This is another Flash Fiction Challenge from Chuck Wendig. Feel free to tell me what I did wrong, where it falls flat, where it rings false. And maybe even where I got it right?

Crow looked down the bar to see Melly and her beautiful brown eyes staring at him with a smile that promised a night full of wonderful, scandalous things. It was a promise she had kept many times. But a night like that might fill him with wild and futile hopes. And tonight he couldn’t afford such a thing. He smiled back at Melly with promises of his own. Tonight he’d learn what it felt like to break his word.

Two worn leather boots stepped onto the bar, blocking his view of Melly. Crow smiled as his eyes traveled up from the boots, over mud-spattered trousers, a faded t-shirt with flecks of paint, a two-days unshaven smirk, and finally the mischievous wink of his oldest friend.

“All the luck in the world this one!” Gordy exclaimed to the bar. The little bar’s rafters seemed to shake with the cheers that erupted around them.

Gordy’s grin was wide, but there was sadness in his eyes. Crow hadn’t all the luck. Not really. Just a box full.

“How many times I told ya to get off my bar, Gordy!” Clark shouted, snatching up a broom to knock Gordy off the well-polished bar top. He had managed to keep the bar looking flawless despite Gordy’s taking every chance to dance upon it.

Gordy allowed himself to be pushed over with the broom, landing on his feet beside Crow. He picked up Crow’s ignored beer from the bar and took a swig before shoving the drink into Crow’s hand. Beside them, Clark set a beer down in front of Garret, Gordy’s older and much larger brother, and Gordy snatched it for himself. Garret raised a fist, but glanced at Crow, and took a deep, anger-settling breath. The luck hadn’t left Crow yet. That wouldn’t happen till the morning.

Clark, who seemed somehow to keep an eye on everything, had already poured Garret another drink and all was forgiven. Crow always wondered how such a decent guy ended up the barkeep to a town full of thieves.

“Lucky Crow!” Gordy shouted, throwing his arm around Crow’s shoulders and raising his drink.

The one-room bar resounded with shouts of “Lucky Crow!” and bird calls. His friends and neighbors filled the room, making it hot and stuffy and hard to move, but no one complained. Tonight they would party like it was their last.

His name wasn’t Lucky. It wasn’t Crow, either. One he was given, and the other he took, but both suited him well enough that he kept them.

One corner of the room burst into song, followed shortly by a group near the center bursting into a song they thought was better. The bar’s little tables had all been pushed up against the walls to create more standing room. This was definitely the most crowded and boisterous seeing off that Crow had attended, and he’d been to a few. They were there to say goodbye to him, while it was really his luck that was leaving.

Gordy jostled him in his one-armed hug and kissed his cheek. “At least you never owed a debt,” Gordy said into his ear to be heard above the ruckus. Crow had to smile at that. It was true, little thing that it was now. He had never payed the heavy price to the debtor. And he never would.

Tonight was eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow he would die. His luck was bound to run out some day. Especially the way he’d come by it.

His luck streak came after a bad start. Ten years was how long you got to become a productive member of society; either through family or function. Orphans who didn’t find their place in World Two were drowned. But Crow had always had a fear of the water; only ever took showers or shallow baths. No. Giver Lake was not for him. Three days before that fateful tenth birthday, he jumped onto a supply train. It was a better end. Fugitives were shot.

But this was where Crow had found his luck. Once on the train, he climbed into a large wooden chest that seemed as though it had been made to hide someone just his size. Scared stiff, he stayed still for what must have been hours- even after his muscles began to ache from being scrunched so tight- expecting every moment to be caught. When he finally found a modicum of courage, he jumped off the train and landed in Nine-World. It was years later that he learned he’d climbed into a luck box, inadvertently stealing away the luck inside from whoever had shipped it on that train. All considered, he didn’t mind that he would be dying now. Everyone died sooner or later. And he was already seventeen years overdue. Still lucky, in a way.

Crow had seen friends off on their last nights, and it always ended the same. Reminiscing, then regrets, and one last drink and one last drink till the mood was somber and bitter and hard. At the end he would see them safely home; bringing the luck that would chase off harm for their last walk through their darkest night. The way those men sobbed as they parted ways, Crow promised to secret away to his grave. A surety now. But in this moment, spirits were high, and that’s how Lucky Crow would be remembered. So he walked out of the cheer and into the cold alone. If he sobbed in the end, no one would be witness to it.

