The Letter

Sometimes a letter can change everything...

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Booksquirrel’s review of ‘The Dragonheart Stories: Fairy Tales for Grownups’ by Jane Jago

Dragonheart Stories: Fairy Tales for Grownups by Jane Jago

A magnificent adults-only collection of dragon stories!

One of my favourite things to discover is a book that gives the reader a sense of the author’s own personality. The incidental humour and quirky characters in these stories are evidence of a creative mind brimming with ideas and unafraid to follow them wherever they lead.

The Dragonheart Stories Is a brilliant collection of short stories that are imaginative, sensual and highly original — and definitely not for children! Very conservative readers would probably not appreciate them either, although this reader considers that to be very much to their own loss. The stories are much like the nature of their dragon characters: magnificent, beautiful, rowdy, complex, and at times aggressive, but at the same time filled with insight. Each story is both entertaining and thought-provoking. The narration instils in the reader a sense of reverence for the dragons, but also considerable affection for the central characters.

I really hope there are more of these stories to come. It is only fitting that this humble squirrel should pay these wonderful dragons tribute with a Golden Acorn.

This review was originally published at home of the talented Joanne Van Leerdam.
Look out for tomorrow’s extract here on the Working Title Blog...

Coffee Break Read – A New Job

An extract from 'When Dai met Bryn' one of the two stories in Dying to be Friends by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago

The Prefect had an office at the top of the Vigiles building with a panoramic view over Londinium. The Augusta Arena, Constantius Column, the Temple of the Divine Diocletian set in beautiful parkland running down to the river, the sub aquila housing, the Forum and the new baths. Dai presumed the Prefect’s view would be even better than the one he had from the small waiting area outside the office. He was on his fourth cup of water from the cooler and wondering if he should risk a quick trip to the snack dispenser he had seen by the lifts to curtail his stomach’s noisy ambition to digest itself, when the door opened and he was shown in to the Prefect’s sanctum.

The Prefect was a stiff-backed old-school Vigiles, clearly not too many years from his – presumably – well-earned retirement back to the warmth and civilisation of Rome. He was standing, not sitting when Dai walked in and responded to his salute with little more than an upwards nod of his head. Dai, standing in his best parade-ground stance, said nothing.

“Llewellyn,” the Prefect was behind his desk and reached down to tap a folder on it – old-school – with the photo of Dai pinned to the front they had taken when he signed up for the course. “Good things. It says very good things.”

There was a pause and the Prefect stared at him as if expecting some response.

“Thank you, dominus, I am glad I have been meeting expectations.”

“Meeting. Exceeding. Top of the class, Llewellyn. Highest score we’ve had in years.”

This time Dai said nothing in the silence. They were not told their mark on the Investigator’s exam, only that they had passed it.

“Yes,” the Prefect went on as if answering a question, “Impressive for a Briton. Direct graduate too. Master’s degree. What was that in again?”

“British History,” Dai provided, painfully aware how that sounded every time he said it. “I did do sub-units on the Early Empire and the reign of the Divine Diocletian as well,” he added hurriedly. But for all the reaction he got, he could have said it was Celebrity Studies or Creative Cartwheeling. Dai felt the usual sensation of being invisible, even though on this occasion at least, he was the supposed focus of a Roman’s attention.

“Vacancy here,” the Prefect was saying. “Lost the last man. Tragedy. He was promising too. Very bright. Shame. But have to have someone and you’ll do. Be wasted in the sticks anyway.”

Dai blinked and tried to make sense of what he was hearing. He opened his mouth to ask if he could ask something, but the prefect was speaking again.

“Accommodation provided for the first month, after that on your own – but you’ll be paid by then and can find something in one of the estates.” Then the Prefect stepped away from the desk and glowered at Dai. “I don’t like appointing one of you people, but this role needs it. You will be dealing more with your sort than with Citizens.”

Your sort. The sting of made Dai’s guts tighten.

“I’m not sure I understand, dominus. I am going home tom-”

The Prefect made that odd upward nod, like a wild animal scenting blood.

“No. Not happening. We need you here. Starting now.”

There was no room to argue. He had signed up for twenty years minimum service. But it was going to be a very awkward call to his brother telling him he needed to find another groomsman at short notice. That would do little to help with their already strained relationship – strained through disagreement over Dai’s career choice.

