The Mage Chronicle Audio book is here!

The Mage Chronicles, with Narration by Georgie Leonard is now live on Audible and Amazon!

Audible

Amazon

I think Georgie did an incredible job of bringing the story to life and I’m thrilled to have this on the market.

Check out the retail sample for yourself:

Blurb:

It has been a centuries-long golden-age for the empire, a time of peace and prosperity. Mary, a mage class healer, is content to live an ordinary life in one of the rich central worlds. Her old master Ashely La’Margin wants her to do more with her magic, but Mary has little use for riches or power.

Now a border dispute in some distant province threatens to become war, and there are rumors of Juggernaut, super warriors that can’t be killed. The civilian council of mages sends Mary to stop it, but what does a healer know of war?

On the way she will confront a harsh medieval world unlike the central worlds she has known. If she is to save this empire she must discover untapped powers and face the ghosts of her past, especially the boy Martin and the orphanage that she left behind as a child.

To keep up to date about R. J. Eliason’s writing, sign up for her list. And receive a free copy of The Mage Chronicles:

A New Short Story From R. J. Eliason

I am part of an anthology!

Changeling Ward is a collection of three short stories/novellas from local Iowa Authors. All the stories are fantasy and all are based around the theme of changelings.

My story is A Knife in the Dark and it’s set in the Gilded Empire world. (The same world that Mage Chronicles is in, though the characters aren’t the same.)

The ebook is currently available as an Amazon exclusive. That means if you have Kindle Unlimited you can read it free for a short time. Check it out today!

And as always, if you want to stay up to date on the latest from R. J. Eliason, sign up for my email list:

Introducing Zoey and the Zombies

Zoey one

The world is overran with undead. Giant hordes are pouring out of the East Coast, threatening the Midwest. The defense of Mondamin Court, a quiet neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa is up to a disabled cop, a fourteen year old boy and a transgender girl. What could go wrong?

Mondamin Court is a typical lower middle class neighborhood in a midwestern city. The people are a cross section of America. Each book starts with the same setting and characters but they face a different apocalyptic scenario.

Release date is: June 20th

Update, it’s out:

Amazon

Kobo

Everywhere Else

I Broke my Near Perfect Followback Record on Twitter. Here is Why.

Some time last week I got followed by an aggressive bot. (The TL;DR version right there.) How do I know it’s a bot? Well, the first hint is also why I describe it was aggressive. I noticed a suddenly rush of new followers. And I mean a lot of followers. In one day alone I had 235 new followers.

I typically get five or six new followers a day. It’s not much but you’d be surprised how quickly your follower count grows when you consistently get even a small number of new followers like this. When I am trying to build my follower count by actively following new people, interacting with people or running promotions I can add more, but never in the range of two hundred a day.

I noticed these new followers were all from the Middle East. In fact around ten, twenty new followers with Arabic profiles I started to wonder what was going on? Had I suddenly gone viral in that region and not known it? Was some Arabic reader rushing around with his/her kindle saying, “you all got to follow this American writer, she’s awesome!” (We all wish this was at the root of every mysterious bump in followers, page hits or sales. But sadly it’s rarely true.)

Here Temporarily and Tomorrow I will spend,, Thief, My Character. -Unknown twitter bot

Bots are automated software systems designed to tweet and act like real users. Some are very sophisticated. Others, not so much. Bots follow new accounts based on algorithms. I don’t know what keyword I used, what followback ratio or klout score led them to my doorstep, but here they are.

Bots can also be automated to create new accounts, so skilled bot owners may have hundreds or thousands of twitter accounts at their disposal.

But what can you do with a thousand twitter accounts? Most twitter bots are created with the sole purpose of boosting other accounts follower numbers. All the ads you see for ten thousand twitter followers for five dollars, are bots. There is simply no other way for such businesses to be viable.

More sophisticated bots can not only create Twitter account they can create the profiles as well, taking pictures from a database or from the internet and adding text to make it look like a real person’s account.  As you know automated text is not a perfected technology and the bots are often programmed to use keywords and any large body of text written with keywords in mind often comes across as funky.  Google translate is far from perfect as well. Put the two together and looking at some of these profiles can be downright hysterical.

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 8.59.49 AM

One my new bot follower’s profile.