He looked once more at the little bar, every window showing a VIGNETTE of joy and humor and life. The longer he stood there, the farther away he felt. He saw a shadow leaning against the door frame. Probably a reveler who wanted to catch a bit of air after being in amongst the cloistering celebration. Somehow, though the party was meant to celebrate his life, it only reminded Crow of how close he was to being dead. He was lucky to have only been caught rather than killed on the spot like his COHORTS. Had he been anyone other than “Lucky” Crow, his loving friends might have turned on him, suspecting sabotage rather than the unlikeliest of luck.

Crow turned away from the merriment and started up the hill to the little house he’d been lucky enough to buy several times below market value from an estate sale. All descendants of the house’s last inhabitant had died, and so it had been up to the state to sell the house. Crow had happened upon the broker handling the sale before he could even put out the for-sale sign. And of course, it was conveniently located near the bar and the grocer, the fletcher where he worked, and all his closest friends, including Gordy.

He bent his head down low against the wind trying to push him back to the warmth and laughter and kind words. But none of that could save him, so he pushed on. Even now, in the unlit night, his boots avoided the deeper puddles and found purchase on rain-slick stone. As he pulled his coat in tighter around himself, he remembered the snowy night he had lost his jacket. He and Gordy had searched the entire coffee house, disbelieving till the very end that it was gone. He had been close to tears, feeling lost at having so suddenly been abandoned by his luck. But as he had stepped shivering and dejected from the coffee house, a woman carrying a box took one look at him and stopped. She set down her box of donations for the thrift shop a few doors down and fished out a fur-lined coat- much warmer and finer than the thin windbreaker he’d been looking for. Her husband had died and she had an entire box of clothes that were just his size. Who would the coat go to when he was dead?

“Hey!” he heard someone hail behind him. He didn’t stop. Well-meaning though they may be, Crow just wanted to be alone. His last moments would be very public, and he wanted to take the little time he had left for himself.

Executions were gruesome displays, warning others against attempting the same. Those protecting their land had the right to defend it. The man who had shot his friends down would see no justice for it. But Crow, who had killed no one, had twisted his ankle as he ran and stumbled out of range of the gunfire. He was found moments later, since they had been running through open space and he had the luck of having fallen behind the only stray delivery bin in the area. The man could have shot him then and there, and almost did, but changed his mind at the last second and lowered his gun.

Again his luck would have it that Garret had been called out of his usual jurisdiction to answer the call. Garret couldn’t let him go, not without forfeiting his own life, but he could put him in a holding cell separate from the more depraved criminals and give him a decent meal. The next morning, a mix-up had him in the court room being sentenced ahead of at least a hundred others, skipping what looked to be a three-day wait. There was only one punishment for stealing. Especially with the amount of goods Crow had been caught with. His generosity was one of the reasons his neighbors appreciated him. He was only thankful Gordy had fallen ill and hadn’t been with him; wasn’t dead now.

Crow finally relented as he heard hurried steps gaining on him. Closing the distance uphill against this wind took some determination. And Crow had never been mean or ill-spirited. He couldn’t turn his back on someone so eager to catch up to him. He waited until the neighbor was almost upon him.

He turned, surprised to see a stranger’s face. And not a kind one. Crow smiled at the cruel humor of it. He was just Crow now.

“They really call you Lucky?” the stranger asked, panting slightly from the effort of catching up. A threat was weaved into the words. There would be a reckoning if he didn’t like the answer. Crow suspected this man didn’t enjoy the answers to most of his questions.

“Sure,” Crow answered, looking over the stranger with a suspicious eye. He had a wide jaw and heavy brow, and eyes and mouth that looked like they’d forgotten how to do anything but scowl. His skin was rough- though from weather or drugs, Crow couldn’t tell.

“Heh,” the stranger laughed with a nasty gleam in his eye. “Well, you’ve been pardoned. Lucky.”

One side of the stranger’s mouth was pulled into a wicked smile. Crow imagined that’s all the joy his face could manage. A meaty fist held a scroll out to Crow. It was a hand that was used to cause pain and hull dead weight, and hadn’t the skill for penning fancy letters. An odd choice for a messenger. Or perhaps all death pardons came straight from the assigned executioner. A brush with death making the pardon more poignant.

Crow reached out hesitantly, half-expecting the stranger to lop off his hand. And when he looked down at the scroll, Crow wished that this had been the stranger’s purpose.

Though he had never seen such a thing before, the scroll was unmistakable. It was crisp, white paper kept rolled with silver wax which had been stamped with a roaring lion seal.

So much for not owing any debts.

Clean.

Not an easy thing in a place so filthy.

The sink was covered in grime and rust-colored stains. Some of which she had just added herself.

