Below are the first few pages of Y.M. Pang’s story “Dress of Ash” from Seasons Between Us.
There is an Etossarn tale about a girl who became a servant in her own house.
After her mother passed away, her father remarried. Her stepmother, a woman of high status but little wealth, banished the girl to the servants’ quarters, where she cooked meals, scrubbed floors, and lit kindling. The girl’s face became covered in soot, and she wore a dress of ash.
The story came from a book of translated Northerner legends Father had given me. Mother scoffed at it. “Why read boneskin tales? Our own legends are the ones that matter.”
She had a point. What use were Northerner stories to a Swordbearer of Keja?
Yet during that late summer sunset, as Kaya’s form disappeared into the trees, all I could think about was that girl in the dress of ash. Unlike her, no prince came for Kaya.
Kaya, my dearest sister. Whatever else, I loved you. I loved you.
I lost my father in a duel between a wooden sword and a sheath.
On a breezy spring day, I emerged from the training room of our residence at the capital to see him striding across the courtyard, a bag of tied cloth slung across his back. My mother, aunt, and cousin were not home. It was only me and the servants in the compound.
Even at eight years old, I understood.
I placed myself between Father and the front gates. “Where do you think you’re going?”
His face registered a brief surprise, then reverted to his usual carefree smile. “To the market, little flower. I was thinking of buying your mother a . . . fan.”
A lie. He’d sooner buy her a poisoned chalice.
“With that?” I eyed his bag.
He knelt so we’d be at eye level. “You got me, little flower. I’ll be going a little farther than the market. But I’ll be back soon.”
“You’re leaving us. You’re running away.” It hurt, saying those words, because they meant Mother was right about him. I’d heard their voices at night—Mother calling him useless, an unworthy Swordbearer.
“There is something I must do. I’d stay if I could.”
I pointed my wooden practice sword at him. “Then fight me. If you win, I’ll let you go.”
He chuckled. “Don’t be ridiculous, little flower.”
“I’m not your little flower! I’m the heir to the Marin clan and a Swordbearer of the Kejalin Empire. Defeat me, or you shall not pass through those gates.”
Sighing, Father stood and shrugged off the cloth bag. He untied his sword from his hip and drew it—then threw it aside, holding the empty sheath.
The top of my head barely reached his waist. But I’d learned five of the Seven Forms faster than anyone Master Ouwi could remember. I’d never seen Father set foot in the training room, and Mother’s comments didn’t make me think highly of his swordsmanship.
“Shall we begin, Yulina?”
“Your duty is here, Father. I will not let you go.”
I thrust my wooden sword at his knee. I half-expected him to step around me and leap over the compound walls. I would be in the trouble then, for I had not yet mastered lightness, a fundamental Swordbearer ability.
But he didn’t. He deflected my blow. And the next. With at least one foot on the ground the whole time, following the rules of a sword duel.
I barely blocked his first counter-attack. His next strike sent me staggering back toward a budding bush.
I swung my sword again. How could a man of such middling reputation deflect all my blows? How could I become First Sword, if I couldn’t defeat this . . . weak . . . foe?
His sheath caught me on the back of the hand, so hard I loosened my grip on the sword. His next blow sent my practice sword flying. He tapped his sheath against my shoulder, near my neck.
My defeat, no matter how one looked at it.
His eyes held sadness as he picked up his discarded sword and bag. “That was impressive, Yulina. You will make an excellent Swordbearer someday.” He stepped past me, toward the gates.
Wait! I wanted to yell. I wanted to turn around, grab his robes, beg him to stay. But I’d set out the rules. He’d stay if I defeated him, and go if I did not.
A creak as the compound gates opened. A slam as they closed. I knelt in the grass, biting my lip. Refusing to cry. I was Marin Yulina, daughter of Marin Reina, Swordbearer of the Kejalin Empire. Even in defeat, I couldn’t forget that.
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Below are the first few pages of Tyler Keevil’s story “Summer of Our Discontent” from Seasons Between Us.
Alan had taken the night shift in their family look-out atop Bryn Y Fan mountain. It had been a struggle to stay awake. Recently the emissaries had rarely appeared before dawn but the Paradigm had changed its patterns before, so they couldn’t afford to be slack.
