They walked slowly and rather deliberately up the deserted hill, almost as if every step shot a stream of agony through their souls. Perhaps it had that day. After all, it had taken strength they hadn’t even known they’d had to keep from strangling leaders of the Mandarin Circle, who had succeeded only in alienating its members-which was, in fact, something they excelled at. “They ask us for our input, and then squabble like schoolchildren,” Ryn had said in disgust. “We’re supposed to provide them with council, not settle their disputes for them.”
Now the night sky lit their way as they silently fumed. After a considerable time had passed, they reached the apex of the hill, and the Eleventh Haven finally became visible. It was a breathtaking sight, created by the finest craftsman the country had ever known. It stood an impressive two hundred feet high, and was constructed of diamond and jade. Moonlight splashed across its twelve golden entrances, giving off the illusion that the infrastructure itself was alive. Indeed, the entire castle appeared to radiate in the darkness. “No matter how grave the trials Fate may throw in my path are,” Ryn thought to himself, “She can never cause my faith in the power of this castle to waiver.”
“Hold up,” I hear Ryn gasp in-between bursts of Mr. Pibb. The mage’s withering stare locks onto my face as if I were a dancing bison with a gaudy tutu. He slinks back to his recliner with stealth enough that a lone blink causes me to miss the entire journey. “First of all, how does anyone ‘walk deliberately’? Walking is deliberate: you choose a route and then move along. If I chose to walk undeliberately, I’d be…sleepwalking?”
“It’s intended to be dramatic.” I remind myself that the purpose of this workshop is constructive feedback. Acting defensive limits what I’m able to learn. Still, the mage is annoying me.
“Also: a ‘stream of agony through their souls’? We were climbing a hill, Joseph, not sitting through the film version of Cats. Dial that down a few notches, hmmm?”
“Noted,” I nod, writing the note. “Anything else?”
Ryn’s sip carries a devilish tint. “If the Haven is impressive and breathtaking—and it absolutely is—telling us isn’t necessary. Show, don’t tell. You remember that Rush song, don’t you? Let Geddy be your guide. ‘Mandarin Circle’ sounds like a fandom group for tiny oranges. And speaking of the Eleventh Haven, where are One through Ten?”
“They were destroyed in—”
“I know where they are, Joseph,” Ryn says slowly, gesticulating in a dialect I can’t decipher. “I’m saying readers need—”
“All right.” He’s particularly bothersome when he’s correct. “I’ll revise.”
“And not to be persnickety, but ‘No matter how grave the trials of Fate…’? I’ve never spoken like that. Did George Lucas write this?”
From somewhere within his subconscious, he heard Kiaya’s sword being grasped from its scabbard, and he suddenly remembered that he was not alone. He whirled around in a tempest of fright and excitement, expecting an assault from an unknown enemy. However, the demure elf was merely sharpening her blade. Ryn knew that this process was usually accompanied by severe mental concentration, and waited patiently until she had finished. Constant training, he knew, was essential for a warrior such as she.
“Hmm?” She looked at him now, her eyes still stinging with anticipation.
“You only leave your blade unsheathed if you’re looking to pick a fight”
“OK, so I forgot that my girlfriend—now my lovely wife—was there? We’d shared an agonizing hill walk, my friend. You don’t disrespect the Hill Walk like that. Or her, for that matter. She’ll cut a writer.”
“I’m illustrating that you’re a tad immersed in the moment, and—”
He either giggles or snorts, and I can’t decide which. “I forgot my romantic interest because I was gaping at a castle. That’s what we’re going with?”
“Look, I—” In the distance, a faint whoosh and then a clack. I’ve memorized the song of my fridge sighing shut, and that means we’re about to have company.
“DEMURE?” Although I’m still facing the screen and Kiaya has entered behind me, I can hear her eyes ice-skating. “I could wipe out a troll company single-handedly. I speak seven languages! I can nail the chorus in “Take On Me” without any effort at all! And I’m DEMURE?”