She inspected her hands once again. The rims of her fingernails white, her skin slightly reddened from the hot water. She bared her teeth at the small, clean spot of the mirror. Her teeth were not as white as she would like, but neither were they tar-brown. Which was nothing short of a small miracle, really.

She took a step back to capture more of her image in the tiny circle of mirror. She took the brush from her pack and smoothed back her still-wet hair, twisting it into a bun at the back of her head. She rather would have it down, hide her too-large ears, but she didn’t have the hair-taming tools. In a few days. When she was home. For now, clean, brushed hair would suffice.

She once again rummaged through her dusty pack and produced a plastic bag filled with clean clothes. Not “road clean,” with frayed edges, material rough with wear, and permanent little grease spots. But actual clean, with soft cloth, colors bright, the flowery scent of detergent wafted from the plastic bag as she removed them.

She looked down at her naked body. Every inch of it freshly scrubbed. She stood on newspaper to shield herself from the grim and who knkow what els on the bathroom floor. Her feet, always bundled in thick socks and boots, were the only part of her that hadn’t been covered in a cast of gray.

She had shaved everything below her neckline and she was ultra-aware of the soft cloth brushing against her smooth, freshly exposed skin. It was hard for her to imagine that in less than an hour from now she wouldn’t notice it anymore.

She placed her feet gingerly into new shoes, low slingback sandals that showed off her freshly painted purple toes. She squatted down to fasten them, remembering to keep her knees together. All the little ladylike details she had abandoned would be second nature again in a day or two.

She took another step back, off of the newspaper now. Black lines around her eyes, rouge on her cheeks and lips, a blouse, jeans, and a thin sweater.

The image in the clean patch of mirror looked like someone she had known a long time ago, but was a stranger now. She couldn’t imagine that woman giving her a second glance. Yet that woman stared back at her from the mirror. She used the plastic bag that had held her clothes to pick up the filthy pack and toss it into the trash bin. Then she used the bag again to turn the door knob, tossing the bag aside as she stepped out of the rest stop bathroom.

There was nothing outside but a few parked cars, vending machines, and the lingering smell of truck exhaust ever-present at roadside stops. The mother and father who had cast a wary eye and made sure their kids weren’t too near her as she walked into the bathroom barely gave her a second glance as their little girl zoomed across her path.

Perception was a funny thing. It often gave the wrong impression. She was far more dangerous in her current state.

A shiny, black economy car- fuel efficient- pulled up across two parking spaces, and the passenger window slid down.

“Hey, pretty lady! Need a ride?” the driver called out. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, had neatly combed medium-length dark hair, and black sunglasses above an engaging smile.

“Perfect timing,” she said, smiling back as she opened the door. She hated waiting. More so in heels. She breathed in deeply as she settled in her seat, enjoying the new car scent. It was artificial in the car that was a few years old, but it was still nice. She looked at the battered station wagon, covered in colorful stickers and mud, that she had arrived in. She wondered how long it would take for the car to be reported as abandoned.

“I missed you,” Collin said, smiling though his eyes didn’t leave the road.

She laughed. “With no one but Jenna and Frank to talk to, I bet you did.”

She closed her eyes, enjoying the sun streaming through the windows and slowly warming the car.

Shades of Earth (Across the Universe, #3)Shades of Earth by Beth Revis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I should preface this review by saying that I’m not a fan of the romance genre. I roll my eyes at the scandalous embraces and rippling torsos on the covers. I laugh at the ridiculous titles. No, seriously. Out loud. I think they’re hilarious. Half this series focused on a romance. …And I liked it. I feel like this has been some kind of guilty pleasure that I’ve had to justify to myself with the sciencey bits. And without the sciencey bits, I probably would have hated it. I certainly wouldn’t have read the whole trilogy. But the sciencey bits were good. And the romancey bits were good. And mashed together it was a good series.

Shades of Earth, the third book in the Across the Universe trilogy, takes up precisely where it left off. Amy and Elder are sitting in the cockpit, about to embark on their one way mission to Centauri-Earth. And everything immediately starts going wrong. Which I appreciated very much.

I find myself comparing Shades to Allegiant, the third book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. Except everywhere that Roth went wrong, Revis went right. Both books switch perspectives every chapter back and forth between the in-love couple. But where in Allegiant, I kept having to check back to remember who’s perspective I was reading, I had no trouble telling an Amy chapter from an Elder chapter. All of the logic was sound, the characters stayed true to themselves, and the plot twists and foreshadowing were on point. Completely unlike Allegiant, where the “twists” felt like they were made up on the spot and the character’s choices became completely illogical. The books even have events that can be paralleled near the endings. But instead of the moment feeling unjustifiable, and the end of the book feeling empty, Shades makes total sense and has you feeling all the feels at the end. When I put down Allegiant, I felt hollow, listless, dissatisfied and utterly disappointed. At the end of Shades, I let out satiated sigh and found myself smiling. …And the sciencey bits of Shades are rooted in science. Allegiant, not as much.

