Tag Archives: Speculative fiction

Free Fiction Friday: A Measure of Sorrow

Leaving March with a giant who’s as gentle as a lamb.

A wolf seduced her sister, and a witch wrapped her bony fingers around her brother’s heart, so when a giant came for her, she told him she wouldn’t go.

He plucked a rose petal from the bushes that grew around his castle, and that was her bed. When the day grew hot, he offered dewy raspberries to quench her thirst. When she refused, a single tear fell from his eye and splashed at her feet. The salt on her lips tasted like sorrow. She was drenched, but unmoved.

Only when he left his almanac out—quite by accident—did she creep from the threshold of her cottage. It took all her strength to turn the pages, but turn them she did. The letters were as tall as she was, but read them, she did.

He caught her reading. If he wanted, he could have slammed the book shut, trapped her—

or squashed her. He didn’t.

He looked to the book and then to her. “Will you come with me now?”

“I am not a pet.”

“Of course not.”

“Or a meal.”

He blew air through his lips, the force of it ruffling her hair. “You are much too small for that.”

“Then what am I?”

“I need someone to tend to the mice. They are ailing. And the butterflies. My fingers are too clumsy, and I cannot mend the rips in their wings.”

“So, you have work for me?”

“Good work, with good pay. You can keep your family well.”

“They would feed me to the wolves.”

“Then how am I any worse?”

How indeed? Did she trust this giant and his promises of mice and butterflies?

“Will you?” He extended a hand.

She stepped onto his palm, and he lifted her higher and higher—even with his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Then he placed her gently on his shoulder.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“The almanac. Will you read to me sometimes?”

“Would you like that?”

“Very much.”

“I shall read to you every night.”

Mice and butterflies filled her days. On the back of the Mouse King she rode, clutching the soft fur about his neck, racing through the castle to tend to mothers with large broods, crumbs and bits of cheese tucked in a canvas sack. With thread from a silkworm, she repaired butterfly wings, her stitches tiny and neat.

The giant peered at her handiwork through a glass that made his eye all that much larger. When he laughed his approval, the sound rolled through the countryside. And every night, when he reached for his almanac, she settled on his shoulder and marveled at how someone so colossal could speak words with so much tenderness.

Even when his bones grew old, and all he could do was move from bed to chair, he read to her. When his eyesight grew dim, he recited the words from memory, so strong was his desire to keep his promise. Until, at last, the day came when the stories stopped.

A thousand butterflies fluttered into his room. Mice came from fields and forest alike, led by the Mouse King. They bore the giant outside, where they laid him to rest beneath the rose bushes.

It was there she learned that all her tears combined could not rival the sorrow contained in a single giant teardrop.

A Measure of Sorrow first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and subsequently in Evil Girlfriend Media.

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Free Fiction Friday: Insidious Beasts

Sometimes help comes from surprising quarters.

I straddle the roof of my cottage, or rather, the part of the roof that remains. From my perch, I peer through the giant-sized hole and into my bedroom. The quilt is downy white, and part of me wonders if there’s any harm in simply dropping through that giant-sized hole and landing in its softness.

If there’s any harm in delaying what I must do today.

Above, the sky is clear, a startling blue that’s the color of forget-me-knots. Still, the air is sticky against my cheeks, and I taste the promise of rain on my tongue. Beneath the heat—and the late-summer storm that’s certain to roar through our valley—I sense the chill of autumn.

Yes, there’s great harm in delaying what I must do today.

With a finger, I test the ragged edge closest to me. A telltale red stains the thatch as if some giant creature cut its lips while taking a bite out of my house.

How—and why—did I sleep through that?

I woke to the sunrise touching my eyelids, birdsong in my ears, and a gaping hole above my head. That I don’t know, can’t remember, makes my stomach clench with foreboding.

“I can guarantee a lot,” comes a voice from the path below. “But, I never claimed my materials were giant-proof.”

Master Rinaldi stands at my front gate, fingers curled around the latch as if he’s merely waiting for an invitation to lift it.

I don’t grant him one.

“A giant did this?” I ask.

“What else? Insidious beasts. They’re taking over the forests, the hinterlands. You should move to the village. This is no place for a woman on her own.” He waves a dismissive hand at my cottage, which up until this morning, was a fine place for a woman on her own.

“Giants eat thatch?” It’s a ridiculous question. I know they don’t. We both know that.

He raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Perhaps it was searching for the treat inside.”

I ignore this. “You wouldn’t happen to have more thatch, would you, Master Rinaldi?”

I gauge the hole in my roof. The laborers I hired earlier this summer would all be in the fields, working to bring in the harvest. I could, perhaps, tackle this job on my own.

