Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 3 – END)

“What do you make of her, sir?” Charles St. John asked.

Andrew didn’t look up from his breakfast plate. The kitchen staff at Treberfydd House had done an amazing job of replicating an Ohioan full breakfast. The bacon was overcooked, though, too crispy for his liking. He would need to talk to someone about it. “She seems nice, but I have to wonder,” Andrew said. “Does my father think me a poofter?”

“Poofter?” St. John said. “Whatever do you mean?”

“A homophile.”

“Yes, I know what a poofter is,” St. John said, whipping crumbs from his lips. “But what makes you ask such a question? Of course, that’s not what your father thinks, that’s what nobody thinks.”

Andrew nodded his head, not entirely believing St. John. Sport hadn’t come as easily to him as they had for his older brothers, and he’d never chased girls the same way because he’d been too interested in his studies. University had been much the same, but it wasn’t as if he’d spent those years as a celibate monk cloistered from the opposite sex.

“I will admit that Charlotte is not a usual woman, even by royalty’s standards,” Andrew said.

“Of course, she won’t be usual. She’s the Princess of Wales, the heir to the most powerful man in the world, and in due time, she’ll be the most powerful woman.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” Andrew said. He tried to pick up a slice of bacon with his fork but failed, so he gave up after a few attempts. “She’s…she’s…” he tried to find the proper word, but failed.

“You’re worried that she will dominate you and perhaps even cuckold you?”

“Those thoughts had crossed my mind from time to time,” Andrew said.

“You don’t have to make a decision now, but I don’t think I would be remiss in reminding you that even Elizabeth II’s Prince Consort, the Duke of Clarence, had mistresses,” St. John said. “Though some of the more salacious biographies suggest it was a team effort between the two.”

“I don’t want mistresses, I want a wife,” Andrew said.

“Being the Prince Consort to the Queen-Empress would be the simplest, most stress-free job in the world. You’ll live in luxury that seems decadent from even your current position, and aside from the occasional public appearance, all you have to do is produce a few heirs.”

“Is that all marriage is supposed to be?”

“Is that all you’re concerned about? Hehe, if that’s all you have to complain about, then I say you have one of the easiest lives on God’s Earth.”

Andrew raised an eyebrow. “You’re beginning to sound like a Radical Liberal, St. John. And here I thought you were an ultra-Tory!”

“Would your father let a Radical Liberal chaperone you on one of the most important trips in the Palatinate’s history?” St. John chuckled. “I’m merely making an observation, nothing more, nothing less. Everyone has their place in the world. Inequality is the natural order of things, after all. If this is to be your life, then you have been blessed by the Most High Himself.”

“That is one way to think about, I suppose,” Andrew said.

“Is that not how you see it?”

Andrew shrugged and reached for his tea. “I’m not sure how to see it.” He took a sip of the tea, but it had gone cold and tasteless. “I suppose I could force myself to enjoy this type of life, but…but, I honestly can’t put my feelings into words.”

“You’re not getting any younger, sir.”

“I only thought women had to worry about that,” Andrew said. “St. Henry the Lion King’s youngest son was born posthumously and he lived to the ripe old age of 74.”

“I never claimed to be a biologist.” St. John looked at his pocket watch and sighed. “We should probably be on our way.” Andrew was scheduled to visit the construction sites of a linear arcology that would one day link Cardiff with London and Birmingham. The Virginians had begun building their own, and the Palatinate was investigating their own proposals. “Should you perhaps say some parting words to the Archduchess?”

“We’re to meet her again in Cardiff next week.”

“It would be considered rude to not thank your host, who has so graciously welcomed us into her home this week,” St. John said.

“Fine, I’ll say good bye,” Andrew said.

St. John summoned a servant to take away the breakfast, and he arrived with one of Charlotte’s companions, Lieutenant Lady Mildred Ashley-Cooper. She was the daughter of some English earl, and had served with Charlotte in The Blues in Afghanistan, and as such, had become something of a de facto lady-in-waiting for the Princess of Wales alongside the other women.

“Lottie would like to speak with you before you depart,” Ashley-Cooper said as the servant went about clearing the table.

Andrew wondered if Ashley-Cooper had brought any clothing other than her uniform; he had to admit that she didn’t wear it nearly as well as Charlotte did. “Myself and Sir Charles were preparing to leave,” he said.

“I’ll have the servants prepare your things, then,” Ashley-Cooper said.

“I’ll be here to supervise,” St. John said. “Give my regards to Her Royal Highness, sir.”

“Very well. Lieutenant, lead the way.”

Ashley-Cooper nodded her head and took Andrew down a hallway into a part of Treberfydd House he’d never been to before. He realised they were going to the top of the house’s clocktower when they reached a spiral staircase. “Up there,” Ashley-Cooper said. “Knock before you go in.”

Andrew walked up the stairs and stopped in front of the wooden door. He paused for a moment to consider what he was going to say. With his mind made up, he knocked.

“Come in,” Charlotte said from the other side.

Andrew opened the door. The walls of the room were covered in sketches and watercolours, an almost even mix of landscapes, portraits and wildlife studies. He saw snowy, mountainous vistas that could only be the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas. Animals ranging from exotic, colourful frogs to regular housecats. The portraits were more familiar, as he recognised them as other members of the Plantagenet dynasty.

“Papa’s private secretary, Sir Damon Knowles, recommended that I take up a peaceful hobby,” Charlotte said. She sat by the window in front of an easel. There was a watercolour mounted on the wooden frame: two dark figures standing in front of pink sky, holding what looked like guns. “I’m not very good with hands or feet, I’m afraid. It’s taken me this long just to master how to draw eyes.”

“They’re very nice,” Andrew said. Only one of the portraits had a frame. It was a young boy, perhaps no more than ten or eleven years old with a long face and downcast grey eyes. “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked over her shoulder at where he was looking. “Oh,” she said. “That’s my brother, John Henry.”

“Oh.” The realization sunk in for Andrew. “Oh.”

“Or at least what I remember of him. I painted that last year from memory. Mama said I managed to capture his likeness towards the end.”

“It looks splendid,” Andrew said.

“I do believe there’s a certain similarity between the two of you–or how I imagine Jackie would have looked if he were still alive.” Charlotte turned back to her current watercolour, and Andrew spent a few more minutes looking at the different paintings and sketches that she had displayed. There were even more piled on the floor and leaning against the walls.


There was a cat sitting in a plush bed on the stool next to Charlotte. It had cream coloured fur, with black patches on its snout and legs. Charlotte reached out and stroked the cat’s head. Its blue eyes were large and sad looking. “Andrew, meet Ashes,” she said. “I don’t know if you’ll get another chance.”

“Why’s that?” Andrew asked.

“Ashes is twenty-four years old,” Charlotte said. She put aside the paints and turned to face Andrew again. “He was originally meant as a gift to my cousins, but…well, Papa never had any time for a cat, and I couldn’t say no to this face.” Charlotte shrugged. “I don’t think Ashes understands what happened to Eddie and Richie, but I don’t blame him.”

“My mother’s allergic to cats,” Andrew said. “She trains falcons though.”

“Really?” Charlotte asked. “I’ve always wanted to try that, but I’ve never found the time.”

Andrew nodded his head. “You still have plenty of time left to learn.”

“I’m sure that’s what my grandfather and uncle thought before Irish anarchists blew them to kingdom come,” Charlotte said. “I would love for Papa to have many more years on the throne–he’s almost the same age as my grandfather was when he was killed.”

Why did everything about her have to be so morose? Andrew asked himself.

“I have a lot I want to accomplish in this life. I simply can’t wait for life to happen. I’m sure you’re the same way.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Andrew said. “I’m the fourth son, and now I’m seventh in line for succession. I can do as I chose with my life with no fear about it being interrupted because I’m suddenly called to the throne.”

“I envy you for that, Andrew.”

“And I, you. You have a purpose in life that I lack. Everything you’ve done in life leads to one singular point,” Andrew said.

Charlotte shook her head. “I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” she said. “Are you going to be off, then?”

“Birmingham, to see the linear arcologies,” Andrew said.

“And I’m to see you again next week? In Cardiff?”

“Yes, as long as the schedule holds.” Andrew extended his hand. “I want to thank you for your hospitality, Charlotte. This has been an eye-opening experience for me.”

“And for me too,” Charlotte said. She took booth of Andrew’s hands, and leaned in towards him. He instinctively turned his head, so she ended up kissing him on the cheek. Her lips were cold. “Oh,” she said, taking a step back from Andrew. She let go of his hands, and while her shoulders slumped, her face remained an unchanged mask. “I suppose that was a bit forward of me. I apologize if…if I was untoward.”

“No apologies necessary,” Andrew said. “I look forward to our next meeting, Your Royal Highness.”

“I look forward to it too,” Charlotte said. “Birmingham is a nice city, if you like factories.”

“I suppose it’ll feel like home,” Andrew said. “With your leave.”

Charlotte only nodded her head. “Of course. Go. You have a schedule to keep.”

Andrew thought about saying something, but he was sure that whatever he would say would only make matters worse. Charlotte sat down on her stool, picked up Ashes and put the cat in her lap. He watched for a few moment as Charlotte stroked the cat’s head before turning to leave.

Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 2)

Andrew was wakened by his bedroom door opening. Sudden fear gripped him as dim light spread across the room from the door.


Andrew sat up and saw a shadow standing in the doorway, silhouetted by hallway lights. “Charlotte?” he asked. “Is that you?”

“Good, you’re awake,” Charlotte said.

“What time is it?” Andrew asked. “What are–”

Charlotte threw a bag at Andrew, and it landed on his lap with a thud. “Those should fit you. We got your measurements from Cleveland, but if they don’t, please tell me. Get dressed and meet me in the Drawing Room. Immediately.”

“What is–”

Charlotte turned on the bedroom’s electric lights before turning to leave, closing the door behind her. Andrew starred at the door for a few moments. What was going on? He looked at the towering floor clock that ticked in a far corner of the room. Just half past five in the morning. He’d been in bed for less than five hours, what could Charlotte want?

I suppose the bag holds all the answers, Andrew told himself. He got out of the bed and unzipped the bag to take out its components: coverall waders, turtleneck sweater, waistcoat and country jacket, all made from tweed or other waterproof fabrics. There was a small note attached to the turtleneck saying that it went under the waders. He dressed as quickly as he could in the unfamiliar clothing–they weren’t uncomfortable since they had been tailored for him. With that done, he left the bedchambers went to the Drawing Room.

The Princess of Wales was waiting for him, dressed similarly to him–though her clothes tended towards darker shades of brown than his own tans and greens. There was another man in the room, an older one with a shapeless flat cap over thinning hair, and knee-high rubber boots over mustard trousers. The vest he wore was oversized and puffy, and worn with a knit sweater.

“Good morning, Andrew,” Charlotte said, without smiling.

“Your Highness,” the man said, bowing his head. His chubby cheeks were bright and ruddy, and his voice was deep and booming. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”

“Andrew, meet Sir Galbraith Lowry, my father’s Master of the Kennels,” Charlotte said.

“Former Master of the Kennels,” Sir Galbraith Lowry said. “Now I just raise dogs in my spare time.”

“And some of the best dogs I’ve ever worked with.”

It had taken Andrew almost a full minute to realise there were three dogs sitting by the fireplace. They were Hudson Bay Retrievers, dogs taller than Andrew’s knees, with thick black coats and brown points and markings. All three got to their feet and wandered over to Andrew, and he pet them in turn. “Pepin, Maggie and Kipper,” Lowry said, naming the dogs in turn. “The best fowl hunting dogs I’ve ever trained.”

“Hunting,” Andrew said. There were two bags leaning against one of the armchairs.

“They’ll be in your care, then, ma’am,” Lowry said. He tipped his cap to Andrew. “Happy hunting, you two. With your leave.”

“I appreciate all that you’ve done for me, Sir Galbraith,” Charlotte said. “We’ll take good care of them.” When Lowry was gone, Charlotte went over to the bags, unzipped them and took out two shotgun and matching boxes of shells. She handed one of each to Andrew, who just starred at them. “From your reaction, you’ve never been hunting, have you?”

“I’ve never so much as fired a gun before,” Andrew said.

Charlotte froze for a moment. “Really? That’s surprising.”

“How so?” Andrew asked.

“How do you expect to defend your family if you’ve never fired a gun?”

“Why would I need to?”

Charlotte shook her head. “Never mind. Here, let me show you.” She showed Andrew how to load the shells into the shotgun. She’d washed her face of makeup, but she still smelled faintly of cloves and cinnamon–at first, he’d thought it’d been her favourite perfume, but not he was certain it was her only perfume.

“Have you slept?” Andrew asked.

“I still haven’t reset my circadian rhythm for England time,” Charlotte said. “I’m sure it’ll come back eventually.”

“Hopefully,” Andrew said.

“Keep your finger off the trigger, and always keep it pointed at the ground away from me, your feet and the dogs, until you mean to kill something. Any questions?”

Andrew shook his head. “Not at this immediate moment, no.”

“Just follow me and try not to frighten the birds,” Charlotte said.

“I’ll try,” Andrew said.

It was far colder outside than he’d been expecting. Charlotte handed him a flat cap that had earflaps and he put it on, feeling a little warmer, even as his breath turned to fog. The dogs had followed them outside at Charlotte’s command; the twin braids she frequently wore with her military uniform had been turned into one, flowing across her shoulder from underneath her trilby.

“Is that a real ostrich feather?” Andrew asked, noting the feather stuck in the hatband.

“It is, South African ostrich,” Charlotte said. “The ostrich feather is an ancient symbol of the Prince of Wales.”

“It’s looks nice,” Andrew said.

Charlotte nodded her head.

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, Charlotte, what are we doing?” Andrew asked, suppressing the urge to shudder as a chill ran through him. The wind gusted through him, but he barely felt it through his clothing.

“Hunting pheasant,” Charlotte answered. “Most of the time we use small armies of beaters and dogs to rouse the birds from their cover. That’s never seemed sporting to me, to be honest. Upland hunting, using dogs to flush the birds…that’s true sport.”

“Do you hunt often?”

“My mother loves hunting…well, she loves shooting.” Charlotte stopped at the top of a small hill and looked down. “She had training from the Royal Virginian Sniper School, but she couldn’t serve because women weren’t allowed to. Things are a bit different now, but my mother always wanted her children to be able to fight for themselves if it came to it.” She turned back to Andrew. “Do you remember the Indian mutiny in the 80s?”

“A bit before my time, but I do know if it, yes,” Andrew said.

“Jaipur was at the heart of it,” Charlotte said. “Before things become too bad, my grandfather was able to evacuate the women and children of his household south to Trivandrum in Kerala. But then…but then my grandfather’s own guards turned against him and murdered those who remained.” Charlotte sighed. “I pray that Papa has a long reign on the throne so that one day I may become a general officer on my own merits.”

“You’re going overseas again?”

“Yes. Not for another few weeks, and not back to Afghanistan. Papa mentioned something about a deployment to southern China, or perhaps even Indochina.” The dogs were growing restless, and one of them whined. “They wanted to make me a staff officer, but they won’t take my platoon from me. Not yet, not until they pin another pip on my shoulder.” The dogs continued to whine. “I suppose we should get to it, then.”

They walked downhill towards a row of tall grasses and wetlands, zig-zagging as they want. The dogs perked up their heads, and Charlotte nodded her head. “Tracks,” she said. With a few sharp words to the dogs, two of them went tearing off towards the grass while the third remained, patient. Charlotte set herself and kept her eyes raised above the treeline. There was a great squawking and the birds rose above the branches, dark shapes against the streaks of grey and pink that coloured the early morning sky. Charlotte raised her shotgun and fired both barrels. Andrew was sure that he saw a few birds fall.

“Pippin, go fetch,” Charlotte said. “Andrew, you’re next.”

“What?” Andrew asked flatly.

“Don’t worry, I’ll show you,” Charlotte said. They walked over to the line of trees and picked up the birds the archduchess had shot. The dogs were waiting with four birds. With the dogs in tow and birds in hand, Charlotte and Andrew walked up another hill and then down. “This is a good spot.” She ordered the dogs forward and put down her own shotgun and birds. “Turn this way, Andrew.” Charlotte stood behind Andrew and put her hands on his hips, orienting him in the direction the dogs had gone. She then took his arms and helped him raise his shotgun.

Charlotte was pressing herself so close to him that she could feel her heartbeat. It sounded fast, as if she was nervous or excited about something. But what?

“There they are,” Charlotte whispered, her words warm against his ears. She guided his arms, tracking the flight of the birds. “Pull the trigger.”

Andrew did as he was told, and the shotgun bucked in his hands.

“Again,” Charlotte said.

Andrew fired the shotgun’s second barrel.

“You did it. I think you got some,” Charlotte said, sounding excited and happy for the first time. She kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s see what you bagged.”

Courtship in the Age of Steam (Chapter 1)

“What time is it?”

“It’s a quarter after seven, sir.”

Prince Andrew of the Ohio nodded his head at the answer. “It feels like I should just be waking up for lunch,” he said.

“Travel fatigue, sir,” answered his equerry and chaperone, Sir Charles St. John, Bt. The veteran parliamentarian and diplomat had been sent along to watch over Andrew during the courting process and also to meet with the Imperial Council on behalf of Andrew’s father, the King of the Ohio Palatinate. “It’s easier for a young man like to adjust to the time zones. If I fall asleep in the middle of the dinner, leave me be. I haven’t got a decent night’s sleep since we stepped on that airship.”

Andrew smiled. The airship flight had taken several days to cross the Atlantic, giving him plenty of time to grow more and more anxious about his arrival. It was absurd. All he was doing was meeting a girl–no, a woman. A woman who could one day be his wife and who one day would be the Queen-Empress of the British Empire. Do try to grow up, he reminded himself. He’d just spent three months in Milwaukee helping to negotiate a border dispute between Michigan Confederacy and Louisiana. This was nothing compared to that.

