The Shimmering Prayer of Sûkiurâq

Release Date: 1 June 2019

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A deliciously queer magical person story in a secondary world with floating cities and airships, perfect for fans of She-Ra and Steven Universe.

All thaes life, Oibe Ekêmai has wanted to become a lêqnaemi, a travelling dancer skilled at nudging the world’s magic into making everyone’s lives a little easier. Thae has trained years for their chance at the Festival of Paths, where new apprentices will be chosen.

But the lêqnaemi have secrets they only reveal to those chosen to join their ranks and Oibe Ekêmai and thaes new friends soon find themselves thrust into an age-old conflict. With almost no preparation and certainly no training, their group will have to face the horrors all lêqnaemi have sworn to face and triumph, or the entire world may be lost to darkness forever.

***

This novella contains warnings for:

  • Major character death
  • Body horror
  • Citywide devastation
  • Relatively graphic descriptions of gore
  • References to alcoholism
  • References to abuse
  • One moment of accidental misgendering (remarked on negatively)

Tags: aromantic bisexual lead, magical girl but with a nonbinary protagonist, because platonic relationships are just as powerful as romantic ones, friendship saves the day, creepy creatures made of darkness (I'd still totally take some home as pets), exes can be good friends too, questioning side character, assume everyone is queer, airship goodness, buckets are your best friend while travelling, dancing is magic, sometimes you don't want dreams to come true, it has a happy ending (I promise), stubbornness can be a powerful thing, not on my watch, come for the cute stay for the world-saving shenanigans

Excerpt

Oibe Ekêmai stomped on the ground to get some warmth into thaes legs and feet. All thae accomplished was a reminder of how badly thaes muscles ached from the forty-minute hike that had taken thae from thaes home to this tiny, overcrowded, canopied courtyard. It always looked so different during the Festival of Paths. Gone were the market stalls and gone was the sky. Gone was the sense of space and the cloudnose statue that spouted water in summer. Gone was the ever-present sheen of golden sand and the collection of grime on walls infrequently washed. The whole area had been scrubbed and cleared for the selection process.

Half of the courtyard was currently taken up by a single tent. It wasn’t much to look at, grey cloth that would have blended into walls behind it if it hadn’t been for the thick ropes keeping it upright and the braziers stood in front of the closed entrance. Beside it stood two much smaller tents that stored the ribbons the hopefuls would use to show their skills. The rest of the square was for the selection process with a small area cordoned off for family and friends that had come to watch.

All around, several dozen other hopefuls were shifting and murmuring to one another in low voices. Pre-dawn, the only light came from the festival lanterns strung up along the canopy. Oibe Ekêmai’s fur-lined coat barely kept the cold out and, despite the protest from thaes muscles, thae was trying to stay active for both warmth and flexibility. Thae didn’t want to be stiff when it was thaes time to dance. When it was thaes time to prove that thae had the skill and aptitude to become a lêqnaemi as thae had always dreamed of. To see so much of the world and to protect everyone, not just the livestock thaes family raised… I should have had a back-up plan, thae thought. Goddesses, what if I need a back-up plan? There was no way thae would go back to the farm after the festival, but thae had no idea what else thae could do besides dance. Outwit livestock six times out of twelve?

Nerves had kept thae awake all night, sending worries reeling through thaes head as quick and slippery as goats. Thae had planned everything thae would do down to the last detail, but what if it wasn’t enough? Oibe Ekêmai wasn’t the only hopeful. Thae hadn’t expected to be, but it felt like this year there were more than the times thae had sneaked away to watch the hopefuls practice and dance when thae was too young to join them. What if thae couldn’t stand out amidst so many? Feeling the fear slither closer, Oibe Ekêmai shifted on thaes feet, pushing thaes fists deep into the pockets of thaes coat for warmth. Thae couldn’t remember a time when thae hadn’t dreamed of joining the lêqnaemi. Thae couldn’t imagine what thae would do with thaes life if that dream was shattered today. It won’t, thae told thaeself. It can’t.

When thae spotted two familiar faces, thaes eyebrows shot up. What are they doing here? Emar’s ruddy, northern hair would stand out anywhere and of course Aelei Miseu was with him. The two were inseparable nowadays. Emar was sensibly dressed for the cold, but Aelei Miseu had apparently decided it was still summer. He was stalking through the gathered crowd bare-chested and bare-footed, his black hair tied back. He had to be freezing, but even those who knew him well would have to be close to see how much effort it took to hide the shivering. It was almost enough to resent Emar because Aelei Miseu certainly still took Oibe Ekêmai’s breath away.

The two were clearly looking for thae, though, and so thae made thaes way over to them carefully. Grimacing at the protest of thaes body, Oibe Ekêmai wove through the throng gathered in the square. Thae had lost count of how often thae had slipped and almost fallen on a treacherous piece of ice on the way to the Festival of Paths and thae wasn’t about to do so now. Thae’d been too careful. Thae would have only this year to start the path to thaes dreams and thae would not fail. I’m going to slip and break my neck when it’s my turn, aren’t I? thae wondered, but before thae could chase the thought, thaes friends were close enough to speak.