Like I said, I’m not big on the romance genre. And I have an extremely low tolerance for saccharine sap. (Slow clap scenes make me angry, and scenes with singing make me slightly homicidal.) But there was so much more going on than Amy and Elder’s relationship. …And there were deaths. One of them gruesome and bloody and horrifying. Which is always a big plus in my opinion. Amy and Elder could never be alone for five minutes without someone getting maimed or dying tragically or violently. …Oh! That’s why I liked this series! 😛

Considering that, as I’ve already mentioned, this book is half romance, Beth Revis retains her crown and title as queen of creating sexual tension. It wasn’t quite as intense as the second installment of the series, A Million Suns, where the characters literally don’t touch for half the book, but it was definitely there. Usually the reason for the characters not getting together was their lives being in danger as they snuck around to not make out and gather clues instead. I always appreciate a book where the characters can set aside their hormones when they’re in mortal peril. (Hunger Games, I’m lookin’ at you!)

I’ve read a few other reviews that say the ending is good except the cheesy last chapter, but since it involved my favorite character, I was completely fine with it. Quite happy with it actually.

So, start to finish, this book- and this entire trilogy- was full of suspense and really good. I’m eager to see what Revis comes up with next.

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Emperor of Thorns (The Broken Empire, #3)Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The third and final book in the Broken Empire series has the perfect end. A bitter-sweet ending actually. Which is the way I like books to end. I also needed a day to reflect and recover, which is also something I like in a book.

Oh, and before we go any further, it should be said that this series has been the most unapologetically violent series I’ve come across. Or at least it’s the most violence done for character development and story line, not cheap shock factor. Shocking it may have been in many cases, but never unfounded.

So, first and foremost, I love that Jorg, the main character, stays rock steady throughout the series. He doesn’t suddenly start doing good things just to be a redeemable character by the end. In fact, any time he does do something good, he rejects it and makes up a dishonorable motive. Jorg does his damnedest, in fact, to keep his status intact as an anti-hero. Heavy on the anti. Yet as contemptible as Jorg ensured himself to be, I ended up adoring him quite against my better judgement. But I guess that puts me in league with every other character in the book. Every time one of his allies stand with him, I wondered what they saw in him that would make them fight so hard. I figured out it’s the little moments, the times between him nuking kingdoms and slaughtering princes, that make him likable.

As for the story itself, though it jumped back and forth in time as it did in the second book, this time it didn’t confuse me. I have to commend Mark Lawrence on keeping it straight, though. There were times during the “Five Years Earlier” parts when I’d go “Oh yeah, that hasn’t happened yet,” since the “current” story line of the second book takes place after the “past” story line in this one. Like I said, commendable, since I barely made my way through that sentence.

I also loved the way magic was real and science was viewed as mystical. I had to giggle every time they would make mention of electricity or the like, since it was spoken of as “Builder magic,” a mysterious thing that was beyond reason. Though I do have to wonder why the Builders froze that poor “Custodian.” My guess is he was the lab rat. The first to get thrown into stasis.

One of the major mysteries in Emperor is the identity of the Dead King, which I figured out a little before half-way through the book, but I think I was supposed to. I mean, I think the clue I figured it out with was pretty glaring, but I’ll have to wait till my friends finish the series before I can compare notes.

I’m a little sad that there will be no more adventures with Jorg in the Broken Empire, though Lawrence gives sound reasoning for it in his note at the end. At least I’ll be able to get more stories set in the same universe with his upcoming book Prince of Fools. And if I’m lucky, I’ll get an ARC to read!

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this is the result of a weekly writing challenge doled out by Chuck Wendig. hopefully, you enjoy.

Being a time traveling homicide detective may seem like a breeze. Even a joke. Just travel to the moments before the crime, arrest the murderer, and be back in time for dinner. As with most things in life, the simple and obvious answer isn’t as easy as it looks.

There is a whole host of logical, ethical, and complexly scientific reasons why a chrono-cide detective can’t prevent a crime from happening. I’ll spare you the self-righteous, text-book litany and explain it in the terms used in the field: it fucks shit up.

As a chrono-cide detective, I spend a lot of time meticulously strategizing how not to fuck shit up since it’s quite easy to do and punishable by some of the more unpleasant forms of death.

