It’s hard to get a message across when you don’t have much of a voice.
Mai Amiel never considered herself a good public speaker. She shuffled from side to side at the edge of the town stage, waiting her turn. Hundreds of people listened to the current speaker. He went on about coal miners needing to work less hours. Good luck.
Winds blew past. Chillier than usual, and she pulled up her hood.
The crowd, as she expected, shook their heads as the speech ended. Gave their thumbs down. A few drunks yelled out how coal miners should work harder. That raised roars of approval, as if twelve-hour shifts were not enough.
Mai walked over to the demoralized speaker as he left the stage. Coal stains spotted his white miner’s parka. She stopped him to tell him it was a nice try, that she supported his cause, and he pushed her aside. She couldn’t blame him—he’d be up by sunrise, working until dusk.
Exhaustion, lung disease, and low pay.
She exhaled. That was not her battle to fight.
Mai walked to center stage. Her time to shine, to bring light to a colony issue. Nights of studying, practicing the language, and reserving a time to speak. She faced the crowd—intimidating, but she would manage. Her voice would better, and in the best case, save their lives.
She pulled down her hood-
“An Anarhi?” one drunk called out. Whispers followed. Mai raised a hand to feel the ears jutting out of her head. Was it that big of a deal? Could they not tell before? Her hood didn’t hide them.
“I’d like to talk about-”
“No way I’m listening to you,” the same drunk called. “No way is rabbit ears over here going to decide things for me.” Murmurs of agreement. Nodding. The drunk smiled, a bit too proud of himself.
“I haven’t even started yet,” Mai said.
“And already none of us care, rabbit. Your kind-”
“Starve then,” she snapped.
Town guards broke through the crowd to escort the drunk out. He resisted and called out something about Anarhi opinions not being worth a dime. She waited for the noise to die down. The crowd looked ready to go home, and the town officials shook their heads at the side of the stage.
Awful start. She breathed in.
“I’d like to talk to everyone about hunting. I’ve been a member of the hunter’s guild for about a year now, and it’s clear from our scoring that we have a problem with overhunting. It could lead to food shortages when it gets colder.”
“Anarhi, it sounds like-”
“It’s something,” Mai continued, speaking louder, “that we can solve. That we have to solve. If we cut off low populated grounds, find an alternative food source, which I’ll get to, and stop prize hunting for sport and cosmetics-”
“Anarhi!” a woman pushed her way to the front. Of course, she wore a fur coat. “Listen to me-”
“Anarhi. Your pay is good, better than most, and our food is fine. Why would you protest your own work?”
“Can I finish?”
“My husband is a member of the hunter’s guild,” the woman turned to the people surrounding her, “I know what I’m talking about. She’s trying to get her squad ahead right now.”
Mai sighed. The town officials to her side, all human, not an Anarhi in sight unless she squinted to the back of the crowd, motioned to the woman. Apparently, she had a point.
“I love hunting, and would never want to put myself out of work, but I don’t think you understand the idea of population growth, and the inability to hunt with how cold our later seasons are.”
She gasped. “Don’t be condescending with me, rabbit.”
Mai looked over to the town officials. One spoke up, asking the woman to calm down. She said she would once the ‘rabbit’ answered her question.
“Well,” Mai said, “While I agree with you, no one has yet to go hungry here. The problem is how fast our population is growing. I worry-”
“It’s all Anarhi!” a man shouted. “Go back to your lands and we won’t ever have a food problem.” Only a minority disagreed. Mai tensed her hands into fists. The town officials called her over.
They would consider her proposal and schedule a time for her to speak in the future. It’d be best if she left for now.
- - -
Mai left the stage and walked straight to the archery range.
Outside, empty, and almost silent, she loosed arrow after arrow into a twenty-yard target. A group of engineers shovelled coal into a nearby steam gen, meant to keep the area warm. The bowstring snapped back and struck her arm guard.
None of her arrows flew straight. She nocked another, pulled the string back tight enough to have it snap, and released. It broke into the black outer ring of the target. Terrible accuracy. Not that it mattered.
She reached to her quiver for an arrow, paused, then turned her head. The gate to the archery range opened. Her hunting squad leader walked through and leaned back against the post beside her.
“What are you doing here, Mai?”
She loosed another arrow, missing the target, landing somewhere in the field beyond. She reached a hand back to her quiver. Empty. In the red coil light from the steam gens, not a single one of her arrows pierced the inner rings of the target, instead lining the rim. A feat in itself.
“Doesn’t look like practice to me. I’ve seen you nail fifty yards clean.”
