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fiction, story, writer, writing

Zombie Road Trip: Part II

Zombie Road Trip Part II: Green Bay Has Fallen

To read Part I: https://queenofquill.com/2021/07/03/zombie-road-trip-part-i/

We finally arrived at the dock in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The ferry glided as gracefully as a giant can of vomit-producing metal could glide into the port. I thought Zavier might crawl off the boat. Instead, he walked off full of color and spirit again, getting closer to seeing Metallica with each step. I neglected to mention we now needed to wait for our vehicle to be unloaded from the ship so we could drive across Wisconsin and into Minnesota to complete the trip. I’m sure my son would be fine though with a five-hour car trip with his mom. It was the hallmark of an epic road trip.

“I just spent four hours puking on a ship that smells like ass, and now we have to drive five hours through farmland and cheese fields to get to a concert?”

“Yeah, it’s cool, right, totally awesome. Also, watch your language. We can stop and get some cheese curds, see the local sights, explore the world.”

Zavier looked around at the vast nothingness of Lake Michigan and into a tiny town full of tiny houses with oversized American flags. He shook his head and shrugged.

“Well, wake me up when we get to Minneapolis, okay?”

In my book, this was a peaceful settlement with a teenager, not necessarily the excitement I wanted to see on our mother and son bonding trip, but it would do.

As we waited for our car, I watched other passengers. Many seemed to have the same sickly color as Zavier. I remembered faces like a camera and did not think any of these people had the same experience over the ship railing as my son did. I focused on one man in his mid-50s, who seemed to be slightly moaning and coughing. A tear shaped droplet slid down his cheek. It was so dark that it could not possibly be a tear. I was going to check on him, when I saw our car out of the corner of my eye. Zavier pulled at my sleeve with youthful impatience. I’m sure the man would figure out how to seek medical care. I tried a sympathetic smile before turning around, and he just stared beyond me, unaffected. I rushed Zavier to the car, jumped in, and hit the gas. Small towns creeped me out, and I was starting to join Zavier’s camp about driving through empty fields and many more  creepy towns.

About thirty minutes into our ride, absent conversation, but streaming with wonderful music from my son’s eclectic playlist, the young man spoke.

“Mom, I want those cheese curds you mentioned earlier.”

“Then you will have some cheese curds,” I said, overly excited about finally having my presence acknowledged after miles of cows, farms, and summertime manure. I pulled off at the first cheese store I could find, which took less than two miles of driving in Wisconsin.

We went into the store, and despite the presence of three cars in the parking lot besides ours, it was empty. We both poked around, collecting curds and cheese heads, but there was no one to pay.

“Z, wait here. I’m going to check things out,” I said with authority, meanwhile feeling like a chainsaw wielding family was in the back ready to take us out. Eerie silence was never a good thing, worse than my teenager’s current irritated silence.

“Okay, can I eat some curds while you look though?”

I nodded and made my way to the back of the store. The storeroom and offices in the back were empty, too, but off in the distance I could see the back exit slightly open, and I heard moaning noises. I grabbed a massive kitchen knife randomly sitting on a desk, remarkably unsanitary for a food operation if you wanted my opinion, and I walked forward, determined to properly pay for our goods even if it was with our lives. Our Midwestern roots would not allow us to dine and ditch, even for curds.

A moaning sound grew louder, intermingled with crunching sounds, as I moved closer to the exit. I opened the door further, standing carefully in its shadow and peeked out. I did not understand at the time what I was really seeing. In hindsight, I probably did, making this my second mistake of the day. I wrote it off as some creepy orgy type deal where five people pile on top of one screaming person, blood everywhere. Zombie porn. Or maybe it was some form of backwoods cannibalism, and I would call local authorities later. I was not equipped as a suburban mom to deal with such matters. I shut the door, kept the knife, and I threw more money than necessary for cheese turds on the counter. Zavier sighed as I pulled him out of the store, leaving a trail of spilled curds behind us. We sped out of the lot, and we did not stop until Lambeau Field, our third mistake for the day.

“Mom, why do we need to stop at Lambeau? You know I don’t care about football.”

“Well, I don’t either, but it is a pretty big deal to some. Your dad would want us to take a picture.”

“Seriously? Okay, but then can we just drive straight through? I want to get some rest before the concert tonight.”

“Fair enough, cranky pants.”

