Fly-by: brb, starting a novel

Hey gang! Apologies for the lack of blog entries lately, as I’ve been a bit busy. As of 11 January at 7:04pm PT, I have officially started writing MU4! I’m focusing as much creative energy as I can on it for the time being which means that the blogs and the 750Words entries have gone by the wayside for a little bit.

Which is fine! The important thing is that I am writing a novel again.

The aim here is for me to ensure that I give myself enough time and space to work on this without putting more stress on it than necessary. As much as I love writing these blogs and working on the 750Words exercises, right now I think I’d be wearing myself a little thin by partitioning too much. Once I feel I can handle the extra work, then I will be back. I’ll still post here and at Walk in Silence now and again…I just won’t make it a priority until then.

See you again soon!

Note Worthy

Notes swiftly written on the back of old team schedules

First of all, I do apologize for the terrible pun in the entry title.

When I was writing the Bridgetown Trilogy back in the early 00s, my process was that I’d start the day by utilizing the slower moments of my work day at Yankee Candle by doing a bit of plotting. Nothing too detailed mind you, as these moments usually lasted no longer than five or so minutes before the next wave of boxes came down the conveyor chutes, but I wasn’t looking for detailed to begin with. This was merely doing a bit of planning ahead of a few scenes. I’d think a bit about what I wanted my characters to be doing while I built those pallets of candle boxes and then write it out when I had a minute. And more often than not these scraps of paper were nothing more than the backs of copied labels that we’d tape to the side of our finished pallets.

Then later that evening during my writing sessions in the Belfry I’d take those notes and start elaborating on them. Sometimes I’d use them to the letter, and sometimes I’d actually go in a slightly different direction, but the whole point of these notes was that I’d be prepared for the session instead of sitting there staring at the screen or distracting myself with whatever music I wanted to listen to that night. When I returned to the Trilogy in 2009 to finish the last quarter of The Balance of Light I realized that the best way to go about it was to do the exact same thing: longhand notes followed by typed elaboration.

I used slightly different versions of this process for most of my follow-up novels, but never to the same degree. Most of the notes for Meet the Lidwells! contained personal information about the characters and a detailed discography of the band. Same for In My Blue World: for the most part that was written on the fly with most of the notes merely being character bios. I think part of the reason for this was that working for a bank, even as a back office drone, didn’t really lend much time or brain power for this sort of thing. I figured out alternate ways to write novels, even if I didn’t feel it was quite the same.

So when I recently decided it was time to return to the Mendaihu Universe, I also decided that the best way to play all of this out was to go back to what worked: a bit of note writing while at the Day Job followed by elaboration at home. And being that I’m back in retail, I’m once again able to steal a few personal minutes during breaks and slow times to write, this time using the backs of the previous day’s team schedule we have set up at each register. I have the time and brain power for this sort of thing again, so why not take advantage of it?

So far I’ve gotten myself maybe two or three scenes down that I can work with. I’ll be starting off the fresh new version very soon, and I plan on continuing this note taking throughout the entire project. I’m even thinking there’s a chance I’ll do a bit more Tuckerization, once again using coworkers’ last names somewhere while I keep them updated on the latest fictional drama.

All told, it’s not only great to be back in Bridgetown, but it’s also great to return to a process that worked really well for me.

Future View

Here we are at the last Welcome to Bridgetown entry of 2022. It’s been a busy year of change here: getting a new Day Job, being in-person social again, putting multiple novel projects on indefinite hiatus, and allowing myself to focus on personal needs. I’ve already gone over most of what’s gone on this year in previous entries here so I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that all told, 2022 has been a rather positive one.

So what will 2023 bring?

For starters I will be focusing most of my creative time on the MU4 project and the Bridgetown Trilogy Remaster. It’s been a long time in coming, and I’ve put it off for long enough. The Mendaihu Universe was always supposed to span several books and different generations and settings and not just stick around as a trilogy. Mind you, I’m vaguely thinking of this new project as another set of three books, but I’m not holding myself to it. If it’s a duology, or a single, or even a tetralogy, I’ll let it be what it needs to be. And I think I’m going to be sticking around in the MU for a while, filling in the blanks in its history.

I’d also like to get back to using the 750Words site on a consistent basis again. I haven’t made any decisions in to what I’ll be writing there, though I have a few possibilities. I’d also like to finally make something out of all those Drunken Owl demo outtakes I’ve recorded over the last several years. Some of them are just thirty second riffs and some are full-on three-minute tunes. I haven’t written any songs for years now and I kind of miss it, to be honest. I don’t know if these will have lyrics or if they’ll remain instrumental, but the plan is to make them more than just soundbites.

What about the personal side of things…? Well, some of that is going to stay personal for the time being of course. But what I can share is that I see the new year as one of exploration and expansion. Having spent the last two years cleaning out the mental and emotional detritus, it’s time for the next step: discovering what should go in its place. I’ve had self-built barriers up for the longest time, and after spending the last two years tearing them down and creating a much stronger foundation, it’s time to start rebuilding. What will that entail? Well, we’ll find out in the future, won’t we?

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who’s been following me here or just stopping buy, downloading my ebooks, and talking with me on social media. You’ve all been wonderful these last few years despite everything that’s gone on in the world, and I appreciate it all.

See you on the flip side.

Another Day in the Universes

So you may have noticed that I’m leaning hard on the Mendaihu Universe worldbuilding/MU4 plot creation these last few days. Thinking about how this new story will unfold, what new ideas and characters will show up. Getting myself back into the groove of this giant, extended created universe. It feels great to be back.

I’ll need to re-familiarize myself with my Anjshé glossary, having not been immersed in it since 2017. I’ll need to pull the Bridgetown maps back out so I remember where everybody lives and where major events took place. And I’ll of course need to get out my cast list so I remember who’s who and what side they’re on.

But other than that, life goes on in Bridgetown, just as Denni and Poe had hoped at the end of The Balance of Light. The Mendaihu and the Shenaihu are forging a tentative and fragile peace, learning to work together. Life in the Sprawl continues as always, with the best and the worst of intentions. And on Trisanda there is another delicate balance attempting to be forged between the Trisandi and the Gharné, who have finally been given the gift of Return.

It’s just another day in the universes, the future unknown.

On Returning

So why am I returning to the Mendaihu Universe? That’s a good question, and my answer is that I’d never really left it in the first place. Once I made that decision to self-publish A Division of Souls back in 2013 or so (and spent several months rereading, revising and editing before releasing it in 2015), I knew I could finally see the culmination of the trilogy. It would take a lot of work and a lot of patience, but it would be worth it by the time The Balance of Light dropped in 2017.

