Big Summer Book Giveaway

I’m participating in my first book giveaway! Credit goes to Jen Roberson, who organized a fantastic virtual book fair followed by this giveaway. She reached out to authors in the Realm Makers Consortium, a community of Christian fantasy and sci-fi writers, to pull this together. We sent in signed copies of our books, and Jen got over 20 authors involved and created 9 prize packs for readers to win.

You can check out all the prize packs and sign up to win here. (Expect to be taken to Facebook Messenger, where you’ll engage with a bot for the sign up flow). A signed copy of The Vermilion Riddle is included in one of the fantasy book packs!

I mean, how can you resist free books?

The giveaway is open through July 9, and you can follow me on IG for updates (@danaliwrites), where the authors are doing the primary promotion.

Stayed tuned, as I’ll have more fun updates soon on The Vermilion Riddle. Hint: audiobook! And blog tour!

The Beating Heart of Stories

“Who was your favorite character to write?” I got asked this a few times about The Vermilion Riddle. It’s a tough question to answer, because I like characters for different reasons – spunky, witty characters are fun to write, while anti-heroes are challenging but rewarding to create. But I find it’s also a tough question because I don’t just like writing specific characters, I love writing relationships. I’m not a fan of lone characters. (If you’re the only survivor in an apocalypse, I’ll pass.) I know there are thought-provoking, well-written stories with a cast of one, but I’m far more drawn to relationships. To me, they are the beating heart of great stories. Ensemble casts have always been my favorite, because you get a range of relational dynamics.

The Vermilion Riddle is, at the core, a story of relationships: between husband and wife, brothers, father and son, father and daughter, friends, enemies, and more. In the midst of adventures, duels, and intrigue, the relationships are the heartbeat of the story. 

Here were a few personal highlights among my favorite relationships to write:

Husband and wife: I might have bit off more than I could chew, since I wrote this while I was single. But I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, and I think every story I write will incorporate some romance, even if it’s not central. In this case, I wanted to explore romance and love in the context of marriage, which I find rare in fiction relative to the drama and fireworks of pre-marriage relationships. I can’t deny that I love a good enemies-to-lovers story, or the tension of a will-they-won’t-they story, or even a (gasp) love triangle done well. But what about love in marriage? For the closest relationship on earth, it doesn’t get quite as much screen/page time. It’s written off as the “happily ever after” that comes post-credits, and I wonder if it’s perceived as too boring or undramatic for a good story. But isn’t that where the real adventure begins? Anyway, Leah didn’t really want to marry August, so I still inserted a healthy dose of drama to kick it off!

Brothers: Again, I’m not a man, and I don’t have a brother, so I’m not writing from personal experience. This is one of the foundational relationships in The Vermilion Riddle, but a lot of August and Benedict’s relationship is not shown through direct interaction, but rather a backstory that is slowly colored in over time. It’s a relationship that’s been marked by betrayal and loss, and it hangs over the entire story. The pain that haunts them both is an unspoken indication of the depth of that relationship – the more you love, the more you hurt. Feeling that brokenness creates a deep longing too for reconciliation and redemption. These are the relationships we desperately want to see made right. While the main climax and resolution to the story was about the large-scale conflict with the Oath-breakers, writing the resolution to this relationship was more cathartic for me. (No spoilers on what that entailed, or even that it was a true “resolution,” but just where I left the two characters by the end of the novel).

Friends: There are a lot of different types of friendship in The Vermilion Riddle, but I’ve always had a soft spot for deep male friendships, which I think is sorely lacking in our world. For intimate friendships between men, our culture immediately imagines romantic undertones. So I had some reservations about writing a friendship that could toe that line in the eyes of some – but I did it anyway. We’ve lost something precious and God-given when men can’t have emotional intimacy and deep love for one another, free of sexual connotation. Benedict and Justin are by no means paragons of virtue, but they have that kind of friendship (and August does too, though I don’t press into those relationships as deeply). We often say “love is blind” and romantic love makes us do stupid things for the sake of the other… can’t a deep love for a friend similarly do that? In a way, I explored the idea of “love being blind” influencing some of the platonic relationships in Riddle, while the romance certainly doesn’t reflect that. (Leah got married with her eyes wide open.)

