A Muse Bouche Review: May 2024

The Letter


Welcome to our fifth edition of 2014. The theme is The Letter.


The A Muse Bouche Review Team

Featured: The Marriage Contract (Renée Gendron) Fiction

Carved in Stone (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
A Letter Discovered (David M. Simon) Fiction
The Letter (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
An Unknown Girl Sitting on My Steps(Joseph P. Garland) Fiction

May Team Showcase

 The Marriage Contract

Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)

Free Bird Feather Feather photo and picture

Lady Evania Persungen, Altia stared at the letter in her hand. Written in angular, block script from the small kingdom of Ospira, it contained both her hopes and fears. Hopes of a safe and prosperous future for al. Fears that she was selling out her son of the same.

Uncertain whether to rejoice or curse, she smoothed the letter onto her writing desk.

The writing remained the same, the words in the same order, and their intention unchanged.

“What is it?” Tabbert rose from the sofa next to Evania’s desk and peered over her shoulder. Thirty years her husband, he still maintained his sense of honour and determination to see right done.

Evania handed Tabbert the letter. “Paxti’s agreed to our terms.”

“No calls for negotiation?” He took the letter and read it.

“He’s asked for a higher bride price given the terms of the marriage.”

His eyebrows arched. “Three times our offer.”

“I wonder why he didn’t ask for clarification or outright refuse.” She pulled her shoulders back, but she lacked the strength needed to explain to their oldest son, Sanders, why he couldn’t have children.

Years of private and intense discussion between Evania and Tabbert had led to the crucial decision. Too much pain and sorrow had led to the determination that whatever curse or cruel joke by the gods plagued Tabbert’s family could not and would not harm Sanders.

Parents must protect their children, soothe their aches, and ensure they have better lives. Lives free of pain, grief, and remorse to the degree any parent could protect their children. Sanders’s mission was hard enough without such things.

“Think there’s something wrong with the daughter?” Tabbert placed the letter on the desk, then went to the window and leaned an arm against its frame.

The silver light of an overcast day shone on his face. Burden and worry reflected in his brown eyes, ageing him. The light caught the pewter hairs on his temples, but the rust-coloured hair of his youth still covered most of his head. “We have to tell him why. How it’s my fault. He’ll ask.”

“It’s not your fault.”

Tabbert slid his gaze filled with raw agony to Evania. “But it is. It’s the gods who curse the first-born men in my family.”

She ran a hand over the letter. The parchment was smooth to the touch, but it didn’t bring her comfort. Her arms had been empty of children for years. And how they had tried for a healthy babe. The gods had played cruel upon cruel a joke on them, perhaps the cruelest, leaving Tabbert numb and smile-less, and Evania unable to leave bed for weeks.

She wanted to reach for him. To wrap her arms around his chest and rest her cheek against his shoulders. She wanted to stand there, holding him as he had done so many times for her, but he wouldn’t have it in this mood. He’d comfort her when all she wanted to do was comfort him.

“Paxti isn’t keen on having grandchildren through Calanthe,” Evania said. “We can leave things as they are and let Sanders draw his conclusions.”

“He’s smarter than that.”

“We’ll focus his efforts on the mission. If the tower isn’t built, there’s no point in having a family. They’ll all be killed by the Variod’len.”

Evania would crawl naked on broken glass across the continent to keep her sons from going through what she and Tabbert had gone through. The false gods had interfered with Tabbert, and Evania denied them of years of happiness and joy and laughter.

The last time she held a stillborn babe in her arms, she lacked the strength to continue on. She almost never got out of bed for weeks. She would have stayed there, starved there, let her bones grow cold and turn to dust there had it not been for Tabbert. He had carried her every day from their room to a bench in the garden, made her sit in the sun, made her smell the flowers, made her listen to the hopeful bird songs.

Now, Tabbert smoothed an eyebrow. They had grown bushy in age, and while Tabbert kept his hair neatly cut and his cheeks smooth from beard, he didn’t let anyone trim his eyebrows. Not even Evania when she offered to shave him.

“He might find out we’ve been lying to him.”

“What have we told him that’s false?” She didn’t like the taste of those words in her mouth, but there were lies, and there were lies. Sanders couldn’t survive what she and Tabbert had gone through for a family. And Sanders couldn’t stay focused on ensuring the true and proper gods returned to the planet to save them all. And Sanders would follow orders to spend his life in practical exile in the wild forests on the edges of a kingdom that straddled the end of the continent.

Because Sanders was a good, dutiful son who understood honour and sacrificed his future and life for the mission. He’d throw himself on his sword ten times over to see his duty done.

Evania’s heart choked. She rested both elbows on the table but refused to bury her face in her palms. Proper ladies didn’t show emotion. They didn’t let the clamouring masses see weakness. And they certainly didn’t shirk their responsibilities.

Doing the right thing to protect her family felt horrible.

“What if she finds him?” Tabbert asked. “What if she corresponds with him, exchanging ideas about the future—their future?”

“We’ll intercept his correspondence. Vet all letters and messengers. We’ll send him on missions until the day before his wedding. Have him track down this book or that artefact. Keep his head in the mission and not on her.”

“Lie to him his entire life?”

“Some truths are too horrible to bear.”

“He trusts us. If he ever finds out, it’ll destroy him. He might reject his work on the project.”

“He knows the stakes if he doesn’t complete his work. The false gods will rule for thousands of years, enslaving everyone.”

Tabbert shook his head. “What if he falls in love with her?” ‘

“They’ll meet for their wedding day only.”

