Sunday, February 19, 2017

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Soares Rev 2

Name: Maggie Soares
Genre: #OwnVoices Contemporary Young Adult
Title: What You Have of Me

Pitch:
As the only daughter of rock legend Apollo Knight, seventeen-year-old Echo parties her way through the A-list in a series of short-lived flings. When she’s not posing with her latest leading man, she shares her perfect smile in sunny selfies the media eat up. Everyone with a social media account wants her life. No one ever questions the illusion.

After years of dealing with her father’s career, Echo’s an expert at selling the right story to the public. The right story means no one will look closely enough to notice the anxiety that makes her chest ache, or her girlfriend, Nora. Each faux-relationship and fabricated scandal buys her and Nora more time to go public before their senior year, just like they’ve always planned.

That plan screeches to a stop when an anonymous source reveals to the media that Apollo is the father of four other children. Stretched thin, Echo juggles her growing anxiousness, her love for Nora, and the paparazzi hungry for her new siblings’ secrets. When she learns why she was the only child publicly claimed by her father, however, she must choose between the safety of the family she’s always known, and protecting her new one.

Chapter One

Places I’ve heard my dad sing: an incomplete list.

1. Backstage at the Staples Center (five years ago)

2. Over the radio at the dentist (last week)

3. After my last exam, through Carly Smithers’ shitty headphones (right now)

Apollo Knight shifts from crooning about keeping a secret to shouting about the way someone makes him feel tonight, which means it’s his third studio album. It was born the same year I was, and people call it confused and rank it at the bottom of round-ups of his discography. I try not to see it as a metaphor.

Carly feels my eyes on her and lets out that awkward chuckle people do when I catch them listening to my dad’s music. She takes out the headphones a little hurriedly and gestures to the door we just came out of.

“That was impossible, right?”

I hum in vague agreement, even though the exam was ridiculously easy. She might be the type of person to run and tell some reporter I walk around thinking I’m smarter than everyone. Carly glides beside me and I’m miniature under her dancer’s-body shadow, the curls piled on top of my head the only thing giving me a boost.

My buzzing phone saves us from actual conversation, but when the ominous notes of the Jaws theme start playing, I cringe. That could only be one person.

 “Echo,” My dad’s PA has a voice like a tapping foot. “I’ve sent a car. Get down here as inconspicuously as possible.”

Mary hangs up before I can respond, and I clench and unclench my toes in my dirty uniform shoes so I don’t lose it with Carly still around.

“I have to go,” I tell her, but she’s distracted by something on her phone. She looks up at me, eyes wide, and nods.

If Carly already knows what’s going on, Mary showed real discipline by not pulling me out of my exam. I make my escape, nodding at a couple of people along the way. Malcom’s outside the school, but inside my dad’s least-flashy car, our standing arrangement.

“How’d it go?” He asks once I’m inside.

“What’s going on?” I ignore his question. He knows that class was my easiest A.

Malcom just shrugs, because nothing we do surprises him at this point. His hair’s greying at the sides, or maybe it’s always been that way.

“Thought Mary was going to explode. Y’know that vein on her forehead?”

If Mary’s forehead vein has made an appearance, we’re in the danger zone.

My phone is suspiciously quiet, and I resist the urge to throw it when I realize I have no service. Mary only cuts off my data when something apocalyptic happens. It’s easier to be annoyed than worried, which is how my gut’s starting to feel, so I allow myself ten seconds to glare out the window at the palm trees that line the road. Palm trees don’t have to put up with this shit. I shove my phone back into my bag and try to shove the fear down with it.

It’s probably not drugs, since Apollo Knight’s been famously clean for the past fifteen years (a voice in my head reminds me that would just be a juicier scandal). I don’t think he’s been dating, so it’s not some gold-digger coming after us. If it had something to do with my mom, she would have called me first, so I rule her out, too.

There’s a chance it’s about me. There’s always a chance it’s about me, and the longer I think about it the faster my heart starts to pound a rhythm of caught, caught, caught. I pull out my phone without thinking, squeeze my thigh hard enough to hurt when I remember I can’t use it. My knee shakes anxiously and dust and glitter and other arts school shrapnel fall from my tights onto the otherwise-spotless tan car mats.

