A few months ago, I was perusing twitter (as one does) and stumbled across this writing contest where you can win a decent chunk of change – up to $6,000 if you’re the best of the best. Being bored (and broke) I decided the contest looked legit enough and I threw a short story I wrote for my writer’s group at it. Turns out, this contest was Writers of the Future and it’s more than just legit. I’d unwittingly stepped into a big, long-running, totally authentic writing contest that’s seen the rise of the likes of Patrick Rothfuss, and Brandon Sanderson himself is one of the judges.
I spent the next few hours kicking myself for not doing a little more research so I would have known to take the contest more seriously, and then the next few months waffling between thinking I was going to totally lose to dreaming I’d win it all. Well, you know my results already: Honorable Mention.
The best Google tells me is that “honorable mention” is more than a participation trophy, only 5-15% of participants receive it, although it’s the lowest tier of awards (behind Silver Honorable Mentions, Semifinalist, and Finalist.) But it does mean somebody thought my stuff was something, and that’s not too shabby!
So anyway, here’s the story. How would you rank it?
Bells clanged in the town square – the wild pteranodons squawked in answer – and Tazja ran. Dust, driven by the eastern wind, swirled with the liter at her feet. Far above, in the mass of listing apartment buildings that made the alley, a lantern-lit face peered down at her from the occasional bedroom window, but there was no stopping now.
I shouldn’t have left.
Tazja knew that, but all the same she couldn’t keep the smile from her face or quell the excited pounding of her heart. The sila’ar hung heavy around her neck, and she pressed the pulsating blue stone to her chest to try and hide the glow. Even under her shirt it managed to deepen the shadows of her face.
She wore her long coat despite the unseasonable warmth of the autumn night, but nothing separated the amulet from her skin. It chilled her veins like ice – like driven snow collected in the dead of winter – but that only made her want to clutch it tighter.
They said the sila’ar was dangerous.
And Tazja believed them. Of course she believed them. But these were dangerous times, and she had no right to hide behind the status of her blood. Besides, the sila’ar was to be her birthright, anyway – in a decade or so – but the people in Lebka didn’t have decades to wait.
A screech split the night air. Tazja drew in a sharp breath and ducked into the shadow of a nearby balcony overhang. The sound was both a low hum and a scream, it rattled loose shutters and silenced the dwindling flock of pteranodons. Tazja recognized it. Only a raptor’s call could be more distinct, but they rarely came out of the mountains anymore. This was a saurolophus, and those who knew better feared them more than raptors and rexes alike.
With shaking hands, Tazja yanked the sila’ar out of her shirt and let it fall against her leather tunic. The glow began to fade as soon as the amulet lost contact with her skin, but she caught herself counting the heartbeats until the light winked out completely. Once finally left in darkness, she let out a sigh of relief. That should throw the phus off my trail.
The beast would be able to track her if she used the sila’ar anywhere within the city, but she’d be safe once they made it past the coast. That is, if those useless bits of trivia she’d had to memorize for midterms were anywhere near accurate.
Tazja took in a breath, pulled her coat in tight, then took off again down the alley, her heavy boots splashing through the occasional lingering puddles. The Ministry would spend the rest of the night searching, but without the saurolophus to guide them they’d have to use their own instincts, and they’d start by questioning the Sloven. They always blamed the Sloven, for everything and anything. They’d never suspect one of the Ijka, one of their own.
It might be days before they even notice I left my dorm room.
Tazja jogged out onto the main road and two soft lights broke the monotonous dark: first, the moons at her back, and second the eminence of glowstone which lit the string of billboards lining the cobblestone street. Not all the boards were lit – only the richest of the Ijka could afford such frivolity – and only the largest board was lit very well.
Her smile twisting into a smirk, Tazja ran towards the glow. Along the edges the board displayed colorful paintings of some of the best working and leisure beasts the country of Zakłada had to offer – the stegosaurus, the triceratops, the ankylosaurus – but in the center, in the place of prominence, it held the portrait of a man.