Having decided that most of this rush of new followers were bots I decided not to follow back. I usually have a pretty liberal followback policy, including eggs and accounts that under other circumstances may also be bots.  A few bots here and there don’t bother me but a huge rush like this this did.  Here is why I chose not to follow them back.

Another wonderful bot profile

Another wonderful bot profile

1. Bots are usually created by people who are looking to sell followers. I do not buy followers. Having a huge run of automated bots following me might create a different impression.

There is an interesting  parallel with the recent controversy around paid reviews. An expose was written about well known Indie authors buying reviews from review websites. What the expose didn’t cover was whether or not all of the reviews written by paid reviewers were paid for. Twitter bots and fake likes on social media sites often do a lot of legitimate following and liking, to avoid suspicion. It would make sense to me that to sell paid reviews, reviewers would have to do the same, write many legitimate reviews of popular works so they look like legitimate reviewers.

Either way, it’s clear that people notice. Even though I didn’t pay these bot accounts to follow me, it’s likely that some people will notice and assume I did. Which Is why I won’t follow them back. If they unfollow me in a few days, all the better.  

2. Bots will never buy my book.  no matter how many bots you have in your following list not one of them will buy your book, review your book or give you any tangible benefit. Bots and paid followers are the perfect example of failing to understand what social media metrics really mean. Paid following does not equal a large fan base, any more than political candidates hiring crowds for events equals votes in the voter booth. If you stoop to paid followers, or encourage others to do, you will lose in the most important sphere of all, long term success.

3. Bots do not  interact the same as real people and their value as followers isn’t the same. It is better to have 100 followers who are real people and want to interact with you then ten thousand bot followers. Bots do what they are programmed to do and little else.

4. Like attracts like. I have five thousand and some followers. As a writer, I find the majority of my followers are also writers, bloggers or book lovers, as it should be. Bots follow by automated algorithms. Invariably they will end up following other bots, who share their online behavior. Then it becomes a vicious cycle of triggering each other’s algorithm. So bots may have hundreds of thousands of other followers, all of whom are also bots. They share what they’ve been programmed to share and retweet what they’ve been programmed to retweet, all to other bots. Interacting with such accounts is like shouting into the void. Your post might get shared a hundred times and never seen by a human eyeball. Don’t waste your breath.

 

If you can’t Write Fast, Fake it

I was given this advice, almost word for word, from a fellow writer recently. And surprisingly, it reverberated with me.

Indie writers often advise writing fast and publishing a lot. There are lots of good reasons to do this, if you are able. Publishing regularly keeps your name fresh in reader’s minds. Having lots of published works out allows readers to enjoy one story and then immediately move on to others. Writing fast makes it possible to write a lot, and writing a lot helps you get better at writing. If nothing else, publishing a lot of work means that even if you only have modest commercial success, if you multiply that by many books you can still make a decent income.

Writing fast gets a bad rap because it’s too often associated with writers publishing poorly edited manuscripts or cutting novels into pieces make serials. Those things that do happen, but there are many great writers who put out books regularly without sacrificing quality.

Not everyone can do it, however. Some of us naturally write fast but others do not. For those who do, what can they do?

The answer is to fake it. How do you do that? This writer suggested writing at least three books before even considering publication. Then either publish all three at once or space them out a month apart or so. That way you get the same advantages, bigger buzz and multiple books on the market, without having to write a book a month.

I write fast. But I also tend to write scattered. I have several books in progress at any one time. I have several series up in the air right now. The third Bear Naked book will be out very soon. There are three more in the story arc that aren’t written.

Meanwhile I have the next Gilded Empire book almost done. It’s the beginning of a trilogy. I have the Galactic Consortium serial running on Wattpad and the first Mondamin apocalypse novel on that site.

The Bear Naked hasn’t performed as well as I expected. Part of it, I think, is that readers don’t like to start series that aren’t complete, or at least well under way. There is always a concern that the author will abandon the series uncompleted. We have been conditioned by the availability of so many series that it’s hard to get traction with one book. Hopefully, The Hunted will give the Bear Naked series that kind of traction.

In the meantime I am thinking of taking this advice to heart. I have temporarily tabled The Banner of Kash until I can finish at least the rough draft of books two and three. I have a second Mondamin book in editing stages and a third in planning. Once the Banner of Kash is completed I will come back to that series.