“What’s the plan?” I ask.

“Security waiting at the gate.”

“Seriously?” I lean forward until my head almost touches the back of Malcom’s neck. His shoulder twitches.

If I have to walk up my dad’s driveway, that means three things. One, paparazzi are camped outside his house. Two, he wants people to see me there, so, three, whatever this is, it can be improved if people think we’re a happy family. A united front.

I dig through my backpack for my emergency pair of jeans, letting out a little noise of accomplishment when I find them buried under a stack of posters Nora asked me to put up ages ago. The thought of Nora sends my hands shaking along with my knee, and I internally mutter a few choice words at my useless phone.

“Mary wanted you to stay in your uniform,” Malcom eyes me in the rearview.

“Mary’s gonna have to live with the top,” I wiggle into the jeans under my skirt. “Every time I wear a uniform skirt in public I end up on niche porn blogs.”

He doesn’t have anything to say to that. My heart’s in my throat and I breathe cautiously around it, sure if I’m not careful I’ll bite down and destroy myself. My tapping foot’s crept up my body, a low-level tremor going through me by the time we make it to my dad’s house.

I’ve never seen it like this.

My dad’s A-list status rides on obnoxious guys my age who think he’s the Last Real Rock Star and the handful of number ones his label’s produced, but everyone knows Apollo Knight is not exactly at his peak. He might get papped grocery shopping sometimes, but we all know in a few years he’ll be surviving or dancing or racing with The Stars.

With the crowd outside his house, you’d think it was twenty years ago. There’s at least fifty of them, yelling and waving cameras and trying to swarm the car. My dad’s head of security pushes through the crowd. Dylan offers his arm, and I allow myself to be pulled up. I squeeze my eyes shut behind my sunglasses, swallow my heart, and step into it.

I know how to handle a paparazzi scrum. Head up, shoulders back, sunglasses on (no anti-glare: anything you can do to ruin a photo is good). Hands relaxed: clenched fists means the internet’ll be speculating about what has you so angry within the hour. You look straight ahead and you never, ever stop walking.

My name’s being called from thirty different directions, but I don’t turn to any of them. I don’t smile up at Dylan like I want to. Someone would write an article claiming we’re having an affair, and by the look of things, we can’t afford another scandal right now.

I try to pull my face into a placid smile. Anything too happy and it’ll look like I’m not taking this seriously. Anything too angry and I’ll look like a bitch.

“Hi Echo,” Greg Peters’ smarmy voice says. He’s recording, and if I don’t say anything I’ll be public enemy number one on his livestream tonight.

“Hi,” I try to keep my voice from going completely flat.

“What do you think about all of this?” Greg’s chasing after me now that I’ve opened my mouth. I press my lips together, tight enough that Greg seems to notice. He gets this look on his face like he’s about to go in for the kill.

“Are there any others?”

I stop walking.

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Noelle Rev 2

Name: A L Noelle
Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy
Title: When Shadows Refuse to Fade

Pitch:

Sixteen-year-old Raquel Alexander inherited all three Soleian powers of Light. She can Heal with a flick of her wrist, Give with the softest touch, and Protect with a single command. The problem—her courage died alongside her father, and being diffident in a world under attack by the Devati, a cruel family of shadow warriors, could prove deadly.

Raquel is hell-bent on conquering her fears by joining the elite Soleian Guard. During her inaugural Hunt, Raquel's world shatters after she unearths a trove of damaging information. Information making her a prime target, on both sides. Ignoring an ancient pact, she confides in her best friend, Kaia, unintentionally putting her in danger.

When the Devati Commander kidnaps Kaia as bait, Raquel must venture into their grisly world to capture him. She meets an unlikely ally, Adrian, the Commander's mysterious son, and along the way discovers true courage when she's faced with an uncomfortable truth—sometimes when histories are written, horrible things are conveniently forgotten.

To find Kaia, Raquel will have to confront her shadowy past and untangle a web of deep-seated lies. If she fails, Kaia will suffer a gruesome death at the hands of Commander Sloane and his dark-souled henchmen.

