Our 365 Writing Challenge group had a short story contest. We judged on ten different areas including voice, structure, pacing, and use of description. Here is the winning entry by Amanda Kaye. The judge loved her use of distinct characters and gripping internal struggle.
The hot wind whistles through the window slit carved near the ceiling, singing to me, promising to carry me far from this house. “Does the alriyalssa call you to the dunes, Feyna? Does it whisper the secrets of the sands?”
“Stop acting like such a mihana,Di’Ni! We don’t have much time.” My aunt groans as she sinks to her knees beside me. She dips the fine tipped brush into the bowl of gold paint and outlines a delicate whorl on the back of my thumb.
“I wish I was getting married tomorrow. Tevan is so handsome.” My little sister twirls around the room, her feet leaving a trail on the sanded floor, my green silk veil fluttering behind her. “Feyna, will you pick someone good-looking for me?”
“You should take my place at the ceremony. The Shalat tribe will never know the difference.”
“Di’Ni!” My aunt spits over her left shoulder and swipes her hand twice across each eye. “Are you trying to call down the mischief on your marriage? After dinner you’ll make offerings at the shrine, thanking the gods you play such an important role in bringing peace to your tribe.”
“As you desire, elder.”
Why must I be the one sacrificed for the peace? Let some old maid desperate for marriage bonds take my place. My heart calls for my beloved Cancha, not some stranger.
Nobody would understand, nobody would believe my heart was lost in an instant. But it only takes one look for a soul to recognize its match. I was in love the moment I saw him petitioning Father to reject the treaty with the Shalat tribe. So elegant, so poised. When our eyes met, I knew he felt it too.
I can’t marry Tevan, I can’t. It would shatter Cancha’s heart, and shred my soul until I’m one of the ghosts wandering the desert.
My heart gives a twist and I jerk my hand out of my aunt’s grip.
“Riha! Look at the mess you made.” She uses a damp cloth to scrub the gold paint from my skin, her motions jerky as she mutters under her breath.
Time to test if she’s an ally. “Feyna, the war has been over for half a season. Why can’t we keep the peace without the marriage? Or someone else from the tribe could—”
“Enough, Di’Ni! No more of this foolish talk. You’re only making things difficult for yourself. You know why it must be you.” She gives a sharp look at the closed door.
She might as well say it, their agents surely know of my Talent by now. Of course it has to be me. Father wants me as close as possible to Tevan, using my Talent to spy on him. The loyal daughter ready to expose her husband at the first sign of treason.
The first line of defense. Always on guard.
“Can I have a moment? I need…tea.”
“Sah’Va will get it. There’s barely enough time to finish before dinner.” My aunt’s brow furrows as she traces the whorl again.
With her attention focused on reapplying the designs, I silently I say the incantation to trigger my Talent: migthel pareln. My aunt’s emotions wash over me in a rush. Greed, disgust, fear, hatred.
Easy enough to interpret. For all her talk of peace and celebration, my aunt doesn’t want these savages in our home.
I blink away tears. The painted plaster on the wall has cracked near the ceiling, exposing the pale mud-brick. If only I could crawl into that crack and hide. I’ll seek out Cancha tonight after everyone’s asleep, he’ll know what to do.
My aunt pats my hand. “Don’t worry. Tevan is a kind man. You’ll see when you meet him tonight.”
She almost sounds convincing.
I close my eyes and nod, waiting for my Talent to fade away and take her emotions with it. She can’t know I already despise Tevan or they’ll watch me even closer. How can I not hate him? He’s the reason Cancha couldn’t officially court me, the reason I’ll never be with my true love. Cancha hates the Shalat, hates everything Tevan represents.
Memories of beautiful Cancha carry me through the rest of the dressing. The firelight teasing red hues from his black hair fills my mind as my aunt decorates my hands and moves to my feet. The special smile meant only for me holds me up as the dress envelops my body. The way his eyes burned into mine across the room keeps my head high as thin gold chains are wrapped around my wrists and ankles.
Too soon, the green silk veil is dropped over my head and I’m led to the banquet. My body is tensed to bolt, but knowing I’ll see Cancha tonight allows me grit my teeth and walk into the room.
The dining hall is a feast for the senses, from the brightly colored clothes of the guests and rugs strewn across the floor, to the roasted pork simmering in plum sauce perfuming the air. The gentle murmurings of the crowd is accented by musicians plucking the strings of ulvits and tapping leather lap drums. The thick walls keep out the desert heat.
The elaborate shrine filling the western corner is studied by men in beetle-blue robes. They must belong with the Shalat tribe to wear such inappropriate color. Ignorant barbarians.
