The Vermilion Riddle is Available for Pre-Order!

I’m thrilled to share that The Vermilion Riddle is now available for preorder on Amazon! It feels a bit surreal to see my novel there. I looked back through my email inbox (a real trek down memory lane) and found scattered vignettes of this story, shared with a few friends. It’s been renamed and revised over the course of years. I almost gave up on it at a few points, thinking it was too offbeat to see the light of day – not to mention, the odds are always against you in traditional publishing. I’m so grateful to see this dream become a reality!

I’m also looking for help promoting The Vermilion Riddle. Specifically, I would like to give out eARCs (Advanced Reader Copy) to readers who are willing to read and provide an honest review before March 1, release day. I’m also putting together a small street team that will help me promote the book on social media and offline, as well as participants for a blog tour. If you are interested in supporting me in any of these ways, you can fill out this form.

Do you have other ideas for how to get the word out? Are there questions or topics you’d like me to address about the novel? I’m open to inspiration for new blog posts! Drop me a line anytime.

Stay tuned for more details on The Vermilion Riddle as we approach release day! If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, you can also follow me for more regular updates there:

Finally, I’ll leave you with the official synopsis, also available on Amazon:

“To enter Faerie’s blessed demesne
four secrets must be found:
the land unbound by time and space
opens only to the one who knows
the Light, the Song, and Mortal Gate.”

In the sheltered town of Carmel, women do not have a future outside of a good marriage. That future is threatened when Leah Edwards’ father gambles away the family’s livelihood and estate. She and her sisters must hurry to find husbands. Then August Fox, a Guardian from Cariath, comes to town and purchases a supposedly haunted manor. Charged to keep the peace between mortals and Faerie, the Guardians are the stuff of legend. After he stuns her with a marriage proposal, Leah reluctantly journeys to Cariath, discovering there is more to August and the legends than she guessed.

Nimrod and his Oath-breakers betrayed the Guardians, seeking to solve an ancient riddle that would unlock the Faerie realm. Not all his followers share his desire for conquest. Benedict Fox, his second-in-command, has different motives. But as he continues fulfilling Nimrod’s plan, Benedict hurtles towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

For Leah, August, and their allies, it is a race against time to solve the ancient riddle before the Oath-breakers, and reunite the Guardians to save the mortal realm. The war is never really over, and this time, the battle lines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

Lessons from Editing a Novel

A great editor is like a two-star Goodreads reviewer who tells you everything that didn’t work in your novel and why, but also bothers to mention the glimmers of potential that bumped you up from getting one star.

Well, sort of. The point is, a great editor doesn’t hate or gush, but gives constructive, actionable feedback. The Vermilion Riddle is my first completed novel, and it’s also my first fully-edited novel. I would not have made it to publication without a fantastic editor. Michelle Levigne was much kinder than a two-star reviewer when she first told me she loved Riddle and believed in its potential, but it needed work. She showed me exactly what the shortcomings were, and gave me a chance to revise. I’ve learned that I thrive best with that kind of feedback – not a formula for how to fix something, but a pointer to the weak spots I can hone in on.

Long story short, I spent a year revising based on her feedback, and Mt. Zion Ridge Press is now publishing my book! I’ve worked with Michelle to tweak and finalize the manuscript over the months, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

Successful foreshadowing makes readers say both, “Oh, duh!” and “I didn’t say that coming.” I haven’t read a lot of writers who could do this well (myself included). Michelle calls these foreshadowing moments “jalapenos” – use with discretion, sprinkle them lightly, but give readers some taste of what’s to come. This framing helped me a ton, and I tweaked a lot of the foreshadowing components as I edited. Since I already had a draft complete, I knew exactly what the climax looks like, so I could go back and find places to insert little hints. I imagine this is necessary for a lot of writers. It’s hard to get all the details and finesse right the first time, especially if you’re building up to some kind of a reveal. I’m not even a “pantser” (someone writing by the seat of their pants). I plot ahead, but foreshadowing is more easily added in reverse. Good foreshadowing should land us somewhere between “Agatha All Along” (sorta obvious) and Cap’s BFF killing his other BFF’s parents back in the day (okay, am I gullible, but I didn’t see that coming). Sorry, when I can’t think of good literary examples, I default to Marvel.

