Midwinter Miracle

Tegwyth used to receive gifts at Midwinter - until she became one herself. Alone in the snow, she will do anything to survive because of the one thing that matters to her.

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Friday Friends – A Rude Awakening from ‘The Arbiter’

Pain pierces through me, it’s a familiar feeling but it’s been a while since I’ve had it this badly. I can feel flesh and bone shift, warp and knit back together as if I’m made of wax.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a jumper,” I manage to mutter as my jaw pops back into place and my vision begins to clear.
I’m right, of course. I’m lying alongside the road, the shadow of a bridge blocking out the moon above. For a harrowing second I think it’s the same bridge I was just on, but I realise that one was over a river, not a road. It’s also not a full moon back home.
Thank God for small favours. I grunt as my spine clicks back into place and feel around my body. I’ve lost a lot of blood, apparently, no wonder I’m dizzy. Damnit. It’s the face last, always the face. I sit still as my nose, lips and brow rework themselves, forming into a perfect imitation of whoever had just ended their life. And, thankfully, nothing like me. Not yet, anyway. I don’t feel too bad.
It’s not like they had a use for the body anymore, anyway.
Vaguely, I wonder what I look like and who this person was. A woman, I discover, as I run my hands down my neck and across a pair of large breasts. Then, pain receding, I try to take a few steps. I manage, but something in the corner of my vision has me spinning around.
“Who are-”
No one. Something wavers in my other peripheral and I spin a second time, catching sight of something pale that disappears the moment I turn.
Standing incredibly still, I make no move as the pale thing slides into my vision once more to my left. And to my right. I tilt my head up and back until I can see the grey, leathery frame stretching above my head.
I reach out and tentatively run my hand across the thin material. A small sensation shivers through me as the wing twitches. My wing. Of course… I had forgotten what this place was like. The wings seem prehensile, and I doubt they’ll carry my weight. Upon further inspection, I realise they also end in sharp, metallic curves. They flex at my will. Well then… I’ll deal with that later. With any luck it’ll make this murder a lot easier if I get disarmed.
For now, I need a new change of clothes and to get an idea of what this place is like. I think I’ve been here before, but things get hazy after the first few trips and this isn’t the only place with winged patrons. Two places stand out in my memory, however – one bad and one worse.
As I begin my trek down the road I glance up a nearby sign, barely visible in the night.
Barning Road
Forstmuth City Centre Ahead
The least my client could have done was warn me where I was going… No matter, I just hope this poor girl had the decency to take her wallet with her before jumping. Fumbling through the pocket of a long, baggy coat, I see that luck is on my side. Hotel, new clothes, get my bearings, then a nice spot of murder and I’m home free.
It’s usually not that easy but I’m an optimist, obviously.
So I trot towards the distant lights and hope the nearest hotel is only a few miles away. And that this place even has hotels…
The Arbiter is the upcoming series opening novel from Brhi Stokes.

A Bite of… Page McAlaster from ‘the Arbiter’

Q1. Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Page McAlaster and I guess you could call me a Fixer. This might surprise you, but there’s plenty of other planes of existence out there. I hop between them, do a bit of work for the things that run our plane. I call them things, but I think they generally prefer ‘Masters’. They’re not going to be thrilled that I’m sharing this, but you’re not going to believe me anyway, right?
I’ve been doing this job for a few months now. Before that I was a corporate mediator. Guess you could say I’m used to dealing with demons.

Q2. What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been to?

Have you ever read any H. P. Lovecraft? Because he talks a lot about the phrase ‘non Euclidean’. I read a lot as a child, and I always found the idea interesting. Until I experienced it. Or near enough to it, at any rate, since beholding non Euclidean shapes is supposed to send you insane, and I’m at least sixty per cent sure my mind’s still in one piece.
Anyhow, I hopped over to this plane to retrieve an item for the Masters and when I got there the world was just… blank. There was nothing except a grey emptiness through time and space. And then I began to fall. I’m not entirely sure how long I was falling for, but by the time I hit some sort of ground – made up of shapes I couldn’t begin to describe – I just wanted out.
Apparently the ‘item’ they wanted was my brainwaves after visiting a place like that. Charming.

