Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Six, Part One

Notes: I finally know how I'm going to end this story! Things will proceed very briskly from here, so hold onto your hats. I figure right now, half of you are going "Yay, she knows how to end it" and the other half are going, "Wait, she's only just now figuring that out?"


Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Six, Part One


Chapter Twenty-Six, Part One

Expected or not, there was still a lot of pomp involved in visiting the king. Cas got back into his stiff ceremonial outfit, fitting the sash over his shoulder and fastening it in place with the enormous pin that had to be tradition—Imperians had much better methods of fastening their clothes. Rone dressed up too, and their honor guard fell into step behind them as soon as they left the suite. Commander Darven was one of them, and Cas knew he wasn’t imagining the man’s careful looks as they headed out toward the hovercraft. Look all you want, you won’t see anything I don’t want you to see.

Cas kept his demure Beren-mask in place, holding onto Rone’s arm like a proper spouse would. He sat neatly across from him, took pomegranate liquor when it was offered, and kept his eyes mostly on his hands. Honestly, it was more of a show than the situation merited, but there was no telling who might be watching them, or how. If Cas had learned one thing over the past day, it was not to underestimate Christala. He hoped he’d be able to put and end to this soon. The longer it dragged on, well…the more people were going to get hurt.

He remembered one of their training assignments, to infiltrate a Leelinger nightclub and come back with at least five more potential identities. Cas had ended up mimicking one of the bartenders, and stayed long enough to copy data from over seventeen IDs and make some truly horrible drinks. When Christala went in, though…she set the place on fire.

She’d run out with the tail end of the crowd, blending into their midst perfectly, but her pockets had been filled with pilfered data cards. Ten people had suffered from smoke inhalation. One had almost died.

Their instructor had failed her. She hadn’t cared.

“You look pensive, sweetheart.”

Cas glanced up at Rone. “Just nervous,” he said for the sake of their company. Just like that sweetheart had definitely been. “I’ve only met your brother one time before this, after all. I think a few nerves are in order.”

“Are you kidding? He loves you. He thinks you’re a good influence on me.”

Wait, was this…real, or part of the act. “Really? Me?”

“I’m serious. He says you’re sweet, and I need more sweetness in my life that isn’t going to grow up and go through puberty on me. Someone who’ll stick around.”

Cas tried to smile. “The kids aren’t going to grow up all that quickly, Rone.”

“But they’ll still grow up.” He glanced out the window, watching the buildings go by. “And I won’t be around to see a lot of it, so I’m especially grateful that you’ll be there for them when I can’t be.”

What was this all about? Cas felt his heartbeat pick up speed, and the phage pulled inside of him like an ocean responding to the tide. “I’ll always be there for them,” he said, his mouth feeling inexplicably dry. “And you.”

“I know you will.” Rone reached out and took Cas’s hand just as the hovercraft began to slow. They stood up together, and Rone bent forward for a kiss before Cas could pull away. He didn’t want to pull away either, the confusion he felt a distant second to the sheer satisfaction that came from kissing this man. Still his man, still his husband. For now, and that was all that mattered.

“Let’s go inside,” Rone murmured against his lips. Cas nodded.

“Lead the way.”

The were stopped at the door by a “welcoming party” consisting of three over-excited children hopping around, Tiyana with the baby on her hip, and Lord Freyne with a look as sweet as a sulfur spring.

“Daddy!” Lilah threw herself at Rone, who picked her up and swung her into an embrace. Shar stopped in front of Cas and motioned him down with his hand.

“What is it?” Cas asked. Shar looked at him slyly and held up a bright yellow spoon. A second later the spoon “vanished” down his sleeve. He shook his hand and caught it expertly between his index finger and thumb.

It was a good start to the trick. Cas laughed and squeezed his shoulder. “Very nice.”

“He won’t show me how to do it!” Gale—the older prince, Cas remembered—howled. “Make him show me how!”

“Gale!” Tiyana looked like she was coming up on the end of her rope. “What did I tell you about yelling?” The baby, clearly inspired by all the commotion, began to yell too. “Oh my stars, just wonderful.”

“I can take him, since Riina’s not here,” Lord Freyne offered, but Tiyana waved him away.

“I can manage just fine, thank you.” She turned away from him and rolled her eyes slightly at Cas, who suppressed a smile. “Beren, will you help me direct this horde back into the playroom?”

