Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Book That Almost Wasn't

 Whenever I open the document titled The Blue Rose, I look at the date it was created and smile. July 15, 2010. Eager to write the story of a male high school senior who is suddenly saddled with an infant, I whipped out five chapters. At the time, I was also working on a book in my Unbidden Magic series. Consequently, The Blue Rose took a back seat.

 In October of that year, I attended a large, highly regarded conference in a major city that included “dozens of industry professional.” One of the workshops featured a panel of agents and editors who offered to evaluate the first page of writers’ works in progress. Hmm, why not give it a try? After all, these are the gatekeepers. The industry professionals. Critiques are good. I stepped to the front of the packed room and added the first page of The Blue Rose to the pile, never dreaming it would be selected.

The panel shuffled through the stack of papers and selected six. Mine was the second. In a juicy baritone and a tone dripping with sarcasm, the moderator read, “The night Gabriel Delgado found out he was a father, he was …” After completing the first paragraph, he paused, sighed and mugged for the audience. Then, each person (industry professional) took turns explaining why this pathetic first page would never make the cut.

For one thing I was grateful. Other than the flush of humiliation burning my cheeks, and the fervent hope I’d developed the ability to vanish, nobody knew it was my work. Later in the day, I had a pitch appointment with one of the agents from the panel. I almost backed out, but decided that would be the coward’s way out. When we met, I said, “I’m pitching the book your panel just eviscerated.” She had the good grace to look ashamed and mumbled, “Well, you know, that was mainly done for the entertainment value.”

After I returned home, the doubts set in. Even though I had several published books, I was convinced The Blue Rose was a dud. It languished in my computer for several years. Had it not been for my librarian friend, Lynne Greene, it would still be unfinished. She’d read the first few chapters and, each time we met, she’d ask, “Have you finished the magic baby book?” Tired of telling her, “No,’ I began to work on it again. With much trepidation, I pitched it to my editor along with a couple of other ideas.

Much to my surprise, she loved the concept of a teen-age boy in an all-male household raising a baby girl. A publication date was set and I tackled the book again. The Blue Rose became Baby Gone Bye. I dithered over the first page but decided to leave it alone. Incidentally, the book still begins, “The night Gabe Delgado found out he was a father …”

Lessons learned:

1.Industry professionals can be wrong.
2. Seek feedback from people you trust.
3. Trust yourself more. Listen to your inner critic. When it goes ding, ding, ding, don’t ignore it. You’re on the wrong track.
4. Attempt to be as supportive to yourself as you are to others. Above all, don’t let anything or anybody stop you from writing your story. If it needs to be told, tell it.

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by criticism or self doubt? Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Baby Gone Bye.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Adele Downs

Meet Adele Downs, contemporary romance author whose latest release, Santa to the Rescue, features a hunky firefighter. Welcome to Book Blather, Adele.

--CONTEST ALERT! -- Leave a comment for author Adele Downs and be automatically entered to win a firefighter themed Christmas ornament for the holidays. USA and Canada mailing addresses please. Follow Adele’s blog tour for multiple chances to win. Weekly winners announced on Adele’s blog Saturdays through December. 

1. You’re an extremely prolific writer, Adele. How many of your books have been published?   

Funny you should say that, Marilee, because I always feel like I’m not producing fast enough. SANTA TO THE RESCUE from Entangled Publishing is my debut release as Adele Downs. I’ve been multi-published since 2007 under another pen name with over a dozen titles to my credit. It’s been both fun and challenging to re-brand, but I’m encouraged by the enthusiasm I’ve received by my readers and author friends.

2. Tell us about your new release, SANTA TO THE RESCUE. 

I’m very excited about this fun and flirty firefighter romance novella and hope it will become a reader holiday favorite. Women from ages Young Adult to the Senior Center can read and enjoy the story. Here’s the summary:

Firefighter Jamey Tucker knows three things in life to be true: An honorable man doesn't go back on his word, never hurts a woman, and lasting love isn't a myth. But with his recent move to a new job at the Appleton Fire station, the long hours don't offer hope of finding the love he’s looking for. 