Make sure characters actually do things that are in-character, not simply because it moves the plot forward. Don’t force character actions because some huge event has to happen, otherwise the story doesn’t work. I fell into this pitfall when I knew I had to manufacture a critical character encounter. I imagined the scene before I ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) on this story, and that blinded me from seeing my characters behaving totally irrationally. An editor can spot this pretty easily. Michelle asked me why there were no guards in this very dangerous campsite, and why the characters were sleeping on a riverbank when they had nice, warm cabins aboard their ship…? Well, shoot, because I had to force a meeting! A good question to ask as you cross-examine your story is, “Does it make sense she’s responding this way? Or making this decision?” It needs to make sense for the person, not just for the plot.

Build the world, not just parts of it! One of the main things I did in my first major revision was flesh out the world of The Vermilion Riddle. Many fantasy writers naturally go heavy on world-building, but it’s not second nature to me. I like exploring characters, and I realized that came at the expense of their world – it was too thin. Michelle told me the world felt empty, outside of the few places my characters visited. I would not have spotted this clearly on my own. While I think I could give that feedback on someone else’s story, it’s hard to see the forest from the trees for my writing. The first thing I did before starting revisions was build the world more fully for myself, even if I wouldn’t feature all of it in the novel. (I’m not Tolkien, guys). But just knowing more about the cultures, religions, and government empowered me to sprinkle in references in dialogue or bits of backstory. A savvy reader can usually tell you when a world feels rich and real or not, but I needed to learn, as a writer, what evokes that sensation. I think of Narnia – Lewis wrote with less than a tenth of the detail Tolkien used in Lord of the Rings, but he still made the world feel rich and expansive. There’s not a singular way to do it. Sometimes, it’s just a brief, tantalizing line here or there – but an invested reader loves those. It’s the stuff of great fanfiction spinoffs! 

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash.

Epic & Intimate: The Inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Toni Morrison

Two of my favorite fiction authors are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Besides both being British, their works are worlds apart, literally – one wrote epic, sprawling stories of the battle between good and evil, while the other wrote of small town families, romance, and culture in the Regency era. If Tolkien’s heroes failed, death and darkness would sweep across the land. If Austen’s heroes failed, a lady would be single at thirty. (The horror!)

As different as they are, I had a desire to blend the best of both genres. I didn’t think it’d be the most marketable book, but then, I also thought no one else would write this. That concept sparked the genesis of The Vermilion Riddle. I wanted an epic fantasy that was also character-driven and intimate. I love how Austen deftly explored familial and romantic relationships in the framework of her society, and I was curious to see how that would unfold in the context of a traditional fantasy. I shamelessly drew influence from the Regency era for parts of my story’s culture, simply because it’s got that quaint, cozy vibe, stored inside a broad, sweeping world. 

This is a snippet of what I wrote in my original query letter for The Vermilion Riddle: 

“While the novel evokes elements of classic fantasy—quests, duels, and the battle of good versus evil—it thrives on character exploration. The plot hums to the beat of a cosmic conflict and climax, though the struggles within a family—between fathers and sons, brothers by blood (and not), husband and wife—forms its core melody.”

When it came to the characters and relationships in the story, three questions framed my writing. 

What makes a strong, relatable, and feminine heroine?

What happens to brothers who are pitted against each other ideologically?

What does a love story that happens after marriage look like?

I did not know, concretely, the answer to any of these when I began, and Riddle was going to be my way of exploring them. In retrospect, I was in over my head. I’m not sure if I ever found totally satisfactory answers, but as I worked on the novel over the years, I felt the story mature quietly alongside of me. There were nuggets of wisdom I gleaned from life and other people that made their way into the story. There were also surprising insights that emerged from the characters as I was writing.

In the end, I wanted to write characters who, though born into another world, were achingly human. Though they chase ancient secrets and face the fury of the faerie-kind, they aren’t wrapped in an air of mythology that makes them feel far removed from us. They are the sort of people who could be legends – but a legend is usually formed in retrospect. They are like Merry and Pippin, hobbits who felt like useless baggage for much of their journey before they were hailed as heroes.

That’s what I strived for, at least – a story that’s epic yet intimate, that’s far-flung and yet close to home.

There was an alien wildness to it, as of a completely foreign world, but it was not without a touch of familiarity. It stirred up a strange mixture of nostalgia and mystery within her.

“Does this feel far from home?” Arthur asked softly.

“Yes,” she replied quietly, “and yet, no.”

The Vermilion Riddle

Photo by Sven Fischer on Unsplash.

The Vermilion Riddle: Cover Reveal & Synopsis!

