Make Believe Extras
Sacrificial Oath by Terri Rochenski
Alesuela’s knees ached, but she didn’t dare cease her prayers. Father had to return. He had to.
Blessed Goddess, bring him home safely. Please.
Continuing with her supplication, she lit another candle as she had vowed to do with each sunrise. Alesuela shifted on the woolen rug. A drip flowed down the taper’s side, pooling on top of three month’s worth of hardened wax.
Her beloved father, Amant, Sovereign of Vecina, sent weekly reports of the war’s progress—of small defeats and battles won. Although her intended, Lord Pedre Ashin, also rode at the army’s front, Alesuela’s thoughts rarely lingered on the younger man. No anticipation stirred in Alesuela’s breast over the postponed wedding, for Pedre never treated her with anything other than indifference.
Hands clasped, Alesuela lifted her gaze to the window above her chamber’s gilded shrine. The opening framed a picturesque view of the snowcapped Craesor Mountain where the Goddess dwelt. Looming in the east, the crater-topped peak blocked the summer’s rising sun. Scarlet smeared the sky, and the sweet scent of red poppies from her flower garden below drifted in on a dry breeze.
Red poppies. Death.
A shudder rippled through Alesuela.
He can’t be dead. Blessed Goddess, I am not yet ready to be Vecina’s Sovereign.
Dread wrapped Alesuela in its cold embrace.
The Amulet of Ormisez by J. Keller Ford
Elton Fletcher urged his horse through the wind and sleet toward the enormous shadow rising from the moors against the darkness. Sagewick Castle. Home. Faster and faster he rode, speeding past the hedges and trees hiding the royal palace of Trumwald, his cloak snapping behind him. The horse galloped through the archway of the gatehouse, its nostrils flaring, hooves clopping against cobblestones.
A stout man rushed from the stable house, wool cloak over his head, oil lantern in hand.
“Welcome home, Master Fletcher.”
“Thank you.” Elton dismounted and handed over his horse to the welcoming marshal. “It’s good to be back. Tell me, has Master Cayden retired for the evening?”
“He has not, Lord Elton,” replied a familiar voice, “but might I suggest you tidy up a bit before socializing.”
“Ah, Ferris!” Elton grinned at the man on the steps. “What a pleasant sight! I assume my room has been prepared.”
“Of course, my lord. We’ve been expecting you.”
“Splendid. I’m cold as a corpse. Perhaps you’d like to join me for some apricot brandy and something to eat? I’m famished.” Elton embraced Ferris.
“The brandy is already in your room. I’ll have the servants fetch whatever you wish once you are settled.”
Inside, a slew of servants, waiting by the doorway, greeted Elton with exuberant smiles on their faces.
“Welcome back, Master Elton.”
“It is good to see you again, my lord.”
“May I take your coat, Sir?”
A young boy of no more than ten years stood before Elton, his arms outstretched. Elton smiled and draped his sodden, fur-lined coat and leather gloves across them. Reaching inside his coin pouch, Elton withdrew a gold therap and tucked it in the boy’s trouser pocket. “For your troubles,” he said, tousling the boy’s hair.
The young face beamed with delight as he ran down a marble corridor shouting for his mother, the coat dragging the ground behind him.
“You’d best be careful of your treatment of the hired help, Sir,” said Ferris. “Your brother would not approve.”
“Why?” Elton walked with Ferris down the entrance hall, flanked by roaring fireplaces set between massive columns. His boots echoed with each click upon the black marble floor.
“Things are not as they were when you left two years ago.” They climbed the wide, stone stairway and followed a maze of corridors. Vibrant, handmade tapestries popped against the limestone walls while slender red carpets lay underfoot. Oil lamps flickered against the stone.
It seemed all had remained as Elton recalled.
“Lord Cayden has … changed,” Ferris continued, his face drawn. “He is not what you remember. Watch your step and your generosity.”
Birthright by Lynda R. Young
Palms rustled overhead as Mrs. Tinder shouldered open the rickety door of Christa’s new home.
“Here we are,” the landlady said. The dark space breathed Florida’s hot air. “It’s not usually so humid here in December, but never you mind about the unseasonal heat, dear. As soon as the air-conditioning kicks in she’ll be right as rain.” Mrs. Tinder toddled over to a control panel on the wall and pressed a few buttons. A hum emanated from the walls, the lights blinked on, and the air stirred.
Busying herself around the single room cabin, Mrs. Tinder spread the drapes, straightened the cushions and opened and closed the fridge. She turned her sharp gaze on Christa. “You have family in town?”
