home.)

Once the car pulled away, Magnus looked Suyana over with the focus of an auctioneer. He lifted his chin as if inviting her to do the same; Suyana stared through him and didn’t move. Magnus straightened the collar of her shirt, tweaked one of the careless gems on her necklace so that it lay right side up against her collarbone.

Daniel raised his eyebrow into the viewfinder, took a few shots as fast as he could.

He’d seen backstage prep on the Korean Face, Hae Soo-jin, when he was still apprenticing as a licensed photographer. Most of it looked like grooming animals for auction, if you were being honest. This was something different; some message passing back and forth through a necklace that was laughably out of place on her.

Suyana glanced at Magnus for a moment with a frown that was gone before Daniel could catch it. Then she turned her head, as if she was used to being altered by people she didn’t look at.

That was about right. The ideal combination of hanbok and national designers a Face should wear to present the correct ratio of tradition and modernism had been a hot topic at home when he left. The news had a segment on it at least once a week. Historians were weighing in; fashion-industry insiders staged demonstrations. Hae Soo-jin hadn’t been called on for an opinion. Decision making happened before anything ever reached them. You could measure the length of a Face’s career by seeing how good they were at agreeing with other people’s outcomes.

But Suyana had looked at Magnus so strangely. Maybe it bothered her to know how far on the sidelines she stood.
[Submission 35178, Frame 39: Magnus Samuelsson, back to the camera (identified in Frames 1–13). Facing the camera, Suyana Sapaki. Samuelsson has his hand extended toward Sapaki’s elbow. Sapaki looking off-frame (object of gaze unknown), hands in pockets. No acknowledgment.]
“It doesn’t matter,” Suyana said. “He’ll know it’s not mine.” Her voice floated a little around the square before it settled on Daniel.

“We’re impressing an ally, not a jeweler,” said Magnus. “You need all the help you can get. No use looking shabby first thing. Are you ready to be charming?”

She looked right at Magnus, and Daniel flinched at her expression (murderer, he thought wildly, like he was watching a movie) and wished for a concurrent video function so he could try to capture what the hell was even going on.

Then she blinked, and her eyes softened, and her smile broke wide and white across her face. “Of course,” she said, in a voice that sounded barely hers. “Are you ready to chaperone?”

Magnus’s jaw twitched—surprised, maybe, or put out— and he looked back toward the street like he was thinking of making a run for it. “Let’s go.”

Suyana pushed her shoulders back, licked her lips, and headed for the front door of the hotel like she was on her way to a prison sentence. Magnus followed a little behind; most handlers did when their Faces were onstage. There was no good in the policymakers hogging the spotlight.

Daniel should have kept better track of how the light was moving; shadows giving way to the flood of sunlight across the white hotel made him blink into the viewfinder, and he took pictures by reflex as he waited for his eyes to adjust.

He was still waiting when the gunshot rang out.

All the sound was sucked out of the square for a second in the wake of the shot. His finger never stopped moving. He hoped against all luck that he’d managed to catch the moment the bullet hit. If there was a bullet.

There were publicity stunts like this, sometimes, when someone needed the sympathy. They made front pages, no matter how horrible and obvious a ploy it was.

As the shutter clicked, the sound washed back—people shouting behind the closed door of the restaurant, Magnus staggering back with one arm out toward Suyana, casting an eye around the rooftops (why wasn’t he in front of her? Why wasn’t he protecting his charge?).

And Suyana was scrambling up from the ground, favoring one leg but already trying to bolt for the nearest cover. She looked young, in her terror, but her jaw was set—she would live, if she could.

Too bad he’d missed that shot, Daniel thought as he pocketed his memory card and shoved the camera into the trash. He wasn’t going to get arrested for unauthorized photography, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get shot in some publicity stunt. She was coming his way, and he knew when to exit the scene.

But as Suyana dove toward the alley, there was another shot. She staggered and cried out—once, sharp—and he saw she had a bloody hand pressed to her left arm, that now the right leg of her jeans was blooming dark with blood.

He had to get out of there.

But she was running for the alley—lurching, really. She wasn’t going to make it in time to avoid a kill shot if it came, if this wasn’t a stunt. It might be a stunt. Either way, snaps didn’t get involved. The hair on his arms was standing up.

Magnus was shouting, somewhere out of sight (the hotel?). A car engine flared to life (the cab?).

Suyana was gasping for breath.

You’re a sucker, Daniel thought, you’re a sucker, don’t you dare, but by then he was already out in the square, scooping her under her good shoulder.

There was a bottle-cap pop from somewhere far away that he knew must be a bullet. Then they were running a three-legged race into the safety of the alley.

He let go as soon as she was in the shadows, but she caught hold of his elbow with more force than he’d have guessed she could manage. The tips of her fingers were rough; they caught on his sleeve.

“Save it,” he said, eyeing the street on the far side of the alley, to make sure it was clear when he ran for it, but then he made a mistake and looked back at her.

Either she was a damn good actress or she was tougher than he’d thought. Her mouth was pulled tight with panic, but she looked at him like she was sizing him up.

“Thanks,” she said, and somehow it was a demand for information, which was funny coming from someone who was bleeding in two places.

He couldn’t believe he’d gone out there. This was a handler’s job, if the shooting was even real—where the hell was Magnus?—and not one damn second of this was his business except behind a lens. This story had played out, and he was in enough trouble. He’d come back for the camera later. Maybe.

He said, “I have to go.”

Tires screeched around the corner, and from somewhere came the echo of footsteps, and the hair on Daniel’s neck stood up—his heart was in his throat, this was amateur hour, this was chaos.

Who knew this was happening today besides me? he wondered, from some suspicion he didn’t want to examine.

Suyana swayed, braced herself on her good arm against the wall like a sprinter on the starting line, her eyes fixed on the far end of the alley. There were footsteps, voices shouting. They’re looking for us, Daniel realized, and his blood went cold.

Suyana looked up at him, and for a moment he remembered the footage from a few years back, right after terrorists hit the UARC, and she’d bored holes at any camera that crossed her like she was daring them to ask.

She said, “Run.”


Excerpted with permission from Persona, a novel by Genevieve Valentine. Copyright © 2015 by Genevieve Valentine. Published by Saga Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.





Persona
Saga Press, March 10, 2015
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages

Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve Valentine
In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.

When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015


Please welcome John Love to The Qwillery. Evensong, John's most recent novel, was published in January 2015 by Night Shade Books.



Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015




TQ:  Welcome back to The Qwillery. Your new novel, Evensong, was published on January 6th. Has your writing process changed (or not) from when you wrote Faith (2012) to Evensong?

John:  Thank you for inviting me, it’s nice to be back.

In my last interview, I said that when I’m writing I like to have a glass of malt whisky, and a cat, within easy reach. That bit hasn’t changed.

The style of writing is a bit different from Faith, my first novel. Evensong’s style is a bit plainer and sparser, and more suited to that of a thriller. There are one or two purple patches, but overall it’s less flamboyant than Faith; deliberately so.



TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing now?

John:  The challenge is to get readers to give positive answers to these three questions:
  1. Did you want to turn the page and find out what happens next?
  2. Did you care about the characters? (Not Did you like them? Characters don’t have to be nice to be believable and complex and make you want to know what happens to them.)
  3. Did you think the book tried to be original and different? If you didn’t, what other book or books did you think it most resembled?
For me, the first question is the most important. I’m always asking, Is this page enough to make a reader want to turn to the next page?



TQ:  What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when Faith came out that you know now?

John:  Publicity. I always felt Faith got less than it deserved, partly because of my own inexperience at pushing the publishers and partly because of the internal problems in Nightshade at the time.



TQ:  Tell us something about Evensong that is not in the book description.

John:  Some of the reviews and reader responses have described Evensong’s universe as being dark and twisted, which I wouldn’t deny. But it’s not entirely dark and twisted. Some interesting technologies have started to answer (not completely, but partially) the questions of long-term clean energy supply. And fundamentalism, both religious and political, has been marginalised – again, not completely, but partially. The book’s universe is ambiguous and menacing, but there are also the elements of a kind of Enlightenment springing up here and there. I was tempted to go down that road a bit more, but I decided it would be outside the scope of the book.



TQ:  Which character in the Evensong surprised you the most? Who has been the hardest character to write and why?

John:  Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General of the UN, was the most surprising. He’s the spider at the centre of all the world’s webs (I wish I’d thought of that phrase when I was writing the book!) so I thought he’d just be pure unalloyed cynicism coupled with labyrinthine cunning. But I realised that although he had to have those qualities he also needed to have something good buried in there as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have worked.

Gaetano was the hardest, because he’s a character like Anwar, and he resents him but has to work with him. I had to be careful to get the balance right.

You didn’t ask me which character was my favourite, but I’d like to tell you anyway: the Ginger Cat.



TQ:  Please give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery lines from Evensong.

John:  This is where Anwar and Olivia, the two main characters, meet for the first time.

         ‘When he first saw her she was at the top of a stepladder, scooping a dead fish out of a floor-to-ceiling ornamental tank at the far end of the Boardroom. She had her back to him. Her bottom was wobbling interestingly under a long voluminous velvet skirt.
         “Sorry”, she said without turning round, “I’ll be right with you. I just noticed one of these angelfish had died.”
         “Do they die very often?”
         “No, only once.” ’



TQ:  Both Faith and Evensong are SF with the former being Space Opera/Military SF and Evensong being called a near future thriller (by your publisher). Other than being SF and having titles that have religious connotations, what do the two novels have in common? Do they address similar themes? Should SF address big themes?

John:  There is something I once wrote in a post for the “Night Bazaar” website run by Nightshade, when Faith was first published:

“If Faith has any political resonances, they’re at best oblique. But I hope it has some other resonances. About identity and free will: what makes us what we are, and what makes us what we do. About love and friendship: what forces bring us together, or keep us apart, and why we don’t recognise them. And about the absence of simple good and evil: the complexities which make each of them part of each other.”

Evensong is a near-future political thriller, so it does have some clear political resonances where Faith doesn’t; but the rest of that paragraph could apply to Evensong as much as to Faith.

So, to answer your last question, yes, absolutely. Big themes are as much fair game for SF as for any other genre.


TQ:  Which question about Evensong do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

John:  That’s a nice question. I think I’d like someone to ask how I came to think of Evensong. It was quite an unusual process, and I love regaling (or boring) people with it. Now it’s your turn.

My wife and I went to an Evensong service in Rochester Cathedral in Kent. It was a beautiful summer evening and afterwards everybody went out into the Cathedral precincts where some tables had been set out for coffee. Halfway through my coffee I had this idea of a similar setting, where an unidentified woman comes to the Evensong service but doesn’t stop for coffee afterwards. She hurries away. She’s been to several previous Evensongs and has always hurried away afterwards. Who she is, and why she comes there, is her back story which begins nearly a year earlier.

What is so unusual is that I’d got the whole of her back story, and the whole construction of the book, in less time than it took to swallow a mouthful of coffee. There was no blinding flash or feeling of revelation, but the whole book had sprung out fully formed – main plot, sub-plots, main characters, minor characters, settings, everything. I could see it in three dimensions, could (metaphorically) walk round it and study it from every angle, and it worked. It all hung together.

When I came to write it there was almost nothing, major or minor, which was changed.



TQ:  What's next?

John:  I’m writing a fantasy novel. It doesn’t have any orcs, elves, dragons, sorcerers or dark malign gods, only people. But “fantasy” is probably the most convenient shorthand description because it’s set in a completely imaginary world at the same approximate level of development as ancient Greece or Rome. It even has a map.



TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

John:  Thank you for asking me back, and thank you for your interest in my book.





Evensong
Night Shade Books, January 6, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 352 pages

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015
A near-future thriller where those who protect humanity are not always completely human.

The future is a dangerous place. Keeping the world stable and peaceful when competing corporate interests and nation-states battle for power, wealth, and prestige has only gotten harder over the years. But that’s the United Nations’ job. So the UN has changed along with the rest of the world. When the UN’s “soft” diplomacy fails, it has harder options. Quiet, scalpel-like options: The Dead—biologically enhanced secret operatives created by the UN to solve the problems no one else can.

Anwar Abbas is one of The Dead. When the Controller-General of the UN asks him to perform a simple bodyguard mission, he’s insulted and resentful: mere bodyguard work is a waste of his unique abilities. But he takes the job, because to refuse it would be unthinkable.

Anwar is asked to protect Olivia del Sarto, the host of an important upcoming UN conference. Olivia is head of the world’s fastest-growing church, but in her rise to power she has made enemies:  shadowy enemies with apparently limitless resources.

Anwar is one of the deadliest people on earth, but her enemies have something which kills people like him. And they’ve sent it for her. It’s out there, unstoppable and untraceable, getting closer as the conference approaches.

As he and Olivia ignite a torrid affair, Anwar must uncover the conspiracy that threatens to destroy her, the UN, and even The Dead.





About John

Interview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015
Photo by Gemma Shaw
John Love spent most of his working life in the music industry. He was Managing Director of PPL, the world’s largest record industry copyright organization. He also ran Ocean, a large music venue in Hackney, East London.

He lives just outside London in north-west Kent with his wife and cats (currently two, but they have had as many as six). They have two grown-up children.

Apart from his family, London and cats, his favorite things include books and book collecting, cars and driving, football and Tottenham Hotspur, old movies and music. Science fiction books were among the first he can remember reading, and he thinks they will probably be among the last.