“Of course, dominus,” he said, working hard to keep the tight resentment from leaking into his voice.

“Great privilege. Working in Londinium. Do well here, could get transferred to Trev.” It was odd to hear the contraction of the regional capital in the mouth of a Roman, for some reason Dai had always assumed it was a British thing.

“Yes, dominus.” He noticed there was no mention of possible promotion. But then there could not be. The best he could ever hope for was a lateral transfer. No non-citizen ranked higher in the Vigiles. The Inquisitors and up were all Roman.

“Good. Sorted. Team Room XIII. Downstairs. They are expecting you. Dismissed.”

His life casually rewritten for him in less time than it took to boil a kettle, Dai found himself walking from the office wishing he’d not bothered putting in those extra revision sessions for his last exams.

Keep up-to-date with the latest information on the Dai and Julia Mysteries.

Author feature: Chaos Fountain by D.C. Ballard

Chaos Fountain by D.C. Ballard is the story of Kyle Durlow. A chance encounter on the streets of San Diego rockets Kyle into a world where titans of industry have business meetings with gods, and he is dragged along for the ride.

“That would be due to mass shift. If it was the Phoenix station you had set our coordinates for.” came Tory’s weak voice from behind us.
“Tory?” I turned to look back at him.
“A wormhole is a short cut through the in-between. I feel a lot better.” He looked a lot better. Actually he looked almost normal, with the exception of a ragged pink scar across his nose.
“Our entrance into this area was spectacular enough. There should be a ship here within the hour.” said Tory.
“I thought wormhole drives didn’t work.” said Markus.
“Normally they don’t, or not well. I’m sure you know, they are very impractical because of the energy storage needs. I could never figure out how to make capacitors that could hold enough energy to make it work efficiently. It occurred to me that the fused field coils would do the job.”
“Amazing!” exclaimed Markus sounding indignant.
“What?” said Tory innocently.
“You utilize an experiment during a life and death situation. An experiment which might not have worked at all.” yelled Markus.
“We didn’t really have much choice.”
“You could have told us.”
“I was going to.”
“When? After it failed?” said Markus sarcastically.
“No. I was going to tell you once I was done with the final repairs.”
“But you didn’t count on the effect the radiation had on you.” said Markus getting angry.
“Right. And…”
“And we got jumped. By the gods, I do not believe you.” Markus said in exasperation.
“Markus.” said Tory pleadingly.
“Uh guys.” I said trying to get their attention.
“No. I’m not going to discuss it with you.” Said Markus, his voice clearly angry, and a red tinge to his normally void black scales.
“Guys!” I said louder.
“Look. I’m sorry. I figured you’d run for the edge of the system first.”
“I did, but we were outclassed by other ships.”
“GUYS!!” I screamed.
“What?” they said as one looking at me.
“Look.” I said pointing out the window. Outside were about 30 ships like the ones we had just escaped from.
“This is not good, I don’t recognize those craft.” said Tory, and that worried me a lot.
“What about those.” I said. As some 50 other ships began appearing behind the original 30.
“Those I recognize. Markus can you get me a comm link to those Andarian cruisers.”
“On line.” The connection was cut immediately from the destination end. “They cut us off. Wait. I’ve got a tight beam coming in on frequency 7.”
“That′s not good at all, let’s see it.” said Tory.

A Bite of ... D.C. Ballard
Q1: Would you rather be a hero or a villain?

Hmm… Neither? I look at it this way. A friend of mine uses me as his archetype for the villain’s he writes for his comics, none of which he has published despite my prompting. He does this, not because of me being evil, but based on a mindset. If I have henchmen, a big technological base with cameras and defenses, etc… Then why the hell am I going to go charging down to confront the cause of an alarm. That’s what I have camera’s, defenses, and henchmen for. Seriously, it makes no sense to place myself in harms way, or removed from easy access to my multiple escape routes.

Given all that, I suppose I would end up being the villain, or at least not the hero. Enlightened Self Interest only gets you so far. Sure, it will get you some points, but eventually you have to either give things away without getting anything for it, or be seen as the bad guy for expecting people to earn what you have to offer.

Q2: Why do you write? Money is an acceptable answer.

So my characters will be silent for a few hours so I can sleep.

Q3: Chocolate cake or coffee cake? And give reasons.