Q3. A ‘fixer’ normally involves theft and murder, are you okay with that?

Look, I do what needs to be done. I don’t particularly have a choice – after all, these aren’t the sort of people you can say ‘no’ to. So yes, if they want someone dead, I kill. If they want something stolen, I steal. I’ve never really thought about it in terms of being a ‘bad person’ or not. If I didn’t do it, they’d probably just replace me, right?
I don’t really sleep well anymore, though…
A budding author, Brhi Stokes has been writing ever since she could put pen to paper and daydreaming in every spare second. C A L I G A T I O N, her first published novel, is an urban fantasy about a young man lost in a strange city – the likes of which he never could have imagined – while he tries to dodge unnatural threats and search for a way home. The Arbiter is the first book in a new series.
In her spare time, Brhi enjoys reading, video games, tabletop RPGs, going for long, solitary jogs and music.

The Night Librarian – II

The girl waited until every trace of reptilian hunger had left before stepping out of her area of protection and muttering a few words under her breath. The pentagram disappeared and she walked back to find the oddly assorted creatures still clustered in the pool of light around her desk.

“Back to your shelves now. The creature is gone.”

The tiggywinkle shook her spiny head. “Isn’t ma’am” she declared. “Is hiding. In Erotica.”

“Are you sure?”

“We is. And please ma’am you gots to banish it before sunrise or it will stay. It eats tiggywinkles.”

The Librarian patted her spikes then sighed. This wasn’t going to be some bewildered dragon pulled from its own reality, it was going to be darker and nastier, and stronger.

“You people stay here and keep very quiet please.”

They all nodded and the girl rooted in her handbag. She came up with one object that she shoved into the pocket of her neat, beige cardigan. Then she squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and headed for Erotica.

Passing Romance she was surprised to be accosted by a gentle hand on her shoulder. The Heroine stood at her side, misty and insubstantial, But a vision of beauty and desirability nonetheless.

“Can I help?” the beauty asked humbly.

“It may be that you can, if you are brave.”

“I am the Heroine, of course I’m brave. Now if you were asking for clever…”

The Librarian huffed out a little laugh and muttered a word under her breath. The Heroine became real living flesh, became the entity known as Beauty. She smiled, and the ephemeral beauty and her prosaic earthbound sister shared a moment of purely female communication.

“Do you know what to do?” the Librarian asked.

“Oh yes. And I know what will happen to me.”

“I’m sorry for that.”

“You need not be. I am not really alive. Shall we?”

The Librarian swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded wordlessly.

Beauty walked quietly, some ten paces ahead of the little Librarian, and her allure was such that it completely hid her quiet sister beneath trailing clouds of glory. They had almost reached Erotica when a male voice accosted them.

“Who walks?”

The bearer of beauty stopped but made no reply.

“Who walks?” The voice grew angry, but Beauty merely chuckled. It was a sound that appealed to the needs of all creatures, and the Librarian could feel the breeze that ran through the stacks as each book took an indrawn breath.

Then there came the sound of footfalls, big heavy footfalls, and a man stepped out from between the shelves of erotic literature. He was a distillation of everything that genre demands in a male. He was as beautiful as an Arctic snowstorm, with a body that looked as if it had been chiselled from marble then animated by demonic forces, and the face of a fallen angel. He looked as if to be the object of his desires would be both agony and fulfilment. And every female in every book in the library wanted him.

He walked towards the beauty with a twisted smile on his perfect lips.

“What have we here?” he sneered, although his nakedness left very little doubt of his interest.

The beauty smiled, and deepened the dimple at the corner of her rose pink lips.

“What would you have me be?” she asked softly but her voice flowed around the library like molten honey, it soothed and it cheered and it stirred deep longings all without effort or stress.