And right about that same time in 2015, I started writing outtakes of the fourth book. At this point I knew it as a rough draft, because I’d decided that it would be a backburner project. I wanted to focus on a few new books in the meantime: Meet the Lidwells! and In My Blue World. I wrote both of those to prove to myself that I could write shorter and tighter novels, and I’m quite proud of them because I’d proven myself right! The rough draft of MU4 (as it’s currently titled for now) bubbled to the surface now and again when I had the time and the inclination, but never went all that far.

But back to the question: why refocus on the Mendaihu Universe again? Easy answers: because I’m ready for it, and because I’ve wanted to return to it for some time now. Because I love how deep I’ve made the worldbuilding and I can’t wait to get back to it.

A slightly harder answer: because I still have a story to tell that the original Bridgetown Trilogy didn’t completely cover. When we last saw Denni at the end of The Balance of Light when she’s on the roof of Poe’s apartment building, asking him if she’d done the right thing. He can’t say yes or no, because his personal thoughts on that don’t matter. Enigmatically he responds by saying that if it resonated with her own spirit, then she did the right thing, and she seems to accept that. We don’t exactly know if she did accept it, as the scene was from Poe’s point of view, but it’s assumed she did.

Or did she? See, here’s the thing: in that same book, Denni and Amna (and Caren to some degree) realize that nothing is permanent, not even their spiritual awakening. Whatever miracles they performed to that point will definitely affect others in the future…but perhaps not the way they expect. Added to that, the last we see of the spirit of Saisshalé, he says he goes where he’s needed. So it’s assumed that he might go elsewhere…or perhaps he’ll return again.

All this metaphysics and spiritualism aside…I want to know what happens next because of these choices these characters made. There’s more to tell, and a lot of it has been stewing in my head for a while now.

We’ll see where this goes.

Bridgetown, only a few years later…

If there’s one thing I don’t mind sharing this early in game, is that sometimes breaking my own rules is what’s needed.

Originally, MU4 was to be set seventy years after the events in The Balance of Light. The reason for this gap, or so I thought, was to show how the perception of historical events changes over the course of a generation or two. Since then, however, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t have to wait that long. Our current history shows that perception, especially when put in the hands of certain social engineers, can change within hours, sometimes minutes. Why wait that long?

So, one rule broken: let’s think about MU4 taking place, say, a few months or a year or so hence instead. This means a few things suddenly come into play: the original cast of the Bridgetown Trilogy can return to some degree while I introduce a new cast as its central focus; I can explore a few worldbuilding points that I’d introduced in the books but did not have time or space to expand further; and most importantly, I can answer a few important questions (such as what happens to Denni/The One of All Sacred after the end of Book 3?) that I’d purposely left unanswered.

Any other rules to break while we’re at it? Sure. The other issue I’d had was that I was finding myself basing the New Cast on the Old whether I wanted to or not. I had maybe two original new characters I was fond of, but the rest felt like Poe Jr or Caren’s granddaughter or something similar. After a while it occurred to me: maybe the problem isn’t that I’m having a hard time coming up with a new cast, it’s that I really want to continue writing more with the old one. So another rule broken: fine, let’s bring back the Old Gang, since obviously my brain has things to say about them!

This brings up a new potential subplot: how does the Original Cast deal with the change of perception of the events they’d worked so hard to survive through and put in place for future generations? How do you react when an event that’s changed you mentally, emotionally and spiritually, is then seen as subversive, or dangerous, or outlawed? Or perverted for reasons of a power grab?

All these new questions are exciting and fascinating, and I can’t wait to figure out how to answer them.

And to me, that is a sign that I’m doing the right thing. Even if I am breaking a few rules. Some of which I’d laid down myself.

Short Story: A Bridgetown Christmas

NOTE 12-12-22: I posted this back in June, but thought it would be fun to share it again, considering it’s the Christmas season, and I’ve been talking about the Bridgetown Trilogy as of late. I’d really love to write more of these in-canon short stories that take place before, during and after the three novels. And there are a lot of back story ideas out there I could use!

Hope you enjoy!

*

NOTE: I wrote this over a few days in mid-December 2019 as a way to test out whether I could use the 750 Words site while at the office at the Former Day Job. (Come to find out, I could, which saved my sanity for a while.) I thought it would be fun to feature the Bridgetown gang in a Special Christmas Episode. I also wanted to prove to myself once and for all that yes, I CAN actually write a short story if I put my mind to it. And yes, it is considered canon in the Mendaihu Universe.

*

It felt so comforting, so freeing to finally go to a Winter Festival without having to worry about her job. Caren couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to one of these without that hint of tension lurking somewhere in the back of her sensing. She could even walk around Tower Park now without that feeling of sorrow and dread and being reminded of that riot in Kendall Fields. That was all behind her, a good couple of years now. It had taken such a long time, but she’d come to terms with that fateful day and moved on. The pain was still there, hiding so deep in her spirit, but it was no longer an obstacle. Just a reminder.

She walked slowly down the wide promenade with her arm in Anando’s, taking in the lights and the people and the scents of baked goods. The level of positive energy here was intoxicating in a pleasant way, just enough to bring her own spirit some holiday joy. Even though it was early December and a cold snap was going to be coming in late in the evening, there was nothing that could break this mood for anyone.

Anando was bundled up in a heavy coat, knit hat and fingerless gloves, but he emanated such a warmth both physical and spiritual that she didn’t want to let go of him just yet. He seemed to be oblivious of the dropping temperature, focusing more on the people and the sights and everything else. He wanted to stop at each booth they walked by, either to say hello or to try the foods they were selling, but she kept him moving. They were due to meet Poe and Akaina at one of the large seating areas up ahead, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said in amusement, after she’d nudged him on for the fourth time.

“And you aren’t,” she retorted, giving him a playful nudge. “We can visit everyone again after we have dinner with Poe and Kai.”

“I know…” he said, waving at yet another booth attendant. “I just don’t want all my friends to think I’m ignoring them.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you know pretty much every single person on the Western Path of the Winter Festival grounds, is that what you’re saying?” she teased. “Because I’m telling you now I’m not nearly as much of a social person as you are. And I meet a lot of people on the job.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, and gave her a peck on the head. “You’ll just have to deal with it, Karzi.”

She giggled and hugged his arm tighter. She loved it when he used that name with her. “I guess I will,” she said, and pointed at one of the larger stalls further on. “Hey, isn’t that…?”

