Jackie Keswick: Joy

Oh my. This lovely story featuring dragons really caught me by surprise – both the twist in the, um, tail, and how emotional it was. Definitely joy! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and if you fancy finding Jackie’s other books then don’t forget to check out her website.


Pic credit: Sarah Richter Art on Pixabay.com

Ducas left the village before daybreak, quietly, and without the cheers that had marked his arrival. The forest-clad mountains grew ever closer until he found himself under a canopy of trees. He chose a path and followed it uphill, dismounting when the trail became too treacherous for riding. Leading Harun, he picked his way over tumbled rocks and fallen trees, stopping to catch his breath in the small pockets of lush grass and sunshine that broke the gloom of the forest here and there.

No birdsong disturbed the silence under the trees. No breeze rustled the leaves. And for all the hours he walked, Ducas saw not a single animal.

Halfway up the mountain Ducas smelled smoke, not the hot, choking breath of a hurried blaze, but the woodsy aroma of a fire that had been kindled to warm and extinguished when its comfort was no longer needed.

His heart hammered, not with exertion but with a mix of fear and excitement.

After years of searching, he’d reached a place of fire and smoke. Of fire that roused and died at will. Of fragrant smoke and comforting warmth.

A place of… dragons.

They were there, right in front of him, in one of these queer, oddly lush clearings. Four great, towering beasts surrounded a fifth in a semicircle, all multi-hued scales, long necks and eyes that tracked his every move.

Ducas dropped Harun’s bridle, and the gelding stood as entranced by the sight as Ducas himself. This wasn’t a dream, wouldn’t end with Ducas waking cold, alone, and bruised from head to foot. This time, he could step forward and touch the dragons if he dared.

He burned the sight into his memory until the dragon in the centre—the smallest of the five—raised his head.

“What brings the dragon slayer into our woods?” he asked in a voice that was entirely human, though lower and somehow warmer. “You are Ducas, the dragon slayer, are you not?”

Ducas gestured to himself and Harun. “And yet, I bear no weapons.”

One of the larger dragons rumbled – a warning? A threat? – and the small dragon shot him a look. “We noticed you leaving your weapons before you started the climb. It does not explain your presence or your reputation.”

For six long years, Ducas had imagined this meeting. He had planned what to say many times and had discarded the words just as often. Faced with five dragons, all his reasons for seeking them out seemed spurious, futile, insignificant.

He sank to his knees, kept his back straight and settled his hands on his thighs, never taking his eyes off the dragons. “My reputation as a slayer of dragons is undeserved,” he began. “Nor did I earn the title. I was fourteen and not yet a man, when dragons killed my father and older brother. I’ve been seeking those dragons ever since, and knowing my past, people believed I sought revenge.”

“And you do not?” A note of curiosity had entered the dragon’s warm, soothing voice.

“I do not. My father and brother were evil bastards. When they destroyed the one bright light in my life, I wanted to die myself. Instead, the dragons came and killed my tormentors. I’ve been seeking those dragons ever since, not to kill, but to thank them. And to beg them to show me my love’s resting place.”

None of the dragons moved or spoke, but the forest, which had lain silent since Ducas had set foot under the canopy, suddenly rang with the rustle of leaves and sounds of bird calls. Before Ducas’s eyes, the air shimmered. Colours ran together like a spill of milk and water, and re-formed into a white-robed shape and a face Ducas hadn’t seen since the night his father and brother had surprised him and his lover.

“You, Ducas, are a better friend than I,” Xia said. “I should have come to find you long ago, only I was badly wounded and dragons heal but slowly.”

Ducas stretched out a hand and found it shaking with shock and wonder at seeing Xia alive, and with the memories of what he himself had endured to reach the dragons. Unfamiliar emotions burned his chest and clogged his throat, and it needed Harun, who’d been a colt when Xia and Ducas had become lovers to break the stillness that held them all.

Harun snorted and tossed his head, and then he pranced forward and bumped his nose into Xia’s neck.

Xia wrapped both arms around the gelding and swung himself onto his back, so very different from the boy Ducas had known, who’d shied from horses. Then Xia held out his hand and beckoned Ducas to join him.

“You can thank me later,” he said. “Once I’ve granted your other wish and have shown you where I live. You have earned the right to visit with the dragons.”

Ducas stared into the face that was familiar and not, listened to the voice that had deepened since he’d last heard it, and saw the thin white lines of scars that he remembered as bloody slashes. Overcome, he crumpled forward and let great, racking sobs tear up his throat. He hadn’t allowed himself to cry when his father and brother had killed Xia, had shown no emotion when the dragons had taken their revenge and left him behind.

He’d buried the rage and grief, regret and guilt deep inside himself, but he knew that if he ever wanted to look at Xia with equanimity, he needed to purge himself of all this poison.

He didn’t feel Xia settling beside him, didn’t notice when his head landed on Xia’s thigh and his tears soaked the dragon’s white robe. Curled into a ball, he cried as if the world was ending, and when his tears finally dried, he had just enough breath to whisper, “I loved you so much. I didn’t want to go on alone. But neither did I want to leave you to sleep unmourned.”

“And now you’ve learned that you don’t need to mourn him any longer,” an older, rougher voice spoke from behind him. “You’ve seen that he lives and that he is healing. Will you leave him now?”

Ducas pushed himself upright with the careful slowness of one carrying the weight of the world with nothing inside him to balance the load. “I came here to find Xia’s grave and mourn him until my time was done. I had the strength for that.”

Xia cupped his cheek and brushed a kiss across his lips, a barely-there touch that tasted like starlight. “You’ve had the strength and courage to find us,” he whispered. “Can you find the strength and courage to stay?”

Xia didn’t add with me, but Ducas saw the words hang in the air as if they’d been sewn onto a banner and thrust into the space between them.

The emptiness inside him filled with light and colour, and an unfamiliar emotion. He drew a deep breath, and when he leaned forward and covered Xia’s lips with his to accept, he knew that what he felt right then was… joy.

Rebecca Cohen: Rough Flight

‘Rough Flight’ is a fun, fantasy flash fiction with a massive twist in the tail (which I honestly didn’t see coming when I read it) that Rebecca wrote for a Queer Sci Fi anthology a few years ago. Like this? Then why not check out her other books and writing at her website?


