One month into the Trump Administration, at the close of Black History Month and as our social media feeds become ever-more contentious, I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Half a century ago, in December 1964, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke of the ongoing struggles of the Civil Rights movement, when people who only wished to exercise their right to vote were confronted with firehoses, police dogs, and murder. Then he said:
I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
“The eternal oughtness” is really key here. When we talk about race and racism in America, we all too often point at the other side and say, “they ought to….” We all too rarely look at ourselves and thinking about what we ought to do. King gave us the answer in the same speech:
Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
Unfortunately, right now, we’re in a period where revenge, aggression, and retaliation are presented as virtues, and love and empathy are disregarded and despised. I’m an optimist and believe that the current U.S. Administration’s policies are the step backward that precedes the two steps forward of human progress. That doesn’t make living through this regressive period any easier, when King’s children are openly judged by the color of their skin. As a white woman, I have never felt their humiliation, but as a human being, I have empathized with it. And I have suffered the shame of racism, when I’ve listened to relatives speak in hateful ways and, more directly, when racist assumptions about strangers and friends have crossed my thoughts. All my life, I’ve fought an internal war between a rational belief that people of color are not different from white people, and an irrational suspicion, rooted in my upbringing, that nonwhites are less (less smart, less trustworthy, less…you name it). I have always tried to speak and act according to my rational beliefs rather than my irrational suspicions. I haven’t always succeeded.
I suppose this internal struggle is why I’ve approached race the way I have in my fiction. The inhabitants of Knownearth descended from the racially diverse crew of a marooned spacecraft, and over the three thousand years that passed between settlement and A Wizard’s Forge, people have forgotten their earthbound ancestry and cultures and formed societies where skin color is no more remarkable than hair color. Moreover, the majority of Knownearth’s people (and most of the principal characters in A Wizard’s Forge) have dark complexions and wiry hair (so, in contemporary terms, they’re black). I wanted to posit a world where, as King hoped in another speech, people really are judged “not by the color of their skin.” This is motivated less by liberal bleeding heartism than by wishful thinking—I’d like to live in that world where black people aren’t unjustly arrested or killed simply because they’re black.
Does that mean I posit a culture where people are always nice to each other? No. In fact, the plot of A Wizard’s Forge is all about “revenge, aggression, and retaliation.” Cultures still clash, and Knownearth’s people haven’t found a way to “live in peace,” as King hoped for humanity. This is partly because a good story requires conflict, but also because I also think that human beings will always struggle between violence and nonviolence. But I do believe we, as a species, will in time overcome the “is” and achieve some measure of the “ought.”
Our Epic Worlds has posted a worldbuilding feature about Knownearth. Look for M.L. Spencer’s review of A Wizard’s Forge on the same site!
Scholar. Slave. Warrior. Wizard.
On a planet far from Earth, descendants of marooned space travelers fight a decades-long war. Shy scholar Victoria knows nothing of this conflict until pirates kidnap and sell her to the sadistic tyrant behind it. He keeps her naked and locked in a tower, subjecting her to months of psychological torture. After seizing an opportunity to escape, Vic joins the fight against her former captor and begins walking a bloody path toward revenge.
As the Blade, Vic gains glory raiding her enemy’s forces, but the ordeal in his tower haunts her. Bitter memories keep her from returning the love of the kindhearted Prince Ashel, whose family has fended off the tyrant’s invading army for a generation. When enemy soldiers capture Ashel, Vic embarks on a quest to rescue him and, on the journey, discovers a source of spectacular power. With wizardry, Vic can rescue the prince…
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No, this isn’t a blog about the CW show The 100 (although I do enjoy that show). It’s just a short, celebratory note to say thank you to all the book bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, fellow authors, and cherished readers who have read A Wizard’s Forge and left a rating on Goodreads. AWF received its 100th rating on January 26, and it’s earned a few more since.