Christa gave her a tight smile. “No, I don’t.”
She shook her head.
Mrs. Tinder’s wrinkles deepened into a frown. “You’ll be alone over Christmas?” Her pinched lips broadcast her true thoughts. No one should be alone over Christmas. It’s not right. It’s not natural.
Christa’s smile wavered. “I’ll have plenty to keep me busy.” She tapped her camera case, still hanging from one shoulder.
“Ah, a photographer.” The woman’s nod turned to a slow shake.
Christa didn’t need pity, and she didn’t need more invitations to join random family gatherings, either. To prevent further discussion, she asked, “Are there any galleries in town? Or museums?”
The woman’s face didn’t brighten. “No galleries. There’s one museum. A shack run by a man named Jack.” She grunted. “But you don’t want to go there. His displays are a load of balderdash, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Balderdash?” Christa asked in mock surprise. “A mighty strong word.”
Looking like a school principal about to pass judgment on a wayward child, Mrs. Tinder perched on a kitchen stool and leaned on the counter.
Christa regretted the tease, realizing the woman had taken it for an invitation to continue.
“Apologies for my language, dear.” Reprimand laced Mrs. Tinder’s tone. After a pause of awkward silence, she sniffed. “Mr. Jack fancies himself the town historian, but he wouldn’t know history if he fell into a dung pile of it. He snoops into family lore, delves into lost legends, and makes up stories when he can’t find nothing of no interest. Mark me, all of it’s nonsense.”
Christa nodded, though she didn’t understand at all.
“Don’t get me wrong. Jack’s a lovely boy, but he’s strayed from the path.” Mrs. Tinder peered at Christa with an appraising eye. “Perhaps a woman like you would do a young man like Jack some good.”
Christa stiffened. Matchmaking was one of the many reasons she’d left New York for the holiday season. She hadn’t expected to find it in a small town in Florida, as well.
Petrified by Kelly Said
An aberrant cold whitened the sky and crystallized the air, freezing out heat from the summer sun. Angry winds swept the land, cut Sterling August’s face, stole his breath and bit at his damaged arm. Determination, as fierce as the weather, kept him upright in the saddle, while his noble mare, Selik’s, strides pounded frozen ground.
Lives depended on her sure-footedness.
When the fires of Castle Kestrel twinkled through dense flurries, Sterling leaned forward, urging more speed. Selik grunted, stretched her neck and obliged, galloping until frozen tears broke free from Sterling’s blue eyes.
Hooves clattering through the stone entrance alerted the livery staff. Their shouts and orders to prepare for his arrival made Sterling want to slump against Selik’s dappled-grey neck, rub his cheek against her black mane and thank the Blessed Mother they had made it home alive. Instead, he staggered down, murmured his appreciation into her ear and left the icy reins to the livery manager.
Winter had consumed only House of August lands. Summer sun burned bright over neighboring territories. Sterling had no answers for the strange phenomenon, only suspicions. Fingers gloved but numbed from cold, Sterling fumbled as he tugged a leather cord to release his weighty saddle-bags. Quade, Sterling’s vizier, caught them on the drop and hefted them onto his shoulder, leaving the prince to cradle his injured arm tight to his chest.
“The Wiccae should tend to you,” Quade said.
Elexus will see to Father before me,” Sterling whispered. “Family first,” he added, House of August creed. Naturally attuned to the pains of others, she should sense Sterling above any other. Except for his father. The King.
Oh no, he thought. Elexus will always see to Father before me.
Grinding his teeth, he punctuated two steps with hard stomps, shattering ice from his boots. Sterling dashed past the blacksmith and stable boy, wasting no time to brush the snow from elsewhere. Storming up the stairs, with Quade’s big boots booming in tempo behind him, they hurried past the aviaries, chasing the curved path spiraling up the heights of Castle Kestrel.
Sterling’s blood raced with urgency. His legs throbbed from the strenuous ride. The matted fur trim of his winter cloak dragged heavily behind him, while torch flames along the path liquefied the frost clinging to his close-cropped beard.
Sterling’s breath puffed in sporadic blasts of emotion, but his silver-tipped strides never faltered as he raced toward his father.
Last Winter Red by Jennifer M. Eaton
Four Days Before Spring
Any less than forty-five vials wouldn’t be enough. Emily tucked the crimson cloth around the containers in her basket and continued down the long, stark corridor leading to Terra’s south exit. As usual, the hallway was empty; no one else would be foolish enough to leave the city, especially a few days before spring when the weather was so unpredictable.
