Category Archives: New stories

Savvy Saturday – Differences That Go All the Way Down


Writers find it relatively easy to create characters who think as they do. It’s much harder to write believable characters who are devotees of a different moral paradigm. This is not to say that it’s hard to write villains: characters who are “just plain evil” can be slapped into a story with a few wide brush-strokes and left to cackle maniacally and murder anyone who stands in their way. (Preferably with a ray gun.)

What’s hard to write is someone who is moral, but whose concept of morality is slightly different (or very different) from the author’s. If it’s done badly, people who read your story and believe differently from you will be offended that you misrepresented their point of view. (Phrases like “straw man attack” and “stereotyping” tend to get thrown around at this point.) If it’s done well, however, creating moral conflict between two characters can shed light on real issues in society today. Writing moral conflicts – and then showing how those conflicts turn out – gives the author the power to invite people into his or her view of reality, and possibly even change people’s ideas about how the world is or should be. It’s a heady concept, but to make it work in reality, you have to understand how other people really think. You have to not just step into their shoes, but step into their heads.

As a sociology major in college, I took a class on contemporary social issues where we discussed this whole idea of differing moralities. The topics we studied were diverse and numerous, ranging from education to religion to politics and beyond. But whatever we studied, the professor kept coming back to one point: some differences go all the way down. At their core, some people come at the world with such different basic assumptions that there is no way that they will ever agree with each other – because even if they use the same terminology, they value fundamentally different things. Freedom versus moral behavior. Equality of outcome versus equality of opportunity. The good of the collective versus the good of the individual. None of these are bad on their own, and good people have fought and argued tirelessly on both sides of each. But they aren’t ever going to agree. Not without a change of heart as well as a change of mind.

So how as a writer do you accurately portray people on two sides of a sticky moral issue? Here are some tips.

First of all, don’t get lazy in your characterization. Characters who follow a different moral narrative than your protagonist shouldn’t be ugly, mean to small children, stupid, insufferable, or anything else that will “automatically” make your readers dislike them. (At least not unless the narrative truly requires it.) Let’s say that I’m going to be writing a story that features two individuals, one of whom believes in “equality of outcome” and the other of whom believes in “equality of opportunity.” Here’s a lazy way of showing which one is “right.”


As John walked home from the bus station, he smiled a greeting at the wrinkled woman in the tattered shawl who sat at the street corner of Elm and Maple. As usual, she smiled back – her teeth yellowed but her eyes bright – and as usual, John reached into his wallet. It wasn’t her fault that her boyfriend had left her with five kids to feed, or that the scumbag one-percenters who ran the town refused to pay their employees a decent wage. With as hard as she had worked to make ends meet before she’d gotten sick and had to quit her three minimum-wage jobs, she deserved a wholesome meal at least once a day, and by God, he was going to make sure she got it. He pulled out a ten dollar bill.

Suddenly, tires screeched and a horn blared just feet from his ear. Jumping to one side with a muffled oath, John just caught a glimpse of the driver of the red Mercedes as it flashed past. A round, fleshy face, a blindingly gold watch, and a contemptuous sneer. The car honked again at the mud-spattered farmer’s truck in its way, sped around it with another squeal of its tires, and was gone. John shook his head. “Someone should teach that punk a lesson,” he muttered.

“And who’s that gonna be?” the woman at his feet asked bitterly. “You?” She looked John up and down, at his cheap Walmart shirt and his patched blue-jeans, and shook her head. “He’d get you fired, son. You and anyone else in this town that dares tell him that he’s no better than the rest of us.”

“I know. It just isn’t right.”

“You’re tellin’ me.” The woman raised her eyebrows. “Thanks for the ten. It’s nice knowing there are some people around who still care about humanity.”


Atlas_shruggedFor the other side of the debate, go read some Ayn Rand. Either way, this kind of story makes an argument that will only appeal to people who already believe in the point you’re trying to make. If you’re trying to write a moralistic piece, then that might be what you want to do. If, however, you’re trying to write a piece of fiction that accurately and thoughtfully portrays real people, you’ll have to make your arguments much more subtly. Show people who believe in different things both behaving in a way that readers will find attractive (at least in some situations). Show them both having flaws that don’t relate to the characteristic that’s the moral issue of your story. Show them both making mistakes and learning from them. Show them listening to each other.

Once you’ve established that your characters are real people, your audience will care about them a lot more. Then, when your overarching narrative shows that the protagonist’s viewpoint is what will solve the problem of the story that you set up, the ending feels more believable and less preachy. It takes more work, but in the end, it will have a much greater impact on readers – and that’s worth it.

In our story above, let’s keep John as our “friend of the people.” He’s a worker at Walmart who believes that everyone deserves the right to have a certain standard of living. He cares deeply about the poor, and thinks that no one needs to earn a million dollars a year. People who are rich and greedy (which is pretty much everyone who’s rich, because if they weren’t greedy they probably wouldn’t be rich) should be required to help out those who haven’t gotten as lucky. He gives away ten percent of his income every year to help people who are down and out, and he volunteers on the weekends at the Homeless Mission. Everyone who knows John thinks that he has a real heart for the poor, and that he’s a real kind guy – if a little intense.

In the new version, however, our protagonist will actually be John’s coworker, Angelee. Raised by a single mother, Angelee is working at Walmart to put herself through college. She’s earning a degree in finance, because she’s good with numbers and she wants to make sure that she’s never broke the way her family was when she was growing up. To that end, she has seized on every opportunity she’s encountered and has always striven for excellence in the work she does. She fully expects that within a year she’ll be getting a job offer from a finance company, that she’ll study for and become a financial planner, and that she’ll use her knowledge and skills to start the first financial planning practice in her city – which she hopes will provide a much-needed service and also make her comfortably wealthy in the process.

Here’s a conversation that might happen between the two of them, very early in their relationship.


“You give money to that bag lady every day?” Angelee asked, aghast.

John crossed his arms. “She’s not a bag lady! Her name is Roseann and she has five kids to support. So yeah. It’s the least I can do to help.”

“She isn’t a bag lady. So…she has a job besides asking for handouts?”

“She can’t work. She’s been sick.”

“For how long?”

John shrugged. “I don’t know. A year? Two?”

Angelee snorted. “Yeah. My mom had friends who were that kind of sick. Sick of work, sick of life, sick of waking up early and saying yes sir and no sir and doing things they didn’t feel like doing. If you and people like you stopped putting money in her basket, I’d bet she’d get well enough to work right about the time her stomach started rumbling.”

“You don’t even know her! How can you say things like that?”

Angelee raised her eyebrows. “I lived next to people just like her for eighteen years. Right until the day I moved out of the dump my mother had us living in and started at State College.”

“And you don’t feel bad for people who aren’t as fortunate as you are?” John shook his head, incredulity written in his eyes.

