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More than Meets the Eye · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
A Story of Water and Blood
Teague Curran leaned on the plaza’s railing, the cold wind managing to find its ways into his tightly wrapped cloaks as he watched the sun dip below the seemingly endless ocean. Back when they were children, he and his brother would lean out over this very railing and imagine they could actually see the fishers working hundreds of feet below on Tuan’s lowest tiers. They would picture them fighting to pull up the giant eels that nested below the city, even as the waves crashed against the shaped walls and showered them with icy cold spray.

As he stared at the horizon, his thoughts sank lower still, diving past the fishers, dipping beneath the waves, and plunging hundreds and hundreds of feet further down and miles out to Akrai, the benthic capital of the undine.

“Thought you might be here,” his younger brother said as he clapped him on the back, joining him at the railing. Despite everything, Uilliam was still smiling. “You okay, Teague?”

“I’m fine,” Teague grunted. “Just thinking.”

“About what?”

“You.”

Uilliam sighed, his smile fading as he bent over to rest his arms and chin on the clammy stone. “You shouldn’t. There’s nothing to be done for it. Queen Aiden needs a new resident diplomat for Akrai and it’s our family’s turn to provide.” He shifted again, pushing himself upright and turning away from the view. “Better the fish than the owls or slime, right?” He forced himself to laugh. “Though I suppose that isn’t a very diplomatic thing for me to say, is it?”

“Tact was never really your strong suite,” Teague agreed.

“I guess I’ll have to work on it.”

To be selected as a resident diplomat for one of the other human kingdoms was merely an exceptional inconvenience, a packing up of one’s life and moving it to a new city. But to be one for the non-humans…

Most of them lived places humans could not, so it was up to the fleshshapers to work their magic and render the new resident into the right form for the job. A change from which very few returned. Just like how stone would crumble to dust if shaped too much, so too would flesh fail. From human to other was barely manageable. To try and take that same flesh back the other way…

No, for Uilliam to become a resident for the undine would mean spending the rest of his life that way. Away from his home. Away from his family. Away from his dreams.

The wind whipped around them, the stiff gust managing to rustle the gnarled branches of the erl bushes that clung to the cliff face.

“No use worrying about it. What else is a third child good for anyway?” Shivering, Uilliam rubbed his arms with a renewed vigor. “It’s colder than usual today. Come on. We should head back up to the manor before I freeze.”

Teague pulled off his thick-furred outer cloak and offered it over. No matter how old they got, some things never changed. “You shouldn’t have left without putting something warmer on.”

“I wouldn’t have had to if you weren’t out here brooding all on your lonesome so close to supper,” he said, throwing the cloak over his shoulders. “You’re the heir. You should be setting a good example, telling me to do it for the good of our family name and for our kingdom. Not moping. At least that’s what Father would say.”

A small smile finally managed to break through Teague’s dour expression as he grabbed his little brother’s shoulder and pulled him in for a short embrace. ”You’re right.” It was true: sulking wasn’t going to do anything for his brother. “Let’s get back. I’m sure Ena’s already boiling some grep for us to warm up with.”




Uilliam’s hands shook a little as he looked at the letter, glancing from it to their father to Teague and then back again. “This is a joke, right? Me? A resident diplomat? To the fish?”

“It’s an honor for our family to have the opportunity to serve the queen in such a degree,” Father said, voice firm. It was a tone they hadn’t heard much since they were children, the voice of a father promising no chance of compromise.

“That’s well and good for the family, Father, but I have a life here. On land. The stoneshapers say that my work is some of the finest—”

The words died in his throat as their father’s hand slapped the stone hall of the manor, the sound ringing in the empty dining room. “That is enough, Uilliam. Who else shall we send? Teague is my heir. Neasa is one of the queen’s own fleshshapers. You are the only choice.” The tears building in the corners of Uilliam’s eyes must have been as obvious to their father as they were to Teague, since his voice softened as he continued, “You are young, and I hear Akrai is a most fantastical place. You will adapt.”

Teague said nothing, just watching the little tremors of his younger brother’s hands – hands calloused and scarred from years of tireless work with the stoneshapers to master their art; work that would all mean nothing if he were changed – as they struggled not to tear the hated parchment.





