What if I told you that everything you knew about your life was a lie and that you’re being hunted?
What if I told you that you were prey?
This is the reality for Luvenia Rousseau. Amidst the struggle to survive in a famished, war-torn country and the fight against the phantoms of her past, her family is brutally ripped apart by a tyrant queen’s venomous army. Just when all hope seems lost, she stumbles upon an enchanted realm while the queen hunts for the one who got away.
A page-turning debut novel among the likes of Hunger Games, Snow White, and Throne of Glass, this dark fairy tale adaptation will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Queen of Aureland strode into her castle’s training hall like an ancient warrior comprised of bone crushing strength and the breathless wonder of snow-capped mountain air. Rarely did she wear riding pants and a tunic—for she believed one’s attire should reflect one’s character and she was a leader of others into excellence and virtue—but today her leading required a different sort of approach and a gown would not do. Granted, her tunic glistened with fine jewels—there was no need to look like a peasant. Her protégé thought she’d seen fierce opponents in her training, but she hadn’t seen Nuria. The queen’s most guarded secret may be of an entirely different nature, but her hundred years of honed battle skills came in at a close second.
“Hello, Luvenia,” she said to get the girl’s attention, her voice silken. “No need to look so shocked, darling. I will be conducting your training this fine morning. Darius needed to sleep. Though achieving his agreement on that fact was a battle in and of itself.” She rolled her eyes and smoothed her bejeweled tunic, then clapped both hands together. “Right, then, let us get to it. You are weakest in hand-to-hand combat, yes?” Veni nodded mutely, feeling as though she were about to discover the queen’s beauty and gentle spirit had merely been the adorned scabbard sheathing a powerful blade. “Very well.” The queen eyed the girl. “I will not hold back. Your training will not be complete until you are capable of disarming and defeating me. That will not happen today. There is no need for unrealistic expectations. Though you, my dear, will beat me one day. Recognize your potential without masking it in obscured reality.”
Veni’s mind spun. She’s going to run me into the ground, physically and mentally. “Use your words, dear. Are you prepared or not?” Veni smirked and sighed a breathy laugh. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose.” Nuria’s beauty turned lethal as she lunged for the wide-eyed girl. Before Veni could even get her hands up to defend herself, the queen nicked her chin with her bare knuckles, enough to stun her. In an instant, she had Veni’s own arm twisted behind her and forced her to her knees. The queen released her captive and Veni stood as her vision swam a bit from the blow to her chin. Nuria wiped the blood from her split knuckle on her pants. “My Hordemen go easy on you and spar with you.” She shook her head. “You have had enough of that. Sparring is unrealistic and you have grown used to how it works.” The queen put a finger to her temple. “Your mind is quick, dear heart, but wits alone will not win a battle. A sparring session, perhaps, but not a battle. Darius has taught you well how to predict your opponent’s next move, this is wise. However, most of the people you come across in a fight will not be calculated. They will be ruthless. There is a fine line between noble ferocity and ruthless ferocity. The truth of it is you will need to dance on the edge of that line in order to get your sister back. We will help you stay on the noble side, but you must embrace the ferocity. You can spar and train all day long, learning all the perfect maneuvers and defenses, but until you can take a true blow and get back up, you are not learning what you will need to succeed in bringing Ester home. Do you understand?
“Veni’s jaw stung, and her heart pounded, but she knew Nuria was right. It was time to cease pretending that she was learning to fight and to truly take hold of it. “Yes,” she told the queen. “Again. Let’s go.” Fast as lightning, Nuria came at her with no mercy over and over. The girl’s blood was splattered on the queen’s sparkling tunic and Nuria’s knuckles continued to bleed. Veni forgot everything she’d learned in routine sparring sessions and had little success discerning Nuria’s next move. That is, for the first half of their session. Once she’d taken several hits and tasted self-preservation as well as a sense of wildness, her training came back to her in a new way. She ended up on her back or rear or face countless times, but it would only take one hit. Luvenia had to hit that beautiful queen one time and she would be satisfied for the day.
“Are you certain you would like to continue? Your eye is beginning to swell.” Nuria watched her protégé struggle to stand, yet again. “I’m sure,” she said through gritted teeth. “Again.” Her eye was indeed swelling shut and her mouth was thick with blood and saliva, but she was going to hit that perfect face. Just once.
A paperback edition of the prequel to The Queen’s Keeper, Gypsy Secrets, AND a $50 gift card (US) to spend at Wicked Whimsy! (US/ Canada only)
J.L. was born and raised in the great state of Texas. After attending college in Oklahoma, J.L. became a bookkeeper and office manager. She swiftly discovered she was to be a Keeper of Books and a Manager of Fantastical Worlds, instead. Thus began the unfolding of her literary journey,
J.L. now lives with her husband and two children, penning her next masterpiece for you to enjoy, while running her own bookish shop, Wicked Whimsy Boutique.
He was born of prophecy. If he can’t embrace his destiny in time, his country is doomed.
Ancient China. Spoiled and overconfident, eighteen-year-old Mu Feng relishes life as the son of an honored general. But when his sister is abducted and his friends slaughtered, he flees home. He soon discovers the mystical birthmark on his body has attracted an enormous price on his head.
Pursued across the Middle Kingdom, Feng finds allies in two fierce warriors and a beautiful assassin. When he learns his ultimate enemy plans an incursion with advanced weaponry, he must call on his friends and his own budding military genius to defend his country. His plan is desperate, and the enemy outnumbers him twenty-five to one…
Can Feng fulfill a duty he didn’t know he had and unite the empire against a terrifying force?
Mu Feng woke to the call of a rooster, unsure where he was. He was staring into an empty flask flipped over and wedged against a stack of plates.
He pulled his silk robes tighter around his body. This was not his bed. His body lay bent and twisted against the hard edge of a wooden table, and his face was soaked from sleeping in a puddle of spilled liquor all night. He supported himself on one elbow to stretch his sore hip.
His three friends were still asleep, two of them snoring on the floor and another sprawled on a narrow bench, his arms and legs dangling.
Vague memories of the night before brought a smile to Feng’s lips—drinking, eating, and playing dice deep into the night. Empty flasks were scattered everywhere. Two large buckets of water remained half full.
Feng flinched against the dull pain at the base of his skull. He rubbed his oversized forehead and reached for a bowl. He hadn’t drunk enough water, and now the headache would nag him all day.
He sat back and gulped down the water, one bowl after another, and then paused to take a deep breath. He remembered coming to the Rider’s Inn with three of his best friends last night. The first floor of the little inn was packed. There were no rooms left upstairs, and the innkeeper was going to ask one of his customers to find somewhere else to stay because the general’s son, Mu Feng, needed a place to sleep.
Feng assured the innkeeper he would be drinking all night and didn’t need a room.
He remembered the innkeeper bringing him the very best drink they had to offer, a liquor made from sorghum buried in the ground for thirty years. It was something so exquisite only a Tiger General’s son could afford it. Feng remembered sipping the liquor and commenting that the taste resembled an onrush of invading cavalry, the sound of a thousand war drums approaching until it became thunder, then breezed by to leave an exhaustive state of calm. One of his friends laughed and told him to get drunk.
Feng needed to hurry home. The ride back would not be long—only a trip through a small forest. But he was to train his father’s pike unit that morning, and it wouldn’t look good for the instructor to arrive late.
The front door had been left open, and a little boy, his face filthy and his clothes in tatters, stood outside.
The boy’s a beggar and wants something to eat, Feng thought. He took a piece of copper from his pocket and stumbled to the door. The boy inched back, leaning away as if preparing himself to run.
Feng placed the coin on the table closest to the entrance. “Here, kid. Get yourself some food.”
Ding, facedown on a bench only a moment ago, was already on his feet.
“We need to go,” Feng said. “I can send a servant later to pay the innkeeper.”
“You must have paid him four times already,” Ding said. He planted a sharp kick into one of his friends on the floor and squatted down to scream in his ear. “Get up, Wen!”
He proceeded to the next drunk, curled under a table and still snoring, and kicked him in the ribs. “Get up, Little Chu. Feng needs to go home.”