“Don’t take that tone with me. I wasn’t ‘fortunate’ – I worked dang hard to get here. Those people all had choices sometime in their lives, just like I did. They could have chosen to study more in school, or to get a job and stick with it even when they didn’t like it, or to not shack up with their boyfriend and get pregnant. I chose to take two jobs, including this miserable one, and go to college so that I could escape from all of that. So no, I don’t feel bad for those bag ladies on the street corners who get to sit and gossip all day while people like you and me work our butts off. And no, I’m not going to give them my money that I earned unless I see a much better reason for it than, ‘they don’t have as much as I do.’”

“I didn’t know that people could have hearts as cold as yours. Do you care about anyone besides yourself?”

“That’s rude. And yes, I do, though I certainly don’t need to justify myself to you.”

John gave her a knowing look. “Sure you don’t.” Turning on his heel, he walked away.

“Idiot,” Angelee said to his back. “Someday someone’s going to pop that beautiful bubble of dreams you’ve built for yourself, and you’re going to have to live in the real world.”

“Same could be said about you,” John responded over his shoulder. “And I want to be there when it happens, Scrooge.”


So who’s right? Both characters are sure that they are. Who would end up “winning” in a novel? That depends on how the author crafts the story. Perhaps Angelee gets to actually know Roseann, sees the injustice that is built into the capitalist system in her city, and she and John become crusaders for the underdog. Or perhaps John finds out that Roseann isn’t really sick and has been spending his money on alcohol and drugs, he realizes that he hates his hand-to-mouth lifestyle (a result of giving away all his surplus income), and he decides that he’s going to go back to school and gain marketable skills.

Or, more likely, perhaps they both give in a little bit but continue to maintain their basic worldview. Maybe Angelee decides that Roseann is an exception, and decides that she’s going to start giving some of her income to people who really need help. And maybe at the same time, John recognizes that investing time now in pursuing an education and a high-paying job will ultimately lead to the ability to help more people in the long run than if he continues to volunteer at menial tasks and give a percentage of his minimum wage away. The story could go any of these ways, now that we have developed characters who feel deeply and strongly about their beliefs, and behave realistically (but not stereotypically) based on them.

So how are you going to incorporate differences that go all the way down into your writing? Or if you aren’t a writer, look for these issues the next time you read a book. Pay attention to how the author develops his/her argument for whatever moral issue or theme the book is addressing. Do the differences go all the way down? How does the author resolve whatever moral conflicts are presented? Is it believable, or do people change too dramatically? Does the author well represent the different points of view of the conflict he or she is writing about?

Have fun!



Savvy Saturday – Writing Prompts!

It’s summertime! Time to kick back with a cold drink and read a book – or maybe even write one yourself! Today’s Savvy Saturday post will give you a chance to flex those creative writing muscles and brainstorm ideas for your perfect story. I’ll get you started with some prompts – feel free to take them and run with them, and if you come up with something awesome, let me know!

Ideas for characters:

A gruff sea-captain who always wanted to go on for higher education, but was instead apprenticed as a cabin boy by his father at age 10. He’s never forgiven his father. He hopes that someday he’ll have enough money saved up so that he can retire to a nice place in the country and learn Latin and Greek and study the classics, but he secretly knows that it’s just a dream. He is both fascinated by and jealous of the educated passengers he sometimes takes on board, and will occasionally swallow his pride enough to trade a lesson in seafaring for a lesson in physics or history. But not often.

A timid, mentally slow, plain younger daughter of a grocery store manager. She was teased horribly in school, which made her retreat further into herself. She likes to sit in a corner and knit; she makes scarves, hats, and mittens with intricate patterns that she donates to charity. While she knits, she listens and observes the world around her. She empathizes with anyone she sees suffering, though she isn’t brave enough to do anything about it. She feels paralyzed and powerless, and she pours her fears and sadness into her knitting. That is the one part of her life she feels she has control over and is good at, and through that she can help other people who need warm things for the winter.

A centaur (half man, half horse) who was kidnapped by humans when he was young and raised in a menagerie. He has always been bold, energetic, and reckless – he was kidnapped because he strayed away from his parents and the herd and got lost – and has tried for the past decade to free himself and return home. He doesn’t trust any humans (except, perhaps, the young indentured stable-boy who is just as trapped as he is), but has tried to learn all their tricks. He can pick locks, mimic accents and voices, and has even learned the rudiments of swordcraft by watching the guards practice outside the menagerie and practicing with a stick. He’s always looking for an opportunity to escape. He doesn’t remember home very well, just shadowy images and the memory of the heady rush of running with a herd, but he’s confident that he’ll make it back some day. As soon as his captors slip up, even slightly.

 Ideas for settings:

Under the sea on a planet covered in water, where merfolk, not humans, have thousands of years of civilization. Empires have risen and fallen, and now the people live under the strict but fair rule of the greatest warrior of the age. A strict class system is in place, with the largest and strongest individuals serving as warriors against the ever-present threat of sharks, bandits, and invasion. Many are farmers, raising schools of fish for food. (The people of this world are carnivorous, like the other creatures of the sea.) A few are craftsmen who carve instruments out of rock or forge them out of metal in the deep-sea volcanic vents. And the most respected individuals are the priests, who care for the sacred pearl that symbolizes the king’s right to rule.

This civilization is jeopardized, however, when a terrible secret is uncovered by the one person who has the power to save the kingdom, or destroy it…Who is this? What is the secret? What happens? That’s for you to decide!


A small kinship-based tribe (the Kuatl) living in the jungle. Danger is part of everyday life for the Kuatl, as sharp-toothed fish wait below the surface of the murky rivers, venomous snakes hang among the vines of the trees, and acid-spitting monsters lurk behind piles of rocks, all waiting for their next meal. Not that the Kuatl have no defenses of their own. With simple magic to keep the less powerful creatures at bay, and cunning and courage to match the attacks of the more powerful creatures of the jungle, they have survived for many generations.

When the chief sees in a dream of power that the Kuatl face disaster, however, all the cunning and courage of the tribe may not prove enough to keep them alive. The chieftain must risk everything to lead them to an unknown land through the dark heart of the jungle, a deadly place rumored to be inhabited by unnatural monsters…and worse.


In Hathan, everyone can fly. The First Levitation, which occurs between ages five and eight, is as much of a mark of passage as taking one’s first step or losing one’s first tooth. By the time children are ten or twelve, they zip through the air like the hawks and eagles with which they share the sky. Many people, however, (especially the elderly) don’t have the energy to fly for more than short distances, and even those who can rarely carry much with them. The exceptions are the Lightning Brigade. These heroes are part military, part Boy Scout, and part rock star. They need less oxygen than most so they can fly higher above the traffic, they are strong and vigorous, and they always help little old ladies carry their groceries home.

