Sunday, July 21, 2019

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Thornton Rev 2

Name: Patrick Thornton
Genre: Middle Grade, contemporary
Title: I’m Counting On You (1246 words)

PITCH: 

Twelve-year-old Dilla Gilbert loves baseball and video games. She idolizes her father and struggles to keep her anxiety-ridden mother’s spirits up. The day Dad deploys to war with the National Guard, he gives Dilla the video game they’ve been waiting for with a promise of a heated competition when he returns. That game is Dilla’s good luck charm, promising Dad comes home safely. 

The house is burglarized when Dilla forgets to lock a door and her Xbox and the precious game are stolen. With her cyberphobic mom in meltdown and little sis making big trouble, Dilla is desperate to catch the thief and get the game back. She recruits her best pal, a bright, trash-talking goofball, as Watson to her Holmes. Smoke bombs, a homeless camp, a teenage runaway who awakens Dilla’s sexual ambivalence, a boy whose father has abandoned him and a gang of toughs who threaten to kill them are all part of their hunt for the thief.

While the bulk of the story is Dilla’s first person account, Dad’s war experience is woven into the story’s narrative with intimate third-person chapters. Emails between father and daughter tie them together while they are half a world apart.


PAGES

Stan, my best friend since kindergarten, sits next to me on our front porch. The smell of freshly mowed grass is everywhere. Seventh grade is over and I should be summertime happy but . . .

After a lot of not talking Stan says, “Your dad’s going to be okay.” Then adds, “Your mom too.”

“How do you know?” The words come out angry. Stan looks down at his feet and wish I hadn’t said that, not that way. 

“Gee, Pickle . . .” 

My name is Dilla but everybody calls me Dill. Stan sometimes calls me Pickle. You know, because of dill pickle. I know Stan is just trying to cheer me up. Not happening; Dad leaves today.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean . . .”

He looks over at me and smiles. “We’re cool.”

Stan’s the best friend a girl ever had. I get to my feet. “I gotta go.”

Upstairs, I sit on the edge of my bed trying not to think about what life will be like tomorrow. The chart I made matching up the two time zones—here in Virginia and in Afghanistan where Dad will be—is on the wall. I’ll use it to know what time it is for Dad when I’m getting up in the morning or having dinner or whatever. My computer, the only one in the house, is on my desk under the chart. On the floor next to the desk are the sports team posters I took down to make room for the chart.  
           
Wish I could turn my brain off, put the war—what could happen to Dad, what could happen to all of us—out of my head. I stand up, rub a hand across my face. Staring at the sweat on my palm, I feel like crying. Can’t do that. Not now. I rub my hand dry on the leg of my jeans and sit back down.

“Think fast!” 

I look up just in time to grab a video game case flying at me before it hits me in the chest. It’s the new Xbox game Dad and I have been waiting for.

“Nice catch.” Dad stands in my bedroom doorway wearing his National Guard uniform, all brown and green camouflage. There’s an American flag on one shoulder and his MP patch on the other.  People say I’m a girl version of my dad, probably because of our dark eyes and curly hair. And I’ve got some muscles from lots of sports. I’m hardly any version of my mom. She’s pretty and fragile. I’m not. 

My bed creaks when Dad sits down next to me. Tapping a finger on the new game he says, “Practice up while I’m away so I don’t embarrass you.”

It takes some effort but I twist my mouth into a fierce grin and look up at him. “Fat chance.”

I can’t hold the grin so I look down and turn the game over in my hands. Dad and I get pretty worked up with our Xbox competition. Mom, of course, stays far away when we do. The Xbox is in the downstairs game room in a cabinet out of sight. It was a special Christmas present that Mom agreed to as long as the door to the room is closed when the cabinet is open. I feel Dad’s arm go around my shoulders but I keep looking down at the game. 

“Dill.”

“Uh huh.”

“Your mom is getting better but this time will be harder on her since I won’t be able to call her every day like I do when I’m in the States. Phone service might not be so good from Afghanistan. And there’s the time difference.” 

And the war.

