Tuesday, March 26, 2019

On Deadline


So here's the thing--I have a novel due at the end of the month, and I'm nearly there. I haven't been able to write anything else as I'm closing in on it, not even Mutable, but! I'll write an extra-long post for next week, at which time the novel will be turned in and out of my hands.

Please enjoy an excerpt, and I'll be back with Mutable next week--which is also nearing its end, holy smokes! My writing life is a roller coaster right now (my everyday life is pretty much the same--Baby Girl has learned how to get a trot going, and she can move surprisingly fast with it).


I should have known I was going to fuck it all up.

Eye contact. Why had I made bloody eye contact? I didn’t look like myself right now, not a version of myself I would recognize, in the fatigues and the cap with a gun at my hip. Alex had told me to keep my eyes straight ahead, not to stop for anything, and we would be all right. Only—only I saw someone I thought I knew, in the foyer, and I’d glanced his way.

It turned out, the Beninese Minister of Culture and History had an excellent memory for faces.

“I asked myself,” Minister Adjoukoua said as he led the way downstairs, “what could a curator for the famous British Museum be doing here, in Lomé? Working for Mademoiselle Corday it seemed, but surely not you. You might have been demoted, Professor Armstrong, but you are still a man of great principle. Not the sort of person to whore himself out to a treasure hunter like our auctioneer. Then, when I heard the noise from inside the room, and your companion nowhere to be seen? Well.” He smiled broadly. “I thought you might be here to render the rest of this day meaningless. I couldn’t have that. Mademoiselle!” Minister Adjoukoua called out to Corday, who came in from the next room wearing a smile that got broader as soon as she saw us. She wore feathery, fluttering red from shoulder to shin—blood red. “Mademoiselle, I have a surprise for you, eh? Two people who should not be here sneaking about.”

“You have a sharp eye, Minister,” she said graciously, but there was ice behind her beaming smile. “Where did you find them?”

“Upstairs, at the end of the hall.”

“Alone?” Anyone else might think it was an idle question, but I could hear the tension in her voice, as soft as a breath of air but as furious as a hurricane.

“There was no one else that I saw.”

“Ah.” She was likely wondering if we’d killed Fawkes, and if so, where we’d stashed the body. I glanced at Alex—he, minutely, shook his head. He hadn’t killed him, then. That was a relief. “Well, then. Allow me to dispose of these irritants and we’ll get down to business.”

Dispose of—surely she wasn’t going to just murder us. The bleak look in her eye suggested she was ready to do just that, though, and neither of us had a gun any longer—they were all in the possession of the enormous bodyguard holding a gun on me. Oh god. Oh god, I was going to be killed—I was going to get Alex killed, no, this couldn’t be—

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two

Notes: We meet the enemy! Kind of.