He peered through the telescope at regular intervals, scanning the valley in the direction from which the emissaries always appeared. His son Bran had jury-rigged an infrared sensor that they attached at night, using an old thermal imager. It was basic but effective. Through it, Alan saw the orange glow of a few sheep and cows, but no humanoid shapes. No emissaries.
When the sky paled and an edge of sun slit the clouds on the horizon, he turned from his post and spotted his daughter Summer scrambling up the shale slope behind the lookout. On time. Summer was always on time. She moved efficiently over the uneven terrain, far more agile than him now. Alan was only in his early forties and should still have been in his prime, but around her and Bran he felt increasingly old, and outmoded.
He opened the door for her. Summer was wearing a wide-brimmed hat that had belonged to her mother and a loose leather jacket. The way it flapped around her made her look like a cowgirl. She glanced at his face and said, “You look tired.”
She crossed the lookout and took up the rifle, which he’d left leaning against the wall. It was a basic Thompson .270, with a retro wooden stock, completing her Western look. She opened it to check the cartridges—as if not trusting him to have loaded it correctly—and snapped it shut. She laid it flat on the table and peered through the telescope, then set about removing Bran’s infrared add-on.
“You better get some sleep,” she said.
“If you see anything . . .”
“Before you shoot.”
“I’m not that trigger-happy, Dad.”
“I just have a feeling.”
She looked back at him, curious. Not understanding his impulses—his inexplicable hunches. His children were both rationalists, like Olwen.
“It’s the solstice,” he said. “The Paradigm might change its methods.”
“Okay, sensei,” Summer said.
He let himself out and began the descent to their cottage, Hafod, at the head of the valley, half a mile away. From the base of the shale slope it was easier going—the path well-trodden, an old sheep-track they’d worn in further by trekking to and from the lookout. The cottage was built from traditional stone, with a slate roof typical of Mid Wales. Hafod was Welsh for “summer house” and centuries before it would have been where the farming family lived during the summer months—near the upper pastures where their herd grazed. A thread of smoke leaked from the chimney: they used the Rayburn for cooking and heating, and saved the solar panels and wind turbine for electricity. Much of the work had been done before the Shift. It was just serendipitous that Olwen and he had made their place largely self-sufficient. The reason they’d bought a smallholding in such a remote part of Wales was to live off-grid, get back to basics, at a time when the world was increasingly plugged-in, on-line, wireless, and fused.
They hadn’t expected their lifestyle to protect them from what happened.
In front of the cottage, slate flagstones formed a rustic patio, where they’d set up a picnic table. Summer had left their steel coffee bodem there, knowing Alan wouldn’t sleep right away, knowing he had his rituals, his ways of coping. The solstice had always struck him as a particularly melancholy time of year, arriving earlier than expected, at the end of June: summer had barely started, and yet the passing of the longest day meant it was also already over, that autumn was on its way.
Alan poured himself a mug and cradled it, the warmth through the ceramic seeping into his palms. Sitting out there was something he and Olwen had always done: for morning coffee, or evening wine. Watching the sunlight roll down one valley wall at dawn, as it was doing now, or scroll up the other at dusk. It had been routine since they’d moved out there, just before having the kids, nearly twenty years ago. It seemed an impossible length of time—too long and too short. It didn’t feel so long ago, in terms of his memories, his life with Ol. And yet it seemed too short for everything that had happened: for the world to change, for most of humanity to be lost—and then for Olwen to be lost, too.
That felt too recent, and raw. Not a scar, but a wound: 171 days old, but still painful. And their lives were divided into the time before, and the time after. In the time after, he sipped his coffee alone. Tasting it sweet and creamy, with fresh milk from their cows. Gazing down the valley, at the ribbon of river below. And patches of mist on the hills, which were rounded and ancient—very different to the Rockies he’d grown up around.
Wales had always seemed mystical, and partly mythical to him: his first experience of it having come through reading the Arthurian legends as a kid, and later, as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s fantasy novels. When he’d met Olwen, and moved out here, it felt partly as if he’d entered that story landscape, or dreamscape.