One little boy has dreamed his entire life of being part of the brigade. There’s just one problem… (Does he have asthma? Is he afraid of heights? Is he the only one in his community who doesn’t have flying powers? Is he legally prohibited from joining the brigade because his father is a criminal? You decide!)


knights horses mountblade artwork medieval 1920x1200 wallpaper

Ideas for plots:

A twin sister and brother form the world’s best acrobatics team. They have trained together from childhood and can nearly always finish each other’s sentences. Neither can imagine anything separating them – until a new girl appears who is every bit as good as the sister. The brother is fascinated by and attracted to her, resulting in a significant rift in the twins’ relationship. When it turns out that the new girl is actually in trouble and needs their help, the sister must overcome her jealousy and join her brother to rescue the girl from the criminals who want her – and discover why the new girl actually came to join their acrobatics team.

A master spy is framed and condemned by his own king as a traitor. He joins a band of gypsies to escape the hangman’s noose, posing as a musician. He must perform his way across the country, escaping detection by both the king’s guards and the nosy (but good-hearted) other members of the gypsy company, as he attempts to uncover who framed him, why, and how to foil whatever plot is afoot.

Two best friends, both members of a fantasy book club, start reading a new book from the library and get magically transported to the world of the story. They find themselves in the summer residence of the king of the land, who is intrigued by them and is quite willing to send them back – if only he can find out how to do so. As the two friends learn more about the king and his realm, however, they discover that he is actually the villain of the book! Despite this, it seems as though he is still likely their best chance of getting home. One friend decides to stay with the king (“history is written by the victors, and he doesn’t seem like a bad guy”), while the other decides to leave before the king realizes they know who he is. The one who leaves falls in with a band of rebels, the book’s protagonists, who plan to overthrow the king. Both friends know how the book “is supposed” to go, but both want to use this knowledge to try to help their ally. Eventually, the two friends find themselves on opposite sides of a battle that will decide the fate of the kingdom. It seems as though whichever side wins, only one of them will go home alive…if a way can be found to go home at all.


I hope you enjoyed these little snippets of ideas, and I hope they inspire you! How would you incorporate one (or multiple!) of these ideas into a story? Which one is your favorite? What brilliant ideas do YOU have for new characters, settings, and plots? Comment below!



Savvy Saturday – Ready or Not

It’s that time of year again. The birds are singing, the grass is green, the weather alternates between hot and cold and dry and wet, and the students don caps and gowns and march across a stage with much pomp and circumstance, to the cheers of their friends and teary eyes of their parents.

It’s time for graduation.

As exciting as it is, however, graduation isn’t a time of pure celebration and good cheer for all departing students. For some, it’s a time of mixed emotions: fear of the unknown, loss of leaving the friends one has lived and studied with for four years, trepidation about going to college, beginning a new job, or finding a job at all. College graduations are especially difficult, as the student leaves behind academia after sixteen (or more) years of schooling to begin an entirely new chapter of life. Some students feel ready. Others are more hesitant.

Even in a fantasy world.

The story that is today’s Savvy Saturday post is dedicated to this year’s college graduates – and to one college graduate in particular. You are ready to “be an adult” and live life on mission. To make the world a better place. To go where you’ve been called and do what college has prepared you to do. You’ve matured and grown and developed your talents since you started college as a bright-eyed freshman. As you move on to the next stage in your life, keep your thirst for wisdom and knowledge fresh in your mind and the friends and relationships you have built close in your heart.

And many, many congratulations. You’ve earned them.




Ready or Not


A.L. Phillips


Xiristin held up the ring so it caught the light of the eight torches that blazed along the wall of Josin’s Jewelry, Amulets, and Artifacts.

“It’s exactly as you ordered it, my lady,” Josin assured her. “Are you ready to proceed?”

Ready? Heavens, no.

“A moment, if you please,” Xiristin said, continuing to scrutinize the piece she had commissioned. If there was any flaw in the ring, the magic she was about to perform could be fatal. All members of the Order of St. Pew were allowed one token to carry with them in their travels: one item of power, carrying the sacred signs of the Order itself, to help them on their way. Many chose to imbue their talisman with healing, with good luck, with protection. Simple spells, spells any fourth-year of the Order could accomplish.

But unfortunately, a simple spell wasn’t what Xiristin needed. And so she turned the ring slowly in her hand, looking for the slightest imperfection. At its top, a garnet red as heart-blood caught the light of the torches and reflected it around the room in a hundred shimmering sparks. A silver shield engraved with words of power shone proudly in the center of the top face of the stone. Around the garnet, a circular inscription proclaimed that ring’s bearer was a member of the Order of St. Pew, while the ring’s delicate silver band gleamed with etchings of figures, letters, and numbers.

Eventually, Xiristin let out a breath of relief. Josin was right: every letter on the ring was flawless, every figure exact. “It’s perfect,” she breathed. “Thank you, Josin. This is truly magnificent.”

Josin face lit up, and he gave her a bow. “My lady is too kind.”

Xiristin smiled back, but her stomach tightened as her hand closed over the ring. Now that the catalyst for the spell was in her possession, the danger she was putting herself in suddenly felt far more real. “Let us proceed,” she said, trying to sound confident. “Is all prepared for the casting?”

“As my lady directed.” Josin swept his hand toward the open doorway to his left.

Xiristin followed the jeweler, sweeping her long blue cape over her shoulder as she walked so it wouldn’t catch on the many display stands that flaunted gold, silver, and a rainbow of jewels for interested purchasers. As she entered the bare workroom at the back of the store, she shivered at the sudden drop in temperature. Here, there were no cheerful torches set in the walls. The room’s only light came from a bright blue flame that burned in midair a few inches above a round stone table at the room’s center.

“The wards are set?” Xiristin asked.

“Indeed, my lady,” Josin replied. “And the materials you requested are here.” He gestured to a small stool next to the table.

Xiristin glanced at the items on the stool: a dragon scale, a phoenix feather, a bowl of glowing water from the Sweet Sea, a perfect seven-sided crystal from the Mines of Memory. All expensive and rare, but all worth it.

Assuming the spell worked.

She forced a smile on her face and thanked the jeweler.

“It is my pleasure, my lady. May I be of any further assistance?”

Xiristin was about to say no, but then she remembered and bit her lip. “I hope not,” she said carefully, “but if…if anything happens…would you see that my horse is returned safely to the Order? Sprightly is her name; we’ve been through a lot together, and I would hate for anything to happen to her.”

Josin’s face had paled. Everyone knew that riders of the Order and their horses never separated from each other unless one or the other perished. Clearly, the jeweler hadn’t realized quite how dangerous the spell was that he’d agreed to let Xiristin perform in his workshop. “As you wish, my lady,” he finally said. “May you and the Order of St. Pew prosper.”

“And may you prosper in the Order’s care,” Xiristin replied. Once she heard the click of the door behind her, she focused her gaze on the fire and concentrated, trying to force away her nerves.

