Tag Archives: fantasy

Flash: Twilight Spider

Talking to Shadows
Issue No. 25231

1 January 1923

Archivists Note:
This letter was published within the last known issue of the infamous “Talking to Shadows” semi-annual magazine. There are numerous accounts from newspaper editorials and, later, news reports themselves, that speak of the Delossi Process, but this has been identified as the earliest credible presentation that someone had identified a rising change of the status quo. Of particular interest is the mention of a group of elders, and their intent to perform some manner of negotiations, but the results of this meeting are so far left to our imaginations. It is, as of yet, unknown whether the writer had a personal acquaintanceship with Madame Delossi, but both were certainly prominent figures in the ensuing period of unrest. They demonstrably knew of each other, but it is inconclusive as to where they obtained such knowledge. Wherever they knew one another from, it is intriguing to discover the initiation of what later became a vicious rivalry that spanned throughout centuries.

Editor’s Letter

A happiest of New Years to the readership. Hopefully, you are waking with a rather minimized hangover. Hopefully, you recall a rather clever use of muffling mentioned in issue 1528. The world should be a tad more tolerable after proper application. Otherwise, let us look forward to these next weeks, these next months, as a time to strike boldly toward the goals that sustain us. Bring in those that deserve our knowledge, build the interconnections of our communication webs, and seek out new applications of those core abilities brought to us by the mastery of talking to shadows. And, most of all, use our capability to strengthen the world and its foundations.

Now, having made mention of the core abilities, it may indeed be time to reiterate those with an emphasis on usage and intent. Surely, the proper use of shadows never strays from our minds, but knowing recent events it is worth an additional moment of thought.

Firstly, it is well documented that some specialists are able to glean combined knowledge from what lingering dead populate all that is cast between light. Importantly, none do this without serious cross-referencing with both the Books of Shadowspeak and public resources. We must all be very aware of the responsibility weighing our shoulders at the possibility of illumination from the past. Even seemingly innocent drivel, from the furthest reaches of time, may have far-reaching affects that are not easily seen by those of us lost in the present.

Secondly, others among us hone that fine ability to pass whispers at the speed of light, or rather as is more apropos, shadow. This tremendous ability has been a most fine aid throughout the millennia. It is no idle boast to claim that our group has saved whole countries, whole continents with the lightning-quick spread of alerts and warning. However, we also spread such information with the care required to allow for misdirection and negate suspicions. It would hardly be of use if we ourselves were not kept safe by our own techniques. Gladly, the rise of radio, of that frightful electron, has made some requirements of this particular skill easier than ever.

Thirdly, though certainly not minimized by the ordering, there are also those upon us with success at visual illusion and misdirection. Notorious for its difficulty to perform, let alone master, it is nonetheless amazingly useful on levels personal, regional, and global. I myself have struggled to build relationships with our departed required for such tasks, but alas those dead to me seem rather reluctant to convince their fellows. Yet, such is the danger of shadow optics. It is beyond reprehensible to lie to those from the beyond in order to convince them of your importance or familial ties. Those bonds we form with the undying must be true and solidly based on reality. Let us never forget the complete loss caused by a simple lie in Rome. There is still little guarantee that the truth of Christianity will ever surface now that the rumors have spread into the hearts of those long passed. Of lesser gravity, but still terribly important, we must never use illusion for such folly as is attempted in mass-hypnotism expositions. Our talents are not those of simple tricks, and the misuse only lessens us and those who follow our creed.

All combined, these are valid and trusted methods of shadowmancy that have been carried forward through generations upon generations. These are the foundations of work that we carry out from day to day. These are the tenants that we nail to doors and uphold with both hands. These are the pillars that build our church.