Now life did feel like a dream, or nightmare: a world taken over. Only pockets of individuals left. Maybe he and Summer and Bran were the last. Maybe that was why the Paradigm was in no rush—was content to send its benevolent, non-aggressive emissaries. No matter how many they turned away, forced back, or shot down. They could only wait for the next, and the next. They pretended they were waiting for one thing, but with each passing day it seemed increasingly futile.
Alan feared what he was really waiting for was an end, any ending. Even if it meant converting: a truth he would never admit to Summer and Bran. They were young, and hurt, and full of fury. The loss of their mother had made them all the more adamant: they would resist and fight till the last.
Losing her had affected him differently. All the fight had gone out of him. All the fire. Olwen had carried that with her, carried it away. But he still had to pretend, for Bran’s sake. For Summer’s. He could still maintain appearances for a while.
“Ol,” he said to the emptiness around him. “Where did you go?’
He sat for another half hour and was beginning to nod off when he saw the signal from the lookout. The signal wasn’t unexpected: emissaries often showed up just after dawn or just before dusk. The first few they had cautiously engaged with, from a safe distance. But once the emissaries’ single-minded purpose had become apparent, the family had kept them at bay with warning shots or—when necessary—taken them out. Summer, in particular, was a crack shot. But no matter how many they warded off or put down another always approached the next day, and the next. The Paradigm appreciated patterns and was, if nothing else, persistent and punctual.
So a signal at that time of morning was not unexpected. But the type of signal made Alan stand up: Summer had raised a red flag, not yellow. Not their “business-as-usual” sign, but something new. A change. The Paradigm did this, occasionally. Trying out a new tactic. Methodical as an old Cray computer learning to play chess. If one strategy or pawn sacrifice failed consistently, it made adjustments: it changed the form of the emissary, or its route or manner of approach. They had encountered awkward, robotic-looking scouts mimicking the shape of humans; carbon copies of the deceased that had been somehow reconstructed; and real people, flesh-and-blood, that had been converted to the cause. They arrived on foot, or horseback, or four-wheeler. Cars weren’t an option: he’d made the track that had once been their drive impassable.
This time Alan felt unaccountably thrilled, even elated by the sight of the flag: anything to disrupt the agonizing stasis. Anything to break the stalemate, end the endgame. He swigged what remained of his coffee and ducked inside. Near the entrance, they had a small side table with an old-fashioned telephone Bran had rigged for them: a landline that ran from the cottage to the lookout and wasn’t connected to any other network. Just a two-way system, impervious to hijacking by the Paradigm. They also had three handheld radios that ran on an ultra-high bandwidth, but they tried not to use those unless necessary. They didn’t think the Paradigm monitored them but couldn’t be sure. It had used radio transmissions in other parts of the world: rural and remote areas where it couldn’t reach people via their computers, or tablets, or phones, or implants. That’s what they’d heard, before they’d switched off entirely. Speculation that it could hypnotize and manipulate, using patterns and frequencies. Coax people to come to a centre, where they would be fully converted, with so many others.
Of course, how much of that was truth, how much paranoia, they had no way of knowing. But still. He wondered about their handheld radios. He wondered if the Paradigm had somehow seeped into Olwen that way. Embedded the idea that she should leave, check out the town.
He switched on the telephone and hailed Summer. “I told you I had a feeling,” he said, then cringed at how much he sounded like a smug father, and added, “Something new?”
“Not new exactly.”
“You put up the red flag.”
A pause. A crackle of static. It wasn’t like Summer to be reticent, unforthcoming. That was Bran’s area.
“It’s her. It’s Mum.”
Alan felt a jolt—as if his heart had been stopped and then restarted. The fluttering double-beat. And a quickening, sickening rush.
“I’m looking right at her, through my scope.” “Don’t shoot.”
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Below are the first few pages of Maurice Broaddus’s story “The Shabu My Destination” from Seasons Between Us.
STAGE ONE: Relaxation
Walking down the basement steps, fear filled me since I rarely went down them even when my father wasn’t home. Richard Pryor’s That Nigga’s Crazy blared from the speakers. Lamont Little, Sr., my father, spun a stack of vinyl records—Gil-Scott Herron, Last Poets, James Brown, Isaac Hayes—the way some people ate chicken and mashed potatoes for comfort. In the corner, he and my mother huddled together, wearing matching dashikis, swathed by shadows; cigarette smoke curled around them. My father surrounded himself with his books, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Maulana Karenga. Only when he was reading did he seem at anything resembling peace.