Pages:

The shadow ahead should belong to someone, but the lack of a physical body in its vicinity causes me to panic. My ribs ache from the pounding of my heart. It raises a long, wispy hand in an eerie wave. Or salute. Or...taunt? I blink once. Twice. The shadow remains steadfast, even through the haze of heat bouncing off the asphalt. A sickening thought comes to mind—the owner is either Devati or invisible. I avert my eyes, praying for the latter.

"Raquel, pay attention!"

Ella's voice startles me, and I swerve, avoiding the back-end of a parked car. She braces herself, grasping the roll-bar of our open-air Jeep until I've safely maneuvered into a spot, then pulls out a compact and brushes on translucent powder, drying the sweat over her brow. The mirror is angled so she can see me. The reflection from my trembling hand flashes over the sleek surface.

"You're nervous." Her eye crinkles as she pushes a pair of harsh, rectangular glasses onto her face.

"Just distracted," I lie, glancing in the rear-view mirror before cutting the engine. "Honest." The shadow is gone.

She turns, exhaling in disbelief, and closes her compact with a snap. "Raquel, your nails are completely gone." She grabs my hand off the stick shift and waves it in my face. "And I've heard you at night. Your nightmares are back, aren't they? Mom would go crazy if she knew."  

"Ok, I'm terrified." Hearing the words from my own mouth makes me feel vulnerable. "But I'm sure it's normal."

"Well, I hate to break it to ya," she pulls up my long sleeve and points out the non-existent shadow of my arm, "but we're not normal, even by Soleian standards."

I yank my sleeve down, grab my bag and hop out the door. Ella joins me, and together, we navigate the rows of parked cars.

"I know what's really bothering you." Her words slice my insides, opening the floodgates to seven years of bottled emotions.

Please, don't say it.

"It wasn't your fault."

Dad's face swims before me, and my temples begin to throb. "Says the good sister who stayed home like she was supposed to." I pinch the bridge of my nose. How am I supposed to be hunting shadows when I can't even free myself from the ones in my mind?

"Hey, it's a guided Hunt." Ella quickly grabs my tense arm and puts it around her shoulder. "Nothing like what Dad was doing, ok? You'll be fine. The whole Guard will be watching. It'll be like riding a bike with training wheels."

"Maybe for you. You aren't afraid of anything. You're destined to shine. Pun intended."

"Oh, come on. All you need is confidence." She gives me a side squeeze. "You're going to make it. And Dad will be watching from somewhere above, and you know what? He'll be damn proud!" She wraps her hand around my wrist, and immediately my spirits lift as every drop of anxiety is drawn out.

"Quit it," I say, only the words come out half-hearted.

"I can't help it." She shrugs a smile, then takes off after a friend, and my love for her swells. In our darkest days, she was the one who pulled us through. She's a Giver, and even now at fourteen, she uses her Giving well.

By the time I reach the curb, my pants are covered in bits of tumbleweed, and a drop of sweat has run down my temple.

A blue bench, cradled into the nook of a fully grown Desert Willow, sits outside the school's entrance. The tree is in full bloom, and it's comforting shade calls my name. Ironic, really. I sit on the cool metal, in a spot worn gray, and wait.

I scan the crowd of schoolmates, searching for the familiar flash of Kaia's chestnut-colored hair, but she's nowhere to be seen.Maybe I've missed her. A burning sensation sears my fingertip, and my mouth fills with a bitter, metallic taste. I don't remember putting my hand in my mouth, but I've gone too far, this time drawing blood. A smear of crimson oozes from my pinky. What if the shadow I saw was the real deal? What if the Devati have gotten Kaia, and she's hurt, or worse, dead?

Then I see her, and the knot in my stomach loosens. The bustling crowd separates, allowing me a glimpse of her cheeky smile. She flicks a wave and eventually plops down on the armrest beside me, one foot on the bench while the other balances on concrete.

"Biting your nails again?" She bends over, picking a goat head from the sole of her combat boot. "What's up?"

"Nothing." I shove my fists into my lap. "Just wondered where you were."

"Had to stop for gas, dingbat," she quips as the warning bell tolls. "You need to relax. Your imagination is running wild." She whips onto her feet in one fluid motion, offering a hand before adding with a sly wink of her eye, "Again!"