“I’m frustrated, Ren.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I was there in the crowd, and I thought what you were saying needed to be said.”
“Thanks for the support.” She kneeled to restock her arrows. “It’s just that,” she nocked one, “I’m trying to help people, and your kind doesn’t take me seriously.”
“Some of us do.”
“Right,” the arrow flew. Another miss. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“All okay, Mai. I thought you’d be here with how tonight went.” She lowered her bow, and Ren handed her a folded piece of paper. “You didn’t forget about the tournament, I take it? Preliminaries are in a week.”
“I’ve…been busy,” Mai read over the paper. A festival held at their colony, Frostwood, in three months. It would include an archery tournament with the best competitors from surrounding colonies. All eyes would be on the world’s favourite sport.
“I’d be the only Anarhi competing, I’d bet.”
“All the better when you win,” Ren said. “It’ll show the Anarhi they can compete. Don’t be up too late, right? We hunt tomorrow at noon.” He patted her on the shoulder and took off.
Mai practiced the last of her quiver, regaining her focus, listening to the hum of the steam gens. An arrow broke the inner ring. A win at the tournament, money aside, would be a win for the Anarhi. She spun an arrow around her hand before nocking it. People would respect her if she brought home a medal, and would listen to her when she spoke. Her arrow broke into the center ring.
She’d have a voice to work with while giving her people one as well.
It’d be like the idiom, she thought. Throwing two stones at one bird. Or whatever it was. A bird in the hand is worth two stones. Or, the early bird gets knocked out by a stone? Whatever. It was something about dead birds.
She read over the paper. If she could qualify in the preliminaries, she’d have three months to practice, and that would be more than enough.
- - -
Mai swept the preliminaries.
The weather grew cold. Four-legged mechs carried tired coal miners to the borders, where they worked overtime for the fuel needed to keep the colony warm. She had walked past two groups of protesters on her way to the preliminary contest. The lawkeepers would be there soon.
Before the extended work hours, the protests had been about cold homes.
The preliminaries had been a breeze—none of Frostwood’s competitors cared to shake hands with her, and Mai spared them no quarter in scoring. A year of hunting and practicing archery as a hobby had paid off. The second-place score was more than a bullseye behind her.
With the occasional pointers from Ren, she perfected her form. The coils on the steam gens glowed dark red, early in the year, as Mai woke up at sunrise to practice—the earlier she awoke, the better. If she could leave the house before her father left for the coal mines, yelling about the work hours, she’d avoid bruises.
She stopped at a cookhouse and overheard the workers talk as she ate.
“This one will be worse than the last great storm,” a chef said. “That one was six years ago, huh? I remember people huddling and camping near the gens, praying they wouldn’t run out of coal.”
“Yeah,” came a reply, “the miners ain’t gonna be happy 'bout the emergency shifts. They’re moaning enough as is. We’ll be carrying pickaxes by the week’s end.”
“Either that or we all freeze to death.”
An hour later, she heard town officials had pushed the festival forward two months to compensate for the upcoming storm. She’d be competing against the top archers from her age group in less than a week. First to the range, Mai practiced alone, her arrows whistling through the air to the seventy-yard target. The steam gens radiated a strong warmth nearby, melting snowflakes before they could reach the ground.
The fence rattled behind her. She turned her head, lowered her bow, and smiled. A young Anarhi boy watched her. His hands clung to the rings in the fence.
Both of his ears were clipped down halfway.
Mai’s smile broke as she approached him—the boy’s mother had probably cut his ears in attempts to avoid bullying. They wouldn’t stand out as much, and if he grew his hair long, it’d cover most of them.
The boy caught her staring and stepped back.
“Hey, I’m friendly,” Mai said, switching to her language. It felt natural to be speaking her native tongue. “What are you doing here? You should be sleeping in.”
“I came to watch you. You’re like me.” The boy scratched his ears. “Are you going to compete? Will they let you?”
“Of course,” she said. She kneeled. “I’ll win too.”
“But they don’t want you to win. They’re going to try extra hard because you’re a dirty rabbit like me.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“At the schoolyards. The other kids say you cheated at the first contest. They say they’re going to throw rocks at you when you’re at the tournament. But I want you to win so I came to watch you to make sure you can.”
“It’s good to have your support.” The kid shuffled from side to side, and Mai exhaled. “Don’t let them get you down, alright? Know that there are some people so set in their ways, nothing will get through to them. But you have to hope they know we love ourselves, and them as well. We’re good people, okay? I’ll win this tournament. You'll be proud to be Anarhi.”
Mai picked up her bow and turned back to the range.
- - -
Her father did not agree with the emergency shifts.