CHOCOLATE!!!! There need be no other answer or reasons, other than… CHOCOLATE!!!! I’m not an addict, you are. I can quite any time. Hey! Get away from that drawer. Don’t look in there…. No, that’s not my chocolate. I don’t know how that got in there, but I guess I’ll have a few pieces… Stop looking at me like that.

D.C. Ballard in his own words

I write and am published as D.C.Ballard, which is just the initialized version of my given name. I am a Husband, Father, and Pet-Papa (2 cats, 1 Min-pin). As a writer, I work mostly at night while my wife sleeps; writing, editing, building covers for my work, websites to help promote my work, and interacting with other authors online.

For me, the writing experience, and my relationship with my Muse and Characters is an interesting. My best description of Muse, unlike the gentle breeze of inspiration I hear other writers and artists describe, is that of a mountain of a man who likes to hide around corners with a spiked baseball bat and swing for the fences with my brain as the ball, when I walk into view.

My view into the Chronicles of Ascension Universe, which is where all my stories take place, even if they never come into contact, is much like looking through a window. A window, that over time, as you look through it, gets larger, cleaner, clearer, and merges with other windows you didn’t realize were part of the same Universe.

You can find the book on AmazonBarnes&NobelSmashwords and Kobo and the author on Facebook, Twitter or his own website and blog.

Sunday Serial XLIV

Anna giggled as she reassembled her clothing.
“This is one mighty sturdy table. Not a drop of coffee spilled.”
Sam grinned.
“I made it as unwobbly as I could, though I didn’t have that in mind.”
“You made it?”
“With my own fair hands.”
“I’m deeply impressed.”
Then she grimaced at the cold coffee.
“We need fresh cappuccino. I’ll do it. You sort out your trousers.”
Sam grinned and bent to untwist his jeans from around his ankles. Once he was sorted, he snaffled a cookie and took a huge bite. Bonnie came over wagging happily, and he found her a treat from her own tin.
“Got you where she wants you, ain’t she?”
Anna remarked as she brought the fresh coffee to the table.
“I expect so,” he replied amiably. “But then, so do you.”
She came and kissed him.
“Might have. Does it bother you?”
“No. I like being wound around your finger. And any other bit of you I can get close to…”
“Dirty boy,” she sniggered, then sat beside him and reached for a cookie. “Right. How many invitations do we need printing, and how many should be emailed?”
“Off the top of my head? I haven’t a clue. When we’ve actually drunk this coffee, we’ll work it out.”
“That’d be good.”

As it turned out, most of the invitations were sent by email, although Mrs Jackson, and the few neighbours Sam actually talked to, got print versions, and Anna printed one for Danny and Paul, knowing Paul would want it as a keepsake. Plus, she popped one in an envelope to post to Jim and Patsy – writing a few affectionate words in the card to reassure her friend that she was really wanted.

“While I have your attention, love. I’ve ordered beds: six more king size for upstairs: one king size, one double, two singles, and a put you up for the annexe. And lots of bedding and towels. You want to look at what I’ve chosen?”
“If you want me to, of course I will, but I can’t promise much enthusiasm. Soft furnishings leave me cold.”
Anna giggled. “Fair enough. But, in that case, how come we have tasteful curtains in every room?”
“Simples. When Mrs Jackson moved, she had loads of what I was assured were very nice curtains going spare. Carrie made them fit the windows. I also bought the leather settees, the big leather chairs, and the rugs in the hallway, from the same source.”
“I see. And it is, indeed, very nice stuff. Not a bit old lady.”
“No. Furnishings wise Mrs J’s taste leans towards Scandinavian minimalist. No ornaments; she calls them dust catchers. No family photographs. Just clean lines, blonde wood, and superb comfort. She had her present bungalow completely remodelled to offer a modern open-plan living space; it scares the shit out of the other old dears in the development.”
“I bet. She sounds fascinating.”
“She is. And boy was she pissed off to see what a chintzy horror her old home has been turned into. And that isn’t the half of it. But I won’t spoil it by telling you any more. What I will do is take Bonnie for a walk, during which I’ll deliver the local invites, and post the one to Jim and Patsy. You coming?”
“No. I’ll do food for when you get back.”
“That would be lovely. I’ll probably be a couple of hours, by the time I have a nice visit with my best girl. You don’t have a few spare cookies I could take her, do you? She cooks, but she don’t bake.”
“Sure. I’ve even got a nice box. You go get your walking shoes on and I’ll do you up a box of mixed cookies.”
Sam got his boots and a battered flying jacket, by which time Anna had put a cloth bag on the kitchen table.
“Invitations, cookies, towel for Bonnie’s feet if you are going visiting, and a torch. If you are going to be later than six thirty will you give me a buzz? I’m planning steak and I don’t want to overcook stuff.”
“Will do.”
He kissed her fondly, put Bonnie on her lead and loped out.