They’d arrived in Cardiff yesterday evening and had been greeted by the Welsh First Minister and the Imperial Lord High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who had left almost immediately after welcoming Prince Andrew. From there, they’d been taken on many tours of the city and the surrounding countryside, before being settled in Treberfydd House. The neo-Latinate country house was built at the edge of Brecon Beacons Royal Park near a kidney-shaped lake and its wetlands. It was a beautiful building, with its ivy-coloured stone walls and spiked battlements that made it look like an ancient castle that had been built centuries too late.

“This is an old country,” St. John said, putting his hands against the carved wood walls. “It was ancient when our Palatinate was born.”

“Is it time?” Andrew asked.

“They’ll get us when it’s time,” St. John said.

“I don’t like waiting.”

“Need I remind you, sir, that you are a small fish in a very large pond here?” St. John asked. “Back in America, your family may be the proverbial big fish, but not here.”

“My family.” Andrew snorted. “We’re all the same family. Last time I checked, I was a Plantagenet as much as them.”

“My point still stands,” St. John said.

Andrew played with the gold leaf embroidered on the front of his coat. He’d had to have all his suits tailored before leaving Cleveland-upon-the-Lake for England because he’d managed to gain some weight while in Milwaukee. It seemed to him that the national dish of Michigan was fatty sausages, fried cheese and beer. He was amazed that they hadn’t had to wheel him back home, but he was paying for it now.

“But remember, small and young we may be, we have a lot to offer the Empire,” St. John said. “Our industry is the beating heart of the machinery that drives the Empire.”

Andrew had heard that speech countless times from his father, King Charles Francis II. “I don’t need another rah-rah speech,” he said. “I can tell you how much coal we mine, petrol we drill and steel we mill. But that’s irrelevant when measured against the power that the Queen-Empress will wield one day. I’m on the threshold of immortality. How could I possibly be calm?”

“Then hide the storm inside,” St. John said.

There was a knock on the door and it opened to admit a servant in scarlet tails. “Your Highness,” he said, “you are expected in the Drawing Room.”

Andrew was the first out of the room with St. John a few paces behind him. The Prince made sure to walk slowly so that St. John could keep up. It was a short walk down the hallway to the Drawing Room, but it gave Andrew enough to consider what type of woman the Princess of Wales was. He knew the basics, that she was in the British Army and had recently returned from a tour of duty in the North-West Frontier…oh, and she’d been on the Welsh national team for the Women’s Handball World Cup a few years ago. As the daughter of the reigning King-Emperor and his heir, Archduchess Charlotte had kept a low profile, appearing in the tabloids only occasionally and never on one of the countless docu operas that followed the different branches of the Royal House around. There were the occasional rumors, though, but nothing scandalous. More melancholy than anything else.

“There are no cameras here,” Andrew commented.

“The Royal Family doesn’t exist in the same media bubble the rest of the House does,” St. John said. “They want people to see how the royals live, but not how the imperials live.”

Andrew nodded his head.

The servant took them to the Drawing Room. It was a more modern room than the rest of Treberfydd House, with pale gold wallpaper partially covered by sketches and drawings that had been collected over the years by generations of Princes of Wales. A glass chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a fire crackled in the fireplace as the curtains were drawn back to grant a view of the estate’s gardens and Llangorse Lake beyond it.

Conversation seemed to stop when Andrew walked in. He counted perhaps thirty people gathered in the room, most of them gathered in small clusters throughout. More servants in the same scarlet tailcoats went about silently, carrying trays of food and drinks. The reception was a simple, informal affair where Andrew would meet the Princess of Wales for the first time.

“By the fire,” St. John whispered.

Standing by the fireplace were a quartet of women in the uniform of the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues): dark blue tunic with scarlet facings, white crossbelts and riding breeches and black knee-high boots. Only one of them, though, wore the scarlet armband emblazoned with the golden lionhead of the Royal Knights of the Garter, marking her as a Princess of the Blood. The difference between her armband and Andrew’s was that she, as the Princess of Wales, had thicker gold braid on the edges.

“Her?” Andrew asked.

Archduchess Charlotte Plantagenet, Princess of Wales, looked to be about Andrew’s height, with light brown skin that was a few shades darker than his own. Her mother, Marudhar of Jaipur, Princess Consort, had been a Rajput princess from Rajputana–the first non-European to serve as a consort for an Imperial monarch. Charlotte had a long face, narrow nose and full lips, with black hair tied into two tight braids underneath a black beret. Her eyes, deep set under thick eyebrows, were the same steel grey as the rest of the Plantagenet family.

“Go on, boy,” St. John said. “Don’t keep her waiting.”

Charlotte whispered something to her two companions and they left her alone. Andrew took a deep breath and approached her, feeling everyone’s eyes on him the whole way. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw St. John join a group of Welsh parliamentarians, including the Lord High Representative. “Archduchess Charlotte,” Andrew said, bowing his head.

“Prince Andrew,” Charlotte said. She extended a hand and Andrew shook it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have been the first, but welcome to Wales and the British Isles.”

“I want to thank you for your hospitality, Your Royal Highness,” Andrew said.

Charlotte’s hand shake was firm, and her smile was weak, as if it was forced, and her grey eyes didn’t smile along with her lips. Her life had been full of sadness. She’d been born on Bloody Friday, when Irish anarchists had killed or mortally wounded her grandfather, uncle and two cousins–and had indirectly been responsible for the death of a third cousin when her late uncle’s wife miscarried upon hearing the news. Then there’d been rumors of extended childhood illnesses, deaths in the extended family and even the death of a younger brother.

“I think first names should suffice,” Charlotte said. “We are on the same social rung, are we not.”

“I’m just a young whelp from the New World and you’re the Princess of Wales,” Andrew said.

“Titles are just words, and nothing more.” Charlotte raised a glass to her lips, but she was clearly attempting to stifle a yawn. “I’m terribly sorry if I don’t appear to be a gracious host. I’ve only been back home for a week, and I’m still travel fatigued.”

“I understand that all too well.”

“You’re fortunate in that regard, at least,” Charlotte said. “Cleveland is six hours behind London, but London is four hours behind Kabul. Six months overseas and I can’t even adjust to life back home.”

“So you were overseas in Afghanistan?” Andrew asked.

Charlotte shook her head. “I’ve spent the past week talking about nothing but the war. Nothing I can say will be new or even interesting. My grandfather’s grandfather’s grandmother started the war, and my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be fighting it in a hundred years. My great-uncle, Thomas, he’s been the King of Kashmir for almost thirty years and he barely controls the countryside out of Srinagar and Jammu.” She laughed but it was empty of any mirth, and it was quickly cut off by a sharp sigh. “You must be thirsty. Is mulled wine fine?”

Charlotte raised a hand and summoned one of the servers. Andrew took the opportunity to turn around, letting him survey the rest of the reception. No one was talking, and they were all trying to make it look like they weren’t starring. The server arrived with a tray of mulled wine in glass mugs. Andrew took one and gave it tentative sip.

“There’s nothing quite like curling up next to a fire during an English winter with a good book and mulled wine,” Charlotte said. She’d said it quietly, almost as if to herself. Andrew was uncertain of how to respond to it, and he was becoming increasingly aware that he needed to say something to her. Everyone in the room was paying close attention to–

A waiter walking past St. John stumbled, dropping his tray of food, some of it splashing on an elderly woman standing next to St. John. Everyone’s attention turned away from Andrew and Charlotte to the scene that had been made.

“Thank God,” Charlotte said. “I thought I was going to have to shoot someone.”

“Excuse me?” Andrew asked.

“Never mind.” Charlotte let out her breath and turned back to Andrew. He could smell her perfume now, a sweet hint of cinnamon and cloves. “You’ve been busy yourself, haven’t you?”

The tension was gone, and Andrew tried to not to smile at the poor waiter’s misfortune. “Oh, yes, negotiation freedom of movement on the Mississippi between the Michigan Confederacy and Louisiana,” he said. “A delicate topic since the Great Council and the Directorate are obstinate institutions, but that’s what I wrote my thesis about at university.”

Charlotte raised an eyebrow. “You graduated university?”

“A bachelor’s from King & Queen College in Virginia,” Andrew said. “With honours, too. I read international relations during my years there.”

“I’ve always wanted to attend university, but duty calls.” Charlotte took another drink from her glass, her own eyes surveying the crowd. Her smile had disappeared, and her lips were pressed together. “I’m curious. have you met Bobbet?”


“The Lord High Representative. He’s an old family friend.”

Of course he is, Andrew thought, taking a quick, sidelong glance at the Viscount Wimbledon.

“Well, have you?” Charlotte asked.

“We met in passing yesterday, but I don’t believe we’ve had much time to get to know each other.”

“Let’s fix that, shall we?” Charlotte said, putting a hand on Andrew’s back and lead him over to the Lord High Representative.

Of All the Gin Joints in the World

The rain had begun shortly before five, and hadn’t let up since then. I splashed through the puddles as I crossed the street, and I was almost clipped by a Chevy Bel Air. I’d been too wrapped up in my own thoughts that I hadn’t seen the car barreling down the street. It honked its horn and I threw the bird after it as it turned the corner. The rain beat steadily against my umbrella, and the neon lights of the gin joints and gambling halls reflected in the puddles of rainwater that had gathered in the potholes and gutters of the street.

