Friday, February 26, 2016

Read Chapter 3 of Whispering Mist by Marley Kin



Imagine a civilization with a caste system that is shackled by an oppressive government and trapped by geological barriers, where the only means of escape is to join an underground community, to follow the cryptic guidance of an advanced race that lives on the far side of a perilous sea, which is veiled by a mantle of fog. Whispering Mist is the tale of Rayna, an ironically rebellious young woman, and Nyle, her treasonous yet honorable lover, and their quest for political and personal liberation. Supported by multiple subplots and comic relief, the central narrative is set between the intertwined worlds of Valaycia and Yugatania, which are ruled ambiguously by the alchemistic Vudaki, a godlike race of semi-benevolent beings who swim beneath and fly above the Sea of Smoke. As an epic fantasy, Whispering Mist employs a unique vocabulary to describe atypical creatures that populate an original world with two moons of different colors. If you seek an author who writes concisely with precision, Marley Kin will satisfy. If you seek an unconventional story, Whispering Mist will mystify.


While knitting a sweater, Celandra snuck an anxious peek at her husband. As she registered the thinning hair on his crown and the expanding grays across his temples, she felt old for the first time. With his thumb pressed against his lips, Gyan read a science book in a chair upholstered with the hide of a spotted milander. Recently, the Secretary of Technology promoted him to the rank of senior architect at the Hall of Science and Technology. A caring father, he was normally positive and rational, unless provoked, then his intense rigidity often canceled Celandra's need for peace, producing a tight atmosphere. On this occasion, their polar moods were especially extreme, charging the air with a desire for control that she could taste in their silence.
Like most wealthy families in Jelico, Celandra’s home was equipped with the Valaycian gift of electricity, but the lightning storm cut the power, forcing her to rely on candles and gas-lamps for light. Basha, their only son, was already dreaming in the wide bed that swallowed his small body. Rayna’s baby sister, Sheera, slept in the same sturdy crib that had cradled Basha, Rayna, and a long chain of ancestors before them. Oddly, they slept soundly, despite the thunder.
Celandra's family dwelt in Scarlet Hills, the pinnacle of prestige. She stopped knitting to admire Gyan’s ancestral home, realizing how much she needed the possessions that occupied her life. Each window was filled with a colorful array of stained glass, including the striking picture window in the living-room where she did most of her pacing. Every cabinet handle and doorknob she touched was made of blue gylion, a lustrous, semiprecious metal, as light blue lace embellished the various fabrics that dressed every room. The entire collection of handmade furniture held the family secrets of nine generations. Her home embodied comfort, yet something was missing.
She watched her brother, Keegan, sway in the squeaky, ashwood rocking-chair, with his sky-blue eyes half shut, his long gray and black beard narrowly concealing the modest smile that accented the creases in his face. Still young in spirit, Keegan was fourteen years older than Celandra, her only sibling. She contemplated her brother’s attitude about material things; he was both detached and generous. Rayna’s values were almost identical to Keegan’s, and that understanding infested her with dread. What bothered her even more was Rayna’s intense love and admiration for Loreen, Keegan’s beloved wife.
Footsteps on the porch impelled Celandra to abandon her knitting. She looked at Gyan and Keegan with a forced smile. “I hope this night has a happy ending.”
Gyan dropped his book. Keegan stretched his smile and rocked in the elderly chair.
The front door swung open, and Rayna rushed in with the splash and grace of a skifish as Evak swam close behind. She slipped off her sandals, pushed her tangled, auburn hair out of her face, and they entered the living-room where a gold and purple sofa waited to engulf them.
The trio stared at the arriving couple, as the lamps and candles filled the room with wild shadows.
Rayna glanced at her father. She was cautious around him when it came to the subject of Valaycia. “I still have lots of questions, but it was thrilling.”
At times like this, Celandra always took her cues from Gyan, and tonight his eyes persuaded her to let him go first. Unfortunately, his authoritarian tone was a note too high: “It's easy to let the initial thrill excite your idealism, but it's important to keep things in perspective.”
Were you idealistic when you met them, Father?”
Gyan shook his head. “I went more out of scientific curiosity.”
Celandra saw her daughter look at Keegan, who nodded. His acknowledgment seemed to satisfy Rayna’s present need.
Gyan picked up his book and pretended to read, which he usually did at times like this.
As Rayna’s frown squinted her varicolored eyes, Celandra could smell the surge of rebellion that threatened to take possession of her daughter's mind, and panic assaulted her heart.
Evak tried to rescue the moment: “I regret not going to my visitation for the sake of curiosity.”
I can't wait to get my other gifts,” said Rayna with an obvious tone of rebellion.
Her father briefly looked up from his book to challenge his daughter with a stony glance.
Rayna met his eyes with a thin shade of defiance, then broke the brittle silence. “I think people should talk about this more openly, Father.”
Celandra braced her body for the impact.

Nyle studied Varacus, who sat on a stool, facing a microphone in a radio broadcasting booth that had a wall-to-wall glass window and new equipment designed by Valaycian Science. The Guardian squatted between the Sovereign and the single technician who hunched against the rear wall. Nyle stood outside the booth behind two engineers, who operated a virgin sound board, watching the broadcast. Jaleena stood beside him, apparently deep in thought, fondling the firestones that crowded her sparkling necklace, the reddish tint of her blond hair augmented by the jewels’ red blaze. Near the end of his speech, the Sovereign squeezed as much water as he could from the sponge of rhetoric. Still ruffled by recently ratified laws, Nyle deplored the new policies, knowing they would spawn more damage than good, and he regretted not opposing Varacus and Governor Korchek when he had the chance. Resolved to taking a stronger stance the next time, he had no doubt that another opportunity would shed its veneer soon enough.
Varacus inadvertently intercepted Nyle's attention by turning up the volume of his propaganda. “Tomorrow, Public Media will provide every publication throughout the Republic with an explanation of the new economic system to be implemented over the next twelve months.”
Nyle concentrated on Varacus’s shifting features, as the Soverign paused to rub his sandy goatee, his brown eyes searching the floor. Maybe he would say something embarrassing to ruin his credibility. Where was this unfamiliar contempt coming from? Nyle’s recent encounter with the Vudaki streamed through his mind, flooding his desire to fathom their enigma. His eyes wandered back to the Guardian, hoping to penetrate her cryptic powers, which were complicated by her eerie attunement to the Vudaki’s mere presence, a primal interest that rivaled his own fascination.
In addition to these improvements, I've also passed two necessary laws: one doubling the jail term for convicted rebels, and the other outlawing public protest and authorizing the establishment of a Grievance Council for citizens to voice their concerns about any government institution or activity. These changes are in the best interest of public–” Before he could finish his speech, the Sovereign was cut off, and a different voice stole the transmission: “End Oppression! Stop exploitation! Put an end to political manipulation! The Rebellion will not be silenced!”
Nyle watched Varacus bolt from his stool to lambaste the radio technician, who looked stunned by the rebels’ ability to sabotage the broadcast.
Varacus and the Guardian then left the booth.
That was an excellent speech, Governor, until the interruption.” said Governor Korchek.
The look that Varacus gave her in response was too complex to interpret, and Nyle almost laughed. Jaleena's flattery of Varacus always seemed a bit exaggerated and manipulative. On bad days, it was sickening; on this day, it seemed absurd under the circumstances. The Sovereign's delivery was flawless, his rhetoric impeccable, and the Guardian’s magic was growing stronger, but the Rebellion’s subversion would not be denied, no matter how perfect the empty pachalge was.