Anando hummed and made a beeline for it. “Yes, that’s Mancka alright. I’ve rarely seen her since she retired, come to think of it. We should at least stop and say hello, yeah?”

They stepped up to the booth together, the both of them sending a small wave of love and cheer her way. Mancka Udéma had been an extremely important part of keeping the Ninth Season running as smoothly as it did, helping keep the Governor’s council from intruding and possibly making things worse. After Denni’s final ascension and freedom, Mancka had considered her role complete and slid back into the shadows. They’d stayed in touch for a little while but then Mancka had gone off the grid for nearly a year. Caren had never learned why, and chose not to ask.

“Karinna! Anando!” she said, beaming and reaching over the booth boards to give them hugs. “Somfei, somfei, my sehnadha! It’s wonderful to see you again! How are you?” She pulled back, but didn’t let go of either of them right away. She held their arms tightly, full of excitement. “I’m so glad the two of you are still together. How is everyone from the circle?”

Goddess, she really had taken herself out of the loop! “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “They all miss you, emha. We’ve all wondered where you’d gone off to.”

Mancka waved a hand and smiled. “Oh, here and there. Outposts, stuck in the Tower, recuperating at home, up on Trisanda, that sort of thing.”

Anando blinked at her. “When were you on Trisanda? I never sensed you there and I was up there almost constantly for five months after everything was over!”

“Oh, much later than that,” she said. “Almost a year later. I had some business to attend to with Ampryss and Dolan.”

Both Anando and Caren raised their brows at her. “Business…?” she said warily. “Dare I ask?”

Mancka waved her concern away. “Nothing terrible. The Season may have come to a close, but there’s still so much to do to keep this Awakening alive. We just want everything to work, yeah? We’d rather not leave anything to chance.”

Caren nodded solemnly. This had been one hell of a Season of Embodiment, what with her younger sister being the One of All Sacred and Caren herself being a Warrior and Protector of the One. “Denni’s doing fine,” she said quietly. “She’s up in New Boston, her first year in college.”

Mancka’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten how old she is now! She’s studying under Alec’s brother, isn’t she? Majoring in literature?”

“With a minor in art, believe it or not. Given the last few years, she felt the need to study something close to her heart instead of what everyone expects. I’m proud of her, taking that chance.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “Tell her I said hello when you have the chance. I miss her terribly. We had some really interesting conversations back then.”

“I will,” Caren said with a wide smile, and started nudging Anando down the wide path again. “Alec and Akaina are here, by the way, I’ll send them your way after we have dinner with them?”

“Certainly! Pashyo, it’s good to see you again, Caren. Look me up when you have the time.”

They waved their goodbyes and continued their walk towards the dining area. She checked her watch; it was nearing seven, which meant that Poe and Kai were most likely already at a table, waiting for them to arrive. She pulled at Anando’s arm again and double-timed it.

*

She felt Poe’s spirit well before she saw him or Kai, and that helped her find them easily. He held himself as quiet and closed as possible most of the time, but he’d left that one connection between them wide open. She did the same for him; they trusted each other that complicitly. She gave him a wave as soon as his eyes lifted towards hers. Kai, who had been facing the other way, had perked up quickly and turned around, beaming at her.

“Hey!” she said, getting up and rushing towards them, giving them both a big squeeze. Caren could feel the baby bump in Kai’s belly pressing up against her. She shivered with joy every time she thought of these two friends of hers starting a family; this was a blessing for both of them. Kai gave both of them kisses on the cheeks and brought them back to the table.

“So good to see you two!” she said, dropping back down in her seat. Her spirit was in such an excited state that she could hardly sit still, and shifted between them. “Ashan and I have been so busy at the northern outposts lately, I miss everyone!” She reached over and touched Poe’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Especially this one here,” she said, smiling at him.

“Oh, you’re not missing much with him,” Caren laughed. “He’s been his usual dour self.”

Poe snorted at her. “Okay, I’ll give you that,” he said. “The Season might be over, but the level of casework we have to do hasn’t changed at all.”

“True words,” Caren said, and turned back to Kai. “So, girl… tell me about your brother. He’s doing okay? I haven’t seen him in nearly eight months. No one has. He’s been… scarce.”

Kai pursed her lips slightly, then let it go. “He’s… he’s doing okay, if that’s what you mean,” she said quietly. “He’s got a lot on his mind lately, eichi. He won’t say much, but I have some ideas why he’s been acting the way he has. Not here, though. After dinner. If you aren’t busy, you can come to our place and we can talk about it.”

Caren knew better than to press further. Besides, this was Winter Festival, and they were all here to see each other and be happy and sense the joyous spirits around them. She let it go for now.

*

Poe’s apartment had not changed much at all over the years, other than that it no longer had that stink of cigarette smoke. He’d quit for good at the end of the Season, and had not touched one since. It was also tidier, thanks to the major cleaning party they’d had soon after everything was over. He’d made good on his promise and kept the place clean and tidy. Kai had moved in after a few months, and they’d gotten married soon after that. Caren and Anando were in no rush to go down the same road just yet. Seeing a domesticated Alec Poe still threw her for a loop, though. She’d known him for so long that such changes still surprised her.

Poe leaned through the kitchen door and smiled at them. “Coffee all around?”

“Please,” Caren said, pulling the small blanket around her shoulders. Though the heat in his apartment was going full blast, she was still shivering from being outside for so long. “If you’re spiking them, I won’t say no.”

“Spiked it is,” he smirked, and ducked back into the kitchen.

Kai sidled up next to her, providing additional warmth. “So, eichi… tell me what’s been going on in the city. Ashan and I have been unplugged for the last half year. Anything we should know about?”

Caren knew a pointed question when she heard one and smiled. “Nothing out of the ordinary, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s been business as usual. The occasional request for security during mass rituals, a few small arguments to settle, things like that. It keeps us busy enough. The Elders have been poking at Alec and I about joining one of their collectives in Swope Heights or across the river, but we keep saying no.”

Kai studied her for a moment before answering. “Personal?”

Caren shrugged in response. “You could say that. It’s not that we don’t trust them, it’s just that…” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, knowing full well that Alec was listening in. She exhaled again and continued. “It doesn’t sing to either of us.”

Kai touched her shoulder and nodded. “I understand. Sometimes we follow our own path instead of a collective one. Alec has told me before about the Elders, especially the collective down near Webster Park. They’re Reverend Miriam’s old group, if I recall.”