I accept her help, lugging my bag onto my shoulder while stabilizing myself on my feet. "At least I care enough to worry when you're late!"

"For ten seconds."

"What's with the outfit?" I raise a brow. Is confidence a superpower?

"Thought I'd go for 'bad-ass'. Do you think it works?" She puts one hand on her hip while throwing aviators on with the other.

Her black tank is cut sharp, and is tight, and I'm pretty sure someone sold her tattered rags claiming they were jeans. A dress code violation is definitely in her near future.

"It screams it."

"Good." She smirks, adding a strut to her step. "What's on tap for the weekend?"

"Nada," I grimace, walking along. "Mom has me volunteering." The lie tumbles out on auto-pilot, but this time, it's hard to hide the sarcasm. Luckily, Kaia is distracted by an argument behind us. Ciara, a sophomore with more attitude than all Glendale, stands near the parking lot while a small crowd circles around.

"What's the witch up to now?" Kaia asks.

"Probably beating up another Freshman." I roll my eyes. "But, if it's not my sister, then I stay clear. Come on, let's go."

"Do you see this?" Kaia moves her hands up and down her body like she's showcasing a prize. "This is my bad-ass outfit. Andthat," she says, pointing straight at Ciara, "needs a visit from this."

"Seriously, this is the last thing I need today." I grasp for her hand, hoping to steer her away, but she marches on, and I'm left tailing her in the dust. She breaks through the growing crowd with ease and I stumble after, bumping into the thick frame of a dark-haired boy.

"Sorry," I mumble, but he doesn't notice. He works his way forward, but before he's swallowed by the crowd, something falls from his half-zipped shoulder bag. A muffled clunk follows.

A glint of light catches my eye through the jumble of feet. He dropped his phone. A spidery crack splinters the glossy screen.

"Hey, your phone..." He's is nowhere in sight.

I crouch down and scoop it up. The phone dings, and a preview of a picture message pops on the screen. I glance out of habit, and a familiar face smiles back. My heart drops. It's a copy of the ID picture from my classified Soleian file, and five bold words are stamped across the top.

Target Compromised: Bang and Burn

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Turley Rev 2

Beth Turley
Middle Grade Contemporary

Pitch:

Eleven-year-old Hannah has a penchant for spelling and story structure, and would do just about anything to get her parents to stop fighting. When she finds threatening notes directed at her on her classroom floor, she is glad to finally have her parents’ attention, but her overly introspective mind leaves her wondering at what cost.
The notes leave Hannah isolated from her best friend and forced into sessions with the perceptive school counselor. As she continues to navigate her memories and the complexity of growing up, she finds escape from her thoughts by making objects talk to her: stuffed animals, backpacks, lucky pennies—and the objects have a story to tell too. But none of these newfound friends can help her when the school’s investigation into the notes finds Hannah as the number one suspect.
The danger becomes real when a gun is brought into school, and Hannah is left alone during the lock down. She is faced with the truth of what actions can cause and the answer to the most important question: who wrote the notes?

WE ALL WROTE THE NOTES is a contemporary MG novel with elements of magical realism and metafiction, and a literary voice.



LOCKDOWN SOUNDS

I measure how happy a day is with sounds. Happy days sound like a TV on low volume or bird calls through a screen door. Sad days sound like dishes crashing around in the sink. Sad days sound like too-loud voices. Once a day is stained sad, it’s hard to make it happy again.

I sit with Olivia and Ryan at our blue table. Cafeteria sounds aren’t happy or sad, just clamorous.

“Chew with your mouth closed, Ryan.” Olivia says

“Are you my mother?” he asks through a mouthful of sloppy joe.

“That’s a book, not a question.” She sucks on her organic juice box. 

The three of us jump when the doors of the cafeteria slam shut.

“Have a happy day, Brookview Elementary.” The sound of the loudspeaker falls over the cafeteria like the start of nighttime.

The lunch monitors run around the tables, herding us into groups. I sink to the ground with my back against the cafeteria wall and watch the lights go dark. The lunch ladies seal themselves up in the kitchen. Ryan breathes shaky breaths next to me, so I reach out and hold his hand. It feels funny but safe.