Little Chu groaned. He lifted his head, his eyes still closed. “I don’t want any breakfast.”
“You’re not getting any,” Feng said with a laugh. “But there’s plenty of water in that bucket.”
Ding headed for the door, his long sword dangling by his side. “I’ll get the horses ready.” He stopped by the table near the entrance. “Who left the coin here?”
“It’s for the kid,” Feng said, turning and pointing outside. The boy was no longer there. Feng walked to the door and pulled it wide open for another look. “He was just here.”
Wen lumbered to his feet, towering over the others. “What boy?” he asked, his voice booming across the room. He hoisted a heavy bucket to his lips for a gulp or two, then poured the rest of the water over his head.
“A young beggar,” Feng said. “So many of those little things around here.”
Wen’s laughter thundered across the room. “See? Even a beggar knows he can’t take money from a dead man. You drank so much last night the boy thought you were a hungry ghost.”
“Shut your mouth,” Chu shouted, clapping Wen’s back with the hilt of his sword. Wen laughed even harder.
Ding returned, pulling the horses with one hand and carrying all four saddles with the other.
Feng stepped into the morning sun and took a deep breath. He reached for the harness of a gigantic warhorse, a gift from Uncle Shu this year for his eighteenth birthday. He stroked the nose of the charger, then the mane, and took the saddle. The horse reminded him every day that he was an adult, despite his boyish features and lanky arms, and he was commander of the best pike men in the world.
Little Chu turned back to the mess they were leaving behind—the empty bowls, the plates, and the overturned liquor flasks. “Too bad Du didn’t want to come last night. Since when did we ever go drinking without him?”
“He wanted to,” Ding said, “but he was vomiting and couldn’t get up. Must have been something he ate at the whorehouse.”
“He ate at a brothel?” Wen asked. “What kind of meat do they serve there?”
Ding turned to his friend with a smirk. “Why don’t you ever go to the whorehouse, Feng?”
Feng finished saddling his horse and leaped onto his charger. “Let’s go.”
“Feng’s father is a Tiger General,” Little Chu said. “He can get any girl he wants.” He guided his horse toward the road and squeezed its belly with his stirrups. The horse lurched forward.
“But then he’ll have to marry her!” Wen shouted from behind, hurrying after his friends. “I’d rather pay some money to amuse myself than be stuck with a wretch in my house.”
In a moment they were on the main road, riding at a comfortable pace. After a while the path bent into a forest and narrowed. The four friends merged behind one another, proceeding in single file. The dirt trail was an easy ride, well maintained and free of overhanging branches and intruding vegetation.
It was still early in the morning, and the ride home would be short. Feng relaxed a little, but not entirely. His father would be furious if he found out his son was too drunk to come home last night and couldn’t return in time to train his pike unit. He might even forbid Feng from leading his men again, a position Feng had to beg for over the years.
General Mu, Feng’s father and one of four Tiger Generals in the empire, was known as the General of the Uighur Border. He guarded the westernmost fortress in the empire. The portion of the Great Wall that he protected and the North Gate, which opened into the City of Stones, faced the land of the Uighur. It was the final stop on the Silk Road before entering the Middle Kingdom.
General Mu’s city was one of few fortresses built in a valley along the northern mountain chains. It was low enough to lose the advantage of elevation, which so much of the Great Wall depended on, but flat enough for travelers and barbarian traders to meet in this border city. Over the years General Mu had imposed heavy punishments on anyone harassing or discriminating against the foreigners, and despite countless skirmishes at the Great Wall, the City of Stones was never attacked in earnest. Commerce thrived at a time of heightened tensions between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian nations. Chinese and Uighur, Khitans and Mongols assembled in the same bustling marketplace in the center of town and bartered. The city seemed oblivious to the politics of the Asian kingdoms.
The general placed his only son, Mu Feng, in command of the pike unit, but he was never permitted to confront the barbarians. The archers, the cavalry, and the anti-siege personnel were all deployed during border skirmishes with the Uighur.
Feng’s pike units were never battle-tested, and he never understood why. In military matters his father always sought his advice and often adopted his strategies. For years he studied The Art of War and every other military classic his father could access. In simulated battle, Feng had proven again and again he was capable. Yet, his father never trusted him in a real war.
Feng and his friends breezed along the narrow forest trail with Ding in front, Feng following from a short distance, and the other two in the rear.
Moments later, Feng noticed two rows of armed men standing in a line, motionless, blocking the road.
“Slow,” Feng said, loud enough only for his friends to hear. “Bandits.”
The foliage around them was dense with thick trees and low branches reaching into every empty space. It would be impossible to penetrate the forest and ride around the blockade.
Ding reined in his horse and slowed to a walk. “Small-time bandits trying to rob the general’s son. Wait till they find out who you are.”
Wen sent his horse lurching forward and stopped in front of the outlaws, so close he could have easily barreled into them. “Why are you blocking the road?”
None of them answered. They simply stared.
“If you don’t step aside, we’re going to run you over!” Wen said, his booming voice echoing through the forest.
The armed thugs remained silent, motionless. Wen reached for his sword. Feng held out his hand, fingers outstretched, and motioned for him to stop.
“There’s only ten of them,” Little Chu said in a low voice. “And they’re on foot.”
“Get out of my way,” Feng said to the bandits, his voice loud and firm. “We’re military officials. We have important business in the City of Stones.”
A short bandit with a gray topknot broke into a smile. “Military officials,” he said, speaking slowly as if to pronounce every syllable. “Exactly what we’re waiting for.”
Feng stiffened. Soldiers earned modest salaries. They were well trained and armed, and very few of them traveled this road. For a small team of robbers to block the road, waiting for soldiers to rob, didn’t make any sense.
“One of our women was raped last night,” the short one continued.
Ding moved forward to Feng, his hand on his weapon, and whispered, “There’s more of them in the forest on both sides. Maybe a hundred.”
Feng nodded and turned back to the short bandit. “You’re not listening. Civilian crimes should be reported to the magistrate, not the army.”
“The criminal was a military official!” the thug shouted over Feng’s voice.
“I see,” Feng replied, fighting to remain calm. His heart was pounding.
His hand crept into his pocket to touch a bronze plate half the size of his palm, a token he always carried with himself. He still remembered the day so many years ago when he was afraid to climb onto a horse for the first time. He went to bed that night feeling disgraced and useless. His father came to his bedside and gave him this little bronze plate embossed with an image of a fierce tiger. His father told him if he carried it in his pocket, he would be able to do anything he set his mind to because the tiger held the powers of the Tiger General, powers meant for the strong and courageous. Much later he realized it was a standard pass the Tiger Generals’ messengers used.
He kept this one particular plate on himself every day.
The situation in front of him required much more than strength and courage. A hundred bandits had gathered to surround a few soldiers when very little money could be made.
Something was very wrong.
“Bring your evidence to the magistrate, and he’ll assign officers to investigate,” Feng said. “But blocking the road and randomly harassing any soldier is plain stupid. Harm the wrong soldier, and you’re all going to be killed.”
Chu pulled up behind Feng. “They’re behind us as well. We’re surrounded.”
“The criminal may be you!” the bandit continued, pointing the butt of his saber at Feng. “Why don’t you come with us to the magistrate, and we’ll talk about it in front of him?”
So, they didn’t intend to rob. They were looking to abduct, and they were waiting for the right moment to strike. The group of friends was in grave danger. Feng drew his horse back, opening up the space in front so he could see everything around him. How could this be happening?
Feng’s heart raced faster than he could withstand. They were on horses, and the bandits were not. That extra speed was their only advantage. He didn’t notice anyone on the road earlier, so they couldn’t have installed too many traps or ambushes behind them. Turning around, charging through the bandits in the rear, and riding the main road back toward the Rider’s Inn seemed like the sole course of action.
“After all, you look like a sleazy rapist to me!” the bandit shouted for all to hear. There was a roar of laughter.
“How dare you!” Wen shouted, drawing his sword. “Do you know who he is?”
Feng reached out in alarm, trying to grab Wen’s attention. He was too far away. Wen’s loud voice pierced through the thundering laughter.