I shouldn’t bring this up again, but I do. “If I had a cell phone we could text. Mom wouldn’t have to know.”

Dad shakes his head. “No secrets from your mom.” 

Mom has anxiety issues and what her therapist calls cyberphobia. Tech things, almost anything to do with computers makes her restless and afraid. She’s okay with the land line phone but cell phones, no way. 

Dad nods toward my computer—the one I had to have for school and the reason Mom seldom comes in my room. “You can email me anytime and we should be able to Skype once I get settled.”  He’s quiet for a second then says, “Remind your mom that letters are on the way and I’ll call her when I can. I know you’ll look after things while I’m gone.”

Gone can mean never coming back. I feel tears working their out of my eyes and swipe a hand across my face to hide them. I cough, bob my head like an idiot and tell him, “Got it covered, Dad.” 

“I know you do.” Dad runs a hand gently over my hair and stands up. “Time to go.” 

“Already?” 

“I don’t want to have to arrest myself for being AWOL.” 

AWOL. Dad, Absent Without Leave. As if. Dad’s a good soldier just like he’s a good policeman here in town when he’s not on duty with the Guard. He’s even got medals he wears on his dress uniforms. 

As we pass the family game room, I duck in and open the Xbox cabinet. I give the game from Dad a kiss for luck like people do with a lucky penny or a rabbit’s foot. That actually makes me feel better, like it has a little magic that will make sure Dad comes home safe.

I give the game a gentle pat before I close up the cabinet and follow Dad to the living room where Emily is hanging on Mom begging for something and, as usual, not taking no for an answer. Emily’s little pink dress used to be mine about a hundred years ago—probably the last dress I ever wore. Mom is smiling down at Emily but her smile looks like it wants to be something else. She’s wearing what she calls a sun dress with bright yellow flowers on it and no sleeves. It seems to hang on her like she lost weight overnight.

“Jennifer, you and Em about ready?” Dad calls to Mom.

Nobody’s ready, Dad. We need you here. I need you here. You think I’m brave and strong and can take care of everybody when you’re not here but you don’t know how hard . . .

“Let’s go.” 

He puts an arm around my back and Mom slips under his other arm. As we walk out of the house Emily runs past us to the car. On the way to the airport Emily sits close to me in the back scolding and wagging a finger at a doll. Dad is talking quietly to Mom up front. I feel like I’m in a bad dream, floating but not in a good way until we pull into the airport parking lot.

“Dill, come on. You need to keep an eye on Emily,” Mom tells me. 

Right. While Dad gathers his gear it’s my job to make sure Emily doesn’t run out in front of a taxi or a bus or something. 

Inside the terminal people with suitcases are run-walking while others sprawl on chairs or the floor. The place smells like air conditioning, sweat, sugar and coffee.  When Dad hugs me I want to hold onto him, squeeze him so hard he can’t pull away, can’t leave. Then we’re not hugging and Dad is waving goodbye.  

1st 5 Page July Workshop - Lowrey Rev 2



Name: Nicole Lowrey
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Title: Beneath the Abyss
Pitch:
As a keen environmentalist, Laina just wants to be a climate scientist, like her dad. Until her life is flipped on end when searing heat fills her body and two stray dogs die at her touch. Desperate to control this strange magic before she hurts anyone else, she and her sister follow their dying dad’s instructions and make their way to the last home of magic—the fabled city of Atlantis.
But Atlantis is in the midst of a civil uprising. Humans who accidentally find the city are accepted, but forbidden to leave for fear they will expose the secret of Atlantis and magic to the world. A human rebellion is rising, recruiting an army of mythical creatures to strike against elitist Atlantian rule. When water dragons attack, Laina discovers her magic is linked to animals and she is the only one who can hear their thoughts.
As Laina uncovers a plot by the rebellion to steal one of the most powerful yet elusive creatures known on Earth, she must make a choice. Join the rebellion and turn on the city that gave her and her sister a home—or fight back, against her own kind and any chance at freedom.