Website







Excerpt

Chapter One

         Anwar sat in a formal garden in northern Malaysia on a pleasant September afternoon, reading. The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on…He liked FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam, but felt it took liberties with the text; he preferred the original, in the cadences of twelfth-century Persian.
         It was 4:00 p.m.: time. He closed the book and retreated back under the roof of his verandah, just as the afternoon rain began with its usual promptness and intensity. While he watched it he performed one of his standard exercises: using the fingers of his right hand to break, one by one, the fingers of his left hand. The core of the exercise was not to blank out the pain—though his abilities were such that he could have done that, too—but to feel the pain and still not react to it, either by noise or by movement, as each finger was bent back beyond the vertical and snapped. It was a familiar exercise and he finished it satisfactorily.
         The rain stopped, as promptly and suddenly as it had begun. He leaned back, breathing in the scent of wet leaves and grass. A brief gust of wind shook rain from the trees, so that it sounded, for a few seconds, like another downpour beginning. He cupped his right hand round his left, easing his fingers back to their normal position, and waited for the bones to set and regenerate; it would take about an hour.

         It was not unheard-of for a VSTOL from the UN to land on the formal lawn at the centre of his garden, but it was not something which happened often. This was one of their latest, silent and silvered and almost alien. A door melted open in its side and a dark-haired young woman got out and walked across the lawn towards Anwar. She was Arden Bierce, one of Rafiq’s personal staff, and they smiled a greeting at each other.
         “Rafiq wants you.” She handed him a letter. He studied Rafiq’s neat italic handwriting, not unlike his own, and the courteously phrased request and personal signature. When Rafiq made this kind of request, he did so by pen and ink and personal meeting. Never remotely, and never electronically.
         “I should go now.” He was telling her, not asking her. She nodded and turned back to the waiting VSTOL. Anwar Abbas stood up, stretched, and walked after her. He was as powerful as a tiger, as quiet as the flame of a candle.
         Offer and Acceptance. The VSTOL would take him south to the UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur, where Laurens Rafiq, the Controller-General, would formally offer him a mission and request his acceptance. Anwar Abbas had received such requests before from Rafiq, but this one would be different. It would lead him to two people, one of them his beginning and the other his end.

Chapter Two

         Anwar liked the VSTOL, almost to the point of kinship; it was quiet, did exactly what it was supposed to do, and did it supremely well. It was even superior to America’s Area 51 planes, and their Chinese and European equivalents.
         There was a growing concern in some quarters that the UN was developing better hardware than its members. Another example, Anwar reflected, of the Rafiq Effect.
         The northern highlands of Malaysia hurtled past underneath. They were heavily wooded, and seemed to be smoking without flames; vapour from the last downpour, hanging above treetop level. He clenched and unclenched his left hand.
         “Is it healed?” Arden Bierce asked him.
         He smiled. “The Moving Finger breaks, and having broke, resets itself.”
         “Don’t you mean ‘broken’?”
         “Wouldn’t scan.”
         He liked her; she had this ability to make people feel comfortable around her. She was very attractive, but seemed genuinely unaware of it. Most people born with looks like that would be shaped by them; would probably be cynical or manipulative. She was neither. Perceptive and clever in her dealings with people, but also pleasant and companionable.
         Anwar had never done any more than flirt mildly with her. He was awkward socially, the result of having a normal circle of acquaintances but few close friends. Only about thirty people in the world knew what he was.
         He leaned back and watched the shapes and colours moving just under the silvered surfaces of the walls and furniture of the VSTOL’s lounge. It would be a short flight. The UN complex outside Kuala Lumpur would soon appear.
         The UN had adapted to the increasing complexity and volatility of the world order. It had a Secretary-General (political) and a Controller-General (executive). As it gradually took on more executive functions, the Controller-General became more important, at the expense of the Secretary-General. The Controller-General was Laurens Rafiq.
         The old UN in New York still remained, but Rafiq’s UNEX (UN Executive) in Kuala Lumpur was overtaking it—restructuring the major agencies like UNESCO, UNICEF, UNIDO, and transforming them. Policy was still in the hands of the old UN, but it was becoming apparent that policy was meaningless without executive rigour. The medium was overtaking the message.
         Rafiq had acquired many assets at UNEX. Not only the agencies, but also some independent military capacity—not enough to make the UN more powerful than any of its individual members, but enough to settle some of the increasing conflicts over resources, energy, borders, and trade. Often Rafiq’s UNEX would take pre-emptive action which later the political UN had to ratify—had to, because the action worked.
         One of the smaller and more mysterious components of Rafiq’s UNEX was something he called The Consultancy, known colloquially (and inaccurately) as The Dead. Its members did things for him which mere Special Forces could never do. Outside UNEX, nobody knew exactly how many Consultants Rafiq had, but it was only a handful. This was because only a handful could survive the induction process, and because only a handful was all that even Rafiq could afford. Their training, and the physical and neurological enhancements which made them unique, were uniquely expensive.
         Anwar Abbas was a Consultant: one of The Dead.

         Dusk fell quickly and was short-lived, turning abruptly to darkness in the few minutes’ duration of the flight. Anwar got only a glimpse of the lights of the UN complex before the silvered plane dropped vertically and landed—or, rather, hovered politely one inch above the ground while they stepped out through the door that had rippled open for them. What enabled it to hover was something to do with room-temperature semiconductors, the Holy Grail of frictionless motion: not fully achieved yet, but getting closer.
         The plane slid noiselessly up into the night. For the second time, Anwar found himself following Arden Bierce across a lawn. This lawn was part of the park which formed the centre of the UN complex.
         Ringing the park were some tall buildings, each a different shape and colour: ziggurats, pyramids, cones, ovoids. Each stood in its own smaller piece of manicured parkland, and was festooned with greenery hanging from walls and windows and balconies. The overall effect was pleasing, without the pomp of the old UN buildings in New York and Geneva; more like the commercial district of any reasonably prosperous city. Kuala Lumpur, a few miles south, was similar but larger-scale.
         The central parkland had lawns and woods, landscaped low hills and a river, over which was cantilevered the Controller-General’s house, Fallingwater. It was based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, scaled up, but still house-sized. The security around this building, of all the buildings in the complex, appeared to be nonexistent, the way Rafiq had personally designed it to appear. They simply walked up to the front door and rang the doorbell. The door opened into a large reception area.
         “I’ll go and tell him you’re here,” said Arden Bierce as she went through an adjoining door, usually known as the door because it led to Rafiq’s inner office.
         Anwar looked around him. He knew Fallingwater well, and found it calming. The interior of the house was larger than Wright’s original, but furnished and decorated in the same style: comfortable and understated, a mix of regular and organic shapes, of autumn browns and ochres and earth tones. Large areas of the floor were open expanses of polished wood, with seating areas formed by clusters of plain stonewhite sofas and armchairs. Several people were there, talking quietly. They were all members of Rafiq’s personal staff, like Arden Bierce, but only a few of them looked up as he entered. The rest paid him no attention.
         Except for Miles Levin. He and Anwar had known each other for years, and they exchanged their usual greeting.
         “Muslim filth.”
         “Jewish scum.”
         Their Muslim and Jewish origins, if any, were no longer important. They had taken their present names, along with their present identities, when they became Consultants. Which they had done at the same time, seven years ago.
         Levin was six feet five, nearly three inches taller than Anwar, and more powerfully built. He looked generally younger and stronger, and was—for a Consultant—louder and more outgoing. Anwar was thin-faced, with a hook nose. Levin’s face was broader and more open. Both were dark-haired and wore their hair long.
         “Waiting to see him?” Anwar asked.
         “I’ve seen him. Offer and Acceptance. I was just leaving.”
         Normally they’d have had a lot to talk about, but not this time. They couldn’t discuss missions, that simply wasn’t done; and also, Anwar noted a strangeness in Levin’s manner, a kind of preoccupation. So he just nodded briefly at him, and Levin turned to go.
         “Take care,” something prompted Anwar to whisper.
         Levin heard. “You too.” He did not look back.
         “Scum.”
         “Filth.” The door closed softly behind him.
         Another door—the door—opened. Arden Bierce came out.
         “He’ll see you now.”

Excerpted with permission from Evensong by John Love. Copyright 2015, Night Shade Books an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty


Today we have an excerpt from King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment by Dennis O'Flaherty. King of the Cracksmen is published by Night Shade Books.



Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty




Chapter One

The three men were moving fast, in single file, dashing across the patches of stark moonlight and into the safety of the shadows like night creatures with an owl at their backs.
        “Jasus, Mary and Joseph!” grunted the tail-ender, a fire-plug of a man clutching a sawed-off shotgun. “If I stub me toe on one more rock I’ll blow the bastard thing to smithereens!”
        “Shut yer gob, Bertie,” hissed the man in the middle, “and mind McCool’s satchel or it’s us ye’ll be blowing to smithereens.”
        The man in front paused for a moment, shifting a heavy carpetbag from one hand to the other before he turned to look at them. Despite a bushy walrus moustache and a black slouch hat pulled down nearly to his eyebrows, his face looked disarmingly boyish, but the other two seemed to know better. They fell silent instantly, trading uneasy looks.
        “You’d best save the gassing for Maloney’s,” he whispered, so softly he could barely be heard over the rustle of the breeze in the trees and the busy hum of the cicadas. “Remember, there’s supposed to be a new watchman and he may not be a rumdum like Timmy was.” He motioned to them to follow and slipped away into the darkness.
***
        Meanwhile, in a brightly gaslit parlor on the other side of town a pair of onetime lovers stood glaring daggers at each other, teetering on the edge of violence.
        “I told you before,” the woman hissed, “you and me are through. You have a hell of a nerve sneaking up the back stairs in the night like a dog in heat. If it’s deaf you are now, I’ll say it again louder: I don’t want you here no more!”
        The big man gave her what he hoped was a winsome smile: “You know you don’t really mean that, angel cakes, you always say things you’re sorry for later when you get mad.”
        Mad hell, she thought, she was just getting warmed up. She caught his eyes fixing on her breasts where they showed in the V of her negligée and pulled the gown together with a disgusted growl. There had been a time when she’d found that little-kid grin of his endearing, just like that touch of an accent that he’d never quite managed to lose. Now either one was enough to make her want to twist his nose.
        The big man could see her expression hardening and he felt his own anger breaking through despite his determination to sweet-talk her.
        “I expect you’d rather be billing and cooing with your pretty little boyfriend, is that it?” He sneered, biting the words off and spitting them at her: “You and him all loveydovey, and no more thought of our good times than the man in the moon!”
        She rolled her eyes scornfully: “Pretty? That pretty little boy could cut your gizzard out as soon as look at you, and don’t you forget it!”
        The big man felt the blood rising in his face; he knew he was skating too close to the edge, but he couldn’t keep back his hand as it flew up to strike her.
        “Go on,” she screamed, “hit a woman like the big ugly coward you are. But you’d best kill me when you do or you’ll rue the day!”
        He froze, stopping himself by a tremendous effort of the will and letting his hand fall back slowly to his side. “Damn it, woman, I’ve always loved you,” he said thickly. “You know that.”
        She folded her arms on her chest and gave him a flat stare. “You love sticking your peter in me, that’s what I know,” she said in a voice cold enough to crack granite. “The only person in this world you love is the one whose nasty mug you shave every morning, and I gave up hoping I could change that a long time ago.”
        His thoughts felt heavy and sluggish with rage: should he have one last go at loving her up and bringing her around, or should he just say to hell with it and give her the beating she had coming? He rolled his shoulders ominously, lowered his head and moved towards her . . .
***
        The man with the carpetbag held up his hand for the other two to stop. For some minutes they had been moving along a white picket fence that bordered the road until finally they came in sight of a large, rambling Victorian house set back from the fence by a hundred yards or so of flower-bordered flagstone path.
        The moonlight bathed the white shingles of the house so that it glowed like an apparition, but the windows of the upper stories showed a murky gloom that made all three men uneasy. To make it worse, a long verandah ran along the front of the house, its roof interrupting the moonlight so that it cast everything below it into inky darkness and made it seem as if the whole house was settling slowly into a black sinkhole.
         “There’s niver a copper up there,” quavered the man with the shotgun, “the useless shite’s ta home in . . .”
        The leader turned on him angrily and cut him off with a hand over his mouth. He waited a second to make sure the message had been received, then he squatted down and opened his bag, taking out three calico flour sacks with holes cut for their eyes. He tugged his over his head, handed out the other two, then bent over the bag again and took out three bundles of dynamite, each with a long spool of wire attached to it. Finally he took a blasting machine out of the bag, attached the wires from all three bundles to it, and set it down carefully at the bottom of a drainage ditch that ran along the fence.
        Now he beckoned to the other two, handing each of them a bundle of dynamite and a spool of wire. He bent towards the one with the shotgun and put his mouth directly to his ear as he whispered:
        “Be a good lad and leave the blunderbuss here, will you, Bertie? And don’t be stubbing your toe and falling down on that dynamite or we’ll be meeting next in Hell.”
        The other man frowned sulkily and laid his shotgun against the carpetbag. The leader picked up his own bundle of dynamite and started towards the front door, unspooling the wire as he went. The other two were fanning out to either side, following a plan they had rehearsed till they could do it in their sleep. Even so they walked on tiptoe, sticking to the grass for silence and jumping at every little nighttime noise.
        For a few moments, everything went as smooth as butter. Then, someone stepped on a windfallen branch that broke the hush with a crack like a pistol shot. The three men froze, staring towards the darkness at the front of the house like mice watching for a cat. One heartbeat, another . . . then there was a sharp, ringing metallic CLICK! and a pair of glowing red eyes pierced the gloom and swiveled slowly towards the noise of the snapping branch, whirring loudly as they moved.
        “Aw, shite!” wailed Bertie. “A fookin’ Acme!”
        The leader’s voice snapped at them like a whip: “Bertie, Fergus, don’t budge—those things follow movement!”
        “To hell with that and you too, Liam McCool,” yelled Fergus, “I’m hooking it!”
        Throwing down his bundle of dynamite, he took off wildly across the lawn, his arms pumping like pistons, and as he did heavy footsteps slammed across the verandah until a hulking figure appeared at the top of the stairs.
        Seven feet tall, unnaturally precise in its movements, dressed in the blue serge uniform of the Coal and Iron Police and bald as an egg, the creature’s glowing red eyes stared out of a shiny pink porcelain face as expressionless as a chunk of pig iron. Slowly its head swiveled to follow the hysterically fleeing man and its eyes glowed an even more intense red as it whirred and clicked into a crouching position.
        “Aw, hell!” muttered McCool, reaching for his pocket.
        In the same moment, the creature sprang upwards, leaping through the air for a good fifty feet and landing with an appalling thud not far behind his prey:
        “HEEEEEEEEEEELP!” screeched Fergus.
        McCool pulled a Colt Peacemaker out of his pocket, aimed it carefully and fired towards the “Acme.” The heavy slug struck it square in the back and it stopped running abruptly and turned its glowing eyes towards McCool as Fergus, momentarily reprieved, disappeared into the night howling like a banshee.
        “Fook me!” groaned Bertie through chattering teeth, “I ain’t stickin’ around for no . . .”
        “Yes you are,” said McCool flatly. “I need you. Give me your dynamite and don’t move an inch or I’ll put the next bullet between your deadlights.”
        The creature started stalking back towards McCool, picking up speed with each step as Bertie moaned with terror.
        “Shut up,” McCool said. “I’m going to run towards the house and get the thing to follow me. As soon as you see I’ve got its attention you get down in that ditch with the blasting machine and when I sing out ‘NOW!’ you push that plunger home! Got it?”
        “Aw, shite!” Bertie sobbed.
        “Good,” McCool said and took off at a run towards the house, pistol in hand and both bundles of dynamite stuffed in his jacket pockets.
        For a moment, the “Acme” came to a full stop, its head swiveling and whirring as it looked back and forth between the two men; then it turned and loped after McCool in great, thudding bounds.
        “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” muttered Bertie as he crossed himself. Then he turned and sprinted like a racehorse for the drainage ditch . . .
***
        “You remember?” the big man asked hoarsely. “You remember how it was with us?”
        He was holding her close, his hands under her gown, running up and down her back and cupping her buttocks as he buried his face in her breasts. Thinking at the same moment: By God, she knows how crazy I am about her, how could she let herself be bedded by that young whelp? I swear I’ll kill the both of them before I let him have her again . . .
        At the same time she was thinking: I remember how it was, all right, in another second I’ll be lying down on the floor for him, right here on my own carpet in my own sitting room. I was stupid to let him put his hands on me, he can fire me up as easy as starting coals with a bellows . . .
        “There, now,” he muttered through the thickness in his throat, “there now, little girl . . .” He pulled her gown up around her waist and then let go for a moment to fumble for his buttons. But it was a fatal delay, just long enough to let her self-control flood back. She pushed him away sharply:
        “Get away from me, I mean it!”
        He stood there stunned. “What the hell are you saying, woman?”
        “I’m saying I’m not handing over my diary and you’re not getting anything else either,” she rasped. “Now sling your hook and get to hell on out of here. My true sweetheart treats me like I’m somebody, and if you studied on it from here to the Last Trump you wouldn’t have no idea what that means.”
        “You’re somebody are you, you brainless cow?,” he roared, grabbing her and pulling her close again. This time, though, she had crossed from passion into fury and she punched him in the ear hard enough to make him howl with pain and let her go. In an instant she was across the room at her desk, jerking open a drawer and pulling out a stubby, nickel-plated revolver.
        “Get out,” she shrieked, “get out before I shoot you right in your dirty bollocks!”
        He moved heavily towards her, barely registering her words, not even caring about the shiny little gun as the fury rose in his head and flooded his brain. . . .
***
        McCool leapt up the front steps two at a time, trying to stay calm as the thudding steps of the “Acme” got close enough to shake the ground under his feet. God knows how much those things weighed, but he had just seen that their steel skins were thick enough to stop a slug from a .45 Colt. As for their power . . . he tried not to shudder, remembering an “Acme” he’d run into one night on a Wall Street bank job. He’d tied up a horse and buggy in a back alley for his getaway but before he’d gone a hundred yards the filthy thing had caught up with them and torn the screaming horse to pieces like you’d unjoint a chicken.
        McCool spun around on one foot and drove the other into the front door, so hard that it came off its hinges, flew into the vestibule and slid across the floor. Without a pause, he followed it inside and dropped his bundles of dynamite into an elephant’s-foot umbrella stand as he tore on through the house to the kitchen and out the back door. A moment later, he heard the crashing footsteps of the “Acme” as it followed him inside.
        Continuing his mad dash, around the house now and back towards where he’d left Bertie, Liam crossed his fingers mentally. Henry Royce was a first-rate mechanic and his Manchester factory had made the Acme line the top automatons on the market for durability and effectiveness; Liam just had to hope the limey still hadn’t figured out how to make them smart.
        He cleared the house and started back down the lawn towards the road, where he could just make out the top of Bertie’s hat sticking up out of the ditch. The sounds of wood smashing and glass breaking from the inside of the house seemed to point to the thing being convinced that Liam was still in there with him, but on the other hand why push it?
        “NOW, BERTIE!” he bellowed, simultaneously bellyflopping on the grass and covering his head with his hands. An instant later there was a stupefying thunderclap and a flash as bright as day as the explosion picked Liam up and blew him across the road like a dry leaf . . .
***
        The woman in the negligée was badly frightened now. She had known the big man back in the city before ever she came here, longer than any of the people in Henderson’s Patch had known him, and she had never seen him like this. Sure, he was excitable; maybe all the more so because he made such a fetish of being strong and steady and hard to rile. And all the while it made the pressure build, like a steam boiler with no relief valve, so when he finally blew he made one hell of a big noise. But not like this. This time he looked crazy.
        “All right, then,” she said, angry that she couldn’t keep a tremor of fear out of her voice. “There’s no need for us to be enemies, why don’t we just have a glass of whiskey and talk things over . . .”
        He grinned at that, but the look of his eyes made her blood run cold. Then he started towards her—calmly, purposefully, still grinning a little as he tore off his shirt, then the cotton singlet he wore under it. The thought flashed through her mind that he was going to rape her, and instinctively she pulled back the hammer of the little pistol. The big man paid no attention. As he threw his singlet to the floor he leapt towards her, grabbing for her gun hand and wrenching her arm aside.
        For a moment she fought him hard, harder than any man had ever fought him, raking her nails across his chest till she drew blood, and then trying to force her arm around so that she could shoot him. But at the last moment, when she was within a hand’s breadth of putting the muzzle of the pistol into his armpit, his bulk and strength overcame her and a moment later there was a muffled thud as her eyes flew wide open and a strangled cry escaped her. Then her body went completely slack and the big man pushed her away from him in a spasm of horror and nausea.
        “Ohmygod,” he muttered in near hysteria, “Ohmygod, ohmygod!”
        As if in answer a stupendous explosion split the night, shaking the house like an earthquake, smashing the windows and knocking books and pictures to the floor. For a moment the big man just stood there with his jaw hanging open, struck to stone. Then he flew into action, the craziness melting away like wisps of smoke as his mind was seized by a single, burning thought: “escape!”
***
        For a few moments Liam lay in the middle of a dense patch of bushes, stunned and deafened as bits of board, brick, upholstery and God knows what all rained down around him. Then he forced himself to his feet and looked for his men: there was Bertie, the eejit, cowering in the ditch like Judgment Day had come, while Fergus was God alone knew where—probably in Philadelphia by now.
        “Stir your stumps, dammit!” Liam yelled, “five minutes and the coppers will be swarming us like flies!”
        He ran back across the road, retrieved his satchel and opened it, beckoning to Bertie to join him as he pulled out a folded bed-sheet, a box of carpet tacks and a hammer. Then he crossed to the gate, reached up with one hem of the sheet and tacked it to the crosspost overhead, handed one of the dangling sides to Bertie and tacked it to an upright while he held it, drove a couple of tacks into the remaining side and stepped back to admire his handiwork.
        The designs at the top were plain as day in the moonlight: a crudely drawn obvious coffin next to an equally simple revolver. Below the symbols, in six-inch-tall letters, were painted the words:
        “NOW, MR. BLACK LEG HINDERSON WE WARRANTED YE BEFORE AND WE WILLNT WARIND YOU NO MORE. CLEAR OUT OF THE COALFIELDS RITE NOW OR NEXT TIME WE COME CALLING WHEN YER TA HOME.—M. M. 16 OF JUNE 1877.”
        With a little nod of satisfaction, Liam stuck the hammer, the tacks, the loose wire and the blasting machine back into the satchel, then dusted off his hands and turned to Bertie:
        “All right, then, me old son,” he said with a grin, “we’ve had our Fourth of July, now we’d best get home and get our beauty sleep.”
        He slapped Bertie on the shoulder, grabbed his bag and melted way into the night.

Excerpted with permission from King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment by Dennis O’Flaherty. Copyright 2015, Night Shade Books an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.





King of the Cracksmen: A Steampunk Entertainment
Night Shade Books, January 27, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 336 pages

Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty
How far will the luck of the Irish stretch?

The year is 1877. Automatons and steam-powered dirigible gunships have transformed the United States in the aftermath of the Civil War. All of the country’s land west of the Mississippi was sold to Russia nearly fifty years earlier, and “Little Russia,” as it’s now called, is ruled by the son of Tsar Alexander II. Lincoln is still president, having never been assassinated, but he’s not been seen for six months, and rumors are flying about his disappearance. The country is being run as a police state by his former secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a power-hungry criminal who rules with an iron fist.

Liam McCool is an outlaw, known among other crooks as “King of the Cracksmen.” But his glory days as a safecracker and the head of a powerful New York gang end when he’s caught red-handed. Threatened with prison unless he informs on his own brethren fighting a guerilla war against Stanton’s tyranny, McCool’s been biding his time, trying to keeping the heat off him long enough to escape to San Francisco with his sweetheart Maggie. But when she turns up murdered, McCool discovers a trail of breadcrumbs that look to lead all the way up to the top of Stanton’s criminal organization. Joining forces with world-famed lady reporter Becky Fox, he plunges deep into the underground war, racing to find Maggie’s killer and stop Stanton once and for all.

King of the Cracksmen is an explosive, action-packed look at a Victorian empire that never was, part To Catch a Thief, part Little Big Man, steampunk as you’ve never seen it before.

Excerpt: Ourselves by S. G. Redling


Please welcome S. G. Redling to The Qwillery with an excerpt from Ourselves, which will be published on January 27, 2015 by 47North.



Excerpt: Ourselves by S. G. Redling




CHAPTER ONE
Nahan Da Li

Nahan da li: literally, Are you Nahan? A traditional welcome, a friendly greeting, affectionate.