Pic credit: Country Life magazine

Flashes of light blazed across Kalt’s retinas. Already disorientated, his mind spiraled out of control, and an urge to move towards the brightness churned deep inside his third stomach. He should’ve heeded the advice of his third wife, or it was his second husband?

“Nothing is ever free, and the cheaper it seems the higher the price.”

His heart hammered and his throat constricted as he was engulfed in the torrent of white. After everything he had seen, the worlds he’d saved, and destroyed, it would end here. Alone, the buzzing in his ears the only requiem of his death as he left his mortal body and flew higher. The taste in his mouth reminiscent of lost good times, a tang of blood with a side of bitter tears. He swallowed past the lump of the untasted poison that had signed the final death warrant that no interstellar warden had been able to complete.

Kalt was ready. Bring on the afterworld. He would face it with the same relentlessness he’d enjoyed in life – once he could stand up without falling to his knees. His final journey in this realm would not be his last. He would spread his wings further in the next cycle, burn even brighter.

He held out his arms and waited for the collection. Something grabbed his wrist, he tried to scream and the next thing he knew he was face down, cheek against cold metal and a pair of boots at eye level. “For fuck’s sake, Kalt. I told you not to eat those gigaberries. You were tripping through hyperspace. You dick.”

Kalt rolled onto his back to see the unamused face of his current lover, Diflin, a rugged man with a sense of humor that needed work. “I’m fine. Just a rough flight.”

K. L. Noone: Alex and the Crime-Solving Werewolf

A blast of a story from K. L., who describes it thus:

This short story was written very quickly, pretty much on the spot, as a get-well fic for a friend, some time ago! Mostly I was trying to make them smile. I’ve sometimes thought about doing something else with it—Alex and Blake are such fun, and this is clearly just their first encounter—but it’s a little out of my usual genres, and I haven’t had the time to give it more attention. Still, I like it, and I hope you do too!


Alex Lyster was lying in a hospital bed, alternating between trying to sleep and not wanting to sleep and worrying about deadlines and wondering whether giving a main character appendicitis would be a good plot twist, given recent real-life experience, when his door slammed open and the werewolf burst in.

The werewolf had impressive shoulders and shaggy brown hair and angry eyebrows over ink-pool eyes; he was wearing a nicely fitted suit in a way that suggested he didn’t enjoy it, and he snapped, “Blake Forrest, FBI. What do you know about the cancelation of MysteriCon 2023, and why do you smell guilty?”

Alex was definitely no longer trying to sleep. And probably shouldn’t be enjoying the shoulders and the angry competence and the undeniable presence, at least not quite so much. It was an annoyed kind of enjoyment, because the sexy werewolf FBI agent had shoved his door open and was yelling at him, but his day had inarguably become a lot more interesting.

He sat up more. And folded the blanket over his lap. “Nothing, because I’ve been in the hospital. Busy, you know, getting my appendix out. I canceled as their Guest of Honor yesterday.”

This earned him a noise in response. It was almost a growl. Alex’s spine did a little shiver, thrilled by danger or want or both.

The werewolf FBI agent said, “If you were ill, why do you feel guilty?” and began glaring around Alex’s hospital room, presumably looking for clues, or simply very irritated with nondescript chairs and beeping monitors.

Alex crossed his arms. “Because I had to cancel, and I feel terrible about that? Also, I think interrogating a suspect using meta-human senses, without disclosing your meta status beforehand, is illegal under the Extra-Sensory Perceptions Enforcement Act of nineteen-eighty-eight, thanks.”

The werewolf—Agent Forrest—stopped in the act of glowering at the underside of Alex’s bed to turn the glower on Alex himself. His eyes smoldered, which was not a phrase Alex would normally have written into action-packed thriller crime novels. But they did. “How did you know—”

“About the Enforcement Act? Public knowledge.” He threw the werewolf a smile just to be annoying right back: every drop of golden youthful brazen charm he could muster. “Plus, mystery writer. How did I know you’re a werewolf? Apart from the whole announcing you could smell me line, you mean?”

Agent Forrest had enough self-awareness to look mildly embarrassed about that. “If you haven’t done anything wrong—”

“I don’t have anything to worry about?”

“You canceled less than twenty-four hours before the entire convention apparently ceased to exist, and attendees lost their entire—”

“What division do you actually work for? How to make friends and cross-examine people just out of surgery?”

Agent Forrest paused again. His nostrils flared. “You do smell…”

“I told you, they took my appendix out. You want to see the incision, too?”

“No. I…” Those intense inkwell eyes hesitated, skimming Alex’s face. “You almost died, didn’t you?”

“Yes, because, according to my agent, I’m an idiot who ignores massive painful warning signs and then gets on a plane to Seattle. Does that exonerate me from whatever nefarious plot you think I’ve come up with?”

Agent Forrest stared at him for another second or two. Then muttered, “Maybe,” and turned about and stomped out of Alex’s hospital room. And slammed the door behind him. Hard.

“Okay,” Alex said to the suddenly much less occupied space. “Okay.” And then he looked around for his bag, and a notebook, and his phone.

He had an idea or two. He had the contact information for the convention’s organizer, or the woman who’d claimed to be, who’d invited bestselling author Alex Lyster to speak; he also knew some of the volunteers, who’d helped out with previous convention years. He was thinking about the brand-new organizing committee, and the new tech team they’d brought in. About people no one had known, not even by reputation.

He also wanted to make some notes. He did not normally write much paranormal crime, but he’d done one or two; sometimes that was what a story wanted to be. A new hero, maybe. Tall and dark and grumpy. Dangerous, but sensitive. With broad shoulders and extremely intense eyes.

About an hour later, Agent Forrest reappeared. Once again, he did not knock, though he’d lost his suit jacket someplace and rolled up both sleeves, white fabric against tanned skin, delicious. He opened the door and said, “I talked to your surgeon.”

Alex surfaced from scribbling notes about a werewolf private investigator firm. “I’m glad for you. Did you get his number? Are you going on a date?”

Pink flickered behind dark stubble—artistic stubble, too, which Alex considered unfair—and faded. “I do have his number. Work. Personal. Home. In case you need it.”

“Why would I need it?”