When Jamey meets beautiful pediatric nurse Heather Longhurst after hearing her sing Santa Baby in a supermarket aisle, he offers her a promise he discovers he can’t keep. Determined to find a way to make amends, Jamey uses firefighter engine-uity and Heather’s favorite song to prove he’s got Christmas spirit she can believe in all year.

SANTA TO THE RESCUE costs only .99 per download. I hope readers will buy extra copies as gifts or in place of holiday greeting cards. The book is available at all major ebook outlets. 

3. It seems that every author’s road to publication is unique. How did yours evolve? 

I’ve been writing stories since I was a child. My first short story was published in a Sunday news magazine at age 19. After college, I wrote news articles, features and columns for newspapers and magazines while I worked a day job. These days, I write full-time, thanks to a supportive husband.

4. What’s next for you?  

KISSING HER COWBOY from Boroughs Publishing will release on January 10, 2014. I hope to have more news about another release soon. I’m always working and submitting.

5. Any advice for aspiring writers?  

Write regularly, find a talented critique group, and learn to self-edit. Polish your stories again and again until the writing is clear and concise. Keep writing new books until you create a body of work. Wait to submit to a publisher until you have at least two completed projects. That will buy time to write the third book while the first is released and the second is in production. Finally, learn the art of patience, because the publishing business tests writers every step of the way. 

6. How about a short excerpt from Santa to the Rescue? 

Sure! I hope you enjoy it. First, though, I want to thank you for inviting me to visit your blog and for offering your kind hospitality. I wish you all the best!



Jamey Tucker unfastened his helmet, lifted his facemask and tugged off his fire retardant gloves before gulping half a liter of water. He could almost hear the liquid sizzle against his throat, much like the smoldering embers behind him turned to sodden ash.

He held out the cup to the volunteer rescue worker manning the drinking water. “More.” That simple word was as much as he could manage. After chugging down a refill, moisture returned to his mouth and tongue. He licked his lips and released a satisfied sigh. All he needed was a hot shower and some chow to feel human again. “Thanks, man.” 

“No problem. Merry Christmas, Jamey.”

“Yeah. You too.” The last thing on his mind was Christmas.

He stunk like a chimney after fighting a fire ‘till dawn. Dumb kids and their vacant warehouse rave had caused their team hours of grief and gut wrenching work. Luckily, no one died. 

Though the crew decorated the firehouse with lights and garland, and set up the tree a week ago, Christmas spirit had failed to find him. Loneliness could do that to the new guy in town, not that he’d admit that to anyone. He’d cut his heart out first.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Summer Update

Imagine working for a company for five years without meeting any of your bosses or co-workers face to face. This is exactly the situation for many writers, myself included. I've written six books for the Bell Bridge imprint of Belle Books, headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. We have approximately 2,500 miles between us. All communication happens via email messages and phone calls. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to attend a writing conference in Atlanta, Georgia, curiosity trumped logistics. Especially when I discovered Belle Books was one of the sponsors of the conference and had a luncheon planned for their authors.

The trip was both overwhelming and surreal. First, zipping across the country and three time zones... and then, the sheer number of people. The hotel was packed with over 2,000 writers, both published and unpublished. Fortunately, serendipity played a role. In that crush of people, I found myself standing next to my editor, Pat Van Wie. She glanced at my name tag, smiled and said, "Marilee?"

At the luncheon I met a number of Belle Book authors, publishers Debra Dixon and Deborah Smith, production manager Brittany Shirley, and marketing director Danielle Childers. Brittany and Danielle were responsible for organizing our luncheon, complete with a fabulous gift bag (see pictures below). Bet you wish you had a wine sippy cup!

Would I do it again? Probably not. Blame it on my somewhat introverted nature and need for "alone" time. Am I glad I went? Absolutely!