First five pages:
Laina flinched as thunder rattled the windows in the lounge. Raindrops drummed against the windows louvers and she flicked them shut, clicking reload on her phone, again. Come on, come on.
Why wouldn’t the internet load? Maybe the storm was making it worse.
A text from Veronica appeared.
Got the email from school? Results are up.
Laina’s stomach rolled with the beans and rice she’d eaten that morning. She moved the phone around near the window, hoping to get a better connection.
Finally her inbox appeared. There were her mid-term biology results. She clicked on the email and scanned, looking for the result she’d been dreading all morning.
There it was.
Eighty-eight per cent.
B+.
Her chest sagged. Not the A she’d hoped for. She’d need ninety per cent to get into senior year bio. Higher to get into climate science at an Australian university, like her dad had done. A knot formed at the back of her throat. How would she break it to him? He’d been so thrilled when she’d told him her plans, to take her little sister Fiona to Melbourne and live and study there. That hinged on if she could make the marks for a scholarship. Unlikely, now.
She clicked back to her messages.
B+, you?
The phone pinged.
B.
Three squiggled lines flashed across the screen. Another message came through.
Can I come over?
 Gritting her teeth, she tapped back.
Maybe later.
Laina pinched her eyes closed and wiped away the sweat brewing on her forehead. The summer heat in Mexico felt stifling. More humid than countries they’d lived in across the Pacific, or even South America. It’d be nice to live in the dry heat of Australia again, settle down in their home country and just stay there, not moving every year or so for their dad’s climate research. The traveling was fun, but making friends and starting school all over again sucked.
She cringed as thunder crashed again. If only she could hurl the ache in her heart into the clouds, watch it combust in an electrical flash. The storm was moving on, but there’d be another one later. There’d been nothing but rain all week. Right in the middle of dry season too, it was unheard of. Almost unnatural.
They’d had to cancel the school fundraiser for the drought relief efforts when rain washed the stalls out. Totally ironic.
Laina’s phone vibrated again. Fiona had messaged her from her bedroom down the hall.
Something’s burning.
Laina ran to the kitchen and swore. She’d been so in her head, she hadn’t even noticed. Thick smoke billowed in plumes as she opened the oven door, dragging out the sunken black carcass of her sourdough. A blast of heat smacked her in the face, like she hadn’t been sweating enough already. Smoke filled her nose and she sneezed and flapped her hand to fan it away.
Martha, their in-house nurse, appeared out of nowhere and slammed the oven door shut.
“Que haces niƱa? I told you to be careful when you left the stove on two days ago. You’ll smoke the house out. What about your poor father?”
Laina tensed, flicking her head towards his bedroom door. With it closed shut, no smoke would creep in. Thank god. The cancer was drawing the last of his energy. If she’d aggravated his lungs…
She didn’t dare think what could’ve happened.
“Let me clean up,” Laina said and followed Martha as she bustled to each window, opening the shutters wide.
Martha swatted her away. “I’ll fix it. Just make yourself useful somewhere else.”
Laina bit the inside of her cheek, blinking twice to stem angry tears. She couldn’t even handle the smallest things anymore, not even a damn loaf of bread. Her grades had slipped over the past couple of months. And to top it off, Fiona still wouldn’t talk to her. School had given her time off to help around the house, but how was she meant to keep up, missing all her lessons? There was no way she could look after Fiona, the house, and be everything her dad needed her to be. Not with a foster home looming ahead of them.
She chucked the smoking heap of charred dough in the bin. A new wave of anxiety kicked its way up her throat and she fought to keep it down. She’d cried enough this week.
All she wanted to do was burst into her dad’s bedroom, wrap him up in her arms and tell him she had it all figured out. She’d look after Fiona, study hard and make it work when he was gone. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t bear the disappointment in his eyes, knowing it wasn’t true.
The door to his room was splintering near the hinges, and needed a coat of paint. She’d meant to buy paint last week, but then got caught up when the water tank bust a leak again. It was hard enough keeping on top of the urgent jobs. Before he…
No, don’t think about it. Laina chewed on her lip until the tang of blood hit her tongue.
Martha swept up again like a belligerent sparrow and thrust a basket into her chest.
“You’ve been hanging around doing nothing all day. We need water and groceries. How can I make your dad’s dinner when we have no water?”
Laina dropped the basket to her feet. “I’m more useful here! And what if something happens to him while I’m out?”
“That’s why I’m here. Now go.” Martha bustled her to the door with a jab of the broom’s sharp bristles before she could protest. The door to Fiona’s room stood ajar and Laina dug her fingers around the wooden frame before Martha swept her outside.
Fiona sat against the wall, her knees curled into her chest, nose deep in a fantasy book. “Come with me,” Laina said, swallowing as her voice wavered. Fiona’s eyes lifted from her pages then dropped. So Fiona was still giving her the silent treatment. The worst part? She had no idea why.
Laina slammed the front door behind her and ran through the puddles, pulling her hood up over her head. She needed to get away, get far away from it all. Their cottage by the coast in Tulum was a short walk from everything. The market, the forest, the beach. Pelting down the dirt track, she slipped between timber posts and into the woods behind the line of bright homes. A soft breeze flicked at the tendrils of her hair, tickling against her flushed cheeks. She stopped when she reached her favourite spot, pressing her palm against the rough bark of a flame tree.
A patch of sunlight hit the leaves of the flame tree, setting them ablaze like crimson fire. Her heart swelled, looking at the way they glittered, catching the light. 
A blue-crowned motmot, one of her favourites, flitted down to land beside her, his plumage shining bright.

