Contest #211 shortlist ⭐️



From a one-room cabin in the cliffs overlooking the port of Pettra, an old woman watched through a spyglass as a messenger boy raced down the stairs to the docks, letter in hand. 

She wore her hair short, the ends curling at her temples instead of the long braid traditional to wives and widows. The only ornamentation she donned was a compass hanging on a fine golden chain around her neck. Though her age was clear from the deep lines on her face, wrinkles drawn by a lifetime under the sun, she stood straight and tall. Her only concession to her aging body was a hand resting lightly on the windowsill before her. 

Like the woman herself, the room at her back was modest in appearance, sparsely furnished. There was a cot in the corner. A quilt and a half-finished knitting project abandoned on a rocking chair by the fire. Immediately to the right stood a small card table with a chipped tea set, nothing more than a porcelain kettle and two empty, mismatched cups. 

The old woman squinted carefully, tracking the boy’s progress. The kind of boys who did odd jobs around the port were known as dock spiders. From this distance, the name couldn’t be more fitting. The messenger boy scurried along the docks, weaving around sailors, traders, repairmen, and officials before finally coming to a stop at an unassuming merchant ship. Satisfied, the old woman set the spyglass aside and returned to the rocking chair. She hummed under her breath as she set about making a pot of tea. 

A storm was brewing. 


“A letter for you, Captain.” 

Ansel looked up from the barrel of grain he’d been inspecting. It had been not one hour since they’d docked in Pettra. 

Ansel deposited a coin into the messenger boy’s waiting hand, staring at the seal. He recognized it instantly, the rising sun pressed into dark red ink. The second seal of Zora Lasylle. 

He shook his head and tucked the letter into his coat, exchanging a word with his first mate before retreating belowdecks to read it. The crew could ready their haul for market his supervision. 

After days at sea, everything Ansel owned was slightly damp, from the clothes on his back to his maps and ledgers to the bedroll in his cabin belowdecks. He sat at his desk watching the corners of the crisp parchment droop slightly in the waterlogged air. 

The messy scrawl was nearly illegible, but the instructions were clear: Ren has docked in Pettra, the letter read. Bring her to the eastern cliffs overlooking the port at first storm, likely around noon today. 

Ansel shook his head ruefully. The skies were clear for miles, but he knew better than to doubt Zora Lasylle. Though it had been nearly four decades since he had last sailed under her, his captain had spoken. It would be as she wished. 


To sail under Zora Lasylle was to enjoy certain privileges: the freedom to dock at major ports, for one. No one knew why Zora – a notorious pirate who raided villages, fenced precious gems and spices, and went after navy vessels and slaving ships alike – could dock alongside nobles and traders unchallenged.

Bribes, people whispered. Blackmail

Granted, Zora never advertised her status as a pirate captain around port. They didn’t dock often, preferring to put down anchor in unmapped coves. Her ship was called the Sea Nymph, the same generic name that most trading ships bore, and she always ordered the flags switched out whenever they docked in port. 

The navy did come after her on occasion. Bounty hunters, too. Early in her captaincy, before Ansel worked for her, there had been a time when notorious pirate ships were run aground every other week. But when the navy came for Zora’s Sea Nymph, weeks of violent, unpredictable storms prevented them from engaging in a shoot-out – dog fighting that the navy, unmatched in its firepower, would surely win. Instead, the chase resembled a regatta through a storm, and no one was a better sailor in rough weather than Zora. 

That was when the legend of Zora Lasylle really began to take shape. Storm caller, people named her. 

Ansel crewed for Zora from ages six to eighteen. He saw firsthand Zora’s uncanny knack for predicting storms. But storm caller? Pirates and sailors were a superstitious lot. It was hard, sometimes, to see where superstition and coincidence might bleed into reality. 

When he first met Zora, Ansel was a dock spider, one of those starving children that loitered near the docks trying to find work scrubbing hulls or running messages. Most dock spiders avoided pirates, but Ansel had been desperate – six years old, alone and afraid. A few jobs in, Zora offered him a spot on her crew. 

Ansel spent the first several weeks onboard alternating miserably between swabbing the deck and retching over the side of the ship. It was crawling above deck to ease his stomach one night that he saw Zora Lasylle standing on the quarterdeck and gazing out to sea. Sickness all but forgotten in his fascination, he watched as she spit in her teacup, swirled the contents with her finger, and then poured it into the open sea. 

Within a minute or two, storm clouds gathered overhead. Ansel looked on as Zora tipped her face back to welcome the rain, reveling in the storm. 


Ansel wondered about Zora’s penchant for recruiting dock spiders for years. Was it strategic, vain, or both? Those in Zora’s crew who began as dock spiders worshipped her like no one else. She was at once their captain and their savior. 

Ansel, for his part, spent his entire childhood fascinated by the pirate captain. For all her cruelty, her turbulent moods, he trusted her implicitly until the day that Zora had dropped him over the side of the Sea Nymph

It was his eighteenth birthday, or at least the day that he celebrated as such, and Ansel foolishly hoped her summons was a good thing. A promotion, maybe, or even just a kind word. Instead, Zora had handed him a small sack of coins – payment owed – and tossed him onto the docks as the ship departed. “Find work on another ship. You’re no pirate, Ansel,” she had said, as close to gentle as Zora Lasylle ever was. “Your face is too honest.” 