New book update

I'm closing in on the end of The Blue Rose, due to be published in October. I had to laugh when I found out Belle Books folk refer to The Blue Rose as "The Magic Baby Daddy Book."
I think you'll enjoy reading about teen basketball star Gabe Delgado and the trials he faces as he tackles his senior year in high school encumbered by the infant who appears on his doorstep. It's a huge change from Allie Emerson's story in the Unbidden Magic series but I've enjoyed writing from a new and very different viewpoint.
Stay tuned for a giveaway when the book comes out.

Auggie's Corner

"I like big toys and I cannot lie."

Well, apparently I'm here to stay because we're now going to school. Yes, that's right. The class is called obedience training. Must not be working, though, 'cause my people still don't do everything I want them to. Oh, wait! Marilee just told me it's the other way around. I'm supposed to learn to sit, stay, heel, come. You know the drill. Actually, it's stuff I already know how to do when I feel like it. One big plus about the class — awesome snacks! When I graduate, I'll be going to a class called Agility. Hmm, sounds like hard work.

As far as the muse thing goes, it's a pretty easy job. My job is to make sure Marilee is at her desk and writing while I curl up on the big, cushy chair, ears up, looking cute and interested. Piece of cake!

Until next time...

Auggie Doggie signing off

Monday, June 3, 2013

Don't Be a Quitter

Thousands of people start writing books but, somewhere along the way, get bogged down and never finish. I can’t say I have all the answers, but here are some of the roadblocks I’ve experienced.

Expecting First Draft Perfection. The odds against writing perfect prose the first time around are astronomically against you. Nobody, I mean, nobody is capable of writing a final draft the first time around. One of my favorite writing books is Write Away by best selling author Elizabeth George. Each chapter begins with a quote from the journal she kept while writing one of her 150,000 word novels (yes, that’s an enormous book). This woman who’s sold a bajillion books, whose fans anxiously await her next offering said after viewing her daily quota of words, “What am I doing pretending to be a writer?” We all have self-doubts. We can’t let them cripple us into believing we have to strive for perfection the first time around. That’s what re-writes are for.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in Research. I adore research. Google, I love you! Here’s an example of how research led me astray. In the last book of my series, Midnight Moon, I wanted to describe an interesting piece of Native American jewelry, one that might be easily imbued with mystical qualities. Had I been more organized, I’d have done my research well ahead of the time I actually wrote about it. But, no, I wasted three hours scrolling through countless websites as I looked for the perfect ring, pendant, bracelet or locket to fit my needs. Since the Big Dipper figures into the final plot, of course I had to order a pendant featuring the seven stars. For inspiration (heh). Bottom line: research first or better yet, underline or highlight the area that requires research. Trust me, it will save you time and money.

Fear of Rejection. Before I sold my first book I knew the odds were against me. A close family member told me only 2% of books submitted to agents and editors are published. Why did I persist? I admit I have a stubborn streak. When someone tells me I can’t do something, the little voice inside my head says, “Oh, yeah”? I wanted to prove I could start and finish a book. And I did. Even today, with seven published books under my belt, old doubts still float to the surface. What if I can’t come up with a fresh plot? What if nobody likes my latest book? Fear of rejection is paralyzing. It stifles your creativity and moves you backward instead of forward. So, do what I do. Take a deep breath and kick it to the curb. 

Forge a Relationship With Someone Who Will Make You a Better Writer. Writing is solitary, lonely business. The Internet has made it less so. Because it is absolutely impossible to be objective about your own writing, join a critique group, find a beta reader or, if you plan to self-publish, hire a competent editor who will go over your manuscript with a cool, dispassionate eye and offer the constructive criticism needed to polish your book. Trust me, it will save you many an embarrassing moment. How do I know this? Because people simply love to point out the error they found on page 44.