I’m excited to share the cover of The Vermilion Riddle! My publisher did an initial reveal at a Zoom party a few weeks ago, and it was fun talking about the book and answering questions. Being a first-time author, it was a new experience. I’m used to running meetings and giving presentations for my day job, but it’s different sharing about my writing and being asked about my revision process, my favorite character to write, etc. It’s one thing to blog about it, and quite another to verbalize it to an audience. Mount Zion Ridge Press has been a great partner to work with as we’ve been going through edits, designs, and all my newbie questions.

Also, I haven’t given much detail yet about the story, so I wanted to share a first synopsis!

The war between faeries and men dimmed into mythology long ago, contained in the pages of Leah’s books. Far from danger, her sheltered town runs on parties and gossip. Then, August Fox purchases the haunted manor in Carmel and legends begin breaking into her reality. When her father gambles away their livelihood, Leah dutifully accepts August’s request for her hand. But a shadow haunts Cariath, his home of towering edifices and warriors, and she must contend with the ghosts of his family’s past.

Hungry to conquer the immortal realm, Nimrod betrayed the Guardians and stole an ancient riddle that would guide him to the keys to Faerie. To his followers’ surprise, he names Benedict Fox his second-in-command. Benedict plays a dangerous game, his agenda diverging from Nimrod’s. As they uncover more Guardian secrets, Benedict finds himself hurtling towards a choice between saving his family and settling a personal vendetta.

The war is never really over, and this time, the battlelines cut through blood ties and brotherhood.

What do you think?

I’m cuing up some more posts about the inspiration for The Vermilion Riddle and my writing process. Happy to take feedback on other topics you’d like to see me cover!

Old-Fashioned Fantasy

I was a complete bookworm growing up, and I think being an only child fed that. I was shy, I had plenty of time, and I buried myself in stories. My parents would take me to libraries and bookshops where we could buy an entire bag of books for $5, which was a dream. I’m pretty sure I got mounds of obscure books no one has heard of. And while I happily read almost anything in my early years, I’ve forgotten most of them. There are just a few books that truly gripped me, sank into my soul, and made stories more than just a pleasurable way to pass the time.

It’s special to me that my first novel is a fantasy, since that’s the genre that hooked me on reading. I don’t read fantasy novels predominantly anymore – and some of my friends are surprised to know that I haven’t read some of the most popular contemporary fantasy authors, like Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin. Maybe it’s heretical for me to say, but I attempted The Way of Kings and Game of Thrones, but dropped them both. (I might give the former another chance, though). From the bits I read, I can’t deny that the world-building in both is stunning. But that’s never been the thing I loved most about fantasy.

The Chronicles of Narnia were the first books to capture my imagination. I didn’t knock on the back of my closet, hoping to find Narnia, simply because C.S. Lewis built an amazing world. Rather, it was because he peopled it with unforgettable characters. I remember how Aslan’s sacrifice struck me in the heart, how I wished for a friend like Lucy, how I hated but then grew to love Eustace, and how I adored Reepicheep and Puddleglum for their nobility and spunk. The world of Narnia gave them a place to come to life and flourish, but it was always the characters I loved most, imbued with such heart and personality.

Not surprisingly, The Lord of the Rings was my next great love (or obsession). My mom wanted to see the first film because she heard it was a classic, while I wondered how a story about jewelry could be anything but a snoozefest. I walked out of the theater totally enthralled, and hunted down the books so I could read them before the next movies came out. Undoubtedly, Tolkien created a rich world with different cultures, languages, and landscapes. He was a genre master. Peter S. Beagle called him a “colonizer of dreams.” As much as I would love to live in Rivendell or the Shire, it’s not the places themselves that inspired me most. It was the story of little hobbits shaking the fortresses of the mighty, a man of exile rising from the ashes to be king, and an unloved son who still loved his people to the bitter end.

Some might say these stories are old-fashioned. People are not so simple, so black-and-white. We love to explore characters who are gray, toeing the moral line. There’s a trend in contemporary fantasy towards dystopia, and morally questionable heroes. Fewer stories today make people say, “I want to live there with those people!” And they don’t all need to. But those are the books that won me over, and that’s the spirit I hope I capture in The Vermilion Riddle. 

I have some of those gray characters, and I try to dig into some of those hard questions about justice and revenge. The story is told from two characters’ point-of-views, and one of them is certainly not a hero. But by and large, The Vermilion Riddle is classic fantasy in its themes and morality.

