Coffee Break Read – An Ugly Garden

The all-wheel drew up at the back gate, the front gate being perpetually manned by a guard who would be very likely to inform Bestia of their visit even if he could not refuse access to the lady of the house. Vassenia ignored the speaker-phone and stuck out an arm to input some numbers into the digital pad on the gatepost. The gates swung open, squeaking horribly as they did so. Gerel winced, and Edbert hunched his shoulders in disapproval at such evidence of poor maintenance. The back gate being for staff was surprisingly close to the residence. Surprisingly because the main one, with which Julia was more familiar, stood at the far end of a long meandering driveway in order to show off the sumptuous grounds to visitors of status. 
Edbert parked the all-wheel on the raked gravel and handed the three women out. “Col, Bran. Please stay with the vehicle.”
The brothers bulked their muscles and Col went so far as to wink.
Vassenia smiled grimly. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
A uniformed steward stood at the front door. He looked deeply unhappy.
“Dominus Sextus says you are to be denied entry Domina.”
Vassenia looked coldly at the embarrassed servant.
“Whose house is this?”
“Yours, domina.”
“And whose money pays your wages?”
“Yours, domina.”
“So, just get out of my way.”
For a moment it was a toss-up who the unfortunate man was most afraid of, but in the end Vassenia was in front of him and Bestia was nowhere to be seen. He stepped back and the three women walked into the gloomy splendour of the over-decorated entrance. The steward tried to step in front of Edbert and the hounds, but found himself gently put aside by the blond giant.
Julia gave him her best flashing smile. “Don’t annoy my bodyguard. It’s not sensible.”
If it was possible for a person of such immense dignity to be said to run away then that was what the steward did, through the echoing corridors of leprous marble to escape from the frighteningly grim-faced quartet and their devil dogs.
Vassenia led the way through the comfortless modernity and the conspicuous displays of wealth to a surprisingly cozy sitting room.
“This is my boudoir. You can wait here while I find my stuff. And Sextus’ little secrets. No one is allowed in here but me—and that means no one.” 
Julia found the decor, which was rather disorderly in a comfortable way, somehow preferable to the much more formal look of the cenaculum where Vassenia had held her prandia before she had been compelled to withdraw from that social circle. Gerel sat in the window seat looking out over the strange topiary formations and spindly exotic plants of the villa’s formal garden.
“I did not know,” Gerel said quietly, “that it was possible for a garden to be ugly.”
“Anything can be ugly if it’s made without love and is all for show.” 
Edbert, who lounged in the doorway, grunted his agreement. “This whole place is a showpiece of wealth and ugly tastelessness. Except maybe this room.”
Vassenia padded back into the sitting room with two small leather cases in her hands.
“Now for Sextus’ books. They are in his suite. Through here.” She tapped what seemed at first glance to be the wall beside her. “Can somebody come with me and watch my back?”
Gerel followed her through a cleverly hidden doorway painted with trompe l’oeil panelling. They left the door open and Julia could see Vassenia pull out a cunningly fashioned set of steps and mount them with care. She seemed to be certain in her movements and Julia heard her give a small grunt of satisfaction just before Edbert’s wristphone bleeped.
Faex. Bestia’s home.”
“Right. You grab the cases and get through that door. Shut it behind you and get the girls and the stuff out to the all-wheel. Beep me when you are out.”
“But. Julia.”
Julia set her teeth and showed Edbert the business end of her professional-quality nerve whip. “Me and the dogs can deal with that spado. And no, before you ask, I won’t have any hesitation in hurting him badly if he gets too close.”
Edbert looked as if he would like to argue but he must have recognised Julia’s determination. He picked up the bags in one huge hand and slipped through the door shutting it quietly behind him. Julia snapped her fingers and Canis and Lupo came to her side. Once the dogs were at her knees she turned her eyes back to the ugly garden.

From Dying to Find Proof the tenth Dai and Julia Mystery from Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook, a whodunit set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules.