Tazja gripped one of the beams which held the billboard high above her and, with a tight grip, climbed it like she would the trees back home. The Ministry pressed all university students into some sort of gym class each semester, but it was nothing like the Ijka training of old she’d read about. And anyway, she’d learned far more playing in the forest with the Slovens’ children in all the years before she’d been educated at all.
As Tazja climbed, the billboard-man watched her, his smile tight and his dark green eyes distant. When she finally hauled herself onto the small foot platform which held the glowstone at the base of the board, she laughed aloud and pushed herself to her feet.
“You are always watching, father,” Tazja shoved her extended pinkie finger in the billboard man’s face, “but never close enough!”
Tazja yelped and spun around, catching her foot on the edge of the platform. Her stomach lurched as her balance trembled, but the figure darted out of the darkness and caught her by the elbow.
“You need to be more careful.”
Tazja squinted into the shadow of the figure’s tattered hood and could just make out the glint of his pale blue eyes. “Jacek?”
He grunted. Jacek was seventeen – a year older than she was, a head and a half taller, but still just as lean and wiry. “This is a stupid place to meet.”
Tazja laughed, although her smile didn’t linger this time as she met her father’s painted gaze. “I thought it was poetic. Or, would it be ironic? I failed that literature exam.”
Jacek only huffed, then pulled her farther behind the billboard. “Do you have it?”
Tazja frowned – her thoughts bounced somewhere been concerned and frustrated – but Jacek didn’t even look at her, his gaze fixed on the sila’ar hanging around her neck. Slowly, he took hold of the amulet.
“You know it only works for Ijka,” Tazja motioned towards her own bright green eyes.
At first Jacek didn’t seem to hear, but finally he nodded. “I had to know.” His voice came as a harsh whisper, and he didn’t take his eyes off the sila’ar even as he released it. “I had to know if it was just another lie they’d told us.”
“Hey,” Tazja wrapped her fingers around his cold hand, “I haven’t seen you in six months and that’s all you have to say?”
She lifted Jacek’s chin so he’d look at her. He had bags under his eyes that she didn’t remember, his cheeks were gaunt and sunken, and his curly mess of dirty blonde hair was greasy and disheveled, even for him. She stood on her tip-toes and kissed him anyway. At first he didn’t react – for a second it felt as though she’d kissed a statue – but when left with a moment to kindle her spark brought him back to life.
Jacek returned the kiss, then pulled her into his arms and buried his face in her neck. “I’m sorry, Tazja, I’m so sorry. I’ve just been distracted, with…”
“I know.” Tazja leaned out his embrace but didn’t let him go as she flashed a smile. “Now, where’s our transport? Please tell me you nicked a Quetzalcoatlus, I know the baron has one and I’ve always wanted-”
“Nope.” Jacek grinned, in his own lopsided way, which under the circumstances was more than a little dangerous. “The folks back on Lebka have found us something better. Oh, and I also brought you this.” He reached into his baggy trouser pocket and produced a small, flintlock pistol.
“Jacek!” Tazja gasped, in spite of herself, then snatched the pistol from his hand. “If you were caught with this, they’d kill you, they’d…”
Jacek’s grin didn’t fade, but the glint in his eye hardened; he flung back his cloak to reveal two more pistols – both of them larger than the one she held, each strapped in a holster at his side. Tazja could only stare, as though she were standing before a stranger.
Jacek’s grin faded then, and he let his muddy cloak fall back over his shoulders. “…it’s been a long six months.” The moons light framed his silhouette silver as he shied away from her gaze. “Come on, we’ve got to get to the loading docks.”
* * *
Tazja gawked at the contraption as she ran her fingers through her short, brown hair. “You came here in that?”
It looked more like a pile of scrap metal than any sort of transportation. It had the same general shape of a pteranodon – wide wings, a swooping apparatus in the front that could serve as a head, pegs with wheels at the bottom which somewhat resembled feet – but all saurs had their own life, their own energy which gave them strength, flight. This was deader than dead. This was never alive in the first place.
Jacek laughed, then grabbed her hand and pulled her out from the shadows behind the shipping crates. “It’s perfectly safe. Kazmirez designed it, before-” Jacek fell silent, and Tazja yanked him to a stop, halfway between their hiding place and where the transport waited at the edge of the loading docks.