“He’s General Mu’s son! Do you all want to die?”
The bandits fell silent, but only for a second. With a roar the men from both sides of the forest charged. Feng drew his sword, spun his horse around, and shouted, “Retreat! Back to the Rider’s Inn!”
His friends reacted, turned, and broke into a hard gallop. The bandits swarmed in like floodwater. Feng had never encountered a real battle before, but if they were out to kidnap for ransom, then he—not his friends—would be the prized possession. He needed to lead the bandits away from his friends if they were to have any chance of escaping.
Feng turned around and attacked the short bandit with the topknot, flying past him and slashing him across the face, almost cutting his skull open. The thug died instantly. Feng stabbed left and right, kicking his horse’s belly to urge it forward, struggling to break through the ring of hostiles.
Then he heard Wen shouting from behind. “Feng’s stuck back there! Feng’s stuck back there!”
“No!” Feng screamed as loud as he could. “Back to the inn!”
He knew they heard him, but in the distance he saw them approaching as fast as they could.
“No!” he shouted again. A spear flew across the air and struck Wen in the belly. He bowled over and fell from his horse. The bandits surrounded him and stabbed him over and over again.
Feng stared in disbelief. “Wen!” he shouted. They weren’t out to kidnap. They intended to murder. He kicked his warhorse and pummeled into the dense rows of bandits, slashing and stabbing as hard as he could, hoping to get to his other two friends before it was too late.
Chu’s horse screamed, lurching back and dismounting its rider.
They were attacking the horses. Without horses there would be no hope of getting out alive. Feng leaped off his mount and sent his horse away, wielding his sword with both hands like a battle ax and carving a path to Little Chu.
It was already too late. Chu was surrounded and stabbed from all directions at once, multiple spears and swords buried in his body. Dark blood poured from his mouth, and with his last breath, he screamed, “Run, Feng!”
Feng stabbed a bandit in the rib cage, pushed his sword all the way in until the hilt slammed against his chest. With a roar he shoved the writhing body into a crowd of enemies. He grabbed someone’s saber and swung and thrashed behind himself, fighting off those attacking his back while shielding his front with the dying bandit. He planted his feet on the hard ground, sensed Ding’s location, and pushed his way through.
Ding had already fallen off his horse, but he was hiding behind two trees standing very close together in front of a narrow gap only one person could penetrate at once, allowing him to hold back his attackers.
Feng forced his way to the two trees and dumped the dead bandit from his own sword and into the gap to seal it. He then circled around the smaller tree. “My horse is still alive,” he said. “Let’s go!”
He whistled for his horse and grabbed another saber from a dead bandit, and with a weapon in each hand, he leaped out from behind the trees and slashed at his nearest enemy.
The bandits were hardly skilled swordsmen. They were poorly coordinated and clearly had never trained to fight together.
But there were so many of them.
Feng created an opening when his warhorse broke through from behind. The massive charger was kicking and stomping the enemy, pressing them back, throwing them into disarray.
Ding stood right beside him, covered in blood—perhaps some of his own blood. “Go!” Feng shouted. He slashed another bandit in the neck, lodging his blade in the man’s collarbone.
“Careful!” Ding shouted from behind. Out of the corner of his eye, Feng noticed a spear flying toward him. Ding leaped in, crossing in front of Feng and blocking the spear with his body. He collapsed, the warhead plunged in his abdomen.
“No!” Feng wrenched his weapon free, hacked down another enemy, and leaped onto his horse. He grabbed Ding and dragged him onto the saddle, smacking the horse with the side of his saber. The charger surged forward. They were on a warhorse, one of the best in the army, and the bandits originally sealing off the road were out of position. Many were killed. Others couldn’t climb over the dead bodies littered across the narrow path. Feng’s warhorse met little resistance.
Ding yanked the spear out of his belly, and with a shout he threw it into the closest bandit. A stream of dark blood flew from Ding’s mouth.
Slowly he leaned his full weight against Feng’s back, fading out of consciousness. Feng threw away his saber and reached back with one hand to clutch his friend’s belt, preventing him from falling over. He urged the horse on, and the powerful stallion responded, charging forward at breakneck speed. The shouts and insults from behind were fading. In a moment, Feng found himself riding in silence.
His back was soaked with Ding’s blood. Ding’s breathing was becoming shorter and quicker.
“Ding! Wake up, Ding!”
How could this be happening? To think a few hundred untrained ruffians would dare confront a Tiger General’s army for mere ransom was hard to believe. Besides, they could have captured Wen and Little Chu when they fell off their horses. But they rushed in to kill without hesitating a step, as if taking them alive was never considered.
Feng felt a squeezing pain in his chest at the thought of Wen and Chu. They were gone. They were drinking and laughing and bickering only last night, and now they were gone.
A little side path branched off from the main road, and a small house hid behind a row of trees. He pulled his horse’s reins toward the house. It looked like the home of a local peasant, with coarse mud walls and an old wooden door once painted red. Feng had never spoken to a peasant before, much less asked one for help. He was the son of a Tiger General, high above the rest. Normally the peasants would be kneeling in front of his father’s mansion.
With Ding dying behind him, it didn’t matter if he had to bow to a beggar.
Feng reached the front door of the hut, dismounted, and dragged his friend’s unconscious body with him.
He took a deep breath and pounded the door with his fist.
An old woman with a wide gap between her oversized front teeth opened the door. She looked at Feng from head to toe, then at Ding. “Come on in,” she said. “I was afraid you wouldn’t knock. He’s bleeding to death, you know.”
Feng was more thankful than surprised. He lifted his friend as gently as he could and dragged him into the little hut. There was nothing inside except for a small bed, a table, and a brick cooking stove in the corner.
“We were attacked by bandits. There were four of us, and—”
The old woman sneered. “Stop barking like a neutered dog. You lost a fight, and you want to hide here. Put him in the bed. I’ll boil some towels to clean his wounds.”
Feng ignored her insolence, dragged his friend to the bed, placed him on his back, and tucked a coarse pillow under his head. Blood dripped everywhere. He yanked open Ding’s shirt and sucked in his breath. “No,” he whispered. “No.”
Ding looked up with a blank, lifeless stare.
The old woman brought a bucket of water and with one glance turned around to leave. “You should’ve told me earlier. I wouldn’t have brought the towels if I knew he was almost dead.”
Feng climbed onto the bed with trembling hands, lifted his friend’s head, and wrapped his body in his arms. “How do you feel, Ding?”
“I-I’ll find you a blanket. I’ll—”
“No. Don’t leave.”
Feng held his friend tighter. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“What happened, Feng?”
Feng’s entire torso shook. His quivering lips were barely able to speak. “I don’t know.”
“Wen and Chu. They’re gone?”
A sob escaped Ding’s lips, and a trickle of tears rolled down his face. “I’ll . . . I’ll see them soon.”
“No!” Feng said. “Stay with me, Ding. Stay with me.”
“I’m sorry, Feng. You and Du are left behind. It’s still better than drinking alone. Tell him to stop eating at the whorehouse.” Ding tried to laugh at his own joke but only managed a choked sob. “How could there be so many bandits here?”
Feng shook his head, unable to respond.
“I’ve never heard of . . . of so many bandits . . .” Ding’s voice trailed off, and then the room was silent. Even his light gasps for air faded.
“How did we fail the people?” Feng whispered, struggling to speak so Ding could hear him. “Why did so many turn to crime?”
Ding took his last breath, his cold, limp body sinking into Feng’s arms. For a moment, the tears wouldn’t flow.
“Why are the people discontent?” Feng’s broken voice managed to say. He held his friend’s body closer. He felt ill and dizzy, as if he might vomit and faint all at once. He squeezed his eyes so tightly together that his tears couldn’t flow.
He threw his head back to scream.
“He had a gaping hole in his chest,” the old woman shouted from across the room. “Did you expect him to live?”
Feng collapsed on his friend’s body and wept. He shook with every sob, his clenched fists pounding the bed with every convulsion.