Father and daughter: Finally, one that I have personal experience with. Father-daughter stories move me in a special way. Leah’s dad is not at all like mine, and I didn’t model him after my dad – but in their relationship, I drew on some of the ways my dad and I relate: the way we easily understand each other without saying much, the irreverent humor in the face of ridiculous social constructs, and the way he protects me when I’m frail and need it most. They’re imperfect, but loving fathers. And there’s a warmth and steadfastness in that, because it’s a mirror of our Heavenly Father. Where friendships fail and romances fizzle out, there’s something in our core that believes a father will love unconditionally no matter what. Even though Leah’s dad isn’t “on screen” for much of the story, their relationship is an anchor in her life.

Interested in knowing more about these characters and how these relationships do resolve? Get your copy of The Vermilion Riddle today!

(I’m back, and I’m still writing! I recently got married, and life is busy, full, but good. After months of wedding planning and exercising the administrative side of my brain, I’m trying to find time for more creative endeavors again, so stay tuned).

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

Release Day!

It’s release day for The Vermilion Riddle!

I haven’t been furiously posting here because life is just full right now. I do make more frequent, bite-sized updates on my social media accounts, but man, it is a full-time job to be marketing a book at optimal capacity. And I still have another full-time job (that I do enjoy, but keeps me very busy) unless you all make me a bestselling writer who lands a movie deal.

That’s just to say, in spite of the relative silence in these parts, I’m no less excited that this day has come. I’ve had a number of early ARC readers finish The Vermilion Riddle already, and their reviews have truly encouraged me. I know the novel isn’t perfect, and there’s a lot of room for me to continue growing as a writer and storyteller. But to hear genuine feedback that this story kept people reading late into the night, or encouraged them to love the gospel even more, or made them cheer for and feel for the characters, or handled difficult themes in a thought-provoking way – it reminds me of why I started writing. It can be easy to forget while slogging through edits and trying desperately to fix technical inconsistencies in timeline and distances. To me, good stories have always been about making a dent in the darkness, bringing a flicker of light to another soul, or as N.D. Wilson puts it, “polluting the shadows.”

These were my exact words in a post a year ago:

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

2021 Dana

It’s been worth it.

A lot is happening in my personal life in the next month, so I don’t expect to be popping in here frequently. But as things slow down, I do plan to share more about The Vermilion Riddle, what I’ve learned, and what I’m also working on next. So stay tuned.

Until then, my publisher and I are hosting a virtual Facebook launch party March 1 at 5 PM PST. Please join us! It’ll be a fun time of activities, Q&A, and giveaways. Just join the group and hop online for the party.

You can find all my writing-related links on my Linktree. And here’s a shortcut to buying your copy of The Vermilion Riddle.

The Vermilion Riddle is Available for Pre-Order!

I’m thrilled to share that The Vermilion Riddle is now available for preorder on Amazon! It feels a bit surreal to see my novel there. I looked back through my email inbox (a real trek down memory lane) and found scattered vignettes of this story, shared with a few friends. It’s been renamed and revised over the course of years. I almost gave up on it at a few points, thinking it was too offbeat to see the light of day – not to mention, the odds are always against you in traditional publishing. I’m so grateful to see this dream become a reality!

I’m also looking for help promoting The Vermilion Riddle. Specifically, I would like to give out eARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) to readers who are willing to read and provide an honest review before March 1, release day. I’m also putting together a small street team that will help me promote the book on social media and offline, as well as participants for a blog tour. If you are interested in supporting me in any of these ways, you can fill out this form.

Do you have other ideas for how to get the word out? Are there questions or topics you’d like me to address about the novel? I’m open to inspiration for new blog posts! Drop me a line anytime.

Stay tuned for more details on The Vermilion Riddle as we approach release day! If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, you can also follow me for more regular updates there:

Finally, I’ll leave you with the official synopsis, also available on Amazon:

“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne
four secrets must be found:
the land unbound by time and space
opens only to the one who knows
the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”

In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.

Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

Lessons from Editing a Novel

A great editor is like a two-star Goodreads reviewer who tells you everything that didn’t work in your novel and why, but also bothers to mention the glimmers of potential that bumped you up from getting one star.

Well, sort of. The point is, a great editor doesn’t hate or gush, but gives constructive, actionable feedback. The Vermilion Riddle is my first completed novel, and it’s also my first fully-edited novel. I would not have made it to publication without a fantastic editor. Michelle Levigne was much kinder than a two-star reviewer when she first told me she loved Riddle and believed in its potential, but it needed work. She showed me exactly what the shortcomings were, and gave me a chance to revise. I’ve learned that I thrive best with that kind of feedback – not a formula for how to fix something, but a pointer to the weak spots I can hone in on.