What do you think? Will you read the first book in a series if the others aren’t completed yet?

5 reasons that Twitter power users hate DM

I see it all the time, twitter power users with a little message in their profile, “No DMs.” These users won’t respond to direct messages, they don’t read them and woe to the user who tries to DM them. Why do so many power users seem to hate Twitter’s direct message feature? Here are five reasons:

  1. Hi! Generic greeting – via thirdparty app.

Nothing says engagement like using a third party app to auto message people. I understand that social media takes time. I schedule posts and automate some things as well, but not DMs.

I don’t expect every follower to interact with me personally, but getting hundreds of DM’s from autoresponders wastes my time and it looks tacky. If you use an auto-messaging app, you might want to rethink it. It won’t make me unfollow you, but it does make me tune out DMs.

 

  1. Hi! Thanks for following me. Want to follow me on Facebook here?

Yeah, I get this one daily. You follow someone and they send you a dm requesting you like their facebook page as well. You know what? I followed you on Twitter. If I wanted to follow you on Facebook I would have done that instead. Twitter is an actual social media in its own right, not Facebook’s recruitment app, so stop treating it as such.

 

  1. Thanks for following me! Want to buy my book now?

This one is often followed by the little via third party app tag, making it a double whammy. I love connecting with authors, but if I wanted to buy your book I would have looked you up on Amazon, not Twitter. DMing your book link is spam, pure and simple.

 

  1. DM’s from people who don’t follow you.

Yes, it happens. Why is that a problem? Because Twitter won’t allow you to respond if you don’t have a mutual follow relationship. Obviously you didn’t know that, or you wouldn’t have wasted both our times with this message that I can’t reply to even if I wanted to. Stop it.

 

  1. It’s called social media for a reason.

People forget what social media is all about, being social. I can understand people being more hesitant on Facebook. You have personal pictures, you’ve friended family and close personal friends. You want to share with them, not the world.

But Twitter is an entirely different beast. Everything you do on Twitter is public. That can be a downside as many of the conservatives that treated the president’s arrival on Twitter with racist scorn may soon find out.

But that’s also the beauty of Twitter. Twitter is the cocktail party of social media sites. It’s all short conversations held in a public forum. Twitter power users get that. They are on Twitter to promote themselves, not by constantly spamming people with buy my books links, but also not to spend most of their time in private conversation. They want to mingle, to share tweets with followers and talk to each other in a semi-public forum.

The @ mention is the secret to being a Twitter power user, not DM. @ mentions are seen by both your followers and theirs. Public interaction with the right fellow authors can increase your visibility and announce, in a not so spammy way, that you, too, are an author.

As a bonus: One reason I personally dislike all of the social media messaging features, be it Twitter, Facebook or wherever:

I have an email.

I get plenty of emails. It’s hard enough to keep track of everything when it’s one place. (Two places, actually. I have a second email I use specifically for newsletters, or websites where I have to sign in.)

What’s worse is trying to keep track of hundreds of contacts and messages across a half dozen platforms. To keep things simple, I keep Facebook chat off and redirect any important contacts to my email address. Otherwise things get lost in the shuffle.
That’s my take on why Twitter power users don’t use direct messages. What is your take? Any issues I missed?

Amazon’s BS Machine

I absolutely adore Ursula K. Lequin. I want you to know that right up front. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time. I love how passionate and outspoken she is about many issues, ranging from books to feminism. However her latest post on Bookview Cafe missed the mark on a number of levels. The post, title Up the Amazon with the BS Machine, takes Amazon to task for creating a system where the latest best seller drives out better books.

 

Her argument in a nutshell is that Amazon has an obscure algorithm for determining best sellers. It focus on selling books fast and cheap, favoring the quick pop success of fad titles and then burying books that have ran their course into obscurity.

I see three big issues with what’s she’s saying. The BS machine (best seller machine) predates Amazon’s rise and dominance by many years. Amazon’s admittedly murky algorithm actually works against the BS machine and Amazon doesn’t condemn any book to obscurity, quite the opposite.

The BS Machine

Let’s start with the rise of the BS machine. It didn’t happen overnight. It rose in large part due to the same market forces that slowly turned hundreds of medium sized presses into the big five corporate publishers we have today. You can glimpse the same complaints in books on publishing that were themselves published as far back as the 1980’s.