Keegan stopped rocking and leaned forward, but before he could speak, Gyan reacted without lowering his book. “Because joining the Liberation is unrealistic and most people know it.”
Celandra deflected her daughter’s likely protest. “It requires a lot of personal sacrifice to make the journey, Dear, and sometimes that puts too much stress on a person's family.”
And what about the strange man with blue skin? Why is that subject forbidden?” Rayna demanded to know. As if to emphasize her point, a rogue moonbird flew into the room. With barely a glance, everyone ignored the creature.
Keegan grabbed the space more swiftly this time. “It doesn't have to be.”
Gyan lowered his book and clenched his jaw.
The moonbird landed on a windowsill. Celandra looked at her husband pleadingly.
I agree with Rayna,” said Evak. “When I was growing up, I didn't take the visitation seriously. It always seemed like more of a legend because of all the secrets, so it might be better to talk about it more openly. And as a far as that stranger with blue–”
Gyan rested the book on his lap and intercepted the lead. “We don't know for sure if the liberators ever escape safely. Once they leave, they're never heard from again. For all we know, the Liberation Movement could be a fast trip to the graveyard.”
That's another good reason why we should talk about it,” said Rayna, tucking her bare feet between the sofa and her knees. “And the Vudaki never came to stop that man from–”
Ignoring the chirping moonbird like everyone else, Gyan spoke sternly. “The Lord Sovereign just passed a law forbidding public demonstrations, and he would much prefer that private debates take place in public forums.”
So much for the freedom of speech,” said Keegan with a smile.
What are they afraid of?” asked Rayna.
Chaos!” her father declared.
Celandra looked at Keegan, and she could tell by his face that he almost held back for her sake, but as her brother told her many times before, ‘At times like that, an unknown force seduces me into feeding the starving soul with the truth despite the bitter flavor.’ “No, they’re afraid of the truth,” Keegan proclaimed.
The emotional charge in the room crackled, and Celandra knew that Keegan was savoring the smell. She held her breath. The moonbird called to his mate, as he always did when lost and afraid.
Gyan arched his back and sat up straighter.
Rayna narrowed her eyes and tightened her lips.
I don’t think arguments like this are very productive,” said Celandra, trying, to no avail, to ventilate the shrinking space that was closing in around her.
Don't take advantage of the girl's vulnerability,” Gyan said, glaring at Keegan.
Keegan halted his rocker. “I'm simply trying to foster an open discussion, which is all–”
You're doing much more than that when you use words like the 'truth'!”, Gyan declared.
Keegan replied with more force. “Should I use words like 'unrealistic' or 'chaos' instead?”
Determined, as always, to maintain his authority, Gyan pelted from his chair and sent the book on his lap tumbling to the floor. “Where my family's concerned, in my home, yes!”
Losing control after many years of quiet frustration, Celandra sprang from her chair. “Stop it, both of you! I'm sick of all this fighting!”
Everyone looked stunned. The moonbird darted from the room.
Come on, Evak. I've had it too, but for different reasons.” Rayna stood up to leave. “Ambassador Taloras told me that Aunt Loreen's living happily in Valaycia, Father, and I believe her. Everything about my visitation was wonderful—The lady practically read my mind!” Rayna made for the front door, her bare feet pounding the floor.
Evak shrugged with a smile then followed her.
Gyan took two strides forward. “Rayna!”
She ignored her father, escaping the house with her loyal lover.
Keegan rocked in his chair again with eyes shut. Gyan took a deep breath, forcefully expelled the air, then stomped out of the room.
Celandra remained standing, unable to move. The moonbird chirped incessantly from afar.

Newly elected as Ambassador to Yugatania, Taloras considered the weight of her responsibility. Many knew Valaycia as a land of abundance and peace where freedom saturates every grain of sand. Many knew Yugatania as a land of greed and violence where fear invades every strata of social experience, and yet the people of Valaycia still longed for the day when the two rival worlds could be reunited, as they were two thousand years ago.
The Vudaki had peeled back their misty mantle, allowing Taloras a clear sky above the sea. She sat between Semanni and Danar on a timber raft that was driven by a sail and steered by a rudder, both of which were guided by the hefty arms of Melodius. Over the next decade, Taloras and the chancellors would comprise the Valaycian Assembly, guiding their people, as well as themselves, with as much humility as possible.
Although she felt Danar’s eyes upon her, Taloras continued to study the horizon. Poised to pierce the receding fog, the sun set to the west, where Rayna and Keegan dreamed of emancipation, and dreamed of Loreen. “Loreen's worried. Keegan is close to the age of retirement. And my brother . . . is leaving soon to attempt the Secret Crossing.”
Unknown to the people of Yugatania, Valaycia was also trapped by the mountains and the sea on all sides but one, preventing anyone from migrating beyond its borders. Nevertheless, every Valaycian was free to travel among the provinces of Manganeer, Kumeron, and Targonia at any time of day or night, for no longer than seven days, returning then to their homes for seven weeks to recuperate, until their next visit.
According to Valaycian mythology, the purpose of the Crossing was to reach the ancient city of Olamus, which was shrouded in the Valley of Mountains and cradled by three symmetrical peaks. Many believed Olamus to be a portal leading to foreign lands beyond the natural barriers. Others thought the legendary site was the home of the Vudaki, which Taloras doubted, and still others believed the city to be the One Source of life. The myth's only definitive claim was that any soul who could find the holy city would discover the secret of immortality. Many Valaycians have attempted to locate the elusive summit in the valley's mesh of mountains; some have returned disappointed, and some have disappeared. How many seekers had found Olamus was unknown.
The Chancellor of Targonia Province and the Chancellor Prime of Valaycia, Danar wore garments that were loose and simple. With tremendous vitality for a slender man of one hundred and fifty-two years, he reminded Taloras of his departed father, one of the few people in the land to live over two hundred years, and one of many who had disappeared. Danar said little, but when he spoke, reassurance poured from his words. “Varacus is devising an elaborate scheme.”
Taloras shook her head. “Sometimes I feel like turning their whole world upside down.”
I know it's tempting,” said Danar.
Taloras insisted, “There must be something we can do to minimize the harm.”
The Chancellor Prime hesitated. “Advise our guides to be more cautious.”
Nothing more?” she asked, splaying her palms.
We could give them a glimpse of the future.” said Semanni, lifting her long face. Like Danar, Semanni had little to say on most occasions; her purple eyes did much of the speaking.
Melodius stretched his thick lips into a smile. “That would be interesting.”
Not in the mood for a joke, Taloras quickly added, “It would also prevent suffering.”
Danar shook his head. “You know that’s not our way.”
Perhaps the age has come for our traditions to mature in new ways,” Taloras blurted.
Danar regarded her challenge before nodding. “Perhaps.” He held her eyes affectionately. “If you feel strongly, the ideal path would be to submit a proposal to the Collective Circle.”
A touch of humility swept through Taloras. “That won’t be necessary.” She dropped her gaze. “I may be struggling with doubt, but ultimately I trust your judgment.”
Taloras exchanged a warm smile with Danar before he changed the subject. “Any concerns about Maisun's meeting with Rayna?”
Semanni nodded her curly head gravely. “I understand she was quite skeptical.”
Known as the Merry Chancellor, Melodius flashed a wide grin and interjected with sharp confidence. “Like Taloras, Maisun has a talent for shattering doubt.”
Taloras could not help but laugh at his attempt to lighten her mood. “Like most of his predecessors, Varacus does a great job of fostering doubt,” said Taloras.
As his smile faded, Danar shared a serious concern. “Along with her keen mind, Rayna has a passionate heart that can burn wild if it's not harnessed.”
Taloras agreed: “Despite her sense of humor, I think we need a more sensitive approach. Otherwise, we could lose her to the Rebellion.”
The rebels may value freedom, but their commitment to peace is suspect, which is something she should know.” said Melodius.
As their simple craft neared its destination, Taloras informed her colleagues that the rebels were accusing them of waging a cold war, but no one responded to her latest report; instead, they stared at the glistening, inscrutable Altar of The Tides that loomed before them.
From her favorite vantage point on the beach, Taloras had studied the mythical pedestal numerous times during her long lifetime, dreaming about the sacred Rite of Transmutation she was about to witness, a ceremony that few people observed at close range. Jutting from the sea, a short distance from the shore, bolstered by a slender base that sprouted from its rocky roots on the seabed below, the circular platform was carved from the same purple rock as the magnificent formations scattered throughout the shallow waters that protruded like beauty marks from the sea's violet skin.
Melodius moored the raft to a hook that jutted from the edge of the platform, which rose to a height near his knees, since the tide was cresting, allowing him to hop onto the stone surface with ease. Taloras and the others joined him and formed a broken circle. Danar set the tone for the imminent event: “I’ve witnessed this metamorphosis many times, and it’s altered my understanding of life forever. May it do the same for each of you.”
The Chancellor Prime’s words warped the air, conjuring four Vudaki outriders from the water to drift in a tight circle around the four leaders. Taloras’s eyes slid across their smooth skin, admiring the dazzling patterns of green, yellow, and black stripes. Their orange and yellow eyes glowing like street-lamps, the cryptic beings opened their mouths to release steady streams of fire. As Taloras and her friends joined their voices to forge a high-pitched sound, a drove of blue fireflies appeared, hovering above the outriders to drink the amber flames.
Lowering her eyes, Taloras watched with reverence as a fifth ‘rider rose from the sea to pierce the ring of fire. The Chosen soaked up the heat, allowing himself to bake until he mutated into stone. Plummeting back to the sea to complete his transformation, the sacrificial ‘rider would soon recycle his life-force for his kin by joining the sweetrock that kindled the Vudaki’s collective inferno.