Miriam! Caren hadn’t heard that name in quite a long time. He’d fallen off the face of the planet soon after the Season had ended, and everyone had assumed that he’d travelled to Trisanda and stayed up there. No one blamed him, after everything he’d gone through over the last two Embodiments. He deserved the rest.

“They’re…” she started, then stumbled to a stop. How could she put this delicately…? “Well. Remember Amna at the warehouse near the end of the Season? When everything started going wrong?”

Kai took a slow breath and put a hand on her belly. “When the chaos set in, you mean,” she said quietly.

Caren nodded. “It feels like that. I don’t necessarily sense anything wrong about to happen, but…”

Poe came out with a tray of steaming mugs and placed it on the table, and glanced at her. “…but they’re being uncharacteristically pushy about it,” he said, and sat down next to Kai. “You and I talked about this about a month or so ago. Remember when I told you about Elder Thomas?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said, waving a finger at him. “I’d told Ashan about it afterwards and he said not to worry too much about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Caren said, and turned to Anando. “I’m just concerned. I doubt they’re in full crusade mode. A bit zealous, perhaps.”

“That’s what concerns me,” Anando said. “As a non-Elder, they’re really trying to pull us lower level adepts in.”

“And I do not want Denni involved,” she said, turning to the others. “If only because I know she’ll want to do something about it.”

Kai sat back and thought about it for a bit, slowly sipping her tea. “I’ll tell you what Ashan is worried about,” she said. “It’s the extremes. Not the extremists, mind you… just the fact that we have Elders trying to raise their numbers, the occasional recently-awakened that takes it all just a little too seriously… and those who are using it all for their own ends.”

Caren hummed. “Everyone with eyes opened but no one looking anywhere,” she said.

Poe smirked at her. “I’m usually the one who quotes Kelley James. But yeah, that’s it exactly.”

She turned to Anando again. “Is that what you’ve been sensing?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, especially when there’s still so much noise out there. It’s like on the surface level they’re fesh crahné, but deeper within they’re fesh piann.”

“And still not enough sehn-dayenné out there to steer them in the right direction,” Kai said. “That’s part of why Ashan and I have been spending so much time in the outposts. It’s the best place to start teaching.”

Poe hummed and leaned back. “You know…”

Kai huffed at him and put down her mug. “Alix, we talked about this.”

“I know we did,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. So unlike him. “But seriously… if it comes to it, I’m willing to take that step. If it’s necessary.”

Caren raised an eyebrow; clearly this was something Poe had chosen not to share with her, even as her ARU partner. She didn’t fault him, though. “What step is this?”

“Become a sehn-dayenné myself, of course,” he said with a smile. “Maybe not as psychotic as Elder Crittiqila of course. More like, I don’t know… our girl Denni.”

“That’s blasphemy, you know,” Caren said with a quick grin. “But I see where you’re coming from. After all, you are the Dahné Mendaihu, last I checked.”

Kai sighed in resignation. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s a full time job and it’ll put a strain on all of us.”

Caren continued sipping at her coffee. Why could she not get warm? Even with Anando by her side, she couldn’t shake this chill from her body. It wasn’t just because of the weather, either. She’d been feeling it all day long, and the more she thought about it, the more it felt like an inner chill than an outer one. She was in proximity of multiple kiralla in this room, but that wasn’t it either.

Perhaps her own spirit was trying to tell her, warn her, about something within.

“That’s not all Ashan’s been up to,” Kai said, leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch. “Between the teaching and everything else, he’s been running himself ragged. I’m worried about him, but he won’t listen to reason.” She let out a frustrated sigh and sipped at her tea again. “He’s my eicho and I love him dearly, but he’s been so distant to everyone this year, especially me. Either he’s going through a personal change of spirit…”

“…or he’s holding something from us out of safety,” Poe finished. “Last time I talked to him about a month ago, he’d closed himself off damn tight. Amiable in his own way, sure, but you can sense a damn thick barrier between himself and everyone else.”

“I’m worried about him,” Kai said quietly. “He’s never been like this before.”

Caren hummed in response, wanting to say more, but held her tongue. Ashan had always maintained a level of cold distance from most everyone other than his sister. And he had been dealt a painfully heavy blow near the end of their Season, when he’d nearly lost her forever.

Perhaps that was why she felt cold today. Without thinking, she’d laid her left hand over her right, rubbing her thumb against the skin. She’d gone through her own heavy battle at the end there as well, nearly getting torn to ribbons by one of the final battles between Denni and Saisshalé. She rarely used her touch-sensing abilities since then, finding it just that bit…alien.

Perhaps Ashan was feeling the same thing. The sensation of something so integral, so heavily entwined within his soul, suddenly vanishing. Even if that something was returned whole, it wasn’t the same ever again.

“Karzi…?” Anando whispered in her ear. “You’re okay?”

Caren shifted out of her thoughts and gave him a quick smile. “Fine,” she said. “Just thinking.”

“Well,” Poe said, breaking the silence. “I won’t push him. He’ll come to us if he needs to. I trust him.”

Kai took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Right,” he continued, and pushed himself up. Everyone in the room felt a small but significant wave of love and affection emanating from him. “It’s Winter Festival, it’s the first significant amount of time we’ve all had off, so I think we should celebrate! What do you think, Kai?”

She laughed at him, sending a wave of love his way in return. “Who am I to stop you, Alix? You’ve been so twitchy about this for the last two weeks!”

Caren eyed the both of them. “Okay, what are you two up to?”

Poe gave her a ridiculously wide grin and held up his fingers. “Wait right there,” he said, and dashed off into the other room.

“Kai…?” she said. “What’s going on?”

But she just shrugged. “He’s from a big family, you know how he is.”

“He didn’t… Poe!” Caren called out. “You better not have presents in there! You told me you wouldn’t!”

“I lied,” he called back.

“We didn’t get either of you anything!” she said, feeling embarrassed. “I thought we agreed. He’s done enough for me, I don’t expect anything else.”

“That’s what makes it so fun,” Poe said, coming back out with two small black boxes. She handed one to her, and the other to Anando. He was equally surprised and took it from him, wondering what was inside.

“Alec…” she said.

“You two deserve this,” he said, sitting back down next to Kai, taking her hand. “We don’t want anything in return.”

She eyed him, first with contempt, then with a grudging acceptance, then with frustrated affection. He was always doing this, going so far out of his way to make everyone happy. She could only hope he’d finally learned to include himself in that equation. She and Anando glanced at each other, then at the boxes.