The door flew open so hard the old iron hinges rattled. A group of peasants carrying thick bamboo poles charged in, all of them young and strong. They moved in lock step with perfect discipline. They formed an arc around the door, each facing a different direction with their bodies poised to react. Feng recognized them.
“How dare you break my door!” the old woman shouted. “Get out of my house! I’ll report you to the magistrate!”
One peasant drew a sword halfway out of his bamboo pole, and the old woman fell silent.
A tall man with thick eyebrows and a short beard stepped in. He acknowledged the old woman once, then turned to Ding’s body.
“Uncle Shu,” Feng said, his voice trembling. His father’s brother was here, a powerful man of great skill and military prowess. At least he was safe now. “Wen, Chu, and now Ding. They’re all gone.”
Uncle Shu came to the side of the bed.
“How did you find me?” Feng asked. “How did you know?”
His uncle pulled a ragged sheet over Ding’s face so the horrid look of death would not stare back at them. The little hut was silent while he took Feng’s hand and led him to the table on the other side of the room. “Sit. I need you to calm down and tell me what happened.”
“I . . . we . . .” Feng couldn’t find words. He was so relieved to see his uncle and even more relieved to see the army’s elite, personally trained by his uncle, gathered around him. Strange, they were dressed in the coarse gray fabric of peasants, and their weapons were concealed in bamboo poles. Why would his uncle need to travel under disguise?
“You’re safe now, Feng,” Uncle Shu said. “Tell me what happened.”
Feng’s hands were still shaking.
Uncle Shu motioned for one of his men. “Bring the young master some liquor.”
Just the night before, they were drinking the finest liquor the little inn had to offer, laughing and playing dice late into the night. Feng remembered debating Mongol military tactics. Little Chu’s words echoed in his head. The Mongols may have the strongest cavalry in the world, but horses can’t climb walls. I can drink a bucket of liquor and still defend the country.
One of the soldiers placed a flask of liquor in front of Feng.
“I let my friends die,” Feng whispered. He didn’t wait for his uncle to respond. He grabbed the flask and emptied it in his mouth, guzzling the hard alcohol without taking a breath. He planted the flask on the table and tried to shake his head clear as his vision already began to blur.
“You shouldn’t be drinking like that, young man,” he heard the old woman say behind him. “Here, drink some water before you vomit all over my table. Not that I don’t have to spend all day cleaning up your friend’s blood.”
Feng grabbed the bowl of water placed before him and drank everything in one gulp.
“Take her outside,” Uncle Shu said to one of his men. “Give her some money for her troubles and ask her to leave us alone.”
Feng felt dizzy, incredibly drunk for a single flask of liquor. Maybe that was what his uncle wanted for him, something to numb his senses and help him forget. “Where is my father?” he asked.
He lowered his head onto his arms, leaned against the table, and closed his eyes. He had slept in the same position on a similar table the night before. His friends were alive then.
Nothing made sense anyway. His uncle was here, and very soon he would be taken home. His father would summon the army, they would round up all the bandits, and soon after he would find out why his friends were slaughtered in broad daylight, why even a Tiger General’s son could be attacked on his own land.
But in that moment he was dizzy and intoxicated, and he wanted to let everything go.
Very quickly the effects of the alcohol disappeared. He didn’t want it to leave his head, didn’t want his escape to be over so soon. He remained still, head in his arms, resting on the table with his eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if he tried not to move, he would eventually fall asleep and have sweet dreams.
“Sir, the young master is unconscious,” one of the soldiers said.
“Bring him to the carriage,” Uncle Shu replied.
“Do we need to secure him? In case he wakes up before we get there?”
“No need. He won’t wake up for another day.”
Feng’s heart beat so hard he thought his ribs would crack. He waited. Two men lifted him off his seat, wrapped his arms around their shoulders, and dragged him outside. Feng was determined to find out where they were taking him and whatever Uncle Shu wanted to do to him. He kept his eyes closed, his arms limp, his head hanging.
They lifted him into an enclosed carriage, settled him on his back, and walked away. Outside, at least a hundred men and numerous horses and carriages shuffled around. Feng heard his uncle giving orders to depart.
“You stay with the young master,” Uncle Shu said.
The operation was well planned and rehearsed. No one asked a single question after that.
Someone climbed into the carriage with Feng. The soldier placed his sword on the floor and shouted, “Go!”
The driver cracked his whip. They eased forward, then pulled into a steady speed. Feng waited. The road became smoother, and the horses picked up the pace. The heavy pounding of warhorses shifted to the front of the carriage, leaving only a few soldiers to protect the rear. The attack units had moved, and it was time.
Feng grabbed the sword lying on the floor of the carriage, drew the weapon, and pinned the blade against the soldier’s throat before he had time to react.
“Where are you taking me?” Feng asked in a quiet voice.
The soldier shook his head. “You—you were supposed to be unconscious . . .”
Feng pressed the tip of the sword harder into the base of his throat, piercing the skin. Blood trickled at the tip. The soldier froze.
The soldier nodded. “Young master, we didn’t mean to—”
“Why is my uncle doing this?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why am I being escorted to another Tiger General’s city? Where’s my father?”
“I’m just a soldier, young master. You know we only receive our orders.”
Feng took a deep breath. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t tell me.”
The soldier’s face was blank, his lips pressed together.
“I’m the general’s son. I can kill you for entertainment, and no one would do a thing.”
“We’re the general’s soldiers, young master. But we’re also your soldiers.”
Feng paused, lowering his sword. “You’re the people’s soldiers. You fight to defend the people, not my father or me. Don’t ever forget.”
“I won’t, young master.”
Feng spun his sword around and hammered the soldier’s head with the handle. The soldier collapsed.
Feng reached for his peasant clothing, about to strip him, and hesitated. He had never worn the coarse fabric of a common man, much less the filthy rags of a peasant. He could almost smell the soil stains on the straw sandals.
His own clothing reeked of dried blood, so changing into dirty canvas would not be so bad.
Feng cursed himself for worrying about the quality of his clothes at a time like this. He stripped the soldier and dressed him in his own bloody robes, then lifted the unconscious body with one hand and the sword with his other and kicked the carriage door open. He threw the soldier halfway out, facedown, and released a long, tortured cry.
“Young master!” one of the riders in the rear called. The soldier hurried forward, closing the distance between himself and Feng’s carriage. Feng threw his sword out the partially opened door. The soldier outside evaded the flying sword and was barely recovering when Feng leaped out, slammed into him, and sent him toppling off his horse. Feng recovered his own position on the speeding mount, grabbed the reins, planted his feet in the stirrups, and squeezed the horse’s belly. The other guards were charging up behind him. A side road appeared ahead. Feng saw his opportunity and brought his horse thundering down the little path.
The guards followed. Feng reached for the sword hanging from the saddle, spun around, and charged into his pursuers.
“Young master!” one guard shouted. They recognized him and pulled back. No one wanted to fight the general’s son.
He tried not to think of how his friends had died that morning, how hundreds of bandits waited for him in ambush, how Ding died in his arms. The little beggar at the inn that morning, who watched them from outside and didn’t bother to collect the coins Feng left for him, must have been there to report when they began their ride home. The ambush was prepared for them and only them.
His uncle could have encountered the slaughter in the forest and traced his tracks and Ding’s blood to the peasant woman’s house. There was no way to understand why his uncle was out there looking for him, his elite unit dressed as peasants, or why he drugged his own nephew.
Feng kicked his horse and rode as hard as he could, heading south for Major Pass toward the City of Stones. Major Pass, the main artery running across the north of the empire and parallel to the Great Wall, connected the city fortresses of all four Tiger Generals. It used to be named something else, but the people called it Major Pass because it was the widest, most well paved road north of the capital. Armies and their supply wagons could efficiently move on this road.
As far back as Feng could remember, the empire was at peace within its borders. Aside from skirmishes with the barbarians in the north and short wars with the island nations in the south, people lived well in China.
He remembered the quick briefing he received from two officers right before he left for the Rider’s Inn. They had told him the Venom Sect was recently active in this area, but no one knew why. Feng recalled asking the local government to involve themselves, saying that the military shouldn’t interfere with civilian criminals.
