A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price -A MASQUE Short Story

In celebration of MASQUE’s fast-approaching 1st birthday, I present to you A BEAUTIFUL HAT AT A REASONABLE PRICE, a MASQUE short story! Full of froth, feathers, and even a bit of intrigue…

A Beautiful Hat At A Reasonable Price

A beautiful hat at a reasonable price is always an essential item. It is, of course, doubly so if one has set out with the purpose of buying a hat, but lack of necessity should never be allowed to impinge upon one’s millinery purchases.

That morning, I did set out to buy a hat. I had a very specific hat in mind: a delightful, frothy confection of blue silk and netting that I’d seen on the previous day’s outing. I had been driving with Alexander at the time, or I would have stopped and bought it then and there. Alexander is a dear, but he’s no fonder of kicking his heels in a milliner’s front parlour than any other man and I only believe in annoying him when it’s absolutely necessary. If it had been a frock in that particular Lacunan silk, now–

However, I digress. It was a pleasant morning for a walk: rain had fallen the previous night, clearing away the heavy heat that too often clings to Glausian streets, and there was a promising clarity to the morning sky. Vadim scurried along behind me, vainly trying to keep up, and more than once did I consciously slow my step before I threw a smiling look at her over my shoulder.

“Do you need to catch your breath, child?”

“No!” said Vadim, with something of a gasp. “Only now you’re not pregnant you’re awfully hard to keep up with again!”

“It did slow me down a trifle, didn’t it?”

“No so much as all that, lady. Do you really think it’s a good idea to leave the baby with Keenan?”

“Alexander put a warding on them both,” I said. Truth be told, I was a little worried. I had learned very quickly that I worried whether or not there was cause, however, and it didn’t seem practical to let such a pernicious feeling overrule my life. Besides, Keenan was far more qualified to deal with baby Raoul’s spurts of magic than I was.

“I’m sure they won’t be able to set fire to the drapes this time.”

“Ye-ees,” said Vadim doubtfully. “Are we going straight back after we buy your hat, lady?”

“Good heavens, yes. If it’s not the drapes it’ll be something else. Vadim, am I mistaken, or is that nasty little shop still selling the same appalling hats it was selling when I was first confined?”

Vadim threw a look at the offending shop front. “Looks like it,” she said. “Prob’ly couldn’t give ‘em away.”

The hats were exceedingly ugly. It wasn’t simply their ugliness that had caught my eye, however. There were too many of them in the window. A well set-out millinery shop will present some four or five hats of their best workmanship: this one had at least ten, in a hodgepodge of mismatching satin, fur, and…velvet. Black velvet.

Oh, how interesting!

Vadim said: “Did you forget something, lady? Mistress Conningway’s is further up the strand.”

“No,” I said thoughtfully. “I believe I’ll shop here today, Vadim.”

“But they’re all ugly, lady!” protested Vadim, who was gazing at the shop window with fascinated eyes.

“Dreadful!” I agreed, setting my foot upon the first step. “And that is exactly what interests me.”

We were in Circe Strand, you see. One well-cobbled, gently curving arc of high fashion and expensively delightful tea shops. I was quite well aware of what the license for one of the diminutive tea shops was worth—well, what should the very pregnant wife of the Watch House Commander do but arrange his paperwork?—and beside the cost of even the smallest of the holdings was the cost of the starting materials for merchandise. A badly fronted store should not have survived the length of my pregnancy. And yet, here it was still.

It could be that it was simply a rich woman’s plaything, a present from an indulgent and doting husband.

I didn’t believe it for a moment.

Our entrance prompted a dull clattering of dust-laden bell-clapper in the stale air. This should have precipitated the prompt arrival of a smart little shopgirl: instead, it produced a thin, angular woman with wary eyes and a frown of surprise between her brows.

Beautiful hat 3

Photo via RiverJunction

“Yes?” she said shortly. She had clever hands, but they were somewhat lined and workworn. Not a rich lady, then, and almost certainly a real milliner. Which left the question of why her hats were so dreadful, and how she managed to stay in business with such items.

“You have such unusual hats!” I said, with perfect truth. “I would like to order one made.”

She hesitated, clearly torn, and then said reluctantly: “Of course, my lady. Summer or autumn?”

“Summer, I rather think,” I said. I caught a flicker of movement in the glass doors of the bead cabinet behind her. They were slightly ajar and showed a sliver of the shop’s back room, where a giant of a man was sitting uneasily on a chair that was by far too small for him. The movement I had seen was his sleeve sweeping a box of ribbons to the floor. He didn’t try to pick it up, which I thought sensible of him: there were three or four other things he would have knocked to the ground in his attempt to pick up the ribbons. He was no milliner. Soldier, perhaps. Craftsman, certainly not.

“Something light and bright, with less brim than usual. Perhaps a side-tilt. Can you manage a side-tilt, miss–?”

“Judith,” she said. “Just Judith, lady. And I can do a rare passable side-tilt. Would you be liking blue or green?”

“Blue, I rather think,” I said, repressing a sigh at the thought of the lovely hat that I would once again fail to purchase. I sat myself down on the dusty leather couch and said brightly: “Show me your trimmings!”

That night after dinner I said to Alexander: “If I were to ask—if, mind!—what Black Velvet is interesting itself in at the moment, what would you tell me?”