Inside, there were two beautiful gold rings, one in each box. Both with inlaid stone set in the shape of the Shalei sigil, two intersecting circles. With a trembling hand, she pulled it out of its box and looked closely at it. On the inside, she saw it: allei aiya, cho-shadhisi inscribed on the inside of the band.

She turned and looked at Anando.

He had the biggest grin on his face. “Allei aiya, Karinna Shalei. Please be with me throughout all the universes,” he said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

“Oh…” she said.

“Took you long enough,” she heard behind her.

“Oh…!” she trembled, up and on her feet.

Denni stood there in the doorway, having just Lightwalked into Poe’s front room without a sound.

Caren darted around the couch and ran into her sister’s arms and held her tightly. “Ai…!” she cried. “What are you doing here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week! I’ve missed you!”

Denni giggled and held her close. “I wouldn’t miss my sister getting engaged for the worlds, you know,” she said.

She gasped a third time, realizing the ring was still in her hands.

This had been planned far, far in advance, and she’d had no idea…!

“Ai…” she sobbed. “You’re going to kill me here!” She burst out into laughter she felt throughout her entire spirit, and made her way back to Anando. He was still sitting on the couch, the other ring in his hand. Waiting for her to respond. She walked over to him, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him into a warm embrace.

“Allei aiya, cho-shadhisi,” she whispered in his ear. “I will be with you throughout the universes.”

She heard cheers and whoops all around them, felt a ridiculous wave of joy and love emanating from everyone in the room, but at this moment she only paid attention to one person, the one currently in her arms.

“I love you, Anando,” she said.

Returning to Bridgetown…?

Everything is still up in the air right now and plans have not yet been fully made…but there is a chance that I may return to the Mendaihu Universe in 2023. I think it’s time.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done wrong with MU4 over the last couple of years, why it’s always stalled at almost the same exact place every single time. But I’ve also been thinking about what I’ve done right with it, especially the storylines of the two or three characters that I’ve resonated with and are demanding more attention. I know what the main story arc is for this novel (and its possible sequels, if things go the way I’m expecting), and it’s worth telling.

And I’ve also been thinking about how there’s no rule that I can’t revisit the Bridgetown Trilogy and, well, give it a remix and remaster, to use musical parlance. Creators do this all the time, right? I’ve heard of many musicians and writers who’ve revisited their older work and made it better. I’m still incredibly proud of the trilogy but I will admit that it also has a few issues that I wouldn’t mind finally fixing. Especially now that I have a few more years under my belt and a better idea of what it needs.

But what about all those other projects, you ask? What about your infamous Best Laid Plans that never work out? Well…harsh question, but fair. I’ve been known to talk about things here only to have them duly crash and burn soon after. So it may happen this time too, but I won’t know until I try, right? And about those other projects: I can’t say for certain if I’m going to trunk them or hold onto them for a later time, but they are not what I should be focusing on right now.

This does mean that I’ll need to do another deep-dive revisit into the Mendaihu Universe before I go too far, but believe me, I’m not complaining about that. They say that writers often write stories they themselves want to read, and I love returning to this universe each and every time. I may even try my hand at a few related short stories and standalones that I have hidden away.

Again…none of this is set in stone, but I’m perfectly willing to give it a go.

Walking Through

I’ve been thinking about the Bridgetown Trilogy lately, and also of one of my top five favorite scenes I wrote for it. This one in particular is the very last ‘shot’ of Book 2, The Persistence of Memories, in which our heroes are about to change their fates in the most quiet and peaceful of ways:

*

It was closing in on nine o’clock when Christine’s car pulled up to the front of Moulding Warehouse.  They climbed out and stood in front of the main entrance, its door open and waiting.  They looked within and saw bustling movement, last-minute preparations being made.  There were many people here that he knew, if not by name or face then by spirit signature, all with a singular mission: to prevent a war from taking place.

Had it really come to this?  A spiritual war to gain control of an artificial intelligence?  Shirai wasn’t just the Tower AI but a technical construct that housed an actual Gharné soul.  She was one of a kind, created by a Mendaihu and protected by a small band of jacker punks.  And the Shenaihu wanted her badly.

Inside the warehouse, the floor was brightly lit and the air was warm, a stark contrast to the cold air and the darkness outside.  About a hundred feet in he saw seven people standing patiently, waiting for them.  He could sense them better than he could see them, but he knew who they were.  Denni stood in the center, a big smile on her face and her spirit brimming with joy.  She held Caren’s hand tightly.

“No turning back now,” Poe said, and turned to his left.  Sheila stared at the doorway with the same steel intensity she’d always shown during investigations.  She noticed his glance and turned to face him.

“I’m ready,” she said.

He nodded, and turned to his right.  Nick still looked skeptical, but he’d already made his choice.  He understood his role and its importance of what was to come, even if he had no idea what was going to happen.  He felt an immense pride in helping the Mendaihu, the people who had saved him a number of times during his tenure as a BMPD officer.  He felt at peace with his surroundings, despite its chaos.  For him, the most important thing was that he felt at home.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” he said. “Once more.”

Poe snorted out a laugh.  The last thing he’d expected from Nick was for him to quote Shakespeare.  It was a much needed dose of levity.

Christine, standing a few feet behind Poe, felt more nervous than scared.  She’d faced many demons before, and had simply chosen to view this as yet another.  She trusted Poe as her brother and her spiritual sibling, and was willing to go forth and witness it all, both good and bad, if that was to be her own fate.  She did not need to say anything; Poe had sensed everything she was thinking and feeling at this moment.  He felt that warmth in his heart, knowing she would be with him throughout it all.

Sheila and Nick looked at each other, nodded, and walked forward.  Just as they approached the door, Nick stepped aside and let her walk through the door first, theatrically waving her through.  She laughed at his ridiculousness and slapped him on the arm as she passed by.  When he walked through, she took his arm, and together they continued towards the waiting crew.

Poe stood there for a few moments, waiting.  Christine came up from behind him and stood to his left, still looking at the open door.

“Are you ready for this?” she asked.

“Was I ever?” he said.  “I’ll have to be.”

“At least you’re honest,” she grinned.  “Should I…?”

He offered his arm.  “I’ll walk you to the door.  I have to be the last one in.”

She offered him a weak smile.

“Don’t worry, it’s not like you and I are getting married.”

Christine let out a nervous laugh.  “You ass!  This is serious!”

“I know,” he said.  “That’s why I said it.  Shall we?”

She nodded.  “Here we go.”

