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The Balance of Dragons, by Shawn MacKenzie

The Balance of Dragons, by Shawn MacKenzie

The wind rolled across the moor, heavy with autumn heather and the scent of paper leaves. A trace of bitter salt from the Suthan Burh cut the air with endings and loss and the promise of early snow.

It had been a hard year in the land between the rivers. Spring came late, summer was tinder-dry; ewes cast before their time and the salmon ran light and small. Now came the killing frost before the Blood Moon

King Sevuk blamed it on the dragons. He blamed everything on the dragons. From the moment he planted his standard on the hillside and unearthed the first fieldstones for his castle, the inhabitants of the local weyr were the bane of his existence. It did not matter that he was trespassing in their home, poaching their woods and waters. It never crossed his mind to ask permission before ordering the forests cleared for fields and the caves scoured for hidden riches. He was a royal, with rights ascendant. His will was law; man and beast would yield before him.

The dragons laughed at such arrogance, but were disinclined to engage in an all-out war over human stupidity. They’d been through dark times before and did not wish to revisit the experience. Besides, there was space enough for all. But every so often, just to keep their paw in and the humans in line, they staged skirmishes and raids, culling a few cows from the herds, torching, by night, the scaffolding climbing round keep and kirk.

Sevuk shivered his shield and talked a good game but, like many of his class, he lacked the stomach for facing wing and fire. He was the King; his contribution to the common weal was top-down, at best. He ruled the rules, planned the plans, and expected fealty in return; but foes were fought by hirelings and minions. That was their place in the grand scheme of things, for meal and mail to lay their flesh and heirs on the line against man or beast or dragon.

Mercenary slayers were his first choice for the dragon problem, but, when none could be found for land or title, he consulted the priests who shrugged, then extracted from the musty pages of forgotten tomes the traditional remedy of Gifting, the Church’s benign euphemism for maiden sacrifice. For what dragon doesn’t relish a tender, virgin morsel? All the best lore says it’s so.

“You can’t be expected to do everything,” the clerics brown-nosed. “Call it a tribute—a tax, if you will—in exchange for peace,” they insisted. “The odds are fair, the herds stay safe, and the people do their part for the greater good. You are the king.  Who’s to say it isn’t just?”

The first was the Master Mason’s daughter, Eneh. She was bright and comely, and, as a child, had played underfoot in the nascent castle her father built. Sevuk watched her grow into a young woman. He knew her; he liked her. But dragons were dragons and he was the king. For his people, Sevuk hardened his heart and looked away. He locked her face and name in the recesses of his mind and forced himself to forget. As long as he didn’t know them, he told himself it would be all right; it would even get easier.

And it did.

Twice a year, beneath the full light of the Equinox moons, lots were cast and the chosen ones presented to the dragons. There was public pomp and honorific feasting followed by tears and private lamentation. Then priests who could not even put names with the faces of those lost, gushed pulpit platitudes about routing the devil and the greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward. As the years went by, the king, armoured by ignorance, lent his voice to the chorus of empty words.

How could they be otherwise?

In this dance with dragons, priests and king had no blood in the game. The clergy were celibate wallflowers and Sevuk, he was a bachelor. Whether out of the belief he’d live forever or deep-dark fears he dared not contemplate, he shunned expected needs for mate or child. Companionship was his to order, as, by liege right, was his subjects’ sacrifice.

So the rites of tribute continued. It did not matter that no one had seen more than a glimpse of a dragon in over a decade. The occasional scorch mark curling the hedgerow, an unusual claw print bleeding into the bog. No one even knew how many dragons were still at hand. That didn’t matter any more. Tradition was tradition. To keep the community safe, the fields and herds secure. To guarantee the greater prosperity.

Greenwood spit and crackle bounced round the hearth and echoed off the spare stone walls. Feet to the flames, shoulders hunched against the draughty expanse of the hall, Sevuk stared into the embers. His hair framed wary eyes, curling at nape and round ears in thick silver links weighing him down. There were times like this, tempest howling back into a past, when he allowed himself to wonder…. Had he a wife, a daughter of his own to share his days, his worried nights, might all of this be different? Might he have found the strength to face the dragons, to win the affection of his people not their fear? Might this hall be filled with music and laughter?