“If you’re in pain. If your stitches open. If you require more attention. If he’s an idiot and left a scalpel inside you—”

“A scalpel?”

Agent Forrest crossed his arms. Muscles rippled. “It happens.”

“Um. Okay.”

“I could tell you the statistics about—”

“Please don’t.”

“I also ought,” Agent Forrest said, with the caution of a man unused to the words, “to apologize? For earlier.”

“Oh, ought you.”

“I’m trying.”

Alex waved a hand. “Don’t worry. Mystery writer, remember? I like puzzles.” And attractive FBI agents, he nearly said. But didn’t. Self-control. Practicing it. “I have a present for you.”

Agent Forrest now appeared profoundly baffled, as if this were not the script he’d had in his head. Up close, and somewhat perplexed, he became younger: Alex’s age, or a couple of years older, maybe late thirties or barely forty, and confronted by new information. “When did you…why…you shouldn’t even…you almost died, yesterday…”

“I didn’t get out of bed. Is that concern? You look concerned. Sit down for this, it’s fun. Would you like the names of all the new organizing committee members, and their official convention-related emails, and, this is the big one, the email one of them sent to an external address, containing financial account information? With some interesting transfers?”

Agent Forrest stared at him more. And then, slowly, sat down. The chair creaked in protest.

“See,” Alex said. “A present.”


“I know a lot of the volunteers from previous years, and most of them weren’t happy with this weird takeover by a whole new group of organizers, claiming to have new ideas and all. And one of the previous committee members, someone who worked with the convention finances, still has account access.”

Agent Forrest leaned forward. Intense, alert, poised, and—protective? “You investigated. On your own.”

“I made a call or two. Not dramatic. I thought it might help. Does it?”

“Yes. You should be recovering.” He actually moved as if planning to take Alex’s hand, and then visibly seemed to think better of it. “I don’t want you hurt.”

“Neither do I, so we’re in agreement.”

“But you were investigating.”

Alex raised both eyebrows at him: yes, obviously.

“You…” Agent Forrest exhaled. Ran a hand through his hair. Muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “Humans.”

“My great-great-grandmother was a siren, I’ll have you know.”

This time the grumble sounded like, “Of course she was.”

“What was that?”

“I said,” Agent Forrest snapped, “of course she was. Luring people into trouble.”

Alex grinned. “You think I’m trouble?”

“I think—” Agent Forrest stopped, exhaled, scrubbed the hand through his hair again. In golden afternoon light, small lines lingered around his eyes. “I also brought you something. Here.”

It was a book. A paperback. Clearly used. “Unsolved Mysteries of Victorian London.”

“I thought you might be bored. And writers like…books. I didn’t realize you’d be attempting to give me a heart attack.”

“Because you care so much?” Alex looked back at the book. At ruffled pages, and warmth, as if it’d been left lying someplace in the sun, on a table or in a car, just this afternoon— “Is this yours?”

“No. It’s yours.”

 “You gave me your book. That you were reading. While you were waiting to talk to someone?”

“I thought,” Agent Forrest said, stiffly, “that I owed you an apology. For suspecting you.” His shirt was just on the right side of too tight, Alex decided. The tempting side. And his tie was loose. Drawing attention.

And the room felt warmer. Because an irritable werewolf agent had glared at Alex and accused him of some sort of crime, and then had fretted over him and worried for him and given him something personal, something real.

He said, “Thank you.” He meant it.

Agent Forrest sighed. “Again, I’m sorry. Long day. Not much sleep.”

“I get it. And, hey, I must’ve looked suspicious. Siren blood, crime novelist, canceling the day before a big—what, money laundering? Embezzling? Fraud-related crime?”

“We didn’t know you were a siren. But…yes.”

“I’m flattered, Agent Forrest.”

Agent Forrest hesitated again, and then said, “Can I introduce myself properly? Blake Forrest, Financial Crimes Unit, meta-human, werewolf.”

“Very formal of you.” Alex saluted him from the bed. “Thank you.”

“Do you take anything seriously?”

“Yes. My friends, my career, the fans who’ve lost a lot of money and who’ve been hurt by this. They’re who I write for.” He touched the book cover; he thought, this is serious. You giving me something of yours. A scent of yours, a belonging. “And I’m not much of a siren. It’s diluted enough to not even show up on the registry. Which is why you didn’t know.”

I should’ve known,” Agent Forrest said. “You’re—never mind.” He also bit his lip, and shifted in the chair. “I’ll let you rest.”

“I’m what?”

“Get some sleep. Are you in pain? Thirsty? Can I get you anything?”

“I’m good, thanks. I’m what?”

“I didn’t say anything. I’m leaving now.”

“They’re letting me out of here tomorrow morning,” Alex informed his retreating back. It was also a very nice back. Extremely so. “If you want to know. If you want more help with your financial fraud case and the mystery of the vanishing convention. If you want your book back.”

Agent Forrest paused halfway to the door.

“So I’ll see you in the morning,” Alex said.

“I…maybe. If I have the time.” He put his head on one side, studied Alex. “You’re smiling.”

“Excellent deductive skills.”

“I mean you smell like you’re smiling. Like…sunshine.” Agent Forrest did the hand-through-hair gesture again. Dark strands slid through his fingers, touched with one or two stray streaks of silver. “But you are tired. Get some sleep.”

“That’s cheating.”

“It isn’t. I’ve disclosed it. Rest, Mr Lyster.”

“It’s just Alex,” Alex told him. “Please. We’re sharing books and all, now.”

That earned a tiny evanescent grin, there and gone, tempted out for a second, and oh Blake Forrest was even more glorious when grinning. “I’ll see you in the morning. To ensure your safety. Since you’re recovering. And apparently asking questions. Without oversight or any consultation with the agent in charge.”

“Which is you. And you want me to be safe.”

Blake managed to both blush and glare at him again, which made Alex’s heart do an excited small flip, because yes, yes to the hotness and the hint of power and the protectiveness, please. “I take my responsibilities seriously.”

“I’m your responsibility now?”

Blake did the almost-a-growl noise again, and flung open the door, and vanished with surprisingly little noise, given annoyed werewolf size.