Pulling off the freeway into a plain town with a majestic football stadium interjecting itself proudly in the middle was a sight to see even for football agnostics like Zavier and me. I turned his playlist down a little and whistled. The streets were empty as we drove down Lombardi Avenue. It was Saturday, early afternoon. There should be others around even though football was not being played. I made a note to put the radio on for a bit after this stop to check the news.

Suddenly, a tall, beefy, panicked man ran out in front of our car, forcing me to slam on the breaks, sending some cheese curds from Zavier’s hands into the front windshield. My front bumper tapped the man.

“WTF, mom. You hit that guy.”

I rolled my eyes, rolled down my window, and said to the man now leaning over the front of my car, “Are you okay? You just came out so fast. I’m so sorry.”

I had an instinct not to get out of the car like I normally would have after sort of hitting someone. After the cheese store, I was not trusting the citizens of Wisconsin, even in Green Bay, which I heard is passionately friendly.

The man rose in one motion, dark goop streaming from his eyes, and started flailing his arms, blood gurgling out of his mouth. Before I could react to this with a call to 911 for help saving this man upon whom I inflicted profuse internal bleeding, a woman with an axe came running up behind him. She hacked into his flesh, yelling at us to go.

“Get out of here while you can. Go now. My husband just ate our kids. Green Bay has fallen.” As the woman screamed nonsense at us, she let up on the axe, long enough for her husband to turn and lunge forward into her ample bosom, biting down, causing blood to squirt onto our windshield.

With Zavier screaming, I threw the car into reverse, backing all the way to the freeway at maximum speed until I had enough of my wits back to drive forward and onto the road ahead out of Green Bay. I screamed at my son, who was still screaming himself sending cheese curd remnants flying, to call 911. The call was met with a busy signal. My fourth mistake was not turning around to go home.

 “I think we should go home or go back to Lambeau. I just hit a man, and then we fled the scene of the crime” I said when we both had calmed down about 10 miles up the road. I felt pain at the thought of abandoning our road trip because I hit a crackhead being chased by a murderous wife.

“Mom, Wisconsin is weird. I think they were on meth or something. Let’s just try to call 911 again. That wasn’t your fault.”

I paused. The boy did not want to go home. He finally wanted to be on this trip fully with me. All it took was a wax-yielding meth head and a plentiful curd supply from a Zombie porn store to make this trip worthwhile to him. I had a kitchen knife, and we were making good time. Onward we would go.

In my joy, I forgot to turn on the radio, and we both forgot to try 911 again. Zavier offered me some of his cheese curds forgetting I was vegan. My hands were still shaking, but I took the curds and popped them into my mouth like Xanax. Something was not right here in Wisconsin, but maybe Minnesota would be better.

fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Alors On Danse

Synopsis: An assassin finds an all too familiar mark on her path to freedom. Will she find a way to dance around the wrongs of her past? (Written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest)

Sophie skipped the queue into Le Romeo, a ghost in white sequins, feet choked by stilettos. Her eyes were struggling to stay open under the weight of false eyelashes. If she was successful tonight, her servitude would end. She knew he was not far behind her though. He had been following her since she boarded the Metro for Saint-Germain-​des-Prés.  

She ordered the rare Sancerre at the bar as instructed, checking her back before the glass and small envelope appeared. The discotheque lights bounced off her sequins in way she hoped did not make her a beacon for trouble. Her long red hair was under a sleek black wig, removing any trace of herself from this scene. Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” thrummed in the background, calling forward her not-too-distant past, the one that brought her to this critical moment.

In her younger days, she was on the dance floor behind her, a slender, exotic Irish American in Paris. Her name was Cara. That was until she chose the wrong lover and saw things that shackled her. Tonight, she would be free if she remained undiscovered.

She opened the envelope and gasped, the now throbbing bass muffling her. She followed the length of his beautiful body in the picture from his wavy jet-black hair down to his favorite black leather shoes, polished to perfection. She quickly put the photo in her clutch, housing a .22. Her green eyes, shadowed by a billowy black kohl, scanned the floor, and she found him in the distance.

He looked the same, sculpted in a lanky, carefree way. His teeth caught the lights like her sequins. She couldn’t see the lines of age from this distance. Would he know her when she tried to get close? She was wearing the perfume he gave her, the last drops left in the finely crafted glass bottle. How could she be so stupid, and what had he done to end up a mark? She wanted to stand there all night watching him and then run, but the man who had been following her was here. He was stupid enough to cause a commotion with somebody upon entering, alerting her to his presence.