My family was well-practiced in the calculus of colour. My mother held his hand, her skin so fair in comparison. Though Lamont Sr.’s father was white, my father was the darkest in his family. So grandfather would always take my uncle to baseball games because he was light enough to pass. Though my mother was from Canton, Mississippi, she was the lightest in her family. No one ever spoke of her father. I favoured her. Most of the kids in the neighbourhood made fun of me for being too white.
“Who is that?” I pointed to a new poster which hung on the wall. A man clad in a leather jacket ensconced in a wicker throne holding a gun in one hand and a spear in the other.
“If I have to tell you, you don’t need to know.” My father’s tone reeked of resenting my intrusion. Or maybe simply me. My mother shook his hand in silent chiding. He drew on his cigarette and turned away to study the shadows.
“What is it, baby?” my mother asked.
I handed her the folded paper Cathedral High School sent home. The private school marked the first time in my life I ventured beyond the confines of the neighbourhood to attend school. Only one of a handful of black students there, most of the kids made fun of me for being too black.
“This says there was an incident in class.” Her voice rose, implying a question.
“My Algebra teacher hates me.” Fearing too much gesturing might make me look like I was spinning a tale, I shoved my empty hands into my pockets.
“How so?” Already unconvinced, she released my father’s hand and straightened, crossing her arms.
“He seats the class based on how good your grades are. I get A’s on just about every test, which frustrates this one kid who sits two seats down.” I skipped the part where since he was quick to talk about “that coon” or “that porch monkey,” every time a test was handed back, I rubbed my A all in his face. “He looked at his test, jumped up, ripped it up, and muttered ‘this nigger’ under his breath.”
“So, what’d you do?” She parsed my words with care.
“Nothing. I wasn’t going to trip over that. He’d already lost.”
A quick smirk crossed my father’s lips. The memory of his upturned lips and proud glint in his eye seared itself into my memory. With another drag on his cigarette, he drifted back to his thoughts.
“The teacher pulled me aside after class to ask me what I planned to do after high school. I said go to Purdue University to study engineering. He was concerned that I was . . . overreaching.”
My mother’s eyes narrowed. “So, what did you do?”
“Nothing.” I held my breath. Richard Pryor preached in the background. I should have said, “Fuck you and your concern. Sir.” I could picture my mother throwing her hands in the air and yelling “Lord have mercy. You just like your father. Always such an extremist.” My father might have slid me some skin on that one. “That was when I was sent to the guidance counsellor. They said I couldn’t take the Calculus class I wanted.”
“The hell you can’t.” My mother’s eyes locked onto me like a poised cobra. I never had to explain who “us” were. Just like she understood that “they” wasn’t just the counsellor. “I am paying good money out of my pocket for you to go to that fancy school.”
“They said I was on the ‘business track.’ All of us were and there was no room in the advanced track.”
“Nah. My money’s just as green. You can take any class you want.” My mother wadded up the piece of paper. “You should never be made to feel like you have to apologize just for existing.”
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Below is the first few pages of Amanda Sun’s story “The Light of Stars” from Seasons Between Us.
Natsumi is sweeping the stone pathway around the main shrine when the elderly couple tumble over the edge of the cliff. She catches the man’s eyes for a moment, looking at her with vague recognition, before the two topple with linked arms, their pale blue and dusty rose yukatas billowing behind them. Natsumi’s broom clatters to the ground, her body lit with fiery shock as she stumbles toward the vacant clifftop. The path around the shrine buildings is well marked, and far from the edge. And yet they stood there, and now they do not, falling toward the beach far below.
Natsumi leaps over the rope marking the path, her red hakama skirt sticking to her legs in the Okinawa heat, the stones scattering in a spray underneath her. She slows near the edge, her sandals slick against the rock. She drops to her knees, grabs the sharp cliff with desperate fingers, thrusts her head forward to gaze down at the beach and the broken bodies below.
There’s no one there. Only a scrap of cornflower blue fabric, swirling with the lapping of the tide, spinning lazy circles in the clear turquoise water.