The Venom Sect was a powerful group of poison users rumored to be four hundred members strong and headed by a ruthless leader named Red Cobra. The officers told him yesterday that Red Cobra was also spotted in the area. Feng laughed and asked how much snake venom it would take to poison an army.
Then they informed him that the Silencer had killed Tiger General Lo. They had expected this news ever since he was ordered to invade Mongolia and capture the undefeated barbarian king known as the Silencer. General Lo walked into Mongolia with only two hundred men in an apparent act of suicide. As of yesterday they still hadn’t found his body. All his men were dead, and the Silencer took no prisoners. Some even said the Silencer was spotted killing off the Chinese soldiers by himself. General Lo guarded the easternmost fortress in the empire facing the Khitans. For the emperor to order him to march away from the barbarian nation he was guarding against to attack an undefeated Mongol king made no sense at all.
None of these events should have had anything to do with what happened that morning. The bandits were clearly not members of the Venom Sect. They were thugs carrying steel weapons they didn’t know how to use, fighting in plain view instead of killing from the shadows.
It was almost noon by now, and Feng was rapidly approaching the City of Stones.
This is the first book in The Red Crest Series. This book was so much more than I thought it was going to be I really enjoyed it and did not want to put it down. I read this book in a couple of sittings. I think that if I didn’t have to adult I would have read it in one day.
This book focuses on Feng. He was an interesting character. He grows by leaps and bounds as this story goes on. There is a lot of fighting in this book but I enjoyed how Feng was able to outsmart/out strategize his enemy. What he did was not farfetched either it was just simply playing smarter. The one thing that really bothered me about his character was that you would think that Feng would be more careful about trusting people after the events that happen at the beginning of the book but he wasn’t and I found that to be a little off-putting.
I mean he is supposed to be really smart and then he makes decisions that make me shake my head.
I liked how the romance in this book was not center stage. Yes, it was a part of the story but the story was not built around it. Let me just say that Ming was a strong female character and I loved how she was written. I think that as far as side characters go Iron Spider is my absolute favorite. More than once I found myself laughing, she does not hold back anything.
I won’t lie at one point I thought I had it all figured out and oops I was wrong about some things. I also have some unanswered questions that I need to know the answers to.
If you enjoy war-based fantasy or the chosen one trope then I highly suggest you give this book a chance.
As a lifelong student of martial arts, and growing up watching martial arts flicks in the 80s and 90s, Yu decided early on that he would write in this genre. Inspired by George RR Martin’s work, he decided he would write a series in English in this centuries-old Asian genre. Yu has written three previous novels, The Legend of Snow Wolf, Haute Tea Cuisine and Yin Yang Blades. Yu has aBFA Film and Television from NYU Tisch School of Arts. He was born inGuangzhou, China, but presently lives in New York City.
AFTER A CHANCE MEETING, AN OLD MAN AND A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN CHART AN UNCONVENTIONAL PATH FORWARD.
When Ben Sanna, a contemplative retiree with a penchant for helping people, and Samantha Beckett, a secretive New York City hedge fund manager, meet by chance in a small Vermont town, they enter into a tenuous relationship. Over several weeks, Samantha and Ben open their pasts inch by inch, sift through their futures consciously, and come to terms with the strength and depth of their bond. A meditation on redemption told in alternating chapters of musings and scenes, Cenotaphs is about platonic love; the ways we close ourselves off in reaction to pain and what happens when we open ourselves up again; and the deep, painful legacy of loss.
The parts recur––the son, the lover, the husband, the father, the friend, the citizen. They come in whispers and fragments, in the unwinding of memory. They come in your smile, in the laughter of our children, in nightmares, in bursts of violence against once precious objects. How do you gauge the parts of a life? Did I perform any of them well? How do you summon them into an unfettered whole?
I am old now. I’d hoped I would’ve figured out a few answers by this point, but the truth is I spend more time each day watching the Red Sox than thinking about such things. In the summer and fall, the games are on every day, often twice a day, and watching them gives Zeke and me something to do. Something zen exists about the game, something appealing to me as I age, something about the stillness, the waiting, the bursts of energy, all mimicking the best and worst times in life. And I like the red, blue, and gray uniforms. They remind me of a more structured time.
Zeke, a big black, brown, and white mutt I rescued about ten years ago, keeps me company in our cabin. When I first got him, he liked digging holes in my yard, searching deep and dirty, with only a rare unearthing. His record: twenty-two holes. Twenty-two! In one of them, he found an empty wine bottle, message-less. Now, Zeke mostly sleeps in the same worn spot on the living room rug. I’m not sure which one of us will die first.
Rich is the author of five novels, The Color of Home, The Big Wide Calm, The Beauty of the Fall, The Latecomers, and Cenotaphs, and the poetry collection, The Long Body That Connects Us All. He also teaches creative writing at Seven Bridges’ Writer Collaborative. Previously, he enjoyed a successful career as a technology executive, managing several multi-billion dollar businesses for Fortune 500 companies.
As anyone who has read Rich’s work can tell you, his books deal with life’s big questions: love, loss, creativity, community, self-discovery and forgiveness. His novels are rich with characters and ideas, crafted by a natural storyteller, with the eye and the ear of a poet. For Rich, writing and art making is about connection, or as he says, about making a difference to at least one other person in the world, something he has clearly achieved many times over, both as an artist, a mentor, and a teacher.
Rich lives in Massachusetts with his wife and Newfoundland Shaman. He is currently working on his sixth and seventh novels, The Means of Keeping and In the Seat of the Eddas, a follow-on to The Latecomers.
In 1779 Kanadasaga, Sullivan’s Expedition torches a Seneca village and many others, destroying the Iroquois Confederacy. Awakened from sleep, Pilan and Teka flee their blazing longhouse into the woodlands. After a soldier’s bullet thwarts their escape, Pilan vows to meet his beloved Teka again in another life.
Two hundred years later in present-day Geneva, New York, historical relics rise. Twilight Ends, a grand Victorian bed-and-breakfast run by the Newhouse family, sits on the property the Iroquois village used to thrive on.
After Twilight Ends’ long-standing matriarch Tessa Newhouse dies, her daughter and granddaughter, Skylar and Twyla, discover two artifacts under the maple tree in the backyard, and an ancient mystery as old as time begins to unravel. But will they have the courage to follow the path their ancestors did?
E. Denise Billups is an author with a rare mixture of southern and northern charm. She was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and raised in New York City, where she has worked in finance and as a freelance columnist and currently resides. A multi-genre author of fiction, she has published four novels—Keepers of the Gate: Twilight Ends (Book 1),Kalorama Road, Chasing Victoria, and By Chance. She has also written several supernatural short stories, including Off the Grid, Ravine Lereux: Unearthing A Family Curse, The Playground, and Rebound. As an avid reader of magical realism, mystery, suspense, and supernatural novels, she was greatly influenced by authors in these genres.
Currently, she is working on book two of her trilogy, Twilight Ends, a paranormal historical fiction, and book two of Simone Doucet Series to be released in 2022.
To Be Enlightened is a cosmic love story that follows Professor of Philosophy Abe Levy as he grapples with what it means to love both his wife, Sarah, and the ocean of silence within. It is also an intellectual exploration of the most intimate of subjects: our consciousness.
Abe Levy’s long tenure as a philosophy professor has motivated thousands of students to ponder age-old questions in light of New Age ideas. Though Abe is passionate about his teaching, he is obsessed with a powerful childhood dream of heaven. To return to that heaven, he must reach enlightenment in his lifetime. Day after day, Abe settles into deep meditation, reaching the very cusp of his goal but unable to cross the threshold. Desperately, he commits to doing whatever it takes, even if it means abandoning his wife for a more ascetic life-a decision that sets off a cascade of consequences for Abe, Sarah, and those he loves the most.
Vedic wisdom holds that during the forty-eight minutes prior to sunrise, which is called the Brahma Muhurta, a wave of purity and balance sweeps through the world, gently waking it up, along with the birds and other animals. I sip my coffee, enjoying the silence and morning calm. About fifteen minutes before sunrise, the birds start singing praises, enlivening and infusing the atmosphere with optimism for the approaching day. The transition rarely fails to uplift me.