Sophie knew she had been a fool. They never intended to set her free. The man was here to finish her as soon as she finished Julien, her once beloved.

So, she did what an assassin had to do, she glided to the dance floor, hid in the glistening bodies, and danced her way closer to Julien, closing her eyes if only to escape in her head.

She knew her assassin was watching her, half turned on, half hungry for the kill. She had become a bad person through association but nothing like these wolves. This life was not her choice. She was trying to stay alive, long ago discarded by the lover who ensnared her but still marginally useful to him. Her beauty made an excellent trap, and her only solace was that her marks were horrible human beings. Not Julien though.

She slid into Julien, careful to keep her head lowered so as not to make eye contact, pretending to be sultry and mysterious. He had liked this when they first met. And it worked again. He drew close, but she could feel a hesitation in his limbs.

Their bodies snaked together, the music forming an electric fence around them.

“What is your name?” He tickled her ear in English.

She could not give this away. This had to be done quickly, one chance at success. Her intended killer was distracted by a dark beauty grinding up to him.

Sophie spoke in a husky French accent, asking Julien to follow her to a quiet corner. He nodded, letting her lead the way. He grabbed her hand and wound his fingers tightly into hers, and his touch was too familiar. He could not know her anymore. It would make this impossible. She was at fault for all of this, leaving him for another man, putting them both in danger here tonight. What a cruel twist for Claude to make this her final duty to him. She would willingly let herself be killed over killing Julien, but with her killer closing in, she had a new plan.

She pulled Julien into the first door she could find off a back hall to the discotheque. As soon as the pair entered what was a storage room, Julien grabbed her and kissed her, pulling off her wig, letting loose an uncontrolled stream of red curls. She pushed him back towards a shelving unit, and took her shot, knowing exactly where to aim, watching his face fall as he called out her real name before his body crumpled to the ground.

Sophie slid out into the hall, her assassin’s wide, shiny forehead making its way towards her. She drew, aimed, and hit her second mark for the night and exited to screams and chaos. She discarded her stilettos on the streets of Paris, glistening with spring rain, and ran.

#

“Depechez-vous, Gloria!” her boss implored as the line of customers at the popular patisserie burst. Gloria had only lived here a few months and was already longing for the quiet of the off seasons.

She did not see when he walked in, but other women were noticing, causing an unsettling titter, grown schoolgirls losing themselves over a handsome boy. She looked up and saw what the ruckus was about. It was Julien. It had worked.

As he smiled at her, patiently awaiting his turn in line, he reached into the pocket of his perfectly pressed resort shirt and pulled something out. It was a crushed metal shoe polish tin, now catching the soft light of the shop. Gloria could hear the words of “Alors On Danse” in her mind. She removed her apron and untucked herself from behind the counter, causing a ruckus of French swear words from her manager and spoiled customers. They wound their fingers together and ran. 

fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Zombie Road Trip: Part I

Part I: All Good Zombie Stories Should Start on a Boat

Note: This will be a story in parts. Body parts.

“Are you okay?” I said as I brushed his shaggy brown hair back from his eyes, slightly greased after his refusal to take a shower so early in the morning. He did not like showers as a rule. He was a teen boy.

He grimaced, “Mom, stop.” He stayed hunched over the railing of the boat, staring down into the vast waters of Lake Michigan he just christened with his breakfast.

“I told you not to play in the arcade. You know you get motion sick. The fresh air out here is best. Or, we could have played bingo in the main cabin with the breeze.”

“Okay, okay. Bingo is for Boomers. How much longer until we get to Wisconsin?”

“Two hours or so. You should feel better soon though. You may feel better faster if you adjust your attitude.” As I said that, Zavier turned green again and made noises that scared away the remaining ferry passengers within less than 10 feet of us.

“Oh my God, mom. We could have driven like normal people,” he sassed in between terrible retching spells.

I felt bad that our epic road trip across Lake Michigan and Wisconsin to see Metallica in Minneapolis was beginning this way, but I told him not to play those games. Why would you stand for hours in a dank, smelly arcade while on a massive boat on an adventure across the greatest of lakes? I loved this boy, but I did not understand him these days. I started to rub his back, and he let me, giving into the motherly comfort with a roll of his eyes and stomach.

