WIP Wednesday

WIP Wednesday and Thursday giveaway

First and foremost! Less Than Three Press is still running their fabulous FREE BOOKS giveaway tomorrow, so keep an eye on their Tumblr or @LT3Press at the top of each hour.

At some point tomorrow, Signal to Noise will be up for free for a whole hour – so if you haven’t yet nabbed a copy, here comes your chance! It’s a good time to brush up, because its sequel Klaxon at the Core makes the drop in June!

Today’s WIP Wednesday is a teaser for my most recently accepted story, “Castle on a Cloud,” which will be a part of the Project Fierce charity anthology.

    Jant Keed came to the cloudborne city of Skyrill to live out the opportunities that he and his brother Brannant could only dream of from afar. Instead, he finds himself on the street scraping by for each brass bit to make it from one day to the next. As he seeks shelter from the cold, he finds himself trading the tinders he could sell for visions that lure him to a turning point. The choice Jant makes could mean a bright future, or the end of one.

Jant Keed braced himself against the cold slap of wind that rolled in from the far side of the park’s expanse of manicured lawn. He tried to warm his chilled fingers with scant breath and wondered if there was a chance in the Frozen Hells he’d sell enough tinder to rent a cot to stay alive one night longer. The odds for a sale were increasingly small in the affluent upper terrace he’d spent his last brass bit to reach but the locale hadn’t been his choice. Skyrill was packed from lowton to royal tier for Midwinter’s Festival of Turning.

The Festival of Turning was such a pivotal celebration to the Four Aspects faith that Jant wasn’t surprised the cloudborne city of Skyrill was filled to capacity. Even guttersnipes had been evicted from trash bins by those higher on the street pecking order. Tradesmen were crammed in like canned fish in the gear district, grinders and beggars were pushed out of their usual pockets to fend for themselves, and even the tiniest tots had been displaced to seek a mercy shelter or run barefoot until they found a night’s charity. Jant himself had been elbowed out of the plot where he usually sold his pitch—a poor enough place between an alley and a trash heap—by a pair of older air whips with tousled dirty hair and sneers that promised violence.

On a clear, fair weather day the upper terraces like Proudmarch weren’t such a bad place to be. He’d even come more than once to admire the houses as much as to attempt his pitch. Jant shivered as another cold gust cut across his back. He attempted to curl himself into a tighter, more compact ball with his arms looped around his knees and gazed out over the empty walks that criss-crossed the front of the park. The sight summoned fresh misery that made his stoic expression crumble but he could only allow a brief, pained grimace before wiping it clean. He’d taken the steamcar to Proudmarch because he’d figured he wouldn’t have to fight for shill space, but there would be foot traffic enough to keep him in coin for one night more.

Showed how much Jant knew.

Proudmarch was deserted, and likely the other upper terraces as well. Jant had seen exactly two souls since his boots had left the steamcar and both of those had been servant class, proud enough in their finery but pressed for time or money. They didn’t need Jant’s tinder. All the fine houses were closed up tight, none in need of the heat or light Jant could provide with the self-contained globes of fire he could summon up to his palm and sell.

Fire was auspicious and in need in a place like Skyrill that had its share of a plentiful three—air, earth, and water—but was touched by fire only at dawn and dusk. Jant’s Aspect was fire and he thought he’d do well enough on the streets of Skyrill for all that, but he’d learned fast that his command of his Aspect was so slight as to be considered laughable. He could conjure tinder and make flames dance but not much more.

His eyes pricked and he steeled his face to hardness again, lifting a hand to summon up a bit of tinder. Fire burst into red-gold glory for an instant before Jant pulled on the flame with the ease of long practice, twisting it round itself. The surface formed a glassine orb, warm to the touch and etched in the flickering colors of the flame he’d summoned. He cradled the tinder in his hand and bit his lip against a sigh. He could cast it at his feet to release the flame again and it would warm him for a little while. Without a sale, though, it wouldn’t do anything for him; not fill his belly, nor find him shelter for the night. Each tinder used up a bit of his spirit and without the replenishment of food or sleep he’d be done for. Jant had seen his share of wide-eyed corpses over the past few days, left out overnight without any other option. He didn’t want to be one of them.

He straightened and hugged his knees as a tall man strode past with purposeful strides, his back toward Jant as he passed by the park. Jant half-stretched a hand and croaked, but by the time he’d cleared his throat Fehrad was gone.

Why wouldn’t he be? Jant’s doleful thought followed. Fehrad Bezuyt was a kind man, to be sure, having stopped a fair number of times on the street to buy tinder from Jant and share a few words of encouragement or advice. He was also too important to be dallying with the likes of Jant. A butler of House LeVries could have scraped Jant or his peers from the soles of his boots. It still caught Jant by surprise to be addressed by Fehrad on occasion.

If Fehrad was headed for Clairewater, the LeVries’ estate, at such a clip then he had business and no time for dallying. Jant balanced the tinder he’d conjured between his knees and stared with longing at the place where Fehrad’s wool-garbed broad shoulders had disappeared.

Jant had never seen a Kemet, one of the dark-skinned races to the far southeast, before coming to Skyrill. Fehrad had been the first and remained the most handsome to Jant’s eyes. He had a lean, sharp face with a pointed nose and thin lips that parted to reveal a brilliant smile with ready ease. He cut a stunning figure in his wool suits and waistcoats, or light linen when the weather permitted. Even in milder seasons the winds that buffeted Skyrill could be fierce. It was his hands that had truly snared Jant’s attention, though, being sturdy and calloused in a way that denoted he was no stranger to laborious work but well-shaped as fine sculpture for all that.

If he could have garnered Fehrad’s attention for a moment, he might have kindly purchased the tinder—at twice Jant’s asking price, as usual—but offered no further solace than for him to move along. There was no place in lowton, though, and Jant’s shiver wasn’t inspired by the wind when he considered the places he’d already been pushed out that day.

The cold was fierce enough, and the terrace empty enough, that Jant had considered breaking a window and crawling into one of the fine homes to hide for the night. At least the afternoon. Mayhem & Mischief’s patented alarm system would send up a clamor right quick, though, rousting the constables from their comfortable seats in the gastropub by the steam-rail station. They would find him with no great effort and the lockup would await him.

Jant’s thoughts traveled involuntarily to the sight of the great gray slate of the lockup, a terrace set apart from Skyrill’s storied propulsion-suspended levels. The dread that choked him was born of more than the prospect of being jailed. If he were to go there … they would find out. People would discover what he was. And a swift death would be the kindest thing that could await him.

His own parents had turned him out after his older brother Brannant had died—and why wouldn’t they? A boy spirit born into a girl’s body was evil, unlucky, impure. Jant’s spirit was tainted and it had been no great surprise to discover his Aspect was so limited. It had probably been stunted by the twisting of his own spirit from what had been intended in the body where he’d taken root.

He breathed on his chapped hands and turned his thoughts forcibly from the miserable realities that had brought him there. He had to focus on what came next.

Instead of breaking in someplace, Jant would keep watch in the park, alert for some stray worker who wasn’t at a worship center. He’d hide as the constables made their final rounds before turning in for the night to take their ease at the gastropub while they watched the main worship rites on the transmit-tube. At that point he could wedge himself under a bench and hope for the best. It wouldn’t be warm, but he’d make as compact a shape of himself as he could. Theft had never much occurred to him even when he was scraping cobblestones for a bit of brass, but right then Jant would have eagerly taken a blanket from a line if anyone had been amiss to leave it there.