Father leads the slow procession to the western side of the room where the official Shalat representatives are waiting. His black silk robes inset with green panels, his face covered with a carved spirit mask; Father looks every inch the warrior king.
The drums beat a flourish as we halt in front of the savages.
Father throws his arms wide. “Honored Shalat tribe. The Ye’Let welcome you to our land, our tribe, and our home. And tomorrow, we welcome you to our family.” Father pauses for the cheers that fill the room, then quiets them with a wave of his hand. “Shalat Tevan will be a cherished son in our household. Tonight we feast, tomorrow we unite our people with our children’s marriage and officially end our blood feud.”
As the people applaud, Father steps aside and places my hand in Tevan’s.
My eyes are downcast like the obedient bride I’m playing in this farce. They can celebrate my upcoming ceremony, but I’m thankful the veil hides my expression from everyone more than a few feet away.
A familiar laugh rises above the noise of the crowd, tugging at my heart. My breath catches in my throat as I search the crowd desperately for my sinchan, my beloved, my soul.
Cancha. I will him to look my way. Why is he talking to my aunt and uncle? Could he be negotiating for me, trying to replace Tevan? Tread carefully, Cancha.
“I feel like the prize bull being presented for the Feast of Rhester.” The rich voice to my side is full of amusement.
Involuntarily, my eyes dart to Tevan. My sister was right: he’s very handsome. The smile is at home on his face, spread wide and warm. The corners of his lips twitch like he’s trying not to laugh. His eyes are crinkled in the corners as he nods to people trying to catch a moment of his attention.
It’s a face a girl could easily love.
I squash the mutinous thought and pull my hand away, dropping my eyes to the floor. My heart belongs to Cancha and no other may claim it.
The wedding party settles on cushions around a low table. Polished tin plates sit in front of everyone—except me. A bride can’t be human and eat, oh no. No hint to the bridegroom she’s an actual person with needs, that would be unseemly.
Platters of roasted pork and duck are set on the table, followed by stacks of flatbread, and bowls of cooked onions and yellow peppers. The delicious scents remind my stomach I haven’t eaten in hours and it lets out an angry grumble. Heat rises to my cheeks and I pray nobody heard.
A gentle nudge pushes a bite of bread wrapped around warm pork into my hand. Tevan doesn’t glance in my direction as he pulls his hand smoothly back into his lap, never breaking conversation with Father sitting on Tevan’s opposite side from me. I use the veil for cover to stuff the morsel into my mouth. Tevan sneaks several more treats to me under the table until I’m comfortably full and refuse the last bit. He turns his head enough to give me a wink, then dives back into the spirited debate.
Father’s fist slams on the table, making the plates jump. “Honor killings are a tradition amongst the tribes. They allow swift justice for wrongdoings with minimal loss. Without them we would fall back into wars over petty misdeeds.”
Tevan takes a sip from his wineglass. “When a person is tasked with their own justice, then justice must change with each individual’s definition. Having a higher authority who oversees disputes ensures a fair and balanced outcome for everyone.”
“Nonsense, the people demand to personally see to justice.”
“Justice or vengeance? Mayhap we need another opinion.” Tevan turns to me. “Ye’Let Di’Ni?”
Gasps sound around the table and father’s Second makes a sound like a tiger being strangled.
“I’m sure Di’Ni doesn’t know or care about such matters.” Father’s fist crushes a piece of flatbread, dough oozing between his fingers.
I keep my hands clenched in my lap, face down. Honor killings is how I got dragged into this whole mess. Some long ago ancestor of Tevan’s stole a goat from some long ago ancestor of mine. Or my ancestor robbed one of their houses. At this point the truth is lost to the winds of time. But a single incident that should’ve been settled and forgotten escalated over and over by honor killings until we sit here today.
Oh yes, I am full of opinions my father doesn’t want to hear. Or Cancha. He supports honor killings and refuses to hear a word against it, even from me.
Tevan clears his throat. “Forgive my ignorance, Verti. In my tribe, all counsel is sought and considered. I see we still have much to learn about each other. Ye’Let Di’Ni, perhaps we could discuss your paintings. I’ve heard they’re quite beautiful and I look forward to seeing them.” Tevan’s tone is sincere.
It can’t hurt to play along, and Tevan seems nice enough. “I would be happy to show you, at your leisure.”
Tevan keeps up the polite chitchat, asking me questions about my interests and childhood. I learn about his love of training horses, and how his younger brother convinced him to play pranks on their tutors.