Upset from the clash with her father the night before, and craving another taste of the Bulakon's Zambori river, Rayna and Evak decided to visit the festive hamlet of Lurakoe. Under a dark sky, the lovers strolled along one of two parallel cobblestone sidewalks that bordered the river and its numerous docks and occasional piers. In this part of town, the only thing that separated the river from the sweltering jungle, in the near distance, was two parallel miles of raucous game-houses, gregarious dance halls, lively theaters, chatty taverns, whispering teashops, and quiet inns that waited patiently in the background.
She was captivated by the torrid tangle of greenery that spread its hot breath and wet skin across one third of Galamar's territory, before spilling into the Typhonic Ocean on the southern shore along with the twisting river that formed its spine. The jungle's western border sprawled thirteen miles into the State of Kryton. Born near the Frozen Peaks, the Zambori clove the state in two, and then surrendered its life to the ocean with its gorgeous beach of black marble sand.
Rayna’s linen blouse was damp, and the humidity forced her to tie her hair back with a leather cord. “My father’s getting worse. He’s so blind to what’s happening.” Absentmindedly, she veered left to cross one of the regular bridges, which connected one bank to the other, arching high enough for the taller river-boats to pass. “That's what I love most about my uncle. He's not afraid to tell the truth, no matter how hard it is to hear.” The soaring note of a soprano escaped a nearby concert hall to lift her spirit briefly.
Evak slid his hand along the top of a railing made of the ever-popular gylion. “I admire that, but he says too much to the wrong people, and that's a dangerous thing these days.”
Staying here is dangerous.”
You're right, but so is broadcasting it to the world.”
Rayna considered his words then reached over to hold her lover's hand. One of Evak's strengths was his sense of reason. “You're right. We should be careful, but I won't let my father stop me from being free. Like my uncle, I believe Aunt Loreen and Valeena are waiting for us in Valaycia. And we both have ancestors who escaped before we were born.”
Possibly.” The bobbing of his head seemed too reticent.
Rayna squeezed his hand. “It's true!”
All right, it's true.” He tenderly kissed her cheek.
She wondered if his sincerity was genuine. “I've always believed the magical folk stories I heard as a child about the land across the sea.” She interrupted her strides to face him. “And tomorrow at dusk, I'm taking my next step toward freedom, and if I have to do it behind my father's back, then I will.” Rayna lifted her head, searching for the lunar siblings, but the sky was drained of light. Instead, she saw a glowing oval of outriders flying by, too close for comfort. “Look! It’s them.”
There’s so many of them,” Evak exclaimed. “And there heading east, away from the sea. I wonder where they’re going.”
Spellbound by the Vudaki’s proximity, Rayna wondered if she would ever know the answer to such questions. Exclamations of awe erupted all around them, as other bystanders caught the Vudaki’s ghostly flight.
Still scanning the sky, he said, “Rayna, I have a confession to make. I waited till now because it's the perfect time.”
Reading his face with so little light was difficult. “Sounds serious.” She glanced at the sky.
It is.” Evak took Rayna’s wrists and pulled her closer with calloused hands. He never wore shorts, no matter how hot the weather. “You know how mad I was at my parents for not letting me go to my visitation.” Rayna nodded. “Well, around that time, I was complaining to my cousin Tonavan about it, and he offered me a better solution.”
Rayna released his hands and crossed the bridge to look down at the river’s heavy traffic. “I don't think I like where this is going, Evak.”
He asked me to join the Rebellion, and I said yes.”
But why?—You haven't even given the Liberation a chance.”
I hate it here as much as you do, Ray, but it makes more sense to fight for our freedom here than to work for years to escape to some place we've never even seen.”
Rayna faced him again. “But it's hopeless to change things here—You know that.”
The Rebellion's growing. Look what's happening in the other states.”
Her gestures kept pace with the force of her words. “And look what the government did—They're passing new laws to suffocate us even more.”
Rayna always knew when Evak was flustered because his hands became more animated. “Rayna, Sovereign Varacus and men like your father are trying to conquer the elements that keep us trapped in this geographic prison, so maybe they're waking up.” As a trio of people approached, Evak lowered his voice. “If not, the Rebellion can overthrow the government and make this a better place to live.”
His unwitting irony did not escape her. “That's more risky than what my uncle’s doing.”
She knew from the smile on his face that he understood her point. “The Rebellion's very careful about who they approach, Ray. That's one of the things I like about them.”
Evak, the government humiliates the liberators, but they're putting rebels in prison.”
It's only one year for the first offense,” he said with a shrug.
And three years for the second offense.”
He threw his head back, exhaling with intensity. “I'm ready for that risk, but I'm not asking you to become a rebel. The Liberation might be
the real thing, and it's a lot safer. This way we're working against the Republic from two directions. And don't forget—The Rebellion doesn't oppose the Liberation, so you should never oppose us.”
Us? Rayna’s mind writhed with confusion, but out of that psychic puzzle a piece of understanding came into view that admired Evak since his path to freedom also demanded courage. Nevertheless, her hope was spoiled, for she wanted her lover to be a fellow liberator, who would settle for nothing less than the best. “My life just got twice as complicated.”
Sorry.” He put his arm around her waist. “But that just gives me more of you to love.”
She felt a rumbling in her breast that drew her hand to his face. “Would you like to tell my father the good news?” A smile crept its way into Evak's mouth, as she shook her spinning head. “I was hoping we could join the Liberation together, but I guess I have to love you as a rebel. And tomorrow night you'll have to love me as a liberator when I tell Chancellor Melodius I'm officially joining the Movement.”
He eased her closer, pressing his body to hers. She slid her hands across the smooth texture of his dark brown hair, pausing to glide her thumbs along the upper edge of his handsome ears. Her passion mounted, as they both studied each other’s face, looking for new places to explore.

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Jazz can't decide whether to scorch him with a fireball or jump into bed with him.

Jasmine Tremaine, a witch who can't stay out of trouble.

Nikolai Gregorivich, a drop-dead gorgeous vampire cop on the trail of a serial killer.

The sizzling love affair between Jazz and Nick has been off-again, on-again-for about 300 years. Mostly off, lately. But now Nick needs Jazz's help, and while Jazz and Nick try to figure out their own hearts and resist their ever-increasing attraction, they must steer clear of a maniacal killer with super-supernatural powers. They are surrounded by a hilarious cast of oddball paranormal characters, including Irma, the chain-smoking ghost who haunts Jazz's sports car, Dweezil, her ghoul of a boss, and Fluff and Puff, a pair of bunny slippers with sharp teeth and short tempers (watch your ankles)!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

How to get rid of Belly Fat by Mano Hano

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers


Quick Knowledge…...intended to furnish the reader with short, simple and to the point knowledge of….How to get rid of Belly Fat. What to eat & what to avoid.

Do you want to finally get rid of the unwanted body fat? To feel fitter, healthier and more productive? This ebook will give you everything you need to learn on how to lose belly fat fast.

Packed with an understanding for how body fat forms, the certain foods which cause it, as well as the certain lifestyle choices you make which are affecting your body, it’ll help you to gain the motivation you need to finally make the shift and do something about it.

And this ebook will show you how to achieve the flat stomach you want. In this guide you will learn how to exercise effectively to target a more toned stomach, the best foods to eat along with delicious smoothie recipes to help getting the nutrients you need easier, as well as showing you how to embrace the very effective 5:2 Fast Diet.

You can transform your body and your life just by reading this quick and simple guide to losing belly fat and incorporating the well researched advice into your daily routine.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Romantic Reads for Valentine's Day

Time's Embrace (A Box Set) by Peggy Webb
$3.99 - Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Three delicious heroes + three sassy heroines = one great read!

Christmas in Time (Prequel to Only Yesterday): An unconventional young woman and an irresistible musician + the voyage of a lifetime = an unforgettable love.

Only Yesterday: A feisty artist and a sexy pilot/polo player + the dream-filled attic of Windchime House = a love that transcends time.

Night of the Dragon: One sassy, California bookseller and a magic ring + one sexy Knight and his tame wolf = more complications in Camelot than King Arthur allows!

Blood Song by Marie Treanor
$2.49 - Amazon and Barnes & Noble - Preorder Today! Coming February 23, 2016

A prequel to the Awakened by Blood trilogy and the Blood Hunters series.

The undead are edgy. Something is happening in their dark, brutal world, something anticipated with excitement and dread: the potential awakening of the most powerful vampire who ever existed. Only the dangerous, solitary vampire Vadas doesn’t care who rules the undead. He bows to no one, and he’s more interested in revenge on the human Salvona family.

Talented young opera singer Francesca Salvona empathizes with every role she sings, however melodramatic. But when she encounters Vadas, who means to kill her, then lets her live on a whim, her life becomes more bizarre than any opera. Although she doesn’t trust the charming, sexy Vadas, his nearness melts her bones, forcing her to choose between personal safety and the most powerful desire she’s ever known.

Soon Francesca’s caught in the middle of Vadas’s fights with real life vampire hunters and undead leader Zoltan. To top it all, thugs from her past are pursuing her for a valuable key. Francesca and Vadas have difficult secrets to reveal, and even harder decisions to make. But some things are out of their control, not least the approaching awakening, destined to change their lives forever.

In BLOOD SONG, readers of the Awakened by Blood trilogy and the Blood Hunters series will meet fresh new characters as well as old friends on the brink of change. New readers will discover an intriguing introduction to two acclaimed vampire romance series.

Suspects & Suitors by Kathy Carmichael
$2.99 - Amazon and Barnes & Noble

A Novella. Amateur sleuth and owner of the Skullduggery Inn, Ashley Sands, is up to her elbows in anonymous Valentine's suitors. Problem is, one of them is threatening her life.

Cupcakes and Cupid by Debora Dennis
$1.99 - Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Welcome to Starlight Hills! Mountain views, small town charm, and one little bake shop, where romance is always on the menu.

While the rest of the town celebrates Valentine's Day with flowers, chocolate, and the annual Cupid Ball, Katie Dixon plans to spend it like every other day…alone, in her nursing scrubs. With a broken engagement in her past, her dreams of cuddling by the fire with the love of her life now involve her cat, chocolate covered strawberry cupcakes, and a book. No lying, cheating men. No wilting flowers to throw away. No more broken heart.

Three years ago when Reed Dempsey left Starlight Hills, he thought he'd left his wounded heart behind too. In love with his best friend's fianceé, he took off to build his life in the city, far away from the ever prying eyes of his small hometown and constant reminders of Katie. Now he's back to get his grandparents' flower shop through Valentine's Day and ready to sell before he falls for Katie all over again.