I absorb each hit; no attempt to draw a shield. “I know. You deserved better, Kiaya.”
“It’s incredibly possible to sharpen a blade while holding a conversation,” she growls while sharpening her blade. “Is everyone in this story only capable of doing one thing at a time?”
“Not me!”, Ryn volunteers, flashing a loaded wink at his wife and looking too pleased about it. “I get distracted by pretty castles and have bad dialogue.”
“Hey yourself, love. Oh! You’re here! I noticed you this time ‘cause there wasn’t a pretty castle around.”
I throw my hands in the air like I just don’t care. “CAN WE JUST.”
“OK, OK,” they mutter as Kiaya attempts to lower herself into my beanbag chair. Her scabbard falls in precisely the wrong place, her daggers refuse to make any position comfortable, and she’s cursing in speech unknown to me—which is likely a blessing.
“You know, if you didn’t insist on wearing a full armory, you could probably sit without spending twenty minutes rearranging yourself.”
“YOU WROTE ME!”, she hollers, and it’s an argument I cannot counter.
She was wise far beyond her twenty-four years. As a child, she’d been abandoned by her tribe and left for dead, but was discovered by Slithe during one of his meditations. After her first year under his instruction, her swordsmanship and fighting ability had soared. He also continually challenged her to question her concept of honor, a process he referred to as “indispensable ethical labor.”
“It’s preparation, Ryn, nothing more. I didn’t wish for this any harder than you, but if the Council wants us here, we don’t have much of an option.” Her lavish robes, iridescent and fluid, caught on a nearby crevice and one of the seams did not survive. She glanced at it, but quickly averted her eyes. “Their mystics are confident that something wicked is coming, and the Eleventh Haven is the most logical choice. We’re the last, best hope the country has. At least, what’s left of it”
“Indispensable ethical labor,” Ryn repeats, tapping something on his tablet. “I, for one, prefer middle-grade ethical labor. What ‘bout you, Ki?”
“I’m busy recycling Babylon 5 dialogue. Ask me later.”
“You and I are ‘the last, best hope.’ It’s taken directly from the Babylon 5 opening credits voiceover, Ryn.”
“Abraham Lincoln said it first, and he was President of these United States!”, I add brightly.
“So you plagiarized President Lincoln? Or a fictional space captain?”
Silence. My sheepishness baahs. “Fine. I absolutely ripped off Babylon.”
“Mmmhmmm,” A satisfied grunt from Ryn’s recliner. “Garibaldi was a total boss, though. Can we agree on that?”
I murmur something and offer a hearty thumbs-up. “Totes,” Kiaya says, helping herself to a cheddar Pringle. “Totes magotes. But if we’re nominating someone for the GOAT? Londo. Londo eight days a week.”
“Why are we talking about goats?”, the mage wonders, and I’m grateful someone else assumed responsibility for this issue.
Kiaya switches to her Patient Voice. “Greatest Of All Time, hon. There’s no goat.”
“Isn’t there a video game where you play as a goat and the whole objective is to hobbit around a city and create utter chaos?”
“That’s so five years ago, sweetie. The goat’s a goose now. Geese are the new hotness.”
“Why did the goat—”
My fingers march on the wooden desk, a staccato beat that’s almost time-synched. “Y’all want to continue your goat conference, or—”
“No, we’re done.” Kiaya aims the grin at her husband, but I’m its target. She’s not done.
“I was enjoying the goat thing,” Ryn grumbles to himself.
Ryn grunted his approval and examined the cove yet again, his glacial eyes searching for signs of movement. Finding none, he sighed with relief and placed his left hand lightly on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it’s just a routine sentry assignment. The mystics are only as clairvoyant as the profit allows.”
“Oh my God,” the elf groans.