Anna half expected a call to say Sam would be late, but at six fifteen she heard his key in the door, and Bonnie came bustling into the kitchen. Sam followed her grinning all over his face. Anna went into his arms and received a very satisfactory hug, before he went out to the boot room to take off his shoes and dump his coat and bag.
He came back into the kitchen and petted Bonnie extravagantly.
“This dog is a miracle. Mrs J isn’t ordinarily a great fan of animals, but Bonnie had her wrapped around her paw in about two minutes. I dunno if it was waiting so nicely to have her feet dried, or sitting at my feet doing her doting dog impression, or permitting herself to be stroked without jumping up or getting pushy. Whatever. The old dear fell in love.”
Anna laughed. “She’s a very calculating canine. But we love her, don’t we?”
“We do indeed. Before I forget, we already have one extra for the party. Mrs J’s favourite nephew is visiting her that weekend, so I said he was welcome. Is that OK?”
“Yes. Of course it is. The more the merrier.’
“Just one thing. He’s a gangster.”
Anna laughed.
“No. Seriously. He is. He’s Jim’s friend Geordie Jackson. About five feet of Glaswegian hard man, with more tattoos than I have ever seen on a human being before. Plus a flick-knife in the top of his sock.”
“That should be a laugh. Danny will be enchanted. He really likes gangsters, and they seem to like him. When he was working in Brazil he used to go to the favelas and play poker with the hard boys on his days off.”
“Rather him than me.”
“Oh indeed. I always felt sorry for Paul who lived in constant terror that something would happen to Danny.”
“I can see that. But I’m guessing that Danny couldn’t.”
“No. He’s fearless and deeply unimaginative himself, and can’t understand worry. There are times when I could clip his ear for him. However, Paul loves him and understands his odd ways. So.”
“So indeed. Now then. You promised me steak did you not? Do you have time for a nice glass of wine with me before you frizzle it?”
“What does the word frizzle signify?”
Anna demanded, trying very hard not to giggle.
“The word frizzle, woman,” Sam replied in lofty tones, “indicates any one of the many cooking processes of which I have no knowledge whatsoever. I leave such things to those into whose area of expertise they do fall.”
Then he spoilt his high-minded pose by grabbing Anna and tickling her until she screamed. She lolled against him sniggering.
“You are very, very silly, my love. Don’t ever get too grown up will you?”
“Shouldn’t think it’s very likely. My dad was as daft as a brush; he used to drive Mum mad by refusing to conform to the way a psychiatrist is supposed to behave. Mum was a bit more conventional, until he got her going – then she was hilarious. Half a glass of wine was enough…”
He looked down at his hands.
“I miss them, you know. I just wish you could have known them.”
He sounded so sad and strained that Anna put her arms around him and cuddled him strongly; slowly she felt the strain drain out of him. He looked down at her and smiled.
“You are my personal miracle,” he said wonderingly.
“Right back at you love. Now go get me a big glass of wine while I hunt up some nibbles before frizzling you a nice piece of steak.”

Jane Jago

Baa, Baa

Ha, ha, black sheep, have you any lies?
Yes sir, I’ve some to make you rub your eyes
I’ve one for the politics, and one for the kids
And one because I can’t remember anything I did