They walked slowly.  All the movement within the warehouse had slowed to a stop, at least temporarily.  He took a single nervous breath, trying to ignore the fact that five thousand or so Mendaihu, Shenaihu and cho-nyhndah were in that warehouse right now, had their eyes or their senses trained on that one door frame.

They came to the door, and he stopped.  Wordlessly, Christine let go of his arm, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and nodded twice.  Pride, he thought, as he sensed her emotions.  She was proud of him, proud to have known him, proud to have been able to work with him for so many years.  She walked through, and kept walking until she’d joined the others.  She stood just apart from them, not officially part of this circle, but an observer and a participant.  They were all waiting for this moment.

He felt a small prick of cold touch him on the back of the neck, just as he was about to walk through.  He felt it again almost immediately, and he looked up.  A light snow shower had just arrived, creating a ghostly cone underneath the spotlight.  One flake hit him on his eyelash and he lifted his hand to brush it away. 

Snow, he thought with a smile.  The Rain of Light blesses me tonight.

“Here lies fate,” he said, took a deep breath, and walked through the door.

*

I use the door metaphor at the end of all three books, each one with Alec Poe being the one to walk through. Why him, and not Denni or Caren? At the time I wrote A Division of Souls I chose him because it felt right. He’s the character of true balance, both emotionally and spiritually. He’s not perfect by a long shot — the scene just before his exit in ADoS is a bitter argument with Caren where he meant well but said exactly the wrong thing — but that’s the whole point of his character. He’s good and bad, perfect and imperfect, strong and vulnerable, intelligent and deeply confused. Many people’s fate rests on his shoulders, whether he likes it or not.

In The Persistence of Memories, he’s the last to enter the warehouse. Technically he didn’t have to be, but it was his own choice: he knew everyone depended on his protection and safety, and it felt right to have everyone in the same place where they had his full attention. I felt the snowfall was a nice touch as well, as it was another metaphor that threads through the trilogy: the flow of ‘rain’ that signifies changes they cannot avoid. Besides, that was one of my favorite things as a kid: looking up at the snow falling at night, illuminated as it entered the light of street lamps. Snowfall mutes all sorts of extraneous noise, giving the area a startlingly peaceful moment in time, and that was Poe’s moment of peace in that story, right at the very end.

I suppose this is one of the reasons I enjoy the winter season, even though I am extremely glad I don’t have to shovel or drive in the white stuff anymore, now that I live in San Francisco. It’s that moment of quiet Zen in an otherwise chaotic world, where I can allow myself some time in contemplation, whether of the day’s events or the year’s. Or of my life to date.

Utilizing that time structure of year’s end to take stock before moving forward once more, with a clearer mind and a stronger heart.

Short Story: A Bridgetown Christmas

[NOTE: I wrote this over a few days in mid-December 2019 as a way to test out whether I could use the 750 Words site while at the office at the Former Day Job. (Come to find out, I could, which saved my sanity for a while.) I thought it would be fun to feature the Bridgetown gang in a Special Christmas Episode. I also wanted to prove to myself once and for all that yes, I CAN actually write a short story if I put my mind to it. And yes, it is considered canon in the Mendaihu Universe.]

*

It felt so comforting, so freeing to finally go to a Winter Festival without having to worry about her job. Caren couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to one of these without that hint of tension lurking somewhere in the back of her sensing. She could even walk around Tower Park now without that feeling of sorrow and dread and being reminded of that riot in Kendall Fields. That was all behind her, a good couple of years now. It had taken such a long time, but she’d come to terms with that fateful day and moved on. The pain was still there, hiding so deep in her spirit, but it was no longer an obstacle. Just a reminder.

She walked slowly down the wide promenade with her arm in Anando’s, taking in the lights and the people and the scents of baked goods. The level of positive energy here was intoxicating in a pleasant way, just enough to bring her own spirit some holiday joy. Even though it was early December and a cold snap was going to be coming in late in the evening, there was nothing that could break this mood for anyone.

Anando was bundled up in a heavy coat, knit hat and fingerless gloves, but he emanated such a warmth both physical and spiritual that she didn’t want to let go of him just yet. He seemed to be oblivious of the dropping temperature, focusing more on the people and the sights and everything else. He wanted to stop at each booth they walked by, either to say hello or to try the foods they were selling, but she kept him moving. They were due to meet Poe and Akaina at one of the large seating areas up ahead, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said in amusement, after she’d nudged him on for the fourth time.

“And you aren’t,” she retorted, giving him a playful nudge. “We can visit everyone again after we have dinner with Poe and Kai.”

“I know…” he said, waving at yet another booth attendant. “I just don’t want all my friends to think I’m ignoring them.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you know pretty much every single person on the Western Path of the Winter Festival grounds, is that what you’re saying?” she teased. “Because I’m telling you now I’m not nearly as much of a social person as you are. And I meet a lot of people on the job.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, and gave her a peck on the head. “You’ll just have to deal with it, Karzi.”

She giggled and hugged his arm tighter. She loved it when he used that name with her. “I guess I will,” she said, and pointed at one of the larger stalls further on. “Hey, isn’t that…?”

Anando hummed and made a beeline for it. “Yes, that’s Mancka alright. I’ve rarely seen her since she retired, come to think of it. We should at least stop and say hello, yeah?”

They stepped up to the booth together, the both of them sending a small wave of love and cheer her way. Mancka Udéma had been an extremely important part of keeping the Ninth Season running as smoothly as it did, helping keep the Governor’s council from intruding and possibly making things worse. After Denni’s final ascension and freedom, Mancka had considered her role complete and slid back into the shadows. They’d stayed in touch for a little while but then Mancka had gone off the grid for nearly a year. Caren had never learned why, and chose not to ask.

“Karinna! Anando!” she said, beaming and reaching over the booth boards to give them hugs. “Somfei, somfei, my sehnadha! It’s wonderful to see you again! How are you?” She pulled back, but didn’t let go of either of them right away. She held their arms tightly, full of excitement. “I’m so glad the two of you are still together. How is everyone from the circle?”

Goddess, she really had taken herself out of the loop! “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “They all miss you, emha. We’ve all wondered where you’d gone off to.”

Mancka waved a hand and smiled. “Oh, here and there. Outposts, stuck in the Tower, recuperating at home, up on Trisanda, that sort of thing.”

Anando blinked at her. “When were you on Trisanda? I never sensed you there and I was up there almost constantly for five months after everything was over!”

“Oh, much later than that,” she said. “Almost a year later. I had some business to attend to with Ampryss and Dolan.”

