A Shrine to Saint Ann (Sample)

Cover to A Shrine to Saint Ann
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A divine dream. A dead boy who won’t stop talking. And a goddess called Saint Ann, whose undead shrines make the grapes grow. Béata kel Kakiaretë, a curious traveller with a taste for the macabre, has plenty of reasons to visit the Tirannin Isles. But visiting’s not the hard part – leaving, it seems, just might be…

Now Béata has big problems. Is the finest vintage in the world really worth the life of the occasional human sacrifice? And if Saint Ann’s enemies come visiting, will it be wise to run the goddess’s errands? Just how much will Béata or anyone else have to pay for Saint Ann’s excellent wine?



PROLOGUE
In Another Country

WHEN Ann was nine, she buried herself alive.

It was late in the summer, only a few days before her tenth birthday. She crept out into the ghostly dawn, lightheaded from sleeplessness and excitement. Below the temple, the town lay dreaming; the air was pale and hazed with mist. The mountains slept. (She’d told her mother that once. Her mother had smiled and told everyone that children said such charming things, and Ann had said she wasn’t being charming, it was true. No one had believed her. Only Grandfather Jael, who was really Grandmother’s father because Grandfather was dead, understood.)

A narrow gully overhung with purple foxgloves lay near the trail the goatherds used when they didn’t want to go the long way round through the pass. Ann wriggled into the deepest cranny she could find, heaped stones and bracken and gathered moss over herself so that she was as nearly buried as she could manage, and waited for the magic to find her.

Grass tickled her face. The morning was warm now and would be warmer. Somewhere close by, water spilled over stone.

After a while, she fell asleep.

It was dark when Ann woke and a babble of concerned voices blotted out the nearby stream. “Here she is,” someone was saying, and Papa was calling her name and she was too cramped and cold to protest as hands cleared away the stones and bracken and lifted her out of the gully. By moonlight the foxgloves were grey and a band of stars sprayed across the night sky. Far to the north, glimmering on snow-capped peaks and valleys walled up with ice, she saw reflected the greenish glow of the river of burning dreams.

Papa’s arms were tight around her. “Ann,” he was saying, “oh my darling, are you all right? Who did this to you? How could this happen, here? Who could even think –”

Over his shoulder, Grandfather Jael was frowning. Ann almost burst into tears.

“I did.” Her voice was wobbly. “I wanted my magic to come…”

“I think,” said Grandfather Jael, “we should take her back to the temple and talk about it there.”

*

It was later.

Ann had been hugged and kissed and scolded by her mother, and thoroughly washed and checked for ticks after her father mentioned the bracken, and now she was curled up under her blankets in the interests of a good night’s sleep. She wasn’t particularly sleepy, of course. She’d slept all day. But Grandfather Jael had said she should be put to bed, because it was late and there was no point in upsetting the child and he didn’t think there was anything to worry about, after all. She could hear bits of the grownup conversation going on in the next room, just now and then, when voices were raised. That didn’t happen very often. Grandmother was there and Grandmother didn’t like people shouting at each other.

The talking had stopped by the time Grandfather Jael came in quietly. He must have been worried, because he’d forgotten to open the door.

“Ann,” he said, which was her cue to stop pretending to be asleep and sit up blinking in the soft light surrounding him like moonlight on mist. It silvered his hair and his eyes and bleached even the slightest colour from his already pale face. Ann clutched her blankets and managed an unsteady smile.

He sat down on the end of her bed. He was frowning again.

“Sweetheart,” he said, “when I told you how they find mages in Khivrenté, I didn’t mean you to take a lesson from it! What were you thinking?”

“I wanted my magic,” said Ann again, forlornly now. “I thought it would work…”

“Oh, Ann,” said Grandfather Jael. “What they do in Khivrenté is barbaric. They kill half the children they test, fledglings or not. It only works by fear and pain, and that’s just the start. And there’s no need anyway, which is the worst thing of all, because if a child’s talented, they’ll find their magic in their own time. There’s no need to force it. Just a little patience, that’s all you need.”

She watched his fingers pleating the blankets. “So I will be a mage?”

