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Meet the #FearlessWomen: Barsalai Shefali from The Phoenix Empress

Place holder  of - 90Written by Lisa Ickowicz

I am Barsalai Shefali, and I have earned that name twice over.

Barsalayaa Shefali is a woman of few words, but she is fierce, loyal and compassionate. Born to a Qorin family—a tribe of nomadic peoples within the Hokkaran Empire—her early years are filled with riding horses and learning to shoot a bow and arrow. Her life is not easy or privileged. The Hokkarans hate her dark horse-like looks and her own Qorin people dislike her because they think she is too pampered. Growing up Shefali only has one real friend: O Shizuka.

Shefali has her destiny intertwined with Shizuka’s from birth. Shefali’s mother is a dedicated servant and loyal friend to Shizuka’s mother. The girls grow up together and though they live across the empire’s borders they keep in contact through letters. Shefali can’t read or write Hokkaran, but she painstakingly learns—perfecting her calligraphy to impress Shizuka. The friendship between the two girls grows into a love between two women.

In The Phoenix Empress, Shefali is returning to Fujino to see O Shizuka after eight years in exile. But she soon finds that she is not returning to her beloved wife, but rather the Hokkaran Empress—a woman whose habits she does not know. Adorned in empress robes, with a painted white face, and glassy eyes, Shizuka is not the same woman Shefali left behind. Shizuka’s love of her ink bowl and calligraphy has been replaced by an obsession with getting drunk on wine. And it’s in that drunken state that Shefali finds her when they reunite. Instead of showing anger or resentment towards Shizuka, Shefali scoops her into her arms. She lays with her and calms her night terrors with a song. She is and always has been Shizuka’s rock. Shefali has endured trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to Shizuka. Yet she still willingly wants to carry the weight of her wife’s troubles.

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Shizuka says. “You carry so much already. My suffering is a grain of rice, and yours is a boulder.”

 Shefali kisses her on the forehead.

 “You didn’t ask,” she says. “And suffering is not a contest. Losing a limb, losing a horse, losing a friend—the pain’s different, but the crying’s the same.”

 Shefali constantly balances her role as a loyal, caring wife and a fierce, fearless warrior. But when a familiar demonic force grows closer, and tragedy befalls her, Shefali must do all she can to save herself, Shizuka, and the entire empire.

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Learning to Write #FearlessWomen

Place holder  of - 10Written by Mirah Bolender

From the moment I started writing, I limited myself in the type of characters I created. When I was a child, I insisted that I’d only write about animals, because those were the only things that I could draw decently and I loved drawing my characters. I essentially wrote humans in fur coats, but that didn’t matter. I felt like I could understand them better this way, in their disguises. A popular saying is “write what you know,” which makes sense as generic writing advice and also because I was obsessed with the Redwall series at the time. I read about talking animal-people, so I wrote the same. I freely admit that the results were awful. I’ve improved since then, but the “write what you know” concept stuck to me harder than I thought. Years and years later, in a writing class, another student critiquing my writing said my piece was decent, but also “a sausage fest.” It was. And it rightly bothered me. Why did I write such a drastic imbalance, I wondered. I hadn’t even thought about it—I’d thrown together interesting characters from older projects, and it happened that few of them were female. What was up with that?

Imagine your favorite book or movie. What made it special? The action? The plot that kept you guessing at every turn? The indomitable protagonist, who always came out on top? Think a little more about that protagonist. In most of the mainstream plots I followed, the protagonist was male. He had male friends. If a woman was involved, she was never at the front. There were roles for her, of course: the girlfriend, the girl next door who’d become the best friend’s girlfriend, a trickster with girlfriend potential who led the protagonist on, and, of course, the villainess, usually a more complex flavor of the previous example. Sometimes a woman could be a hero, but she’d be horribly outnumbered by the men on her team, and as the only member of her sex she had to embody it to extremes. She had to be addicted to shopping or scared of bugs, anything interesting she knew came from her brothers, and she inevitably had to become a frail damsel that the male heroes could rescue and have crushes on. She had to fit a mold.

I’m sure a lot of women remember a rejection of femininity during their early years. Pink suddenly a color to be avoided at all costs; bragging about having male friends because other girls were “too much drama.” You couldn’t enjoy anything girly, because it meant the mold. Male heroes, meanwhile, were allowed to have growth and depth. They could struggle and rage in situations deserving of it, while women became the distant trophy or got bullied into positions they clearly disliked, with the overwhelming message that this is how it has to be, and she was a bitch for trying to refuse abuse in the first place.

When I first came out of my only-write-animals phase, I wanted to write a male protagonist. He wouldn’t have the baggage a female would; he wouldn’t have to constantly reiterate his gender instead of who he was, would not have to exclusively focus on romance. As an asexual not quite at terms with myself, this was incredibly appealing. At the same time, it was awful. I was going to write what I knew, and I, a girl, didn’t think I could understand myself or people like me.

In the here and now, I’ve noticed something— the male characters I love have heavily feminine-coded traits. They are empathetic, thoughtful, vulnerable, and treasure other people above themselves. They teem with traits that would make a female character seem bland, but being male, they are allowed to play out grand stories where their compassion factors in without being written off. I want female characters to have that without being denounced as just another mold.

I think a lot of characters in my old works are like the animal ones: disguised, because that was the only way I could imagine them. I’m so glad other writers were able to dig out of that hole before I did, because these days I’m seeing so many female characters that are, unapologetically, complete people. Maybe they’re kind. Maybe they’re not. It doesn’t matter, because they’re compelling as all hell and I want to read about all of them.

Being a part of the #FearlessWomen campaign is phenomenal, because I’m surrounded by those who break the mold. There’s no need for disguises at this point. They are women, and they are whole, and they are not ashamed.

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#FearlessWomen Authors Tell Us How They Fell In Love with Sci-Fi and Fantasy

We’ve been celebrating Fearless Women all year, and we asked some of the authors who are crafting elaborate worlds and nuanced female characters to chat with us about how they first fell in love with genre storytelling.

 

How and when did you first fall in love with science fiction and fantasy?

 

Jacqueline Carey:

Through the wardrobe with Lucy Pevensie!  Narnia was my gateway. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe seven. After that, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain was probably my second great love in the genre. That’s a series that I don’t see discussed often in popular culture, at least in the U.S., but when I reference it, other writers often nod in agreement and understanding.

To this day, I credit Taran Wanderer with teaching me to wrestle with challenging and scary adult concepts like the fact that you don’t always get your heart’s desire. It also gave me a life-long romanticized view of throwing pottery on the wheel (which, I will add, owes nothing to the movie Ghost, although it didn’t hurt.)

 

V. E. Schwab:

I was eleven when Harry Potter came out, so I am indebted to it for making me a reader, while Neil Gaiman’s work in poetry and prose made me a writer, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell swept me away.

 

Sherrilyn Kenyon:

Honestly? Before I was born. My mother was a huge fan and I’m sure I heard it in the womb and knew I was in love prior to my arrival. One of my earliest childhood memories is turning the kitchen chairs on their sides and pretending I was an astronaut blasting into space. The first novel I wrote at eight years old was sci-fantasy mixed with horror. Maybe it’s because I was born the same year Star Trek debuted, but I was hooked and can’t imagine a life without it.

 

Mary Robinette Kowal:

I honestly don’t remember a time that I wasn’t reading science fiction. Children’s literature doesn’t draw the hard lines that adult works do. But I’ll tell you the first book that I was conscious of as science fiction: Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl. It’s YA, but I read it in elementary school, and it’s the first one that I remember finishing and thinking “I want more books like this.”

 

S. L. Huang:

I was long gone as a SFF fan before I even knew it was a genre. Thanks to my mom, the public library was a regular destination growing up, and I remember coming home every week with another boatload of books. I also spent all my allowance on books—well, books and Legos! I read everything I could get my hands on, and it was only much later that I looked at my shelves and realized somewhere along the way all my favorites had ended up being the ones with spaceships and sword fights.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say I love SFF so much because of the way it allows us to examine real, hard truths about the world through a metaphorical lens—sometimes when it’s too difficult to look at those truths straight on. But also, you know, spaceships and sword fights are just cool.

 

Robyn Bennis:

Like most nerds of my generation, my initiation came via Star Trek reruns. I might have been seven when I started watching the original series obsessively. It started as a childish interest in aliens and spaceships, but as I matured, I began to appreciate the deeper levels of the show.

