A Yummy Hero

Writers need to stick together. The support of friends is crucial and why my regency series is dedicated to friendship. You are the best!

Judi Lynn

I read some books and the guy who’s the hero is just plain hot.  And I remember him.  A hot hunk isn’t enough to make me love a book, but let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt.  But M. L. Rigdon has a habit of writing wonderful male characters AND one heck of a good story.  In her newest fantasy, THE GRACARIN, she combines a hero who endeared himself to me the longer I read about him, with a heroine whom I’ve loved since I read about her in the trilogy Seasons of Time.  I love Sorda, and it hurt when she became Lorin’s consort in that series instead of his wife.  But it was so typical of her, content to play second-fiddle in the background.  Until she meets Torak–my heart throb–in The Gracarin.  And oh, how I hope she and Torak end up together.  So, I invited M. L. Rigdon…

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Two Movies in Two Days

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AD ASTRA

An outer space adventure that is mostly backdrop for wrenching internal struggle. Brad Pitt’s character, Major Roy McBride, has managed childhood issues with controlled avoidance. He’s buried pain so deeply that he’s cut himself off, shut down emotional responses. His success with this is demonstrated in how calm he remains in a terrifying life threatening accident that would make any normal person shriek nonstop or blackout. That neat talent is challenged when everything he’s done to protect himself begins to unravel with the monumental task of saving the world. His father, a brilliant scientist and deified astronaut thought dead, is making mayhem on Neptune.  Son must find trouble-maker dad, save the universe, while his internal self is hanging on by a thread.

Pacing is difficult in space films, mainly because everything is slowed down on screen for the illusion of weightlessness. The action gets slow at times but never drags. It’s appropriate and is helped along by Pitt’s narration throughout the film, a curious then ruthlessly objective dissection of his mental status. His goal of saving the world, saving himself, and confronting his father is pitted against the difficulties and dangers of space travel. I got the feeling Pitt identified with his character on a gut level and liked the whole exploration of outer space versus exploration of emotional inner space theme.

Major Roy McBride is a hero steadfast, quick thinking and relentlessly brave. I see in him NASA’s long list of astronauts, but lacking their corny sense of humor. I also liked the clear-cut screenplay with a definite beginning, sometimes shocking middle segments, and a satisfying conclusion.

Some reviewers are whining about the lack of serious attention to the sacred sci-fi genre. I liked the film because space is used as secondary to Major McBride’s internal odyssey.

And now for something completely different:

DOWNTON ABBEY

So far, there is no way to compete with the Brits when it comes to period film production. What also amazed was getting the extensive cast back to do this film. In an NPR interview, Julian Fellowes expressed his astonishment of the same. Their joy of being together again glows on the screen.

Let’s be real. It took years to develop the history and scope of the Crawley family. To cram that much content into a two-hour film is impossible. Yes, the writing is trite and over-used, with tortuous injections of dues ex machina, but nobody cares. Certainly not the fans of this series. Me included. What we got was exactly what we wanted, the upstairs and downstairs back together again, the elegance of a fading era, the sparkle and beauty of it all. The costuming is so exquisite, down to the matching robin egg green of Dowager Countess Grantham’s satin slippers.

There is also the benefit of income for the repairs that a dwelling like Highclere Castle requires. (The window casement in one of the shots was so badly chipped its condition distracted.) Most of the grand houses are now in the National Trust, given up by families no longer able to financially keep pace with the upkeep. Lady Mary expressed the same worry about staying on at Downton, a reasonable concern.

The present day owner of Highclere, Lord Carnarvon (descendant of the famed King Tutankhamen excavation), gave a candid interview about how much the income for renting out his house for the series was appreciated for a new roof, among other things. Although the age of aristocracy has dwindled to its end, architecture and history must be preserved. Downton Abbey funds have helped greatly with that.

Link to Highclere: https://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/history-highclere-castle

This was the first time in a long, long time that I heard an audience of movie goers clap at the end of a film. It was good to hear and even better to escape from present day crassness into a lovely setting. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing.

Shameless plug portion: The Gracarin, scheduled for release on 10/10/19, is now available  for pre-sale.

TWO MOVIES IN ONE WEEK

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(No spoilers but I am opinionated.)

I belong to a movie group from my church that sees new releases and goes to dinner following to discuss. Hearing that they planned to see the Hustlers, I warned them. Restricted movies loaded with f-bombs doesn’t phase them, and they do appreciate the controversial, if well done.