A lot of times, we can tell from investigating the scene of the crime which way the perpetrator left the building and apprehend them as they’re leaving the scene of the crime. But sometimes things are a bit more difficult. It’s a terrible thing to say, that you’re eager for a murder, but I look forward to the crimes that involve an investigation. I’m a detective dammit. I like to detect.

Even though everybody knows about time travel and chrono-cide detectives, they still tend to freak out when you disappear or materialize right in front of them, so it’s standard practice to find somewhere private- or at least sparsely populated- to make a jump. Though none of the people in the internet access station looked familiar, I got a few glances of recognition and nobody stopped me as I walked toward the employee bathroom. This is something you get used to when you time travel. People you haven’t met yet knowing you.

Once shut into the little two-stall bathroom, I pulled back my long, over-sized tailored cuff and adjusted the setting on the square touchscreen of my chrono-jogger, a device strapped to my wrist that was, for all the world, an extra-fancy watch.

A moment later I looked around me, and had I not felt the odd edges of time sickness- blunted by my daily equilibrium serum injection- I would have thought nothing happened. I walked out of the bathroom and found myself intruding upon a whispered conversation between two employees of the internet station. I smiled amiably and walked toward the front counter, hearing one of the clerks mumble “What the fuck?” in my wake.

Here’s where my job gets tricky. As I said, for multiple reasons, I can’t just go prevent the crime from happening. By the same token, I can’t say anything that will allow someone else to figure out what’s going to happen, or they will try to prevent the crime from happening. Either way, it’ll be seen as my fault that the crime didn’t take place, so it’ll be my head on the proverbial chopping block. (I say “proverbial” because in reality, it’s more of an apparatus, and more than your head gets chopped.)

“Who do I see about getting security footage?” I flashed my badge at the woman manning the counter.

She looked from the back of the store to me, confused by how I had gotten past her, until she looked at my badge and puzzled out what had happened.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“Who do I see about getting security footage?” I repeated.

I used to hate having to repeat myself. It was a pet peeve. But since then I’ve worked a couple of cases that felt like that awful Groundhog Day movie. Repeating myself is no longer a problem.

“Why did you join chrono-cide?” the man in charge of security asked me once we were settled in his office as he retrieved my request.

I smirked. It’s a common question. Your moral fiber is tested thoroughly and regularly as a precaution, which people take to mean you’re a crime-hating saint with nothing to hide. Mostly it means you have a hero complex and are so narcissistic you share all your pitfalls because you don’t recognize them as flaws. Or you’re shameless enough not to care what people think. When asked about their career choice, most detectives give some spiel about making a difference or some such nonsense, but I always tell the truth. Because people don’t like it.

“I thought it would be easy,” I shrugged. “Little effort, big paycheck, never late for appointments.”

And there was the scowl. I love the scowl. The look that says that I haven’t met up with expectations in their limited world view, and they find me unpleasant. It’s always fleeting, because the person is trying to be polite, and scowling at someone isn’t polite, but it’s there. And I made it happen. And it makes them feel uncomfortable. And it makes me laugh.

“So it really is easy,” he said- they always say- with a smug, I’m-better-than-you-because-I-work-harder-than-you smile on his face.

“No,” I confess. “Chrono-cide is physically and mentally strenuous eighteen-hour days. As you can imagine, I was thoroughly disappointed.”

The smugness is gone, replaced with respect tinged with bitterness- at having been wrong- and shame- at having felt so smug. Results may vary, some people have no respect, but this guy was typical.

Respectful or not, the guy found the footage I was looking for and gave it to me.

“What are you looking for on there?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” I smiled, only half joking. I was looking for the alleged murderers alibi. I don’t understand why criminals even bother taking security tapes anymore, when everyone knows a time jumper can take it and return it before they get a chance to think about it.

“At some point in the future I’ll be back to use your restroom,” I said to the receptionist as I walked out of the building to find a place to make the jump. Jumpers try not to use the same place two jumps in a row. Something about the fabric of the universe and time continuum. I don’t do it because the time sickness is incredible. I was out for two days after the last time, and I fear to think what would have happened if I hadn’t taken my serum.

“Um… alright,” she said, looking confused.

I walked around the building to the parking lot, waited for a lady to finish putting make-up on in her car, changing from sneakers to stilettos and clomping away, before jumping futureward beside my desk. It is generally frowned upon to jump to places you go to often since you might- literally- stumble into yourself and create a wormhole, and my supervisor lambastes me often for this. But i’m incurably lazy, the wormhole thing is just a theory, and even negative attention is attention.