However, recently it has come to my attention that an elder among our group has claimed a new technique. Please, disregard this dangerous work if you find yourself in possession of Madame Delossi’s essay. Her theories on transportation through shadow have only ever been but wishful glimmers of fancy. Even if possible, though it has been stubbornly disproved time and time again, it is a horrid menacing desire. Entrusting one’s mind and body to such danger, liaising with netherfolk so that life wanders among death, would be calamitous at best. Souls must not breach from one plane to the next, and no protective companionship with the dead will prevent this from attracting the attention of every wraith ever clinging to the edges of Earth’s veils.

Already, I have heard and read of reports from those that have acted on this spurious knowledge. Lives are being lost, friends. A concussive force of darkness obliterated the light in Dallas just last month. Dawn finally broke through just yesterday, but a gloom has set upon the city. Dust storms were engineered to account for such an oddity, but losses of productivity and peace have been unaccountable. Earlier this year, two boys, brothers attending the illustrious Shadow Sept in Eugene, barely escaped with their lives after a nigh-hour attempt that collapsed a butte on itself. Specialists have managed a fine reenactment of mudslides to diminish the abruptness, but several projects have been set aside for months to prevent chaos.

Please, I beg of you, refrain from attending to Madame Delossi’s claims. The rest of the elders are discussing matters of publication standards with her as we speak, and we will surely find a happy medium to settle the unease caused by this tumultuous miscommunication.

As an extra precaution, this issue will have a focus with topics on defensive shadowplay and muffling techniques. As always, take every chance to develop a prowess of mind that does wonders at refining the separation between shadow and light.

Until next issue, may the whispers find you.
– T.S. Canthry

Review: Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl

Black Pearl Cover
Cover for the Black Pearl

“Will it be dangerous?”
“It is not for the faint of heart, and there are no refunds.”

Rin and Alexander (Jennifer Flath – The Black Pearl)

The right book can take you to a faraway place, where the people are familiar in a hundred different ways. The characters become friends, and even after a journey they’ll keep constant company.

The Black Pearl series, by Jennifer Flath, is one of those stories that I began to breathe and look forward to visiting. I still do. It’s like finding an overgrown stone cottage out in a wild spot of forest. It’s one of those places that feels ancient and mystical and timeless. It feels real and unreal at the same time. It’s lovely.

This review covers two completed books in the series: The Black Pearl and The Memory Spell. A third book, The Destiny Detour is currently being published as a chapter-by-chapter web serial. But these tales are focused on a young woman with mysterious presence named Rin. The epic follows her struggles to save existence from dangerous forces. Along the way, she meets friends and enemies that are crucial to her development as a person and key to her success in restoring order to the world.

Alexander could not decide how this news made him feel. If anyone was brazen enough to attack a camp full of Malum, it would be his sister. Should he be hopeful or terrified?

Characters

Flath focuses almost entirely on her characters, and the result is wonderful. I care about every person, good or evil, ambivalent or invisible, in this series. I want to know all of their stories, past present, and future. They’re all distinct and interesting and have little conflicting bits of personality that become engaging and intriguing. How will this group of people react to this situation, or the next one? I began to read as a way to hang out with these people just as much as I did to follow the plot. And there was never conflict just for the sake of inciting drama. Everyone seems very rational in their irrational outbursts or stupid decisions.

A useful writing exercise for characters is to describe them without referring to how they look. Describe them with motivations and personality and non-physical character traits. Rin is kind and curious and forgiving; she is a nurturing soul with a strength of will to resist anyone’s hope to break the Good within. Alexander is a restless scholar that wants to know everything and share that knowledge with someone he cares about; he is the embodiment of progress and growing beyond past mistakes after coming to new understandings. And Shrilynda is a woman grown distant from humanity through her quest for power and the ability to control her every situation; she is self-serving indifference and the callous disregard of ends-justifies-the-means.

The actions of these characters define them. They are strong representations of character and ideals. It takes some time to get to know some of their motivations, but it is wholly worthwhile. And Flath introduces each of the main players over careful spaces of time and action. Many begin as the embodiment of one specific archetype or set of traits, but they are gradually given depth and flaws.