The man shook his noble head as if the voice hurt something buried deep within him, but he kept coming, stepping with slow deliberate grace. Beauty seemed to be welcoming him, but the Librarian noticed that she was backing away, backing without moving a hand or a foot. This meant the girl had to creep backwards too, so as to remain within the aura of loveliness and sexual availability that kept her hidden from the eyes of whatever was inside the man’s skin. As they moved away from the Erotica stacks, the simulacrum weakened, and there began to be flashes of that which hid beneath the masculine glory that was stalking its prey with a sneer on his perfectly sculpted lips and a cruel look in his eyes.

At first it was just a flicker, a glimpse of grey scales beneath the golden skin, a flash of a horned head, a suggestion of a barbed penis. But as they inched away from the place where the illusion had been formed the creature’s grip on itself grew weaker. Normally one such as this would have noticed the slippage in its garment of falsehood, but Beauty drew it so far into her toils that it had no eyes or ears for anything but pink skin, golden curls, and a song to put the sirens to shame. As his eyes grew less and less human and more and more fixated on the tender flesh before it, the Librarian crept closer and closer, until she was right behind the beauty, so close she almost thought she could feel the texture of that perfect skin.

She brushed such thoughts aside and concentrated on the oncoming creature. He was almost within touching distance now, and she would have but one chance. Dropping the illusion of humanity altogether, the creature that stood before Beauty with saliva dripping from its fangs was like nothing anyone could imagine whilst taking cues from each child’s fear of the dark and every adult’s worst nightmare. It reached out a clawed and cicatrised hand to grasp Beauty by the rounded flesh of her upper arm. The smell of burning flesh was choking but Beauty neither flinched nor uttered a sound. The Librarian reached a hand into the pocket of her neat little cardigan and closed her fist around the object hiding in the beige wool. The monster bent his head, and breathed in the faint scent of crushed roses that came from Beauty’s very skin. As his demonic countenance came closer, even Beauty shrank a little, but her courage kept her in place. Just as the pointed metallic teeth were about to fasten themselves in her shoulder, the Librarian’s small freckled hand came over that shoulder. She held what looked like a small knobbly stick with which she tapped the monster on its beak of a nose. It looked at her and she placed the end of the stick right between its hircine eyes. There was no dramatic invocation, and nor did she mutter any arcane words beneath her breath. She just sighed and said.

“Go home.”

For an instant, the creature resisted her, then there was a bang and an overwhelming stench of rotten eggs as it disappeared, leaving a sense of hunger and reluctance behind it.

Beauty stood with her head bowed, there was a black, burned mark about her arm, where a six-fingered hand had grasped her and she rubbed it reflexively.

“I hope,” she said with a brave attempt at humour, “that he didn’t bring his brother.”

The Librarian smiled her rare smile.

“No. It came alone. Fortunately. And the gateway is now closed.”

“Good.” Beauty briefly rested her cheek against that of her plain sister before seeming to dissolve like ice in a warm bath. In the end, nothing was left but a voice. A voice that whispered,“farewell…”

Then even that was gone, leaving the stacks empty and echoing with small movements as the books dared to breathe again.

The Librarian put her wand back in her pocket and went to reassure the small ones that their place of sanctuary was now safe.

Jane Jago

Again Tomorrow

It’s better to have loved and lost
is that not what they say
Who have not loved to count the cost
of one heartbroken day
A day when time and tide are out
a day to stand alone
A time to understand the doubt
the lie in the word home
Naked born and shed we tears
upon the barren earth
Cry, is it better yet to love
no matter what our birth
Should we turn our back on chance
for fear of bitter sorrow
Or open up our hearts and minds
and love again tomorrow