Alex looked back down at the book in his lap. His stitches ached a little, but not badly. His body felt tender, bruised, aware of recent last-minute surgery. But also alive, alert, awake. Intrigued, because he had a mystery and a tantalizing crime-solving werewolf, and he wanted both of those. He wanted them in a way that felt like possibilities, like questions that might have answers, a story unfolding, taking shape before his eyes.

Kaje Harper: Dance on the Edge

This week’s story is a lush, beautiful yet bittersweet fantasy tale set in a royal court. It reminded me of the early part of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, which is quite a compliment as that’s one of my favourite books. And I’m sure I’m not the only one willing Quicksilver and Jorin to their escape.

Don’t forget you can find all Kaje’s books and writings at her website – it’s well worth checking them out.


Jorin strokes gilded paint across my chest, and my skin wrinkles—an inch of loose flesh folding, then smoothing out. I swear I don’t flinch, but as always, he knows my thoughts.

“You’re still beautiful.” A breath across my ear.

“I’m already five years older than the last King’s Dancer.” No one can overhear, in the brief privacy of the antechamber.

“You work harder; you’re in great condition.”

“He worked.” The threat of death will do that to you.

Jorin hums quietly, calmly, as he runs a comb through my hair, coaxing it to curl.

I glance in the mirror. Is my hair thinning? It went silver in my twenties, and I’d turned that to a virtue. Quicksilver, the nobles call me. I stretch out a leg, flexing and curling my toes. The lamplight catches the honed shape of my muscles. Are my toes knobbier than a year ago? Surely more than five years ago…

Jorin touches my shoulder. “I hear your music.”

“Yes.” I stand, straightening the loincloth that hides just enough for decency and support. The door’s still shut, so I dare whisper, “A kiss for luck?”

“You don’t need luck. You’ll stun them.” Still, his lips brush mine, a soft glide, gone too fast.

The dance floor’s ringed with torches, their uneven light flickering off my skin. I wait for my cue, then glide across the smooth marble and kneel gracefully before the throne. The king lounges at his ease, eating a pastry. Flecks of cream dot his fleshy chin, but none would dare point them out to him. His personal slave-boy, a dead-eyed child, waves a long-handled fan in a rhythm he’ll maintain till he’s told to stop, or collapses.

The musicians play through my introductory measures, around and around, until finally the king glances my way and raises his hand. Into the silence, he says, “Oh, yes. The dancer. Entertain Us, Quicksilver. We’re bored.”

Bored is dangerous. Bored may need to be washed away with blood. I lower my forehead to the ground, without smearing my paint. “As Your Majesty commands.”

Control breath. Control movement. Control thought. I rise, smooth as water flowing, pose as the music begins. And dance.

I don’t remember the dance. I never do anymore. I go to a place outside myself and only return as the song dies, my arm reaching for the heavens, my foot an arrow’s point, breath wanting to heave my chest but held, disciplined, so the shine of light off my painted ribs is still and doesn’t betray the effort it takes. Hold. Hold.

This time, the silence at the end of the dance feels dangerous. There’s a hum of anticipation in the crowd, a rustle of people shifting, turning my way, that sends shivers across my skin. I play statue, and wait for the next words of my bored king.

I’m black-visioned from holding my breath, when he finally says, “How many years have you danced for Us, Quicksilver?”

I dare a breath, but stay silent. That was not an invitation to speak.

He chuckles. “We recall more than five. More than ten?”

Fourteen. I hold the pose. The room echoes with a gasp of drawn breaths, and I flinch. Has his hand has gone to his sword? He likes to kill things himself, when it’s safe. Can I attack him if he comes for me? Hurt him, at least, before I die? Or must I stay still and let the blow land, for fear that someone will tell him his anger should fall on Jorin after I’m gone? Ah, Jorin, love, I’m sorry. I pray to the fates he’s not watching. I know in my soul he is.

My heart’s racing, pulse thudding loud in my ears. Can the king hear it? Acid burns the back of my throat. My thigh muscles quiver and bunch against a lifetime of control.


I hold my pose.

“Amazing, to still please Us after all this time.” I manage not to sway in relief. The dark satisfaction in the king’s voice tells me he enjoyed the suspense and the taste of my fear. The sigh of released breaths in the crowd is no doubt music to him. “We’ll look forward to your next dance.”

A metallic rattle on the floor around me marks the nobles tossing me small coins. The floor slave will gather them, minus his cut. Perhaps it’ll be a good haul, making escape safer—bribes for guards, money for food and shelter and clothes, to hide us on our journey. Perhaps today’s bounty will tip failure into success.

Or perhaps we’ll die on some guard’s sword. No bribe can guarantee against betrayal. But I’ve stayed too long, cut it too close. I was set to go four years ago, and then Jorin appeared and I knew it had to be both of us, or neither. Four more years of dancing on the edge of a blade, seeming to spend tips on dainties and mead and trinkets, while hoarding every copper. I never told Jorin the risk I took was for him. He knew, though. He told me to go alone, once. I shut the words in his mouth with a kiss.

When I finally stand, the king’s gone. I was the last of the evening’s entertainment, and now he’s off to his women and his bed. A few nobles still wander out, heading to their own debauchery. The floor slave presses a small bag in my hand. It’s not very heavy. Perhaps they weren’t wasting much coin on an aging favorite fated to die soon. It’ll have to do.

As I reach the hallway, Jorin’s there, standing just inside the arch. The slave can see us, so I don’t look at him, don’t touch. But as I pass, on my way to the baths to transform Quicksilver into a common, frightened man, I whisper, “Tonight.”

K. L. Noone: Ember and Serenity

Here’s something a little different for the zine, but no less delightful. I’ll leave K. L. to explain all!

“Hello, all! This is something perhaps a bit different—it’s the opening scene of a work in progress, in fact! I’ve been poking at this one, on and off, for a while now; it’ll be a full-length novel eventually, high fantasy m/m romance, stand-alone, beginning in a library, with the theft of a book…and also a kiss.

I’ve been very much enjoying the writing of it so far, so I wanted to share the opening scene—I think it works fairly well as a first-meeting story, and obviously there’s more to come, but it’s a good (I hope!) intro to King’s librarian Ember and his book-thief, whose name, by the way, is Serenity…which is somewhat ironic, considering how much he’s about to, er, disrupt Ember’s peaceful night…”


Pic credit: Henry Be on Unsplash.com

Emberly Lyon, reshelving the third volume of Gruyere’s History of Empire, startled a book-thief in the back room of the King’s library at half-past three in the morning.