Give Yourself a Pat on the Back. You started the journey. You’ve made progress. Instead of looking back at what you’ve written and agonizing over your unpolished prose, take a moment to be proud of what you’ve accomplished. While you’re at it, promise yourself that you will finish. Try to squeeze in a little writing time each day. Before you know it, your book will be done and you will have accomplished what many others set out to do but failed, probably because of one of the roadblocks already described. Writers write. They persist even when discouraged. They finish what they start. You can do it!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Envy in Writing

Our guest today, writer Leesa Freeman lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. A native Texan, Leesa escapes the chill of New England by setting her stories in the places she loved growing up. Some of her favorite moments are the ones where it’s just her, her Mac, and the people who live inside her head whose lives she shares with those who take the time to read her stories. Leesa is also an artist, avid baker, a self-proclaimed music snob, and, in her own words, a recovering Dr. Pepper addict.  Her debut novel, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, can be found at or . To find out more about Leesa, visit her blog at Welcome to Book Blather, Leesa.

 Not too long ago I drove to the airport in the middle of the night to pick up a friend. It was about eleven o’clock, and I still had a couple of hours of driving ahead of me, and while I desperately wanted coffee, I’ve given up caffeine and decaf just doesn’t do it. Instead, I turned on NPR and they were talking about jealousy and envy.
 The distinction being that jealousy is rather benign, personally insidious maybe, because it’s ultimately a fear of losing something or someone, but it’s envy that is truly painful. Envy is coveting what someone else has. It’s bitterness for their good fortune and not just wishing you had what they have, but almost wishing them ill for getting what you want.

What stuck with me, though, was there is an underlying belief that there isn’t enough of something for them and you to get what ever it is you want. If I’m envious of someone else’s success, then that means I don’t believe there is enough success in the world to go around. 

As a writer, I struggle with this occasionally. Even as I congratulate a fellow writer for getting a short story published, a small, mean part of me sometimes asks how come they get that honor when I don’t? It’s childish, I know, but also a very human emotion. One that I’m sure most writers can relate to. Perhaps we need to heed the words of Buddha: "Do not overrate what you have received, nor envy others. He who envies others does not obtain peace of mind."

We’re told the publishing world is shrinking. We’re told only the best of the best can get anything published, and even then it’s a one in a thousand shot. We’re told we must be perfect, and then turn around and read some of the drivel out there, certain the whole system is broken.

Well, maybe it is and maybe it’s not, but what I’ve also heard is in many cases it’s the best writers who submit the least, while the mediocre ones are often tenacious, sending out hundreds of submissions. If this comes down to a numbers game, then statistics will tell you it’s tenacity that gets the publishing contract.

My point is this: rather than allowing that envy to hold us back as writers, rather than letting it be a detriment, allow it to be a fuel to push you forward. Let it be a challenge to you to find your own success, because there is plenty to go around. Humans are a story-telling species. We need fascinating, delicious, imaginative stories to disappear inside, and that’s not going away. Ever. No matter what happens in the publishing world.

Success is out there and available for anyone willing to work for it, seize it, and claim it as their own, but not if they allow a sense of resentment to freeze them in their tracks.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Ricardo Bare

It is my pleasure to introduce brand new author, Ricardo Bare. Ricardo is an award-winning video game designer who has worked on such games as Deus Ex and Dishonored, both of which received BAFTA awards (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for Best Game. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shock Totem. Jack of Hearts is his debut novel. He lives with his family near Austin, Texas. Welcome to Book Blather, Ricardo.

You’ve obviously been successful as a video game designer. What prompted you to write a book? Or, did the desire to write come first?

I couldn’t say if one came before the other. Fiction and gaming have always been closely related for me. As far back as I can remember I spent a lot of time inventing stories, drawing maps, and sketching monsters. When I was a kid, my dad brought home a Commodore 64 and the first game I played on it was the Bard’s Tale, a type of computer role-playing game. If you’re not a gamer, an RPG is the kind of game which combines game rules, character development, and storytelling. Also, reading was a big part of my family growing up. One of the first books I ever read was John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which I found in my grandfather’s attic (probably because there was no room for it on the already stuffed bookshelves).