Taking a seat near the fire with Father, Teague held his clay mug of steaming grep tightly in both hands, letting the warmth fill them. Dinner had come and gone. Neasa had been unable to attend, and Uilliam had retreated to his rooms immediately after. Which left just him and Father sitting in silence. Silence he couldn’t allow to continue.

“Uilliam’s skills will go to waste,” he said.

Father sighed, taking a long drag from his own mug before he answered. “And now I must go through this with you, Teague?”

“Yes, you must,” he near growled, the attitude grating on him, “This whole process is… ridiculous! Archaic! An antiquated bit of nonsense that started as nothing more than a hostage exchange! Queen Aiden has people who have spent their entire lives preparing to lives for this. Uilliam has spent his mastering stoneshaping!”

Leaning back in his chair, Father shook his head. “And you must understand that, archaic or not, this ritual helps us maintain the peace. A member from one of the noble houses to live among them – and the same back from them – to show our continued dedication.”

“It’s a gesture.”

“It’s a symbol, and there is power in symbols.”

It was Teague’s turn to shake his head. “And so you will offer Uilliam up as a sacrifice for a symbol.”

“For Tuan? For House Curran? Gladly, yes.”

Teague dug his fingers into the chair’s softer coverings. How could Father be so callous? “Uilliam is meant to be a stoneshaper. He has the talent. He is as gifted in the crafts as Neasa is. The change would rob him of that. Undine have no ability for it.”

Father clutched the bridge of his nose. “Yes, I am well aware.”

Teague forced himself to stop and take a drink, letting the soothing heat of the grep burn away the edges of his frustration before he continued. Thoughtless anger would not win over Father. “And you know he has started courtship with the daughter of the Sheehy?”

Father actually laughed. “Do you really think I am so ignorant of your lives?

“Then why are you so callous about this!” Teague snapped, his mug clattering to the ground as he threw himself to his feet. Effectiveness be damned. “He is meant for better things and you are asking him to throw his entire life away for the sake of your pride.”

The backhanded slap caught him completely off-guard, his ears ringing as he caught himself on the mantle to regain his balance.

“Watch your mouth,” Father growled. “Pride has nothing to do with this. This is a matter of our house’s duty to the throne.”

Teague rubbed at his stinging cheek. Father hadn’t struck him in years.

“You are a good brother,” Father said, placing a hand on his shoulder and squeezing tightly, “but as my heir, you must be more than that. You must be able to guide the family down the right path, no matter how hard that might be.”

He could taste blood in his mouth. He nodded. “Of course, Father.”

“Good.” The hand on his shoulder tightened as Father smiled and continued, “Then let that be the last word on this subject.”

“Yes, Father.”




Teague’s footsteps echoed along the main hall of the resident tier as he ran his fingers along the stoneshaped mural. Uilliam had brought him here a few years ago, dragging him along as he recited back every fact he’d learned about it. How it had been crafted near two-hundred years ago by the right-hand of the king’s own stoneshaper. How each panel showed the establishment of peace between Tuan and another kingdom. How the names of the residents were woven into the work. How he would someday create something that would be just as magnificent.

And, as Teague’s fingers traced it now, he thought about how his brother never would if he joined the undine.

Beyond the mural and dug deep into the mountainside lay the resident embassies. Here the air was much warmer than on the outer edges of the tiers, the heat born from the compost heaps below and the small fires within the embassies themselves. He actually had to loosen his outermost cloak to keep from sweating.

The occasional guard bowed their head as he passed, the golden disc that held his cloak in place – emblazoned with his house’s crest – enough to grant him unquestioned passage on this tier.

His destination, located just beyond the mural, was the embassy of Akrai’s undine. He’d sent a runner ahead to let them know of his arrival.

In his time, he had seen only a few renditions of the undine, and they all depicted the whole of the race as beautiful, effeminate creatures. So it was that seeing the mountain of a man sitting behind the desk, his face a near impenetrable wall of hair, caught Teague by surprise.

“Not what you were expecting?” Demi said with a laugh.