“Good morning,” Emar said, though the words were somewhat muffled by a thick, woollen scarf wrapped around his face.

“Good luck,” Aelei Miseu added, distracting Oibe Ekêmai from politeness. The shivers that ran up thaes spine had nothing to do with the cold and everything with Aelei Miseu’s deep, husky voice. It was a pity they hadn’t been able to work out their different desires in a relationship, but at least they had remained friends. He looked distinctly out of place, all strength and solidity, and he was trying to pretend he wasn’t rubbing warmth into his arm.

Oibe Ekêmai huffed exasperatedly, but touched Aelei Miseu’s arm briefly with a soft smile. “Thank you. You should get going to the naequaunau’s tent. You’ll catch a cold before you get there.” Like Oibe Ekêmai, Aelei Miseu had always dreamed of the path he’d wanted to take in adulthood. The blacksmith’s younger son, Aelei Miseu had had plenty of opportunity to build up his strength at least and Oibe Ekêmai had no doubt that he would make his future the way that he wanted to.

At Oibe Ekêmai’s words, Aelei Miseu only shook his head with a low chuckle. However prominent the goosebumps were on his skin, he would ignore them. Emar threaded his arm through his partner’s and leaned his body against Aelei Miseu. It couldn’t help as much as a warm, soft blanket, but it was something. Aelei Miseu always caught at least one cold in the winter.

“I tried to talk him out of it,” Emar said, serious as always, “but he’s convinced that arriving at the very end of the morning and pretending to be an ice block will convince them he’s suitable.” Emar sounded as amused and exasperated as Oibe Ekêmai felt. “Plus, we want to see you dance once more time before you leave us.”

“You’re the best dancer here,” Aelei Miseu added before Oibe Ekêmai could reply to that. “I want to see you get chosen.” He held out his hand and, after a moment’s consideration, Oibe Ekêmai took it. Shivers ran through thaes arm still. Aelei Miseu might always remain the exception to everything Oibe Ekêmai had ever understood about partnered relationships, but now was not the time or place to consider their differences on romance. Now was not a time to get distracted by could-have-beens or might-have-wanteds. Lêqnaemi. Stay focused, Mai.

Thae could have said something, quipped about how Prance would have shown them all up because no one dances like a ridiculous goat. But before thae could find the words, the lêqnaemi stepped out of the tent. The buzz in the courtyard fell silent quick as cutting cloth as the hopefuls realised that the time had come. Oibe Ekêmai pulled thaes hand free from thaes friend’s and straightened, ignoring the yet-lingering twinge in thaes legs and the strong scent of sweat, focusing instead on the woman now standing outside the tent that took up half the space.

This lêqnaemi was small and uncommonly lean and, like Aelei Miseu, not dressed for the weather at all. All she was wearing was a brightly coloured skirt and a sheer top delicately embroidered with swirls and curlicues. Her hair was swept up in the intricate, traditional braids reserved for lêqnaemi. A few gasps drifted across the courtyard, loud in the silence. Oibe Ekêmai tried to keep thaes own reaction neutral. There was nothing to be surprised by, nothing to remark on. Some people were just resistant to cold and the fact that those braids were the exact style that Oibe Ekêmai had coveted since thae was four years old was of no consequence.

Far more noteworthy was the way the woman stood perfectly still, barely past the curtain, as she surveyed the people gathered in the square. Oibe Ekêmai had always been taught that lêqnaemi were sinuous movement, the eixi caught in human form. Never-still and ever-moving. This lêqnaemi was the opposite. Oibe Ekêmai’s heart skittered at the realisation and thaes posture faltered. Thae pulled thaes mind back from the brink of ‘what if’ to consider happier thoughts. Soon thae would dance and start on the road to achieve thaes dreams. Soon thae would be on thaes way to learn secrets that had teased thae since the first time thae had seen a lêqnaemi dance to change the eixi around them. Oibe Ekêmai had been little more than a baby when a wandering lêqnaemi had sheltered with a neighbour during a frightful storm. In thanks, the lêqnaemi had danced amid their fields and herds to nudge the world into giving them a good bounty that year. It had been mesmerising in ways Oibe Ekêmai could no longer recall, but it was enough to awe thae every time thae saw a lêqnaemi dance. It was enough to make thae thirst for a life of magic and travel.

Soon thae would know. The breath thae drew was unsteady and thae stuffed thaes hands in thaes pockets to hide the fists. Calm. Thae had to be calm and still. Thae had worked thaes whole life for this. There was no back-up plan because there was no other life.

“Welcome,” the lêqnaemi said and gestured wide. “Today, we will select three new apprentices. I am euleim Ânroi Tântei.” She bowed formally, hands folded in front of her chest, and straightened.