I think this is why so many writers cite Star Trek as inspiration. It can be enjoyed on multiple levels, from mindless lightshow to philosophical examination, so it’s always ready to teach you a new lesson in storytelling. Beyond that, there’s such a strong sense of optimism written into the very fiber of the series. Kirk, contrary to his reputation, strives to find a diplomatic solution to every conflict, considering violence not just a last resort, but an outright failure of his core mission. Science and discovery are so highly valued that they’ve become the primary pursuit of Starfleet, with defense second. And need I even mention Uhura, who fearlessly stands up and takes crap from no man, whether they’re friend, enemy, or, in one case, even Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire series is when Sulu, who’s involuntarily space-drunk, reassures her, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” Uhura replies, “Sorry, neither,” and shoots him a look that says, “I can protect myself just fine, dude.”

 

Sam Hawke:

I can’t remember a time when fantasy and science fiction weren’t part of my life. We grow up surrounded by stories designed to ask ‘what if’ or to transport us to another world, and children seem to be hardwired to enjoy the wonder and curiosity and exploration that those stories invoke in us. It’s no surprise that fairy tales and myths in almost every culture are often based around speculative elements even as they are teaching about people and the real world. Most of the media I consumed as a kid was in the realm of SFF–from Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Enid Blyton stories full of magical creatures and different worlds at the top of the Faraway Tree to Star Blazers and Astro Boy on the TV. I guess some people feel like they have to outgrow dragons–I just moved on from picture book dragons to The Hobbit and never looked back.

 

K Arsenault Rivera:

Honestly, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in genre fiction. As a kid I wrote a letter to the mayor because I thought my elementary school library didn’t have enough books on Greek myth. Between my dad fostering in me a love of ridiculous over the top video games from a young age there was really no other path for me to walk. Or read, as it were. If I couldn’t swing a sword at a couple hundred demons while shouting “showtime!”, then I’d have to make a character who could.

 

Mirah Bolender:

Fantasy was the baseline of every story I read from childhood—what Disney movie or fairy tale isn’t fantasy?—but what really solidified it for me was discovering the Redwall series in elementary school. I latched onto sword-wielding mice and never looked back.

 

Fran Wilde:

I was eight, and being raised by a library and a small independent bookstore. The bookstore kept a box of science fiction and fantasy novels set aside for my sister and me. The library had a great collection too. We both started reading SFF and we never really stopped.

 

 

 

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Meet the #FearlessWomen: Cas Russell from Zero Sum Game

Image Place holder  of - 78Written by Lisa Ickowicz

Name: Cas Russell

Age: 25

Sex: Female

Eyes: Brown

Hair: Brown, Curly

Marital Status: Single

Address: Unknown

Occupation: Retriever. She gets things back for people. And will take any job…for the right price.

Strengths: Cas Russell is good at math. Too good. She’s able to bring down armed men twice her size and whole motorcycle gangs using vector calculus. Momentum, velocities, objects in motion—these are her deadly weapons of choice. Also a skilled weapons expert, she can handle a .45 caliber and a 9 millimeter better than most police officers. She collects grenades and treats her favorite gun like a cherished pet. And when guns and other hardware aren’t available, she can turn a shard of broken windowpane or a houseplant into a deadly weapon.

Weaknesses: Though Cas is ruled by logic and mathematics, she can let her emotions get the best of her. She has a deep loyalty towards her allies. Linked to a ruthless mercenary known as Rio, she will put herself in harms way if anyone threatens him. She’s also not always the best judge of character and can let money cloud her judgment. As proven when she accepts a job that gets her mixed up with someone with a power even more dangerous than her own.

Evaluation: Cas Russell is not only very intelligent, highly skilled and fiercely independent. She is fearless. She is able to use quantum mathematics to shoot around corners, drive any vehicle anywhere, and fall off of buildings without getting hurt. She possesses the powers of a modern day superhero, and as such she is also somewhat flawed. Her moral compass continually sways back and forth between being highly loyal to her allies, having a soft spot for kids, yet not hesitating to leave a trail of dead bodies in order to accomplish her goal. Although she can solve almost any math equation, the one thing that she can’t add up is her own past. So she lives in the moment, taking one retrieval job after the next—getting anything back for anyone—if the price is right. Cas has faced many frightening enemies and she is about to face her most dangerous yet. Someone who wants to become the world’s puppet master. Someone that can reach directly into Cas’ own mind. And not having control of her own thoughts may be the one thing that puts her fearlessness to the test.

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Meet the #FearlessWomen: Sydney Clarke from Vengeful

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Written by Katherine Forester

The Clarke sisters looked identical, despite the fact that Serena was seven years older, and seven inches taller. The resemblance stemmed partly from genes and partly from Sydney’s adoration for her big sister.

When Sydney Clarke first appears in Vicious, she’s in a tough spot: alone, betrayed by her older sister Serena, and seriously injured. A near-death experience – hypothermia after falling through thin ice – has changed both sisters, made them more than human. Serena’s power, mind control, makes her the perfect ally for the villainous Eli Ever, whose mission is to kill all the extraordinaries (EOs) he can find. And Sydney? Sydney’s power is resurrection, which makes her one of Eli’s most hunted targets.

Sydney is found by the side of the road by Victor Vale, Eli’s rival, and quickly becomes a key member of his group. Not only is her power integral to Victor’s plans of revenge against Eli, but her humanity in the face of evil helps bring the hardened criminals of Vicious together. Not to mention the pet dog she resurrects for her found-family!

Come Vengeful, Sydney is struggling with her seemingly unchanged looks (after all, what adventurous 18-year-old wants to look like she’s still 13?) and the death of her sister. To make matters worse, Victor hasn’t been quite right since Sydney resurrected him: he can’t control his powers and he’s on a killing spree. All this with the ever-looming threat of the EON, ExtraOrdinary Observation and Neutralization, a facility built specifically to detain people with powers.

Barred from making her own decisions and forced to live in hiding, Sydney refuses to let her circumstances define her. She starts pushing back and sneaking out, making new friends along the way. New friends like June, a shapeshifter who could offer her freedom from Victor’s curse.

I don’t want you to save me. I want to save myself.

Sydney is tired of being used by people, tired of hiding, tired of being betrayed. Her powers are growing, after all, and every day she can control them better. She’s going to live by her own rules. She’s going to make her own family.

She’s going to bring her sister back.

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Superhero X Comic Book Heroines: Feminist Film Mashup With The Mary Sue

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On Thursday, September 27th, Tor is sponsoring a playful and engaging feminist clip show/film analysis presented by Princess Weekes, Assistant Editor of The Mary Sue! We will be giving away free tote bags with a select #FearlessWoman book at the event.

Princess will take a Black Widow dive into the history of female comic-book/superhero movies and explore the common tropes in these films through a feminist, pop cultural lens as well as why it took so long to get these movies done and done right. She’ll also discuss representation issues.

The show is guaranteed to bring a fresh perspective and a few side splitting laughs while promoting a healthy camaraderie among attendees. To top it off, there will also be a special video message from beloved fantasy author, Victoria “V.E.” Schwab.

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Writing Women with Sharp Edges

Image Placeholder of - 53 Written by S. L. Huang

When I’m building female characters, one of my aims is to make them anti-Smurfettes.

The “Smurfette Principle,” for those who haven’t heard of it, is the trope in which an ensemble cast has a bunch of dude characters who are all differentiated by salient qualities—the Smart Nerd One, the Rough Army Veteran, the Handsome Smooth-Talker, the Thief, and so on. Then the ensemble will include one woman, but her defining quality will be her femaleness. She is The Girl.

A huge part of the problem with Smurfettes is, of course, the paucity of female characters itself. But hand-in-hand with this, I think when a demographic is not well-represented, creators strive to make the character inoffensive. “We can’t do that with our female character, because what are we saying about women?!” Nothing, of course, if there are enough other women in the cast! If the Smart Nerd One and the Rough Army Veteran are women too, it relieves the pressure on The Girl to be a “strong female character” who is competent in all ways but never extreme enough to raise an eyebrow. The common wisdom nowadays is to counter this problem by pushing for more women, all types of women, which I fully agree with—but I want to go a step further.

I want women with sharp edges. Female characters who are risky, extreme, gross, strange. Geniuses who are too smart, killers who are too vicious, monarchs who become legend, people who yell too much or cry too much or sacrifice too much of themselves.

