Contest #196 shortlist ⭐️


Fantasy LGBTQ+

Sarah could not sleep. The sound of the sea against the hull of her ship, the gentle rolling motion of The Maiden’s sharp hull slicing through a calm surface, the smell of salt. The mild musky scent of Gabriella’s hair and body pressed up next to her, the cool night air from her private quarter’s open balcony door kissing her naked skin. All these wonders of her life at sea, and still Sarah could not sleep.

She slowly moved Gabriella's arm off its resting place across her torso and sat up, careful not to disturb The Maiden’s first mate in the process. The smooth teak wood floors were cool as she stood up with a sigh and stretched. Sarah moved towards the open balcony door, the two moons over the Aether Sea glimmered off the water in the pitch-dark night as she approached her balcony. Sarah rested her arms on the balcony railing. As the admiral of the fleet, she had beautiful quarters on the massive ship, one of the perks was a private balcony on the stern that no one on the ship could see, and even with the moons high in the sky and the thousands of glittering stars and planets above someone on a neighboring ship could never have seen her. Even if she worried about such things. 

Sarah breathed in the sea and let out a huge sigh. Her arms and legs ached, and her back felt as if it was knotted in a hundred places. None of which had anything to do with her and Gabriella’s evening activities. She rolled her neck to try and release some of the tension there and as she did so the scent of burned wood, burned flesh, and melted iron overpowered the delightful smells of the Aether Sea. She felt the panic threaten to take hold.

Mere hours earlier Sarah had led the White Fleet in an engagement meant to help hasten the end to her Mother’s war with the Grand Isthmus Confederation. The leftover scents of that battle rolled off her ship and the ships in her fleet. A shudder ran through Sarah that had nothing to do with her nakedness in the cool night air. Sarah was transported back to the battle in her mind, the sights, sounds, and even smells. Every face of every sailor she watched die, cut down from boarders, blown apart by shells, sliced by the iron shrapnel of impacts on the hull. She had commanded ships in battle for over a decade and never lost, today was no exception, but the burden of command was beginning to weigh on her more. 

She stared out over the dark waters, toward the deep center of the Aether Sea she knew lay to the West. She wished she could take her ships on an adventure to that unnaturally calm, deep water, and try to find some of what legends said the Aether Sea had to offer. Braving the monsters of the deep would be preferable to the business of war, that man-made monster she had battled for years. “If I had known where this life would lead, I would have chosen differently.”

Tears begin to roll down her cheeks as Sarah stares off into the distance, her grip on the railings tightening until her knuckles turn white. She quietly breathes out “I would give anything for a simple life, free of these burdens, all these responsibilities, free of these deaths on my conscience.” A spark of blue and purple light catches Sarah’s eye in front of her. Not off in the distance, immediately in front of her, just off the railing, so close she jumps back a step. The light swirls, and arcs with what looks like lightning, and yet there’s no sound. The swirl opens to a vast green countryside with woods and mountains in the distance. It’s home, not her literal home, but her homeland, on the Cloud Islands. The sun-kissed land stretches from one end of the oval opening ringed in arcing purple and blues. 

Sarah has heard many stories in her lifetime at sea with sailors of miraculous, even magical, events. She’s even witnessed some things herself beyond explanation but this is something she has only ever read about once. When she was a child, being educated and molded into a leader of a nation, she used to steal away books of a less-than-factual nature. In one she read an account of a man who had lost everything, his wife and sons died in a fire in their home while he was away, and he asked the Aether Sea for a new family. A portal, like this one, had opened and he was given a choice of a new life. Accounts from the ship said he had taken it and never returned. “A new life…” Sarah gasps. Without hesitation, without covering herself, or grabbing any of her weapons, without any precautions at all, she climbs up onto the railing and stepped through the portal that seemed to follow the ship impossibly.

Her feet touch down onto grass with soft soil underneath. The sounds of the sea are replaced with the chirping of birds and the soft rustling of the wind through stalks of grain, wild grasses, and tree branches. The salty smell of the sea and the smell of the iron and polished teak wood of her ship are gone. In their place, she can smell the earthiness of barley and the sweet scent of peach trees. The familiar chill of night on the Aether Sea has left Sarah, now the warm sun beats her skin, warming her back, face, arms, and legs comfortably. She is wearing the traditional clothing of the agri-workers of the inner islands, plain beige light cotton cloth, a skirt, and a loose short-sleeved shirt. 