It goes like this, as publishing becomes more and more driven by corporate bottom line, publishers natural focus on “marketable” or “commercial” fiction. i.e. books that sell well enough to make the company a big profit. The hunt for the next big thing soon trumps keeping a stable of moderately successful writers happy.

The rise of big box stores and discount sellers in the nineties drove this to new heights. Suddenly books didn’t just have to sell enough copies at regular price to be profitable, they had to sell at a sharp discount and still be profitable.

Amazon came along in the mid-nineties and has slowly gained a greater and greater market share, eclipsing Barnes and Nobles and driving Borders out of business. Lequin is right to say that they have continued to force the trend towards highly discounted books, but wrong to say they are responsible for the best seller mentality, which came from publishers and big box stores.

Amazon’s Sales Rank

The way Amazon determines sales rank for books, and therefore best sellers, is indeed a murky business. They are notoriously secretive about their algorithm. But what we do know about the process actually works against the BS machine, not for it.

First off, the reason Amazon is so secretive is that they fear publishers or indie writers will game the system if the system is too well understood. After all, it happens all the time. Every time the algorithm becomes too clear, someone figures a way to make it work for them.

The best example is free. It’s also the best example of how the current system works against the BS machine.

Back in the early days of KIndle Direct Publishing, Amazon counted any download equally. Authors figured out that they could make their book free for a short time and shoot to the top of the bestsellers list. Once they put the book back to regular price it would slowly drop off the list. In the meantime, they would be on Amazon’s front page, getting a huge boost in publicity. This would result in a huge number of sales for the author, enough to justify the free promotions.

Problems abound for Amazon and for author’s in general. The value of being a best seller was watered down. Bad books often did come to the top. Clever marketers succeeded while good writers failed.

So, Amazon started changing their system. They no longer count free downloads towards sales rank. Free giveaways still have value for some writers but they aren’t a quick way to game the system anymore.

The murkiest part of Amazon’s algorithm is “stickiness.” What exactly counts as stickiness is uncertain, nor how they measure it or how much weight they give it. In general terms what it means is this, Amazon weighs consistent long term sales more than short term ups and downs.

For example another way to game the system was to get all of your fans to buy a book on a certain day. Authors did this through email lists, twitter or other social media. By micromanaging their sales they hoped to get enough downloads within a given period to push their sales rank up into the bestseller list. Like other ways of gaming the system, it worked for a time.

Then Amazon changed the system. They started updating the sales rank more often. That had the result that sales all in one day would boost your rank, but it would drop the next day, back to what it was. The benefits of gaming the system became short lived.

Now many indie authors have noticed they’ve taken it a step further. If your book has been selling at a certain rate and had a certain sales rank for several weeks, small bumps in sales have little effect on that rank. So do small dips in sales. Sales ranks have become “sticky.”

Amazon has done this to prevent gaming the system, but it also works against the BS machine. Stickiness means that books that sell reasonably well will be kept around and will keep selling reasonably well, while fad books rise and fall in the background.

“But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.”

Of all the arguments Lequin makes, this one is just plain wrong. Amazon had no mechanism to force publishers to take a book out of print and two important mechanisms in place to prevent it.

Amazon doesn’t want books to go out of print to make way for the next big thing. Publishers do. They can make more money off one title if they get the competition off the shelf. The generous return policies they offer retailers is in part aimed at that. Can’t sell title A? No worries, we will credit you for it and send you title B.

Digital shelf space is unlimited and Amazon makes far more money by selling a few copies of title A and a few copies of title B then they do by concentrating their efforts on a best seller. In fact they’ve driven Borders out of business, not by having more copies of one book but by having an enormous selection of books on sale, a selection no physical retailer could match.

How does Amazon preserve books? The most direct way is their own Kindle Direct Publishing. Digital books never go out of the print. Many authors have created large side incomes by taking older titles that went out of print and republishing themselves on KDP. Newer indie books are never in danger of being taken out of print by the vagaries of a traditional publisher.

The second way that Amazon keeps books in circulation, if not print, is through a vast collection of associate sellers. Anyone can start an online store through Amazon’s associate program. Used bookstores and book collectors run lucrative businesses reselling older titles.