EM-Drabbles – One Hundred & Eleven

Marcella scoffed at those who said art was about entertainment and escapism. She firmly believed that the purpose of art was to make people more aware of the facts of everyday life. Her first exhibition included such masterpieces as ‘shoe with dog turd’ and ‘pile of vomit beside a pub sign’. The art critics murmured obscurely about her ‘Dadaistic tendencies’. The general public were grossed out by the smell and stayed away.

Looking at the rent demand Marcella reconsidered realism.

Her next exhibition was a series of studies on unicorns and rainbows. She sold every piece on the first day.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Coffee Break Read – A Fable

The ant was a hard worker, spent every waking moment pretty much working hard to earn money to feed himself and his family and to save for retirement. He’d see the grasshopper getting all dressed up and going out with his friends every night and shake his head sadly, knowing what was to come.

Years went by. The ant worked ever harder and the grasshopper socialised and had a grand time.

Then one day the ant’s wife left him saying he never had any time for her and was so obsessed with work and money he had no idea how to relax and enjoy life. The grasshopper, however, had made so many friends that even when he fell on hard times they all rallied around to help him out.

Moral of the story: Always make time for your spouse.

E.M. Swift-Hook

The Chronicles of Nanny Bee – Chocolate Brownies

When eating brownies was first mentioned in the village, there was a certain amount of disquiet: cannibalism and all that. But when it was discovered that the brownies in question were delicious cakes that put an entirely different complexion on the whole thing.
The cake was delicious, dense and chewy and sweet, and the village embraced it with enthusiasm.
Nanny, however, was less enthusiastic and she found a surprising ally in the corpulent person of the vicar who came to air his disquiet.
“There’s no doubt the stuff’s beyond edible,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. It’s from the future and shouldn’t be here.”
“Agreed. But I don’t know how it gets here.”
“Neither did I until this morning. I went out for a fly because the dawn was calling and I saw him.”
“Saw who?”
“The baker. He’s found a wormhole and he’s swapping rocks from the spoil heap of the dwarf mine for trays of cake.”
He showed her and she had a word with the mine foreman. Who was unamused.
When the baker arrived at his wormhole the next morning he was driven back by knobbly dwarfish fists and his source of cake had been dynamited into oblivion.
It took a while, though, for the village to forget the forbidden savour of chocolate.


Author Feature. Librarian Tools by S.A. Gibson

Librarian Tools by S.A. Gibson contains eight short stories. All these stories are set after the collapse of modern technical society. Most of these stories are set in an alternate future about 100 years in the future, where people use horses, spinning wheels, bows and arrows. This future primitive fiction is set in a time that does not have technology advanced beyond use of wooden tools, equipment, and structures. Some are set in the Southwestern United States. Other stories are set in India, Egypt, and one in Korea. In this future world, librarians have access to information in old books. Librarians have seized much of the political power. 

“Bow before his Royal Highness Myeongbo,” Lord Pak intoned. “King of Unified Korea and Defender of all people of Korea.” Giving a deep bow, Chizuko held the pose for beats before rising to her full height. Yet casting her eyes down at the base of the throne.
“Why have you entered the kingdom of Korea, as a spy?”
Such a dangerous designation. Feeling no fear should be the daily practice for any samurai, but here was a different situation. Out of her element, she forced her hands not to stray to check on her weapon. Chizuko vowed to think again when asked to mix working undercover and plying her tradecraft in foreign locales.
Answering in Korean, as Pak had, Chizuko offered a bow and began, “I traveled openly, from my Library, at the request for some historical research and consultation. Our kingdom was informed, by your envoys—”
“—You lie!” Pak cut her off. “You’ve dressed like a Korean royal servant. That is a crime you will be punished for. Do you deny it was only in our country that you learned of the recent deadly act that occurred last week?”
“My lord, I apologize for mistakenly taking local dress, it was but my own modesty—”
“Stop!” The King’s voice rang out for the first time. “Your Korean is atrocious. Speak in your own barbaric tongue. I am well educated in all things of the world, and can converse, even in Japanese.”
Giving another bow, Chizuko began again, lowering her tone, if that was what would placate this King. “Your royal majesty. I humbly ask forgiveness.” Her eyes strayed to the regally dressed lady beside him. Chizuko remembered the murder as described in the Imperial Library’s meeting room: the young girl attending the Queen, the only two, aside from the assassin, in the room, that fatal hour.
“My only goal aside from consultation, is perhaps to help; as a librarian—to understand what happened last week, and to report to my emperor. Such royal—demises—might be a precursor to war…”
Lord Pak again whispered into the king’s ear. But King Myeongbo thundered his words out, “If there is to be war. We do not fear that!”
“Your Highness.” Chizuko risked a look up to the king. Then a quick scan of the ranks of lords and ladies in the room. “One person here is not to be trusted.”
That lie got the reaction Chizuko’d hoped for. Pak revealed a startled expression before speaking again to the king. Chizuko stood awaiting a verdict. She’d done her best with that distraction. There seemed no flaw in her cover. Now it was no longer in her hands.
Pak pulled himself to his full height and addressed Chizuko directly. “What knowledge do you have, spy?”
That word again.