Jant looked down at his hands with numb concern as he realized he could scarcely feel them. He chafed his fingers together, blew on them again, and bitterly considered the impact of each exhalation as his spirit left with it.

He would freeze or his last breath would leave him before the constables made their next round.

Guest Blog at Joyfully Jay, plus giveaway!

Hop on over to Joyfully Jay today, and through Sunday, to read my guest blog “Heavy Metal Lover” extolling the virtues of mecha and how it’s played a surprising role in my creative development.

For today’s WIP Wednesday, I offer an exclusive excerpt of “Body Option” that isn’t available anywhere else.

BODYOP

    For five years, Grant Badu has been part of a solid fighting team with the Gemini Suit called Trefoil Argent. Together, they fly and fight so effectively, their combat record so impressive, that they’ve become informally known as the Infallible Duo.

    When a case containing classified military innovations is stolen and shot down in the foothills of disputed border territory, Grant and Argent are tapped for its swift recovery. But the mission requires pilot Argent to take on the one cybernetic option he’s been avoiding, for reasons even Grant doesn’t know.

***

The heels of Grant’s boots, polished to mirror levels of shine, clicked sharply on the tiled surface as he strode up the hallway that led to the Pegasus Eyrie’s mission room. When the Gemini Suit program had been established, Crestovia’s Air Armed Forces—AAF to everyone—had created stations at strategic points across the country that had been dubbed ‘Eyries’ for the Suits they deployed. Each line, from Raptor to the latest Hawk, was named for birds of prey and the station designations had stuck. He had been summoned back to the Eyrie that morning with a message flagged highest priority. The southern border had been quiet lately, so of course something had come up on Grant’s furlough, because that was his luck. Icarus Eyrie was closer to the southern lines, but when something required a lightning strike and guaranteed success, the AAF always tapped the Infallible Duo.

He reached the mission room and paused on the threshold as always, tossing off a crisp salute and admiring the view, perched as it was over the flight deck that launched the Gemini Suits. Argent’s chirp of greeting was loud in his ear from his position on Grant’s shoulder.

“Captain Badu, please enter.” An older, white-haired man with a silvery moustache was present at the head of the table. A general, Grant noted his insignia with surprise. They were infrequently graced with the presence of someone that high in the ranks.

“And my partner, Trefoil Argent,” Grant said pointedly, gesturing to the silver-metallic bird of prey on his shoulder. The fact that Argent was attending the mission meeting in peripheral form, rather than flesh, was something that shouldn’t go without acknowledgment.

“And the immensely talented Trefoil Argent, of course,” Dr. Badger Prane was quick to add, in the manner of an introduction.

“Ah, yes,” the general said, clasping his hands and bending a stare on Argent, who bobbed his head in a preening motion though his pinions required maintenance rather than grooming. “The other half of our Infallible Duo.”

An auspicious greeting, Grant noted, wishing he could make the comment in aside to Argent, but he hadn’t mastered the skill of sub-vocalization, while Argent could make free with his remarks to Grant without others hearing. “Sir?”

“Please, be seated,” the general said. “I’m General Drake Barcek, I’ve been in weapons development for the past five years since receiving my latest star.”

Grant nodded, seating himself at the table and taking note of those present. Dr. Prane was one of the top minds in the Gemini Suit program, and made the rounds constantly to ensure that the pilots were well-treated and looked after. Across from him was Grant’s own commanding officer, Lieutenant General Jasinder Palova, looking stern. Her dark face shuttered in a considering squint and her uniformed arms were folded across her chest. Typically there was more support staff for a mission briefing; the lack of extra faces around their table had him wondering.

Must be secret weapons development, Argent remarked in his ear. Grant responded with the slightest dip of his chin to indicate agreement.

“A plane went down in the Cressian range this morning,” General Barcek said, lacing his fingers together and sending a formidable pale-blue gaze Grant’s way. “The plane was carrying proprietary technology obtained through espionage. Unfortunately for the Bah’zeth, but fortunately for us, they flew toward Bahazeth without the proper airspace access codes, and were shot down.”

One of Grant’s brows winched upward. “One of our own turned on us, and tried to make off with Crestovian military technology,” he summarized.

“In short.” A flicker of annoyance crossed General Barcek’s face. “This is bad for us, very bad. Our available data indicate the plane crashed in one of those cave-riddled areas. We need to send someone for retrieval, and fast.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Grant said, glancing at his colleagues and noting that Dr. Prane was grimacing and gnawing a knuckle. “That’s the kind of mission we can launch for, as soon as Trefoil Argent is prepped.” At the periphery of his vision, Lieutenant General Palova began to shake her head.

“It’s not that simple,” General Barcek said.

Of course it’s not, Argent said in his ear. Grant ignored him.

Dr. Prane left off gnawing his knuckle and sat forward in his chair, spine upright and eyes wide.

“It’s been brought to my attention, when I reviewed your specs for the mission, that Trefoil Argent does not have a body option,” General Barcek said. There was mild censure in his voice.

“I wasn’t aware that existing as a cybernetic suit required one,” Argent piped up, the fluting tones of his high tenor undercutting the saucy delivery that bordered insubordination. When dawning horror broke over Lieutenant General Palova’s face, he added a sharp, “Sir.”

“Not require, no,” General Barcek said slowly, pushing his fingers upward and steepling them, brows lowered as his eyes swiveled to pin Argent with a long stare. “Unusual. Most pilots your age, racking up hazard pay at the rate you have, can count a body option among the list of their peripherals to walk among us … enjoy the fullest life has to offer, as it were.”

“I quite like this peripheral, and my other cybernetic options. After all, a body option cannot fly.” Argent unfolded one silvery wing and extended it, birdlike head cocking as if to view it. “Sir.”

General Barcek grunted and shifted in his seat. “Couldn’t believe it when they told me,” he said, shaking his head. “A pilot of your considerable skill, long since financially solvent past the cost of cybernetic debt, and you don’t have a body option.”

Argent’s beak opened. Grant reached his hand up and pinched it shut.

“General Barcek, are we making conversation, or is there a point to this line of inquiry?” Grant asked. It was direct to the point of rudeness, and Lieutenant General Palova’s eyes narrowed in a very particular way that let him know he’d be getting his ears dismantled and whacked against his head later, but his question was worlds closer to social acceptability than anything Argent would have delivered.

“Yes.” General Barcek coughed into his fist, began to turn red, and re-settled in his chair, folding his hands beside a tablet display. “This mission will require Trefoil Argent to be assigned a body option.”

Grant removed his fingers in haste as Argent twisted his beak out from thumb and forefinger, head tilting in the way that meant he was going to nip, hard.

“It’s quite a steal for you,” General Barcek was saying. “Haven’t paid the money out for one, already, and now the AAF will foot the bill because we need you to have it for this mission. Works out quite well, when you look at it that way.”

“What if I don’t look at it that way?” Argent said flatly. “I’ve never seen the need for soft and squishy parts. I’m a pilot. I fly, I don’t—” He snapped his beak shut.