I walked into a cocktail bar called The Wicked Social. Its neon sign was flickering in and out of existence, and soon it would just be called The Social. It wasn’t close to last call, but by the inside of the joint, you’d have thought it was already closed. My yellow dress stood out in a joint like this. The black obsidian bar and the bottles of black liquor absorbed the lights. Old, blue-grey smoke hung from the ceiling like a factory’s smokestacks. Two walls were red brick that may have well been black.

I found her in the back, alone and curled up in an egg chair. Her black leggings and white crop sweatshirt stood out sharply against the red fabric of the chair. “Lorelai,” I said.

Lorelai opened her pale eyes and looked up at me through a few lose strands of straw-colored hair. “Tell me, Tabitha, do you like Suzuki?” she asked, pushing the headphones off her ears.


“Sleepy Suzuki,” Lorelai answered. “I used to be a lounge singer, you know.”

“I know. That’s how we met.”

“That’s right. Sammy Casati’s old place on Vine Street. What was it called again?”

“The Vine Street Lounge,” I said. “Come on, it’s time.”

“Sleepy Suzuki makes such soulful music. You can hear his heart in his piano work.”


“What does it matter anyway?” Lorelai put the headphones around her neck and stood up. “At least I got to listen to him one last time.”

“Don’t be like this, Lorelai.”

“Don’t be like what, Tabitha? I’m not the one who–”

I grabbed Lorelai by the arm and pulled her close. “Listen here, Lorelai. I don’t have the time or the energy to put up with your games.”

“Why don’t you just do it right now then?” Lorelai asked.

“Come on.” I pulled Lorelai away from the table and out of the bar. “Do you have an umbrella?”

“No, why would I?”

“Here.” I opened the umbrella above us, slipping an arm around Lorelai’s waist to keep her close and to stop her from running away.

“Why are you doing this?” Lorelai asked.

“It costs nothing to be polite,” I said. “But I don’t like doing this. I don’t relish this job.”

“Then why do you do this?”

I shrugged. “You of all people, Lorelai, should know what happens when someone tries to leave the Outfit.”

“I wasn’t trying to leave,” Lorelai said.

The rain had slackened off to a drizzle by now, but the occasional clap of thunder warned that more would be on its way. Steam was rising from underneath the city, coming up from the subway system through grates and manhole covers. Lorelai stepped in a puddle and groaned as the water soaked in through the thin canvas sneakers she was wearing. Long shadows were cast across her face, and I found it hard to get a read on her emotions.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll make it quick and easy, and leave you pretty enough for an open casket funeral when they dredge you out of the harbor.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Lorelai asked.

A car drove by, and it slowed down as it passed us. Someone shouted something at us, but they were too drunk to be heard clearly.

“No, it’s supposed to make me feel better.”

We were walking along the waterfront now. The Lockheed Marine Works yards were across the harbor, light up like a birthday cake even in this weather. There was no boat traffic, and even the tourists had retired to bed. The air smelled of salt and fish, but I could still smell a cloying hint of peppermint from Lorelai.

“Why do you do this?” Lorelai asked.

“It puts bread on the table.”

“There’s a million other jobs you could do.”

“I’ve only ever been good at one thing, and ever since the Mutiny, there’s been less and less legal killing that needs doing.”

Lorelai stopped. “Here?”

“This is fine.”

I unhooked my arm from her waist and took a step back.

“This is where I had my first,” Lorelai said, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“This exact spot?” I reached into my purse for my gun, a silenced .22.

“Maybe, I don’t know. Somewhere along the waterfront.”

“I’m sorry, Lorelai.”

“You know my cat, Mr. Whiskers?”

I nodded my head. “Yeah, I know him.”

“Make sure someone looks after him.”

“I will.”

“I’m glad it was you, Tabitha.”

Three quick shots into her back, clustered near her heart. She stumbled forward and fell into the water. A bolt of lightning arced across the sky and the rain began to pick up. I still needed to get Mr. Whiskers from Lorelai’s apartment.

Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Fletcher began to suspect his husband was cheating on him when Brady started to come home late at night, smelling of smoke and tasting of another man.  Fletcher would embrace Brady at night, and he could smell the scent on him.  Brady worked as a banker downtown, while Fletcher worked in a small bookstore in a brand new shopping center, where he worked more normal eight hour days with only the occasional evening.

The shopping center itself was made from glass and steel, a cathedral to the Big Box stores and brands.  The bookstore was different–it was small and tucked away behind the escalators, with piles of books stacked on top of each other on the floor and on the shelves.  There were no windows and the owner kept the lights dim, contrasting it sharply with the brightly-lit mall outside.

The shopping center had its own temple with shrines dedicated to each of the thirteen gods.  Fletcher went one day after work in order to ask Toskagee for guidance, but the line to pray before the shrine was long because it was the week before Valentine’s Day.  The temple was a glass atrium; the cold winter sun shone through the roof and walls, and small birds fluttered between the trees.  The shrines were surrounded by bright plants and offerings.

All of theme except for Tekamthi.  Her shrine was sparse and empty, set off to the side.  A small fire burned in a copper pot, flanked on both sides by small piles of bones.  Few people ever sought Tekamthi’s blessings because no one wanted war or death.  Fletcher frowned, and despite himself, he stepped out of line and walked over to her shrine.  He looked up at the statue carved from glassy black obsidian; her wings were spread behind her and she held her Kentucky rifle above her head.  He felt something strange in his gut, as if someone was tying it into a knot.

Fletcher turned away from the statue and left the temple.


Fletcher was organizing boxes of old books in the back when he found a strange title, The Love of Blood by someone named Orlando Hull.  The cover was some black, pink and white abstract design, and he didn’t recognize the title or the author.  It wasn’t a large book (perhaps a hundred pages at most), and Fletcher felt the urge to read it.  He took it home that night.  Brady hadn’t called, but Fletcher wasn’t surprised anymore when Brady didn’t come home on time.

The Love of Blood was a spell book, covering spells for both Tekamthi and Toskagee, the goddess of war and the goddess of love–it was an interesting combination, but it made sense to Fletcher.  Scorned lovers often became violent, looking for retribution.  Fletcher wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.  He just wanted his husband back.  He had trouble remembering the last time the two of them had had a proper conversation.

Brady came back late at night, but had fallen asleep on the couch, which surprised Fletcher.  “I didn’t hear you come in,” he said.

“I didn’t want to wake you,” Brady said.

“I would have been fine with that,” Fletcher said.  “We haven’t had a lot time to talk lately.”

“I’m sorry.  Work’s been crazy.”

“I love you.”

“I’ll see you tonight,” Brady said before leaving for the day.

Fletcher put away Brady’s clothes before going to work.  He didn’t like the way the clothes smelled, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  At lunch, he visited the temple again; instead of getting in line to see Toskagee, he sat in front of Tekamthi’s shrine with a copy of The Love of Blood in his lap.  He felt the same twisting feeling in his gut; it was a cold, icy grip that was holding onto him, but this time, he didn’t run.

He was actually beginning to like looking at the shrine.


Fletcher tried to schedule a date night for the two of them on Friday, but Brady had to cancel.  Work, he said.  On a Friday night?  That was the final straw.  Fletcher ordered Chinese delivery, and stared at The Love of Blood all night.  Fletcher licked his lips and wiped his palms on his pants.  He just wanted his husband back.

Fletcher wasn’t scheduled to work on Saturday, but he went to the shopping center.  It was warm for a February, and the air conditioner inside the mall was working overtime.  The lines to see Toskagee had grown during the weekend, but Fletcher ignored them.  He sat in front of the statue, pressed his hands together and prayed.  He just wanted his husband back, so he dropped the fetish into the fire.  He’d made it from blood, hair and scraps of clothes.  It caught fire and disappeared into the flame.


There was a woman waiting for Fletcher when he returned home.  She was lying on a living room sofa, reading Orlando Hull’s The Love of Blood.  She had pale skin and long, pale red hair, and when she looked at him, he froze.  Her eyes were red irises on black sclera with diamond-shaped pupils.  She was a goddess in red robes and black armor.  It took Fletcher a moment to identify her as Onthaneequay, the daughter of Tekamthi and Toskagee and the goddess of scorned lovers.

“Don’t look so surprised,” Onthaneequay said, standing up.  “You were the one who called me here.”

“What did you do?” Fletcher asked.  He was surprised at how abrupt he was with a goddess.

“The question, is,” Onthaneequay folded her hands in front of her, “what did you do?”

Fletcher was shaking and he felt his knees go week.  Onthaneequay remained where she was standing, a small smile on her face.  There was a tapping on the window and Onthaneequay walked over to open it.  A small creature came in, a grotesque mane of feathers the size of a cat.

The phone began to ring.  “I just wanted my husband back.”

“You should answer that,” Onthaneequay said.  The creature climbed onto her shoulder and pecked at her ear.

“I never wanted this.”

The phone continued to ring.

“Answer the phone,” Onthaneequay said.

Fletcher picked up the phone.  “Hello…yes, this is me…oh, where…are you sure…I, I don’t know…I can…thank you.”

“Well?” Onthaneequay asked as Fletcher hung up the phone.