©️jj 2018

Weekend Wind Down – Night Rage

From 'The Cat's Head' a tale of  witchcraft in the English Civil War

The scream woke him.
Mind confused by sleep and shifting dreams, Gideon awoke cold and clammy. It took a few moments to convince himself that it had been a real scream and not just a part of the strange, shapeless nightmare from which it had dragged him. There was no second scream, but re-enacting the sound in his head assured him it had belonged to the waking world – and that it had been female and terrified.
Some primaeval instinct bit deeply into his heart at the realisation and exploded there as a burst of protective rage. Almost blindly, he charged down the stairs, two or three at a time, clutching his knife – the first weapon his fingers had closed on in his haste.
Both doors on the floor below were open. From one came light, the sounds of struggle and another anguished scream, abruptly muffled. It inflamed Gideon’s burning rage to inferno. Without conscious thought, he hurled himself towards the source of the sound. The scent of sandalwood and a dozen exotic perfumes filled his nostrils, murder filled his mind.
Within the room, a guttering candle reflected the struggle around the walls in stark, angular shadows. The mattress had been half dragged from the bed, revealing the ropes beneath, and on it two bodies struggled, one still clad in the overblown finery he had worn in the evening, the other, shift dragged up to her thighs, pinned beneath him. Silver and gold hair tangled together as the man exerted his strength to hold the girl.
Gideon heard a noise like an enraged animal. Scarcely conscious that it issued from his own throat, he launched himself forward, knife gripped in one fist, blade downwards like a fang ready to tear into flesh.
Before his headlong rush could connect, something swept his legs from beneath him and he sprawled full length. The knife clattered away into shadows as a solid weight landed on him, rolling him, with force and suddenness enough to drive the breath from his lungs. He gasped in air, but a strong arm pulled his head back, choking it off. Slight pressure more and his neck would have snapped. Philip Lord’s voice, from the dishevelled bed, sounded taut and long-suffering.
“Oh God! It’s Sir Percival. Get him out of here, Shiraz.”
Manhandled with ease, like a wayward child, half-choked and with a blade pressed close to the skin of his throat to discourage any objections, Gideon was bundled back up to his room and locked in. There the impotent anger burst from him, as he pounded on the sturdy wood of the door with anything that came to hand and with his fists themselves in the end until they were bruised and bloody.  He roared curses through the soulless, unheeding wood and stone. Eventually, frustration and fatigue took their toll and he slumped to rest – for just a moment – on the pallet bed.

He awoke much later to the sound of the key turning in the lock.
It was full day.
Night clad and sword in hand he was at the door and pulling it open before any could enter, murder in his heart. Zahara stood in the doorway, her bright hair bound from sight under a plain blue linen lappet. She held a basin of water in her hands, steaming very slightly. His hold on the sword went limp and the raised blade fell onto the blanket.
“I brought you water to wash with,” she said simply and stepped past him, with care to avoid the detritus left by his nocturnal endeavours to escape the room. Bright morning sunshine revealed overthrown boxes and contents spilled. She found a place to set the basin down and turned to leave.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “I mean – last night…”
“Last night?”
She sounded genuinely puzzled and Gideon realised, dully, she had not even known he had been there, that he had tried to rescue her.
“Your screams woke me,” he said, by way of explanation.
A slight touch of colour pinked her face.
“I am sorry,” she said, looking down, embarrassed.  She walked to the door, keeping her face from him.“It happens. You should pay it no regard.”
“No regard? I can’t – “
He broke off and stepped forward quickly before she was gone, to capture one of her hands. But, like a shy bird taking wing, it slipped from him before he could close his own upon it.
“Listen,” he said,  low voiced and imperative. “I will get you out of here, somehow. I have friends and family in London who can help you – we can take ship there, you do not have to live like this.”
She looked up at him then. The kitten-green eyes expressionless, searching his face.
“You are kind. But it is better for me here.”
The pent up anger of the night burst through.
“How can it be better with that – that demon?”
Gideon heard his own voice snarling and regretted it instantly as the girl took a small step away from him, close to full flight.
“The Schiavono is good to me,” she said gently, “and to you. He saved your life. He is no demon.”
Memory rose to haunt him. His own mother so beaten down that the fault became twisted back to herself in all things until she could see nothing but righteous wrath in the treatment she received. And nothing Gideon had ever said changing that view – no argument, no reasoning, no appeal.
Fists, stiff from the damage he had done to them, clenched and unclenched. In his mind ran visions of the things he would do to Philip Lord should the opportunity present itself. Zahara was still watching him with some troubled emotion in her eyes that he could not read.
“There is food for you,” she said, “and a man the Schiavono would have you speak with. He said that since you are here, you could earn your keep.” Her message given, she turned away and left him.
Gideon felt her distance and vowed to himself that whatever it took he would deliver her beyond Lord’s reach. His every instinct screamed for violence. But in violence, it would be himself who came out the worse. If that would in any way help Zahara, he would not hesitate, but he was her sole true protector, her sole chance of escape from a prison whose bars she helped to cement herself. But there were more – and better – weapons with which battles could be won than naked blades. Weapons with which he was well trained and of which he owned the mastery.