A bite of S.A. Gibson

Having created a fictional world for your novels, is there any moment in the process where you actually find your brain inhabiting that place?

Almost all my stories are set in the same world. A world of the future that has lost all advanced technology. I sometimes wish I could live in that world. It is ironic because I’m a computer nerd. I’ve done computer consulting and built computers as a hobbyist. I’ve made a decent living from writing computer software. But all my writing is marked by the absence of tech like that. Maybe, mentally I’m ready for a break and take vacations in my mind. Also, I perhaps idealize the romantic notion of a simpler world which allows me to visualize different solutions and challenges. 

Have you ever written somebody you know into a book? A lover? A friend? An enemy?

I often write people I know into stories. It often begins by searching for a character name. Then after I steal the name of an acquaintance for a character, I find that character subtly changing to mirror the actual person I know. It starts out by accident, but then I embrace it. Another example was a cover model for some of my books. After using a photograph of the real friend, I started writing the character to reflect what I knew of that person. I try to inform people when I use their name. I especially think it’s important when I use their name for a villain. I assure them that the evil character is not at all how I think of them. No really!

Do you think your political beliefs inform your writing in any way?

I must confess that my beliefs creep into my writing. I sometimes resist it. But my beliefs are so strong, I can’t help myself. I love to write about action and violence. But, I strenuously object to the level of violence we humans seem prone to, presently and in history. I want people to live together in peace. Even though I think that might be too boring for readers. So I slip in references to methods and tools I hope people would use in my fictional stories to reduce violence and conflict. I believe listening is a powerful activity that can enable us to live together more peacefully. We should also try to mentally walk in the shoes of other folks to appreciate some of why they do the things they do, and why they might disagree with our opinions. So, in my writing, I do sometimes express my deepest, darkest, and sometimes lightest beliefs and wishes. 

S.A. Gibson is a Ph.D. in the field of education and has studied communication and computer science. Gibson lives in Southern California, publishing articles and book chapters relating to computer science, artificial intelligence, mediated intelligence and human communication. To keep in touch you can use Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, Bookbub, YouTube and Worpress.

EM-Drabbles – One Hundred & Ten

Minnesota Bray made a living creating reproductions ‘in the style of’ famous artists. But at the back of her studio she kept pictures she painted for herself in her own style. Occasionally someone purchasing a ‘Caravaggio’ or a ‘Monet’ would ask to see her works and she would show them, with reluctance, because they were always spurned.

In her later years she finally found the courage to display her own art and, to her surprise, became quite popular. The height of her joy though, was seeing an advertisement for a young artist offering artwork ‘in the style of Minnesota Bray’.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Sunday Serial: Wrathburnt Sands 1