A perfect jump, I materialized with my chair right behind me and plopped down into it.

“You’re lucky Captain didn’t see that,” said Ray, my supposed partner. I had always thought the word “partner” implied some kind of symbiotic relationship until working with Ray, who thinks it means being constantly absent whiled doing things vaguely related to solving the crime and yet somehow knowing everything before me.

“I’m not scared of Captain Captain,” I bragged. I swear to god that’s his name. Captain Marshall, Captain of the Chrono-Cide Force.

“But you should be worried,” I continued. “Since you haven’t done any actual work on this case thus far.”

“And it looks like I won’t have to,” he sat on the edge of my desk, looking unabashedly smug.

As usual, he knew something I didn’t, and he was about to enjoy the hell out of my annoyance as he told me what it was.

“And why is that?” I indulged him.

“The murderer confessed this morning,” he grinned.

“When did this happen?”

“While you were gone. You should put your jumps closer together.”

“If you actually did any work, you’d know that I’m keeping my jumps within regulation,” I snarked, tossing the now pointless data drive from the internet station onto my desk. “So Johnny Coleman just walked in and confessed the whole thing?”

“Not Johnny Coleman.”

“What? That’s impossible.”

“Then I guess we’d better go sort out the anomaly in our holding cell.”

“No, this is the missing data drive that shows Johnny Coleman is a liar,” I said, holding up the drive.

“Or it’s the drive that shows he’s telling the truth.”

“Who the fuck do we have in the holding cell, then?”

“Donald Cartwright the third.”

“The mayor’s son?” I gawked.

“The very one.”

Something didn’t feel right about this. Obviously it seemed unlikely that the mayor’s son would be guilty of chopping off a man’s head before setting him on fire- and even less likely that he’d confess to such a thing- but there was more to this.

“No, something isn’t right.”

“I knew you’d say that.”

“So did I,” said Captain Captain.

I spun my chair to face him as he stood behind me.

“Captain, I don’t know what’s going on, but I call bullshit on this.”

“I don’t like it either, but the case is open and shut and that’s all there is to it. Drop it, Amy.”

I winced at the use of my first name. It meant he didn’t want to hear any argument from me. I glared at him as he turned and walked back into his office.

“You’re not going to drop this are you?” Ray smiled.

“I sure as fuck ain’t.”

“I’m coming with you,” he said, hopping off his desk.

We jumped. We did something you’re never supposed to do. We went to the scene of the crime.

Cora stared steadily at her opponent. He was panting, hunched over in an attempt to protect himself from the next blow. Seeing this huge beast of a man cower before her was satisfying. He was winded, almost trembling, and she wasn’t even breathing heavy. She tried in vain to keep the smile off her face. He was hopeless and they both knew it. It was cruel for her to prolong the moment, but she couldn’t restrain herself. It had only taken her a minute to reduce this soldier to a coward on the defense. Invincible elite, indeed.

She moved in closer, unsheathing her sword. Anyone else would keep their distance, not take a chance, finish him with a bullet. But this wasn’t about safety. This was about power. And she wanted everyone to know that she had destroyed this man.

She took the final blow, a slash to the throat. She blinked, shocked as her sword clanged against the soldiers steel arm guard and she felt a pain in her stomach. She met the soldiers eyes, which were steady and calm. She stood there, unmoving, unable to believe what had just happened. He had blocked her death blow and stabbed her with a concealed dagger. His defensive position had been a feint.

She felt the sharp pain as he removed the dagger and pushed forward, knocking her on her back. He followed her to the ground and she felt the blade cut through her throat. She struggled to take a breath, knowing her windpipe was severed and useless, but unable to fight her body’s natural impulse. She could tell by the way that her vision shifted that her body must have been convulsing, struggling to take in breath, but she was too distracted by the spots forming in her vision to feel it.

Her eyes roved over the light and shadows on the cement bricks. She had chosen this secluded underground hallway for the advantage it would give her. She had chosen this space because no one would discover the body of this guard until it was much too late.

She could barely see, everything was going dim and blurry. She didn’t see him. He had probably already left to raise the alarm. Fast and efficient, there was no reason to waste time watching her inevitable death.

And then black.