To celebrate this milestone, I’m offering a $10 iTunes gift certificate in a random drawing on Rafflecopter. Why iTunes? That’s to thank the iBook community, which has provided the greatest level of support (i.e., the majority of my sales have been through iTunes).
To enter, all you need to do is go to Rafflecopter and follow the directions there.
Thank you, readers!
An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy | A Fantastical Memoir, Jane’s debut novel, is an unusual mix of fantasy and memoir that builds slowly but steadily in intensity to a climax that will have you reaching for the tissue box. A poet, former literature professor, and journalist, Jane ties together lovely, lyrical fantasy and hard-boiled memoir to say something about love, loyalty, and the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t live up to our ideals.
A few weeks ago, Jane interviewed me on her blog about A Wizard’s Forge—the sort of deep-rooted questions about character motivation and literary influences that an author loves to chew on. Here we turn the tables and I ask Jane about some of the things that intrigued me about An Unsuitable Princess. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of her book and look for the next one when it appears in 2018.
AMJ: Why did you choose to blend memoir and fairy tale/fantasy in An Unsuitable Princess? Can you talk about your literary as well as your personal reasons?
JRL: Since the memoir covers a lot of ground—my family life, my neighborhood in the 1960s, the birth of Renaissance Fairs, and this one friend I had—I had to find one theme that would unite them all. And I think that uniting factor is my imagination. All of these things have had an impact on my imagination. And if you look at my imagination, you can see how ordinary it is; it’s been influenced by the same things that influence everybody’s imagination: childhood, old jealousies, movies and TV (and for my generation, rock ‘n’ roll). I was trying to say something about how imagination works, how everyone’s imagination works, and I thought that if I was really going to reveal something in my memoir, since I’ve had a pretty good life without much tragedy or abuse and then redemption etc., I would have to reveal how my imagination was constructed. Besides, going to or participating in a Renaissance Fair is the ultimate in trying to make your imagination or your daydreams tangible, or real.
I have to admit, though it is probably obvious, that I was influenced by David Foster Wallace and other innovators of the contemporary footnote—Nicholas Baker—because the use of footnotes makes the reader question just where the story is. At least that’s what I think footnotes do. Is the story the main text that the writer wants you to read? Or is it really in the footnotes, which in my case were messy, personally revealing, nothing like the pretty little story the main text was trying to tell.
AMJ: So, it sounds like the memoir came first in the writing. Was your purpose then to embellish your real experiences with the fantasy, or frame the fantasy with the real-life story? If the former, it’s interesting how you used the footnotes to tell the memoir, because when presented as footnotes, the memoir seems like the embellishment.
JRL: I wrote the two of them together, because I don’t think that either one stands that well on its own. You can read them separately, but they really need each other. The memoir is very self-centered and was even called narcissistic by one critic; the fantasy is very formulaic, though I sort of meant to make it that way, as a commentary on how books and movies shape our imaginations. My idea for a story with footnotes came about as I was considering writing a piece of fan fiction; my idea was to write the fan fiction and then footnote points in the story where I could explain why I had chosen to take the plot in a particular direction. I wanted to show scholarly precedent for my decisions. I had the whole thing plotted out when I realized it was too much “inside baseball,” and that no one would probably want to read it.
I’d like to note that another criticism the book received (this time from a literary agent) was that the footnotes had nothing to do with the fantasy. But there were themes in the fantasy that were also developed in the footnotes and I tried very purposely to develop those parallels. If no one saw them, well, mea culpa, but I put them in there for a reason.
AMJ: What was the fan fiction piece about?
JRL: It was “The Prisoner,” a 1967 television series from the UK. The “prisoner” is a retired secret agent who is always trying to escape from “the village,” where he’s been sent because he knows too much. I was trying to write something in which he actually escapes; he isn’t brought back, because he is always failing and in the end, you wonder if he is a prisoner of the government or his own imagination. The footnotes would have justified how I chose to get him out, because there’s a lot of speculation among fans about where the village is, who runs it, etc.