You might call it old-fashioned. But like Phil Coulson tells Captain America: “With everything that’s happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old-fashioned.”

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash.

A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!

S.D.G.

Bullet Train to London

I originally wrote this speculative flash fiction piece for Havok, though you can’t access it without membership. My 6-month exclusive contract was up ages ago, so I can publish it here now. And if you’re still keeping up with my terribly sporadic updates, you deserve a fun little shot of adrenaline. Enjoy the read!

“Last mission before you retire, eh? Ready to go home?”

Home. Kiera immediately pictured red double-decker buses, Big Ben, and intimate theaters. Her small studio, overlooking the Thames, would still be unfurnished after her months away. And Justin—was his corner cafe still in business?

“I’ll miss this. But it will feel good to go out with a win,” she muttered into her transmitter.

Pip laughed. “Well, the clock is ticking on us.”

Kiera glanced at the digital stream on the rim of the train: 43 MINUTES to LONDON. The clock was indeed ticking on them.

She picked up her pace as she moved into the next compartment, her gaze sweeping across rows of passengers. Their faces were masked in shadows thrown by the dim lighting and covered windows. Kiera felt a pang of envy at the thick, wool blankets draped around their seats. A shiver went down her spine as she straightened her thin cocktail dress.

“Are you in position?” Jotham’s voice came across the line.

“Yes.”

Kiera paused in front of the final cabin, Black Rail Bullet: First Class. The doors slid open with a hiss.

She handed the uniformed guard her ticket and scanned the cabin. A circular bar sat in the middle of the compartment, chandelier lights glancing off long-necked glasses. A familiar classical tune filled the room—Fur Elise.

“Beethoven!” Pip exclaimed. “What a sound for sore ears. After months of that screeching the Valiums call music.”

“Focus, Pip,” Jotham returned.

“Sorry, boss. This new comm system is remarkably clear.”

Kiera blocked out the chatter in her earpiece as she examined the two dozen or so figures scattered around the room. A green light blinked in her left pupil. Facial match.

“Got him,” she whispered.

She walked further into the cabin and slipped onto a vacant stool beside him, signaling the bartender. “One Negroni, please.”

The man beside Kiera cocked his head towards her. “Haven’t seen someone order that in a while.” His own Old Fashioned appeared untouched on the counter.

“Is that a surprise?” She gestured at the other guests.

“Fair point.” He swiveled to look her fully in the face. His raven hair and square jaw lent him a handsome look. “Is London home?”

Kiera shrugged. “It was. We’ll see.”

“Long time away, then.”

“Yes.” She locked gazes with him. “And I’d like to have something to go back to.” She pushed the fold of her dress up to her knee, revealing a holstered gun. “This hurts more than a normal bullet, Wren. I suggest you tell me where you’ve hidden the weapons.”

Wren appeared unfazed, amusement rippling over his features instead. “They’ve got pretty girls working for them now, is that right?”

Kiera’s hand went to the gun, gripping its handle. “We know there are illegal weapons on board. They’re not getting through our borders.”

“How did you get that onto the train?” He motioned at her holster. “Security’s tight.”

“We have an arrangement with Black Rail.” Her expression hardened. “You’re not the only one with people everywhere.”

He laughed. “I’m afraid you’re still one step behind. I bought Black Rail two days ago.”

Pip cursed in her ear, and Jotham drew a sharp breath. Kiera felt her stomach hollow out.

“And you conveniently told us you were coming,” Wren continued. “There are no weapons aboard.” His eyes flickered to the digital stream and she followed his gaze.

31 MINUTES to LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM, EARTH.

She flinched as he leaned in to whisper, “The train is the weapon.”

“What?”

“No harm in telling you now… You have thirty minutes to live. It’s rigged to explode when it detects Earth’s atmosphere.”

London was not the primary target. Jotham voiced the same awful realization that hit Kiera. “Pip, get down into the crawl space! There’s nuclear fuel running this train!”

“Are you doing this for the Valiums?” she demanded. “What did they offer you for a suicide mission?”

Wren smirked. “It’s not suicide, darling.”

His hologram flickered, just once, and he vanished.

Kiera stared at the empty space, berating herself for falling prey to his gimmick. She swallowed a large mouthful of her Negroni and looked around. A diverse cast of alien species surrounded her, communicating through incomprehensible dialects. All of them blissfully ignorant of their impending doom.

“Pip, Jotham, did you hear everything?”

“Impeccably. What happened to Wren?”