Long story short, I spent a year revising based on her feedback, and Mt. Zion Ridge Press is now publishing my book! I’ve worked with Michelle to tweak and finalize the manuscript over the months, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

Successful foreshadowing makes readers say both, “Oh, duh!” and “I didn’t say that coming.” I haven’t read a lot of writers who could do this well (myself included). Michelle calls these foreshadowing moments “jalapenos” – use with discretion, sprinkle them lightly, but give readers some taste of what’s to come. This framing helped me a ton, and I tweaked a lot of the foreshadowing components as I edited. Since I already had a draft complete, I knew exactly what the climax looks like, so I could go back and find places to insert little hints. I imagine this is necessary for a lot of writers. It’s hard to get all the details and finesse right the first time, especially if you’re building up to some kind of a reveal. I’m not even a “pantser” (someone writing by the seat of their pants). I plot ahead, but foreshadowing is more easily added in reverse. Good foreshadowing should land us somewhere between “Agatha All Along” (sorta obvious) and Cap’s BFF killing his other BFF’s parents back in the day (okay, am I gullible, but I didn’t see that coming). Sorry, when I can’t think of good literary examples, I default to Marvel.

Make sure characters actually do things that are in-character, not simply because it moves the plot forward. Don’t force character actions because some huge event has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work. I fell into this pitfall when I knew I had to manufacture a critical character encounter. I imagined the scene before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on this story, and that blinded me from seeing my characters behaving totally irrationally. An editor can spot this pretty easily. Michelle asked me why there were no guards in this very dangerous campsite, and why the characters were sleeping on a riverbank when they had nice, warm cabins aboard their ship…? Well, shoot, because I had to force a meeting! A good question to ask as you cross-examine your story is, “Does it make sense she’s responding this way? Or making this decision?” It needs to make sense for the person, not just for the plot.

Build the world, not just parts of it! One of the main things I did in my first major revision was flesh out the world of The Vermilion Riddle. Many fantasy writers naturally go heavy on world-building, but it’s not second nature to me. I like exploring characters, and I realized that came at the expense of their world – it was too thin. Michelle told me the world felt empty, outside of the few places my characters visited. I would not have spotted this clearly on my own. While I think I could give that feedback on someone else’s story, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees for my writing. The first thing I did before starting revisions was build the world more fully for myself, even if I wouldn’t feature all of it in the novel. (I’m not Tolkien, guys). But just knowing more about the cultures, religions, and government empowered me to sprinkle in references in dialogue or bits of backstory. A savvy reader can usually tell you when a world feels rich and real or not, but I needed to learn, as a writer, what evokes that sensation. I think of Narnia – Lewis wrote with less than a tenth of the detail Tolkien used in Lord of the Rings, but he still made the world feel rich and expansive. There’s not a singular way to do it. Sometimes, it’s just a brief, tantalizing line here or there – but an invested reader loves those. It’s the stuff of great fanfiction spinoffs! 

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

Epic & Intimate: The Inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

Two of my favorite fiction authors are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Besides both being British, their works are worlds apart, literally – one wrote epic, sprawling stories of the battle between good and evil, while the other wrote of small town families, romance, and culture in the Regency era. If Tolkien’s heroes failed, death and darkness would sweep across the land. If Austen’s heroes failed, a lady would be single at thirty. (The horror!)

As different as they are, I had a desire to blend the best of both genres. I didn’t think it’d be the most marketable book, but then, I also thought no one else would write this. That concept sparked the genesis of The Vermilion Riddle. I wanted an epic fantasy that was also character-driven and intimate. I love how Austen deftly explored familial and romantic relationships in the framework of her society, and I was curious to see how that would unfold in the context of a traditional fantasy. I shamelessly drew influence from the Regency era for parts of my story’s culture, simply because it’s got that quaint, cozy vibe, stored inside a broad, sweeping world. 

This is a snippet of what I wrote in my original query letter for The Vermilion Riddle: 

“While the novel evokes elements of classic fantasy—quests, duels, and the battle of good versus evil—it thrives on character exploration. The plot hums to the beat of a cosmic conflict and climax, though the struggles within a family—between fathers and sons, brothers by blood (and not), husband and wife—forms its core melody.”

When it came to the characters and relationships in the story, three questions framed my writing. 

What makes a strong, relatable, and feminine heroine?

What happens to brothers who are pitted against each other ideologically?