Perhaps.

When Master Rinaldi doesn’t answer, I turn my attention back to him. His gaze roves my legs, clad in breeches. There’s a calculating glint in his expression, one I’ve seen him wear in the marketplace.

Master Rinaldi knows weaknesses and how to drive a bargain. He is also blessed with a lovely wife and ten children, all strong and healthy. He is someone who has everything a man could want.

And yet, his eyes—and hands—roam.

If I wish more thatching for my roof, I suspect there’s an added cost, one that doesn’t involve the silver coins in my purse.

“So late in the season?” He shakes his head as if my plight is the saddest thing he’s seen in a month.

“I could try Master Carr,” I say, hedging my bets.

Master Rinaldi merely smirks.

The trouble is, Master Rinaldi’s supplies are the best—sweetest smelling, free of vermin, such as night loshes and murdocs. During the winter, too many families have slumbered beneath an infected roof only to never wake in the spring.

If I’m to make it through the winter, I may have to pay the price he’s asking.

The rumble starts so low and—to paraphrase Master Rinaldi—insidiously that I barely register it. The soft tremble travels the framework of my cottage until the shaking reaches my ribcage and bits of straw float to my bedroom below.

A shadow looms on the horizon—a giant-sized one, to match the hole in my roof.

Master Rinaldi falters. He steps away from my gate only to stop and double back. He doesn’t want to be here. But with me stranded on the roof, he has no wish to appear cowardly.

“Mistress Benton, I implore you. Pack what you can carry and leave with me now.”

The earth shudders with the giant’s approaching footfalls. I clutch the roof, the rough thatch cracking against my palms. Master Rinaldi stumbles, his gait haphazard, on a path that takes him away from me and toward the village.

“It’s coming back,” he says. “For you.”

Could I scamper down from the roof, grab a few precious belongings, and race for the village? Then what? Secure a room at the inn until my silver runs out? Throw myself on the mercy of the village elders? Of Master Rinaldi?

I shake my head, resolute in this.

“You’re mad,” he calls up to me. “A fool of a woman.”

Yes. Likely I am. But I’m a woman with a home of her own—a rare thing in these parts. If I leave, someone—a man—will claim this land. If I stay and die, then someone—a man—will claim this land.

No matter what I do, the outcome is the same.

So I choose to stay.

Without a glance over his shoulder, Master Rinaldi lurches down the path, his stride chaotic under the onslaught of the giant.

I hang onto the roof with all my might and wait.

* * *

As the giant grows closer, the steps grow lighter. It’s as if it knows the power in its footfalls and is now treading lightly.

And as the giant grows closer, I see that it—or rather—she is wearing a shift the color of forget-me-nots. Her feet are bare, her hands clenched in fists. Her hair, plaited into braids, is alternately gold, silver, and ebony.

She is awe-inspiring, and I can’t look away.

When the giant reaches my cottage, she kneels. This does not put us at eye level, although it comes close. Her eyes are the same color as her dress, and I think that may be why she wears it. I don’t know if vanity extends to giants, but I don’t see why it can’t.

She unclenches her right fist. In her palm rests the tangle that once was my roof. Interspersed in the straw and reeds is the inky black remains of a murdoc.

I press a hand against my chest and pull in a deep breath, just to reassure myself I still can.

“Is that why I didn’t hear you?” I ask.

The giant blinks her great blue eyes in what I take as yes.

“Has it been there all summer?”

Now a single tear rolls down her cheek. It lands on the packed earth of my walkway and splashes so high I can taste the salt of it on my lips.

How far gone was I? How close to death? My heart thumps with latent fear, and then my pulse sparks with anger. Convenient of Master Rinaldi to show up this morning of all mornings.

So convenient that, for a moment, I don’t have any words.

“How … insidious.” I say, at last.

A smile tugs the corner of her mouth. Oh, yes, she knows all about Master Rinaldi. The giant crumbles the tangle of straw in her fist, obliterating whatever remains of the murdoc. The wind steals the vestiges of straw and beast, lifts them high into the air, and carries them away.

Only then do I feel my breath return in full force. Only then does it occur to me to worry for someone other than myself.

“Are you hurt? Did the murdoc hurt you?”

Her smile has revealed something I missed previously. The blood. Scrapes and cuts, yes. She hurts.

“I have a balm, but it’s.” I point at the hole in my roof. I sigh. “It’s down there.”

She holds out a palm, and without hesitation, I step onto it.

I find the balm and a soft cloth, and I gesture for the giant to return me to the roof. From there, I lean forward, dab the healing balm—a recipe of my grandmother’s—against the wounds.