“All in good time.” He sounded resigned. “And then you ought to go to Sepharvain for training, or maybe Sela, but your grandmother wants me to see to it myself when the time comes. Though it would be better to find an earthmage to teach you, really. How you knew you were an earthmage – well, maybe you’ve inherited your grandmother’s foresight…”

Ann couldn’t imagine being anything else. She snuggled down in bed and let Grandfather Jael tell his tales of Sepharvain and the witch-cities of Tyria and even asked the odd question to make it look like she was listening, although in her head she was far away: a mage full-grown and very powerful, shaking mountains with every stride, bearing vengefully down on Khivrenté where they buried children alive and threw them bound into rivers or fires or over cliffs to force the magic out of them. When she was a grownup and had her own magic (this she thought drowsily, while Grandfather Jael drew pictures in the dim air of airy towers and ample temples), she would put a stop to that.

Patience was hard. Ann wasn’t very good at it.

She was good at disappearing when the whisper of the mountains singing summoned her away to wind and stone and running water, which upset her parents, because only Grandfather Jael could find her and she was usually meant to be in lessons anyway. It took Grandfather Jael telling her that she had to be able to read if she wanted to use spellbooks to keep her in the classroom. She couldn’t see why it mattered that this warlord had once attacked that city, or which territory was claimed by what country, or that a poet had once compared a lady’s eyes to lavender. The mountains didn’t care.

When Ann was twelve, the bleeding started and her mother said she was a woman now. After some consideration, Ann dismissed this as a piece of grownup silliness, because she certainly didn’t feel like one. She only told her grandmother, who laughed and said she was probably right, in that case. She should have told Grandfather Jael as well, or so Grandfather Jael said later, crossly, and was not mollified when Grandmother told him that women preferred to keep some mysteries to themselves.

The mountains were singing very loudly as Ann left the sanctuary. She was pretty sure even her mother hadn’t expected her to turn up for lessons afterwards, so she didn’t. It was a bright and breezy day. Beneath a frothing waterfall beyond the pass, Ann found what was left of a raven that must have been dead for some time, and since she was in a more than usually odd mood just then, she fished it out of the pool with a stick.

The grass was springy when she sat down. She stretched out the dead bird’s wing in a scatter of feathers. It was brittle between her fingers, and wet, and the head that was almost a skull stared sightless downwards, because its eyes were gone. She could taste decay.

Her fingertips tingled.

She took a breath and the world changed. The bird was dead and dying a thousand deaths in every moment – Ann knew this suddenly, as clearly as she could hear the mountains singing – and every tiny death breathed out a flamelike breath beneath bedraggled feathers. She breathed in and filled her throat with fire. She closed her eyes and could still see through every exposed inch of skin.

She breathed out again and brought the bird to life.

A kind of life, anyway. It strutted in the grass and clacked its beak and twisted its eyeless head as if to look around, while Ann stared fascinated and a little frightened, her breath still burning. Her mouth was full of rot and metal. She reached out and shuddered all over when it came to sit in her hands, a dead thing of bone and feathers, its feet shrivelled and knotted against her palms.

She wanted to run back to the temple, but then she might have fallen. She walked back carefully with the bird cupped in her hands and tried to ignore the nagging conviction that she could fly if she would only spread her wings.

Grandmother was still in the sanctuary, arranging white lilies round the angel’s lily-sceptre in its alabaster vase. “Ann,” she said and looked surprised when Ann held out the bird, not saying anything, because if she’d opened her mouth just then, her life might have escaped. It made an ungainly leap from her fingertips and would have swooped up through the air to perch on Grandmother’s shoulder, only half its wing feathers were lost, so instead it hit the clean marble in a clatter of beak and bones.

It scrabbled at the stone. Grandmother was staring.

“What,” she said, “is that?”

She said it in her grownup voice, the one she used when people came up from the town to tell her all their problems, or when they were quarrelling with each other and she wanted them to stop it, now. Her eyes were very blue. Ann hadn’t noticed that before, or how much Grandmother looked like Grandfather Jael, only much older. The milky ribbon of her hair lay twisted down her back.

“You’re dying,” said Ann, because she could taste the tiny deaths exploding under Grandmother’s skin. The bird had clawed itself across the sanctuary floor and was trying to climb Grandmother’s skirt. Ann said, “You’re dying, but not really. I mean, you’re only dying inside. You’re not really dying. I think.”

Grandmother unhooked the bird from her hem and held it at arm’s length. “What’s this?”