“No,” Teague admitted. “Not in the least. I hope you’ll forgive me my rudeness.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he said, waving the concern away. “It’s a surprisingly common occurrence. They expect to be greeted by something that looks like an undine, and instead they get a human. So what brings you to my offices, Lord Curran?”

“Teague, please.” Demi had be correct of course: he had come in expecting to see someone who looked like an undine, not someone who put him in mind of his own grandfather. “I’d rather dispense with the formality. I’m not here on official business.”

“Then it’ll be Demi for me. So what brings you calling if not business?”

No sense in dancing about it. People talked, and the news would probably have already made it this far. “I just wanted to talk to you about your experience as a resident.”

“Oh?” Demi’s lips pursed as he leaned forward, studying Teague. Then he snapped his fingers. “Ah! It’s your family that will be offering up the replacement for for Ardal?”

“Yes,” Teague said, concentrating on keeping his voice level. “My brother has been put forward as the one who do it.”

“I see.” Demi settled back into his seat and fell silent for a long moment. “Well, so far as things have been, I can’t much complain. Your people are kind. Your city is beautiful – if far, far too cold. Being human has been one novelty after another. And what we do as diplomats has meaning.”

The trail off was obvious. “But?”

“It is not without its challenges.”

Teague softened his voice. “Please, be honest with me. I just want to understand what my brother will be going through.” After a moment, he added, “I promise I will keep this conversation in confidence, no matter what you might have to say.”

Demi leaned forward and grabbed a pitcher of water. “A drink? Sorry, I would offer grep, but even as a human I still can’t stomach the stuff. Even the smell is enough to put me off myself.”

“No, thank you.”

The only sound for a moment was that of the water filling his mug. “I can’t deny that there aren’t days where I regret being chosen for this. All of us were raised for it – my sisters and I – but there is only so much that can be done to prepare you for it.”

Teague frowned, letting Demi continue of his own accord.

“It is like being born anew, really. The old you dies and what remains...” he waved a hand in the air as he trailed off, then sighed. “Words fail me. Perhaps one of these days someone with a better gift for such things will write a treatise on the matter. But that is the best I can manage. The you who lived dies, and a new you takes their place. For some the change is not so hard. For others?”

Teague matched Demi’s level gaze. The rest of the words really didn’t need to be spoken. “Well, my brother is strong. It’s necessary to be a shaper. Even more so for stoneshapers.”

Demi relaxed and finally drank from the water he’d poured. “To bend stone with his will alone? I would imagine.” The smile returned too. “And being an undine is not so bad. I would certainly not mind doing it again.”

Teague laughed because it was a joke. And wished he’d never come down to talk to Demi.




Teague’s face remained impassive as his sister slammed her mug on the table. The other patrons glanced their way as he gently pressed his hand over the mug. Neasa’s temper could be as mercurial as Father’s. “Calm down.”

She glared at him, pulling her mug back and taking another drink. “You are being a fool. I am not going to help you get an audience with the queen so you can bother her with this. What do you even think that’s going to achieve?”

“I don’t know,” Teague admitted. “But what else am I supposed to do?”

“Nothing.” She returned the mug to the table with exaggerated care. “I feel bad for Uilliam too, but there’s really no other choice. His bad luck to be born third.”

And there she cut to the heart of the matter. He gripped his mug even tighter, the drink long since gone cold. “What sort of brother would I be to let this fall on him for something as pointless as that? Fall on either of you? Either of you would be better suited to head the house.”

She shrugged. “You won’t hear me disagreeing, layabout. So it goes, though.”

“Neasa,” he said, his voice barely audible over the ambient noise. “Please. You have prepared residents. You know what it does to some. How badly it goes. You’ve told me about the ones who’ve begged to be given the chance to go back.”

Shaking her head, she lifted her mug to take another drink. Just like she always did when she didn't have a good answer. Find something that let her avoid talking so the point vanished.

Well, all Teague had was his words. So he’d use them. “Would you be able to do it? Give up everything you’d worked for? Surrender your gift?”

The mug stopped. “Teague…”

“Would you, Neasa?”