He downed his quaich of winter whisky, the peated stream burning his throat like dragonfire, then drained the bottle into his cup. Twenty-nine years, fifty-eight maidens. Had he a family, might he remember the faces of the women gifted?

With an anguished wail, the wind rattled the leaded panes, blowing them open, lashing the arras above the mantel. Sevuk turned his eyes to the weft-drawn knight standing triumphant over a bloody dragon: Draconis terminus.

Between gust and whisky and withering light, the dragon danced before the king, raising his battered head, mouth open in a merciless grin. The tapestry mocked him down to his bones. He closed his eyes, an impotent curse whistling through his teeth.

“Tomás – the window! And more wood; the fire’s almost ash.” The call to his chamberlain echoed without answer. “Tomás – Damn it!” Sevuk pulled his robe close and tried to will himself to stop shivering. He was still king. Let them find his body frozen stiff where he sat, he would not play servant to his own comfort.

At his back, the casement slammed shut, the latch falling true.

“Where have you been, old man?” Sevuk growled. “Build up the fire and fetch me more drink.”

Flames blasted past his ear, licking the embers to life. The king leapt to his feet, head clear, sword bare, and looked square into the face of a dragon.

Not a large dragon. Not a behemoth out of legend. But a solid, young lapis dragon, big as one of his wolfhounds, with a bewhiskered grin and pale smoke rising from his nostrils. But this dragon was not alone. With a delicacy that belied his size, he draped across the shoulders of his companion, a woman of indeterminate age, with oak-brown hair and a visage thin-lipped but bemused. The dragon’s tail vined round her moss-robed waist, an intimate band supporting them both.

“Steel serves no purpose here. King,” the woman said infusing Sevuk’s title with pitiful disdain. Not trusting the king to obey, the dragon disarmed him with a tail lash to the wrist, then blinked his amber eyes, laughing at the clatter of steel on stone.

“Guards! Guards!”

“Save your breath, Sevuk. They can not hear you.” The dragon slinked down her arm, onto the floor; he curled up, back to the hearth, eyes refusing to leave their host, as his person folded herself into the king’s chair.

“Oh, I’m sorry” she said. “Is this yours?”

“I’ll stand,” he replied, positioning himself so he kept both dragon and lady within his purview and waited.

Just as the moment was about to shatter into a million pieces, Sevuk broke: “How did you get past my guards?” he demanded. “What did you do to them, witch?”

That’s what you want to know? And here I thought you’d grown into that crown of yours.”  She causally sniffed the king’s quaich, then pushed it aside. “Sweetwater is better for you. You used to know that.”

“How do you…?” Sevuk inched closer, peering into the woman’s eyes. The dragon growled deep in his throat, but stayed where he was.

“Who are you?” Sevuk asked.

She sighed, the weight of years and sadness creasing her eyes. “And here I thought you might remember.”

The past squeezed the king’s heart until he gasped. “Eneh –? It’s not possible. The dragons – ” His hand reached out, seeking the feel of her skin, a confirmation of her reality.

Smoke in the wind, she evaded his touch. “Yes, well. Dragons.” She smiled from beside her companion, her fingers tracing ridges along his blaze. “There is a lot you don’t know about dragons.”

The king looked from chair to floor and back; then shook his head. How did she do that?

“The others, are they – ?”

“They are as I am, my liege. Does that please you?”

“How can you ask? Of course it does.” And it did, more than he’d thought possible.

A draconic snort of disbelief rocked him back into his chair. Not to feel any smaller than he already did, Sevuk cleared his throat and sat forward, eager as a royal schoolboy. “So. Tell me about your life, about the dragons.”

“Why tell when we can show, my liege.”

Before he could protest, the hearth-warmed blue twined his tail around the king’s ankle and spread his wings, soaring out through the window, over the battlements, and into the cold October night. Sevuk held his breath, then held his dinner – as long as he could. For a brief moment he thought he might actually have enjoyed himself had he been flying up-side up and not dodging treetops every few seconds. Where was Eneh? he wondered. Riding astride the dragon all safe and proper, or flying solo, perhaps. He’d seen no besom back at the hall, but there was no guessing what strange ways she’d learned over the years. Either way, the little dragon was right strong for his size.