The trailer to this one was enough to inform me that it wasn’t well-made and not a theme I’d like, but to be fair, I gave it a chance. It was worse than I suspected. If were possible to give this piece of soft porn a no stars, I would, but for the pleasure of seeing Mercedes Ruehl. Didn’t recognize her at first, since she succumbed to the Hollywood pressure of youth and plastics. Or a bad makeup job on purpose.

The reasons for disliking this movie on a visceral level were many. It was peopled with unlikable, repellent characters. This can be overcome, such as Melissa McCarthy’s fine work in Can You Ever Forgive Me. But that was about Lee Israel, a complex, interesting person. These women are pathetic Kardashian wannbes, and considering that low bar…it can’t get any lower.

In an era of women reaching for equality, this schlock flick set the movement back a century. Or more. I’m not judging women who strip for income. Many do so to pay off college debt or feed their kids. My disgust with this film comes from the constant bombardment of smut and a rationalization that adulterous Wall Street types deserve to be ripped-off because they caused the 2008 market crash. Even that’s pathetic, because big banks, like Chase and Wells Fargo to name a few, were the cause.

Worse was the rehashing and repetition of the sex parties and the women celebrating their take with spraying champagne and shopping sprees, scenes that did nothing to move the story forward but did a great job of creating boredom.

I suppose guys, being visual, would not agree my opinion. Although I could feel the discomfort of the men in our group. They’re gentlemen. They avoid lechery and have no need to bolster their sense of masculinity via the debasement of others.

Every character in this film is a creep with exception of Destiny’s grandmother, the charming Wai Ching Ho. Even then the writers concocted a scene to diminish her. The acting throughout was competent, but whoever thinks that Lopez’s performance is Oscar worthy has never taken an acting course. She is competent.

I could go on but I won’t waste your time. I’ve already wasted mine seeing this piece of trash. Can’t blame objectifying men for his flick. It was written and directed by women looking for creds with the Hollywood overlords.

Now for something to clean the palette:

The Peanut Butter Falcon 

The trailer was enough to let it be known that this is not a great movie but an intriguing one. I hope it becomes a classic. The hang-up for me was Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, neither interesting performers, but happily in this case, were believable and accessible, likeable. Because of Zak, (Zack Gottsagen), they find the new life paths. Both are invested in Zak, protective and overprotective of a guy who needs none.

The writing is simplistic, which is sometimes not a bad thing. I had read that this fable-like film was written specifically for Gottsagen, whose strength of purpose and character carry the story arc. He has a strong presence on the screen that paired well with LaBeouf’s angst and Johnson’s floundering but well-intentioned obligation to a Down Syndrome client.

The only thing I found comparable to Mark Twain is floating on a raft. The setting and filming is atmospheric. One can almost smell the humidity and the river. Okay, there are a few cheesy parts, but easily forgivable. I will probably buy this when it comes out because of its charm and goodness of heart and because of that, five stars.

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML

Blog: https://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

Website http://www.MLRigdon.com

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/julia-donner

https://www.facebook.com/Julia-Donner-697165363688218/timeline

 

Tale of a Story: Freckles

So proud of Kathy. Wonderful writer with a distinctive style and voice. This one is going to be FUN!

Finding Faeries

I can’t remember where I heard of an anthology looking for submissions about what clowns fear. Probably from my friends at The Midnight Society. Probably. They are on top of everything horror.

I decided to try and tackle the subject. We’ve all read the killer clown stories, but what do clowns fear? As usual, my brain spat out the strange not-so-good ideas…

Clowns are afraid of…

balloons?

kids?

bright colors?

UGH WHAT? Maybe I should give up and not write this?

Stories never solidify until I have a theme. What about that side of ourselves we don’t like, the part we hide, the part that we can’t get rid of…

And I drafted a creepy little tales of Freckles the Clown, the moment when he decides to face his fear, the man behind the mask.

But it doesn’t go well.

The first draft flowed pretty easily. Don’t you love it…

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Snippet #8

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I’m looking forward to seeing/reviewing The Peanut Butter Falcon and Downton Abbey. Quite the distance between those genres.