©️ Jane Jago 2017

Review Feature: Druid’s Portal: The First Journey

 S. Thomas rated it – ‘It was amazing’

Okay, so normally I don’t go out of my way for a romance. I fear spending a dozen pages talking about feelings and passion. I gave this a shot the synopsis sounded good. I was not disappointed! There was a mystery, a prick with a magic time traveling pendant, and lots of Roman and Celt sword fights. There was a strong romantic theme, but I’ve read plenty of stuff with this much romance that simply listed as fantasy, or action. Even my man Clive Cussler has Dirk Pitt playing kissey face when he isn’t being tougher, richer, and a better mechanic than you.Kicking butt and secretly really wanting to read a romance while pretending I’m in it for just the sword fights is not the only draw here. I love the history lesson entwined into the story. The Roman invasion of Celtic Britain is a fascinating time and one I feel a connection to since most of my heritage (I’m an American mutt) is Celtic and I have a swirling blue tattoo.

Janet is an archaeologist specializing in Celtic and Roman history. She is helping her cop friend find out who has been robbing her museum. It’s her friend’s way of helping her get over her abusive ex-boyfriend and Druid scholar, Damon. After she prevents the burglar from stealing a pendant, she begins having a vision of Trajan, a Roman hunky dude, getting murdered. She falls in love, then the fun begins. There’s also a tasteful amount of time travel…

I received a free Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for a review. Any review. That fact that it’s a good one is because the book is good. Which has nothing to do with how awesome I am. You’ll have to find that out for yourself @S_Shane_Thomas on Twitter.

I was so stoked to read and review this book before its release that I downloaded the app eReader Prestigo, put Druid’s Keep in .mobi form into the app, and had the funky GPS lady read it to me while I drove as far north in Maine as you can go without stopping for taters and gravy. It was worth the trouble! I highly recommend this book if you love smoochie stuff, gory swordfights, magic, mystery, or simply a well-crafted piece of fiction.

You can find more of S. Shane Thomas' reviews on his website.
E.M. Swift-Hook rated it  – ‘It was amazing’

A Magical, Roman Era, Time-Travel Romance

“History may be just bones and ruins to you, but it is people, Janet. People loving, hurting, and dying.”

This is a story about love and time-travel, evil gods and evil people, magical and mundane events, all woven tightly into a brilliant multi-hued tapestry. Janet is an archaeologist working in a small museum at Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. She was raised by nuns (this was something I raised an eyebrow at, but one assumes they got legal custody of her somehow) having been abandoned by her unknown parents. Her heart broken by her last, violent, boyfriend Daman, she starts having dreams of a Roman soldier following a break-in at her museum. Trajan is in deadly danger and she wishes she could help him. Then a portal opens her way to the distant past and she finds herself in Roman Britain.

What I loved most about this book is it highlights the way that when we look at the past, we often do so with a very patronising and diminishing filter. We really do forget that history is about what happened to real people living their real lives against incredible odds, with much less in the way of technology, but with just as much intelligence, skill and imagination as we have today – often more. This is a book that is about our concept of history as much as about the fictional events it describes and it makes a reader stop, think and question those kinds of assumption.

‘That he had never heard of TV didn’t make her brighter or better. It wasn’t as if she could build one. She doubted she could even explain how it worked.’

The writing is good and the pace cracking – I found it hard to drag myself away from wanting to turn the next page. The characters are all well thought out and very convincing – even the evil Daman avoids being a stereotype and although unexplored in depth, the reader is left with a sense that he is in some ways as much a victim of events as those he persecutes. The clever blending of mythology, magic and hard history is truly a potent mix.

I really enjoyed the historical detail which is slipped into the story not in any heavy-handed way, but lightly in small daubs and dashes, where appropriate and fitting, to flesh-out the story and give depth and substance to the world in which the events unfold. But this is not straight-up history as much as it strives for – and to a high degree achieves – a sense of period verisimilitude. This is a fantasy, with all the potential of magic, with dark gods and soul stealing, mystical visions and of course, time travel.

“Without you, I’ll have to settle for some local girl—and who could measure up to a time-travelling goddess?”