“It’s dying,” said Ann. “I mean, it’s dead already. But it’s still dying inside. I made it live.”

There was death under the drowsy sweetness of the lilies as well, and leaking from Ann’s lips and nostrils whenever she spoke or breathed out. Everything was so vivid. She was jolted by every feather that hit the ground.

The bird spasmed in Grandmother’s hand. “Oh, Ann,” said Grandmother in the dry, dark voice of her foresight. She seemed at once very far away and very close, and her blue eyes blazed like torches. “You shouldn’t have done that, child. My father is going to be very unhappy.”

She opened her hand. The bird and the sanctuary tumbled lifeless away.

*

… blue eyes became sky. Ann was lying on her back in the grass. She could smell only flowers and the richness of newly dug earth.

She sat up. Grandfather Jael was there, his expression forbidding.

“You’re not dying at all,” she said, blankly. “I mean –”

“I know what you mean,” said Grandfather Jael. “You’re right. I’m not.”

“But –”

“Lie down,” he said. “You’ve fledged. Sometimes it takes people oddly. I should have been there, but I wasn’t, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Concentrate on earth and stone. Forget about death. Forget about the bird. Don’t ever do that again.”

After that, there was no more disappearing among the crags and cliffs. Grandfather Jael could always find her and Grandfather Jael always did find her, and was not amused to have his time wasted like that. If she didn’t want him to teach her, he would happily take her to the Tower school at Sepharvain, thousands of miles away, and find a proper earthmage to teach her there. A little witch who could hear the mountains singing (are you listening to me, Ann?) needed to learn some discipline.

All the same, he almost always took her out of the temple when she fidgeted too noticeably. Sometimes magic was best learned out of lessons, he said, so instead of tedious theory-work or any of the other boring lessons that must still be learned, they went down to the meadows where the sheep grazed and Ann curled up in the living cradle of earth and grass and slow-voiced stone and listened to the mountains while Grandfather Jael listened to her.

She didn’t ask him why he wasn’t dying inside, like everybody else. She knew better than to ask him about death. The mountains were alive and the earth was alive and the grass and plants and trees were alive, and because she was an earthmage, said Grandfather Jael, all this life could be magic for her. That was fine. The sort of magic that came from death, especially the death of the living, was not fine at all. Some things were forbidden, even to mages. This was one of them. Ann, are you listening? Because death magic is very bad for the mage and even worse for whoever it comes from, that’s why. And don’t let me catch you playing with dead things.

There was no keeping secrets from Grandfather Jael. Ann tried to forget breathing a dead bird to life and almost convinced herself to dislike the tang of death that clung to living people.

Freedom returned for most of her sixteenth summer, since Grandmother slipped on the sanctuary’s marble steps and broke several bones and Grandfather Jael was too busy worrying about her to give Ann too many lessons. Ann spent her time beneath the peaks and the open sky, despite everything her parents said about using it wisely. She managed to acquire a companion, though, which was new. She’d never had much in common with the children who came up from the town to learn their letters, or bothered to befriend them, but among a party of pilgrims recently arrived to consult the temple’s oracle-books was a straw-haired boy a few years older than Ann. The boy, whose name Ann never troubled to remember, was employed to manage their horses and therefore at liberty to attach himself to Ann for the duration of his stay. Ann wasn’t used to this sort of behaviour, so she let him trail in the wake of her wanderings, although she didn’t have anything in common with him either.

“You have nice hair,” he told her. “It’s so fair.”

He was sprawled out nearby, having followed Ann up to the pass that morning, sweating in the sun. Ann lay with her head resting in the hammock of her interlaced fingers and stared up into the blue. Overhead soared the shadow of a black kite’s wings.

“I’m a mage,” she said. “My grandfather’s teaching me.”

The boy inched closer through the clover.

“You’re so pretty,” he said. “I heard an angel guards this place and I bet it’s you…”

Ann said, “I can hear the mountains singing. I can make illusions and witchlights and shields and witchfire. I can make the earth shake by stamping my feet. When I’m grown up, I’m going to be as powerful as anyone alive. My grandfather says so.”

The boy stroked a wayward curl. “You don’t need magic. Just your pretty smile.”