What does a love story that happens after marriage look like?

I did not know, concretely, the answer to any of these when I began, and Riddle was going to be my way of exploring them. In retrospect, I was in over my head. I’m not sure if I ever found totally satisfactory answers, but as I worked on the novel over the years, I felt the story mature quietly alongside of me. There were nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from life and other people that made their way into the story. There were also surprising insights that emerged from the characters as I was writing.

In the end, I wanted to write characters who, though born into another world, were achingly human. Though they chase ancient secrets and face the fury of the faerie-kind, they aren’t wrapped in an air of mythology that makes them feel far removed from us. They are the sort of people who could be legends – but a legend is usually formed in retrospect. They are like Merry and Pippin, hobbits who felt like useless baggage for much of their journey before they were hailed as heroes.

That’s what I strived for, at least – a story that’s epic yet intimate, that’s far-flung and yet close to home.

There was an alien wildness to it, as of a completely foreign world, but it was not without a touch of familiarity. It stirred up a strange mixture of nostalgia and mystery within her.

“Does this feel far from home?” Arthur asked softly.

“Yes,” she replied quietly, “and yet, no.”

The Vermilion Riddle

Photo by Sven Fischer on Unsplash.

The Vermilion Riddle: Cover Reveal & Synopsis!

I’m excited to share the cover of The Vermilion Riddle! My publisher did an initial reveal at a Zoom party a few weeks ago, and it was fun talking about the book and answering questions. Being a first-time author, it was a new experience. I’m used to running meetings and giving presentations for my day job, but it’s different sharing about my writing and being asked about my revision process, my favorite character to write, etc. It’s one thing to blog about it, and quite another to verbalize it to an audience. Mount Zion Ridge Press has been a great partner to work with as we’ve been going through edits, designs, and all my newbie questions.

Also, I haven’t given much detail yet about the story, so I wanted to share a first synopsis!

The war between faeries and men dimmed into mythology long ago, contained in the pages of Leah’s books. Far from danger, her sheltered town runs on parties and gossip. Then, August Fox purchases the haunted manor in Carmel and legends begin breaking into her reality. When her father gambles away their livelihood, Leah dutifully accepts August’s request for her hand. But a shadow haunts Cariath, his home of towering edifices and warriors, and she must contend with the ghosts of his family’s past.

Hungry to conquer the immortal realm, Nimrod betrayed the Guardians and stole an ancient riddle that would guide him to the keys to Faerie. To his followers’ surprise, he names Benedict Fox his second-in-command. Benedict plays a dangerous game, his agenda diverging from Nimrod’s. As they uncover more Guardian secrets, Benedict finds himself hurtling towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

The war is never really over, and this time, the battlelines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

What do you think?

I’m cuing up some more posts about the inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle and my writing process. Happy to take feedback on other topics you’d like to see me cover!

Old-Fashioned Fantasy

I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.

Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.

Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle. 

I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.

You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash.

A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!

S.D.G.

Bullet Train to London

I originally wrote this speculative flash fiction piece for Havok, though you can’t access it without membership. My 6-month exclusive contract was up ages ago, so I can publish it here now. And if you’re still keeping up with my terribly sporadic updates, you deserve a fun little shot of adrenaline. Enjoy the read!

“Last mission before you retire, eh? Ready to go home?”

Home. Kiera immediately pictured red double-decker buses, Big Ben, and intimate theaters. Her small studio, overlooking the Thames, would still be unfurnished after her months away. And Justin—was his corner cafe still in business?

“I’ll miss this. But it will feel good to go out with a win,” she muttered into her transmitter.

Pip laughed. “Well, the clock is ticking on us.”

Kiera glanced at the digital stream on the rim of the train: 43 MINUTES to LONDON. The clock was indeed ticking on them.

She picked up her pace as she moved into the next compartment, her gaze sweeping across rows of passengers. Their faces were masked in shadows thrown by the dim lighting and covered windows. Kiera felt a pang of envy at the thick, wool blankets draped around their seats. A shiver went down her spine as she straightened her thin cocktail dress.

“Are you in position?” Jotham’s voice came across the line.

“Yes.”

Kiera paused in front of the final cabin, Black Rail Bullet: First Class. The doors slid open with a hiss.

She handed the uniformed guard her ticket and scanned the cabin. A circular bar sat in the middle of the compartment, chandelier lights glancing off long-necked glasses. A familiar classical tune filled the room—Fur Elise.