AMJ: That is so cool! I’ve never seen that show (since it was on when I was a baby) but I know of it.
JRL: Definitely the coolest thing ever broadcast on television. My family and I watched it as we were traveling up California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada, and we always had to make sure our hotel rooms had televisions so we could see what was happening. I was obsessed, [and] so was my mother. I’m still obsessed. Greatest show ever.
AMJ: I’ll bet fans would love to see and discuss those footnotes.
JRL: True, but it would be like a discussion board on the Internet, lots of back-and-forth and disagreements over whether I had it right or whether I had the right to even enter the discussion.
AMJ: Getting back An Unsuitable Princess, both Jenny and Samuel suffer greatly. Why was their suffering necessary in your tale, and why do you think it’s such a universal element in the stories we tell each other?
JRL: Well the Buddhists would say that everybody suffers… I guess it’s what makes us human, this ability to feel and possibly learn from it. Samuel suffers because he’s sick and then he goes to war, which is some real first-class suffering. Jenny suffers because of the circumstances of her birth, which really isn’t too pretty either. But Jane hasn’t really suffered at all, and that’s the point. When I was a kid, I thought that no one suffered more than I did, in terms of feeling physically ugly, emotionally strange, out-of-control, unwanted, unloved, out of place—you name it. This must be a normal, developmental stage in human growth, at least in the United States. I believe we call it adolescence. But is that real suffering, or do we even know nowadays, with all our sanitizing conveniences, what real suffering is? I don’t know the answer to that, but having Jenny and Samuel suffer was important to show how little suffering I went through as a kid. And what does the human imagination do with that? That was one thing I was trying to explore.
AMJ: I was struck by the stark difference between Jenny and Samuel’s devotion to each other, and the casual convenience of your relationship with your high school boyfriend—who himself suffered quite a lot in real life. What were you trying to say by crafting the imagined story as the inverse of memoir, in terms of the climactic events?
JRL: That’s the point! There’s the first high school boyfriend, who is called Slayer in the memoir, who makes mincemeat out of Jane, and that is pretty much the extent of Jane’s suffering. Jane can’t realize what true suffering is—whether it’s Samuel’s or Jenny’s or Sam Waynert’s—because she’s a pretty self-involved adolescent. She is the self-involved adolescent. The dictionary definition. That was what I was trying to illustrate.
AMJ: You’re a poet and you go to readings. How has that informed your fiction?
JRL: One way to test out whether a poem is working is to read it out loud, in front of an audience. That’s why it’s so important for poets to read their work publicly. I think this affects my prose in a number of ways, although I’m not aware of all of its impacts. One thing I do know is that sound is very important to me; it needs to sound, if not poetic, round and full. There needs to be a rhythm or that rhythm needs to be consistent throughout the work so that the reader can settle into it. Reading aloud also lets you know when you are going on too long or when you are repeating yourself too much, [although] repetition is sometimes necessary. [Reading aloud] should make your sentences cleaner, but I’m not going to claim that my sentences are stronger or cleaner than other writers’, only that I aspire to have them be so.
One time I was just gossiping in my office and someone asked me if I was a writer or a mom, because of the rise and fall of my voice. That person said everything I said came out like a fairytale, beginning with “once upon a time,” and ending with “they lived happily ever after.” I really wasn’t writing then, since I was a new mom, and I was just trying to get through the day. But I was telling my daughter a lot of stories, usually involving her stuffed animals or characters from other stories we had read, so I guess that’s what that woman heard. I found it to be very reassuring, because I was both unable to write and to publish. I guess it gave me a bit of confidence to keep going.
AMJ: Your work involves a lot of magic. How does that work as a literary device, or in other words, how do you define fairy tale, fantasy, and magic realism? Do these distinctions matter to the story telling—in other words, do these literary forms serve different purposes?