“What’s happening?” he asks.

“It might be a lock down drill.” I swallow down being scared to sound strong instead. 

“They always tell us when we’re having one.”

“I know.”

“Are we going to die?” Olivia hides her face behind my arm. 

“I don’t know.”

Footsteps echo in the hallway and the cafeteria doors rattle. I breathe in deep. The smell of sloppy joe and bleach makes my stomach twist into a knot. 

This doesn’t feel like a drill. I decide that drills are useless. Everything is different when the enemies aren’t imaginary. My heart was not properly prepared to beat so wildly. 

I wait for the eleven years of my life to flash by, but instead I am thinking about Are You My Mother. A baby bird is sent tumbling from its nest and into a desperate search for someone to love him. I wonder why mama bird is who the baby bird belonged to, just because she was the same species. Maybe the dog or the bulldozer would have loved him just as much.

Undecipherable voices leak through the wall. I close my eyes and wait for whatever is out in the hallways to find us.

“All clear,” the loudspeaker says.

Like a miracle, the lights are turned back on. Relief rushes all the way into my toes.

“Stay seated, everyone,” Bubby, the head lunch monitor, shouts to the cafeteria.

Olivia peaks out from behind my arm. 

“I knew it.” Ryan lets go of my hand like he was never scared at all.

Bubby whistles through his fingers to get our attention. 

“This was a lock down drill. You need to know how to respond to an unexpected threat in the school. If you are alone and hear that announcement, ‘have a happy day, Brookview Elementary,’ get to the closest place to hide out of sight.” We are waved back to our seats.

The lock down code words are added to my brain dictionary. I would like to tell the principal that “have a happy day” is not an appropriate code for a lock down, because lock downs are full of sad day sounds. 

Olivia, Ryan, and I don’t mention the drill again during lunch. We turn ourselves from puddles of fear back into sixth-graders, into the oldest students at Brookview Elementary. Liquid to solid. Phase transition.

Ryan fills his mouth with sloppy joe. 

“Where were we?” he mumbles through the goop.

I laugh and pretend my head isn’t spinning. I move my sandwich around in its plastic wrap, appetite lost. It’s easier not to talk about things.


THE NOTE

I like my walks home from school, because I learn how months feel. October air smells like chimney smoke and feels like sinking into cool water, but the good kind of cool water that makes you feel awake. It’s my favorite type of air.

My house is so close to the school that I can practically see it from my front porch, so the walk doesn’t take too long. I see Dad’s truck is in the driveway and my insides turn to quicksand. He is not usually home until dark.

The truck makes me think about third grade. I’ve learned a lot since then. I know not to say crazy things that will get me sent back to Ms. Bishop. She told them what I said about the fighting and it made Dad mad, but I hardly said anything at all. Not really. After that, Dad promised that he would never leave but that wasn’t exactly the problem.

I don’t want him to leave. But I’m afraid of what happens when he stays.

I open the front door and see Dad on the couch. His hands are covered in white paint and balled up in his lap. The TV is on loud. A knife slaps the cutting board too hard in the kitchen. Sad day sounds.

 “Hi, Dad.” I stay close to the door, where I can escape to the front yard and suck down October air if the yelling starts.

“How was your day?” He doesn’t look away from the TV.

“Good. Why are you home?” 

My question carves lines into Dad’s forehead. I try to reverse time and take the words back. Sometimes I think I have dormant magic inside me. One day my powers will wake up and make everything better.

“When you build houses for people, they can change their minds. And you lose hundreds of dollars and weeks of your time.”

I know those words. They turn Dad into a monster. I must fight back with words that will make him soft again.

“We had a lock down today,” I say. The lines in his face fill back up. His eyes focus on me like spotlights on a stage. Mom comes into the room with a towel in her hands. 

“What did you say, Hannah? You had a lock down?”

“It was a drill, but we didn’t know at first. I was scared.” 

Dad turns the TV down and makes room for me on the couch. 
Beth Turley 
MG contemporary

“Don’t be scared, hon. No threat is going to hurt my girl.” He kisses the top of my head. 

Threat. The same word Bubby used in the cafeteria. I have the basic definition in my brain dictionary. I add more.