High-school is where I seriously started trying to write in a structured way (e.g. here is a story with a beginning middle and end) and that was when some wonderful teachers encouraged me to sign up for creative writing classes.

There were long stretches where I wrote very little, or the writing I did was mostly related to the games I was working on. But I would always come back to writing fiction in my spare time eventually, either late at night, or on the weekends. Jack of Hearts wasn’t the first book I wrote, but it’s the first one that can be shown in public.

Your young adult novel, Jack of Hearts, features a protagonist who surrenders his heart to a witch. Are more books planned in the series?

That’s right, Jack gives his heart to a witch to avoid dealing with something painful in his past, which I think is something most of us can relate to. Many of us have things we wish had simply never happened. And even if we can’t erase the memory, we often want to numb the pain. The problem of course, is that trying to bury painful things, or forget about them never works. It stays with you, and resurfaces when you least expect it.  

That’s Jack’s situation. He begged and begged for something to take away his agony. One evening a creature in the twilight heard his cries.

And yes! There are more books planned in the series. Jack's adventures do not stop with Jack of Hearts. I'm working hard on the second book now.

Was there anything (music/books/etc.) that you found to be an inspiration for Jack of Hearts? Or, was it just something that popped into your mind and demanded to be written?

I’ve always loved The Lady of Shalott, which is a very tragic and lovely poem I think. The mysterious curse on the lady and its consequences have always intrigued me. Also, Ursula K. Leguinn’s story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas affected me deeply. It concerns a city whose citizens experience utopian bliss, except it requires that one child be kept in shadow and misery. I was definitely inspired by these ideas for certain themes in Jack of Hearts.

Also, off and on I game with a group my developer teammates, all really talented and inspiring guys. The genesis of several characters and concepts in the book sprang from those interactions.

All of those influences banged around in my brain for a while. And then one day I could see Jack racing across a burning desert, chasing after that dissembler of a wizard, Moribrand, and his giant slave, Minnow.

Oh yeah… and the game development company I worked for went bankrupt and laid everyone off. Which meant suddenly I had lots of time on my hands.

Do you have a favorite author/book? What are you reading right now?
Picking just one favorite book or author would be difficult for me, so I'll give you three! First would be C.S. Lewis. And I bet you think I'm going to say Narnia, but I actually wasn’t enchanted by Narnia. There's some cool stuff in the series to be sure, but I came upon it as an adult after I'd read his other works and found it a little watery for my taste by then. If you want C.S. Lewis's best fiction, read Till We Have Faces which is a marvelous retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

Roger Zelazny is also in my top three. He's easy to read and his stories are some of the most imaginative blends of myth and reality. The Chronicles of Amber is probably his most famous work, of course, but For A Breath I Tarry is one of the best short stories I've ever read. If it’s not obvious, I really like stuff that’s mythic.

Last, I'd mention Gene Wolfe. This man is a genius. His writing is sneaky and dense. As in, center of a black hole dense. His Urth of the New Sun series is a master work of American literature.

As for what I'm reading, I have the honor of working with several teammates who also happen to be published novelists, which I think is a pretty rare scenario. Right now I'm finishing up Black Bottle by Anthony Huso, which is an adroit blend of technology and magic set in a very grim world. If you like stuff by China Mieville, you'd probably like Huso's stuff. Then there's Harvey Smith's Big Jack is Dead which is an incredibly moving piece of Southern Gothic fiction. Finally, I just finished Austin Grossman's YOU, which chronicles the nerdy lives of professional game developers. It’s a blast.  

There you go, three of my favorite authors and three wildly different recommendations for what I've been reading recently.

Where can readers go to learn more about you and your book?
Please follow me on Twitter @RicardoBare or check out my website  And a big thank you to Marilee for hosting me on her website!