“Did your brother come with you?” Being surrounded by strangers so far from home would be lonely. It’ll be nice for Tevan to have people he loves here with him while he settles in.
“No.” For the first time in our conversation Tevan looks uncomfortable. “My family felt the journey was too hazardous to come.”
It isn’t hazardo—oh. I snap my mouth shut. This peace hangs on a gossamer thread, the slightest pressure and we’ll be back at war. “Perhaps in the spring.”
Trays of miniature sugared pastries and thumb-sized flavored ices are passed amongst the tables. The servers set out fresh pots of khafta, scenting the air with its earthy, roasted smell. My mouth waters—I love khafta. Too bad Tevan can’t slip me a cup. Cancha hates khafta and teases me for drinking it.
Cancha. I should’ve been watching him. The table where he sat with my aunt and uncle is empty except for my aunt. Where is he?
A throat clearing snaps my attention back to my table.
Tevan is standing, his hand held out to me. “Ye’Let Di’Ni, would you honor me with a walk?”
An offer of respite from the judging eyes. “I would be honored, Shalat Tevan.”
He wraps my hand around his elbow, leaving his hand atop mine as we stroll away from the banquet. My aunt chaperones at a discreet distance, letting us talk in peace.
“I have a confession to make, Ye’Let Di’Ni.”
“A confession already? Usually those are made on the third meeting, not the first.”
I surprise a chuckle out of him.
“Alas, if only it could wait, but time grows short.” He lowers his voice. “Forgive my indelicate words driven by haste. I’ve just learned of a meeting in the garden. People planning our murders to overturn the treaty and send the tribes back to war.”
Fear shoots through me and my blood freezes. “Riha! We must tell my father.”
Tevan’s grip keeps me from running back to the banquet. “These are serious charges; I don’t want to unjustly accuse someone if my information is wrong. I want to observe the meeting, but I don’t want to put you in danger. I’ll go now. If it’s what I think it is, we can go to your father together.”
Can I trust him?
I silently recite the charm: migthel pareln. I flit through Tevan’s emotions. Uneasiness. Fear. An undercurrent of homesickness.
“Take that western corridor, then go into the first room on the south side. There’s a door leading directly into the gardens. I’ll distract our chaperone.”
I drop his arm and stumble back. “Feyna! My ankle. Tevan, get help!”
As my aunt rushes to my side I sense Tevan slip down the corridor.
“Silly mihana, can’t you even be trusted to walk on your own? Let me see.”
My Talent hasn’t receded yet when she touches my leg. Gloating and treachery swirl through the black cloud of hate. Her overwhelming loathing knocks me back a step, momentarily blinding all my senses. “Feyna?” My voice is small, a child’s voice.
A flash of silver; I instinctively duck. I stagger away, clutching my burning arm. Blood trickles between my fingers from the long gash.
My aunt stalks me down the hall, the dripping dagger in her hand. “Stupid, selfish, lazy girl. You’ve made this too easy, sending him away. Now you can finally be of some use to us.”
“Father,” I scream. “Treason!”
I rip the veil off my head and wrap it around my injured arm. Cursing the skirts entangling my legs, I look frantically for something to defend myself, but the hallway is frustratingly bare of decorations.
“Nobody is coming to your aid. They’re all too busy drinking and congratulating themselves.” She’s savoring my terror, trading expediency for dramatics.
When she swings again I’m ready for her. My aunt is many things, but a weapons master is not one of them. My wrapped forearm blocks her clumsy strike; I howl with pain as I shove against her with all my weight.
We tumble to the ground, the knife sliding across the sanded floor. I scramble up, tripping over the long hem to fall on my hands and knees. My aunt tackles me from behind with a roar, her hands wrapping around my throat. I scratch frantically at her fingers, trying to loosen her grip. My vision dims as her hold tightens
“Your sister is next,” she hisses.
No! I throw my head back. There’s a loud crack as it hits her nose, the impact making my eyes water. When her grip slackens, I rip her hands off my neck and lunge for the knife. My fingers scramble in the sand, closing around the hilt.
I turn over just as my aunt throws herself across my body. Her face hovers inches from mine. I watch her eyes widen, then grow cloudy as her heart’s blood pumps over my hand. A gurgle sounds deep in her chest, and then she’s gone.
I shudder and push the dead weight off. I stagger back to the banquet, buzzing filling my ears. The crowd blurs and I shiver.
Strong hands take me by the shoulders and shake me. “Daughter. What happened?”
“Feyna attacked me. Danger. Garden.” The buzzing is louder. “Hurry.”
The noise overtakes me and my knees buckle as my vision goes black.