JRL: Some of these are easy, and some are hard. Magic realism is real things happening but by magical means. So in One Hundred Years of Solitude, it’s all believable—wars, elections, romance, people isolating themselves with their strange thoughts, aging and insanity—but taken together it’s all a little weird. A better example, or more current one, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, where the railroad may be magical, but all of the things that happen in the book are truly rooted in fact. Magic realism involves a certain point of view, or at least I think so. I think that you could write the same book without magic realism, and have the same story propelled by different means.
I could be wrong in saying this, but I think fantasy is about world-building. That said, you might consider all novel writing world building. But fantasy, or what we have come to know as fantasy, has a medieval flavor, I guess so the stakes are so clearly defined, and science fiction, pure science fiction without other elements, is relatively contemporary in setting. But I don’t know. I’m thinking that the LOTR trilogy is the primogenitor for 20th-century fantasy, because I haven’t read the Gormanghast novels, and in The Hobbit, nothing really happens that could not happen realistically. There’s one section where Gandalf works his magic by simply throwing his voice. Of course, the ring is magic, so what does that mean? Perhaps fantasy gets its legitimacy from grounding itself in these medieval elements, in the lore and voice of previous fantasies.
Ellen Kushner once said to me that fairytales were a way of helping children cope with the impossible circumstances they faced—being powerless in a world of malevolent adults and a social order they don’t understand. That sounds like a pretty good definition to me. There is debate over whether Christianity influenced fairytales, or whether they were old pagan stories remade with a Christian ethos; you can probably argue all day about that. What interests me now is the contemporary fairytale, which uses practically none of these elements, but is instead based on the morals or the plots of classic fairy tales. That’s where you get Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi and of course Kate Bernheimer, and I think their work is just wild, really inventive.
AMJ: Tell us about your next book.
JRL: It’s called The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, and it will be published by Amberjack Publishing in 2018. It’s based on a Grimm’s fairytale called “The Bearskin,” with a little of “Beauty and the Beast” stirred in. If you read a lot of Grimm’s all at once, you’ll see that there are certain tropes, mechanisms, similes, or metaphors—or whatever you want to call them—that repeat themselves, and these two fairytales have a lot in common. I hope people will see that the book touches on many topics, including war since it takes place before and after World War I, and ultimately comments on the act of storytelling itself.
I’m not a joiner and certainly not an activist, yet today I’ll drive myself and my daughter to Washington, D.C., to march in the Women’s March on Saturday. I don’t have a pink pussy hat or a T-shirt, but my presence will be my sign of protest against the new administration. Dozens of my friends are also going to DC or marching in their own cities. One of my friends, Debra Gordon, and healthcare writer and activist, was quoted in Salon about why women are marching this weekend. She gave her answer; here’s mine.
My daughter and I are going to add our small voices and two bodies and four hands and four feet to the tens or hundreds of thousands, to the millions of small voices and bodies and hands and feet that will be chanting, clapping, and marching in protest of a government that seems poised to lead our nation toward disaster. It’s not that the incoming Administration is a Republican one. Although I’m a proud liberal, I was raised in a Republican household and still believe that individuals are responsible for their own success in life. As I’ve grown older (and wiser), however, I’ve come to recognize that institutionalized bias against minorities and women exists, so while individuals are responsible for their own success, they aren’t necessarily responsible for their own failures. I learned this first-hand when a boss–a generally good boss–refused to raise my salary to the same level as an older male colleague. My male counterpart and I held the same title, and my boss acknowledged that his work was inferior to mine, but he would not give me a raise because the man “had a family.” I wasn’t asking for special treatment, I was asking for equal pay based on merit–you can’t get more Republican than that. Yet institutional bias not only kept me from getting my raise, it had me meekly accepting my boss’s refusal as “reasonable.”
I refuse to accept this paradigm now, which is why I’m marching tomorrow. We face a government that will likely undermine our universal education system, which is the foundation our country’s greatness. Education is already widely undervalued, contributing to widespread misunderstanding and under-appreciation for science. Hence, the mistrust of scientists which contributes to the rejection of climate change legislation. Reversing what little we’ve done to stall climate change, and doing nothing more to address it, will surely endanger my daughter’s generation and their descendants. There’s nothing reasonable about that.