So what if anything, is there not to like? Well for me very little. The only issue I had was with the classic romance format of Janet and Trajan’s relationship. I don’t normally read romance stories for this very reason as I never really understand why a romance has to be written that way. There has always to be inevitable misunderstandings and both people having some illogical internal dialogue in which they create false assumptions around the behaviour and words of the other – and then refuse to speak of it when one word or two would resolve the problem between them. Maybe that is how some people run their romances in real life, but to me, it always comes over as just a device to create tension in the story. But that is still a very minor gripe against the richly woven back-cloth to that romance and it is not there in sufficient quantity to spoil an otherwise wonderful read for me.

I loved this book. I’d recommend it especially to those who enjoy time-travel romance stories, as Cindy Tomamichel is giving Diana Gabaldon a run for her money. But I would also recommend it highly to those who enjoy a good historical read with added magic and anyone who enjoys Roman era books of all varieties.

Ice cream

Ice cream on my tongue

Today I got brave and I licked him
Just with the tip of my tongue
He jumped just as if I had kicked him
I sometimes forget he is young
One more taste, shy as a whisper
As he twines his hands in my hair
Eat me then, he says, little twister
Eat me, as much as you dare

The Night Librarian – I

It was very quiet in this area of the stacks, so quiet that if you listened carefully enough you could hear the books breathing. This portentous silence was broken by a rhythmic squeak as a trolley loaded with grimoires and  magical texts was pushed firmly towards the dark corner wherein such resided.

“It’s no good you being like that,” a determined voice said. “It doesn’t hurt being shelved. It’s not as if any of you are chained. Although if some of you keep misbehaving…”

The rhythmic squeal stopped and the trolley rounded a corner, being pushed by a dumpy girl with a determined looking chin. As it neared the  shelves where arcane and magical volumes were shelved the squeal started up again.

“Does somebody want to be shelved on 99b?”

Silence.

The dumpy girl began shelving volumes with practiced efficiency. She handled the books with care and respect, but would brook no resistance nor any other tricks. One of the grimoires snapped its covers at her and she slapped it firmly.

“Start that with me and I’ll chain you.”

If it was possible for a book to look abashed it did so, coming quietly to hand to be slipped into its accustomed place.

Once the grimoires were tidily placed in their proper positions, the Night  Librarian closed the steel doors around their stack and locked them with a hugely ornate key.

On her way back to the centre desk, she paused briefly at travel and pointed an imperious finger. There was a bit of scrabbling as the books reshelved themselves in their proper order, followed by an embarrassed silence.

“Papua New Guinea, since when have you lived between Jersey and Guernsey?”

A dog eared volume leapt from a shelf and scuttled off. The girl regarded the now tidy stack for a moment before permitting herself a small smile.

“Better.”

She turned on her heel pushing the now empty trolley to the store room where it would be filled by the day staff who were far too busy to ever shelve books.

As they saw it, that was her job and the business of shelving had already taken a goodly part of the night, but at least there was just one full trolley left. She looked at it with some disfavour before grasping the handles firmly. Immediately they turned warm, and furry and she could feel tiny tentacles caressing the thin skin inside her wrists.

“Stop that at once,” she frowned awfully and the trolley behaved as she pushed it past Young Adult, Alternative History, and Romance to its designated area: Erotica.

“Here we are,” she said brightly, “your stop”.

These stacks were somehow claustrophobic, and the air was thick and heavy with what could be felt as either threat or promise. The young librarian appeared to feel neither as she simply proceeded with her work.

“Lesbian romance,” she clapped her hands and a half dozen or so volumes jumped from the trolley and shelved themselves neatly among their peers. She carried on, briskly calling out names and categories and the books kept obeying, even if she did feel the occasional groping hand as they passed her by.

Finally there were just two books left glowering at her from the trolley. “Extreme punishment, am I to assume you are unwilling to shelve yourselves like sensible books?”

There was a sudden sullenness in the air and she sighed.

“You lot are more trouble than grimoires.”