“I fell in love with you the first time I saw you.” Pain and love textured his voice.

She reached for his hand and squeezed it. And I you. “The ceremony and the feast. Nothing more. We get Sanders in a meeting with Paxti after the feast and before the dancing to explain the location and the timeline. Paxti didn’t object to any of our stipulations, which leads me to believe he’s not interested in Calanthe.”

“She’s his daughter.”

“Whom he didn’t negotiate for a better marriage. He doesn’t care for her. Our sources tell us he’s never shown an interest in her or his other daughters. Paxti’s only interested in the project and tower. I think he’s lining up resources to make a move against his brother and take the Osmirian throne.”

“There’s no proof of that.”

“The only thing he asked for is more gold. I’m betting Calanthe won’t see one gold coin of her bride price.”

The corners of Tabbert’s mouth pinched. Features smooth, gaze distant, Tabbert looked out the window. “If you think Paxti will move against his brother, why enlist his support?”

“He can pay. His political connections have opened doors that have been shut to us for decades. Even if he betrays us down the road, we’ve gotten our hands on dozens of magical artefacts we wouldn’t have accessed.”

“What if Calanthe tracks him down?”

“What do you mean?” Evania asked.

“From what I gather, she’s capable and intelligent. What if she tracks Sanders down?”

“Why would she? She lives very comfortably in a royal palace, surrounded by her family and friends. She’ll have no demands on her time, no stresses of running a household and estate, and no reason to track him down. As far as she’ll know, Sanders will want nothing to do with her and will leave her before their wedding night.”

“That’s cruel. She’ll feel rejected. What if the court turns against her? We can at least bring her to live with us.”

“To do what? She’ll have no estate to run. No husband, no friends, in a strange land. If she moves in with us, we’re not free to speak of the mission. She’ll start asking questions about what Orel and Florine have in their library. Out of boredom, she might snoop around and discover things she shouldn’t have seen.”

“Paxti bought into the mission.”

“He did,” Evania said. “But he never negotiated for Calanthe to be part of it. She’ll be safe in her childhood home. She’ll have balls and theatres and outings. She’ll laugh with her sisters and friends. She’ll lead a carefree, grief-free life. What’s the alternative?”

Heartache, womb ache, spirit ache, nights spent in uncontrollable crying, avoiding each other’s gazes out of shame and grief and guilt.

Tabbert ran his tongue along the corner of his mouth.

Silence followed, long and heavy and burdened by thirty years of love, grief, mourning, sadness, and what-could-have-beens.

He nodded once and slowly. “All right. Those will be Sanders’s marriage terms.”


The Marriage Contract explains the marriage terms of Sanders and Calanthe in A Gift of Stars, book 1 of the Nearer Realm Tales. It also forms the basis of a conflict between Evania and Tabbert in the upcoming Book 2 of The Nearer Realm Tales.

Image by Bruno from Pixabay

Carved in Stone

Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)

Free Barn Rustic photo and picture

“Eddie. Did you bring your trowel?”

“Yes, 3Ma.” I was a little annoyed that the paleobot didn’t use my real name. I’d reminded it often enough. Jamie. My name was Jamie.

“And you remember we’re testing soil samples today?”

“Yes, 3Ma.” I didn’t have the energy to roll my eyes. It had been clanking around even creepier than usual, calling me, “My love,” and “Dear heart.” And it had been on a loop of the same questions like, “Do you have your trowel, Sweetheart?” and, “My love, did you remember to pack your toothbrush?”, the whole time we’d been travelling to the old farmstead. Looking around, at least the trip and 3Ma’s dippy behaviour now seemed worth the effort.

The pastures were greening with spring, and everywhere around the old farmhouse, flowers were blooming in blues and yellows. The house was surrounded by trees and short grass, and looked to be perfectly preserved by the maintenancebots, m-bots, and ready for people to move in. It invoked a warm feeling in me, almost like coming home. I’d be happy stationed here.

The gate to the barnyard was open and there was no sign of whatever animals had lived there. But it was covered in grass, as short and velvety as the lawn.

3Ma pointed towards an old shed. “Start taking samples to the north of that building, my sweet.”

I picked up my case and trowel and headed that way. The fires that had cleansed the area had been directed away from trees and buildings and even the remains of old electric fenceposts and wire. All the place needed was a family and some livestock, and humans would be back in business. With our machine buddies guiding us, of course. Probably for the best, though with the way 3Ma babbled on and the shortages and delays in procurement, I sometimes wondered. Wondered what life had been like before the plague nearly wiped out humankind.

I came to some berry bushes growing on a hill and took soil samples. The bushes were just leafing out but looked very healthy. The pastures were encased by fence lines full of trees. To one side of the shed was a large gravel pad with a huge granite rock sticking out of it. Behind the gravel ran a stream.

The gravel area was bare of weeds. The controlled burns that kept the land from going back to bush had scoured it clean.

I took a sample of the gravel. It was at least two feet deep so I couldn’t get any soil. I checked a few different places but it was all the same. Too deep.

Before I wandered off too far, I had a look at the granite rock. If the original purpose of the gravel pad was a place to park machinery, the rock was right in the middle of it. Right in the way. Not very efficient. But that was Jamie the soil sampler talking. On a second look, the rock was beautiful. A rich red. What did they used to call… what was it?  Memories of geology classes came to mind. Red granite? Pink granite? I took a closer look.

It had a light coating of moss and lichen. That meant the air was very clean. But there were some unusual marks beneath the smattering of lichen. I knelt down and peered closer. Scratched in the rock were symbols. Pictures. Letters. I wasn’t familiar with the words, but the pictures seemed pretty straightforward, and the numbers I knew.