This year Cupid might need a little help to get these two hearts to the ball. Fortunately, one bakeshop matchmaker might be baking up more than cupcakes! 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Midnight in Dublin by M. C. Dulac - FREEBIE



What was meant to be, will be

When Lizzy James flies to Dublin, Ireland, all she wants is to have a relaxing weekend. But the misty streets hold many memories from the carefree summer Lizzy spent as a student in the city, and she cannot shake off the feeling that something is unfinished. The past grows stronger when Lizzy receives a message from an old friend, Alice, who has gone from one dazzling success to another since college.

But perfect Alice has a guilty and unexpected secret. On their last night in Dublin seven years ago, Alice swapped destinies with Lizzy. The deal ends at midnight that very night.

With a handsome, mysterious Dubliner called Declan in hot pursuit, Lizzy has no choice but to join Alice as they race across the city. Their fates entwined, the girls have one night to put things right. Can the girls change the past and restore destiny to its proper path? As the hour draws near, anything can happen at midnight in Dublin.


Lizzy!” Alice had grabbed my shoulders and pecked my cheek.
I felt the softness of her ash-blond hair as it brushed my face, a softness only achieved with regular maintenance. Her tight fitting jacket and skirt oozed style and expense, and her glossy handbag was quite possibly made from an actual reptile. On her slim, childish hand she wore a large diamond and ruby engagement ring. She was Alice, older and luxurious.
You haven’t changed a bit!” Alice declared.
I wondered if in fact I was wearing the same jeans I had worn seven years ago. Alice shifted in her seat. I had the strange feeling she was nervous. When she gazed at me, she had resumed her compelling, confident expression and her eyes bored into me as if she could learn all my secrets.
So,” Alice’s lips rose in a smile, “tell me what you’ve been doing. Are you an artist now?”
My heart sank, “No, I kind of gave up.”
Really? Didn’t you want to be an illustrator or something?”
I did, years ago but you know -”
So where are you working?”
I’m not actually working at the moment,” I said, unsure which word to stress, “I had a job interview in London yesterday.”
So you live in London?”
No. I’m in Edinburgh.”
Yes Alice,” I breathed in, trying to sound chirpy, “I lived in London for a year,” I added, “before the company I worked for closed down. So it’s Edinburgh for the time being.”
And where are you living?”
With my parents.”
Your parents?” Alice raised her eyebrows in an annoying way.
At the moment.”
Alice smiled again, “And who are you going out with?”
No one. Actually.”
That summed up my life really. On all fronts, everything had ground to a halt. All my potential had evaporated. I’d drifted into a career I didn’t particularly like, I had no job, and I’d had to move back home with my parents. Alice had managed to get it all out of me in the first minute. It was just that I’d had the most incredible bad luck. You had to get a break sometime, at something. But for seven years, the seven years since I’d seen Alice, it had all been one long, continuous free-fall.
As for Alice, I knew her story, even if I didn’t want to. She had gone from one success to another; surprising everyone by landing a graduate job with a luxury hotel group, being posted from Bali to the Cayman Islands and then to London. Each move came with a promotion, and now she was a director of her company. I’d heard stories of her house in London, her travels and parties and her fianc√© who ran a hedge fund. My life looked sad and grey in comparison.
Somewhere in Dublin a clock struck six. The bells rang out across the cobblestone lanes. I’d never heard such a grave sound before. The twilight was turning into evening.
Alice glanced into the sky. Despite the glittering ruby on her finger and her glossy alligator bag, I realized she was scared. Really, really scared.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Monarch: Emerging from Her Cocoon by Luci Cosway Excerpt



Becca Lambert has her vacation sex all planned, but when she goes to meet her boyfriend at the airport, he’s arriving with his wife and kids in tow. Frustrated and angry, Becca turns to anonymous online sex instead. Nick Hartley is in a new town and looking for some casual sex when he finds Becca. Now, he wants to convince her that they should ditch the screen time and hook up in person. Can this Butterfly find her way out of her cocoon?

The Monarch is an erotica short novella of 24K words, featuring m/f/f and m/m/f scenes. The second story in Butterfly Basics collection is planned for April, 2016.


She bit her thumb nail and then the inside of her lower lip, rationalizing the choices before her. Sure, she was in New Orleans and likely could find someone here to spend the time with, but there were diseases and other dangers to consider.  The chances were better than average that any man she met would be another version of either James or her ex-husband, liars and cheats. Her glass was nearly empty when she made her decision. She logged in to a familiar adult forum, deciding to keep her fantasies virtual and anonymous. It was a local forum and since she didn't want her sexual fantasies to intrude in her real life, she worked hard to remain anonymous. The only factoid about herself she let slip through was her love of butterflies, hence her avatar: a tiny Monarch.
At least this way I can assume he's lying to me -- and not break up someone's home, happy or otherwise.
Becca refilled her wine glass and began typing.
After six months of teasing and sexting, my fuck-filled vacation got destroyed when the bastard showed up with his wife and kids. I'm stuck in one of the most sexy, sin-filled cities in the country and I'm horny. Who wants to play?
 She hit enter and leaned back, draining the glass. She sighed, and slid her mouse up to the delete key, ready to undo her bold invitation. Before she could hit enter, her phone beeped the arrival of a text message. Becca let go of the mouse and picked up the phone. Her face was flushed with the warmth of nearly a full bottle of wine and no dinner as she read James' message, a cutesy question about where "they" were staying and full of emoticons. Becca blanched and felt nauseated again, reading the innuendo in his message and remembering his hand-holding with his wife.
For a long moment, she considered actually meeting him, just long enough to find out what excuse he would be using to leave her hotel room every night, how he would explain the need to spend the days with his children. Finally, she decided that even hundreds of miles from home, she wasn't the type to make a scene in public. She stared hard at the phone for just a moment before texting back.
I don't know where you are staying with your wife, but it should be far from me. She looks just like your daughter and she deserves better than you. Don't contact me again or I will contact her.

Kiss Me, Cowboy by Melissa McClone


Barnes and Noble

She didn’t mean to kiss him…

When dude ranch wrangler Charlotte – aka Charlie – Randall kisses Zack Harris in an act of empathy, she falls hat over spurs for the handsome military veteran turned cowboy. Zack has too many demons, however, and refuses to get involved. A year later, he's still stonewalling, and Charlie needs to move on with her life so she can find a fulfilling relationship, not frustrating unrequited love. Putting distance between them seems the best way to get Zack out of her head and heart...but that means quitting the job she loves and accepting a position in Colorado.

He didn’t mean to kiss her back…

Growing up, Zack longed for a real family, and had one with his squad while deployed in Afghanistan. Now, he's back in the States and doesn't want anything messing up his new ranch family, no matter how much he's attracted to the sexy, hard-working Charlie. She could break his heart and ruin the comfortable working relationship they and the other wranglers enjoy. Besides, her friends claim she's looking for the perfect guy, and perfect he's not.

A kiss is just a kiss…or is it?

When Zack learns Charlie's thinking about leaving the ranch, he decides to find her a boyfriend — someone so good, so perfect, she has a reason to stay in Montana. Until he realizes too late that the only cowboy he wants her kissing is him. Can he commit to love and convince Charlie not to leave? Or has she made up her mind to put the past, and the kiss that started it all, behind her and move on without him?

Montana Born Rodeo Series
Book 1: Tease Me, Cowboy by Rachael Johns
Book 2: Cherish Me, Cowboy by Alissa Callen
Book 3: Kiss Me, Cowboy by Melissa McClone
Book 4: Please Me, Cowboy by Megan Crane

Killer Wedding Cake (Daphne Martin Cake Mystery) by Gayle Trent

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers

Barnes and Noble

Daphne Martin’s wedding to Ben Jacobs is only a couple of weeks away. An award-winning cake decorator, Daphne is busy designing their wedding cake. Her twin nephew and niece, Lucas and Leslie, are excited about being in the wedding party. And Daphne’s brother-in-law Jason is planning a bachelor party for Ben. Everything is going beautifully until Daphne’s ex-husband Todd shows up. Just released from prison after serving a sentence based on his shooting a gun at Daphne, Todd comes to Brea Ridge to profess his undying love for her.

Despite Daphne’s attempts to make Todd leave town, he insists on hanging around to reconnect with people he used to know. When he’s found murdered, Daphne finds herself at the center of the investigation. Now she must track down Todd’s killer before she becomes the next victim. Can she still make it to the church on time?

I spread the brownie batter into the pan, opened the oven door, and slid the pan inside. The oven was cold. It wasn’t that it hadn’t heated up all the way yet—it was completely cold. And here I was with a pan of brownie batter that I needed to get baked. I called Myra.

“Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind about the cake already,” she said, by way of answering.

“No. My oven won’t heat. I have a pan of brownie batter and no oven.”

“Well, bring the pan over here,” she said. “I’ll go ahead and preheat my oven. What do you need it set on—three-fifty?”

“Yes, please. Thank you!” I ended the call, put a lid on my brownie pan, and hurried out the door to Myra’s house.