“Beethoven!” Pip exclaimed. “What a sound for sore ears. After months of that screeching the Valiums call music.”

“Focus, Pip,” Jotham returned.

“Sorry, boss. This new comm system is remarkably clear.”

Kiera blocked out the chatter in her earpiece as she examined the two dozen or so figures scattered around the room. A green light blinked in her left pupil. Facial match.

“Got him,” she whispered.

She walked further into the cabin and slipped onto a vacant stool beside him, signaling the bartender. “One Negroni, please.”

The man beside Kiera cocked his head towards her. “Haven’t seen someone order that in a while.” His own Old Fashioned appeared untouched on the counter.

“Is that a surprise?” She gestured at the other guests.

“Fair point.” He swiveled to look her fully in the face. His raven hair and square jaw lent him a handsome look. “Is London home?”

Kiera shrugged. “It was. We’ll see.”

“Long time away, then.”

“Yes.” She locked gazes with him. “And I’d like to have something to go back to.” She pushed the fold of her dress up to her knee, revealing a holstered gun. “This hurts more than a normal bullet, Wren. I suggest you tell me where you’ve hidden the weapons.”

Wren appeared unfazed, amusement rippling over his features instead. “They’ve got pretty girls working for them now, is that right?”

Kiera’s hand went to the gun, gripping its handle. “We know there are illegal weapons on board. They’re not getting through our borders.”

“How did you get that onto the train?” He motioned at her holster. “Security’s tight.”

“We have an arrangement with Black Rail.” Her expression hardened. “You’re not the only one with people everywhere.”

He laughed. “I’m afraid you’re still one step behind. I bought Black Rail two days ago.”

Pip cursed in her ear, and Jotham drew a sharp breath. Kiera felt her stomach hollow out.

“And you conveniently told us you were coming,” Wren continued. “There are no weapons aboard.” His eyes flickered to the digital stream and she followed his gaze.

31 MINUTES to LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM, EARTH.

She flinched as he leaned in to whisper, “The train is the weapon.”

“What?”

“No harm in telling you now… You have thirty minutes to live. It’s rigged to explode when it detects Earth’s atmosphere.”

London was not the primary target. Jotham voiced the same awful realization that hit Kiera. “Pip, get down into the crawl space! There’s nuclear fuel running this train!”

“Are you doing this for the Valiums?” she demanded. “What did they offer you for a suicide mission?”

Wren smirked. “It’s not suicide, darling.”

His hologram flickered, just once, and he vanished.

Kiera stared at the empty space, berating herself for falling prey to his gimmick. She swallowed a large mouthful of her Negroni and looked around. A diverse cast of alien species surrounded her, communicating through incomprehensible dialects. All of them blissfully ignorant of their impending doom.

“Pip, Jotham, did you hear everything?”

“Impeccably. What happened to Wren?”

“The old holo trick. Sorry I was slow on the uptake. What are our options?” Kiera willed herself to stay calm. Justin. I will see you again.

“Not many.” Pip’s somber voice mixed with the sound of clanking metal. “We can force an explosion before it hits the atmosphere. Trade the lives of the passengers aboard for, well, Earth.”

“No,” Kiera breathed.

“Unacceptable,” Jotham intoned simultaneously. “Can you disarm it?”

An intercom announcement interrupted them before Pip could give a verdict.

Attention, Black Rail passengers. We will be arriving in London shortly. Please have your documents ready, and thank you for traveling with us.”

The window blinds lifted. Black space sprawled out on both sides of the train, while a palette of stars coiled through the darkness. Earth loomed large, a brilliant blue orb suspended before them.

Kiera’s throat tightened. “You have to stop this, Pip.”

“Okay, this might be crazy”—he broke off, a cackle of static on the line—“I’m going to rewire the sensors, so hopefully it won’t recognize the planet as we enter the atmosphere: the instrument readings won’t match.”

“Wren said the train was rigged to explode only when it detects Earth’s atmosphere,” Jotham mused. “All right, do it.”

Silence overtook the line. Kiera watched the clock.

16 MINUTES to LONDON.

Her heart leaped when their comms crackled to life.

“Done. But don’t celebrate too early,” Pip warned.

Kiera could not tear her eyes from the window as they sliced into the mesosphere. Clouds fogged around them. She held her breath, fists clenched, painfully aware of every rattle and vibration.

Then, a glorious, midnight cityscape blazed into view below.

“Welcome home, team.”