Grant huffed and thanked his own lucky star that Argent hadn’t completed that thought in front of the General. We’re fighter pilots, we fly and we fuck. Argent had never gone with the peripheral that would let him follow through on the second. He did plenty of the first, and claimed it was all he needed.

Grant went stone-faced to avoid betraying any expression to General Barcek, Dr. Prane or even their commanding officer. Dr. Prane and Lieutenant General Palova had questioned him repeatedly, right around the time of Argent’s yearly flight-readiness evaluations, on why Argent consistently held off on getting a body option. Grant’s loyalty sealed his lips. In truth, though, he didn’t know. It was one of the few things Argent had never confided in him, and Grant had too much stubborn pride to ask for something not freely given.

“Lieutenant Argent,” Lieutenant General Palova said sharply.

Argent tilted his beak in the air and shut up, but turned his head so one black eye-lens was fixed on those assembled at the table.

“This mission requires it,” General Barcek said, straightening his shoulders. He had a barrel chest that was halfway slid into a gut that strained the seams of his deep green military tunic.

“Any multi-legged cybernetic peripheral worth its weight–”

General Barcek spoke over him, raising his voice and increasing in volume until Argent fell silent again. “For those unfamiliar with the cave system of the Cressian range,” he said, modulating his volume when Argent ceased speaking, “it’s riddled with veins of lead and other heavy metals, those with insulating, signal-dampening effects.”

Grant’s jaw tightened and his nostrils flared. “Metal peripherals won’t do well there,” he re-phrased, to confirm his own understanding.

“Your metal peripherals will not do well there,” General Barcek repeated, fixing Argent with a gimlet stare. “The link for the body option is different, and stronger, based as it is on DNA rather than circuitry. You don’t uplink, you transfer.”

Argent’s metallic pinions rattled together as he shifted on Grant’s shoulder. Grant tried not to frown; existing through cybernetic peripherals as he did, Argent had no need to fidget. He was making his opinion known with that rattle.

“It’s a two-person mission on foot,” General Barcek continued. “Our coordinates can put you in the approximate location where the fighter plane was downed, but gunner and pilot will need to proceed into the caves to track down and retrieve that case.”

“It’s imperative that we deploy our best team immediately in order to recover that technology,” Lieutenant General Palova said, taking up the thread of the mission briefing. “Without question, Captain Badu, Lieutenant Argent, you are that team. Which brings us to this table, here and now.” She rapped her knuckles on the table’s surface.

“Thank you,” Grant said, when it became apparent no one else would speak, especially Argent who only rattled his pinions again. He smoothed a dark-skinned hand down the front of his uniform and tugged. He was still in fighting trim beneath his green tunic, though his days of working up from foot soldier to fighter pilot were long past. He had manned the weapons from Trefoil Argent’s cockpit for eight years once he’d promoted into the Gemini Suit project at twenty-four, and the suspension rig was enough effort that he had to keep up on regular workouts and stamina runs to remain fit for the job. “General. Lieutenant General. I’ll fly wherever Argent takes me, but accepting this mission comes down to his choice.”

It was Dr. Prane who spoke up, manner soft and conciliatory. “Argent?”

Argent replied with several strident clicks and caws more reminiscent of the bird of prey that his current form resembled—a shape he’d chosen for his primary off-duty cybernetic peripheral. At last, following a conclusive sharp click, he settled down, talons squeezing Grant’s shoulder until he grunted. “Not like I have much choice, sir. I guess I’m getting a body option.”

***

Release date: Wednesday, April 2nd.
Pre-order here.

WIP Wednesday: Dragonspire

Sorry it’s been so long since the last one. I’ve had more busy than you can shake a stick at, between work, edits, a vacation that had precious little free time, and discovering renewed productivity with HabitRPG. (It’s a wonderful thing.)

Dragonspire began its life as my 2013 Nanowrimo project. I ended up finishing it in mid-January and its final word count clocked in around 150k. It’s a bit longer than I was hoping, but there was a lot of story to tell. It’s out for its first edit right now.

The tagline, summary pending:

    “He went up the mountain to save the maiden. He pledged himself to the dragon. And together, they set out to save both humanity and dragonkind from the greatest threat to both.”

Echo paced the terrace with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing with brooding eyes out on the grayed vista of the Crown as the purple and navy mantle of night wrapped around the spires. If he were in dragon form, his tail would be lashing, short irritated bursts gusting through his nose. He remained in human form partly on the prospect of Gideon seeking him out but also to lessen the damage that a lashing tail could do.

It had been so long for Echo that he had begun to think no one would arrive at the Wroughtspire to pledge to him. It was merely a waypost for all the humans seeking passage to another world.

Yet Gideon was already from another, and he had come seeking Echo. It was all too neat, and Echo fretted at the idea of it the way he would worry it with his talons if the problem had a physical shape.

He had put word to Chant and Blaze to join him at the heart of the Wroughtspire and they had agreed. That would take as much time as he’d allotted Gideon for rest and refreshment. It was more than enough time for Echo to pace, and overthink the matter.

There was no person better suited to pledge to him than someone carrying the Amicus Draconis. Echo brought a hand up and began to gnaw at the knuckle, looking up at the icy moon as she made her ascent. Gideon smelled interested, seemed suitable, and yet … and yet …

For the Callardans, it would be like an act of war. Taking their champion and accepting his pledge would be provocation on an order that had not been offered in centuries. Already Echo had been transferring many promising youth through the Nexus but they had been the dispossessed, the ones who did not belong.

Echo’s thoughts shifted to the political ramifications of the day. The high priestess herself had come to his spire to challenge him, bringing with him a champion who had indeed been armed with a sword that could have destroyed him—if he’d plunged it into the Nexus. The Amicus Draconis had been gifted to the humans so long ago as a sign of trust between their races.

Chrysania had been swift to flee when the tables had turned on her, but her schemes would stop there. Of that much Echo was certain. He could not hazard to guess her next move because she was human, and there were profound differences in the way they thought. He would have to consult with Gideon.

Gideon, Gideon … all his thoughts led back to Gideon, from the moment he had made that most startling pronouncement. In a single moment he had withdrawn his allegiance to the Callardans because he had seen something within Echo, recognized him. For his part, Echo had recognized it when the Nexus responded to the pledge.

He put aside those thoughts and turned from the terrace to return to his own human quarters.

The space within the spire was divided, dragon-sized quarters for the most part but they alternated with adjoining human-sized suites. Echo and his kind could take human shape, and diverse others. They preferred human shape for the books, as well as the nimble hands that made so many tasks possible. Even though the humans had reviled and turned on them so many centuries ago, Echo had been raised to respect them and treat all those who came through his spire with the same courtesy he would accord another dragon.

He possessed a wardrobe extensive enough to satisfy his vanity, and changed into green robes that complemented his eyes. Gideon had not seemed offput by the scarred one, looking fascinated as he met its gaze as easily as the other. That was a promising factor.

A flamelike tongue of light appeared near his head as he finished robing himself, tugging on boots of black minotaur leather and stamping them to a good fit.

Cousin, we are near, Blaze’s voice said near his head. We shall emerge beside the Wroughtspire’s heart within the hour.

Echo nodded and the messenger light dissolved into brilliant sparks akin to a candle blown out. He drew in a deep, steadying breath and went to the quarters he’d assigned Gideon—quarters adjoining his own human suite.