“Brady…Brady died.  Car accident.”  He looked up at Onthaneequay, his fists clenched in rage.  “I never asked for this.  I didn’t want this.”

“My mothers may have created humans, but I don’t think we’ll ever truly understand our creations.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Onthaneequay shrugged and turned to leave.  She stopped and looked over his shoulder at him.  “He wasn’t being unfaithful.”

Fletcher stared at her.  “Wh-wh-what?”

“He was working late for overtime pay.”

“But…why?  What for?”

“I only know what I know.”

Onthaneequay left through the back door.  Fletcher collapsed and began to sob.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VII

I ride north for the Lumpong Agency, and it takes me most of two days to reach it from Carbonate.  It would take several more days for me to ride to Nanung, the seat of the Agency, but I don’t need to go that far.  Just far enough to see my uncle.

The land becomes flat and arid once I leave Tochopa National Forest.  The forests become flat scrubland that stretch for miles in every direction.  I can’t see a tree no matter which direction I look.  The only vegetation are low lying shrubs and bushes.  It’s also hot.  Almost unbearably hot.  I wear nothing but a simple desert robe that covers me but doesn’t smother me.

There are faded signs warning me about that I’m about to enter the Lumpong Agency.  I’m stopped by an agency ranger less than five minutes across the border.  I show him my papers and explain to him who I want to see.

“Who is he to you?” the ranger asks.

“He’s my uncle,” I say.  “My mother’s brother.”

“Your father?”

“Miqad al-Chokik.”

The ranger looks surprised.

“He doesn’t talk about me often, does he?”

The ranger shakes his head.  An oddly human gesture.  “But then again, he has plenty of children as it is.”  The ranger returns my papers to me.  “I’ll take you to see Thabit.”

I nod my head.  There’s no point in arguing so I follow him.  The ranger attempts to make conversation with me, but I offer few answers.  I’m not much interested in conversation as my mind is occupied with thoughts of my uncle and my father.

Sanapong is built on top of a steep hill.  A few old mud huts are built at the base behind a sagging barbed wire fence.  Newer looking trailer homes sat higher up on the hill towards the peak.  Adults are passed out on front stoops, either from drugs or alcohol.  I avert my eyes, unwilling to see it for what it is.  Children run out to run around the horses.  They’re dressed in dirty rags.

“Why aren’t they in school?” I ask.

“School had to shut down.  No money.”

Thabit ibn Sasah lives in a trailer near the summit.  We’re met by a broad shouldered orc who’s scowling at me.  I recognize him as my brother, Dilal.

“Odima,” he says, still scowling.

“I’m here to see our uncle.”

“Our uncle?  After what you did to our father?”

“If you’ll notice, brother,” I say, “I’m here to see our uncle, not our father.”

“What is this about?”

“We’re family.  Do I need a reason?”

Dilal glares at me before finally relenting.  “Follow me,” he says.

I follow him inside the trailer, carrying my sack with me.  Dust dances in sunlight shining in through the windows.  The top half of the walls are covered in faded wallpaper and then lower half are covered by wood paneling.  The furniture is old and torn.  A group of children sit in the living room, watching static-filled I Love Lucy reruns on the television while drinking Coke from glass bottles and eating falafel.

Uncle Thabit is in the back bedroom.  His skin is sallow and sagging.  The room smells like rosewater.  Thabit opens his eyes and looks at me.  “I thought I wouldn’t see ghosts until I was actually dead,” he says.  “Hamah, is that you?”

“No, uncle, it’s me, Odima.”

Thabit closes his eyes.  “I must be in hell.”

“I’m not dead, not matter how much you wish I was.”

“What do you want, child?” Thabit asks.

“I’ve come to discuss the future of our people.”

Thabit begins to laugh, but it quickly turns into a racking cough.  He wipes spittle and phlegm from his lips.  “Our people?  You mean the people you abandoned.”

“I never abandoned my people.”

“You live and work with the Autumn-Men.  They’re dead leaves.  Why do you care?”

“Because they’re our future, whether you want to admit it or not.”

“Have you become a rot-eater?” Dilal asks.

I try not to rise to the bait.  I drop the bag I’m carrying on the floor, and it makes a loud bang.

“What’s that?” Dilal asks.

“Two hundred pounds of copper bars.  They’re mining metal from the ground from our land.  This is our future.”

“What’s your point?” Thabit asks.

“The future is here,” I say.  “We can’t fight it, but we can forge our space in it.”

“A space?  Have you found your space, child?  Do they accept you as one of their own?”

I open my mouth to say something, but stop because I realize that I can’t argue with my uncle.

“Where did you get all this copper?” Dilal asks.

“I stole it,” I answer.

“Stole it?”

“You accuse me of being a rot-eater, but I’m the only one trying to make my place in their world.”

“By killing them?” Thabit asks.

“By keeping the balance,” I answer.

“You are not keeping any balance,” Thabit said.  “Leave my presence, child.  I never want to see you.  You have your dead leaves to play with.”

“I am repaying the money that I–”

“I said be gone!  Leave!  As far as I’m concerned, we no longer share any blood!”

I clench my fists and bite my tongue.  Without saying a word, I turn and march out of the trailer, slamming the door behind me.

“Odima!” Dilal calls after me as I mount my horse.

I don’t acknowledge him.

“Father will know you’ve returned,” Dilal says.

“I don’t care,” I say, pointing my horses back south towards Carbonate.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. VI

The Carbonate Manor Lodge was built on the woody hills overlooking the town below.  It’s a blocky building made mostly from local stone and timber, and is hidden away behind rows of pine trees.  The main dining room’s a large, high-ceilinged room with floor to ceiling windows and native designs and tapestries hanging from the stone walls.

Senator Vance Cabrera sat at a corner table, his face covered in flickering shadows from the candles that lit the dining room as the serving staff took the plates away.  Hershel Friedgen watched the Senator nervously.  The dinner had gone well enough, but the conversation had remained stilted and had only danced around the intended topic at best.

“This is a lovely town you have here, Mr. Friedgen,” Senator Cabrera said, nodding towards the window.  Carbonate was lit up for the evening, just visible between the pine branches.

“Thank you, Senator,” Friedgen said.  “Carbonate is always welcoming to guests such as yourself.”

Cabrera reached into his pocket for a silver box.  He pulled out a cigar and clipped the cap.  A waiter suddenly appeared with a lighter, and Cabrera puffed on the cigar.  “I assume the biggest industry here is tourism.”

“It is,” Friedgen said, nodding his head.  “But we’re looking to change that.”

“Copper and timber,” Cabrera said.

“Copper, yes.”

“But not timber?”

“All our trees are locked up in national forests.”

Cabrera puffed on the cigar and blew the smoke out of his nose.  “Are you not even aware of what national forests are for?”

Friedgen shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Senator, but I’m not sure.”

A waiter placed a tray of biscotti on the table, and a glass of Vin Santo dessert wine.  “All those hundreds of years back on Old Earth, President Roosevelt wanted to preserve America’s forestland for future use.”  Cabrera dipped a biscotti into the Vin Santo and took a bite of it.  “He didn’t want to protect the trees for protections sake.  He wanted to create a reserve of trees for use to be logged later.  It takes a long time to grow a tree.”  Cabrera rested his cigar in an ashtray.  “But what of the copper?”

“What of it?”

“I believe there were promises made of a shipment of copper.”

Friedgen cleared his throat and looked down.  Vance Cabrera was the chair of the powerful Committee on Public Lands in the Redstone Circuit Senate.  His hair was grey and slicked back and his skin orange from a fake tan.  “There were issues.”


“I sent a shipment of 6,000 pounds of copper to Samawa last month, but it was taken by raiders.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Cabrera asked.

“I have death certificates and witnesses to that effect,” Friedgen said.  “I’ve been unable to collect enough capital to dig for more.”

“You expect me to finance my own bribe?  I always thought it was a metaphor when they said you clod eaters had dirt in your head.”  Cabrera laughed.  “It won’t be needed anyway.”

Friedgen frowned.  “What do you mean, Senator?”

“I have sources back in D.C. telling me that Hawatama and the other territories are this close to being admitted as states.”  Cabrera picked up the cigar and puffed on it.  “When they do it, they’re going to cut the dirt states from the orbital circuit.”

“And makes us your own circuit?”

“What else would they do?”

“Then maybe I should try talking to a U.S. Senator, then.”

Cabrera laughed again.  “You might as well pray to Meshigumee for rain.  You’ll have as much success with her as you would with attempting to bribe a U.S. Senator.”

“I don’t have much other recourse, do I?”

“If the geologists are correct, this is the single largest source of copper on this entire world.”  Cabrera reached into his pocket and produced a business card.  “Here is the name of an investment banking firm on Bisbee.  It’s not exactly WalkerWeld or Lehman Brothers, but it has the funds and discretion for a project like this.”

Friedgen took the card and nodded his head.  “That still doesn’t solve the problem of not having the necessary permits or licenses.”

“That part will come later,” Cabrera said.  “You’ll just need to be patient and wait for the circuit split.”

“That could take years.”

“The copper isn’t going anywhere, now is it?”

“I suppose not,” Friedgen said, shaking his head.