Both Anando and Caren raised their brows at her. “Business…?” she said warily. “Dare I ask?”

Mancka waved her concern away. “Nothing terrible. The Season may have come to a close, but there’s still so much to do to keep this Awakening alive. We just want everything to work, yeah? We’d rather not leave anything to chance.”

Caren nodded solemnly. This had been one hell of a Season of Embodiment, what with her younger sister being the One of All Sacred and Caren herself being a Warrior and Protector of the One. “Denni’s doing fine,” she said quietly. “She’s up in New Boston, her first year in college.”

Mancka’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten how old she is now! She’s studying under Alec’s brother, isn’t she? Majoring in literature?”

“With a minor in art, believe it or not. Given the last few years, she felt the need to study something close to her heart instead of what everyone expects. I’m proud of her, taking that chance.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “Tell her I said hello when you have the chance. I miss her terribly. We had some really interesting conversations back then.”

“I will,” Caren said with a wide smile, and started nudging Anando down the wide path again. “Alec and Akaina are here, by the way, I’ll send them your way after we have dinner with them?”

“Certainly! Pashyo, it’s good to see you again, Caren. Look me up when you have the time.”

They waved their goodbyes and continued their walk towards the dining area. She checked her watch; it was nearing seven, which meant that Poe and Kai were most likely already at a table, waiting for them to arrive. She pulled at Anando’s arm again and double-timed it.

*

She felt Poe’s spirit well before she saw him or Kai, and that helped her find them easily. He held himself as quiet and closed as possible most of the time, but he’d left that one connection between them wide open. She did the same for him; they trusted each other that complicitly. She gave him a wave as soon as his eyes lifted towards hers. Kai, who had been facing the other way, had perked up quickly and turned around, beaming at her.

“Hey!” she said, getting up and rushing towards them, giving them both a big squeeze. Caren could feel the baby bump in Kai’s belly pressing up against her. She shivered with joy every time she thought of these two friends of hers starting a family; this was a blessing for both of them. Kai gave both of them kisses on the cheeks and brought them back to the table.

“So good to see you two!” she said, dropping back down in her seat. Her spirit was in such an excited state that she could hardly sit still, and shifted between them. “Ashan and I have been so busy at the northern outposts lately, I miss everyone!” She reached over and touched Poe’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Especially this one here,” she said, smiling at him.

“Oh, you’re not missing much with him,” Caren laughed. “He’s been his usual dour self.”

Poe snorted at her. “Okay, I’ll give you that,” he said. “The Season might be over, but the level of casework we have to do hasn’t changed at all.”

“True words,” Caren said, and turned back to Kai. “So, girl… tell me about your brother. He’s doing okay? I haven’t seen him in nearly eight months. No one has. He’s been… scarce.”

Kai pursed her lips slightly, then let it go. “He’s… he’s doing okay, if that’s what you mean,” she said quietly. “He’s got a lot on his mind lately, eichi. He won’t say much, but I have some ideas why he’s been acting the way he has. Not here, though. After dinner. If you aren’t busy, you can come to our place and we can talk about it.”

Caren knew better than to press further. Besides, this was Winter Festival, and they were all here to see each other and be happy and sense the joyous spirits around them. She let it go for now.

*

Poe’s apartment had not changed much at all over the years, other than that it no longer had that stink of cigarette smoke. He’d quit for good at the end of the Season, and had not touched one since. It was also tidier, thanks to the major cleaning party they’d had soon after everything was over. He’d made good on his promise and kept the place clean and tidy. Kai had moved in after a few months, and they’d gotten married soon after that. Caren and Anando were in no rush to go down the same road just yet. Seeing a domesticated Alec Poe still threw her for a loop, though. She’d known him for so long that such changes still surprised her.

Poe leaned through the kitchen door and smiled at them. “Coffee all around?”

“Please,” Caren said, pulling the small blanket around her shoulders. Though the heat in his apartment was going full blast, she was still shivering from being outside for so long. “If you’re spiking them, I won’t say no.”

“Spiked it is,” he smirked, and ducked back into the kitchen.

Kai sidled up next to her, providing additional warmth. “So, eichi… tell me what’s been going on in the city. Ashan and I have been unplugged for the last half year. Anything we should know about?”

Caren knew a pointed question when she heard one and smiled. “Nothing out of the ordinary, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s been business as usual. The occasional request for security during mass rituals, a few small arguments to settle, things like that. It keeps us busy enough. The Elders have been poking at Alec and I about joining one of their collectives in Swope Heights or across the river, but we keep saying no.”

Kai studied her for a moment before answering. “Personal?”

Caren shrugged in response. “You could say that. It’s not that we don’t trust them, it’s just that…” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, knowing full well that Alec was listening in. She exhaled again and continued. “It doesn’t sing to either of us.”

Kai touched her shoulder and nodded. “I understand. Sometimes we follow our own path instead of a collective one. Alec has told me before about the Elders, especially the collective down near Webster Park. They’re Reverend Miriam’s old group, if I recall.”

Miriam! Caren hadn’t heard that name in quite a long time. He’d fallen off the face of the planet soon after the Season had ended, and everyone had assumed that he’d travelled to Trisanda and stayed up there. No one blamed him, after everything he’d gone through over the last two Embodiments. He deserved the rest.

“They’re…” she started, then stumbled to a stop. How could she put this delicately…? “Well. Remember Amna at the warehouse near the end of the Season? When everything started going wrong?”

Kai took a slow breath and put a hand on her belly. “When the chaos set in, you mean,” she said quietly.

Caren nodded. “It feels like that. I don’t necessarily sense anything wrong about to happen, but…”

Poe came out with a tray of steaming mugs and placed it on the table, and glanced at her. “…but they’re being uncharacteristically pushy about it,” he said, and sat down next to Kai. “You and I talked about this about a month or so ago. Remember when I told you about Elder Thomas?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said, waving a finger at him. “I’d told Ashan about it afterwards and he said not to worry too much about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Caren said, and turned to Anando. “I’m just concerned. I doubt they’re in full crusade mode. A bit zealous, perhaps.”

“That’s what concerns me,” Anando said. “As a non-Elder, they’re really trying to pull us lower level adepts in.”

“And I do not want Denni involved,” she said, turning to the others. “If only because I know she’ll want to do something about it.”

Kai sat back and thought about it for a bit, slowly sipping her tea. “I’ll tell you what Ashan is worried about,” she said. “It’s the extremes. Not the extremists, mind you… just the fact that we have Elders trying to raise their numbers, the occasional recently-awakened that takes it all just a little too seriously… and those who are using it all for their own ends.”