Until then, here is “something completely different” but as promised, the next snippet for The Gracarin, which is now on preorder:

https://www.amazon.com/GRACARIN-SEASONS-WAR-Book-ebook/dp/B07XBMCYNT/ref=sr_1_2?crid=BBWLNA5O62FE&keywords=m.l.rigdon&qid=1567526974&s=books&sprefix=m.l.rigdon%2Cstripbooks%2C148&sr=1-2

 

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML

Blog: https://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

Website http://www.MLRigdon.com

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/julia-donner

https://www.facebook.com/Julia-Donner-697165363688218/timeline

 

A Movie Plus

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The Farewell

A diet of the superficial can lead to a want of substance. Feeling that lack in the present run of blah movies, I ran to catch The Farewell before it left theaters. So glad I did. With all the talk of diversity and inclusiveness, this is a story about how we are the same. When it comes to family, there are few cultural differences. Familial problems, foibles, and ongoing issues are personified in this touching story about a grandmother in the last stages of cancer. This is only part of the inciting incident. The real issue is that in China, the desperately ill are not told they are dying until the very end. This secret creates a painful wedge in the family—tell grandmother or not. What is fair, what is culture?

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi. The close connection with her beloved grandmother shines throughout. She grieves the imminent loss of her grandmother and the childhood home taken from her when her parents immigrated to the States.

Tzi Ma, as Billi’s father, subtly merges angst and tenderness with his painful struggle. He yearns to tell his mother the truth about her condition as he mourns for her loss while she yet lives. All this sounds grim and depressing, but most often, there is a lot of humor. The only downer is the dismal, prison-style high-rise housing, contrasted to the richness of the lives within. Everyone’s work in this film is perfection under the superb direction of Lulu Wang.

The thief of the entire film is Nai Nai, impish, tough, bossy and adorable Shuzhen Zhou. I want this woman for my grandmother. I’m teary-eyed thinking about her, especially how she stood in an alleyway, her figure diminishing as seen through a car’s back window. And because of Nai Nai, her wisdom and love, Billi finds her way to empowerment.

This film made up for every junky, waste-of-time flick I’ve seen this year.

On DVD:

All Is True (alternate title to Henry VIII)

I don’t think so. I’m not a fan of revisionism and not usually of the speculative. Based on a few established facts, the rest of this film is speculation, most of it extrapolated from Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation and study of Shakespeare’s plays.

The interiors are quite dark because only candle and firelight were used. The settings are gorgeous. Due to constant tourism, Stratford-on-Avon couldn’t be managed but the house and countryside selected are lovely. All of the cast members are formidable actors. Dench is her usual brilliant self, and there is a vibrancy to the action, probably due to Branagh’s preference for single shot scenes and a shooting schedule of thirty days.

I find the use of the title All Is True off-putting because little of the content is factual. The most standout performance is that of Ian McKellen as the Earl of Southampton, brief it is. His recitation of Sonnet 29, even though he uses the old-style lifting of the last word in the final line, is exquisite and worth seeing the film just for that. McKellen’s brilliance and perfection held me suspended.

The Best of Enemies

And now we go for the truth.  I was disappointed to have missed this when it was playing in theaters and anxiously waited for the DVD. Although she did her best—I love her and never miss her movies—it was difficult to accept Taraji P. Henson as the burly and ferociously intimidating activist Ann Atwater. Her most remarkable scene was when she adjusted the KKK hood, the expression on her face, seen almost in profile, the terror and bone-deep shock of her own actions, was amazing.

I am and have always been a die-hard fan of Sam Rockwell. His portrayal of KKK Cyclops leader C.P. Ellis did not disappoint. Anne Heche is stand-out as Mary Ellis, a strong woman of character and acerbic insights. It isn’t until the end of the picture that it comes clear why she married C.P. Ellis.

The fault of the plodding pace must be laid on the door of the writer/director, Robin Bissel. Perhaps that problem stemmed from years of searching for funding, accurate historical facts, and footage. And this is vexing.

This is a hugely important story about two extraordinary people who brought about culture-rending change.  Ellis provides us with one of the reasons KKK still exists: the clan targets and recruits the disenfranchised, the broken, the rejected, the ignorant, and the lonely. The clan makes them feel important, entitled, and empowered. Through indoctrination and weapons training, they become the embodiment of collective cowardice, bullying, and terrorizing, typified in an early scene of a row of clansmen shooting out the windows of a white woman rumored to have dated a black man.

I encourage everyone to see this important film and especially the amazing actual footage at the end. Atwater and Ellis changed everything when they did the improbable.

 

(Fantasy snippet tomorrow with pre-sale release date.)

 

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML

Blog: https://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

Website http://www.MLRigdon.com

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/julia-donner

https://www.facebook.com/Julia-Donner-697165363688218/timeline

TWO MOVIES IN THREE DAYS

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No spoilers.