But this is no Game of Thrones or Dark Knight. There are no major figures of gray ambiguity. For the most part, this story paints groups and people in swathes of light and dark, one side or the other. And that is refreshing. To me, it is more than welcome. Plus, this only adds to the fantastical mythological feeling of the story. I like the stark good and evil presented in these books. Hints at philosophical gray areas are there at the edge of the narrative, and that’s enough.

Rin smiled slightly. “Does your sword often send books or fire flying at you?”
“Not even once.” Alexander shook his head.

Setting

The Black Pearl series takes place on a different planet somewhere. Perhaps it is an alternate universe. Maybe it’s some kind of experimental hologram. It could be a different galaxy. There’s never any concrete explanation, but there are hints. That doesn’t really matter though. What matters is that the stories just scratch the surface of a living world that stands on its own with created elements while borrowing the best parts of comfortable fantastical elements. There are unicorns and giant scorpions and overly-educated panthers. There’s a great crystal palace and orc-like tribes fighting over scraps of riverside real-estate. This is the world many stories have inhabited, but it’s not just some lifeless carbon copy pasted over from Tolkien or Lewis. It’s an incarnation that shows a vivid imagination willing to take ideas and blend them and grow them into something stronger.

And it’s done with careful brush strokes of meaningful detail. There are no long passages describing places or things in this series, and instead Flath chooses to lace world building into conversation and immediacy. This can leave the world feeling somewhat like a blank canvas, but with these stories it’s executed carefully and works well. I always knew where I was and never felt like the story was a series of talking heads, and I was never glancing to the end of the paragraph in want of action. Of course, I’d love to get more info on the world and its cultures, but it really wouldn’t fit with the narrative style or pacing of the story. I’d rather wait for a reader’s companion out there in the future and enjoy the story without infodumps.

Plot

The Black Pearl starts quickly, lingers around in the middle as everyone gets to know one another, and then it rushes forward to a conclusion. The Memory Spell starts out with slow deliberate steps, gradually picks up speed, and then it shudders a little before snapping into its ending. Both are stories of great evils and the fight against catastrophic calamity. Black Pearl’s situation is definitely more dire, but with Memory Spell I cared more and knew more, so there was a feeling of more danger.

As mentioned earlier, the characters are the focus of these books. Their experiences, thoughts, goals, and reactions to the events are what I enjoyed. Sometimes, the focus is entirely on these individuals and their relationships. That slows the pacing, but it deeply enhances the impact of what happens to everyone.

Perhaps because of that focus on characters, neither of these are direct A-to-B novels. They’re winding roads of related events, though the character are always pursuing their goals. Sometimes their goalposts are moved, sometimes the goal is misunderstood, or maybe they have a hard time remembering what they were doing. These are good things. It keeps the reader guessing and nothing feels over-scripted or forced. The progressions of accomplishment are fought for and natural. It feels like Flath writes to share an adventure that happened, and adventures should never be drawn with a straight line.

Now, of the two books, The Black Pearl definitely has more of a straight line. It’s arc, though well drafted and expertly executed, is the bread and butter of Fantasy novels. A powerless, downtrodden, and unknown individual finds something / someone that sparks a change in their life and leads them to power and glory. They had the power within them the whole time. These are fantastic story elements that are fun and a delight to experience when done well. Fortunately, Flath uses tropes as they should be used: They are tools with which she conveys thought and emotion. Once again, the depth of character development pulls everything together.

The Memory Spell has a lot more surprises, but does very nearly veer into a wandering aimlessness. This may be intentional, or it might just be a byproduct of the character focus. Character progress from the first book is lost, everyone is split apart, and the cohesive team of before is shattered. So, aimlessness feels right. In fact, events of the book almost demand a lack of certainty. There was a real feeling of hopelessness and dark times that made the resolution all the more satisfying.

She had conjured a flying sheepskin rug.
At least it seemed harmless and was not currently breathing fire.