Female characters you remember even if you don’t like them. Who, if they were missing from the cast, would take all that character force with them.

I think creators feel a certain freedom writing male characters that they don’t feel when writing characters of more underrepresented genders. On the one hand, it’s good to be mindful—after all, if you get something wrong writing a cis dude, it’s not exactly going to perpetuate damaging tropes about cis dudedom, whereas the same is not true when writing nonbinary or female characters. And I don’t want people to discard that mindfulness. But it’s also possible to go too far with good intentions and flatten out anything that might make a character interesting.

And I do see this as an equal and opposite way to devastate the Smurfette Principle: even if a character is the only female main character in a particular scene, I want to make her just as sharply drawn as the men. She’s going to be just as much of a force and get just as many good one-liners, and she’ll have as much personality as I can give her, even if parts of it aren’t “strong” or “likeable.” I want her to be one of the people bringing color and life to what’s happening.

When I was building my lead character for Zero Sum Game, it was a very conscious choice to give her a lot of sharp edges. She’s smart and snarky and devastatingly effective, and also egotistical and impulsive and terrible in so many ways. I want fans to be able to argue about her, dig into her, write fics in which she learns things or ship her with serial killers. I want her to be the most fascinating, frustrating character in her own story.

Who knows if I succeeded, but I do know one thing: she’d make a terrible Smurfette.

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Excerpt: The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera

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Image Place holder  of - 19 Welcome to #FearlessWomen! K. Arsenault Rivera returns to the world of The Tiger’s Daughter in The Phoenix Empress, available on October 9th.

Since she was a child, the divine empress O Shizuka has believed she was an untouchable god. When her uncle, ruler of the Hokkaran Empire, sends her on a suicide mission as a leader of the Imperial Army, the horrors of war cause her to question everything she knows.

Thousands of miles away, the exiled and cursed warrior Barsalyya Shefali undergoes trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to O Shizuka.

As the distance between disgraced empress and blighted warrior narrows, a familiar demonic force grows closer to the heart of the empire. Will the two fallen warriors be able to protect their home?

One: Barsalai Shefali

It is an hour into Sixth Bell on the third of Nishen. Playful zephyrs swing through the narrow streets of Fujino. Outside the teahouses, girls in soft greens and pinks call to the passersby. They play their shamisens despite raw red fingers, conjuring songs about tea leaves and marital fortunes. Cooks standing behind stalls wave meat on skewers. Down the alley, two men are arguing over the proper price for coal.

When Barsalai Shefali was younger, she imagined this city was the busiest place in the world. This city’s closer to the steppes than it is to Salom, where the cities are piled atop one another like a Hokkaran lady’s robes. It’s not so imposing as Alaraas, either; the castles in Ikhtar’s capital are like teeth on the horizon. Here only the Jade Palace looms—and it can hardly be said to be looming when its shape is so pleasing to the eye. In the earliest hours of the morning, when the fog settles around the palace, the whole city is a hymn of green.

How she’s missed this. Strange—she never imagined she would.

With any luck, Shizuka’s finished with whatever it is that called her away. Shefali does not have a head for it. Listening to supplicants? Settling tax disputes?

Shefali imagines the Empress of Hokkaro sitting in front of her desk, her dress slipping off her shoulders. Her slender neck and graceful wrists. The way she’d look over her shoulder with that knowing smirk.

No matter how awful the day has been thus far, her wife is less than an hour’s ride away.

The people of Fujino give Shefali a wide berth as she rides through the streets. An army walking six men abreast would have less space to itself. That is fine with Shefali. The more space, the better. This way she can afford to look up at the sky and hum the Bandit King’s song without fear of veering into a crowd.

Come to think of it—aren’t there fewer people here? Yes, there are the singing girls; yes, there are guards; yes, there are merchants and messengers and wives running errands with their babies on their backs—but there are fewer of them. The cacophony she hated as a child has dimmed to a dull roar.

The palace itself is surrounded on all sides by a wall. Just past the wall are the Imperial Hunting Grounds, with tall evergreens like aggressive strokes of paint. Anyone attempting to lobby the Imperial Family for assistance must make their way through the hunting grounds. The rich hire guides.

Shefali has never had need of a guide. The steppes raised her as much as her mother and aunts and uncles. If some starving animal should come across her, they will hunt together for food. That is all. She finds herself almost hoping to see one of the famed beasts of Fujino—it would be a relief to hunt the proper way again. To once more string her bow.

All the hunting she did in the East involved fangs and claws.

But that time is behind her now—she is sure of it. As the stables rise up ahead of her, she feels the tension slide off her back like water.

The hostler knows better than to offer to take Alsha. Shefali respects him for it. Once, when she and Shizuka were children, this man caught them holding hands. Back then, he chided them. His silence now is growth.

She allows herself a moment with Alsha, with her oldest friend aside from Shizuka. Shefali slips her gray mare a sweet. In the slow thunder of her heart, the steady winds of her breathing, Shefali feels the steppes.

Home. She’s finally home.

Or she will be, when she’s back in Shizuka’s arms. Somewhere in the palace is Shefali’s wife, and she means to find her.

Before, Shefali never bothered to learn the layout of the Jade Palace. To this day, she does not know which way leads to the gardens, or the library, or the barracks. Whenever she needed to find one of these places as a child, O-Shizuru and O-Itsuki sent guards with her. O-Shizuru often sent her along with an apology for having to put up with the place.

But now Shefali has her nose. Every few steps, she sniffs the air and searches for a trace of her wife’s scent. The downside? She also picks up the scents of guards and servants and courtiers. Brief flashes of their lives play out in front of her. Some are ordinary—preparing tea, tucking in children. Some are . . .

Well, now she knows which of Shizuka’s servants work for Ren.

The closer she comes to Shizuka’s room, the more ghosts there are. They stand along the hallway as faded images of their former selves. Many bear wounds. A woman stands with her own severed head in her hands; a man on his knees scrambles to shove his ghastly entrails back into his body. One plucks ants from her ears, pinches them between her fingertips, and eats the remains.

Shefali pays them no mind. That is the trick of it. The moment you acknowledge a ghost, it latches on to you.

I am Barsalai Shefali, and I have earned that name twice over, she thinks to herself. Over and over she thinks this; over and over she pictures her hand in her mind. These are her fingers; these are the poems written in their webbing; this is the half-moon scar of her childhood promise. This is her hand. She will not allow it to change.

As she nears the next turn—why are there so many in this castle? As if an army would be waylaid by bad architecture. Shefali kneads her palm with her thumb and forefinger. Yes. This is her hand. A small victory for the day, then, that she did not lose control.

The door is before her now. Two guards in red enamel armor bow to her.

“Empress Wolf,” they say to her.

Is that what they are going to call her here? So many names she’s borne—what’s one more? Yet “Empress” has never been Shefali’s title, and to wear it now would be to wear robes over her deel.

“Barsalai,” she corrects them, and as they slide open the door, Shefali’s heart leaps up, her soul singing the song her wife once wrote for them.

But when the door closes again, there is only silence.

Silence, and the treasures of an Empress who no longer values the material comforts as she did in her youth. Amidst the less-loved representations of wealth, in the corner of the room is a screen where Minami Shizuru—the Queen of Crows, Shizuka’s beloved mother—stares at the viewer. The tattoo on her arm is both plainly visible and reproduced accurately.

Silence, and the altar to the parents Shizuka has lost. There, up on a shelf where the sunlight can find it in the mornings: a misshapen lump of bronze that was once a war mask; a scroll of beautiful writing Shefali cannot read, but knows to be the words of O-Itsuki, the Poet Prince. Shizuka’s father, Shizuru’s husband. Dust has settled on most of Shizuka’s possessions like the first snow of winter—but there is no dust on the altar.

Looking back toward the doors, Shefali yet finds only silence, though her eye falls on the instruments that could break it. A zither inlaid with pearl and gold next to her writing desk; a shamisen with phoenix’s head for a neck. These, too, have been recently used, even as the stack of papers on Shizuka’s writing desk grows taller than Baoyi.

Only silence and these things; only silence, and not Shefali’s wife.

It should not hurt. Of course Shizuka is busy. It is nearly Seventh Bell, but she is the Empress now—there is much that demands her attention, much Shefali cannot fathom about her duties.

But it is that—precisely that—which is the arrow in her throat.

