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Hiding in Plain Sight · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 500–900
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When John opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was a crossbow aimed directly between them. The tongue-lashing he'd been about to unleash tangled incoherently in his throat, and even the stinging pain of the slap he'd awoken to vanished in the face of his sudden fear.

"I have a bone to pick with you," said the man holding the crossbow. Though the lamp's placement off to the side meant it didn't illuminate him so much as simply line the edges of his shadowed features with a hint of light, that was enough to suggest he was wearing the liveried gambeson of the king's guard itself. John's throat tightened even further at the realization, and he had to force down a shuddering swallow before he could manage to push any speech through it.

"W-What... would that be?" he asked. As his words reached his ears, the part of his mind that remembered his training – such as it was – realized the guard's statement might be a code phrase, and he quickly added "I mean to say, what quarrel could you possibly have with me?"

A guffaw across the room caused John's eyes to snap reflexively to Carl's bunk before he could stop them. "Are you daft, John? If somebody's wanting a quarrel, you've got the most of any—"

"Be silent," commanded the guard. Once Carl complied, he continued "The crossbow you 'fixed' for me has broken again. You will repair it, and properly this time, before my shift this morning begins."

John's eyes widened, and he took a closer look at the crossbow. The ring that formed the sight did indeed appear to be subtly out of place, so unless there was a truly startling coincidence in force, it seemed that the duke's plans were progressing far faster than he'd been told to prepare for.

He also noticed that the crossbow wasn't actually loaded, though it had nevertheless achieved its aim. There was no way he'd be anything less than alert for the rest of the morning.

"I see," he said as he swung his legs off his bunk. "I'll do what I can."

Though it was hard to judge the guard's face with so much of it hidden in shadow, he appeared to be somewhat displeased by that response. But he stepped over to the lamp and picked it up with his free hand, then waited for John by the door.

As John walked outside, rubbing his cheek, Carl called after him "That serves you right for not doing your job well the first time!"

Once they'd reached the privacy of John's shop, he finally felt safe to put voice to his thoughts. "So, why did it get broken so early?" he asked as he lit his own lamp. "I wasn't expecting any need to fix it again for some time yet."

The guard took just a bit longer to respond than he should have. "I couldn't say. I simply noticed that it had broken last night, and needed to be fixed before I used it again."

That didn't answer John's question, but the fact that even the duke's most prized agent apparently couldn't think up a safe proper answer on the spot did make him feel better about his lacklustre performance earlier. As he pulled out the tools he anticipated he'd be needing, he ventured "But why last night? I'd expect you to notice any damage when you were using it, but the command you gave me made it sound like you're a day guard."

"I was busy yesterday," the guard said as he held out the crossbow for John. "I suppose last night was simply the first opportunity I had."

"I see," said John as he carefully took the crossbow. Under the light of two and closer lamps, it was apparent that the color of the sight was slightly wrong, and a careful yank confirmed his suspicions once and for all. Though its bezel was mostly obscured by the remains of a gluing agent, the metal that fell free into his palm was unquestionably the signet ring of the king himself. "Well, I'll have it fixed as fast as I can, but I haven't got everything I need prepared yet, so it may not be before your shift begins. You might have to borrow a standard crossbow for the day."

The guard scowled. "I suppose I can make do should an alarm be called today, but I need it by departure tomorrow. I'll be accompanying the delegation, and I don't wish to roam the lawless highways with anything less than my fullest draw."

John looked up from his work. "Are you expecting any trouble?"

The guard barked out a quick laugh. "Of course I am, and you should be too. Not doing so is the easiest way to get yourself killed."

"I'll take your advice, but I don't see any reason why the situation should appear anything less than perfect."

"It had better," muttered the guard. "If my crossbow isn't perfect by the time I leave, your head's going to roll."

"No joke," John mouthed to himself soundlessly, and set back to properly disguising the ring with a will.
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#1 · 2
· · >>MSPiper
Good Stuff: This one is very similar to It's Always the Mirrors for me, so a lot of my critique is the same: there's mystery, there's good character interplay, there's this sense of a bigger world and interesting stuff going on elsewhere. For some reason, I like Carl's interjections, such as his waiting for the confrontation in the first scene to finish before shouting. Made them feel like real people with real histories together. I also loved the sensationalist opening and the threat throughout.

Bad Stuff: Unfortunately, the problems are the same too: I never got a full appreciation of what was going on, other than the guard wanted his bow fixed. Why was there a ring in it? Why can't we see this major delegation ourselves? Apart from the crossbow aiming at his face, nothing else exciting happens, which was disappointing. I guess I missed one or two details, but it didn't stick the landing for me.