Before he could raise his hand to pull the cord, the opaque crystalline surface cleared and wavered like a drop falling onto still water. It vanished, leaving the doorway open with Gideon standing on the threshold. Their eyes met.

“Oh,” Gideon said, head lifting. “I did not expect—”

“A great many things, so you’ve told me,” Echo replied, and risked a smile. Relief washed through him when Gideon matched it. “My cousins are near. I see you found the clothes.”

Gideon smoothed his hand down the golden-brown shirt with its voluminous sleeves. It suited his coloring, and Echo wanted to draw him in and breathe his scent. He looked so much the better for having rested and bathed. His eyes crinkled when he smiled. They were brown with subtle golden flecks and Echo was fascinated by their uncommon hue. Most eyes were gem tones save the rare human and even those tended to be solid colors.

“Yes, thank you. I hope you don’t consider these to be mercenary clothes, too.” Gideon’s eyes crinkled again as he met Echo’s eyes.

Echo had to hold his breath for an instant and remind himself it was unseemly to ravish someone with lips and teeth when they’d scarcely met. “Mercenary? Why—oh, the Callardans.”

“Yes, apparently only mercenaries wear trousers.” Gideon’s mouth quirked, and Echo had a powerful urge to reach up and trace the corner with his fingers, feel the curve beneath them. “And you’re wearing robes as well.”

“I have a wider experience of the world than simply Callar-dune,” Echo replied with a faint smirk of his own. “As to the robes, I prefer the style. I’m accustomed to freedom of movement as a dragon, and the pants are rather more restrictive than I like.”

“I guess that rules out underwear, then.” The statement seemed to slip from Gideon unbidden, and his cheeks turned red while he rubbed at his neck.

“Under … wear,” Echo puzzled out the meaning through the words, and laughed. “Garments underneath? I’ve never seen the point of that.”

“Forget I mentioned it,” Gideon muttered.

“Why should I do that? It’s rather amusing,” Echo said. He stepped closer, tilting his head, observing Gideon with delight. “You’re blushing.”

“And I’d love to move on to other topics,” Gideon said with a trace of desperation. “You came to get me?”

“Ah, yes.” Echo collected himself and stepped back. “My cousins approach. If you will take my hand, we can be waiting for them at the heart of the mountain.”

Gideon nodded and offered his hand.

Echo gave him brief, happy smile and clasped it. Gideon’s fingers were warm, his skin a golden hue unlike the darker tones of the Callardans, or the pale skin of most dragons whose pigment did not alter in the sun. Altogether he was pleasing in every aspect. Well suited, he thought but did not dare voice aloud.

He concentrated on the dark gray cavern deep within the Wroughtspire, the place that allowed access to the great black crystal itself. Between one moment and the next, they were there.

“How did you do that?” Gideon exclaimed, fingers tightening around Echo’s. “Oh, it’s dark.”

Echo willed a handful of spheres into existence, sending them out to the darker corners of the cavern. It was one place that remained a ragged chamber hewn by volcanic action, the fissures and cracks of pressure and time, and steady drips of water. He and his ancestors had not set their design to shaping the heart of the mountain, given it was the one place that sprang from the Motherdrake rather than their own making.

“Better?” Echo asked, keeping his voice even when it threatened to tremble with excitement. Showing Gideon to the very seat of the mountain was a monumental step. He could not fully articulate to any human, let alone one from another world, what a tremendous show of trust it was.

WIP Wednesday returns: The Mistletoe Maneuver

After the long, hard marathon of Nanowrimo, WIP Wednesday makes its triumphant return! And you’d think I would start sharing the manuscript I spent those frantic thirty days writing, but you’d be wrong. Dragonspire is not yet ready for reading consumption.

Instead, I’m going to share the first part of a story I’m kind-of, sort-of writing for Christmas, with the hopes I’ll finish it up on the plane on my way to Chicago later this month. The prompts were mistletoe and May/December, so I’m bringing those elements together along with my own little twist.

This one doesn’t have a summary yet, so I’m just going to launch right into it.

The Mistletoe Maneuver

The worst of all Christmas carols was jangling out its jaunty theme of cuckolding and maternal adultery when Kenneth Whitaker crossed the polished expanse of marble that took him across the vast glass-walled lobby. Kenneth clenched his back teeth and put on a smile for the benefit of Sheila, the receptionist, as he bent to sign in at the front desk. “Seems unfair that they keep you working while everyone else goes upstairs to party,” Kenneth said, as though he hadn’t been working sixty hours a week through the holidays for the past fifteen years. The Vanderbrandt company party was the one free pass for all executives.

Sheila gave him a brief show of red, red lips stretched over very white teeth. “After I sign everyone in, I lock the lobby doors and I get to go upstairs, too,” she replied. “We party all night, after all. I don’t begrudge everyone else the head start.”

Kenneth nodded. Someone from the Vanderbrandt group had left out a Montblanc to sign the register and he penned his name with an offhand flourish, dropping it into the bend where the pages met. He paused and scanned over the list of those present, but wasn’t quite bold enough to flip back a page. “Anyone from the Yamato group here yet, Sheila?”

That earned Kenneth a smirk. “Funny you should ask, when one of them wanted to know if you were here already. Twenty minutes ago.”

“Oh.” Kenneth squared his shoulders and pulled in a slow breath. Time to face the music. Hopefully it would at least be a different carol upstairs. “Better not keep them waiting, then.”

Kenneth’s short walk to the sleek silver escalators beyond the front desk was the march of a soldier going to battle. The Yamato group meant a very specific Yamato would be there waiting for him. The fact that Zach had asked Sheila was his advance notice that yet again, the hunt was on.

The elevator ascended, and Kenneth’s stomach attempted to stay on the ground floor. It had been years since he’d seen Zach Yamato–too young, too sleekly gorgeous, too precocious–and fended off his wandering hands and blunt proposition. He had to close his eyes for a moment to steady himself. “I’ve wanted you for years,” Zach had breathed into his ear, attempted to kiss him, and only when he’d pointed upward with a cheeky grin had Kenneth realized he’d been steered directly under the mistletoe at a darkened corner of the ballroom dance floor.

Kenneth’s eyes popped open when a chiming note heralded the arrival of his elevator at the party floor. The entire top floor of the Vanderbrandt building was a stadium-sized atrium complete with towering crystal skylight and sleek steel girders. They were draped for the occasion with boughs of evergreen punctuated with the bright red splash of holly. A woodsy scent assailed Kenneth’s nose as he stepped out of the elevator, gift bag dangling from the crook of his arm. The anonymous gift swap took place at midnight, and a table already piled high and wide was pushed up against a wall to his right. The table itself was covered in shiny mylar reminiscent of gift wrap. Kenneth added his contribution to the precarious stacks.

He turned to assess the brewing party for danger zones. Christmas with a more rock-driven beat drifted through hidden speakers, and the press of people was hidden partially from view by the staggered placement of three towering firs decked with all the tinsel and lights they could bear. A gauntlet of familiar faces stood between Kenneth and the wet bar at the far end, and the DJ was out of sight in a crow’s nest on the second level that wrapped around one side of the atrium. The other side opened onto a terrace that afforded one of the most spectacular views the city had to offer.