“Of course.” Cas stood up and took Shar’s hand, and was surprised when Lilah insinuated herself onto his other side. They followed Tiyana—not without a backward glance from Cas, who relaxed a little when he saw Rone nod minutely at him. All right then, they’d divide and conquer today.

The playroom was immense, built on the lines of a castle, with every toy a child could want and some Cas couldn’t even identify. “All right, hooligans,” Tiyana said, pointing at a section of floor in the middle of the room that seemed oddly liquid. “There are five crystal coins hidden in the mush pit. Once you find them all, we’ll have a snack.”

“Cupcakes?” Lilah asked sweetly, like the little bargainer she was.

“If cook has some on hand. Ready, set…go!” The three older kids ran for the—mush pit, Cas supposed, and he didn’t really get it until he saw how the floor flexed and folded around their legs once they reached it, sinking them up to their waists.

“That should hold them for a while,” Tiyana announced, sitting down on a soft, moldable chair with a sigh. “They’ve been up since before the sun waiting for you and Rone to arrive.”

“I didn’t think we’d be such an event,” Cas said, joining her in a chair. It felt like being cradled in an immense hand.

“Don’t undersell yourself, you’re still the biggest news we’ve had for weeks around here.” She caught her breath, one hand going to her stomach as the baby patted her shoulder.

“Are you all right?” Cas asked hesitantly. Oh please, don’t let her be the one. It would be a masterful stroke on Christala’s part, to remove and impersonate Amiru’s wife, but—

“No, I’m fine, just…pregnant, that’s all. I’m ten weeks along. It’s my third baby, you’d think the nausea would get the hint after a while.”

Every muscle in Cas relaxed for a moment, leaving him weak with relief. She was safe, then. The phage was an aggressive creature, one that took advantage of a host’s every weakness, but there was something protective about pregnancy for a woman, something in their immune system that made them a distasteful host. It was the same for children, actually—that was why you couldn’t train to take a phage until after puberty, because otherwise your body would just eat them.

“That’s happy news, congratulations.”

“Thank you!” She rubbed her belly speculatively as she glanced down at the baby boy who’d descended to her feet. He couldn’t be more than a year old. “Maybe I’ll get a girl this time. My new doctor believes in keeping things a surprise and won’t tell me unless I make him tell me, which I was going to, but then Amiru got wind of keeping it a surprise and thought that was a fantastic idea, so…” She shrugged.

“New doctor?” This was a good start. “When did you start seeing him? Why give up your old one?”

Tiyana looked a little puzzled. “Are you looking for a doctor, then?”

“I…might be. I’m seeing the military doctor now, but he doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner.”

“Oh, Beren. Are you sick?”

“No, not at all,” he assured her. “I just get extra tests and precautions since I’m from a different planet.”

“Ah.” He saw her shoulders relax, and she began to tell him all about her new doctor. Their conversation lasted through the snack, where he managed to turn the topic to cooking staff, and through taking the children outside into the garden to play, where they delved into the garden workers.

By the time they went back inside, Cas had several suspects for Christala in mind. They finally met back with Rone and Amiru—and Freyne, did that fucker never leave the premises—and from the look in Rone’s eyes, Cas could tell that he had gleaned his own fair share of information in the time they’d been apart.

This was the proper way of gathering intelligence—low-key, unsuspicious, productive. So why did it feel like an enormous hammer was hanging over Cas’s head, ready to fall and crush everything he held dear?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Delay and Excerpt

Hi darlins,

Well, due to two looming deadlines for paid work and a monster headache, Mutable is going to have to wait a bit. I'm sorry, I hate to delay this late in the story game, but it's cold and I'm tired and I've got a pile of things to do reminding me they exist.

Instead of Mutable, have some of a story I'm subbing to Dreamspinner at the end of next month. Fight scene for the win!


She wrapped her free hand around the back of my neck, then smashed her forehead against my face. I felt my nose break, hot, salty blood gushing over my lips and into my mouth, and my eyes teared up so badly for a moment that I couldn’t see.

Corday followed her elbow up with a vicious knee to the balls, a strike that would have completely incapacitated me if I hadn’t already been reeling back out of her range thanks to the head butt. The impact was still enough to double me over, almost retching with the throbbing pain but not so far out of it that I wasn’t able to grab her leg before she could knee me again.