Alexander, who had been lounging back in a distressingly informal way with baby Raoul loosely clasped in one arm, seemed to sit up just a little straighter. “Asking for yourself or the king, Isabella?”

“A purely personal matter,” I told him, my eyes laughing at him. Alexander doesn’t like my working for the king as something approaching a spy. He doesn’t stop me, but he worries.

“I’ve the feeling that I’ve been rather oblivious, and I don’t like the feeling.”

“You’ve been busy,” he said, sitting back again. He didn’t say it reprovingly, or even look down at Raoul, which sent the smile on my lips to my eyes as well.

“Oh, I’m not repining,” I said. “If it’s a choice between Raoul and the king, the king can shift very well for himself. But I can’t help feeling that I should have noticed something that I didn’t notice. Black Velvet, Alexander?”

Alexander paused for long enough to make me very sure that there was indeed news and that he was unsure of how much to tell me. At last he said: “Officially, it’s business as usual. Unofficially, Civet seems to be trying to help Lacuna with its succession issues. Last time I spoke with Melchior I got the impression that the crown and Black Velvet were allied in the matter.”

“Then the king has been withholding information from me,” I said, frowning. “I wonder why? If Annabel and Melchior are involved then doubtless we in Glause are also involved.”

“I think he was being…kind,” said Alexander, and this time he did look down at Raoul.

My eyes opened a little wider. “Do you really think so? How very avuncular of him! I must remember to thank him!”

Alexander laughed outright. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bring royal disapproval down on the house of Pecus, Isabella. There’s nothing he’d hate more!”

“It’s really very tempting,” I said, leaving my empty dishes and crossing to Alexander’s side of the table. I took Raoul from him, using the moment to say: “Now, Alexander, you didn’t forget that we’re to have Lieutenant Trophimus and the officers of his unit to dine tomorrow?”

Alexander’s arm snaked around my waist and pulled me onto his lap, baby Raoul and all.

“Forget?” he said deliberately. “No, I don’t think I forgot.”

However,” I added firmly, kissing his nose, and then—under compulsion—his lips; “I find that I’ve forgotten to mention the dinner to Trophy and the others. Would you be so kind as to bring them home with you tomorrow?”

“Oh, is that all?”

“The tiniest favour!” I said coaxingly. “Oh, and one more thing, Alexander, if you please. I shall be out for a fitting tomorrow: 203 Circe Strand. Perhaps you could call for me there on your way home?”

 

***

 

The window had changed by the time I got back to the hat shop the next day. I eyed it thoughtfully, taking in the new hat that had pride of place in the shop window. Where the window had before been teeming with hats, now it had only one: a distressingly heavy summer hat in black velvet, with a buckle-brooch pinning the intricate folds of the hatband in place. It was made from Lacunan royal beech, which made my eyebrows rise. So Black Velvet had the Lacunan heir already, did they?

I swept into the store with Vadim in my wake, and said brightly: “Such a

Beautiful hat 2

Photo via RiverJunction

lovely change for your window-front! Do you vary it often?”

“Changes after every week’s end that there’s new merchandise,” Judith said shortly. I fancied she looked slightly annoyed: she hadn’t counted on clientele, that much was obvious. I wondered where her hulking partner was. It would be rather inconvenient if he decided Vadim and I were more trouble than we were worth and decided to dispatch us rather than serve us. How fortunate that I had arranged for Alexander to meet us here!

“What a shame, though!” I said. “I was rather hoping to get another look at those hats.”

Judith stared at me narrowly for a suspicious moment, but eventually said: “They’re all gone now, lady. Maybe next time. Would you like to try on your hat? It’s ready for you.”

“Certainly. Vadim, do go to the door, won’t you? My husband is to call for me shortly,” I added, with a friendly smile. “He doesn’t like to wait in shops.”

“Men,” muttered Judith. “Such children when it comes to waiting.”

“I couldn’t agree more. My goodness, you’ve done lovely work! Did you weave the band yourself?”

The clattering of the disused bell fell loudly into her silence, and I looked up from the hatband to find that Vadim was holding the door for Alexander. Behind him came Lieutenant Trophimus and his four fellow officers, crowding the shop with their broad shoulders and bright buckles.

Judith’s face had gone paper-white.

She squeaked: “The Beast-Lord!” and plunged desperately for the front door, darting between the officers with her skirts flying. They watched her go with matching baffled expressions, and as one, turned their eyes upon me.

Alexander opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so there was the sound of a table overturning in the back room, a thump of wood against wood and the shower of beads hitting the floorboards. Then the giant of a man I had seen yesterday took to his heels through the back way as if he fled from death itself.

Alexander, his expression put-upon, gave me a Look.

“Well now!” I said, in a pleased voice. “I thought that might prompt a reaction! You’d probably better chase them, Alexander. If I’m not mistaken, they’re passing information on the position of that item we were discussing last night.”

“Get the woman,” Alexander said shortly to Lord Trophimus, and made for the back door at a run.

“How exciting!” I sighed to Vadim, when they were gone. “If I weren’t such a lady, I’d be very much tempted to join the chase.”

“Not in those shoes, you wouldn’t,” she said, grinning.

“Well, perhaps not. No, don’t touch the hat, if you please. I think Alexander might like to see it.”

Vadim looked doubtful but did as she was told, turning her attention instead to the dusty window.