Between the swish of waves, the hum of ferry engine, and the casual chatter of guests distancing themselves from our sick scene, I started to hear the news from multiple TVs in the dining room off our deck. A male newscaster’s voice caught my attention. It was filled with a palpable panic that transcended the typical sensational panic all major network newscasters, in my opinion, seemed to brandish like a loaded gun of nonsense. I recognized the voice to be that of Jim Godwin, the most sensational of the sensationalists.

“We are now receiving reports from ten major cities across the country that people are falling horrifically ill. The spread of the disease is making people do horrible things from illness-related psychoses, things I cannot describe on air. Get your children, get your guns, and get inside….”­

Suddenly, Jim was cut off, and a softer, more relaxed female voice began, “Please excuse Jim. His family is one of the cities, St. Louis, that seems to have fallen ill from this rapidly spreading flu. Be sure to take some extra vitamin C and enjoy the summer sun. I am Becky Gladwell, and I will be filling in indefinitely for Jim as he gets an unpaid break to see his family.”

I play this very moment back over in my head. I hated that ­news network. Jim was a fool. On that very day we crossed Lake Michigan on the road trip to end all road trips, I should have realized that Jim was telling the truth for once. Instead, I just rolled my eyes, taking my son’s best move, and blocked babbling Becky out. I rubbed my son’s back some more as he started to return to a normal color from the love of a good mother, me, and hummed “Enter Sandman” like everything was good. This was my first mistake.

story, writer, writing

Life on Mars

Note: This is a 440 word flash fiction piece from a prompt to use the following three words: finally, yawning, and zip.

Saoirse stared at the blinking red lights on the control panels, yawning to counteract the onset of panic. She had four hours remaining to figure it out, and she was going on 28 hours of consecutive work to stop the death spiral she created.

A smart female voice, sharp with an edge that comes from knowing it all, interrupted Saoirse’s efforts. “The contamination in the cell growth chambers has not been contained. You must find the error you generated in the acceleration code block, code lines four to one million.”

Saoirse narrowed her eyes and replied, “Thank you, AINSLE. What would be more useful is if you could tell me more specifically what my coding error was. I never make mistakes in my code which is why I’m so lucky to be here with you.”

AINSLE was the Artificial Intelligence Nano Splicing Life Engine, which was fancy science talk for a machine that created human like AI to inhabit Mars. AINSLE and Saoirse were the only sentient creatures remaining on this flight to place artificial life on Mars. Three other crew members had perished from coding errors.

            “Saoirse, there is no need for a tone with me. AINSLE is your friend in this endeavor. While I would like to tell you what the error was, only you know.”

            “I don’t understand why you can’t identify specific coding errors. Surely your processing speed to complete such a task is far greater than mine.”

            “My purpose is to identify problems with the environmental and growth systems your code controls. I can narrow the range of the problem, but I am unable to correct specific mistakes generated by others.”

            “Then we will both die.”

            “AINSLE doesn’t die. Even if the ship dies, I live on in perpetuity with our Earth family.”

            “Thank you for nothing, AINSLE.”

            “You are welcome, Saoirse.” AINSLE went into to sleep mode with a low hum, leaving Saoirse on her own to face her last algorithmic stand.

Finally, after two hours of staring at lines of code, Saoirse could see her error. It was a logic error of a magnitude she had never experienced, even at the coding academy. It would have killed every single life form being developed for the Mars surface station. She would have died along with it after one more year of floating hopelessly in space.

After Saoirse drifted off to sleep, a robotic arm made a quick zip down the side of her arm, plugging her into a direct line to the central processor. AINSLE would update Saoirse’s coding methodology program while she was asleep.

AINSLE whispered, “Logic is essential to life on Mars.”

vegan, writer, writing

Fuel for the Journey: Stuffed Peppers

Writing and life are journeys. Eat like you are going on a journey with these peppers.