What’s next for you?
I'm slowly pecking away at the next book for Jack of Hearts. Figuring out which ideas stay and which ones go is always simultaneously exciting and difficult. Doing a second book in a series feels much different. Now there are constraints and canon established by the first book—which is great, but it’s a different problem space (one which I’m familiar with from game development).

In the background, I'm also hoping to release a series of short stories eventually, themed around a creepy supernatural neighborhood—a sort of cosmic drain hole where all the weird-shaped bits get stuck on the grating on their way out.

Can you share a little of your work with us?

I would love to. Here’s the first chapter from Jack of Hearts!

THERE WAS something wrong with Jack.
He should be dead. Any other fifteen-year-old boy would be. Dead as the dunes he marched across. Dead as the bleach-white splinters of glass that cracked under his boots in the sand.
But not Jack.
Jack was only dead on the inside, a thought that made him take a deep breath to see if it was still true, expanding the hollow in his chest as far as he could and holding it. He listened...
Only his thought, echoing: dead, dead, dead.
He exhaled and squinted at the horizon, tugging the hood of his cloak to shade his eyes from the baleful sun. Nothing showed yet in the distant blur except the rumor of foothills, so he slid down the face of the dune that had been his perch and trudged on.
A sudden hot wind screamed across the wasteland and heaved against him. It grabbed his cloak and shook it out like a war banner. He threw his arm up in front of his eyes until the gust expired, then broke into a steady run.
He ran alongside a road made of flashing glass and quartz that had been etched into existence long ago by a firestorm that crossed the entire desert in one day, dividing it in two, east from west. He was careful to avoid stepping on it, hopping over any stray chunks larger than his fist. Heat shimmered above the road, ghosting into the air. During the day, the surface could melt a horse’s hooves into glue, but at night it snaked across the desert, glittering white in the moonlight, guiding travelers who had the courage to cross the waste.
He ran until nightfall. The sun sagged beneath the world, slung itself around, and lurched into the air again. Still, he never stopped to eat or drink, or to answer the needs of a normal boy’s body.
At dusk the next day he spotted a man and a woman arguing beside the road. They paced, dark shapes against a livid sky. The woman made sharp chopping gestures with her hand, and Jack could tell by her shaking voice that she was weeping. He slowed so as not to frighten them.
When the woman saw him, she drew a veil over her mouth and nose and grasped the reins of her donkey tighter. The man stared. Two sacks the size of wine bottles hung from his fists. As Jack drew closer he could see the man’s body tense, read the questions forming in his wind-scarred face.
"I thought you were a sandwight,” the man said.
Jack didn’t respond. It was the same wherever he went. It wasn’t just that he walked through the desert, alone. It was the way he looked, especially in the vague dimness of twilight. How is that boy’s skin so pale? What’s wrong with his eyes? He had heard all of these things before, and even if they didn’t speak the words, he knew they were thinking them.
"Accursed,” someone whispered. A boy frowned at him from the donkey, a protective arm around his younger sister. Their mother shushed them.
Jack let his eyes linger on the siblings. The way the brother glared, ready to defend his sister despite the fear on his face, brought to mind the way Jack had tried to protect his own sister. For a moment, he could almost see her face, her smile—but he smashed down the thought, tearing his gaze away.
He had to stay focused. Stay focused and keep moving, or the Lady would punish him.
Around the family, boxes and saddlebags littered the sand as if they’d been dumped off in a hurry. An incense pole was spiked into the ground, issuing a pungent stench meant to keep sandwights away.
"How is it you wander the open desert in the day?” the man asked, licking his cracked lips. "You have no incense.”
"A man came this way,” Jack said. "His name is Moribrand.” He said it with little inflection. His words flowed out evenly, not too fast, not too slow.
Recognition flickered across the man’s pinched features, then anger. "Yes. I met him. The pig-faced piece of dung robbed me.”
"Swindled,” the wife said under her breath.