“Looks like they’ve caught the old woman,” she said. “Tough old tarter, she is: she’s given one of them a bloody nose!”

I chuckled beneath my breath. Unfortunate man! His brother officers would never let him forget it.

“Lady, they’re putting her in your coach!”

“It’s the best place for her, I should think,” I said. “Alexander has spells on it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck in it without being able to get out! Sometimes it was even accidental.”

Vadim giggled. “Will you ride home with them, then?”

“Certainly not!” I said. “If you’ll remember, Vadim, we set out to buy a hat. It would be most remiss in us to return home without one for a second day!”

“Yes, lady,” said Vadim, grinning, and moved to open the shop door for the officers.

They crowded in the small receiving room, looking suitably abashed.

“Sorry we let her get out, lady,” said Lieutenant Trophimus. “We didn’t know she was a spy.”

“That’s quite all right,” I said. “I wasn’t quite sure for a moment or two, either. She looks so prim and proper.”

“Tell you something,” said the officer with the bloody nose, in a thick voice: “She ain’t!”

I looked at him with laughing eyes. “I can see that!”

Trophimus, looking around the millinery shop in wonder, said: “What made you sniff this one out, lady?”

“A simple case of fashion,” interrupted Alexander from behind us. He was shoving his captured quarry ahead of him through the back door of the shop. He was considerably rumpled, as was his quarry, but there was a cheerful look to his eyes that suggested he had acquitted himself well. He grinned at me as he said: “Wooden brooches aren’t being worn with velvet this year.”

“Oh,” said Trophimus, taking custody of the small giant with the help of two of the other officers. “That makes it much clearer, sir.”

“It’s nothing like so complicated,” I said reprovingly. “My dear Alexander, Glause is preparing for its hottest summer in ten years. Velvet for a summer hat!”

“Black Velvet,” he nodded, a laugh glowing in his eyes. Certainly he’d also seen the wooden brooch: and as certainly, he knew what it meant. “I don’t like to ask redundant questions, Isabella, but are you sure that this particular display hasn’t been seen yet?”

“Almost completely,” I said. “The displays change at week’s end, according to Judith: when there’s new information, of course. This one is new since yesterday.”

“Very good. I’ll need to take a likeness of it. Then–”

“–you can play with it,” I nodded. “The king will be delighted! He does love spreading confusion. Besides, you might be able to find their contact if you’re clever enough about how you set out the window.”

“What information was already passed?”

“I’m almost certain their contact knows that Black Velvet—and by inference, Civet—is helping Lacuna, but the brooch was missing from the original window. If I read the hats aright, these two were trying to pass several possible locations for the ah, brooch. They didn’t seem to know which one. I counted six or so hats that could have signified various locations around the Triumvirate—skerry-fleece buttons on a kennel-wall brim with poppies around them, a purple dyed gnau leather chip hat—that sort of thing. As far as I know, those buttons are only made in Civet, and correct me if I’m wrong, Alexander, but I seem to recall that in the town of Kennel there is a rather well known chemist who produces most of Civet’s Syrup of Poppies. As for the purple dyed gnau leather, well–!”

Alexander’s brows rose but he didn’t remark.

“Yes, I thought that might mean something to you,” I said in satisfaction. “I’ll report to the king, of course. I rather think he’ll ask me to find our leak. I suppose you’ll go after the contact?”

Alexander grinned suddenly. “Oh, with your permission, of course!”

“There’s no need to be facetious, Alexander,” I said loftily; but I smiled up at him as I tiptoed to kiss him. “Do you need me for anything else? No? Then I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your investigations. There is a hat I simply must purchase!”

Like this short story? Get MASQUE here!MASQUE - 2000

 

Sneak Peek: Shards Of A Broken Sword

Between Spindle (Two Monarchies #1) and the upcoming Blackfoot (Two Monarchies #2), I’ve decided to release two novellas in my (currently) three novella series Shards Of A Broken Sword. The first, Twelve Days Of Faery, should be published shortly before Christmas, and the second, Fire In The Blood, will hopefully be released just a month or so after the first. As you may guess, that means I’ve been VERY busy. I’ve been using a different process for the novellas, too; and so far it’s been wonderfully effective and quite reasonably enjoyable. Then, in between writing and plotting, I’ve been ferreting through stock images and premade covers to find suitable covers for suitably low prices. When I get bored with THAT, I start picking out excerpts of Twelve Days Of Faery to show you all. Lucky you, huh?

In Twelve Days Of Faery, King Markon of Montalier is at the end of his tether. His son, Prince Parrin, is afflicted with a rather nasty curse that slaughters, maims, or brutally attacks any woman with whom he so much as flirts. After the rumour that sweeps around the kingdom, promising that any woman breaking the ‘curse’ will be eligible to marry the prince, there is no shortage of willing volunteers. Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of bodies piling up.

Markon needs to do something, but what? Can a visiting enchantress from Avernse help, or is she simply another accident waiting to happen? And will Markon be able to give her up to his son if she does break the curse?

Well, that’s it from me! Spindle is on a whirlwind tour with Prism Book Tours, so I’ll be tweeting about that during the week, with a quick post midweek to catch up with all the action. In the meantime, do enjoy this sneak peek from Twelve Days Of Faery!