Cabrera picked up another biscotti and dunked it in the Vin Santo.  “As they say, Friedgen,” he said, “it takes money to make money.”

Meeting the Sphinx

I parked my silver travel trailer at the edge of the RV park, as far from the national park’s main lodge as I could.  The park rangers had been careful to warn me about the dangers that came with the park’s heat and dryness.  I was an old hand at this.  I wouldn’t stray far from my base.  I’d carry plenty of water with me.

The dried lake bed stretched out from horizon to horizon.  Front to back, left to right.  In the far distance was the ridges of the Diablo Mesa.  I would leave early in the morning and keep to the edges of the dried lake until I found some degree of shade.  I’d stop, rest and draw whatever I saw.  It was repetitive, but it was relaxing.

There was a sphinx.  They weren’t uncommon in these parts, and I’d been told to stay away from them.  I watched in silence.  Browned skin of her head and chest gave way to the tawny fur of a lion’s body.  Wings spread back from her shoulders.  Jet black hair that shined.  I was transfixed and spent several days sketching her.

Some days later, the sphinx approached me.  She approached me in her glory, towering over me like a monster from some ancient childhood nightmare.  The light of Saturn glimmered off the gold she wore.  There was gold in her hair and on her ears.  Bands of gold, jade and lapis lazuli encircled her neck.

“I see you,” the sphinx said.

“And I see you too.”

The sphinx sat down on her haunches.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” I said.

“Yet here we are.”

“Here we are.”

The sphinx nodded her head.

My face was burnt red and was covered in sweat.  I held up my sketchpad to show the sphinx what I’d been drawing.

“That’s me,” the sphinx said.  A statement, not a question.

“It is.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m sketching life.”

“Life?  There is little life here.”

“I sketch what I see.”

“You’re trespassing.”

“This is public land.”

“I don’t recognize your government.”

“A sovereign citizen type, huh?” I asked.

The sphinx furrowed her brows.

“Sorry, bad joke.”  I wiped the sweat from my forehead.  “I can leave if you’d like.”

The sphinx studied me for several agonizing moments.  She stood up and shook her head.  Without answering me, she began to walk away, across the dried lake bed.

“What’s your name?” I called.

The sphinx remained silent, eventually becoming a distant figure marred by the waves of heat that rose from the ground.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. V

A naturalist named McClendon hired me as a guide, to take him through the Tochopa National Forest north of east of Carbonate.  Gundy didn’t want me to go by myself.  This McClendon was a stranger and Gundy wasn’t certain that he trusted him.  I reassured him that I could handle myself.

McClendon is a professor at some school I’d never heard of on a planet I’d never heard of.  He is a human with glasses and a golden beard.  Like all Autumn-Men, he is tall and slender, with long limbs and soft features.

He is soft spoken too.  This is his first time to the Tochopa National Forest, but he has read about it.  He marvels at the trees and the plants.  We must stop every so often so that he can collect samples, take pictures with his bulky Kodak camera or for him to make quick charcoal sketches.

“I’m a naturalist,” he explains as we start again.  “I specialize in evolutionary biology and biogeography.”

I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with those words, and McClendon simply smiles.  “I study the process that created biological organisms and their distribution across worlds.”

I nod my head.

McClendon talks frequently.  Sometimes I understand him, sometimes I don’t.  I keep my eyes open, looking for any threats.  Mountain lions often don’t come down from the Black Hills into the forests, but it’s not unknown–and we are skirting the edge of the Lumpong Agency.

The Tochopa National Forest is covered in all different sorts of pines.  There are Hawatama ponderosas–tall and narrow with dark red bark.  Then there are the smaller Tochopa pinyon pines–shorter and broader, with branches spreading up to twenty feet across.  Short grass and squat sagebrush cover the ground alongside discarded needles and pinecones.

McClendon is red faced and drenched in sweat.  We stop under a pine tree to rest and eat some lunch.  He says a few jokes and I laugh politely.

We finally set up camp in the evening.  We haven’t gotten far, but McClendon seems impressed with the progress.  He spends an hour cataloguing everything he’s seen and collected before joining me for dinner.  A cold chill settles in and I shiver reflexively.

McClendon clears his throat and he says he’ll offer me money.  I’m confused and his faces turns red.  After a few moments, I understand and I decline.

The second day is much of the same.  If McClendon is upset, he doesn’t show it.  He talks to me about the flora and fauna.  I nod politely and smile.  He enjoys it.  When we set up camp for the second night, he again offers me money.  It’s more money this time, but again, I decline it.

The third day is much of the same.  After setting up camp but before McClendon can say anything, I push him to the ground and start pulling off his clothes.

I may be many things, but I’m not a whore.

McClendon’s hands are soft and gentle, and his beard tickles me.  I’ve long since learned that there’s not much difference between a human male and an orcish male physically, so there’s no surprises.  We finish and lie together next to the fire.

“Have you ever been to space?” McClendon asks me.

I shake my head.  I haven’t.

“I’ve studied more than a dozen worlds, and I’ve studied dozens of biospheres,” McClendon says.  “What I should have studied were the orcs.”

The orcs?

“There’s been orcs on every world I’ve visited.”

I sit up and stare down at him, confused as to what he means.

“You don’t know?  There are orcs everywhere, all across the cluster.  Thousands and thousands of tribes and ethnic groups, and billions and billions of you.”

I had trouble comprehending that.  It is difficult for me to imagine life outside of the northern Hawatama Territory, let alone the stars beyond.

“Not all of them live on the agencies or reservations.  Most have assimilated into society at large.”

I look away from McClendon and into the fire, my mind swirling.  I am having troubling understanding the concept.  Orcs elsewhere?  Orcs not living on the edge?

“Washington doesn’t trust Muslims.  Haven’t since that Mahdi Revolt back in ’17, not that I blame them.”

McClendon places a cold hand on my back and I lay down again, unable to still my mind.

In the morning, I feel McClendon pressed against my back and I oblige him before we set out again.  My mind is elsewhere.  I can hear McClendon talking at me about trees and other worlds he’s been to, but all I can think of are other orcs on other worlds.  Orcs that didn’t have to live on reservations.

I am paying enough attention to see the saber cat in the distance.  The large cat stands on a small hill about two or three miles from us.  I tell McClendon to stop and I whisper that there’s a saber cat.  His eyes grow wide and the color leaves his face.  I tell him not to worry.

I unsling my hunting rifle, hold it in the crook of my arm and watch.  The saber cat is a large animal that weighs almost a thousand pounds with jaws powerful enough to tear a man in half.  It descends the hill and begins to approach us.  I raise the rifle and fire off one, two shots.  I shot above the saber cat’s head, just close enough to scare it away.

McClendon let out a sigh and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Thank you.”

I nod my head.

That night, we repeat the same thing we’d done the night before.  McClendon’s gentleness surprises me, but I don’t dislike it.  He points out the constellations as we lie in each other’s arms.  The sky looks like a black cloth that someone had poked little holes in.  He points somewhere on the southern horizon, just above a rise of trees.

“And that’s Old Earth,” he says.  I’ve heard that phrase used before, but had never given it much thought.  “That’s where we came from.”


“Humans at least.”

I nod my head.

The next day is warmer, but we’re turning south to loop back to Carbonate.  We pass a spring, and I see movement, so we stop to investigate.  There’s a young woman with blue-green skin bathing naked.  A nymph.  It’d been years since I’d seen one this far north.  McClendon is staring at her, and I feel a wave of jealousy run through me.

We can’t stay here, so I pull McClendon back onto his horse and we continue on our way.

The last few days continue as the rest.  We ride during the day, with McClendon collecting samples and pictures–I know he’s taken a few pictures of me, but I allow him.  We lay with each other during the night, and McClendon’s attitude changes.  He talks less about the world and more about him.  He tells me about his life, what he’s done and what he hopes to do.  I have this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t explain.  I say little, still acting the part of the savage.

We return to Carbonate a week after setting out.  McClendon hadn’t said much for the past few hours, and he bids me a hesitant farewell.  He checks into a room at the Roadside Inn while he waits for his train.  I take the mustangs back to the stables before turning to my own room in the Roadside Inn, which is on the first floor next to the lobby.

I shower to wash the dirt and grime off me.  After I’m done, I begin to dress but I’m interrupted by my room phone.  It’s McClendon.  He wants to see me again to talk.  I agree and go up to his room on the third floor.  It’s the standard one room motel room.  There’s a painting of seashore hanging above the bed.  I have never understood that choice.

McClendon kisses me on the mouth, and I’m surprised at how forward he is since he’d never kissed me when we were out on the trail.  “I want you to have this,” he says, presenting me with a choker made from turquoise, silver and ivory.  I hesitate to accept it, but I relent and let him put it around my neck.  “I want you to come with me.”


“I’m leaving for Samawa tomorrow, and next week I’m taking a PanAm clipper for the shores of the Salt Sea.”

That’s on the other side of Redstone.

“I want you to come with me.  I need you.  And after that, I’m going back to Odysseus.”

I don’t know how to answer this.  He’s asking me to leave my home, leave my people, leave my world.  Can I?  He’s spent the past week filling my mind with stories of other worlds where orcs are more accepted.  Could I even believe him?  I need to think.