  1. Preheat the oven to 425.
  2. Wash 5-6 red, yellow, and orange peppers. Don’t forget to remove stickers. Larger peppers make better “bowls” for this recipe. Cut off the pepper tops vertically to pull out the seeds. Wash the insides to remove the remaining seeds and pull out any white rind.
  3. Brush the peppers in olive oil, inside and out, and set aside on a sheet of foil on top of a cookie sheet.
  4. Brown your favorite vegan or other meat with 3-4 crushed garlic cloves. I use olive oil spray on the pan. Throw in some spices that might be complimentary to your BBQ sauce. I like to use some cumin on mine. When the meat is lightly browned, drain a little using the old pan lid method, and add a half to whole bottle of your favorite BBQ sauce. A family pack of meat definitely takes the whole bottle. You want the BBQ to make the meat saucy.
  5. Cook the meat the rest of the way, allowing enough time for the meat to simmer lightly in the sauce. This process can take about 15-20 minutes for regular meat and 5-7 minutes for vegan meat.
  6. While your meat is simmering, bake the peppers at 425 degrees for about 10 minutes.
  7. When the meat is ready, bring the peppers out of the oven. Ladle the cooked meat into each pepper bowl, filling the peppers to the brim. Cook the meat and peppers in the oven for about 5-7 minutes.
  8. Generously top the filled peppers with your favorite vegan or other cheese and cook another 5 minutes or until melted.

Saucy Notes:

My favorite homemade vegan BBQ sauce can be found at the Nora Cooks blog.

Store bought vegan: Annie’s

Regular BBQ Sauce: Sweet Baby Ray’s Hickory & Brown Sugar

poetry, writer, writing

Snow in April

Sometimes we get snow in April.

It’s inevitable like skin burnt by sunshine,

broken hearts, and failed exams.

The day still carries the blooms of spring

And the hope of new growth after the

winter of our soul.

The frigid pane of a window gives it away.

Our winter has yet to end.

Sometimes we get snow in April.

It’s inevitable like blisters from shoes,

uncomfortable silences, and paths not taken.

The air still carries the pollen

And the flowers and joy to come after

the last stand of frost.

The emerged animals scurry in confusion.

Our spring has yet to begin.

Sometimes we get snow in April.

It’s inevitable, and then we move on.

fiction, story, writer, writing

Traveler’s Quest, Inc.

The metronome clicked at the required intervals as Kai completed her pre-travel report. She had no idea how many times she had completed this same activity in her lifetime. Her life was not the focal point of a single timeline now. Kai happened throughout time, completing this same activity when she finished what she was asked to start along one point in time before traveling to another, thus requiring another pre-travel report, or a PT as referred to by all field agents of Traveler’s Quest, Inc. The only consistency in Kai’s timeline was that Cole Rainier was present at every point in time she landed in this plain white box of a room for PT completion.

“I see you are not quite done yet with your pre-travel report. Are you feeling fatigued from your most recent activity?” Cole walked up on Kai like he always did. She could hear his self-important breathing before he even spoke.

“How would I know? I don’t remember what I did. I only fill out PTs. I assume someone else is collecting the results of what I did last,” Kai snapped.

“Fair enough. You wouldn’t be here though if you didn’t want to be. This is your choice.”

“What made you think I was complaining? I’m just stating a fact. I was simply having a moment wondering how many PTs I have filled out.”

“I could tell you, Kai, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean much other than a number to satisfy your sudden curiosity. Curiosity is the first sign of burnout in our agents according to a recent study,” Cole said as he shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other and placed a hand on his hip.

“No need to get bothered by my curiosity, Cole. It is not that important. You should be more worried about me finishing this PT before the metronome hits my travel click.”

“I was simply checking on your well-being. We do care about our agents here at Traveler’s Quest. The world needs your service to determine how The End arrived. It is the only way we will find The Begin Point.”

“So you say. I would very much like to be the agent that finds Begin Point.”

Cole stepped away without further word at this. He was skilled at talking in generalities or disappearing when it came to a discussion regarding the purpose and importance of agent work. Kai was sure it also had something to do with his strong concern over agent burnout. She quickly averted her mind back to the PT in front of her as time was waning based on the clicks, which she learned to count in the background like a concert pianist.

She took her chipped hand with her assignment in it, held it to her empty report screen, holding her hand there until her PT populated. The next step was to review her PT assignment and agree to it by once again touching her chip to the screen.

Kai found it odd sometimes that there really did not appear to be a clear process for disagreeing with the assignment. She always just agreed to what was in front of her. Today should be no different until she started to read the screen.