Overall

This review likely makes it plain that I am a fan of these stories. My objectivity toward the books is understandably questionable. So, for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly recommend Jennifer Flath’s series, and I will continue to read her work. She creates satisfying stories that are epic and heartwarming and fun. 4.5 stars.

Clarity and Readability – A star for rating stuff.
Originality and Interest – ratingStarHalf
Cohesiveness and Setting – A star for rating stuff.
Characters and Development – A star for rating stuff.
Enjoyability – A star for rating stuff.

Key Liar

Flash Fiction
J.A. Waters
300 Words

Others of the warrior’s ilk were filling the room around me, burly men and women wearing pelts and bits of iron as jewelry. They ducked carefully to step downstairs onto the ship’s lower deck, “We are honored by your presence.”

Arranged in a semicircle they passed around horns of drink and baskets of bread. These were shared with reverent bows in my direction. They repeated one phrase: ”The key to our salvation.”

None approached me and I soon grew bored out of my fear, “Might I have something to eat?”

“Sacrament,” said the first, the leader, the one that yanked me from the city, “Fulfillment of the pact requires clarity.”

“What pact?” I stood warily, unsteady because of rolling of waves, “If I’m so special then tell me something!”

“You are the key…”

“…to our salvation,” I finished, “Yeah, I got that. Ridiculous.”

Deep pulsing sounds reverberated through the vessel.

Two of the savages grabbed my upper arms and yanked me out of the room in a hurried rush. Their faces were tight, jaws clenched.

All around us the sky was dancing with streaming light. Electricity crackled as my captors lifted me to the sky, “The key!”

A great sonorous wail shook the very fabric of the world. I felt my mind twist.

“Liar! LIAR!” The leader stared at me with horror, “You claimed yourself sterile!”

Thin sheets of energy surrounded my skin. The ship, along with all of its sailors, disintegrated in screams. Bright purple light engulfed everything.

A breeze whispered fading words, “Liar…”

I bobbed in the swell of a sea I did not know under an alien sky. Ignorance wasn’t a lie, but I felt terrible for my unknowing betrayal. I had been their key alright, but not for salvation. Nor mine. I couldn’t tread water forever.

Chosen to Feed

Flash Fiction
J.A. Waters
998 Words

Stacy wished she could have a dog as she watched the streetlights flicker. Darkness slid into its place and the sidewalks seemed to disappear.

Any pet would have been welcome. Well, there’d be no point in fish. Or lizards or spiders or glass-walled things that had little of comfort to add. So, of course a dog, or a cat as well. Having any warmth would be a lovely change.

But the neighborhood was stuffy. Its people had their ways. Perhaps they wouldn’t notice, not for days at least.

Stacy closed the curtains. She slid the window shut. Grass tickled her shoeless feet as she wandered through the yard. Someone had left a tricycle out. Demolished anthills showed where children had played. She felt the tug of an aluminum fence as it haltingly let her phase.

The new world was not of iron. There were less believers and less of faith. To some neighbors that was a blessing. To Stacy it was a plague.

She walked into a wooded court. Musicians tested strings. A quiet man in a pair of boxers stood in the shadowed glade. Moonlight wouldn’t bring its nuisance. Night would linger in shadow. Stacy sighed a careful sigh. She hated the lengthy dark.

“Daughter, lead the feeding.”

Her lips tightened as she turned. A pale white figure hung from its tree. She hated that toothless grin. Stacy dipped a curtsy low. “Of course, Caethar. Always as you wish.”

A hundred joints began to pop. The creature uncurled from its perch of mossy branches. Leaves rustled as the bulk dislodged. Caethar’s body filled the space. Its carapace shook and swayed. It slunk to surround the prey.

Whatever daze had held the man finally began to fade. His first instinct was to shiver as night’s chill broke in. Then he saw the terror. Then he choked the moment in.