Has she imagined it? But how can she imagine two entire people, arms linked, with her own eyes wide open? Her heart pounds against her chest, even as relief takes hold. If it was true, there would be bodies. There is only the curl of water and foam on sand. The humidity of a Naha summer has clouded her mind, perhaps.
But she’s so certain of what she’s seen. She can’t forget the man’s gaze as the couple willingly dropped forward, his eyes locked with hers, as though he knew her.
After another moment she stands, smoothing her crimson hakama skirt, her long white sleeves. She makes her way back to the rope barrier, steps over the fraying cord. She picks up her broom and sweeps the stones she’s scattered back off the pathway.
There are no bodies. And so she must dismiss whatever she is certain she has seen.
She’s been at Namanoue for nearly two months now as a miko, a shrine maiden, though she’s never seen anyone stray from the path before. It was her grandmother who suggested this as a good part-time job while Natsumi studies at the Naha College of Nursing.
“I’m not sure they will take her on,” her mother had said with hesitation. She had run her fingers through Natsumi’s hair after, as if in apology, twisting the strands into tiny golden brown curls. “Another job might be more suitable.”
“Halfs are so much more common these days,” her grandmother had countered. She’d always been as sharp as the prickle of an Adan tree. She didn’t believe in making space for feelings. Such things were unnecessary. “No one will bat an eye.”
Of course, that hadn’t been completely true. One of the priests had raised his eyebrows at Natsumi’s brown hair and paler skin, and had turned to whisper to another of the ordained kannushi. “Do you think she can read Japanese?”
Natsumi had pretended not to hear, as she had pretended all her life. And in the end they passed her the forms to fill out, all feigning that nothing was different. On hearing her grandmother had once been a miko there, too, they gave her the job. But the weight of their words has not left her shoulders. She has to prove herself as capable as a full-blooded Japanese girl, whatever that might mean.
Which is why she doesn’t want them to find her sprawled over the cliff, shouting desperately for an elderly couple that doesn’t exist.
When the stones have been cleared away, Natsumi leans the broom against the far side of the shed tucked behind the old maple tree. She walks the slow maze of paths, stopping to politely direct a tourist, then another. She walks around the looming red of the main shrine, bird chirps echoing from high above in the musty, wooden rafters. A woman in a broad-rimmed sun hat grabs hold of the thick rope draped from the ceiling. As she shakes it from side to side, the suzu bells rattle and clank above. The lady claps loudly, head bowed. The man next to her is throwing yen into the tithing box, coins clinking against the wooden slats.
Natsumi walks through all of this, feeling at once both invisible and exposed. She is as much a part of this shrine as the bells and boxes and stone Shisa dog-lions that line the pathways. She ducks through the main shrine, under the cloth lightning bolts that drape from the thick prayer rope tied above. There is a small building to the right, and she lets herself in the side door, curving around the boxes stacked on the ground.
“Otsukare,” she says as she approaches Misato near one of the windows, to let her know she’s here to replace her. The other miko smiles, rising to her feet. She’s not from Okinawa like Natsumi, but lives with her boyfriend above the steak house near Onoyama Station.
“Otsukare-sama,” Misato answers, lifting a hand to smooth back her black hair. “We’ll need some more of the En-Musubi charms.”
Natsumi nods, striding toward the window and the waiting customers. She has barely a moment in between sales to reach for a replacement box, filling the baskets on the table in front of her with omamori, the shrine charms.
There are golden pouches with embroidered white flowers, and long crimson ones with stitched gilded kanji. There are floral discs with tassels of crimson and navy blue, and even pairs of bells tied to woven rainbow thread. She nods her head in quick bows as she wraps them for each pilgrim, sliding them with a jingle and crinkle into the tiny white paper bags, sealing them with a Naminoue sticker before she passes the bags through the window with both hands, bowing her head as they’re taken. And yet through it all her thoughts fall on the elderly couple, on that moment as they went over the cliff.
A bead of sweat rolls along the curve of her face. It must be the heat.
There were no bodies.
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Below are the first few pages of Karina Sumner-Smith’s story “A Grave Between Them” from Seasons Between Us.