The giant laughs. In relief? Delight? It’s hard to tell. The force of it nearly knocks me to the ground.

Then she opens her other hand, and there is thatching, fresh from someone’s storehouse. I suspect Master Rinaldi’s.

Honestly? He owes me.

Together we make short work of repairing my roof. Near sunset, when the task is done, I pour us each a serving of mead, her portion in the largest bowl I own. She takes dainty sips but still manages to finish the drink almost immediately.

It is nearly dark now, I have a giant on my door stoop, and I’m not quite sure what happens next.

The giant pulls a piece of parchment from her pocket and unfurls it. The script is precise, but the letters so large I must back up to read the message.

My name is Martine.

I can speak, but my words are loud, and I don’t want to scare those around me.

If I’m showing you this note, it means I wish to be your friend.

“Martine,” I say. “That’s a pretty name.”

She smiles, her teeth so white and fierce that for a moment, I can’t collect my thoughts.

“I’m Benton,” I add, my heart pounding a strange beat. I’m not frightened. I’m not nervous. I want to name this thing I’m feeling, but suspect it’s nothing more than a spark of hope. I don’t want to extinguish it by staring at it too hard. “My mother wanted a boy and saw no reason to change the name when I wasn’t.”

Martine lifts an eyebrow, a wry gesture that makes me laugh.

“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask.

Where do giants stay? Does Martine have a family? Who are her people, and why is she alone?

She gives a slow shake of her head, and another tear trickles down her cheek. The heartbreak and sorrow that rolls off her might flood this valley.

“You can stay with me.”

Those blue forget-me-not eyes widen.

“I own the land from that corner of the forest, through the meadow, and all the way to the stream. Is that enough room?”

She claps her hands together, and the force of it reverberates across the land. Certainly, the villagers are trembling in their cellars at this very moment.

“Stay,” I say to Martine.

In time, I’ll learn of her heartache. Perhaps I can help her find her people, assuming she is lost, of course. Or perhaps she’s like me—a woman on her own.

“Stay, and be my friend.”

When Martine nods, that spark of hope kindles into flame.

And no matter how insidious Master Rinaldi is, I must admit that he is right in one respect.

This is no place for a woman on her own. But for two?

It’s perfect.

Insidious Beasts was written especially for the 2020 (Love) Story Project.

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Story Saturday: Ides of March

Need something to read for this Ides of March? Go visit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Fair and pick up a new title or two.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Girl with the Piccolo

Sometimes you get by with a little help from your (fr)enemy.

No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.

True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.

I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or—if I dared to dream—the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.

“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.

My own wings sputtered, and I sank to the ground in disbelief.

“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”

Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.

Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine sparkle with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.

Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.

I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.

A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.

I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly, someone is on the way.

Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band—and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.

All on my watch.

I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly, this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.

I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath—one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.

I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.

I hold up a hand for the countdown … three … two … one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three-quarters time. When pitched just right, it soothes the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies …

Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.

Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.

At last, I need a breath—and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.

Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.

That goes for both of us.

The Girl with the Piccolo was first published by Kazka Press. It subsequently appeared in Evil Girlfriend Media and was produced in audio by Cast of Wonders. You can listen to that episode here.

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Smashwords: Read an Ebook Week Sale

Do you ever buy books from the Smashwords store? If so, head on over for their Read an Ebook Week Sale.

My entire catalog is 50% off. (Well, except for the books that are already free, since 50% of free is … free).

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Free Fiction Friday: The Burden of So Many Roses

The road to popularity at Fremont High School is paved with rose petals.

Or, to be exact (and I usually am), petals from three-dollar roses.

This year, I have a three-part plan to conquer those roses:

1. Money (Christmas, babysitting, minimum wage from the Sub Shoppe)

2. Handwriting samples (AP World History projects, chemistry lab, Spanish class)

3. Selection of boys (valedictorian, quarterback, swim team captain)

They’re all going to send me a rose on Valentine’s Day—even if they don’t realize it.

The problem? Girls from the cheerleading squad run the rose booth. I must make sure no one sees me take more than a few notecards. But a sweater with big pockets and a little misdirection work wonders. I slip in before school and give Sienna my biggest smile.

“For my best friend,” I say, a lie, of course.

One, that rose is totally for me. Two? Maybe next year at this time, I’ll have a best friend—or any friends, for that matter. First, I must tread the rose-petal path.

“Aw,” Sienna says. “That’s so sweet. Some girls don’t get any roses.”

Not that Sienna would know. She’s never been one of those girls. The thing is, everybody knows that girls buy for each other. It doesn’t make you popular. It doesn’t make guys think you’re hot. All it does is make you look desperate. I will not be that girl. Not anymore.

