The Awkward Love Lives of Gargoyles – a flash fantasy story

By the time the sun set, Darbelfang had spent the whole day building up his courage. Unable to move while humans roamed the world below, unable to even talk with his fellow gargoyles, he had spent hours working out what to say and to do. He knew he wasn’t worthy, but he was as ready as he would ever be.

“‘Ood ‘uck,” Ordrasy said, grinning around the pipe that protruded from his mouth.

“‘Anks.”

Darbelfang hauled himself from his place above the church window and up the roof. Where the nave met the tower, he squeezed through a pointed window, his sandstone scraping against the frame, and lowered himself to the narrow ledge below.

There he saw her, carved from the purest marble, feathered wings sprouting from her back.

Mefolina.

He forced himself to stop staring and approach before his courage evaporated. As he got near, there was a low grinding noise and she turned to smile at him.

“Darbelfang,” she said through lips that had never been disfigured by a drainage spout. “It’s nice to see you.”

“‘Ou ‘oo,” Darbelfang said.

She was looking straight at him! He wanted to stare into those exquisitely carved eyes, but he was too nervous and had to look away.

“I ‘as ‘ondering,” he began. “’At is ‘o ‘ay-”

“I can’t understand you,” Mefolina said, looking at him quizzically. “Maybe this would be easier if…”

“Oh, ‘es!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. For the first time in days, his own lips met. “What I meant to say was, I think you’re really pretty and really smart, and I know I’m just an ugly brute with frogs legs and donkey ears, but-”

“I don’t think you’re ugly. The ears are sweet.”

Now he’d said something wrong! This was all going horribly. Darbelfang ran a hand across the course stone of his head and took a deep breath. Better to get it all over with now, to be shot down in one single, hideous go.

“I know you’re probably busy, and you won’t have the time, but I just thought maybe we could…”

“Could what?”

It was one thing to say this to an imaginary Mefolina, but saying it out loud, to the real her, and to face her response, it was all too much.

“Never mind.” He turned on the narrow ledge, ready to leave. “I’ll just go.”

A hand took hold of his, its surface as smooth and pale and beautiful as bone. Darbelfang quivered.

“I’m not good enough for you,” he muttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

She pulled him closer, smiling and unfurling her wings. Her face was inches from his. He leaned in closer, her lips parted, and-

“Ouch!”

“’Orry, ‘orry!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. “It comes out when I’m excited.”

Mefolina laughed, then covered her mouth.

“I didn’t mean to-”

Darbelfang leaned in again. But his clumsy frog legs lost their grip on the ledge. He tottered and started to fall.

Mefolina shot out a hand, grabbed him by the ears, and hauled him back to safety.

Sitting on the ledge, Darblfang stared disconsolately at the ground below. He’d dreamed of this moment as he slept through the long days of summer, but now it had come he had ruined it.

“I should go. I’m making a terrible mess of this.”

“Please don’t.” Mefolina bit her lip. “You’re funny and you’re smart and you’re one of the few gargoyles with the courage to come talk to me here. The problem isn’t you, it’s this stupid ledge.”

Darbelfang took a deep breath. He could barely bring himself to believe what she was saying, but…

“Maybe we could go up onto the roof?” he asked, daring to look at those finely carved eyes again. “We could catch pigeons and watch the moon rise.”

“I’d love that. Why don’t you lead the way?”

Darbelfang grinned and the pipe shot from his mouth once more. It was going to be a magical night.

***

This story started out as a silly comment on Twitter, about writing awkward urban fantasy romance. Once again, I will take inspiration from anywhere.

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Romantic Stories

It’s Valentines Day, and love it or hate it, thoughts turn to romance. So here are some of my more romantic short stories, available to read for free:

Surprise Me – a barista tries to express his feelings in a magical coffee shop.

My Origami Heart – a love story on the way to the stars.

The Wonders of Earth – a traveler finds wonders and friendship as he returns to humanity’s roots.

Phoenix Season – poetry and magic meet on a smugglers’ shore.

Misprints – batling printers and hidden messages in 17th century Scotland.

Not All Hands Tell the Time – Professor Liveci finds more than she expected when Master Forenti fits her with a mechanical hand.

All the Beautiful Sunsets – Romance lingers on the cusp of night and day.

Taking Time – obsessed with his competitor, an engineer hacks a difference engine.

Songs of a New World – songbirds bring beauty to a terraformed world.