Title: Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two


Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part Two

They entered the front of the palace with no problems. That in and of itself was suspicious—there had just been a bloody massacre outside, it should have prompted more of a response from the palace staff, at least. But no one came to them.
“We need to get back to their living quarters,” Rone said. “It’s the most defensible place in the house. That’s where Amiru is likely to be, with Tiyana and the kids.”
The kids. Of course, his own children wouldn’t be infected with the phage but that didn’t mean they weren’t still pawns in this. If Christala could make Amiru threaten them, hurt them—Rone wouldn’t let that happen. He might give in, to keep the children from getting hurt. What would Christala ask for? And would Cas be able to keep her from getting it?
And speaking of the children, what were they going to do with Lilah and Shar? “What about—” Cas began, but he was interrupted a second later by a muffled pssst. He turned to see a young woman in a sturdy brown uniform, with tight black curls and dark skin, motioning to them from the hall on the right-hand side.
“Riina?” Rone said, sounding surprised.
“Riina!” Lilah made as though to run for her, but Cas held her back. Riina. The nanny. The one that Tiyana said was sick.
“It’s okay,” Riina encouraged, correctly—or at least, partially correctly—interpreting Cas’s hesitation. “I put the boys in the panic room before I came back to look for Tiyana. It’s gone crazy here—the king ordered everyone to leave, almost everyone! He kicked out all the staff and guards and set the doors to keep them out.”
“How did you get in?” Rone asked.
Riina shook her head. “I never left. I’ve been in the infirmary for the past few days, but I was the only one there apart from the doctor, and he didn’t come to work today. I hid while two of the king’s bodyguards checked the infirmary an hour ago—something just didn’t feel right. Something’s happened to King Amiru! He’s not acting like himself!” She sounded genuinely distressed. “When I went to the nursery and found the boys alone, I knew something was seriously wrong. I put them in the panic room and came back to try and get their mom.” She held out her hand again. “Lilah and Shar can join them, Gale will let them in. I’ll take them.” She glanced hesitantly between the two of them. “Or—or you can bring them yourselves, that’s fine. I just—they need to be safe. Please, I’m telling the truth!”
She was telling a partial truth, at least. Cas grabbed Rone’s wrist and held him back as he began to move. “How long were you sick for?” Cas asked.
“Um, a few days…why?”
“And you’ve been here the whole time?”
“So if the prince here decides to check the log in the infirmary, he’ll see that you haven’t left the building for at least the past forty-eight hours.”
“Yes, but.” She looked in confusion at Rone. “Why would you need to do that?”
Now he heard it—the movement just beyond her, the faint sound of shifting weight. Their guns were useless now, but that didn’t mean the guards themselves were.
“Please, come this way,” she begged, looking almost behind herself in a panic. “Hurry! Before we’re caught! I’ll, I’ll leave the kids alone, you can see them go into the panic room with Gale and the baby, just—” A split-second later a dagger was sailing through the air, heading straight for Shar’s forehead. Cas snatched it up and resisted the impulse to throw it right back at her. He might need it, after all.
Two more projectiles followed, and he blocked one while Rone blocked the other. A moment later Riina—Christala, he corrected in his head, because this was her work and probably her body—was gone, but two of her thralls had charged into the front hall, each one wielding a long, deadly blade. Rone stepped out in front and Cas let him, putting the children behind him and readying his newly acquired dagger.
He didn’t need to bother, in the end. Rone leaped toward the closest guard before the man could bring the blade to bear, hammering a powerful punch into his throat before immobilizing his arm and taking the sword away. The man fell to the ground, choking on his own crushed throat, as Rone used the sword to parry the other guard’s stroke. She actually showed some finesse with the blade—she knew how to move with it, how to strike and block and search for weaknesses, but it didn’t matter. Rone wasn’t trying to duel, he was trying to kill his enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible. He dodged her next strike, cut flicker-fast along her forearm until her tendonless hand dropped the weapon, then swung his own sword hard at her arm, cutting it off just above the elbow. The next strike took her head.
The corpse fell to the floor, blood forming a macabre pool around the remains. The other guard was unconscious now, probably nearly dead himself. There was no need to comfort this time around. “We have to find her,” Cas said.
“She won’t be far from my brother, now that the first part of her plan has failed.” Rone sounded grim. “You should take the children to another part of the palace, somewhere on the other side of the building.”
“I don’t know my way around here!” Cas protested. “And you can’t take her on by yourself. You don’t know everything she’s capable of!” Cas felt the kids move a little way back, possibly disturbed by the argument. He wanted to turn around and assure them that it was all right, but the truth was, he couldn’t say that.
“I can’t allow my children to walk into harm’s way!”
“And I can’t allow my husband to run headlong into that harm without any support!” Cas snapped. “You think you’ve seen the worst of what she can do, but you haven’t, not by a long shot, and I won’t let you—” A strange, soft hiss from behind Cas made him turn, dagger raised, ready to kill to protect the children.
They weren’t there, though. No one was there. “Lilah?” He almost dropped the blade as he spun around. “Shar?
“We’re fine.” Lilah stuck her head out of a frosted vitrine beside the wall. “We’re gonna be in the tunnels, okay? So you two can stay together.”
“Tunnels?” Rone sounded as surprised as Cas felt. “What tunnels?”
“The ones Aunt Tiy put in last year.” She wrinkled her nose. “They’re not as good as the ones at home, but there are a bunch of them. Gale showed me how to get in.”
Cas turned toward Rone. “What is it with you people and tunnels?”
“They make for useful escape hatches, obviously. And the ground here is igneous rock, so a lot of the tunnels are built into the foundation.” He glanced inside the vitrine, then nodded. “Stay close. No wandering into places you haven’t been before. If you don’t hear from Cas or I within the next hour, I want you to get out of here and head for the base. You understand me?”
“Yes, Daddy.” Shar nodded as well.
“Good.” He kissed both of them on the forehead, then stepped aside and motioned Cas forward. “Make your goodbyes quick,” he said.
A little surprised, but grateful for the chance, Cas bent down and touched each child on the cheek, a fast, gentle caress. “If we don’t say ‘noodles’ when we’re calling for you, then it’s not us, even if it sounds like us,” he murmured. “Okay? Don’t trust us otherwise.”
“Okay,” Lilah said with perfect seriousness.
“Good.” Cas moved away and she closed the vitrine.
Noodles? Rone mouthed as they listened to the children scuttle down into the floor.
“It’s an inside joke,” Cas said. Rone smiled, and for a second it almost felt normal between them. Then the blood reached Cas’s shoe, and he swallowed and stepped back.
“All right,” he said firmly. “Let’s go find the king.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Mutable: Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part One