McClendon pulls me onto the bed and we make love for what seems like hours.  His skin his softer and smells sweater after a shower.  He’s more passionate and earnest now.  After he finishes inside me, he leans down and whispers, “I love you.”

Once he falls asleep, I sneak out of the room.  I go to the stables to get some mustangs and head back out.  I don’t want to be in town when he wakes up.

All Soul’s Day

The Inquisition came for the witches in the middle of the night.

Elizabeth Tran was woken up by a loud explosion that shook her room.  She crawled over to the window and looked out.  She could see fire and smoke rising from the old coven, hidden behind the tops of the distant trees.  She stared for several minutes, her stomach twisting into knots.

“Melanie,” Elizabeth said quietly.

Elizabeth closed the blinds and tried to sleep, but it eluded her.  She tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable.  Her mother woke her up for school, and she dragged herself to the bathroom to get ready.  Father and Mother were in the kitchen eating breakfast when Elizabeth was done.  Mother put a plate of French toast and a large glass of orange juice in front of her.

“You look like you didn’t sleep last night,” Father said, reading the newspaper.

“I didn’t.”

“So you heard that?” Mother asked.

Elizabeth nodded her head.

The phone rang.  Father got up to answer it.  The conversation was short and he returned after less than a minute.  “School’s delayed,” he said.  “Until noon.”

“What?” Elizabeth asked.  “What for?”

“There’s a procession they want us to attend,” Father answered.

After breakfast, the three of them left the house for the procession or parade.  Fall had come, and Elizabeth tightened the scarf around her neck.  Smoke was still rising from the coven.  Elizabeth’s eyes lingered on it for a moment before falling in line behind her parents.

Craftsbury wasn’t a large town, settled in a valley in the Oak Ridge Mountains.  The mountains were covered in ancient oak trees that were turning red and orange with the season.  At the center of the town square was a statute of General George Washington, and a platform had been built in front of the clapboard church.  Elizabeth saw a few of her classmates in their school uniforms, but no one made eye contact with her.

The procession started, and Elizabeth’s heart jumped into her throat.  There were a few dozen women of different ages chained together and being forced to march by a small army of Papal Zouaves.  Then there were four Rosarian Maidens in their powered armor.  Most of the Zouaves were white, but she spied a few blacks, Asians and even a few orcs amongst them.  All four Maidens were white.  Riding on a large white charger was the Inquisitor himself, his red cassock billowing in the cold, early morning wind.

The procession made its way to the town square, and the Inquisitor mounted the platform.  He looked at the courthouse and whispered something to an adjunct, who ran off to take care of whatever needed doing.  The flags in front of the courthouse were pulled down and reordered so that St. Peter’s key of the Papacy flew above the Stars and Stripes.

The Inquisitor opened with a benediction; everyone crossed themselves and bowed their heads as he prayed.  He gave a short speech, extolling the virtues of God and goodness–he said suffer not a witch to live at least three times.  The whole thing was finished by him hanging a dozen women for heresy, apostasy, witchcraft and other crimes.  None of them pleaded for their lives.  They already knew what their fate was.  Some of the remaining women and girls were crying.  The Zouaves had taken off their helmets, revealing their tonsures and shaved scalps.

Elizabeth stood on her tip-toes, but she couldn’t see Melanie amongst them.  Her stomach fell.

The Inquisitor dismissed the town with another prayer.  Father seemed upset and agitated, but he didn’t say anything on the walk home.


            It was dark out by the time Elizabeth returned home from practice.  Dark and cold.  The sun had set, and the world’s rings were visible on the southern horizon.  The rings of ice and dust glittered in the reflect light from the sun.  A tiny moonlet rose and set in the time it took Elizabeth to walk from the school back home, the chunk of rock zooming across the sky at speeds she couldn’t even comprehend.

It was cold.  She had her hands buried in the pocket of her sweater with her nose and mouth covered by the scarf wrapped around her neck.  Despite that, she could see her breath fogging in the cold air.

The bodies were still hanging in the town square, but Elizabeth didn’t look at them for long.  The Papal Zouaves and the Rosarian Maidens were bivouacked outside of Craftsbury, and the remaining prisoners were being held in the basement of the courthouse.  All Elizabeth could think of during class was Melanie.  The two had been life-long friends, but Melanie had run away a year ago.  Elizabeth assumed that Melanie gone off to join a coven or something like that.

Elizabeth’s home was on the outside of town.  It was a large, rustic mansion made from local timber with a heated pool in the back.  The Tran family was a large landowner, owning thousands of acres of old growth trees and apple orchards.  They owned one of the few automobiles in town, along with a large stable of horses and the only private inground pool in the whole county.

“Elizabeth, is that you?” Mother called out as Elizabeth closed the front door behind her.

“It is, Mother.”  Elizabeth could smell dinner, but Mother’s voice had come from the front parlor.  The servants must be here today.

“Come into the parlor, sweetie,” Mother said, solving that one.

Elizabeth took off her shoes and loosened her scarf before walking into the front parlor.  Despite the house’s rustic exterior, everything inside was sleek, modern and colored in neutral earth tones.  The sofas and chairs stood on narrow legs, and had sharps, angular edges.  The furniture was arranged in a small half-circle around a roaring fireplace.  Father and Mother were sitting on the sofa in the middle, and sitting next to them was a man wearing a blood red cassock.

The Inquisitor.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” the Inquisitor said in a voice that was surprisingly soft.

“Monsignor,” Elizabeth said, bowing her head slightly.

“A dutiful child.  I’ve come across dreadfully few in my years.”

Elizabeth raised her eyes to study the Inquisitor.  He was a white man, and judging by the lines in his face and his greying hair, he was a few years older than Father, who only had a few strands of grey at his temples.  The Inquisitor’s hair was almost entirely grey and cut short, and his small beard was mostly grey with a little black.  He still had a boyish look to him despite his obvious age, and his impish little grin was unsettling.  A black sash was tied around his narrow waist; he wasn’t a particularly large man.  He’d looked larger this morning when he was riding his charger.

“Elizabeth, go get washed up and changed,” Father said.  “Monsignor Humphreys will be joining us for dinner tonight.”

Elizabeth took the opportunity to retreat to her room.  She took a quick shower to wash the sweat off.  Her parents hadn’t told her what to wear, but they were having dinner with an Inquisitor from the Church, so she picked one of her Sunday dresses: grey wool and long sleeved.  Something simple and modest that the Inquisitor would have no qualms with it.

Everyone had retreated to the dining room by the time Elizabeth went downstairs.  She took her seat at the table, between Father and Mother with the Inquisitor across from her.  The servants came into the dining room with drinks and salads.  Hard cider for the adults and regular cider for Elizabeth.  There was a cinnamon stick and an orange slice in each glass.  The salads were tossed greens with tomatoes, dried cranberries, pecans and blue cheese.  Elizabeth poked at the salad and ate a few bites.  Her appetite had left her.

“Elizabeth is on the school’s passer team,” Mother said.

“Is that why you were late, Elizabeth?” the Inquisitor asked.

Elizabeth nodded her head.  “We had practice.  We’ve made it to the territorial playoffs.”

“You might make for a good Rosarian Maiden,” the Inquisitor said.  “Strong in body, strong in mind and strong in spirit.”

Elizabeth tried to say something, but she couldn’t figure out the proper words.

The Inquisitor laughed.  Like his voice, his laughter was soft and quiet.  “You have nothing to worry about, child.  Maidens are recruited from our orphanages and charities.”

Elizabeth looked back down at her food.

“Such a large house,” the Inquisitor said, “for only one child.”

“The older children have all grown up and moved out,” Mother said.  Elizabeth was the youngest of six children, but the next oldest sibling was still seven years older than her.

“Your youngest son is a seminarian, is he not?” the Inquisitor asked.

Mother nodded her head.  “Yes, Luke is attending the seminary at Immaculate College.”

“Immaculate College,” the Inquisitor repeated.  “The Jesuits always have such nice schools and they produce such civically minded priests.”

Elizabeth looked at Father out of the corner of her eyes.  He hadn’t said anything all night and he still seemed agitated and upset.

The servants brought the main course.  Smoked salmon with rice and asparagus.  There were slices of warm, crusty bread with apple butter.  Elizabeth’s mouth began to water and she felt her appetite returning.

The Inquisitor cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Tran, I noticed that you had an American flag in your front yard.”

Everyone froze at the Inquisitor’s comment.

“Yes,” Father said.  “We are Americans, aren’t we not?”

“But we’re also Catholics.”

Pro aris et focis,” Father said.

For God and country.

“I must say, this is certainly a new one,” Father continued.  “When I was in college, someone once asked me if I had a portrait of George Washington or Ho Chi Minh on my mantle.  I’m sure you noticed that I have a portrait of the Christ on my mantle these days.”  Father wiped his mouth with his napkin.  “Four generations of Trans have served the United States of America.  My grandfather was a Minuteman and died on some airless rock in the Titans’ Halo.  My father was a Zouave until losing both legs at Guernica.  I marched with Father Braxton through the Briarpatch, and I have one daughter in the Minutemen and one son in the Faith Militant.”

“I’m not questioning your patriotism, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  Elizabeth was confused.  Father was as patriotic and pious as they came.