There was something strange about the birds here, like they were always drawn to her. A few weeks ago, a boy had thrown a stone at her. A flock of sparrows had swarmed him, swooping his face until he bolted off. Laina had nursed the smallest sparrow with a broken wing back to health. When she’d released the small bird, it had nibbled on her ear as if to say thank you. She’d seen him preening outside her bedroom window most days since.

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Sova Rev 2

Name: Jericho Sova
Genre: Young Adult Paranormal Thriller
Title: The Lates Society

Pitch

Twenty-five years ago, the tiny town of Autumn was rocked by a serial killer. In all,  seven victims were killed in a brutal, ritualistic fashion that included signs of alchemy. But then the murders just stopped. 

Now, as Percival Wolfsbane is trying to finish his first year at Autumn University, the killer comes back. At first, Percival wants nothing to do with the murder case or the gossip surrounding it. But that all changes when he meets Lilith, a smart, mysterious woman, who lives in a graveyard. She has a few theories about the killer. She just needs Percival’s assistance to prove them.

Agreeing is Percival’s first mistake, as he soon discovers Lilith is hiding some dark secrets of her own. Her father is a mad scientist and the number one murder suspect. She looks exactly like her dead aunt and, at times, doesn’t even seem human. The more Percival digs into the mystery, the less things make sense. But one thing becomes certain. The killer doesn’t like Percival’s investigation. And after an attempt is made on his life, Percival is left with a choice: trust Lilith or take his chances on his own.

Chapter 01

It was a cold day in Autumn, and the leaves were turning blood red. 

"I don't know what happened," Percival heard someone say as he sat on a bench overlooking the courtyard. "It's too early to tell if it was him." 

Having been gone for a month, Percival didn’t know who they were talking about, and normally he wouldn't have cared anyway. Campus gossip was something he preferred to ignore. But today there was a tone to the conversation that Percival didn't like. A certain kind of fear was behind that other student’s voice; a fear mixed with reverence. And looking around, Percival caught the same dreadful unease in other people as well. It was hiding in the way a woman was rushing to her car before the sun set, swimming in the wide-eyed gazes of two passing professors, and flaring up in the cigarette of a man smoking in the library gazebo. The fear was everywhere, permeating the campus like a disease.

And yet, Percival tried to ignore it. He told himself it was just his nerves and a byproduct of dealing with his brother’s death. Since the accident, Percival had been ignoring a lot of things. He found it easier than dealing with the pain. Instead of asking what was wrong, he flipped his notebook to a math problem he’d been working on and focused on solving it. 


This one, however, was a nightmare. He’d been working at it for three solid hours, and the only thing he had accomplished were a few eraser marks and one bat-winged smiley face with fangs drawn in the upper corner of the page. 