Ready or not, it was time to begin.

Xiristin took a deep breath in, then blew out, both with her breath and with her magic. As she blew, a breeze began to swirl about the workroom. It kissed Xiristin’s cheeks, pulled stray tendrils of hair from the intricate blond braids gathered at the back of her head, and whistled merrily as it gained strength.

Any other day, Xiristin would have laughed along with the breeze, and given it time to play before sending it to work. Today, however, she merely tucked her hair back behind her ears and pointed to the stool. Immediately, the wind whisked the phoenix feather and dragon scale into the air. They tumbled together on the breeze, whirling around the room in ever-tightening circles until they met the blue flame at the room’s center.


Xiristin braced herself against the sudden vortex of power that surged into existence. She had never felt magic this powerful before, and this was only the beginning of the spell. “Primus,” she said, her voice shaking. She braced herself: at her word, her ears popped with a change in pressure, while the flame turned bright gold.

Xiristin suppressed a surge of elation. It had worked! Focus, she told herself. This was only the beginning.

The crystal was next. When the wind carried it to the flames, the fire roared up around it until the crystal itself burned gold.


As Xiristin spoke, the air turned frigid, while the flames around the crystal turned white as the snow around the building where she and her cohort had resided for the past four years.

She swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat as memory intruded sharply into her casting. There would be no snow in the land to which she was being sent. She and her cohort were all receiving their arms tomorrow, the latest in the long history of the Order of St. Pew to be commissioned to fight for Freedom and for the Faith. But she was the only one being sent to the far western desert.

Her instructors had told her time and again that she was ready. She knew in her head that they were right: it was time to leave, time to begin her new apprenticeship with the masters of St. Davidus who would hone her skills until she was a master herself.

And yet…

Gritting her teeth, Xiristin pointed to the bowl of water on the stool. The wind lifted it into the air, whirling it around the room without spilling a drop until it hovered above the white flames that roared in midair. She motioned: the water slowly poured down onto the fire. Steam hissed, filling the air with the scent of roses. When it cleared, the fire now burned in the crystal alone, its white flames dancing and leaping inside the stone’s faces.


The crystal turned red: the color of the heart, the color of the garnet in Xiristin’s ring. Power hummed out from it, prickling the hair on her arms.

The priming was complete.

The woman’s breath was coming heavy now, and her head felt light, dizzy, like it did after studying all night for an exam. And that had been the easy part of the spell.

Xiristin let out a long breath, concentrating as hard as she could even as her heartbeat pounded against her skull. Now she would see if she was ready, if her training was sufficient for the spell she was attempting to cast.

If it wasn’t, of course, she wouldn’t know. She tried not to think of what it would be like to be sucked into the vortex she had created, for her life to be ended in a flash of fire and her memories dissolved into smoke.

It wouldn’t happen, she told herself. She was ready. She had to be.

Slowly, Xiristin stepped forward, holding her new ring out between her thumb and her first finger. With every step, the hum of power from the crystal in front of her grew stronger. Carefully, her hands shaking, the woman extended the ring, then let go. It hovered in the air just above the crystal. She held out her hands on either side of the ring, calling her power to her. And along with her power, her memories.


Encouragement, the White Council had whispered over her head when she had accepted the call of the Order four years ago. Joy. Hope. These you shall bring to a world lost in darkness. They shall shine in your soul, a light never to be quenched, and thus you shall push back the shadow wherever you ride.


The scene shifted. “You think you can do it alone? Ha!” Xiristin’s mentor folded his arms over his stout middle and fixed her with a skeptical eye. Stantus was more grizzled than some at the Order, and blunter than most, but still sharp as an arrow. And as hard as he tried to hide it behind a veneer of cynicism, Stantus cared about his initiates. It was why Xiristin liked him, why she kept coming to him when everyone else in her cohort stayed away.

Not that she liked him all the time.

“I won’t be alone,” she retorted. “I’ll have Sprightly.”

Stantus just snorted. “See above. If you’re stupid enough to try to fly solo, you’re going to crash and burn,” he told her. “Happens every time. The White Council fills your heads full of self-empowerment and actualization garbage, gives you a mission to change the world, and sends you off by yourself, all eager and bright-eyed. Then they wonder why you don’t last a month. Bloody knuckleheads, the lot of them. Not that anyone cares about my opinion.”

Xiristin raised her eyebrows and folded her arms to mimic his. “What would you recommend, then?” she said testily. “I have to go where I’m assigned, and I already know that there isn’t anyone else from the Order at St. Davidus. Unless you’re suggesting that I recant my vows and flee while I have the chance.” Her barbed sarcasm would have made her cohort-mates wince, and her other instructors assign her penalty duties for lack of respect.

Stantus, however, just laughed silently. “Can if you want to,” he said.

Xiristin gave him a pointed glare.

“All right, all right. You want to shine in the darkness and give sweetness and light wherever you go and all that mumbo-jumbo? Then make bloody sure you don’t burn out. And to do that, to continue the metaphor, you’ll need fuel. Lots of it.”

As he spoke, Stantus rummaged through the piles of manuscripts and scrolls on his desk, raising clouds of dust. “In fact, you’ll need…” he said, discarding one yellowed document after another, “this!” He held up a scroll tied with crimson and white ribbons.

“What is it?” Xiristin asked, reaching for the scroll. It was delicate in her hands, but power radiated through it into her fingers.

“A life-spell,” Stantus said.

Xiristin raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t those rather…dangerous?” she asked.

Stantus’ mouth quirked at the understatement in her tone. “Only if you can’t handle it,” he said. “You asked my advice, I’m giving it. Tie the Order to you through your memories, and your memories to you through your talisman. Don’t let this place and its people – knuckleheads and all – fade from your mind. Don’t let future shadows cloud the joy that you’ve been given and the lessons you’ve learned here.” A cynical smile came to his face. “Of course, even with a life-spell on your talisman, you won’t be able to complete your mission alone. No one can. But you might make it at St. Davidus long enough to find allies.”


Xiristin focused on the ring, memories flying through her head as fast and breathtaking as Sprightly’s gallop. Memories of the Order’s grand buildings of red brick and white stone, whose turrets soared toward cloudy skies. Memories of the laughter and late-night debates she had shared with the others of her cohort. Memories of her instructors, of her training, of the music and joy and hope and light of her four years in the Order’s care.

Memories of who she had been, and how she had changed, and who she knew she was.

Filling her mind with her memories and her vision with her ring, Xiristin spoke the words she had memorized from Stantus’ scroll.

As the incantation flowed off her tongue, the fire within the focal crystal concentrated beneath its top face. Brighter and brighter it grew, until it suddenly sprang upward, the fire of magic, of memory, of life, flowing from the crystal into the ring in a rush of energy. It was too bright to look at. She squeezed her eyes shut, blood rushing to her head as power burned in her veins, all crystalizing and focusing Xiristin’s memories in the silver band and its blood-red stone.