Before he could sort out in his mind the wonders of weight versus heft, his shoulder met the ground with a resounding thump and, ankle free, he tumbled to a most undignified stop at the base of what could only be described as a dragon’s rubbish tip. He felt for broken bones, then, satisfied he would not fall apart like a stringless puppet, got slowly to his feet.

“This way,” Eneh said.

Without so much as a by-your-leave or inquiry as to his wellbeing, she drifted off through the citadel of granite basins and rough-hewn caves. In a great stone arena, she stopped and dropped Sevuk to the ground with a look. Perched on tiers round about were dragons of every size and hue. And by their sides sat fifty-eight women, aged fourteen to forty by the king’s reckoning. Sevuk reached for his sword, his hand coming up empty.

It’s all right, he told himself.  Eneh wouldn’t harm me.

“I’m here to learn,” his words were thin even bouncing off the stone bowl.

“To make amends?” It was a woman’s voice, though, through the gloaming, he could not see whose; even if he could put face to words, he would not have known her name.

“If I can. If you let me.” A low rumble grew into a roar, half laugh, half scorn. This was not going to be easy.

“Please, Great Dragons, Fair Ladies. Instruct me, that I might not wander this world, a fool of a king. The priests swore by the Gifting – ”

“Priests are jesters in cowls. You should have known better.”

Sevuk ground his teeth: no one chides the king, but having dragons on every side gave him pause. “Yes, they are, surely. And I am not like them – I would not be like them.”

Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Tat-tat-tat. Dragon talons were nothing if not persistent.

“These are facts…” A mellifluent fugue rolled down the tiers of dragons, starting with tenor tones of a great bronze creature perched on high. The king did not speak Dragonish, so Eneh translated. “We allowed you the land between the rivers. We put up with your plunder and theft, the cost of living near humans. Still it was not enough.”

A slender green took up the tale: “We’ve known your kind before. Always the same. A little land turns into a lot. Sharing turns to owning. You refused the simple cost of living in dragon country and would have wiped us out, first dragon to last, all for our taking our due. After all you took from us, you begrudged us the occasional sheep and cow? The rare display of dragonfire?

“You dared not risk livestock or battle, but your daughters…. Were they worth so little to you?”

Before Sevuk could answer (for what answer could he give?), a muscular dragon the colour of beech trees in winter scraped a talon across the rock. “We do not eat people. It is a rule we have. Too much gristle, too little fat, at least on peasant bodies. Not that we didn’t treasure your gifts. We appreciated each and every one. We kept them and learned their names and faces and taught them our ways.”

“But we are not dragons, you see,” Eneh said, approaching the king. “For all their kindness, they could not sustain us. They proposed sending us back to our families but we refused. They had already grieved and our return would only bring worse to the dragons.”

Sevuk held his tongue, humbled by the logic of her thinking. She may have been peasant born, but Eneh had a mind worthy of a laird. Or a queen….

She sliced the thought from his mind with a glance and continued. “Then the elders called the faërie, and they offered to take us in, one by one, as many as you sent, across the veil. And twice a year, when the veil thins, we return to visit our friends.” She held out her hand and Sevuk took it – she let him, this time – and his fingers passed through her palm like a dirk through cheese. A resigned smile crossed her lips. “There was a cost. There is always a cost.”

Royal relief turned to sorrow, sorrow to anger, as he looked from dragon to maid, one after another, accusing him on all sides.

“You think I wanted this? The Gifting? Had there been another way – ”

The bronze roared. “That is what your species always says: There was no other way. Did you think to meet us face to face, to treat us with the respect that was our due? Of course not. We are just dumb animals to you. Pesky obstacles in your way to be fought or bought.”

“I know better now. I will put an end to the ritual; make amends to your families.”

“Coin for care? Be a better man? A better king?” Sarcasm never cut so deep as on the tongue of a dragon. “What happens now, it’s not up to us,” he growled, furling his wings round the women of the fey. “It is up to those you have wronged.”

Sevuk looked to Eneh, but she’d withdrawn with faërie stealth, and stood in the solemn glow of her companions. She spoke for them all.