I’m not a joiner and not an activist. I’ve never called a politician’s office, or stuffed an envelope during an election. To be honest, I’ve skipped voting in many, many off-year elections. But for me, Saturday’s March will be the first steps in a new paradigm of resistance to the current Administration as a means of restoring the principle, and hopefully the practice, of equal footing for all.
Last week author Jane LaForge interviewed me about A Wizard’s Forge. Jane’s debut novel, The Unsuitable Princess, is a beautifully written blend of memoir and fantasy that speaks to the power of love and loyalty to bring redemption (you can read my review here).
Jane has worked as a journalist and a literature professor, and she posed deeply incisive questions that uncovered some things I, as the author of A Wizard’s Forge, didn’t know about it. That’s exciting, and I had a great time answering her questions.
Leaps of Faith: World Building, Religious Disquisition and Science Fiction
An Interview with A.M. Justice by Jane LaForge
A Wizard’s Forge by A.M. Justice is primarily an exercise in fantasy that presents challenges that might occupy literary purists. Aside from the nods to science fiction, fairytales and fantastical world building, this story of a young woman’s many transformations deals with what could be said to be a contemporary problem. The inhabitants of Knownearth are divided between two religions based on the same founding text. Heretical to each other, they are engaged in both a long war of attrition and a cultural battle that ensnares the protagonist. The mix makes for an intriguing disquisition on the consequences of religious and irreligious practices, and a prescient discussion on the fear of the unknown, and what happens when that unknown accumulates too much power….
Read the interview here.
The following piece of flash fiction originally appeared as a writing lesson in point of view on Eat Sleep Write, and I wrote it as an exercise in the depiction of fear as an emotion. It seems emblematic of the feelings many have at the close of this year, especially as we peer toward the future and see dim prospects. Yet, despite what you might gather from the text of this story, I am an optimist. I do believe, short of a world-swallowing Shadow, humankind will be OK in the end.
Last Day at the Observatory
Twenty minutes left to live. The icy wind cuts deep, but not as deep as the Shadow. Shadow of death–mine, everyone’s. When it was farther off, 6 hours away at the edge of the horizon, it reminded me of the shadow the earth casts on its own atmosphere at dusk, a gray wash arcing above the edge of all things. Now it’s as black as pitch, a wall stretching from sea to sky, north to south, limitless and inexorable, blotting out the stars.
Inside, my back presses against the door. Warm air blows down from the ceiling vents but can’t push the cold from my blood. I’ve spent my life studying celestial anomalies and in 20 minutes one is going to kill me. My heart is a trapped wren, flitting and flapping, held prisoner by ribs, stuck in the clutches of lungs that insist on doing their job. I’m still breathing, even if my ears hear those breaths as sobs. I came to the top of this mountain to see the beginning of time, not the end of it.
The Shadow is behind this door. It’s coming, 15 minutes away. Knees weak, chest tight, I slide to the floor, creep into the control room, anxious for a place to hide. Sam’s red high tops sprawl out from behind the second monitor. On one shoe, the shoelaces hang loose, snarled in a knot, aglets dangling. Sloppy dresser, Sam. Not a sloppy death, though: asphyxiation with a plastic bag. That was tidy. Leave it to Sam to MacGyver his way out of this.