Stell knew there was something wrong with her. Something dark lived inside of her. She didn’t know what it was or how the others could see it. She might not even have known about it herself if she didn’t see it in the eyes of the congregation and feel it in the fists of her uncle. When she was little, she used to look for it in the ribbons of blood that poured from her body when the ritual knives cut into her.
         Now she knew better.
         Whatever was wrong with her couldn’t be cut out like a splinter underneath her skin. Whatever was wrong with her was wrong to the bone.
         Since she couldn’t cut it out or pray it out, Stell took herself and her darkness out of the compound at every opportunity. She’d climb through the hole in the wall behind her bed, crawl through the forsythia, and run hard and fast up the steep western side of Calstow Mountain. She’d run like someone chased her although she knew the congregation wouldn’t miss her. Her classmates wouldn’t. Stell drew the wrath of Uncle Rom like a magnet to a lodestone and everyone gave Stell a wide berth.
         She thought maybe her mother missed her when she took off into the woods of Calstow Mountain. She thought maybe Malbette might worry about her daughter alone in the darkness of the mountain forests, might wonder if her child was safe and unharmed running through streams and climbing trees, sleeping under the stars and waking in beds of pine needles day after day. She thought her mother might miss her but Malbette’s eyes had a distance in them that was impossible to read so Stell didn’t think about her mother much.
         After all, Stell wasn’t a kid anymore. She had to be at least twenty by now. Maybe closer to twenty-five.
         Nobody ever told Stell how old she was. Nobody ever told Stell anything except to shut up and to repent and to pray. Nobody cared whether or not she could read. (She could but she hated to.) The teachers didn’t care that Stell never looked at the maps or listened to the Traditions or that she learned her numbers quickly. Stell never asked questions and nobody noticed or cared.
         When she was little, before she knew better, she’d ask questions.
         She’d asked why she had to pray so hard, why she had to bleed into the bowls in the filthy church room. She’d stomped her foot and cried and clung to her silent mother as the two of them were led to Uncle Rom’s waiting ritual chamber to be cut and bled before the pale faces of the congregation.
         Uncle Rom had answered those questions with snarls and threats and long recitations of Tradition but those weren’t the questions that silenced Stell. Malbette had done that.
         Stell had asked about her father.
         She didn’t know how old she was when she’d asked but since she hadn’t been tall enough to look out the window, Stell figured she’d been pretty young. Young enough to press her luck. Stell had demanded her mother tell her why she didn’t have a father like the other kids in the compound. Stell had shouted and pled, whined and wept, badgering Malbette to tell her who father was and why he wasn’t with them and why nobody would tell her anything about him.
         Malbette hadn’t answered her. Instead, she ignored her daughter’s dirty, grasping hands and settled into the only chair in the small shack they called home. She folded her hands in her lap, stared into the grimy wood of the near wall, and fell silent. At first Stell had raged as small children do. She cried and pulled but Malbette wouldn’t move. She climbed into her mother’s lap but the larger hands made no move to comfort her. And finally Stell got quiet too. She curled up on the floor beside her mother’s chair, thumb tucked securely in her mouth, her cheeks pressed into the scratchy wool of her mother’s skirts.
         They sat that way for three days.
         When Malbette rose from the chair on the third day, smoothing her skirts, and walking off as if nothing unusual had happened, Stell wiped at the tears and spit and snot that had dried on her face. She headed into her room, pulled the cot away from the wall, and kicked at the loose board behind it. She crawled through that hole and ran up to the mountain.
         On Calstow Mountain it didn’t matter what was wrong with Stell. Whatever darkness she had inside her didn’t bother the raccoons or opossum or hawks. The wild turkeys kept their distance but the streams and poplars didn’t mind her. The only ones that screamed at her were the blue jays and they screamed at everything. They even screamed at the common.
         Stell loved those moments when she heard something crashing through the brush louder than any forest creature would. Birds would fly and Stell would climb as fast as she could up into the nearest tree, folding into herself and being as silent as an owl so she could watch and listen to the strangely dressed, heavily burdened common making their way along the forest trails. She listened to their voices; their English sounded so different from hers, no trace of a Nahan accent at all. And sometimes if she really stared at one of them, if she really focused on one particular part of one particular common, that common would freeze. Stell would bite her lip, trying not to giggle as they scanned the forest around them, some ancient instinct alerting them to a danger they couldn’t see.
         Stell didn’t know why they would fear her but she loved it when that happened.
         Maybe that had something to do with the darkness within her.
         She didn’t care. The common would go and Stell would climb down and the mountain would be hers again. It was hers today and Stell lay in her favorite spot, a thick blanket of moss between the creek bed and a thicket of blackberry bushes. Summer had only just started warming up the mountain and it would be weeks until the blackberries appeared but Stell had peeled off her gray, woolen dress as she always did once the snow melted. She’d tossed the hated garment into the poplar branches and sprawled out along the chilly moss.
         The canopy overheard hadn’t thickened fully yet and the sun warmed her pale skin. Bits of mud flaked off her body as she stretched long. She must have fallen asleep because she didn’t hear the rattling of the blackberry branches or the swearing until it was too late to hide. Stell leapt to her feet, blinking away the sleep, as the branches closed together, catching the skin of a young man who pulled at the thorns.
         They stared at each other. Stell knew her eyes and mouth were as wide open as his.
         He was Nahan. She could see it and smell it and feel it.
         And he was beautiful.
         “Nahan da li?” she asked, smiling at this wondrous site before her.
         He looked nothing like the congregation. His clothes weren’t drab and rough. His skin shone with a health she had never seen. And most wondrous of all? His surprised gape turned into a smile.
         “What? Oh yeah, yeah.” He nodded but Stell didn’t think he blinked. “I’m Nahan. I’m…I’m…I’m Thomas. Tomas. Tomas is my real, you know, my real name, um, that we, you know, use here because my grandparents…that’s my name when I’m here. I mean it’s my name but I use Thomas when I’m home but here I use, you know, my name. Tomas.”
         Stell watched the words pour out of his beautiful mouth. She wanted to touch the shadows of pink that rose on his pale cheeks as he talked and talked. He said more to her in that minute than anyone had said to Stell in months.
         “I’m Stell, " she said but he seemed to want more. “All the time. I’m only ever Stell.”
         The pink on his cheeks settled into a glorious rose shade that matched the lower lip he licked. His teeth shone white as he bit into it and Stell couldn’t think of a single reason to ever look at anything else again. She watched his mouth move and waited for more words.
         “Why are you naked?”
         “My dress is in the tree.”
         “Do you want me to get it down?”
         “No.”
         “Oh.”
#####

Excerpted from OURSELVES by S.G. Redling. Copyright 2015. Published By 47North. Used by permission of the publisher. Not for reprint without permission.





Ourselves
The Nahan 1
47North, January 27, 2015
Trade Paperback and eBook, 334 pages

Excerpt: Ourselves by S. G. Redling
They have always been among us.

An ancient, enigmatic race, the Nahan have protected their secret world by cultivating the myths of fanged, bloodsucking monsters that haunt legends. Yet they walk through our world as our coworkers and our neighbors, hiding in plain sight and coexisting in peace. They survive…and they prosper.

A shy young dreamer, Tomas wanders through his life with help from his good friends and influential family on the ruling Council. Now, he’s decided his future lies with the Nahan’s most elite class: the mysterious Storytellers. But his family is troubled by his new choice—and by his new girlfriend, Stell, a wild, beautiful, and deadly outcast from a fanatical Nahan sect.

As Tomas descends into the dark wonders of the Nahan’s most powerful culture, Stell answers her own calling as an exceptional assassin. But when a lethal conspiracy threatens their destinies, Tomas and Stell must unite their remarkable talents against the strongest—and most sinister—of their kind.





About S. G. Redling

Excerpt: Ourselves by S. G. Redling
S. G. Redling hosted a morning radio program for fifteen years before turning to writing. A graduate of Georgetown University, she was a finalist in the 2011 Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest. She is the author of The Widow File, Redemption Key, Damocles, Flowertown, and Braid: Three Twisted Stories. She currently resides in her home state of West Virginia.








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Exclusive Cover Reveal and Excerpt from The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab by R. E. Preston


Please welcome Richard Ellis Preston, Jr., writing as R. E. Preston, with the exclusive cover reveal and excerpt from his first YA novel: The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab.  The cover is by Roberto Calas who also created a map and icons that are found in the novel. We also have the first review of novel below!


Exclusive Cover Reveal and Excerpt from  The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab by R. E. Preston

The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab introduces us to R.E. Preston’s new high-adventure, World War Two era series for young adults, written in the tradition of Young Indiana Jones and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. After being trapped in an ancient Egyptian tomb, 15 year old genius Edmund Peabody teams up with Chander Peabody and Amelia Tripp to forge unlikely alliances with a beautiful reanimated mummy and a castle ghost as they attempt to prevent the Nazis from capturing a set of powerful ancient Egyptian scarabs. As England stands threatened, sandstorms rage, biplanes dive and ancient magic is invoked, new and old worlds collide and create new heroes you shall never forget.


Trinitytwo's Point of View

The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab is the first book in a promising new YA series by R. E. Preston. Set during World War 2, the protagonist, Edmund Peabody, has recently returned to England after a harrowing adventure in Egypt in which his grandfather, Colonel Percival Peabody, sought a scarab believed to possess magical properties from the tomb of princess Neferu. Their expedition encountered a team of tomb raiders led by Colonel Peabody’s arch-enemy and fellow treasure hunter, Hector Strasser, with disastrous results. Back in England, Edmund, along with his adopted brother Chander, reside in their grandfather’s castle for safekeeping while German bombers target their home city of London. Joined by Amelia Tripp, a close family friend, the trio of adventurous teens must test their courage and their wits to thwart a covert German operation while also eluding the slippery machinations of Strasser.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, especially the paranormal elements. The fictional historic setting felt authentic both in Egypt and in England. I love the fact that Colonel Peabody’s loyal staff is as diverse as it gets, adding cultural flavor to the bland English countryside. Edmund, Chander, and Amelia are a combination of likeable brainiacs and risk takers who aren’t afraid to act in the face of danger and stand up for their beliefs. There were moments when I was so wrapped up in the story that my heart raced and my fingers twitched in anticipation of turning each page. I read well past my bedtime because I just had to know what was going to happen next. Preston’s story delivers action, adventure and feats of derring do with wallops of adrenaline. The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab is a supernatural thrill fest for the younger set that combines the best elements of Indiana Jones, The Mummy, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.





About the Author


Exclusive Cover Reveal and Excerpt from  The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab by R. E. Preston
Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. grew up in the United States and Canada but he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, met the sheep on Hadrian’s Wall, eaten at the first McDonalds in Moscow, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. The Purple Scarab is the first book in his new League of the Sphinx YA adventure series which he writes as R.E. Preston. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War and Romulus Buckle & the Luminiferous Aether are the first three installments in his steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. His short story, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” is a prequel set in the same steampunk universe. He currently resides in California.

Wesbite  ~  Twitter @RichardEPreston  ~  Facebook





The Excerpt


PROLOGUE: in the valley of the kings

(9 May 1940)