***

Still, when Markon introduced Althea to Parrin, she didn’t seem particularly coy. She curtsied to him with less depth than she had curtseyed to Markon, and said in an offhand manner: “You’re rather prettier than I expected from the portraits.”

Parrin bowed and smiled, but he looked as though he was no more sure than Markon was that he’d been given a compliment.

“I understand that you have a rather difficult problem,” continued Althea. She was remarkably business-like for a girl who had just been discussing marriage. Not a maidenly smoothing of the hair or sparkle of the eye. “I have a little bit of an idea about it. May I ask questions?”

“Of course,” said Parrin. He was cautiously admiring her, though Markon was pleased to see that he didn’t go so far as to smile. The boy was thoughtless, but Markon would like to think that he wasn’t so careless as to potentially endanger Althea.

“The first two girls, the fiancées–”

“Yes, lady?”

“Both of those were accounted to be accidents, weren’t they?”

“Yes, lady. The countess was thrown from her horse in the courtyard and the princess was attacked by bandits when she returned home from a visit.”

“How long between the betrothal and the death for the countess?”

“A few weeks,” said Parrin, tugging at the cuffs of his jacket. He had been very fond of the girl, thought Markon with a pang: he had also been the one to find her.

“The princess?”

“A few months.”

Althea frowned, a quick, reflexive action. “You weren’t immediately engaged again afterward, were you?”

“No: I met Jeannie at court and we stepped out a few times. She disappeared before it even got about that we were thinking of each other. After that it seemed to take less and less to activate the curse.”

“What set it off most recently?”

“I smiled at the girl,” said Parrin glumly. Markon couldn’t blame him: he remembered what it was like to be Parrin’s age, and the idea of being unable to so much as kiss a girl without something unfortunate happening to her was horrible to contemplate.

“And how long was it before it took effect?”

“A few days,” said Parrin.

“I see,” said Althea. “Stand up, please.”

Parrin did so, looking rather nonplussed.

To Markon she said: “Would you hold this? Thank you,” and pressed something circular and metallic into his hand.  He looked down at the ring, somehow more real in his hand than it had looked on her finger, and took far too long to realise what she was doing. When he finally did understand, Markon started forward, his hand closing around the ring convulsively. By then Althea was on tiptoes with her hands cupping Parrin’s face, kissing the boy with some force and not a little skill if his reaction was anything to judge by.

Markon felt a rush of molten anger unlike anything he’d ever felt before. He didn’t think he moved or even thought, caught up in the stunning heat of it, but that was his hand gripping Althea’s arm with white fingers and tearing her away from Parrin, and that was his other hand shoving the ring back on her finger, his own slightly shaking.

Althea, her eyes rather big but not at all frightened, said a thoughtful: “Ow,” up at him.

It was left to Parrin’s rather frantic: “Dad! Dad, she didn’t mean any harm!” to bring him to the realisation that he’d clutched Althea to his chest, and that he’d not been gentle about it. Parrin was evidently of the persuasion that his father objected to what could technically be called an assault on a royal personage.

Markon, breathing heavily through his nose, released Althea. She hadn’t struggled at all and now merely smoothed her dress and hair as though she hadn’t just put herself wantonly in danger.

“You said you were going to work from the outside!” Markon said furiously.

“No, I didn’t,” said Althea, and there was a suggestion of stubbornness to her mouth. “I said I could if it made you uncomfortable. I also said it would make more sense to investigate from the inside. You didn’t object.”

“I object!” said Markon in exasperation. “I object very much!”

“Well, it’s too late now,” Althea said reasonably. “And it’s proved remarkably useful, too. For instance, I’m now quite sure that you’re not dealing with a curse– well, not in any technical sense of the word, anyway.”

“What?” demanded Markon, in less than cordial tones.

“I was already pretty certain it wasn’t,” she told him. “None of the girls have anything clinging to them—well, apart from some rather nasty magic, totally unconnected with the prince—and neither does the prince. As a matter of fact, they all seem to have– at any rate, I could only be certain that there was no curse by taking off the ring.”

“And putting yourself in exactly the kind of danger I didn’t want you to be in!” said Markon testily. “I’ve a good mind to send you packing!”

“No, you don’t,” said Althea.

“Of course I don’t!” groaned Markon. She’d achieved more in a couple of hours than any of the girls (or in fact any of the enchanters he’d called in) had achieved in the last couple of years.

“Parrin can’t be expected to live his life locked away from women–”

“I should think not!” said Parrin feelingly.

“–and it’s not good for your kingdom, either. After a while you get people making snide remarks about the crown sacrificing the people on the altar of succession, and then–”

“Small disturbances that become bigger ones,” finished Markon, meeting her eyes. “Factions forming across the court and perhaps an accident or two for myself and Parrin.”

Althea nodded. “Exactly. I’m rather good at this sort of thing, actually. Try to trust me a little.”

“You have a fortnight,” said Markon.

***

All About Wolfskin

Just a quick note to let you all know that Wolfskin is Finished, Done, Kaputt, Uploaded, etc, etc. It will be available May 1st, and if any of you out there on the interwebs are interested in getting your hot little hands on a review copy of Wolfskin, send me a note via the comments, the Contact tab, or email (gingellwrites AT gmail.com). Reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Blogs, and Kobo are very greatly appreciated 🙂

Wolfskin will be going on blog tour from July 6th, so reviews are welcome any time from May 1st through to July 26th. Later is fine, too, but I’d love to co-ordinate everything together if possible. If you’re interested in having me as a guest on your blog during this time (guest post, interview, excerpt, etc) feel free to contact me by the above methods.