Threats are when the hurt is right in front of you but doesn’t touch you. Threats make you forget about everything except being whole and safe and happy again.

I wish Dad would always be this way. I’d do anything to make the sad sounds go quiet forever. 

+++

The next day, my class is copying vocabulary. I write the words in my notebook like a researcher on the verge of discovering treasure. Analysis: detailed examination of the elements or structure of something. Falsification: to present an untruth. Intention: an aim or plan.

The tip of my pencil breaks. I walk to the back of the room and shove my pencil into the sharpener. The grinding sound is a happy one. It means a new point, a shiny do-over.

I look down. A small piece of paper is crunched into a ball on the floor. I pick it up and stretch it out. Three words are written on the torn-off corner of a sheet of notebook paper:

HANNAH WILL DIE.

1st 5 Pages February Workshop - Ruscovick-Smith Rev 2

Name: Jamie Rusovick-Smith
Genre: Young Adult fantasy
Title: The Burn Kingdom
Pitch:
Seventeen-year-old Azara wields fire like it’s an extension of her body. Fitting, as her insides are fashioned of coal. For years, she’s prepared to take her place as head Matriarch of the Acalica, and finally rid Earth of humankind; greedy, worthless bunch that abuse their earth and each other. Or so Azara’s been told... She’s never left the lair or met a human. And until she’s fit to end the world, Mother Nature won’t grant her freedom. Azara’s power makes her unpopular with her sisters, and it’s no secret that any one of them would kill to take her place. Determined to keep her birthright, Azara sneaks out of the lair and spies on the world she must soon destroy.

When she meets a human boy, Salvatore, everything she was told about his kind is proven wrong. Upon finding them together, Azara’s deadliest sister attacks and forces Sal to use Brujeria to defend himself. Turns out the humans aren’t as helpless as Mother has led Azara to believe. If Azara obeys Mother, she’ll have to end all humans, their magic— and Sal. But following her heart means she’ll spend the rest of her life fighting to survive Mother Nature’s wrath.

First Five:
Azara never meant to disappoint Mother, yet she found herself under her narrowed eyes once again. Azara kept her face composed, her shoulders square, and her head high. The weak glow of the rusted sconces which lined the wall of the lair didn’t hide Mother’s growing displeasure. Her color-changing eyes were proof enough, glowing yellow— the color of trepidation or annoyance.
Well, Azara would show her something.
In the near dark, dank cave, Azara took a deep breath, and raised her hands. The musty air sizzled against her coal lungs, and the resulting smoke tickled her nose. One breath, two. Her palms crackled with fire, burned from deep inside her body, and exploded outward. A massive fireball formed, more than three times Azara’s height in diameter, then crept towards the edges of the space. The fire crawled towards the pockmarked walls, towards the ceiling dripping with stalactites. It smothered nearer Mother and Grimmer.
“How’s that?” Azara cocked her head and widened her eyes. Innocent. Not condescending. Much.
Mother inspected the fireball, her glittering, energy-filled skin a stark contrast to the glow of the fire. The silk of her gown swish-swished around her legs as she circled the small sun. She pursed her lips, ran her fingers along the licking edges. “Can you make it burn hotter without expanding the size?”
A smirk snuck onto Azara’s lips. She could make it hot enough to scorch every inch of the underground cave, including her sisters’ quarters and the training wings. But then Mother and Grimmer would burn like dried branches, and Azara would neverbe given permission to leave the  lair. And if she never left, she’d never fulfill her creation.
“Of course.” Controlling fire came easy to her. Perhaps not as easy as she would have everyone believe, but Mother never would tolerate weakness. Azara had to make it look easy, make it look as though she was ready. Flames below, she felt ready.
When Mother clucked her tongue, Grimmer flicked his wrist and the ball vanished in a puff of smoke. Azara’s mouth gaped and she glared at her mentor. The old man grinned, the ends of his mustache tilting up towards his nose, then tipped his head. His long salt and pepper hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but the end fell over one shoulder when he bowed to her.
Mierda. Azara resisted the urge to stomp her foot, but she did fold her arms across her chest. Why must he show off?
“The power is there, but the concentration is not.” Grimmer shrugged. “Easy to dispel when your heart is not in it.”
“Dismal.” Mother crossed the cave floor and scowled at Azara as she passed. “I’d expected more of an improvement in your focus by this point. You’re nearly eighteen and—”
“You act as though I’ll have competition when I go to the surface.” Azara blew a lock of raven hair from her face and followed her mother. “They have no way to protect themselves, right? Wouldn’t help each other even if they could. I’m ready to end the humans. My power is—”
Mother whipped around and her red eyes stopped Azara mid-step. “You are my most powerful Element. I made you with talent to spare. But you are still not powerful enough. You’ve no idea what the outside world is like.”
Azara pointed at the ceiling and all of the world above her that only Grimmer had told her anything of. “I would know if you’d ever let me out of the lair!”
“Silence.” Mother didn’t have to raise her voice to make her point clear. She held a hand near Azara’s throat and squeezed. Azara held firm, tried to be brave, but her knees trembled. The energy pressed into her airway. She couldn’t inhale.
“You,” Mother spat, “won’t leave this lair until you are fit to end the world. The only thing standing between you and your duty, is your massive ego.”
Mother released Azara. Her instincts told her to rub her throat, to take several deep breathes, but she didn’t want Mother to know the attack had rattled her.  She didn’t want to seem weak. So she stood statue-still and lowered her eyes to the floor. It was a good thing a girl made of fire couldn’t cry.
Mother turned to Grimmer. “Have you anything to say?”
The old man exhaled, tucked a cigar between his teeth, and pulled his cloak around his wiry frame. He leaned against the wall of the cave, nodding to himself. “She has a strong will. Not sure we’ll ever break it.”
Mother’s already grim expression hardened. She stalked towards him, leaned in and, in a voice Azara was likely not meant to hear, said, “We’re running out of time.”
“Indeed. I’ll do my best to inspire her.”
           