Yamato Senior was visible enough, standing in clear view within a cluster of the Vanderbrandt group’s most elite executives. As always, he wore an impeccably tailored suit and his slight frame and iron-gray hair provided no other tells for the massive clout he wielded. His bodyguards stood an unobtrusive distance apart, hands clasped in front of them, eyes shielded with dark glasses even indoors. His translator Reiko was beside him, stunning in a champagne-colored off the shoulder dress, her black hair newly clipped into a pixie cut. She was all smiles in contrast to Yamato’s stoic face.

There were other important players present, Kenneth noted, accounting for his colleagues, their allies, even a few key business rivals. The Vanderbrandt group’s Christmas parties were legendary, and not to be missed. He started out across the maze of mingling associates and headed for the far side of the room, keeping a weather eye out for a certain youthful storm.

The last time Kenneth had seen Zach, he had promised to make the same offer the following year, and reminded Kenneth he wouldn’t have the excuse of his being underage to turn him down. That had been three years ago.

WIP Wednesday: My Sexual Superhero

By popular demand! Today’s WIP Wednesday brings you another snippet of “My Sexual Superhero,” which is very much a work in progress. The title, as I’ve already had to explain twice, is a bit of a misnomer as neither character is an actual superhero, though Jessan certainly thinks Felipe is talented between the sheets. I may end up changing the name just to avoid spoiled expectations!

At this point, I’m definitely fighting to keep the story throttled back under 20,000 words. I tend to do better character work, especially contemporary, when I have more room to stretch out and get under their skin. Will keep at it and see where these boys bring me!

    “Jessan Pierce would rather spend the night with his Doctor Who collection having tea out of the Tardis than go dancing, but his best friend Maria knows what he really needs is to shake off the doldrums and get out of his well-worn groove. Felipe de la Rosa is just his type, short, well-built, and as ready with a smart-mouthed quip as he is to take his shirt off. The chemistry that works great between the sheets seems to fizzle outside the bedroom, though, and Jessan may prove too chicken to take the chance to put himself out there with Felipe, as well as the other big leap he’s facing in his life.”

“Drinks?” Jessan asked, leaning forward to speak right into Marina’s ear. He did better not only with dancing but clubbing in general when he had a few drinks in him.

She nodded, altering course to head for the bar, which was packed and understaffed. There were only two bartenders, a dark-haired man at one end, a blond woman closer to them holding up a silver shaker and looking out over the crowd with a set, almost grim expression, the look of an overworked employee staring into the deep end of a long night.

“This is going to take forever!” Marina did an about face and shoved cash into his hand. “Get me a vodka cranberry, and I’ll find you!”

“Bullshi—” Jessan began to protest, but she was already gone. He cast his eyes up, caught sight of the dim mirror ball that was raised up unused for the evening, and shuffled forward to join the queue with a shrug.

While he was musing over whether he let himself get suckered into things because he wasn’t assertive, or he lacked assertiveness because he was constantly suckered into things, a hard shoulder collided with his and Jessan lurched forward.

“Shit! I am so sorry, man!” Hands reached out to steady him, and Jessan turned, brow gathering in a glare.

His squint shifted to one of instant appraisal. From the impact he’d expected someone taller, more muscular, but his assailant was close to his height, and his type in all the ways he hadn’t seen in a while. He was short, dark, and brown, though his features had a distinctly Asian cast. Jessan schooled himself to disinterest; all of the Asians on campus tended toward aggressive Christianity, clubgoing or not.

“No worries,” Jessan said. “So long as you didn’t do it on purpose.”

Short and Dark leaned in closer, flashing a smile that displayed teeth in stark contrast as his eyes went up and down Jessan. “And if I did?” he asked. His hand remained a warm presence on Jessan’s shoulder. “And was looking for an excuse to make conversation?”

Jessan’s brain was forced to backpedal on his assumptions, and he stood gaping like a flounder as he tried to come up with a response. He shook his head a little, laughed and decided not to accuse the guy of a terrible method of coming onto someone, and managed the very with-it reply of “Uhh …”

“Nice shirt!” Short and Dark complimented him, smoothing right past Jessan’s awkward non-answer. His eyes skimmed from Jessan’s chest and upward until he made eye contact again, and smiled.

That put Jessan on more familiar territory. “Oh?” he said, somewhat wary. People had recognized the pop culture references before, but tended to think they looked cool or missed the thrust of the shirt’s design.

“Yeah, Captain Jack’s my favorite—and having him cosplay Captain Sparrow is about five kinds of awesome. Makes you wonder which would be more slutty.”

Jessan beamed at him. Whether Short and Dark had knocked into him on purpose or not, getting the t-shirt’s visual pun had endeared him to Jessan forever. “Right?” he said. “My friend says I wear too much Tee Fury stuff, but I’m kind of an addict.” He shifted in place, wondering if he should turn around and make sure he maintained his place in line, or introduce himself.

The dilemma was solved when a hand was offered to him. “I’m Felipe.” Warm, dark eyes surveyed him.

“Jessan.” He took Felipe’s hand and shook it, enjoying a glow that had nothing to do with the drinks he’d thought he needed. An insecure corner of his head told him exactly what Felipe was seeing: the skinny half-black, half-Persian kid with cornrows and geek gear, too insecure to wear any of the more flattering clothes his female friends attempted to push on him. He was in a t-shirt and jeans and combat boots, and got mistaken half the time for a butch lesbian. Jessan took the conscious initiative to tell that part of his brain to buzz off; adults were talking. And if he hadn’t misinterpreted the interest, adults might be hooking up.

“Not a fan of club gear, then, Jessan?” Felipe asked, stepping into his space and guiding Jessan along with the flow of the queue shuffling toward the bar.

The move reminded Jessan of dancing, and he was caught between that and the notion he was being subtly derided. There was nothing mocking in Felipe’s face, at least, so he treated it like a question with no mean intent.

“I’m not much of a clubbing person, no.” Jessan waved a hand around to encompass the noisy, dark interior and wrinkled his nose at the cramped dance floor. Before he could go off on a rant, he caught himself and hauled his remarks into politer territory. “Uh, but, yours looks good!” He allowed himself to look.

On Felipe, ‘club gear’ wasn’t doing it justice. It was more like he’d walked out of Jessan’s wet dream catalogue. Besides being in Jessan’s height range, short by anyone else’s standards but perfect for him, Felipe had dark hair gelled up into wayward spikes, brown skin set off to advantage by a silver tank that bared his arms, collarbones, and a glimpse of belly, and skintight patterned leggings that weren’t underwear, but left very little to the imagination. It gave Jessan brief flashbacks to David Bowie in tights and his early realization of where his attractions lay.

“Likin’ the angle of the dangle?” Felipe asked, cocking his head.

“Did you just … quote The Losers at me?” Jessan was stupefied. He’d never known a guy with Felipe’s attractiveness index to have anything to do with that movie; at least, not the gay ones.

Felipe’s faint smile widened. “Yeah, I did. It was a sneaky way of letting you know I noticed you checking me out.”

WIP Wednesday: Convergence

For today, I’m offering an exclusive first look at Convergence, my story premiering next week in the second Proud to Be a Vampire collection bundle. You can pre-order Convergence by itself here, or as part of a bundle with four other great stories here, which saves you 15% on the bundled titles. Having just read the galley to give it a last once-over, I’m really excited to bring this story to you–and it was a lot of fun to write!