“Actions are taken, choices made. They cannot be undone. We are blessed to know the wisdom of dragons, to share in the magic of the fey. We would not be thus honoured save for your rule, and so we have chosen to forgive you, Sevuk. Your royal weakness and greed, your world of black and white and narrow thinking. We forgive that. You are only human. But we do not choose to forget. We travel through the veil and hold to every face and name and moment. Each day our hearts tear with partings from families past and embrace with joy wonders present. They are memories that keep us alive. You were our king, Sevuk. That you believed you were doing what was right for your people, we understand. That you forgot us, our names and faces, we do not.

“You are the king. There is a price to pay.”

Even dragon rules can be broken.

In the morning, Tomás found Sevuk’s naked sword lying beside the cold hearth. No one had seen the king leave, nor complained much when he did not return. That night, across the frost rimmed moon, the play of dragonfire lit the sky in one last rite of Gifting.

From that day on, life was easier in the land between the rivers. The governing council liked to blame it on the dragons.

***

About the Author:

Shawn MacKenzie had her first Dragon encounter when she was four years old and happened upon a copy of The Dragon Green by J. Bissell-Thomas. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Author of The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2011), and Dragons for Beginners (Llewellyn, 2012), she is an editor and writer of sci-fi/fantasy. Her fiction has been published in Southshire Pepper-Pot, 2010 Skyline Review, and as a winner of the 2010 Shires Press Award for Short Stories. Shawn is an avid student of myth, religion, philosophy, and animals, real and imaginary, great and small.

Her ramblings can be found on her blog, MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest and at her web site.

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Word Shark Art by Janice Phelps Williams

A special thank you

You may have seen this Word Shark artwork by Janice Phelps Williams on my Facebook page. Isn’t it cool?

About Janice

Janice Phelps Williams has worked in publishing since the early 1990s and has brought over 250 books “to life.” In addition to designing, illustrating, and editing books for others, she is also the author of Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life Through Love of Animals and is working on a middle-grade novel called Finding Pletonia. When not working on books, she likes to create altered books and take photographs.

Janice blogs about creativity at Appalachian Morning.

Find Janice’s book design business here. Book design, blog, editorial services, fine art, illustrations, photographs, and more!

Janice contributed to my Kids’ Week theme week. Her blog article includes a step-by-step list for working with an experienced illustrator. You can see Janice’s Kids’ Week article here.

Janice and her husband, Mark Van Aken Williams (a writer and a poet) live in Northern Michigan.

About Mark

Mark blogs at Shakes, Shivers, and Dithers. Read about his collection of poetry, Book Circus by Moonlight, and his novella, The Prophet of Sorrow, here.

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Kids’ Week – Illustrator, Book Designer, Janice Phelps Williams

Creating a Children’s Book!

Article by Janice Phelps Williams

As a child I spent most of my time taking dance lessons and practicing ballet. I loved Swan Lake and my toe shoes. But when I reached junior high my best friend and dance partner moved away, and I made the choice to discontinue lessons. I started playing guitar instead, and then I discovered drawing and crafts when I was 14 years old. I had to spend a lot of time in bed due to an illness, so I would gather my papers, pencils, sewing basket, small TV, and toy poodle all up on my bed and draw for hours. I was lucky to have a friendly art teacher, Mrs. Lotze, and she shared with me her love of watercolor paints and taught me how to draw.

I also loved to read and when I was healthy again, I went to the library and checked out all kinds of books. This is a love that has continued throughout my life.

When it came time for me to graduate from high school and go to college, the only thing I wanted to study was art. I was always happiest when I was creating something, so I did study art and graduated from Kent State University in Ohio.

As life went on, I found many opportunities to keep drawing and creating things through a variety of media. Sometimes I was paid for my work, at other times I worked just for the joy of creating.

In 1997, I started working as a book designer. In 1999, I started my own company and began designing book covers, designing the pages of books (layout), and editing books. I was also given the opportunity to illustrate books. A few of the books I illustrated were novels for adults: the books in the Will Turner Novels series by British author Chris Davey, for instance (www.turnerlogs.com).