Barsalai Shefali journeyed for eight years through the desert and the mountains to return to her wife. For eight years, the focus of her life has been narrow and sharply rendered; a blade against her suffering. Nothing mattered except the feather. Nothing mattered except returning home to Minami Shizuka, to her wife, to the girl who laughs like a popping fire.

And now that she is here—what are all these things? From whence came this statue of Shizuka cloaked in a phoenix’s wings? Where is the room they’d shared as children, where is the bed Shefali sneaked into over and over? She does not recognize the massive one in front of her, circular and raised up off the ground, the sheets embroidered with peacock feathers. These papers on her desk—Shefali runs her hands over them. Why are there so many? Why is Shizuka’s writing desk so dusty when it was one of her prized possessions? The ink bowl is missing—why is the ink bowl missing?

Eight years she’s spent trying to return to Shizuka—and she returned to the Empress instead. A woman whose habits she does not know.

Eight years she’s spent trying to return to Fujino—and she’s found the streets empty instead. A city she recognizes only in the vaguest sense, like a friend she met once when they were both children.

Of course, nothing is the same. She was a fool to assume otherwise. This journey has never been about her—and still she made it about herself. On their way back from the Womb, Shefali did not even bother to visit her own family. That, too, eats away at her. What has become of the Qorin since the Toad lost his throne? She tries to tell herself that they must be doing better than she remembers. If Shizuka is Empress, then surely she’s granted the Qorin their freedom; surely she’s granted Shefali’s mother her proper title.

Surely.

But then—

Shefali thought Shizuka would be home by now.

And she expected to see more people in Fujino; she expected to see more happy faces. Shizuka swore she’d look after her people. That is why she stayed. That was the whole point of her staying.

And if she didn’t…

What use are any of that girl’s promises? She does not know the weight of an oath. She is not a proper ruler.

Strange. Shefali is used to the voices that call to her. After eight years of dealing with them, she knows each one as well as her own cousins.

But this voice—this man’s voice—is new.

Shefali pushes aside the thought. A spasm it was, no more. Indulging it will lead nowhere good.

So Barsalai Shefali alone breaks the silence with a sigh. In her deel is a small piece of near-black Surian wood. Before they went into the Womb, she’d started whittling away at it to pass the time. Debelo did not share her sense of urgency, after all, and she could not find the place without him. So she waited, and she whittled.

The piece remained untouched after they emerged.

She takes it from her deel now. A vague snout, two rough-hewn legs, the rest of the body still trapped in the wood. Once, she dreamed that this would be a wolf.

Shefali holds her knife in her hand. She lets herself feel the weight of it and, more important, the stiffness of her fingers around it. Whittling requires fine control—another reason she’s given it up. Some days she can hardly close her fingers together.

It is the third of Nishen. Today, she can close her fingers together. Today, she can whittle.

And so the wolf begins to take shape.

Shefali doesn’t hear her wife coming—it’s Last Bell, and the criers are wandering the halls, reading from the Divine Mandates: “A flower blooms only when nurtured. It is the Hour of the Daughter.”

The lead crier starts the chant. By the third syllable, his junior begins, and then his junior, and so on, so that a simple phrase becomes an echoing cacophony. Shefali doesn’t understand the practice. Labeling hours is an affront to Grandmother Sky to begin with—she will tell you what time it is with the changing of her cloak, with her two great eyes. Labeling your hours with needless racket when everyone who can sleep should be sleeping, all for the sake of some supposed spiritual edification—there is nothing more Hokkaran to Shefali.

Except, perhaps, her wife.

Shizuka is approaching, finally. Shefali can smell her: peonies and chrysanthemums, sharp metal and sweet wine. It is the wine that most concerns her. That smell has clung to Shizuka like her innermost set of robes for as long as Shefali’s been in Fujino. At first she said nothing, for who would begrudge the Empress a drink? Who would say to her: No, you cannot celebrate the return of your wife?

But it has been three days.

And Shizuka has returned to the room later and later each day, today at Last Bell, today fumbling with even the flimsy paper door between them, today tripping over her eight robes as she crosses the threshold.

Shefali is there to catch her. She has always been there to catch her; tonight is different only in that it is at last physical again. For eight years, she dreamed of this: her wife in her arms, the smell of her, the weight of her, the sound of her laughter. And she is laughing now, as she nuzzles against Shefali.

But her face is painted white, her teeth are painted black; she has shaved off her eyebrows, and she wears the full eight layers of a Hokkaran Empress of years past. Her amber eyes have gone glassy, her laugh is…

Well, she might be laughing at anything.

“Are you all right?” Shefali asks her, though she knows what the real answer is. She scoops Shizuka up into her arms. She hardly weighs anything at all, even in all those layers.

Shizuka reaches up for Shefali’s cheek. She pinches it, as she used to when they were younger, though there is no longer any fat there to pinch. Only skin and muscle. Shefali indulges her—Shizuka’s touch fills her with warm joy, even when her new habits confuse.

“I,” says Shizuka, and she makes the word last several heartbeats, “have never felt better.”

“Never?” says Shefali. She finds herself smiling in spite of the situation, in spite of the drunkenness. So much of her is happy just to be with Shizuka again. She kisses her wife’s forehead. If the white paint smears onto her lips, she hardly cares. “Not once in all our time together?”

“Hmmm,” says Shizuka. She shifts in Shefali’s arms, laying her head against Shefali’s heart. “Well. You’re right. Maybe I have felt a little better than this.”

“Only a little?” Shefali says. She sets her down on the bed she does not recognize. Shizuka holds on to her deel and tries to pull her in.

Shefali wants to join her. Truly, she does. This teasing they’re doing is as natural to her as firing a bow, as natural as steering her horse. She does it without thinking—just as she helps Shizuka out of her outermost robes.

But as she sheds each robe, she comes closer and closer to her unadorned wife. As Shizuka drunkenly wipes her makeup off on a proffered cloth, as her scar is revealed, Shefali comes closer and closer to the woman she left behind.

And it gets harder to reconcile her with the woman who has lost her ink bowl, with the woman who leaves important papers unattended, with the woman who comes home later and later and drunker and drunker.

“Only a little,” says Shizuka, her face now bare, tugging insistently at Shefali’s deel. There is hunger in those glassy eyes. “Perhaps you can come and make your arguments, if you feel differently…”

Gnawing at her heart. The core of her soul wants nothing more than Shizuka—nothing more than the feel of her skin against Shefali’s, her impossible warmth; nothing more than to let herself consume and be consumed by her.

But she wants Shizuka. And this woman before her is not quite her.

Shefali kisses her forehead. She holds Shizuka’s face in her hands, running her thumb over the raised skin of her scar.

“Maybe another night,” she says.

And it is as if she’s struck Shizuka—her warm skin goes as pale as the makeup she’s now shed, and she takes Shefali’s hand with startling urgency.

“Are you all right?” she says. Her voice is clearer now; the worry sops up her drunkenness like a sponge. She tries to sit up and only flops back down.

Shefali catches her and kisses her on the forehead again.

“I am,” she says.

Shizuka wrinkles her nose. Her scar pinches at her skin. Shefali winces; she should have known better than to lie to Shizuka.

“Something’s wrong,” says Shizuka. She’s slurring a little, but the clarity’s returning to her eyes. “Shefali, what’s wrong? Have I done . . . I’ve done something, haven’t I?

Shefali watches her cover her face with her hands, hears her take a deep, sharp breath. She presses her lips together.

“We can talk about it tomorrow,” says Shefali. “When you’ve rested.”

“It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“Tomorrow,” says Shefali. Again she kisses her cheeks, her forehead, both eyes in turn. Even as her soul aches—it’s her fault, she’s upset Shizuka—she forces herself to hold together. In the morning they can speak of all this at length, in the morning they can—

A small thought, a whisper she does not consciously hear: What use is it to talk to her about any of it? Four months of peace. You wanted four months of peace.

The man’s voice again.

Shame’s wave swallows her. Is it better to let the matter lie? What did she intend to say? I wish you would stop drinking, you’re not yourself anymore? What did she think that would accomplish? Is it worth it to hurt Shizuka if it means…If it means getting her back?

Anything is worth it to return to who they were. She’d promised to slay gods with Shizuka—and how is she meant to do that when the woman can hardly function? How can they be like two pine needles when they spent eight years so far apart?