Strange enough, he did not yell. The nearly naked man did not scream. He shook and his shoulders trembled. But all he did was look down.

Stacy walked into her mentor’s form. She thought the creature enjoyed the touch. She couldn’t feel the contact, but that it did she had no doubt. Every time it got the chance, it seemed to force her through. On the other side she paused in thought. It was helpful to consider the chosen. They never fit a pattern. How did they hear the call?

Remembering things long passed was hard. Understanding brought pain. The little left inside Stacy’s head barely found an age. The man was in his forties. Perhaps a little older. His hair was thick but graying. His belly a sloping pouch. “Chosen, can you hear me? Do you know your purpose?”

“Who? Is that?” His voice caught with each breath. He looked about with eyes grown wide. He shook with convulsions to his knees.

“It is enough to hear. Vision refuses to cooperate.” She cupped his cheek on a whim. “Are you not afraid?”

Anger drove his voice strong. Anger darkened his face. “Don’t you see me shaking? Do you smell my coward’s piss? End this torment, quickly! I accept my fate!”

Caethar rumbled laughter. The ground thrummed to that rolling sound. The neighbors would all look skyward. They would question the cloudless night. “Musicians. Play.”

The touch of warmth surprised her. She could feel her fingers burn. Stacy pressed her fingers in and they passed into the skull. “You are no believer…”

The violas rose in tune.

“His nature is no matter. He answered and will get his due.” The creature’s carapace clattered. The chitinous plates drew back. A hundred eyes blinked open. They stared out from empty milky white.

Through her passed a memory. But then there came much more. Stacy saw the life of a man with guilt weighing him down.

Both of his eyes were rolled back to white. The man’s mouth was hanging open. The sounds he made were animal grunts as who he’d been was seeping out.

One of the musicians struck discord that yowled into the night. The other stumbled on the flaw and veered into disarray.

“Now! To me! You are my channel! Direct the flow!”

Stacy turned a neck grown stiff as life began to spread. Her eyes were bulging outward. “He was never yours to take!”

The chitinous form tried to waggle forward in its open state, but it’s bulk was far too ponderous. It could only yell and growl. “It does not matter what they think! I don’t care what they believe! They owe me still for the time I spent giving them this place!”

The man’s heart was beating slower. He was falling to the ground. A glimpse of life was in him, but the rest had been drawn away.

From another’s memory her own grew stronger. The reminder made her howl. She turned upon her master. “As you told me so long ago!?”

“You deserve the role you play! Doubt gives you no escape! If you had been more firm in faith, then perhaps I’d have let you rest!” Caethar’s armor began to close. It realized the morsel’s loss. Soon it would rear and demolish the clearing. Soon it would steal back Stacy’s theft.

She felt her heart for the first time in years. There was a thump beneath her breast. A chitinous plate grew from her throat and snapped over her chest. “No,” she said, “You will lie no more. I will lay you down to rest!”

Its laughter filled the naked sky. Stars twinkled with its mirth. The segmented body rose and towered, “You are nothing but a pest.”

Stacy knew her power. She wasn’t living yet. She leaped and phased within her master. Her fingers curled as claws of death.

Both musicians fled, and the man lay still, unconscious. Stacy devoured her former lord until its power filled her full.

And when dawn thought to return. She walked back to her home. She climbed back through the window, and felt a hunger grow.

Review: Laura Morrison – How to Break an Evil Curse

How to Break an Evil Curse Cover Image
The cover image for How to Break an Evil Curse.

The old lady shifted her gaze from Warren to somewhere off down the street as she launched into a monologue about the impending hunt, and how kids these days weren’t the same as they used to be, and neither were parents, and neither was society, and the whole of Fritillary was going down the tubes. Except Fritillary didn’t have plumbing, so that expression didn’t make sense. But the siblings weren’t listening anyway, so they weren’t confused.