Because life can be interesting when you are a character in a video game…

Milla had lived in Wrathburnt Sands for as long as she could remember. It was a good place to live compared to some of the outpost camps like the one out at Terraraptor Gorge or the guard tower at Wraith’s Watch. Those places were dangerous, overrun by monsters and undead. Here the worst hazards were the landsharks and the sandylions, but they kept away from the village and regular hunting parties of Visitors made sure they were never a problem.
Wrathburnt Sands was a small ryeshor community of a dozen small hovels and the rubble remains of an ancient stone monument nestled in a bay on the shores of the Silent Sea. Most Visitors arrived by boat from one of the great cities of the lands beyond. Occasionally one would come from inland to trade such rarities as dragon scales or harpy talons before heading back out on their ventures. Milla often wished she could go on a venture, but she was a Local and only Visitors could do that. Still, it didn’t stop her dreaming of going on one as she combed the beach for small treasures with Ruffkin, a scruffy little hound who seemed to have adopted her as his owner.
Milla had a small hut on the foreshore which she shared with Ruffkin. They shared what little she could scavenge from the beach directly, or sometimes she might find a large decorative shell, which she would trade to get fresh fish for them both from One Eye Rye.
But times had been hard recently with few Visitors coming to the village. Somedays none came at all. Which was why when she shaded her eyes against the sun, Milla was surprised to see a couple of them were already on the pier catching fish to give to One Eye. He would buy the catch of any new Visitor who needed a bit of silver, even lending them a rod to fish with, and his stall by the pier relied on their fresh catches.
As she got closer, Rufkin trotting at her heels, snatches of speech reached her from the pier, slowly coalescing into a full conversation, but little of it made much sense to Milla. Then very little of what the Visitors said and did ever made much sense to her. One Eye Rye said it was like they were from another universe.
“… been too long…came back early…need to grind WBS faction to over eighty percent…”
“…the kind of crap you get…devs nowadays.”
“Yeah. No thought for those of us who might be returning for the Expansion.”
“This fishing quest repeatable?”
“No. But there’s one to kill sandylions. Guy in the tent at the back. By the camels. Easy to solo, decent XP and a wad of faction too. It unlocks once you’ve done this one.”
“Sounds good. I’ll try that soon as I’ve caught these frigging fish.”
“Just hope the new expac is worth it.”
“Screenshots look awesome and the trailer hints at some really cool new group runs and raids.”
“And the new gear? You seen that? Shiny stats!”
You could always tell the Visitors even if they never said a word. Their weapons were all enchanted with spells and charms. They dressed in the most outlandish clothes and smothered themselves with magical rings and wristlets. Milla had just one magical item. Her hand went to touch the precious pendant. In truth, she had no idea what it did and sometimes wondered if it was just in her own mind it had any magical power at all. But it seemed to. Sometimes, at night, she was sure she could see it glow.
One Eye Rye had sniffed when she asked him about it.
“Who’s to say? You’d need to get to one of them big city mage types. Get it ‘eenalized’ as they calls it.”
And that was never going to happen. Even if she had the silver to pay a big city mage, the boats that brought Visitors wouldn’t take locals and there were no other boats she knew of heading to the cities across the Silent Sea.
Her thoughts seemed to conjure the reality and a sail appeared offshore tacking past the headland and into the bay. Then a second followed. And a third. Each carrying at least one Visitor maybe more. The dock was just past the fishing pier and she couldn’t see how many got off, but before she had finished climbing the steps from the beach to the houses, she could hear them chattering excitedly.
One Eye Rye thanked a Visitor politely and paid them for their fish then held out a rod to another who was waiting, tipping a quick wink at Milla to show he’d seen she was there and threw a scrap to Ruffkin who snuffled it up. He would talk to her when he’d dealt with the rush of new arrivals.
There were the usual assortment of elves and dwarves, halflings, gnomes, kittafolk, wolfenfolk and even a human. Their conversation was as baffling as ever.
“Anyone got a speed buff blessing?”
“Shadowcaster LFG!”
“You don’t need more deeps, you n00b, you’re a fragging tank!”
“Word is the ryeshor become a playable race in the expac.”
“Will be. But only if you upgrade for the bonus DLC.”
“Don’t think it’s going to be worth it anyway. Their racials suck.”
“Frick! I forgot I banked my heal pots.”
“No rush. ‘Overkill’ have half their guild out camping the boss by TG.”
“Got to go anyway. Boyfriend faction running too low.”
“Anywhere around here sell mounts? I’d like a camel!”
The small crowd of Visitors swelled around them like a wave rolling up the beach, then split into smaller groups or singletons headed to the tavern, the fishing pier or the stables, leaving Milla and One Eye Rye standing alone by his stall.