The husband flinched. "Quiet, woman!” She turned away to stifle a sob, and he glared at her until she hushed, and then said to Jack, "What do you want with him? He claimed he was a wizard.” The husband grew braver in his anger. He took a step closer, jaw clenched, head thrust forward. "Is he a friend of yours?”
"I’m going to kill him,” Jack said, and he shifted his cloak, revealing the grip of a sword that hung from his back.
"Kill him?” The man halted. He eyed the sword, a wary frown dragging his face down. "Kill a wizard? But...”
The children were whispering to each other, but Jack could hear them.
"He’s only a boy,” the girl said.
"No he’s not,” her brother said. "Now be quiet for once.”
Their mother shushed them again, her breath hissing.
Their father eased back and nodded. "He wanted to buy my pack horse. I refused, of course. I’m a trader. I need the horse to carry my goods. But he offered two sacks full of gold.” He shook the two bags he held. "He showed me the gold. It was real!” He glared at his wife, daring her to contradict him. "But now it’s turned to dust with the setting sun. Dust!”
The man upended one bag, and a column of sand poured out. "What will I do now? I dumped everything I own into the desert and gave him my horse. What will I do now, with only a donkey to carry my children, and a pile of dirt, tell me that, eh?”
Jack stared down the length of the glass road, now a deep purple in the fading light, and pictured Moribrand riding for his life, reins lashing from side to side. The wizard would widen the gap between them significantly, at least until he killed the animal. He might even make it out of the desert before Jack could catch up.
He let his gaze return to the children and tried to think what might happen to them. Without his goods, their father would arrive at the city of Spiral as a beggar instead of a merchant.
Jack had never been to Spiral, but if it was anything like he’d heard, they were doomed. It wouldn’t be long before a slaver clamped chains around their necks.
Not that it mattered to Jack. They were just strangers passing on the road, weren’t they? At least, that’s what his mistress, the Lady of Twilight, would say. She would mock him for even considering their situation for more than a heartbeat. If they were in trouble, it was their own fault for trusting a man like Moribrand. A wizard. So let them perish. Even now, seeing the fear on their faces, imagining them in shackles or dead in the sand, he couldn’t feel the slightest twinge of sympathy.
Except, he had made a rule hadn’t he? Rule number one was Obey the Lady. That was her rule. It was the only rule she had, but Jack had made his own secret addition. Obey the Lady, but Don’t think like the Lady was rule number two. He had to. Otherwise, it was too easy to be cruel.
Jack opened a satchel at his side and plucked out a rough gemstone. "Take this to the market in Spiral. I think it might be worth more than the horse you lost.”
The man’s eyes widened at the uncut opal, a slice of tangerine against white palm, but he refused to touch Jack’s hand. After a moment, Jack flipped his hand over, letting the stone fall into the dirt, and walked away, following the tracks of Moribrand’s new horse.
THE SUN burned in the sky.
This day marked the four hundred and fifty-second day of Jack’s hunt for the wizard Moribrand. He had chased him beneath the Mountains of Black Glass all the way through to the Fire Stairs, and before that he’d found him dreaming up schemes like a rat in the City of the Sword Worshipers. Moribrand always managed to slip away. But each time, Jack came closer to catching him. At every turn, he forced the wizard to alter his plans, pack up, and flee for his life.
Now Jack stalked him in the Desert of Night Walking, where traders said the sun melted a person’s will long before he died of thirst. If he survived the heat, a wandering sandwight was sure to scour the flesh from a traveler’s bones and snatch his soul. Even if he carried incense to ward off the sandwights, he had to avoid the firestorms that screamed through the desert during the day and boiled the sand into glass. Warnings Jack mostly ignored.
He found a brown heap on the side of the road the next morning. Vultures squabbled for position around the carcass, their shadows long and wild in the light of the dawning sun. He scattered the carrion birds with his passing and spared the dead beast a glance. Moribrand’s horse, run to death. Its flanks were caked with dried sweat and blood, lacerated with a crisscross of whip wounds.
It seemed like an age since he had dreamed boyish dreams of fast horses. He would have wept for the creature back then.