I will also be setting up a Goodreads Giveaway mid-May.

See below for a blurb of Wolfskin, and if you’d like to check out an excerpt, click on the Excerpts tab.

Have a lovely week, all!

“If you want adventure, you have to march right up to it and kick it in the shins . . .”

At fourteen, barefoot and running wild, Rose is delighted to be apprenticed to Akiva, the witch of the forest.  She thinks it will be all enchantment and excitement, and not so much fuss about baths.  The reality is much more sober and practical- that is, until she meets a mysterious wolf in the forest and is tricked into stepping off the path . . .

In young, naive Rose, Bastian sees a way of escape.  Cursed to remain in the shape of a wolf after running afoul of a powerful enchantress, he has lived many decades under a spell, and now he is both desperate and ruthless.  But by breaking part of Bastian’s curse, Rose has caught the attention of Cassandra, the enchantress who cursed him: and Cassandra is by no means ready to forgive and forget.

Meanwhile, wardens have been disappearing from the forest, one by one.  Rose is certain that Cassandra is behind the disappearances, but can she and Bastian get to the bottom of the matter before Akiva disappears as well?  And are Bastian’s motives entirely to be trusted?

Sometimes the little girl in the red hood doesn’t get eaten, and sometimes the wolf isn’t the most frightening thing in the forest.

WOLFSKIN - 2000

Let The Games Begin! (Aka, Masque Is On Tour, And So Am I)

Let the games begin! The book blog tour for Masque has kicked off at The Indy Book Fairy, where you can read an excerpt and enter to win a paperback copy of Masque. Come on along and say Hi!

Further stops will be:

15th- I Heart Reading (Starter Party)

17th- Nat’s Book Nook (Promo Post)

18th- Books, Books, and More Books (Promo + Excerpt)

20th- Howling Turtle (Promo Post)

22nd- Mystical Books (Guest Post)

24th-100 Pages a Day (Book Review)

25th- Tea Talks (Promo Post)

26th- Jooniel Obsesses Over Stories (Book Review)

28th- Literary Musings (Book Excerpt)

28th- Dreams Come True Through Reading (Promo + Excerpt)

29th- C.J. Anaya’s Blog (Book Review and Character Interview)

So follow along with me as I traipse merrily across the blogosphere: and don’t forget to enter into the rafflecopter draw to win a paperback copy of Masque!

(I’ll even sign it for you. Hmm, draw or put-off . . . ?)

masqueblogtourbanner

Wolfskin Excerpt

Wolfskin is on its final edits and will be published May 1st, 2015! It’s set in the same world as Masque but is a standalone novel with separate characters. I will hopefully be doing a blog tour a month or two after publication, but in the mean-time, here’s a short excerpt for you to get a feel for the book.

Enjoy!

 

When I stepped from the thread to the path leading to Akiva’s front gate, there was a woman between me and it.

She was so beautiful. I’m not sure why I expected her to be otherwise. Her hair was black and glossy, and hung loose to her waist in a sleek, rippling sheet that mingled with royal purple satins and silks that were as sleek as her hair. Her eyes, framed by impossibly long, dusky eyelashes, were of an equally impossible shade of violet. I saw them and my herbs scattered themselves on the path, dropping heedlessly from my nerveless fingers. Those twin violets gleamed with the same darkness I had seen in Bastian’s eyes the first time I met him.  

Horned hedgepigs! I thought, swallowing. It could only be Cassandra.

She looked me up and down with those brilliant, purple eyes while I regretted fervently that I hadn’t been a moment quicker, and then said: “You’re not pretty.”

Her voice was bell-like in consideration; and, like every other part of her, breathtakingly beautiful.

“I know,” I said. Even if I had been as beautiful as Gwendolen, I couldn’t have hoped to compare with Cassandra. I eyed her unblinkingly, wondering why it mattered to her.

“You’re not pretty,” she repeated; a statement, not a question. “I didn’t expect that. He must be desperate.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, scowling. I was coldly frightened, and that made me angry. Black, tarry magic was stirring around her, creating nasty pockets of corruption in the air that made me feel ill: it was vastly more powerful than anything I had ever seen.

She looked at me contemptuously through the haze. “Beauty is all that matters to him, stupid child. You can only lose.”

“Bastian isn’t here,” said Akiva’s voice suddenly and startlingly. I tore my eyes away from Cassandra’s and saw her, knobbly and infinitely welcome, leaning on a stick behind the enchantress. For a horrible moment it had felt like I was drowning in the brilliant lavender of Cassandra’s eyes.

Akiva hobbled past her and put a hand on my shoulder. I felt a sense of her power, welling up deep inside her, warm and comforting. I think I was still looking up at her with wide eyes when she said quietly: “Go into the house, Rose.”

As I closed the gate with cold fingers, I heard Akiva reiterate: “The wolf isn’t here.”

“I can smell him all over her!” hissed Cassandra.

There was a silence suggesting that Akiva was shrugging; then her old, firm voice said: “I sent him away: he knows what I think about him. Today was goodbye.”