A cool cloth brushes across my forehead.
“Di’Ni? Can you hear me?” My sister’s face comes into bleary focus. “Are you awake?”
“I can’t believe Father let such an annoying mihana take care of me.” My voice is scratchy.
She hugs me tightly, making me wince when her hand hits my bandaged arm.
“You ran into the banquet soaked in blood! Your dress is ruined. And there was a battle! I can’t believe you killed Feyna. But everyone says it’s okay. Do you think Father would let me stab someone too? And Tevan killed Uncle. Then we—”
A knock on my bedroom door interrupts Sah’Va.
Father’s Second looks suitably embarrassed to see me in bed. “Your father asks that you help him question the accused.”
Put as a polite request for my benefit instead of the order it is. “You’ll have to assist me.”
He half carries me down the halls while Sah’Va twitters like a little bird in the background, trailing behind us to Father’s receiving room.
The place is in an uproar. The accused are standing in the western corner under heavy guard. When I see Cancha and Tevan—hands tied, the incriminating beetle-blue arthi painted on their clothes—my heart leaps into my throat. What happened after I was attacked?
Tevan looks relieved when he spots me crossing the room, concern growing on his face as he observes my heavy reliance on my escort. Cancha gives me the special smile that never fails to make my heart flutter.
“Rhasphat,” Father bellows, banging his staff on the floor.
The crowd grumbles, but gradually falls silent under the king’s stern glare.
He holds the staff out parallel to the ground. “Treason has shadowed our land. We will cut out the rot and raze it into ashes. My judgment will be absolute in this matter. As a courtesy to our new allies, Shalat Tevan will speak first.”
Tevan inclines his head to my father. “Verti.” He faces the crowd. “I went to the garden investigating rumors of a conspiracy. Word reached me there was a secret meeting being held there to finalize plans for an attack on myself and Ye’Let Di’Ni during the ceremony. Instead, I was ambushed. I fought off my attackers until your king generously came to my rescue.”
“Lies!” Cancha elbows Tevan aside. “We were enjoying a quiet conversation when this nerjhi charges in and attacks us. I was lucky to escape with my life, unlike Ye’Let Yetiri.”
The audience’s growls at the reminder of Uncle’s death. Father raps his staff on the floor, silencing them.
He gestures toward me. “Due to the sensitivities in this matter, Ye’Let Di’Ni will assist me in uncovering the truth.”
A realization strikes me like a bolt from the gods. I ignore Father’s speech about my skills at obtaining confessions in a laughable attempt to hide my Talent from the Shalat tribe.
Father has unwittingly given me power over my destiny.
He counts on my obedience and honesty to tell the truth about what my Talent senses. But with a word I could shatter the treaty with the Shalat and sentence Tevan to death, freeing myself from the agreed marriage.
Opening the possibility of marriage to Cancha.
And sending us back to war with the Shalat.
We file into the side room where the accused are strapped into chairs, Cancha and Tevar together at one end.
Under Father’s watchful eye I start with the others. Some faces familiar, but many new. Their guilt is obvious without my Talent, but I go through the motions of asking them questions while I read their feelings. Some confess outright, naming their co-conspirators in a hope for leniency. Others refuse to speak. But in the end they will all be declared guilty, by their word or mine.
Too soon only Tevan and Cancha are left.
“Is your story true?”
I touch Tevan’s hand. Sincerity pours over me. A hint of uneasiness; understandable given the circumstances. The homesickness lingers, but is diminished. The hope is still there.
As I face Cancha I try keep my expression neutral. He’s as handsome as ever, head held high despite the accusations flung at him by his accomplices.
“Is your story true?”
Cancha knows the question is a formality. He shudders at my light touch on his shoulder.
He’s attempting to project innocence, but the truth is there for me to see. Guilt, black as midnight. A sliver of sorrow. Confidence.
Cancha thinks I’ll lie and spare him a traitor’s death. Tevan hopes I’ll be truthful and verify his innocence.
Beloved, treacherous Cancha. Kind, honest Tevan.
Their fates are in my hands.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY THE AUTHOR. DO NOT USE OR REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION.
Amanda Kaye loves plotting new ways to torture her characters and throw them into danger. Nothing makes her happier than reading an amazing book with an awesome character arc; her favorite authors include Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley, Debbie Macomber, Lisa Kleypas, and Patricia Briggs. She can always find an excise to buy sparkly nail polishes and chocolate chip cupcakes. Amanda lives in sunny California with a crotchety old dragon masquerading as her cat. Her stories remind you that there’s always a silver lining no matter how dark the night.