The Kitchen

Said it before, and just sayin’ again, anything with Melissa McCarthy and Margo Martindale, I will go see. On the other hand, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched that this is a movie seriously in want of a plot. OK, if you’re into crime flicks, this is a mild version compared to the over-the-top blood and gore in today’s films. It did have informative instructions on how to divest oneself of that pesky body recently made into a corpse.

By the time the movie was over, I had to wonder if all of these talented women signed on for this flick because it had a woman director, Andrea Berloff. And the directing was somewhat better than some of the stuff I’ve seen lately, but considering the female cast, what’s to direct? I liked Domhnall Gleeson’s Gabriel O’Malley, perhaps because Gabriel was the only guy character not a sexist jerk.

I’m all for empowerment themes but this one is forgettable. Unless you like the cast, I’d wait to see this when it comes out DVD.

Where’d You Go Bernadette

This has gotten some mixed reviews and I have to take a jab at one reviewer who complained that it was disappointing because the story couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a drama or a comedy. Duh! That’s why it’s called a dramedy.

I really enjoyed this version of Maria Semple’s book and she was a coproducer . A lot of care went into the production work, especially the house in various stages of renovation, the tangle of invasive bushes, both representative of Bernadette’s fractured state. I found that fragile, broken part of her—and nothing else about Bernadette is fragile—a fitting metaphor for her inner struggle, the horror of recovering from having one’s art savaged, a vision torn to shreds. Where The Kitchen was supposed to be about empowerment, Bernadette was born empowered with the “e” in caps. It is also a cautionary tale about how we can get bumped off the tracks and what a tragedy it is when we can’t figure out how to get back on then stay off too long.

Must give points to Blanchett, who knows how to deliver a throwaway line and her complete insight into Bernadette, showing it quite simply when Bernadette is at her best with the grease under her nails. This was revealed at the appropriate time, when her creativity is set free from a mentally frozen world by geographic one.

Caveat: I’m not a cold weather lover but the grandeur of the icebergs in the pristine arctic seas broke my heart. All I could think about was how that majestic beauty is being ravaged by greedy, amoral politicians and businesses destroying our beautiful world—the opposite of Bernadette, who did her best to build green.

Stay for the credits to see the fascinating outcome of what applied genius is all about.

 

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML

Blog: https://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

Website http://www.MLRigdon.com

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/julia-donner

https://www.facebook.com/Julia-Donner-697165363688218/timeline

Update

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Added another snippet for The Gracarin but have yet to get the pre-sale date set. Still waiting on final edits.

Did go see an interesting film yesterday, The Kitchen, and will review it later. In the meantime, Voranna-Vos nagged to be noticed. As I’ve said before, the people in my books are real to me, and she’s a forced to reckon with on the page and inside my head. I like quirky characters.

 

 

You Are Here

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After a reading at the last writer’s group meeting it was suggested that a map of Gracarin would be helpful, which is why one was already made. Plugged it in as a new page. Cover reveal coming soon.

Fantasy fans understand, and often expect, complicated plots, lots of characters and heavy doses of weirdness. Toss in a cast with unusual names, some creepy creatures, swords and sorcery. You’ve just whipped up a fantasy. So with this fourth (not in chapter order) snippet, I added the book’s map, which will have changes and additions with each following book.

The Gracarin will be released in September. Date for pre-release in a few days.

Thanks for following!

M.L Rigdon (aka Julia Donner)

Follow on Twitter @RigdonML

Blog: https://historyfanforever.wordpress.com/

Website http://www.MLRigdon.com

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/julia-donner

https://www.facebook.com/Julia-Donner-697165363688218/timeline

 

Snippet #3

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Chapter 3

Judgment Court

A scent similar to the fflorin’s filtered down the long corridor that connected the Garrison to the Temple compound. A phalanx of Cavalry warriors, the only military allowed inside the Temple, waited at its end to separate the wharf and hill country contingents. With the exception of Lorin, the Cavarly was made up entirely of women. They were known for their fearlessness, fierce dedication to the protection of Temple members, and unbreakable loyalty. Torak admired those qualities and sought them for his warriors, rather than mere fighting skills.

Other than during the investiture, he’d seen only one of the famed fighters up close. A handler of their Cavalry mounts had traveled to Gracarin to purchase wild charger mares, due to inbreeding problems. She’d not had the height and strength of the women of his country, but had about her a quiet menace that made shoppers on the wharf keep their distance, even though she hadn’t brought her charger. If she had, a glimpse of the military mount would have emptied the harbor.