“The old holo trick. Sorry I was slow on the uptake. What are our options?” Kiera willed herself to stay calm. Justin. I will see you again.

“Not many.” Pip’s somber voice mixed with the sound of clanking metal. “We can force an explosion before it hits the atmosphere. Trade the lives of the passengers aboard for, well, Earth.”

“No,” Kiera breathed.

“Unacceptable,” Jotham intoned simultaneously. “Can you disarm it?”

An intercom announcement interrupted them before Pip could give a verdict.

Attention, Black Rail passengers. We will be arriving in London shortly. Please have your documents ready, and thank you for traveling with us.”

The window blinds lifted. Black space sprawled out on both sides of the train, while a palette of stars coiled through the darkness. Earth loomed large, a brilliant blue orb suspended before them.

Kiera’s throat tightened. “You have to stop this, Pip.”

“Okay, this might be crazy”—he broke off, a cackle of static on the line—“I’m going to rewire the sensors, so hopefully it won’t recognize the planet as we enter the atmosphere: the instrument readings won’t match.”

“Wren said the train was rigged to explode only when it detects Earth’s atmosphere,” Jotham mused. “All right, do it.”

Silence overtook the line. Kiera watched the clock.

16 MINUTES to LONDON.

Her heart leaped when their comms crackled to life.

“Done. But don’t celebrate too early,” Pip warned.

Kiera could not tear her eyes from the window as they sliced into the mesosphere. Clouds fogged around them. She held her breath, fists clenched, painfully aware of every rattle and vibration.

Then, a glorious, midnight cityscape blazed into view below.

“Welcome home, team.”

A Hundred Denarii

My heart holds a hundred denarii
like a magnet for money
brokering in the currency of bitterness
as a noose of silver coins around your neck
but really, it’s a slow suicide

My heart holds a hundred denarii
because I forgot the 10,000 talents
like red on my ledger
and His mercy wasn’t mere whiteout
but justice settled the account
with a criminal’s cross and crown

My heart holds a hundred denarii
but the debt was already paid
both yours and mine
shouldered by a sinless Savior
who stepped under the righteous guillotine
and made us His blood-brought bride

Matthew 18:21-35

You Are The Border

You are the border
the invisible, dividing line:
The Comedy Show that makes a little girl laugh
—”quick, shove the food in!”—and eat,
you dance for me before you can reason about
starving third-world kids and immigrant dreams;
The Watermelon Drummer, the fruit’s final judge,
unlocking it’s mystery through your tapping fingers
you do your magic trick, and we crack open
the reddest sweet flesh behind a shell of green.

You are the border
between lunacy and sanity:
The Unlicensed Therapist, raised on a diet of
communism, logic, and serendipity
but you do quite well—for others, and for me
You are the peacemaker in our fights, and sometimes,
even the ones in my own mind.

You are the border
an unbroken wall and shield:
The Guardian who saves me from howling dinosaurs,
enormous spiders, and my own poor schemes;
but when the time comes, like summer fruit ripened,
you give me wings to rise
And though I’ve left the nest for a wild world
with no crib railings or safety nets
I know I am safe with you in a love that never leaves
and it’s more than just your culture, blood, and duty
that promises to stay with me,
come
hell
or
high water
Your love is not, like a young man’s romance, some flighty dream
Your love is tested by fire,
You love is no fragile thing.

Pilot Tide, Epilogue

And we have reached the finale – which is just a relatively short Epilogue. I hope you enjoyed the ride! Always happy to hear any feedback, reactions, moans (well, hopefully not that), etc. from readers. Stay safe and happy reading!

Previously on Pilot Tide: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], [Chapter 6], [Chapter 7], [Chapter 8], [Chapter 9], [Chapter 10] and [Chapter 11]

Epilogue

The most dramatic Pilot Tide of our generation concluded in tumult, scandal, and redemption. Jules has been relieved of her post at the Flight Academy and awaits trial. While an old Micanopy tradition dictated that dishonorable actions of active pilots should be punished by “suicide flights,” Jules’ loyal fan base rose up in protest against the outdated law. Eventually, Suri put the nail in that coffin, pleading mercy for her adversary.

Alai, the outsider contestant from Renova, emerged as a controversial figure himself. While many hailed him as a hero for his actions, insisting he more than redeemed himself, some of Suri’s biggest supporters are still campaigning for retribution. Suri briefly stated she would not press any charges.