Notes: Happy Tuesday, have some close-quarters combat!

Title: Mutable, Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part One


Chapter Twenty-Seven, Part One

They couldn’t go out the door. The door led to the vulnerable side of the hovercraft, where they were taking fire. But they couldn’t go out the nose, either—the viewscreen was smashed, but that’s where the fire was hottest. Cas could take a gun and blast a hole in the craft with enough time, but—

Oh. Now that the hovercraft was down on its side and no one was looking at him expecting him to be all regal, Cas finally got a good look at what was technically the ceiling of the vehicle. There was an emergency exit there, partially covered by excessive red bunting. Cas crawled toward it, pulling the kids along with him. Lilah clung like she’d never let go, and Shar didn’t even lift his head. They needed him. They were relying on him.

Fear and love coursed through him in a painful jolt, threatening to take his breath away. How could he feel so much for them, so fast? They weren’t even his children…except in all the ways that they were. And now it was time to step up.

Cas ducked down as low as he could get and still move—the smoke was starting to become a problem. Once they reached the emergency exit, he pulled his arm away from Lilah so that he could reach out and twist the handle that would open the hatch.

It was stuck.

“Bull-fucking-shit,” Cas muttered. “You do not get to do this to me right now, I will not let this happen.” He cranked it hard—nothing. Freed his other hand and used them both—he felt a tiny, almost imperceptible shift, but not nearly enough to make a difference. Had it been sabotaged, just like Freyne?

The fire was getting closer. It was too late to double back for the door or a gun. Lilah whimpered, and Cas decided he’d had enough. This was going to work, and it was going to work now.

He leaned into the handle, setting his wrists and forcing the phage down his arms before he twisted it again. A tiny turn, too tiny—he pushed himself harder, forgetting about the toxic smoke swirling around his head as he urged the phage deeper into muscle, into bone. Something in his hand broke. He ignored the pain and kept the pressure on…on…another bone broke…harder

The lever gave, and the hatch opened up. Cas pushed the removable door out onto the grass beyond the craft, then helped the kids through. He followed them, only letting his lungs cough to try and expel the particulates he’d inhaled once he was reassured that no one was shooting at them yet and they were safe from the fire for the time being.

“Beren,” Lilah whispered, confusion edging out the fear in her eyes. “Your face is different.”

“It’s—” He touched his chin and froze. Oh. Shit. He’d forced so much of the phage down into his arms and shoulders that it had given up his facial morph. “It’s still me,” he said after a moment. “I promise.”

“Is this…part of your mission?”

“Yeah, honey, it is.”

“Does Daddy know?”