Shefali opens her mouth once, and then twice. The words live in her heart somewhere, if only she can summon them.

I want to be with you. Really be with you, when you can remember that I’m here.

I want to know who you’ve become.

I want to know what’s happened to this place, to this Empire, to my people.

But the words are stubborn, and not inclined to leave their ger in the middle of the night.

Tomorrow. She said tomorrow.

Perhaps that answer satisfies Shizuka’s worries, or perhaps she resigns herself to it; perhaps the drink has finally caught up with her, or perhaps it is the crown that saps away her strength. The result is the same: in the time it takes Shefali to come to her realization, Shizuka falls asleep in her lap.

Seeing her like this—yes, it is for this she traveled. For the calm on her wife’s face, for the way she curls up against Shefali, for her curtain of black hair and her skin soft as the morning clouds.

Four months of this—yes. That is what she wanted.

Shefali walks her fingertips across the bridge of Shizuka’s nose. Tomorrow. Will Shizuka remember in the morning? And if she does—where will Shefali start?

In the quiet, in the dark, she makes her oath.

“Four months of peace,” she says, “four months with you.”

Shizuka begins to shift in her sleep. At first only a little—she takes her thumb out of her mouth and rolls, burying her face deeper into Shefali’s lap. At first it is only this, and though Shefali can smell the cherry-sweet fear coming off her, she soothes her by smoothing her hair, by caressing her face and whispering to her.

But it is getting worse.

A low moan leaves her, going higher and higher until she is near screaming. Her rolling turns to thrashing. When Shefali tries to hold her—tries to keep her safe from whatever is making her so terrified, she smells so sweet—the thrashing only gets worse. Shizuka shoves her, hard. Shefali backs away—she wants space? She’s asleep, this must be another nightmare; should she stop it? Should she wake her when she doesn’t want to be touched?

Now Shizuka is screaming, now she is curling up into a ball, now she tears at her own hair, and Shefali’s heart drops into her stomach. The sanvaartains say that if you wake someone during a nightmare, part of them will always be trapped within it—you must overcome the dream yourself if you are to be free of it. Shefali cannot count how many times she was awakened in the middle of the night by one of her cousins screaming just like this.

“Leave them to it,” her cousin Otgar always mumbled. “It’ll make them stronger.”

But confronted with this sight, Shefali knows nothing about it will make Shizuka stronger. She doesn’t need to be stronger, anyway, with all that she’s been through.

And so Shefali scoops her up into her arms, in spite of how she thrashes; and so Shefali wraps her arms around her wife and holds her close, so close.

“Shizuka,” she says, smoothing her hair. “You’re safe. You’re only dreaming.”

She is gasping now, she is gulping in breath as if it were water and she has been wandering through the desert for years. But she is not awake.

“Shizuka,” she says. “Please. I’m here. Listen to me, listen to my voice. I’m here, and you’re safe.”

Still—she’s growing more still. Her heart isn’t, of course; Shefali feels it like a hummingbird against her chest. Shizuka herself, though—the tension is falling away. She’s starting to slump against Shefali now, and as Shefali keeps repeating that she is safe, her breathing begins to slow. Each breath—each slow breath—is a victory.

For long moments, Shizuka remains slumped against her. At some point she must have woken, for she’s returning Shefali’s embrace, but it seems she cannot yet bring herself to speak. That is all right. Shefali well knows the value of silence—and she can smell the fear, the guilt, the shame coming off her wife already.

“Take whatever time you need,” Shefali says to her. “I’ll be here.”

The clock tick, tick, ticks the seconds—but it is a liar. That sort of time has no meaning here, not anymore. There are eternities between each tick: lifetimes and generations. As far as Shefali is concerned, the rest of the Empire—the rest of the world—can hold its breath until Shizuka says it can breathe again.

She rocks the two of them back and forth slowly, slowly. Her aunts used to do this when her cousins awoke, frightened conquerors of their own imaginations. There was a song, wasn’t there? A song that they would sing? Shefali never heard it clearly—Burqila Alshara sang for no one—but she’d heard the melody. She wakes the memory of it now, hums it as she rocks Shizuka back and forth, back and forth.

“I missed your singing,” Shizuka whispers. Soft and precious, that sound; Shefali squeezes her tighter.

“I’m here now,” she says. “I’ll sing whatever you want.”

Shizuka half laughs, half smiles, laying her hand flat against Shefali’s chest. “Careful now,” she says. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“Songs are easier to find than phoenix feathers,” Shefali says.

“So they are,” says Shizuka. She sighs, balls her fist, taps it against Shefali’s chest. “I…My love, I’m sorry. I thought—”

“Shh,” says Shefali. She kisses the top of her head. “When you’re ready.”

“I thought I was ready!” Shizuka answers. “I thought…I always thought that when you returned, I’d be better. That I wouldn’t…That I could sleep, that I wouldn’t want to drink, that I’d stop being so afraid. When you left, I felt so—”

“I’m here now,” Shefali says. Being apart from her was a wound she’d stitched together, but hearing all this is tearing it open anew.

“I know,” says Shizuka. She lays her head against Shefali’s shoulder. “And I thought that would help. Shefali, I thought that would help, but I’m . . . I’m not getting better.”

As porcelain under a hammer—Shizuka’s voice, Shefali’s soul.

“What do you mean?” Shefali says. “Shizuka. Whatever it is that’s troubling you—you have my sword to slay it.”

Shizuka pinches her nose. Shame, again—she smells of shame. “I owe you a story,” she says. “The letter you wrote me was so beautiful, and I . . . I should tell you, really, everything that’s happened. There’s…if you knew all of it, you might not…I owe you a letter.”

When did the bold O-Shizuka start stammering like this?

“But I can’t even do that,” Shizuka says. “I can’t even write to you. Because of the…Because of the water. I can’t look at it. Just a bowl of it, Shefali. Just a bowl. Looking at it makes me remember, and—”

Shizuka sucks in a breath, shivers, trembles. As if she is trying to cry but the tears will not come.

Shefali holds her wife tighter. “When you are ready,” she says, “I will carry your weight.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Shizuka says. “You carry so much already. My suffering is a grain of rice, and yours is a boulder.”

Shefali kisses her on the forehead.

“You didn’t ask,” she says. “And suffering is not a contest. Losing a limb, losing a horse, losing a friend—the pain’s different, but the crying’s the same.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by K. Arsenault Rivera

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Excerpt: Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang

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Image Placeholder of - 50 Welcome to #FearlessWomen! A blockbuster, near-future science fiction thriller, S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game introduces a math-genius mercenary who finds herself being manipulated by someone possessing unimaginable power…

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price.

As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved. There’s only one problem…

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

Zero Sum Game will be available on October 2nd.

Chapter 1

I trusted one person in the entire world.

He was currently punching me in the face.

Overlapping numbers scuttled across Rio’s fist as it rocketed toward me, their values scrambling madly, the calculations doing themselves before my eyes. He wasn’t pulling his punch at all, the bastard. I saw exactly how it would hit and that the force would fracture my jaw.

Well. If I allowed it to.

Angles and forces. Vector sums. Easy. I pressed myself back against the chair I was tied to, bracing my wrists against the ropes, and tilted my head a hair less than the distance I needed to turn the punch into a love tap. Instead of letting Rio break my jaw, I let him split my lip open.

The impact snapped my head back, and blood poured into my mouth, choking me. I coughed and spat on the cement floor. Goddammit.

“Sixteen men,” said a contemptuous voice in accented English from a few paces in front of me, “against one ugly little girl. How? Who are you?”

“Nineteen,” I corrected, the word hitching as I choked on my own blood. I was already regretting going for the split lip. “Check your perimeter again. I killed nineteen of your men.” And it would have been a lot more if Rio hadn’t appeared out of nowhere and clotheslined me while I was distracted by the Colombians. Fucking son of a bitch. He was the one who’d gotten me this job; why hadn’t he told me he was undercover with the drug cartel?

The Colombian interrogating me inhaled sharply and jerked his head at one of his subordinates, who turned and loped out of the room. The remaining three drug runners stayed where they were, fingering Micro-Uzis with what they plainly thought were intimidating expressions.

Dumbasses. I worked my wrists against the rough cord behind my back—Rio had been the one to tie me up, and he had left me just enough play to squeeze out, if I had half a second. Numbers and vectors shot in all directions—from me to the Colombian in front of me, to his three lackwit subordinates, to Rio—a sixth sense of mathematical interplay that existed somewhere between sight and feeling, masking the world with constant calculations and threatening to drown me in a sensory overload of data.