He was close now. She could feel the warmth of his body. He lifted himself up on an elbow and leaned in and pressed his lips against Ann’s mouth. It wasn’t surprise that made Ann breathe his death out, although it should have been.

She breathed it back a moment later, so she thought no harm was done. And anyway, she liked the boy better this way. He was quieter, for one thing. He didn’t talk about her smile or fondle her hair or try to kiss her. He still followed her around, but she didn’t really mind that. Sometimes, when she concentrated, she could see herself refracted through his blank brown eyes.

She didn’t realise he’d stopped eating for several days. He was drying out as well. His skin tore like paper when he bruised himself, without blood.

Grandfather Jael was furious.

It would have been bad enough if Ann had told him straight away. She waited to see what would happen to the boy instead. By the time Grandfather Jael crossed their path, the boy’s tongue was dry in his throat. Grandfather Jael’s expression gave Ann all the warning she could have wanted. She almost backed away.

“I didn’t mean to!” she said. “It just happened…”

Grandfather Jael looked at the boy. The boy looked blankly back with yellowed eyes. When Grandfather Jael laid a hand on one gaunt shoulder, the life went out of him and he folded up: dropping first to his knees and then, slowly, falling forwards into the grass. He didn’t move.

Ann stared. “You killed him!”

“No,” said Grandfather Jael. “You did.”

“But – I only – he wasn’t –”

“Ann,” he said. “Did you think I told you not to play with death magic on a whim?”

Now she did back away. He seemed very tall, suddenly, and very white beneath the towering walls of stone. There was light in his hair and glowing in his face, brilliant with anger.

“I didn’t mean –” she said uncertainly.

“What you meant doesn’t matter,” said Grandfather Jael. “The boy is dead anyway. Because you disobeyed me. Because you took his life and gave it back to him as magic, and magic doesn’t keep people alive, Ann, it only keeps them moving when they’re dead. Don’t think I’m speaking to you as a mage now. You won’t hear anyone teaching this in Tyria. They punish death magic there with death. The boy is dead and you killed him just as if you’d cut his throat! Don’t tell me you didn’t mean to do it. He’s just as dead whatever you meant to do!”

The boy’s body slumped between them. He wasn’t even dying inside. He was as dead as the marble steps outside the sanctuary. Ann bit her lip. “Can’t I bring him back –”

“No!” said Grandfather Jael, so forcefully that Ann jerked away in shock. “Don’t even touch him! Haven’t you learned anything? The dead should stay dead!”

She fled.

Grandmother was propped up in bed with one of the old oracle-books, her eyes dark with hindsight. “‘The city Tethys tests will sink’ –” she was saying “– ha! so much for the Rissalans and their succession problem – oh Ann, how nice – Ann, dear, whatever’s wrong?”

Her bedclothes smelled of lilies and dust and death. Ann was crying too hard to notice how frail Grandmother had become since her fall. She buried herself deep in Grandmother’s pillows and wished the world away: Grandfather Jael’s harshness and his incandescent anger and the finality of the boy falling dead in the grass.

Grandmother’s warmth was reassuring. “Ann,” came her voice, “have you been quarrelling with that boy…”

“He’s dead!” blurted Ann. “Grandfather Jael said – Grandmother, I didn’t mean to!”

She felt Grandmother go still. “Of course you didn’t,” said Grandmother, after a long moment. “Tell me, child – what have you done?”

It was past sunset when Grandfather Jael came in. Ann had almost calmed down by then; she was curled up beside Grandmother reading old oracles, while Grandmother told her which ones had been true and what they had meant and which ones were only nonsense after all. The curtains had been drawn and the corridor was dark, so the pallid glow preceding him under the door gave Ann a little warning. All the same, he still looked grim enough to make her quail.

“Now you won’t shout at the child,” said Grandmother, not looking up from the oracle-book. Her arm was protective around Ann’s shoulders. “She was very silly, but I think she’s already sorry enough. She didn’t mean any harm. She knows what she did was wrong.”

“It was,” said Grandfather Jael. “I should have taken her with me to tell the boy’s parents how he died.”

He spoke glacially. Grandmother sighed.

“She’s only a girl,” she said, “and only mortal. She’s your great-granddaughter. You can’t blame her for wanting to steal your fire.”

Grandfather Jael stood looking at her under his pale brows, while Ann held her breath.