Sarah had only ever come here on tours of the Empire with her father when she was very young, and although her memories were old she easily recognizes the surroundings as real. “Oh.” a small gasp escapes her lips as a dizzy spell hits Sarah suddenly. A disorienting sensation floods her mind as she begins to feel memories break into her mind. Memories of a life she knows she did not live but also memories that make this world, this life, as real to her as the grass beneath her feet.

She has children! Sydney, Grace, and Frank. They all still live at home, that home, just beyond the fields to the north. She can make out their silhouettes playing in the pond beside the house. She has… a husband… Herron Matthews. A massive grin grows across Sarah’s expression as she remembers Herron from her childhood, both childhoods. Her first love, her first kiss, her first everything. “Both childhoods… both?” Confusion creeps into Sarah’s mind, how could there be two childhoods to remember that were so similar? She loved Herron deeply. Before leaving for the academy their parting had been a gut-wrenching experience for both 

No! She loves him deeply, he is a brilliant man, a considerate husband, and an even better father. They live a simple, perhaps some might describe it as poor, life on the farm. There’s hardship, she lost a son when he was only 4 to a bout of Cyrax Flu, and they’ve certainly endured years of struggle with not enough to go around but there’s a purity and joy in this life. 

Sarah walks toward home, she runs her hands along the stalks of grain growing in the fields. It is near time for them to harvest, this year Herron is planning to distill the peach bourbon that’s so famous with all their neighbors. Sarah enjoys pouring it into iced tea, she can taste it already. Then she sees him. Herron is in the field checking over the crop. He is wearing a skirt similar to her own but is working in the sun without a shirt, the sun glistens off the sweat on his back. Sarah runs to him “Herron!” She calls as she draws near, he turns beaming in delight at her sudden appearance, and opens his arms. “Sarah, my love.”

Sarah practically throws herself into her husband's arms. His smell, the way he feels in her arms, and her in his, feels like home, it’s a loving embrace as her lips meet his in a soft, supple, familiar kiss. Herron breaks the kiss first but continues to hold Sarah tight with arms muscled by years of hard farm labor. “Let us call it a day my love, we can go back and play with the children, have an early supper, and lie together under the stars tonight.”

“I do love lying with you under the stars,” Sarah responds.

Herron releases Sarah and grabs her hand, leading her toward their home and the pool the children are swimming, and splashing in. Something nags at the back of her mind as she walks with Herron. “Herron?”


“I can’t remember, when are my parents coming to visit again?” Herron stops and turns fully to look into Sarah’s eyes.

“You do not remember?”

“No. I… I remember a lot, but there’s also a fog of other memories, it’s hard to explain.”

Herron smiles and there’s a curious look in his eyes. “Ah, you’re one of her others.”

“Others? Whose others?” Sarah asks.

“My Sarah. Sometimes the Aether brings other versions of you here, it has happened 3 times. They, well you, ask the Aether something about your life and it decides to show you this.” He sweeps his hands around the idyllic farm cradled in a picturesque valley. “There is always some quirk that gives you away.”

“It’s… so wonderful. This life compared to mine.” Sarah feels a deep sorrow welling up in her chest as the conflicting memories in her mind war with one another and her other life comes crashing into focus. A sob leaves her and Herron pulls her close, her head rests against his chest as she sobs. “I’ve seen, and done, such horrible things in that other life. I would love to remain here.”

Herron hushes her as he gently strokes Sarah’s hair. “I know, you all seem to come here broken in some way.” Sarah looks up into his eyes.

“Where are my mother and father here?”

“Dead.” Sarah’s eyes widen in shock.

“What? How!?”

Herron does not answer immediately, contemplating. “About 5 years after we marry and move here the White Fleet is defeated at a battle near Obsidian Port. Within a year of that defeat, the Cloud Islands had fallen completely, and your parents were captured and executed. The Isthmian Confederation rules the Cloud Islands now.”

“No… we… we win the Battle of Obsidian port. I win it.” Sarah says.

“Not here you don’t my love. Here we labor under the Isthmians because the White Fleet loses. The other Sarahs also had similar reactions to this news.” Herron continues to stroke her hair soothingly, in the same way, Gabriella does. Gabriella… “My love, our lives are the sum of the decisions we make in life. We do what we think is best, it’s all any of us can do, and we live with those choices. I don’t know why the Aether gives you a choice to come to stay here, I don’t know why you make the various choices you do in life, but I know here. Here, you are happy, you are loved, you are content.”

Sarah pulls away, “Even under the yoke of the Isthmians?” 