Mother nodded, then left the room.
Azara let herself exhale and her shoulders deflated. What was that about? She pressed her hands into her sides, her fingers warming against her internal heat. Grimmer wouldn’t tell her unless she was meant to know, but at present, she had larger coals to burn. “Why did you embarrass me?”
Grimmer righted himself and walked over to Azara. He blew out a coil of wispy smoke, then tipped his head, his grey eyes sparkled despite the poor lighting. He smelled of cherries and cinders. “You’re not trying hard enough.”
Azara turned her gaze on her mentor. “I am trying. It’s not my fault nothing is ever good enough for her.”
The edges of Grimmer’s mouth crinkled, his eyes lost a bit of their sparkle. She felt the change in his posture and guilt clawed behind her ribs.
“Suppose I don’t improve. Mother will have Ria take my place. You’ll have spent all this time training me for nothing.”
Grimmer scoffed. “I wouldn’t worry about that much. Your mother is anxious, to be sure, but she holds to tradition. She’ll not give away your birthright as firstborn unless she’s given no other choice.” His face held a harsh line, a certain set to his jaw which Azara thought might be grief. Of course… Grimmer might be the most powerful of them all, but he was a man in a Matriarchal society. 
           
Azara gulped and turned her gaze on the cavernous ceiling. “I want to please her, I do. And ashes, do I want to see the outside world. I want it more than anything.”
“So did Ria.” Grimmer shook his head.
           
“Ria.” Azara’s deadly younger sister. For all her eagerness, Ria listened even less than Azara and she had a slew of bodies in her wake to prove it. Not that Mother minded the deaths. It was just that Ria had gone and done it without anyone knowing. She might not have come back to the lair in one piece. She might have ended the humans without Azara’s help at all. She would have made Azara’s existence— what was the word? It didn’t matter. Ria had been stopped.
Grimmer tucked his hands into his pockets and headed towards the mouth of the cave. “Let’s not be useless. Take a five minute break and meet me in the training room.” His robes ruffled dust as he vanished into the darkness.
“Useless.” Azara snapped her fingers and sighed. That was the word. Ria had almost made her useless.
Azara slunk into the hall, break be damned, and went to follow Grimmer. But a rough wind slapped her in the face and giggled.
“Going somewhere, Coalheart?”