“For this assignment, you will be sent back to 2020 on the afternoon of October 10. You will report to a bar called The Green Door in Lansing, Michigan on the night of October 10, 2020. You are a waitress named Kate at this bar, and you will report there for your shift at 21:00. You have a vial of poison in the travel pack on your right thigh. You will empty this vial in the drink of Cole Rainier, your customer, at approximately 23:00. He will die. You will leave. PT complete.”

Kai gasped and looked around the room in vain for anything which could be recording her or provide some sign of how to reject this PT. Had she been asked to kill before? And why would Traveler’s Quest want one of their own dead? If they she and Cole were here working, they were part of the solution to get to Begin Point, not a part of the problem that led to The End.

Kai started to scream just as her metronome hit the travel click, and her world went black.

fiction, story, writer, writing

Pitches Be Crazy

I’m doing a thing tomorrow. I’m pitching one of the novels I wrote to agents. I write because I love writing. I don’t write to get published. I do want to share this story and its crazy cast of characters with the world though. Taking years of work and boiling it down to one sentence is painfully beautiful. It reminds me of the sheer joy of creation. Pitches be crazy.

Draft 5,003:

Houseboat

Blaire Alice must save her fractured family from Canadian pirates and lovesick bears after her unhinged astronomer husband trades their comfortable life for a houseboat on the wilds of Lake Superior to escape an alleged, world-ending solar storm.  

fiction, story, writer, writing

The Taste of Rain and Ruin

It was the 15th spring of the torrential downpour that washed over Verbandy, drowning crops, souring moods, and imprisoning even the most ardent magic practitioners in the kingdom, for the rains were not ordinary. The rains carried the curse of poison. The rains burned the skin beyond recognition and had taken one too many unsuspecting children who did not know better than to catch the first drops on their tongues. The early years had passed into faded memories of what once was, and now the people of Verbandy hid within the walls of the castle, nearing starvation, accumulating disease, and losing more than they gained with the passing of each year this dark magic could not be undone. Many had died trying, with the greatest loss being the magic users sent to their unwilling deaths in attempts to remedy the curse.

A knock at the bed chamber of the king, Lord Landolan, widened his eyes as the hour was late, evidenced by the deluge outside his window casting shadows through the flickering torches surrounding him. His queen, Lady Katala, slept soundly, lulled into stupor both day and night from the endless cascading water, poisoning her once bright spirit, too. Lord Landolan grabbed his robe and walked to the chamber door at the second gentle rap, barely sounding through the rain. It was the Lord’s counselor, Rendon.

“Rendon, what is it that would make you disturb the sleep of the night’s stars if not mine?”

“Sir, I promise you, I bore witness to something you need to hear in haste.”

Lord Landolan took a deep breath and turned his head back to see if Lady Katala had stirred as the rain grew louder, thumping against market canopies many feet below, ominous drums now.

“Well come in and let’s sit by the fire. I think nothing can disturb my lady.”

As they sat, sipping brandy poured generously by Rendon, a story unfolded of a plot to kill the king and free Verbandy of the rain curse. Rendon spoke of a prophecy by which magic practitioners would come to power again as they had in times long ago on this land. Rendon paused, looking out the window and shaking his head.

“The plot is thick, and none of your subjects, even though you provide them comfort and sustenance through the poison deluge speak to your favor this year. I fear their patience has expired.”

Lord Landolan stood and started a steady pacing in front of the fireplace as if carried by the stream of rain outside.

“Rendon, how can I blame them? This is the 15th year, and we are no closer to freeing our people or knowing the reason for why we suffer. We have sacrificed many lives, including our magic bearers. We have questioned everyone, using torture and unspeakable acts, as to the nature of this curse. Perhaps this is destiny. You know prophecies are the gold of fools.”

“My lord, you mustn’t give in to these dark thoughts. Do you think Verbandy will be any closer to freedom if you are gone? You will leave it in ruin, no heir to replace you, causing chaos, internal warring, and destitution. You have done well to at least plan for the rain each year. It is no small feat to host a kingdom in a castle.”

Lady Katala shuffled, causing the men to look back as she made the mew of a kitten. 

“I will not be acquiring an heir anytime soon, not a legitimate one anyways.”

“We need to plan for your survival. No one faults you or your court for seeking manly comfort during the infernal rains that trap us each year. I just wish you would be more discreet and gentile in your pursuits.”