A high-pitched fluttering followed by a distinctive buzzing draws my attention. I look up to see a large, shiny purple hummingbird hovering about a foot above the center of the table, looking at me as if wanting to speak. It flits its beak up, down, and sideways, and—zip! It’s gone. I don’t remember ever seeing a hummingbird so close. I sit for a moment. I know that hummingbird! I’ve seen her many times before in my dream. But she was always a bee.
I do asanas and pranayama and then walk toward our bedroom for my morning meditation. The hummingbird gets me thinking about omens. If there really are omens, does it mean that God communicates with us only at specific, special times? Or is it that at certain times we become still enough to precipitate an omen? Maybe there are always omens and we aren’t aware enough to appreciate them? I bet it’s even more complex than that. I adjust my pillows for meditation. In a half lotus, my eyes close.
Mantra, mantra, maaaantra, mmmannntraaaa, maaa…mantra emerges from shimmering pool, drop of water in reverse. Mantra, mantra, mmmmaa…the place on surface of pool where mantra will emerge begins to move, vibrate…I am observing and hearing the mantra’s emergence from my consciousness. It is separate from the real Me, the observer…The school’s administrative board has asked me to head the search committee for a new chief of campus security. I don’t know anything about security. I’m not going…I observe that thought, and this thought, arise in the same way the Mantra emerges.So interesting…Mantra, mantra, mantraaaaa, maaaantra…surface of pool, no ripples, no thoughts, no feelings coming from body or mind, endless…one side, silent awareness; other side, activity. Mantra, maantraa, mmmmm…mantra barely tickles my expansive surface…Bliss surges through body, mind. Bliss is caused by awareness of subtle disturbance at junction between…Mantra, mantra, mantraaaaa, mmmmmmaaaaaaa…flowing outward, all directions; I am a boundless, luminous mirror between my self and my Self… Mmmaaaa…mmmm…maaaaa…I am the surface of the ocean, impossibly still, deafeningly silent…needing to let go…ready to let go…fearing loss…Mmmmmmmm…decision made, must go forward, will go forward…surrendering all I thought I was for what I am…individuality dissolves: raindrop, ocean…
I am—the vast, unbounded ocean of consciousness. I am—unmoving wholeness. I was never that body or that mind. I have been observing Abe Levy since the moment he was born, and much, much longer than that. I am—at peace. I am—now awake. I was sleeping before. I can see the sun and the planets clearly. They are so dear to have nurtured Mother Earth, allowing her to birth humanity. I notice distantly that my body is glowing. Time is immaterial and has lost its grip on me…
* * *
Back in my body, I look over at my bedside alarm clock. More than an hour has gone by. I lie down to rest and a deep sleep envelops my body and mind, though I am awake, aware, and witnessing.
I get up and put on my robe. Something is very, very different. It’s as if I am still meditating even though my body and I are active in the world. I am in two places at the same time—the unbounded ocean of consciousness and the bounded world of activity and senses. I have never, ever, felt so good and so focused. I walk to the kitchen, but I don’t seem to be moving.
It happened. The thought comes that I should be jumping with joy, but I’m past that. A more pressing, evolving issue appears to be whether my body can contain my joy. I close my eyes and watch as thin, sparkling beams of Bliss increasingly poke their way through the shell that is my old body, shining out from my new one in a myriad of luminous, waving threads of various lengths and hues. The brightest and most numerous ones are congregated around my solar plexus and the top of my head. The weirdest part of all is that I’m not surprised or concerned by this in the least.
I make oatmeal with whole milk, dried cherries, roasted almond slivers, cinnamon, cardamom, and a hint of nutmeg. I notice something is gone. I am not, in general, an anxious or fearful man, but I now realize I had significant anxiety and fear all my life. I know this because, for the first time, I am completely without those constant companions. Along with my anxieties and fears, my worries about leaving Sarah to go to Fairfield have evaporated. I don’t have to go anywhere now. I am where I have always wanted to be. I’m Here. The weight of responsibility that I had shouldered in guiding Sarah around her triggers has lifted. I think that I can now lovingly support her without feeling bogged down or burdened.
I shower, shave, dress for class, and it all seems to happen automatically, as if I’m uninvolved in the process. I was somewhat intellectually prepared for this, but even after over fifty years of meditation, I’m not prepared experientially. This will take some getting used to.
Walking to my office, the world is delicious. The singing birds are part of me, thrilling me thoroughly from the inside with our perfect twittering. My heart sings with them. My body hums with a hymn as my feet beat the rhythm into the sidewalk.
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Alan J. Steinberg, MD is board-certified in Internal Medicine and practices with the Cedars-Sinai Medical Group in Beverly Hills, California. He also serves as one of the attending physicians for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. He grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he learned Transcendental Meditation (TM) in 1975. Earning his undergraduate philosophy degree at Pomona and Pitzer Colleges in Claremont, California, he went on to attend the University of Nevada School of Medicine, receiving an MD degree in 1984. His first book was a non-fiction consumer’s guide, The Insider’s Guide to HMOs (Plume/Penguin), which garnered favorable reviews in the Los Angeles Times and other publications as well as appearances on The Today Show, 20/20 and C-Span. The book helped sway the direction that healthcare was heading in the late 1990s. His debut novel, To Be Enlightened(Adelaide Books, 2021), is a work of visionary fiction, inspired by some of his own experiences as a lifelong practitioner of TM. Dr. Steinberg lives with his wife of over thirty-five years in Los Angeles, California. They are the proud parents of three young adults.
A missing book is about to write the story of her life — before she even gets one.
Recent high school grad Anya doesn’t just want to write the great American novel — She wants to publish it, too. So she has faked her way into a summer internship at a major New York City publishing house thousands of miles from home in order to pursue her dream career at an accelerated pace. But her shaky, clandestine plan — which includes camping out in the office and surviving on leftovers from the pantry refrigerator — is completely upended when she loses track of a coveted manuscript by one of the biggest authors in the world. Off she has to race into the late night streets of New York City to track down the manuscript — to save her internship and preserve her cover story, not to mention her best-laid career plan — before the sun rises and her boss is back in the office.
Come along on the madcap quest in this standalone YA novella filled with secret door venues, abandoned subway stations, concealed backrooms and crash pads, mysterious missed connections on old school rotary phones, electric alleyway kisses, and revelatory poetry hiding in plain sight.
I wasn’t usually invited to the toasts. And technically, I wasn’t invited to this one, but because I was pulled into the last second effort to put it together, at the very least I’d get to mill about in the group of people raising glasses, as opposed to the usual: being huddled over in my cube, my work-a-day motions provided with the soundtrack of everyone else in the office having a good time.
“Anya, what are you still doing here?”
The big boss — Francine — was looking at me like I had failed to rush to the vet a deathly sick puppy that was lying at my feet.
“I was just about to leave, Francine.”
“You do know how important this is, right?”
As a matter of fact, I did know. Because literally one minute earlier, when she was tasking me with picking up the champagne for the toast, had told me just that, in tones usually reserved for someone who was being given the responsibility of delivering a package that contains the formula for an antidote to the virus that is in the process of wiping out the entire human race.
I had spent the first 30 seconds excited that I would get to be a part of the toast — so excited that you would have thought that I was going to be personally thanked. Not going to happen. Still, it felt like a little bit of publishing history was happening, and I was going to be there to witness it — maybe even showing up in some photographs that many years from now, would end up in the biography about my long and storied career as a writer AND publisher who transformed the literary landscape. Or, more realistically, maybe they’d just end up on the publishing house’s Instagram page, and I could share the photo so all my friends would see me making it big in the big city. Not now, of course — I didn’t want to social expose myself and ruin everything in the real right now (more on that later), but at some point in the future, when I’ll probably need to show photographic evidence to case close on everyone that I really did spend six whole weeks of the summer in New York City working at a publishing house.
The inside-my-own head revelry of both the toast and the future brag did not last long, however, because it hit me like a seven layer chocolate cake in the face — while I’m wearing my favorite summery cocktail dress, no less — that I had no way to actually purchase the champagne.