Finite!” she gasped, and it was done.

It was done.

She was alive!

Xiristin’s breath came in laughing gasps. She sank to the floor on trembling legs, sweat dripping down her face, and rested her head on her knees. She couldn’t think; she hardly had the energy to breathe. But she was alive, and the crystal had stopped glowing, and the ring that hovered above it was now filled with a silver light.

With a small exhausted smile, she sat on the floor, content to just gaze at the ring. It was another fifteen minutes before her strength returned enough for her to push herself up from the floor. Her fingers still shaking, she reached out and touched her new talisman. The ring was cool and smooth, and as she ran her fingers over its band, joy flowed into her spirit: familiar joy, her own joy, but now crisp and fresh and clear as a mountain stream. She slipped the ring onto the fourth ringer of her right hand – the traditional place for a ring of the Order – and laughed aloud in delight.

The spell had worked.

Hope, joy, encouragement: there they were, secured in memory, protected against the darkness. There they were, a fount that could overflow through her to a world in need. Though she would soon leave behind the columns of pines and gentle streams of the Order of St. Pew, its teaching and music and light would live in her heart and her soul always. Her friends would be with her, as would Stantus and the White Council.

And when she rode into the west, it would be with hope and joy and light held firmly and forever in her right hand. Xiristin’s eyes brightened at the thought of her upcoming assignment. She would keep light and hope in her heart, even as she learned from the masters at St. Davidus. She would fulfill her mission.

She knew it in her heart.

She was ready.

The End


Copyright 2014, A.L. Phillips



Savvy Saturday – Holy Week

This week, in the Christian tradition, is a remembrance of the last week that Jesus lived on Earth in around the year AD 33. Whether or not you believe that Jesus is actually who he claimed to be – God in the flesh, and the savior of the world – you have to admit that his story is the greatest ever told. Every theme that stirs the human heart is present in the story of the gospel, from love, beauty, and sacrifice, to jealousy, greed, and betrayal. Life and death, good and evil, light and darkness wage war in the pages of the Bible, until all loose ends are wrapped up and a perfect ending of justice and mercy is brought to pass.

The most important part of the entire gospel story centers around Easter weekend: what the church calls Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter/Resurrection Sunday. (Saturday doesn’t get a special name, as far as I’m aware.) On Thursday night, Jesus was betrayed by one of his close friends to the religious leaders who sought to put him to death. On Friday, these religious leaders succeeded in their goals by manipulating the Roman court system in a mockery of a trial. Jesus was condemned, crucified, and buried. On Sunday, he rose from the grave, conquering death and offering new life for any who will accept it.

But today’s post is titled Good Friday, and it’s my fictional musings on how two characters might have reacted to the events of that day. For more context (if needed), see Luke 22 and Matthew 27.

Good Friday


I’d love to hear your thoughts – let me know in the comments section below. And have a blessed Easter weekend.



Savvy Saturday – Hearing Voices Isn’t a Bad Thing

In today’s Savvy Saturday, I want to give a shout-out to my many wonderful writing friends and their unique and fabulous writing voices. While having a good story to tell lays the foundation for a novel, having a good voice is what keeps people reading. Some authorial voices are fast-paced, excited, dashing from one adventure to another, while other authors meander through the landscapes of their stories, giving you time to smell the literary roses. Both are worth reading, but they tell different types of stories.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Last year, some of my English-major friends and I participated in a writing game. We each took the same opening to a fantasy story, written in the first person past tense, and rewrote it in our personal voice. Take a look at these opening segments, and you’ll see the differences in authorial voice between them. How would you rewrite this story opening? What kind of adventure would this opening lead to for you?

My version:


I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of wind through the trees. Still half-asleep, I took a slow, deep breath. The heady scent of a pine forest filled my lungs.

Pine? That couldn’t be right. My head still foggy and confused, I fumbled around for my glasses and found them near at hand. I put them on and gasped.

I wasn’t in the hammock where I’d gone to sleep.

More than that, I wasn’t in Nalai anymore.

This pine forest, with its soft grass, its birdsong, and its lack of hills, wasn’t anything like the jungles and mountains of the island where I distinctly remembered falling asleep last night. My memories of the night before were crystal clear: I had bid my friends goodnight and we’d all drifted off to sleep in our hammocks, each suspended between two of Nalai’s abundant palm trees. The ocean had lapped softly on the Nalaiyan beach nearby, the warm night-breeze had carried with it the smell of tropical flowers, and the air itself had tasted rich and exotic.

Nothing like the crisp wind that was now blowing in my face. What was going on? I shivered and pulled my light blue coat around me, my thoughts flying fast as the pine needles swirling at the bases of the nearby trees. Then I frowned. Why was I wearing my coat? Or, for that matter, my travel clothes? I patted the pockets of my heavy-duty pants, and found my folding knife and the stronger-than-it-looks thin rope that I always carry with me when I go adventuring. My frown deepened. It certainly didn’t look as though I had been plucked from my hammock in Nalai.

I gritted my teeth, let out a deep breath, and clasped my knife firmly in hand. Whatever had happened, I was going to get to the bottom of it…



My first friend has a down-to-earth authorial voice. She sounds friendly, uses a colloquial style, and her writing is quick-paced and active. Take a look:

Friend 1

I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of wind through the trees around me. I breathed in deeply, the fresh scent of a pine forest filling my lungs. My eyes snapped open. I bolted upright and scrambled to my feet.

Where am I?

This pine forest didn’t look anything like the jungles and mountains of Nalai. There was no sign or sound of any animal or human presence nearby. I was alone in the grass-carpeted glen.

What had gotten me here, leagues away from Nalai, and back in my travel clothes, without waking me up?

I closed my eyes and pressed my fingers against them. I concentrated on the swirls of neon blue and yellow in an effort to keep my mind from going completely wonkers. Okay. Okayokayokay. Umm. Not good.

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to know that I wasn’t going to get out of this mess by panicking. I exhaled and opened my eyes. My gaze fell on a path leading out of the clearing…



My second friend’s style is a bit more relaxed, introspective, and flowing. Note, for instance, the use of semi-colons and two kinds of mental dialogue (normal authorial voice and direct speaking to oneself). This friend typically writes literary fiction, which spends a lot more of its time on description and characterization than on plot happenings. It’s beautiful work, but gives a very different flavor to the piece than the almost panicked section above.

Friend 2:

I awoke to the warbling of birds and the rustling of the wind through the trees.

Where was I?

My head hurt a little. Had I gotten drunk again?

No. No, that made no sense. I’d never been drunk; I’d never made it past a warm buzz in the whole course of my life. Drunk people got stupid, and I didn’t like being stupid. Besides, I despised the feeling of nausea too much to risk it; by sheer force of will, I hadn’t vomited since about age twelve.