“Kazmirez is dead?”
He looked down at his feet; the darkness hid his face and the salty sea air blew his unruly locks over his eyes.
“Jacek,” Tazja rubbed his arm, “I’m so sorry. How did it happen?”
He only shook his head. “Not here.”
A shout came from farther back on the platform; Tazja didn’t catch the words, only the angry tone, but Jacek shoved her forward. “Run!”
Heart pounding, Tazja did as she was told. Jacek followed her, and two figures followed him. They were low level guards, judging by the modest insignias on their jacket lapels, but it didn’t take an Ijka merchant general to recognize the universal sign of guilt.
Once they reached the contraption, Jacek threw his weight against one of the wings and started pushing the thing towards the edge of the loading dock. Rope railings lined the left and right sides, but at the far end nothing waited except a long drop towards the crashing waves far below. This was, after all, the tallest loading dock, built for the tallest merchant ships.
“Come on!” Jacek shouted.
Thoroughly confused, Tazja braced herself against the other wing and with a grunt helped Jacek push the contraption towards the ocean. It had to weight more than the both of them combined, but once it started to roll there was no stopping it. The cold wind whipped upwards with the crashing waves; it caught on the underside of the wings and the whole structure rattled with the desire to take flight.
Jacek swung himself into the bench seat nestled beneath the wings. “Get in!”
A shot rang out behind them; Tazja screamed, but Jacek grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her into the seat beside him as the contraption tipped over the side. She felt the drop before she saw it; she clenched her eyes shut, tightened her grip around Jacek’s waist, then held her breath and waited for the cold sting of the sea to envelop them both.
Only, it never did.
Another pistol blast sounded on the platform, the sound muffled by the roar of the wind. A second answered it, this one deafening.
“Jacek!” The moment Tazja opened her eyes she regretted it.
The ocean waves churned far below them, dark and menacing. Nothing but the wind kept them out of the water’s embrace and yet the wind carried them. The contraption didn’t move, it didn’t flap its wings like a pteranodon would, but it flew all the same. Tazja laughed, awe overcoming her fear. Flight without saurs? This would change everything…
Jacek wriggled out of her grip to draw his second pistol, then spun around to fire another shot at the guards on the dock. The powder lit with a flash like lightening and a thunderous explosion followed as pungent smoke billowed from the barrel.
“Jacek, stop!” Tazja pulled his arm down, even though she knew it was already too late. “We’ve made it, they’re only doing their jobs!”
He stared at her for a long moment before slowly holstering his pistol. The reflection off the water caught in his eyes and somehow – oddly enough – it reminded her of her father’s billboard. “They chose their side when they put on that uniform.”
* * *
Tazja awoke to the cry of seagulls and an earth-shaking clatter.
She nearly screamed when she saw the crystal blue ocean lulling far below her feet, and then it all came flooding back. With a jerk she took her head off Jacek’s shoulder and reached for the metal bar beside her to keep from falling out of her seat.
“What’s going on?”
Jacek grunted and shook his head. He was chewing his lip like he did whenever he really concentrated; his white-knuckled fists gripped the lever before him, and he didn’t take his eyes off the horizon. “Something in the tail is coming loose. We’ll make it.”
He sounds confident, but when doesn’t he?
Tazja turned in her seat to study the rear of the machine. The tail stretched out behind them, long and thin, and seemed to have something to do with their ability to steer. The flat, fin-like tip at the end was what rattled. It was coming loose at the metal bracing half way down the tail, and every shift threatened to pitch the ship into a spiral towards the ocean.
“I can fix it.”
Jacek shook his head, absently, and pointed off to his left. “Lebka’s right there.”
Tazja squinted against the glare of the rising sun. After all this time…
The town itself was smaller than she’d imagined – from this distance it looked more like bricks or seashells covered in climbing ivy – but the skeletal foundations were bigger than she would have ever believed. The beast must have been massive, larger than the entire city she’d left behind, but all that remained of it now was its skeleton. Its vertebrae and part of its back, bleached white by the sun, stuck out of the water providing Lebka with the barest section of dry land, while the rest of its ribs disappeared in the obscure depths below.