Ember, one hand still clutching leatherbound pages, blinked at the intruder in lantern-light. The book-thief recovered from surprise first, and demanded, “What are you even doing here?”

“I was—” Instinctive guilt—he’d always been capable of losing time in a book, about which Chance teased him mercilessly, in the way of younger brothers—lost out to baffled anger. “I’m the King’s librarian! What are you doing?”

“I don’t suppose you’d believe I wanted to borrow a novel of seafaring navigation, shipwreck, and improbable feats of adventure?” The book-thief had a voice that laughed: wind over water, copper chimes in arched doorways, melody in sunshine. Ember couldn’t see much of him in library shadow, only the glance of a single dark-lantern’s rays across slender build, petite height, dark hair.

And that laughter. Beckoning.

He glared. “No one’s allowed in here after hours. No one’s allowed in here without my permission. And you’re stealing that!” Book-walls spiraled upward around them, a supportive tower sketched in silken grey, gilt-lettered spines, curious hollow spaces. He and Chance had been filling in those gaps as best they could for the past three years; the late King Brassen hadn’t cared much for reading. Every volume, and not only those in the more valuable back room, was his friend. “Put it back.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. A commission, you see.” Light as chatter across a ballroom, casual as a rowing-party on the Sweetwater; but this river glinted with robbery and danger. The book-thief had quite sensibly worn dark grey and green, fitted and shadowy under a hood; he wasn’t tall, and his voice sounded cheerful and irritatingly blithe, caught red-handed. Literature-handed. Mid-narrative. “Did you say you were the King’s librarian? The King’s librarian is—” He stopped.

“Yes,” Ember agreed, “you were saying?” and shifted weight, ever so slightly.

He and Chance did, in some ways, look alike—the tilt of eyes, that straight Lyon nose, the expressions on his half-brother’s face that Ember had glimpsed on his own in a mirror—but most people never saw that. Never saw past the height, the shoulders, and his skin, midway between King Brassen’s aged tawny gold and the shimmering onyx of the Araly dancer who’d caught the lion’s eye. Chance had the late Queen’s fairness and got sunburnt under rainclouds. Ember had waited in his chambers with aloe creams for years, after Brassen ordered his only legitimate son to keep up on all-day hunts.

His book-thief must be new to Lyonheart. Any person in the city’s market would’ve known. The King’s librarian was the King’s bastard older brother, and at a glance they did not resemble each other.

Ember tended to get stares in that market less because of his coloring specifically—though that was a part of it; traders came by from the Southern Continent often enough to be unusual but not singularly so—but because he loomed. Couldn’t help it. Their father’s muscles.

“The King’s librarian is someone who spends his days indoors with books, I was going to say.” Pale eyes flickered over him. Up and down. Lingering, Ember realized with a shock of thrilled outrage, on his shoulders, waist, below his waist. He couldn’t tell what color those eyes were under the hood, only that they danced in a ray of lamplight. “You, on the other hand, should be rescuing virgins and valiantly slaying monsters in perilous forests. Have you seen your arms, lately?”

That tone was either genuinely honest admiration or outrageous flattery; Ember choked on unexpected absurd laughter. “I’m preventing a crime, aren’t I? Put it back, please.”

“Do you know how difficult it was to break in here? You’ve actually got decent wards up. How’d you manage that?”

“Valiant monster-slayer secrets. Learned in a perilous forest. How did you—stop that!” His thief had begun inching toward the rear—and open, he noticed—window. Lyonheart sprawled sleepily outside, dreaming with the restlessness of an island city-state in the hours before dawn. Morning marketers and broadsheet-vendors and primrose-sellers would be stirring soon, bakeries opening, the drifting scents of strong tea and hot pies and fish-hauls and the clatter of early voices like a hundred melodies at once. Beyond darkened windows the sea lapped at shore, purring, wine-hued.

A few streets down from the palace, etched in black-on-night along the harbor’s curve, he could make out the shabby old spires of the dilapidated Magicians’ College next to the taller newer symmetry of the University. He thought, as he always thought, home; and memories of creaky voices and dusty spellbooks and patched-up robes warmed his bones.

“Sorry. I thought you said I could go. I’m certain I heard that.”

His thief was having fun. Teasing. That laughter again. Ember narrowed eyes at him, stalked closer, and demanded, “How’d you get in?”

“Through the window. And I’d quite like to get out again, so if you’d not mind, I’m trying to borrow a book from your library, which I believe you’ve opened to all visitors—”

“Borrow implies that you’ll bring it back. Visitors come in during open hours.” He put a hand on the book in question; his thief had been attempting to tuck it into a bag. An antique volume. One of Flint’s histories of magic in Lyonheart, volume one, all the way back to the Crossing and the First Kings. The copy itself was fairly old, but they had older; it did not have a jeweled cover, though it did have real gold leaf in illuminated capitals. “Visitors check in at the front gate. So I know who’s in the house.”

“You enjoy knowing who’s here?” His book-thief had dark hair, black or brown; he’d tied it up, but stray waves were escaping. “You enjoy knowing who gets to…come…into your library?”

Young, Ember thought; not a boy, but youthful enough to be reckless, to dare consequences, to twirl on a tightrope. To laugh.

Despite the book between them, they were close enough to touch. Close enough for heat in the night.

And that night crackled: awake and conscious of every sense in a way he was not sure he remembered ever having been. The closest might’ve been the time Chance had come down with summer fever and almost died and not died, opening exhausted eyes and finally seeing him; this was not that emotion but nearly so, a kind of stunned relieved recognition, a quickening to life, the leap of joy in his veins.

His book-thief’s lips had parted, soundless now, gazing up. He’d had to tip his head back to do so; and they stood framed by fourteenth-century political discourses for a moment, caught out of time.

The young man went up on tiptoes, sudden and sweet, and kissed him. A thief’s kiss, a bandit’s kiss, dazzling as sunrise and as audacious.

The young man tasted like cherries, and possessed bones as light as a bird’s, no weight at all against him, and had soft bouncy hair; Ember knew this because apparently his hands had slid into it, pushing back that hood. The book was trapped between them. It held heartbeats and pressed edges into his chest.