That night, I neglect calculus in favor of perfecting Marcus Hanson’s blocky boy letters and Toby Preston’s lazy scrawl. In the end, I spend fifty-four dollars for eighteen roses. I can always stash a few in my locker if lugging around so many roses turns out to be too much. On Valentine’s Day, I choose a pink sweater. When I walk into school and see Sienna wearing a similar style in a similar shade, I know it’s perfect.

This day will be perfect.

All morning, roses flood the classrooms. It’s a record sale, the principal announces over the PA system, with the proceeds going to Operation Smile. We are, she tells us, a most generous group of young people. Some more than others, I think.

More roses arrive, but by the time class ends, not a single one is for me. Next class. I’ll practically drown in all the roses. But by lunch, I trudge to the cafeteria empty-handed. Sienna, at the cheerleading table, has a stack of roses—red and pink and creamy white. She plucks one from the pile and hands it to a freshman girl passing by.

Oh, to be Sienna. To have roses to spare.

During chemistry, the collar of my pink fuzzy sweater chokes me. My armpits produce massive amounts of sweat. I blow an easy pop quiz. Then, I have the best thought.

All my roses will arrive during last class! I’ll stagger to my locker under their weight. When I pass Sienna, she’ll give me a secret smile, the sort only shared by girls who struggle under the burden of so many roses.

When the last bell rings, I stay rooted in my chair, convinced there’s been a mistake. Not a single rose! Mrs. Meyer clears her throat, then asks:

“Are you okay?”

I nod, but I’m not okay. I’m out fifty-four dollars. The path to my locker is strewn with other people’s rose petals. My books make my arms ache. I dial the combination, but don’t lift the handle.

“Hey, Emily.”

I turn. Toby Preston stands to one side, pink-cheeked and adorable.

“This is crazy,” he says. “But back in sixth grade, I never gave you this.” He pushes an envelope at me. “It was stupid, because we had to give everyone a valentine, but I didn’t want anyone to know I liked you.”

I hold the valentine like it’s made of spun glass. This is better than a rose.

“Would you like to go somewhere?” he asks. “Coffee shop, maybe?”

Oh! Even better. Who needs roses anyway? I nod and open my locker for my coat. Out spills a rose. Then another. They tumble out, cover the linoleum, bury me up to my ankles.

Toby’s cheeks blaze red. His Adam’s apple bobs once, twice, so hard my throat aches in response.

“I guess coffee’s out of the question,” he says. Before I can stop him, he sprints down the hall.

A custodian helps me clear away the roses. She loans me a pair of work gloves, but the thorns find my skin. One pricks my cheek, and I can’t stop the blood tear that rolls down my face.

“Seen this before,” she says after I shove the last rose to the bottom of the dumpster.

“Really?”

“It happens. Every few years or so.”

What happens?” I want to know why and what it all means.

Her eyes are kind, but she shrugs. “I think that’s up to you.”

I leave school empty-handed.

A block from home, I spot a little girl at a bus stop. In the center of the road sits a smashed shoebox. Red construction paper hearts flutter in the wind. Tires grind Red Hots and conversation hearts into powder. Her sobs fill the air but do nothing to stop the cars from plowing through her valentines.

“They’re all gone,” she says, “I don’t have any left.”

Neither do I. Then I remember Toby’s valentine. I pull it from my backpack. The wind nearly steals it, so I hang on tightly. Then I wonder if I can let it go.

“What’s that?” the little girl asks.

“It’s yours.” I kneel at her side and hand it to her.

“Oh! It even has my name on it! Right here. It says Emily.”

“See? It was meant for you.”

She skips down the sidewalk, clutching Toby Preston’s valentine to her chest. I turn for home. Only when I reach the front porch, do I feel it.

I am one rose lighter.

The Burden of So Many Roses was first published in Kazka Press as part of their monthly contest. The theme was an undelivered Valentine. And it’s one of those Valentine’s Day stories for when you’re not feeling Valentine’s Day.

I was thrilled when Toasted Cake picked it up for the podcast. Tina’s narration is, as always, amazing.

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Free Fiction Friday: Incriminating Evidence

It’s February, so it’s all about love this month–romantic love, star-crossed love, a bit of unrequited love. Speaking of which …

“You won’t tell anyone this.”

I don’t remind Magnus that I can’t. Besides, his is a knee-jerk sort of question, the one he always asks at the start of a counseling session.

“You’re the only one I can talk to,” he says.