The second monitor beeps with fresh data, like it’s been doing every 30 seconds since we lost Tonga 18 hours ago. Almost 18 hours. It must be aliens, we said in emails and phone calls that spider-webbed from observatories and military bases all over the world. It started at midnight on New Year’s Day at the International Dateline, for god’s sake. The Australians, the Japanese, the Chinese and Russians sent probes and then teams into the dark. They learned nothing, equipment and men swallowed by the void. There was that Aussie reporter who tried to stay ahead of the leading edge. Poor dumb woman didn’t realize how fast the world turns, but what a panic after her live feed blipped out. Riots in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Mumbai on fire, the crush of bodies seeking a last blessing in Mecca. Back on the Mainland people were loading up their semi automatics, some barricading themselves behind steel doors, others squealing through town in pickups, howling and shooting. More riots in New York and Atlanta, Chicago, Houston. Everyone without a gun rubbing shoulders with neighbors packed into every last church and temple and mosque in America. I wish I’d gotten through to Mom but never heard anything but that damn woman telling me the lines were busy and to try again later. An hour before sunset, the phone lady went silent. God, last time I talked to Mom was two months ago. I’d meant to call on Christmas. Damn the time difference.
Three minutes to midnight. My last three minutes hiding under my desk, whimpering. I could go outside and face the void. That would be heroic. My cheeks dry, my breath quiet, I’m shivering. It’s cold up on this mountain, but not inside. Power’s still on. I think the wren caged in my chest has hoarded all the blood for herself. Shit, the damn thing beeped again. Two and a half minutes. How’s that song go? “Daisy, daisy, dah dah dah dah da dum.” Crap, I could never remember that stupid song. What if Sam had stuck it out? Would I have–god no, last man on earth–uck, no. I hate being alone, though. I wish I’d gotten through to Mom.
There’s another beep. Down to 1 minute. If I’m wrong about God? Hell, if I end up in Hell, at least I’ll get to find out what the hell this thing is that’s going to kill me. A little snort flares my nostrils, and my lips curl up. Ears prick as the last beep sounds, and silence cuts it off.
Science fantasy is a genre that blends science fiction and fantasy, just like A Wizard’s Forge. And today I’m a featured author on SciFan.org.
SciFan author A.M. Justice dabbles in Tango, star gazing, and scuba diving… but first and foremost, she’s a traveler. She loves to explore: whether it’s the park near her home, a unique neighborhood, a new country, or the frontiers of the mind. She’s been imagining strange worlds and the people in them since high school, and she’s particularly loved Science Fantasy since reading Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series and discovering that a world where people ride dragons and use medieval tech could have a scientific explanation for all its wonders.
In A Wizard’s Forge, the first book of The Woern Saga, Justice follows in McCaffrey’s footsteps by setting a classic fantasy hero’s journey on a lost space colony called Knownearth. The humans of this world descended from the marooned crew of a spacefaring mining vessel. Time and lack of resources have eroded advanced technology, and after thousands of years human society…
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I read all my reviews. I cringe at the bad ones (I’ve received some doozies!) and rejoice in the good ones. I also occasionally respond to issues reviewers bring up, such as questions about the worldbuilding in Knownearth or about Vic’s difficulties overcoming past trauma.
Today I’m responding to another frequently mentioned topic: the so-called cliffhanger ending of A Wizard’s Forge. Every time a reviewer refers to the end as a cliffhanger, I think, “Huh? It’s not a cliffhanger!” In fact, I meant for AWF to stand on its own, and when I wrote the end, I thought the outcome was pretty clear. Nevertheless, as writers we’re taught that if a lot of people make the same comment about your work, maybe you didn’t achieve your vision the way you thought. And after thinking about it, I can see how people might think Vic’s immediate fate is in question.
So, as a thank you to the many book bloggers and readers who have taken the time to review AWF, I’m posting the book’s epilogue here. My editor and I decided to cut this denouement because we wanted to end the novel with that kickass last line. But for those of you hungry to know what happens next, here’s a tidbit.