Lebka, city of living, built on remnants of the dead.
“It’s, it’s amaz-”
The ship pitched right, nearly throwing Tazja out of her seat before Jacek wrenched the thing back under his control. Tazja sat frozen for a long moment, then let out a sigh which ended in a nervous laugh. Jacek sat stiff and upright, and his hands shook as the gripped the controls.
“I’m going to fix it.” Tazja started to take off her long coat – it’s too hot for the thing anymore, anyway – but Jacek met her gaze.
Tazja raised an eyebrow. “No?”
He sighed and looked down at his hands. “…please don’t?”
Tazja grinned, then shucked her coat all the way off and tossed it over the side. The wind caught the cloak, and it fluttered down to land in the water somewhere beyond their ship’s shadow. She pulled a wrench from the pouch beneath her seat then pushed herself to her knees.
“Keep steering the thing, Jacek, I’ll be right back.”
She crawled over the back of the seat then, with her grip on a guide strap hanging from the wings above and her feet arched over the shaft of the tail, she crept her way towards the loose flap. Jacek muttered something to himself, but the both of them knew there was nothing he could do to stop her. A seagull’s cry caught her attention and Tazja had to stop there – in the middle of the tail, the wrench in one hand and the guide strap in the other – to look down.
They were above the birds – above the sky.
It was terrifying, and mesmerizing. Tazja never really had learned the line between excitement and fear. That’s what her mother said, anyway, after she finished switching the back of Tazja’s legs in correspondence with her latest adventure. For whatever good that ever did. Her father never commented or intervened, only watched.
Tazja laughed, before she knelt down to inspect the end of the tail. “Jacek…”
He stole a glance over his shoulder. “What?”
“The bolt’s missing. I can’t fix it.”
He muttered under his breath again, but loud enough this time that she recognized the curses. “Just get back in your seat, we’ll-”
The loose flap shifted and the ship pitched left. Tazja screamed as her feet slipped, and then she was hanging in midair, her only grip on life the guide strap in her hand. Jacek might have said something but she didn’t really hear him. The tail clattered, then fell deathly silent as the piece fluttered off into the distance behind them; the ship listed into a spiral, dragged down by Tazja’s weight.
We’re going to die.
She had clarity enough for that single thought, then the sudden lurch slammed the sila’ar against her chest. The semblance of an idea flicked in her mind – she didn’t have the time to hesitate, or think it over.
Tazja let go of the ship and shoved the amulet into her shirt.
She fell straight as a rock while the ship flitted like a leaf, but there was no helping that now. The strength of the sila’ar called to her and she embraced it; the power washed over her like cold fire.
Tazja flung her arms out to her sides, following the precise hand shapes and motions her professors had taught her. She had to use both hands, and the motions had to be exact, otherwise the sila’ar would not respond. Fortunately, that was the one class she enjoyed.
The water below called to her – warbled and thready – and she called back, coaxing it out of its complacency and into her control. The salty air whipped by her bare shoulders and tugged at even her short hair; the ship momentarily cast her in shadow as it passed overhead in its spiral. Then the ocean answered.
Tendrils of water shot up on either sides of her and caught the ship by its wings. Lebka wasn’t more than a few stone’s throws away; with a shout Tazja flung her hands forward and sent the contraption plummeting towards its intended destination atop a swell of water.
What about me, idiot? Tazja knew her own thoughts but they felt distant, abstract – reality was the lulling roar in the back of her mind, and everything else told her to ignore it. The Temper.
Every professor harped on it, told all the same stories about Ijka who went too far or students who took on more than they could handle, but they’d held her back and never let her anywhere near it. Now I know why.
Tazja wanted to fight, but deep inside she was cracking to pieces – like a glass window through which someone had thrown a stone. She’d linked herself to something infinitely more powerful than she could be, and by the nature of her own frailty it was going to tear her apart.
“…Tazja!” Jacek’s voice echoed somewhere in the distance.
Tazja’s thoughts remained distant, but her own arms moved to pull a swell of ocean water towards her. It hit her with a shock of cold, but it didn’t hurt; she tried to swim but sank anyway as the current carried her forward.