And telling me how to kill.

Forces. Movements. Response times. I could take down this idiot drug runner right now, the way he was blocking his boys’ line of fire—except that concentrating on the Colombians would give Rio the instant he needed to take me down. I was perfectly aware that he wasn’t about to break cover on my behalf.

“If you don’t tell me what I want to know, you will regret it. You see my dog?” The Colombian jerked his head at Rio. “If I let him loose on you, you will be crying for us to kill your own mother. And he will like making you scream. He—how do you say? It gives him a jolly.” He leaned forward with a sneer, bracing himself on the arms of the chair so his breath was hot against my face.

Well, now he’d officially pissed me off. I flicked my eyes up to Rio. He remained impassive, towering above me in his customary tan duster like some hardass Asian cowboy. Unbothered. The insults wouldn’t register with him.

But I didn’t care. People pissing on Rio made me want to put them in the ground, even though none of it mattered to him. Even though all of it was true.

I relaxed my head back and then snapped it forward, driving my forehead directly into the Colombian’s nose with a terrific crunch.

He made a sound like an electrocuted donkey, squealing and snorting as he flailed backward, and then he groped around his back to come up with a boxy little machine pistol. I had time to think, Oh, shit, as he brought the gun up—but before firing, he gestured furiously at Rio to get out of the way, and in that instant the mathematics realigned and clicked into place and the probabilities blossomed into a split-second window.

Before Rio had taken his third step away, before the Colombian could pull his finger back on the trigger, I had squeezed my hands free of the ropes, and I dove to the side just as the gun went off with a roar of automatic fire. I spun in a crouch and shot a foot out against the metal chair, the kick perfectly timed to lever energy from my turn—angular momentum, linear momentum, bang. Sorry, Rio. The Colombian struggled to bring his stuttering gun around to track me, but I rocketed up to crash against him, trapping his arms and carrying us both to the floor in an arc calculated exactly to bring his line of fire across the far wall.

The man’s head cracked against the floor, his weapon falling from nerveless fingers and clattering against the cement. Without looking toward the side of the room, I already knew the other three men had slumped to the ground, cut down by their boss’s gun before they could get a shot off. Rio was out cold by the door, his forehead bleeding freely, the chair fallen next to him. Served him right for punching me in the face so many times.

The door burst open. Men shouted in Spanish, bringing Uzis and AKs around to bear.

Momentum, velocities, objects in motion. I saw the deadly trails of their bullets’ spray before they pulled the triggers, spinning lines of movement and force that filled my senses, turning the room into a kaleidoscope of whirling vector diagrams.

The guns started barking, and I ran at the wall and jumped.

I hit the window at the exact angle I needed to avoid being sliced open, but the glass still jarred when it shattered, the noise right by my ear and somehow more deafening than the gunfire. My shoulder smacked into the hard-packed ground outside and I rolled to my feet, running before I was all the way upright.

This compound had its own mini-army. The smartest move would be to make tracks out of here sooner rather than later, but I’d broken in here on a job, dammit, and I wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t finish it.

The setting sun sent tall shadows slicing between the buildings. I skidded up to a metal utility shed and slammed the sliding door back. My current headache of a job, also known as Courtney Polk, scrabbled back as much as she could while handcuffed to a pipe before she recognized me and glowered. I’d locked her in here temporarily when the Colombians had started closing in.

I picked up the key to the cuffs from where I’d dropped it in the dust by the door and freed her. “Time to skedaddle.”

“Get away from me,” she hissed, flinching back. I caught one of her arms and twisted, and Polk winced.

“I am having a very bad day,” I said. “If you don’t stay quiet, I will knock you unconscious and carry you out of here. Do you understand?”

She glared at me.

I twisted a fraction of an inch more, about three degrees shy of popping her shoulder out of the socket.

“All right already!” She tried to spit the words, but her voice climbed at the end, pitched with pain.

I let her go. “Come on.”

Polk was all gangly arms and legs and looked far too thin to have much endurance, but she was in better shape than she appeared, and we made it to the perimeter in less than three minutes. I pushed her down to crouch behind the corner of a building, my eyes roving for the best way out, troop movements becoming vectors, numbers stretching and exploding against the fence. Calculations spun through my brain in infinite combinations. We were going to make it.

And then a shape rose up, skulking between two buildings, zigzagging to stalk us—a black man, tall and lean and handsome, in a leather jacket. His badge wasn’t visible, but it didn’t need to be; the way he moved told me everything I needed to know. He stood out like a cop in a compound full of drug runners.

I started to grab Polk, but it was too late. The cop whipped around and looked up, meeting my eyes from fifty feet away, and knew he was made.

He was fast. We’d scarcely locked eyes and his hand was inside his jacket in a blur.

My boot flicked out and hit a rock.

From the cop’s perspective, it must have looked like the worst kind of evil luck. He’d barely gotten his hand inside his coat when my foot-flicked missile rocketed out of nowhere and smacked him in the forehead. His head snapped back, and he listed to the side and collapsed.

God bless Newton’s laws of motion.

Polk recoiled. “What the hell was that!”

That was a cop,” I snapped. Five minutes with this kid and my irritation was already at its limit.

“What? Then why did you—he could have helped us!”

I resisted the urge to smack her. “You’re a drug smuggler.”

“Not on purpose!”

“Yeah, because that makes a difference. I don’t think the authorities are going to care that the Colombians weren’t too happy with you anymore. You don’t know enough to gamble on flipping on your crew, so you’re going to a very faraway island after this. Now shut up.” The perimeter was within sprinting distance now, and rocks would work for the compound’s guards as well. I scooped up a few, my hands instantly reading their masses. Projectile motion: my height, their heights, the acceleration of gravity, and a quick correction for air resistance—and then pick the right initial velocity so that the deceleration of such a mass against a human skull would provide the correct force to drop a grown man.

One, two, three. The guards tumbled into well-armed heaps on the ground.

Polk made a choking sound and stumbled back from me a couple of steps. I rolled my eyes, grabbed her by one thin wrist, and hauled.

Less than a minute later, we were driving safely away from the compound in a stolen Jeep, the rich purple of the California desert night falling around us and the lights and shouts from an increasingly agitated drug cartel dwindling in the distance. I took a few zigs and zags through the desert scrub to put off anyone trying to follow us, but I was pretty sure the Colombians were still chasing their own tails. Sure enough, soon we were speeding alone through the desert and the darkness. I kept the running lights off just in case, leaving the moonlight and mathematical extrapolation to outline the rocks and brush as we bumped along. I wasn’t worried about crashing. Cars are only forces in motion.

In the open Jeep, the cuts on my face stung as the wind whipped by, and annoyance rolled through me as the adrenaline receded. This job—I’d thought it would be a cakewalk. Polk’s sister had been the one to hire me, and she had told me Rio had cold-contacted her and strongly suggested that if she didn’t pay me to get her sister out, she’d never see her again. I hadn’t talked to Rio myself in months—not until he’d used me as his personal punching bag today—but I could connect the dots: Rio had been working undercover, seen Polk, decided she deserved to be rescued, and thrown me the gig. Of course, I was grateful for the work, but I wished I had known Rio was undercover with the cartel in the first place. I cursed the bad luck that had made us run into him—the Colombians never would have caught me on their own.

In the passenger seat, Polk braced herself unhappily against the jounces of our off-road journey. “I’m not moving to a desert island,” she said suddenly, interrupting the quiet of the night.

I sighed. “I didn’t say desert. And it doesn’t even have to be an island. We can probably stash you in rural Argentina or something.”

She crossed her spindly arms, hugging herself against the night’s chill. “Whatever. I’m not going. I’m not going to let the cartel win.”

I resisted the urge to crash the Jeep on purpose. Not that I had much to crash it into out here, but I could have managed. The correct angle against one of those little scrub bushes . . .

“You do realize they’re not the only ones who want a piece of you, right? In case our lovely drug-running friends neglected to tell you before they dumped you in a basement, the authorities are scouring California for you. Narcotics trafficking and murder, I hear. What, were all the cool kids doing it?”

She winced away, hunching into herself. “I swear I didn’t know they were using the shipments to smuggle drugs. I only called my boss when I got stopped because that’s what they told us to do. It’s not my fault.”