 

Not Your Assistant – a flash steampunk story

Asya tightened the bolts on the left balance column then stowed her spanner in her leather apron. Turning the power valve, she let steam flow into the automated astrolabe. Pistons shifted and gears crunched as it started calculating stellar alignments. At the top, the great telescope started to rise.

“Stop that!” Genya appeared around the side of the machine’s brass casing, a clutch of punch cards in his hand and a scowl crumpling his handsome features. “I’m still assigning programs.”

“We already did that,” Asya said.

“We can do it better,” Genya replied.

“Put it back how it was.” Asya closed the steam valve. “I need to test the pistons.”

“I’m not your assistant. I will finish the programming and you can test the pistons when I’m done.”

She glared at his back as he left. At least she wouldn’t have to tolerate him much longer. The Tsar had ordered the machine completed and delivered to his observatory the next morning. Imperfect as it might be, it would do, and she would be rid of Genya, with his ridiculous floppy hair and those madly shining eyes.

She adjusted spindles and checked counterweights while she waited for him to finish. What was taking so long?

“Are you not finished yet?” she called out.

“The cards are set, but I’m not sure it’s right,” he said, appearing at her elbow. “We might have to reprogram after testing.”

“Reprogram?” She turned the valve and the pistons again stirred into life. “We can’t waste the whole night on your punch cards. There are other mechanisms to calibrate.”

“The programing is the most important. Without it, this is just a telescope that turns.”

“And without the lifts and balances it’s just a telescope. So stop wasting time and help me with the rest.”

“You’re not my supervisor.” He leaned in close to wave a finger in her face. He smelled of axle grease, the comforting scent of machines. “We both answer to the Tsar.”

“And we’ll both lose our heads if this isn’t finished.”

Some instinct held Asya in place. She forced herself to turn away from him, turning dials and tightening screws, examining the motion of the pistons for any sign of misalignment.

“I’m sorry,” Genya said quietly.

She blinked in surprise. Above her head, the main disk of the astrolabe turned, rotating the telescope to look at the best view it had calculated. Figures danced down the display.

“It’s just…” he began. “It’s just that your work is perfect, while mine has flaws to be adjusted.”

“You think my work is perfect?” she asked, amazed. He had been a thorn in her side for weeks. This was utterly unexpected.

“Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry if living up to that has made me irritable.”

A grinding sound made them both jump. Asya’s spanner was in her hand before she even thought about it. They rushed around the machine to find the source of the noise.

High on the left side, a brass plate was trembling. Gripping tight to any protrusion she could find, Asya scrambled up the casing. Precariously balanced on a bar engraved with lunar cycles, she popped the plate open.

Inside, gears were grinding against each other. She could see the tension rippling out through the machine, gears straining, steam blasting from pistons as they tried to move the immovable. The whole astrolabe shook beneath her.

“I told you we needed to test the rest,” she shouted angrily as she looked for the obstruction.

“No-one stopped you,” Genya shouted.

“No-one helped,” she yelled back.

There it was. A spindle had slipped loose, the gear it carried tangling with others. She pushed it in and for a moment the shaking stopped, but then the gear slipped out again. She went to tighten it in place, but her spanner was too large.

“Here.” Genya held a whole tool kit above his head. He strained beneath the weight, teeth gritted with exertion.

Asya snatched out a smaller spanner. She pushed back the spindle, tightened the nut holding it in place, and breathed a deep sigh as the shaking stopped and the telescope resumed its slow, steady turn.

With a thud, she leapt down onto the workshop floor and turned, ready to give Genya another earful about testing. Instead she paused, taken by the expression of sublime wonder on his face. Watching the motion of their perfectly tuned machine, she found her own anger ebbing away.

The telescope turned. As if sensing its gaze, the clouds parted and the light of a full moon shone down on them.

The moon the telescope had turned to view, entirely of its own volition.

“You did it,” Genya said.

“We did it,” Asya replied.

She put the spanner in her apron and let her hand hang loose. Her fingers brushed against Genya’s. Seized by the joy of the moment, she wrapped her hand around his. Her brain had just long enough to register fear at his possible reaction. Then his fingers looped through hers and he squeezed her hand.

“So it’s over,” he said.

“Yes.” Asya found herself unexpectedly sad. “I’m heading to the Shah’s court tomorrow to help build a chess machine.”

“Oh.” Genya sounded crestfallen. Then he looked at her, a timid smile on his face. “Do you need an assistant?”

* * *

 

If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Riding the Mainspring, my collection of steampunk stories. You can get a copy for free by signing up to my mailing list.