The young man drew back, laughed briefly—wondering, as if surprised—and kissed him again, deeper this time, tongue sneaking out to explore, to lick, to drink him in. Ember made a noise, or one of them did, and pulled him closer and met playfulness with strength; his thief outright moaned, shameless, and actually leaned into him, eyes closing.

Warmth flooded through the library, and hummed in his blood, in that welcoming response where their bodies met.

Chilly air rampaged in. Emptiness. No more lips on his. Ember blinked, panted, fought for equilibrium. One hand on the bookshelf.

“I’m really very sorry,” his thief said from the window, perched on the sill like the nightingale he might’ve been, lightweight and song-voiced, “that was—that was—well, you’re not anything I expected. From the King’s librarian. Good night, my valiant monster-slayer.”

He vanished. Out of sight. Doubtless with a rope, a ladder, a daring swing across kitchen-gardens and courtyards. Ember hadn’t recovered enough to go after him.

The young man had taken the book, too. Of course he had. A book, a kiss, Ember’s ability to think about anything other than that kiss. Neatly stolen.

The palace—Lyon House to everyone besides the most particular; it’d been Brassen’s great-grandfather who’d called it a palace, and it wore the name rather sheepishly—opened onto the public square. That laughter, that quickness, would be long gone.

Ember stared at the night. He caught himself lifting a hand to his lips; and then he laughed a little, too, astonished.

Jeff Baker: In the Caves

Real Life TM has intervened temporarily which means I’m not getting time to update the zine quite as often as I’d like. However, this should calm down soon and in the meantime, here’s another cute little story from Jeff, as part of his Marogas Hills tale. I hope you enjoy it – and don’t worry, Jeff assures me there’ll be another episode soon!


Pic credit: Tsvetoslav Hristov

            They had climbed the hills and found a passage between two of them when the sun came up. There was an area like a natural bowl made of hills and a steep rock wall in the middle of the hills.

            “There,” Zinack said, pointing to a clump of dark green bushes amid the rocks. They could see  a patch of darkness through the thick greenery.

            “The caves?” Zayas asked.

            Zinack nodded and signaled for quiet. Zayas wondered why, if they were alone.

            They climbed over the rocks and past the brush to a low opening in the reddish stone. Zinack pointed and Zayas followed him into the cave. Once inside, Zinack breathed a sigh of relief.

            “We should be safe now,” Zinack said. “Even if they track us, they won’t be able to come in here.”

            The inside of the cave was about the size of the back room they usually slept in. The roof was low and Zinack stretched his arm up and touched the roof. Zayas looked around; there was what looked like a tunnel toward the back of the cave.

            Zayas was going to ask something when he felt a breath of wind from behind him and heard a sound. A deep sound, like a huge animal breathing. Then there was another rush of air.

            The cave was breathing.

            Zinack nodded. “There’s a wind hole a little further down the cave. Just steer clear of it if we have to go in deeper.” He felt along the walls of the cave and peeled what first looked like shadow but was a black moss. He sniffed it and smiled, then he tore the sheet of moss in half.

            “Here, have some of this,” Zinack said, handing it to Zayas. “It’s good as long as it hasn’t gone yellow.”

            Zayas cautiously tried the moss. It was surprisingly salty but tasty. He hadn’t eaten anything since their rations at sunset.

            “This is good.” Zayas said. “How did you know about edible cave moss? Did that water cave monk tell you about it?”

            “Something like that,” Zinack said. “I read about it when I was in school. The monk confirmed it would be here.”

            Zayas shook his head. He had never learned to read, it was not considered necessary for a slave to read but Zinack had not always been a slave.

            “We’ll be safe here, but don’t try to step out of the cave,” Zinack said. “We’ll figure out where we’re going after we’re sure nobody is tracking us.”

            Zayas nodded and finished eating the moss.

            Zayas woke with a start.

            The angle of light from the opening meant he had been asleep for a few hours. He was huddled up next to Zinack, his soft breathing and the breath noises of the cave had lulled him to sleep. It must be near Middle-Day.

            He reached up and put his hand on Zinack’s shoulder; he was still asleep. Zayas realized he was staring at their bare arms where the binding tatts had been. Zayas realized he couldn’t remember sleeping this late, or even being allowed to sleep this late. He smiled as he lay his head back on Zinack’s chest.

            He heard a sound form outside the cave. In the distance but getting closer. Talking. And barking. Trackers! And their dogs!

            Zayas shook Zinack awake and clamped a hand over his mouth and then pointed at the cave entrance.

            The sounds were coming closer.

            “We need to run.” Zayas whispered.

            “We can’t.” Zinack said.

            “To the back of the caves,” Zayas said scrambling to his feet and pointing to the dark hole in the far wall.

            Zinack grabbed his arm. “No. We can’t go to the lower caves. They are back there.”

            “They?” Zayas asked but Zinack hushed him. The sounds of the dogs were coming closer.

            “In there,” came the voice. “They’re in there!”

            Zinack clenched his fists. Zayas glanced around the floor and walls of the cave looking for rocks, branches, anything to use as a weapon.

            “I will die here before I let anyone become my master again,” Zayas muttered.

            They could hear the dogs and trackers just outside the cave entrance and even see their shadows. Then there was a low, guttural roar that swelled around them and then a cold wind from the back of the cave blasted past them almost knocking them over. They could hear the wind roaring outside the cave and see dust and leaves swirling in the daylight and then they heard the screaming of the men and the agonized howling of the dogs.

            Then the wind died down into silence.

            “The power of the Dal Lords,” Zinack said. He looked pale.

            Oh, Zinack, what did you get us into? Zayas thought.

            “We cannot stay here,” Zinack said. “By middle-week all three moons will be in the sky. We must leave here by then.”

            “Where do we go?” Zayas asked.

            “Toward the Moonrise,” Zinack said. “Along the edge of the desert. We will be out of the domain of our Master.” He shrugged. “That is all I know.”

            Zayas held Zinack and they kissed, but Zayas noticed Zinack was still shaking.


K.L. Noone: Openings

Here’s a little flash ficlet on the theme of ‘ink’ for your Friday reading delectation. I’ll leave it to K.L. to describe what’s going on (much better than I could!)