You wanna play rough? We’ll play rough. Gritting my teeth, I grabbed her behind both knees, lifted her up, and did a high double-leg takedown that put her straight through the glass-topped coffee table.

The noise was intense, way worse than the breaking glass of the door. I was on top now, exposed, not an impossible shot for her sniper to take, and yet no shot came. That meant whoever it was had changed targets, and was probably hunting for Mal. I needed to give him as much time as possible to get away from the hotel, away from both of them. As much as I wanted to turn around and run after him, I had to stay and fight it out.

Corday was stunned, spluttering, but holding onto my hips with her legs. I reared back and began to throw punches, simple, brutal hammerfists, down onto her head. Fuck being a gentleman, this woman was a better, definitely dirtier fighter than me. I needed to end it, fast.

She protected her head well, though, keeping her hands down by her face and leaving her elbows up to deflect my blows. Five strikes in she wrapped up my right arm with her left, looping around it like an eel and drawing me in close, then—crack! She brought her right elbow around for a vicious strike to my face. It hit my cheekbone and not my disaster of a nose, thank fuck, but it was still enough to knock me onto my side.

Glass crunched beneath me, shards glittering like diamonds against the cream-colored carpet, dotted with red splotches from my still-bleeding nose. Corday spun to put her feet between us, seemingly oblivious to the sharp glass beneath her, and lashed out with her foot, kicking me just below the sternum.

I exhaled hard and grabbed ahold of her ankle before she could reel it back in, clutched it to my stomach and twisted, hard, to the left. I wasn’t much of a grappler, never had been, but I was versed enough to know that if you could isolate a limb, it would be that much easier to break. I didn’t want to kill this woman—the thought made me feel sick—but I wouldn’t mind wrenching her tendons out of place so she couldn’t fucking kick me again.

She rolled with the movement of my twist, and ended up flat on her stomach and trying to stand. She was hurt, the plethora of cuts on her back welling with blood, but it wasn’t slowing her down at all. I kept my grip on her foot, got up onto my knees, and jerked her flat just as she was raising her other foot to strike at me.

She hit the floor with a smack, and I took the opportunity to get back onto my feet. I needed a weapon—where had my gun ended up? Hell, her gun would do too.

There. Three feet over, beneath the wall-mounted television. I dropped her foot so I could go after it, saw her hand move out of the corner of my eye—


And that's all you get, because I'm MEAN!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two

Noes: Our last chapter of meandering conversation before we get down to the hunt! It's cute, though. What, parasitic organisms can be cute.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two


Chapter Twenty-Five, Part Two

Cas didn’t expect to be joined in bed that night. He’d figured he’d be alone there for the rest of however much time he had left with Rone, actually—or he’d be alone in a different bed, a smaller bed, meant for a solitary person who hadn’t lied their way into a marriage. He got under the covers alone, he lay on his side and stared at the wall alone, and finally, he fell asleep alone.

He woke up with a hot body plastered to his back. The heat was almost enough to make him sweat, but that wasn’t the part that woke him—it was the way the phage was purring against his skin, practically vibrating the tiny hairs on his back with the sheer pleasure of being curled against Rone.

“What the fuck?” Cas muttered. He had never, ever heard of a phage acting like this before. Everyone who survived getting a phage implanted did so because they had been strong enough to beat the parasite into submission. From then on out, that was the dynamic—obedience was earned, and it was earned by practice and stricture and slowly doled-out care. Phages…hell, they weren’t pets. They didn’t have the brainpower to be a pet. They were organisms to be trained, tools to be used.

Then why was his phage acting like a snugglelump salamander that wanted nothing more than to cuddle with Rone?

“You feel strange,” Rone said sleepily. He had one arm around Cas’s waist—not tight, but firm enough that it wasn’t just something Cas could slide out from under. “Kind of crawly.”

“It’s the phage,” Cas replied. He felt a little at a loss for words. “Why are you…I mean, it’s totally fine with me, but I didn’t think you’d want to…sleep in here. With me.”

Rone sighed. “I wasn’t sure I’d want to either, but honestly? Unless it makes you uncomfortable, I’d rather keep things the way they were. If you or I go to another room, someone—probably one of the kids, but possibly one of my subordinates, and I don’t know which would be worse—would find out about it. Then it would get around, and the next thing you know people would think we were fighting or on the outs or seconds away from a messy divorce, and it would be really damn messy considering my status here.”