I nod, doodling on a piece of paper, its edges so charred that the smoky scent reaches me. It contains a list of names that, depending on whose fingers clutch the paper, could be almost anything—a death warrant, a hit list, a who’s who of the most recent rebellion.

But since a Sage last held it, I’ve taken to desecrating it with doodles—mostly hearts and flowers—and mostly adorning Magnus’s name. No, I shouldn’t have a crush, but then I shouldn’t be dispensing advice without a license, either.

Such are the times we live in.

“I need to fire my second,” he says.

I crook an eyebrow at this. True, I am a rebel confidant, for lack of a better term, but I normally deal with Oedipus or Electra complexes, abandonment issues, and learned helplessness. (You’d be surprised how many revolutionaries aren’t quite sure what to do after the coup.) But firing one’s second in command? Purely an operational decision.

“He’s a good friend,” Magnus says.

Ah, the crux of the problem. I give a single nod, one that means: Go ahead.

“But I fear his loyalties may lie elsewhere.” Magnus stares at me, his gaze holds both pleading and defiance. Has his second, Orlando, confessed to me? Magnus wants me to confirm. He wants me to deny. He wants something I can’t give him. I can no more tell Magnus this than voice his doubts to Orlando.

Magnus strokes his chin. “It worries me.”

Now I nod. It should and greatly.

“Do you think I should consult the Sages?”

I tilt my head to one side and give a little shrug—the maximum consideration the Sages deserve.

Magnus laughs, a big boom that fills the room and warms my heart. Still, I swallow the bitter anxiety that floods my mouth. He is strong, I tell myself. This strength will be his salvation, not his downfall.

“Yes,” he says, still laughing. “I know you’ve never set much store in their advice.”

I have my own reasons for disregarding the Sages. That they dispense worthless advice is secondary.

“Of course…” A slyness crosses his face, the look both playful and seductive. “They led me to you.”

Well, there’s that.

He taps his fingers against a pillow as if counting off options. My office is rudimentary, at best. A scavenged door for a desk, propped up on crumbling cinderblock. Crates double as chairs. A fire in the hearth makes it warm enough for year-round use. But the pillow? Velvet with silky fringe in a deep emerald green. It harkens back to long-ago days. Most of my clients can’t help but fondle it. When they do, their fears pour from them.

“It’s the betrayal,” Magnus says, his fingers entwined in the fringe, which might double as strands of hair by the way he strokes it.

I stare at his hands until the heat in my face forces me to glance away.

“We expect it. Don’t we? We always look for the betrayal.”

I turn back to him.

“But it’s never easy.”

I blink rapidly, in a way that I hope conveys understanding, not flirting.

“You would caution me against haste,” he says.

I give an emphatic nod.

“Rash judgments?”

Yes, those too. I can’t help but smile. Are all client relationships destined to be so intimate? Or is it only that one client, the one you end up needing more than he needs you?

Magnus closes his eyes. His lashes are childlike and startling against the scarred terrain of his cheekbones.

“Just saying it out loud.” He exhales, the force of his breath ruffling the pillow’s fringe. “You can’t imagine what a relief that is.”

No. I can’t.

He opens one eye and peers at me. I’ve always envied those who can do that. I need both eyes to see the world, and even then, I doubt I see it clearly—or at least not like I should. But it’s this gesture that decides things—his absolute trust in me. My world is a complicated tapestry with so many threads. But tug Magnus from the weave?

My whole existence would unravel.

I glance down at the list of names. The Sages may dispense worthless advice, but their sources are impeccable. I start to tear my scribbling from the rest of the page, but there’s no hope for it. I’ve entwined myself so thoroughly with Magnus, at least in doodles. I shove the charred and adorned sheet at him before I can change my mind.

Perhaps devotion can soften betrayal.

Even as his mouth turns grim, his eyes remain soft, dart toward the top of the page, then toward me.

“I know you’ll never tell,” he says.

I won’t. I can’t. Long ago, on my fifth day—as the tradition goes—the Sages sliced the tongue from my mouth.

He carries the paper to the hearth and lets it drop into the flames. Evidence of betrayal—of devotion—evaporates into smoke. I join him on the walk from my office. At the threshold, he presses a finger against my lips and kisses my forehead. I dare to yearn for more—that kiss traveling my cheek, brushing my mouth, lingering there.

But there’s no hope for it. Already the warmth of his lips is a memory.

“Ah,” he says. “My perfect confidant.”

Yes, it’s true. I am the perfect confidant.

When he leaves without a backward glance, I know this:

That’s all I’ll ever be.

This odd little tale of post-apocalyptic unrequited love first appeared in Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Sadly Fantasy Scroll is no longer publishing, but you can still read the archives online.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020