Wild chargers looked similar, the serpentine heads smaller and usually brown-spotted, not all over black. Gracarin chargers had none of the training that made them living machines of war. All Temple entrances and exits were large enough to accommodate the beasts, since charger sentries roamed the Temple inside and out at night. There were none with the warriors today.

It was ironic that his first time inside the Temple was for a hearing in its Judgment Court. He strove not to gape, while wondering about the venue. Most legal actions were heard in the one of the city’s municipal courts. Only violent crimes were judged by the Temple’s leader. The present High Priest used facts and discretion. The former priestess could read minds. So it was said.

This could be to his advantage, if she were present. The evidence against Kilamok was strong but verdicts from the former High Priestess were never questioned, and hers were potentially deadly if it involved premeditated cruelty.

The clatter of armor and heavy footsteps rattled up and down the wide corridors. The Temple’s wealth had diminished during its temporary abandonment after the Dawn That Bleeds. There were no indications of any restoration work being done to its interior. Some of the gem-studded murals remained unmolested on the ceilings and high up on the walls. The Temple’s distinctive scent became stronger as they moved deeper into the maze of hallways, the smell similar to that of the fflorin, but more herbal and not as sweet, sparking the memory of incense.

They halted in front of what he initially assumed was a metal door with no handle, only a handprint embedded in its center. As he moved closer, he discerned that it was highly polished wood, opened from the inside by a warrior. A long line of them stood on red-carpeted steps leading down into the sunken courtroom. Beneath the high-vaulted ceiling, white marble pews encircled the chamber. Torak and Jaekl were escorted down and seated in the first row. Kilamok and his entourage were taken to the opposite side. A dark, uneven smudge marred the floor’s gleaming white.

There was no seating for judges, priests or official scribes, prompting Torak to murmur, “An odd sort of courtroom.”

Jaekl nudged him in the ribs and gestured sideways with his chin. “What do you make of that?”

On their left, the remainder of their marble pew had been warped, buckled into lumps of white stone. “Looks melted,” Torak murmured. He asked the warrior standing on the steps across the aisle, “What happened there?”

The insignia on her armored chest stated her rank and her proficiency in hand-to-hand. The shield was absent from her back, and she wore a saber in the belt that secured her Cavalry blue tunic. Since they were riders, they usually wore trousers, but today, all the warriors wore knee-length tunics and high-strapped leather sandals with a side-sleeve for a knife.

The warrior preceded her reply with a smirk. “Someone displeased Her Highness.”

“You mean Lady Sha?”

The warrior’s expression hardened. “Lady Sha is forever High Priestess to us. Be advised that there will be no talking once the High Priest enters.”

“And what about that dark spot on the floor?”

The warrior gave the blemish a glance and smiled again. “Where Her Highness ended the Mastema.”

“Mastema. Doesn’t that mean drechleth? I thought she killed it out on the steps.”

She gave him a suspicious glance, most likely due to his proficiency in Omirrian and his slight knowledge of Temple language. As a boy, he had preferred weaponry training. His mother insisted on learning about neighboring cultures. As he matured, he became grateful for her demand that he also learn their languages.

The warrior shifted her attention from him to the opposite pews before giving an answer. “Her Holiness and my Lord Sha killed the Threat From the North on the Temple steps. That spot on the floor is where she destroyed the Oracle, the one known in the Portends as the Mastema. His evil filth has been difficult to remove.”

She stood straighter and placed her hand on the saber’s hilt. “Silence. His Highness is about to enter. You will stay seated and silent until directed to do otherwise or you will be punished.”

How the warrior knew that High Priest was about to enter was in no way apparent, but a door on the opposite side of the court underneath the pews opened. A warrior entered first, followed by Ladnor, Medra, and the High Priest. Torak’s heart started to thump inside his chest when the most lethal person in the world, a small, white-robed figure entered last.

The warrior escort stood to one side with Medra and Ladnor. Both were armed The scrape of a sword being withdrawn slithered through the silence as the High Priest and Lady Sha moved to the courtroom’s center. The guard stood well back in the attack-defend position, feet planted, sword pointed up and at the ready.

Lady Sha stood directly on the smudged spot, giving Torak the eerie impression that she enjoyed standing on it. He allowed one side of his mouth to lift with a half-smile. He liked her, even though she was rather puny for a woman renowned for her power. An annoying compulsion had him glancing sideways at the melted marble.