My ancient languages were a bit rusty, but I polished them off and studied the message.

My heart almost stopped when I saw the first line.

Dear Jamie. Dear Jamie! That was me! Or it could have been Dear Jennie. Or Jerry. I knew a Jennie but no Jerry.

One thing I knew for sure. Don’t let 3Ma see it. It would say it was a bad message from the old world and burn it clean. Bots had control issues, the whole damn bunch of them.

I couldn’t take a picture of it, my records were monitored. But I could copy it onto a piece of paper with my marking pen. So I did.

And got back to taking soils samples as fast as I could. Which proved to be just in time, as 3Ma came clanking around the corner, leaving the imprint of her feet in the gravel. I tried not to think of the holes she’d left in the softer areas where the grass grew. There’d be repairs necessary from that and I hoped it would be taken care of by the lighter m-bots. She called me before I’d gotten very far.

I steered it away from the rock with a comment to go explore and sample the stream. 3Ma complied happily enough and soon we were looking for frogs and other signs of a healthy water ecosystem.

We finished soil samples by sundown and 3Ma unlocked the house. When we went in, it looked like someone was still living there. There were personal items all over the place. I felt a bit uncomfortable. Like an invader. Or a thief. But an m-bot showed up immediately. That meant there was no one in the house. It directed us to the kitchen where the appliances were pristine, and working. And the cooler contained food. I took out a roasted half bird, some cooked potatoes, a salad and a drink, and filled my stomach. Afterwards, I took a shower. Clean fluffy towels made drying off a pleasure and I changed into pyjamas. The m-bot took my dirty clothes away, presumably to be cleansed, and I found a soft bed to sleep in.

These gentle accommodations were by no means usual, and I thought how well we were cared for before sleep claimed me.

When I woke, I was angry that I’d been too tired to study the letter. I found it crumpled in the sheets beside me and decided to try to translate it before the workday started.

The first words were Dear Jaime … or Dear Somebody …

The next line was something like … I’m the last, or everyone else is gone.

The next line … the damned AI.

I wasn’t sure who or what an Al was, but whatever, the writer blamed all their woes on him or her. Or it.

Old jokes from early school pinged my mind.

“How many AI does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They get the humans to do it.”

“What’s black and white and dead all over? Humans. The AI killed them all.”

I broke into a sweat. These were pernicious thoughts, punishable by reeducation, mindwipe, or death. I’d never thought anything of the old jokes. They were just jokes. As real as fairy tales. Come to think of it, I hadn’t thought of them in years. No one ever disappeared over them anymore. Of course, no one dared repeat them.

I had a sudden memory. Faint, like a half-remembered dream, of being young. Small. In a classroom with a whole bunch of other kids. Of saying that joke. Out loud. The one about the humans all being dead. Because the AI killed them. I dreamed the teacher clapped his hand over his mouth, staggered over to his desk and sat down. Then, the door of the classroom was flung open with a bang that ripped it off its hinges. Then me and the whole class were led out by one of the janitorbots. I don’t remember much after that. My mind was full of big blanks. Until a few years ago. I remember Geology class quite clearly.

I remember some of my classmates from the time before, when we were little. But there were only a handful of them left.

I scanned the rest of the letter.

The words came easier, like I’d unlocked a part of my brain.

Dear Jaime,

I’m the last. Everyone else on the road is gone. Dead, I presume.

The damned AL. They got us after all. We thought we were so smart. Turns out, not. Haha.

I don’t know where they took you.

But in case you ever come back,

I want you to know that we loved you. You had a family that loved you.

I loved you. <3 <3 <3

I sat in bed, staring at the letter. Stunned.

Until 3Ma rolled in. “Time to rise and shine, Sleepyhead,” it said, and ruffled my hair. “Hurry up and get dressed and come down to breakfast. I have some wonderful news, Sweetie.”

Somehow, I knew what that news was going to be. I gazed around at the room I’d instinctively settled in. The guitar by the window was familiar. The room smelled of stale socks, an old leather catcher’s mitt, hair gel from an open jar on the little desk. There’d be a horse-shaped crack in the ceiling overhead. I lay back. Sure enough, there was a horse-shaped crack in the ceiling.

All the clothes on the shelves were for a little kid. I got up and scrounged through them, looking for my favourite T-shirt. The black one with the white skull on the front. Found it, right in the pile of what would have been clean laundry Mom left for me to put away.

The memories were coming back white hot. I sat down on the bed as nausea and a headache claimed me. I felt my forehead with trembling hands. It was ice cold.

The only thing I ever heard of that sounded like I felt was rage.

When I felt calm enough and in control, I got up, dressed and went downstairs.

3Ma was jiggling excitedly. That is, as jiggly as a sentience contained by metal and hung together with nuts and bolts could. I know, because for a time, I’d helped construct them.

Did 3Ma use terms of endearment on me because she considered me her parent? Or lover? I hope not the latter, but she had moments of pure crazy which seemed to be coming closer together and lasting longer and longer.

“Guess what, my dearest?” it said.

I appeared to think for a moment. “What? I don’t know.”

“You’re going to be living here!” It was shaking so hard it forgot to use a term of endearment. Shaking with joy, I hoped, hardly able to contain itself.

I smiled. “That’s wonderful.” Its shaking paused and it looked like it needed more, so I added, “Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome, Sweetie.” It rushed up to me and hugged me, hard. My ribs were feeling the crunch when it let up. A display of affection? Or a reminder of how strong they were?