Hello, everyone!

Like Addison Albright’s “Cave Drawing,” this flash fiction story comes from Queer Sci-Fi’s annual flash fiction anthology—the 2021 edition was titled Ink, and all the contributions had to contain queer characters, stay at or under 300 words, be in some way about the theme of “ink,” and fall someplace in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, horror, or speculative fiction.

Though romance is technically optional for the anthology, I am at heart (oh, that was nearly a good joke, about romance and hearts) a romance writer: I love stories about people finding each other, and happy endings, or in this case hopeful beginnings.

So “Openings,” below, is fantasy: about bibliomancers falling in love, and the way writing can be a spell.


Pic credit: Geralt on Pixabay.com

“It’s an opening-spell.” Cyan traced spidery black ink like thorns. “A powerful one. No wonder it’s scrambled. No accidental use.”

“Can you solve it?”

“Of course. But I don’t know that I should.” He regarded the librarian who’d brought the scroll; Harrington Burke had short sandy hair and intelligent blue eyes, and had tackled cataloguing the late Duke of Gyre’s eclectic hazardous library with cheerful expertise. Cyan, tall and dark and awkward, the youngest professor at the Magicians’ Convivium, felt himself grow more clumsy and incoherent each time they met.

Harrington had first sought him out to get a bibliomancer’s advice about a troublesome grimoire. Cyan, startled amid book-boxes in his brand-new office, had found himself breathless at sun-hued friendliness, knocking at his door.

He did not know what to say now. Touching letters, he caressed power from a long-ago enchanter’s pen. Ink gave ideas body, shape, threads weaving past and present and future; this ink held puzzles. It tempted his magic.

Harrington raised eyebrows. “Dangerous?”

“All words can be. But think about being able to open anything, one time. Anything.”

Harrington’s expression changed. “Don’t solve it, then.”

“I won’t.”

“D’you want it? For the Convivium Library. Magical.”

“Oh,” Cyan said. “Yes, probably. I’ll ask. Thank you.”

“Should you keep touching it?”

Dangerous, indeed. He put it down. “Probably not. Thank you again.”

Harrington lingered. “There’s ink on your thumb.”

“Earlier. A copying-spell.”

“Ah.” Harrington swung away, turned back. “About openings. Taking risks. Here. For you.” He dropped a folded page onto Cyan’s desk, and vanished.

Cyan, perplexed, unfolded paper. Graceful violet script inquired, Dinner, with me, tonight?

Bashful wanting lingered in the writing: a form of asking Harrington’d hoped a bibliomancer might like.

Dinner. Possibilities. An opening. Magic, Cyan thought, feeling himself begin to smile. Given voice in ink.

Jeff Baker: All the Pleasures Prove

A magical short story (in more ways than one!) involving love, spells, and dragons. This is part of Jeff’s Food Garden Court series – don’t forget to check out his website for more.

As Jeff himself says, “The Food Garden Court and its denizens were created for a flash fiction picture prompt site (“Friday Flash Fics”) with the picture being a garden-area food court. I’d worked in one so a magical mall in a magical world seemed like a fun idea. I’ve written three earlier stories and the idea of Skid and T’amec being more than friends just popped into the most recent story, despite hints in the other two. It was fun exploring their relationship as well as the usual mall strangeness. Thanks for reading!


Pic credit: Laith Abushaar on Unsplash.com

            The banners that hung around the Food Garden Court proclaimed “Dragon Sale.”

            Skid and T’amec spent some of the lunch rush assuring customers that the pet shop sold live dragons, but that Food Garden Court in the Mall wasn’t selling dragonburgers.

            “Wish the signs had been more specific,” T’amec grumbled.

            Skid grinned as he refilled the broth canister and gave an extra glance to T’amec’s lean, lanky frame. He’d been working there for over a year and had only noticed him like that in the last few months. T’amec saw him, smiled and gave Skid’s shorter, more muscular body the once over. He’d been feeling the same way.

            When the lunch rush was over, Skid and T’amec sat at one of the tables in the Court under a potted palminor tree and resisted the urge to tell passing mall customers they were eating dragon salad sandwiches.

            When they finished, Skid got serious.

            “Hey, I enjoyed going to the micaball game with you the other night,” Skid said. “In fact, I like doing about anything with you lately.”

            T’amec blushed. “Thanks,” he said.

            Skid took a deep breath. “But what if it’s not real?” Skid said. “The way we feel.”

            “You mean, like magically not real?” T’amec said.

            “Yeah, what if this is just magic and we don’t, y’know…”

            Skid left the line hanging there. T’amec slid his hand across the table to grab Skid’s hand.

            “What if we start officially dating and, y’know, get married and a year later ZAP! The spell goes away?” Skid said.

            “What got you started worrying about this?” T’amec said. “We’re taking this slow, remember? Got a good friendship and don’t want to wreck it, right.”

            “I keep thinking about that fae nest we took out a few months ago,” Skid said. “They enchanted you to do whatever I said…”

            “Yeah, I remember,” T’amec said with a shudder. “But that wasn’t a love spell.”

            “I know, but we had to kiss under the moonlight to break the spell.” Skid said. “And we both liked that, right?”

            “Yeah, but…”

            “But that was the first time we…I…felt something other than just being buddies with you.” Skid said.

            T’amec smiled.

            “So, in case this is some kind of residual fae magic, I wanna check this.” Skid said.

            T’amec sighed. “My Grandma knows this ritual with lilac leaves and goose fat to find if your lover is sincere and…”

            “We’re not checking for love, we’re checking for magic,” Skid said. “We’ll do it scientifically. We’re still on break and the Augur’s shop is at the other end of the mall.”

            “We can’t afford the Augur’s shop,” T’amec said.

            “We get a Mall Employee Discount, remember?” Skid said. “Plus, I have that coupon I won a while back. So let’s do this, okay?”

            The Augur’s shop was dim and dank with neon signs on the walls breaking up the dimness. They told the young Assistant Augur their problem and more importantly showed him Skid’s coupon. The Augur rubbed his goatee, checked the coupon and said that a residual fae spell was unlikely but they could check for magic or enchantment of any kind.

            The process was, as the Augur said “Simple, but yucky.”