E.M. Swift-Hook


One lost shoe on the sandy passes
Strappy, girly, pink and gold
Useless in the sharp tall grasses
With a story yet untold
Is the owner young and lovely? 
Rolling with a lover?
Or is the truth more dark and ugly?
Cruelty uncovered?
One lost shoe and one lost tale
We carry it away
And wonder as we pour an ale
What happened there today


The Collected Poems of Moonbeam Farquhar Metheringham IV – One

It is August, the month when the true cognoscenti abandon home to imbibe sun, culture and romance. My maternal parent has boarded a flight to Goa and I am lifted on finer wings to explore his native Greece with my dear Stavros. I leave you who are chained to your domestic soil with some whimsy from my poetic genius. À bientôt!

The Seagull

Once upon a picnic beery, whilst I guzzled, drunk and cheery,
Over the tartan blanket spurious, spoke words which could only bore –
While I waffled, sometimes rapping, suddenly there came a flapping
As of some bird quickly crapping, crapping on my fresh coleslaw.
“Tis a bloody gull!” I shouted. “Crapping in my fresh coleslaw.
“Shoot the bugger!” I did roar.

And the seagull, never flitting, still is shitting, STILL IS SHITTING!
All across the tartan blanket and the bowl of my coleslaw!
Soon his evil squawk brings streaming every seagull near, it’s seeming
And the flock of flockers teeming do devour my picnic more,
Thus, my cup of fine Prosecco now is spilt upon the floor.
I shall picnic – nevermore!


Sonnet IV

Within the inglenook of creeping night
I steal Calliope’s wings steeped with flame
And an homunculus enters my sight
Bearing aloft a banner with my name.
I stalk to rocky kloofs of distant height
To claim the fabled phoenix for my own
And by the wounding pens terrible might
I slay the fierce chimera all alone.
Those Labyrinthine paths conquered by right
So now upon my head Theseus crown
Marks my soliloquy of posey bright
As in Morpheus arms I softly drown.
From forth my dreams thus comes triumphs of rhyme
For of the Muses choice, I am the prime.



Hibiscus bloom of palest pink
I have not words, I have not ink
To speak of love’s bepetalled face
Watch from afar who walks in grace
Who walks in beauty as the dawn
Who in my breast true love doth spawn
Who shines like effervescent gold
Who shall not wither, nor grow old
Hibiscus bloom thy petals ope
And face the sun and dash my hopes
Hibiscus bloom of palest hue
Who murders hope with lies untrue
Hibiscus bloom of stainless steel
Who stamps my love beneath her heel

Moonbeam Farquhar Metheringham IV

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Coffee Break Read – An’s story…

An extract from The Long Game by Jane Jago.

‘… as it seems we have a while to wait I promised your wife I would tell you my story. But before I begin my part of the tale there are things I need to say about the thirteen houses, things that are secrets and must never leave these four walls.’ Her listeners nodded, so she carried on. ‘Many of the houses prize purity of line above anything. They marry cousin to cousin, and sometimes closer than that. This is, as anyone who breeds animals must know, not a good thing. The pure bloodlines of many of the families have been contaminated by inbreeding. There are idiots and deformed children who are quietly disposed of, but the inbreeding goes on. Consequently, the Neders are congenital idiots. The C’hin carry the falling sickness. Most of the Shaughnessy women are barren. The Frankish men are generally impotent. And the Schiapetti are just plain depraved. I could go on, but I’m sure you have the picture.’