In any event, now I remembered. Everything.

I don’t know how, or when, but there will be a reckoning.

Image: https://pixabay.com/photos/barn-rustic-fredericksburg-texas-2094288/

A Letter Discovered

David M. Simon (@writesdraws)

Free Girl Fashion photo and picture

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This started out as a little short story for this month’s theme, The Letter. Only, as I wrote it, it seemed like it might want to be something more. It seemed like it might want to be the first chapter in something longer. Whether that happens or not depends on if the words that come next present themselves. We’ll see.

Hazel McTavish found the letter tucked between the pages of a book in her local public library, a small, cozy brick building at the end of Maple Street.

Hazel was thirteen. She had discovered science fiction and fantasy in the school library her first week at Maple Junior High, a much larger, much less cozy building which squatted at the other end of Maple Street. She had spent the entire school year working her way through the SF&F section in the library, starting at the upper left with Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and working her way down to the bottom right, finishing with Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes In Amber.

Once the school year ended, Hazel started over alphabetically with the much larger public library SF&F collection. By midway through July she had reached the Ls, and it was when she was in the Ls that she found the letter. She was ensconced in her favorite threadbare, overstuffed chair that was perfectly positioned so that she could look out a window into the library courtyard and watch the hummingbirds flitting between feeders. She’d just sat down with a clearly much-loved hardback edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. She did what she always did before beginning a new book, particularly older volumes—she held it up to her nose and breathed deeply, inhaling the dry but earthy book smell. As often happened, she sneezed, jerking the book. That’s when the letter fell into her lap.

The sealed envelope that held the letter was nondescript, ordinary white paper and not the thick, creamy stock that would signal, perhaps, an invitation to some mysterious gathering. The single word scrawled on the front in thin, spidery handwriting, however, was anything but ordinary. It read Hazel, and nothing more.

Hazel realized her hands were trembling slightly, and she was holding her breath. She closed her eyes and counted to ten, settled her hands in her lap and began to breathe again, then opened her eyes, slipped a thin finger beneath the envelope flap, and tore it open. Inside was a single folded sheet of onionskin paper covered in the same brittle handwriting that had written the name, her name, on the envelope. She unfolded the letter and began to read:

My dearest Hazel,

I assume that is your name, or the ravens were mistaken and this hasn’t worked at all. And the ravens are rarely mistaken.

I fear I haven’t much time, so I’ll keep this short and sweet—I hope that you will embark on a mission, an adventure, a quest if you will. You may be young, but I’m convinced you have the grit, fortitude, strength, and most importantly heart you will need to triumph. You should know that your journey may be perilous, but it’s of the utmost importance. Many lives may hang in the balance. You should also know that I believe in you, and that the ravens believe in you as well.

Please see Miss Wollencraft in Special Collections for further instructions. If you don’t know Miss Wollencraft, then I’ve made a grave mistake, and you are not the correct Hazel at all. The correct Hazel will most certainly know who Miss Wollencraft is.

Good luck, Hazel McTavish. I hope our paths will cross one day.

Most sincerely,
Katerina Potts

Hazel carefully set the letter down and looked out the window, searching for hummingbirds to take her mind off this impossibility. But there were none to see. She read it again, and a third time, then whispered, “Of course I know who Miss Wollencraft is. But why me?” Hazel stood up, and without realizing she had made a decision, headed off in the direction of the Special Collections room, letter in hand.

Special Collections was located in the basement of the library, at the bottom of an ornate staircase and just past the restrooms. Libraries are quiet in general, but down there it was quiet, as if the walls themselves sucked up all sound. Hazel tip-toed through the open door, willing her shoes not to squeak. She found Miss Wollencraft shelving books from a rolling cart.

Hazel bumped a shelf, nearly sending a pile of dusty books cascading to the floor before deftly catching them, and Miss Wollencraft looked up. “I know you. You asked if I could track down a British edition of Davy by Edgar Pangborn. I may not remember your name, but I never forget a book request. One question…did you enjoy it?”

“Yes ma’am, very much.”

“Glad to hear it. Pangborn was a wonderful writer, although not enough people seem to read him nowadays. Now, what can I do for you, young lady?”

Hazel held out the letter out and said, “Does this mean anything to you?”

Miss Wollencraft glanced at the piece of paper without bothering to read it. “Hazel, is it? Thank the ravens! I’ve been expecting you for a very long time, and I only hope it’s not too late. Listen to me carefully. Go home and pack a duffel—sturdy clothes, rain gear, a good pair of boots, rope, a canteen, a machete, a pistol if you have one. Meet me at midnight by the back loading dock door.”

“Miss Wollencraft, tomorrow’s a school day. I have a nine p.m. curfew tonight.” Hazel felt embarrassed saying those words, but she had never missed a curfew. “My dad might have some rope in the garage, but I don’t have a machete, or a pistol.”

“Hazel, my dear, I don’t think you fully understand what’s at stake—”

“Why me?” Hazel blurted out, interrupting her. “I think I’m a good person, but I’m nobody special. I’m a junior high nerd who spends all her free time here at the library. I’m not a hero! So why me?”

Miss Wollencraft sighed. She was quiet for so long that Hazel worried she had offended her. Finally she answered. “Because it’s been foretold. Because you are so much more than you know. And because there’s no one else.”

Image by kokovihinajana from Pixabay.

The Letter

Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)


Another exploratory story about the characters who feature in my next book, An Unwise Prince. The POV character this time is Luce bé Casille, twin sister of Cenric, whom we met in January’s The Onion Tart.