Convergence small

    Chris and Ling travel the world in search of rare, exquisite curiosities, but treasure hunting is rife with danger and comes with a price. In order to retrieve a lost treasure deep within a perilous mountain, Chris hires on a vampire. But traveling with a predator comes with its own risks, and their venture may collapse into absolute loss unless they can each find the opportunity in one another.

The trip to China was arduous, though less a danger than in times of old, but it meant cramped quarters and little privacy even with the modern convenience of first class compartments on the steam train. Dorran was a less challenging passenger than Chris had expected, having arranged for a human-tall box to be shipped in the cargo space.

“You’ve read Dracula a few too many times,” Dorran remarked upon hearing Chris’s arrangement for a cargo box, and retired to the dimmest corner of the shared compartment with a heavy cloak.

“Sunlight is not anathema?” Chris responded, startled.

“Only in that it illuminates the shocking paleness of my skin.”

With that, Dorran withdrew, leaving Chris and Ling to their books and conversation. It was an interminable trip rendered passable only through the engagement of the mind. As ever, Chris envied the ease with which Ling got up to roam the narrow strip of walkway. At least he could escape the compartment to take a turn about the train, even if it was in the guise of servant.

One dark morning, as the train streaked through winding hills etched in black relief against the paler grey of massed clouds, Chris found himself the subject of scrutiny from a pair of piercing green eyes. Dorran had pushed the hood back far enough to expose his face.

“He surfaces,” Chris said in a wry tone.

“The injury.” Dorran’s voice was a dry crackle gone rusty after so long a silence. “It kept you from being pressed into service for the war?”

Chris’s hand tightened on the silver handle of his cane. “Among other things.” He could walk, with pain so preferably only short distances. “It does not keep me from managing the curiosity arm of the business, or from self-sufficiency.”

“Mm,” Dorran said. “I’m sure. That’s why Ling fetches tea and toast.”

“He does so out of respect rather than requirement.”

Dorran sat forward, eyes intent. “How severe was the damage, Mr Bryant?”

Chris’s response was prompt and well-rehearsed from repetition. “The doctor who saved my leg cut away the gangrenous tissue. In his zeal, he removed muscle to a degree that it impaired function. Yet, I am lucky. I am not disfigured; I did not lose the leg.”

Dorran’s eyes moved down his body, resting on his thigh. “You surely have a good deal of scarring.”

“Not any that you’ll see,” Chris retorted, wondering at the line of questioning.

Black brows flicked upward and Dorran’s mouth quirked in a sensual, crooked smile. “We are in very close quarters, Mr Bryant, and look to remain so for quite some time.”

Chris looked at him askance. He did not want to encourage familiarity, especially not with Dorran’s words dripping innuendo, but the use of the title only brought his father to mind. While Chris was grateful to John Bryant for providing him with an upbringing and opportunities to allow him to pursue his interests, he disagreed with him on so many other fundamental points that they kept contact brief and to a minimum.

“You may address me as Chris,” he said at last.

Dorran looked up from where he’d begun to subside within his hood. “Eh?”

“As you say, we are going to be in close quarters with one another for the foreseeable future, and you may as well address me by my given name.”

“And you may call me Dorran.” The offer was returned promptly, but with the air of one conferring a boon.

Chris eyed him a moment longer. There were many esoteric subjects that provoked his curiosity, but none so much as the motives of a vampire and now he had one before him. He would be remiss as a scholar if he let the opportunity lapse.

“What moved you to respond to the advertisement I placed?” Chris asked. He had wondered since the moment Dorran had set foot in his shop. Tall and handsome, no hideous monster had appeared before him. Dorran could quite obviously pass for human, and apparently there had been a certain amount of risk in revealing himself to begin with.

Dorran sat up straighter, arranging a fold of hood to shield himself from the wan light that had pierced the clouds outside the window. Chris raised his cane, reversed it, and used the handle to draw the curtain securely closed in an adroit move. Dorran nodded his thanks.

“You expect me to say I’m fleeing the country, evading the pursuit of those who I’ve robbed of their loved ones?” Dorran sounded amused.

“The thought had crossed my mind,” Chris said dryly.

“I would accuse you of reading penny dreadfuls, if I hadn’t seen evidence of your standard fare.” Dorran gestured to two of the books that Chris had set aside when Ling got up to fetch them breakfast. “You may be scholar as well as linguist.”

“I have a wide-ranging curiosity.”

“You have a taste for the exotic.” Dorran fitted his fingertips together and surveyed Chris over them. “And I have an appetite for adventure.”

“That’s the reason?” Chris attempted to mask his surprise.

“Reason enough to get me out of London,” Dorran said.

“And away from any retribution due the crimes of your nature,” Chris was unable to resist adding.

Dorran laughed; it was a rich, unfettered sound, causing Chris to stare in surprise again. “A scholar’s nature, but a poet’s mind.” He seemed admiring rather than sarcastic.

Chris flushed. It was the first time someone had praised his poetical bent without contempt. “I hardly see what that’s to do with it,” he said stiffly.

“You embellish and invent,” Dorran said. “What I do, I do from necessity. And those that receive my embrace are more than willing, in the end.”

Chris frowned. “I don’t …”

“Because it is their end,” Dorran clarified, tone gentle. “And when they reach it, I am mercy. I am solace. And I take nothing that would not be spent uselessly, otherwise.”

Chris inhaled sharply. “Are you saying—” he began, and turned his head when the rattle of the door opening diverted his attention.

Ling stood on the threshold, levering the door open with one arm, a heavy tray balanced on his hip. “No, don’t move,” he commanded, when his dark eyes took in Chris’s struggle to rise, spurred by his need to help. “I haven’t dropped a tea service yet.”

With a sigh, Chris settled back into his seat and looked across the way. Dorran was already wrapped within his hood again, arranged as though he had never stirred.

The door slid shut on its own weight and Ling grasped the tray with both hands, edging his way into the narrow compartment and seating himself beside Chris. “Eat while it’s still lukewarm.”

Chris snorted and reached for the tea, which was badly over steeped. “Any trouble?”

“If there was, would I tell you?” Ling returned. He gave Chris a knowing look and a clap on the shoulder. “Relax, white man. The closer we get to Shanghai the more you will be the outsider, and I the man of means.”

“As always,” Chris said with a faint smile. “And have all your countrymen wondering why you put up with such a challenging situation.”

Ling shook his head and pushed a plate of toast on him. “Because it was the white man who troubled himself with bettering my situation,” he replied as he always did. “It’s you who is my brother now, Chris. You say challenging. I say it’s another word for opportunity.”

They shared a laugh over that together. Ling’s eyes were warm. He rarely smiled, but he was expressive in other ways. Having been a solemn child himself, Chris was best suited to understand that.

“My father should adopt you, if he had any sense,” Chris said. “You’d be best suited to run the company after him.”

“And leave you to your studies and haring off after fusty knick-knacks?” Ling exclaimed, copying his mock outrage straight from one of the elder Bryant’s rants. “You would like that, wouldn’t you? Left to your books, field studies, and your deep thoughts.”

Chris said nothing, merely turned a melancholy glance on his thoroughly stewed tea. He could not turn the question back on Ling on whether he would like that; it would be too cruel. He was satisfied that his station could at least provide Ling the ability to manage the business capably under guise of assisting Chris, even if he could not accrue the credit.