Then, I was given the chance to illustrate a picture book by Kidzpoetz author, Robert W. Kurkela. The book is Still Her Spirit Sings and is about a wonderful real-life dog named Spirit. Here are two illustrations from the book. They were done in Sharpie and Prismacolor permanent markers.

Last year I was very excited to work on creating the illustrations for a book written by David Boyce: Two True Blue Dragons. I presented the author with pencil sketches, then black and white ink drawings for approval. Once those were approved, I colored the drawings in with Prismacolor colored pencils. I loved drawing these friendly dragons!

I have just finished illustrating a fun picture book for kids of all ages. If you check my website in September, you’ll be able to learn more about this surprising book. Below are a few little watercolor “snippets” from the new book.

My work for authors and publishers involves many steps:

1) The author provides me with the electronic file for the text of the book.

2) I then begin thinking about the story, how it will flow on the book’s pages, where the breaks in the text will be and what scenes should be illustrated. At this point I begin making a storyboard, which is a map for how the book’s pages will be laid out.

3) I send the author sketches of the main characters so that he or she can approve the look of these important figures.

4) I then draw two or three illustrations in pencil and send to the author for approval. (All of this is done using email.)

5) When approved, I then complete these two or three illustrations as they will establish the look and style of the book.

6) I refine the storyboard and come up with basic looks and illustrations for each page.

7) I send the pencil drawings for each illustration to the author for approval. If any changes are requested, I make them.

8) Then, I finish each drawing and send to the author for approval. Changes are difficult at this point, but if any are needed, I make them.

9) I then design each book page, importing the author’s story and my illustrations. At this point, it begins to look like a real book! We also work on any editing to the story that might be needed.

10) While all this is going on, I am also creating the book’s cover. Some books are paperback, others are hardcover, others have dust jackets, and others are also in ebook format. Each format has special issues to consider.

11) When everything is approved, I then consider the printer’s requirements and prepare PDF files for the printer, following their guidelines very carefully.

12) The day the books arrive from the printer is a very happy day.

Designing, illustrating, and editing books has been a wonderful way to earn living. I have met so many interesting people through my work and I am happy that I studied art and had the opportunity to work in publishing.

When I am not illustrating books for authors and publishers, or designing book covers, I am at work on personal projects such as a book I am writing called “Finding Pletonia.” It will be for 10-12 year olds and will be illustrated with drawings of all sorts of fantastic imaginary animals. Like this “elusive poplyn!”

***

Janice Phelps Williams

Janice Phelps Williams has worked in publishing since the early 1990s and has brought over 250 books “to life.” In addition to designing, illustrating, and editing books for others, she is also the author of Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals and is working on a middle-grade novel called Finding Pletonia. When not working on books, she likes to create altered books and take photographs.

Janice blogs about creativity at Appalachian Morning.

Find her book design business here.

Janice and her husband, Mark Van Aken Williams (a writer and a poet) live in Northern Michigan.

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Editor Spotlight – Shonell Bacon

Finding an Editor for Your Literary Baby, by Shonell Bacon

First, I want to thank Karen for allowing me to come here and litter her blog with some of my words! I appreciate it.

Today, I want to share with you some thoughts on finding an editor for your book.

Your book is completed. You’ve read through and revised as much as you can as creator, and you have formatted your manuscript according to traditional specifications (unless you are laying it out for publication).

What’s next?

Well, before you get all gung-ho and start submitting your book to publishers and agents, you should first send it to an editor.

Why?

Because as creator of the project, you are very close to the characters, the storyline, and all other components that make your book – in your mind – sing.

It often takes a second set of eyes – and sometimes a third set (or more) – in order to see spelling and grammatical errors, holes in plot, weak characters, etc.

First thing to ask yourself is “How publication-ready is my manuscript?”

The answer to this will help you discern if your book needs proofreading, copy editing, or substantive editing—to start. Below, I talk a little about each.

If you have just finished your book and are looking to have it edited for the first time, then you will more than likely want someone to conduct substantive editing to your novel. Substantive editing seeks to achieve clarity of subject, logic, and consistency. The development of the STORY is key in this level of editing. An editor will be looking for holes in plot, weak characters, development of beginning and ending, strength in dialogue—essentially those components that make your book a book. It doesn’t make much sense as an editor (or a writer performing self-edits) to dive-in headfirst looking at grammatical and mechanical errors. If the story itself is riddled with problems, a spelling error or a comma out of place means nothing. Once an edit for the soundness of the story is conducted, copy editing then becomes key.