“There are letters for you,” our steward told me, as I handed him my cloak. “On the table in the sitting room. Your brother and Aldor de Guerdián are out.”

I thanked him. Passing through the sitting room on the way to my room to wash and change, I glanced down. The handwriting on the top letter was Dario’s. There’d be a note inside from Elene as well, no doubt: something to savour, after a difficult day of treatments and diagnoses.

A glass of wine sat beside the letters when I came down again. I dropped into my chair and took a sip of the ruby liquid, appreciating its rich sweetness. Then I picked up Dario’s letter, and broke the seal.

To my dear friend and esteemed colleague, mother of our daughter, I send news and a request…

Apprehension clenched at my throat. Dario never asked for anything. I read the letter quickly, twice, before I put it down to stare at the fire. Sorrow and dismay battled for supremacy. For a moment, I flailed, mentally. I forced myself to take a breath, then another, counting each inhalation, a technique learned from my first teacher of surgery. When faced with a crisis, she’d said, pause to assess.

Dario had written with grave, unhappy news, and to ask something large. There was nothing I could do about the first. The request, well…I could not say no. Nor did I wish to, truly.

I had never intended to leave our daughter with Dario for so long. But the drive to learn, to travel to the famed schools of medicine on either side of the Nivéan Sea had been strong, and when his mother had suggested leaving the baby with them, I had agreed with some relief. The years had swept by, in learning and travel and the occasional visit.  When I had returned to Casille and suggested bringing her to live with me, Dario had demurred. ‘Elene is settled here, with me and my mother. Why uproot her?’ he had written. Elene had been seven then, beginning to write her own letters to me, telling me of her friends and her kitten. She sounded happy.

So I had resolved to make the journey to see her that autumn, welcome both in her father’s home and at the medical school in the city—and when I did, it was clear to me that my wish had been selfish. I had not the time to give my curious, active child the attention she deserved, not like her grandmother did, not between my practice and my teaching. Nor did Elene seem to be upset by my absence from her life, beyond letters and the occasional visit. When I left her, the tears were mine.

But now…I read Dario’s words again. He had been offered a position at the medical school at Ilerda; an honour, one he would be allowed to postpone for a short time, because his mother was dying.  After her death and funeral, he wished to send our daughter to me. Elene could come with him, he told me, but it was time she knew her mother better. And she should have a woman to guide her through her next years, now she was nearly twelve.

Twelve!  She had been ten the last time I’d seen her, still a little girl in many ways. Most ways. I considered, calm now. Analytical.  At twelve she could go to Wintredene. Probably the best course of action. I could see her often, and there would be other girls of her age, all new, not yet bonded in friendships, and her days would be calm and structured. I had no doubt she had the requisite learning to be admitted, given her letters were now as often in Heræcrian as Casilan.

Upon your reply, Dario had written, I will make the arrangements. After the funeral, I will send Elene to you, with the appropriate escort. May our daughter bring you as much joy as she has me.

I would need to inform my uncle Gerhart, Leordh of Wintredene. A formality and a courtesy, so that a place in the dormitories would be assigned; no child of our house was ever refused admittance. No child who was sound of mind, at least.

I rang for Pietar. “I will eat in half an hour,” I told him. “I have letters to write first. And in a few weeks my daughter will be arriving. She will need a room, and she will bring a maid.”

“Is this a permanent arrangement, Aldorin? Or a visit?” Unperturbed, as a good steward always was, no matter how much work I was making for him and the other servants.

“Permanent, although I expect her to attend Wintredene in the autumn; she is twelve. But in the vacations from school, yes.”

The house was large enough, and half mine. I had no requirement to consult Cenric; he had not asked permission when Kirt had come to live with him. With us, really, although I rarely saw either my brother or his lover, barring a few breakfasts when the demands of business caused one or the other to rise early, or the rare evenings we were all in the house together. I should curtail my practice hours, I thought, once Elene was here. Offer a partnership to another physician and divide my time more evenly between Wintredene and Casille, lessen the travel needed to fulfill both my teaching duties at the Tæchsel and my work here.

If not for one patient, I could take two new partners into the practice here and move to Wintredene entirely. One patient, and the other work I undertook.


I wrote the letters, and ate the light meal brought to me. When only my wine glass sat on the table beside me, I opened Elene’s note.

To my honoured mother, it began. I am to come to live with you, my father says. Avia is very ill. She will die soon, and then he is moving to teach at a school far away. This house is to be sold. My father says Gia, my maid, may come with me, but not my cat. Our neighbours will take care of her. They have promised.

My father says you are as busy a physician as he is. I hope I will not be a nuisance for you, and that I may continue my studies when I am with you. I can be very quiet. Especially if I have a kitten to keep me company.

Think of me with love, as I do you.

Your daughter Elene.

The sentence before the formal valediction made me laugh. Whatever the apprehension and grief my daughter must be feeling, boldly asking for a kitten suggested a resilience that would stand her in good stead over the next years. Well, kittens were never in short supply; we would choose one together.

I reached for paper and pen to write my reply. My hand caught the pile of letters and paper on the table, spilling them onto the floor. I swore, mildly, and bent to pick them up. A letter, unopened, caught my eye. Pietar had said ‘letters’, I remembered, but Dario’s news had put the second one out of my mind. I straightened, looking at the folded and sealed package in my hand. This was not to be read here, where Pietar or a maid could come in at any time. I would take it to my consulting rooms tomorrow, where I could be assured of privacy. Privacy, and the bright light of day to read the message waiting for the heat of an oil lamp to make the words visible.