Shame curled in his belly whenever he remembered how he’d begged to stay. The worst had been when Ren, a crew member ten years his junior, had taken a hammer to his fingers as he’d grasped the edge of the ship, trying to scramble aboard as the crew pushed off. 

“Leave,” Ren hissed at him. “Go, before she decides you’re drawing unwanted attention and decides to kill you instead.”

Lying crumpled on the docks, Ansel could see the wisdom in her words. Even now, dock officials were walking their way. He scrambled to his feet and ran. 

That first night had been the worst, wandering Pettra in a state of shock. Bruised and battered, he limped his way inland. His fingers swelled where Ren had broken them; two would later heal crooked. He bore the mark of Zora Lasylle’s crew branded on his arm, a calligraphic letter Z like a bolt of lightning, but had none of her protection. He was six years old again, a dock spider, lost and alone. 

It took three hungry weeks to find work aboard a merchant ship. 

Fifteen years after that unceremonious dismissal, a letter bearing the seal of a rising sun found him. It was brief to the point of wasting paper – a single line of Zora’s messy scrawl: Find Ren and send her to Pettra. Tell no one. 

There was no signature, but he recognized the handwriting instantly. Zora hadn’t bothered with listing threats. She didn’t need to. The letter was addressed to his rank of first mate and the name of the ship he served on. That meant she knew the ship’s route, which meant she could easily dismantle their trading operations if he defied her. 

He turned his compass over in his hands as he thought. It was bronze and shaped like a pocket watch. Zora had given it to him back when he crewed for her. She’d pickpocketed it off a navy commander. For years, it had been the nicest thing he owned.

Zora cultivated loyalty in a lot of ways, but casual generosity was perhaps the most surprising. Ansel knew better than to think of it as a kindness, but as a boy, it had been one of many reasons he’d worshipped her. 

Even after Zora booted him from her crew, he hadn’t been able to bring himself to pawn it. Hungry as he was, he couldn’t let go of the familiar weight in his pocket. She’d had been right all along, of course – Ansel was no pirate; he had no taste for easy money or revenge. He couldn’t even hold to anger.

In the week that followed the arrival of Zora’s first letter, Ansel feigned injury and took leave from the merchant ship to avoid the suspicion that would come with searching for a pirate. It took several more weeks and cost him a small fortune, but he found Ren, who captained her own ship now. After delivering Zora’s summons, Ansel bought passage on Ren’s ship to Pettra. 

“Zora didn’t ask for you,” Ren said skeptically when he handed over the coin. 

“If you ignore this, I will be the one who bears the punishment,” Ansel replied grimly.  


When they arrived in Pettra that day, Zora was already waiting. Despite the bustle of activity on the docks, despite the intervening years, Ansel recognized her immediately. Officials, dock spiders, and traders alike cut a wide berth around her. The pirate wore boots and trousers as she always had; her compass – which Ansel had never seen her consult – hung around her neck. The fine merchant’s coat around her shoulders must’ve been a concession to port sensibilities.

She spared little more than a glare for Ansel as she greeted Ren and invited her to the Sea Nymph. “I wrote nothing of you coming to Pettra, Ansel.” 

“In fairness, you wrote very little.” 

Zora shook her head mockingly, casting her eyes to the sky. “Even now, he expects fairness.” 

“Why send me to find Ren?”

“Use your head, boy. Pirate ships sail at their whim, but not merchant ships. You were easy to find, and I had more important matters to see to.”

“Truly nothing more than money and convenience?”

Zora shrugged. “Why go looking for something that can be delivered to my doorstep?” 

Ansel studied her. “I believe that that is part of it.” He knew better than to demand more answers – none would be forthcoming. Zora turned to leave. 

“Why did you want Ren?” he called after her anyway.

Zora just smiled over her shoulder, all-knowing and enigmatic. “I believe that some legends shouldn’t die.” 

Ansel wouldn’t understand her meaning until many years later, when he ran into Ren on the docks of another faraway port. He nearly didn’t recognize her – she’d cut her hair short so that the ends curled at her temples, and wore Zora’s compass around her neck. 

Surprised into warmth, he greeted her by name. 

Ren pinned him with a glare. “My name is Zora Lasylle.” 


Just as Zora said in her letter, the heavy rains began around noon. By the time Ren and Ansel reached the top of the cliffs, they were both soaked through. Zora was nowhere in sight, but a solitary cabin stood at the top of the stairs. 

Ren nodded at it in question and Ansel shrugged. “Must be.” 

But there was no answer when he knocked at the door. Ren reached past him and tried the doorknob. Ansel scoffed, but sure enough, it was unlocked.  

With the black storm clouds overhead and only the light of the fireplace within, the room was so full of shadows that it seemed to breath in time with the flickering flames of the fireplace. Or maybe it was the old woman dozing in the nearby rocking chair with which the room sighed in time. Her soft gray curls were cut short around her temples, and a patchwork quilt was carefully wrapped around her shoulders to ward off a chill. A black cat curled at her feet and a half-knit sock slouched in her lap. There was a chipped tea set on the table to her right, a steaming porcelain kettle and two mismatched cups with tea leaves gathered at the bottom. 