‘My own story begins when I was fourteen years old. Until that time, I lived with my parents at Massimo Schiapetti senior’s quinta two days’ ride south of the city. Just after my birthday, some women came from the big house and examined me to make sure I was a virgin, and that I was physically ready to bear children. Then they took me away from my parents to the house. There were a dozen or so of us, all told, gathered from the Schiapetti holdings, and after we’d been at the house for a few days we were bathed and nicely dressed and then paraded in front of the master and three strange men. The master pointed out a redhead from the distrada, and the three men indicated an interest in two other girls, myself and a shepherd’s daughter. I later came to understand that the Schiapetti sold me that day. Sold both of us. My companion was about seventeen, and as blonde as a wheat field, with impressive breasts and a stoical temperament, I was tiny, white blonde and scared out of my wits. If I had not had that older girl with me I don’t honestly know how I would have managed. Her name was Breda, and as we were whisked across the country in a closed carriage, she explained exactly what was likely to happen to us. She made it seem bearable and told me it wouldn’t be forever. She knew of other girls who had been taken this way and were later returned to their families more or less unharmed, and with a gift of money.’
‘After what seemed to me to be an endless journey we were brought to a hunting lodge where there were about twenty girls ranging in age from seventeen to twelve years. We were there to serve the pleasure of Seamus Shaughnessy, and to bear him the children his well-born and well-connected wife could not. The housekeeper wasn’t unkind, but she did make it clear that there was no escape, and that we’d better please the master or else. We never asked what ‘or else’ was, we were too afraid. Seamus was by that time nearing seventy, and a life of dissipation had left its mark on him. I prayed that he wouldn’t want me, but he did. Myself, Breda, and the twelve-year-old were chosen. Then the young one disappeared. I learned many years later that she threw herself off the roof after her first night in the master’s bed. I guess I’m of a more pragmatic turn of mind as I managed to take Breda’s advice and concentrate on the prospect of a good breakfast while the old sot was fumbling about me. At the end of a fairly unpleasant fortnight he returned to the city and we waited. As it turned out we were both with child. Seamus was tickled pink and we were brought to the family’s estate by the great river to give birth. Lady Shaughnessy was also brought to the estate to await the delivery of ‘her’ children. She was, it turned out, a deeply maternal woman, who wanted babies to love and care for. She was even kind to us.’
‘I went into labour first, and a long difficult time I had of it. I was really much too young and too small to have a baby, but, fortunately for me, I come of tough stock and I survived. I only saw my daughter for a few moments before they took her away. My friend Breda’s son was born dead. The cord was around his throat, and the midwife they employed wasn’t skilled. Breda managed to creep into my room three days after my baby was born to tell me that she had plenty of good milk and was feeding my little girl, also that the family had decided to keep her on as wet nurse and then nursemaid. She told me that my baby had been named Anita, and promised to love her. With that I had to be satisfied. I never saw either one again.’
‘I was sent home after my body healed, with a large present of money. It was enough for my family to leave the quinta, and buy a small inn in a valley close to the Imperial highway. I went north to learn healing and midwifery, determined to protect women from the unskilled and ham-fisted ‘care’ that cost Breda her child and almost cost me my life. I spent the next twenty-plus years in hospitals and monasteries, biding my time until my youthful looks faded and I could return to the city and ply my trade.’
‘In the meantime, my daughter grew to be a real beauty, as famed for her gentle kindness as the loveliness of her face. She was, it is said, very much in love with a half cousin from a humble branch of her father’s family, but such a marriage for Seamus Shaughnessy’s only daughter was not to be countenanced. And when she was nineteen her father married her to the forty-year-old Massimo Schiapetti. It was, by all accounts a loveless match, although Massimo was kind enough to his wife, and pleased to find her fertile. A year after the wedding she presented him with a son, who they named Rodrigo: he died of influenza at the age of four. Two years after Rodrigo’s birth Anita fell pregnant again, this time she gave Massimo a daughter, but lost her own life in the process. I arrived back in the city in time to learn that I was a grandmother, and my daughter was dead.’ An paused for a moment and wiped her tears cheeks with her wrinkled old hands.
‘My granddaughter was name Anaya, and she inherited her mother’s beauty, but her father’s nature, growing more and more vicious and depraved as she grew older. She had a succession of lovers and was notorious for her treatment of her servants. When she was twenty-five her father negotiated a marriage with the Emperor’s only son. It was a politically splendid move, but on a personal level it could scarcely have been worse. She loathed him because he either couldn’t or wouldn’t satisfy her sexually, and he despised her because she was stupid and vicious. Even so, they remained married, and I oversaw five accouchements in which she presented her lord with six children. Five sons and Princess Ana.’
‘So there you have it. My daughter, conceived by rape, and married for politics. My granddaughter, conceived for politics, married for politics, and murdered for politics. And my great-granddaughter, also conceived for politics, but with half a chance of making a life of her own…’

Jane Jago.

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