This was double-drag bad — like, not only is the party off, but the house where the party was supposed to be is engulfed in flames. For one thing, Francine expected that champagne to be ice cold and ready to pop in far less time than it was going to take me to get to and from the liquor store that is located just around the corner from the office.
But the bigger issue is that I had no way to actually buy the champagne for the very simple reason that I am not 21 years old, and I don’t have a fake ID.
Yes, it sucks. It sucks to not be able to buy alcohol. Old enough to vote, but not be able to go to bars. Or get into shows, or clubs. But that’s nothing compared to the suckage that is about to swallow up my situation into a deeper and much darker hole. And the situation is this: I am 18 years old and I just graduated from high school, but nobody here knows this. They think I am 21 and about to start my senior year of college, because that is what I told them. At the time that I applied for the internship, it was an impossible lark, and I didn’t really think about any of the consequences of getting exposed as a fabulist because I simply didn’t think it was ever going to happen.
But such an exposure will trigger a cascade of questions and open up the floodgates to a number of deceptions that I’ve had to vocalize, sign-on-the-dotted-line, and sustain in order to pull off what I am literally just one day from totally and completely getting away with.
I know it sounds like I’m a lying, no-good cheat, but to my mind, I applied for an internship in a field I am desperate to break into, got it, and have worked hard during my six weeks here at Teasdale House. While it’s true that I lied about my age, and that I was close to finishing up college, not to mention telling my parents that this was all part of a University program for pre-college students — I wasn’t trying to be deceptive. The false information propping it all together didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. But now, it’s clear to me that there’s quite a few people — and institutions — unknowingly tangled up in the web of deception that I’ve weaved to pull all of this off. If it all falls apart… Well, frankly, I can’t think about that right now.
I dash into the elevator bank, see a set of doors that are in the midst of closing, and jump my way in, like I’m narrowly escaping a mine shaft about to be rocked by a massive explosion.
It wasn’t until after I screeched “Fuck!” that I realized someone was in the elevator with me.
“Good thing you made it! This is the last transport off the literary industrial complex prison module known as the Teasdale House of Strikethroughs and Last-Minute Changes.”
Of course it would be Max, or Hot Max as I referred to him in my waking workaday fantasies. I also call him “The dude,” because he’s always the one dude in meetings full of women. He’s one of those forever interns, meaning he’s operating outside the usual seasonal cycle, and people think of him as a staffer, but ultimately, he’s still just an intern. Likely, when he graduates from college, he will get a job at the publishing house. The word is that he’s been promised exactly that. But I have no idea. What I do know is that he’s quite the dapper dresser despite always looking like he was out a little too late the night before. I would occasionally relay messages to him from Francine. This is how our interactions would go:
“Francine would like to see the front cover selections for the Spring list’s lead titles.”
“Okay, I will bring them by in a few minutes, just need to print out the latest versions.”
“Great, thanks,” I’d say, already turned around with my head down.
Pathetic, I know. I made myself feel a little bit better by acknowledging the fact that he probably wasn’t paying close enough attention to me to notice the ridiculously insecure way in which I was functioning, seeing me more as a sentient being transporting messages and documents from one person to another, nothing more, nothing less.
But there was no time for this kind of thinking. In fact, there was no time for thinking at all. The elevator in this shiny and slick new building might as well have been a hyperspace chamber, zapping you instantaneously to whatever floor you needed to get to by the push of a button.
So I just blurted out: “Hey, I just realized I forgot my ID at home. Do you think you could help me get something done for Francine?”
This not thinking thing was really working for me. Not only did I lay the groundwork of the forgotten ID, but I threw in a Francine name bomb. Even if Max was going to try and squirm his way out of helping me out — a fellow intern who never said more than two words to him, if he even remembered anything about me at all — the inclusion of the Francine factor was going to force his hand.
Max swung around and looked me square in the eyes, his smile further lighting up his light green eyes, as well as a no sleep swell to the perfect skin above his everyday, all the time, 5 o’clock shadow. He was holding the elevator door open for me.
“No problem,” he said, with not a hint of annoyance, “Whaddya need?”
Fifteen minutes later, the champagne was set up in the conference room, which had an expansive view of the NYC skyline, but most directly looked out upon a residential building that seemed to have some kind of dance studio on one of the floors about midway up the old brick structure. You couldn’t help but catch the movement flowing from that floor, especially after the sun went down. It’s always lit up, and there is always a blur of activity: whirling, gorgeous, flowing bodies moving from one side of the floor to the other.
That’s what I love about the city. It doesn’t make sense that there’s a dance studio in an otherwise residential building, but there it is, and there are people in their dancing, and your eyes can’t help but fall on one particular dancer, who is moving this way and that way, seemingly never touching the ground. As I held in my breath, I realized this dancer’s movement might possibly be the most beautiful thing that is happening on the entire planet at that particular, fleeting moment in time. I’m too far away to actually make out her face. It always strikes me as odd — sad, even — that If I saw this dancer on the street, I would have no idea that this was the person I had been watching flow through the most beautiful of moves, elegantly sweeping her way across the floor in a blur, or balancing herself in a graceful, otherworldly stillness.
What I had thought would be a very good thing — standing there with everyone, holding a plastic cup, listening intently to the toast — in reality felt painfully forced and extremely awkward, like I had been invited up on stage to share in the acceptance of an award that I didn’t deserve.
Francine wasn’t a particularly eloquent speaker, but she knew how to command a room. “This is one of many toasts to come,” she began. “There will be many more milestones and even more successes.”
And then, with just the right amount of volume uptick, she proclaimed even more forcefully, “This new book, which Chester just finished, insures all of this and more. This is just the beginning. And oh what a glorious beginning it is. Cheers to you, Chester!”
On cue, people put their hands together and clapped. Chester Fred Morrissey had the look of a man who was used to applause, and no matter how muted it might be, I got the feeling he felt it roll into his ears with pounding thunder. He had a monster hit a few years ago, and that’s a ticket that he, along with everyone else standing in this conference room, plus many others, has been riding ever since.
“I just finished going over the edits with Francine — there weren’t hardly any at all,” he said, a little too heavy on the self-assuredness.
Was that a joke? I wasn’t sure, and I don’t think anyone else was either, because no one laughed.
“I hand it over to you, and I have absolute faith that you will all do your best to share it with the whole world — They’ve been waiting for it, of course, so by all means, carry on with your hard work, full speed ahead!”
Another joke? No one was laughing at all, and though Francine was still smiling, there was the ominous hint of confusion — or was it concern — in that steely, never-let-them-see-you sweat veneer of hers.
“So to the hard work that is complete, and onto the hard work yet to be done!”
People were barely clapping, and perhaps that’s why it quickly became apparent that someone was clapping a little too loudly and far too slowly. All of the sudden, all eyes were staring down on the perpetrator of the obnoxious clapping, which meant all eyes were zeroing in on me as well, because wouldn’t you know it, I had the terrible luck of standing right next to this…. insane person.
I had no idea who this guy was — a disheveled, full-bearded, middle-aged white guy, dressing like an old man wearing the opposite of a custom fit grey suit and, of course, dirty white sneakers. I think I had seen him around before, but I couldn’t quite place him. He definitely didn’t work on this floor.
Before I knew it, Francine was on top of him, smile ablaze but moving too swiftly and with too much purpose to seem like a natural, so good to see you here approach.
Nobody was drinking their champagne. The eyes in the back of Francine’s head must have made her aware of this because she quickly turned around, raised up her glass, and announced, “Cheers indeed!”
She then took a hard swallow from her glass, drinking not in celebration, but to be done with it. With the murmuring reaching its peak, Francine put her arm around the gentleman, whispered into his ear, and ushered him away back towards her office.
I scanned the room and saw that I was not alone in wondering what the fuck was going on — everyone was unified in a look of discomfiting confusion. Everyone, that is, except for Max — he was radiating a bemused grin. I don’t think he knew what was going on, and that was fine with him — he was just enjoying the disarray. He raised up his glass in my direction, kept his eyes locked on mine, and then drank his glass down in one swallow.