        Edmund Peabody ran through the Egyptian tomb, hurtling through a darkness three thousand years old. His grandfather ran with him down the passageway. Chander, his brother, ran with him. The huge Frenchman named Lothair ran with him. Their bouncing electric torch beams cut brilliant yellow swaths back-and-forth, illuminating water-damaged pillars, walls of faded red, green and blue hieroglyphs and stacked funerary objects glimmering with ivory and gold.
        Edmund’s heart hammered inside his chest. He was afraid. What was the purpose of that? Fifteen-year-old boys weren’t supposed to be afraid of anything. Booby trap triggers—knobs of petrified wood and odd configurations of stones—laced the floor and walls, but he wasn’t afraid of those. The heavy, atrophied air threatened to suffocate him but he wasn’t afraid of that either.
        Edmund was afraid of the tomb raiders. The raiders wearing the swirling robes of the desert nomads and carrying submachine guns. And the raiders were coming.
        “Hurry, lads!” Edmund’s grandfather gasped with the honeyed accent of the British upper-cruster. “Only a few steps further! And mind where you put your feet!”
        Edmund’s electric torch light haloed in his spectacles and lit up the khaki-clad back of his grandfather, the honorable Colonel Percival Peabody, a man who had seen much of the world and fought its dragons. The Colonel’s red silk flying scarf fluttered at the edges of the light beam that jerked as Edmund ran. They all had electric torches tucked into leather hammocks on their pith helmets, a device designed by the Colonel himself for keeping the hands free during tomb exploration.
        “We’ve cleared the antechamber!” Chander yelled from behind Edmund. “Do not brush against the statues outside the burial chamber! Remember the triggers!” Lothair, the heavily-muscled Frenchman who rarely spoke—which was odd for a Frenchman— brought up the rear, gripping a large crowbar.
        Two jackal-headed statues of Anubis emerged from the void, guarding each flank of the burial chamber doorway. Their black faces were stern, their obsidian eyes furious inside teardrop swirls of blue pigment.
        “Ah! Anubis, the protector of the dead!” the Colonel cried in passing. “I fear we must violate your trust!”
        They hurried into the large rectangular burial chamber. Edmund fought off a sense of vertigo upon entering. The walls with their riots of hieroglyphs made the eyes drift, one’s balance uncertain. This sensation was offset, once inside, by the immensity of the sarcophagus, a massive block of yellow quartzite looming up from the limestone floor which anchored the space. A life-size statue of princess Neferu in a white dress and wearing a golden ankh pendant stood against the right-hand wall. The wood of the statue was old and cracked but it was still lovely.
        The Colonel scrambled around the opposite side of the sarcophagus. The quartzite glowed like liquid amber under his torch as if it were illuminated from within, the reflecting light making the Colonel’s unkempt silver eyebrows look like hawk wings. “Over here with me, lads,” he said with the authority of a man accustomed to ordering around other men. “This isn’t going to be very scientific, but it must be done. Hurry!”
        “This is grave robbing, really,” Edmund said as he shifted alongside the Colonel.
        “Emergency artifact rescue is more like it, old chap,” Chander added; Chander was probably fifteen years old—the same age as Edmund—and adopted, with the chestnut-brown skin and dark-chocolate eyes of the Himalayas. Though his frame was thin he was still considerably burlier than Edmund.
        “Ready to push on three, lads! We’ll give it the old heave-ho!” the Colonel shouted.
        Edmund pressed his hands against the smooth edge of the quartzite lid. The stone was cool to the touch. The tomb air was less oppressive than the blazing Egyptian heat outside and it thickened the sweat on his skin, adding stickiness to his shirt which was soaked through and clung to him.
        “Three, two …” the Colonel counted down rapidly.
        Lothair slipped into the narrow space between the tomb wall and the sarcophagus, his mountainous shoulder pressed up against Edmund’s narrow one. They crouched in preparation for the big push. Edmund tensed his muscles and took a deep breath, suddenly aware of the air and the last men to breathe it, the acolyte priests of the dead royal princess, Neferu. Edmund smelled traces of the fig palm unguents the priests had applied to their bald heads, the scent still clinging to the oxygen molecules.
        “One. Heave!” the Colonel shouted.
        Edmund threw every ounce of his strength against the slab. He heard the Colonel and Chander grunting. He realized that he was grunting too. The lid shuddered on its moorings but it did not give.
        “We must!” the Colonel commanded. “The outcome of the war could depend upon us opening this sarcophagus, boys! Arrrr—throw your backs into it! Heave!”
        Edmund planted his boot on the wall and pushed with such intensity that he feared his spine might snap. Beside him Lothair roared, his swarthy face puffed near to bursting, his forehead sparkling with perspiration.
        The slab shifted with a dull pop as the seal broke.
        “Aha!” the Colonel shouted. “Victory! We have it, lads! Heave! Heave! Heave!”
        Edmund pushed with new energy. The locks of dust and time, thirty centuries old, had given way. The momentum was with them. His arm muscles shook.
        The quartzite slab slid back and dropped over the opposite side of the sarcophagus, crashing to the limestone floor. The rock split with a resounding crack that left Edmund’s ears ringing.
        Everyone swung their torches into the sarcophagus. The beams revealed a large mummy case gilded with gold in the form of an Egyptian girl, her face delicate and stern, her eyes cut from crystal that danced in the light. But there was no time to admire the handiwork of the ancient coffin-makers.
        “Take hold!” the Colonel urged, reaching down. “This is an outer coffin, likely the first of two. Lift! Lift!”
        Edmund jammed his hands into the rough-edged gap. He located the seam between the top and bottom pieces of the coffin and hooked his fingers under it. Lothair angled his big black crowbar alongside, his gloved hands clamped on the stem.
        With a howl, the four raised the lid.
        Beneath, exquisite in the jerking light, emerged the second coffin. It was a masterpiece, a glittering mosaic of gilded wood inlaid with scarlet, purple, emerald-green, blue, orange, amber glass and black obsidian. Delicate fingers had created it.
        “Again!” the Colonel cried, with despair in his voice. It hurt him to mistreat such things, Edmund knew.
        Crowbar and muscle leveraged the second coffin lid up and over. The sour odor of decayed fabric and resin-oxidized human flesh burst up and assaulted the nostrils. Edmund choked. Mummy dust was suffocating. Inside lay the linen-wrapped princess, a slender, sunken and fragile form. She had one hand, the right, placed on her chest. She had small feet. But the sight which stunned Edmund was her life-size, burnished mask, a masterfully hammered golden face of unearthly female beauty inlaid with multicolored glass.
        The Colonel lifted the mask, handing it to Lothair. “We shall use this as a diversion,” the Colonel breathed. “It will work if the raiders don’t know what to look for.”
        Edmund’s torchlight fell upon the exposed face of the mummy. Its linen wrappings had partially fallen away, exposing brown-gray flesh shrunken across the skull, dark sockets curtained behind papery lids, teeth white but jagged in the leathery-bacon strips of the lips that held them to the jaw. It was ghastly, yes—but it was breathtaking.
        “Neferu …” Chander whispered, also captivated at the sight of the long-dead princess. Somehow, some way, a terrible beauty still clung to the dried-out corpse.
        There was another smell under the stink of the ancient embalming fluids and fossilized flesh; a deep, rich, drowsy smell of a flower which lingered in the nostrils. Edmund suspected it was the lotus—especially because the cartouches lining Neferu’s tomb were rich with the Nile flower hieroglyph.
        “Steady, boys.” the Colonel muttered, moving to the head of the nested coffins. “Curses! There’s no time!” He drew a knife from his belt. “Damn these wretched fools who force our hand!” He sliced the linen at Neferu’s ribcage and stripped the wrappings down to the wrists.
        Neferu’s skeletal right hand, folded on the chest, lay exposed. The finger bones stuck out of the collapsed skin and clutched a metal scarab. The metal was black but iridescent, its glossy skin a shimmering prism under the light of the torches. A lotus hieroglyph, painted in gold, showed prominently on its upper thorax. In the middle of the abdomen, glittering under the partially unfolded wings, rested a huge, sapphire-blue gemstone.
        “The scarabeus—the blue scarab of Hatshepsut!” The Colonel whispered with barely-contained awe. “Neferu holds the sacred scarab of her pharaoh mother, Hatshepsut! This is most unusual!” He tried to jiggle the scarab loose but the dead fingers held tight. “Blast it!” He sank the knife into the gap between the scarab and the mummy’s hand and tore the artifact free. “My most profound apologies, princess,” he muttered.
        “Oui, Princess, forgive us,” Lothair rumbled with his French accent, his eyes glowing green in the battery-powered light. It always startled Edmund when Lothair, the old Foreign Legionnaire, spoke, it was so rare. Lothair’s voice was deep and profound as if his throat had weighed the wisdom of his words for years before releasing them.
        “Why is she buried with her mother’s scarab?” Edmund asked quickly. “Where is her own?”
        The Colonel thoughtfully hefted the lotus scarab in his hand. “I don’t know,” he said. “It is perplexingly odd.”
        “Why are not both of her hands folded on her chest?” Chander asked. “Did one crumble away?”
        “Neferu was not a pharaoh, Chander,” the Colonel answered. “Only pharaohs had both hands crossed on the chest. She was a princess, a royal, and royalty only had one hand on the chest.” His eyes suddenly lit up. “Wait!” He dug down the side of the coffin, ripping away linen with his knife, exposing the left hand.
        A gorgeous purple stone gleamed between the yellow-white finger bones. This scarab bore another golden hieroglyph on its upper back—an ankh.
        “The purple scarab of Neferu! Two scarabs! She was entombed with two, hers and her mother’s. Never would I have suspected.” The Colonel sank his blade into the hand and pried the purple scarab loose. The dry bones of the pinky finger snapped off and fell away into the coffin, rattling down between petrified folds of linen and skin.
        “I hate this, this shredding!” the Colonel growled as he stuffed the two scarabs into his coat pockets and signaled towards the doorway. “Quickly now, lads. The enemy is upon us. We must flee. Lothair, lead the way.”
        Lothair leapt down from the sarcophagus, the beam of his electric torch advancing back through the doorway and into the pitch black corridor beyond. Edmund and Chander were immediately upon his heels. The grand gallery was long and narrow, the largest chamber in the tomb complex. They scrambled the length of it, passing funerary boats with hulls of reeds drawn from the Nile, painted figurines and stacks upon stacks of priceless treasures.
        In the anteroom doorway stood Moustapha, the Colonel’s right-hand man. A hot breeze was up, howling in through the tomb entrance, billowing the folds of Moustapha’s pale gray-yellow kaftan. Sunlight silhouetted his fluttering outline and hurt Edmund’s dark-accustomed pupils. Moustapha was a tall, lanky Egyptian with red-brown skin and sun-narrowed eyes. He and the Colonel, like most everyone else on the expedition, had a long history. Edmund didn’t like Moustapha overmuch; he was resourceful and an expert in all things ancient but he was also a little shifty. Edmund couldn’t put his finger on exactly how or why—but the man was shifty.
        “Strasser is here,” Moustapha gasped with the thick accent of the Egyptians. Sweat gleamed on his forehead and he looked as if he had just sprinted a hundred yards. Moustapha was a quiet academic sort who disliked violence but now he had a pistol clenched in his right hand.
        Edmund’s stomach muscles seized up. Strasser was the Colonel’s arch nemesis, his competitor in the race for the ancient treasures of the world. But there was more to it than just business; the Colonel and Strasser knew each other well—they had been close friends once—but something terrible had happened between them long ago and it had made Strasser dangerous.
        “Blast the mortal heel of Achilles!” the Colonel blurted. “Of course he is!”
        “We set up a roadblock but he did not come in trucks,” Moustapha said. “He has Bedouins with him. Finnegan is radioing the British outpost at Abydos. But the devils are already upon us, Colonel.”
        “Out! Out!” the Colonel shouted, planting a hand on Edmund and Chander’s backs. “And Moustapha—put that wretched revolver away!”
        Edmund removed the torch from his helmet, clicking it off before he shoved it into his pocket. The afternoon sun blinded him as he emerged from the tomb and stumbled through the digging debris in the work trench. Neferu’s golden mask gleamed with a cruel brilliance as Lothair carried it alongside. The air, harsh with the burnt-mineral odor of hot sand, boiled Edmund’s nostrils. Summer had come early to the desert this year. Early and hot. Egypt hosted only two seasons: winter and summer. Mild and murderous. Nothing in between.
        Edmund heard the grunts of nervous camels and the shouts of frightened men.
        “Strasser has brought the desert vermin with him!” Velvet Carpenter raged. Edmund, with his mostly-shut eyes, couldn’t see Velvet, though he could tell she was standing on the embankment above him on the right. Velvet was a former Army nurse and the expedition’s cataloguer. Her voice, normally birdlike and gentle as the Norfolk hills from which she hailed, was now shaking with anger. “Oh, why can’t Strasser leave us alone?”
        The Colonel grabbed Edmund and Chander each by the shoulder and spun them around. He pulled the two scarabs out of his jacket and thrust one into the palm of each boy. Blinking, Edmund peered at the sun-shimmering bulk of the Colonel: he was a small man but he was barrel-chested and ferocious. Even though he was retired from the service his clothes were military in style, all khaki, with puttees wrapped around his calves. His face was dominated by his moustache, a silver and brown masterpiece that ran from cheek-to-cheek in a well-groomed sweep that made even his prodigious eyebrows seem paltry.
        Edmund clamped his fingers around the metal scarab and its purple stone; it felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds.
        “Listen, boys. Strasser is here for the scarab, but he would expect only one.” The Colonel spoke quickly, with a dead seriousness Edmund had never witnessed before. “The burial mask will absorb his curiosity for a moment but you must keep the scarabs away from him until the Tommies get here. Now, split up and run! Run!”
        Courage swelled in Edmund’s throat. He hated intense action but he loved that feeling. “They shan’t capture both of us,” he declared.
        “By the beard of Nelson’s goat, we shall make the pharaohs proud,” Chander added.
        “Stop blabbering and run!” the Colonel gruffed, propelling the boys down the trench with a shove.
        Launched as they were, Edmund and Chander bolted, half-out-of-control over the loose rocks and gravel. They emerged from the trench onto a barren, dusty brown hillside in the Valley of the Kings. Everything in Egypt was dusty and brown. The access road was fifteen yards down the slope. Moustapha had parked the big equipment truck sideways across the middle of the track. The white canopies of the expedition’s tents crowded a shallow ravine on the left.
        “You cut right!” Edmund said. “I’ll cut left!”
        “Run fast, brother!” Chander replied. “For they shall never catch me!” Chander angled right and sprinted away.
        Edmund turned left and ran as fast as his gangly legs could carry him. Jumbled rocks littered the sand, making it difficult to find good landing points for the feet. He stumbled but caught himself, though his pith helmet fell off and bounced away with hollow thumps of cork. The only safety lay in escaping to the desert. He would cut through the encampment and vanish into the endless dunes on the other side. Bending low, he scrambled between the dust-coated supply trucks and ducked under the tethers of the supply camels who sputtered with agitation. He passed handfuls of worried-looking Egyptian diggers who peered down the road.
        Edmund reached the horses and snatched the reins of a big white Arabian, throwing himself up into the saddle. He kicked the horse and guided it between the tents towards the safety of the sand dunes.
        Someone snatched Edmund by the collar, yanking him out of the saddle. He landed on his back in the hard-packed sand and it knocked the wind out of him. He looked up to see Finnegan Baird, a blond Irishman and ex-Army private who usually smelled like whiskey. Finnegan was another member of the Colonel’s entourage from the old days.
        “No, boy!” Finnegan whispered as he dragged Edmund inside the mess tent with its lingering scent of bully beef and eggs. Finnegan dropped Edmund between the tables and crouched beside the radio set, slapping the headset on his ears and gripping the microphone.
        Edmund staggered to his feet, squeezing his hands against his bruised ribs and looking at the back tent flap—partly open, it beckoned to him.
        “Forget it, laddie. There’s a host of nomads out there,” Finnegan whispered over the crackle of static in his headgear. “Look up. They must have trekked in overland. They have us surrounded. Don’t be goin’ and gettin’ yourself shot all to pieces, there.”
        Scanning the slopes of the dunes, Edmund saw a line of white-robed Bedouins approaching. They all held submachine guns. Edmund ducked back, fright humming in his throat. He had to find a place to hide.
        “Peabody expedition, do you still read me?” a British voice filtered through the static on the radio headset.
        Finnegan turned back to the microphone. “Aye. But from the looks of things I won’t for very much longer.”
        “Fifth battalion is on its way—should be there in fifteen minutes,” the British radioman said. “Hold on as best you can until then, old boy.”
        “Holding on, aye,” Finnegan replied
        “I have to get out of here,” Edmund said.
        “What have you got there, lad?” Finnegan asked, eyeing the purple scarab clutched in Edmund’s hand.
        “It’s the artifact we came for. We can’t let Strasser have it,” Edmund answered. He saw Finnegan’s eyes flash.
        “It’ll be alright, lad,” Finnegan whispered, placing his hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “Let me ponder our situation, eh?”
        Edmund calculated that it was pointless to try to control his adrenalin—but he could try to regulate his breathing, which was coming in fits and gasps. Finnegan was many things but he wasn’t much of a thinker. Edmund would have to find his own way out of this one.
        “Give it to me,” Finnegan said, motioning for Edmund to place the scarab in his hand. “I’ll bury it under the ovens.”
        Edmund shook his head. There were better hiding places than that. Shouts boomed in the near distance, in Arabic, coming from what seemed like every direction. A raft of wind chimes hanging outside the tent jangled loudly—the Canadian cook, McVey, loved wind chimes and he had built these ones out of old copper pipes. The wind was up and the air seemed thicker, hotter, more difficult to breathe than it had been just moments before.
        Edmund plunged the scarab into his coat pocket, sinking it as deep as the folds of the fabric allowed, then buttoned the flap shut. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.
        “We are all here to take care of it, Edmund,” Finnegan urged. “Give it to me. Hurry!”
        Still, Edmund did not move. It wasn’t right. It was not about Finnegan—he had always trusted the Irishman. Somehow Edmund knew that burying the scarab would be the wrong move.
        The sounds of feet punching across sand came on, louder and louder. Crouching, Edmund saw Bedouin boots swishing along the gap between the base of the tent and the ground.
        “Edmund!” Finnegan hissed, waving his fingers. “Now, boy!”
        Edmund bolted past Finnegan and ducked out the front of the tent.
        Half-blinded by the outside light—the sky seemed like it was burning, so brightly did the clouds glow—Edmund heard shouts behind him. The voices were unfamiliar and very Arab: “Hands up, Englishman! Hands up!”
        “No reason to get your ire up there, my desert friends,” Edmund heard Finnegan reply loudly. “And I’m green-blooded Irish, by the way.”
        Edmund slipped into a narrow gap between two sleeping tents. He was hidden for the moment but it was no good. The Bedouins were everywhere, in all directions. For an instant he considered jumping on one of the camels and attempting to escape that way. Nix that. A bad-tempered, goofy-footed camel was not built as a fast-escape vehicle.
        A Bedouin, his flowing Arab robes streaked with dust, strode past the tents, passing mere inches from Edmund’s nose. Edmund froze in a crouch until the man passed. He could not stay where he was. Slowly, carefully, he crept up to the cab of the water truck, a heavy, oversized vehicle carrying a steel reservoir tank. Gently lifting the passenger-side door handle, he clambered into the cab. His canteen, sloshing loudly because it was not full, clinked against the doorframe. He shoved the canteen around on his belt and into the middle of his back. The cab was as hot as an oven. He felt his flesh start to cook as he pulled himself onto the frying-pan hot leather seat. Drawing his legs in, he nursed the door shut with a low click.