“Another time, there will be a reckoning,” he said at last, gently, and went out.

*

Grandmother died eighteen months later in her sleep. She died in everyone else’s sleep as well. Ann woke up to a crazed white world and knew something was wrong even before she heard the news. It did snow sometimes, just enough to frost over the temple steps and glitter on the slate roofs down in the valley, but Ann had never seen such a blizzard before. The wind whipped the ice into such bizarre flurries that Ann thought she could see people walking out there, and almost recognised a couple, until the blurred forms came apart into gusts of swirling snow. She was staring out of the window when her father came in, his eyes still wet, and said she should probably sit down.

The temple was oddly quiet all morning. The sound of the bell tolling blew away in the white of the storm. At what would have been midday if anyone could have made out the sun, some of the townsfolk struggled up to ask Grandmother about the ominous weather and stood dripping shock and ice as the omen was explained to them. The news must have spread fast, because even though the snow went on falling people kept on turning up in ones and twos to pay their respects.

Ann had never known Grandmother not to be there. She couldn’t imagine the temple without Grandmother. She didn’t think anyone else could either. People clustered in corners talking quietly or sat looking dazed. The temple had never been so cold. Ann’s father went out and stood on the temple steps with a candle-lantern in the snow, even though he only had his slippers on and Ann could have witched him a proper light. He seemed terribly lost. Ann supposed he would be the temple priest now, although they would probably have to wait until Grandfather Jael showed up again to be sure.

Nothing was happening, so Ann ended up in the library with the oracle-books. The last page of the latest one was still blank. Grandmother’s notes were all over the table. Ann looked at them for a while and wondered whether she was meant to cry now. Then she gathered up the scattered sheets and stacked them in the middle of the table, because it seemed the right thing to do.

Grandmother had been laid out on a quilt in the sanctuary, blue-lit by witchlights glowing in bowls of enchanted water. The temple’s treasures had been brought out and lay gleaming around her. She was dressed in her most ornate festival robes, her hair combed loose over her shoulders, and the sacred lily-sceptre shone in her hand. On her breast lay the angel’s crown of white lilies. She looked as if she was only asleep.

She was still dying inside. Ann knew just how little that meant. And she was very cold, like everything else just then.

Ann remembered the raven.

It wasn’t a good idea. Ann knew that. She remembered the boy as well. But Grandmother was already dead and soon she would be buried and that would be that. Ann would never be able to talk to her again. She would never be able to say goodbye.

She wouldn’t be left alone with a dead person again, either. Grandfather Jael would never be so distracted again.

It was very dark outside now. No one had come into the sanctuary for some time.

Three breaths.

The first made Ann’s head spin. She hadn’t realised how cold Grandmother was. It felt like breathing icy fog. The second was warmer, a little. When Ann breathed out, Grandmother’s eyelashes fluttered.

On the third breath, Grandmother opened her eyes. She did not look happy.

It hadn’t occurred to Ann that Grandmother might not want to be brought back to life. It hadn’t occurred to her that Grandmother might not be under her control, either. She had breathed Grandmother’s death back into her, after all. She had controlled the raven and the boy, even if she hadn’t really known what she was doing then. She was the mage, not Grandmother.

In the bluish light, Grandmother’s face was grey. Her lips were bloodless and her joints creaked when she sat up. She wasn’t breathing. Ann took a step back.

“You stupid child!” Grandmother said. Her voice was dust-dry, rough with anger. “You stupid child, Ann. I’m dead! As if it wasn’t enough to have my father begging me to go on living, and he can go where the dead go whenever he wants! Why won’t any of you let me rest?”

“But Grandmother –”

“Ann,” said Grandmother, “shut up.”

She got creakily to her feet. The lily-crown, which had fallen into her lap when she sat up, tumbled to the cold marble floor. She kicked it away.

“I am tired,” she said, in that dust-dry voice. “I am old and tired and if I’d wanted to see my family crying for me, I wouldn’t have died in the night. And now you want to drag me back to this cold, dead body! You’re my granddaughter and I love you, but you shouldn’t have done it. I’m dead, you stupid child! I can’t protect you any more.

She was terrible in her festal finery, her hair spilling white over elaborate patterns picked out in gold and silver and shining crystals. At her feet, the temple treasures gleamed. Condensation bled from the sanctuary’s stone and crawled glistening down the white walls, leaving sluggish trails. The witchlights flared blue.