She set it back on the table. “You are worse than Mother ever was, you know that? Fine. I will see if she’s willing to entertain an audience with you. But I’m not promising anything. Just don’t make me regret this. And don’t let Father find out. He’ll skin me if he finds out I’m doing this for you.”

“I won’t.”




Queen Aiden’s audience chamber was far colder than Tague had expected. Part of him wished he’d worn something warmer than his formal suit with its thin, delicate cut. Yet seated on her throne, wearing little more than he was, Queen Aiden seemed perfectly at home. He bowed low. “Queen Aiden.”

“Young Lord Curran.” Her voice echoed in the hall, stronger than that of any performer he’d ever seen act on a stage. She was a born speaker. “You may stand.”

He held the bow a moment longer before he rose. His throat felt tight. Neasa had been right: this was a mistake. He had no new arguments. No real alternative. But he couldn’t abandon Uilliam without trying something. “Thank you for granting me a portion of your time.”

“It is always a pleasure to speak with the scions of my most noble houses.” She smiled. “Members of my own court has said the events you put together are among the most enjoyable they have ever had opportunity to attend. You have a knack for it, they say.”

“Thank you.” He wanted to just get to it, but he knew to let the conversation move at her pace. As her guest, he would not broach his reason for coming until she asked for it. “I do my best.”

“As we all should.” Her fingers tapped on the broad arms of her throne. “It must be difficult for you, having two siblings so talented to compete with. Your sister is an unquestioned genius, and I have heard great things about your brother. The potential to be the next Declan, I’m told.”

“Ah,” he hesitated, the conversation suddenly slipping away from him. “Yes. Uilliam is—”

“Soon to be given to the undine,” she interrupted.

Teague stiffened as he stared at her. Her placid expression hadn’t changed, nor had her pleasant tone, but those words might as well have been a club. “Um. Yes.

“True talent traded away for what I’m sure shall be a pretty face and prettier fins. A shame, but a small price to pay for peace and prosperity we enjoy. An age where we humans have unprecedented access to peoples we once struggled so hard to understand.” Her eyes focused on him. “Don’t you agree?”

Teague swallowed. “It is an unquestionably important job.”

“Tactful.” She made a lazy gesture in the air. “Ardal – the earth welcome him – was my uncle. Did you know that?”

It took Teague a moment to place the name as the one Demi had mentioned. Presumably the last resident to the undine. He did not like the direction of this conversation though. Apparently he would not have to ask the question to get an answer. Had Neasa told her everything? Or was it just that obvious? “No.”

“He was a rather talented musician. No genius, of course, but skilled. I must imagine it wounded him greatly to give up the oriel. I heard that among the undine he became a wonderful singer though. They mourned for him as one of their own.”

“Queen Aiden…”

She blinked and looked at him as if she were just realizing for the first time that he was in the room with her. “My apologies, young Lord Curran. I have been using our precious time to ramble at you. You had a… well, your sister was quite unclear about what it was you had for me. A question, perhaps? A request?”

He swallowed. Whatever game she was playing with him, he couldn’t guess. But he couldn’t back down now. “Yes. The post of resident diplomat is a vital one. I understand that. But I wonder why it must be us who fill this role. There are many others who would beg this honor of you. Many who might be… better suited for the role.”

“Because, young Lord Curran, if we are to stand at the top of this nation and guide it, we must be willing to make sacrifices for it. It is a simple gesture to give them those from our highest houses, but it is one that they understand. We exchange our best so that they might share what they learn and we each might learn. But I suspect that is not what you truly wanted to ask me, is it?”

And with that he was trapped. He could feel her eyes pinning him in place. He could lie, of course and say that it was. It would be embarrassing, but it probably would go unspoken outside this room. “No, Queen Aiden.”

“Then ask.”

“Do not make Uilliam do this,” Teague said, bowing his head. “I beg of you.”

She shook her head. “I cannot interfere in the affairs of your house, young Lord Curran. Who your father puts forward is his choice. Besides, who shall he choose instead? Would you tell me your sister is better suited for it?”

Tague grit his teeth.

“And I cannot well excuse your house when the others have given what I have asked, can I?”