The man in the black mask says this is what he has heard: that it must be her hand on the shovel, her breath and her earth; so no, he won’t help her dig. He won’t fall for her tricks.
He’s wrong in the details—wrong in the head—but there’s blood on his hands, more with each passing moment, and he has the gist of it close enough.
Avery nods, quick and afraid. “I’ll do it,” she says. “Whatever you want. Just let my family go.”
He doesn’t, of course. Instead he binds them tight and locks them in the basement, then bars the door while Avery watches, trembling. Her mom and Aunt Jenny she doesn’t worry about as much—they’re bound, but beneath the duct tape and bruises their anger burns hot. They’ll have themselves free by morning, one way or another. No, it’s the kids that concern her: Katie with her head held defiant, little Matthew sobbing into his stuffed dog, Lucas so silent and still that Avery knows he’s hidden himself away in the dark corners of his mind. She wonders how long it’ll be before she can coax him to return.
“You can let them out yourself,” the man tells her. He adjusts the ski mask over his face, then bends down to pick up the blanket-wrapped body he brought to their door, struggling with the weight. “When you’re done.”
He’s lying, but maybe she needs the lie.
“This way.” Avery clasps her hands tight so she can’t do anything she’d regret, and leads him into the backyard.
When the doorbell rang—when Aunt Jenny opened the door to a black-clad figure with a dead body in his arms—this is how Avery thought it would go: they’d invite him in, send the children upstairs to bed, then put on the kettle for tea.
There’s a small cot in the room adjoining the kitchen, sheeted discretely with plastic, where they would have left the body while they spoke; while seldom used, the cot is there for just such occasions. They would’ve discussed terms—or, rather, her mother and Aunt Jenny would have told the man Avery’s terms, while Avery herself appeared aloof or sympathetic or absented herself from the conversation entirely, as best suited the situation. There would have been a decision—and if the man agreed?
Then, and only then, would she have dug the grave.
But when Aunt Jenny invited the man inside, he’d taken a step and then just . . . stopped. He’d gone statue-still—staring, Avery thought, at her. Then he’d carefully lowered his bloody burden to the welcome mat and drawn the knit mask over his face.
That’s when the gun had come out. That’s when the shouting had begun.
It should have gone differently—but it didn’t and here they were.
Avery had been tired when that knock came, struggling through the last few math problems Aunt Jenny had assigned, and watching the much-erased pencil lines blur as her aching eyes struggled to focus. Now she feels very awake, and very, very alive.
Outside, the night is cool and dark, no streetlights for kilometres, and the stars’ brilliance doing little to illuminate the poorly mown yard. The only light comes from the porch, the old bulb haloed in spider’s webs and dusty moths’ wings.
Avery takes a step, another. She could scream, she knows. She could scream and cry for help, and no one would hear her. The closest neighbours are more than a half-hour walk through the woods, and it’s farther still to the nearest town. The house is isolated—intentionally so—and this is the first moment that Avery regrets it.
“Here,” the man says when she’s taken a few strides into the darkness. “This is far enough.”
Here is not nearly far enough. So close to the house Avery can still see the bonfire lights of her family in the basement, five lives burning strong and bright and so close it seems she could touch them without reaching. But she can’t tell him that.
“I can’t have a grave in the middle of the yard,” she says instead, trying to keep her voice steady and mostly succeeding. She’s not wrong.
“Not my problem.” He places the blanket-wrapped body on the grass so very gently.
He accompanies her as she fetches a shovel from the shed at the corner of the cleared section of the property, watching to make sure she doesn’t make a break for the trees. He’s bigger than her, taller, and smells of sweat and blood; yet it’s only from so close that Avery realizes that he’s not quite as large as she first thought. His bulk comes more from layered clothing a few sizes too big than it does from muscle.
He’s bigger, stronger, faster than her—but even so, she thinks about escape. No one needs to be hurt. The night is dark, but within the forested part of their land it’s darker still, the canopy of leaves so thick that not even starlight can fall within. Avery knows this land and has walked its pathways at all hours since she was ten years old. She knows how to run here, how to move swiftly and quietly, how to use the bush to hide.
But then there’s her family.
But then there’s the gun. So she goes into the shed and chooses a well-worn shovel, then walks back to the body to start digging.
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