Alright. Congratulate yourself later. Focus.

I breathed in deeply. This place smelled like… pine.

My eyes snapped open, and I sat up. Where was I?

The last thing I could remember was bidding goodnight to each of the other members of our gathering, and drifting off to sleep in my hammock, suspended between two of Nalai’s strong-but-supple palm trees. The ocean had been lapping softly on the Nalaiyan beach nearby; the warm night-breeze had carried with it the smell of tropical flowers. The air itself had tasted rich and exotic…

But this? Pine. Soft grass, familiar birdsong, no hills… It didn’t look anything like the jungles and mountains of Nalai. I listened hard, but, besides the birdsong, there was no sound of any animal or human nearby…



Last, my third friend has a wonderfully droll (though somewhat dark) writing style. I often find myself chuckling at the wit and cleverness in her work, even as I’m carried along by its easy flow. See for yourself!

Friend 3:

I awakened in gradual stages to the clamor of birdsong and the rustling of wind through the trees. The air was fresh and tangy and smelled of pine. I nestled deeper into my bed of moss and twigs, hoping it wasn’t terribly early in the morning.


Birds? Pine? Moss and twigs? Where on earth was I?

My eyes snapped open and I sat up, disoriented. This… couldn’t be real. I last remembered bidding my friends a good night and drifting to sleep in my hammock, alarmingly suspended between two of Nalai’s abundant palm trees. The ocean had been lapping softly on the beach nearby, the warm night-breeze had carried the smell of tropical flowers, and the air itself had tasted rich and exotic.

I found my glasses lying beside me, put them on, and stared. This pine forest, with its soft grass, familiar birdsong, and utter lack of hills, didn’t look like anything I’d seen in Nalai. To make matters more bizarre, I’d gone to sleep in my pajamas, and now I was dressed in my travel clothes. They weren’t anything fancy: just a shirt and trousers and a light summer coat with—yes, of course—empty pockets.

I had no idea what I was doing here. I couldn’t remember anything beyond falling asleep in a hammock. Had I been drugged? Poisoned? Cast into one of those particularly nasty spells, where you think you’re living through all sorts of unpleasantness while your enemies point and laugh? If yes, someone was going to spend his retirement reminiscing about how he’d once had a liver and spleen.

Until he’d eaten them.


I love reading my friends’ writing – both these friends, and others who have beautiful voices of their own. I must admit, I nag them probably more than they would like to share their unfinished work with me. But I’m sure you can see why. Each of us has our own unique style, our own way of telling a story, that lets us start with the same material and take it in completely different directions. And that’s why there’s always room for another author to tell “the same” story – because no one has a voice like yours.


If you come up with an opening based on this writing exercise that you’d like to share, paste it in the comments below! Or feel free to use it and start your own adventure, with your unique authorial voice to lead readers on a journey they’ll never forget…




Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (4)

In this series, I’ve been demonstrating how individuals from collectivist and individualist cultures react differently to similar stimuli. It’s been a fun writing prompt for me, and I hope it’s been fun for you to read as well. Today’s individualist/collectivist difference is attitude toward authority, and what kind of actions get rewarded by the narrative.

As a reminder, you can check out my first Thinking Across Cultures post for the writers’ guide to how these two types of cultures are different, then check out the second and third posts for the beginning of Kiwa and Tika’s adventures.


The mountains were cold and terrible and so far from home. Kiwa shivered, as she had so often for the past three months, as Commander Shoto led them in single file along yet another steep twisting path that looked like it hadn’t been used for years by anyone but goats. They had yet to find any sign of the cursed raised or their cursed camp, but Shoto was confident that they would, and soon. “We are the Emperor’s Riders,” he reminded them every day. “We cannot fail.”

In spite of her exhaustion and half-frozen limbs, Kiwa believed him. What else could she do? Without faith in the Emperor, without faith in their commander and in each other, she and her comrades would have nothing. Would be nothing. No, they would find the raiders. Kiwa just hoped it would be soon, while they still had strength left to fight.

Suddenly, an arrow buzzed through the air in front of her and buried itself in a nearby bush. Kiwa yelled an alarm, drawing her bow and looking to Shoto.

“Mano, Woti, Doto, with me!” the young commander ordered, his voice thunder-strong with authority. “We’ll find them. Kiwa, Jani, Sano, stay here and draw their fire!”

Another two arrows hissed down from a gap in the cliff face. Kiwa saw and pointed; Jani and Sano followed her finger. “In the name of the Emperor, surrender yourselves!” Jani shouted up the mountain. An enraged cry in a foreign tongue came in response, along with three more arrows fired in quick succession. As the archers exchanged fire, Shoto and his three bladesmen disappeared up the trail.

“How many do you think?” Kiwa asked, firing an arrow of her own up toward the gap. Her aim was true, and cries of alarm came in return.

“Three, perhaps?” Sano guessed.

“Enough to tell us where their camp is,” Jani said. She cursed as another arrow zinged past her head. “Assuming that Shoto finds them before they shoot us all.”

“Raiders can’t shoot a yak at ten paces,” Sano assured her. “Three of them against three of us? They don’t stand a chance.”

“To the right!” Kiwa shouted, a sudden movement catching her eye. Sano spun and let loose an arrow – a man in rough skins plunged forward from his hiding place among the rocks above them. A moment later, a horn sounded, followed by a hail of arrows from two directions. They hit the rocks and dirt before and behind and all around them. One buzzed past Kiwa, and she felt a sudden pain in her ear. Next to her, Jani gasped in pain as one hit her in the leg.

“Six on the ridge there!” Sano shouted. “Fall back! Take cover!”

“No!” Kiwa shouted back. Now that Sano pointed the raiders out, Kiwa could see them. She ran forward, toward the mountain, zig-zagging as she had been taught as she closed distance. She fired up, toward the raiders raiders, which prompted a new storm of arrows. “Shoto told us to draw their fire!”

“Shoto didn’t know there were so many!”

“Less talking, more shooting!” Jani snapped. Blood ran down her leg, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Do your duty, Sano!” As she spoke, she snapped arrow after arrow from her bow. One of the raiders fell, then another. That left three that Kiwa could see.

Her mouth tight and her heart pounding in her ears, Kiwa fired again and again. She shot toward the crevice in the rock to their left, toward the ledge on their right, always moving, always making noise and drawing the attention of the raiders and trying not to think about the very real possibility that the next breath might be her last. To her left, she saw Sano yelling and firing, his voice quaking with fear but filled with passion nonetheless. The sight filled Kiwa with new bravery. If they died, they would die doing their duty.

And then the familiar battle-cry sounded on the wind: “For the Emperor!”

A new sound joined it, the clash of blades and the cries of death, and Kiwa cheered with her comrades. With renewed vigor, they fired toward the ridge and the last raiders standing there, leaving those in the cliff to Shoto and his deadly bladesmen.