            The Augur cut off a lock of each of their hair and put them in separate bowls. Then Skid and T’amec each spat on the lock of the other’s hair. The Augur made a face as he picked up the bowls.

            “Should have the results back in a couple of hours,” he said.

            “We’ll be back when we get off work,” T’amec said.

            The two of them were laughing and walking along the upper level of the mall along the tall railing pointing at the signs when a green streak shot past them from the lower level. It circled in the air above them and they recognized it as a small, baby dragon.

            “The pet store,” Skid said. “Some kind of promo?”

            T’amec was about to answer when a shrill voice called out “My Dragon!”

            A little girl ran up the stairs, eyes on the circling dragon.

            “Dragon! Dragon!” The girl ran past Skid and T’amec only watching the dragon. When the dragon swooped low and then flew over the railing of the walkway the girl lunged for the dragon and hit the railing and toppled into the open space above the first floor. Skid had run after her, afraid of what could happen and he managed to grab her leg with both hands, but the weight started to pull him over too.

            “SKID!” T’amec screamed. He jumped and grabbed Skid’s feet as he was pulled over the railing. Bracing himself with his feet against the base of the railing, T’amec was able to hold on to Skid’s legs until several passers by were able to pull both Skid and the girl to safety.

            The little girl’s mother had run up and was holding her and scolding her through her tears.

            T’amec and Skid sat on the floor by the railing sobbing and kissing.

            “I love you. Oh, my Oaths, I love you!” Skid said.

            “I love you too,” T’amec said. “And you know,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t think we need to go back to the Augur’s.”

            They were laughing, crying and kissing as the dragon circled overhead.

Jeff Baker: Toward The Marogas Hills

This week’s offering is a short story by fantasy author Jeff Baker. Toward the Marogas Hills is one of a number of stories he’s written set on an unnamed World of Three Moons, populated by descendants of Middle Eastern mystics who traveled there by magical means around our Middle Ages and Earth space travelers from our near future. It’s an intriguing mix, as I’m sure you’ll agree! And if you want to see more from Jeff, head for his website here.

Pic credit: Ebenezer42 on Pixabay.com

“Keep running!” Zayas said, gasping.

“Can’t!” Zinack managed between breaths. “Gotta slow down, can’t keep this up.”

“Hang on,” Zayas said, slowing and listening in the warm night air. “I don’t hear anybody behind us.”

“They usually don’t check the barracks until dawn,” Zinack said. He rubbed his bicep where it was sore. “How far have we gone, anyway?”

“Probably not far enough,” Zayas said, crouching down and breathing hard.

Zinack had been sold to Master Torras’ farm three years earlier. Zayas had noticed Zinack the first day; tall, tan, muscular, rounded shoulders, dark hair down to his shoulders. Zayas was shorter, blonde hair he kept close cut and muscles toned from a lifetime of forced labor.

Both young men wore the bands of servitude tattooed around their right biceps, identifying them as property. Within two weeks the young men were laying together while holding each other in the straw of the slave quarters at night. Zinack had been sold into servitude eight years earlier. Zayas had been born on Master Torras’ farm and never known any family.

Zinack had been sold by his family.

The two of them were both barely twenty-six summers apiece in age.

They dreamed of freedom. Of being free together. The dreams filled their days as they labored on the farm, hauling wood for the kitchen, clearing the quick-growing bramble bush and removing rocks from the fields of their Master’s expansive farmlands.

The bands of servitude kept them there. If they disobeyed, defied their Master or tried to run the ensorcellment in the bands would convulse them in agony. There was no way out until Zinack found one.

The salve had smelled very bad and the jar it came in had looked very old, the writing engraved on the front in characters which were written at odd angles. They had rubbed it on the bands on their biceps and within an hour, their bands of servitude had vanished from their arms, and with it, any way their Master had of summoning them if they ran.

They had crept out of the barracks and off the property as soon as they could. It felt like they had been running for hours before they took this long break, catching their breath on the flat plain a ways away from the property where they had been property.

Zinack reached over and felt Zayas’ sweaty tunic, then his shoulder. Zayas rubbed the arm and moved close, kissing Zinack and rubbing his body with his hands. They stood there like that for a few moments in the quiet night. Zayas sniffed the air, he could still smell the salve.

“Zinack,” Zayas said when they pulled apart. “Where did you get that stuff? The stuff that worked on our tattoos?”

“The Master had me go to the BuanHaeii Farm for something a few days ago. There was a water cave on the way, and an old monk living by it. He offered me the salve, and our freedom…” He looked down at the ground. “But I’ll pay a price. Later.”

“Price?” Zayas said. “What do you mean?”

“Dal Lords.” Zinack said flatly. “The monk said the salve came from the Dal Lords.”

“You traded one slavery for another!” Zayas said.

“Not yet,” Zinack said. “And we have to worry about getting away from the Master’s tracking dogs. The caves should do it.”

“Look!” Zinack said, pointing at the horizon.  There was an oblong golden moon rising in the dark sky. The other two moons were in their new phase. The young slaves had picked as dark a night as they could for their escape.

“It’s beautiful,” Zayas breathed.

“We could use a little more light,” Zinack said. “There!”

He pointed to one side of the moonrise. There was a dark bulk in the golden glow.

“The Marogas Hills,” Zinack said. “Caves, wind-holes. Too dangerous for anybody who doesn’t know where they’re going.”

“And you do?” Zayas asked.

He nodded in the near dark. “Part of what I paid for. Directions through the hills. Supposedly to a lost city, but really just the caves.”

Zinack shifted on his feet. The ancient Hoochoo Plain was firm and they would not leave footprints.

“Are you ready?” Zayas asked.

Zinack grinned and nodded.            

The two men ran towards the hills, briefly holding hands.

Chris Quinton: Equus Sapiens

For a complete change, here’s a clever little poem from Chris Quinton. It may be short, but it packs quite a punch! Chris also drew the amazing artwork that accompanies the poem. I hope you like both. If you do, you might want to check out Chris’s books, in a range of genres including fantasy and mystery, which you can find more details about on her Facebook author page.


“Thou hast the mind of a malicious child,”

a sorcerer once said to me.

I did not kill him out of malice,

but of curiosity.

To learn how he tasted.