Bruno met me at the door. He was a tan Chihuahua who could’ve slept in one of my shoes. Myra had met the teensy terror a few months ago when he’d barked and growled at her from her front porch. She’d called me frantic because “this vicious dog” wouldn’t let her into her house. I took over a piece of ham, and it calmed the savage beastie right down. She began feeding him, and he stayed. He still acted as if he owned the place, but he had a more legitimate claim to do so now.

“Hello, Bruno,” I said.

He danced around on his back legs, thinking I had a treat for him because I usually did. This time, however, I’d only thought to bring my pan of brownies.
“Sorry, buddy. I’ll get you something when I go back.”

“Put the pan there on the counter and come take a load off while we wait for the oven to finish pre-heating,” Myra said.

I did as she said, but I touched the front of the oven as I passed by to make sure it was getting hot. Sorry, but I was feeling paranoid. The oven was warm, so I felt reassured.

Then I went in and collapsed onto the sofa beside Myra.

“Honey, you look plumb tuckered out,” she said.

“It’s not that I’m tired. I’m just aggravated. I don’t know what’s wrong with my oven.”

“It’s probably the heating element. It’ll be all right.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind me using your oven? I’ll pay you in a box of brownies.” You wouldn’t know it from her trim frame, but Myra loved sweets.

“I didn’t mind to begin with, but I doubly don’t mind now.”

Bruno raced into the living room and hopped onto the sofa between us.

“I need to make two pans—one to go in as soon as the others come out,” I said. “And I’ll call the appliance guy when I get home.” I considered this for a second. “I don’t know an appliance guy. Do you?”

Myra nodded. “Yep. McElroy Haynes. Best appliance guy around here. I’ll get you his number before you go.”

We heard a click coming from the direction of the kitchen.

“That’s the oven,” she said. “Want me to put the brownies in?”

“No, thanks. I’ll do it. Would you mind seeing if you can find Mr. Haynes’ number?”

“I’m on it.”

I slid the pan of brownies into Myra’s oven, and she returned with the phone number.

“He’s kinda crotchety, but tell him I told you to call. And tell him I said he was the best in the business.”

I smiled. “I could just offer him brownies…along with his payment, of course.”

“I doubt it’d do you a bit of good, but you can try. Besides, you can’t give away all your brownies. You have to sell some at the Save-A-Buck.”

Setting the timer on my phone to alert me in twenty minutes, I told Myra I’d be back with the other pan soon.

I hurried back across the yards to my house to get the next batch of brownies underway but stopped short when I noticed a blue pickup truck parked in my driveway. I slowed my pace and approached cautiously.

The truck had Tennessee tags. There was no one inside it, and I’d left my door unlocked.

I didn’t want to overreact. I still had a lot of friends in Tennessee. Maybe it was one of them. Besides, there was no indication that the person was actually inside my house. He—or she—could be a salesperson going door to door and had chosen my driveway as a good parking spot.

Thinking it best to err on the side of caution, I opened the door slightly. “Hello?”


That voice chilled my blood. It belonged to Todd Martin, my ex-husband.

Biting Me Softly by Mary Hughes Excerpt



He's a candy box of sex appeal wrapped with a golden bow. She's on a diet.

Biting Love Book 4

Winner of the 2012 Write Touch Readers' Award for Paranormal/Fantasy/Futuristic/Time Travel!

Blood, sex, violence. Blood, okay, but computer geek Liese Schmetterling had enough S&V when her cheating ex fired her. Now security expert--and lip-smacking gorgeous--Logan Steel saunters into her Blood Center, setting fire to her libido. And threatening her job.

Visions of pink slips dancing in her head, Liese tries to push Logan away without touching his jutting pecs...or ridged abs. Or petting the Vesuvius in his jeans. He's hiding something, but it doesn't seem to matter when his smiles stun her, his kisses crank her to broiling and his bites rocket her to heaven. Fangy bites which, if she weren't grounded in science, would make her think ampire-Vay.

Centuries old and tragedy-scarred, Logan's mission is to fortify the Blood Center's electronic defenses against his nemesis, the leader of a rogue vampire gang. He's ready for battle but not for Liese, who slips under his skin, laughs at his awful puns, charges beside him into dark, scary places--and tastes like his true love.

No matter how often Logan declares his love, Liese can't bring herself to trust him. But when his archenemy comes after her, not trusting him may cost her life...

Warning: contains explicit vampire sex involving absurdly large male equipment (hey, they're monsters), unbelievable stamina (just how long can he stay underwater in a hot tub?), hide-your-eyes violence and horrendously bad puns. And, just when you think it can't get any worse, a computer geekette trying to play Mata Hari.

Steel grinned at that, a smile so sharp and white that I was momentarily blinded. “Nice pun.”
Wow. Mr. Fortune 500 (and Body 300) thought I was amusing?
Then reality kicked me in the teeth. I was a geek. When I talked, eyes glazed over. Amusing? Sure, and the Sex Fairy was real. “Why are you actually here?”
“Here’s the work order, if you don’t believe me.” Mr. Logan Great-Ass pulled a paper out of his back pocket. Since his jeans were so tight they must have been painted on his incredible tush, I wondered how there could possibly have been room. He unfolded the paper and tossed it onto my desk with as much flair as the card. “You’re wrong, Ms. Schmetterling. Gorgeous, but wrong.”
Gorgeous? I shot to my feet. “Now I know you’re lying. Fun time’s over. There’s the door.”
Sleek eyebrows arched. “I assure you, everything’s in order.”
“You’ve forged those papers. Or…or maybe they’re real, but the company’s been typed over. I don’t know what your game is, Mr. Steel, but this woman’s not playing.”
“No games, Ms. Schmetterling.” Leaning across the desk, he hooked my chin with one long finger. “Though if you want games, I could be persuaded.”
And he pressed his sculpted mouth to mine.
Steel’s lips were smooth and warm and he knew how to use them. His kiss was the magical brush of angel wings. Heavenly golden heat spread through me, stunned me. My eyelids fluttered closed. Excitement hit me low in the belly, hot, shocking excitement that bubbled up as a soft moan of pleasure.
At the sound, Logan licked my lips open. Angel wings became angel fire. “You taste wonderful. All hot and wet. Mmm, can’t get enough.” His kiss deepened, his tongue started to plunge.
Heat flamed through me, spiraling quickly past my temperate zone. I was kissing a virtual stranger but it was so good, better than seven-layer chocolate sin cake. Logan nibbled at my lips, his teeth extraordinarily sharp. Instinctively I knew I was about two seconds from clamping my ankles around his superb ass, and damn the consequences.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Read Chapter 2 of Whispering Mist by Marley Kin



Imagine a civilization with a caste system that is shackled by an oppressive government and trapped by geological barriers, where the only means of escape is to join an underground community, to follow the cryptic guidance of an advanced race that lives on the far side of a perilous sea, which is veiled by a mantle of fog. Whispering Mist is the tale of Rayna, an ironically rebellious young woman, and Nyle, her treasonous yet honorable lover, and their quest for political and personal liberation. Supported by multiple subplots and comic relief, the central narrative is set between the intertwined worlds of Valaycia and Yugatania, which are ruled ambiguously by the alchemistic Vudaki, a godlike race of semi-benevolent beings who swim beneath and fly above the Sea of Smoke. As an epic fantasy, Whispering Mist employs a unique vocabulary to describe atypical creatures that populate an original world with two moons of different colors. If you seek an author who writes concisely with precision, Marley Kin will satisfy. If you seek an unconventional story, Whispering Mist will mystify.

Chapter 2

As she plodded along with Evak at her side, kicking sand with her bare feet, Rayna was still furious over her grandfather’s imprisonment. After debating whether to file a formal grievance with the government, she had settled for venting anger on her father for not doing this himself, broadening the schism between them, which would exasperate her mother for days to come.
My grandmother only has three years left before they put her away,” Evak offered.
The sea’s perpetual curtain of mist was joined by a fluctuating fog that teased Rayna with fleeting pockets of visibility. “That doesn’t seem to bother you too much.” She was a little annoyed with his nonchalant attitude.
Evak cocked his head and shrugged one shoulder. “It’s more political for me.”
Having your grandmother locked away in a prison is not personal?”
He flashed her a grave look. “Yeah, sure it is, but it won’t help to get too upset about it.”
A piece of driftwood emerged from the fog to trip them but it failed. Rayna felt powerless, as she snatched a seashell from the sand and hurled it at the indifferent Sea of Smoke. Her eyes followed the shell, until it landed near a short man, who stood in the tiny breakers, oblivious to their presence. She grabbed Evak’s hand and moved closer, sensing something different about the stranger. Was the fog fooling her, or did the man have blue skin?! “Evak, did you see the color of his skin?”
Yeah . . . It was blue.”
Still clutching his hand, she took a few tentative steps, hoping to confirm the impossible. The fog cleared once again, and they stopped, only forty feet away, transfixed, as the man pulled off his shirt to reveal an upper body of blue flesh. Was the blue pigment theatrical make-up or some kind of bizarre tattoo? Before Rayna could answer this question, the man rushed forward, plunged into the water, and swam away with powerful strokes that seemed inconsistent for a person of his size. Who was this stranger, a liberator? Was he trying to reach Valaycia on his own? She released Evak’s hand and ran into the water, soaking her favorite green slacks to the knees.
They watched him swim to the east beneath the sea’s smoky mantle. “Have you ever seen anyone try to escape?”
Evak shook his head, settling next to her. “Not me.” He stuffed his hands into the deep pockets of his striped trousers. “But he won’t make it very far.”
Rayna wondered if the Vudaki would rise up to stop him like they did with all the other renegades who tried to get away without proper guidance from the Liberation Movement. But they never came, and the little blue man disappeared into the distant confluence of water and vapor.
She gawked at her lover. “I thought for sure we’d see the Vudaki stop him.”
Would he reach that mysterious land, where Aunt Loreen and Cousin Valeena waited for their loved-ones to join them? Rayna would never know, until she reached Valaycia herself.