“Imagine how I feel!” A small dagger twirls through Ryn’s fingers, deft as a ballerina at her peak. “You’re not the one constantly grunting approval! And you merely received that line; I had to deliver it!”
“You merely delivered the line,” I countered. “I wrote it!”
“You merely wrote the line.” Tom Hardy’s metallic, oddly-inflected voice floated towards us from the entryway. “I was BORN in it! Molded by it. I didn’t see the light until—”
Again with this. “Tom,” I say with as much patience as I’m able to muster, “We’re kind of busy here.”
“Sorry. My bad, you guys. I’ll drop by later!”
“No, that’s—” But as always, my words drift into the empty air and twist into nothing, dissolving as they swim. Tom Hardy has left the kitchen.
“I miss Tridaneousa, Kiaya. I should be with him now, teaching him a better attack formation, or telling old tales, or anything more meaningful than this. Damn the Council for their pride!”
“I miss him too. He would have thrown himself in Slithe’s Cauldron if it meant one more day with you. He’s young enough to still have that affection.”
“What about me?,” he grinned.
The whispering between the Throne of Beanbags and the Kingdom of Recliner reach fever pitch. “Y’all, at this volume, you might as well use your speaking voices.” I wonder what wisdom or hot dog fact John Scalzi is broadcasting via Twitter right now. He isn’t being critiqued by a sassy mage and a bored elf.
“Uh. Well, the name…escapes me.” Kiaya actually appears a bit chagrined. “It’s in the story, so I ought to be able place him, but…”
“I’m telling you, Ki—it’s Chad.” Ryn’s mouth is a chortling stone.
The elf blinks, certain she’s misunderstood. “Chad? From the rabin goblin quest in ’97? That’s—”
“He thought ‘Tridaneousa’ had a mysterious ring to it.”
“It has a Dragon Ball Z ring to it, anyway. I remember Chad! Sweet boy. Thought of you as a father figure. And your idea of spending quality time was teaching him ‘a better attack formation’?”
“His idea!” Ryn waggles a finger at me. I imagine it holding a miniature placard that reads “J’accuse!”
And in that single, shimmering moment, with the man she loved at her side and gazing into the dazzling light from the Haven’s towers, her continual analysis of the surrounding environment froze, and her fright melted, flowing from her body like the tears of the seven seas. Across the city, under the earth where the idealistic dream and the foolish lament, Slithe felt his protégé release her control and place her guard on standby. He cursed at her neglect and struck the dirt with his staff, massacring the ravens scavenging for food outside his chalet. Their eyes flickered in surprise from the impact, then were silenced by the ubiquitous tranquility of the night air.
“Ah, yeah. It’s all coming back.” Kiaya smiles at the love interest I’d written for her. “This is…what, a month before I beheaded that monster? Your multiverse improved considerably after that, Joseph. It was better for everyone. You’re welcome, by the way.”
A slight confusion wave brushes upon my shores. “When did—”
“Oh, you didn’t write that,” the elf cheerfully replies. “But a number of years passed, and I was still being mentored by some nut who had a tantrum ‘cause I stopped worrying about imaginary threats and instead enjoyed standing next to my boyfriend for like ten seconds, and who needs that? You were clearly otherwise engaged, so I thanked him for the training and then set us both free.”
“Let us appreciate that the sole moment in this story where my wife displays any true emotions occurs because she glances at a castle with me,” Ryn calls from the restroom. “The same castle that led to me forgetting she was five feet away. I really love castles.
“But—“, I start without a roadmap.
“I handled it; it got done. Boom.” Kiaya is on her feet, sprinting towards the door. “Be back in a second. I spotted some Pepper Jack string cheese in the fridge earlier. Don’t read the next section with me.”
“Ryn?”, she asked, her elongated ears bristling. She was suddenly aware of her lapse and fearful of Slithe’s reaction.