Yeah, yeah. Her sister had tearfully shown me a copy of the police report—driver stopped for running a light, drugs found, more gang members who’d shown up and shot the cops, taking back the truck and driver both. The report had heavily implicated Courtney in every way.

When she’d hired me, Dawna Polk had insisted her sister wouldn’t have hurt a fly. Personally, I hadn’t particularly cared if the girl was guilty or not. A job was a job.

“Look, I only want to get paid,” I said. “If your sister says you can throw your life away and go to prison, that’s A-okay with me.”

“I was just a driver,” Courtney insisted. “I never looked to see what was in the back. They can’t say I’m responsible.”

“If you think that, you’re an idiot.”

“I’d rather the police have me than you anyway!” she shot back. “At least with the cops I know I have rights! And they’re not some sort of freaky weird feng shui killers!”

She flinched back into herself, biting her lip. Probably wondering if she’d said too much. If I was going to go “feng shui” on her, too.

Crap.

I took a deep breath. “My name is Cas Russell. I do retrieval. It means I get things back for people. That’s my job.” I swallowed. “Your sister really did hire me to get you out, okay? I’m not going to hurt you.”

“You locked me up again.”

“Only so you’d stay put until I could come back for you,” I tried to assure her.

Courtney’s arms were still crossed, and she’d started worrying her lip with her teeth. “And what about all that other stuff you did?” she asked finally. “With the cartel guards, and the stones, and that cop . . .”

I scanned the constellations and steered the Jeep eastward, aiming to intersect the highway. The stars burned into my eyes, their altitudes, azimuths, and apparent magnitudes appearing in my mind as if stenciled in the sky behind each bright, burning pinprick. A satellite puttered into view, and its timing told me its height above Earth and its orbital velocity.

“I’m really good at math,” I said. Too good. “That’s all.”

Polk snorted as if I were putting her on, but then her face knitted in a frown, and I felt her staring at me in the darkness. Oh, hell. I like it better when my clients hire me to retrieve inanimate objects. People are so annoying.

By morning, my madly circuitous route had brought us only halfway back to LA. Switching cars twice and drastically changing direction three times might not have been strictly necessary, but it made my paranoid self feel better.

The desert night had turned cold; fortunately, we were now in a junky old station wagon instead of the open Jeep, though the car’s heater managed only a thin stream of lukewarm air. Polk had her bony knees hunched up in front of her and had buried her face against them. She hadn’t spoken in hours.

I was grateful. This job had had enough monkey wrenches already without needing to explain myself to an ungrateful child every other minute.

Polk sat up as we drove into the rising sun. “You said you do retrieval.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You get things back for people.”

“That’s what ‘retrieval’ means.”

“I want to hire you.” Her youthful face was set in stubborn lines.

Great. She was lucky I wasn’t choosy about my clientele. And that I needed another job after this one. “What for?”

“I want my life back.”

“Uh, your sister’s already paying me for that,” I reminded her. “But hey, you can pay me twice if you want. I won’t complain.”

“No. I mean I don’t want to go flying off to Argentina. I want my life back.”

“Wait, you’re asking me to steal you back a clean record?” This girl didn’t know what reality was. “Kid, that’s not—”

“I’ve got money,” she interrupted. Her eyes dropped to her knees. “I got paid really well, for someone who drove a delivery truck.”

I snorted. “What are the going rates for being a drug mule these days?”

“I don’t care what you think of me,” said Polk, though red was creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. She ducked her head, letting her frizzy ponytail fall across her face. “People make mistakes, you know.”

Yeah. Cry me a river. I ignored the voice in my head telling me I should take the fucking job anyway. “Saving the unfortunate isn’t really my bag. Sorry, kid.”

“Will you at least think about it? And stop calling me ‘kid.’ I’m twenty-three.”

She looked about eighteen, wide-eyed and gullible and wet behind the ears. But then, I guess I can’t judge; people still assumed I was a teenager sometimes, and in reality I was barely older than Courtney. Of course, age can be measured in more ways than years. Sometimes I had to pull a .45 in people’s faces to remind them of that.

I remembered with a pang that my best 1911 had been lost back at the compound when I was captured. Dammit. Dawna was going to get that in her expense list.

“So? Are you thinking about it?”

“I was thinking about my favorite gun.”

“You don’t have to be so mean all the time,” Courtney mumbled into her knees. “I know I need help, okay? That’s why I asked.”

Oh, fuck. Courtney Polk was a headache and a half, and clearing the names of idiot kids who got mixed up with drug cartels wasn’t in my job description. I’d been very much looking forward to dumping her on her sister’s doorstep and driving away.

Though that small voice in the back of my head kept whispering: Drive away where?

I didn’t have any gigs lined up after I finished this contract. I don’t do too well when I’m not working.

Yeah, right. Between jobs you’re a fucking mess.

I slammed the voice away again and concentrated on the money. I like money. “Just how much cash do you have?”

“You’ll do it?” Her face lit up, and her whole body straightened toward me. “Thank you! Really, thank you!”

I grumbled something not nearly as enthusiastic and revved the station wagon down the empty dawn freeway. Figuring out how to steal back someone’s reputation was not my idea of fun.

The voice in the back of my head laughed mockingly. Like you have the luxury of being choosy.

 

Copyright © 2018 by S. L. Huang

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Excerpt: Vengeful by V.E. Schwab

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Poster Placeholder of - 81 Welcome to #FearlessWomen! A super-powered collision of extraordinary minds and vengeful intentions—V. E. Schwab returns with the thrilling follow-up to Vicious.

Magneto and Professor X. Superman and Lex Luthor. Victor Vale and Eli Ever. Sydney and Serena Clarke. Great partnerships, now soured on the vine.

But Marcella Riggins needs no one. Flush from her brush with death, she’s finally gained the control she’s always sought—and will use her new-found power to bring the city of Merit to its knees. She’ll do whatever it takes, collecting her own sidekicks, and leveraging the two most infamous EOs, Victor Vale and Eli Ever, against each other once more.

With Marcella’s rise, new enmities create opportunity–and the stage of Merit City will once again be set for a final, terrible reckoning.

Vengeful will be available on September 25th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

I

FOUR WEEKS AGO

HALLOWAY

“I won’t ask you again,” said Victor Vale as the mechanic scrambled backward across the garage floor. Retreating—as if a few feet would make a difference. Victor followed slowly, steadily, watched as the man backed himself into a corner.

Jack Linden was forty-three, with a five-o’clock shadow, grease under his nails, and the ability to fix things.

“I already told you,” said Linden, jumping nervously as his back came up against a half-built engine. “I can’t do it—”

“Don’t lie to me,” warned Victor.

He flexed his fingers around the gun, and the air crackled with energy.

Linden shuddered, biting back a scream.

“I’m not!” yelped the mechanic. “I fix cars. I put engines back together. Not people. Cars are easy. Nuts and bolts and fuel lines. People are too much more.”

Victor didn’t believe that. Had never believed that. People were more intricate perhaps, more nuanced, but fundamentally machines. Things that worked, or didn’t, that broke down, and were repaired. Could be repaired.

He closed his eyes, measuring the current inside him. It was already in his muscles, already threading his bones, already filling his chest cavity. The sensation was unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant as what would happen when the current peaked.

“I swear,” said Linden, “I’d help you if I could.” But Victor heard him shift. Heard a hand knocking against the tools strewn across the floor. “You have to believe me…” he said, fingers closing around something metal.

“I do,” said Victor, eyes flicking open right as Linden lunged at him, wrench in hand. But halfway there, the mechanic’s body slowed, as if caught in a sudden drag, and Victor swung the gun up and shot Linden in the head.

The sound echoed through the garage, ricocheting off concrete and steel as the mechanic fell.

How disappointing, thought Victor, as blood began to seep across the floor.

He holstered the gun and turned to go, but only made it three steps before the first wave of pain hit, sudden and sharp. He staggered, bracing himself against the shell of a car as it tore through his chest.

Five years ago, it would have been a simple matter of flipping that internal switch, killing power to the nerves, escaping any sensation.

But now—there was no escape.

His nerves crackled, the pain ratcheting up like a dial. The air hummed with the energy, and the lights flickered overhead as Victor forced himself away from the body and back across the garage toward the wide metal doors. He tried to focus on the symptoms, reduce them to facts, statistics, measurable quantities, and—

The current arced through him, and he shuddered, pulling a black mouth guard from his coat and forcing it between his teeth just before one knee give way, his body buckling under the strain.