When we look to copy edit, editors tackle the manuscript line by line, paying attention to small (yet oh so important) details like grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, passive voice, word choice, consistency of detail, spelling, and consistency of style. I like to refer to copy editing as the yin to substantive editing’s yang. Every story needs to be checked for development of the story and development of the words and punctuation used to develop that story. Copy and substantive editing provide this.

If your novel has already been edited and has been given thumbs up on story and on details, such as grammar and punctuation, and you have even formatted your book for publication if you’re going the self-publishing route, then proofreading would be your next hurdle before the finish line. Proofreading tends to focus on two things: 1) final check of spelling, punctuation, and serious grammatical errors and 2) problems that arise from layout, such as errors in headers/footers, page numbers, and widows/orphans.

Although there are some editors, like myself, who blur these types (I’m always, first and foremost, looking to develop the story, but I can’t help but to look at the minute details, too); it is important to know that you will probably need more than one edit.

Editing is an important process in getting your manuscript to shine; as a result, you should make sure you have your work edited more than once. In the initial stages, having a strong story is important; hence, you would look at substantive editing. As the “story” is perfected, you would look toward getting your manuscript copy edited, and in the final stage, once the manuscript is in layout form, you would seek someone to proofread your manuscript.

When you find an editor you’re thinking about using, be sure to talk with him or her before agreeing to have the person edit your work.

What kinds of questions could you ask?

1-      Do you have any clients/references that I can contact about your work?

2-      What is your editing philosophy?

3-      What is the process in which you edit and communicate with a client before, during, and after an edit?

4-      Do you provide a free sample edit so that I might see your work before making a decision?

This last thought has more to do with YOU than with the editor.

I have had people in the past come to me for editing, thinking I would have their book done within two weeks and they would be ready to send it out to be printed as soon as the book is in their hot little hands.

NEVER is that the case.

Here’s a drop of wisdom – you may have finished your book, but it’s not perfect…or as perfect as it can reasonably be.

When you send a book to an editor, prepare to have it returned with revisions (sometimes major) to be done. Editors do not write your books to make it better; that’s a ghostwriter, and s/he is paid a lot more money to write your book than we do to edit it.

Editors, and I’m speaking from my own experience, clean up errors and make a lot of suggestions. If I see a hole in the plot, I state where I see it and make suggestions on how to fix it. If I see weak dialogue, I explain why it’s weak and offer suggestions on how to fix it. If I see an underdeveloped main character, I point this out, explain why I think the character is underdeveloped, and offer suggestions (or ask questions) that can help the writer develop the character further.

The editor’s job is to fine tune, but most importantly (and specifically) the job is to help YOU make your book the best book it can be. We offer you the advice, suggestions, and tweaks that YOU – as creator of the work – can go back and develop to make your literary work shine.

Be prepared to put in the work needed in revising and don’t be in such a rush to have a book in between covers.

You’ll thank me later.

Shonell Bacon

About Shonell

Shonell Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, educator–everywoman. She has published both creatively and academically–novels, short stories, essays, and textbooks. In addition to her love of writing, she is also an editor (12+ years in the trenches) who loves helping writers hone their literary craft. She is an educator, having taught English and mass communication courses in addition to fiction writing. Shonell also finds the time to pursue her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

Links

Website

CLG Entertainment ~ editorial and workshop/coaching services

Facebook

Twitter

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I realize that not every editor/proofreader is perfect for every writer. This is why I am presenting the series, Editor Spotlight. If you know an editor or proofreader who would like to participate, ask them to contact me at karenselliott AT midco DOT net. The Editor Spotlight series will be presented throughout the next several months in between my regular blog posts and special theme weeks. – Karen S. Elliott

Editor Spotlight – Chris Eboch

Editor Spotlight – Heidi Thomas

Editor Spotlight – Shawn MacKenzie

Editor Spotlight – Wendy Reis

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