Genre in a Bottle – a flash science fiction story

computer-152500_1280“We’ve got a problem with the romance AI,” Kent said, his voice fuzzy through the speaker phone.

“I’m a lawyer, not a mind reader,” Roz said, drumming carefully manicured fingers on her desk. “What sort of problem?”

“The sort it’s your job to fix,” Kent snapped. “Conference room three. Five minutes.”

The line went dead. Roz kept glaring at it. She hated dealing with managers who had come up through tech teams. They had the people skills of a yak.

Still, she was a professional, and four minutes later she stood outside the conference room. Looking in through the glass, she saw a petite woman in a pink blouse and a man with the sort of suit high legal fees bought.

“You know the book feed program?” Kent asked.

“You feed stories to the sales AIs,” Roz said. “Whatever genre they’re responsible for selling. Lets them understand customers better.”

Kent sighed.

“Near enough,” he said. “This woman got chatting with the AI for the romance section. It had absorbed a lot of the language and mannerisms of people from those books. Things got glitchy.”

“Define glitchy.”

“They were flirting. She thought it was a real person.”

The lawyer looked up with a lizard’s grin. Roz could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. He reminded her of the vulture her husband had hired for the divorce.

Snatching the file out of Kent’s hands, she opened the door and walked into the room.

“Hi, I’m Roz Miller,” she said, settling into a seat. She glanced down at the file. “And you’re Polly?”

The woman’s lip wobbled as she nodded.

“What do you want to talk about, Polly?” Roz asked.

“I thought he loved me,” Polly wailed, burying her face in her hands.

“My client was tricked by your company,” the lizard lawyer said. “In order to sell more books, you led her to believe that she was in a relationship with someone called Chad. In reality, she was talking to nothing more than computer code.”

“Nothing more than computer code?” Kent said. “That program is amazing! It can learn, it can adapt, it can- ouch!”

Roz drew back her foot and smiled at Polly.

“How can we help?” she asked, as if the answer wasn’t obvious.

“My client is suing you for fraud and emotional harm,” lizard features said.

“How much?”

Lizard features slid a piece of paper across the table. The sum written on it would be damaging, both for the company and for Roz’s promotion prospects. She didn’t want to be forced into a negotiated settlement on this one, so she needed a way to block the case.

Just like the AI, she needed to know how Polly thought.

“Did you come up with this number?” she asked, still focusing on Polly. “Or did he?”

Polly sniffed and pushed the piece of paper away.

Another angle then.

“What do you want, Polly?” Roz asked. “Is it really about money, about an apology, or just about lashing out?”

“You can’t give me what I want.” Polly looked directly at Roz, her eyes burning with anger. “I fell in love with someone who isn’t real. I can’t have him, but I can have this.”

She held up the piece of paper.

Kent looked like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen in shock at Polly’s raw emotions. The lawyer looked like he was waiting to unhinge his jaw and swallow them whole.

“When did you find out that Chad wasn’t real?” Roz asked.

“They updated him.” Polly’s face trembled as she spoke. “Suddenly he didn’t talk to me in the same way. He barely remembered who I was.”

She put her face in her hands.

“I miss the conversations most,” she mumbled. “I feel so lonely without Chad.”

Roz kept her face still, but couldn’t keep from letting out a little of her excitement, tapping a finger against the desk. The lawyer, mistaking it for nerves, widened his grin.

“Your deception, followed by the change in your software, has caused my client distress.” He tapped the piece of paper. “This much distress.”

“Less your ten percent, of course,” Roz replied. “Can you even prove that the software changed?”

The lizard grin grew even wider as the lawyer slid a court order across the table.

“This says you have to share your old backups,” he said. “I trust you kept some, in case the update went wrong?”

“We’ve go a copy,” Kent said reluctantly.

“A copy of Chad?” Roz asked. “Like he was before?”

“Chad isn’t the program’s name,” Kent snapped. “It was just using it to-”

He stopped as Roz kicked him again. Across the table, a look of hope chased the sorrow from Polly’s face, as Roz had hoped.

“He’s still there?” Polly asked.

“That’s right,” Roz said. “If you continue with this case, then your legal team can examining the code behind him. But if you drop it, we can set you up with a working copy. One that remembers you. One that would love to have those conversations again.”

“Really?”

“Do you know how much work-” Kent began, then he looked down at the number on the paper. “I mean, sure, we can do that.”

“Thank you,” Polly said, beaming. “Thank you so much. And thank you for making this happen.”