Ansel took in a sharp breath. Zora Lasylle had grown old. To see her now was like seeing double – at once, the fearless captain he had crewed for and the old woman before him. In the twelve or so years that he had spent on the Sea Nymph, he had never seen her asleep.  

“She looks like a grandmother,” Ansel said in a hushed voice.

Ren elbowed him sharply. “Captain,” she said. 

The old woman blinked herself awake. Her eyes skipped over Ansel – had she heard his remark, or did she simply not care? – to land on the woman next to him. “Ah, Zora,” his captain said, a smile splitting her face. She ignored Ansel entirely. 

Ren bowed her head to the old woman. “Hello, Zora,” she replied. 

Ansel sighed. “I’ll take my leave, Captain,” he said quietly to the old woman in the chair. The door closed quietly behind him on the incongruous scene that was Zora Lasylle, the old woman, facing Zora Lasylle, the legend living on.


When Ren emerged half an hour later, her eyes were red and she was carrying a teacup. She seemed utterly unsurprised to see Ansel standing at the edge of the cliffs, shoulders hunched against the rain. He’d trudged halfway down the treacherous stairs to the docks before turning around and climbing back up. 

Ren came to stand next to him and for a moment, they stared out at the waves crashing far below the sheer face of the cliffs. Was she crying? It was impossible to tell in the rain. 

Studiously ignoring Ansel, Ren let the teacup fill halfway with rain and spit in it. She used her finger to mix the rainwater, spit, and dregs of tea before dumping it into the angry waves below. Thunder crashed, so loud that Ansel flinched. Lightening flashed a few seconds later, lighting up the white caps. Ansel was reminded, eerily so, of the first storm he’d ever sailed with Zora Lasylle.  

Ren turned to him. “You should say your goodbyes before you leave port.” She stowed the teacup in her jacket and headed for the stairs without another word. 

The storm raged on as he crossed the short distance from the edge of the cliffs to Zora’s door. Entering, he was struck again by the sight before him – Zora Lasylle, an old woman. “Why is the door unlocked?” 

Zora glanced at him, dismissive and as unsurprised as Ren. She held the cat in her arms now. “Please, Ansel. You’re dripping all over the floor.” 

“Isn’t it dangerous? Anyone can walk in –”

“Clearly,” Zora interrupted.

“– and you have no shortage of enemies –”

“I’m aware, Ansel. I may look like a grandmother, but I’m neither senile nor defenseless,” Zora said crisply. “Ask what you wish to ask and be on your way.” 

“No,” Ansel said. Conversations with Zora never worked as intended if she was the one steering. Besides, it wasn’t that he was short on questions. He just knew better than to expect satisfactory answers. Maybe goodbyes weren’t about questions or answers anyway. 

Ansel turned his compass over in his hands, staring at its polished bronze face. “I never thanked you. Not for rescuing me from life as a dock spider, and not for rescuing me from life as a pirate. But I owe you a great deal.”

Zora looked as surprised as he had ever seen her. She stared out the window for a long moment, watching the storm rage. Thunder boomed; the coals in the fireplace hissed and popped; rain drummed down on the roof. At last, she spoke. “I am eighty-three years old and not long for this world, Ansel, but Zora Lasylle lives on. Consider your debts paid.”

Ansel bowed his head to the old woman. “Goodbye, Captain.” 

He would never see Zora Lasylle again. At least, not this version of her. 

August 19, 2023 03:08

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Amanda Lieser
15:40 Sep 16, 2023

Hi Hana! Congratulations on the shortlist! I love a good pirate story and a vast cast of characters. It’s always so impressive to me when riders on Reedsy manage to pack so many individuals into their story with 3000 words or less. You have characters who are worthy of admiration because of their exceptional courage, leadership, and intellect. I loved them all. Nice work!!


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Story Time
16:31 Aug 29, 2023

I really felt like you built this world that was both familiar and new. The language was very evocative, and I'm looking forward to reading more from you.


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Bob Long Jr
15:38 Aug 27, 2023

I love a good sea faring tale and this one was a great read. Thank you for writing and sharing it. I did go back and read the opening. It was the Original Zora in her end of story age. Tough love .. kicking Ansel off the ship .. and I believe Zora really did love the boy. She had given him a compass, after all. And she wanted to see him again at the end of live. Zora did have a heart but it was pretty well hidden. Good story Hana !


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Philip Ebuluofor
21:27 Aug 26, 2023

This week seems to be overflowing with wonderful works. Congrats.


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Lee Mesford
23:16 Aug 25, 2023

That was a great spin on a pirate tale. Too bad we never learned about Zora's unique connection to stormy weather.


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Mary Bendickson
19:07 Aug 25, 2023

Welcome to Reedsy and congrats on shortlist.🥳. Top ship shape story.


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DR Forge
19:33 Aug 24, 2023

Well done! I really like the storm and water imagery used throughout. I would love to read a series set in the same world.


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