Verdict: Needs Work. The character interaction and worldbuilding show promise, but ultimately I just want to know what's going on, and I kind of want to see the exciting stuff that's implied rather than hear about it second-hand. I think there needs to be some more development in the actual narrative structure to make this work, otherwise it's interesting scenes left in a vacuum.
#2 · 1
· · >>MSPiper
I've been silent up to now with the stories I've been reading, but this smells of mystery in a way that has my interest. Given the prompt, the (undoubtedly intentional) off nature of the story title, and the events within, I'm sure there's something going down here. My first assumption is that the guard did something 'untoward' with his crossbow last night. The fact that he had to pause to answer John's questions tells me he hadn't expected any to pierce through his strong man stance and was in need of an alibi, if a flimsy one.

And this thing with the ring. What does it mean, "disguising" the ring? Why would you need to disguise a signet? What is this guard really doing, and how much of it is John in on? Because he must be in on something. You don't disguise a signet's presence without damn good reason.

I don't think anything in this story is coincidence. I wouldn't be surprised if even the characters' names were carefully chosen. But it's still too vague to get a full grasp on, so as much as I love the sense of mystery that hit me with this one, I'm afraid it's seeming unsolvability is a bit of a detriment.

Of course, I could be looking too deep into the situation.
#3 ·
· · >>HiTime >>MSPiper
Well, the opening line is like a promise you never keep. We think a lot of cool things are going to happen, but then, no. Finally, all of this is about a broken crossbow, we get some namedropping about “a royal signet ring” but we never get to know what it is or why it is so significant, there’s an allusion to a mission, but then again, it stops short.

More or less, we’re left with two fairly run-of-the-mill characters who populate a piece which never really sets to explore the pathways it outlines.
#4 ·
· · >>MSPiper
Was this meant to be "Bulls-eye"? If not, whatever it was going for has gone over my head. Wiktionary defines "seye" as an obsolete form of "say", and I can't imagine what "Bull-say" could mean in the context of this story.

The opening starts off with a lot of tension--the main character is staring down the barrel of a gu--err, crossbow. But from there, it goes onto conversation, a bit of light-heartedness, and then some more conversation. So I agree with Mono's sentiment that "the opening line is like a promise you never keep"--with a story this short, the opening sets the tone for the rest of the story, and the tones here and later are quite different.

Near the end of the story, it's revealed that the crossbow's sight is actually the ring of a king, but without any build up to this reveal, it comes off less as a dramatic reveal and more like new information in an introduction. It raises questions in the second act--Was the main character the one who put it there? If so, what is his goal? With the story ending immediately after, this makes the story feel incomplete--instead of tying up loose ends, it introduces some. I want to say that someone else put it there after stealing it and he's picking it up, with the guard as an unknowing middleman, but then he puts the ring back in the crossbow, which seems to shoot down that theory.

I feel like I'm missing some important clues. (I also have no idea what "will" means at the very end.)

11th hour edit: Addendum to previous theory; the ring thief is the duke that the guard is setting out with, and the guard is in on it. (Thanks to Paracompact's review for some information I'd missed before.) In light of that, I like this story more now, but I stand by what I said before about tension and tone.
#5 ·
· · >>Monokeras >>MSPiper
My review:

Style, Form, and Grammar: The main issue I had first going into this fic was the fact that the title is misspelled. That's, like, a cardinal sin. Just to give the benefit of the doubt, I checked multiple dictionaries to verify that "bull's-eye" and "bullseye" are the only acceptable spellings, I checked Google ngrams to make sure it wasn't a historical spelling or anything, and I even checked Wiktionary in the off-chance that "seye" was Latin for "shit" or something to give a pun via "bullshit" (which would've been an amazing play on words, given the guard's actions in the story), but no. Just a garden-variety typo.

The writing within the story itself was functional, if choppy at points. Common are sentences like "The tongue-lashing he'd been about to unleash tangled incoherently in his throat, and even the stinging pain of the slap he'd awoken to vanished in the face of his sudden fear" that verge on purple and an overuse of colorful adjectives and adverbs. Constructions like "force down a shuddering swallow" are awkward, and even if you insist on doubling down with both "force" and "shudder," I at least recommend writing it like "force down a swallow with a shudder."

Plot and Pacing: Of all the cryptic entries we've had this round, yours wins perhaps second prize (after The Altar) for having an interesting resolution. Although, I really would include just a little bit more of a hint at the end; my best guess, and one that I'm fairly confident with, is that the king's guard stole the king's signet ring, and intends to have the crafter John disguise it (but doesn't tell John; but the smart cookie figures it out anyway) as the sight on his crossbow. He also appears to be fleeing the domain in two days, hence his insistence that it be fixed by then. I like the simple ingenuity.