The battle was over in just a few more minutes. Archers were no match for bladesmen, and raiders were no match for the riders of the Emperor. Kiwa’s heart swelled with pride as she, Sano, and a limping Jani joined Shoto up on the hidden ledge from which the raiders had attacked.

“Well done,” Shoto said, nodding to the three of them. “The archers were so fixed on you, they didn’t see us coming. Your devotion in the face of danger honors your families, your clan, and the Emperor.”

Though Kiwa carefully didn’t look at Sano, she could feel his discomfort. “We are all honored to serve you and the Emperor,” she said, bowing. Shoto nodded, and turned away.

Sano caught Kiwa’s eye, gratitude in his expression. She nodded back to him. There was no reason for the commander to know that Sano had questioned his orders on the field. They had done their duty, the battle was won, and that was all that mattered.



The mountains of Ares V were cold and terrible, and a long way from Space Station Kronos. With every step along this miserable planet’s deserted peaks, Tika cursed her aching feet, her half-frozen limbs, and especially the blasted arms-smugglers who had picked this forsaken snowy peak as their base. Her mission was unfortunately clear: find and destroy the smugglers’ base of operations before they could find and destroy her ship. This was the third such mission she’d been sent on in as many months, and the first in which she’d been assigned a partner.

“Come on, Sanno,” Tika called over her shoulder, beckoning to the large-muscled munitions expert with her blaster. “I want to be out of here by dark.”

“Then you can haul the fireworks factory on your back,” Sanno retorted, picking his way through the mounds of snow that drifted around them in the wind. “I’m coming as fast as I can.”

Tika rolled her eyes. “Then make as fast as you can faster.” She glanced at her watch and picked up the pace. “I’m guessing we have four hours before their instruments notice our ship’s signal, and maybe fifteen minutes after that before they shut down operations. We need to get there before that.”

“Wait.” Sanno stopped and crossed his arms. “We’re going in by daylight?

“I’m certainly not creeping around these icy ravines at night!”

“But our orders – ”

Tika told Sanno what he could do their orders. “The brass only care that we get the job done. And I don’t like sneaking around at night. Too many ways to fall down a rat-hole and die, and that’s in addition to getting slagged by friendly fire, or unfriendly fire. I prefer to see who I’m shooting at, thanks.”

“That’s not the way Commander Monson said we should approach –”

Tika sighed. “Is Commander Monson here? Did he have any idea when he gave us our briefing that the base was located on top of a blasted mountain? No. Because we just found that out when we scanned this miserable planet two hours ago. Do you know who sneaks around mountains at night? People with a death wish. Now let’s go. My blaster’s getting itchy for some action.”

Tika turned and shuffled onward through the snow. She listened hard and smiled to herself as she heard Sanno’s booted feet tramping along behind her. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a tad rigid. Tika pulled her binoculars from her fur-lined pocket – according to the ship’s computer, the base was located just south of their position, about another mile away.

Zap! The unmistakable sound of blaster fire made Tika drop her binoculars and shoulder her gun. “Sanno! Get down!”

The large man had already shrugged off his highly explosive pack and was fumbling for his sidearm.

Zap! Tika followed the shot with her eyes – the shooter was above them, in a narrow mountain crevice. Along with…Her eyes widened.

“New plan, Sanno,” she shouted. “Get ready to run!” She fired three shots in quick succession. The first hit the shooter in the chest. The second hit the equipment he had evidently been using. The third hit a pile of ice and snow just above them. The mountainside began to rumble, then shift.

“Did you just–”

“Less talking, more running!” Tika yelled, already moving. “We have an avalanche to worry about.”

Sanno ran. That didn’t stop him from sputtering his protests. “Why in blazes–”

“He was recording, blockhead! His friends are going to come check it out, and the less evidence we give them, the better. If they think he got hit by a freak avalanche, they won’t be expecting us. If we left him there, nice and neat for them to find, with shot-up or disabled transmission equipment, we’d be dead meat.”

Behind them, a roar of snow poured over the path that they had just taken.

“You know,” Sanno said, slowing down, “that’s actually pretty clever.”

Tika gave him a lopsided smile. “That’s why the brass recruited me for this job.” She patted her gun. “Well, that, and my eye with a blaster.”

“And your gentle spirit and humility,” Sanno noted wryly.

“Shut up,” Tika said. She shouldered her gun and pointed toward the camp. “We still have a base to take out. You ready?”

“As ready as you are.”

“Then let’s go blow up some guns.”

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (3)

The story of Kiwa and Tika continues, giving examples of how collectivists and individualists can be written in different situations. Today’s relevant collectivist/individualist difference: group goal/duty oriented versus personal goal/happiness oriented.

To remind yourself of what’s going on, you can check out the list and explanation of traits of collectivist and individualist cultures in Part 1 of my Thinking Across Cultures series, and read the beginning of Kiwa and Tika’s stories in Part 2.


Kiwa entered the wooden house of Commander Dasho, was shown to his private study by his young son, and bowed before the great warrior. He nodded back, dark eyes keen beneath bushy gray eyebrows, and gave her a rolled-up scroll. “You are the youngest of your cohort?” he asked after they exchanged a traditional greeting.

It wasn’t a question, but she nodded.

“You have been offered a chance at great honor,” he said. “The Emperor has grown weary of reports of raider attacks on Trader Clan’s caravans. He has tasked me with the duty of forming a new cohort, a sixteenth cohort, that will search out and destroy the mountain nest of the raider vermin. I need young warriors who are well-disciplined and not burdened with husband or children to ride into the mountains and fulfill the Emperor’s command. I have chosen you as one of six who will serve under the command of Shoto, son of Shoko. If you accept this honor, you will leave at dawn. What say you?”

Kiwa kept her face blank, but her mind reeled. Assigned to a new cohort? To leave Commander Tomo and the brothers and sisters she had fought with for three years, to be sent away from her parents, to be forced to ride into unknown territory where the raiders lurked in the snow with their curved blades and their unholy blood-rituals… She wanted to say no. She wasn’t like Nima, the loudmouthed girl who served in the fifth cohort and chattered away like a bird with talk of adventure and glory and proving herself.

And yet, this would not just be an honor for her, it would be an honor for her family. Kiwa could only imagine her parents’ pride as they watched her ride into the mountains under the command of the son of the most honorable and well-respected family in the village, willing to sacrifice her life in service to the Emperor. And when she came back – ah, that would be sweeter yet. The entire sixth warrior cohort would share in her success and be esteemed by every clan. Jolo and his family would bow in respect before her father in the marketplace. And the Rider Clan as a whole would be lifted up in the sight of the People of the Wind.

“I am unworthy to be chosen for such an honor,” Kiwa murmured, as formula required. “But if all other worthy candidates have turned aside, I am willing to do my duty.”