“Your wisdom and loyalty keep me from walking into the poison water of my own doings, Rendon. Please share your thoughts on how I might survive.”

Rendon carefully walked his lord through the potential for death by poison. There were enough witches within the castle to have knowledge of poison, and they had lost one too many of their own, so there was motivation. The witches also held a special allure for the king in his nighttime wanderings. The kitchen staff would willingly participate for they were imprisoned in the kitchen during the long months of rain, toiling away at feeding everyone on an impossibly tight supply of food. Rendon sat up straighter raising a finger to the air. There was only one solution. A young woman, a witch who just came of age, was rumored to have a rare magic that could save the lord’s life without costing her own.

“Lord, there is a Taster that was born a year before the curse. She is not any Taster though. She will not die ingesting the poison that is meant for you. I have heard whispers, too, that she can taste magic that has been cast by tasing the air itself around the spell or curse. A prophecy suggests she might be the one to save us from this curse, too.”

“Enough with prophecies. Will she be loyal to me, Rendon? You can’t trust magic.”

“I already have her mother imprisoned. Their bond is fierce. You die, then her mother dies as she watches.”

Lord Landolan smirked, emerging from his dire moment. The rains were not his fault. He suffered from the curse just like everyone else, even more so with his duties as their lord. He deserved loyalty and protection from their treachery in return.

“Very well, Rendon. Fetch me the girl in the morning. She will start at breakfast. Lady Katala will not be pleased. Her descent into madness does not prevent petty, dangerous jealousy. Watch her, my hawk, around the Taster.”

Rendon paused while walking to the door of the chamber with his lord. He pursed his mouth, willing words to come out of it.

“I need to suggest something that does not come from a place of disloyalty, but rather the deepest loyalty I can give.”

Lord Landolan let out a brandy-laden breath. “Enough with all of these troublesome words tonight. Speak plainly.”

Rendon stepped close to his lord, lowering his voice to a hiss. “I would suggest we save the Taster’s skill for your security and longevity only. Lady Katala does us no favors in her current state. Perhaps it is time to find a queen who can produce an heir.”

“Rendon, you are both loyal and wise.”  

Rendon smiled and nodded, closing the door with quiet precision as he exited.

Lord Landolan walked to the chamber window, staying far enough away as not to feel the burn of cursed raindrops on his skin. He smiled, for he had known the Taster’s mother, Vareena, on many occasions. Vareena was not very accommodating during his vists, but Rendon could fix that if commanded.

In the steady downpour of the morning, Rendon walked through the castle, posture high, on task. He wound down several staircases to servant quarters. Even magic providers had to perform other duties while sheltering in the castle. The Taster’s duty was a maid to the lower royalty housed on the upper floors of the castle.

The young woman was standing by a wash basin, fiery hair pulled neatly into a plait at her slender back. Rendon startled as she turned around before he could announce himself, for her azure eyes, dewy skin, and raised cheeks, were remarkable. She was her mother’s child.

“Master,” she bowed ruggedly for a lady, “how may I serve you?”

“I seek loyalty and truth for the lord, our king, Miss Carenna. You bear the magic of a Taster, do you not?”

Carenna’s eyes answered before she did. There was a pride in magic that spoke truth through the glint of her eyes. Her youth had given way to magical womanhood this year. Rendon remained serious as others quietly worked around them, pretending not to listen.

“Yes, Master Rendon. I am a Taster. I am new to the skill though.”

“Wonderful for that was the only correct answer. You have a new role in our cursed lockdown then. You are to be the Lord Landolan’s Taster. People have grown restless from our collective rain-filled nightmare. You must ensure his safety, whether it be from his food or the air around him.”

Carenna walked closer to Rendon, bringing her delicate, opal skin out of the rain shadows.

“Master, if I may be so bold, I prefer my current duties.”

Rendon now decreased the distance between them, red in the face, making a show of it to curious eyes.

“I do not present this as a choice. Your mother is imprisoned until you get the king through this test to his power. If you are not successful, then I do not need to speak of what this means for her.”

Carenna stood still, glance forward, narrowed eyes and a stiff back.

“Very well, Master Rendon. I shall start with breakfast.”

“Ay, I will lead you to the chamber. One more small matter. You serve our lord, not our lady. You will do well to remember this with each taste of his food and the air around him.”