Father raised an eyebrow.  “Then what?”

Pro aris et focis,” the Inquisitor said.  “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”

“But yet millions of Americans choose both,” Father said.

“You’re the chairman of the local Committee of Correspondence, are you not?” the Inquisitor asked.

“And I’m the treasurer of the local Knights of Columbus.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  “I’m not questioning your patriotism to your country or your piety to your God.  I’m just curious as to God or country.”

“Both,” Father said.  “I thought the United States was God’s chosen country.  I thought Americans were God’s chosen people.  I don’t believe the interests between the two can be divergent.”

“An apt answer, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  “I’d heard you were critical of my methods here last night.”

“We cannot suffer a witch to live, I agree, but were the public executions necessary?”

“Public executions of witches is an American tradition, is it not.”

Father tapped a finger on the dinner table.

Mother was the one who responded.  “Robert just doesn’t agree with violence.  He’s a bit of a pacifist sometimes.”

The Inquisitor nodded his head and returned to his smoked salmon.


            Elizabeth had trouble sleeping that night.  All she could think about was the Inquisitor and the attack on the coven.  When she was awake, her mind was fabricating terrifying images of Melanie’s final moments.  When she was asleep, her mind put her in Melanie’s shoes.  She woke up in a cold sweat and her body shaking.  She turned over to face the window, pulled her knees into her chest and sighed.

Morning finally came, and Mother allowed Elizabeth to sleep in.  It was Saturday and she didn’t have practice today, so she lay there staring at her window and watching as the sun climbed above the Oak Ridge Mountains and into the sky.

Elizabeth got out of bed and got dressed.  Leggings, leather boots, flannel shirt and a fleece jacket.  Father was still asleep, but Mother was awake and listening to Tyler Bass in the kitchen.

“Are you going somewhere?” Mother asked.

“I want to go for a ride,” Elizabeth answered.  “I need some fresh air to clear my mind.”

“I understand that,” Mother said.  “You should have some breakfast first.”

Elizabeth sat down at the table and her Mother got up to make oatmeal.  “Mother,” Elizabeth said quietly, “is Father in trouble?”

“What do you mean?”

“The conversation with the Inquisitor last night.”

“Your father isn’t in trouble,” Mother answered.  “He’s just known in the diocese for having certain…opinions.”


“Yes, your father has opinions on how to handle witchcraft and the Marxian heresy,” Mother said.  “You shouldn’t worry too much about it, sweetie.  Your father is a personal friend of the bishop’s.”

“The Inquisitor didn’t trust Father.”


“Because we’re Vietnamese.”

Mother didn’t say anything.

“It is, isn’t it?” Elizabeth repeated.

“Life isn’t fair, sweetie,” Mother said.  She put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head.  “The only one who’s fair is the Lord.  Christ will protect us.”

Elizabeth nodded her head, her mind filled with questions, but it didn’t seem like the proper time and place to ask them.

“We’ve been tainted by the sins of the Viet Minh, and the Church has a long memory.”  Mother began to stroke Elizabeth’s hair. “But remember what Christ said during the Sermon on the Mount.”

“Jesus said a lot of things during the Sermon on the Mount.  It spans three chapters of Matthew.”

“When they strike you, turn the other cheek.”

“Even if they come at you with the entire weight of the Inquisition?”

Mother pulled her hand away from Elizabeth’s hair.  “Especially then.  Even if they kill your body, your soul will survive.  Your faith will make sure of that.”

Elizabeth nodded her head.  “Yes, Mother.”

“The Inquisitor was right about one thing.  You are a dutiful child,” Mother said.  “I’ll pack you a snack for your trip.  How long do you expect to be gone?”


            There was a single federal highway that ran through Craftsbury; it headed east out of the Oak Ridge Mountains towards the foggy port cities of Innsmouth and Barnstable and west deeper into the mountains and into coal country.  Smaller roads branched off from the federal highway, and they ranged anywhere from narrow paths between the trees that were unmarked and known to only hunters and trappers, all the way up to wider roads made of packed dirt and gravel that were maintained by the Territory’s government.

Elizabeth selected a pony from her family’s stables, saddled it and rode off.  She traveled on the soft shoulder of the federal highway for a few miles before veering off onto one of the packed dirt roads that snaked its way up and over the mountains.  Mother had packed her apples, hard cheese and nuts along with some apple tarts wrapped in wax paper.

It was a chilly morning and while a part of Elizabeth was wishing that she’d dressed warmer, she was hoping that the sun would come out and warm the day.  That was proving to be a futile wish, though.  The grey clouds obscured the sun and the planet’s rings and kept the temperatures down.  She climbed to the summit of one of the mountains and paused for a moment to look down into the next valley.  Fingers of fog still clung to the valley floor, wrapping themselves around trees and climbing up their trunks.

Smoke from the coven was still rising into the sky the next valley over.

Elizabeth gave her pony a rest before continuing.  She gave it some water and oats while she walked in circles to stretch her legs.  She ate one of the apples and a few slices of the cheese as she did so.  Something was gnawing at her stomach, but it wasn’t hunger.  Was it fear?  Fear of what she would find at the coven?

Everyone had known about the coven, and everyone had reported it to the Church, whose resources were stretched thing as it was.  It had only been a matter of time before the Inquisitor arrived with the Faith Militant to burn them out.  The witches had always kept to themselves, but it was as the Inquisitor said: suffer not the witch to live.

Had Melanie been a witch?  Elizabeth didn’t know, and Melanie’s parents certainly never had the patience to answer her questions.  “Some friend I was,” Elizabeth said.  She hadn’t even known Melanie was having trouble at home and she certainly hadn’t known that Melanie would run away.  She hadn’t said where she was going, but there were scant few places a runaway girl could go in this part of the world.

Elizabeth continued the ride down the valley and then up the next mountain.  The fallen leaves were matted to the ground, made wet by the fog and the mist.  The trees were also denser and closer together the further from town.  Most of the land around here was publically owned by the federal government, and it was rarely maintained.

A wolf howled in the distance, causing Elizabeth’s hear to turn to ice.  Wolves weren’t entirely unknown out here, but they were so rare that whenever one was spotted, it was major news.  She hadn’t heard anything about wolves in the area.  The pony didn’t seem to notice anything, so Elizabeth shrugged.  “Maybe I’m just imagining things,” she said.

Elizabeth found the ruins of the coven a little after noon.  She’d never seen the coven before it was burned down, but all that was left now were burnt ruins that were still smoldering and smoking.  It’d been a large building, set in a mountain meadow.  She tied her pony to a tree, dismounted and hesitantly approached the smoking ruins.  There were burnt bodies in the ruins, some of them nothing more than skeletons turned black by the fire.  She turned away and threw up everything she’d eaten today.

“Stop right there.”

Elizabeth looked up, wiping vomit from her mouth.  A young woman was stepping out of the forest with a battle rifle pointed at Elizabeth.  She wore ballistic leather and chain mail armor over a red cloak.

“Rats always return,” the young woman said.  As she stepped closer, Elizabeth saw that she was no older than her with a shaved head.  Her skin was dark brown and her eyes were blue and almond shaped.

A Rosarian Maiden novice.

Elizabeth took several steps back, tripped and fell backwards, scrapping her hands.  She tried to explain herself, but she only stuttered, her tongue suddenly turning to sand in her mouth.

“Sister Magda,” a second voice called.

“I’ve found one!” the young woman said. A second woman stepped out of the forest.  She was dressed identically to the first, but her hair was longer.  Sister Magda looked at her companion over her shoulder, and Elizabeth saw the rose tattooed at the nape of her neck.  “A rat has returned to the den.”

“She’s a bit late, don’t you think?” the second Maiden said.  Elizabeth was shaking as the second Maiden stood over her.  She put a fist on her hip and smirked.  “Today is not your lucky day, heretic.”

“Please, don’t,” Elizabeth said quietly.

The second Maiden reached down for her, but she was thrown backwards.  Sister Magda raised her battle rifle and fired several shots.  The rifle was deafening.  Elizabeth closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands.  She found herself instinctively saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again.

Everything felt very still.  Elizabeth moved her hands were ears and opened her eyes.  The Rosarian Maidens were gone, and the only sound was the wind blowing through the trees.  A few leaves fell from an oak and gently spun towards the ground.  She turned her head when she saw something out of the corner of her eyes.  It was a faint apparition floating a few feet next to her, looking like the negative of a shadow.

“Melanie?” Elizabeth asked.

It was hard to tell.  The apparition certainly had human features, but they were faint.  To Elizabeth, it looked like Melanie.

Elizabeth stood up on shaky legs.  “Melanie, is that you?  What happened?”

The apparition turned away from Elizabeth and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees.

“I miss you,” Elizabeth said.  “Things just haven’t been the same since you left.”

The apparition began to float into the sky, and Elizabeth watch it in silence.  She wiped away her tears and was about to turn away when she saw something glinting in the faint sun.  She bent down and saw a small crucifix on a gold chain.  It was similar to one that Melanie used to wear.  Elizabeth bent down, picked it up and squeezed it in her hands.

“Thank you,” she said, putting the crucifix around her neck.