Now, he concentrated on the problem and tried willing the numbers to fall into place. But they were obstinate things and refused to listen. Everything he attempted failed to work. 

Frustrated, Percival slammed the notebook closed and shoved it into his pocket. Then the clock tower clanged announcing the time as six o'clock. Percival’s stomach grumbled, and he made his way toward the cafeteria. As he crossed the courtyard, a rush of cold air swept through the valley, tearing leaves off their branches. One leaf danced its way around his head and landed in his untamed black hair. He shook the leaf out and continued on, while somewhere in the distance police sirens screamed.

After the buzz going on outside, the Autumn U cafeteria had all the excitement of a well-kept mausoleum. The walls were a beaten dull gray; the floors a coffin wood brown. People shuffled from one food kiosk to the next like zombies while they waited for their share of sizzling mystery meats and blighted vegetables.  

Percival made himself a salad and found an isolated table in the back. While he ate, he refused to look at the math problem as a matter of principle. It had already given him enough trouble as it was and adding indigestion to the mix wasn’t going to help.
He had been content to eat alone, but when Benjamin’s tray clattered onto the table, causing him to jump, Percival found he was glad to have some company. And Benjamin was good company. Sure, he was somewhat odd, but he was a friendly face, and since the accident, those were scarce. 

"You scared the hell out of me," said Percival.

Benjamin sat down and examined a slice of pizza for defects. He was gangly and thin with unkempt straw-colored hair and thick framed glasses. If he were a bit less animated, he might have made for a good-looking scarecrow. 

"Nice to see you too,” he said. “When did you get back?" 

"Yesterday."  

"And you didn't call? I'm hurt."  

"I don't even have a phone. Mine was on my brother’s account."
Benjamin’s smile faded. "I’m sorry. If there was anything I could have done."

A familiar sense of loss rose in Percival’s stomach. He shoved the feeling back down and forced a grin. “It’s fine. Besides, what was it your favorite author said? ‘Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt?’”

“Too true. Now let me be the first to welcome you back to Autumn U, or as the shirts say Au, the gold standard.”

Percival took a bite of his salad. “It’s good to be back. And maybe you can tell me what I’ve been missing.” 

Benjamin tore a burnt section of his pizza off, flicked it away, and bit into the pizza’s other side. “You mean you haven’t heard,” he said around a mouthful of cheese. “The Triangle Killer's come back." 

Percival nearly choked on a black olive. He had heard about the killer. Everyone in Autumn had. It was the campus ghost story, the thing seniors told freshmen to keep them up at night. There were seven original victims, if he remembered correctly. Each one had their hands chopped off and placed on either side of their head. Signs and symbols were cut into the flesh, the most notable of which were triangles sliced into the victim’s palms. Last of all, the victim's blood was used to write cryptic messages. No one ever figured out what the messages meant, and the killings stopped after a few weeks.  

"Are they sure it's the Triangle Killer," said Percival. "I mean that was what, twenty years ago?”

"Twenty-five,” said Benjamin. “And no, the police haven't confirmed anything yet. But I was talking to someone on the force, and she says it's definitely the killer.”

“How does she know?”

“Something to do with the symbols used. She was kind of cagey on the details.” Benjamin leaned in close. “And you want to know the best part? I think this might be supernatural.”

Percival rolled his eyes. Here it went again. Benjamin’s second greatest fault. His first was his fondness for breaking into places he shouldn’t be, but followed closely behind that was his desire to make everything paranormal. In his world, Occam’s razor could be summed up in three words. Ghosts or aliens. 

“You can't be serious,” said Percival. 

Benjamin shrugged. “Look, the original killings stopped when that fire happened over at Lates Hall. Someone died in that fire. Do you see how these things add up?”

“No, not at all.”

“Obviously, whoever died in the fire was the original murderer, and now they’ve come back to finish the job.”

Percival rubbed his forehead. This attempt at logic pained him. “Oh my God. How many times have I told you correlation is not causation?”