Victor fought—he always fought—but seconds later he was on his back, his muscles seizing as the current peaked, and his heart lurched, lost rhythm—

And he died.

 

II

FIVE YEARS AGO

MERIT CEMETERY

Victor had opened his eyes to cold air, grave dirt, and Sydney’s blond hair, haloed by the moon.

His first death was violent, his world reduced to a cold metal table, his life a current and a dial turning up and up, electricity burning through every nerve until he finally cracked, shattered, crashed down into heavy, liquid nothing. The dying had taken ages, but death itself was fleeting, the length of a single held breath, all the air and energy forced from his lungs the moment before he surged up again through dark water, every part of him screaming.

Victor’s second death was stranger. There had been no electric surge, no excruciating pain—he’d thrown that switch long before the end. Only the widening pool of blood beneath Victor’s knees, and the pressure between his ribs as Eli slid the knife in, and the world giving way to darkness as he lost his hold, slipped into a death so gentle it felt like sleep.

Followed by—nothing. Time drawn out into a single, unbroken second. A chord of perfect silence. Infinite. And then, interrupted. The way a pebble interrupts a pond.

And there he was. Breathing. Living.

Victor sat up, and Sydney flung her small arms around him, and they sat there for a long moment, a reanimated corpse and a girl kneeling on a coffin.

“Did it work?” she whispered, and he knew she wasn’t talking about the resurrection itself. Sydney had never revived an EO without consequences. They came back, but they came back wrong, their powers skewed, fractured. Victor felt gingerly along the lines of his power, searching for frayed threads, interruptions in the current, but felt—unchanged. Unbroken. Whole.

It was a rather overwhelming sensation.

“Yes,” he said. “It worked.”

Mitch appeared at the side of the grave, his shaved head glistening with sweat, his tattooed forearms filthy from the dig. “Hey.” He drove a spade into the grass and helped Sydney and then Victor up out of the hole.

Dol greeted him by leaning heavily against his side, the dog’s massive black head nestling under his palm in silent welcome.

The last member of their party slumped against a tombstone. Dominic had the shaken look of an addict, pupils dilated from whatever he’d taken to numb his chronic pain. Victor could feel the man’s nerves, frayed and sparking like a shorted line.

They’d made a deal—the ex-soldier’s assistance in exchange for taking away his suffering. In Victor’s absence, Dominic clearly hadn’t been able to keep his end of the bargain. Now Victor reached out and switched the man’s pain off like a light. Instantly, the man sagged backward, tension sliding like sweat from his face.

Victor retrieved the shovel and held it out to the soldier. “Get up.”

Dominic complied, rolling his neck and rising to his feet, and together the four of them began filling Victor’s grave.

***

Two days.

That’s how long Victor had been dead.

It was an unsettling length of time. Long enough for the initial stages of decay. The others had been holed up at Dominic’s place, two men, a girl, and a dog, waiting for his corpse to be buried.

“It’s not much,” said Dom now, opening the front door. And it wasn’t—a small and cluttered single bedroom with a beat-up sofa, a concrete balcony, and a kitchen covered in a thin layer of dirty dishes—but it was a temporary solution to a longer dilemma, and Victor was in no condition to face the future, not with grave dirt still on his slacks and death lingering in his mouth.

He needed a shower.

Dom led him through the bedroom—narrow and dark, a single shelf of books, medals lying flat and photographs facedown, too many empty bottles on the windowsill.

The soldier scrounged up a clean long-sleeve shirt, embossed with a band logo. Victor raised a brow. “It’s all I have in black,” he explained.

He switched on the bathroom light and retreated, leaving Victor alone.

Victor undressed, shrugging out of the clothes he’d been buried in—clothes he didn’t recognize, hadn’t purchased—and stood before the bathroom mirror, surveying his bare chest and arms.

He wasn’t free of scars—far from it—but none of them belonged to that night at the Falcon Price. Gunshots echoed through his mind, ricocheting off unfinished walls, the concrete floor slick with blood. Some of it his. Most of it Eli’s. He remembered each and every wound made that night—the shallow cuts across his stomach, the razor-sharp wire cinching over his wrists, Eli’s knife sliding between his ribs—but they left no mark.

Sydney’s gift really was remarkable.

Victor turned the shower on and stepped beneath the scalding water, rinsing death from his skin. He felt along the lines of his power, turned his focus inward, the way he’d done years before, when he’d first gone to prison. During that isolation, unable to test his new power on anyone else, Victor had used his own body as a subject, learned everything he could about the limits of pain, the intricate network of nerves. Now, bracing himself, he turned the dial in his mind, first down, until he felt nothing, and then up, until every drop of water on bare skin felt like knives. He clenched his teeth against the pain and turned the dial back to its original position.

He closed his eyes, brought his head to rest against the tile wall, and smiled, Eli’s voice echoing through his head.

You can’t win.

But he had.

***

The apartment was quiet. Dominic stood out on the narrow balcony, puffing on a cigarette. Sydney was curled on the sofa, folded up carefully like a piece of paper, with the dog, Dol, on the floor beside her, chin resting by her hand. Mitch sat at the table, shuffling and reshuffling a deck of cards.

Victor took them all in.

Still collecting strays.

“What now?” asked Mitch.

Two small words.

Single syllables had never weighed so much. For the last ten years, Victor had focused on revenge. He’d never truly intended to see the other side of it, but now, he’d fulfilled his objective—Eli was rotting in a cell—and Victor was still here. Still alive. Revenge had been an all-consuming pursuit. Its absence left Victor uneasy, unsatisfied.

What now?

He could leave them. Disappear. It was the smartest course—a group, especially one as strange as this, would draw attention in ways that solitary figures rarely did. But Victor’s talent allowed him to bend the attention of those around him, to lean on their nerves in ways that registered as aversion, subtle, abstract, but efficient. And as far as Stell knew, Victor Vale was dead and buried.

Six years he’d known Mitch.

Six days he’d known Sydney.

Six hours he’d known Dominic.

Each of them was a weight around Victor’s ankles. Better to unshackle himself, abandon them.

So leave, he thought. His feet made no progress toward the door.

Dominic wasn’t an issue. They’d only just met—an alliance forged by need and circumstance.

Sydney was another matter. She was his responsibility. Victor had made her so when he killed Serena. That wasn’t sentiment—it was simply a transitive equation. A factor passed from one quotient to another.

And Mitch? Mitch was cursed, he’d said so himself. Without Victor, it was only a matter of time before the hulking man ended up back in prison. Likely the one he’d broken out of with Victor. For Victor. And, despite knowing her less than a week, Victor was certain Mitch wouldn’t abandon Sydney. Sydney, for her part, seemed rather attached to him, too.

And then, of course, there was the issue of Eli.

Eli was in custody, but he was still alive. There was nothing Victor could do about that, given the man’s ability to regenerate. But if he ever got out—

“Victor?” prompted Mitch, as if he could see the turn of his thoughts, the direction they were veering.

“We’re leaving.”

Mitch nodded, trying and failing to hide his clear relief. He’d always been an open book, even in prison. Sydney uncurled from the sofa. She rolled over, her ice blue eyes finding Victor’s in the dark. She hadn’t been sleeping, he could tell.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Victor. “But we can’t stay here.”

Dominic had slipped back inside, bringing a draft of cold air and smoke. “You’re leaving?” he asked, panic flickering across his face. “What about our deal?”

“Distance isn’t a problem,” said Victor. It wasn’t strictly true—once Dominic was out of range, Victor wouldn’t be able to alter the threshold he’d set. But his influence should hold. “Our deal stays in effect,” he said, “as long as you still work for me.”

Dom nodded quickly. “Whatever you need.”

Victor turned to Mitch. “Find us a new car,” he said. “I want to be out of Merit by dawn.”

And they were.

Two hours later, as the first light cracked the sky, Mitch pulled up in a black sedan. Dom stood in his doorway, arms crossed, watching as Sydney climbed into the back, followed by Dol. Victor slid into the passenger’s seat.

“You sure you’re good?” asked Mitch.

Victor looked down at his hands, flexed his fingers, felt the prickle of energy under his skin. If anything, he felt stronger. His power crisp, clear, focused.

“Better than ever.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Victoria Schwab

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