Not long after passing the dead horse, he wondered if the waste would finish his work for him. There were signs—bladders squeezed dry of every drop of water, spare clothing tossed aside, and discarded books Jack couldn’t read—all forming a trail of debris leading to his quarry.
A clutch of rocks punched up from the sand near the road. In the shade, he found the ashes of a fire the wizard had made by burning a set of robes. The blackened pile still issued wisps of smoke, which meant Moribrand couldn’t be far now. A tangle of scorched bones that probably belonged to a lizard sat next to the fire. On the flattest part of the rock face a vulgar image had been scrawled with chalk. It depicted a cloaked boy, abused and come to a cruel end. Jack imagined the wizard, sweating and wild eyed, scratching out a last insult against him.
He squatted and plucked the remaining nub of chalk between his thumb and forefinger. He might have laughed at the wizard’s futile gesture, but the humor withered before it could reach him. Besides, it might be a spell of some kind.
Jack flicked the chalk away and rejoined the glass road. Where it met the horizon, mountains bulged into view, edges blurred by the heat. Dunes and sandy plains gave way to foothills. Shabby low bushes clung to life in the shade of stones, rooted in deep cracks. He saw a wild hare. The creature stood to pound a warning into the hard-packed ground with its long foot and then bolted away.
The tracks of other travelers multiplied alongside the road, so Jack figured he was nearing a settlement or an oasis. Cresting the next rise, he spotted a compound hunkered around the intersection of the glass road and a dirt road that coursed west along the edge of the foothills. A salmon-colored wall of rammed earth encircled the compound. Inside, clusters of large canvas tents billowed, reinforced with tall central poles. He thought it might be a mining camp of some sort.
He’d heard how powerful Barons were willing to risk everything for the valuable resources they could plunder from the fringes of the desert, despite the dangers. In all likelihood, slaves toiled inside the walls, dredging up gems, bones, or salt from furnace-hot excavations.
At the gates, soldiers with glinting helmets and spears, their faces half-veiled, watched the crossroads with suspicious eyes. More patrolled the walls. Incense poles spiked around the perimeter released black greasy smoke into the sweltering air.
He was sure Moribrand was inside. After slogging for days on end through the desert, half-starved, the wizard would be unable to resist whatever comforts this settlement offered.
Jack looked up. It was nearly midday, which meant he would soon be at his weakest. Already, he could feel his strength diminishing, pulling away from him like a slow tide. His senses would be their dullest, his limbs more leaden. Almost like a normal boy. Almost.
It was also when his mind was most prone to wandering, which was the best reason he had for finding somewhere to hide until nightfall. Besides, no one walked the desert in the day, not without incense. The guards would spear him before he came within ten paces of the gate.
Turning back, he abandoned the road and scrabbled over the rough boulders that littered the hills, searching for a niche to hide in. He found a narrow cleft in the ground with just enough space for his body and squeezed into the cool darkness.
Jack remained dead still, watching the shadows creep across the ground, unconcerned with the scorpions and lizards that scratched over his skin in search of prey. Nor did he flinch at the rasping moan of a sandwight that swept past.
Before long, it happened, as it usually did when he could do nothing but wait, when the influence of twilight was furthest from him. It was his encounter with the trader’s children that had started it this time. He noticed his hands shaking, then sweating. His breath quickened.
Jack couldn’t stop his mind from drifting back to a time when he was another boy, when he played on emerald grass under the shade of a giant oak. The memories lurked, crouching within him until he became still, then crept out like priests in a boneyard, beckoning with gaunt hands and counterfeit smiles, onward, deeper, so they could crush him with an unbearable grief.
An age ago, Jack would have cried out in despair, but instead he watched the memories as if they belonged to a stranger. Inside, he was numb. Inside, there was no reason for him to cry out, because the grief could not touch him. Because Jack had no heart.