Their voices faded with distance, but as I loitered on the garden path I saw the warm glow of an astonishing and formidable power rising to meet and match Cassandra’s. I recognized it as Akiva’s, hale and hearty, and stronger than I could ever have imagined. After that I hurried to get into the safety of the cottage, feeling the hairs prickle on the back of my neck, because I knew that it was no longer safe for me to be out in the open. Once inside, I plumped myself down in Akiva’s chair, absently staring into the fire and contemplating the extraordinary power I had just witnessed. For the first time in the excitement of my new magical prowess, I felt thoroughly humbled and weak. My own power, puny in comparison to that shown so effortlessly by both Cassandra and Akiva, was pitiful past thinking about. I was suddenly very thankful for Akiva’s protection. In the coldness of the moment, I knew there was no chance that I could ever hope to fight against Cassandra and win.

Wolfskin is available for preorder on Amazon and Kobo, due for release May 1st, 2015.

Excerpt From ‘Masque’

As Masque will be officially published tomorrow, I thought it was high time that I shared a sample of it here. Unlike Spindle, I haven’t used the very first pages: instead, I’ve cut an excerpt from somewhere in the middle of chapter one. Do enjoy, and don’t forget to order Masque tonight! It’s available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon, Kobo, Createspace, and selected bookstores, and the preorder function is still on.

Normal service will resume in a few days. Until then, enjoy!

Excerpt from Masque Chapter One.

The library was pleasantly quiet when I wandered idly back through it. Someone had lit a fire in the grate, and orangey shadows flickered over the walls, pearlescent and warm. A comfortable-looking settee was set back a little from the fire, big and plush and just right for reading in, and somehow I found myself sitting down.  It was comfortable, and before I knew what I was doing I had slipped out of my dancing shoes and tucked my feet beneath me as I did at home on a rainy day. I was stretching back luxuriously with a guilty thought that I shouldn’t stay too long from the ballroom, when I realised with something of a shock that I was not alone. Green eyes gazed at me from an identical chair opposite mine, and a familiar green waistcoat glowed rich emerald in the firelight: it was the man I had danced with.

“I do beg your pardon,” I said, startled. It seemed ridiculous to bleat that I hadn’t seen him there, since he filled the chair very obviously, his long legs stretched out in front of him; but I really hadn’t seen him. “Shall I leave?”

The man stiffened, his head jerking back a little as if he were also startled, but he said quietly: “Not at all.”

His voice was velvet like his waistcoat, deep with slightly rough edges, but now that I had a chance to really look at him, I found that there was something unnerving in his face.

To give myself time to ruminate on the sense of unease, I said: “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

He cocked his head and leaned a little forward. “Most people don’t notice me when I don’t want to be noticed.” He said it more with interest than annoyance.

“I see,” I said quietly; and I did see. I saw two things: one, that this man was a magic user, and that was why I hadn’t seen him at first; and two, that my feeling of unease came from the fact that he was wearing a mask beneath a mask. The lips of it moved, but stiffly, and with imperfect synchronicity. What sort of a man wore a mask beneath a mask?

I said: “Lord Pecus, I believe?”

He laughed at that; a low, warm laugh as enthralling as his voice, and removed the green velvet mask. “You have the advantage, my lady.”

“Lady Isabella Farrah,” I said, inclining my head grandly, just as if I wasn’t curled up in a regrettably informal way. I offered him my hand, and he kissed it in the old fashioned way, cold porcelain against flesh. “I believe we have a mutual friend: Lady Quorn.”

He looked at me piercingly, and I added with mendacious helpfulness: “The one who stumbles.” I was enjoying myself immensely. I thought I saw a gleam of answering humour in Lord Pecus’s eyes, but it was difficult to tell through the magical mask.

“I think I would like to see your face,” he said thoughtfully. “Would it stretch politeness too far to ask you to remove your mask?”

“After you, my lord.”

I thought he laughed at me, but again it was hard to tell. “I don’t think I understand you, my lady.”

I looked at him steadily for a moment, my chin propped up in my palm. “Forgive me if I seem rude, but I think you understand me very well.”

He sat forward again, leaning his forearms on his knees. His bulk was so considerable that this maneuver put his face only inches from mine, and I found his eyes uncomfortably piercing. “Very well, my lady. Remove your mask, and I will remove mine.”

I was burning with curiosity that was tempered by a touch of self-satisfaction that I was about to accomplish something that even Delysia had not been able to accomplish, but I untied my mask with fingers that were steady enough.

“Well, my lord?”

“Charming,” he said softly, deliberately misunderstanding. I found myself blushing for the first time in many years. It was annoying to know that he’d intended as much. “How old are you, Lady Farrah?”

“Very nearly thirty, my lord,” I told him composedly, ignoring the rudeness of the question. “And a confirmed old maid, so you’ve no need to waste your compliments on me.”

“What brings you to the Ambassadorial Ball?”

“The proposed militia merger, my lord; and I believe you’re stalling.”

He gave me a slow, considering smile, and I wondered if the face beneath the mask was smiling also. “Is that so? Are you sure you want to see my face?”

Courtesy compelled me to say, albeit with reluctance: “Not if you’re unwilling, my lord.”

Lord Pecus sat silent for a moment as if in thought, his mask unreadable.

“Hm. I don’t believe I am,” he said at last, as if he had surprised himself. “Try not to scream, my lady.”