Look, do you like to have fun? Yes? You too? You? Everyone? We’re all in agreement? Fun is good? Great. So start reading “How to Break an Evil Curse.” Lovely.

Oh, some of you believe that fun must be earned? Well, let’s see.

Summary

How to Break an Evil Curse is a ridiculous (good ridiculous) tromp through the land of Fritillary where things happen for no good reason and magic works for no good reason and the king is ruling badly for no good reason. So, essentially this is a world that perfectly mimics reality. And don’t worry, this is the good kind of ridiculous. It’s the same ridiculous found in Rodents Of Unusual Size, 42 being the meaning of life, and turtles going all the way down.

Real quick though, this is actually a review of two books. There’s Morrison’s How to Break an Evil Curse (HtBaEC) and then there’s HtBaEC 2, so called because it appears to be otherwise unnamed. The second of the series picks up fairly directly after the first book, and follows the same characters, and is also part of a larger arc that will lead into a third book. That said, the two have a distinct separation and can be read as completely standalone to one another.

Characters

An image of a raven, wings outstretched.
An image from the book’s insides.

HtBaEC starts with an introduction to a terrible person that is soulless, has way too much time on their hands, and constantly seems to pester everyone in the story. I’m of course talking about the narrator. I lied about the soulless part. This is a voice of humor and idle comments conveying a story with some pretty clear opinions on the world around it. This can be make or break it for some readers, but the narrator is a distinct character that comes off as a jolly family member telling the story to amuse children. I found the narrator’s whimsical storytelling to add a pleasant absurdity to the story, especially in some of its anachronisms and moments skipping boring parts of events.

From there we meet a truly soulless person, Mirabella, and her doting accomplice Farland Phelps. One’s a prisoner in the Forest of Looming death, and the other is a wizard. She’s plotting to get revenge on the king, and he seems half-intent on that but also half-intent on plotting to stay near Mirabella. The first chapter works great to intro these two central villains of the story and an overall conflict, but also connects the audience to these two “villains” in such a way that you kind of root for them. After all, it’s hard not to root for them when the king is pretty much an asshole.

Because that’s who the reader meets next. The royal family in HtBaEC come off as the greater evil for a lot of reasons, and the monarchy becomes a great way for the story to consider ideas of democracy, feminism, wealth distribution, and privilege, all within the hilarious confines of smart remarks and witty retorts. Add in Princess Julianna, a fish-out-of-water heroine, and there are some great examinations of why people aren’t nice and how easy it is to forget what you don’t know.

But the cast doesn’t stop there, oh no. It expands quite a bit in fact, but it never becomes a problem to keep up with the different characters. There are pirates, band members, revolutionaries, ghosts, doctors, and a pool of raven’s blood. Each and every one of them is a unique soul with their own wants, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and other words that mean they come to life. Because they do. I could write a significantly longer review if I went into why I like every character in this story, so to shorten it up I’ll just say they’re all super fun to read about and I’d want to hang out with most of them. I say most only because being killed is not cool.

By the end of book one you’ve been introduced to all of these characters and you’ve also seen many of them undergo pretty significant transformations of understanding or fate. Heck, its the first time a guy named Warren steps foot on land. Additionally, the plot unwinds with some nice twists and wraps things up neatly but not too neatly. It leaves plenty of room open for the sequel, but doesn’t frustrate the reader with “well what about THIS!?” questions.

Plot and Setting

And then everything wonderful about the first book is repeated in the second book, but now it’s even more solid. Throughout the first story the characters still felt like they were developing, but in the second HtBaEC everyone seems more fleshed out and more intent on their goals. Even the villians, the King, Farland, and Mirabella, have new goals and new changes in perspective that increase sympathy all the way around. Except the king, because ugh, asshole.

Most, if not all, of Morrison’s plot lines and ideas from the first book carry through to the second, and they make good progress toward being fulfilled. Some are still left in the air, like the rebellion, but others are quietly (or with a strangled cry at least) put to rest so that focus can shift elsewhere. I was continually impressed with how Morrison juggled so many plots and varied themes without losing the comedic tone or the hinted trails.