The only thing that seemed off about the events, is how very inquisitive John is, before he has any reason to be suspicious. It smells distinctly of a plot-induced sixth sense.

Characters and Dialogue: I think you did a good job developing the guard's personality. John's personality was serviceable, too, but could benefit from more. If I were to rewrite the story, I would choose a circumstance for the first part which allows that to shine through better; as it stands, with a 400+ word budget, a lot more could be done to serve the same function.

Final: Overall, this fic will go in the middle of my ballot.
#6 ·
· · >>Paracompact >>MSPiper
Cacare is the Latin for "shit" (Italian cagare, Spanish/Occitan cagar, French chier with a change of vowel (one would expect *cheer) probably influenced by Old German *schiten > Eng. shit, German scheißen, Swedish skit).
#7 ·
· · >>Monokeras >>MSPiper
That's an alarmingly comprehensive etymology for that particular piece of profanity... At any rate, I stand more convinced than ever that there is no magic in the title.
#8 ·
· · >>MSPiper
The profanity aspect came later in English. In Old English, scittan was perfectly neutral.
#9 · 3
· · >>Miller Minus
>>HiTime >>PaulAsaran >>Monokeras >>Filler >>Paracompact
Sorry for the somewhat late reply, everyone. Given the delay, I'll try to keep this response at least sort of brief.

First and foremost, the version of the story posted here ended up suffering from a very important omission – specifically, the last line ought to say "disguising the stolen ring". That "stolen" wouldn't fix everything, but it'd at least get rid of some of the accidentally-way-too-excessive vagueness, and in theory make it possible for the reader to actually interpret the doublespeak conversations properly. (If nothing else, I am tempted to take all the confusion as something of a half-win, since if the readers couldn't figure things out any eavesdroppers would presumably have an even harder time of things.)

>>PaulAsaran >>Filler >>Paracompact >>Monokeras >>Paracompact >>Monokeras
As for the title, that can pretty much be chalked up to the fact that it was literally a last-minute thing, since I totally forgot I was going to need one until I copied the story over for final proofing and submission. With about 55 seconds left I remembered the things the pope uses their signet ring to seal are called papal bulls, so I submitted the first play on that I came up with and then did the fastest search I could to see if there were any problems with it. Turns out that's a yes – the relevant part from which the edicts take that name, the seal itself, is actually called a bulla – but at that point I only had 11 seconds left, so I couldn't think of anything better to edit the title to before time ran out. (Incidentally, the reason the word "stolen" ended up omitted is that I thought of the title in the middle of reverting from trying out "pilfered", and in my haste to submit and double-check the title I neglected to actually restore the deleted "stolen".)

Also, is it possible to use proper formatting (italics/bold/size/color/smallcaps) in titles? I would've preferred to set off the "bull" with pretty much anything subtler than a dash, but I really did not want to risk it with virtually no time left.

>>Monokeras >>Filler
Do you think this is a case where a weaker hook would have made the story better? The usual advice is of course to make the hook as strong as possible, but obviously it's not good to set the reader up with an impression that's doomed to crash and burn.

(I also have no idea what "will" means at the very end.)

Think "he set to it with a will".
#10 ·
Hey there, sorry this story didn't do so well, I thought it was very clever and deserved more.

With regards to your question of having a weaker hook, it isn't so much that your hook needs to be weaker, just different. The story itself is filled with what a lot of people call "intrigue", which is kind of the opposite of action in a way. That is to say, the reader isn't interested in what's exploding in the scene, but more in what the characters are saying, and what they're hiding from each other. If I could think of a contemporary example of Intrigue I would point to the new Westworld TV adaptation, or at least the first season, where the action takes a backseat to the interactions between the characters.

Westworld doesn't start with a character with a gun in their face, although that does happen sometimes. The intro is subdued, creepy, and intriguing. Which is what the rest of the show is, even if there are a few action scenes here and there.

But enough about that. The point is that if you want your story to be intriguing, then the hook should be intriguing too. The hook sets the tone of the story, which doesn't have to be weaker than an action story's hook, but it should be different if no more action is coming.

Hell, you can even start this story in the same scene, but point the reader away from the danger, and more at the fact that John has noticed the ring, and thought he was seeing it too early. Point out that he isn't too worried about the crossbow, but more about what it implies.

Hope that all makes sense. Thanks again for submitting your story!