Bitterblue (Graceling Realm, #3)Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

i really liked the Graceling Realm series and was quite satisfied with its conclusion. i loved the characters and getting to see everyone from Graceling and Fire from a new perspective. Bitterblue is a good read if you can get over one flaw: the beginning. (obviously, I did, but still.)

it started very slowly with Bitterblue constantly doing nothing but signing paperwork all the time. and you have to wonder how it is that a girl of 18, who was very precocious at 10, never got curious enough in EIGHT YEARS to explore her own castle, let alone her kingdom. i’m an adult and i get curious after eight MINUTES. every time Bitterblue’s age, the amount of years passed, or how Bitterblue spent her time was mentioned, I again expected to get some kind of explanation as to what would make her so patient. I just don’t find it true to the character, as smart and strong as she is, to have been so meek for so long. especially someone who is apparently adept at knowing how how to make her advisers flustered enough to leave her be. it’s unbelievable that she never went exploring- again, in her own castle- during these respites. i think she easily could have been as ignorant and naive as was necessary for the story and still have snuck around the grounds now and again. with such overprotective advisers, it would even have made sense if she had avoided people so no one could tell on her. and it would be fitting that someone used to sneaking around her own castle for so long would finally get emboldened to venture outside her walls and be confident she could manage moving around undetected. but if you can get over that, it ends up being a fun story.

it was strange seeing characters from a different perspective. after having read from the perspective of Katsa in the first book, it’s very odd to see her from an outside view, where it wasn’t that odd to see Fire at all. i could almost fill in some of Katsa’s thoughts and feelings during her time in the tunnels, which was actually good because i wasn’t left wishing I could see that part of the story.

i feel rather bad for Po, though, during these stories. he always seems to spend the majority of the time miserable and/or bedridden. and i also feel bad for Teddy in this book. he’s pretty much everyone’s tool. he chats up a pretty girl in a pub against the wishes of his best friend, only to have said friend and the pretty girl fall in love. he gets stabbed and then gets his house partially burned down from his forgiveness and continued involvement with the pretty girl. he’s going to be the surrogate father of his lesbian sister’s baby (remember when Bitterblue wonders if he and Bren are sweet on each other, then Po later tells her about their plan?). and in the end, he gets to work two jobs because it’s out of character for him to turn down the Queen (the pretty girl) when she asks him to be head of one of her ministries.

also, i felt satisfyingly horrified whenever Leck was mentioned. i liked that he was still a frightening character a decade after his death. and i liked the big reveal about Bitterblue’s advisers. when you think they just had to do the patch up work after Leck had his fun, you already can understand why they’re so damaged. but when you find out that Leck made them do the horrible things- *winces* *shivers*- it was a surprising confession. it was weird to feel so much revulsion and pity at once.

of late, i’ve rather taken to happy endings. not sappy ones, but i kind of like when the hero/ine gets the girl/guy. though i suppose i would be complaining about a sappy, saccharine ending now if Bitterblue had ended up with Saf. and after all, it’s implied that she ends up with him down the road, anyway. so i guess that’s ok.

the force

so this has been bugging me for a while…

at the end of the Star Wars trilogy, we know that Luke has brought balance to the force. …except he hasn’t.

there are Jedi (the good guys) and there are Sith (the bad guys). the presence of both with about equal power means that there is a balance. but at the end, all of the super-powerful Sith have been defeated and only super-powerful Jedi remain.

while no one’s really complaining cuz the Jedi are all for justice and peace, that isn’t a balance. just sayin’.

also, can you imagine being a retired Jedi? that must suck.

It was an uncustomarily cool day for the end of June. I had invited the whole family over for a pre-4th-of-July party, since I planned to be alone on my boat during the holiday.

Family has always been important to me, and I didn’t want to let a holiday go by without having a gathering.

This gathering was a bit tense, since its guests included my two-week-sober (again) brother. We’d had words at the last gathering. Mine were especially cruel, his especially slurred.

He either had been just sober enough to remember the exchange, or had been filled in on the details, because he had been avoiding me all day.

“…so I’m planning to stay with Jared for the next couple weeks,” my brother was saying as I sat beside him and our uncle.

“You need a place to stay?” I asked him, slouched down in my folding chair, hands in the pockets of my shorts.

“Yeah, I kinda didn’t keep up on the rent too well at my place,” he said, running a hand through his hair nervously. His hair was clean and at an odd length that spoke of how disgusting it must have been two weeks prior.

“Well, you can stay at my place,” I said, “I need a house sitter.”

“Yeah?” said my brother, surprised and delighted.

“Of course!” I said, “Here’s my keys.”

I took my keys out of my pocket and handed them to him.

“All I’ll be needing is this one!” I smiled as I dangled the key to my boat up in front of me.

“Great,” he said smiling at me.

“Well,” I said, looking around at my family members. They had all been surreptitiously observing the exchange between my brother and I. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

I got up and headed for the door.