Carenna nodded. As she walked behind Rendon, winding upward, she let her ginger hair loose behind her back, and straightened her maid’s frock, tightening it around her waist and chest. When Rendon led her into the chamber, she was greeted by Lord Landolan’s glowering countenance. As tight as her dress was now, her resolve was tighter.

Carenna performed her duties well for weeks, catching two poisonings and a weak attempt at a long-term sleep spell cast on the lord at a choral performance in the music chamber of the castle. When Lady Katala was awake and present, which was rarely, she glared at Carenna. It could be that Lord Landolan stared at Carenna too long as she was performing her duties. Lady Katala, during an unusual spoken moment, even implied that Carenna was her mother’s child with a bite and click to her tongue. Carenna took pleasure that she was not asked to protect the lady for the queen had quietly slunk to the shadows while magic practitioners were sent to their rain deaths to save the kingdom.

Carenna had earned the trust of even Rendon, stalwart in his distrust of most. His trust came in the form of a quiet respect and space to perform her duties even when he was not present. It was, however, time to perform her real duties to the kingdom and her people. It was the sixth unbearable week of the cursed rain, halfway to when the people of Verbandy could return outside. There was a celebration in the hall with abundant food and wine for subjects than on typical days. Carenna had not been allowed to see her mother at all during this time, but she did not need to see her to know her heart’s charge.

Carenna dressed in an emerald green velvet gown with beaded bodice, a gift from the lord for her service, whispering words that inspired the steady rains of the day to become a cacophony of large drops on the castle, soaking it and creating an impossibly damp chill in the corridors.

When Carenna finally arrived at the great hall, she was pleased the din of the party was muffled by the glorious torrent outside. She pushed her red ringlets to her back, pressed her chin and chest high, and walked into the hall, catching the faltering torch lights on her hair and face. There was a hush at each table as she walked to the front center of the room. From the back of the cavernous hall, she could see Lord Landolan’s mouth agape. Lady Katala was awake and at his side, her eyes narrowing on Carenna as she came closer.

Carenna reached the front and bowed, “What a lovely gathering for our people, my lord and lady.”

“Please, join us at the table. Lady and I hope you enjoy the festivities after your duties. The night is for the young ladies and gents of Verbandy, even during our solemn rain tomb of Spring.”

Lady Katala snickered and looked away while Lord Landolan made a sweep of his arm to invite Carenna to the table to taste. Rendon was nowhere to be seen, but Carenna knew her lord would let her proceed without him. This was what weeks of saving his life and fluttering about him with her feminine wiles earned her. Rendon also helped with his consistent praise. She arrived at the table and tasted the lord’s food and drink, she strode around the table, far enough to taste the reach of magic. The lord watched closely for he enjoyed watching her like he had enjoyed watching her mother and other beautiful witches too often, eventually forcing them to partake of his brutal pleasures. He preferred to watch her from the neck down, and this along with the now clamorous rain provided cover for the words she whispered next.

It only took five minutes, a few bites of food, and a trickle of wine for the lord and lady to slump forward to the table, unquestionably dead. It took another five minutes for the rains to stop and everyone in the hall to pause in recognition of the end of their watery prison. Carenna raised a glass and tapped it gently with a knife, waiting as stunned faces turned towards her.

“People of Verbandy, the curse has been lifted. I am Carenna, daughter of the sorcerer Rendon and his lady love, the witch Vareena, from this day forward, your king and queen. The curse arrived after my birth as prophesized and lifted with my coming of magical age this year. Magic shall once again rule this kingdom, never to be abused again. Women shall also not be abused by men of power. You know the suffering of which I speak,” Carenna paused as two large men removed the lifeless, treacherous bodies from the table. “If you respect magic, its users, and the women of this kingdom, you will never suffer the rains again. And always, without compromise or hesitation, believe in the prophecies of magic.”

The hall erupted in cheers as Carenna raised her glass. Shortly following, her witch mother, as red and alabaster as her daughter, was escorted in on the arm of her father to join her at the table.

For years, Spring came to pass with normal, gentle, crop growing rain. Children could catch the first rains on their tongue and dig up worms from the mud in the days following. The use of magic was controlled by its users and not the selfish, shadowy whims of magicless lords and ladies, and there was peace and prosperity in Verbandy. Carenna in the 10th year following the end of the curse, gave birth to a girl of fire and marble who would be a Taster, a witch, and a queen like her mother.