High Priest folded back his cowl, revealing sharp features and skin paler than most Omirrians. He also had a thin line of beard along his jaw when all the men of Omirr were clean-shaven. His night-dark eyes glinted aggravation. So this was the half-breed Gryff of Sha, the unlikely heir decreed by the Temple’s former leader to rule.

“We are here because uncivilized men could not contain their violence during a meeting convened to bring nations and peoples together in common understanding. Beyond that, a challenge was issued by Lord Torak for the return of his countrywoman. As crude and uncontrolled as it was, it remains an accusation and one, due to its heinous nature, must be immediately addressed. We are aware of the matriarchal aspects of your laws and religion, but you are now in Omirr and will be adjudicated by ours.”

Kilamok started to speak and was silenced when a warrior’s blade pressed against his neck. Salmysis was clever enough to keep silent and still. High Priest ignored the incident and moved closer to where Torak and Jaekl sat. He studied them with a gaze steady and uncomfortably piercing.

“Jaekl of the Coldblood Clan, do you speak Omirrian?”

“Yes. More fluently than my Lord Torak”

“Was that your sister among the harem?”

“Yes, Highness.”

“And you are positive that she was not with them of her own accord?”

“No. She was taken while shopping at the wharf.” With pride he added, “It was reported that it took five men to bring her down.”

High Priest glanced at Torak, who couldn’t contain his the hot hatred of his stare at his enemies across the room. High Priest returned to ask Jaekl, “Your sister appeared to be drugged. Do you concur?”

“Highness, that was my sister, but not. They have done something to her.” Jaekl swallowed. “You know how we revere our women.”

“Yes, Jaekl, we are aware of all religious doctrines and comprehend the aspects of your matriarchal culture. Therefore,” he turned and moved to the small figure in the center of the court, “we will decide this matter in a manner where there can be no misunderstandings, no opposition.”

Across the room, Kilamok raised his hand and High Priest responded. “You have a question?”

“Why do they have the right to speak and I do not?”

“Because you were not requested to speak, and you are not the offended in this matter. It was hardly the smartest political move to flaunt a crime, particularly one so abhorrent to the strictly religious of the Gracarin faith. And a crime that is more than loathsome to Omirrians.”

He turned to the warrior standing beside Medra. “Bring Jaekl’s sister. She doesn’t need to be coherent.”

Sheathing her sword, the warrior turned, jogged across to the door under the pews and exited. Hand raised again, Kilamok stood. Before he could speak, the warrior shoved him down on the pew.

Salmysis remained still, caught in a staring contest with Medra. Torak sneered. What incredibly stupid behavior, aggravating the nation’s Lady Protector. Salmysis was the worst sort of soldier, one who would not protect his master. Jaekl would have somehow intervened.

With bored impatience, High Priest demanded, “What is it now, Kilamok?”

“My lord priest, we have a witness.”

“One was not requested. It is expected that you act as your own witness.”

Kilamok’s furtive glance to the center of the courtroom darted away from the small, silent figure. He would never succumb to an interrogation from her. She would comprehend all of his perfidies. The Temple couldn’t outright execute a foreigner, but there were many other ways to punish.

Kilamok answered, “I was not present. There was a merchant who saw it all and will verify that was not abducted.”

High Priest turned away, looked up, and spoke to the warrior guarding the courtroom entrance. “Have their witness brought here.”

The courtroom guard returned through the door under the pews. A burly warrior followed, carrying Jaekl’s sister, who’d obviously been given more drugs. Her limp arms swayed as the warrior brought her to the High Priest.

Torak sensed his second’s distress, saw Jaekl’s white-knuckled grip curled around the edge of the pew. Because he couldn’t speak, Torak placed a steadying hand on Jaekl’s thigh, digging into tough muscle to pin him in place, and felt him flinch when the High Priest brushed aside his sister’s veils and cupped her cheek in his palm.

When her eyes fluttered open, High Priest gently said, “Hush. I am healing you. The poison you’ve been given will be erased from your body.” The court remained silent until Jaekl’s sister inhaled a sudden, deep breath.

The priest gently asked her, “Your name?”

“Feldspa.”

“Feldspa, are you able to stand on your own?”

“I am not sure, my lord.”

High Priest took her from the warrior, who backed away and exited under the pews. He held her in his arms for a moment then gently set her down. Feldspa weaved in place for a second then straightened, shoulders back, head up. She yanked off layers of veils and kicked them aside until she stood in a short, filmy tunic.