The soft patter of footsteps came as her mother rounded the corner. The woman’s red dress stood out from the white walls and gray ceramic tiles, swishing at her ankles until she stopped. Her eyes narrowed, gaze settling on her daughter’s basket.
Emily continued toward the exit. “We’re not having this conversation again, Mother.”
“You can’t keep going out there. It isn’t safe.”
Emily reached the door and unlatched the lock. “I have to. The people outside need this medicine.”
“But what if you catch the disease?”
Emily sighed and released the latch. “I told you they medicate me each time I go to the village. I’ll be fine.”
Black ringlets fell over her mother's brow as she shook her head. “You’re my oldest daughter. You should be setting an example, not traipsing around outside with the vermin.”
Pulling her crimson cloak over her hair, Emily tucked in her own dark tresses. “These people need my help.”
“You couldn’t care less about those people. It’s that renegade doctor you’re helping. It always has been.”
Emily lowered her gaze. Her mother knew her all too well. “My husband is dead, Mother. I need to find someone else.”
“That is the duty of the scribes. They’ll assign you another.”
“Who? When? I’m twenty-three years old. You already had four children by the time you were my age. If they were going to find another husband for me, they would have done so. I will not spend the rest of my life alone like a sorry Gray.” Emily struggled against tears threatening to break free. “George is a good man … a doctor and a Red. When his work is done, he will come back with me.”
“Did he tell you that?”
Emily blinked. “Not in so many words…”
“You are placing your life in danger for something that may never happen.”
“You taught me it’s our duty as Reds to be fruitful … to support the growth of humanity.” Emily quaked with angry resentment. “I have no children to show to the Council. I am nothing. I need to find a new husband.” With no offspring to validate her existence, Emily’s life was meaningless.
Her mother’s countenance didn’t change, and she offered no words of encouragement.
“I’m going, Mother. And this time, I’m not coming back alone.” Emily pushed the door open. A chill slapped her face.
“What if he’s contracted the disease?”
Emily’s hand tensed on the doorframe. “If he hadn’t been careful, he’d have been dead by now.” She stepped out and slammed the door before her mother could offer further argument.
Escort to Insanity by J.A. Belfield
“Ugh.” I marched the width of my living room for the hundredth time before wedging my stilettos into the shag pile in front of the mirror. “Why do I subject myself to such …” I threw up my hands.
My tenant’s reflection stared back at me from over my shoulder. “Craptapular evenings just to keep your flipping family happy?” One brown eyebrow rose above the sardonic expression in Kellie’s hazel eyes.
“Yes, but …” I groaned and leaned forward, teasing my ebony fringe into perfect alignment and prodding at my French twist. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. I mean, an escort, for goodness sake.” A quick appraisal assured my black cocktail dress hugged where it should beneath my scarlet swing coat. “Like I’m some bloody saddo incapable of acquiring a date of her own.”
“You have nabbed a date. That’s the whole point.”
“Okay, incapable of nabbing a date that doesn’t cost me five grand for a few hours of his time.”
“Five grand? Holy frickin’ cow, Cole.”
I met her reflected gaze. “You gave me the bloody number.”
“Yeah, because they had prices starting from fifty quid.”
“Fifty quid was for a date with Quasimodo. No point doing this if I’m not going to take someone to keep the vultures off my back.”
“True.” She nodded. “Very true … but …” At the chime of the doorbell, she spun away as I whirled on the spot. “Forget it,” she said, already moving for the hallway. “I’ll see for myself what five grand worth of man looks like.”
Frozen in place, I could only listen as she vanished into the hallway, and her socked feet brushed over the floorboards. The catch twisted. The front door whooshed open.
“Nicole Harrington?” Disbelief tinged the deep, masculine tone.
“Would you like me to be?”
As I thought of what confronted him, Kellie in her Snoopy, fleece shorts, peeling and faded Iron Maiden T-shirt and hiking socks that had long ago lost any elasticity, I snorted out a laugh.
“Ignore her,” I said. “She’s just my tramp of a housemate. Come on in.”
“What’d you do that for?” Kellie said. “I almost had him.”
A deep chuckle preceded the delicate clop of a shoe on the floorboards. A moment later, one black clad shoulder peeked around the living room door, followed by a shock of honey blond hair and amber eyes.
His left eyebrow arched up. “Nicole?”
Head tilted in an attempt to see the rest of him around the door, I nodded. “My friends call me Cole. Might be best if you stick to that this evening.”
He crossed the room in a few easy strides, his hand already outstretched. “Benjamin Gold.” He smiled down at me as I slid my fingers across his. “And I very much doubt you want to know what my friends call me.”