* * *
“…stay back.” It was Jacek’s voice. Tazja felt light and she swayed to the rhythm of someone else’s gait.
“You brought an Ijka here?” That was a person she didn’t recognize, and the woman sounded furious. “An Ijka? Boy, you court death-”
“She’s not Ijka.” Jacek’s voice was frighteningly stern; the sound echoed in the chest pressed against her ear. “She’s one of us.”
Tazja forced her eyes open; she tried to move, but her own weight was too much.
“Tazja?” Jacek set her gently on the sandy shore, but kept his arm wrapped around her shoulders. She blinked against the glaring sunlight but managed to give him a smile.
“…please, just steal a pteranodon next time.”
Jacek laughed and pulled her into a hug. He smelled like the ocean just as much as she did, and for him that was an improvement. “What you did…”
Tazja winced as Jacek released her. Her arms ached, and when she glanced at their underside she found a massive, purplish bruise running the length of them in the same pattern as her veins. The Temper-mark.
Jacek drew in a sharp breath. “What happened? The shoals?”
Tazja shook her head, then pulled the sila’ar from her shirt. “Just this.” She shivered as the amulet lost contact with her skin.
He stared at the stone – out of fear this time, not longing – as an audible gasp rippled through the crowd. Tazja looked up, for the first time noticing there was a crowd. They were young and old – all in threadbare clothes, all with dirty faces. Some were strangers but others she recognized as past servants on her family estate. Most of them stared at the sila’ar with the same eagerness Jacek had at first, but a few appeared to understand the gravity same as she did.
Well, same as I do now.
Jacek rose to his feet, then offered Tazja his hand and pulled her to hers. His gaze drifted to the bruises on her arms. “Maybe you shouldn’t…”
“What?” Tazja took a step forward, then had to latch onto Jacek’s arm to keep her knees from giving out. “You said the east side was sinking, I can fix it. I read up on all of it…”
Jacek nodded, but still didn’t look up as he ran his fingers through his mop of wet hair. “Kazmirez drowned trying to pull some kids out of one of the houses. I was just so mad. The Ijka, they either take our freedom or they take our safety… that leaves us choosing death, in one form or the other. I wrote you that letter, but maybe I shouldn’t…”
A sharp horn blast rang out over the town, three short bursts followed by one long. The crowd murmured nervously, but the confliction in Jacek’s gaze fell away and he scanned the horizon with the authority of a man twice his age.
“There.” He pointed back towards where they’d come.
Tazja’s heart sank. It was a ship – an Ijka merchant ship, with tall crimson sails. “How? They’d have to’ve put out from port almost as soon as we did…” The wind caught the standard flying from the main topmast. It was purple, with the grey silhouette of an ankylosaurus. “Gods, that’s one of my father’s ships.” The one time he takes an interest in what I do, it had to be now?
Jacek brushed past her, drawing both of his pistols which he shoved into the hands of the nearest man. “Put these somewhere to dry, and fetch me two fresh ones.” He turned on the next body standing idle. “Sound the shelter alarm, and get the cannons ready.”
The villagers jumped at his command, and Tazja had to laugh. “Well, look at you. You sound like-”
Her smile died on her face. She wasn’t going to say that, but now that he said it…
Jacek glanced at his feet, losing only the sharpest edge of his anger. “Someone has to.”
Another trumpet blast sounded – just one, long note. Jacek took her by the arm and dragged her towards the misshapen row of ramshackle houses. “Come on, you’ll be safe in one of the shelters.”
Tazja wrenched her wrist from his grip. “Safe? From what?”
Jacek stopped, then slowly turned back.
“You…” Tazja swallowed, “you’d fire on my father?”
His expression didn’t change.
Tazja laughed – she was anything but amused this time, but it was the sound she had to make. “Jacek, no. He’s my father! He-”
Tazja flinched and took a step back but Jacek fixed his rage on her.
“He chose his side! They’re the ones who separated the Sloven from the Ijka, the ones who drew the bloodlines and left people like me dying in the gutters. Let them deal with the consequences!”