And then, I expected, I would have to go to see the Princip.

The story will continue in June’s edition.

Image by Bruno from Pixabay

An Unknown Girl Sitting on My Steps

Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)

Free Woman Model photo and picture

When I started up the path to my house early on the Friday evening at the end of the first week of my returning to work after my husband’s suicide, I saw a girl lift herself up from the steps that led to the porch. A small suitcase was beside her, and she was clutching her coat around her as she stepped down to the path. I did not recognize her.

She was very much a girl. She looked to be 15 or 16 though she went to great efforts to present herself as otherwise. She stood waiting for me at the bottom of the steps, and when I reached her, I asked her whether I could help her.

“Are you Marlene Ocean?” she asked, and I told her I was.

“Can I come in?”

She was very nervous and seemed harmless enough, so I had her follow me up the steps and she waited while I unlocked and opened the door, grabbing that small suitcase as I did and bringing it into my front hall.

“Can I get you anything?” I asked and she said a water would be nice. I directed her into my small living room while I took off my coat and went to the kitchen. When I got to the living room, I had two water glasses, and she was sitting on my sofa, her raincoat still held tightly against her. She was very frightened, and it almost broke my heart to see.

I handed a glass to her, and she swallowed about half of the water very quickly before placing it carefully on the back of a magazine that was on the coffee table, after turning the magazine over so her glass was put on an ad of some sort or another.

I sat opposite her, my own glass in my hand as something of a prop for the bizarre happening.

Since it didn’t look like she was going to say something, I said, “You know who I am. Who are you?”

I tried to be as non-accusatory as possible and am not sure I succeeded, but she looked up at me and took a breath.

She reached into the pocket of her raincoat and took out a somewhat crumbled envelope that had been folded in half. She did her best to smooth it on her thigh and after a pause and a glance at its front handed it to me.

It was addressed to Shirley Evans in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. There was no return address but the postmark over a plain stamp showed that it had been sent two months earlier from a Manhattan post office. It was the day before my husband killed himself. I recognized his handwriting.

The envelope was unsealed. She nodded, and I took out the letter.


There is a truth I cannot take to my grave. I am your father. My greatest regret is my not having been able to support you in the way a father should support his daughter. You are my only child. Your mother has told me of your progress throughout, and how you are growing into a fine woman.

I have become torn by guilt for what I have done. Not only to you and your mother but also to my own dear wife. She knows nothing of you or of your mother.

I fear that I will no longer exist by the time you read this except insofar as some small part of me has become a part of you. I promise you that you will always have my love, wherever you might be.

Your father

It was unsigned but there was no doubt as to the handwriting. After glancing briefly through it after my reading, I refolded it and restored it to its envelope, which I handed back to the girl, who I guessed was Shirley Evans.

“Is it true? Did he…?” she asked, quietly.

“Yes, it’s true. He hanged himself from a tree in a park near here the day after he must have sent this.”

“So he’s really dead?”

I nodded and I thought she might cry. In part to change the mood and in part to understand something, I asked, “How did you find me?”

“So it is your husband, then?”

I wasn’t sure what I could or should say to that beyond admitting it, admitting that the person who was most dear to me in the world had some sort of secret life, the nature and aspects of which I could not fathom.

“I recognize the handwriting.” I repeated: “How did you find me?”

Shirley lifted and finished off her water and then held the glass. “May I have another?” and before I could get up, she was on her feet and heading to the kitchen. I was grateful for the brief reprieve of whatever was happening.

By the time she got back with her refilled glass, I was up, staring through the front window to the Nelson’s house across the street. They were a nice couple, were the Nelsons. A couple of boys at the grammar school. He was a lawyer who commuted into Manhattan and with whom I always exchanged a pleasant word when we met on the train platform or on the train. She worked part time at a small bank in town and otherwise was home for the kids.

I heard this Shirley come back and turned as she again sat on the sofa.

She told me that she’d asked her mother many times who her father was, but that her mother claimed she didn’t know. Her mother told her when she was old enough to understand that she was the product of a one-night stand a bit over 17 years before at a convention in the City. It was something of a junket, she was told, when her mother worked in Boston and had a weekend trip to New York.

“The letter said my mother had told him things about me over the years and when I read that I immediately wondered whether it was more than a one-night stand.”

She saw my expression. “I’m not saying the…sex they had was a regular thing, but I figured that whoever my father was wasn’t some anonymous schmuck off the street. He cared about me, and she knew enough about him to tell him he’d, well, knocked her up.”

She looked at me directly. “He says I was his only child.”

I nodded.

“Maybe,” I thought out loud, “that’s why he took an interest you.”

“Probably,” she said. “I mean, why would he care about the details of my life, you know?”

I’d long thought he agreed with me that we didn’t want kids, so this was getting very confusing to me.

“Look, I’m not going to say my mother was mother of the year or anything like that. She had a decent enough job and was always bringing new boyfriends around. They’d last a while and then were gone. Most of them were okay.

“So after telling me again and again how she didn’t know who my father was, I get this letter. I don’t know if she would’ve given it to me. I don’t know if he ever tried to contact me before. But perhaps it was fate that I got home that day while she was still at work.

“So I get this letter and I open it and…you see what it said. So she comes home, and I ask her about my father. She’s like wondering where that came from, and I just say I’ve always been curious. ‘Do you know anything about him? Has he ever contacted you?’ Stuff like that. She again says it was just some rando thing from long ago and she doesn’t even know his name except that he was some kind of lawyer in New York and that she thought he was married.