SPOILER ALERT. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ A WIZARD’S FORGE AND DON’T LIKE KNOWING THE END OF THINGS, STOP READING THIS NOW AND READ THE BOOK INSTEAD (here’s where you can buy it). THEN COME BACK HERE AND READ THIS IF YOU WANT MORE
Unpublished Epilogue to A Wizard’s Forge
Bethniel watched the darkened entrance to Lordhome, her fists clenched at her sides, her heart fluttering unevenly in her chest. Everyone had fled when Vic shot through the ceiling, triumph and defeat forgotten in the shower of stone. After that, terror and need imposed a truce among the people pouring out of Lordhome. Drak’s and Carl’s squads repelled out of high windows, then stood below, catching children cast to safety by their parents. Bethniel ordered a team back into the kitchen to find tablecloths or tarps, and soon Relman and Lathan hands stretched catch-cloths taut between them.
The earth shook for long minutes while fugitives tumbled out of Vic’s fury and onlookers ran up from the lower valley. As newcomers gaped and survivors wailed, Relman officials conferred, splitting gestures between Bethniel and the road leading out of Lordhome. Drak and a knot of Lathan troopers surrounded her while the Relmans talked. “Keep your weapons sheathed,” she said, “until they start a fight or Vic comes out.” Drak nodded. A moment later, a pair of Relman officers broke away from their conference and pelted down the road.
They waited. Fathers hugged children; mothers comforted babies; friends wept in each other’s arms, mourning the missing, shivering in the night. Bethniel’s heart staggered through each beat. She had little hope that Ashel lived, but she would not grieve, not yet. Please let Vic find him, she prayed. Let my sister find my brother, and let them both be well.
At last the tremors stopped. Everyone froze, eyes fixed on the gaping hole in their mountain home. A child’s whimper broke the silence, and another’s scream echoed off the courtyard walls. As parents hushed the children, a new party arrived at the gate. The Relman officials flocked round a ragged young man, bowing and kneeling. Ignoring them, he looked straight at Bethniel and inclined his head. Trepidation seized her bowels, but she straightened her shoulders and dipped her chin in return.
The young man started across the courtyard, officials in tow. Lathan hands seized weapons, ready to draw, but the Relman party halted as the young man offered a shallow bow. Dungeon stench flared Bethniel’s nostrils. “Your Highness,” he said, “I am Earnk Korng. These officers believe my father dead or captured.” He chortled grimly. “They they want my head before theirs in the line to the chopping block, so they’ve decided I should speak for Relm.”
Bethniel returned a cold gaze. “Do you surrender, my lord?”
He split a glance between several warleaders. “Olmlablaire is yours.”
Bethniel nodded curtly then turned toward the ruined stronghold, her fists beating against her thigh. Long minutes ticked by while the Relmans wept. At last four people stumbled out, covered in gray dust, pale as ghosts. A body floated behind them.
An anguished scream wailed up the rockface; gasps and warnings rippled through the crowd. The Relmans scrambled out of Vic’s path as she guided Geram through the rubble. Ashel followed, slumped over Wineyll’s shoulder. A blood-stained cloth covered his hand. Her breath stuck, Bethniel’s knees began to buckle, but she locked her legs straight and fought the swoon that had kept her from Latha’s throne. When Vic’s party reached her, her spine was stiff enough to slide under her brother’s arm and kiss his cheek.
He laughed softly, tugging her closer. “Sis. You cut your hair.”
“It’s all the rage in Direiellene.”
Vic dropped the Relmlord’s body face down in the snow.
“Is he dead?” Bethniel asked.
“No.” Vic’s gaze landed on Earnk, and they exchanged nods. “Lornk Korng’s crimes extend beyond me, or Ashel, or anyone standing here. He’ll answer for them in Latha.” Anguish welling in her eyes, she sagged into Geram.
The war with Relm had lasted Bethniel’s lifetime. Now Lornk Korng lay at her feet, but she saw this triumph drown beneath the defeat writ on Vic’s face. Yet, her foster sister had lived up to her name—Victory was theirs. She pressed her cheek against Ashel’s shoulder, hugged him tight around the waist. Her brother lived; the war was won. “Well done,” Bethniel assured Vic. The war was won, but not yet the peace. “Now it’s my turn.”