I resisted online book buying for many years, preferring to shop at a local bookstore. But time and again, I couldn’t find the title I was looking for. Meanwhile, I’ve found hundreds of great out of print books on Amazon. I’ve been able to access some great books that publishers would have let die long ago, if not for Amazon.

 

I am no Amazon fangirl. You can criticize many of their business practices and I will be on board with you. They are a huge corporation. If you believe you can trust any corporation to serve anything other than it’s own best interests, you are dangerously naive. Publishers and authors should always keep one eye open to what Amazon is up to.

Amazon is also an online platform. That’s a big part of why I am not afraid of them.  Like Facebook and Google, they have a good side and a bad side. They have value to both consumers and publishers alike. In the future that might change, and we will all have to roll with it.

It’s important to be objective, to not blame them for every ill of modern publishing, or for market forces beyond their control. They have their good and bad side, but this one is not on them, in my opinion.

What is your opinion? I would glad to hear it in the comments below.

Why Give Books Away for Free?

I just wrapped up a big free giveaway of my latest novel Children of a New Earth. Why giveaway books? Some indie authors and a lot of traditional publishers, hate free giveaways. They argue that a writer works hard and shouldn’t devalue their work by giving it away free. They argue that free and bargain books are creating a glut and a race to the bottom, where the only way to succeed is to give things away.

Other indie authors were happy to use free promotions, a couple of years ago. Free is dead, they say. Amazon algorithms once favored free. A free giveaway still counted as a sale and a big free promotion could drive up your sales rank significantly. Now the algorithm has changed and that no longer works.

I am sensitive to all these arguments, but free remains an important part of my marketing strategy and here’s why.

One of the best books I’ve read on marketing is Write. Publish. Repeat. One of the most important things I learned from the books is that you have to have a marketing strategy. A marketing strategy means an overall philosophy about how to market yourself and your books.

Without a strategy all you have is a collection of techniques. Some techniques work some of the time but not others. Some work for awhile until something changes. Other techniques work, but may work against each other if not guided by one philosophy.

Free promotions are a great example. They used to work great, propelling some indie to renown. Now they work less well. Amazon will change its algorithm again and we’ll see, they might work well again or they might work against the author.

Free compliments certain techniques but works against others. Imagine that an author uses any sort of hard sell technique to create a sense of urgency about buying their book. You hand over your money. Next weekend the same book is free. I’d be pissed.

According to the Write. Publish. Repeat. guys any artist in any medium can support themselves doing their work if they have one thousand true fans. True fans will buy your book as soon as it’s released. That alone makes them a valuable resource. Imagine getting a thousand sales the day you release. Imagine if one in ten wrote a review. That would be over a hundred reviews on your book.

But true fans will do more than that, they’ll talk about your book. They’ll share your message. They’ll come to your events and build buzz around you. Basically they’ll do all those things that authors attempt to fake with social media buzz and “street teams.”

One of the marketing strategies they talk about a lot in that book is finding your tribe. Finding your tribe means finding those thousand fans, those people who will love what you write, talk about what you write and share your message. To say that these fans are worth their weight in gold might be an exaggeration, but they are certainly worth the cost of one book, especially in the digital age.

My marketing strategy is heavily based on the notion of finding my tribe. I will bend over backwards to give you, or anyone, a chance to read my work, no strings attached. I have a couple free stories on Wattpad. I have a couple on my website as well. If you sign up for my newsletter I will give you a free book. I also run free promotions regularly. I do this because I have confidence that at least some of you will come back and join the tribe.

Join my email list right here:

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Marketing in this way means I also measure success a bit differently. I like sales. Everyone likes making money and I do have the dream of doing this fulltime someday. But right now sales aren’t the only or even primary means that I measure success. I measure success in many milestones, followers on various social media, reads on my wattpad site, reviews on my published books. The one I love the best is personal feedback, of course. There is no greater thrill for an author than a letter or email from a reader who was touched by something you wrote.

However I choose to measure success on any given day, the point is to build a tribe around my work. That’s why I run free promotions of my books. Maybe someday, when I have more than a thousand true fans, I will reconsider my strategy, but I doubt it. This is the author I want to be, one who is known for being generous with her work and her time. One who values her fans as much as they value her.

And by the way, it’s not just indies that think this way. I would like to end off with an interesting interview with Neil Gaiman about putting his novel American Gods out for free.