We will return to Wrathburnt Sands by E.M. Swift-Hook next Sunday.

Wrathburnt Sands was first published in Rise and Rescue: A GameLit Anthology.

Weekend Wind Down – Anna and Sam

At seven fifteen, Sam parked his scruffy Audi in the pub car park. He sat for a moment, wondering about the next few days, then got out of the car and hefted his small bag from the boot. Striding into the beer garden, he made himself slow his pace as he headed for the little camping field, where the woman he had spent all of the last week, and most of the last year, thinking about would be waiting for him. His feet made no noise on the grass as he rounded the hedge. He saw the familiar campervan, with the black dog sitting inside the door, and then his eyes turned to the woman who sat at her ease on a comfortable chair with a glass of wine on the table at her elbow. She wore a simple white dress and her long brown legs were stretched out in front of her. He walked softly towards her and she turned and smiled.
“Hello Sam.”
“Hello yourself.”
She stood to greet him, and he bent his head to kiss her laughing mouth.
“You look gorgeous.”
“Smooth talker. You look pretty good yourself.”
hen for a moment there seemed to be nothing to say. Bonnie rescued them by jumping out of the camper and greeting Sam enthusiastically. The small interruption allowed the humans to collect themselves.
“Oh Sam,” Anna laughed helplessly. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“And maybe it was. We just have to give ourselves some time. And you do look gorgeous.”
“I tried. Somehow it didn’t seem right not to make an effort.”
“That’s nice. Makes me feel like you think I’m worth an effort.”
“That remains to be seen. For now, how about a glass of wine while the food heats up?”
Anna jumped into the camper and passed out a glass and a bottle.
“Sit. I’m just putting the lasagne in the oven.”
Sam poured himself a glass of wine, then sipped carefully as he sat in one of the two chairs.
“Hey. The wine is excellent, and I’ve always liked these chairs.”
Anna laughed and came out of the camper carrying a small tray. Sam jumped up and took it from her hands. She laughed again.
“Just something to keep us going while supper cooks.”
“Antipasto. How sophisticated.”
Anna sat beside him and reached for her own glass of wine. She nibbled an olive and smiled at Sam.
“Eat. Or I’ll snaffle the lot.”
He grinned, and they both reached for the olives. He grasped her hand and turning it palm up bit gently into the soft flesh at the base of her thumb. She felt a hitch in her breath, then caught her bottom lip between her teeth.
“I didn’t say eat me.”
“But you were right there, and I couldn’t resist a nibble.”
“Shut up and have an olive.”
After that, the conversation got easier and by the time their supper was ready they were almost as relaxed with each other as they had been on their previous dates. They moved inside for the lasagne, and Anna put together a simple green salad to go with the pasta and the warm garlic bread. They sat opposite each other at the small table eating and talking. Sam cleaned his plate with the last of the garlic bread, then grinned wryly.
“It’s a good job you ate the garlic bread too, otherwise a snog would have been right out of the question.”
She leaned over the table and kissed him softly.
“You taste all right to me.”
Before she had the chance to move away Sam put a hand behind her head. He nibbled her lower lip before kissing her deeply.
“You taste more than all right. But I guess we should deal with the dishes before we start fooling around. I’ll wash.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I do. You cooked. And it was delicious.”
They cleared up, working side by side in complete amity. When the little galley was spick and span, Sam smiled at Anna.
“Does Bonnie need to go out now?”
“She’d like to.”
“Shall we then?”
They walked hand in hand down to the little stream. Bonnie had a noisy drink, then came and looked up at the two humans with a quizzical expression on her dark face. Sam stroked her ears before taking Anna by the shoulders and bending to her mouth. This time the kiss was hot and urgent and left Anna’s knees close to buckling. She wrapped her arms around him and clung on tight. He laughed delightedly. “Like that do you?”
“Mm, but my legs are going to collapse if you carry on doing it.”
He swooped her up into his arms and strode back to the open door of the camper. Bonnie frisked around them enjoying this new game. Sam put Anna down just outside the door, and kissed her thoroughly.
“You sure you want this?”
“Oh yeah.” She fisted her hands in his hair and pulled his head down for another kiss. Somehow, they made it inside, where things rapidly turned a bit frantic.