Pushing the trolley further into an aisle, where the atmosphere was warm and redolent of body fluids and full of the sounds of moans and curses, she stopped in front of a shelf where her senses were assaulted by cries of pain and the whistle of the whiplash. She picked up the first book and slipped it into its allotted position with very little difficulty. The second snarled at her as she put out her hand. Nothing daunted, she slapped it on its stained cover. It retaliated, and she felt the phantom bite of a whip across her shoulders. She smiled thinly and picked the volume up by its spine.

“Somebody masturbate on you today?”

The book wriggled at the pleasurable memory and she pushed it into its vacant slot before exiting the erotica stack with as much dignity as she could muster.

Back at the central desk, she began the second part of her duties. She worked diligently inputting details of loaned volumes and returns, clicking her tongue at inaccuracies and omissions as she slowly reduced the pile of official dockets, dirty slips of paper, scented notes and IOUs. She had almost finished when she was interrupted by a polite cough.

“Yes,” she said without looking up.

“Please miss, there’s a something roaming the stacks and we is afraid.”

The librarian turned to look at at the speaker. She was surprised to see a whole deputation of small creatures looking at her hopefully. There were brownies, gnomes, elves, rabbits, squirrels, hobbits, borrowers and too many others to mention. Most of these species disliked and distrusted each other, so their banding together portended something of considerable dark power. She shrugged internally and bent her gaze on the spokesperson: a tiggywinkle.

“What sort of a something?”

The hedgehog dropped a nervous curtesy.

“We doesn’t know ma’am. But we hears it and we knows it is hungry.”

“Oh. One of those. You wait here then.”

The Night Librarian took two things out of her capacious handbag, and two more things out of a drawer beside her left foot.

“Okay. You lot stay here. I will deal.”

She strode off along the silent shelves, noticing for the first time how afraid the books were and how they were all trying to make themselves small and insignificant. Reaching the section of the library given over to Dark Magicks, she checked to see that the grimoires were still locked in before taking a very large salt pot out of her pocket. She uncapped it and began to draw a complex pattern on the stained stones of the floor. When she was satisfied she put the salt pot away and brought out a spray bottle of water, which she uncapped before stabbing her thumb with the silver pin of the brooch she wore at the neck of her modest little blouse. She allowed a carefully counted number of drops of blood to mix with the water before briskly recapping the bottle. Walking around the salty pattern, she carefully sprayed a mist of the pink solution around the edges of the pentagram. She smiled thinly and stepped into the centre of the design. Placing the bottle on the floor between her feet she muttered an incantation. And waited.

At first nothing happened, but then a slithering sliding sort of noise, overlain by a toothache-inducing scrape became audible, and the girl in the pentagram felt a sense of resistance. She muttered a few more words and the slithering came closer. A reptilian head with glowing yellow eyes came around the corner, followed by a scaly winged body balanced on short front legs and longer legs at the rear. The creature boasted powerful hindquarters, and massively muscled shoulders decorated with dark leathery wings. As it drew near, the uncomfortable scraping sound could be traced to the creature’s talons fruitlessly digging the ground as it tried to resist the pull of the Librarian’s incantation.

It stopped at the edge of the pentagram, swishing a tail whose spiked end could disembowel a man. Peering shortsightedly into the centre of the salty lines it snarled at the unimpressive figure who had nonetheless managed to drag its unwilling carcass across the floor without breaking a sweat.

“I hunger. I thirst.” It hissed.

“I expect you do, but there is naught here for you.”

“You are here.”

“And I am protected within walls of power.”

The dragon, for dragon it was, sneered and swiped at the salty lines with one clawed forefoot. Nothing moved. It hissed again and tried harder.

“Even if you could disturb the pattern, that which is written on stone and sealed with holy water and blood cannot be removed until I release it.”

The dragon ground it’s teeth and hissed viciously, but the Librarian would not be intimidated. She narrowed her eyes and concentrated briefly.

“Stop that T’Drell. Instead of being stupid tell me how you got here and why you came here.”

The dragon shook its head.

