"The Scale-Tree" by Raphael Ordoñez (6497 words)
This is a strange story about a family living in a city of creatures, descendants of what I'm going to guess is Cain's family, using that story as the basis for an entire world populated by more monstrous races. The family here is poor, the father an artist and the children young and curious and rather devastated when their father has an accident on his flying machine and falls to his death. Of course, things aren't quite so accidental and the children find themselves targets of a cruel and hungry man who wants to turn them into stew. The story is strange and chilling and filled with small asides and an interesting world building. Some parts of the world are obscured here, some of its logic dim because the story shines only on this family, but I think it still works, still reveals enough to make sense and be fun. The children, who are the main characters, are interesting and resourceful. When they are confronted by the wickedness of the person responsible for their father's death, they have to act quickly, and show that they are capable of a bit of magic, a bit of revenge. The story reads a bit like a fable, a bit like a fairy tale. The characters are real enough but the situation seeks more mythic, involving mothers who remarry monsters and children getting turned to stew and creatures of light and revenge burning through the skies. And perhaps that is part the point, that in that leaf, in that end of things, the magic and the fables are normal, are standard operating procedure. There is certainly a lot of darkness to the story, but also a light that makes it all the way through, that sets things right and brings about a sort of happily ever after. Good stuff.
"The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (6033 words)
This is a story about a strategist of sorts, a woman with the knack for toppling empires, for bringing down corrupt regimes. A woman who has had luck on her side for a long time when it came to escaping capture but whose luck runs out when she is taken by an Empress who imprisons her in a place where time works in strange ways. She is returned to a world aged fifty years without her, and the Empress offers her a deal: topple her empire in exchange to being returned to the day that she was taken. The Empress has powers over time, and she wants to decentralize power and to do that she feels she needs to coerce Sanhi to do it. (OKAY SUPER SPOILERS) The thing is, the story builds itself well, the luck that Sanhi enjoys through most of her life explained as it is revealed that the Empress can change her form, that she is actually also one of Sanhi's most trusted friends, her lover and blade-master. So it was her that used her time powers to keep Sanhi safe, until the time when she needed to take her. This revelation cuts at Sanhi more than anything else, and that becomes the central relationship of the story, the emotional core around which everything revolves. That relationship was built on lies and deception, but was also real to both women. And as they work together to overthrow an Empire, their relationship grows close again, though with the promise that when their work is done they will part. It's a story about loss and about trust and also about forgiveness, for even though the Empress deceived Sanhi, their relationship continues, and when the time comes to return Sanhi to her own time, the two find a different way to proceed, choose a third option that allows them to continue to heal their wounds together. (Okay maybe that's the end of the spoilers?) Anyway, it is a very emotionally heavy story, and one filled with strong imagery, with brutality softened by tenderness and care.
And as a bit of an aside, the world building here is well done and strong, and I actually smiled a bit when I realized that this story has no men in it. The genders are not explained, are not really a focus, but they are present in that everyone is a woman, is a she. Or at least everyone who is given a gender in the story that I found. And that small thing makes the setting that much more interesting to me, that adds a few nice wrinkles to the setting while at the same time not really changing anything about the story. But it did prompt me to imagine how such a place might work, which sort of forces me to confront societal assumptions about gender and reproduction and things of that nature. In any event, it is refreshing to see a setting that doesn't assume that the way it is here is the way that it must be. Indeed. Definitely a story I enjoyed and recommend.