        The atmosphere was unbearable. Edmund couldn’t breathe. His lungs couldn’t draw any oxygen from the superheated air. Rotating the window handle, he rolled the squeaking window down a few inches. The wind whistled through the crack but it was just as hot as everything else. He hunched down into the grimy foot well where the air felt even hotter.
        “Keep your hands on your heads! Do not move!” a Turkish-flavored voice trumpeted outside with a nasty strain of authority.
        “I can’t very well put my hands on my hat, sir,” the Colonel answered, sounding annoyed. “Or would you prefer I drop this priceless masterpiece in the gravel?”
        Edmund raised his head, slowly, just enough to be able to see out through the dust-grimed windshield. The truck was facing the access road where dozens of Bedouins stood, white and tan robed, draped with bullet-packed bandoliers, feet planted wide as they held the reins of their camels. The white Arabian trotted around, reins trailing in the sand, but they ignored the horse.
        The Colonel, holding Neferu’s burial mask, stood before a cold-eyed Turk who looked strangely out of place in his rust-orange robes and red fez. Velvet Carpenter and Moustapha, no longer carrying the pistol, flanked the Colonel. The Egyptian workers, streams of burly fellows in long white galabiyas, were being rapidly rounded up along with the regular members of the Colonel’s staff: Gerhard Dengler, Barclay Rathbone, Orlanda Padilla, Dermot Harper, Ian McVey and the black American named Ridley Jones. They were a patchwork group from the lost generation, an unusual but tightly-knit team of Brits, ex-patriots and lost travellers.
Three Bedouins marched past Edmund’s truck, hauling Finnegan, who was still wearing the radio headset and holding the microphone, wires trailing. “This man call on radio,” one of the Bedouins shouted in rough English.
        “Unfortunate,” a voice with an Austrian accent replied. “But the difficult work has already been done for us.”
        A man in expensive black desert robes appeared, marching through the ranks of Bedouins who stepped aside obediently as he passed. Edmund hunched lower. There was something unsettling about the black-robed man, an elegantly-edged menace. He was older, perhaps close to the Colonel’s age, and he wasn’t an Arab: his handsome face was bordered with short blonde hair edged with silver-white above the ears. Strasser—it had to be Strasser. Edmund noticed that although the man walked with a fine military precision there was a glitch in his stride, a limp, a hint of unevenness in the line of his body which warped motions that should have been smooth.
        Edmund jerked. His chin had touched the metal dashboard and it was so hot it scalded him. Sweat poured into his eyes with the effect of molten lava. He was being cooked alive. A human Yorkshire pudding.
        Strasser stopped in front of the Colonel and smiled, offering his hand. “Good afternoon, Percival. It appears that we meet under strained circumstances once again.”
        The Colonel did not move to shake Strasser’s hand. “I heard that you are working for the German Army now, Oberst Strasser. I am sure you must have made quite an impression upon the Third Reich.”
        “As you did upon your Queen, Colonel Peabody,” Strasser replied, withdrawing his hand.
        The Colonel nodded, then gave Strasser a piercing look. “This is my prize, Hector. My work. You have no right to take it.”
        A smile rose on Strasser’s lips, a cruel, wounded smile. “I am a genius in many ways, Percival, as you know. At logistics. At stratagems. At chess. If you remember, you never defeated me in chess.”
        “I vaguely recall many draws,” the Colonel said.
        “But you never won, Percival. Never,” Strasser replied. “But, alas, in the end, I have proven to be a poor archaeologist and an even poorer judge of character. I am, however, a very good thief. But even in thievery you have outplayed me, for never shall I steal from you anything as precious as what you stole from me.”
        “One cannot steal what is willingly given, Hector,” the Colonel said.
        Strasser’s eyes flashed. “Enough idle chatter. What have you so kindly dug up for me here in the Valley of the Kings?”
        “By the rules of the Gladstone International Antiquities Agreement, what I have found here belongs to myself, the Egyptian Government and the British Museum.” The Colonel said.
        “Rules?” Strasser laughed. “There are no rules in war, Percival. In war, the strong take from the weak. Please do not test me. You know that would go badly for you and your associates.” He thrust his hand out again, palm up. “Since you managed to radio the British at Abydos, I must assume that I have very little time. Ten minutes, perhaps.”
        The Colonel displayed the mask. “We have this, a burial mask of gold. The tomb is royal, but not of a pharaoh. We have yet to discover a name. Sadly, ancient grave robbers stripped most of the precious items in antiquity. Unfortunate in many ways.” He offered the mask to Strasser. “I presume you wish to add this to the Gestapo’s collection?”
        Strasser grinned. “Really, Percival? The robbers took everything and left the mask behind? I am surprised you have so little faith in me. This is the tomb of Neferu. I must congratulate you on finding it since it has eluded us all for so long. But, as I said, you were always a far more talented archaeologist than I.” His face shifted to sternness. “Where is the scarab?”
        The Colonel shook his head. “There is no scarab, Hector. This is not the tomb of a pharaoh.”
        Edmund saw Chander being led onto the road, a Bedouin hauling him along by the collar of his jacket. Edmund gasped, covering his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve. The Bedouin held Hatshepsut’s blue scarab in his free hand.
        Edmund’s tongue was now muffled with dust. His sleeve had been coated with sand. But he had no way to spit it out. His saliva had evaporated.
        “Ah!” Strasser enthused. “Using your grandsons as runners, Percival? That could prove a dangerous tactic, for them.” The Bedouin handed the blue scarab to Strasser, who scrutinized it with the eye of a jeweler. “The lotus scarab of Hatshepsut,” he said. “Glorious.”
        “You have what you came for, Hector,” the Colonel said, his face fallen. “Now take your thieves and go. After all, the British are coming.”
        “Where is the other one?” Strasser snapped.
        The Colonel raised an eyebrow. “What other one? You have the only one.”
        “Quit stalling, Percival. You were always a pathetic liar. It is unusual that Neferu would be buried with her mother’s scarab but surely Neferu was also buried with her own. Where is it?”
        “There was only one,” the Colonel answered.
        Dark fury flashed in Strasser’s eyes. “Do not play me for the fool, Percival! You did once and I shall never allow it again!” He spun on his heel, raising his hand as he shouted to his men. “There is another scarab! Find the other boy! Find him and bring him to me! Tear the camp apart! Quickly!”
        The small army of Bedouin—there must have been at least fifty of them—scattered immediately, swarming through the camp. Edmund hunched low in the foot well but there were too many gangly parts of him to hide properly there. The space stank of old leather shoes and petrol. A crusty blob lay in the accumulated sand, the remains of what might have once been a sausage sandwich.
        A tall Bedouin strode past, glancing at the dust-caked window, but he did not see Edmund.
        The cogs and gears in Edmund’s brain whirled. If he opened the door and ran he would most surely be caught. If he remained where he was they would find him or he would bake like a bespectacled muffin. Something brushed his head with a jingle. Looking up, he saw a set of keys dangling in the ignition.
        Edmund swung up into the driver’s seat. Keeping his head low, he eased the cranky emergency brake lever down.
        The Bedouins were all over the camp, ghostly robed forms passing the dirty windows, shouting as they knocked over stacked crates and ripped the fabric tents apart. Edmund tried to swallow but managed nothing more than a cough. There was no moisture left in his throat. He shoved the gear shift into neutral, jammed the clutch down with his left foot, turned the keys in the ignition and stomped on the gas pedal. The engine roared to life with a shuddering growl. It backfired, which surely gave the Bedouins a bit of a start.
        The fat was in the fire now.
        Sweat poured into Edmund’s eyes. With one hand on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, he slapped the stick into first gear and eased his foot up and off the clutch.
        The water truck lunged forward, tires whizzing in the sand, engine screaming at a high pitch as if everything was spinning at the wrong revolution. Bouncing up and down and back and forth, Edmund could barely keep a grip on the wheel. The lurch flung him forward so hard that his head hit the roof.
        The Bedouins shouted, charging the truck, pointing their gun muzzles. Edmund stomped on the clutch and threw the truck into second gear. The big vehicle accelerated, back end weaving, its tires throwing waves of gravel in every direction. Edmund worried that he had not locked the doors—the passenger side window was rolled down, for mercy’s sake—but there was nothing for it now.
        The truck barreled straight down the middle of the access road. Edmund saw Bedouins and Egyptian workers diving away. He stood on the gas pedal. He couldn’t breathe.
        “The lad!” Edmund heard Strasser bellow. “The other lad is in the truck!”
        Edmund saw a rapid succession of flashes in front of him. A line of holes ripped high across the windshield from right to left. The glass collapsed in a wave of shards. Double drat, Edmund thought, hunching low. The Bedouins, armed to the teeth, would now turn the truck—and him—into Swiss cheese. He was suddenly all wet. The bullets had broken the rear window of the cab and punctured the reservoir tank behind; streams of hot water gushed down upon him as if he were sitting in a fountain.
        Outside, Strasser screamed. “No shooting! I want the young fool alive! Bring him to me alive!”
        Edmund pushed the gear stick into third. The truck bounced and rattled, angry at his poor handling of the clutch. Edmund lifted his head. He was about to crash into the side of the equipment truck which still blocked the road. He spun the wheel to the left, aiming for the gap between the rear of the equipment truck and the access road embankment. The gap was not quite big enough. The front right corner of the water truck slammed into the tail end of the equipment truck, launching it sideways in a shower of flying crates and shovels.
        The hood of the water truck popped and flipped up. Now Edmund could not see anything but metal.
        Thrown forward, Edmund hauled himself back into his seat. For all of the fishtailing and bumping into things, the truck was moving faster now. He hunched down so he could see through the gap between the hood and the windshield frame and swung the truck back onto the road. Fourth gear took up him to a higher speed. He rejoiced at the prospect of escape—but his hope was instantly dashed.
        Hurtling around a bend in the track, Edmund saw a line of Bedouins on camels and—far more disconcerting—two old trucks with mounted machine guns, blocking the only road out of the Valley of the Kings. The machine guns, old water-cooled relics from the Great War, swung towards him.
        In that instant the world felt all wrong to Edmund. It was midday but the sky was strangely dark. The air was too dense, too overheated. But he had no time to do more than instinctively sense these things. He hit the brake and wound the wheel. The water truck staggered and wheezed. He managed to depress the clutch pedal just before the engine cut out. He pulled the gear back into its first position and slowly turned the truck around, accelerating back up the road. Peering into the rear view mirror, he saw that the Bedouins were not chasing him.
        His first escape attempt thwarted, Edmund formulated another plan. He would blow through the encampment and race out into the desert—there were several gullies on the outskirts wide and smooth enough to accommodate the truck—and he would escape into the waste. He did have some water in his canteen and a compass in his pocket. The truck wouldn’t make it far over the rough terrain but he figured he could abandon it and trek back once the British soldiers had arrived.
        Edmund was now waist deep in water—the streams from the bullet-riddled tank were pouring in relentlessly. He pressed the submerged accelerator to the floor and took a firm grip on the wheel as he raced back towards the equipment truck, which was now blocking the way diagonally. He hugged the left side of the track, so close to the boulders of the steep embankment that he scraped off the left side view mirror and the wooden runner panel. Bedouins and Egyptians, howling, scattered again.
         Suddenly Edmund couldn’t see anything. The world disappeared in a tidal wave of orange-black sand. Sandstorm. Europeans called it the sirocco but to the Egyptians it was the khamsin. Bouncing along at fifty kilometers an hour, Edmund shouted—he did not even know what he shouted—and glimpsed the shadow of the equipment truck as he rocketed past it
         Edmund cleared the gap. But then he lost control of everything. Thundering into stacks of digging debris, the truck’s wheels lost traction. The vehicle skidded to the left and launched into a teeth-rattling spin. The steering wheel wrenched out of his hands and nearly broke off his thumbs in the process. Outside, through the roar of the torrent, he heard the snapping of wood and rope. Tent fabric ripped away across the open windshield. Sand whipped in as if driven by a lash, stinging his face and eyes. Water surged around him, almost up to the top of the dashboard.
         Just grand, Edmund thought. Buried at sea in a desert.
         The truck righted itself for an instant, then veered right and slammed into a wall of rock. Edmund banged his forehead on the steering wheel. The door popped open and Edmund fell out in a great cascade of water. The rocky ground hit him hard. He lay stunned, half-drowned, half-sand choked, battling to regain his senses in the murk. The air was fire, slashing his face, incinerating his lungs. He pressed his fingers against his aching forehead and they came back dark, coated with something redder and thicker than water.
         Snap out of it, Edmund! A voice shouted from the fog inside his head. He forced himself up on his hands and knees.
         A camel emerged from the sandstorm, bawling, its eyelids encrusted with sand. It passed Edmund as if in slow motion, an apparition, a galumphing monster trailing its loose tethering ropes. And then it vanished, swallowed up in the churn.
         Edmund crouched, trying to shield his eyes with the collar of his shirt. He had to get to cover. The blasting sand could rip a man’s skin away from his bones, given the opportunity. He saw a dark rectangle not far on his right; he was sitting at the mouth of the trench leading into Neferu’s tomb.
         A line of hooded figures, goggled and wrapped in Arab robes, slowly emerged from the storm. Strasser appeared at the head of the group, his black robes rippling about him.
         “There he is!” Strasser shouted. “Half-drowned in the desert, lad? There’s a pill for you. Spit the water out of your lungs and hand over the scarab!”
         Edmund staggered to his feet. He could barely see. The sand burned his eyes. Hot coals seared his lungs. His limbs felt heavy, soaked, saturated. His boots were full of water and they sloshed. Someone grabbed his arm. It was the Turk, looming out of the swirling sand.
         Edmund spun and, with all of his might, punched the man in the stomach. The Turk doubled over. Edmund tore free of his grasp and ran down the trench, straight into the tomb of Neferu.
         “Get him!” Strasser howled. “Now!”
         The air inside the tomb was cool and clear. Edmund gasped, violently sucking in oxygen, expelling puffs of sand in deep, agonizing, bronchial coughs. It was dark and he staggered, careening off of the wall. He couldn’t see. He groped at his glasses, wiping gluey wet sand from the lenses.
         Strasser and the Bedouins were right behind him. But they would be slow, unfamiliar with the tomb. They had him trapped like a rat in a hole, yes, but they didn’t have much time.
         Plunging into the black tunnel of the grand gallery, Edmund snatched his electric torch out of his pocket and snapped it on. He was lucky it still worked after being doused in water.
         “Hand it over, Edmund Peabody!” Strasser shouted from the entranceway. “You are finished!”
         Edmund ran, following his light beam down the treasure-strewn corridor. He stomped the booby trap triggers—the wooden posts and slotted stones his grandfather had identified in the floor—and they pulverized under his boots.
         Edmund hoped that the booby traps still worked.
         They still did, and very well.
         Gigantic blocks of granite dropped from the ceiling. Moving as fast as he could, Edmund cleared the last one by a hair. The blocks crashed to the floor, displacing huge blasts of air that launched Edmund deeper and deeper into the depths of the tomb.
         Deafened, running headlong with only his slashing torchlight beam to see with, Edmund watched the floor stones fall away ahead of him, creating a pit ten feet across. He timed his jump and launched himself up and over the trap. He made it, landing on the other side and rolling through the burial chamber doorway just before another massive slab dropped, blocking the passageway in twenty-ton thump of limestone.
         Edmund rolled across the floor and sprawled against a big piece of the sarcophagus lid. Choking, he fought to breathe. The ancient traps had lifted an immeasurable amount of dust into the air. He pressed his hands to his face, which was coated with gooey blood and sweat-caked sand. Every muscle and bone ached. Fire burned in his eyes, the swollen lids taking on the quality of sandpaper when he blinked.
         His electric torch had rolled free of his grip and lay on the floor. The beam pointed at the white base of the wall where millions of dust motes floated in its glow, reflecting the light. Edmund lay still, fighting panic, waiting until the air settled and he was able to breathe again. Things were blurry. He realized that he had lost his spectacles. Clawing around in the dark, his hands brushing the sand-coated floor, he found the glasses only a few feet to his left. He placed them on his nose and the frame’s familiar pinch gave him a sense of encouragement. The left lens was cracked like a spider web but he could still see through it fairly well.
         Suddenly, Edmund was fearful that he had lost the purple scarab. There didn’t seem to be enough weight in his pocket. He patted it and felt no lump. Quickly he unbuttoned the flap and dug his hand in. He felt the cool metal and stone and relief washed over him. He drew the artifact out and looked at it, the purple gem and its golden ankh shivering in the light.
         The purple scarab of Neferu was saved, Edmund rejoiced. And he was alive. But he was trapped, trapped in an ancient tomb, breathing air forgotten by both sun and time, sealed in by tons of limestone and granite. But he had saved the Scarab of Neferu. With the British soldiers on their way, Strasser and his goons would have to now retreat and be satisfied with Hatshepsut’s scarab. It would then be up to the Colonel and his team, surely with the help of the Tommies, to dig Edmund and Neferu’s scarab out of their grave. Even with the soldiers’ help it would probably take some time to crack the tomb. The scarab, old and patient, could wait forever. Edmund would only last until the air ran out or he died of thirst.
         Edmund reached behind his back and unclipped his canteen. He shook it under his nose, the hollow gurgle of the water within reporting that it was about half full. He desperately wanted to drink it all, to soothe his parched throat and flush his hurting eyes, but he restrained himself.
         The electric torch flickered. Edmund tensed. Was the battery that low? Would he be plunged into utter darkness so soon? The torch flickered again.
         Curses, Edmund thought.
         A sharp pain struck Edmund’s right hand, a raking slash. He croaked and dropped the scarab. Lifting his hand in the weak light, he saw a set of deep red cuts across the palm —seven of them—running with blood. He heard something skitter across the floor. It took him a moment to realize what it was. It was the scarab, running like a living beetle, the purple stone on its back eerily reflecting the torch light.
         Edmund dropped the canteen. It hit the limestone floor with a half-hollow clunk. The scarab was made of metal—it was impossible for it to crawl. This was not science. This was not real. He was half-suffocated. It was logical that he might be hallucinating.
         But it felt real. A shivering knot rose in his throat.
         The electric torch died. Utter blackness. The sounds of the scarab moving continued, the metal legs clicking across the dusty stones. The purple jewel on its back began to glow.
         Edmund shook so hard he couldn’t breathe. The scarab sped up the side of the sarcophagus and disappeared over the edge.
         Edmund went still, as still as the tomb around him. He could hear his heart hammering. The electric torch fluttered awake, the battery at its last gasp. His hand hurt terribly and he gripped it at the wrist, which somehow eased the pain a little.
         Edmund heard the rustle of brittle, crumpling linen as something moved. There was also another sound, like the twisting of old, sunburnt leather.
         In that moment Edmund realized.
         The mummy had just sat up.