Just as I’m sinking into Max’s eyes and working to decipher exactly what that was all about — hedging toward the fantasy that Max is actually interested in me — I am immediately struck with an urgent and impossible thought: What if he comes over at this very moment and starts talking to me? Yes, this is what I want, but because I’m a total idiot, I also realize I’d just like to disappear.
It turns out that the disappear option would have been the right choice, because without warning, Francine stomps into my space, grabs a hold of my shoulder, and pulls me in the direction of her office.
Once inside, she shuts the door, and then takes a seat behind her desk. It still feels like her hand is on my shoulder.
Before Francine even has a chance to say anything, and that means I spoke up pretty quickly, I asked, “Who was that guy?”
Whoa. Clearly I was buzzing off the two sips of champagne I had drunk… that, and the buzz I was feeling from the look Max may or may not have been throwing in my direction.
Francine didn’t want to spare the second to compute that I had perhaps spoken out of turn. “He’s not important, never mind him, Anya.”
Then, she got even more cult-leader like.
“What is important is Chester, and the manuscript completion we are celebrating. He arrived today with the last pages — the ending we’ve been waiting so long for. It’s all been reviewed and the pages have been marked-up, including on the stunning new pages that close the novel. The edits just need to be implemented.”
Francine then lets out a sigh of accomplishment, and pauses for effect, before carrying on: “Now I’ve got to go out to dinner with Chester. What I need you to do is go through the marked-up manuscript and the notes, implement all the changes and fixes, and lock down a final draft. Pay special attention to everything, but especially the end. These are the newest pages and they’ve had very few eyes on them — Just Chester’s and mine.”
She was looking at me, and pointing at the manuscript, which was drenched in so much red pen it looked like someone had left it in a room full of school children armed with nothing but red crayons. Clearly, she wanted to see my reaction.
“This has to be done… before the start of the work day tomorrow,” she says sternly.
“By tomorrow morning…?”
“That’s not a question, right, Anya? That’s your affirmation to me that you understand how critically important this is, and how you will have it done by tomorrow morning.”
She didn’t wait for an answer. She got up, put on her jacket, and opened her office door.
“I know you’re going to have to stay here pretty late to get this done,” she said, in a softer voice than usual. For a moment, it seemed like she was about to show some concern, or possibly, some gratitude, but the next thing I knew, she had raised up her arm and she was pointing a finger in the direction of my chest but seemingly aimed at my very soul.
“Under no circumstances should you remove the manuscript from this office — not even a page or two while you go to get a cup of coffee. And no one — I mean NO ONE — is allowed to step foot in here.”
And with that, she turned and left to go out to her fabulous dinner with the fabulous author in a fabulous restaurant in a fabulous part of the city.
Of course I’m stuck at the office with a pile of work that is sure to keep me here all night. I know what you might be thinking. How horrible! An all-nighter in a deserted, darkened office tower, the creepy clinking and clanking of air vents and cheap metal file cabinets settling deeper into the industrial carpet. But for me, this wasn’t unusual at all. Not because I was always being left to do all the work while everyone else goes out for the fancy dinners, or at least some slices and a few after-work drinks.
Staying not just late, but through the entire night, is absolutely normal for me, because I’ve been sleeping at the office since this internship began.
At the age of 26, Jeffrey Yamaguchi quit his job, threw himself a retirement party, and believed that he could make a living publishing zines. It didn’t work out, but he continues to dream the dream. Jeffrey’s books include 52 Projects, Working for the Man, Anya Chases Down the End, and Body of Water. His stories, poems, photography, and short films have been published in many literary journals, including Okay Donkey, Kissing Dynamite, Back Patio Press, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Honey & Lime, Spork Press, Vamp Cat Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, Black Bough Poetry, and the Atticus Review.
Imagine a time before everyone stared at a screen, before fonts, icons, mice, and laser printers, before Apple and Microsoft… But behind the scenes, Xerox engineers were dreaming and inventing the modern personal computer.
Who were these people who changed the world, and why did corporate management just want to sell copiers and printers?
Albert Cory* was one of the engineers, charged with making that dream a reality and unknowingly starting a revolution. Inventing the Future is based on the true story of the Xerox Star, the computer that changed everything.
It was finally happening. After almost five years of labor by 250-plus people, the Office of the Future was here. Despite the prayers for them, 64K memory chips had not appeared. Michael had gotten corporate approval to increase the manufacturing cost with an extra 64K words of memory. Star now had 256K words, or 512K bytes of main memory. The performance was still poor, but at least it was tolerable now.
Star had been announced and demoed in New York already, and this week was the National Computer Conference in Chicago, starting Monday, May 4, 1981 and lasting until Thursday. Dan had volunteered to man the Xerox booth for all four days. He flew out to Chicago on the Sunday morning before it started, but with the time change, it was past dinner when he finally arrived at McCormick Place.
Dan read the Sunday Chicago Tribune.
In Business, Compushop was offering an Apple II starter system for $1,595. But then buried deep inside the section, Dan found what he was looking for, a story about the Star. It began:
Xerox terminal has symbols, not codes
Managers and professional workers haven’t been the best customers for automated office equipment like computer terminals.
Maybe it’s because they are more accustomed to pointing and selecting material rather than typing out explicit commands.
Maybe it’s because they can’t type.
The article quoted a Xerox marketing executive, who explained that the Star was aimed at “managers or professionals who produce documents, reports, or charts.” It explained how the mouse worked. The executive went on to explain that the Star system cost $15,595, but “technological advances will allow price reductions in the future.” Star would be demonstrated at the National Computer Conference at McCormick Place this week.
Dan, Janet, Martin, Henry, and the rest of the Xeroids were continuously busy, explaining the Star to curious attendees. Visitors could try a mouse, and lots of them did—almost no one had ever used a mouse before. A technical staffer had brought a box full of spare mice and swapped in a new one every hour since the accumulated dirt and finger oil from all the guests made the rubber balls in the mice sticky.
As each hour approached, people began gathering around the monitors to see the demos. By noon, they were waiting 10 minutes before the hour. Michael stationed himself near the left side monitor, where he kept busy talking to reporters, executives, and random attendees. Michael watched the crowd closely, and he noticed that Steve Jobs, one of the Apple founders, came every hour, surrounded by other guys Michael didn’t know. He knew that Jobs had visited PARC the year before last for a demo of the Alto and Smalltalk, but he hadn’t seen Star before. He had supposedly asked, “Why isn’t Xerox doing anything with this?” Now, he found out they were.
Inventing the Future ebook on Sale!
On Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 the Kindle edition of Inventing the Future became available to readers. About 140 have already requested Advance Review Copies and 10 people have reviewed it on GoodReads or Amazon.
Inventing the Future fills a void that the excellent histories, like Dealers of Lightning, cannot: it puts you into the experience and lets you imagine what it would be like to take part in something you just know is going to change the world, even if you don’t know how yet.
It also tells some little-known facts about the legend of the Apple / Steve Jobs visit to Xerox PARC. People think “XeroxPARC” is one word. It’s actually two words, and PARC was not the organization that made the Xerox Star. Jobs did not see Star during his visit for the simple reason that it didn’t exist yet; his visit was in December 1979, and Star was introduced at the National Computer Conference in May 1981. Jobs saw the breakthrough technology that we were trying to commercialize.
Inventing the Future features a foreword by David Canfield Smith, the inventor of icons and one of the designers of the Star. and pictures his son Jeffrey on the cover, “playing” MazeWar, a massively multiplayer game from before such things existed. The title comes from a quote by Alan Kay, the brilliant computer scientist:
The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
*Albert Cory is a pen name for Bob Purvy, a retired software engineer who worked on the Xerox Star. In his career he also worked at Burroughs, 3Com, Oracle, Packeteer, and Google. All characters are fictional and are composites of the scientists, engineers, and executives who lived the story, with the exception of the auto-biographical character, Dan Markunas. The other two main characters, Janet Saunders and Grant Avery, are completely fictional, and are not in any way representative of the real people who had their jobs (note: the author makes clear which events are real and which are composites in the Endnotes).