Dressed in black, with perspiration dripping from his camouflaged face, and sea-salt coating his throat, Governor Nyle Delakoat rowed a small, metal-framed boat with all his strength, trying to keep up with the tattered ship that sailed a quarter mile ahead. The sticky night air seemed darker under the sea's thick blanket of vapor, which hung thirty feet above the water, extending its misty folds at least three times that distance into the sky. Wrinkling the sea’s smooth brow, the renegade vessel was pulling away; nevertheless, he could easily spy its progress with his leather-bound binoculars.
Nyle had persevered through ten weeks of painstaking surveillance to witness the fate of those who dared to trespass on the Vudaki’s wet turf with the hope of reaching Valaycia without the secret aid of the Liberation, and soon he would know, as long as the mythical beings chose not to attack him. As he pondered that unsettling possibility, the advantage of it struck him: if the Vudaki did descend upon his tiny craft, he would then gain an intimate glimpse into their tangled mystery.
Nyle absorbed the sweat from his face with a tender sleeve, and considered the soothing fact that most runaways did return to tell their tales, and none of the horror stories frightened him; there were just as many people who told a different story of mercy and majesty. He summoned the visionary painting that haunted his parlor wall, wanting so much to meet the legendary creatures that had saturated his childhood imagination, which he now augmented with reverent awe for the fathomless world that infused these secretive waters. Like so many others, Nyle was familiar with the king and queen’s serpentine anatomy, and how it differed from their offspring, who had walking legs and wing-free arms, just like he did, and yet he longed for a face-to-face encounter.
Grandmother Turani was long dead, yet the sound of her contagious laughter was just as lively as ever, reminding Nyle that his beloved ancestor was one of the few who were utterly fearless when it came to the Vudaki; like other visionaries, she had always kept the faith that their higher purpose would one day be revealed.
Nyle could still see a few faithful lights on Jelico’s shore peeking under the vaporous covers. Then, a man's bellowed warning snapped his head forward to see the ship's main sail ablaze. He stared with astonishment, as a second burst of fire ignited the smaller sail, followed by a barrage of blazes erupting in the air around the ship, evicting the darkness, causing him to shudder.
After lifting the eyeglasses to his face with haste, Nyle watched a man throw a spear and watched another leap from the bow into the dark unknown. He searched for the Vudaki, certain he would capture a complete picture for his mental gallery, but they remained shrouded in the web of fog above the vessel, teasing him, only revealing an occasional wing or a gust of fire.
Nyle discarded his binoculars and scanned the area, hoping his naked eyes might catch a broader glimpse. The Vudaki made no attempt to harm the sailors. In protecting Valaycia, it seemed as though their only objective was to destroy the ship's primary means of mobility, which showed striking sophistication for a race of creatures regarded by many as monsters.
It struck Nyle that the escapees might need help, and when he probed the danger of moving closer, intuition seized his ear, whispering that the Vudaki no longer posed a threat: they had already deterred the foolish visitors that vandalized their home. The only risk was exposing his conspicuous identity, so he grabbed the oars and rowed with new strength, aided by the torrent of adrenaline gorging his bloodstream.

Rayna stood in her family’s impeccably clean study, waiting for her parents, peering through the outdoor twilight from the room’s only window at her little brother, Basha, who played with two other friendly lads from their neighborhood. As she watched the boys try to catch lightning-bugs in a jar, her mild laughter was absentminded, since she was preoccupied with her peculiar experience on the beach earlier that day. Obsessed with ambition, her father, Gyan, only took one day off each week for leisure and family time, and though this happened to be his weekly vacation day, it was late in the evening, and Rayna’s store of patience was almost depleted.
Hearing footsteps, she released the blue lace curtain and prepared herself for the imminent confrontation.
Although her father had a sedentary lifestyle, he was a lean man. “What’s so urgent?” Gyan demanded, entering the study with Celandra close behind. He was still wearing his official gray uniform with its wide black, vertical stripes. Her mother wore a long beige dress made of silk. Like many of her dresses, it featured a row of round buttons, made from dark brown sea-shells, that ran along the front of the garment from top to bottom.
Never one to mince words, Rayna faced them and said, “Evak and I saw an odd stranger on the beach this morning. For a long time, we watched him swim away to the east, but the Vudaki never came to stop him.”
It’s not the first time we’ve heard of such a thing, and I’m sure those hideous sea-monsters destroyed the man farther out where you couldn’t see them. They’re very discrete with their activities, Rayna. You know this.” Her father’s tone was adamant.
That’s what we’re told, but there was something else about this man that was incredible.” Her parents waited for her explanation, and she wondered if they would believe her. “We got a close look at this man’s face, and he took his shirt off before he swam away. I can’t really explain what we saw, but his skin was blue all over.”
Celandra frowned. “Blue skin?”
Rayna scrutinized her father’s expression for clues. He seemed disturbed by her story as he looked away. “Father, I’ve never lied to you, and Evak saw the same thing. Like a lot of other people, we’ve heard the stories about visitors from the Distant Land with blue skin.”
Gyan was still diverting his gaze. “Those stories are myths and fables, nothing more.”
If the stories are true, you would know about it, wouldn’t you, Father?”
Gyan looked at Rayna sternly. “Don’t ever speak of this to anyone.” He left the room with haste, leaving Celandra with a dumbfounded look on her face. After twenty years of life with her father, Rayna always knew when he was hiding something. She looked at her mother and shook her head. With a soft sigh, Celandra released the air she held hostage. Contrary to Evak’s belief that the blue man must be part of a new, bizarre religious cult, Rayna believed that he was connected somehow to the Vudaki and Valaycia, and that he reached the mysterious land unharmed. One day, she would know the truth. Until then, she had to contend with her parent’s refusal to seek that same truth.
Her mother knocked on the window to get her younger brother’s attention. “I don’t know what to say, Rayna.” She knocked on the window again more sharply, as Rayna left the room.

His tiny vessel drifting past the burning galleon, Nyle observed the crew of survivors rowing their lifeboat back to Jelico. Now that their covert escape was aborted, he hoped to get a closer look at the Vudaki. Not wanting to get too close to ship, he shifted north, and to his astonishment, there was still a man on the burning deck who did his best to stop the flames from spreading. Crazy fool.
Before he could intervene, a horde of Vudaki outriders dropped below the fog, flying in a circle at such a rapid speed he was unable to distinguish their features. The draft from their maneuver was so strong it stirred up a whirlpool, almost capsizing his bantam craft. As they hovered closer to the ship, the air current fueled the blaze, causing the mad sailor to shrink away.
Get off that ship, man! Are you insane?!–You'll burn to death!”
The sailor heeded his warning and dove into the water in the direction of Nyle’s boat.
After hauling the soaked man into his tiny vessel with ease, he looked up, but the outriders were gone. With tremendous power and an apparent preference for mercy, they were magnificent beings. Exhaling deeply, he cast off the tension that tied up his gut. His dream of seeing them up close, of looking one ‘rider in the eye for a brief moment, would have to wait for another time. But how long?
What are you doing out here, friend, trying to escape like us?” asked the dripping man. Despite the obvious setback, his husky tone was almost cheerful. Maybe the man actually was crazy.
At least the black face-paint was working so far. “Only a fool or a desperate man would do such a thing, and I'm neither.”
The man donned a coy expression. “Maybe I'm a little of both.”
Nyle softened his tone. “Maybe I'm a police officer who just saved your life.” He redirected the craft and started rowing back. With an unpredictable passenger, returning undetected would be more challenging, so he closed his eyes to explore the best strategy.