Book Construction

A swirl of color
Paper on the inside covers

As a slight detour, let me mention that this book was custom-bound by Morrison herself. It’s lovingly done with a nice hard back and pretty paper used on the inside of each cover. Each page is a nice paper quality and the text came out nice and sharp. It’s always a pleasure to get a book that doesn’t feel mass-produced, so this quality certainly adds to the reading experience.

Overall

Morrison’s two stories that I sped through because they were just downright enjoyable. Nearly every sentence gave me a reason to laugh, chuckle, or at least grin.

Is it perfect? Well, nothing is, but there wasn’t anything that pulled me out of the stories at all. There are some slight editing issues throughout, notably changes in tense earlier on and then some small homophone typos here and there, but definitely nothing jarring. I could see some readers getting hung up on the anachronisms thing and the tone varying between serious and flippant, but like I’ve mentioned I enjoyed that myself. Some of the writing could probably be tightened up / reworded, but that goes for any story.

I suppose it’s hard for me to be tough on these books because I did enjoy them so much, so take that for what it’s worth.

Get it from here:
The Author – Laura Morrison

Score: ratingStarHalfA star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.A star for rating stuff.
Half a star for clarity and readability, one for originality and interest, one for setting and cohesiveness, one for character development, and one star for enjoyability.

Oceans of Shelter

Story Preview

Oceans of Shelter

Hello, internet! I recently wrote the last chapter of my first full-length novel on the world of Nalan. To celebrate that accomplishment, I’m going to post the first chapter of my next full-length novel on the world of Nalan. The next story is tentatively called Oceans of Shelter and will follow a young girl named Nuette. This is an early draft, so there’s no doubt that this will change a billion times from now. Following, you’ll find the first draft of that story’s intro.

Chapter One:

“Nuette, my Nuette, you’ve shown you knew it. Your answer is right, but now you must prove it!”

The young girl giggled. She often did so at her father’s silly rhymes, especially when they included her name. “No, Daddy!” Her voice squeaked the title. “I’m tired of rithmatec!”

He tapped her on the nose with a scarred brick-red hand. “Arithmetic! You must speak properly as well as show your work.” Smiling, his well-worn fingers set the slate back in his daughter’s lap. “Now, quickly, quick, show me the trick!”

She puffed out a cheek and stared at her problem. The small board had the gray cast of years of chalk scribblings. Her finger tapped the number she’d written as her answer. “But I know it’s right! 64 goes into 1024 just 16 times.”

He winked. “Prove it.”

Pursing her lips, she squinted at him with scrunched eyebrows and golden-yellow eyes. “Prove math? That’s silly! You don’t gotta prove the truth.”

Rumbing laughter made his chest heave and shake. “Oh, clever daughter, how I wish that were true.” He took her piece of chalk and started writing. “64 and 64?”

Rolling her eyes, Nuette went along with the lesson. “128.” They continued and slowly added sums until the multiplication was matched.

“So you see, my little sweetheart?”

She stuck out her tongue. “But it took so much time.”

“But Mrs. Vumon would not accept the partial answer, yes?”

Her grumbled words were agreement enough. “She’s just a mean old lady.”

“Breakfast!” The sing-song voice carried up the stairway.

“Coming!” He stood with a careful slowness and pointed a thumb at his back. “Alright, hop aboard!”

Nuette grinned and set aside her slate. She jumped up and grabbed hold of her father’s shoulders and then hooked her legs around his waist. “Ready!”

Holding her hands as he walked, his head tilted as he spoke, “So, you think Mrs. Vumon is old? Then what does that make me?” The stairs creaked from step to step.

“Um. You’re daddy!” She giggled again. They ducked down under the doorframe into the lower level of the apartment.

“Well! Good morning you two! I see that your lessons were as entertaining as ever!”