Oibe Ekêmai hardly remembered to breathe.

An euleim! An euleim had come to their district to choose the new apprentices! Euleim was the highest rank a lêqnaemi could earn and, while they were tight-lipped about what exactly that entailed, everyone knew that the work was too important to spend time picking apprentices. Oibe Ekêmai had always dreamed that euleim were somehow essential to keeping the airships afloat and the islands watered. For years those dreams had included the euleimo seeing thae practice and breaking all traditions to name thae an apprentice – and their heir – on the spot. Thae had never dared hope —

Aelei Miseu’s nudge snapped thae back to reality and what the euleim had been saying. There was no hidden meaning to the euleim’s presence. Atru had fallen ill and euleim Ânroi Tântei had been the only lêqnaemi near enough to take thaes place.

One by one the hopefuls stepped forward to introduce themselves. Emar and Aelei Miseu stepped out of the half circle that separated the hopefuls from accompanying family members and curious onlookers. There were only a few people watching, as always. The work did not stop even for the Festival of Paths. Oibe Ekêmai’s friends didn’t move far and when it was thaes turn, Emar mouthed ‘good luck’ and Aelei Miseu made shooing motions before shuddering and cuddling up to his partner. If Oibe Ekêmai’s mouth hadn’t been so dry, thae would have chuckled. As it was, thae made thaes way to the area cleared for dancing. Thae bowed in the style of an apprentice to an euleim. Thaes long, loose hair meant it wasn’t entirely perfect, though, and of course the style had gone out of favour on the mainland. It was, however, a polite and formal approach, highlighting thaes ability to move gracefully and sinuously.

Straightening, thae had to fight the urge to tuck thaes displaced hair back immediately, thaes thoughts screaming about whether the choice had been too presumptuous and impudent. Only four other hopefuls had chosen to introduce themselves so formally.

Throughout the introductions, the euleim’s face remained impassive. Once they were over, she sent six people home. Two of them broke down crying. Of the others, only one did not look devastated. None of them had introduced themselves following traditional styles. Those hopefuls that remained were requested to dance. Oibe Ekêmai, for once, didn’t pay attention to what anyone else was doing. Thae was too busy reasoning thaeself out of thaes desire to forgo thaes carefully thought-out dance and make it up as thae went along and, when it was thaes turn, Oibe Ekêmai was still undecided.

There was no telling which was better. Thae had spent weeks agonising over whether to keep with what thae had learnt or to let some of thaes personality show through. Like everyone else, thae knew that the flow of the ribbon dances influenced the strength of the alterations to the eixi around them. There were rules and reasons the dances flowed as they did, but there was also, sometimes, innovation. Slight alterations were generally fine and, without the ribbons granted to lêqnaemi, there was no way any one of them would be able to affect the eixi. These were just cloth. Not even sticking to the purest traditional forms would actually accomplish anything, though only the lêqnaemi knew why. Oibe Ekêmai’s decision had been – was still as thaes muscle memory guided thae through the dance – to deviate from the pure forms, so costly learnt, because it would be safe enough now to do so. A slight difference only, designed to form a signature for the eixi to say ‘This is me, Oibe Ekêmai’.

At the end of thaes dance, thae thought thae saw recognition flash in euleim Ânroi Tântei’s eyes. Perhaps, Oibe Ekêmai reflected as thae made thaes way to thaes friends, I just imagined it. Did I just imagine it? I did, didn’t I? Aelei Miseu’s light touch on thaes shoulder startled thae out of the rising tide of questions and worries momentarily. He smiled at thae and for once Oibe Ekêmai did not protest when Aelei Miseu pulled thae into a too-tight hug. If he really planned to arrive at the naequaunau’s tent as an icicle, he was succeeding far too marvellously.

“You’re a fool,” thae whispered when Aelei Miseu had let thae go. Thae tried to help Emar rub his back warm again. “I hope the naequaunau are worth the pneumonia.”

“You’re worth it.”

Oibe Ekêmai had no answer to that. When Oibe Ekêmai’s eyes met Emar’s, the young man wriggled his eyebrows and shook his head before nodding towards the circle where another hopeful had started to dance. Oibe Ekêmai watched only a few moments before Aelei Miseu distracted thae with questions and stories until he and Emar had no choice but to leave if they wanted to be in time for Aelei Miseu's own chance at his dreams. The wait until euleim Ânroi Tântei announced the successful applications lasted an eternity without thaes friends to keep thaes mind from drifting every which way. All Oibe Ekêmai could do was stretch and shift, even dance on the spot discretely, to give thaeself some semblance of warmth.

Finally, euleim Ânroi Tântei started to announce the names. Oibe Ekêmai’s heart skipped a beat when thae realised what was happening. Thaes whole body shifted to alert, poised to react in some way, and thaes brain attempted to prepare for a failure thae told thaeself thae didn’t genuinely believe in. It was only by some miracle that thae remained standing when thae heard thaes name.