Kiaya’s voice is muffled, but her volume control remains exceptional. “WHAT PART OF ‘DON’T READ WHILE I’M ON AN EMERGENCY CHEESE MISSION’ WAS UNCLEAR?”, she bellows. “Joseph, my ears are elongated to a human! Among my own species, I’m considered short! ‘Short-Ears,’ they call me! It’s a terrible nickname!”
“I’m having difficulty understanding her.” I hope that Ryn might spare a sympathetic glance.
The mage shifts in his chair so I can witness the enormity of his smirk. “I’ve heard that the cure for that is a slow, deliberate walk in the ubiquitous tranquility of the night air, Joseph.”
“Oh, do shut up.”
“That miserable sage,” she thought bitterly. “Adequate training does not mean living in fear.” She sensed Ryn stir beneath the leaves, and was reassured. Breathing patterns resumed their normal circulation, and they rose from the gentle soil, brushing off the evidence of their presence there. Kiaya grimaced as she slung her arrows over her slight frame, and after whispering sutras of good fortune, she began to descend.
“ARROWS? Where do I have room to store ARROWS? I don’t even have fucking POCKETS!”
“Who are you ‘whispering sutras of good fortune’ to?” Ryn blocks the phrase with air quotes.
“He based me on Deedlit, so…”
“Deedlit. High Elf from Record of Lodoss War. Skilled warrior, wields some degree of elemental magic. Falls in love with a human…”
“Wait, so…if you’re modeled on an elf who loves a human, then…does that mean our marriage is a sham?”
This took a turn. “Almost finished here, team!” I’m not an efficient cheerleader, but maybe they’ll at least approve of my ending. “Two more sections to go!”
With a burst of renewed agility, Ryn rushed alongside her and blocked her path. “Kiaya, you insisted we stay.”
“I know,” she said. “but we shouldn’t be here. It’s not our responsibility. Ever since I was young, I’ve sworn to defend, but this isn’t right. The Council tears me away from my son in the middle of the night to guard a deserted hill that, so far, hasn’t produced anything more threatening than a baby leszyk.”
“Hang on! The nutty trainer has a hissy because I looked at a nice castle with my boyfriend…but I’m raising a son, and that’s not a distraction from my training?”
“Baby leszyks are terrifying,” Ryn mumbles to himself.
Now they’re just being pedantic for the fun of it. “How would you know that? I never wrote a scene explaining what a leszyk IS!”
“Didn’t have to. A ‘z’,’ and then out of nowhere, a ‘y’? Gives me the willies.”
“We’re not leaving.”
“Maybe you’re not. But my sword lies with my blood, not my politics.” She shrugged off his embrace, but was interrupted by the sound.
Kiaya’s sapphire eyes instantly snapped open, and for several minutes she simply stared. It was impossible to discern how many there were, but the blood-armor and magnitude of force was unmistakable: It was militia. And as Ryn drew back his cowl and began to oscillate his battleaxe, he knew beyond a doubt who had sent them.
“Oh Gods, that axe! Never owned another one that could…glide in your hands so naturally, as if it was a natural extension of yourself. You know what I mean, honey?”
“I gave you that axe, you muffinhead,” Kiaya says, incredulous. “Well? Where’s the battle scene?”
I’ve prepared for this moment, but not adequately. “Uh…this is where I paused the story,” I manage.
“Something finally happened, and you stopped?” Kiaya crouches to match my height, but she still looms over me. Every detail in those sapphire eyes is waking up.
“Get comfortable, Joseph,” she threatens. “We’ve got work to do.”
With apologies to my 21-year-old self, who’d wanted to be a fantasy author since he was a child. After reading several samples of my work, a young Creative Writing professor suggested that I continue writing…but as a literary fiction author. “If the dream truly is fantasy, then you should go for it…but I’ll be honest: you’ve got a really long road. At the same time, this other stuff over here? It’s so much better. And I think you ought to consider that what you love most and what you’re best at aren’t necessarily the same thing.”
Turned out to be rather sound advice.