Excerpt from The Alliance by Shannon Stoker - December 16, 2014


Please welcome Shannon Stoker to The Qwillery with an excerpt from The Alliance, which was published on September 2nd by William Morrow Paperbacks.



Excerpt from The Alliance by Shannon Stoker - December 16, 2014




Chapter 1: The Alliance


Our enemy has been defeated and I am eager to return home. It has been three months since I have heard from Wallace and I hope he still wants to marry me when I arrive. I know he was scared about his fiancée heading to war, but once he sees my face I am certain all the old feelings will come flooding back.

—The diary of Megan Jean

Lightning crashed and Mia slid along the floor of the boat, clawing at the floorboards, hoping to stop herself from slamming into the opposite side of the hull. Her efforts did little good and she braced for impact. Pain exploded through her right arm, but immediately the ship straightened itself out again and Mia landed on her left side with a thud.

They had told her to stay down here for her safety, but she wasn’t doing a very good job of protecting herself from the effects of the storm. Another boom sounded from above and Mia couldn’t take her feelings of helplessness any longer.

She forced herself off the ground and headed toward the small set of stairs that led up to the deck. The boat continued to wobble, but she made her way to the railing and gripped it tight. Filled with resolve, Mia did the only thing she’d been instructed not to: she climbed the stairs and reached for the handle, determined to offer her help in saving the ship and the rest of the crew from the storm.

Little effort was needed to open the door. The wind pulled it and it started to drag Mia out of the cabin. She saw a wave crash against the deck and water rush at her feet. Not that the excess water would make much of a difference; the rain was coming down fast and Mia’s face felt like it was being pelted with pebbles instead of drops.

She saw several people trying to reinforce tarps over the center of the deck. Mia forced the door closed behind her and went toward them. She recognized Andrew. He was bent over, holding the tarp in place. She leaned down next to him.

“I want to help,” she yelled over the roaring storm.

He moved his head toward her and even in the dark she could recognize the anger on his face.

“What are you doing out here?” he yelled. “Go back under.”

He pointed toward the door Mia had just come through. She shook her head.

“I can help,” she said.

She reached down and grabbed the tarp from his hand. Another loud clap of thunder went off and Mia looked up just in time to see a wall of water ready to drop onto the deck. She raised her hands to protect her head and felt Andrew grab a hold of her wrist. The water hit and Mia fell back onto the wood. It felt like she was underwater and her body was being dragged away. Andrew tightened his grip and Mia was certain they were going overboard with the wave as it pulled back.

Suddenly they stopped moving. She wasn’t sure which direction was up but if Andrew let go Mia thought she’d never see the surface again. The water rushed away and Mia felt its pull on her weaken. She opened her eyes and gasped for air. The boat was upright again and Mia was dangling off the side, hanging from Andrew’s arms.

Mia tried to keep her grip on Andrew’s forearm, but he completely let go of her. Her skin was too wet, she was sliding down. She raised her eyes and tried to get Andrew to give her his free hand. She continued to grab at Andrew with her other hand, but he didn’t return her gesture. He looked down at her. His face wasn’t the bundle of nerves she expected. Instead his brown eyes held a vacant stare. In her confusion Mia let herself slip down. Her arms flailed in the air, but it was no use. She braced herself for the impact of the ice-cold water.

The cold water never came. Mia’s eyes flashed open as she sucked in a large breath. She started to cough since her inhalation of air came as too much of a shock to her system. Mia felt a hand patting her back, trying to help her with the coughs. She turned, expecting to see Andrew, but instead Zack was behind her, handing over a bottle of water.

“Where’s Andrew?” Mia asked.

She appreciated Zack’s presence. The tall, blond man had proved himself a worthy ally during Mia’s time with Affinity. She remembered when she first arrived in Guatemala at one of Affinity’s bases. It had looked so quaint and rustic, but appearances were deceiving and Mia quickly realized the group had an arsenal of electronics and people behind it. Before becoming acquainted with Affinity Mia never would have thought stopping the Registry possible, but that was the group’s core mission. Mia was proud to call herself a member and work toward that very goal.

She looked out the window at the small airstrip. She was three hours from Affinity’s base but knew she would soon be farther than that when she arrived in France.

“He’s loading the plane,” Zack said. “I convinced him to let you sleep some more.”

“I can’t believe I fell asleep,” Mia said.

The group had left the Affinity base at three a.m. They’d traveled south to the nearest airport, about three hours away. Even though that had interrupted Mia’s normal sleep schedule she’d thought her nerves were too rattled to rest.

“I was hoping we’d have some time to talk before we left,” Zack said.

Mia nodded. Zack had been born and raised in Affinity, while Mia had only been a member for a few weeks. Her time with the rebel group had been spent preparing for this mission, the only mission that mattered to Mia: infiltrating America and stopping the Registry and mandatory service.





The Alliance
Registry 3
William Morrow Paperbacks, September 2, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 448 pages

Excerpt from The Alliance by Shannon Stoker - December 16, 2014
To overthrow a brutal dictator and free her country, a brave young woman will risk her life and liberty to spark a revolution in this explosive final installment in Shannon Stoker’s electrifying Registry trilogy.

Mia Morrissey fled to Mexico to escape the government marrying her to someone she did not love. Now, she’s going risk everything so that the rest of America can be free.

Going undercover as part of a diplomatic mission, Mia returns to America. But life there is more dangerous than ever as the walls grow ever taller, and the forgotten country faces its most ruthless leader yet, Grant Marsden . . . a shadow from Mia’s past. With the help of Andrew, Carter, and other members of the subversive group Affinity, she embarks on a perilous journey to defeat Grant, bring down the government, and destroy the Registry once and for all.

When a terrible betrayal exposes the operation, Mia discovers that her enemies have used her—and so have her friends. Alone and frightened, she’s uncertain who to trust—or whether the mission is worth what she’s sacrificing.

With the fate of her friends and the future of her country on the line, Mia knows that her next step may be the last for her . . . and America.





About Shannon

Excerpt from The Alliance by Shannon Stoker - December 16, 2014
Photo by Natasha Maczko
Shannon Stoker lives in DeKalb, IL. She received her undergraduate and law degree from Northern Illinois University where she now works as the Research Integrity Coordinator. It's not a stretch to say she's a die-hard Huskie fan!

When she's not working or writing Shannon spends the majority of her time playing with her terrier mix Nucky or her husband.

She loves watching horror movies, including those straight to DVD classics most people never heard of. If she wasn't an attorney or an author she would have been a beautician and is constantly bugging her friends to come over and let Shannon play with their hair.


Website  ~  Twitter @ShannonRStoker  ~  Facebook  ~  Goodreads


Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014


Please welcome Kenny Soward to The Qwillery with an excerpt from Tinkermage. In this excerpt we are introduced to Stena Wavebreaker. Tinkermage, the second book in the GnomeSaga, was published on December 1st by Ragnarok Publications.



Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014



        Stena Wavebreaker came from a long line of strong-backed sailors, all who’d mysteriously taken up the seafaring trade some two-hundred years ago. Their original family surname had been purposefully forgotten and the Wavebreaker Shipping Company established. A passion for the sea drove them to dangerous waters, bravely delivering cargo where no others would dare, taking on pirate ships with gleeful hostility. Reckless, no. Tough as twice-hardened gnomish steel, yes.
        Stena had been a fixture on gnomish vessels for almost forty years, known by everyone for her less than gentle ways yet still loved by her crews. If you wanted cargo delivered to the Drake Islands or around the coast to the dwarvish stronghold of Olrad, you hired Stena Wavebreaker.
        But an airship captain?
        The clouds kissed her face with cold mist as she stood on the forward navigation deck of her most recent commission, a nameless vessel pieced together and re-thaumaturged into something that might (or might not) stay in the sky. Granted, she fought hard to stay airborne. The port and starboard fans, mounted on swivels four to a side, were locked vertically to support the main aft propeller, driving the airship forward as fast as they dared, although Stena could tell by the low whine of the engine they could do better yet. Rune-etched wood made up the ship’s hull and deck frames. Tethered above was the large, bulging air bladder comprised of several smaller air sacs, all of which fit into a skin framed by metal and wood. They swung beneath it like some maniacal pendulum.
        Stena put her boot into one of the many rope anchors in place across the deck as the vessel heaved up against a wall of wind, tilted at a precarious angle, threatening to roll her down the deck. She’d been trying to read a map and resisted the urge to toss it aside and clutch an anchor rope.
        No. She must exude utter confidence, unwavering fortitude, and insurmountable strength. She couldn’t show one sign of ground-kisser’s weakness. Her foot tightened beneath the ankle rope, muscles straining taut up through her leg. Her eyes fixed on the flag of Hightower fluttering from a pole near the prow. A white cog on a field of blue. Her heart swelled with pride at the sight of it even as she gritted her teeth from the ship’s billowing.
        Just like the surge of waves below your feet, Stena!
        The crew of four followed her lead, anchoring themselves while continuing to go about their business with cool efficiency. Levers flipped, shouts rang out, and water surged through pressure lines. The engines whined with increasing effort as the gnomish crew steered the vessel up the wave of wind.
        She called out with a boom, “Hang tight and steer her right, good gnomes!”
        The wind ate her words, and she repeated herself loud enough to be heard, squinted against a fierce pelt of rain, and willed her crew onward. The only one among them not part of her crew was the linguist, Bertrand, who Dale had assigned at the last minute to help communicate with the swamp elves when the time came. Yes, the swamp elves. Who knew if they still existed? Stena and her crew were to find out, and they would depend on the linguist to keep them alive. Right now, Bert was below with the cargo, undoubtedly hanging on for dear life with a bucket on hand in the event his dinner came up.
        At the crest, the ship hitched and evened out. Stena relaxed. She knew it wouldn’t last though. Soon, there’d be another brutal wave of wind to batter them in some unexpected direction. Being on a stormy sea was smooth as a baby’s bottom compared to this. Her crew was just too new, too green.
        “Maintain altitude,” Stena shouted. “The first of you who figures out how to keep this bucket of slop from rolling on its head gets an extra fill from the cask.”
        Stena secured the map to the controller’s table with corner clasps. She pushed a shock of blondish-gray hair back into her fur-lined hood and studied the markings and intersecting lines of their course, looking for any piece of land they might have missed.
        As directed by Precisor General Dale Dillwind some days ago, they’d flown back and forth across the lands south of Hightower, through clouds and gray skies, gazing down like gods upon the hills, forests, and streams. West across the Southland Farms where barns and homesteads looked like tiny, rust-colored boxes all the way to the Western Pass, then back east again over Swicki Forest and what had once been Dowelville. Stena had directed them to fly low over the newly charred Harwood Lake, marveling at the massive carcass of the mother amorph being hacked to pieces for disposal by gnomish workers. Stena had attached a note with their current report to a ship weight and dropped it down to the officers directing the cleanup crew. One officer had gone to it and waved up at them.
        It was then that Stena realized the importance of their mission and Dale’s genius in sending the airships to the sky in the first place. Hightower hadn’t been threatened by outsiders in almost two hundred years, yet the precisor general had taken it upon himself to shake this sleepy town awake. He’d launched a half dozen ships to the far corners of Sullenor to seek help from races they’d not had contact with for decades, centuries even. Stena’s mission was the hardest, by far, and she would do everything she could to be his eyes and ears in the sky. While she was confident in their mission, she was also one hundred percent positive it was a fruitless task. Unlike most Hightower gnomes, she had great experience with the outside world, and that world had very little time for her folk and their problems.
        Which only made Stena want to succeed even more.
        “Lins! What’s wrong with the prow? It’s bending to this wind like a beat dog. Is it sad? Is this damnable boat sad? If I find myself staring at the ground one more time, I’m throwing you off this deck. Now, right the ship!”
        “Aye, Captain!” came Linsey’s reply. As if to prove her competence, the port and starboard blades shifted, engine noise rising, and the prow nosed up at the moon.
        Yes, they’d stay afloat if it damn well killed her.





Tinkermage
GnomeSaga 2
Ragnarok Publications, December 1, 2014
eBook, 320 pages
Cover by Arman Akopian

Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014
THE ENEMY EXPOSED. Nikselpik Nur has become the city of Hightower’s staunchest—albeit unwilling—ally. He’s hardly learned to cope with his debilitating bugging addiction, much less take on the duties of being the city’s First Wizard. Can he embrace this new path? And will he?

Meanwhile, Stena Wavebreaker is pulled from her seafaring duties by the Precisor General and given command of a raggedy airship to scout the ultraworldly enemy from the perilous skies above the Southern Reaches. Her mission: gain the support of the unpredictable ‘swamp elves,’ the Giyipcias.

Lastly, Niksabella Nur has set off from Hightower at the behest of the grim stonekin leader, Jontuk. The gnomestress must unlock the full potential of her invention, the recursive mirror, and her own powers, to bear what might be the heaviest burden of all. What will she discover along the way? And will Jontuk be able to keep her alive long enough to save them all?

This is GnomeSaga Book Two.


A full-color PDF map of Sullenor, the GnomeSaga setting, is available to download here at Ragnarok Publications.





Previously

Rough Magick
GnomeSaga 1
Ragnarok Publications, October 30, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 416 pages
Cover by Arman Akopian

Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014
NIKSABELLA the gnome has tinkered in the shadows for years, developing an invention that might change the world—even if she doesn’t know it. She has few friends and even fewer allies in Hightower, where social and academic status is crucial.

Her brother, NIKSELPIK, is an obstinate wizard who drinks heavily, sings dirty songs, and makes unmannerly passes at gnomestresses. A dark addiction consumes him, giving him increased power while also pushing him closer to death.

Dark, otherworldy creatures, foreign to the lands of SULLENOR, have suddenly appeared, making chaos wherever they go. In the wake of this, Niksabella must fight to protect her life and her invention, while Nikselpik engages the enemy as an unlikely counselor to Hightower’s military elite.< Will the gnomish siblings find their true powers together, or perish apart? And will they overcome the wounds of their childhood before it's too late?





About Kenny

Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014
Kenny Soward grew up in Crescent Park, Kentucky, a small suburb just south of Cincinnati, Ohio, listening to hard rock and playing outdoors. In those quiet 1970's streets, he jumped bikes, played Nerf football, and acquired many a childhood scar.

Kenny's love for books flourished early, a habit passed down to him by his uncles. He burned through his grade school library, and in high school spent many days in detention for reading fantasy fiction during class.

The transition to author was a natural one for Kenny. His sixth grade teacher encouraged him to start a journal, and he later began jotting down pieces of stories, mostly the outcomes of D&D gaming sessions. At the University of Kentucky, Kenny took creative writing classes under Gurny Norman, former Kentucky Poet Laureate and author of Divine Rights Trip (1971).

Kenny's latest releases are ROUGH MAGIC (GnomeSaga #1) and THOSE POOR, POOR BASTARDS (Dead West #1) with Tim Marquitz and J.M. Martin.

By day, Kenny works as a Unix professional, and at night he writes and sips bourbon. Kenny lives in Independence, Kentucky, with three cats and a gal who thinks she's a cat.

Website  ~  Facebook  ~  Twitter @kennysoward


Excerpt from Proxima by Stephen Baxter


The Qwillery is thrilled to share an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 1 of Proxima by Stephen Baxter. Proxima will be published on November 4, 2014 by Roc.



Excerpt from Proxima by Stephen Baxter




2166

I’m back on Earth.
      That was Yuri’s very first thought, on waking in a bed: a hard bed, stiff mattress and lightweight sheets and blankets, but a bed nonetheless, not a barrack bunk stacked four high in a dome on Mars.
      He opened his eyes to bright light, from fluorescent bars on the walls. A clean-looking ceiling. People moving around him wearing green shirts and hygiene caps and masks, a low murmur of competent voices, machines that bleeped and chimed. Other beds, other patients. A classic hospital setup. He saw all this in his peripheral vision; he hadn’t turned his head yet, he felt so heavy.
      The last thing he remembered was the needle jabbed into his neck by that asshole Peacekeeper Tollemache. He had no idea how long he’d been out— months, if he’d been shipped back to Earth— and he remembered from his recovery after his decades in the cryo that it paid to take care on waking.
      But he knew he was on Earth. He could feel it in his bones. Yuri had been born on Earth in the year 2067, nearly a hundred years ago, and, dozing in a cryo tank, had missed mankind’s heroic expansion out into the solar system. He had woken up in a colony on what he had learned, gradually, was Mars. But now, after another compulsory sleep, this was different again. He risked lifting his hand. The muscles in his arm ached, just doing that, and he felt tubes dragging at him as he moved, and the hand fell back with a satisfyingly heavy thump. Beautiful Earth gravity, not that neither-one-thing-nor-the-other floaty stuff on Mars. It could only be Earth, home.
      He had a million questions. Such as, where on Earth? Why had he been sent back instead of being left to rot on Mars? And what kind of institution was he in now, what kind of prison this time? But not having answers didn’t bother him. He’d had very few answers about anything since waking up on Mars, and besides he hadn’t cared enough to ask. The worst kind of cage on Earth, and no matter how much the place had changed since he’d gone into the cryo tank, was better than the finest luxury you could find on Mars. Because on Earth you could always just open the door and breathe the air, even if it was an overheated polluted soup, and just keep on walking, forever . . .
      He closed his eyes.
      “Rise and shine, sleepy head.”
      There was a face looming over him, a woman, black, wearing a green shirt with a name tag he couldn’t read, her hair tucked into a green cloth cap. She wasn’t wearing a mask, and she smiled at him. She looked tired.
      He tried to speak. His mouth was dry, and his tongue stuck painfully to the roof of his mouth. “I . . . I . . .”
      “Here. Have a sip of water.” She held a nippled bottle, like a baby’s, for him. The water was warm and stale. She seemed to be having trouble holding up the bottle, like she was weak herself. “Do you know your name?” She glanced at the foot of the bed. “Yuri Eden. That’s all we have for you. No recorded next of kin. Is that right?”
      He just shrugged, a tentative movement, flat on his back.
      She looked him over, peered into his eyes, checked some kind of monitor beside the bed. “My name is Dr. Poinar. I’m ISF, I have a crew rank but you can call me Doctor. You’ve taken your time coming out of the induced coma the Peacekeepers put you into. Still, it was easier to ship you through the launch that way. More than half the crew dreamed it all away, in fact. I’m going to see if I can sit you up. OK?” She pressed a button.
      With a whir of servos the back of his bed began to tip up, lifting him, bending him at the waist. He felt weak, and his head was like a tub of sloshing liquid. The ward grayed around him. He felt a crawling sensation in his right arm, some kind of fluid being pumped into him.
      Dr. Poinar watched him carefully. “You OK? All right. Here’s the five-second briefing— you’ll be put through a proper induction process later, everybody’s going through that in stages, classroom stuff and data access first while you get your strength back, then physical work later, including your share of maintenance chores.” She glanced at his notes.
“More of that if you end up on a punishment detail, and looking at your record that seems more than likely. But the priority for you is reconditioning. Your body needs to relearn how to handle full gravity. The nerve receptors that handle your posture, positioning and movement are all baffled right now. Your inner ear doesn’t know what the hell’s going on. Your fluid balance is all wrong, and you’re going to have low blood pressure symptoms for a while. Here, drink this.”
      She handed him another flask, and this time he took it for himself. It was a briny fluid that made him splutter.
      “You’ll get courses of injections to rectify your bone calcium loss, and such. And physio to build up your muscle strength and bone mass. Do not skip those. Oh, and your immune system will be hit. Every virus everybody brought into this hull has been running around like crazy; you’ll have a few weeks of fun with that. Later on there will be further medical programs, pre-adaptation for Prox, preventive surgery of various kinds.” She grinned, faintly cruelly. “How are your teeth? But that won’t be for another year or more.”
      Prox?
      A baby started to cry, not far away.
      Dr. Poinar asked, “Any questions? Oh, I’m sure there are masses. Just use your common sense. For now just sit there and let the dizziness pass. Don’t lie down again. I’ll come by later and see if you can take some solid food. And watch out for the catheter, the nurse will remove that later. Take it easy, Yuri Eden.” She walked out of his view.





Proxima
Roc, November 4, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 480 pages

Excerpt from Proxima by Stephen Baxter
Lauded as “the natural heir to the hard-sci-fi crown of Arthur C. Clarke" (The Daily Telegraph, UK), Stephen Baxter delivers an unforgettable novel of an extraordinary world—and its untamed landscape....

Mankind’s future in this galaxy could be all but infinite....

There are hundreds of billions of red dwarf stars, lasting trillions of years—and their planets can be habitable for humans. Such is the world of Proxima Centauri. And its promise could mean the never-ending existence of humanity.

But first it must be colonized, and no one wants to be a settler. There is no glamor that accompanies it, like being the first man on the moon, nor is there the ease of becoming a citizen of an already-tamed world. There is only hardship...loneliness...emptiness.

But that’s where Yuri comes in. Because sometimes exploration isn’t voluntary. It must be coerced....


Excerpt: Persona by Genevieve ValentineInterview with John Love and Excerpt from Evensong - February 26, 2015Excerpt: King of the Cracksmen by Dennis O'Flaherty Excerpt: Ourselves by S. G. RedlingExclusive Cover Reveal and Excerpt from  The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab by R. E. PrestonExcerpt from The Alliance by Shannon Stoker - December 16, 2014Excerpt from Tinkermage by Kenny Soward - December 4, 2014Excerpt from A Cursed Bloodline by Cecy Robson and Giveaway - November 11, 2014Excerpt from Proxima by Stephen BaxterExcert from Lucifer by Alexander Kosoris plus a Giveaway - October 17, 2014

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