“Dying in the gutters?” Tears welled up in Tazja’s eyes and they kept coming no matter how hard she blinked. “Jacek, did you want for anything while you worked our estate? Didn’t my father let you go? Without hesitation or demand for compensation, the moment you asked him? Didn’t he let so many of you here go?”
Jacek started to shake his head, and he lowered his voice. “That doesn’t change what he is.” Slowly, he looked up to meet her gaze. “But you’re not him, Tazja, you’re-”
“No!” She pulled away from his hand. “I came here to keep a town of refugees from sinking into the sea, not to help blow up one of my father’s own ships!”
Jacek stopped. For the first time he must have realized how serious she really was. “Tazja, I-”
“You let them fire one shot and this is over.”
Jacek turned towards the horizon, and if Tazja didn’t know better she would have thought he was trying to blink away tears. “…what am I supposed to do? A Sloven has touched an Ijka, that means I’ve defiled you doesn’t it? Your father will have to defend your honor?”
Tazja rubbed the tears from her cheeks. “Well, not if you saved my life, right? A Sloven can touch an Ijka to save their life? Give me a raft or something and I’ll row out to meet my father’s ship. I’ll say I stole a ship at port on a dare and it sunk or something, that you all here just kept me from drowning.”
Jacek nodded, slowly, and when he looked up his eyes were red.
Gods, he is crying. It about broke her heart.
“You’re not coming back, are you?” He shook his head, forcefully as though he were still trying to convince himself, and looked at his feet. “You shouldn’t come back.”
“I’ll come back.” Tears stinging her eyes, Tazja slipped the sila’ar over her head and placed it around Jacek’s neck. He didn’t move, but she stood on her tip-toes and kissed his cheek. “I promise.”
* * *
Tazja didn’t know how long she sat in the lonesome silence of the lower deck, a towel wrapped around her damp shoulders, before her father pushed open the door. He didn’t knock, he simply he stepped into the little bunk room, shut the door behind him, then folded his hands over his stomach as he studied her. Tazja tried not to squirm – tried not to let him use the silence compel her into speaking first.
“So,” her father said, finally. “What did you do with the sila’ar?”
“A sila’ar?” Tazja gaped, “Father, I told you-”
He laughed, his eyes sparkling with a genuine amusement she so rarely saw from him. “Yes, you told me you stole a boat on a dare and it sunk and on and on.” He walked across the room then sank to a seat beside her on the bunk. “Jacek lives on Lebka now, doesn’t he? I thought I saw him speaking with one of the engineers I left behind to see to that east side. He’s a good boy. Headstrong, but has a good heart.”
“No, father, I-” Tazja peered up at him, her eyes wide.
He laughed again. “The Ministry is still turning over the Sloven districts, I expect they will for the next month before ultimately giving it up. I’ll have to grumble of course but I’ll bet you left my sila’ar under better care than they were giving to it. They wouldn’t have even noticed you left your dorm room except I heard what went missing and came looking for you.”
“…you left engineers, to see to the east side?”
Her father nodded. “I’d been looking for a pretext to make a run out this direction for some time, and your little stunt here worked marvelously. You can stick to your story, it works well enough. Your professors will certainly believe it. Oh, but be sure to keep your sleeves pulled down to cover up those bruises, some folks will know those didn’t come from – ah, what did you say? Clinging to driftwood?”
He clasped her shoulder and leaned down so they’d sit eye-to-eye. “Your heart is in the right place, Tazja, it always has been. Sometimes old fashioned revolution does bring about good change, but more often than not those of us with the right ambitions have got to learn to be subtle, hmm?”
Tears welled up in her eyes – happy ones, this time – and she threw her arms around her father’s chest. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He chuckled, then awkwardly draped his arm over her shoulders and gave her back a pat. “I was going to, believe me. Your mother, always so worried about your more reckless tendencies, made me swear not to get you involved until you were ‘old enough to know better’. I never could decide when that was. I figured once you graduated university, that would be a good time.”
Tazja pulled back, laughing in disbelief. “Father, that’s ten years from now!”
“Or longer, with your grademarks.” He grinned, sheepishly. “I’ve also never been very good at, uh,” he motioned between the two of them, “…this.”
“Well,” Tazja grinned and wrapped her arm around her father’s, “we can always start over?”