All of a sudden Cas remembered Rone, and he had to stop himself from lurching around the edge of the flaming hovercraft as his phage made its preferences know. “He knows,” he said tightly, holding onto his parasite with all his willpower. “I need to make sure he’s all right. You stay here with Shar, and—”

“No!” It was more of a shriek than a simple denial. “We’re coming with you, please, don’t leave us, please, please!”

And he couldn’t leave them. It was as simple as that. “Okay. We’ll look around the corner together, all right?” Rone, you better fucking be all right because I can’t help you now. Not while he had to put the children first.

None of the weapon fire was even close to their position. In fact, it sounded like there was…less of it. Cas crept to the edge of the hovercraft, Lilah and Shar still clinging to him like little shadows, and glanced around the corner. What he saw was…carnage.

Beautiful, glorious carnage.

There were three bodies laid out on the grass. Two of them bore smoking chest wounds, and the third one had crumpled in a way that made Cas wonder if his back had been broken. Rone was fighting a fourth one now, hand to hand, and Cas spared a moment to wonder why he bothered drawing the fight out—he was bigger and clearly stronger than the other man—when another one started to shoot at them. Rone whirled around and put his attacker’s body between himself and the shooter. The man went limp, and when the shooter paused, Rone kicked the body in his direction as he lifted his own gun and fired.

Up arced the body…out surged the energy beam…the shooter was dead before his companion hit the ground. There were two more people out there, though, and while one of them shot toward Rone from the front, a shot he somehow dodged, the other one fired toward his side. The blast creased his upper shoulder, leaving a bloody line behind. Rone stumbled, and his attacker prepared to fire again—
 And then Rone moved, faster than should be possible, as fast as a gust of wind, until he was right in front of the person shooting and wrenching their weapon to the side just as they fired. The bolt went straight through the final attacker’s gut, and as he dropped to the ground with a whimper, Rone disarmed the man in front of him, took his head in his hands, twisted and dropped his weight down all at once. The man’s neck broke. Rone dropped him, then straightened up and looked back toward the burning hovercar. As soon as he saw Cas and the kids, his leonine posture relaxed, and some of the purple faded from his blazing eyes.
He waved for them, and Cas got to his feet and shepherded the children over the ruined lawn to their father. “Any sign of a sniper?” he asked as they got close. There should be one, honestly, it would have been way easier than sending foot soldiers after Rone.
“No. The palace has safeguards against the discharge of an energy weapon within it. They won’t work within ten feet of the building.” He was breathing hard but steady, and his hand was firm around the gun he held. His eyes gleamed like crystals catching the light. Cas felt almost overwhelmed by how much he wanted to throw himself at the man.
Not the time. “Your gun won’t be much use once we’re in, then.”
“No, but we’ve got a few hundred yards to walk first.” Rone looked over both of the kids. “Are you two all right?”
“Yes Daddy,” Lilah whispered. Shar managed a nod.
They weren’t all right, of course—there was nothing all right about their situation, but Rone seemed to know what he was doing, and Cas understood. If he hugged his children right now, he would lose the edge that battle had given him. He needed to stay sharp.
“Come on, then.” Rone led the way, walking with long, determined strides toward the palace. There was no movement at the front door, or at any of the windows. Christala was waiting for them.
As they passed the man who’d been shot in the gut, Cas heard him moan, “What did we do? What did we do? Why…why…”
Oh. He’d lose enough blood that the phage didn’t hold sway over him anymore. Cas stopped beside him and knelt down. The man—he was young, clean-cut and tanned, with sweet brown eyes—looked up at him desperately. “I d-don’t know—why, I n-never wanted to…”
“I know,” Cas said. “It’s not your fault.” He wanted to get help, but it was too late—the man was losing blood too fast. Cas shrugged off his heavy jacket and the sash, wadded the red cloth up and pressed it hard against the man’s wound, then tied it down. If they could finish up inside in time, then he would come back. “Just breathe,” he said, gently stroking the man’s forehead for a moment. “Just breathe.”
When he stood up, Rone was staring at him. Waves of violet washed over his pupils like they were caught in a storm. Cas straightened his back and put his blood-stained arms around the kids. “Let’s go.”