And what can we say for Suri, the daughter of renowned pilot Mona? She has rightfully earned her own place in Micanopy’s story. When the final round of the Tide was called to a halt, she held the highest score among the three contestants. But given the circumstances, no victor will be officially declared this year. Instead, Suri has been offered a position on the board of the Flight Academy. Whether she will accept remains to be seen.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.120

The Metropolis sprawled out below them in a landscape of lights with Rhiannon Square gleaming in the center. Micanopy’s moons hung in dusk’s afterglow. Suri glanced out the fiftieth floor window and felt a tremor in her knees. Her comfort in a cockpit never fully eased her problem with heights.

“How do you like it?” she asked, turning away.

“I like it,” Alai said immediately, sweeping his hand around the cherrywood floors and wine-colored furnishings. “I’m not used to it yet. It’s too—”

“Fancy?”

“—grounded.”

“You’re on the fiftieth floor.” Suri raised an eyebrow.

“And I could be looking out a viewport at the stars,” he countered.

She laughed. “I’m surprised you’re settling here. After everything.”

“Because I’m famous and some people hate me?” He shifted his head back and forth. “Yeah, I don’t love either reality. But after the Tide I feel tied to this place, in a way I never did with Renova or any other star system. It seems like the right place to figure out what I’m doing next.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re staying.”

And she meant it. The aftermath of Pilot Tide was overwhelming. Suri had stumbled helplessly out of her Apple Pod into an even more dizzying whirlwind of revelations. While Jules awaited trial, a serious investigation into Flight Academy politics ensued. She was bombarded with interview requests.

Alai’s betrayal stung, but she found it easy to forgive him. He made the deal with Jules before he really knew her, and his regret was prodigiously earnest. Suri felt a surprisingly sincere delight when he decided to rent a flat in the Metropolis. Fame was still new to her. Jules’ trial was still coming, and she would need to testify. It was good to have a friend nearby.

A flurry of knocks came from the front door. Alai unlocked it remotely and Dwarf Squadron burst through.

“Suri! Alai!”

“Hey,” she greeted, smiling warmly.

“Thanks for inviting us over, Alai,” Ceet said. He paced the room, his gaze catching on the view. “This is an incredible end to our stint on Micanopy Major.”

Alai poured thin glasses of champagne for all of them.

“A toast to surviving Pilot Tide,” he said. “Especially Suri.”

They laughed.

“So Alai,” Veeta said, settling onto the plush sofa, “rumor has it they’re going to make a film about you. The newest heartthrob pilot of Micanopy.”

He groaned. “A heartthrob is an invention by those who don’t know you.”

“Oh, really? What do you think, Suri?” Veeta asked.

“I think he has no shortage of admirers,” she sidestepped gracefully, before tilting her head at him. “Perhaps that’s why you’re staying.”

“I’m sure Alai has other reasons for staying,” Deeta put in knowingly, before he could reply.

“Suri, are you going to join Flight Academy?” Atta changed the subject, to both Alai and Suri’s relief.

She sighed. “I don’t know yet. I’m going back to Nimrim first. If my father is willing to move here, then I might.” She thought of how Papa cried when she called him from the med bay after Alai rescued her. “Regardless, I’m petitioning the Academy to open eligibility to all people, Essgees included.”

“Would you attend the Academy, if you could?” Alai looked around at the team sprawled across his floor.

They exchanged surreptitious glances and Suri felt her chest tighten.

“Well,” Ceet began, “this is a very early idea, but we were thinking of opening up our own academy on Micanopy Minor.”

“That would be amazing!” Suri exclaimed.

She felt a swell of pride for them, but also a pang of melancholy. As trying as Pilot Tide was, the experience knit her heart with Dwarf Squadron. It would not be easy to say goodbye.

They spent the remainder of the evening eating and speculating about what the future held for each of them. Suri received more than one overt hint from her Essgee friends about Alai, but she brushed it off.

Maybe one day, when the dust settled and they both healed some more, she could think about it. But for now, romance seemed more in the realm of holoshows than reality. For now, his friendship was what felt solid, and sufficient.

“So, are we going to spend our last night here getting fat on cinnacoa cakes?” Deeta groaned, after they devoured generous helpings of dinner and dessert.

“I have an idea.” Alai swept up his keys. “Let’s go fly.”

They all cheered in response.

“This is even better than winning that lottery,” Neeta relished. “Flying with the biggest stars of Micanopy.”

“It’s better than that.” Suri smiled, warmth spreading through her limbs. “Flying with friends.”

 

End.