“Have your deep thoughts turned up an answer for what we’re to do with him, when we disembark?” Ling nudged him, sipped at his own tea, and made a face. Neither of them took their tea with sugar, and both were dismayed at the atrocious liquid that was being passed off under the guise of tea.

“I suppose we could find him a burqa and pretend he’s a woman, if we disembark in full daylight,” Chris said slowly.

Dorran’s hood retracted enough to show a slice of face and glaring eyes. “I hardly think that will be necessary.”

“Ah, you do listen. Thought so,” Ling remarked, appearing unsurprised. “You are too still at all times.”

“Being still takes no effort,” Dorran said. “It’s moving like a human when you have no need for it that takes practice.”

Chris shared a glance with Ling. Mirrored in Ling’s eyes was an awareness that they were out of their depth, and had no idea even how lightly to tread in their dealings. Had the particular artefact they sought not required a vampire in order to secure it, they could have remained blissful in ignorance.

“What curiosity are we searching out?” Dorran inquired. “The contract lacked specific detail.”

“It’s not the kind of detail I wanted to spell out in print,” Chris said, intercepting a warning look from Ling, who gave a slight shake of his head.

“Come, now, we’re en route and you need my help to secure it. You are going to have to bring me into your confidence, sooner or later.”

Chris hesitated a moment longer, measuring the reasonable request with his instinct that called for utmost discretion. He and Ling had been on many expeditions since they were in their teens, and more than once they had come to near ruin by entrusting the wrong people. It was another thing that knit them together.

“You don’t trust me.” Dorran’s voice was barely audible over the rushing grind of the train.

“Why should we?” Ling shot back.

“I am in your employ,” Dorran replied. “A deposit has been paid for my services, the rest due upon safe return.”

“And money is the only consideration?” Chris said, sceptical of that motive. “A tidy sum, no matter how enticing, would seem secondary to a creature such as you.”

Dorran’s laugh was tinged with bitterness. “I set my signature to your contract.”

“That means something to vampires?”

“It means something to me.”

Before Chris could phrase a reply, Dorran disappeared beneath his hood once more, shutting down the conversation. Ling made a sceptical noise in his throat and Chris exchanged a glance with him once more. Outward protestations to the contrary, they could not trust an outsider, let alone a vampire.

Though they had said nothing aloud, the message seemed to have been heard, as Dorran remained within his hooded cloak until the train reached its final stop.

Convergence will be available next Tuesday evening.

WIP Wednesday: Courage Wolf Never Sings the Gorram Blues

Change of plans! Here’s an excerpt of next week’s release, Courage Wolf Never Sings the Gorram Blues, which is part of the Rocking Hard: Volume One anthology and available for preorder here. Five great stories for an incredibly low price!

Summary for Courage Wolf:

    Bailey Kravitz, lead singer of Courage Wolf, is a high-strung, perfectionist diva of a front man. Gunner Lansing, bassist of Courage Wolf, is a laid-back, hang loose ladies’ man who is only serious about guitars and sex. They say opposites attract, but Bailey’s terminal crush on oblivious Gunner is tearing the band apart. Meanwhile, his longtime friend, quiet but intense guitarist Tor Macleod, helps him pick up the pieces yet again. Between annihilating everything they’ve built and reeling from total rejection, there may be a third option Bailey has been overlooking all this time. Problem is, Bailey’s always been more than a little difficult when he’s out to get his way, and that may ruin his prospects after all.

A wall of bodies filled the arena, a sea of screaming fans facing the stage with their arms thrown up and waving. Luminous winks from a thousand phones cast their small, glaring lights like a field of stars across the dark sea of bodies as the crowd swayed to the music that thundered through the stadium.

Bailey Kravitz was in his element, pouring raw energy into his vocals as he clutched his microphone in one hand, balanced on one foot and clinging to the mic stand with the other hand. With the focus of the crowd upon them, all eyes turned on him, Bailey felt like a lens channeling their energy and reflecting it back in the radiance of the music. The instrumentals thrummed through his bones and swept him along toward the chorus.

He grinned fiercely during a guitar bridge, excited for the stage effects yet to come. They’d suffered through a shitty rehearsal and his stomach was bottoming out under the expectation that the effects would fail, again—but if they pulled it off, it was going to be spectacular.

The crowd roared, their bodies flailing wildly, and Bailey couldn’t help but give back an excited little air punch, skipping across the stage and kicking a foot out as Tor’s guitar crescendoed toward the next refrain behind him. He turned his head to grin at Gunner, who sent a sultry smirk his way, rocketing Bailey from simply high into the stratosphere.

Opening their brand-new single at the US Music Awards was a rush like no other, and Bailey was all too happy to seize it with both hands.

His heart quickened when he realized the bass had gone on too long and he’d missed his cue for the refrain. Instead of panicking, Bailey punched the air again and returned to his microphone stand, fitting the mic into the bracket and grasping it with both hands as he waited for the guitar and bass to circle back around to the right place in the rhythm for him to join in.

Inwardly, Bailey was seething. They’d only practiced it a million times; to draw out the song like that at the USMAs was galling. Pushing through, he leveled a brilliant grin at the front row, barely visible to him beyond the blinding lights, and sang his heart out.

Behind him, an explosion of golden stars blossomed across the latticework fixed to the stage, and Bailey kept singing even as the crowd’s reaction made him want to grin, so hard.

“You tried,” he sang, “but is it good enough—it’s up to you; though the way is tough … you tried …”

The screams from the crowd were so loud, they pierced the bubble of music he was enclosed in, thanks to his in-ear monitors. When he finished up the last line, the euphoria swelled his chest to the point that Bailey was barely tethered to the ground. He swept a bow and bounced off the stage as the lights cut, leaving everything in sudden darkness.

“We’ve got another instant hit,” Bailey declared, pulling out one of his in-ear monitors as he moved past the wing of the stage into the narrow corridor beyond it. His brow furrowed and he cast a glare over his shoulder at Gunner, their usually-reliable bassist, but current target of his ire. “Would’ve been better for our first live if you hadn’t fucked up my cue.”

Gunner’s brows rose. “Excuse me? Who missed their cue, Bailey?”

“Guys,” Tor interjected, his tone low but carrying. “Press.”

Bailey clamped his lips shut. Whatever problems they might be having, he wasn’t stupid enough to air it in front of the press. And, of course, they could be expected to be on camera at any turn of the corner at the USMAs.

The reminder came just in time. “Hi! How’s it going?” inquired a perky blonde who materialized in front of them with an oversized yellow microphone with ‘USM’ on it in large, bubble-font letters of three different colors, denoting she was a US Music network personality. “I’m Angela; does Courage Wolf have a moment to do a spot with me?”

Bailey put on his pleasant professional smile. “Of course we do!” he said, matching her enthusiasm level.

“Fantastic!” Angela gushed, gesturing for the four of them to line up beside her. There were tape blocking marks on the ground, as there had been on the stage, and Bailey lined up beside her, checking the camera’s position relative to himself to ensure he was in an advantageous spot. “So I’m standing here with Courage Wolf, backstage at the USMAs—”

She pronounced it ‘us-ma’s,’ and Bailey kept his smile fixed on his face, giving a slight nod to the camera as it panned in his direction.