“I asked whether he was married when I was conceived, which is how I put it, and she said he wasn’t wearing a wedding band, but she was pretty sure he was cheating on some ignorant housewife keeping his dinner warm for him. I mean, she was really nasty about it, which I guess means she was pretty nasty about you, though I don’t think she had any idea about you except you were some poor woman whose husband was…sleeping with her.”

“You mean ‘fucking’ her?” I clarified.

She smiled. “I was trying to be polite but, yeah, he fucked her. And voilà.” She spread her arms. “And I was the result of that copulation,” and she laughed at the absurdity of the language we were using.

This didn’t explain how she’d found me.

“So I knew she was lying, from the letter, which of course I didn’t show her. There was no letter for her, at least in the handwriting at the time because I checked every day when I got home. But from what he wrote, I figured there must have been something between him and my mother. How did he know what was going on with my life? You see?

“My mom’s not so tech savvy. I figured she must have used email and so the next day when I got home before she did, I checked her computer. I knew her password, of course, because half the time she needed me to help her when she was online. When I checked her email, there wasn’t much but spam and stuff, but after some exploring I found an email chain about me. They used my name. Not many, every six months or so, from an obviously fake email address. Just brief things mostly from her telling him something about me. It was pretty creepy.

“So I just did a search for ‘Shirley’ and I found one that he must have sent by mistake because it had his name.”

“Steven Ocean.” The thought put the nail into me.

“Yeah, that was it.”

She said that with his name, it was just basic detective work on the internet. There were a few possibilities but when she narrowed it down by ages there were only two. One was in California, and one was, well, my husband, the one with the Manhattan postmark.

“Since you were closer, I hoped it was you.”

“And for good or ill,” I said, “you were right.”

“My mother’s boyfriend is a real shithead,” she said. “They’ve been together for over a year, and he moved in about six months ago. When she’s around, he’s all sweet with me, but when she’s not, he scares me. He really does. I can’t say that he’d do anything, but he looks at me like some sort of fresh meat. Young fresh meat. I didn’t know if I can make it to 18 to leave, but I want to. I really do. My mom’s not so bad all in all, but I don’t think she’d protect me from him.

“Then when I figured out who my dad is, or was, I decided to take a chance and come.”

“What did you tell her?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t say anything. I just left a note after she and her boyfriend left for work. Instead of going to school I could take the bus in town to New York City. It’s only a few hours. I left a note on the kitchen table saying I was off visiting a friend and that she shouldn’t worry. That I’d be in contact as soon as I could.”

She looked at her phone. “I guess she would have gotten it a few hours ago, but I blocked her and him on my phone, so I don’t know if they’ve be trying to get in touch with me.”

“You can’t just leave her hanging like that. She is your mother, and she has a right to know where you are or at least that you’re okay.”

“I know.” She got up and went into the kitchen and I left her alone, trying to get a handle on what was going on and what I was supposed to do with this 16 year-old.

She came back pretty quickly.

“I just texted her that I’m staying away for a few days and am fine.”

As she was finishing saying this, her phone buzzed. She lifted it and read the message.

“She says she wants me home now. That she and her boyfriend have been worried sick.”

The phone buzzed again.

“She says at least to tell her where I am and with whom.” It buzzed.

“She says, ‘I don’t understand why you’re doing this to us.’”

Another buzz. “‘We both love you, you know that. Wherever you are, we’ll come get you.’”

Another buzz. “‘If you tell us, you won’t get into trouble. Otherwise we’ll have to report this to the police, and it won’t go well for you.’ I think her boyfriend dictated that last part.”

When the phone was quiet, she resumed her seat on the sofa, lightly juggling it on her lap. She looked up at me. “What am I supposed to say? I’m not going back.”

“Ever?” I asked, and she said “never.”

“I’m sure she loves you.”

“You don’t know her.” She was getting pissed with me as I daresay she often got pissed at her mother.

“There’s always an agenda with her. Always. She doesn’t miss me. She doesn’t want me. They can both go fuck themselves.”

She started scrolling through her phone, opening an app and laughing at something unrelated.

I told her that she was putting me in a very difficult position. I didn’t know her. I didn’t know whether her story or any part of it was true (though I did have the letter that I knew my husband had written).

“I could get arrested,” I said.

She looked up. “For what? I came here on my own. You have nothing to do with it. How can you get into trouble?”

“You’re 16. I am interfering with your mother’s rights. She says she wants you home”—I nodded at her phone, still being juggled in her lap—“and how am I not kidnapping you if I prevent you from going back?”

“Wouldn’t you take that chance for me?”

“I don’t even know you.” By verbalizing it, the threat to me felt infinitely more real and more dangerous to me.

“Let me speak to her,” I said, straightening my arm towards her.

“You’re going to call her? I can’t believe it. I don’t want to go back.”

“You’re 16. You have no choice. You have to go back.”

For a moment I expected that she was going to tell me to go fuck myself and then grab her suitcase and be gone, which will still leave me in a vulnerable position, what with not complying with a 16 year old’s mother’s wish. I kept my patience and kept my hand out.

I took a breath while Shirley stared at me, her head slowly shaking and then slowly reached the phone to me.

“Do you want to be on the call?” I asked. She shook her head and got up, heading to the kitchen.

I decided it was best to go to my bedroom, my now so empty bedroom, to call. Shirley wouldn’t be going anywhere, at least until I came down again.

I hit CALL for the text message. It was answered before the second ring.

“Shirley. Where the fuck are you?”