“Oh.” Cas hadn’t even considered that Lilah and Shar might think it was strange. No matter how open and honest things were between him and Rone now, there was still work to be done, still a cover to maintain. He had to continue to be Beren for the time being, at home and abroad. “You’re right. When are the kids coming back?”

“They’re not. We’re picking them up, and spending some time with my brother while we’re at it.”

Great. And it was, but… “Am I going to survive going through those damn doors?”

“I tested them,” Rone said quietly. “You’ll be fine. I wouldn’t let a little thing like a security door take you out now. When we’re done with this, though? I’m going to do everything I can to make them capable of detecting the phage. This is a security flaw that can’t stand.”

“It’s one you could have seen coming decades ago if you’d bothered to do the tiniest bit of diplomacy with us instead of pretending we didn’t exist so you could make deals with the Leelingers.”

Oh hell. Why had that come out right now? Cas didn’t need to start a fight right now, ugh. He opened his mouth to apologize.

“You’re right.” Rone sighed gustily across the back of Cas’s neck. “My father thought—believed, with all he was—that military power needed to be the focus of our policies. He was Imperia first, Imperia all the way. There was no point in reaching out to anyone other than the established governments of any other world, because the minorities didn’t have enough power to be consequential. No one else did, really. Imperia still has the biggest ships, the biggest guns, the most powerful biological weapons. Or so we thought,” he added in a wry tone. “I’m grateful that you’ve shown me otherwise.”

Guilt knotted uncomfortably in Cas’s gut. “You don’t have to say that.”

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.” Rone gave him a little squeeze, then sat up. Cas rolled over to look at him. He wad dressed in thin, temperature-controlled sleep clothes that clung to his body, unlike Cas, who’d rolled into bed in a pair of shorts and nothing else. Instead of getting up and treating Cas to a view of him from behind, though, Rone just sat there and stared at him.

“What is it?” Cas asked after a moment.

“I’m just still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’m sleeping with another man.”

“I’m the same man.”

“Maybe,” Rone allowed, “but you look different. Not just that, but you act different, you hold yourself differently.”

Cas shrugged. “I’m me right now. I don’t get to be me often, so I try to commit to it when I do.” Knowing it was weird but unable to stop himself, he asked, “Do you want to watch me change?”

Rone seemed surprised but not put-off, if the way he’d tilted his head was any indication. “You really wouldn’t mind?”

Part of Cas did mind, actually—he hadn’t let someone actively watch his change, knowing what they were watching, since training. He’d kept it out of Beren’s life, which had been fine by his little brother—Beren hadn’t liked it, said it was creepy. But a bigger part of Cas wanted Rone to know exactly what he was, and what he could do. “No, it’s fine.”

“Do you need to prepare for it somehow, or can you just—” He waved uncertainly at Cas’s face.

“I need to burn a mildew-scented incense cone and dip my fingers in the blood of a frog,” Cas said solemnly. Rone stared, and Cas’s smile broke through his straight face. “No, there’s nothing to prepare. It’s just getting up the willpower to actually do it. The phage tends to be a little reluctant to move after a big workout like last night.” Although today, the phage actually seemed unusually perky. Cas lost focus with his eyes as he turned his attention inward, ready to exert the necessary pressure for—

The phage surged to his face and changed its structure so fast that his skin stung. “Ow,” he muttered, rubbing the new bridge of his nose. He glanced up at Rone, who seemed a little shocked. “It’s not usually that fast,” he said.

“That was—definitely fast,” Rone agreed after a moment of silent staring. “And now you’re…back to Beren.”


He lifted a hand. “May I…”

“Sure.” Yes, please touch me. And he did, trailing his fingers lightly over Cas’s forehead, his nose, the new height of his cheekbones and the fresh smoothness of his chin and jaw. Cas held still for it, barely breathing, reminding himself not to lean in. He still looked, though, looked at the wonder in his husband’s expression, wonder that seemed to tilt on its side a few moments in and become—

All of a sudden Rone’s hand was gone, and he was standing, face shuttered and calm. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen in ten minutes.” Then he was gone, not even bothering to stop in the suite’s bathroom first. Cas stared after him and wondered what had gone wrong.

It doesn’t matter. Back to work.