 

Help me with this Blurb, Please

My next release, Children of a New Earth, is with my editor as I write this. Meanwhile I am working on the blurb and cover. I hope to have a cover ready to show soon. For the moment I could use some honest opinions about this blurb:

For nearly thirty years, since the collapse of society, Freedom Ranch has been self sufficient, hidden deep in the Rocky Mountains. Amy Beland has grown up hating the small valley settlement and the survivalist that run it. Now it will be up to her to save them all.

Journeying out of the mountains and into what is left of civilization, they discover that much of what they’ve been taught about the collapse is wrong. They don’t find the enemy they expect on the plains beneath their home, which is good because Amy suspects they may have brought a couple with them.

I know it’s not quite ready for print, but I am not sure what to do with it. Any comments or suggestions would be welcomed. Please and thank you.

A Taste of the Gilded Empire

Here is an excerpt from the latest book, an epic fantasy called The Mage Chronicles. It sets the scene for a long series called the Gilded Empire.

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Free when you sign up for my newsletter.

Chapter One

Ashley La’Margin the Fourth

Mary stood on the brown cobblestone of Muted Lane and waited while the oxen cart rumbled by. As it passed her, she caught a glimpse of Muted Market. She wondered, as always, how such a noisy place came by the name “Muted.” She crossed the lane, feeling the warmth of the stones underneath her sandals as she left the shade of the apartments behind her.

To her right was the market itself. It was a single-story building the size of a small park and without walls. Arched pillars of granite stood every fifteen feet, and the roof rose over them in billowing waves, like a giant pavilion frozen in stone. That such heavy stone could be shaped into such a delicate structure made the market one of Tomlin City’s marvels.

Not that those inside were paying much attention to the architecture above them. The market was crowded. Then again, it was always crowded. Merchants hawked their wares in loud voices, haggled with customers, and complained to each other of the day’s business. The market’s assault on the senses did not stop at sound. Jewelers flashed bits of gold and silver. A tailor threw a bright brocade of silk around a woman’s form with a practiced flourish. Small, contained fires heated an incredible variety of pots, pans, and skillets, which in turned contained an even more incredible variety of foods and spices. The aroma mixed with the sweat of the many patrons and hung thick in the air.

Mary ignored the market, and for the moment, it returned the favor. Mary was a slight figure, almost a head shorter than the nearest man in front of her. She was thin and had long, coppery-red hair pulled back into a long braid. She wore a simple dress of burnt orange held fast around the waist with a silk scarf. A pentacle, embroidered into the sleeve of the dress, marked her as a healer.

To the left of the market was the Tower of Ashley La’Margin. If the market was one of the marvels of the city of Tomlin, the mage’s tower was the marvel. Set about two hundred feet back from the lane, the building was maybe a hundred feet across at its base and rose to nearly five hundred feet high. It literally towered over the market and every building nearby. It was composed of white stone that appeared to be seamless.

The land around the base of the tower was entirely covered in a hedgerow maze. Where the maze opened onto the lane, there stood twin sandstone sphinxes, eighteen feet tall. There was an almost imperceptible sound of stone grinding on stone as one of the sphinxes turned its head to look at Mary as she drew near. Though slight, the sound cut through the din of the marketplace. There was a collective rolling gasp as the people in the crowd turned their attention toward the tower.

A hand reached out and pulled Mary from the lane.

“Careful, young maid,” the merchant said. “Wouldn’t want to see you crushed under the heels of that beast.”

“What devilry is the mage up to now?” a nearby woman wondered out loud.

“Appearances can sometimes be deceiving,” Mary said.

“Aye,” the man agreed, misreading her completely. “I thought they were mere statues. They’ve never moved an inch as long as I’ve been at the market.”

Mary smiled. “Be not afraid; they mean no harm.” As she stepped back into the lane she chuckled to herself. Young maid indeed. The fool doesn’t realize I could well be the one who delivered him.

All of the collective eyes of the market were on Mary as she crossed the lane and approached the sphinx. It dropped its head, and its mouth gaped wide.

In her mind, Mary felt its excitement. “Yes, Azroth,” she said aloud, for the benefit of those in the market. “I have brought you a gift.”

As she reached into her small purse, a raspy sandstone tongue extended from the sphinx’s mouth. It cupped its tongue delicately, and she placed a small river stone onto the tongue.