“It isn’t Shirley.”

There was a pause.

“Who are you?” Her mother, as I assumed it was, put me on speaker, and I figured her boyfriend was listening in and wondered whether he’d jump in.

“First, your daughter is fine.”

“Let me speak to her.”

The boyfriend chimed in. “Where is she?”

“I can’t say,” I answered. I got up and started pacing to try to get my bearings better now that it was a two-on-one conversation.

He was getting angry. “Have you kidnapped her? I’ll get the Massachusetts State Police and FBI in two minutes if you don’t let me speak to her.”

“I have not kidnapped her. Please calm down. Both of you. I am a friend to her father.”

“Her father? How does she know who her father is?” This was from her mother.

“It’s a complicated story but all I can say is that she found out and tracked him down and showed up about an hour ago. I told her she had to contact you to let you know she’s safe and now I’m calling you so we can figure out what to do with her.”

Her mother continued, “You know she’s 16, right?”

“She told me that straight off.”

“And where’s her father?”

I paused.

“He’s dead.”

“Dead? I can’t believe it.”

From the background I heard the boyfriend say “Maybe that’s why you didn’t get the last check.”

“Check?” I asked. “Had he been sending checks?”

“She’s his kid, okay. I didn’t want to do the whole paternity test/child support thing, you know—”

“So how do you know she’s his kid?” She was the only person who could answer this overwhelming question, and I assume my husband had asked the same thing.

“I may have slept around,” she said, “but he was the only one I did it with that could possibly have led to Shirley. He was married, and last I heard he still is. Or was. Didn’t want his bride to know. He was such a gentleman.”

I did not miss the tone she used for that last phrase. Bitch.

“Look, I’m not saying he’s not her father. I’m just asking.”

“Look,” she mimicked me. “I’m just saying he’s been writing to me for information about her and sending checks every month for over fifteen years. Like clockwork. And then we didn’t get anything last month or so far this month.”

“He killed himself.”

There was silence on the other end.

“What do you mean he killed himself?” She sounded shocked and I heard nothing from the boyfriend who, I figured, didn’t care how he died just that he and the gravytrain were no more. The conversation had turned into one between me and Shirley’s mother.

“Just that. He left no note, and I don’t know why but he sent Shirley a letter—”

“He sent a letter? To her? Do you have it?”

“She showed it to me. I…I recognized his handwriting.”

“So you knew him pretty well, then, to recognize his handwriting. So you’re his wife?”

“I’m his widow, yes.”

“So why’d he do it?” She sounded genuinely puzzled.

“It was a couple of months ago and I have no idea.”

I sat back down on my bed.

“But this isn’t about him. This is about Shirley. She just showed up about an hour ago on my front porch. She’s a minor and I don’t know what to do. So I’m open to any suggestions you might have.”

“Well just send her back. Where are you?”

“I’m not saying. But I can arrange to put her on a bus, which is how she got to me in the first place.”

Her boyfriend called, “You’d better,” but she hushed him and said she’d appreciate my doing that. I told her I would and figured that would be that.

When I hung up, I went downstairs. Shirley had gotten herself a glass of milk and some cookies and was sitting on the sofa.

“You must be starved,” I said. “I’ll order something, and we can talk.”

“First, what did she say?”

I sat beside her on the sofa. “She has the right to have you go back and so I told her I would put you on the bus in the morning, but I’m going to drive you. It’s only a few hours. We’ll talk as we go about what we can do next, but for now I’m getting pizza. How do you like it?”

The thought of focusing on pizza toppings seemed to calm her and her initial reaction to what I told her I was going to do, and she said she liked peppers and mushrooms so that’s what I ordered.

Image by Pana Koutloumpasis from Pixabay

May Team Showcase

David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.

Marian L Thorpe‘s eighth and final book in her historically inspired speculative fiction series Empire’s LegacyEmpire’s Passing, is out in paperback and as an ebook. (Empire’s Daughter is the first part.) She has numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com  or at Books2Read. Marian’s short story On Shining Wings is included in the anthology Historical Stories of Exilepublished by Taw River Press.

Renée Gendron‘s Frontier Hearts is a Western historical romance set in the late 1800s in the District of Alberta, Canada. The series follows a variety of romantic leads as they arrive and thrive in Prosper, Alberta. Each book involves a different romantic pair, a mystery, and plenty of historical details to take you back in time to the Canadian Western frontier. Jaded HeartsGolden HeartsSilver Hearts

The Nearer Realm Tales is an epic fantasy romance series that combines humour, mystery, adventure, and romance. Each book features a strong cast with many recurring characters.  A Gift of Stars: Book 1 The Nearer Realm Tales is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Renée’sHeartened by Sport is a series of humorous amateur sports romances. Each novella features a new setting, sport, and romantic dynamic: Seven Points of ContactTwo Hearts on the Backspin:  Three Volleys to Love.

Louise Sorensen has contributed to numerous anthologies that are available on Amazon, and is the co-author, with Misha Burnett, of Duel Visions.

Joseph P. Garland‘s The Diary of Elizabeth Elliot has just been published; it is on Kindle Unlimited. Becoming Catherine Bennet is available on KU and also on Audible.com.  (First Chapters.) He has also adapted his AMBR submission of a few months back involving Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy entitled “Mr. Darcy’s Regrets” from June 2023 into a novella entitled The Omen at Rosings Park, also available on Kindle Unlimited and as an Audiobook on Audible.com. He has also started a newsletter and those interested in getting on the mailing list can contact him at JPGarlandAuthor@DermodyHouse.com.