The next morning, the leaders of Yugatania convened in the coastal city of Abakon, the district capital of Bentara, where they usually vied with the ambassador of Valaycia. Sovereign Varacus spent most of his time there, ruling the land from his governor’s palace. The castle’s foundational roots grew out of a seaside cliff, and like a hearty tree chiseled from the lavender rock, the massive structure had a vantage point high above the sea’s blanket of mist, but since the fog climbed so high, Valaycia remained veiled in mystery, even to those with telescopes to spy. Almost one-thousand-years-old, the palace displayed more curves than angles, and more domes than spires.
Since Nyle's adventure of the previous night was never sanctioned by his colleagues, he would never tell them about it. Though the runaways returned to Jelico safely, evading arrest, he decided against incarcerating the escapees to protect his identity and settled for reprimanding the man he saved. Disappointed by failing to get an intimate look at the Vudaki, he was comforted to know, beyond any doubt, that they were not the murdering beasts his government had always claimed.
The lean frame of Sovereign-Governor Adison Varacus marched into his octagonal Strategy Chamber with protracted strides, his full-length, purple cape billowing behind him like an unfurled flag screaming for loyalty. Cropped to the scalp in the front, his straight, tawny hair grazed his shoulders in the back. Nyle lagged behind, enjoying how Governor Jaleena Korchek challenged her metabolism to keep pace with the man who presided over their three states. As long as they agreed, the three of them ruled the republic of Yugatania as a group; if there was any dispute, Varacus had the power to veto the others. The three leaders were responsible for administrating different departments and appointing secretaries to manage them. As the Governor of Kryton, Nyle regulated the departments of Labor, Law Enforcement, Water and Sewage, and Athletics.
Under a curved, maize ceiling with a skylight-apex, the ever-present Guardian hunkered beside the Lord Sovereign’s gold leather chair, her eyes probing anyone who dared to grip them.
Varacus took the Guardian everywhere, since the wild animal was idolized as a powerful talisman for those fortunate enough to win its mystifying loyalty. According to local history, Varacus had a rare childhood: at the age of sixteen, he left home to embark on a quest, and a year later, he saved one of the coveted Lukanda from the unparalleled jaws of a crimson cat.
With dull teeth, twelve toes, four-fingered hands, and long thumbs, Lukanda were primarily vegetarian, and, parading more colors than a rainbow, their irresistible eyes had dilating pupils that bewitched almost everyone. With surprising dexterity and grace, they usually walked upright on their hind legs; however, they always bounded on all four limbs when attacking an enemy with their deadly pointed horns. According to popular legend, when someone gained its fidelity, as Varacus had, a Lukanda would dedicate its life, as a debt of gratitude, by serving as a bodyguard, which inspired the official title of Guardian. Another legend, lesser known, claimed that the Guardian’s master was also bestowed with special powers, which Nyle had not yet discovered, and Varacus had not yet revealed.
As Governor of Jelico, Varacus supervised the departments of Science, Technology, Law, Higher Education, and Public Media, the last of which was a special branch for dispensing information and propaganda. Settled close to his Guardian, Varacus began the meeting by declaring, “You suppressed the riots in Kryton effectively, Nyle, but the milder demonstrations in Galamar could've been handled better.”
Nyle lingered near the open doors that led to a stone terrace. “We deployed more deputies than usual, but the Rebellion is growing, and they're well-organized.”
Governor Jaleena Korchek did not hesitate to add that, “Three separate protests were happening in Galamar simultaneously, and two of them numbered in the thousands”
Nyle tossed her a thin smile. Bedecked in a sheer, maroon cape that covered a matching dress, she perched on the edge of the Sovereign's desk, crossed her shapely legs, and cupped her exposed knee with delicate hands. Arching her lower back, Jaleena’s voluptuous, shapely figure was easy to trace as it pressed against the clinging fibers. As the Governor of Galamar, she presided over the secretaries of Agriculture, Transportation, Commerce, and Healthcare.
Ignoring Jaleena, the Sovereign stroked his pruned, blond goatee. “We may have to increase the prison-term for convicted rebels.”
Nyle had predicted the Sovereign-Governor would take such a punitive stance. “If we increase the sentence to two years for the first offense, we better be prepared for a backlash.”
I prefer optimism, Governor,” said Varacus. “Rebellion is best deterred by control.”
I have to agree with the Lord Sovereign,” Jaleena offered, glinting at Nyle, as she crossed her arms.
Despite her endorsement, Nyle tried to redirect their strategy with more tact. “I appreciate that, but some rebels might be provoked.”
Our Valaycian enemies pose the real danger with these visitations and their peaceful invasion,” said Varacus. “I want this network of saboteurs exposed during my term as Sovereign.”
Nyle gazed past the paltry terrace, beyond the billowy dunes, at the sea with its thick canopy, a haze that hovered relentlessly above the surface. Were the Vudaki their enemies, too? A wild howl aborted his search for answers. With alarming speed and phenomenal agility, the Guardian bounded past him and leaped onto the railing of the external balcony, which rose to a treacherous height above the gnarled cliff. Scanning the shore, Nyle spotted a Vudaki outrider gliding back into its misty harbor, never making a sound, at least not a sound he could hear.

Two weeks had passed since Rayna’s birthday. With anticipation, she leaned against the pleated bark of an old needlenut tree that nestled near the pebbled edge of Phantom Lake. She inhaled deeply and noted how moist and cool the air was for a late summer evening. As an adolescent, she would subvert taboo by visiting this haunted haven, only to be scared off by the swooping blackangels for swimming in the lake’s dark red, forbidden water.
The small body of water was more of a pond than a lake, and it swelled less than one mile from Haggard Inlet, which marked the shift from sandy beaches to the wooded, rocky cliffs that stretched to the border separating Jelico's central district of Bentara from the northern district of Orion where the lower class citizens shivered much of the time. The lake slumbered in the heart of Scarlet Hills, one of the most coveted towns in Bentara where most of the upper-class drifted with relative amounts of complacence. Somewhat ashamed of her elevated station, Rayna reflected on her grandmother Kaluna and the middle-class who occupied Teragon, the state's sweaty southern region.
Only located in Bentara, twelve frog ponds were scattered along the 1,200 mile coast that twisted its way from north to south. Nurturing twelve varieties of flying fogs, the eerie lochs were all less than two miles from the Sea of Smoke. Phantom Lake was the first visitation site established by the Valacyian guides, and the site of a fulfilled prophecy centuries ago. Like the green-eyed blackangels, the slippery frogs could only be found in these pockets of wet secrets that were saturated with centuries of fact and fable.
A spooky blackangel cooed from a secluded hollow in one of the gnarly cranny-trees, giving Rayna a slight shudder. She stared at the tangle of branches, spying only one luminescent, green eye, a fragmentary shape that validated her belief that her people needed to talk about the visitations more freely. After sliding along the trunk’s swirly bark, she rested on the carpet of glittering red moss that warmed the forest floor and its patchy web of roots. In the distance, the rich tones of dusk seemed to be in a hurry to surrender the sky to the replicating stars.
In love with moonlight, Rayna gazed at the quarter moon that stared back at her, while lazy tracts of clouds drifted through a maze of shimmering beacons. The smaller, yellow moon was almost full. To her eye, it wavered only two feet below its big, blue brother. Eager to embrace the double full moon eclipse in four years, she tried to imagine the glory of the last eclipse that her ancestors communed with more than 300 years ago.
Her mind wandered to the argument she had with her mother earlier. Ire repossessed her body, so she paced the edge of the lake, barefooted, trying to exorcize it. Her mother seemed more cowardly than her father; at least he took a definite position and defended it. All her mother wanted was artificial peace somewhere in the homeless middle. But maybe that was unfair. After all, she could be searching for some kind of healthy balance.
Rayna stopped to gaze at the blue moon, and the cool beams illuminated a resolution: Though her mother deserved respect and patience, she would have to face the nasty truth. Before her decision could settle, a thrashing wind erupted, followed by a dazzling light, driving the blackangels from their hiding places; then, turning fable to fact, a choir of frogs popped up from the water to croak a shrill note that shook Rayna’s body with pleasure. Overwhelmed by the mass of open mouths that dotted the surface of the pond, her eyes darted in every direction. Was she dreaming?
I, too, look forward to the double lunar eclipse.”
Rayna’s body wheeled to face her visitor, who seemed to appear from nowhere, chasing the wind, the light, and the frogs away. “Where did you come from? Were you reading my mind?”
Taloras approached Rayna, stopping in front of her with little space between them, her slanted eyes the same height as Rayna’s. She wore a simple, crimson gown that brushed her feet. “Sometimes I get lucky when our moons are closer together.” She reached out her hand. “I'm Ambassador Taloras. This is the first of three visitations.” Her handshake was strong yet relaxed.
I’m honored to meet you, Ambassador.” Taloras’s warm smile was framed by long, braided tresses.
Rayna’s mind was jumpy. “I hope you can answer all my questions.” She would save her question about the conundrum of the frogs and the lakes and the wizardry of the visitations for later.
The ambassador’s deep voice bounced with the energy of a child but rang with middle-aged maturity. “I'll do my best.”
Our government says your people can't be trusted because you're secretive. They say you’re using us as slaves. Some even think you make sacrifices of our people to the Vudaki.”
What do you believe?”
If you needed slaves, you could just herd a bunch of us onto a big boat and take us away. And there's lots of stories about the Vudaki sparing people who tried to escape without your help. My Uncle Keegan believes in you, and so did my Aunt Loreen and Cousin Valeena.”
With languid ease, she laced her fingers together. “I'm quite fond of Loreen.” The ambassador's speech and manner had a soothing quality.
Rayna traced the wavy texture of the lustrous moss that cushioned her bare feet. “I miss them a lot.” She looked up with hope. “Are they happy with your people?”
Taloras nodded. “Yes. And beyond that, I'm not at liberty to talk about it. If you choose the way of radical liberation, you can find that answer for yourself.”
Rayna absorbed the Ambassador’s explanation before posing her next question. “If Sovereign Varacus hates you so much, why doesn't he try harder to stop these visitations?”
Because of the technology we give your people. Because the frog ponds are protected by a power beyond his control. Like most leaders before him, he’s very shrewd. He knows if he suppresses the truth too much, he'll lose more people, so he tolerates our visitations.”
Rayna recalled that nineteen years ago upper-caste families of Jelico began to prohibit their children from attending visitations, threatening to shun them if they chose to be unorthodox. Like Rayna, some candidates gambled with their family's affection; however, most of them eventually rejected the Movement, because they were promised wealth and fame, because the government seduced them with the possibility of higher political status reserved for the Bentaran upper-class.
Rayna glanced at the swarm of stars that winked from their august platform. “I hear a lot of people never show up the night of their first visitation.”
Taloras nodded. “Almost two thirds of your people–mostly Bentarans–never come because of fear or the prejudice they learn from your government. And most of those who do come reject our path to freedom. This also explains why Varacus allows us to visit your people.”
Why would anyone reject freedom?”
Life is easier here than it is in Galamar, even for the lower classes from Orion and Teragon who can never have real political power, and it's much easier than life in Kryton. It's no mistake that Jelico is the only state that holds free elections.”
Rayna shook her head. Oppression. “Sometimes I hate living here.”
Freedom requires more than desire, and hatred will only slow you down. Freedom calls for discipline, sacrifice, and courage.”
I have what it takes to achieve liberation, Ambassador.”
In that case, I can now give you the first of three gifts and three rituals that will help you manifest the freedom you seek.”