"Look, twenty-five years is a long time to go between murders. And to come back without missing a beat seems supernatural to me."

"Twenty-five years is not that long," said Percival. "If the killer started when they were twenty, they'd only be forty-five now. It’s more likely the killer’s just… come back."

“Don’t you mean come back from the dead? There is no way you’re going to convince me this isn’t supernatural.”

“Nothing is ever supernatural. There’s just things we know and things we haven’t figured out yet.”

1st 5 Pages July Workshop - Abdow Rev 2

Name: Emily Abdow
Title: Knives and Ribbons
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Pitch:

A single knife throw separates seventeen-year-old Esper from knighthood. But when she looks into the eyes of Prince Rain—silvery like his namesake—she misses the target she’s trained for her entire life.

It’s not because he’s beautiful, although he is.

It’s not because she loves him, although one day, she might.

It’s because, unknown to Esper, his eyes hold the secret to how the kingdom’s spiritual leaders, the Planters, maintain their vicelike grip on minds of Rain’s people.

Prince Rain is determined to kill the immortal Planters, who harvest the world’s lifeforce, silver ether, through the roots of crystal trees, wielding it to enforce regressive doctrines. Unfortunately, the Planters are plotting to kill him first.

When rebels learn the prince is in danger, they recruit Esper to become Rain’s protector. Esper drinks a blood potion that transforms her into Sebastian, a famous knight, and takes his place in Rain’s band of elite warriors. As Esper accompanies Rain on the journey to choose his queen, she must fight to free herself, her kingdom, and Prince Rain from the Planters’ power, a battle that appears impossible when she discovers Rain’s lifeforce is entwined with the very beings he seeks to destroy.


Revision:

Standing alone at the edge of Deadener’s Peak, Esper tugged her father’s oversized wool coat tight. Twelve years after his death, the scent of him still lingered, pipe smoke and peppermint sticks.

She curled up her toes, stuffed in his too-large, leather boots, and tipped forward, peering down into the darkness. So far up, it seemed almost soft. She hoped, for her father’s sake, that falling had felt like flying.

This morning, a knight had arrived at her mountain village’s iron gates with news that reopened the father-sized hole in her heart: King Roran was dead.

Esper’s father, Lord Aeric, had served as King Roran’s chief advisor until he perished in the first Bloodrose attack, and the king had waged a war of revenge against the red-cloaked rebels. With King Roran went one of the last pieces of Lord Aeric’s legacy.

Esper wrapped her palm around the hilt of Kabar, her knife, feeling the familiar bite of the engraving on the hilt. She remembered the day her father had given her the blade. She’d been only five.

He’d held the knife out, hilt first. A flower blossomed at its tip, stem snaking onto the hilt where thorns rose in angry points.

She’d opened her soft palms and cried out as the thorns pricked her skin. When she’d tried to let go he’d wrapped his hand around hers, forcing her fingers to the metal. She’d felt the press of his calluses, hardened patches in the pattern of her fresh wounds.

“As long as you wield Kabar,” he’d said, “I can keep you safe.”

That was the last time she’d seen him, twelve years ago. In twelve years, her own palm had callused like his. When she missed him, as she did now, she clenched the hilt and dared her skin to give. But now she was too hardened to bleed; it was a hardness that ran soul-deep.

“Esper!”

The shout startled her. Her boots crunched as she tilted further than she’d planned. A pair of arms wrapped around her middle, hauling her back from the cliff’s edge. His body was hot against hers, his skin sugary with the scent of his mother’s sticky snow candies. But tonight, she was in no mood for sweetness. She thrust her elbows back, breaking through his embrace.

“Grower’s seeds!” she said. “Faean, you could have killed me.”
His green eyes widened. “Me?” he said. “Kill you?” He shook his head, his hair, sunrise orange, flopping against his forehead. “You’re the one trying to die the same way as your father.”

She gritted her teeth. “I would be proud to die fighting.”

Faean sighed. “I meant falling off a cliff.”

“He didn’t fall,” Esper said. “He was pushed.”