And Grandfather Jael was there.

He stepped out of Grandmother’s shadow. A ragged corona clung to him momentarily, light and dark bleeding together; then it was gone and he stood pale as a chalk scrawl on black slate, the lily-crown bright against his fair hair. His arms came around Grandmother from behind, so that when the life went out of her, as cold and terrible as it was, her body sagged lifeless back into his embrace.

Her old head fell slack against his shoulder, smiling. He laid her down on the quilt, so very gently. “Ann,” he said, kneeling there cradling Grandmother’s head. “The last time you did this, I promised you a reckoning. And here you are witching my dead Lily. What made you think I’d forgotten?”

His gentleness was more frightening than his rage would have been. “I wanted to say goodbye!” Ann said. “I didn’t mean –”

She wanted to run to Grandmother, but Grandmother lay dead in his arms. She didn’t think it would accomplish anything.

The kiss he pressed to Grandmother’s dead forehead was tender. “Of course you didn’t,” he said and rose as he released her. His crown of lilies glowed white. “You never mean it. But you do it anyway. Even to your grandmother. Come here, Ann.”

She came. It would have been impossible not to.

*

Where the dead go.

There were shadows and the edges of outlines and hints of a real, solid world somewhere just out of sight. Suggestions of movement stirred deep in the dark, and sighed, although there was no breeze at all. Ann couldn’t tell how long she followed Grandfather Jael through that gloomy place. In the light under his feet, a faint tracery of gilded mesh became grey grass and disappeared into shadow as they moved on. His hand on her wrist was the only thing that kept it from being a dream.

Grandmother had flickered flamelike, pale in the gloom. She was so much younger than Ann had ever known her, so young and so fair, and she turned her face away. She did not follow. Ann was very scared now. She didn’t think Grandfather Jael was trying to scare her, either, which made it worse. She tugged against him. “Grandfather, what –”

The dark dreamworld gave way to ordinary darkness, and only the texture of the air changed. It was cold again, suddenly, and musty, and she could hear stone singing. She would have been comforted, only she had never heard this song before, and she knew very well what the mountains sounded like around the temple. This was sandstone. There wasn’t any of that anywhere nearby.

Grandfather Jael let go of her wrist. There was sandstone all around, craggy and clammy and oddly ruddy, the shallow hollows of a crack through red cliffs filling up with his glow. He had never looked less human, which was something of an achievement.

“I promised you a reckoning,” he said, and said it gently. “I meant it. And you chose a bad day to try my patience. My daughter is dead. You are my daughter’s granddaughter and I love you, Ann, and one day I may even forgive you, but don’t hold your breath. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll come back when I feel like talking to you again.”

“But Grandfather –!”

“Find your magic here,” he said, and left.

There wasn’t anywhere to go but deeper into the stone.

The crack narrowed with every step Ann took, which would have been a problem if she hadn’t been able to set her hands flat against the stone and sing the sandstone’s song until it gave way, the seams parting and the particles coming apart into sand, sanguine at her feet. She wasn’t really thinking about it. She thought she should probably have been crying and wasn’t sure why she wasn’t doing that either. Her head was full of stone and magic. If Grandfather Jael had come back then and scolded her for not staying put, she would not have heard him. She wasn’t ready for it when her fingers broke through into air, and daylight, and a green so vivid her eyes filled up with tears.

It was grass. There was a stream nearby, and foxgloves. The path was well-trodden, so there must be a village somewhere nearby. Ann was still washing the sand away when a young man came whistling through the trees and looked surprised to find her there. She couldn’t understand what he said, although it was probably a greeting. His hair was dark and his smile was friendly, but he was dying inside, like everybody else. All the little wispy breaths breathed from every pore.

Ann was angry suddenly: with her father for crying and Grandmother for dying so easily and Grandfather Jael for not keeping Grandmother alive. For being angry himself. She was angry with the temple and everyone in it. Grandmother was dead and would not be coming back. Ann wasn’t going back either.

Don’t hold your breath, Grandfather Jael had said. She didn’t.

J. August © 2013


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One thought on “A Shrine to Saint Ann (Sample)

  1. Pingback: Short story: The Poet and the Lily | J.August

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