Commander Dasho nodded. “Very well,” he said, approval in his eyes and in his tone. “You are so assigned. May you bring honor to your family and the sixteenth cohort.”


“Lieutenant Tika,” Doshin said by means of greeting.

Tika snapped to attention. “Sir.”

“Your record was brought to my attention today,” the commander said, tapping a thick file on his desk. “Please, have a seat.”

Tika sat, still unsure of why she was here. The commander looked troubled, but that didn’t necessarily indicate that she had reason for concern. There was a war on; the commander always looked troubled.

“Commander Tohmo tells me that you’re the best sharp-shooter he’s seen in fifteen years,” Doshin said. “And from him, that’s saying something.”

Tika sat up straighter, and couldn’t keep a grin from coming to her face. “Thank you, sir.”

“He also says that you’ve been to the infirmary ten times in the past month for injuries not sustained under training procedures.”

Tika’s grin faded.

Doshin shook his head and tapped the folder. “I can’t have loose cannons running around my station, Tika. Not even with scores like yours.” He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a single sheet of paper. He pushed it toward her. “This is a mission I’d like you to volunteer for,” he said. “Classified, I’m afraid, but I can guarantee your ranged weapon skills will be put to good use. It shouldn’t last more than six months.”

Tika’s breath caught in her throat. “Six months?” she blurted out. “Can Noto come?”

“I’m sorry,” Doshin said, shaking his head. “Just you.”

“Then no. Not interested.”

Doshin pursed his lips. “If you don’t volunteer,” he said, “I’ll be forced to transfer you off-station.”

Tika’s mind reeled. This couldn’t be happening. She was supposed to be here for another three years at least, and Noto’s service time wouldn’t be up for another five. She couldn’t be transferred off-station! It wasn’t fair!

“If it’s any consolation,” Doshin said, “if you succeed on this mission, I’m sure you’ll have your pick of next post – and enough clout to ask for your own team.”

Tika’s eyebrows shot up. “What kind of assignment are we talking about?”

Doshin just smiled and pushed the paper further toward her. “Dangerous. But worth it. I promise.”

Tika gritted her teeth. Six months of dangerous was better than permanently transferred. And then she’d be back with Noto, and nothing would keep them apart. “All right. I’ll do it. Sir.”

“Excellent.” Commander Doshin’s smile grew wider. “Thank you for your cooperation, Lieutenant. And good luck.”

Savvy Saturday – Thinking Across Cultures (2)

Continuing last week’s discussion of individualist and collectivist cultures, here are two beginnings of a story that take place in alternate universes. Kiwa is from a collectivist society, whereas Tika approaches life from an individualist viewpoint. Both face similar situations and make similar choices, but their motivations and worldviews show just how important culture is to the way a story unfolds…

Kiwa was not having a good day. First, her younger sister Ika – twelve years old, certainly old enough to know better – actually cried when she fell off her horse, and then refused to get back on and continue practicing with her cohort. Kiwa’s warrior cohort would never say anything to her face, but she saw the embarrassment in Miko’s eyes, heard the formality in Commander Tomo’s voice, felt the discomfort radiating from Shala and Ona and Nato as they drilled with her, and knew that they all shared her shame. Her parents, of course, would be completely mortified. Do you even care about your family? Kiwa could almost hear her mother asking. What if Commander Shoko had heard you? He would never allow a man in his cohort to marry Kiwa if he thought her sister was disrespectable and disobedient.

 Fortunately, one incident wouldn’t be enough to make Jolo and his family back out of the betrothal. Too many gifts had been given, too many stanzas of poetry read aloud beneath Kiwa’s window for passers-by to hear and smile at, for Jolo to want to declare that he had made a mistake in his choice of bride. Nonetheless, given Jolo’s family’s wealth – second only to Commander Shoko’s in the Stone Forest region – his proposed match with a girl whose family still ate only rice for many of their meals had raised more than a few pairs of eyebrows. Kiwa was well aware that she had only been honored with his proposal because of her father’s exemplary record in the third warrior cohort, as well as her own three years of obedient service in the sixth warrior cohort of the Rider Clan. If Ika didn’t learn to control herself, Jolo’s commanding officer might indeed counsel him to back out of his engagement.

Even worse, Kiwa had just received news that Commander Dasho – head over all fifteen warrior cohorts in the Stone Forest – had summoned her by name to report to him immediately. That was where she was headed now. She moved quickly and smoothly down the dirt road, her inner turmoil hidden behind a face as calm as the cloudless sky above. She ignored the chickens pecking for seed around her, and the loud cries of the Trader Clan and Farmer Clan selling their wares from makeshift stalls on both sides of the road. What could she have done to have attracted his attention? She couldn’t think of anything, but no one was called before the commander unless they had performed unusually poorly or unusually well in their duties. The former brought shame to one’s family and cohort and was unbearable to consider. The latter brought honor to one’s family, but caused disharmony in the cohort, and thus was equally problematic. No one liked to drill and fight with someone who had a big head. As Kiwa had been taught from the time she was young, members of a cohort were equal in every way, trained to fight together like finely crafted pieces in a machine. If a piece started thinking more highly of himself than he ought, it ruined the unity of the machine and led to death at the hands of the barbarian raiders from the mountains, and dishonor for the rest of the Rider Clan. No, it was better not to attract attention from one’s superiors, positive or negative. Kiwa swallowed, and forced herself to keep walking. The only thing worse than attracting attention was neglecting one’s duty, and that would be the last thing she would do.


Tika was not having a good day. Why had opened her blasted mouth again? She promised herself every day that she would learn self-control, and every day she made some smart-nosed response to Jitli’s snide comments that ended with her lying on the metal floor of the station with a new set of bruises. And today, Noto had seen it. That made everything worse – because of course, he couldn’t let her fight her own battles like the liberated female of the twenty-third century that she was. No, he had to be noble and chivalrous and punch Jitli in the face for attacking his girlfriend.

Which, of course, was why Tika loved him. That, and the fact that he could quote Shakespeare while kicking the snot out of a hundred rabid space-dogs. They complemented each other well, she and Noto did. With her expertise in range weapons and his hand-to-hand skills, with her flute sonatas and his sonnets, they were a match made in heaven. Now if only this war would end so they could have the time to actually get married and settle down, everything would be perfect.

Tika sighed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. She looked down at the orders in her hand for the fifth time. They still told her to report to Commander Doshin, head of Space Station Kronos immediately, so she rubbed her aching legs, groaned, and slowly propelled herself out of the infirmary and down the curving steel halls of the station. She didn’t know what precisely had brought her to Commander Doshin’s attention, but it was likely either the fights, or her recent perfect score on the new blaster certification test. Given her dislike of permanent records placed in her file, she hoped it was the latter.


The adventures of Kiwa and Tika continue next week! Check back for more. Whose story do you empathize with more? What do you think will happen? Post below – I’d love to hear from you!