“No,” Teague agreed, “you cannot.”

“Then you must see that what you are asking of me is impossible.”

“Of course,” he said, biting back the frustration. Snapping at Father was one thing. Queen Aiden would be another entirely. “I am sorry to have been troubled you with this matter.”

Rising from her throne, she began to descend the stairs, taking each with care. She continued on like he hadn’t even spoken, “Now, if a member of your house were to ask me to take them as the resident diplomat, I believe I would be in position to do so, regardless of the Lord Curran’s opinion of the matter.”

By the time the words registered with him, she was already beside him. He started to open his mouth, but she raised a hand to silence him.

“I feel someone like you would do well among the undine. They appreciate kindness. Even if the possessor is a bit slow.” There was the briefest flash of a mischievous smile, before it transformed back into the stony countenance of a patient queen. “Now then, there are other meetings I must attend.”

“Ah… yes, of course.” Teague bowed low once more. He couldn’t have heard her right, but there was really no other way to take that. “Thank you… thank you for your time.”




Teague stood at the plaza’s railing, staring out towards a sea and sky that he hardly noticed, so deep in the sea were his thoughts. He had run the conversation over and over in his mind, but there was no denying the simple reality of it.

If he were to volunteer, she would take him, regardless of Father’s protests.

Of course she would. Compared to keeping two master shapers, what sort of contest was that? Hadn’t that been half his justification for sparing Uilliam? But it hardly felt like an answer laid out so directly.

“Again, Teague?” Uilliam asked. “How am I supposed to have the chance to get all broken up while I reminisce if you keep taking the spot for it?”

“Funny.”

“I saw this was still hanging,” Uilliam said, offering out his cloak. “Thought you might want it.”

“Thanks.” Teague took it and threw over his own shoulders. Ignoring the cold could only go so far.

Uilliam leaned on the railing beside him. “Do you remember the first time I tried shaping?”

“And near destroyed the entire railing?”

He chuckled. “Yeah. That one. And you tried to tell Father that it had just broken?”

Teague smiled, despite the sting associated with that particular memory. “It was the last time I tried lying to him.”

“I don’t think I ever thanked you for that.” There was a slightly pause. “For trying, I mean.”

Wrapping his arm around Uilliam’s shoulders, Teague pulled him close. “It doesn’t matter. I’m supposed to watch out for the family. Right?”

“I don’t think that is what Father means.”

“Probably not,” Teague admitted. As they stared out over the water, he could feel his brother starting to shake. And he felt ashamed of himself. Slow indeed. The only answer really had been staring him in the face the whole time, and he’d managed to expertly avoid thinking about it.

He didn’t have a lot to offer the house. Not in the same way siblings did. All he had was the luck of being born first.

“I can’t do it,” Uilliam finally whispered, voice hitching. “I can’t. I just… I...”

Teague pulled him closer. “You won’t have to.”
« Prev   2   Next »
#1 ·
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Very nice:

The only suggestion I can make would be to strengthen the reasons why Teague can't go. Maybe open the story during one of the parties he's put together. Introduce us to him at a moment of triumph and have people remark on how much they're looking forward to the things he'll do with House Curran once he takes over. He can tell them that he doesn't really understand how to administer an estate and they can tell him he can hire people for that, but make us see that he has a future he's kind of looking for forward to. Then the letter arrives, and everything changes.

Mike
#2 ·
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This story is quite solid. I can't say I got very emotionally invested in it, unfortunately, but from a technical standpoint it's hard to find a lot of issues. It just never grabbed me or shocked me in any way. It was a pleasant ride, with some excellent world-building.

I can't help thinking that everything that comes after this story is going to be much more interesting than what I just read. For the most part the story acts as if what is going to happen is a foregone conclusion; but then the Queen suggests that somebody can take Uilliam's place, and the actual conclusion becomes a foregone conclusion. But Teague shoving a finger in his dad's face, taking the plunge into a strange and foreign world, and all of the dominoes that would fall from his actions? I want to read that, man.

I'm glad I read this, because I've seen a lot of minifics that have attempted to do epic fantasy, and my response has always been, Why is nobody doing this in the short story rounds?! And there you have it; the author has time to build the world, and to carry a conflict that's completely predicated on that world they just built.