If he had said it with the slightest theatricality, I would have laughed and gone back to the ballroom, content not to know what his face really looked like. But he said it unemotionally, a plain warning; and I had to take myself firmly to task for the quickly accelerating beat of my heart as he removed the charms that kept his mask in place. I settled my chin a little more firmly in my palm and waited, watching the process with some interest. I had not much talent for magic, and my knowledge was almost as slight: my training had mostly to do with international policy and diplomatic processes.

At last he seemed to be done. He raised both hands to remove the mask – beautiful hands, strong and bare of rings – and it came away cleanly. For a moment I thought he had yet another mask beneath: firelight played on tawny brown hair – no, fur!- in a face that looked like the worst parts of wolf and bear mixed. I blinked once, realising in that instant that it was his face, his real face, and no mask. His mask must be magic indeed to have hidden that snout under the pretence of a plain common-or-garden human nose.

“I see,” I said into the silent warmth of the room. I dropped my hand back to the arm of the chair and let a small sigh escape. “That explains a good deal.”

Excerpt From ‘Spindle’: Current WIP

As Masque won’t be out for another 15 days, I thought I’d whet your appetite for my Two Monarchies Sequence by giving you a taste of my current WIP: Spindle. You may perhaps be clever enough to guess which particular fairytale I’ve messed with this time . . .

Anyone looking for this excerpt after it has progressed down the page need only click on the page Shorts & Excerpts to find it again.

Enjoy! (Bon Appetit?)

Excerpt from Spindle, chapter one

Polyhymnia knew perfectly well that she was dreaming.  Her hair was in pigtails and she was wearing a smock, which pointed to an age of perhaps twelve or thirteen; and the dream itself was a distant memory of a history lesson with Lady Cimone, her teacher.  She had been amused for a brief moment to find herself daydreaming during the lesson: dreaming, as it were, during a dream, while Lady Cimone pointed out the various flaws in Civet’s latest sally against Parras.
Oh, I remember this, thought Poly suddenly.  Parras tossed over one of our outposts, and we walked right into an ambush trying to retaliate.
Pain, in her left ear.  Poly clutched the injured member in surprise.
“Ow!”  She hadn’t remembered that.
“Perhaps you could pay attention to your lesson, now that you’re awake?” suggested Lady Cimone.  She always did prefer boxing ears to using a cane.  Maybe it was her idea of the personal touch.  “This is important, Poly.”
Poly let her younger dream-self murmur the appropriate response, her attention snatched away, because a gold-edged rift was beginning to form in the blue-painted wall behind Lady Cimone.
The lady caught the direction of her gaze and gave a sharp glance behind her.
“Bother!” she said.  She seemed annoyed rather than taken aback.
Before long the perpendicular rift was tall enough to admit a human, and Poly wasn’t quite surprised when a young man stepped through.  He was wearing a long, mud-splattered black coat that looked as though it had seen one too many days travelling, and he had an inquiring, dishevelled look.  His forehead was wide and square, with dark hair springing upwards and sideways from it, and his mouth was both determined and wistful; though the triangular set of his chin spoke more to determination than wistfulness.  Poly shut her mouth, which had dropped open, and took one involuntary step backwards as the man pulled himself fully into the room.  He was fairly glowing with residual magic, which set every alarm bell ringing in her head.
“Shoo,” he said to Lady Cimone, and stepped purposefully toward Poly.
The lady smiled a little grimly and said: “I am no more a dream than you are, young man.  Kindly be polite.”
Poly became her normal, older self in confusion, and the dream-memory of the younger her melted away, leaving Lady Cimone and the young man behind in the resulting void.  The young man seemed almost as bemused as Poly felt, but Lady Cimone was looking, as usual, serene and omniscient.
“I tried my best, but I’m afraid he got you,” she said to Poly.  “You’ll have to go with the wizard for now.  Your parents said they’d try to find you somewhere along the way, but things might be a little more difficult than they realised.  Try not to forget everything the minute you wake up, child.”
“But-” Poly began; but Lady Cimone was already gone.  Poly put her hands on her hips and surveyed the young wizard, who was still standing where he was, disturbingly real for a dream figure.
“Huh,” he said.  “Didn’t expect that.  Come here, princess.”
Poly could have said: ‘I’m not the princess,’ but it didn’t see worth arguing with a dream.  Instead, she said: “I don’t think so,” and slipped up and out of the dream.