“I do not know. I cannot tell. Asleep I was. Then found myself here. Wandering. Alone. Hungry. Angry.”

“Would you return to Dragonheart?”

“I would.”

“Very well. Be still.”

T’Drell laid his head on the stones and became absolutely motionless as the Librarian began her incantation. As he began to fade he lifted his eyes.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

By Jane Jago - You can read the conclusion of this story on Thursday.

And I’ll Dance

Give up the booze, they said
Look what it’s done to your life
Seventeen children, they said
And not even once a wife
Give up the fags, they said
And you shouldn’t be dressing like that
Give up the choccies and cheese
Or you will wind up friendless and fat
I have no regrets, she said
My children are straight and strong
I conceived them all sober, she said
And that’s where you’re getting it wrong
Life’s not the place, she said
For your poor-mouthed censorious ways
I’m living the way I think best
And I’ll dance to the end of my days

©️ jane jago 2017

 

A Walking Shadow – Return to Temsevar

From A Walking Shadow, the final book in Haruspex Trilogy of Fortune's Fools by E.M. Swift-Hook.

When the ship finally opened up, Stin stood waiting with Panvia, who still held her tea and was sipping at it. He helped her to kick the blocks to the ramp in an ultra low-tech parody of the way a dock would normally autosecure.

The first person out seemed more as though he was expecting to meet an armed assault than a middle-aged maintenance technician sipping a cup of tea. He held an energy snub in one hand and looked more than willing to use it. He wore a slightly garish, military cut outfit and his black hair pulled back into a short ponytail, separating on one side around the slight lump of a skull implanted port.

Panvia completely ignored the weaponry and lifted her mug.

“If you want a cuppa, I’ve something warm and spiced on the brew. It’ll help get your innards used to the local micro-flora and fauna. Tastes pretty good too.”

The black haired man didn’t reply, he finished his visual check of the environment and apparently satisfied that there wasn’t a secret ambush waiting in the shadows, moved aside.

“Tea sounds good to me.” The reply came from a second man who emerged from the ship. This one was dressed like he was attending a debut event in Central, but with a shaggy mane of golden blond curly hair tempering the effect. “And your tea always tastes good, Pan.”

Panvia’s normally dour expression lightened to something that nearly approached a smile.

“You look like you could do with it, too. You been living on all that alien muck too long.”

Any reply the blond man might have made was cut short by a shout of unmitigated delight from the entrance to the dock.

“Durban,” Gernie called and strode over to the ship with a huge grin on his round face.” You know until I saw you just now I was only half-convinced it really was you. When you sailed out of here with that cargo I was thinking that was it. That you’d use it to set yourself up – somewhere nice in the Middle Worlds, maybe the ‘City. Or possibly, knowing you, even Central way. Why the hell would you want to come back here, man?”

He finished the speech as he reached the blond man and threw his arms around him in a close embrace which was returned with mutual back slapping. The man with the ponytail moved sharply, clearly worried and only relaxed when Gernie released his victim and stepped back, still smiling. “They still talk about you in Micha’s from when you were first here that winter we met. How long ago was that now?”

“Too many years, maybe even too many decades,” the blond man said, his own smile as warm as Gernie’s. Then he looked directly at Stin. “This a new member of your ground crew?”

Gernie followed his look, turning to see.

“Oh, that’s one of our waifs and strays. Stinian. His girlfriend dumped him and jumped out. He helps out to earn his passage one day.”

“Harmless?”

“Mostly, for sure. Aren’t you Stin?” Now what was he supposed to say to that?

“I guess,” he agreed.

Gernie had already turned away again, his back to Stin.

“This your latest boyfriend?” he was asking, nodding at the man with the black hair and the scalp port. The blond man, Durban, laughed.

“Jaz is a friend – a very good friend.”

The other man, Jaz, seemed unconcerned by Gernie’s assumption. He seemed to still be expecting some kind of trouble. Or maybe that was just his normal way of being.

A Walking Shadow is available for pre-order now.

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