In a single swift movement the tongue was gone and the sphinx returned to its former, immobile state. A sense of contentment and the memories of other stones, other places, rolled off the sphinx.

“I have one for you too, Shemazai,” Mary said to the second sphinx. Slowly, and with a much greater sense of dignity, the second sphinx bent and accepted its gift.

This will be the talk of the market for weeks to come, she thought.

They are all fools anyway, Azroth said in her mind, settling itself into its usual stony, watchful silence.

Without a backward glance, Mary entered the maze. There was a brief pause, then the noise of the market rose again. Inside, most of the merchants broke into loud, speculative conversations—about discovering the sphinxes were real and about the young girl who seemed to know them. A few merchants stayed quiet; wondering, no doubt, how many of their misdeeds had been observed by the statutes and to whom they had been reported.

Mary’s feet took her within the maze. She stopped briefly at the imposing main entrance. She had brought another, more mundane gift for the doorman, a pastry from the bakery near Cornall Hospital, where Mary both lived and worked. She did not ask for entrance. He understood.

She passed the much smaller and simpler servant’s door just within the maze as well. Her feet sought the student’s entrance, hidden deep within the hedge. More than a decade had passed since she was a student of the mage, but she felt intuitively that this was the best approach. She could only surmise she had guessed correctly when she found Ashe himself was waiting for her at the student’s entrance.

“I am delighted to see you, Mary,” he said as she approached. He looked as he always did, a tall, graying man, who could be described, depending on his mood, as either imposing or fatherly. He was wearing brown leggings and a light tan shirt with an embroidered edging. The shirt was simple in design but of high-quality construction. The hair on his head, though graying, was full and worn short. His movements, as he stepped forward to give Mary a hug, were strong and graceful, belying the age of his appearance.

“Indeed it’s been too long,” she replied, returning the hug with warmth. “But I suspect you did not call me back simply because you missed seeing me.”

“Indeed not,” he replied. “Though I have missed you. Still we need not sit on the doorstep and talk.” He ushered her inside.

As they walked along the gently curving corridor, Mary said, “So for whom was that display outside?”

“The sphinxes?” he replied. “A trifling matter.”

“It will be the talk of the market for months, if not years, to come.”

“Indeed.” Sensing her curiosity he went on, “Some of the merchants wish to have entertainment in the market at night.”

“I can recall when they had minstrels and dances,” Mary said, “and for a while there was the theater group.”

“These are far more illicit and unpleasant entertainments, I regret,” Ashe continued. “I thought it would do well to remind them the market is watched.”

“Very civic of you,” she said.

Ashe was fond of the number three, and just as he had three entrances to the tower, there were three rooms that he used for greeting visitors. Near the main entrance, he had a throne room of sorts, where he could sit high above his visitor, to impress or intimidate. He used it often with petitioners who came to request magic from him. He had a business office where he would sit behind a large desk. It was there he took his peers, men of power from the city council, and court officials who sought his advice. Then he had a small sitting room for more personal visits, lessons with a rare apprentice (Mary was the first apprentice he had taken in anyone’s memory), a visit from a fellow mage, and the occasional individual graced with status of friend.

Today he passed all three rooms without a second glance. He ushered her instead into his private study. It was an interesting choice, and Mary could not help but wonder what it portended. Here was a singular room in a tower built around the number three. Most mages had a number they were obsessed with and for Ashe, it was three. Everything about this tower, from its dimensions to the number of rooms, was some multiple of three. The man even had three bedrooms, which Mary knew because she had shared all three rooms for a short time after her apprenticeship had ended and they had been lovers. But he had only one study. It held two simple, wooden chairs, a low table, a bookcase, which held a very select portion of Ashe’s library and a window that overlooked a seaside beach— nowhere near Tomlin City, if indeed it was even in this world.

They sat, and Ashe gestured at a steaming teapot and a selection of tea canisters on the low table. Smiling slightly, Mary pulled out her final gift, a tightly bundled Chrysanthemum flower.

“My favorite,” Ashe said. “You always think of the little things, Mary. It’s one of the things I love about you.”

He placed the bundle in the teapot and left the lid off so they could watch the flower unfold while the tea steeped.

After a long time, Mary spoke. “You have an assignment for me, I take it?”