Sixteen hours, with tents set up outside the coal mines. He stayed home drinking, and Mai spent her nights at the cookhouse, waiting for him to pass out before returning home.
Each night she overhead the chefs talk of it.
The coal miners complained about the freezing mines and the terrible pay. The town officials responded with there being no alternative—they couldn’t risk their machines so deep in the mines, and colonies refused to trade with the threat of the upcoming storm.
A protest could soon turn into a riot, and without coal miners, the people would freeze. They’ll soon be hungry too. They wouldn’t see the problem of overhunting until it hit them. Without warmth and food, the colony would fail.
For the festival, however, the town officials put on a show. Steam gens burned through coal at the lowest level of efficiency. Lines formed outside the cookhouses, and smoke puffed out of chimneys like factories. The lights, markets, and warmth turned Frostwood into a vacation zone for foreigners.
The archery range became a contest spot. Targets with fresh coats of paint. Wire nets to catch the rare stray arrows. Spectators sat on benches built to the left, and a table of judges resided to the right. Bright arc lights lit the field in a silver glow.
Mai stood alongside twelve other archers, her being the only Anarhi. The judges called her to compete first.
“Here,” another competitor handed her a bow. She recognized him from the preliminary—didn’t they all hate her? “I grabbed you one of the good ones. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Mai smiled. “Good luck to you too.”
Her nerves vanished as she focused. With every shot, she’d roll an arrow around her knuckles, back over her palm, and then nock it against the bowstring with a finesse the crowd would go silent for.
She scored high enough that her first opponent could not catch up.
Her second opponent had been closer.
Mai let her focus narrow. Her peripherals blurred at the sides. She counted to ten, and a breath later, the string tore through the wind and her arrow shot forward. It hit the inner ring of the target, and the crowd cheered.
She adjusted her gloves for her third match; the contestants dropping from twelve to six. It would determine if she made the top three. She stepped to the field, standing beside the competitor who had handed her a bow earlier.
“Good luck,” Mai said, reaching out a hand.
“Shoot wide, animal,” he replied.
A judge decided she would shoot first. The crowd silenced. The coal-powered arc lights buzzed. Mai drew the string back to where she could feel the linen against her face, taking a breath to fill her lungs, focusing only on the battered and pierced target as her peripherals blurred. She steadied her arm-
Her bowstring snapped.
It lashed against her face. A stabbing pain burnt across her mouth, and Mai recoiled, stumbling back and tripping. The nocked arrow crashed into the ground. The crowd whispered while the judges shook their heads.
“I don’t…” Tears stung her eyes. If the bow had been any higher, she would’ve gone blind. “I don’t understand,” she said, “this has never happened to me.” Her lips bled from where the string had hit it. A diagonal cut spanning from her mouth, across her nose, and up to her forehead.
“Tough luck,” her competitor called. He turned to judges. “Am I to continue?”
“I haven’t shot yet!”
“You did! And your string snapped, you rabbit!”
Mai brushed herself off, trembling. “You did this. You handed me a faulty bow.” She walked over to the range, picked up another, and moved back to the field. The judges informed her she’d score zero for that round.
She lost the bout by a landslide. Losing momentum threw off her form, and none of her arrows would fly straight.
All her interests in the festival died.
Mai left for the cookhouse, taking up a table and pushing a spoon around a soup bowl.
Fourth place. Her training did not amount to anything. A waste of time. Not even a medal. She’d not only let the Anarhi down, she let down the people of Frostwood, who wouldn’t care to hear out her words.
“What a scar, Mai,” Ren said. He took a seat across from her. “Makes you look like a veteran.”
She looked up, and Ren pushed her soup bowl closer to her.
“Drink up. I know you would’ve won if your bow didn’t give out.”
“People are going to starve because of me, Ren,” Mai whispered. “I needed the spotlight. It would’ve made my voice more…credible. Now we’ll be eating stew mixed with sawdust during the storm.”
“And everyone will then realize how right you were.”
“Right. Okay,” she continued to push her spoon around. “I’m feeling better. Talk to you later.”
“No, don’t just…look, Mai. Losing like that is awful, but think about it this way. You did something you enjoyed, didn’t you? You put effort into something you enjoyed and that can’t be effort wasted. We’ll do so well next time we’re out hunting with how accurate you are.”
Ren reached across the table and took her hands.
“I think you did great, and I’m looking forward to cheering you on next year.”
He ordered himself a bowl and ate alongside her. Mai never could count on her father to be there for her, but with Ren, she could smile. They sat at the table until his words resonated.
She liked archery, and the effort she put into finding her voice was not effort wasted.