Not realizing that she wasn’t allowed to speak, she looked at the High Priest, a glare sparked by outrage. “May I kill them, my lord?”

He responded first with a dark, disturbing chuckle. “No, Feldspa, only we are allowed to do that here, but we do commprehend your provocation. Remain silent and join your brother. He looks about to explode if he doesn’t get you safely in his hands.”

She scowled and whipped back flowing dark blond hair. Familiar with Feldspa’s easily provoked temper, Torak wasn’t surprised when she tugged off delicate, gem-studded sandals and aimed them at the wharf rats before she stomped across the courtroom to her brother. Jaekl clutched her in a rough embrace until his sister shoved free, kissed his cheek, and sat in glowing discontent.

While Feldspa glared death and destruction at her former captors, the High Priest looked at Medra with a lop-sided smile. They shared an extended visual conversation—hers not amused, while his, oddly merry. Torak experienced a moment of understanding and surprising envy; theirs was not a political alliance but a true marriage.

Their silent interchange was interrupted when a warrior led a man down the steps into the courtroom. Crackling power rippled throughout the chamber when Lady Sha lifted back the hood of her robe. Torak had seen her from a distance, too far away to distinguish her strong-featured face. Hair the color of old blood, braided Cavalry style and streaked with silver, coiled around her head. The sly cleverness of her gaze spoke of a confidence so complete that there was no hiding from her perception. High Priestess she had been in the past, but in her eyes, he saw that all of her faculties remained as sharp as ever. And as terrifying.

Her husky voice filled the courtroom, sending a chill down his spine, when she asked the witness, “Do I have your permission to touch you?”

Visibly trembling, the slender, well-dressed man nodded. Shaking back a billowing sleeve, she placed her palm on his brow. The man buckled to his knees, leaving her hand in the air.

She instructed the warrior who’d brought him, “Take him away. He is of no use.”

Kilamok again opened his mouth but choked off the words when the warrior guarding him stuck the blade under his nose.

Lady Sha turned to address the wharf contingent. “You have presented me with nothing to verify your assertion. Feldspa was indeed compliant and subdued when she and your soldiers passed the vendor’s booth. That proves little. She could have been coerced to behave in other ways besides employing a quick acting drug. Feldspa was drugged again before being brought here.” She asked over her shoulder, “I presume it was hallucinate in composition?”

When High Priest nodded, Lady Sha sent a smile to Jaekl’s sister. “You did not make it easy for them, did you, Feldspa? They were bloodied when they passed that vendor’s booth. Good for you. Now that we have established how and that she was abducted and held against her will, we shall determine the Hill Country contingent’s assertion regarding this issue. Lord Torak, come here.”

Torak got up, stepped down, and crossed the courtroom floor, amazed at how large she appeared from a distance but in reality was so small up close.

She squinted up at him. “It is rude to swagger in this place, Lord Torak.”

“May I speak now?” When she jerked a nod, he replied, “Apologies, but it is my usual manner of walking.”

High Priest and Ladnor must have taken his remark as insolent and stepped closer to her. Lady Sha backed them away with a shake of her head and a cluck of her tongue. “Leave us be. Gryff, go torment Medra. You also, Ladnor. Stand back. I dislike the two of you hovering.”

“He’s a bit of a brute,” Ladnor warned.

She snorted at that and again waved them off to eye Torak up and down. He should feel petrified. This woman had melted marble like wax and obliterated an entire Marin horde with a sweep of a sword. All he could think of doing was cuddling her until she squealed. He couldn’t help it. Except for being half her size, she was so like his mother that he was unable to mask his sympathy.

“You are weary from healing, Holiness.”

“I am Lady Sha now, and what would you know of healing, Lord Torak?”

“My mother is a healer.” He paused to grin down at her and added, “Lady Omirra-Sha.”

“You are impertinent. And speak Omirrian well enough.”

“My mother taught me.”

“Good for her. I assume you give your permission?”

When he nodded, she flicked her fingers, an impatient gesture for him to lower his head, and muttered, “You Gracarin hill people are impossibly tall. Worse than my husband.”

Warmth and comfort soaked through the palm she placed on his brow, sinking down into his soul, weakening his legs. From somewhere far away he willed himself to stay standing. When her touched lifted, he blinked to reorient.

Wise eyes, hazel and gold, studied him. A film of sadness, brief with understanding, dimmed the alertness of before and created a queasy feeling, as if his most secret thoughts had been exposed. He’d had no choice. She’d given an order. There was no other alternative but to obey. He could only pray that she hadn’t seen his darkest secret.