“You’re insane,” my mother said.

“That’s why I’m staying on a boat,” I said over my shoulder, “I’ll be sane when I come back.”

I walked to the docks instead of driving. I had intentionally left my car key on the ring with my house keys. I wanted to be completely disconnected from the place for the next three weeks.

I boarded my boat and drove away from the docks to the place I had marked out the day before. The place that was a mile out from my house on the shore.

I checked over my equipment. If I was going to have to go back for something, I wanted it to be today. I needed to be gone for the full three weeks starting tonight.

Everything was in order. I had never been one to skimp on details.

Over the past few weeks I had bought tons of books and brought them all onto my boat. I now had a small library to last me the next three weeks. I set the timer to rouse me from my literary bliss tomorrow and dove into my first book; a who-dunnit mystery. I did nothing but doze and read until I heard my alarm go off. I ate a quick meal of beans and ready-made toast and started my trip closer to shore.

I left the key to my boat in the ignition and, in t-shirt and shorts, jumped into the water and began my brisk swim to shore. No matter how much I tried to prepare myself for the plunge, the icy water was always a shock. In my anticipation, the cold faded quickly and the few minutes I knew had passed seemed only moments long. I was playing the fast approaching moment again and again in my mind; feeling the weight in my pocket.

As I walked out of the water and into the warm summer air, a preemptive shiver ran through me, knowing I would be returning to the water all too soon. But the excitement kept me from dwelling on the coming swim. When the time came for my next dip, I would probably have enough adrenaline coursing through me to warm me through the winter.

I stopped at a bush a few feet away from the gravel walk where I’d hidden a six pack of beer and a bag of weed yesterday. The beer was warm, but it wouldn’t matter.

It felt strange as I knocked on my own door. My brother opened it after about a minute, swaying from whatever influence he was under, and used it to balance. I smiled at him.

“Hey,” he said, straightening in an attempt at looking sober as he recognized me.

“Is there anyone else here?” I asked him.

“Of course not,” he lied, “Just me all by myself.”

“That’s a shame,” I said, “‘Cause I’m here to party.” I held up the six pack of beer in one hand and the baggy of weed in the other.

He looked surprised, then smiled and said, “You’re turning over a new leaf.”

I shrugged, “Leaves have been turned. I just haven’t had the opportunity to hang out with you lately.”

I walked into the house. My house. The smell of whatever fast food he’d ordered earlier still lingered in the air.

“Jenny!” he called, face turned upward toward the stairs, “Come meet my sister!”

And so it would be the blue-capped bottle for Jenny. I handed her the beer as she walked into the room. She, too, had a sway to her gait.

“Hi,” she said quietly, eyes darting between me and my brother. He clearly had told her that I wouldn’t appreciate her presence and was waiting for a negative reaction. I smiled sweetly.

The beginning sounds of the evening’s many fireworks shows, both professional and otherwise, could be heard through the open sliding glass door that lead to the back yard.

My brother had a joint rolled and lit in record time, and was already passing it to me as he held a smoke filled breath in his lungs. I took the smallest puff and passed it on to… Lucy? Janey? Jamie? She took a large puff. She would be passed out in a few minutes.

“So, how are things going?” I asked, sitting with them on a separate section of my couch.

“All is well,” my brother said with a salute to me. I just smiled and nodded approval in return.

“You got plans to go look at the fireworks?” I asked him, watching out of the corner of my eye as- Jessy? Jill? Jody?- took large gulps from her beer bottle, blue cap in hand.

“No,” said my brother, leaning back on the couch, “we were just gonna bum around here.”

Bum around indeed.

“Cool,” I said, “You order any food?”

“We were gonna order some Chinese,” said my brother, “but I think we’re gonna fire up the grill instead. Throw some hot dogs on there.”

“Very festive,” I said, the bottle growing warm under my fingers. I watched Suzy-Lizzy-Dani already looking drowsy and descending into sleep. An empty stomach. No surprise.

“Yeah, I thought so,” said my brother, smiling a huge, relaxed smile.

The sound of fireworks started to come more regularly now.

“Hey,” I said, “let’s see if we can see any of that firework show from the back yard.”

“Sure,” said my brother, true to his character, not even glancing at- what’s-her-face.

We walked out into the back yard. The ambient light from the moon, the street and the fireworks was just enough to make out our shapes in the dark.

There were several bangs in the distance, and one closer one from my gun. My brother dropped. And he bled. And I left, heading back to the lake shore. Heading back to my boat.

The funeral would cost a bit, but his continued mistakes would cost more. This was the wiser choice.