With an uncanny presence, the Guardian strode passed Nyle to resume her place by the Sovereign’s side, and her magnetism drew him along to face his fellow governors. Nyle continued to avoid the creature’s disturbing gaze.
I've tolerated these demonstrations long enough,” said Varacus. “I'm passing a new law to authorize a Grievance Council to reroute as much protesting as possible.”
Governor Korchek’s smile was agreeable, as she slipped into one of the ten commodious, golden chairs, her reddish-blond locks bouncing as she did so. “That way, we can regulate and re-direct most complaints in our favor.” She often made elegant yet casual gestures with her hands, and this was no exception. Even when she frowned, which was rare, her face seemed to be as smooth as her polished fingernails. Despite her affable way of communicating, she was smart, shrewd and guarded.
Varacus smiled faintly. “Precisely. And the sooner we implement the new labor policy, the quicker it will be accepted. If we face more rioting, it's better to stop it now and get it over with.”
Nyle doubted that, yet he understood how unwise it would be to voice another objection so soon, so he took a seat in one of the soft leather chairs and explored the finer details of the carved landscape that decorated the center of the chamber’s glass-covered table.
The Sovereign flashed one of his confident smiles. “Every citizen of Kryton will be employed by the Republic with a fixed income that meets basic needs. If they refuse to work, they can beg for charity or relocate to the Canyons to live off the land.”
There's not much game or vegetation out there to live on,” Nyle added.
His tone was suddenly offensive. “Then they'll have to live with the consequences.”
Sensing her master’s anger, the Guardian aimed its breaching gaze at Nyle who disguised his irritation by granting Varacus a slow nod of consent and one more small victory.
Varacus continued with a less challenging edge. “With a smaller population that's easier to please, Galamar will have an open market system with only emergency government support.”
Jaleena’s smoky blue eyes quickly became more serious, as she glanced in Nyle’s direction, before saying, “That may not go over well with the poor. They rely heavily on public assistance.”
The Sovereign’s impatience seemed evident. “You never objected when I first proposed this as a possiblity.”
That’s true, Governor,” she admitted, sliding a jeweled hand across the glaring table. “But we could use more time to make a smoother transition.”
Every now and then, Jaleena had a surprising bout with empathy.
The tone of Adison’s voice fell by an octave. “I just gave you my reasons for doing it sooner.”
Jaleena shot Nyle another glimpse that looked like a plea for help.
Varacus glanced at Nyle and then looked at Jaleena again. “This won't work unless I have your full support.”
Nyle saw wisdom in placating the Sovereign. “And you'll have it, Governor.”
From both of us,” Jaleena added.
Good.” He accentuated his words by striding back and forth. “As far as Jelico’s concerned, most jobs will operate in the open market, but the more prestigious and lucrative positions will serve government institutions, so the upper-class will be employed by the Republic.”
Nyle’s eyes fell to the glossy, stone floor, disturbed by Varacus's mounting arrogance and defensiveness. Knowing that Varacus’s wife was traveling a lot more than usual, Nyle wondered if that was triggering the switch in his colleague’s demeanor, or if he was just revealing his true character now that he was the elected Sovereign. Of one thing Nyle was sure: the Guardian’s magic was feeding Varacus’s misguided righteousness, and most people were succumbing to his persuasive mixture of charm and control.
Addressing Nyle, Varacus spoke firmly. “Expand your police force in Jelico. I demand to know how our enemies are helping these liberators to escape. If we can't visit Valaycia, then no one can, and if I have to put the total population of Bentara in prison to stop these escapes, I will.”
Eventually, we’ll unravel their technology and their mysterious powers,” said Nyle.
Jaleena shifted in her chair to face Varacus squarely. “He's right. One day soon we'll destroy the influence they have over our people.”
Varacus managed to smile. “Now we’re acting more like a team.”
Nyle resisted the urge to laugh with ridicule. There was no team. So soon after their election, Nyle already felt an acute need to find a way to readjust the scales of power and protect their precarious state of equilibrium, before the current imbalance demanded a toll his people that they could never afford.

If you desire freedom, then you need to follow my instructions closely. Before I give you the first gift, there's one more thing we ask.” Taloras hesitated. “Although everyone's three gifts are the same, we ask candidates not to talk about them with anyone, except your Liberation Guide and your fellow liberators. Some people have ignored this request, which led to all sorts of misguided myths. All I can say is that talking about the rituals dilutes their power.” Before Rayna could ask why, the ambassador smiled broadly. “Your first gift is a wonderful creature with two lives.” Taloras pulled a live frog from her pocket and held it out. The frog stretched its spotted wings and greeted Rayna with a soft croak.
She shifted her gaze back and forth from Taloras to the frog. “A frog? I don't understand.”
Frogs have a strong connection to our race, and like your people, we also honor the frog as a totem animal with special powers. Treasure it as a symbol of your future liberation.” Taloras handed the frog to Rayna.
Not too slimy. Rayna stared at the small amphibian that pulsed with life in her hand.
For now, you must bond with the creature.”
Looking at the ambassador, she raised an eyebrow.
He was born in this lake, but he matured in Valaycia. He heard your name repeated a thousand times over the past few days. To complete this ritual, you need to look into his eyes and gently stroke his throat, as I say your name and stroke his back. Do you understand?”
Yes.” Rayna gazed into the frog's eyes and rubbed his throat while Taloras performed her part of the ritual. The frog clearly croaked the sound of Rayna’s name.
It said my name! I never knew frogs could talk. Is it some kind of magic or a miracle?”
It is both those things and more. Unfortunately, after being influenced by family and friends, most people deny this ever happened.”
Rayna detected a trace of disappointment in the ambassador’s voice. “Unless I lose my mind, I could never make that mistake.”
Taloras chuckled. “Now place the frog into the lake.”
You mean I have to give up my first gift so soon?”
Taloras laughed freely. “It's crucial that you place the frog in the water.”
Confused, Rayna placed the frog in the pond. When she stood up to face the ambassador again, Taloras was holding a life-size carving of second frog.
This wooden frog will act as a substitute. Your instructions are to visit this lake as much as possible to watch how the frogs behave in and out of the water. Use them as a source of inspiration. Then, once each day at home, imagine the frogs’ behavior as you gaze at this carving.” She handed the green frog to Rayna.
Rayna knitted her brow. Silly ritual. Maybe this was why the Liberation was so unpopular.
This exercise will anchor the frog’s image firmly in your mind. The more often you perform the rituals we give you, the sooner you'll be ready to enter Valaycia.”
There's so many frogs in this lake—How can I know which one's mine?”
Taloras gently touched her arm. “Your frog will always know who you are.”
Rayna looked at her totem. “They don't look that smart.”
A faint ripple of laughter ruffled Taloras’s face. “And when you're ready to leave, your frog will be the one to let you know.”
I don't understand. How's all this possible? How does this prepare me to escape?”
Just return here as often as you can to listen to the frogs as they sing at night or watch them play during the daylight hours.”
Her anxiety deepened. “But I have so many questions.”
Be courageous, be patient, and have faith.” To underscore her reply, Taloras twisted her head and bowed slightly. “Come to this spot again at twilight in two days, and Chancellor Melodius will give you your second gift.” She placed a hand on Rayna’s shoulder. “I'll continue to visit you from time to time. Until then, trust our guidance and take good care.”
The wind and light exploded again, causing Rayna to cover her face. When she lowered her arms, Taloras was gone.
Come again.” Rayna stared into the dark forest with longing, disappointed that she still harbored lonely questions. Her parents were waiting at home; maybe they had some answers. If not, she knew Uncle Keegan would.
As if responding to her quandary, a frog leaped out of the wet darkness to land on the shore several feet away. Her heart pounding faster, Rayna drew a deep breath, and her sinuses soaked up the smell of aqua-life dancing around her. As she exhaled, a surge of passion shot up her spine to place a beaming grin on her face. Freedom echoed in her mind. Was it possible?
With a sharp croak, the frog hopped along the slim beach, disappearing into the night.

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