“Guys, can you introduce yourselves to our fans who may be less familiar with Courage Wolf’s rising star?” Angela invited.

“Sure!” Bailey said gamely. “I’m Bailey Kravitz, our singer and lyricist …”

“Any relation to Lenny?” Angela asked, earnest or deadpan.

Bailey couldn’t tell which, but gave her a wide smile and treated it like a legitimate question. “Unfortunately for me, not related, though people keep asking. I can’t even play the guitar … ” He was about to continue, but Tor spoke up beside him and Bailey resumed his smile.

“I’m Victor, Tor Macleod, guitarist and songwriter,” Tor supplied. He dug a thumb into Gunner’s ribs.

“Gunner Lansing, bassist,” Gunner said briefly, jerking his head in Sasha’s direction.

“Sasha Guzina,” Sasha said. “Drums for Courage Wolf. You know, heart of the band.”

“Great!” Angela said. “Thank you. So, Courage Wolf. That’s a fun name for a band; where did it come from?”

“Everyone asks us that!” Bailey said with a dazzling, dimpled smile that in no way showed how tired he was with the question. “It’s an Internet meme. A lot of our songs are mash-ups of Internet memes, actually.”

“That’s right!” Angela interjected. “In fact, your homemade video, self-titled Courage Wolf, went viral and that was what brought you crashing into the music industry, is that right?”

“Well,” Bailey said with a deprecating gesture. “More or less? We got signed by a major label, and we’ve been selling well enough that we’ve been able to do what we love ever since.”

“And those sales seem ensured by a rabid fanbase online,” Angela supplied with a grin.

“Oh, stay away from the Internet,” Sasha said, straight-faced. “I wouldn’t poke it with a stick. It bites back.”

“Seriously though, we love all of our fans,” Bailey said, returning to safer territory. “We’re so grateful to them for all of the voting they’ve done, all of the support they’ve given us, that has allowed us to come this far.”

“So, what do you say to the people who are less than fans, your detractors who call you out as hipsters, manufactured, or—the horror—a misfired boyband?” Angela said, making a face.

Bailey couldn’t tell if it was apologetic, or if she was trying to slip the question in on her own agenda. They’d dealt with a lot of two-faced interviewers over the past few years.

“I’d say they’re jealous,” Tor replied when Bailey held his breath, stewing. It was Tor’s turn to flash one of his rarer, but no less dazzling, smiles at the camera. “And it’s pretty telling that a so-called ‘one-hit wonder’ band has had over twelve songs debut in Billboard’s top ten.”

“Enough said!” Angela said brightly. “Thanks for your time.”

Bailey stalked down the hallway, keeping a grin fixed firmly in place that was more like a rictus now. The moment they reached their dressing room, he shoved the door open hard enough for the knob to crack against the wall. Storming into the middle of the room, he swung around to glare at Gunner. “You dropped a note, and I missed my cue!” Bailey accused, leveling a finger at him.

Gunner swelled up, his face going red.

“No, he didn’t,” Tor interjected, quiet but forceful. “Fair’s fair, Bailey. You were crowd-dazzled again; it’s understandable, performing a new song at such a big show.”

Bailey turned toward Tor, compressing his lips. He was still angry, but didn’t dare unleash its full force on Tor the way he did with Gunner, who always fought back. “I wasn’t dazzled,” he protested.

“Okay,” Tor said, accepting it. “Let’s make our quick change, all right?”

Bailey took the hint and dropped it, but not without a dire sidewise glance for Gunner. Although he was a perfectionist, he wasn’t petty enough to want to ruin the high for everyone. Fresh off a stage show, he tended to nitpick and be critical, and Tor kept the peace when Bailey would otherwise blow up at everyone just because he was angry at himself.

He frowned over his shoulder as Tor left the room while he scrambled into his second outfit for the evening. His attention turned quickly to his own appearance, though, because he didn’t have much time and everything had to be perfect. He was tall and lanky, some might say too reedy, and used fashion to clothe his figure to advantage. He had black hair that varied in length depending on the year and his mood, currently long enough to style up or keep loose around his face as it was that night.

Tor emerged from the closet sized bathroom pulling his sandy ponytail out of his form-fitting shirt as Bailey was smoothing a hand down the front of his immaculate charcoal blouse with its silver threads, casting a critical eye over Gunner and Sasha.

“Band T-shirts again, really?” he said disdainfully. They were both good looking enough: Gunner had a long sweep of hair reminiscent of hot bassists from other eras and a tight well-muscled body, and Sasha had a plain broad face but the sweetest rare smile as well as a stocky physique that earned him his share of admirers. Yet despite those good looks, they refused to let him improve their choice of dress.

“Chill, Bailey,” Sasha replied. “You’re never going to get us into haute couture, so may as well stop trying.”

“Yeah, you can’t turn us into Bailey clones,” Gunner added.

“Don’t you both wish—” Bailey began.

“Enough,” Tor said, taking Bailey’s elbow and steering him toward the dressing room door. He, at least, dressed to a standard Bailey couldn’t complain about, in a clinging blue shirt that went well with his hazel eyes, and slacks over motorcycle boots. “We’ve got an award to lose, am I right?”

“I know, right?” Bailey quipped, shifting himself forcibly into a more upbeat mode. It was nerves, he told himself, but it was more than that. Gunner was so oblivious. He just didn’t get it, and it was driving Bailey wild. He had to put that aside for now.

For every award they’d been nominated, they had a kind of ritual, treating it as a sure loss rather than a sure thing. From their humble beginnings, Courage Wolf had been a long shot. Their fan-driven wins had been a surprise to all of them, pushing them so far up into USM’s visibility, along with VidTube, that they’d ultimately drawn the attention of some important players in the music production world.

Within their group, they never believed in the win until their names appeared as the winners. It was like a dream, and even though they’d come so far, Bailey still thought it could all end overnight. That wasn’t so terribly implausible, after all. They tried to present themselves as fresh rather than cynical, though. Bailey was certain the fans responded better to that approach.

Once they returned to their seats, escorted by venue staff, Bailey watched the show with interest, taking mental notes. He half-expected to use all of his experiences as material later, and Tor, the other half of their creative team, more than met him halfway.

When they reached the award section of the program, Bailey clasped his hands together, staring up at the presenters. There was only so far their we’re not going to win mantra could take him. Each time, at a certain point he found himself with his heart in his mouth, feeling as though everything was on the line. They’d be fine if they didn’t win, of course, but the sick swoop of the wait, followed by the rush of winning, was better than the most amazing roller coasters Bailey had ever ridden.

He was tempted to hide his eyes, but he kept them fixed wide open.

“Looks like someone will not be going home with a gold ‘you tried’ sticker tonight—the winner is Courage Wolf!”

Bailey rocketed to his feet, throwing his fists toward the sky in triumph. His scream of “We won!” was lost in the general dull roar of the crowd.

He turned to Gunner, but he had his back to Bailey, and he was clapping Sasha on the shoulder. Bailey scowled and turned toward Tor, who had already left the row and was standing at the end of the aisle. He cocked his head to one side, silently asking a question. Bailey gave a brief headshake in response and walked toward him. It wasn’t the time to address the reason for his frown; he had a performance to put on.

Next week on WIP Wednesday: Convergence.