She turned and hugged her lawyer.

He didn’t hug her back. His grin had fallen into a scowl, the dollar signs dropping from his eyes as Roz screwed up the piece of paper and threw it away.

“I’m so happy!” Polly said. “I’ve been so lonely, and-”

The door opened and a technician poked her head in.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Roz, Kent, you’re needed in conference room four. The directors say it’s top priority, drop everything.”

“What is it this time?” Roz asked.

“There’s a problem with the true crime AI,” the technician replied.

* * *

 

This story was suggested by Jen Phillips and inspired by Google’s use of romance novels to make their algorithms more conversational (more at this link). Thanks Jen!

If you enjoyed this then why not sign up for my mailing list at this link – you’ll get the sheer romantic thrill of a short story straight to your inbox every Friday, crafted by a genuine human being (me).

My Origami Heart – a flash science fiction story

origami heartI met her two days before the rocket was due to leave, carrying me away to a new planet, a new job, a new life. I’d spent half my worldly wealth on that ticket, and just thinking about it made me grin from ear to ear.

“That’s why I wanted to talk with you,” she said as we lay tangled amid the sheets, watching the sun rise through the broken blinds of her apartment. “You were so lively, so happy. Just looking at you made me smile.”

“I know the feeling.” I ran my fingers across the scars above her left breast, remnants of an accident years before. “You’re amazing, you know that?”

“Amazing enough for a second date?” She smiled at me. We both knew I was going to say yes.

“I’m not sure last night counts as a date,” I said. “A couple of beers and a game of pool isn’t very romantic.”

“Then let’s have our first date now.” She leapt up and pulled on her jeans. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”

*

“You’re looking pretty miserable for a guy who just got laid.” Frank tightened a strap on his harness. It was our last chance to practise emergency procedures before the flight, and like everything else we’d done since the age of twelve, we were doing it together.

Almost everything, anyway.

“She bought me blueberry pancakes for breakfast.” I sighed.

“You love blueberry pancakes.” Frank looked at me with concern. “What’s the problem?”

“I think I love her. I don’t want to leave her behind.”

“Shit, buddy.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “That’s tough. But you’ve only known her for one night.”

“What if she’s the one?”

“Then lets hope you find the two when we make planet fall. That’ll take your mind off it.”

*

I shifted from one foot to the other, jittery and impatient as I stood outside the restaurant. After fifteen minutes a waiter came out.

“Excuse me, sir, but are you waiting to meet a woman?” He described her hair and build.

“Yes,” I said, and then a horrible thought hit me. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all.” He smiled. “She was even earlier than you. She is waiting inside.”

I practically ran past him and over to the table where she sat, looking even more beautiful than I remembered. Then I froze, unsure how to behave around the love of my life, who I’d met twenty-four hours before.

“Come here.” She reached up, kissed me, and then pushed me down into the seat across from hers.

“I need to tell you something.” My heart hammered so fast I thought it might explode. There was no way I could keep the words in. “I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ve got a ticket on a transport to the colonies.”

“Oh.” Her face fell. “I…”

“Wait.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a plastic chit, the ticket I’d spent the remaining half of my worldly wealth on. “I know this is crazy, I know we’ve only just met, but I’ve never felt this way before. Will you come with me?”

Mouth hanging open, she stared at the ticket.

“Oh, god.” She blinked. “Oh, I’m so sorry…”

“No, I’m sorry.” I could feel my soul shrivelling as I shoved the ticket back into my pocket. “You don’t know me. This was a dumb idea.”

“You ass!” She grabbed my collar and hauled me halfway across the table before planting a kiss. “It’s the most wonderful, romantic idea. But I can’t.”

She took my hand in hers and placed it on her chest, where scars were visible at the top of her dress.

“It’s my heart,” she said. “The accident destroyed it. Paramedics put in an emergency replacement, one of those Japanese hearts that unfolds like origami and keeps everything in place. It’s the only reason I’m still alive, but it could never take the pressure of space travel.” She kissed my fingers, and there were tears in her eyes. “We have tonight. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

*

I didn’t have to be at the observation platform to know she would be there, watching my ship take off on a journey from which it would never return.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” I said as I walked up behind her.

She turned, eyes wide.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “You’re meant to be in space.”

“It’s my heart,” I said. “Turns out it’s made of origami too. It would have folded up and died without you.”

 

*  *  *

This story was inspired by a story about an origami bridge. The science is theirs, the sappiness all my own, and the pattern for the heart in the picture comes from here.

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