“I do,” he replied. “Though you are no longer my apprentice and I can hardly compel you.”

“Still, you may speak.”

“It’s an unusual request, I must warn,” he said. “There is a situation in a distant province. Someone needs to look into it. A mage.”

She thought about other assignments she had taken from Ashe. Mostly they were humanitarian missions, as befitted her main gift, healing. Once she had fought a demon for him. Two or three times, she had sought out other mages for rituals, herbs, or other magical lore. These last assignments had been more for her own benefit, to increase her own knowledge. None of these assignments prepared her for what Ashe said next.

“It’s war, Mary. In the Barony of Cordona, a far distant corner of the empire, war is again threatening the land.”

She almost laughed but caught the serious expression on her former mentor’s face. “But surely there hasn’t been a war in the empire for several—” She stopped abruptly before she said the word millennia. She knew enough history to know that was a pleasant fiction. Still . . . “For several hundred years at least.”

“Three hundred forty-two years this March,” Ashe said. A troubled look crossed his face. Then he laughed. “No, even that is a polite fiction. The empire lives by the sword. War is a constant companion.”

He stared out the window for a long time before going on. “The emperor’s peace is merely a controlled war, Mary. You must understand this. The border legions and the army fight and conquer distant worlds, all in the name of keeping war far from our borders. But this is not the war of which I speak.

“Despite the emperor’s peace, or perhaps even because of it, small internal wars erupt frequently. For small nobles, hemmed in by each other, there are few ways to grow or increase their holding or power. Some play at court intrigue, some play at love—or marriages of convenience, rather. A few play at war.”

“Nobles, playing at war?” Mary said. “I don’t understand.”

“They fight border disputes, often over trivial trumped up offenses,” he said with some distaste.

“And the emperor allows this?”

“Of course not,” Ashe said. “These things are stopped as soon as they come to someone’s attention. But if a noble moves quickly enough, takes a village here, a town there, it’s fait accompli. When the dispute is ended one lord has another village in his domain, and the other is that much smaller.”

“But we are talking fighting here, right? With soldiers and spears and stuff?” she said.

“Yes.”

“Don’t people get hurt?”

“They get killed, Mary.”

“But—”

“Mary,” he interrupted, “you need to understand the kind of people we are talking about: power-hungry nobles. If it increases their holding, even a couple of acres, a hundred deaths is worth it to them.”

She shuddered.

“In the Barony of Cordona, such a border dispute is currently underway,” Ashe went on. “And I fear it has the potential to spiral into a much larger conflict.”

“You said the emperor puts a stop to these sorts of things,” she said.

“Usually,” he replied and fell silent for a long time. “You must go and put a stop to this, Mary.”

“Me?” she protested. “Surely there is somebody more suitable. Who usually puts a stop to these things?”

He shrugged. “The emperor cannot be everywhere, obviously. The bureaucrats usually send a simple ultimatum and that’s that. Or the courts intervene; some noble house large enough to command the respect of both parties. Neither of these things has happened.”

Mary watched him, trying to understand what he was saying. She took a different tack. “But the soldiers, they are part of the military, no? Do they really fight each other? Can’t they just be commanded to stop?”

“Each lord must raise a certain number of soldiers for the imperial army, this is true. But they have a local militia as well, which is not beholden to the military. These are the soldiers who fight and die in these border disputes. The military can’t command them. However the military certainly could intervene, and has in such situations in the past.”

“Are there not war mages?” Mary asked.

“There are.”

She stared out the window at the seashore, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. “So the bureaucrats could end this, the courts could end this, the military, the war mages, all could end this. Why haven’t they?”

“That is an interesting question.” He turned toward Mary, a serious look on his face. “The council of mages, the civilian council of mages,” he clarified, “are deeply troubled by this entire situation. But we must not be seen as interfering. There are larger forces at work here. Why? I cannot say.

“However, if a healer were to show up, offering humanitarian aid, and then find some way to get both sides to sue for peace, the pretext is gone. The forces must then reveal themselves or retreat.”

“And the Council of Mages wishes me to go?” She did not believe even half the council knew of her existence. She was too young, too small a mage for them to notice.

“I wish you to go,” Ashe said.

After a pause, she replied, “I have always trusted you. If you ask, I will go.”

 

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