“We are not warriors or politicians Sarah, we farm, we provide for our friends and neighbors.”

Sarah looks around at all the beauty in the valley. She listens to the sound of her children playing in the pool near their farmhouse. She breathes in Herron and the world around her. Memories of what has become of her home under Isthmian rule, people subjugated, beaten, jailed. Homes burned, cities sacked. All because here she did nothing, she chose to leave a life she had been built for, a hard life, but a necessary one. She takes another step back from Herron. He frowns slightly. “You will leave too,” he says.

“Oh Herron, if I go what happens to your Sarah?”

“Nothing, she won’t remember you. This is about you, not… her, if that makes sense to you,” He reaches out and grabs her hand again. “Sarah, you don’t have to go back. You don’t have to be that other person. You can unburden yourself here. With me. Forget the Isthmians and your destiny to wage war and rule the seas as the Empress one day. Be here, with me. Be here with us.”

The temptation is acute but something still tugs at her. Another memory from a life on the seas, something pulling her back. She could live her life out here, content. Tanned in the sun, with clear skies, unburdened, picking peaches and chasing her children. She could lay with Herron every night. Season after season, a simple happy life. But that life is a dream, it is not her reality. That destiny was not made for her. Sarah Dux III, future Empress of the Cloud Islands’ fate was a life of duty and responsibility. A fate to protect her people, to lead them, a fate very different from an honest farmer on the inner islands. “No.” Sarah looks deep into Herron’s eyes and sees sadness but also understanding there.

“I understand my love. I hope you will find happiness and peace one day.”

Sarah turns from him, from her children, from her home. She turns her back on all of it and walks back towards the portal. Each step strengthens the memories from her life at sea. Her real life. With each step the life of Sarah Dux the farmer fades in her mind. Through the portal, she can see the darkness. A balcony on the stern of a ship, barely illuminated by the moons. With the confidence bred into her, with the fearlessness of an Admiral of the White Fleet, with the unbreakable iron will of a future Empress, she steps through the portal again, back to the darkness of her other, her real, life.

Her right foot touches the top railing and she springs down onto her left with the deftness of the hard-bitten sailor she is. Sarah looks over her shoulder, she can just make out Herron in the field, with… her… by his side, as the portal blinks shut. She stands at the railing again, the cool air against her, and the smell of the salty Aether Sea fills her nostrils. She remembers the portal, and what she left behind, but it is fading fast, as if it were a dream. A dream she knows wasn’t a dream, but also a dream that isn’t her reality. Sarah turns back to her quarters, Gabriella snores softly on their bed, the sheets pulled down to her waist. Exactly where they had been when Sarah had risen from her place at Gabriellas' side earlier. The light of the moons through the balcony door and several round porthole windows illuminates her dark skin and face, her dark curly hair falls slightly across her face, all of it framing her beautifully. Sarah shakes her head, “How could I have ever considered a life with you.” 

While they have not been together long, Sarah knows one thing now for certain she had not before. While the Sarah of her not-dream had a deep, abiding love of Herron, this Sarah. Her. She has Gabriella, and maybe, that is enough.

May 05, 2023 17:49

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Amanda Lieser
14:32 May 26, 2023

Hi John, Now, I am a sucker for a good love story, and I thought that you did an amazing job of having to in this piece! Yes, there is the initial love story between your protagonist in Gabriella, but there was also the love story of the fantasy world with the farm, and I really liked that you had your character reflect on the fact that she genuinely loved her husband in that world and in her own world where they don’t work out for the long term. I think it’s by our very nature to wonder about the grass on the other side-those who live quiet...


John Weyermuller
17:27 May 26, 2023

Thank you! I appreciate the feedback, I've never shared any of my fiction writing publicly before, and hearing that people like what I wrote is really nice. I wanted to make sure the contrast between the two lives was clear but that both were genuine, I am glad it worked.


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Ben Battles
18:01 May 11, 2023

Your descriptions are nice, a lot of solid imagery; For me, I felt like there was a little too much fantasy jargon for such a short story, but that said it does fully communicate to the reader that this is completely its own world where anything can happen. I liked the inversion of the “refusing the call to adventure,” trope, where we have a hero who refuses the call to well deserved rest. I think the part that didn’t quite land for me was the ending. Gabriella has no characterization, so it doesn’t feel like Sarah’s trading Herron for Gabr...


John Weyermuller
05:05 May 13, 2023

That's some interesting feedback. Some of that had not occurred to me, and now that I have heard that version of the final line, I definitely like it better. Thanks!


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