Good writing and thanks for luck!

P.S., before I go, I was not into the name Uilliam. Teague is great. I have no idea how to pronounce Uilliam.
#3 ·
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The resolution is clear as day from the onset, but that did nothing to take away from enjoying the journey towards it. I think the most striking thing is how clear yet low-key the fantasy world building is. There are clues about the world everywhere, but nobody ever reads like their expositing for the sake of the reader, even when the conversation is explicitly the "what's your home like" sort. I think that level of prose control is rare and under appreciated in basically any medium, so congratulations on every front.

P.S. - I read Uilliam as "Oo-illiam," though it does seem unnecessarily complicated of a name. I'm guessing there's some history with the name or the letters I don't know, though. Single-u instead of double-u because he's a bit one-track, maybe? Wakarimasen.
#4 ·
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Nice world building and a notable narrative style that gives a sense of a slice of life in extraordinary circumstances. While a long piece would have given us a better sense of the society you describe as a whole, for the restricted time and word length you worked with, I feel like I got the essentials. I sense, like many good short story intros to a fantasy realm, that there is so much more to talk about. Like my own story in this round, this feels like chapter 1 of a very much longer story. And that points to what's missing. I don't have enough of an understanding or of the characters' misunderstanding of what the life underwater would be like and why to fear it. Yes, there would be the loss
family and cultural ties and loss a lost of a special talent that doesn't translate to underwater, but these losses aren't vicerial enough (for me). I just can't fear anyone's future because I can't understand what they'll become. T's interview first with the ambassador should have probed more into their life, what he gave up. Second, the queen may have been able to give that incisive bit of the new life. Additionally, I did not really get that the characters were members of a noble and societally obligated family until late enough that I had to stop and re-evaluate feelings my and conclusions when I realized this.

That's this reader's take on the words you wrote. Please take this and accept or discard anything I've stated.
#5 ·
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This was fine. It was fine. Fine, fine, fine. That's just kind of how I walked away from it feeling. I was not amazingly blown away,.. and this review is starting to sound rather familiar.

Ultimately I definitely find myself in a very similar spot as when I read Antoine's Armory here. This is fine. It trades being a bit more in my wheelhouse for struggling a bit more to be as clean. The double opening is a really weird choice and honestly kind of a bad one. Both the first scene and the second scene more or less serve the same purpose, so there's not really much reason to have both. There's even less reason to have one be a random italicized flashback that makes the timeline of the following scene more confusing.

The ending also doesn't end up working out too well for me either. You are more or less done with the conflict in the queen scene, so it'd probably be better to focus on making the last scene a quick denouement with the two brothers having a moment centered around Teague doing this for Uilliam rather than fake dangling the result that everyone knows is going to be the case.

Sorry I don't have a lot to say on this one either.
#6 ·
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Sorry for not getting to a review during the round here -- this (and my own fake review) were on my plate yesterday except for the whole SAR thing. :(

Congrats on the medal! In terms of my own reaction ... my main takeaway was that I really didn't feel any tension to the story. The instant that Uilliam not wanting to become ambassador because of his work was mentioned, I thought "well, the rest of the story is going to be about Teague discovering a reason to go in his place," and of course that's exactly what happened. The fact that Teague was so obviously unhappy with his own situation as heir kept any sense of tension deflated: there's an obviously optimal solution here, which makes everyone except Dad happier, and of course they're going to stumble into it after a bunch of angst which tries to obscure how optimal it is.

You might want to consider making a much bigger deal of Teague's sense of duty, to the point where it's not actually his idea to go. That way there's actually a sacrifice involved in his choice, and you're making a statement and closing a powerful character arc with his decision to break his dad's heart for the sake of his brother. Or have the queen impose a condition on her approval, rather than all but pushing him into it. Or have talking to the queen become the story's central struggle, with her approval the payoff, and the challenge is navigating the rigid social structure which you're paying lip service to as the putative problem. The point is, I think the reason this feels flat right now is that there's nothing at stake.

The rest lines up here, I think. Good job with it.