“Lord Torak, you and your second have reason for your grief. Return to your seat and say nothing. Remain after the others have left.”

Relieved that she showed no change in her opinion of him, he smiled. “It will be exactly as you wish, my lady.”

He bowed, suppressing a chuckle at her annoyance when he added a bit more swagger to his walk. She clicked her tongue as he sat and waited for the drama to unfold. She had to have seen his homeland, its magnificence destroyed, the vileness of the wharf king and his lords, the suffering of Jaekl and his family when Feldspa disappeared. The strapping, sassy-mouthed girl was the pride of the Coldblood Clan.

Lady Sha glided across the courtroom to stand in front of Kilamok and Salmysis, whom she addressed first. “Lord Golivaris, our Lady Protector’s animosity stems from a nasty incident that was actually none of your doing. Someone impersonating you presented himself as a suitor.”

Lady Sha glanced over her shoulder at her scowling daughter. “That was enough to set up her back. She has a difficult time casting off a grudge. Even though her present animosity is unjustified, you, Salmysis, are not an honorable person. Your soldiers got their teeth loosened when they abducted Feldspa. If I should ask her, she would never admit to rape, but I am positive that it occurred.

“As for you, Kilamok, I will not give you the respect of your title. Since I am no longer priestess, I am not subject to specific limitations and can say and do as I please. I am tempted to unman the both of you, but instead, will ask our ruling High Priest to ban you from our country. If either of you dare to enter Omirr, either by water or by way of Marin lands, you will die. That is all. Warriors, escort them to their ships. Take your chargers. If they speak or create any disturbance, have your mounts remove their heads.”

She turned to the High Priest. “Have I overstepped?”

He nodded a bow. “As Lord Torak so eloquently stated, it will be exactly as you wish. She has spoken. Let it be done.”

Torak put on his most gloating smile as the wharf rats were taken by sword point from the courtroom. Salmysis glared revenge. Kilamok stared straight ahead, red-faced and too overwrought with frustration to do anything but focus on each step up the carpeted aisle. There would be retaliation. Torak looked forward to it.

Prickling on the back of his neck had Torak returning his attention to the courtroom floor. Ladnor had crossed the courtroom floor. Narrowed-eyed and amused, he said, “They dropped themselves right into your hands, didn’t they?”

Before replying, Torak addressed the High Priest, “May I now stand and respond, Highness?”

Gryff unbelted a fringed, blue sash and shrugged out of a layer of robes. “Court is over. Say what you like, but I have an idea of what you will say. All of us do, but we should go somewhere else to discuss it.”

When Jaekl, Feldspa and Torak left the pew to step down onto the courtroom floor, Ladnor sent his wife a scowl, because she tucked her hand into Torak’s elbow. She held him to a leisurely stroll, companionable, deceptively friendly. Torak wasn’t deceived but was mildly surprised by her first comment.

“Tell me about your mother, Lord Torak. Then we shall see about this plan of yours to become the king of Gracarin, not just its wharves.”

He concealed his dismay that she had seen everything he had planned. “My lady, I was beginning to think that you were like her, but perhaps not.”

Behind him, he heard Ladnor mutter, “You have no idea what holds you by the arm, Torak-en-Doarth.”

Her laugh sent a slither of awareness down his spine. “My husband delights in spoiling my little amusements. Pay no attention. I saw that you came directly from your ship to the conference. You may join us for a meal. The family keeps a villa nearby. A dwelling too luxurious for my taste, but necessary for impressing those who liked to be impressed. It has a view of the city that I never tire of looking at. Ladnor, find Sorda and bring her to me.”

“She’s heading to Sha with Lorin and Rynn.”

“Tell them all to delay the trip. Off you go. Now, Lord Torak, I believe your country is partial to fish and bison. We are blessed with plenty of the former and none of the latter. My husband and children would gnaw on a haunch of meat every day if they could,” she ended with a delicate shudder.

From the corner of his eye, Torak saw Ladnor veer off and go down another corridor, as the diminutive tyrant with a scary grip on his arm whispered, “Very clever of you to suppose correctly that you could entice my husband over to your way of thinking by offering cattle.”

Dread’s chill trickled through his belly. So far, she hadn’t referred the one thing he wanted no one to know about him, but he kept that so deeply hidden he rarely thought about it. Had she seen his political and salacious interest in Sorda? He looked down. Lady Sha wore a smile some might judge as soft and complacent, but he saw something entirely different.