Caren hummed. “Everyone with eyes opened but no one looking anywhere,” she said.

Poe smirked at her. “I’m usually the one who quotes Kelley James. But yeah, that’s it exactly.”

She turned to Anando again. “Is that what you’ve been sensing?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, especially when there’s still so much noise out there. It’s like on the surface level they’re fesh crahné, but deeper within they’re fesh piann.”

“And still not enough sehn-dayenné out there to steer them in the right direction,” Kai said. “That’s part of why Ashan and I have been spending so much time in the outposts. It’s the best place to start teaching.”

Poe hummed and leaned back. “You know…”

Kai huffed at him and put down her mug. “Alix, we talked about this.”

“I know we did,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. So unlike him. “But seriously… if it comes to it, I’m willing to take that step. If it’s necessary.”

Caren raised an eyebrow; clearly this was something Poe had chosen not to share with her, even as her ARU partner. She didn’t fault him, though. “What step is this?”

“Become a sehn-dayenné myself, of course,” he said with a smile. “Maybe not as psychotic as Elder Crittiqila of course. More like, I don’t know… our girl Denni.”

“That’s blasphemy, you know,” Caren said with a quick grin. “But I see where you’re coming from. After all, you are the Dahné Mendaihu, last I checked.”

Kai sighed in resignation. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s a full time job and it’ll put a strain on all of us.”

Caren continued sipping at her coffee. Why could she not get warm? Even with Anando by her side, she couldn’t shake this chill from her body. It wasn’t just because of the weather, either. She’d been feeling it all day long, and the more she thought about it, the more it felt like an inner chill than an outer one. She was in proximity of multiple kiralla in this room, but that wasn’t it either.

Perhaps her own spirit was trying to tell her, warn her, about something within.

“That’s not all Ashan’s been up to,” Kai said, leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch. “Between the teaching and everything else, he’s been running himself ragged. I’m worried about him, but he won’t listen to reason.” She let out a frustrated sigh and sipped at her tea again. “He’s my eicho and I love him dearly, but he’s been so distant to everyone this year, especially me. Either he’s going through a personal change of spirit…”

“…or he’s holding something from us out of safety,” Poe finished. “Last time I talked to him about a month ago, he’d closed himself off damn tight. Amiable in his own way, sure, but you can sense a damn thick barrier between himself and everyone else.”

“I’m worried about him,” Kai said quietly. “He’s never been like this before.”

Caren hummed in response, wanting to say more, but held her tongue. Ashan had always maintained a level of cold distance from most everyone other than his sister. And he had been dealt a painfully heavy blow near the end of their Season, when he’d nearly lost her forever.

Perhaps that was why she felt cold today. Without thinking, she’d laid her left hand over her right, rubbing her thumb against the skin. She’d gone through her own heavy battle at the end there as well, nearly getting torn to ribbons by one of the final battles between Denni and Saisshalé. She rarely used her touch-sensing abilities since then, finding it just that bit…alien.

Perhaps Ashan was feeling the same thing. The sensation of something so integral, so heavily entwined within his soul, suddenly vanishing. Even if that something was returned whole, it wasn’t the same ever again.

“Karzi…?” Anando whispered in her ear. “You’re okay?”

Caren shifted out of her thoughts and gave him a quick smile. “Fine,” she said. “Just thinking.”

“Well,” Poe said, breaking the silence. “I won’t push him. He’ll come to us if he needs to. I trust him.”

Kai took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Right,” he continued, and pushed himself up. Everyone in the room felt a small but significant wave of love and affection emanating from him. “It’s Winter Festival, it’s the first significant amount of time we’ve all had off, so I think we should celebrate! What do you think, Kai?”

She laughed at him, sending a wave of love his way in return. “Who am I to stop you, Alix? You’ve been so twitchy about this for the last two weeks!”

Caren eyed the both of them. “Okay, what are you two up to?”

Poe gave her a ridiculously wide grin and held up his fingers. “Wait right there,” he said, and dashed off into the other room.

“Kai…?” she said. “What’s going on?”

But she just shrugged. “He’s from a big family, you know how he is.”

“He didn’t… Poe!” Caren called out. “You better not have presents in there! You told me you wouldn’t!”

“I lied,” he called back.

“We didn’t get either of you anything!” she said, feeling embarrassed. “I thought we agreed. He’s done enough for me, I don’t expect anything else.”

“That’s what makes it so fun,” Poe said, coming back out with two small black boxes. She handed one to her, and the other to Anando. He was equally surprised and took it from him, wondering what was inside.”

“Alec…” she said.

“You two deserve this,” he said, sitting back down next to Kai, taking her hand. “We don’t want anything in return.”

She eyed him, first with contempt, then with a grudging acceptance, then with frustrated affection. He was always doing this, going so far out of his way to make everyone happy. She could only hope he’d finally learned to include himself in that equation. She and Anando glanced at each other, then at the boxes.

Inside, there were two beautiful gold rings, one in each box. Both with inlaid stone set in the shape of the Shalei sigil, two intersecting circles. With a trembling hand, she pulled it out of its box and looked closely at it. On the inside, she saw it: allei aiya, cho-shadhisi inscribed on the inside of the band.

She turned and looked at Anando.

He had the biggest grin on his face. “Allei aiya, Karinna Shalei. Please be with me throughout all the universes,” he said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

“Oh…” she said.

“Took you long enough,” she heard behind her.

“Oh…!” she trembled, up and on her feet.

Denni stood there in the doorway, having just Lightwalked into Poe’s front room without a sound.

Caren darted around the couch and ran into her sister’s arms and held her tightly. “Ai…!” she cried. “What are you doing here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week! I’ve missed you!”

Denni giggled and held her close. “I wouldn’t miss my sister getting engaged for the worlds, you know,” she said.

She gasped a third time, realizing the ring was still in her hands.

This had been planned far, far in advance, and she’d had no idea…!

“Ai…” she sobbed. “You’re going to kill me here!” She burst out into laughter she felt throughout her entire spirit, and made her way back to Anando. He was still sitting on the couch, the other ring in his hand. Waiting for her to respond. She walked over to him, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him into a warm embrace.

“Allei aiya, cho-shadhisi,” she whispered in his ear. “I will be with you throughout the universes.”

She heard cheers and whoops all around them, felt a ridiculous wave of joy and love emanating from everyone in the room, but at this moment she only paid attention to one person, the one currently in her arms.

“I love you, Anando,” she said.