“Nope! We were doing ah-rith-muh-tick!”

The man chuckled, “Oh, what pronunciation! Very good, Nuette.” Her father let the girl drop from his back, “Now up we go!”

Nuette squeaked, “Eep!” But then she laughed and pretended she was flying as her father swung her toward a chair. Her arms mimed the wings of a bird’s while he swung her about for an extra turn.

“And now she lands, soft as a feather!” He set her down with a grin, but a hand rubbed at his lower back.

“Beetro, you must be careful! Our daughter has grown far too much for your tired arms. She is thirteen! Let her jump if she wants to fly!”

He kissed his wife on both cheeks. “Ah, Mrs. Syimga, these tired arms are still quite strong! They have years yet of helping Nuette float!”

“Ah huh! Daddy’s real strong! He breaks clay pipes with his bare hands!”

“Hmph! And a silly thing that is to do! He cuts and bruises his hands instead of using the right tools! How is this not a foolish act?”

Beetro dropped back onto a chair and it gave a creaking complaint. “Ah, but sometimes the tools do not fit! Plumbing is not often in a place of great space!”

Nuette laughed and earned a mussing of her silvery-gray hair. “That’s why he likes my hands to help!” She wiggled her fingers. “They’re so small!”

“Mr. Syimga! She is supposed to watch, and to hand you supplies! Will you let a spider nibble at her fingers?” She untied her apron and set it on a glazed clay hook. Her arms were then carefully loaded with three plates of eggs and toast. “Hire a new assistant already! Jotel has been gone for months!”

He waggled his finger at her. “Peyla! Our Nuette will be my new assistant. She is very clever, and has caught on to the profession quite well!”

“Well. It seems that we have much to discuss after she leaves to school.” Peyla set the food on the table. “But no more talk of work. Let us eat and finish our morning.”

“Aw! But school’s so boring! Can’t I stay and learn with dad?”

Beetro narrowed his eyes and shook his head with a mouthful of food. “Mmmnng!” He swallowed. “How can you say something so terrible!? Nuette! School is wonderful! You learn so much!”

She poked at her food with a fork. “But the kids are dumb. They make fun of my gloves.”

Wife and husband exchanged a glance. He reached across the table and pushed aside Nuette’s plate of food. He beckoned with his fingertips. “Give me your hands.”

Her lips tightened together as she followed his instruction.

Taking her hands in his, he turned them palm-up and opened his own for comparison. The scarring on his hand had grown soft and faint, but the branded eye was still visible. Nuette’s mark was still bright and pink. “Darling, these marks are important to bear with pride. With strength. They show our commitment to Kalshen.”

“Then why do we always cover them? You and mama dip your hands in wet clay. I saw it.”

Peyla sighed. “Nuette, the world is ever changing and we must be cautious. To have the marks is necessary, but we cannot always expect acceptance from those who see them.”

Beetro closed her hands into little fists. “And so sometimes we must put away that which makes us most proud. But! You still feel the scars, yes?”

She nodded carefully. “Ah huh.”

“And covering them does not lessen what they mean. You still know they are there. We still know.”

“You cannot change your skin, Nuette.” Her mother smiled. “But different situations alter how it must be covered. Otherwise, why do you put on clothes?”

The hints of a smile touched the girl’s lips. “Well I can’t go out naked!”

Her father chortled, “Exactly!” He drew his hands away and picked up his fork. “Sometimes, we must put on armor against the world! Our clothing protects us, and your gloves protect you.”

Peyla tapped the table. “Now eat up! You have to be ready for helping your father!”

Nuette grinned wide. “You mean I can skip school today!?”

“Well,” said her mother, “If you are to be his assistant, we will have to alter your schedule.”

Beetro laughed, “Oh hoh! Mrs. Syimga! I respect the wisdom of your decision.”

The adults exchanged tight-lipped smiles as Nuette shoveled down her food.