It should have woken her.  For a moment, she thought it had.  She was standing in her own small, rounded chamber, stranded aimlessly between her bookcases.  Through her window-slit the outside world looked sunny and normal.  Then she saw the translucent something coating her hands from fingers to elbow, and belatedly felt the odd, sideways pull that had brought her here.
“Bother,” she said aloud.  The translucent something wasn’t quite magic, but it seemed to be the dream equivalent.  In real life, Poly had no magic.  It was the one consistent way to tell dream from reality when her dreams became too realistic.
Poly wriggled her fingers and the translucency shivered coolly across them with a sense of familiarity.  When had she started dreaming about magic so often?  In fact, when had she started dreaming for so long at a time?  She felt as though she’d been dreaming for years.
Time to wake up, Poly decided.  She let herself slip upwards and awake, and again found herself sliding sideways to the pull of something strong and unfamiliar.
Someone said: “No you don’t, darling.  Back to sleep with you.”
Poly gave a little gasp of indignation and fought against the pull.  It was ridiculous to allow her dreams to be hijacked by an unpleasant dream entity of her own creation.  Where was it coming from?
She dragged herself around in the direction of the voice, feeling the reality of her dream-chamber wobble around her.   A nasty quiver of surprise shook her at the sight of the hooded, murky figure that seemed to be more shadow than substance, cobwebbed in the doorway.
To give herself time to become brave, Poly said: “Now, what are you?  I know I didn’t dream you up.”
“You must have,” said the hooded figure, its voice soft and amused.  “Here I am.”
Too smooth for words, Poly thought, sharp with fear.  There was a prickle at her back that made her think the enchanter from the previous level was making his way through to her again.  A panicked, nightmare quality had settled over the dream like a wet blanket, weighing her down, and for a brief moment Poly found herself unable to think.
The same soft voice said: “Darling, you’re being difficult.  There’s no need for things to become uncivilized.  Be a good girl and go back to sleep.”
“I don’t like you,” Poly said experimentally.
“That’s hurtful, darling,” said the voice reproachfully.  “As it happens, I’m really quite fond of you.  However, needs must, and you really need to go to sleep.”

The reasonable tone to the shadow’s voice was hard to resist.  There was her bed, in the middle of the tower room where it didn’t belong, and Poly felt herself take one step towards it.

The sheets should have been cool and smooth when she slid between them.  Instead, they were fuzzy and warm, and Poly felt her eyes gum together in the last warning of approaching slumber, the prickle at her back fading in the warmth.
“Huh,” said a second voice.  “This is all very interesting.  Who are you?  No.  Not who.  What?”
“Undefined element,” said the hooded shadow thoughtfully.  Poly could vaguely see it through her gummy eyes, outlined in the brilliant gold of the wizard’s magic.  “You are not valid here.  Retreat or assimilate.”
“Tosh,” said the wizard.  “You’re what? A remnant?  Go away.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said the shadow; and it seemed to Poly, mired in sleep, that an impossibly strong magic was stirring in the room – no, in the very air – around her.  It was bright, fiery, and entirely translucent.
The wizard said: “Yow!” and did something golden and magical with more haste than precision.  Poly stirred, fighting against sleep, and saw his face briefly appear above her.
He said: “Well, better get on with it, then.”
Poly tried to say: ‘Get on with what?’ but found that she couldn’t move her lips.  It took her a shocked moment to realise that she couldn’t move her lips because she was being kissed. It took another to realise that she was waking up- really waking up.  Gold magic fizzed from her lips to her toes, and everything familiar . . . disappeared.

Clipping From ‘The Margaree Moocher’

Kez and Marx seem to have popped up on Seventh World, in the small township of Margaree . . .

Clipping from The Margaree Moocher, Community Column.

 

Law Enforcement in the community

Robbery at Margaree Downtown Drive-through Grocer.

At 3.57pm local time, officers were called to the scene of a robbery at the Margaree Downtown Drive-through Grocer. The offenders broke into the secure back room via the bolted back door, using a welding laser to cut through the 3-inch steel, and kicked free the safebox in the back room.

Fellow staff say that when a female staff member went to investigate the noise, the robbers held an industrial saw to her throat and threatened to decapitate her if she did not produce the key to the grocer’s strongbox.

According to witness statements, it was at this point that a small girl wriggled out the window of the next vehicle in line and through the drive-through window. Her co-passenger, described as a small, angry man, fell out the vehicle’s window while attempting to restrain her, and entered the grocer by kicking in the drive-through window.

The level of noise at this point became so great that surrounding houses as well as waiting customers pinged the Margaree Law Enforcement Office on their emergency frequency. Officers arrived on the scene to find a female staff member in hysterics on the floor, two bloodied and battered offenders handcuffed to the cool-room door, and several other staff members in the process of emptying a bottle of scotch between them.

The uninjured female employee was transferred to Margaree Medical Centre without comment, but other staff members were heard to comment: “She hit him in the head with a spanner. She hit him in the ******* head with a ******* spanner.”

Margaree Law Enforcement has taken custody of the offenders, though the rescuers were not found in the vicinity.

Anyone with information regarding these two persons of interest should comment on the Law Enforcement community board or ping the Office directly. The individuals are described as a short, sandy-haired male in his early forties, and a young, dark-haired female of ten to twelve years old.

Incident at the Margaree Local Library.

An incident at the Margaree Local Library has resulted in the re-appearance of several ancient book-form readers once catalogued as lost in the fire of 3069. The book-form readers have since been burned for safety reasons. Residents are reminded that travelling to points in time before the advent of time-travel is strictly prohibited and will be investigated by the Time Corp as a serious crime. Any information welcomed by the Margaree Law Enforcement Office and Time Corp.

Community Interest

*The Margaree Dramatic Society’s production of The Fall of Fourth World will be playing in Donovan’s Dimensions Playhouse all week. Attendees are reminded that outside snacks and drinks are not permitted, and that any devices interfering with the stage effects will be promptly confiscated.

*Enquiring minds wish to know if the overflow of stage effects in last night’s performance of the above was an attempt to make the performance more real to the audience, or if there was a malfunction with stage equipment. Complaints are already flowing in from Margaree’s leading ladies, who complain of ruined frocks and soggy shoes in the wake of an unexpected flood that deluged the audience.