“Ah,” Faean said. His eyes glinted. “You’re waiting for a Bloodrose to push you. Let me go get my red cloak and—”

Esper slammed her shoulder into Faean’s chest. The impact sent him sprawling backwards. His head knocked against a bulge of crystal root protruding from the mountain.

“Oof,” said Faean.

Esper pinned Faean’s elbows to the ground with the weight of her knees—her favorite victory position, only because it drove him mad.

“I’ll give you worse than an ‘oof,’” she said, and pressed the point of her knife to the tip of his nose.

Faean winked even as he winced. “Spare my freckles. My mother says the Grower blessed my cheeks with the constellations.”

Esper twisted her knife in a futile attempt to induce fear. Faean knew the worst she’d do was try to slap the silliness out of him with the flat of her blade.

“At least let me have one last dessert before I die,” Faean said. “I’ve got some honey on my chin.”

He stuck his tongue out, struggling to reach a sticky patch of amber on his pale skin, and Esper exhaled, letting her anger evaporate. Tonight, of all nights, she needed Faean’s humor.

She raised her knife above her best friend’s forehead in the emptiest of threats. “Any last words? Speak, before I cut off your hair.”

Faean made a show of gasping for air. “Send Clara my love.”

“Grower’s Seeds.” Esper rolled off him, trying to ignore the twinge of irritation. “Couldn’t you pick better last words? How about, ‘Esper, you’re destined to be the greatest knight in Allaysia.’”

Faean rubbed the back of his head where a knot was already forming. “But you’re already so certain of that. Why waste my dying breaths making you more insufferable?”

Esper stuck out her tongue. “Why waste your dying breaths on a woman you’ll be too dead to marry?”

“It’s the same as wasting my living ones,” Faean said. He picked at his nails, gray with rock dust from the mines. “Clara will never choose someone from an outer ring. She’ll marry someone who reads, or Prince Rain himself.”

Esper hated when Faean talked like this, like he was worth less than those in the inner rings. His father had mined ore for barely five copper seeds a day before losing his arm in a mining accident. Now, he huddled with other crippled workers in the mines scraped dry of treasure, shredding his palms on crystal shards. The shards were said to make each breath of thin mountain air sing with life but reduced those who found solace in their gifts to shadows of their former selves.

If Faean’s father could read, he might have made a living by lending seeds or recording trades. But reading was a blessing reserved for the innermost ring. And because families achieved an inner-ring only through paying heaps of golden seeds in tribute to the Grower, Faean’s family tree couldn’t be replanted closer to the crystal Grower’s Tree.

“You won’t be in an outer ring forever,” Esper said. “Not once you become a knight.”

Faean was quiet.

“Come on.” Esper rose to her feet, holding out her hand. Faean took it and she pulled him up. The moment he steadied himself, she slid her fingers from his and delivered a blow to his shoulder. This one was not powered by rage but tempered. After all, she needed her training partner to be well enough so that she could batter him again tomorrow night.

They sparred, boots performing a memorized dance amongst the crystal roots, which flickered with silver ether, the world’s lifeforce. The ether flowed from deep beneath the mountain into the trunk of the Grower’s Tree.

Even by the cliff’s edge, Esper could see the great tree towering at the center of the village, a blur of silver light with a translucent crystal outline. Inside the bright white hollow lived the Planter, the Grower’s immortal messenger, whose veins drank the tree’s harvested ether and whose single drop of silver blood could cause a family’s frostbitten garden to flourish.

Esper blinked, the shape of the Grower’s Tree searing the underside of her eyelids, and Faean landed a blow to her jaw. Her teeth snapped together.

“That’s the only time I can get you,” Faean said. “When you’re distracted by the Grower’s Tree.”

“It’s blinding,” Esper said, eyes watering.

Faean raised an eyebrow. “Not if you don’t look.”

“Of course,” Esper said. “I’ll just ignore the divine source of life. The one so powerful only the Planters can be trusted to protect it.”

“I don’t trust the Planters,” Faean said, matter-of-factly.

Esper stumbled over a root.

Faean didn’t use her weakness to strike. “It’s time they shared their power,” he said.