When the world reclaimed them, they lay entwined and Sam smiled down into Anna’s face.
“Well, well, well. You are a pleasant surprise.”
“How so, kind sir?”
“A tiger under the snow. A body like a goddess. Simultaneous. I never had that before. You?”
“Umm. No. But I haven’t had a lot of lovers to compare.”
“Could one be rude enough to ask how many is not a lot?”
Her voice was very small.
He hugged her tightly.
“Don’t sound ashamed. Choosy isn’t a failing.”
“Not so much choosy as nobody else wanted me.”
He was genuinely puzzled.
“Why would you even think something like that?”
For a moment Anna studied Sam’s tattooed chest. Saying nothing. Then she lifted her face and met his eyes.
“Because it’s true. You wouldn’t have noticed me a year ago. I’d stopped hiding when I met you.”
“Protective colouring. I was a plain, gawky teenager, and then there was a lot of shit at home to deal with, and in the end I had a job where anonymity was almost essential. So I developed strategies to prevent people noticing me. Ill-fitting clothes, unflattering hairstyle, never saying boo to a goose, never looking people in the eye. And so on.”
“So what changed?”
“Too much to explain. I realised that my life was a crock of shit. And I bought the camper so me and Bonnie could have some fun.”
Then she couldn’t talk any more and hid her face against his chest again. He stroked her hair, then she felt his fingers removing the comb that had by some miracle kept it in a knot at the nape of her neck. He combed the waves out gently before kissing her temple.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you embarrassed and sad. I really do have feelings for you. Apart from the best sex of my life, you are beautiful and funny, and I’m very lucky just to be here.”
“Don’t be sorry. I have to learn to talk about it.”
“Not if you don’t want to…”
“I do. But I think I can only manage it in bits.”
“Fair enough. I’m not pushing you.”
He rolled her over and ran those knowing fingers up and down her spine before massaging her shoulders and spanning her narrow waist with his hands. He found a thin, white scar just above her right hip.
“Is this one of the things it’s hard to talk about?”
“Yes. I was fourteen. My mother threw a knife at me. I lost a lot of blood and some internal bits and bobs.”
“Oh baby. I’m sorry. Why?”
“Dementia and alcohol abuse.”
“Shoot. You did have something to cope with. However, you came through it strong and lovely.”
“Thank you.”
She rolled onto her back and used a fingertip to trace the tattoo that wandered across his chest.
“Tell me some more about Smaug.”
“A little rebellion, but you know that. I knew I was going to be a responsible surgeon for the rest of my life, and I wanted something that was for Sam the rebel. It fucking hurt. And my wife hated him.”
“Oh? How odd. I think he’s sexy.”
“Do you now?”
“I do indeed.”
“You wanna demonstrate?”
She walked her fingers down the dragon’s back and followed its tail down.
“Careful woman,” he growled softly, “dragons can be dangerous.”
“I’ll take my chances. Just lay back and take it like a man.”
He rolled onto his back and put his hands above his head.
“Be gentle with me.”
“No chance.”

From The Cracksman Code by Jane Jago

When You’re Old

When you’re old you’re invisible and people don’t care
They don’t seem to see you, it’s like you’re not there
As though adding just one more year to your life
You’ve gone past a horizon.

When you’re old your opinions are all patronised
Your given that smile that ne’re touches the eyes
As though by default you’re no longer considered
An intelligent human.

When you’re old younger folk underestimate you
They don’t understand what you know how to do
As though they believe that you have no idea
Of how the world works.

When you’re old you no longer have vigour and youth
You are weaker and slower, and that’s just the truth
But you are who you ever were and still inside
You’re a powerhouse.

E.M. Swift-Hook

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