I have a fairly lengthy ending commentary this week, so I'll keep the intro brief.
If you're back to read this week's excerpt, jump to the title image and read on.
If you're just discovering The Shell and the Star for the first time, you can click the link below to catch up on the entire story posted to date:
And we're off...
Tardem hefted the Barclay spear in one de-finned hand and began to circle Trey. He made a tentative thrust, but Trey dodged it easily.
Jinn’s heart skipped. Did he have a chance to survive? Trey’s skill and power in the water gave him an unexpected, if slight, advantage, just as it had helped him win a Boggy Ball game against five much larger opponents a few days ago.
But as the two men sparred on—thrust and counter, lunge and evade—she knew his strength and quickness couldn’t last. He would tire. Then one error, one reaction that was just an eye blink too slow, and it would be over.
Tardem grew more determined with every miss. His fitness as a future leader was at stake if he could not best an unarmed foe. Trey darted ahead of his brother’s frantic spear thrusts, but his opponent’s strategy soon became clear. If he couldn’t hit Trey center mass, he would lance an arm or leg with enough force to incapacitate him. Then he could be declared victor and Trey’s bleeding body cast out the gates of Fourth City to let the monsters of the sea finish him. Tardem must have convinced himself he’d carry less guilt for his brother’s fate if he didn’t inflict the fatal blow.
Tardem has much to learn about guilt, Jinn thought sadly.
The two brothers engaged in an endless deadly dance, eyes keen but both showing signs of fatigue. Tardem gripped the spear tighter and Jinn hugged herself.
Then Trey faced Tardem and went still in the water. His head sagged in defeat, his arms and legs stilled and he bowed his head.
Tardem gripped his spear, closed his eyes and put all his force behind a charge at Trey. The spear tip glinted in the sunlight as it sliced through the water toward its target, and Jinn’s heart stopped beating.
In the last millisecond, Trey arced his body into a C and the tip of Tardem’s spear jetted past him and embedded deep into the podium of the Prime Elder, who back-finned in alarm.
Tardem tugged at the spear, kicking and thrashing, but couldn’t pull the barbed tip free when it had penetrated so deeply from the force of his lunge. Trey circled him, waiting, watching. Tardem finally was forced to release the spear and surface for air.
Trey made no grab for the weapon. He followed his brother to the surface.
The two men remained above longer than was needed to refill their lungs. The Elders and the spectators began exchanging glances. Trey’s father went still, his eyes fixed on the surface where his two sons remained.
Jinn stared, too. Were they talking? Arguing? Threatening?
Tardem returned to his spear, bracing both footfins against the podium and heaving. Still, the spear didn’t budge. He glanced at Trey, glanced at the surface. And tried again with the same result.
How long would the Elders allow Tardem to struggle with his spear? What would happen if they called the Challenge a draw? Would it end the duel, or would the two simply be forced to begin their battle all over again?
Tardem gripped his spear and his gaze returned to the surface. Doubt colored every feature of his face. Then, suddenly, his eyes widened and he locked gazes with Trey.
The water above exploded in a violent froth. Jinn’s bubble sank into their midst and the Perling scattered in panic.
Not her bubble.
This one was occupied.
By her father!
Twenty-two more envirospheres crashed into the sea around him, each filled with a member of the Talstar militia. The sum balance of bubbles that Talstar possessed had just invaded the sacred Conclave of the Elders! The shadow of hovering trade transports blocked the sunlight, their outlines clear on the floor and walls of the Conclave.
“Commander Arc Amalla!” the Imperator sputtered. “You dare invade Fourth City?”
Story Commentary: Upping the Stakes
While I was writing The Shell and the Star, there was a challenge prompt put forth in a writers' support group I was involved with:
"How many characters will you kill off today?"
Hmm, I thought, The Shell and the Star isn't a body count kind of story. It's a light SFR that's serenely romance-focused. I realized I had some subconscious doubts about the impact of this tale, because the one thing I strive for in my work is to make readers think...about actions, consequences, decisions that are neither good nor evil but lie somewhere in the gray area where humanity seems to center itself.
This story is about two very different civilizations attempting to strengthen their interdependent bonds via the potential marriage of two individuals. But...
No wait! It was more.
There are some pretty dire consequences at play in what I had been thinking of as a "sweet and fluffy" SFR. The disaster potential was real.
After some thought, I responded to the prompt:
"Two opponents facing death via hand-to-hand combat. Underwater. With the survival of two civilizations hanging in the balance."
That’s when I realized I was completely underselling this story in my head. And in doing so, I might also be completely under-writing it.
My mission, and I did decide to accept it, was to pen a romance that could be many things -- serene, romantic, eye-opening, heartbreaking, defiant, soul-rending, suspenseful, but ultimately, world-changing.
I’ll be posting the conclusion of The Shell and the Star over the next two Mondays. I hope you enjoy the grand finale of this aquatic SFR adventure.
Have a great week.